"Why, this dancing is indecent!" stormed the old lady. "I never saw anything like it in my life! Look at that little Morris chit with her cheek plastered up to Johnnie Rawlins'! If somebody doesn't speak to her, I will! I will not have such dancing in my house! And there's Kitty Carey, the one with no back to her dress. What her mother is thinking of—Mercy! Look at the length of that skirt!"
It was not until Mr. and Mrs. Ranny arrived, and Madam had no time for any one else, that Quin was able to escape.
"Can you tell me where I can find Miss Eleanor?" he asked eagerly of Miss Isobel, whom he encountered in the back hall.
Miss Isobel, looking thoroughly uncomfortable in a high-necked, long-sleeved evening dress, sighed anxiously:
"I am looking for her myself. She has had all the windows opened, and mother gave express orders that they were to be kept closed. Would you mind putting this one down? It makes such a draught."
It was a high window and an obstinate one, and by the time it was down Quin's cuffs were six inches beyond his coat sleeves and his vest was bulging.
"I don't want that window down," said a spirited voice behind him. "I wish you had left it alone."
"Eleanor!" said Miss Isobel reprovingly. "He is doing it at my request. It is our young friend Quinby Graham."
Quin wheeled about in dismay, and found himself face to face with a slender vision in shimmering blue and silver, a vision with flushed cheeks and angry eyes, who looked at him in blank amazement, then burst out laughing.
"Why, for mercy sakes! I never would have known you. You look so—so different in civilian clothes."
The words were what he had expected, but the intonation was not. It seemed to call for some sort of explanation.
"It's my face," he blurted out apologetically, drawing attention to the fact that of all others he most wished to ignore. "Had an abscess in my tooth; it's swelled my jaw up a bit."
Eleanor was not in the least concerned with his affliction. A civilian with the toothache could not expect the consideration of a hero with a shrapnel wound. Moreover, this was her first appearance in the role of hostess at a large party, and she fluttered about like a distracted humming-bird.
Miss Isobel laid a detaining hand on her bare shoulder.
"Did you know they were smoking in the dining-room, Nellie? Even some of the girls are smoking. If mother finds it out I don't know what she will do!"
"Call out the fire department, probably," said Eleanor flippantly.
"But listen! She will speak to them—you know she will. Don't you think you can stop them?"
"Of course I can't!" declared Eleanor, her anger rekindling. "And we can't dance with the windows down, either. Oh, dear, I wish we'd never tried to give a party!"
"May I have the next dance, Miss Eleanor?" Quin ventured at this inopportune moment.
She turned upon him a perturbed face, "It's taken," she said absently. "They are all taken until after supper. I'll give you one then." And with this casual promise she hurried away.
Quin wandered disconsolately into the hall again. Everybody seemed to know everybody else. Apparently he was the one outsider. At the soldier dances to which he was accustomed, he was used to boldly asking any girl on the floor to dance, sure of a welcoming smile. But here it was different. It seemed that a fellow must wait for an introduction which nobody took the trouble to give. He leaned against the door-jamb and indulged in bitter reflections. Much that bunch cared whether he had risked his life for his country or not! The girls had already forgotten which were the heroes and which were the slackers. He didn't care! All he had come for, anyhow, was to see Eleanor Bartlett. Just wait until he got her all to himself in that dance after supper——
Finding the strain of being a spectator instead of a participant no longer endurable, he wandered upstairs and bathed his face. The pain was getting worse and he had a horrible suspicion that the swelling was increasing. In the men's dressing-room he found a game of craps in progress, and, upon being asked to join, was so grateful for being included in any group that he accepted gladly, and for half an hour forgot his woes while he won enough to repay Cass the sum he had advanced on the dress-shirt.
"Stud's undone, old chap," said his opponent as he paid his debt.
"Thanks, so it is," said Quin nonchalantly.
As he went downstairs he encountered Miss Enid and Mr. Chester sitting under the palms on the landing in intimate tete-a-tete.
"Will you dance this with me, Miss Enid?" asked Quin, leading a forlorn hope.
"I am afraid I don't know those new dances," said Miss Enid evasively, "the only thing I can do is to waltz."
"You mean a one-step?"
"She means a waltz," Mr. Chester repeated impressively, "the most beautiful and dignified dance ever invented. Shall we show him, Miss Enid?"
And, to Quin's unbounded amazement, Mr. Chester and Miss Enid proceeded to demonstrate, there on the narrow landing, the grace and beauty of the "glide waltz"; and so absorbed were they in the undertaking that they did not even know when he ceased to be a spectator and Miss Isobel became one.
The latter, inexpressibly shocked at the way things were going in the ball-room, was on her way upstairs, when she was confronted with the amazing spectacle of her sister and the bald-headed Mr. Chester revolving solemnly and rhythmically in each other's arms on the shadowy landing.
The only doubt that Miss Isobel had ever harbored concerning an all-wise Providence arose from the passage in Scripture that read: "Man and woman created He them." In her secret heart she had always felt that some other, less material scheme might have been evolved. Softly retracing her steps, she slipped back downstairs and took her place beside her increasingly indignant mother.
The new wine was proving entirely too much for the old bottles. Madam's ultimatums and Miss Isobel's protests had alike proved unavailing. The young people invaded the house like a swarm of noisy locusts. Between dances they flew out to the porch, some of the couples dashing out to sit in automobiles, others driving madly around the block to the incessant honking of horns. Then the music would call them back, and in they would pour, singing and whistling as they came, shouting jests from room to room, playing ball with the decorations, utterly regardless of everything save their own restless, reckless, daring selves. Maddest of them all was Eleanor, who, conscious of the stern disapproval of the family and rebelling against their attempted restraint, led the merry revolt against old-time proprieties and took her fling, for once regardless of consequences.
Quin, meanwhile, had gone back to the dressing-room and was making frantic efforts to reduce the swelling in his face. If he could only keep it down until after his dance with Eleanor, it might swell to the dimensions of the dome of St. Peter's! A hurried survey from over the banisters assured him that supper was soon to be served, and he went back to his hot applications with renewed courage.
But ill luck pursued him. No sooner had the guests been seated at small round tables and the refreshments served, than some one remembered that a big charity ball was in progress at the armory, and it was proposed that the evening be concluded there. The suggestion met with instant approval. In spite of the indignant protests of the elders, the gay company, headed by Eleanor, left the half-eaten ices melting on their plates, and, rising in a body, took noisy and immediate flight.
At twelve o'clock the elaborately decorated rooms were empty, the musicians were packing their instruments, the caterers were removing trays of untasted food, and Quin, standing dazed in the deserted hall, one hand clasping his shirt-front and the other on his face, was trying in vain to realize that the party which he had inspired had proved his Waterloo!
The next day Quin sold his dinner-coat for a fourth of what he paid for it, and forswore society forever. There was absolutely nothing in it, he assured the Martels, a conviction that assorted strangely with the fact that he devoured the columns in the daily papers devoted to the doings of the social elect, and waded through endless lists under the caption "Among Those Present." Every hour in the day he invented a new scheme for seeing Eleanor, which pride alone prevented him from carrying out. He wrote her a dozen notes, all of which he tore up; he went out of his way to pass through the streets where he might catch a glimpse of her, and seized the slightest excuse for errands to the Bartlett house. But the days of her holiday slipped away, and he neither saw nor heard from her.
Each morning at breakfast Mr. Martel would say hopefully, "Well, Eleanor will surely grace our humble abode to-day," or, "Something tells me my lady-bird will come to-day!" And each evening Quin would rush home from work buoyed up by the hope that he might find her.
"I bet she'd come to-day if she knew Captain Phipps was going to be here," said Myrna one morning, wagging her head wisely.
"What's that got to do with it?" Rose asked sharply.
"They're sweethearts," said Myrna, with the frightful astuteness of twelve. "And old Madam Bartlett won't let him come to the house, and Nell has to see him on the sly."
"Tut, tut, child! Where did you get that notion?" asked Mr. Martel, peeling an orange with his little fingers gracefully extended. "Harold Phipps is years older than Nellie. He is interested solely in her professional career. He has a lovely, detached soul, as impersonal—What is the matter, Rosalind?"
"Nothing—crumb went down wrong. What are you laughing at, Quinby Graham?"
"Another crumb," said Quin.
Between him and Rose there had sprung up a curious intimacy. All sorts of little wireless messages flashed between them, and Rose always seemed to know things without being told. She had discovered long ago that he was in love with Eleanor, and, instead of scoffing at him or teasing him, she did him the supreme favor of listening to him. Many a night, after the rest of the family had gone to bed, they lingered on before the fire in the shabby sitting-room, Rose invariably curled up in the sofa corner and Quin stretched out on the floor with his head against her knees.
