Those women in the house who did not go to business every day generally came down to the breakfast table very much as they rose from bed. Limp faded wrappers and "Juliet" slippers were the only additions made to sleeping wear. The one or two men of the house, with Susan and Jane Beattie and Lydia Lord, had breakfasted and gone long before these ladies drifted downstairs. Sometimes Mrs. Parker and Loretta made an early trip to Church, but even then they wore only long cloaks over very informal attire, and joined the others, in wrappers, upon their return.
Loitering over coffee and toast, in the sunny dining-room, the morning wasted away. The newspapers were idly discussed, various scraps of the house gossip went the rounds. Many a time, before her entrance into the business world, Susan had known this pleasant idleness to continue until ten o'clock, until eleven o'clock, while the room, between the stove inside and the winter sunshine outside, grew warmer and warmer, and the bedrooms upstairs waited in every stage of appalling disorder and confusion.
Nowadays Susan ran downstairs just before eight o'clock, to gulp down her breakfast, with one eye on the clock. The clatter of a cable car passing the corner meant that Susan had just time to pin on her hat, seize her gloves and her lunch, and catch the next cable-car. She flashed through the dreary little entrance yard, past other yards, past the bakery, and took her seat on the dummy breathless with her hurry, exhilarated by the morning freshness of the air, and filled with happy expectation for the new day.
On the Monday morning that Mr. Peter Coleman made his appearance as a member of the Front Office staff, Susan Brown was the first girl to reach the office. This was usually the case, but to-day Susan, realizing that the newcomer would probably be late, wished that she had the shred of an excuse to be late herself, to have an entrance, as it were. Her plain suit had been well brushed, and the coat was embellished by a fresh, dainty collar and wide cuffs of white linen. Susan had risen early to wash and press these, and they were very becoming to her fresh, unaffected beauty. But they must, of course, be hung in the closet, and Susan, taking her place at her desk, looked quite as usual, except for the spray of heliotrope pinned against her lavender shirtwaist.
The other girls were earlier than was customary, there was much laughing and chatting as desks were dusted, and inkwells filled for the day. Susan, watching soberly from her corner, saw that Miss Cottle was wearing her best hat, that Miss Murray had on the silk gown she usually saved for Saturdays, that Thorny's hair was unusually crimped and puffed, and that the Kirks were wearing coquettish black silk aprons, with pink and blue bows. Susan's face began to burn. Her hand unobtrusively stole to her heliotrope, which fell, a moment later, a crushed little fragrant lump, into her waste-basket. Presently she went into the coat closet.
"Remind me to take these to the French Laundry at noon," said Susan, pausing before Thorny's desk, on her way back to her own, with a tight roll of linen in her hand. "I left 'em on my coat from yesterday. They're filthy."
"Sure, but why don't you do 'em yourself, Susan, and save your two bits?"
"Well, maybe I will. I usually do." Susan yawned.
"Dying for sleep. I went with my cousin to St. Mary's last night, to hear that Mission priest. He's a wonder."
"Not for me! I've not been inside a church for years. I had my friend last night. Say, Susan, has he come?"
"Has who come?"
"Oh, you go to, Susan! Young Coleman."
"Oh, sure!" Susan's eyes brightened intelligently. "That's so, he was coming down to-day, wasn't he?"
"Girls," said Miss Thornton, attracting the attention of the entire room, "what do you know about Susan Brown's trying to get away with it that she's forgotten about Peter Coleman!"
"Oh, Lord, what a bluff!" somebody said, for the crowd.
"I don't see why it's a bluff," said Susan hardily, back at her own desk, and turning her light on, full above her bright, innocent face. "I intended to wear my grandfather's gray uniform and my aunt's widow's veil to make an impression on him, and you see I didn't!"
