The gentleness of her answer misled him. He felt a sudden thrilling conviction of his ability to bring her to terms.
"What's foolish about it? What ain't foolish, you'd better say. Looks to me as if you'd taken leave of your senses. Filling up the house with pauper brats."
The blood went out of her face. The smile lingered, but it had become merely a muscular contraction, like the smile on dead lips. The soul had left it.
"Yes," she said steadily. "It's true they're poor. But it's not for you to fling that in their faces. A man who's lived on his sister's earnings for twenty years."
He was dumb for a moment, wincing under the taunt but lacking words to answer. He was not without reasonable qualities, and reason told him he had taken the wrong track. The change in his voice when he spoke again would have seemed ludicrous had she been in a mood to be amused.
"See here, Persis, you've got a chance now to take things easy. You've worked hard," he admitted patronizingly, "and you've earned a right to enjoy the rest of your life. Now, see how silly 'twould be to saddle yourself with looking after a pack of children. It's no joke, I can tell you; bringing up five young ones, nursing 'em through measles and whooping-cough and the Lord knows what, and never being sure whether they'll turn out good or bad. Maybe you think I'm prejudiced, but I'll bet you anything you like that at this minute half Clematis is wondering whether you're clean crazy or what."
Under his conciliatory address her first anger had cooled. A little half-contemptuous smile curled her lips.
"It's a funny thing, Joel, you've known me for quite a spell—thirty-seven years, the sixth of October—and you haven't found out yet that I'm not looking for an easy time. My idea of Heaven ain't a place where you can sit down and fold your hands."
"I s'pose you'd rather stick at home and fuss over other folks' children than travel. You used to be crazy about foreign places, Roosia and Italy and Egypt." Joel's eyes kindled with an unholy light as he repeated the magic names. A bystander might have been reminded of another tempter showing the kingdoms of the earth as a lure.
"Time enough to travel," Persis said laconically, "when my family is raised."
"Giving up all the peace of your home, all the quiet—"
"Stillness isn't peace, Joel. There's quiet enough in the grave, if that's what you're after. I don't want the hush of the tomb around here. I want little feet tripping up and down and little voices calling. Seems to me as if this old house had come alive since I brought these children into it. And I've come alive myself. It's what I always wanted, a family of children. I gave it up like I've given up so many things, but I've got it at last, thank God."
"Persis," Joel remonstrated in shocked accents, "it's not becoming for a single woman to say things like that. Wanting children, indeed. If you weren't my sister I shouldn't know what to make of such talk."
She leaned toward him, her hands on her knees. Her gray eyes, warmed almost to blue by joy and tenderness, were steely as she faced him.
"Joel, you don't take it into account that the Almighty didn't make old maids. He made us just women, and the hunger for children is nothing more to be ashamed of than the longing for food and drink. I'm not accusing Him either, when I say that life isn't fair to a lot of us. It hangs other people's burdens on our backs, and they weigh us down till we haven't the strength to take what is rightfully ours. These children had ought to be mine. My blood ought to be in their veins. It's too late for that, but it's not too late for everything. What would Aunt Persis Ann's money be worth to me if all it meant was that I could fix up the house and leave off making dresses for other folks and travel around and see the world? It's done more than that. It's made up to me for being cheated out of my rights. It's made me a woman at last."
Up-stairs sounded a fretful wail, a sharp little note, piercing the quiet evening with its suggestion of discomfort or alarm. In an instant Persis was on her feet. Again her face was luminous. Suffused with a transforming tenderness, it lost its stern lines and became radiantly youthful. Blue misty shadows veiled the steely light of her eyes.
"The baby's crying," she said, and left him swiftly. And Joel, with a bewildered sense of enlightenment carried to the point of dazzling effulgence, clapped both hands over his throbbing head.
"Well," he gasped, "I'll be jiggered! Looks like you can live in the same house with a woman from the time she's born till she's gray-headed and not know her any better than if you'd met her once at a Sunday-school picnic. To think of Persis with all those feelings bottled up inside her for the last twenty years. As the immortal Shakespeare says,
"'Who is't can read a woman?'"
WHERE ANGELS FEAR TO TREAD
The morning following the heterogeneous accession to the Dale family, Joel did not leave his bed. Whether his disability was in part or altogether due to a desire to open his sister's eyes to the result of her lack of consideration, Joel himself could not have told, the correct interpretation of one's own motives being the most complex of the sciences. It really seemed to him that he felt very ill and he found a somber satisfaction in reflecting that in the event of his death, Persis would realize her appalling selfishness. "'Twon't come much short of murder," he thought with gloomy relish.
Joel's periods of invalidism had been too frequent and prolonged for this sporadic attack to upset the peaceful order of the household. Persis attended to his needs with her usual matter-of-fact kindness, though he suspected that her thoughts were with the new claimants on her interest and found therein fresh fuel for his grievance. Later when he called his sister in the feeble voice of the moribund and learned from Mary that she had gone out to enter the older children in school, he felt himself a much injured man. But this melancholy satisfaction was brief, for Persis was back in half an hour, looking in at his door to ask cheerfully if there was anything he wanted. "Nothing I'm likely to get," replied Joel and turned his face to the wall.
Then, too, the house was quiet. Occasionally the baby's fretful voice reached his ears or Celia's bubbling, irrepressible laughter; but the tumult on which he had counted confidently as a factor in his discomfort was lacking. At noon, indeed, the older children came in with a shout, brimful of communications too important to wait, so that the three all talked at once, each voice upraised in a laudable endeavor to drown out the other two. But just as Joel was telling himself that it was intolerable, enough to drive a man out of his seven senses, the announcement of dinner produced an agreeable lull in the uproar. And when the baby was taken upstairs for its nap and Celia cautioned to discretion, the quiet became even more profound. Joel found it necessary to prod his sense of grievance to keep it in action.
He had been awake much of the preceding night, brooding upon his wrongs, and weariness at length asserted itself and he fell asleep. He woke with a thrilled consciousness of a light touch on his forehead and for a moment he thought himself a child again, with his mother bending over him. Demonstrativeness had never been a Dale characteristic. Indeed the traditions of the community discouraged manifestations of affection as an indication of weakness, but few mothers as they stand beside their sleeping children can resist the sweet temptation to kiss the little unconscious faces. And Joel Dale, prematurely aged, selfish and embittered, woke nearer his childish self, and nearer Heaven, than he had been in many a year.
For a moment he lay bewildered, then opened an eye. An elfin voice beside him commented on the fact. "Half of you's awake and half asleep. Ain't that funny?"
Joel's two eyes came into action long enough to perceive Celia, sitting in a chair drawn close to the bed. Her sturdy legs were crossed, her hands folded. She looked dangerously demure.
"I gave you a kiss when you was asleep, a pink one. Do you like pink kisses?"
"Pink?" he repeated, too startled by the choice of adjectives to realize how long it had been since any one had kissed him.
"Aunt Persis let me have some jelly," Celia explained. "I like to lick my lips off, but I didn't so I could give you a nice pink kiss."
He put one hand hastily to his forehead, thereby verifying his worst suspicions. It was sticky. Joel groaned.
"Want me to 'poor' you?" the fairy voice inquired with an accent indicating a sense of responsibility. A small hand moved over his unshaven cheek. "Poor Uncle Joel! Poor Uncle Joel," cooed Celia. She interrupted her efforts to ask with interest, "Do you like your skin all prickles? Mine ain't that way," and proved her statement by laying a cheek like a rose-leaf against his. Joel shrank away gasping.
"Want me to tell you a story?" Celia did not wait for Joel's assent. The ministering hand nestled against his cheek; she drew a long breath and began.
"Once when I was a little girl, there was a giant lived up by my house. And he was an awful wicked giant, and he used to bite people's heads off. And he wanted to fight everybody, and everybody was scared 'cept just me." She paused, overcome by the contemplation of her own heroism. "Wasn't that funny? Everybody was 'fraid 'cept a teenty, weenty girl."
Joel lay staring at his entertainer, his expression suggestive of such excitement, not to say horror, that the narrator apparently found it inspiring.
"And the old giant kept a-talking and a-talking and a-biting and a-biting. And one day I took my bow'n arrow— No." She corrected herself sternly, with the air of one who refuses to deviate ever so slightly from the strict facts. "I took my sling and some stones I found in the brook—"
Joel suddenly realized his responsibility as a mentor of youth. "Look here! Look here! I can't have such talk. You're making that up out of your own head. You never lived near a giant, and I don't believe you ever had a sling."
"Oh, yes, I had a sling, Uncle Joel, and once I shooted a bear with it—and a Indian."
"I guess you haven't been very well brought up," rebuked Joel, who like most people of his type was quite unable to distinguish between the gambols of the creative imagination and deliberate falsifying. "Don't you know where little girls go when they tell lies?"
"I knew a little girl once who telled lies," admitted Celia, her shocked accents indicating her full appreciation of the reprehensible character of the practise. "And she went to the circus. Her uncle took her."