After his somewhat rigorous discipline at the Bartletts' it was like slipping out of the harness to be back at the Martels'. They held him up to no standard, and offered no counsel of perfection. He could tell his best stories without fear of reproof, laugh as loud as he liked, and whistle and sing without disturbing anybody. Rose mended his clothes, doctored him when he was sick, petted him in public as well as in private, and even made free to pawn his uniform when the collector threatened to turn off the gas if the bill was not paid.
One evening, coming in unexpectedly, he had surprised her kissing Harold Phipps in the front hall. Harold's back had been to the door, and at a signal from Rose Quin had beat a hasty retreat. She explained later that she was letting the magnificent Harold have just enough rope to hang himself; and Quin, glad of anything that deflected Phipps from the pursuit of Eleanor, laughed with her over the secret flirtation and failed to see the danger lights that hung in her eyes.
Financial affairs were evidently going worse than usual with the Martels these days. Cass, adamant in his resolve to pay off the numerous debts contracted by the family during his absence abroad, refused to contribute more than the barest living expenses. Rose had given up the dancing classes and taken a position in one of the big department-stores. Edwin B. had had to leave high school and go to work. The adopted baby had been regretfully sent to the Orphans' Home. The little brown house was reefing all its sails in a vain effort to weather the coming storm.
The one member of the family who soared on wings of hope above the sordid facts of the situation was Claude Martel. After years of search, he had at last found the generous benefactor, the noble young patron, who recognized the merit of his work. They spent hours together elaborating the plot of "Phantom Love" and discussing every detail of its construction. Occasionally on Saturday night Mr. Martel would mention quite confidentially to Quin that, owing to some delayed payments, he was a little pressed for ready money and that a small loan would be appreciated. This request invariably resulted in an elaborate Sunday dinner, capped with a couple of bottles of Haut Sauterne in which Mr. Martel took the precaution of drinking everybody's health twice over.
Ten days after the Easter party, when Quin had almost despaired of seeing Eleanor at all, he found her car parked in front of the house when he returned in the evening. Mounting the front steps two at a time, he opened the door with his latch-key, then paused with his hand still on the knob. Queer sounds were coming from the sitting-room—sounds of a man's agitated voice, broken by sobs. Undeterred by any sense of delicacy, Quin pushed open the door and bolted in.
Mr. Martel was sitting in the arm-chair in an attitude King Lear might have envied. Every line of his face and figure suggested unmitigated tragedy. Even the tender ministrations of Eleanor Bartlett who knelt beside him, failed to console him or to stem the tide of his lamentations.
"What's the matter?" cried Quin in alarm. "What has happened?"
Papa Claude, resting one expressive hand on Eleanor's head, extended the other to Quin.
"Come in, my boy, come in," he said brokenly. "You are one of us: nothing shall be kept from you in this hour of great affliction. I am ruined, Quinby—utterly, irrevocably ruined!"
"But how? What's happened?"
"It's grandmother!" exclaimed Eleanor, struggling to her feet and speaking with dramatic indignation. "She's written him a letter I'll never forgive—never! I don't care if the money is due me. I don't want it. I won't have it! What is six thousand dollars to me if it turns Papa Claude out in the street?"
"But here—hold on a minute!" said Quin. "What's all the racket about?"
"It's about money," Mr. Martel roused himself to explain—"the grossest and most material thing in the world. Years ago Eleanor's father and I entered into a purely personal arrangement by which he advanced me a few thousand dollars in a time of temporary financial depression, and as a mere matter of form I put up this house as security. Had the dear lad lived, nothing more would ever have been said about it. He was the soul of generosity, a prince among men. But, unfortunately, at his death he left his mother Eleanor's trustee."
"And she has simply hounded Papa Claude," Eleanor broke in. "She has tried to make him pay interest on that old note every single year, when she knew I didn't need the money in the least. And now she had notified him she will not renew the note on any terms."
"She can't collect what you haven't got, can she?" Quin asked.
"She can sell the roof over our heads," said Papa Claude, with streaming eyes lifted to the object referred to. "She can scatter my beloved family and drive me back into the treadmill of teaching. And all through this blessed, innocent child, who would give all she has in the world to see her poor old grandfather happy!"
Again Eleanor, moved to a passion of sympathy, flung her arms around him, declaring that if they made him pay the note she would refund every penny of it the day she was twenty-one.
But Papa Claude was not to be consoled.
"It will be too late," he said hopelessly. "All I required was one year more in which to retrieve my fortunes and achieve my life ambition. And now, with success almost within my grasp, the goal within sight, this cruel blow, this bolt from the blue——"
"Haven't you got any other property or stocks or insurance that you could turn over?" asked Quin, who felt that the occasion demanded numerical figures rather than figures of speech.
"Only a small farm out near Anchordale, which belonged to my precious wife's father. It is quite as worthless as he was, poor dear! I have offered it repeatedly in payment, but they refused to consider it."
"Is there a house on it?" persisted Quin.
"Yes—an uninhabitable old stone structure that has stood there for nearly a century. For years I have tried in vain to rent or sell it. I have left no stone unturned, Quinby. I know I am regarded as a visionary, a dreamer, but I assure you——"
"What about the ground?"
"Very hilly and woody. Absolutely good for nothing but a stock farm. Utterly incapable of cultivation. It's no use considering it, my dear boy. I have viewed the matter from every conceivable angle. There is no reprisal. I am doomed. This beloved house will be sold, my family scattered. I an old man, a penniless outcast——"
"No, no, Papa Claude!" protested Eleanor. "You sha'n't be turned out. We must borrow the money. It's only a little over a year until I'm of age, and then I can pay it all back. Surely we can find somebody to help us out!"
"Ah, my darling, your trust is born of inexperience. People do not lend money without security. There is absolutely no one to whom I can appeal."
Eleanor, sitting on the arm of his chair, suddenly started up.
"I have it!" she cried. "I know who will help us! Captain Phipps! He knows better than any one else what it means to you to have this next year free to finish the play. He will be glad to do it; I know he will."
Mr. Martel looked slightly embarrassed. "As a matter of fact, he has been approached on the subject," he said. "He was most sympathetic and kind, but unfortunately his money is all invested at present."
"Fiddlesticks!" cried Eleanor in a tone so suggestive of her paternal grandmother that Quin smiled. "What difference does it make if it is invested? Let him un-invest it. I am sure I could get him to lend it to me, only I would hate awfully to ask him."
Mr. Martel's roving eyes came back to hers hopefully.
"I wonder if you could?" he said, grasping at the proffered straw. "Perhaps if he understood that your career was at stake, that my disappointment would mean your disappointment, he would make some special effort to assist us. Will you go to him, child? Will you plead our cause for us?"
Eleanor hesitated but a moment; then she set her lips firmly. "Yes," she said, with a little catch in her voice; "I will. I'll go to him in the morning."
Quin, who had been staring out of the window, deep in thought, turned abruptly to Mr. Martel.
"When do you have to have the money?" he asked.
"By next Wednesday, the first—no, the second of April. The date is burned in my memory."
"You see, there's no time to lose," said Eleanor. "I'd rather die than do it, but I'll ask Harold Phipps to-morrow morning."
"No, you won't," said Quin peremptorily; "I am going to get the money myself."
"But he wouldn't lend it to you. You don't understand!"
"Yes, I do. Will you leave the matter with me until Sunday night, Mr. Martel, and let me see what I can do?"
Quin made the suggestion as calmly as if he had unlimited resources at his disposal. Had the sum been six million dollars instead of six thousand, he would have made the offer just the same. The paramount necessity of the moment was to keep Eleanor Bartlett from borrowing money from a man like Harold Phipps. Mr. Martel's claims were of secondary consideration.
"We might let him try, grandfather," suggested Eleanor. "If he doesn't succeed, there would still be time for me to speak to the Captain."
"But, my boy, where would you turn? What influence could you bring to bear?"
"Well, you'd have to trust me about that," Quin said. "There are more ways than one of raising money, and if you'll leave it to me——"
"I will! I will!" cried Mr. Martel in a burst of confidence. "I shift my burden to your strong young shoulders. For three days I have borne the agony alone. There were special reasons for Cassius not being told. He is one of the noblest of God's creatures, but he lacks sentiment. I confess I have too much. These old walls are but brick and mortar to him, but to me they are the custodians of the past. Here I had hoped to sit in the twilight of my life and softly turn the leaves of happy memories. But there! Enough! 'The darkest hour oft precedes the dawn!' I will not despair. In your hands and my darling Eleanor's I leave my fate. Something tells me that, between you, you will save me! In the mean season not a word, not a syllable to any one. And now let us have some music and banish these unhappy topics."
It was amazing how a gentleman so crushed by fate at five could be in such splendid form by seven. Mr. Martel had insisted upon having a salad and ices for dinner in honor of Eleanor's presence, and he mixed the French dressing with elaborate care, and enlivened the company with a succession of his sprightliest anecdotes.