"Oh, Susan, you're awful!" Miss Thornton said, through the general shocked laughter. "You oughtn't say things like that," Miss Garvey remonstrated. "It's awful bad luck. Mamma had a married cousin in Detroit and she put on a widow's veil for fun—"
At ten o'clock a flutter went through the office. Young Mr. Coleman was suddenly to be seen, standing beside Mr. Brauer at his high desk. He was exceptionally big and broad, handsome and fresh looking, with a look of careful grooming and dressing that set off his fine head and his fine hands; he wore a very smart light suit, and carried well the affectation of lavender tie and handkerchief and hose, and an opal scarf-pin.
He seemed to be laughing a good deal over his new work, but finally sat down to a pile of bills, and did not interrupt Mr. Brauer after that oftener than ten times a minute. Susan met his eye, as she went along the deck, but he did not remember her, or was too confused to recognize her among the other girls, and they did not bow. She was very circumspect and very dignified for a week or two, always busy when Peter Coleman came into Front Office, and unusually neat in appearance. Miss Murray sat next to him on the car one morning, and they chatted for fifteen minutes; Miss Thornton began to quote him now and then; Miss Kirk, as credit clerk, spent at least a morning a week in Mr. Brauer's office, three feet away from Mr. Coleman, and her sister tripped in there now and then on real or imagined errands.
But Susan bided her time. And one afternoon, late in October, returning early to the office, she found Mr. Coleman loitering disconsolately about the deck.
"Excuse me, Miss Brown," said he, clearing his throat. He had, of course, noticed this busy, absorbed young woman.
Susan stopped, attentive, unsmiling.
"Brauer," complained the young man, "has gone off and locked my hat in his office. I can't go to lunch."
"Why didn't you walk through Front Office?" said Susan, leading the way so readily and so sedately, that the gentleman was instantly put in the position of having addressed her on very slight provocation.
"This inner door is always unlocked," she explained, with maternal gentleness.
Peter Coleman colored.
"I see—I am a bally ass!" he said, laughing.
"You ought to know," Susan conceded politely. And suddenly her dimples were in view, her blue eyes danced as they met his, and she laughed too.
This was a rare opportunity, the office was empty, Susan knew she looked well, for she had just brushed her hair and powdered her nose. She cast about desperately in her mind for something— anything!—to keep the conversation going. She had often thought of the words in which she would remind him of their former meeting.
"Don't think I'm quite as informal as this, Mr. Coleman, you and I have been properly introduced, you know! I'm not entirely flattered by having you forget me so completely, Mr. Coleman!"
Before she could choose either form, he said it himself.
"Say, look here, look here—didn't my uncle introduce us once, on a car, or something? Doesn't he know your mother?"
"My mother's dead," said Susan primly. But so irresistible was the well of gaiety bubbling up in her heart that she made the statement mirthful.
"Oh, gosh, I do beg your pardon—" the man stammered. They both, although Susan was already ashamed of herself, laughed violently again.
"Your uncle knows my aunt," she said presently, coldly and unsmilingly.
"That's it," he said, relieved. "Quite a French sentence, 'does the uncle know the aunt'?" he grinned.
"Or 'Has the governess of the gardener some meat and a pen'?" gurgled Susan. And again, and more merrily, they laughed together.
"Lord, didn't you hate French?" he asked confidentially.
"Oh, HATE it!" Susan had never had a French lesson.
There was a short pause—a longer pause. Suddenly both spoke.
"I beg your pardon—?"
"No, you. You were first."
"Oh, no, you. What were you going to say?"
"I wasn't going to say anything. I was just going to say—I was going to ask how that pretty, motherly aunt of yours is,—Mrs. Baxter?"
"Aunt Clara. Isn't she a peach? She's fine." He wanted to keep talking, too, it was obvious. "She brought me up, you know." He laughed boyishly. "Not that I'd want you to hold that against her, or anything like that!"
"Oh, she'll live that down!" said Susan.
That was all. But when Peter Colernan went on his way a moment later he was still smiling, and Susan walked to her desk on air.
The office seemed a pleasant place to be that afternoon. Susan began her work with energy and interest, the light falling on her bright hair, her fingers flying. She hummed as she worked, and one or two other girls hummed with her.
