"And nothing came of it?"
"Oh yes, an enormous consumption of tea-biscuits-nothing more. Then it occurred to her to travel. So she went to the next shire, and liked it so well that she plunged off to London, then to the Hebrides. After that there was no stopping her. She likes the islands better than the continents, and is collecting hats made of sea-grass. She already has five hundred and forty-two varieties. Really, you would not find her half so bad."
Helen Curtis finished her coffee, and laid her napkin beside her plate.
"Oh, if it comes to the negative virtues, you haven't been so disagreeable yourself to-day as you might have been. I'm under obligations to you. It was rather nice to meet an old acquaintance."
The tone was formal, and put Payne ten thousand leagues away from her. "Thank you," he said, with mock gratitude. "I'm under obligations for your courtesy, madam." She dropped her handkerchief as she arose, and he picked up the trifle and gave it to her. Their fingers met, and he withdrew his hand with a quick gesture.
"You must allow me to see you safely to your room," he urged. "Or else to your deck chair."
"Thank you. I'll go on deck, I think, and you may call the boy to go for my rug."
He put her on the lee side, and wrapped her in a McCallum plaid, and brought her some magazines from his own stateroom. Then he stood erect and saluted.
"Madam, have I the honor to be dismissed?"
She looked up and gave a friendly smile in spite of herself.
"You are very good," she said. "I am always remembering that you are good, and the thought annoys me."
"Oh, it needn't," he responded, in a philosophic tone, looking off towards the jagged line of the horizon, where the purple waves showed their changing outline. "If you are wondering why it is that you dislike me when you find nothing of which to disapprove in my conduct, don't let that puzzle you any longer. Regard does not depend upon character. The mystery of attraction has never been solved. Now, I've seen women more beautiful than you; I know many who are more learned; as for a sense of justice and fairness, why, I don't think you understand the first principles. Yet you are the one woman, in the world for me. Now that you've taken love out of my life, this world is nothing more to me than a workshop. I shall get up every morning and put myself at my bench, so to speak, and work till nightfall. Then I shall sleep. It is dull, but it doesn't matter. I have been at some trouble to convince myself of the fact that it doesn't matter, and I value the conviction. Life isn't as disheartening as it would be if it lasted longer.
"'Tis but a Tent where takes his one day's rest A Sultan to the realms of Death addrest; The Sultan rises, and the dark Ferrash Strikes, and prepares it for another guest."
Miss Curtis sat up in her chair, and her eyes were flashing indignation.
"I won't listen in silence to the profanity of that old heathen," she cried.
"You refer to my friend Omar?" inquired Paine, quizzically, dropping his earnestness as soon as she assumed it.
"I consider him one of the most dangerous of men! Once you would have been above advancing such philosophy! The idea of your talking that inert fatalism! It's incredible that you should admire what is supine and cowardly—"
Payne's eyes were twinkling. He lit his pipe with a "By your permission," and between the puffs chanted:
"Ah, Love! could thou and I with Fate conspire To grasp this sorry scheme of Things entire Would we not shatter it to bits—and then Remould it nearer to the Heart's Desire!"
"Even that is blasphemous impertinence!" the lady protested, knowing that she was angry, and rejoicing in the sensation.
"You think so?" cried Payne, not waiting for her to finish. "Why did you complain, then, of taking up the burden of common things? Do you want to be reminded of what you told me? You said that the roving life you had been leading in Europe for the past two years had unsettled you. You said you wanted to live among the old things and the dreams of old things. You liked the sense of irresponsible delight, and weren't prepared to say that you could ever assume the dull domestic round in a commonplace town. You considered the love of one human creature altogether too small and banal a thing to make you forego your intellectual incursions into the lands of delight. You were of the opinion that you loved many thousand creatures, most of them dead, and to enjoy their society to the full it was necessary for you to look at the cathedrals they had builded, to read the books they had written, or gaze upon the canvases they had painted. You were in a poppy sleep on the mystic flowers of ancient dreams. Wasn't that it? So I, a mere practical, every-day fellow, who had shown an unaccountable weakness in staying away from home a full year longer than I had any business to, was to go back alone to my work and my empty house, and console myself with the day's work. You were to go walking along the twilight path where the half-gods had walked before you, and I was to trudge up a dusty road fringed with pusley, and ending in a summer kitchen. Isn't that about it?"