From under the bed clothing came a peculiar rasping sound like the grating of a rusty key in a lock long unused. It was no wonder that Celia jumped, though she was considerably less startled than Joel himself. He had laughed, and more appalling still, had laughed at unmistakable evidences of natural depravity which by good rights should have awakened in him emotions of abhorrence.
"It would be pretty serious for me to backslide now, considering the state of my health," reflected Joel. He attempted to counteract the effects of that indiscreet laugh by a blood-curdling groan, and this demonstration caused Celia to repeat her calming ministrations, smoothing his rough cheek with velvety hands, and inadvertently poking one plump forefinger into his eye. Joel blinked. He could easily have ordered her from the room, but he did not exercise this prerogative. He was vaguely conscious of an unwarranted satisfaction in the nearness of this pixy. Her preference for his society flattered his vanity. He observed her guardedly from the corner of his eye. Undoubtedly she was a very naughty little girl who told wrong stories and was painfully lacking in reverence. But at the same time—Joel chuckled again, his vocal chords responding uncertainly to the unfamiliar prompting—at the same time she was cute.
At the supper table the evening before for all his gloomy abstraction, Joel had noticed Betty's engaging prettiness and had thought apropos of Celia, "Persis never picked that young one out for her looks." Now through half closed eyes he studied the small piquant face and found his opinion altered. Celia was not pretty. Her straight black hair, just long enough to be continually in her eyes, was pushed back for the moment so as to stand almost erect like a crest. Her small nose had an engaging skyward tilt. She was dark and inclined to sallowness. But the twinkling black eyes under the level brows would have redeemed a far plainer face. Had Joel been of a poetic temperament he would have compared Betty to a pink rose-bud, and Celia to a velvety pansy, saucy and bewitching.
Mary, coming up the stairs with a bowl of broth, stood in the doorway petrified. Under her spatter of freckles, her comely face was pale.
"Miss Dale thought—" She seemed unable to proceed and stood swallowing. Celia straightened herself with a jerk.
"Oh, goody! We'll play tea-party, Uncle Joel. No, we'll play mother. You're my little sick boy, Uncle Joel, and I'll feed you. Give that to me, Mary."
Like a person hypnotized Mary advanced and delivered the steaming broth into Celia's extended hands. Setting the bowl firmly on one knee, Celia ladled out a generous spoonful.
"Open your mouth, darling, and swallow this nice broth. It'll make mama's little boy a big strong man."
The soup-spoon journeying in Joel's direction tilted dangerously. Half the contents splashed upon his cheek and ran in a greasy dribble down his neck. The remainder distributed itself impartially in the vicinity of his mouth, a few tantalizing drops finding their way between his parted lips.
"Land alive!" Mary made a horrified forward rush. "You're a-drowning Mr. Dale. And look at you, wasting that nice soup, too."
Joel frowned and Mary drew back abashed, quailing before his disapproving glance.
"I guess if I was being drowned I'd have the sense to mention it. And nobody's going to the poor-house because a little soup gets spilled. Some of the professions are pretty crowded, Mary, but there's one where there's room at the top and at the bottom, too, and that's the one of minding your own business."
Poor Mary blushed till her proximity to things inflammable would have awakened justifiable fears of a conflagration. Joel gave his attention to his self-appointed nurse. "Steady now! Better take a little less to start with. That's right. Now steer her straight."
The second spoonful reached its destination without serious accident. Celia watched her patient as he swallowed and forgot the role she had assigned herself.
"Is it good, Uncle Joel?"
"Uhuh! Pretty fair." Joel felt for his handkerchief and wiped the moist corner of his mouth.
"I'm going to taste it." Celia tilted the spoon to her own lips and sipped with appreciation. "Uncle Joel," she said thoughtfully, "if you're afraid this'll spoil your appetite for supper, I'll eat it."
Again Joel chuckled. This made the third time in swift succession, and practise was giving him surprising facility. But unwarned by past experience, Mary put in her word. "Poor Mr. Dale hasn't eaten scarcely a mouthful to-day, and here you've had bread and jelly since dinner."
Joel's unaccustomed smile was at once obscured. "Mary, a considerable spell back a wise man said, 'Every fool will be meddling.' If you aren't familiar with the author, Mary, it would pay you to read him." Again he gave his attention to Celia. "We'll share this, turn and turn about," he compromised. "First you have a spoonful and then me."
Mary withdrew unheeded. Though tremendously in awe of the impecunious and futile Joel, Mary felt no sense of diffidence where the efficient Persis was concerned, and at once went to find her. But Persis, who sat in one of her new bay-windows, the baby on her knee, was entertaining Mrs. West, while her benignantly maternal eyes watched three children playing outside.
"I declare you could have knocked me down with a feather, Persis, when I heard it," Mrs. West declared, her portliness rendering the figure of speech extremely impressive. "I wouldn't have thought queer of one or even two, but a whole family."
"A family's what I've always wanted," Persis returned with the cheerfulness of a woman whose life-long dream has come true. "And if I could have found enough of the sort I was after, I'm not sure I'd have stopped short of a round dozen."
"It's a responsibility," sighed Mrs. West "They're kind of like playthings to you now. You'll feel it later."
Persis looked at her with kind eyes. "I haven't added any new responsibility in taking these children, Mis' West. It was there just as soon as the money and leisure came to me, and I've made a start toward meeting it, that's all. We don't make our responsibilities; we just wake up to 'em."
"I must say you take to it like a duck to water," acknowledged Mrs. West in conciliatory accents. "Some women are just as unhandy with a baby as a man. Sophia Warren's one. Once or twice I've seen her holding that Newell baby that lives next door, and she looked as stiff and scared as if she was setting for her photograph."
She leaned forward to watch the frolicsome children from the window. "They're real nice-looking, Persis, I will say that. One, two, three and the baby's four. Somebody said five."
With a start Persis recalled the suspicious peace which for some time past had pervaded the establishment. "There's another," she said, "too little for school. Mary! Mary, do you know where Celia is?"
Mary approached. Her consciousness of being a bearer of important tidings communicated itself in some indefinable fashion to the other women. They looked up, alert on the instant.
"Celia's setting up in Mr. Joel's room." Mary gave her great news deliberately as if to enjoy the full flavor.
Persis started to her feet. Mrs. West raised her hands with an eloquent gesture.
"Has he got one of his bad spells?" she demanded. "And that child in his room. Well, fools rush—"
"She's playing he's her little boy," explained Mary, making the most of the sensation of being an actor in a real drama. "She fed him his soup and slopped him, but he took me up sharp when I tried to stop her. He acts as if she's got him clean bewitched."
"Well!" exclaimed Mrs. West, as Persis looked at her dumbly. "I never expected to live to see that Scripture fulfilled. The wolf and lamb lying down together and a weaned child in a cockatrice's den."
"Are you sure he wasn't angry?" asked Persis, still a little pale and doubtful.
"Go and see for yourself, Miss Dale, if you don't believe me. When I tried to stop her eating a good half of that broth, and chicken as high as 'tis, he the same as called me a fool for meddling. But you'd better go up-stairs. You won't be satisfied till you've heard for yourself."
In that Mary spoke truly. Her story was too incredible to be accepted without investigation. Persis' incredulity did not desert her till half-way up the stairs she was met by a child's voice, fond and confident.
"Uncle Joel, ain't God cruel to make some dogs without tails?"
And then as her brother's unfamiliar laugh reached her ears, Persis turned and went softly down the stairs.
If Persis Dale's extraordinary action in adopting a family en masse had stirred Clematis from center to circumference, that agitation was trivial in comparison with the flutter produced by Joel's capitulation. Mrs. West, backed up by Mary, told the news to auditors frankly incredulous who yet were sufficiently impressed by her sincerity to resolve on looking into the thing for themselves. Consequently the Dale homestead became a magnet for the curious, and many a skeptic came and went away convinced that the day of miracles had returned.
As a matter of fact Joel's surrender was in accord with the most elemental of psychological laws. With the characteristic caprice of her sex in matters of the heart, Celia had taken a violent fancy to this pale-blooded hypochondriac, and made no secret of the fact that she regarded him as her especial property. Nothing is so flattering to the vanity as the preference of a child, that naive, spontaneous affection to which it is impossible to impute mercenary motives. And Joel had responded by becoming Celia's abject slave. He ignored the other children for the most part, seldom betraying, unless perhaps by an impatient gesture or a frown, that he was aware of their existence. But his eyes were always on Celia, and when she spoke, he listened.
As was to be expected, that morsel of femininity improved every opportunity to parade her conquest. She took Joel to walk, holding tightly to his hand and entertaining him with an outpouring of those quaint fancies which have been the heritage of childhood from the beginning and yet always seem to the older generation so marvelously new. She inveigled him into playing whatever role she assigned in fantastic dramas of her own creation. He was Celia's father or her little boy as the whim took her, the wolf which devoured Red Riding Hood's grandmother, or the hapless old lady herself, attacked ruthlessly by Celia as wolf. Crawling on all fours he played elephant, or with the handle of a basket between his teeth, he submitted to be patted on the head and addressed as Towser. Persis looked on with a wonder that never lost its poignancy. That the self-centered Joel should succumb to the innocent spell of childhood had never entered her calculations, and she reproached herself that she had so little understood him.