There was rather a musical atmosphere in Front Office; the girls without exception kept in touch with the popular music of the day, and liked to claim a certain knowledge of the old classics as well. Certain girls always hummed certain airs, and no other girl ever usurped them. Thus Thorny vocalized the "Spring Song," when she felt particularly cheerful, and to Miss Violet Kirk were ceded all rights to Carmen's own solos in "Carmen." Susan's privilege included "The Rosary" and the little Hawaiian fare-well, "Aloha aoi." After the latter Thorny never failed to say dreamily, "I love that song!" and Susan to mutter surprisedly, "I didn't know I was humming it!"
All the girls hummed the Toreador's song, and the immediate favorites of the hour, "Just Because She Made Those Goo-Goo Eyes," and "I Don't Know Why I Love You but I Do," and "Hilee-Hilo" and "The Mosquito Parade." Hot discussions as to the merits of various compositions arose, and the technique of various singers.
"Yes, Collamarini's dramatic, and she has a good natural voice," Miss Thornton would admit, "but she can't get AT it."
Or, "That's all very well," Miss Cottle would assert boldly, "but Salassa sings better than either Plancon or de Reszke. I'm not saying this myself, but a party that KNOWS told me so."
"Probably the person who told you so had never heard them," Miss Thornton would say, bringing the angry color to Miss Cottle's face, and the angry answer:
"Well, if I could tell you who it IS, you'd feel pretty small!"
Susan had small respect for the other girls' opinions, and almost as little for her own. She knew how ignorant she was. But she took to herself what credit accrued to general quoting, quoting from newspapers, from her aunt's boarders, from chance conversations overheard on the cars.
"Oh, Puccini will never do anything to TOUCH Bizet!" Susan asserted firmly. Or, "Well, we'd be fighting Spain still if it wasn't for McKinley!" Or, "My grandmother had three hundred slaves, and slavery worked perfectly well, then!" If challenged, she got very angry. "You simply are proving that you don't know anything about it!" was Susan's last, and adequate, answer to questioners.
But as a rule she was not challenged. Some quality in Susan set her apart from the other girls, and they saw it as she did. It was not that she was richer, or prettier, or better born, or better educated, than any or all of them. But there was some sparkling, bubbling quality about her that was all her own. She read, and assimilated rather than remembered what she read, adopted this little affectation in speech, this little nicety of manner. She glowed with varied and absurd ambitions, and took the office into her confidence about them. Wavering and incomplete as her aunt's influence had been, one fact had early been impressed upon her; she was primarily and absolutely a "lady." Susan's forebears had really been rather ordinary folk, improvident and carefree, enjoying prosperity when they had it with the uneducated, unpractical serenity of the Old South, shiftless and lazy and unhappy in less prosperous times.
But she thought of them as most distinguished and accomplished gentlefolk, beautiful women environed by spacious estates, by exquisite old linen and silver and jewels, and dashing cavaliers rising in gay gallantry alike to the conquest of feminine hearts, or to their country's defense. She bore herself proudly, as became their descendants. She brought the gaze of her honest blue eyes frankly to all the other eyes in the world, a lady was unembarrassed in the presence of her equals, a lady was always gracious to her inferiors.
Her own father had been less elevated in rank than his wife, yet Susan could think of him with genuine satisfaction. He was only a vague memory to her now, this bold heart who had challenged a whole family's opposition, a quarter of a century before, and carried off Miss Sue Rose Ralston, whose age was not quite half his forty years, under her father's very eyes.
When Susan was born, four years later, the young wife was still regarded by her family as an outcast. But even the baby Susan, growing happily old enough to toddle about in the Santa Barbara rose-garden that sheltered the still infatuated pair, knew that Mother was supremely indifferent to the feeling toward her in any heart but one. Martin Brown was an Irishman, and a writer of random essays. His position on a Los Angeles daily newspaper kept the little family in touch with just the people they cared to see, and, when the husband and father was found dead at his desk one day, with his wife's picture over the heart that had suddenly and simply ceased to serve him, there were friends all about to urge the beautiful widow to take up at least a part of his work, in the old environment.