She spread out the folds of her gown and looked down at them in a somewhat embarrassed manner, seemingly submerged by this flood of protesting eloquence.
"You were afraid to look anything in the face," he went on, not giving her time to recover her breath. "You thought you could live in a world of beauty and never have any hard work. I suppose if you had seen the gardener wiping the sweat off his brow you would not have picked any of the roses in that garden at Lucerne. I suppose not! Well, let me assure you of one thing-there's commonplaceness everywhere. Probably some one had to wash those white dresses Sappho used to wear when she sat beside the sea. Maybe Sappho did them up herself, eh?"
He stopped and gave way to his bathos, throwing back his head and laughing heartily.
"Well, well, I'm through with railing at you. But I left you eating lotus, hollow-eyed and steeped in dreams. You were listening to the surf on Calypso's Isle. I was hearing nothing but the sound of your voice. Now I've stumbled on a soporific philosophy, and am getting all I can out of the anaesthesia, and you are reproaching me. It's like your inconsistency, isn't it?"
She put up one hand to stop him, but he went on, recurring once more to the poet:
"The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon Turns Ashes—or it prospers; and anon, Like snow upon the Desert's dusty Face Lighting a little Hour or two, is gone."
She tried to speak, but he lifted his hat and left her, and going to the other side of the deck, paced up and down there swiftly, and thought of a number of things. For one thing, he reflected how ludicrous was life! Here was Helen Curtis, fleeing from the recollection of him; here was himself, fleeing from the too-sweet actuality of her calm face and lambent eyes; and they were set down face to face in midocean! Such a preposterous trick on the part of the Three!
"I suppose happiness is never anything more than a mirage," he said to himself as he paced. "It is bright at times and then dim, and at present, for me, it is inverted. The business of the traveller, however, is to tramp on in the sun and the sand, with an eye to the compass and giving no heed to evanishing gleams of fairy lakes and plumelike palms. Tramping on in the sand isn't as bad as it might be, either, when one gets used to it. The simoon is on me now, but I'll weather it. I've got to. I won't be downed!"
He put his head up and tried to think he was courageous. The gloom of the night was about him now, and the strange voices of the sea called one to the other. He tried to turn his thought to practical things. He would go home to the vacant old house where he had been born; he would make it livable, let the sunshine into it, modernize it to an extent, and then get some one under its roof. While there were so many homeless folk in the world it wasn't right to have an untenanted house. Then he'd get down to business, good and hard, and bring the thing up. It was a good business, and it had an honorable reputation. He had been too unappreciative of this fine legacy. Well, there were excuses. At school he had thought of other things—and the life of the fraternity house had been a gallant one! Then came his wander year—which stretched into two. And now, having eaten of the apples of Paradise and felt them turn to bitterness in his mouth, he would go back to duty.
He wished he had never seen her again—after that night when she belied her long-continued kindness to him with her indifferent rejection of his devotion. He devoutly wished he had not been forced to feel again the subtle fascination of those deep eyes, and hear the thrilling contralto of that rich voice! She was unscrupulous in her cold selfishness—
A sudden, inexplicable trembling of the whole great ship! A frightened quivering, a lurch, a crash!
The chug-chug ceased. No—it couldn't! Nothing like that ever happened to a ship of the line on a comparatively quiet night! Of course not!
Of course not—but for all of that, they were as inert as a raft, and the passengers were beginning to skurry about and to ask the third officer and the fourth officer what t' dickens it meant. The third officer and the fourth officer did not know, but felt convinced—professionally convinced—that it was nothing. The first engineer? He had gone below. Oh, it was nothing. The captain? Really, they could not say where he was.
Chalmers Payne strode around the after-cabin, and then ran to the spot where he had left Helen Curtis. She was still there. She sat up and put both her hands in his.