The comments of Persis' acquaintances were characteristic. Mrs. West, on the occasion of a second call, hinted her anxiety regarding the future of the impromptu family. "When you pick children up that way, you can't tell how they're going to turn out."
"And when you bring 'em into the world," remarked Persis dryly, "and rear 'em yourself and never let 'em out of your sight when you can help it, you don't know how they're going to turn out either." There was in her manner an ingenious suggestion of having in mind the recent heart-broken confidences of Thad's mother, and Etta West blushed hotly and changed the subject.
Mrs. Robert Hornblower looked upon the acquisition as practical rebellion against the decrees of Providence. In Persis' presence, she said little, having a sincere respect for her ex-dressmaker's gift of repartee. But to Mr. Hornblower, she expressed herself in no uncertain terms.
"If it's the Lord's will for a woman to raise a family, it stands to reason He'll send her a husband. This snapping your fingers in the face of the Almighty and gathering up children from here and there and anywhere, looks downright impious."
"Seems to me," began Mr. Hornblower in mild expostulation, "that Persis Dale—"
"Yes, I know, Robert," interrupted the submissive wife. "I feel just as you do. It's always been Persis Dale's greatest fault to imagine that she's a law unto herself. But this time she's overstepped the mark."
"Those children are orphans," exclaimed Mr. Hornblower, his complexion becoming apoplectic. "And if—"
In another instant he would have spoken his mind. Only by raising her voice so his next words became inaudible, did his wife avoid that catastrophe.
"I don't wonder you're shocked, Robert," said Mrs. Hornblower, "to think of her bringing into Clematis children of nobody knows who, to grow up with our own boys and girls and as like as not lead 'em astray. All I can say is that Persis Dale may have a lot to answer for some day."
Though Mrs. Hornblower's stand was somewhat extreme she was not without her supporters. Thomas Hardin's sister, Mrs. Gibson, declared with unconcealed rancor that Persis would have done better to think about getting a husband before interesting herself in securing a family. Mrs. Richards, with sanctimonious rolling of her eyes, admitted that she had recognized long before an inherent coarseness in the character of Persis Dale. Others like Annabel Sinclair exclaimed over the folly of burdening one's self with juvenile responsibilities when free to seek distraction wherever one pleased.
Diantha did not agree with her mother. Ever since the memorable occasion when, with the dressmaker's connivance, she had startled Clematis by growing up between noon and supper-time, she had been one of Persis' attendant satellites. But after the advent of the children she fairly haunted the establishment. She dropped in after breakfast to announce that Miss Perkins credited Algie with having the best head for arithmetic of any boy in her room and came again at noon to suggest taking Malcolm and Celia for a walk. But though she distributed her favors with creditable impartiality, she found the baby peculiarly fascinating. And rather to Persis' surprise, the frail and fretful little creature, who looked askance even at the kindly Mary, fell under the spell of the girlish beauty and always had a smile for Diantha.
"Goodness, child, you do look grown up," Persis exclaimed abruptly one afternoon, as she glanced at the pair snuggled in the depths of the armchair, Diantha had flung her hat aside. Her face was dreamy as she looked down at the little head against her shoulder. All her girlish coquetry, every trace of juvenile mischief, the occasional flashes of petulance which told that she was her mother's daughter had vanished. She looked a brooding madonna.
Ordinarily Diantha would have fluttered at the compliment. In her present preoccupation, it drew from her only a thoughtful smile.
"She's going to sleep," she said, an exquisite softness in her voice. "How nice and heavy their heads feel when they're sleepy, Miss Persis!"
"I'm going to adopt a lot of children some day. I always was crazy to have a crowd around. The way I've prayed for a sister," sighed Diantha, her face temporarily overcast. And then brightening: "When I get old enough to do as I please, I'll make up for it."
Persis, studying the rapt young face, made no immediate reply. Her sense of guilty complicity in Diantha's precocious womanhood distracted her attention from the girl's resentful speech. Apparently her silence proved stimulating to Diantha's impulse toward confidences.
"Do you know the latest notion mother's got in her head?"
"She wants to send me off to school somewhere. She talks to father and talks to him, till I'm afraid she'll tire him into it. Thad West says any woman can get her way if she never stops talking about it."
Persis regarded her keenly and Diantha's color rose. For no apparent reason her blush became a conflagration.
"I didn't know you and Thad had much chance to talk things over nowadays."
"They won't let him come to the house. They say I'm too young." Diantha laughed mockingly. "And mother was only a little older when she married father, and she was engaged twice before that."
"I suppose you keep on seeing him just the same."
"Course I do."
Persis mused. Diantha was wrong, undoubtedly, and yet more sinned against than sinning. Cautions and expostulations were unavailing with this spirited young creature, smarting under continued injustice and seeing with her uncompromising clearness of vision the selfish jealousy which would keep her out of her birthright indefinitely. "You want to be real careful, Diantha," said Persis, realizing the futility of her words. "Thad's a nice boy and you're a nice girl, but it don't look well for young folks to be meeting on the sly."
She tried but with little success, to exercise a certain supervision over Diantha that winter. Though the children came down with measles one after another, and Joel had an attack of rheumatism which kept him a prisoner in his bed for seven weeks, it seemed to Persis that Diantha was never really out of her mind. She was surprised on the other hand to find how little Justin Ware was in her thoughts. Instead of returning to Clematis in a few weeks as he had intended, he had been called West unexpectedly. He had not written Persis to apprise her of his change of plans, and she heard of it only through Mrs. Hornblower. And the astonishing part was that she heard it with scarcely a pang. She had discontinued her practise of saying good night to the photograph in the plush frame with Justin Ware's return, but sometimes when the house was still, she took her stand before it and studied the pleasant, immature face intently, as if trying to read from its ingenuous smile a solution of some inward perplexity.
The measles and the winter ran their course together. The children ventured out and the daffodils ventured up. Joel hobbled about with a cane and took Celia in search of violets. The baby who had come very near dying, decided apparently that since recovery was in order she might as well make a thorough job of it and began to grow fat and sweet-tempered and to acquire dimples. And Persis made the pleasing discovery that in the months during which she had been a woman of property, she had not spent her income and resolved at once on rectifying this needless opulence.
"I've done considerable plodding in my time, I wouldn't mind a little skimming for a change," thought Persis. Next to a family she had long craved an automobile. The surplus of her income was sufficient for the purchase of one of the cheaper grades of cars. Persis decided on a visit to the city, with a view to making this investment.
"I'm a little seedy with being shut in so much this winter, and a trip will do me good whether I buy an automobile or not. Mary's mother will come and stay with her and help out with the children. And if Joel wants to go along, he can." But apparently the protective impulse which had moved Joel to offer his company on the occasion of her previous visit had waned during the winter. He declined the invitation without thanks.
It was proof enough of Persis' temperamental youthfulness that she reached the city with as keen a sense of adventure as if she had been a runaway boy following a circus. She went to the modest hotel she had patronized the previous fall and was surprised and flattered when the clerk called her by name.
"Gives a body a home-coming feeling, that does," remarked Persis, as she wrote the cramped signature which so poorly represented her robust personality. "I don't see how you can remember everybody, with folks coming and going all the time."
"There are some people it's easy to remember," replied the clerk gallantly and at the same time with sincerity. Whatever else time erased from the tablets of his memory, he would never forget Persis, and her acquisition of a family. Then he looked at her interrogatively, for Persis had jumped, blotting the register.
"You'll have to excuse me." Persis reached for the blotter. "I saw a name I know and it sort of took my breath." There were but two signatures on the page besides her own, the names of Mrs. Honoria Walsh and Enid Randolph, both of Warren, New York.
"I'll give you room forty-two," said the clerk, taking a key from the hook and nodding to a watchful lad in uniform. "Mrs. Walsh and her niece Miss Randolph are on the same floor. If they are friends of yours—"
"No, I wouldn't say that," Persis interrupted. "It's just that I've heard of 'em before." As she left the elevator on the second floor, two women glided past her, one the portly widow with abundant crepe who is not easily differentiated, the other a stately girl with blonde hair and a scornfully tilted chin. Instinct told Persis that the latter was Enid.
She enjoyed her first day vastly. She drove some two hundred miles in machines of different makes and listened with keen interest to the arguments proving conclusively that each was superior to all others. Night found her tired, a little homesick for the children, but still happy, nevertheless. She finished her dinner—a good dinner as became a woman of means—and went into the little writing-room off the parlor with the intention of jogging Mary's memory regarding the baby's diet. There was but one person in the room, a young woman with fair hair busily engaged in writing.
Persis sat down at the next desk. She was aware of a marked acceleration of the pulse which to her temperament was far from disquieting.
"Excuse me, but isn't this Miss Enid Randolph?"
"Yes." The young woman looked up from her letter. Though her hair was light, her brows were dark and her air distinctly distant.
"I've always wanted to meet you." Persis spoke with unabashed friendliness. "I've been interested in you for quite a spell. My name is Dale, Persis Dale."