But Sue Rose was not quite thirty, and still girlish, and shrinking, and helpless. Beside, there was Lou's house to go to, and five thousand dollars life insurance, and three thousand more from the sale of the little home, to meet the immediate need. So Susan and her mother came up to Mrs. Lancaster, and had a very fine large room together, and became merged in the older family. And the eight thousand dollars lasted a long time, it was still paying little bills, and buying birthday presents, and treating Alfie to a "safety bicycle," and Mary Lou to dancing lessons when, on a wet afternoon in her thirteenth summer, little Susan Brown came in from school to find that Mother was very ill.
"Just an ugly, sharp pain, ducky, don't look so scared!" said Mother, smiling gallantly, but writhing under the bed covers. "Dr. Forsythe has been here, and it's nothing at all. Ah-h-h!" said Mother, whimsically, "the poor little babies! They go through this, and we laugh at them, and call it colic! Never-laugh-at-another- baby, Sue! I shan't. You'd better call Auntie, dear. This—this won't do."
A day or two later there was talk of an operation. Susan was told very little of it. Long afterward she remembered with certain resentment the cavalier manner in which her claims were dismissed. Her mother went to the hospital, and two days later, when she was well over the wretchedness of the ether, Susan went with Mary Lou to see her, and kissed the pale, brave little face, sunk in the great white pillows.
"Home in no time, Sue!" her mother said bravely.
But a few days later something happened, Susan was waked from sleep, was rushed to the hospital again, was pressed by some unknown hand into a kneeling position beside a livid and heavily breathing creature whom she hardly recognized as her mother. It was all confusing and terrifying; it was over very soon. Susan came blinking out of the dimly lighted room with Mary Lou, who was sobbing, "Oh, Aunt Sue Rose! Aunt Sue Rose!" Susan did not cry, but her eyes hurt her, and the back of her head ached sharply.
She cried later, in the nights, after her cousins had seemed to be unsympathetic, feeling that she needed her mother to take her part. But on the whole the cousins were devoted and kind to Susan, and the child was as happy as she could have been anywhere. But her restless ambition forced her into many a discontented hour, as she grew, and when an office position was offered her Susan was wild with eagerness to try her own feet.
"I can't bear it!" mourned her aunt, "why can't you stay here happily with us, lovey? My own girls are happy. I don't know what has gotten into you girls lately, wanting to rush out like great, coarse men! Why can't you stay at home, doing all the little dainty, pretty things that only a woman can do, to make a home lovely?"
"Don't you suppose I'd much RATHER not work?" Susan demanded impatiently. "I can't have you supporting me, Auntie. That's it."
"Well, if that's it, that's nonsense, dear. As long as Auntie lives all she asks is to keep a comfortable home for her girls."
"Why, Sue, you'll be implying that we all ought to have taken horrid office positions," Virginia said, in smiling warning.
Susan remained mutinously silent.
"Have you any fault to find with Auntie's provision for you, dear?" asked Mrs. Lancaster, patiently.
"Oh, NO, auntie! That's not it AT ALL!" Susan protested, "it's just simply that I—I can't—I need money, sometimes—" She stopped, miserably.
"Come, now!" Mrs. Lancaster, all sweet tolerance of the vagary, folded her hands to await enlightenment. "Come, now! Tell auntie what you need money for. What is this special great need?"
"No one special thing, auntie—" Susan was anything but sure of her ground. As a matter of fact she did not want to work at all, she merely felt a frantic impulse to do something else than settle down for life as Mary Lou and Virginia and Georgie had done. "But clothes cost money," she pursued vaguely.
"What sort of a gown did you want, dear?" Mrs. Lancaster reached for her shabby purse. Susan refused the gift of a gown with many kisses, and no more was said for a while of her working.
This was in her seventeenth summer. For more than a year after that she drifted idly, reading a great many romantic novels, and wishing herself a young actress, a lone orphan, the adored daughter of an invalid father or of a rich and adoring mother, the capable, worshiped oldest sister in a jolly big family, a lovely cripple in a bright hospital ward, anything, in short, except what she was.