It was Quinby Graham who was the grave one. He ate his dinner in preoccupied silence, arousing himself to sporadic bursts of merriment only when he caught Eleanor's troubled eyes watching him. Just how he was going to proceed with his colossal undertaking he had not the faintest idea. One wild scheme after another presented itself, only to be discarded as utterly impractical.
Under cover of leaving the dining-room, Eleanor managed to whisper to him:
"Make Cass let you take me home. I've simply got to talk to you."
But neither Cass nor Quin was to have the privilege. Mr. Martel announced that he was going to escort her himself. The only crumb of comfort that Quin was able to snatch from the wretched evening was when he was helping her on with her coat in the hall.
"When can I see you?" he whispered anxiously.
"I don't know," she whispered back; "every hour's taken."
"What about Sunday afternoon?"
"I've promised to motor out to Anchordale with Aunt Flo and Uncle Ranny to hunt for wild flowers. Think of it! When all this trouble's brewing."
"Anchordale," repeated Quin absently, holding her coat suspended by the collar and one sleeve. "Anchordale! By golly! I've got an idea! Say, I'm going along Sunday. You manage it somehow."
"But I can't manage it! You aren't invited; and, besides——"
"I can't help that—I'm going. What time do you start?"
"Three o'clock. But you can't go, I tell you! They won't understand."
"All ready, Nellie?" called a voice on the stairway; and Papa Claude, with a smile of perfect serenity on his face, bore lightly and consciously down upon them.
During the rushing Easter vacation, Eleanor had seen less of Harold Phipps than Quin had feared. Considering the subliminal state of understanding at which they had arrived in their voluminous letters, it was a little awkward to account for the fact that she had found so little time to devote exclusively to him. They had met at dances and had had interrupted tete-a-tetes in secluded corners, and several stolen interviews in the park; but her duties as hostess to two lively guests had left little time for the exacting demands of platonic friendship. Now that the girls were gone, she had counted on this last Sunday at Uncle Ranny's as a time when she could see Harold under proper conditions and make amends for any seeming neglect.
But when Sunday came, and she found herself seated at Aunt Flo's small, perfectly appointed dinner-table, she found it increasingly difficult to keep her mind upon the brilliant and cynical conversation of her most admired friend. To be sure, they exchanged glances freighted with meaning, and as usual her vanity was touched by the subtle homage of one who apparently regarded the rest of humanity with such cold indifference. He was the first person, except Papa Claude, who had ever taken her and her ambitions seriously, and she was profoundly grateful. But, notwithstanding the fact that she felt honored and distinguished by his friendship, she sometimes, as now, found it difficult to follow the trend of his conversation.
An hour before she had received an agonized note from her grandfather saying that nothing had been accomplished, and that, unless she could use her influence "in a quarter that should be nameless, all, all would be lost!"
Her dark, brooding eyes swept the table with its profusion of silver and cut glass, its affectation of candle-light when the world without was a blaze of sunshine. She looked at Uncle Ranny, with his nervous, twitching lips and restless, dissatisfied eyes; at Aunt Flo, delicate, affected, futile; at Harold Phipps, easy, polished, serene. What possible chance would there be of rousing people like that to sympathy for poor, visionary Papa Claude? For three days the dread of having to fulfil her promise had hung over her like a pall. Now that the time was approaching, the mere thought of it made her head hot and her hands cold.
"Cheer up, Nell!" her uncle rallied her. "Don't let your misdeeds crush you. You'll be in high favor again by the time you get back from Baltimore."
"Are you sharing my unpopularity with the family?" asked Harold.
Eleanor confessed that she was. "I've been in disgrace ever since my party," she said. "Did Uncle Ranny tell you the way we shocked the aunties?"
"I did," said Mr. Ranny; "also the way sister Isobel looked when little Kittie Mason shook the shimmy. It's a blessing mother did not see her; I veritably believe she would have spanked her."
"A delicious household," pronounced Harold. "What a pity they have banished me. I should so love to put them in a play!"
"But I wouldn't let you!" Eleanor cried, so indignantly that the other three laughed.
"Neither bond nor free," Harold said, pursing his lips and lifting his brows. "A little pagan at home and a puritan abroad. How are we going to emancipate her, Ran?"
"You needn't worry," said Mrs. Ranny, lazily lighting her cigarette. "Eleanor is a lot more subtle than any one thinks; she'll emancipate herself before long."
Eleanor was grateful to Aunt Flo. She was tired of being considered an ingenue. She wanted to be treated with the dignity her twenty years demanded.
"I have a plan for her," said Harold, with a proprietary air. "Who knows but this time next year she will be playing in 'Phantom Love'?"
Eleanor's wandering thoughts came to instant attention.
"Is there a part I could play?" she asked eagerly, leaning across the table with her chin on her clasped hands.
Harold watched her with an amused smile. "What would you say if I told you I had written a role especially for you? Would you dare to take it?"
Eleanor closed her eyes and drew a breath of rapture.
"Would I? There isn't anything in heaven or earth that could prevent me!"
"Mrs. Bartlett," said the trim maid, "there's a young man at the front door."
The conversation hung suspended while Mrs. Ranny inquired concerning his mission.
"It's the young man that brings messages from the office, ma'am."
"Oh, it must be Quin," said Mr. Ranny, rising and going into the hall. "Did you want to see me about something?"
Eleanor held her breath to listen. Was it possible that that absurd boy had actually followed her up to the Bartletts' with the intention of going with them on their expedition? Hadn't it been enough for him to come to her party in that idiotic coat, with his shirt-front bulging and his face swollen? Of course she liked him—she liked him immensely; but he had no right to impose upon her kindness, to make a pretext of his interest in Papa Claude to force himself in where he was not invited. Now that he had got into the scrape, he would have to get out of it as best he could. She was resolved not to lift a finger to help him.
"Oh! I didn't understand"—Mr. Ranny's voice could be heard from the hall, with a cordial emphasis evidently intended to cover a blunder. "Come right in the dining-room; we are just having coffee. You know these ladies, of course, and this is Captain Phipps, Mr. Graham."
Quin came into the room awkwardly, half extended his hand, then withdrew it hastily as Harold, without rising from the table, gave him a curt nod and said condescendingly:
"How do you do, Graham?"
Eleanor's quick understanding glance swept from the erect, embarrassed, boyish figure in the badly fitting cheap suit and obviously new tan shoes, to the perfectly groomed officer lounging with nonchalant grace with his crossed arms on the table. A curious idea occurred to her: Suppose they should change places, and Harold should stand there in those dreadful clothes Quin wore, and receive a snub from an ex-officer—would he be able to take it with such simple dignity and give no sign of his chagrin except by the slow color that mounted to his neck and brow? She, who a moment before had been ready to annihilate the intruder, rose impulsively and held out a friendly hand.
"Mr. Graham and I are old friends," she said lightly. "We knew each other out at the hospital even before he came to stay at grandmother's."
The next instant she was sorry she had spoken: for the self-control for which she had commended him suddenly departed, and his eyelids, which should have been discreetly lowered, were lifted instead, and such an ardent look of gratitude poured forth that she was filled with confusion.
For half an hour four uncomfortable people sat in the little gilded cage of a drawing-room, and everybody wondered why somebody didn't do something to relieve the situation. Mr. and Mrs. Ranny made heroic efforts to entertain their unwelcome guest; Harold Phipps moved about the room with ill-concealed impatience; and Eleanor sat erect, with tightly clasped hands, as angry with Harold as she was with Quin.
"Mr. Graham," said Mrs. Ranny at length, when Harold had looked at his watch for the fourth time, "I am afraid we shall have to ask you to excuse us. You see, this is our wedding anniversary, and we always celebrate it by a sentimental pilgrimage in search of wild flowers. I am afraid it's about time we were starting."
Eleanor felt Quin's eyes seek hers confidently, but she refused to meet them. There was a painful silence; then he spoke up hopefully:
"I know where there are wild flowers to burn: I was at a place yesterday where you could hardly walk for them; I counted seven different kinds in a space about as big as this room."
"Where?" demanded Mr. and Mrs. Ranny in one breath.
"Out Anchordale way—I don't know the name of the road. It's an out-of-the-way sort of place. Never was there myself until yesterday."
"Could you find it again?" Mrs. Ranny asked with an enthusiasm hitherto reserved for her poodle.
"Sure," said Quin, shoving his hands in his pockets and leaning back with the frankest and best-natured of smiles. "I never saw so many cowslips and buttercups and yellow violets, and these here little arums."
"Arums!" repeated Eleanor. "What do you know about wild flowers?"
"I lived with 'em up in the Maine woods," said Quin. "I don't know their high-brow names, but I know the kind of places they grow in and where to look for 'em."