"I knew you'd be here as soon as you could, so I didn't move! I didn't want to put you to the trouble to look for me!"
He held her hands hard.
"I don't think it is much of anything," he said. "It can't be. There's no smell of fire. The sea is not heavy. At the very worst—"
"Be sure, won't you, that we're not separated? One of us might be put in one boat and one in another, you know, if it should really be—be fire or something. Then, if a storm came up and—"
People were running with vague rumors. They called out this and that alarm. It was possible to feel the panic gathering.
"Remember," Helen Curtis whispered, "whatever comes, that we belong together."
"We do!" he acquiesced, saying the words between his teeth. "I have known it a long time. But you—"
"Oh, so have I! But what made you so sure? What was there about your home and your work and yourself to make you so perfectly sure I would be interested in them all my life? You didn't lay out any scheme for me at all, or act as if you thought I had any dreams or aspirations. I was to come and observe you become distinguished—I was to watch what you could do! Oh, Chalmers, I was willing, but what made you so sure?"
"Then you loved me? You loved me?" She looked white and scared, and he could feel her hands chill and tremble.
"How ready you are to use that word! I'm afraid of it. I always said I wouldn't speak it till I had to. It frightens me—it means so much. If I said it to you I could never say it to any one else, no matter how—"
"Not on any account! Say it, Helen!"
"I wish to explain. I—I couldn't stand the aimlessness of life after you left. I began to suspect that it was you who made everything so interesting. I wasn't so enamoured with the ancients as I thought I was; but I was enamoured with your contemplation of my pose. Oh, I've been dissecting myself! Should I really have cared so much for Lucerne and Nuremberg if you hadn't been with me? I concluded that I should not. Well, said I to myself, if he can make the Old World so fascinating, can he not do something for the New World, too?"
An alarmist rushed by.
"They are going to lower the boats!" he cried. "Better get your valuables together."
"There's a panic in the steerage," another cried.
"Oh, Helen! Go on. Don't let anything interrupt you."
"I won't. I realize that you ought to be told that I love you. I do. I love you. I'm twenty-three, and I never said the words to any one else, even though I'm an American girl. And I'll never speak them to any one but you. I'm sure of it now. But I wouldn't say it till I was quite, quite sure."
The captain came pacing down the deck leisurely. He lifted his hat as he passed Payne and Miss Curtis.
"We shall be on our way in a few minutes," he said, agreeably. "I hope this young lady has not suffered any alarm."
Helen showed him a face on which anything was written rather than fear.
"The port shaft broke off somewhere near the truss-block at the mouth of the sleeve of the shaft, and the outer end of the shaft and the propeller dropped to the bottom of the sea. It's quite inexplicable, but I find in my experience that inexplicable things frequently happen. We shall finish our run with the starboard shaft only, and shall be obliged to reduce our speed to an average of three hundred and sixty knots daily."
He repeated this in a voice of impersonal courtesy, and went on to the next group. Helen Curtis settled back in her chair and smiled up at her lover.
"We shall be at sea at least two days longer," he said, exultantly.
"Ah, what shall we do to pass the time?" she interrupted, with mocking coquetry.
It was the liner.
"Ah, my Beloved, fill the Cup that clears To-day of past Regret and future Fears—"
This was Omar, but Miss Curtis would not listen.
"I've an aversion to your eloquent old heathen," she pleaded. "You must not quote him, really."
"If you insist, I'll refrain. Can't I even quote 'A book of verses underneath the bough—'"
"Oh, not on any account! That least of all."
"You don't want me to be hackneyed? Well, I'll be perfectly original. I know one thing I can say which will always sound mysterious and marvellous!"
"Say it, say it!" she commanded, imperiously, knowing quite well what it was.
So he said it, and the two sat and looked off across the darkened water and at the pale, reluctant stars, beholding, for that night at least, the passionate inner sense of the universe. They said nothing more.
But as for the liner, it continued with its emphatic reiteration.