Miss Randolph lifted her fine eyebrows, but offered no further comment on this interesting circumstance.
"Perhaps you'll remember," Persis continued briskly, "that we've had a little correspondence. At least you wrote me about a letter of yours to a Mr. Wash—"
"I remember the incident clearly," said Miss Randolph. For all her chilling air, she glanced toward the door to assure herself that they were not overheard. "It is true I wrote you," she continued with a hauteur which would have reduced a less buoyant nature to instant dumbness. "But I hardly see that this constitutes a ground for considering ourselves acquaintances."
So far from being crushed, Persis smiled. And there was something so frankly spontaneous in her look of amusement, that the young woman colored.
"Bless you, I know it wasn't a letter of introduction," Persis assured her with unimpaired good humor. "But I've always wanted to tell you that when you wrote me that time, you did a lot of good without knowing it. Love-letters seem to me like firearms. In the proper hands they're real useful, but if the wrong people get hold of 'em it's bound to make trouble. At least that was the way with the one you wrote Mr. Wash—"
For the second time Miss Randolph looked toward the door, and when next Persis saw her eyes they were appealing rather than disdainful.
"The letter by mistake was sent to a young man who lives in Clematis," Persis continued. "His name is Thompson, and W. Thompson, at that. He thought it such a joke that he put it in his pocket for his wife to find. Didn't know 'twas loaded, you see. And when she did find it and he explained, she didn't believe him. I don't know as anybody believed him but me, but it seemed such a silly explanation for a sensible man to make up that I felt pretty sure it must be true."
Miss Randolph put down her pen and gave herself up to the business of listening.
"If I could tell you how that little woman looked," declared Persis, "it would just make your heart jump to think it was you that helped her. Only six months married, she was, too. Well, I took a risk and wrote to Mr. Thompson, Cleveland, and when I got his letter I knew everything was all right. But I wasn't sure of proving it to young Mrs. Thompson. After a woman's brooded over a thing as long as she had, with her neighbors egging her on to do something desperate, she's not going to be convinced with anything short of downright proof. But between your letter and Mr. Wash—"
"I don't see," interrupted Miss Randolph quickly, "that she has anything to thank me for. You certainly deserve all the credit, Miss Dale, for clearing up the mystery."
"Well, they were grateful all right," Persis smiled reminiscently. "The baby's six weeks old now, and her name is Persis Dale Thompson. And they're both about as happy as any folks you're likely to see till you die and go to Heaven. But I couldn't have done anything without your help, and I wish I thought you was half as contented as I know they are."
"Really," said Miss Randolph, with an unsuccessful attempt to duplicate her earlier reserve, "it is impossible for me to see—"
"Yes, I know." Persis leaned toward her, speaking with a vehemence that swept the feeble expostulation aside. "But just because I never set eyes on you before ain't any reason why I shouldn't want you to be happy. I've laid awake nights thinking about that letter of yours, so loving and so sorrowful. Dearie, if love pulls you one way and conscience the other, there's only one thing to do and that's the right thing."
"Really," began Miss Randolph, and then her eyes unexpectedly filled, quenching the incipient fire of her indignation. She had recourse to her handkerchief and Persis patted her shoulder, and in that instant the two were friends.
"You don't quite understand," explained Enid in a muffled voice. "'Tommy' isn't married. 'Her' is auntie."
Persis drew a sigh of such unmistakable relief that the girl looked at her amazed. The older woman's face was shining.
"Well, that's a weight off my mind," she smiled. "Nothing but your aunt. Thank goodness."
"A weight off your mind!" Enid repeated. "But you didn't know me."
"No, but I knew you were a young thing in trouble, and that 'Her' gave me many a bad minute."
Enid's fingers reached gropingly toward her new-found friend. Their two hands clasped and held fast.
"Auntie took me when I was a little girl. I was an orphan. She's been everything to me, and she adores me. But she doesn't like Tommy."
"She hasn't anything really against him except that he's poor. It would kill her to have me leave her to marry him. I can't bring myself to do it. And yet I can't bring myself to give Tommy up." She was crying in earnest now, and the clasp of Persis' hand tightened.
"You can't and you oughtn't. There's too much sacrifice of love these days. Young fellows instead of having homes of their own are supporting two or three grown-up sisters and getting crabbed and bitter. And girls the Lord meant for wives and mothers stay at home because the old folks don't want to spare them. Nine times out of ten it's like Abraham sacrificing Isaac, and there's a he-goat somewhere round in the bushes that would do just as well."
"But it would seem so dreadfully ungrateful to disappoint her," gasped Enid Randolph with the air of one who longs to be disproved. "After she's done everything for me."
"Bless you, child, if you love and are sure of him, the mother who bore you wouldn't have a right to say no. And what's more, if you're sensible enough to go your own way, she'll probably end up by thinking he next thing to made the world and taking all the credit for the match. You're twenty-one, of course."
"Then I wouldn't have any more of this underhanded business. Talk it out with your aunt, and unless she can show you good reasons for giving up your young man, you've got the best reason in the world for taking him."
Enid deliberated. Then very slowly she tore her letter to bits.
"I was saying good-by to him forever—for the twenty-ninth time." She smiled somewhat palely. "But I rather think, Miss Persis Dale, that I'll take your advice."
A STALLED ENGINE
"Well, I don't expect to be any nearer flying till I get to Heaven and they fit me to a pair of wings. I might try a little jaunt in an air-ship some day, but I don't feel as if I'd relish that for a steady diet. For this world, an automobile is plenty good enough for me."
Not for many a year had Persis been possessed by such a sense of buoyancy and youthfulness. The road lay straight and smooth before her. The little car, obedient to her strong capable hand, spun along the shining track, counterfeiting by the swiftness of its motion the breeze lacking in the languid spring day. Persis had laid aside her hat, and the rush of air ruffled her abundant hair and rouged her cheeks. As a matter of fact, Persis was not so near flying as she thought. In the most conservative community, there would have been little danger of her arrest for exceeding the speed limit. But to one accustomed to the sedate jog-trot of farm horses taken from the plow to hitch to the capacious carry-all, the ten-mile-an-hour gait of the new motor seemed exhilarating flight.
The day had the deceptive stillness by which nature disguises the ferocious intensity of her spring-time activities. Bird, beast and insensate clod all felt the challenge of the season. Persis had responded characteristically by cleaning house from six o'clock till noon and making a dress for Betty in the interval which less strenuous natures devote to afternoon naps. And now that Celia was off somewhere with Joel, and Betty had promised to look after the baby, and the boys had received permission to inspect a family of puppies newly arrived in the neighborhood, Persis was scurrying hither and thither with all the ebullient light-heartedness of a girl let out of school. She had startled the staid residents of Twin Rivers, where the spectacle of a woman driving a car ranked in interest second only to a circus parade. She had frightened two horses and narrowly escaped running over a chicken. And now she turned her face homeward, with the deliberate intention of ignoring the approach of supper-time and inviting young Mrs. Thompson to take the baby out for an airing. At no other time of the year would Persis have considered being late to supper for no reason except that she was loath to shorten her pleasure. Without doubt the momentous interview between Mother Eve and the most subtle of beasts occurred in the spring when the moral defenses need reinforcement.
Against the deepening gold of the west, a black speck showed, emerging rapidly into distinctness as the vehicles approached. The slower-moving of the two was still at too great a distance for Persis to distinguish its occupants when she began to slow down, her dread of causing an accident through frightening some one's horse counteracting her unwonted feeling of irresponsibility. The car had come almost to a standstill when out of the recesses of the still distant buggy Persis caught a flash of pink. She had the trained eye for color characteristic of her profession. And this peculiarly trying shade of pink she always associated with Diantha Sinclair, who had an audacious fondness for testing her flawless coloring with hues capable of turning the ordinary complexion to saffron.
Prompt action is characteristic of the intuitive. Logic takes time. Persis never attempted to account for the unreasoning certainty which on occasion took command of her actions. It was impossible for her to recognize Diantha's companion or to know indeed, that the opalescent flash of pink stood for Diantha's nearness. Yet she was sure of both things and of much besides. And with her conviction that the case was serious, an adequate plan of action instantly presented itself.
The car stopped with a jerk, and in the middle of the road, so that the on-coming driver would have to exercise caution in passing. The panting engine became silent. Persis alighted. She made several tours of inspection of her property, her face expressive of gravest concern. Occasionally she touched a screw or lever tentatively and then shook her head. Finally dropping on her knees in the dust, she thrust her head between the wheels and gazed inquiringly at the bottom of the car. Thus occupied she was too engrossed to notice that the thud of horse's hoofs was coming very near. Suddenly the sound ceased.
"Why," cried a girlish voice, "it's Miss Persis."
Persis gave up her unavailing scrutiny and climbed slowly to her feet. As she dusted her knees, she welcomed the occupants of the buggy with a fine blending of surprise and relief.
"Well, I venture to say I know just how ship-wrecked folks feel when they're off on a raft in mid-ocean and they sight a sail. Ain't this a funny fix, half past four in the afternoon and me ten miles from home? And to make it worse I wrenched my knee a mite cleaning house this morning." This last statement was strictly accurate though her limp as she advanced toward them was exaggerated. "I don't know what I'd have done," declared Persis, "if you hadn't happened along."