"Let's take him along!" said Mrs. Ranny. "We won't mind being a bit crowded in the motor, will we?"
Involuntarily all eyes turned toward Harold Phipps.
"Not in the least," he said, flicking an ash from the sleeve of his uniform with a dexterous little finger, "especially as I am not going to be with you all the way. These bucolic joys are hardly in my line. I'll get you to drop me at the Country Club."
It was Eleanor's turn to cast a look of tragic appeal and get no response. In vain she tried to persuade him to reconsider his decision. His only concession was that he would remain at the apartment with her if she would give up the expedition, a suggestion that was promptly vetoed by Aunt Flo. Eleanor was angry enough to cry as she flung on her wraps in the little silk-hung guest-room. Men were so selfish, she savagely told herself; if either Quin or Harold had had a particle of consideration for her they would not have spoiled her last day at home.
On the way out to the club she sat between them, miserably indifferent to the glory of the spring day and refusing to contribute more than an occasional monosyllable to the conversation, which needed all the encouragement it could get to keep going.
"Shall I see you again before you go?" Harold asked coldly, upon leaving the car.
She wanted very much to say no, and to say it in a way that would punish him; but, in view of the important matter pending, she was forced to swallow her pride and compromise.
"I can see you to-night at the Newsons', unless you prefer spending your evening here at the club."
"You know perfectly well what I prefer," he said with a meaning look; and then, without glancing at Quin, across whose knees he had clasped Eleanor's hand, he bade his host and hostess an apologetic good-by and mounted the club-house steps.
"What made you come?" Eleanor demanded fiercely of Quin, under cover of the starting motor.
"I had to," Quin whispered back apologetically. "We got to sell 'em the farm."
"What farm? Papa Claude's? Whom are you going to sell it to?"
Quin lifted a warning finger and nodded significantly at the back of Mr. Ranny's unsuspecting head.
"Uncle Ranny?" Eleanor's lips formed the words incredulously. Then the mere suggestion of outwitting her grandmother and saving Papa Claude by such a master stroke of diplomacy struck her so humorously that she broke into laughter, in which Quin joined.
"You two are very lively all of a sudden," Mrs. Ranny said over her shoulder. "What is the joke?"
"Miss Eleanor and I have gone into the real estate business. Do you want to buy a farm?"
"We always want to buy a farm. We look at every one we hear is for sale. But they all cost too much."
"This one won't. It's a bargain-counter farm. A house and fifteen acres. You can get it for six thousand dollars if you'll buy it to-day."
"All right; we'll take it," cried Mr. Ranny gaily. "Lead us to it."
The quest for the farm became so absorbing that the wild flowers were forgotten. The oftener they took the wrong road and had to start over, the keener they became to reach their destination.
"I believe it was a pipe-dream," said Mr. Ranny; "you never saw the place at all."
"Yes, I did! I'm not kidding you. It's a regular peach of a place for anybody that's got money to fix it up. Hold on a minute; this looks like the side lane. Do you mind walking the rest of the way?"
"Not if we get anywhere," said Mr. Ranny.
Their way led through a tangled thicket, across a log bridge, and up a steep hillside abloom from base to summit with early spring flowers. Down through the tender green leaves the sunshine poured, searching out many nooks and corners at which it would get no chance when the heavier foliage intervened.
"This is where the land begins," said Quin. "Did you ever see such bully old trees? Any time you wanted to sell off lots, you see, you could do it on this side, without touching the farm."
"Where's the house?" asked Mrs. Ranny.
"Right through here," said Quin, holding back the branches, "Now, ain't that a nice old place?"
His enthusiasm met with no response.
In the center of what had once been a clearing stood an old stone building, half smothered in a wilderness of weeds and sassafras and cane, its one big chimney dreaming in the silence that seemed to have encompassed it for ages. The shutters hung disconsolate on their hinges, the window-panes were broken, the cornice sagged dejectedly.
Eleanor's heart sank. It was worse, far worse, than Papa Claude had described it, fit only for the birds and spiders and chipmunks that were already in possession. How Quin could ever for a moment have thought of selling such a place to the fastidious Bartletts was more than she could imagine.
But he was carrying the matter off with a high hand, in spite of the dismayed faces of his prospective buyers.
"Of course it needs a shave," he admitted, as he tore down a handful of trailing vines that barred the front door. "But you just wait till you get inside and see the big stone fireplace and the queer cupboards. Why, this house is historic! It's been here since pioneer days. Look out for the floor; it's a bit rotten along here."
"I don't think I'll come in," said Mrs. Ranny, holding up her skirts.
"What a funny little staircase!" cried Eleanor. "And what huge rooms! You must come in, Aunt Flo, and see the fireplace."
"And look at the walls!" cried Quin. "You don't see walls like those these days. But you just wait till you get upstairs. You've got the surprise of your life coming to you."
"Outside's good enough for me," Mr. Ranny declared. "I want to take a look at that old apple orchard."
"I'll go upstairs with you!" said Eleanor. "Come on, Aunt Flo; let's see what it's like."
At the top of the steps they both gave an exclamation of delight. The house, hemmed in, in front, by its trees and underbrush, overlooked from its rear windows a valley of surpassing loveliness. For miles the eye could wander over orchards full of pink-and-white peach blossoms on leafless boughs, over farm-lands and woody spaces full of floating clouds of white dogwood. Through the paneless windows came the warm spring air, full of the odor of tender growing things and the wholesome smell of the freshly upturned earth.
"Randolph Bartlett, come up here this instant!" called Mrs. Ranny. "It's the loveliest thing you ever saw!"
But Mr. Ranny was eagerly examining the remains of a somewhat extensive chicken farm.
"Go down and show him around," Eleanor advised Quin, with a glimmer of hope. "Aunt Flo and I will explore the rest of the house."
They not only explored, but in their imagination they remodeled it. Eleanor, in spite of her daydreams, was a very practical little person, and, with her power of visualizing a scene for others as well as for herself, she soon made Mrs. Ranny see the place painted and clean, with rag rugs on the floors, quaint old mahogany furniture, tall brass candlesticks on the mantel, and gay chintz curtains at the windows.
Mrs. Ranny grew quite animated talking about it, and forgot the disturbing fact that she had not had a cigarette since dinner.
"Do you know," she said to Eleanor, as they came back to the window and looked down at the two men talking and gesticulating eagerly in the garden below, "I believe if Ranny had something like this to work with and play with, things would be different."
"Of course they would," Eleanor agreed eagerly—"for him and for you too. Why don't you try it, Aunt Flo?"
"Oh, it would cost too much to put it in repair. But then, six thousand dollars is very little, isn't it? Ran spent that much for his big car."
"Yes; and he could sell his big car. You'd lots rather have this than an extra motor. And we could get him interested in fixing the place up, and he could keep dogs and cows and things——"
"But what about his mother?"
"You wouldn't have to tell her. She will be going to Maine in June, and you and Uncle Ranny could be all settled by the time she comes home!"
Eleanor had forgotten all about Papa Claude in her eagerness to get Uncle Ranny his heart's desire.
"I believe we could do it!" Mrs. Ranny was saying. "The chief expense would be putting in a couple of bath-rooms and fixing up the floors. As for the furniture, I have all my mother's stuff packed away in the warehouse—nice, quaint old things that would suit this place perfectly."
"Oh, Aunt Flo, let's go down this minute and make Uncle Ranny buy it!"
Randolph Bartlett, whose powers of resistance were never strong, was already lending a willing ear to Quin's persuasive arguments, when Eleanor and Mrs. Ranny descended upon him in a whirlwind of enthusiasm. They both talked at once, rushing him from one spot to another, vying with each other in pointing out the wonderful possibilities of the place.
"See here, is this a frame-up?" he asked laughingly. "You are not actually in earnest, Flo? You don't mean that you would consider the place seriously?"
"But I do. I never wanted anything so much in my life!"
Mr. Ranny looked at her in amazement. "And you mean you'd be willing to come out here and live four months in the year?"
"I mean, if we could get it fixed up right, I'd live here the year round. We are only fifteen minutes from town, and all our friends live out this way."
"By George, I've almost a notion to try it!" Mr. Ranny's eyes were shining. "Do you believe I could pull it off, Quin? I've made such a darned fizzle of things in the past that I'm almost afraid to kick over the traces again."
"The trouble is, you've never given a big enough kick to get loose," said Quin. "Here's your chance to show 'em what you can do. I believe if you'd buy this place, and buckle down to knocking it into shape, you could have as pretty a little stock farm as there is in the State."
"That sounds mighty good to me!" said Mr. Ranny with the look of a prisoner who is promised a parole. "When do you have to give an answer?"
"My option is up at midnight."
"Good heaven! You don't mean to-night?"
"Yes, sir: not a minute later."
"I am afraid that settles it, as far as I'm concerned."