ANNIE HAMILTON DONNELL
Mrs. Leah Bloodgood walked heavily, without the painstaking little springy leaps she usually adopted as an offset to her stoutness. She mounted Cornelia Opp's door-steps with an air of gloomy abstraction that sat uneasily on the plump terraces of her face as if at any moment it might slide off. It slid off now at sight of Cornelia Opp's serene, sweet face.
"My gracious! Cornelia, is this your house?" laughed Mrs. Bloodgood, pantingly. "Here I thought I was going up Marilla Merritt's steps! You don't mean to tell me that I turned into Ridgway Street instead of Penn?"
"This isn't Penn Street," smiled Cornelia Opp. She had flung the door wide with a gesture of welcome.
"No—mercy, no, I can't come in!" panted the woman on the steps. "I've got to see Marilla Merritt, right off. When I come calling on you, Cornelia, I want my mind easy so we can have a good time."
"Poor Mrs. Merritt!"
"Well, Marilla ought to suffer if I do—she's on the Suffering Committee! Good-by, Cornelia. Don't you go and tell anybody how absent-minded I was. They'll say it's catching."
"It's the minister, then," mused Cornelia in the doorway, watching the stout figure go down the street. "Now what has the poor man been doing this time?" A gentle pity grew in her beautiful gray eyes. It was so hard on ministers to be all alone in the world, especially certain kinds of ministers. No matter how long-suffering Suffering Committees might be, they could not make allowances enough. "Poor man! Well, the Lord's on his side," smiled in the doorway Cornelia Opp.
Marilla Merritt was not like Mrs. Leah Bloodgood. Marilla was little where Leah was big, and nothing daunted Marilla. She was shaking a rug out on her sunny piazza, and descried the toiling figure while it was yet afar off.
"There's Leah Bloodgood coming, or my name's Sarah! What is Leah Bloodgood out this time of day for, with the minister's dinner to get? Something is up." She waved the rug gayly. "Mis' Merritt isn't at home!" she called; "she's out—on the door-steps shaking rugs! Leah Bloodgood," as the figure drew near, "you look all tuckered out! Come in quick and sit down. Don't try to talk. You needn't tell me something's up—just say what. Has that blessed man been—"
"Yes, he has!" panted the caller, vindictively. It is harder to be long-suffering when one is out of breath. "You listen to this. I've brought his letter to read to you."
"His letter!" Marilla could not have been much more astonished if the other had taken the minister himself out of her dangling black bag.
"Yes; it came this morn—Mercy! Marilla, don't look so amazed! Didn't you know he'd gone away on his vacation? He forgot it was next month instead of this, and I found him packing his things, and hadn't the heart to tell him. I thought a man with a pleased look like that on his face better go,—but, mercy! didn't I send you word? It is catching. I shall be bad as he is."
"Good as he is, do you mean? Don't worry about being that!" laughed little Marilla Merritt. "Well, I'm glad he's gone, dear man."
"You won't be glad long, 'dear man'! Here's his letter. Take a long breath before you read it. I suppose I ought to prepare you, but I want you see how I felt."
"I might count ten first," deliberated smiling Marilla, fingering the white envelope with a certain tenderness. A certain tenderness and the minister went together with them all. "But, no, I'm going to sail right in."
"Take your own risks, of course, but my advice is to reef all your main—er—jibsails first," Mrs. Leah Bloodgood wearily murmured. "You'll find the sea choppy."
"'Dear Sister Bloodgood,'" read Marilla, aloud, with reckless glibness, "'Will you be so kind as to send me my best suit? I am going to marry my old friend whom I have met here after twenty years. The wedding will take place next Wednesday morn—'
"Read on," groaned Mrs. Bloodgood. "He says the fishing's excellent."
"I should say so! And that's what he's caught! Leah Bloodgood, what did you ever let him go away for without a body-guard? That poor dear, innocent, kind-hearted man, to go and fall among—among thieves like that!"
"He's just absent-minded enough to go and do it himself. I don't suppose we ought to blame them. Read on."