Diantha's face reflected the pinkness of the gown which had betrayed her. Thad West looked frankly sulky and quite at a loss.
"That's the worst of those dog-goned things," he exclaimed, scowling at the object blocking his way. "They're always giving out just when you need them most. I wouldn't take one as a gift," he added savagely, and only the enthusiastic motorist will understand what it cost Persis not to refute his words on the spot.
"Have you tried everything you can think of to make it go, Miss Persis?" Diantha asked, her troubled tones indicating how much she took to heart her friend's misadventure.
Persis' glance implied affectionate appreciation.
"Well, you see, dearie, they gave me lessons in the city on how to run a car, but I suppose it's too much to expect that I'll know everything about it right off from the start. I dare say some real smart person could fix it in a jiffy." She was so certain on this point that she quaked for fear Thad might begin experimenting, but that young man's confidence in his mechanical ability was luckily limited. He sat scowling and twisting the lines in his hands, while his horse looked back over its shoulder as if it shared its master's impatience of the delay.
"I didn't relish the idea of setting here in the road all night," explained Persis, still with an air of relief. "Seems fairly providential your coming along in the nick o' time."
"Fact is," said Thad sullenly, "we're not going home for a while."
"Well, I'm in no real hurry," Persis returned obligingly. "If the children get hungry, Mary'll feed 'em. They're all too little to worry if I'm not home on the minute, and Joel ain't the worrying kind."
"Truth is, Miss Persis," exclaimed the goaded lad, "it isn't what you'd call convenient for us to take you along this evening."
"Thad!" cried Diantha in accents of unutterable reproach.
"Well, I don't mean to be impolite, but it's not convenient and you know it."
"Thad West, Miss Persis is just about my dearest friend in Clematis. And if you think I'm going to leave her here alone ten miles from home, with an automobile that won't go—and getting dark—and a lame knee—"
"Well, of course if you feel that way about it," returned the unhappy young man, "there's nothing more to be said. But you know yourself—"
"I guess I'd better light my lamps before I leave," remarked Persis briskly. She attended to that little matter and hobbled toward the buggy. Thad alighted and assisted her to climb in with so poor a grace as to make her suspicions an absolute certainty.
"Now, children," Persis settled herself and slipping an arm deftly behind Thad's back, she took Diantha's slim hand in hers, "I never was one to be a kill-joy. You drive round as long as you feel like it and don't mind me, no more'n if I was a coach dog running on behind."
"Thad!" exclaimed Diantha in peremptory fashion. "I'm going to tell her."
"Just as you think best," replied young Mr. West, who bade fair to find this a convenient stock phrase.
Diantha's hand gave that of Persis a tremulous pressure, suggestive of fluttering nerves. "Miss Persis," she said in a thrilling half-whisper, "we're going to be married, Thad and I."
Persis returned the squeeze. "I thought as much, dearie. I've seen you look at him and him look at you, and that made it plain enough to a body with eyes. And I'm glad to hear it. For all I've missed it myself, I believe marriage is about the best thing there is. Thad's got his faults and you've got yours, and it stands to reason you're going to do better at mastering 'em if each helps the other, than if you struggle along alone. There's nothing easy about marriage except for lazy folks and cowards, but things that are hard are the only ones that pay. Some people will tell you it's a risk, and so it is, but most things are when you come to that. I believe in getting married and in early marriages, too, and so I'm glad to know that some day you and Thad—"
Thad West gave his horse a quite unnecessary cut with the whip. In the voice of a dying zephyr, Diantha interrupted.
"You don't understand, Miss Persis. It isn't some day. It's to-day. We're running off to be married."
"Oh!" Persis' hold on the fluttering little hand tightened. Her silence seemed to imply reflection.
"Well, that puts a different face on it. I suppose it's because I think so much of marriage that I hate to have it mixed up with things that are underhanded. My idea of husband and wife, you see, is just two folks helping each other to make a better man and a better woman, instead of backing each other up in lying—"
"Lying!" exploded Thad. "Who's going to do any lying?"
"Diantha's not eighteen yet, and you haven't got her parents' permission for her to marry you. The only way you can manage it is to lie about her age and start your new life with that hanging over you. And all because you can't wait one little year. Looks like Thad's afraid he will change his mind about Diantha, and Diantha's in a hurry for fear she will find somebody she likes better'n Thad."
Two vehement protests mingled in inextricable confusion. "They won't let me see her except on the sly," cried Thad, making himself heard at last. "They've said I wasn't to come to the house. And I won't stand it."
"Of course you won't," Persis agreed. "That's past all reason that two young people dead in love with each other aren't to have a chance to do their courting. That's got to be different."
"But father won't have it."
"To-morrow I'm going to drop in and have a talk with your father. I'm not afraid of obstinacy in a man that's got ordinary sense somewhere in the back of his head. It's the brainless sort of folks that can't be moved after they've once got set. Stanley Sinclair knows enough to listen to reason. And he's got to do it."
"But mother," began Diantha, and then sobbed. His face sternly set, Thad gulped. Even the self-contained Persis found her eyes moist.
"Yes, child, I understand. I knew your mother before you were born, and I'll own that we're likely to have a little trouble in that quarter. But when folks have common sense and everything else dead against 'em, there's nothing for 'em to do but give up. Sometimes I've felt," Persis added thoughtfully, "as if I'd just enjoy a real plain talk with your mother."
"If we go back now," stormed Thad, "it'll be the same story over again next year. They're never going to let me marry Diantha unless I run off with her."
"Next year she'll be of age and her own mistress, and you'll have no cause to run. Diantha's the sort of girl that ought to be married in church with bridesmaids and the wedding march and pews full Of folks looking on. 'Tain't only about once in a generation that a bride as pretty as Diantha comes along, and the idea of marrying her in some minister's back parlor, with the student lamp turned low to save oil and the servant girl called in for a witness, is a plain case of casting pearls before swine. Not that I've got anything against ministers," Persis added, in hasty amends to the cloth.
The weeping Diantha was sobbing less violently. Persis was sure she was giving close attention. Possibly Thad was impressed by the same view of the case, for he spoke with the aggressive confidence of one who feels that his cause is imperiled.
"Church wedding! Makes me laugh to think what Diantha's mother would say to that."
"Well, if they won't give Diantha a wedding next year, I will. And it'll be the kind," Persis promised solemnly, "that'll make Clematis sit up and take notice."
Neither of the lovers spoke. Gazing down the winding road with the dreamy air of one who sees beautiful visions, Persis broke the tense silence.
"I've given up dressmaking for good, but there's one dress I'm willing to break my rule for, and that's Diantha Sinclair's wedding gown. I've got a picture of it in my mind's eye, if the styles don't change too much between now and next June. And if anything could make Diantha look sweeter than she does now, 'twould be that wedding dress. And the making of it ain't going to cost her a cent."
Diantha leaned behind Thad's back and left a damp kiss on her friend's forehead. Persis knew her battle was won. Thad knew it too, and a hollow groan escaped him.
"By the way, Thad, I'm going to arrange with Mr. Sinclair to let you call on Diantha twice a week, and if you should happen to feel like seeing her between times, she's pretty likely to be at my house along in the afternoon. If you should drop in 'most any day about four o'clock, you'd probably find her. And now s'pose both of you come home with me for supper. I'll telephone Diantha's folks where she is, so they won't worry."
"I think—I think that'll be awfully nice, don't you, Thad?" said Diantha.
And the loser in the unequal contest surrendered without a blow as he answered, "Just as you say."
Persis had not overestimated her persuasive powers. She actually brought the Sinclairs to agree to the liberal terms she had promised the young people. The hauteur with which Stanley Sinclair received her at his office the following day, and the explicitness of his statement that he was not anxious for her advice concerning his domestic affairs, proved unavailing before Persis' matter-of-fact bluntness. Anger availed him little since she remained cool. His irony rebounded harmless from her absolute certainty of being in the right. Forced to retreat step by step, he ended by conceding all that she demanded for the lovers. If he had an air when he bade her good morning, of resolving never to forgive her, the knowledge that she had gained all she came for imparted an unfeigned cordiality to her farewell.
The interview with Annabel was briefer and more dramatic, but quite as conclusive. As she pondered on the success that had attended her efforts, Persis indulged in brief philosophy.
"Anybody's at a terrible disadvantage that's afraid of the truth. Now, it doesn't worry me a mite to have Annabel call me an old maid, but if I tell her she's thirty-eight she feels worse than if I'd stuck a knife into her. Annabel makes me think of those squirming things that live under stones. All you have to do to bring 'em to terms is to turn the stone over and let the light in on 'em. It beats all how Annabel will scramble to get away from the truth."
The man commissioned to bring home Persis Dale's car relished his task enormously. He told every one that there wasn't a thing the matter with the machine. She had just stalled her engine and didn't know enough to get it started again. All Clematis enjoyed the joke, Persis in particular.