"No, it doesn't!" insisted Mrs. Ranny. "If you really want it, there is no reason you shouldn't have it. The ground alone is worth the price asked. Let the others go back to the car while you and I talk the matter over. It's the chance we've been looking for for ten years, and I'm not going to let it slip."
The next hour was one Eleanor never forgot. She and Quin, confident of the success of their conspiracy, were also jubilant over what they regarded as Mr. Ranny's possible emancipation. They already saw him a reformed character, a prosperous and contented farmer, no longer a menace to the peace of the family. So elated were they that, instead of going to the road, they explored the woods, and ended by racing down the hill like a couple of irresponsible children.
When they at last got back to the car, Eleanor, disheveled and limp, sank on the running-board and laughingly made room for Quin beside her. She had quite forgotten to be grown up and temperamental, a fact that Quin was prompt to take advantage of.
"See here!" he said. "Am I going to get a commission for all this?"
"How much do you want?"
"I want a lot!" he threatened.
He was leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, tracing figures in the sand with his shoe. Eleanor noticed the nice way his hair grew on the back of his neck and the white skin that met the clear brown skin at the collar-line. In spite of his bigness and his strength, he seemed very young and defenseless when it came to his dealings with girls.
It was useless to deny that she knew what he wanted. His eyes had been saying it persistently each time they had met hers for three months. They had whispered it after that first dance at the Hawaiian Garden; they had murmured it through the hospital days; they had shouted it this afternoon at Uncle Ranny's, so loud that she thought every one must surely hear. But when a young lady is engaged in the exciting business of playing with fire she doesn't always heed even a shouted warning. As long as she was very careful, she told herself, and snuffed out every blaze that threatened to become unmanageable, no damage would be done. The present moment was one requiring snuffers.
"We can't begin to pay you what we owe you," she said in her most conventional tone. "If things go as we hope they will, it will mean everything to Uncle Ranny as well as to Papa Claude."
"I didn't do it for them only," Quin blurted out. "I didn't want you to borrow money from Captain Phipps."
The temptation to encourage this special spark was not to be resisted.
"You don't love Mr. Phipps very much, do you?" she said.
"No; do you?"
"Well, I like him. He is one of my very best friends."
"Am I?" demanded Quin with terrible directness.
It was Eleanor's turn to trace patterns in the sand.
"Well, you see——" she began.
"No, I don't." Quin rose indignantly. "There's nobody in the world that would do any more for you than I would. I may be chasing the kite in thinking that you want me to do anything, but if you'll just let me under the ribbon, you bet your life I'll give Phipps and the rest of the talent a run for their money!"
He stood staring hard down the road for a moment, while she sat in embarrassed silence; then he broke forth again:
"I know you don't want me to say these things. I know every time you head me off. But if you'll just let me get it off my chest this once, then I promise to keep the cork in if it busts the bottle!"
Eleanor laughed in spite of herself.
"All right," she said; "I'll listen."
"Well," said Quin, "it's this way. I know you don't care a tinker's damn for me in the way I care for you. But you can't deny that you do like me some. You wouldn't talk to me like you do and let me do things for you if you didn't. What I want you to promise is that whenever you need a friend—a best friend, mind you—you will come straight to me."
He looked worth coming to as he stood there, big and strong and earnest; and Eleanor, being young and a woman, promptly forgot her good resolutions not to encourage him, and rose impulsively and held out her hand.
"I do promise, Quin," she said, "and I thank you with all my heart."
Then a curious and unexpected thing happened to her. As she stood there on the lonely country road with her hand in his, a curious, deep, still feeling crept over her, a queer sensation of complete satisfaction that she never remembered to have felt before. For a long moment she stood there, her cheek almost touching that outrageous plaid tie that had so recently excited her derision. Then she snatched her hand away. "Look out!" she warned. "They are coming."
Two minutes later Mr. and Mrs. Ranny, emerging from the thicket with their hands full of wild flowers, found Eleanor seated in the car in a bored attitude, while Quin solicitously examined a rear tire.
"It's all settled!" Mr. Ranny cried exultingly. "The farm is ours!"
Although Quin had taken himself and his career seriously before Eleanor's home-coming, it was nothing in comparison to the fever of energy that possessed him after her departure. He was determined to forge ahead in business, get an education, and become versed in the gentler branches of social life at the earliest possible moment. His chief trouble was that the days contained only twenty-four hours. Even his dreams were a jumble of plows and personal pronouns, of mathematical problems and social proprieties.
At the factory he flung himself into the affairs of the firm with a zeal that at times bordered on officiousness. But Mr. Bangs was beginning to find him useful, and, while he continued to snub him and correct him, he also came to depend upon him, especially in an emergency. Quin, on his part, was for the first time turning a critical eye on his own achievements in relation to those of bigger and abler men, and the result was chastening.
As for his mad thirst for knowledge, even the university classes, difficult as they were proving, failed to satisfy him. He purchased an expensive "system" in fifteen volumes, by means of which, the prospectus assured him, he could easily achieve a college education in eight months. He wore the covers off the first two booklets, then became disgusted, and devoted himself instead to a small handbook entitled "Words We Mispronounce."
The branch of his education in which he was making least effort and most progress was in the customs and manners of polite society. He did not shine as yet, but he had ceased to offend, and that was a long step forward. Once initiated into the refinements of life, he took to them naturally. Miss Isobel and Miss Enid Bartlett had given him the cue, and Mr. Chester was keeping him up to his standard.
Between him and the latter had sprung up a queer friendship verging on intimacy. Ever since the night of the symphony concert he had served as a connecting link between the long-severed lovers, and out of gratitude he had been adopted as a protege. It was Mr. Chester who assumed responsibility not only for his musical and literary tastes but for his neckties and hosiery as well. Mr. Chester, in fact, being too negative and conservative, acted as a much-needed soft pedal on Quin's noisy aggressiveness. "Not so loud, Quinby," or, "A little more gently, my boy," he would often say. And Quin would acquiesce good-naturedly and even gratefully. "That's right, call me down," he would say; "I guess I'll learn before I die."
In all that he did and said and thought, one object was paramount. He never lost sight of the fact that he was making himself over for Eleanor, and the prize at stake was so colossal that no obstacles deterred him. To be sure, this was not by any means his first amatory venture. As Rose Martel had said, he "had a way with him"—a way that had kept him involved in affairs of the heart since the early days in Nanking when he had succumbed to the charms of a slant-eyed little Celestial at the tender age of seven. He had always had a girl, just as he had always had a job; but both had varied with time and place. With a vocabulary of a dozen words and the sign language, he had managed to flirt across France and back again. He had frivoled with half a dozen trained nurses in as many different hospitals, and had even had a sentimental round with a pretty young stewardess on the transport coming home.
But this affair had been quite different. Instead of wading about in the shallows of love, he had tumbled in head first, and found himself beyond his depth and out of sight of land. It was a case of sink or swim, and Quin was determined not to sink if he could help himself.
The fact that Eleanor Bartlett was not of his world, that she apparently never gave him a second thought, that he had less than nothing on which to build his hopes, only made him take a deeper breath and a longer stroke.
The first gleam of encouragement he had received was that Sunday in the country, when for the fraction of a second she had let him hold her hand. Since then he had written her five letters and received but one brief note in reply. Her silence, however, did not depress him. She had told him she hated to write letters, a sentiment he fully shared. Only in this case he could not help himself. The moment anything of interest happened, he was seized with an uncontrollable impulse to tell Eleanor. He would rush home from the university at night, go up to his room, and, using the corner of his bureau for a desk, cover pages of lined tablet paper with a detailed account of the day's adventures. When every doubtful word has to be looked up in the dictionary, and newly acquired knowledge concerning participles and personal pronouns duly applied, letter-writing is a serious business. Sometimes a page was copied three times before it met with the critical approval of the composer.
Since the passing of the acute financial crisis in the Mattel family, Papa Claude had revived amazingly, and was once more wearing a rose in his buttonhole and courting the Muse. He and Harold Phipps spent several afternoons a week working on their play, which they hoped to get fully blocked out before the latter left the service and returned to his home in Chicago.
But, even though the sale of the farm had relieved the financial strain, some other trouble was brewing in the family, the cause of which Quin could not make out. The usually sunny atmosphere was disturbed by frequent electric storms between Cass and Rose, marked by stern disapproval on his part and fiery rebellion on hers. "Rose is going to get herself into trouble!" Cass predicted darkly to Quin; while Rose, on her part, declared that Cass should shave his head and enter a monastery.
"What are you two ragging about, anyhow?" Quin asked one morning at breakfast, when things were worse than usual.
"Rose knows what I'm talking about," said Cass significantly. "Somebody's going to get his face pushed in if things keep on like they are going."
Absorption in his own affairs alone prevented Quin from taking an immediate hand in this new family complication. It was not until late in May that he hit upon the truth, quite by accident.