"'Next Wednesday morning, at ten o'clock,'" moaned little Marilla, glibness all gone. "'It would be most embarrassing to do so in these clothes, as I am sure you will see, dear sister. Kindly see that my best white tie is included. I would not wish to be unbecomingly attired on so joyous an occasion. She is a widow with five chil—'"
"Mercy! don't faint away! Where's your fans? Didn't I tell you there were breakers ahead? I don't wonder you're all broken up! Give it to me; I'll read the rest. M—m—m, 'joyous occasion'—'five children'—'she is a widow with five children, all of them most lovable little creatures. You know my fondness for children. I have been greatly benefited by my sojourn in this lovely spot. I cannot thank you too warmly for recommending it. I find the fish—'"
"Leah Bloodgood, that will do! Don't read another word. Don't fan me, don't ask me how I feel now. Let me get my breath, and then we will go over and open the parsonage windows. That, I suppose, is the first thing to do. It's something to be thankful for that it's a good-sized parsonage."
"Be thankful, then—I'm not. I'm not anything but incensed clear through. After I'd taken every precaution that was ever thought of, and some that weren't ever, to keep that man out of mischief! I thought of all the absent-minded things he might do, but I never thought of this, no, I never! And we wanted him to marry Cornelia so much, Marilla! Cornelia would have made him such a beautiful wife!"
"Beautiful!" sighed Marilla, hopelessly. It had been the dear pet plan they had nursed in common with all the parish. Everybody but the minister and Cornelia had shared in it.
"And five children! Marilla Merritt, think of five children romping over our parsonage, knocking all the corners off!"
"I'm thinking," mourned Marilla, gustily. She felt a dismal suspicion that this was going to daunt her. But her habit of facing things came to the front. "Wednesday's only four days off," she said, with a fine assumption of briskness. "I don't suppose he said anything about a wedding tour, did he?"
"No. But even if he took one he'd probably forget and stop off here. So we can't count on that. What's done has got to be done in four days. What has got to be done, Marilla?"
"Everything. We must start this minute, Leah Bloodgood! The house must be aired and painted and papered, and window-glass set—there's no end! And all in four days! We can't let our minister bring his wife and five children home to a shabby house. Cornelia Opp must go round and get money for new dining-room chairs, and there ought to be more beds with a family like that. Dishes, too. Cornelia ought to start at once. She's the best solicitor we have."
"There's another thing," broke out Mrs. Bloodgood; "the minister must have some new shirts. He ought to have a whole trousseau. He hasn't boarded with me, and I done all his mending, without my knowing what he ought to have, now that he's going to go and get married. We can't let him be shabby, either."
"Then, of course, there ought to be a lot of cooked food in the house, and supper all ready for them when they come. Oh, I guess we'll find plenty to do! I guess we can't stop to groan much. But, oh, how different we'd all feel if it was Cornelia!"
"Different! I'd give 'em my dining-room chairs and my cellar stairs! I'd make shirts and sit up all night to cook! It's—it's wicked, Marilla, that's what it is."
"I know it is, but he isn't," championed Marilla. "He's just a good man gone wrong. It's his guardian angel that's to blame—a guardian angel has no business to be napping."
At best, it was pretty late in the day to overhaul a parsonage that had been closed so long and sinking gently into mild decay. The little parish woke with a dismayed start and went to work, to a woman. Operations were begun within an amazingly brief time; cleaners and repairers were hurried to the parsonage, and the women of the parish were told off into relays to assist them.
"Somebody go to Mrs. Higginbotham Taylor's and get a high chair," directed Marilla Merritt. "I'll lend my tea-chair for the next-to-the-baby, anyway, till they can get something better. We don't want our minister's children sitting round on dictionaries and encyclopaedias."
The minister had come to them, a lone bachelor, with kind, absent eyes and the faculty of making himself beloved. For six years they had taken care of him and loved him—watched over his outgoings and his incomings and forgiven all his absent-mindednesses. They had picked out Cornelia Opp for him, and added it to their prayers like an earnest codicil—"O Lord, bring Cornelia Opp and the minister together. Amen."
Cornelia Opp herself lived on her sweet, unselfish, single life, and prayed, "Lord, bless the minister," unsuspectingly. She was as much beloved among them all as the minister. They were proud of her slender, beautiful figure and her serene face, and of her many capabilities. What the minister lacked, Cornelia had; Cornelia lacked nothing.