A DEFERRED INTERMENT
Except for the clerk at the Clematis House the first person to welcome Justin Ware on his next return to his native town was Annabel Sinclair. She wore a little white veil, vastly becoming, but masking a tragedy, since she thereby acknowledged the deterioration of her complexion. The dramatic encounter took place one block from the hotel, and Annabel clasping her gloved hands uttered the single word; "You!"
The greeting, abrupt in type, is anything else on the lips of a woman who has studied the possibilities of that monosyllable. On Annabel's lips it expressed incredulous wonder, gentle reproach and strong feeling held in check by womanly modesty. No man can rise superior to this subtle flattery. Justin greeted her as if she were the woman of his dreams.
"It's really you—after almost a year." The reproach was uppermost in her voice now, but she mitigated its severity by allowing him to retain possession of the hand he had seized.
"It has been a long year—for me," replied Justin, and the rival artist thrilled with responsive admiration. For his manner said as plainly as words that throughout those dragging twelve months one thought had possessed him, the desire to see her again.
"Were you on your way home? May I walk with you?" He asked the favor with deferential tenderness. She granted it with an effective flutter of the lids. Each, realizing the other's proficiency in the game, was spurred to emulation.
And then abruptly the curtain dropped on the play, for at the first street corner, an automobile barked a warning. Justin, who had gallantly taken his companion's arm, the better to assist her in the perils of the crossing, raised his eyes and at once lost interest in Annabel Sinclair and her kind.
The woman driving the car to all appearances had not recognized him, her absorption preventing her from differentiating the human species beyond the broad classification of those likely to be run over and those in no such danger. Her color was high, and her face despite a grim intentness indicated keen satisfaction. A handsome boy sat beside her, and Justin had a confused impression of a number of other children in charge of a buxom girl on the back seat. He stood motionless gazing after the flying car and oblivious to Annabel's resentful glances.
"Well, good afternoon if you've decided to spend the rest of the day on the street corner."
Justin roused himself. But he had lost heart in these amateur theatricals.
"Whose car is Persis Dale driving?"
"Her own. A year brings changes, you see, Mr. Ware. The car and the children all belong to her."
"What!" he shouted. His first not unnatural idea was that Persis had become the wife of a prosperous widower, and he was astonished at the pang for which this thought was responsible. Resentfully Annabel recognized the difference between the voice of real emotion and counterfeit tenderness.
Her lips curled as she allayed his consternation. "She came into a little money—an obliging aunt died, I believe. Pity it hadn't come early enough to do her some real good. She patched up her old house, and adopted five or six orphan-asylum kids, and I suppose the poor thing thinks she's having a good time." Even to the most prejudiced eye Annabel could not have looked beautiful at that moment. The venom that poisoned her spirit, disfigured her face like a scar. Hag-ridden by those unlovely twins, jealousy and hate, she looked for the instant prematurely old.
Justin did not notice. He was absorbed in gleaning from her all possible information as to the change in Persis' circumstances and quite indifferent to the emotions of his reluctant informant. With the relentlessness of the thoroughly selfish, he continued his cross-examination till Annabel's mind seemed to herself a squeezed orange. She felt something like terror mingling with a sense of physical exhaustion. It always frightened her to find herself unable to keep a man's attention focused on herself when she had him to herself.
"When shall I see you again?" she asked, as she approached her home. Had the interview continued with the dramatic intensity of its beginning, she could safely have left him to ask that question. Under the circumstances she did not dare.
"I'm not quite sure. I have some business that has hung fire an unconscionable time, and ungallant as it seems, we twentieth century fellows have to put business before pleasure." He smiled propitiatingly and therein lay the sting, that he did not even take the trouble to conceal that he was trying to appease her. Their parting sank to the level of the commonplace for he shook hands hastily, and her look of appeal flattened itself ineffectively against his preoccupation.
A little skilful quizzing of the hotel clerk confirmed in every detail Annabel's remarkable story, and in his own room Justin sat down to think the matter through to a conclusion. The renewal of his acquaintance with Persis Dale nearly a year earlier had enlightened him as to the tenacity of certain impressions he had thought obliterated long before. The girl he had loved in his callow youth and had forgotten, still retained something of her old fascination for him. A year earlier this discovery was responsible for an amused wonder at himself, coupled with a realization of the need of caution. Now common sense took sides with his lingering fondness. Persis Dale, with a comfortable little fortune added to her unique personality, had become distinctly desirable. She was a woman with an infinite capacity for surprises, which meant that she would not bore the man she married, unduly. With a little metropolitan polish added to her native cleverness she should be able to give a good account of herself socially. The children were a drawback of course, but there must be some way of getting rid of an adopted family of which one tired. And it was quite impossible that Persis' fondness for the little ones she had picked up the other day, so to speak, would prove a serious rival to an affection which had been a vital factor in her life for more than twenty years.
By supper-time he had made up his mind. With a little sigh for the freedom he was relinquishing, he resolved on matrimony. He had always intended to marry somebody and domesticity with Persis promised at least commonplace comfort, something Justin was the last man on earth to despise. With the children disposed of, Joel sent adrift and Persis' money wisely handled, there was no reason why they should not get on better than the majority of married people. Justin ate an unusually hearty supper as if to fortify himself for his wooing.
He had made up his mind to ignore the change in Persis' circumstances that his call might seem a spontaneous tribute to her personal attractions. But the change in the house and its furnishings was so pronounced that he judged it bad policy to pass it over without comment. "I thought for a minute I'd come to the wrong house, Persis, and I felt positively alarmed about myself. I knew if I couldn't find the Dale place blindfolded, I needed the services of a nerve specialist." He laughed a little with an air of catching himself up before he had said too much, something he had found effective with many women.
She smiled upon him gravely. "It was the improvements that mixed you up, I suppose. There was a spot on the ceiling of mother's room where the rain leaked through the winter she died. After the papering was finished I missed that spot as if it had been human. Time and again when I went into that room I'd jump as if I'd got into somebody else's house by mistake." Her voice lost a subtle pensive quality as she added: "But the new furniture ain't the best of the changes, Justin. I wish I could show you the children, but they're all in bed and asleep."
"I'm not sure I'm sorry." Justin's voice was low and caressing. "It's always been hard for us two to have any time alone. I used to wonder when I came here who would be sitting by and listening to every word we said, your father or your mother or Joel or some other young fellow who'd discovered the most charming girl in Clematis. If fate has granted us an evening to ourselves at last, let's be thankful."
He thought it a very fair beginning. The reference to their early love affair could not fail to soften her. The implication that the interference of interested third parties was responsible for keeping them apart was cleverly done. It was a distinct surprise at the end of an hour to find himself no further along than at the start. Justin had no intention of offering his hand and heart to any woman without a reasonable assurance of a rapturous acceptance, and singularly enough, he was far from certainty. He had been making love in a restrained and subtle fashion for the better part of an hour and was ready for an avowal of his devotion as soon as Persis showed any intention of meeting him half-way. But up to this point, she had skilfully disguised any such intention, and while showing no displeasure at the sentimental tendency disclosed in his remark, had so persistently injected a tincture of matter-of-factness into the conversation that he seemed as far as ever from coming to the point. With it all, her air was friendly. He suspected her of playing with him, taking her revenge by keeping him in doubt overnight.
Resistance seldom detracts from a woman's value in a man's eyes. When Justin rose to go he was almost ready to believe himself in love. He was a little angry, slightly amused and more in doubt as to her state of mind than he often felt regarding his opponents in the eternal duel. When Persis gave him her hand for good night he held it in both his own for a moment and raised it to his lips. The curious rekindling of a burned-out tenderness, due to her lack of responsiveness, gave the act an effect of sincerity which impressed him, even while he thrilled with honest passion, as an excellent move.
He looked into her eyes and found them gravely contemplative. "Justin," she said, "there's something I want to speak to you about if you're not in a hurry."
He tingled with triumph. Women were all alike. She could play the coquette for an hour, but she could not let him leave her till she had heard the words he had been trying all the evening to speak. He put down his hat. "You know of course," he said with an air of repressed feeling, "that I am at your service now and always." And as her eyes fell he laid his hand on hers.
It was not easy to restore the balance, but Persis did it. "The property my aunt left me," she began in her most matter-of-fact voice, "brings me a pretty fair income, but nothing's good enough as long as it might be better. Only yesterday I got an offer of ten thousand dollars for some water-works stock in a place out West where Aunt Persis Ann lived for a good many years."
Justin put his hands in his pockets, the character of her opening rendering sentimental advances ludicrously inopportune.
"Have you any idea what income you get from that stock?"
"Last year it was a thousand and fifty dollars."
"Why, that's over ten per cent. on what the fellow offers you," Justin exclaimed, and Persis nodded.
"Yes, about ten per cent. And in the Apple of Eden Investment Company I'd be guaranteed twenty-five per cent. by the tenth year, with a good chance to double my money even before that. I didn't stop you to ask your advice, Justin, for I can see you'd feel a little delicate about urging me to invest in your company. But what I've heard from Mis' Hornblower makes it plain enough that the best thing for me to do is to turn my property into cash as fast as I can and put every penny into apples."