Coming home rather later than usual one night, he stumbled over Cass sitting hunched up on the dark stairway, looking in his striped pajamas like an escaped convict.
"What in the devil are you up to?" Quin demanded, rubbing a bruised shin.
"I am waiting for Rose," said Cass grimly. "Some fellow comes by here every few nights and takes her out in a machine."
"Who is he?"
"I don't know—that's what I'm going to find out."
"You crazy wop!" said Quin. "What's got into you lately? Can't you trust Rose to take care of herself?"
"Yes; but I don't trust any fellow that'll go with a girl and be ashamed to be seen with her."
"How do you know he's ashamed to be seen with her?"
"Because he comes sneaking in here after we've all gone to bed. He don't ring the door-bell; he honks once or twice; and then I hear Rose slipping past my door."
"I didn't know any of Rose's beaux had a machine."
"They haven't. This is some rich guy that thinks any girl that works for her living is an easy mark. I'll show him a thing or two! I'll break his damned—— Listen! There's an automobile stopping now."
He started excitedly down the steps, but Quin grasped his arms.
"Come back here, Cass! You can't go cavorting out there in your pajamas, making a mess of things. You leave it to me. I'll go out the side way and amble around to the front door the same time they do. They'll think I'm just getting home, and I can size him up for you."
The next moment he was out of the house, over the low hedge, and casually sauntering toward the corner. The night was very dark, lightened only by the swinging street lamp and the two staring eyes of an automobile that had stopped a little distance from the house. Quin saw Rose dart out of the shadows and run toward the house. Some one called her name softly and peremptorily, but she did not stop. A man was following her out of the shadows. But Quin did not wait for him to arrive; he promptly stepped around the corner and met Rose at the front gate.
"What's up?" he demanded, seeing her quivering lips and angry, excited eyes.
"Tell him to go away!" she whispered, trying to get the gate open. "Tell him I never want him to speak to me again. He can't apologize—there isn't anything he can say. Just make him go away, that's all."
"Miss Martel is making a mountain out of a molehill," said a suave voice behind them, and, turning, Quin saw the somewhat perturbed face of Harold Phipps, "If she would listen to me for two minutes——"
"But I won't—not for one minute! You sha'n't speak to me——"
"Just one word alone with you——"
"See here," said Quin, stepping between them and looking Harold Phipps squarely in the eyes. "You heard what she said, didn't you?"
"Yes; but I insist upon her listening to me. She entirely misunderstood something I said."
"I did not!" Rose broke in furiously. "You know perfectly well I didn't. I won't listen to anything you have to say on that or any other subject."
"I sha'n't let you go until you do," he replied in his most authoritative tone.
"Oh, yes, you will," said Quin quietly. "I don't know what the row's about, but she doesn't have to talk to you if she doesn't want to."
For a moment the two men stood silently measuring each other; then the one in uniform gave a slight shrug and permitted himself a faint superior smile.
"I see," he said. "The young lady's conduct did not lead me to suppose she was engaged. I congratulate you!" And, turning on his heel, he went back to his car.
Rose turned quickly and seized Quin's arm.
"Don't tell anybody about this, please," she implored. "I've had my lesson—the beast!"
"What did he do?" demanded Quin, longing for an excuse to annihilate Phipps.
"It wasn't so much what he did—it was what he said. But you've got to promise not to give me away, Quin. You mustn't let on that I was out to-night."
"But Cass is on to it. He's waiting there in the hall now."
She caught her breath sharply.
"Does he know who I was with?"
"Then he mustn't. It would spoil everything for Papa Claude and the play; and, besides, Cass is so excitable. I haven't done anything wrong, Quin! I was just out for a little fun, and that contemptible puppy thought——"
"I wish to God I'd cracked his bean!" said Quin fervently.
"Promise me that you won't tell!"
"I won't tell, but I intend to have it out with him."
"No, no!" she whispered hysterically. "I tell you, nothing more must be said about it. It was partly my fault; only, I didn't know he was that kind of a man. You know yourself I never really liked him. Only it was fun to go out in his car, and I get so sick of not having any clothes or money and having to stay in that deadly old store day in and day out!"
She buried her face in her hands and sobbed violently for a moment; then she caught hold of Quin's sleeve.
"You won't speak to him," she implored, "and you won't tell Cass?"
"I won't do anything you don't want me to," promised Quin, proffering his handkerchief with his sympathy, "It's your shooting-match, and Cass has got to keep his hands off."
Cass at this moment cautiously opened the front door, and stood in his bare feet, viewing them with anxious suspicion.
"It's all right, old cove," said Quin, slipping Rose into the house and pulling the door to after her. "No harm's done, and she won't do it again."
"How do you know?"
"Because she and the fellow had a blow-out. She says she is through with him for good and all."
"Did you see him?"
"Yes; he's a average-sized fellow with a smooth face and brown hair."
"Would you know him if you saw him again?"
"Sure. I'll keep an eye out for him. But you've got to leave it to me. I can handle the situation all right now, if you just won't butt in."
"If you can get Rose to promise not to see him again, she'll stick to it; I can say that for her."
"She won't see him. They've quarreled, I tell you. I heard her balling him out good before he left. The whole thing is settled, and all you got to do is to button up your lip and go to bed."
A week later Papa Claude announced that Harold Phipps was at last released from his onerous duties in the army and had returned to his home in Chicago, where he would in future devote himself to the writing and producing of great American plays.
In everybody's life there are hours or days or even weeks that refuse to march on with the solemn procession of time, but lag behind and hide in some byway of memory, there to remain for ever and ever. It was such a week that tumbled unexpectedly out of Quin's calendar about the first of June, and lived itself in terms of sunshine and roses, of moonshine and melody, seven halcyon days between the time that Eleanor returned from school and the Bartletts went away for the summer. For the first time since he met her, she seemed to have nothing more demanding to do than to emulate "the innocent moon, who nothing does but shine, and yet moves all the slumbering surges of the world."
There was no doubt about Quin's "slumbering surges" being moved. Within twenty-four hours of her return to town he became totally and hopelessly demoralized. Education and business were, after all, but means to an end, and when he saw what he conceived to be a short cut to heaven, he rashly discarded wings and leaped toward his heart's desire.
The hour before closing at the factory became a time of acute torture. He who usually stayed till the last minute, engrossed in winding up the affairs of the day, now seemed perfectly willing to trust their completion to any one who would undertake it. The instant the whistle blew he was off like a shot, out of the factory yard, clinging to the platform of a crowded trolley, catching an interurban car, plunging through a thicket, down an old lane, and emerging into Paradise.
The Rannys were having the adventure of their lives with the secret farm, an adventure shared with equal enthusiasm by their co-conspirators. "Valley Mead" was proving the most marvelous of forbidden playthings, and was doing for Randolph Bartlett what doctors and sanitariums and tears and threats had failed to do. The old place had been overhauled, the house made habitable, and now that furnishing was in progress, each day brought new and fascinating developments.
Eleanor had arrived from school just in time to fling herself heart and soul into the enterprise. By a happy chance she had been allowed to spend the week with the Randolph Bartletts, only reporting to her grandmother from time to time for consultations regarding summer clothes. Her strange indifference to this usually all-important question, together with her insistent plea to remain in Kentucky all summer, might have aroused the old lady's suspicion had she not long ago decided that the explanation of all Eleanor's motives was perversity.
Every morning Eleanor and Mrs. Ranny went out to the farm, and worked with enthusiasm. Each piece of furniture that was taken out of the crate was hailed with delight and dragged from one place to another to try its effect. The hanging of curtains was suspended while they rushed out to see the newly arrived rabbits with their meek eyes and tremulous pink mouths, or dashed out to the poultry-yard to have another look at the downy little fluffs of yellow that were pretending to be chickens.
But the real excitement of the day was when the workmen had departed, and Mr. Ranny came out with his machine laden with priceless treasures from the ten-cent store, or later when Quin Graham dashed up the lane with anything from a garden-spade to a bird-house in his hands, and with an enthusiasm and energy in his soul that communicated themselves to all concerned. Then everybody would talk at once, and everybody insist upon showing everybody else what had been done since morning, and there was more hanging of pictures and changing of furniture, and so much chatter and laughter that it was a wonder anything was accomplished.
Mr. and Mrs. Ranny had agreed that they would make Valley Mead livable at the least possible expense, looking forward to a future day to make the improvements that would require much outlay of money. The pride and satisfaction they took in their petty economies were such as only the inexperienced wealthy can feel.
As for Quin, he moved through the enchanted days, blind, deaf, and dumb to everything but Eleanor. She was the dazzling sun in whose effulgent rays the rest of humanity floated like midges. So wholly blinded was he by her radiant presence that he did not realize the darkness into which he was about to be plunged until her departure was imminent.