Marilla Merritt and Cornelia Opp were appointed receiving committee, to be at the parsonage when the minister and his wife and five children arrived. A bountiful supper was to be in readiness, prepared by all the good women impartially. The duty of the receiving committee was merely, as Mrs. Leah Bloodgood said, "to smile, and tell pleasant little lies—'Such a delightful surprise,—so glad to welcome, etc.'
"Cornelia and Marilla Merritt are just the ones," she said, succinctly. "I should say: 'You awful man, you! Can't we trust you out of our sights?' And I suppose that wouldn't be the best way to welcome 'em."
The minister had sent a brief notice of his expected arrival home on Wednesday evening, and, unless he forgot and went somewhere else, there was good reason to expect him then. Everything was hurried into readiness. At the last moment some one sent in a doll to make the minister's children feel more at home. Cornelia laughed and set the little thing on the sofa, stiffly erect and endlessly smiling.
"Looks nice, doesn't it?" sighed tired little Marilla, returning from a last round of the tidy rooms. "I don't see anything else left to do, unless—Is that dust?"
"No, it's bloom," hastened Cornelia, covertly wiping it off. "You poor, tired thing, don't look at anything else! Just go home and rest a little bit before you change your dress. Mine's all changed, and I can stay here and mount guard. I can be practising my lies!"
"I've got mine by heart," laughed Marilla, "I could say 'so delighted' if he brought two wives and ten children!"
"Don't!" Cornelia's sweet voice sounded a little severe. "We've said enough about the poor man. It's four o'clock. If you're going—"
"I am. Cornelia Opp, turn that child back to! She makes me nervous sitting there on that sofa staring at me! Will you see her!"
"She does look a little out of place," Cornelia admitted, but she left the stiff little figure undisturbed. After the other woman had gone she sat down beside it on the sofa, and smoothed absently its gaudy little dress. Cornelia's face was gently pensive, she could scarcely have told why. Not the minister, but the trimly appointed house with its indefinable atmosphere of a home with little children in it was what she was thinking of without conscious effort of her own. The smiling doll beside her, the high chair that she could see through an inner door, and the foolish little gilt mug that some one had donated to the minister's babyest one—they all contributed to the gentle pensiveness on Cornelia's sweet face. She was but a step by thirty, and a woman at thirty has not settled down resignedly into a lonely old age. Let a little child come tilting by, or a little child's foolish belongings intrude themselves upon her vision, and old, odd longings creep out of secret crannies and haunt her, willy-nilly. It is the latent motherhood within her that has been denied its own. It was the secret of the soft wistfulness in Cornelia's eyes. So she sat until the minister came home. It was the sound of his big step on the walk that roused her and sent the color into her face and made it perilously beautiful.
Cornelia was frightened. Where was Marilla Merritt? Why had they come so soon? Must she meet them alone? She hurried to the door, her perturbed mind groping blindly for the "lies" she had misplaced while she sat and dreamed.
The minister was striding up the walk alone! He did not even look back at the village hack that was turning away with his wife and five children! He looked instead at the beautiful vision that stood in the parsonage doorway, glimpses of home behind it, welcome and comfort in it. The minister was in need of welcome and comfort. His loneliness had been accentuated cruelly by the bit of happiness he had caught a brief glimpse of and left behind him. Perhaps the loneliness was in his face.
"Welcome home," Cornelia said, in the doorway. She put aside her astonishment at his coming alone, and answered the need in his face. Her hands were out in a gracious greeting. To the minister how good it was!
"They told me to come right here," he said, "or I should have gone to Mrs. Bloodgood's as usual. I don't quite understand—"
"Never mind understanding," Cornelia smiled, leading the way into the pretty parlor, "anyway, till you get into a comfortable rocker. It's so much easier to understand in a rocking-chair! I—well, I think I need one, too! You see, we expected—we didn't expect you alone."