Justin crossed his feet, reflecting impatiently that it was high time for Persis Dale to have a husband. His elation over all that was implied by her consulting him on so personal a matter, was almost lost in his feeling of annoyance. This made it plain that he must lose no time, but marry her offhand. What with her penchant for orphans and for foolish investments, she would make ducks and drakes of her fortune unless a man peremptorily took the helm.
"It would be a pity to be precipitate, Persis. An investment that pays ten per cent. isn't to be sneezed at nowadays. And this fellow's offer just now looks as if the stock wasn't in any danger of depreciating."
He glanced at her and was annoyed to find her face stubborn. Had she been the type of woman to accept masculine counsel as akin to divine guidance, his task would have been easier. Her evident lack of yielding forced him to take a superior tone.
"My dear girl, you will admit that I am a little better versed in business matters than you are. And my advice is to hold on to your stock unless you should have a better reason for selling than appears at present."
"Ten per cent. looks pretty well alongside the Savings bank, I'll admit. But why shouldn't I get twenty-five? I've got these children to educate. I can use considerable more than if I just had myself to think of."
He gulped down his vexation, "Raising apples is a science, Persis. The weakness of the American investor is to imagine that he can do whatever any other fellow has done. Because some horticultural shark doubles his money on his orchard in a banner year, you fancy you can do the same every year."
"Gracious, Justin! I'm not going into apple-raising. I've got my hands full enough without that. I'm going to leave the company to run my orchard for me. All they ask is twenty-five per cent of the net profits, but you know that without my telling you."
"And suppose there comes a year like 1896, when apples didn't bring enough to pay for the barrels they were packed in? You can't count on top-notch prices every season."
"No, but I can count on the company's guarantee."
An oath, a tribute to her obstinacy, winged through his brain. In his exasperation he forgot caution.
"There's nothing to hold us after you've become the owner of the property. If we find that running your orchard isn't profitable, as we might easily do after one or two bad seasons, we could slip from under, and you could use the guarantee as you call it, for curl papers. That's all it would be good for."
He was glad to see that he had shaken her foolish stubbornness at last. She caught her breath like one jerked back from an unrealized danger by a friendly hand.
"I—I guess it's lucky I consulted you, Justin. It's foolish for a woman to think that she's up to all the tricks in business nowadays." The slight trembling of her hand tempted him to kiss it, though he compromised by merely taking it again.
"If I've helped you a little, Persis, dear girl, I'm very happy. I only wish you were willing to make use of me always." His hope that this was the psychological moment was dashed when ignoring the attempted caress, she grasped his hand and shook if vigorously.
"Good night, Justin. Thank you for setting me right in that matter. I believe that's the baby starting to cry. I'll have to hurry up before she rouses the house."
But she got no farther than the foot of the stairs on this errand, and Justin, letting himself out, gave voice to the oath he had thought more than once that evening. Persis stood listening as he made his way down the walk, but up-stairs all was still. She returned to the living-room rather slowly. Through all the various changes in the household, indicative of increased prosperity, the photograph in the blue plush frame had triumphantly retained its post of honor on the mantel, a landmark of constancy. Now she took it up with hands that trembled.
"It's not that I've got anything against you." She addressed it as if there were an intelligence back of the vacuous pleasantness of the young face. "It's only that there's not any you and hasn't been for I don't know how long. It's so much deader than death, all ashes to ashes and dust to dust and the spirit turned into something different." And then Justin's hopes would have soared high had he seen her, for she kissed the lips that smiled at her, a strange kiss in which pity blended with forgiveness.
Holding fast to the blue plush frame, Persis passed through the house to the woodshed, found a trowel among the garden tools, and then made her way into the night. The sky was overcast, hiding the stars, but the flitting fire-flies outlined strange constellations against the velvety darkness. Persis groped her way through the dewy grass toward the syringa bush, guided as much by the odor of blossoms as by sight, and falling on her knees used her trowel industriously for many minutes. And when the grave was deep enough, she laid the plush frame into its recesses, hiding the smile she once had loved with heaped-up earth. Since so many of her girlish hopes were covered by that same earth, it is not strange that her tears fell upon the little mound.
"I'm going to miss that picture same as if it was alive. It was always smiling so cheerful that it cheered me just to look at it. But when a thing's dead, it ought to be buried, and as it is, I guess this funeral is pretty near twenty years behind time."
In spite of the lack of success which had attended his tentative wooing, Justin Ware slept soundly, woke cheerful and made a comfortable breakfast. Over his coffee and pancakes he outlined not the plans for a systematic siege of Persis' affections, but the maneuver through which he hoped to carry the Hornblower citadel by storm. He had used no meaningless figure of speech when he assured Annabel of his practise of making pleasure secondary to business. Robert Hornblower's resistance had piqued and baffled him, the more as he knew that Mrs. Hornblower was his uncompromising ally. Indeed his presence in Clematis at this juncture was due to a letter from this invaluable colleague, casually mentioning that her husband had received an offer for the farm which she wished he might be induced to accept. "While I leave all such matters for Robert to decide, as I consider to be a wife's plain duty," wrote Mrs. Hornblower, with a lavish use of italics, "I have not hesitated to tell him that I think his closing with the offer is for the best interests of us all." And Justin had interpreted the communication to mean that his confederate believed the day of victory at hand.
He finished his breakfast at an early hour, judged by metropolitan standards, selected the most promising animal from the sorry exhibition of horse-flesh in the local livery and drove out to the Hornblower farm, smoking on the way a better cigar than could be bought in Clematis, and feeling unusually well satisfied with the world and himself. His failure to bring the Hornblower affair to a successful conclusion had annoyed him, not so much because of the importance of the transaction, as because his professional pride was hurt at finding himself unequal to the task of convincing a henpecked old man. From the tone of Mrs. Hornblower's letter he was confident this failure was about to be retrieved, and that Persis would prove amenable to his flattering advances, could be taken for granted. On one point he must be firm. From the beginning he must assume the necessity of her renouncing her recently acquired family. He could say and with truth that children made him nervous. But to postpone the settlement of the difficulty until after the wedding would be a fatal blunder. When women felt sure of a man, they sometimes developed a disagreeable tenacity in holding to their own way. Altogether on this early morning drive, Justin's difficulties dwindled almost to imperceptible points while his blessings loomed large, a state of mind we are assured, most favorable to success.
Mr. Hornblower came from the barn as he drove up and greeted him with successfully disguised cordiality. But a glance convinced Justin that the long siege was nearly at an end. In the pouches under the man's weary eyes, in a certain sagging of his lower lip, in an indefinable air of being beaten, Justin read the signs of approaching capitulation.
"Mis' Hornblower is in the house. I guess you'd better see her this morning. I'm pretty busy for visiting."
"I won't keep you long, Mr. Hornblower. I just want to lay a proposition before you that's sure to interest as good a business man as you are." Justin waited while the farmer tied the horse, and then, slipping his hand through the old man's arm, guided him dexterously around the house. Robert Hornblower yielded like one hypnotized, an expression of rigid horror on his face as if while seeing some peril immediately ahead, he found himself unable to avoid it.
Mrs. Hornblower sat in a rocking-chair by the window, tapping the floor with her heel as the chair swayed, and nervously smoothing imaginary wrinkles from an immaculate apron. Justin took a step toward her, then stopped with an awkward jerk. Early as he was, another caller was ahead of him. In the opposite corner, grim and unsmiling as fate, sat Persis Dale.
Justin realized his own embarrassment with angry wonder. He had the emotions of a boy caught in a foray on the preserve closet. "Good morning," he said, and was shocked by the startled suspicion of his own voice. He carried out his original intention of shaking hands with Mrs. Hornblower, though without his customary grace of manner, and then turned to go through the same ceremony with Persis, but her tightly folded arms gave little encouragement to this design. He compromised by taking a chair near her and saying pleasantly, "You're an early arrival."
"I calculated you'd be here as soon as you got done your breakfast," Persis replied, and left him to interpret the ambiguous remark as he pleased.
Justin's career had not been of a sort to cultivate undue sensitiveness. A moment sufficed to make him master of himself. "I came out to discuss a little business proposition with Mr. Hornblower," he explained carelessly. "But I don't want to interfere with the enjoyment of you ladies. Some other time—"
"Don't mind me," interposed Persis. "Mis' Hornblower and I haven't anything special to talk about. We're interested in your business proposition, both of us."
"I don't know as I care to hear it," interrupted Mr. Hornblower, speaking with a certain wildness, an indication that he had almost reached the limit of resistance. His voice was shrill and unnatural. "All I want is to be left in peace on the farm where my father lived and died before me."
"Robert," said the submissive Mrs. Hornblower witheringly, "I'd be ashamed to talk as if I'd been born an oyster instead of a man."
"Of course, Mr. Hornblower," Ware began soothingly, "I should be very unwilling to over-persuade you. If my proposition does not commend itself to your own good judgment, you are perfectly justified in turning it down. Or if you are not in the mood for talking business to-day, some other time—"
"There's no time like the present," said Persis Dale. "And if you don't like what he's got to offer, you can say no, Mr. Hornblower, and stick to it. Your no is as good as his yes, I'm sure, when it's your business that's being talked of."