The evening before she left found them perched upon the orchard stile, in that stage of intimacy that permitted him to sit at her feet and toy pensively with the tassel on her girdle while his eyes said the unutterable things that his lips were forbidden to utter.
The sky was flooded with luminous color, neither blue nor pink, but something deliciously between, and down below them fields of wheat rippled under the magic light.
"We ought to go in," said Eleanor for the third time. "We've been out here an outrageously long time."
"They won't miss us," pleaded Quin; "besides, it's our last night."
"Don't talk about it!" said Eleanor. "It makes me so cross to have to leave it all at the most exciting time! When I get back everything will be finished and the fun all over."
"When are you coming back?"
"Not until September. We have to come home then. Something's going to happen."
Quin stopped twisting the tassel and looked at her quickly.
"What?" he demanded.
"Can you keep a secret?"
"It's a wedding, Quin."
If the earth had suddenly quaked beneath him he could not have experienced a more horrible sense of devastation. He put out a hand as if to steady himself.
"You don't mean——" he began, and could get no further.
"Yes, I do. It's to be a home wedding, very quiet, with only the family, and afterward they are going out to the coast."
"Who are?" he asked dully.
"Aunt Enid and Mr. Chester. After waiting for twenty years. Isn't it too funny for words?"
Quin thought it was. He threw himself back and shouted. He had never enjoyed a joke so much in his life. It seemed replete with humor, especially when he shared with Eleanor the part he had played in bringing them together and described the waltz on the landing the night of the Easter party. With the arrogance of youth they laughed hilariously at the late blooming romance.
"What about Queen Vic?" asked Quin. "How did they ever get her consent?"
"They didn't ask for it. After letting her keep them apart all these years, they just announced that they were going to be married in September. I expect she raised the roof; but when she saw it was all settled and she couldn't unsettle it, she came around and told Aunt Enid she could be married at home."
"Good work!" said Quin, who was genuinely fond of both Miss Enid and Mr. Chester. "How is Miss Isobel taking it?"
"Better than you would think. I don't know what has come over Aunt Isobel, she's so much nicer than she used to be. The boys out at the hospital have made her over."
"Miss Isobel's a pippin," said Quin, in a tone that implied a compliment. "You ought to have seen how she looked after me when I was sick. Has Madam found out about her going out to camp?"
"Yes; but she hasn't stopped her. Something you said once about everybody having a right to do his duty as he saw it made Aunt Isobel take a firm stand and stick it out. You have certainly jolted the family out of its ruts, Quin. Look at Uncle Ranny; would you ever take him for the same person he was six months ago?"
Quin removed his enamored gaze from her face long enough to glance toward the house, where the usually elegant useless Randolph was perched in the crotch of an old ash tree, sawing off a dead limb, and singing as he sawed.
"Well, when it comes to him, I guess I have had a finger in the pie," said Quin with pardonable pride. "He hasn't slipped the trolley for two months; and if he can stay on the track now, it will be a cinch for him after the first of July. All he needed was a real interest in life, and a chance to work things out for himself."
"It's what we all need," Eleanor said gloomily. "I wish I could do what I liked."
"What would you do?"
"I'd go straight to New York and study for the stage. It isn't a whim—it's what I've wanted most to do ever since I was a little girl. I may not have any great talent, but Papa Claude thinks I have. So does Captain Phipps. To have to wait a whole year until I'm of age is too stupid for words. It's just some more of grandmother's tyranny, and I'm not going to submit much longer; would you?"
Quin contemplated his clasped fists earnestly. For the first time, his belief in the consent of the governed admitted of exceptions.
"I'd go a bit slow," he said, feeling his own way cautiously. "This stage business is a doubtful proposition. I don't see where the fun comes in, pretending to be somebody else all the time."
"You would if you didn't like being yourself. Besides, I don't live my own life as it is."
"You will some day—when you get married."
"But that's just it! I don't intend to marry—I am going to devote my whole life to my work."
Quin, having but recently recovered from the fear that she was contemplating matrimony, now underwent a similar torture at her avowal that she was not. The second possibility was only a shade less appalling than the first.
"The trouble is," she went on very confidentially, "I am not interested in anything in the world but my art."
"Oh, come now, Miss Eleanor!" Quin rallied her. "You know you were interested in the work out at the camp."
"That's true. I except that."
"And you can't say you haven't been interested in our selling this farm, and getting Mr. and Mrs. Ranny fixed up, and all that."
"Of course I've been interested in that; it's been no end of fun."
"And then," Quin pursued his point quite brazenly, "there's me. I hope you are a little bit interested in me?"
She tried to take it lightly. "Interested in you? Why, of course I am. We all are. Uncle Ranny was saying only this morning——"
"I don't care a hang what he said. It's you I'm talking about. Do you like me any better than you did in the spring?"
"You silly boy, I've always liked you."
"But I told you I wanted a lot. Have I made any headway?"
"Headway? I should say you have. I never saw such improvement! If the university classes have done this much for you in four months, what will you be by the end of the year?"
"That's right," said Quin bitterly. "Open the switch and sidetrack me! But just tell me one thing: is there anybody you are interested in?"
"Now, see here, Quin," said Eleanor peremptorily, "you haven't any right to ask me questions like that. All I promised was that you could be my chum."
"Yes; but I meant a chum plus."
"Well, you'd better look out or you will be a chum minus." Then she caught sight of his eyes, and leaned forward in sudden contrition. "I'm sorry to hurt you, Quin, but you must understand——"
"I do," he admitted miserably. "Only this week out here together, and the way you've looked at me sometimes, made me kind of hope——" His voice broke. "It's all right. I'll wait some more."
This was the time Eleanor should have carried out her intention of going back to the house. Instead, she sat on in the deepening twilight under the feminine delusion that she was being good to the miserable youth who sat huddled close to her knees on the step below her.
Through his whole big being Quin was quivering with the sense of her nearness, afraid to move for fear something stronger than his will would make him seize her slender little body and crush it to him in an agony of tenderness and yearning.
"How beautiful it is out here now!" she said softly. "Don't you love the feel of wings everywhere? Little flying things going home? Everything seems to be whispering!"
Quin did not answer. He sat silent and immovable until the light in the valley had quite faded, and the twitter of the birds had been superseded by the monotonous, mournful plaint of a whip-poor-will in a distant tree. Then he stirred and looked up at Eleanor with a rueful smile.
"I know what's the matter with that damned old bird," he said. "He's in love!"
Notwithstanding the fact that the sale of the Martels' house was averted and Rose's affair with Harold Phipps successfully terminated, catastrophe, which was evidently due the family, arrived before the summer had fairly begun. The irrepressible Claude had no sooner weighed the anchor of responsibility than he set sail for New York to embark once more on dramatic waters. He had secured a small part in a summer stock company which would leave him ample time to work on "Phantom Love," which he confidently counted upon to retrieve his fortunes. The withdrawal of even his slender contribution to the household expenses made a difference, especially as Edwin came down with the measles early in July. Before the boy had got the green shade off his afflicted eyes, Cass was laid low with typhoid fever.
No other event in the family could have wrought such disastrous results. Rose was compelled to give up her position to nurse him, and while the income ceased the expenses piled up enormously.
Nothing was more natural than that Quinby Graham should fling himself into the breach. His intimacy with Cass had begun on the transport going to France, and continued with unabated zeal until he was wounded in the summer of 1918. For six months he had lost sight of him, only to find him again in the hospital at Camp Zachary Taylor. He was not one to share the privileges of Cass's home without also sharing its hardships.
"It's a shame we've got to take help from you," said Rose; "just when you are beginning to get ahead, too!"
"You cut that out," said Quin. "I'd like to know if you didn't take me in and treat me like one of the family? Ain't Cass the best friend a man ever had? And wouldn't he do as much and more for me?"
But even Quin's salary failed to meet the emergency. Doctor's bills, drug bills, grocery bills, became more and more formidable. One day Rose was reduced to selling two of Papa Claude's autographed photographs.
"I wouldn't do that—yet," said Quin, who had begun to walk to the factory to save carfare. "Those old boys and girls are his friends; we can't sell them. I can see him now talking to 'em through his pipe smoke. I ought to have some junk we can soak. Let's go see."
The investigation resulted in the conversion of a pair of new wing-toed dancing-shoes and a silver cigarette-case into an ice-bag and an electric fan.
"I could stand everything else," said Rose, "if we could just get the children out of the house. Edwin is still as weak as a kitten, and Myrna looks as if she might come down with the fever any day."
Quin had a brilliant idea. "Why not ship 'em both to the country? Ed could come to town to work every day, and Myrna could help somebody around the house."
"That sounds mighty fine; but who is going to take two children to board for nothing?"
"I don't know yet," said Quin; "that's what I've got to find out."