"No?" his puzzled gaze taking in all the kind little appointments of the room, and coming to a stop at the smiling doll. The two of them sat and stared at each other.
"We thought you would bring—we got all ready for your wife and the children," Cornelia was saying. The doll stared on, but the minister looked up.
"My wife and the children?" he repeated after her. "I don't think I know what you mean, Miss Cornelia. I must be dreaming—No, wait; please don't tell me what it all means just yet! Give me a little time to enjoy the dream." But Cornelia went on.
"You wrote Mrs. Bloodgood about your marriage," she said. Sweet voices can be severe. "It hurried us a little, but we have tried to get everything in readiness. If there is another bed needed for the chil—"
"I wrote Mrs. Bloodgood about my marriage?" he said, slowly; then as understanding dawned upon him the puzzled lines in his face loosened into laughter that would out. He leaned back in his rocker and gave himself up to it helplessly. As helplessly Cornelia joined in. The doll on the sofa smiled on—no more, no less.
"Will you ex—excuse me?" he laughed.
"No," laughed she.
"But I can't help it, and you're l-laughing yourself."
He got to his feet and caught her hands.
"Let's keep on," he pleaded, unministerially. "I'm having a beautiful time. Aren't you? I wish you'd say yes, Miss Cornelia!"
"Yes," she smiled, "but we can't sit here laughing all the rest of the afternoon. Marilla Merritt will be here—"
"Oh, Marilla Merritt—" He sighed. The minister was young, too.
"And she will want to know—things," hinted Cornelia, mildly. She drew the smiling doll into her lap and smoothed its dress absently. The minister retreated to his rocker again.
"I think I would rather tell you," he said, quietly. "I did marry my old friend this morning, but I married her to another man. It was a mistake—all a mistake."
"Then you ought not to have married her, ought you?" commented Cornelia, demurely. Over the doll's little foolish head her eyes were dancing. Marilla Merritt might not see that it was funny, Mrs. Bloodgood mightn't, but it was. Unless—unless it was pathetic. Suddenly Cornelia felt that it was.
The minister was no longer laughing. He sat in the rocker strangely quiet. Perhaps he did not realize that his eyes were on Cornelia's beautiful face; perhaps he thought he was looking at the doll. He knew what he was thinking of. The utter loneliness behind him and ahead of him appalled him in its contrast to this. This woman sitting opposite him with the face of the woman that a man would like always near him, this little home with the two of them in it alone—the minister knew what it was he wanted. He wanted it to go right on—never to end. He knew that he had always wanted it. All the soul of the man rose up to claim it. And because there was need of hurry, because Marilla Merritt was coming, he held out his hands to Cornelia and the foolish, unastonished doll.
"Come," he said, pleadingly, and of course the doll could not have gone alone. He dropped it gently back into its place on the sofa.
Marilla Merritt had been unwarrantably delayed. She came in flushed and panting, but indomitably smiling. Her sharp glance sought for a wife and five children.
"Such a delightful surprise!" she panted, holding out her hand to the minister. "We are so glad to welcome—Why!—have you shown them to their rooms, Cornelia?"
"They—they didn't come," murmured Cornelia, retreating to her unfailing ally on the sofa. In the stress of the moment—for Cornelia was not ready for Marilla Merritt—it had seemed to her that the time for "lies" had come. She had even beckoned to the nearest one. But the ghosts of ministers' wives that had been and that were to be had risen in a warning cloud about her and saved her.
"Didn't come!" shrilled Marilla Merritt in her astonishment. "His wife and children didn't come! Do you know what you are saying, Cornelia? You don't mean—Then I don't wonder you look flustered—" She caught herself up hurriedly, but her thoughts ran on unchecked. Of all things that ever! Could absent-mindedness go further than this—to marry a wife and forget to bring her home with him?—and five children!
Marilla Merritt turned sharply upon the minister.
"Where is your wife?" she demanded, the frayed ends of her patience trailing from her tone. The minister crossed the room to Cornelia and the doll. He laid his big white hand gently on Cornelia's small white one. There was protective tenderness in the gesture and the touch.
"I found her here waiting for me," the minister said.