She had suddenly become the dominant figure in the room. Mrs. Hornblower glanced at her uncertainly. The promoter smiled propitiatingly. The old man shuffled toward her with an evident hope that through proximity he might profit by her sturdy strength.
"I don't mind listening, Persis," he said tremulously. "I'm a reasonable man. What I object to is being nagged and badgered as if I didn't have a right to say my soul was my own."
"I'm sure, Mr. Hornblower," Ware interrupted, "that Miss Dale will tell you that I have no wish to hurry you into any decision you will regret. In our business, satisfied patrons are our best asset. I only want to call attention to a little matter that may have escaped your attention and then leave you to think it over." Though his remarks were addressed to the farmer, his appealing gaze was fixed on Persis. He was disagreeably uncertain as to her attitude. Possibly she had come with the purpose of doing him a favor. And possibly— But he dismissed the alternative before it had taken shape in his thoughts. On the evening before he had made plain his willingness to take up their acquaintance just where it had left off, twenty years before. And if he knew anything of women, nothing would induce her to imperil the renewal of that relation.
In spite of this conviction his manner showed embarrassment as he began his explanation. The smooth phrases he had used so often that he could have spoken them in his sleep came readily to his lips, but even to himself they sounded hollow and unconvincing. He was embarrassed too, by Persis' tendency to ask questions, to inform herself as to every detail of the plan he was unfolding. So persistent was she in her cross-examination, that Mrs. Hornblower showed signs of irritation.
"Goodness, Persis, it ain't necessary for Mr. Ware to go into all those points. It ain't as if this was the first time we had ever talked over the matter."
"It's just as well to have things plain," Persis replied imperturbably. Justin noticed that she looked less youthful and comely than on the occasions when he had previously seen her. She had the gray and care-worn look excusable in a woman approaching the fortieth mile-stone who has spent a wakeful night. He was conscious of a sense of annoyance in noting the distinctness of the triangle formed by her firm mouth and the lines that slanted obliquely back from its corners. Her persistence, too, troubled him. He was well aware that there is no more serious flaw in a wife than the habit of asking questions.
In spite of interruptions he finally finished his story and folded the papers from which he had used certain figures to give his statements an authoritative air. Mr. Hornblower squirmed uneasily, looking at Persis as if appealing for help.
"As I said before, Mr. Hornblower," Justin assured him with an air of gentle consideration, "I am not at all desirous of hurrying you in the matter. If you prefer to think over what I have said, and then when you reach a decision—"
"I don't see," exclaimed Mrs. Hornblower, from her seat near the window, "why it shouldn't be settled to-day. We've got a good offer for the farm now, but if Robert keeps Mr. Jeffreys hanging by the gills, the chances are that he'll satisfy himself somewhere else. And it isn't as though we hadn't talked this over from A to izzard."
"You've got to make up your mind sometimes," Persis Dale corroborated her. "I always feel as if 'twas a relief to get a thing settled."
Mrs. Hornblower who up to this moment had seemed to regard Persis' presence as an affront, smiled upon her almost affectionately. Robert Hornblower had an air of feeling himself deserted. Justin was not sure.
"But before you get the thing all settled and signed," Persis continued smoothly, "there's one little thing I'd like to have Mr. Ware explain. If, this investment is such a good thing for you, why isn't it just as good for me?"
A tense silence followed which Mrs. Hornblower broke. "For you?" She pushed her spectacles up on her forehead as if she found the lenses an obstruction to vision rather than an aid. "Have you—have you been thinking of putting any money into apples?"
"I asked him last night about investing ten thousand dollars in this company. He talked against it—strong. He gave me to understand that if I was getting ten per cent. on my money I was lucky."
Justin sat with his eyes on the floor, making no effort to explain. It was checkmate, and he knew it. The love of his youth had played with him, tricked him, used him for her purposes even while he believed her on the point of capitulation. It was small consolation at that moment to realize that greater men had lost greater stakes through that little illusion of being irresistible to the sex. He turned sick with humiliation, hot with hate. He had prided himself on his sophistication, and this country woman had laid a trap for him into which he had obligingly blundered. To attempt an explanation would be folly. Checkmate!
"Ten per cent.!" Mrs. Hornblower's voice rose shrill and frightened. "Why, in the Apple of Eden Investment Company—"
"Yes, I reminded him about the twenty-five per cent. by the tenth year, and he laughed at me. Said the guarantee you set such store by might as well be used for curl papers, if the company got sick of its bargain."
"Why don't you say something?" Mrs. Hornblower turned on Justin furiously. "What do you mean by letting her run on in this crazy fashion and never wagging your tongue?" Underneath her anger sounded a note of despair. No one who knew Persis Dale ever doubted her absolute truth. And unless she had lied the thing was beyond explanation.
Before Justin could reply, Robert Hornblower was on his feet. Another startling transformation had come over the old man. Years and decrepitude fell from him like a discarded garment. As he advanced upon Justin, his fists clenched, he actually looked a formidable figure.
"You get out of my house, you sneaking lying swindler. You clear out and never open your head to me one word about your damned old company or I'll—"
"Robert!" shrieked Mrs. Hornblower in hysterical protest.
Ware rose with as much dignity as the situation permitted. Few men can feel themselves the target of the scorn of three honest people and not wince, and Justin, whatever his weaknesses, did not lack sensibility.
"If you wish to accept Miss Dale's version of the matter, it is immaterial to me. I have given you more time than I could well afford to spare so small an investment, because I remembered you as my boyhood friends. I shall be glad to drop the matter." And then, quite against his will, he looked at Persis.
She sat straight and pale, her eyes steely, her lips grim. And once he had kissed those lips, and those contemptuous eyes had poured into his, faith and love unstinted. As he stumbled toward the door, the thought crossed his mind that the boy who had won the love and respect of Persis Dale was not the poor dolt he had thought him. The years had brought loss as well as gain.
"Good morning." He made an effort to speak with his customary easy self-possession, and Mr. Hornblower's answer was to slam the door upon him. "Good riddance to damned bad rubbish," he roared.
"Robert!" screamed Mrs. Hornblower. "Profanity at your age. Twice in five minutes."
"Hold your tongue!"
The mental collapse of Mrs. Hornblower was physically evident. Flabby and shaken, she sat looking with unfeigned terror at her metamorphosed lord and master. And Mr. Hornblower, puffing out his chest, looked very much like the oldest son of the individual he had appeared an hour previous.
"I've got a word to say to you, Lena," remarked the reconstructed Mr. Hornblower. "Women are all right when they keep their place. After this I want to have it understood I'm not going to have any interference in my business." He walked to the door and turned for a parting defiance. "Damned if I will."
Mrs. Hornblower's attack of hysterics occupied Persis till noon. She looked pale and heavy-eyed as she alighted from her car at her own door. She was about to enter when an object on the lawn caught her eye. Tacked to an upright stake driven into the turf, was a flapping piece of brown paper on which appeared straggling letters, executed in colored chalk.
I will not klene my teth agen onles I get a nikle a weak
Persis read this defiance twice, and her lips twitched. She turned toward the house, but by this time the children had espied her and shriekingly descended upon her, "like the plagues of Egypt," thought Mary, watching from the window.
"What makes you look that way?" cried Celia, clutching Persis' hand. "I don't like it."
"What way, child?"
"As though you was a widow."
Persis laughed, thereby diminishing her resemblance to the mourner of Celia's fancy. With a child holding fast to each hand, and the others prancing about her and getting underfoot like so many kittens, she made her way indoors. "Children been good, Mary?"
"Why, yes'm," Mary admitted with reserve. "I gave Algie that cough mixture same as you said, and Malcolm he kept coughing fit to tear his throat to pieces. Betty says he likes the sirupy taste. And Celia teased the baby kissing her till she got her crying."
"I like the taste of the baby," remarked Celia, who had lent an attentive ear to the account of the family misdemeanors. "It's like tooth powder, the pink kind."
"A letter came for you, Miss Dale. Now, my gracious, what's happened to it? I put it right here on the table."
In the unabashed pursuit of pleasure into which Persis had plunged, Joel was a half-hearted participant. His life-long habit of standing scornfully aloof while his fellow beings strove to enjoy themselves, proved no match for Celia's artless appeals. "Please come, Uncle Joel," she would, coax. "It's lots more fun with you along." And to the open amusement of his neighbors and his sister's ill-concealed wonder, Joel submitted to long automobile rides, to briefer excursions on the river and lake and to eating picnic luncheons with his back against a tree and on his face an expression conveying his unshaken conviction that there were ants in his sandwich. It is unlikely that Joel's presence on these occasions added in any marked degree to the general hilarity, but Celia's satisfaction was unmistakable. She always sat beside him with an air of proprietorship, digging her sharp little elbow into the sparse cushioning of his lean thighs or when weary, dropping her frowsy head against his shoulder with an engaging certainty that it was there for that very purpose. Like many another who has defied capture till after middle life, Joel atoned for past immunity by the thoroughness of his surrender.