That night he went out to Valley Mead and put the matter squarely up to Mr. and Mrs. Ranny.
"We're up against it at our house," he said; "I want to borrow something from you two good people."
"You can have anything we've got!" said Mr. Ranny rashly.
"Well, I want to borrow some fresh air for a couple of sick kids. I want you to ask 'em out here for a week."
Mr. and Mrs. Ranny looked aghast at the preposterous suggestion, but Quin gave them no time to demur. He plunged into explanation, and clinched his argument by saying:
"Ed would only be here at night, and Myrna could help around the house. They are bully youngsters. No end of fun, and they wouldn't give you a bit of trouble."
"But I have only one maid!" protested Mrs. Ranny.
"What of that?" said Quin. "Myrna's used to working at home; she'd be glad to help you."
"If it was anybody on earth but the Martels," Mr. Ranny objected, with contracted brow. "The families have been at daggers' points for years. Why, the very name of Martel makes mother see red."
"Well, the children aren't responsible for that!" Quin broke in impatiently; then he pulled himself up. "However, if you don't want to do 'em a good turn, that settles it."
"But it doesn't settle it," said Mr. Ranny. "What are you going to do with them?"
"Hanged if I know," said Quin; "but you bet I'll do something."
The conversation then wandered off to Eleanor, and Quin listened with vague misgivings to accounts of her good times—yachting parties, tennis tournaments, rock teas, shore dinners—all of which suggested to him an appallingly unfamiliar world.
"I tell you who was up there for a week," said Mr. Ranny. "Harold Phipps. You remember meeting him at our apartment last spring?"
"What's he doing there?" Quin demanded with such vehemence that they both laughed.
"Probably making life miserable for Mother Bartlett," said Mrs. Ranny. "I can't imagine how she ever consented to have him come, or how he ever had the nerve to go, after the way they've treated him."
"Harold's not concerned with the feelings of the family," said Mr. Ranny; "he is after Nell."
But Mrs. Ranny scorned the idea. "He looks upon her as a perfect child," she insisted; "besides, he's too lazy and conceited to be in love with anybody but himself."
"That may be, but Nell's got him going all right."
Then the conversation veered back to the Martels, with the result that an hour later Quin was on his way home bearing a gracefully worded note from Mrs. Ranny inviting the children to spend the following week at Valley Mead. But, in spite of the success of his mission, he sat with a box of fresh eggs in his lap and a huge bunch of flowers in his hand, his hat rammed over his eyes, staring gloomily out of the car window into the starless night.
Since Eleanor's departure he had had no word from her, and the news that filtered through Valley Mead was more disconcerting than the silence. The thought of her dancing, sailing, and motoring with Harold Phipps filled him with a frenzy of jealousy. He grew bitter at the thought of her flitting heedlessly from one luxurious pleasure to another, while Cass lay in that stifling city, fighting for his life and lacking even the necessities for his comfort.
Every week since her departure he had written her, even though the letters grew shorter and blunter as his duties increased. Up until now, however, he, like every one else, had tried to shield Eleanor from anything ugly and sordid. He had tried to make light of the situation and reassure her as to results; but he was determined to do it no longer. It wasn't right, he told himself angrily, for anybody to go through life blinded to all the misery and suffering and poverty in the world. He was going to write her to-night and tell her the whole story and spare her nothing.
But he did not write. When he reached home Cass had had a turn for the worse, and there were ice-baths to prepare and other duties to perform that left him no time for himself.
The next day Edwin and Myrna were sent out to the Randolph Bartletts', and Rose and Quin cleared the decks for the hard fight ahead. Fan Loomis came in to help nurse in the day-time, and Quin was on duty through the long, suffocating August nights.
At the end of the week Cass's condition was so serious that the Bartletts insisted on keeping the children at the farm. Myrna had proved a cheery, helpful little companion, and Edwin, while more difficult to handle, was picking up flesh and color, and was learning to run the car.
Cass's fever dragged on, going down one day only to rise higher the next. Seven weeks, eight weeks, nine weeks passed, and still no improvement.
Quin, trying to keep up his work at the factory on two or three hours' sleep out of the twenty-four, grew thin and haggard, and coughed more than at any time since he had left the hospital. During the long night vigils he made sporadic efforts to keep up his university work, but he made little headway.
"Go on to bed, Quin," Rose whispered one night, when she found him asleep with his head against the bed-post. "You'll be giving out next, and God knows what I'll do then."
"Not me!" he declared, suppressing a yawn. "You're the one that's done in. Why don't you stay down?"
"I can't," she murmured, kneeling anxiously beside the unconscious patient. "He looks worse to me to-night. Do you believe we can pull him through?"
She had on a faded pink kimono over her thin night-gown, and her heavy hair was plaited down her back. There were no chestnut puffs over her ears or pink spots on her cheeks, and her lips looked strange without their penciled cupid's bow. But to Quin there was something in her drawn white face and anxious, tender eyes that was more appealing. In their long siege together he had found a staunch dependence and a power of sacrifice in the girl that touched him deeply.
"I don't know, Rose," he admitted, reaching over and smoothing her hair; "but we'll do our darnedest."
At the touch of his hand she reached up and impulsively drew it down to her cheek, holding it there with her trembling lips against its hard palm.
The night was intensely hot and still. That afternoon they had moved Cass into Rose's room in the hope of getting more air from the western exposure; but only the hot smell of the asphalt and the stifling odor of car smoke came through the curtainless window. The gas-jet, turned very low, threw distorted shadows on the bureau with its medley of toilet articles and medicine bottles. Through the open door of the closet could be seen Rose's personal belongings; under the table were a pair of high-heeled slippers; and two white stockings made white streaks across the window-sill.
Quin sat by Cass's bedside, with his hand clasped to Rose's cheek, and fought a battle that had been raging within him for days. Without being in the least in love with Rose, he wanted desperately to take her in his arms and comfort her. They were both so tired, so miserable, so desperately afraid of that shadowy presence that hovered over Cass. They were practically alone in the house, accountable to no one, and drawn together by an overwhelming anxiety. In Rose's state of emotional tension she was responsive to his every look and gesture. He had but to hold out his arms and she would sink into them.
Again and again his eyes traveled from her bright tumbled head to Cass's flushed face, with its absurd round nose and eyes that could no longer keep watch over a pleasure-loving sister. What would happen if Cass should die? Who would take care of her and the children, helpless and penniless, with only Papa Claude and his visions to stand between them and the world? A great wave of sympathy rushed over him for the girl kneeling there with her face buried in the bed-clothes. She had asked so little of life—just a few good times to offset the drudgery, just an outlet for the ocean of love that was dammed up in her small body. Love was the only thing she cared about; it was the only thing that mattered in life. Cass never understood her, but Quin understood her. He was like that himself. The blood was pounding through his veins too, a terrible urgence was impelling him toward her. Why shouldn't they throw discretion to the winds and answer the call?
Then his mind did a curious thing. It brought up out of the sub-conscious a question that Eleanor Bartlett had once asked him: "Do you think a person has a right to go ahead and do what he wants, regardless of consequences?" He saw her face, moonlit and earnest, turned up to his, and he heard himself answering her: "That depends on whether he wants the right thing."
Rose stirred, and he withdrew his hand and stood up.
"See here, young lady," he said with authority; "I'll give you just two minutes to clear out of here! No, I don't want you to leave your door open; I'll call you if there's any change."
"But, Quin, I don't want to be alone—I want to be with you." Her eyes were full of frank appeal, and her lips trembling.
"You are too sleepy to know what you want," he said. "Up with you—not another word. You'll feel better to-morrow. Good-night." And with a little push he put her out of the room and closed the door.
Quin stood under the big car-shed at the Union Depot, and for the sixth time in ten minutes consulted the watch that was the pride of his life. He had been waiting for half an hour, not because the train was late, but because he proposed to be on the spot if by any happy chance it should arrive ahead of schedule time. The week before he had received a picture post-card on whose narrow margin were scrawled the meager lines:
So glad Cass is up again. Rose says you've been a brick. Home on Sept. 2. Hope to see you soon. E. M. B.
It was the only communication he had had from Eleanor since they sat on the stile in the starlight at Valley Mead three months before. To be sure, in her infrequent letters to Rose she had always added, "Give my love to Quinby Graham," and once she said: "Tell him I've been meaning to write to him all summer." Notwithstanding the fact that Quin had waited in vain for that letter for twelve consecutive weeks, that he had passed through every phase of indignation, jealousy, and consuming fear that can assail a young and undisciplined lover, he nevertheless watched for the incoming train with a rapture undimmed by disturbing reflections. The mere fact that every moment the distance was lessening between him and Eleanor, that within the hour he should see her, hear her, feel the clasp of her hand, was sufficient to send his spirits soaring into sunny spaces of confidence far above the clouds of doubt.