Then came the offer of a position in Front Office, and Susan took it on her own responsibility, and resigned herself to her aunt's anger. This was a most unhappy time for all concerned.
But it was all over now. Auntie rebeled no more, she accepted the fact as she had accepted other unwelcome facts in her life. And soon Susan's little salary came to be depended upon by the family; it was not much, but it did pay a gas or a laundry bill, it could be "borrowed" for the slippers Georgie must have in a hurry, or the ticket that should carry Alfie to Sacramento or Stockton for his new job. Virginia wondered if Sue would lend her two dollars for the subscription to the "Weekly Era," or asked, during the walk to church, if Susan had "plate-money" for two? Mary Lou used Susan's purse as her own. "I owe you a dollar, Sue," she would observe carelessly, "I took it yesterday for the cleaner."
Or, on their evening walks, Mary Lou would glance in the candy-store window. "My! Don't those caramels look delicious! This is my treat, now, remind me to give it back to you." "Oh, Ma told me to get eggs," she would remember suddenly, a moment later. "I'll have to ask you to pay for them, dearie, until we get home."
Susan never was repaid these little loans. She could not ask it. She knew very well that none of the girls ever had a cent given her except for some definite and unavoidable purchase. Her aunt never spent money. They lived in a continual and agonizing shortage of coin.
Lately, however, Susan had determined that if her salary were raised she would save the extra money, and not mention the fact of the raise at home. She wanted a gray feather boa, such as Peter Coleman's girl friends wore. It would cost twenty dollars, but what beauty and distinction it lent to the simplest costume!
Since young Mr. Coleman's appearance in Front Office certain young girls very prominent in San Francisco society found various reasons for coming down, in mid-afternoon, to the establishment of Hunter, Baxter & Hunter, for a chat with old Mr. Baxter, who appeared to be a great favorite with all girls. Susan, looking down through the glass walls of Front Office, would suddenly notice the invasion of flowered hats and smart frocks, and of black and gray and white feather-boas, such as her heart desired. She did not consciously envy these girls, but she felt that, with their advantages, she would have been as attractive as any, and a boa seemed the first step in the desired direction. She always knew it when Mr. Baxter sent for Peter, and generally managed to see him as he stood laughing and talking with his friends, and when he saw them to their carriages. She would watch him wistfully when he came upstairs, and be glad when he returned briskly to his work, as if the interruption had meant very little to him after all.
One day, when a trio of exquisitely pretty girls came to carry him off bodily, at an early five o'clock, Miss Thornton came up the office to Susan's desk. Susan, who was quite openly watching the floor below, turned with a smile, and sat down in her place.
"S'listen, Susan," said Miss Thornton, leaning on the desk, "are you going to the big game?"
"I don't know," said Susan, suddenly wild to go.
"Well, I want to go," pursued Miss Thornton, "but Wally's in Los Angeles." Wally was Miss Thornton's "friend."
"What would it cost us, Thorny?"
"Gosh," said Susan thoughtfully. The big intercollegiate game was not to be seen for nothing. Still, it was undoubtedly THE event of the sporting year.
"Hat come?" asked Thorny.
"Ye-es." Susan was thinking. "Yes, and she's made it look lovely," she admitted. She drew a sketch of a little face on her scratch pad. "Who's that?" asked Miss Thornton, interestedly. "Oh, no one!" Susan said, and scratched it out.
"Oh, come on, Susan, I'm dying to go!" said the tempter.
"We need a man for that, Thorny. There's an awful crowd."
"Not if we go early enough. They say it's going to be the closest YET. Come on!"
"Thorny, honest, I oughtn't to spend the money," Susan persisted.
"S'listen, Susan." Miss Thornton spoke very low, after a cautious glance about her. "Swear you won't breathe this!"
"Oh, honestly I won't!"
"Wait a minute. Is Elsie Kirk there?" asked Miss Thornton. Susan glanced down the office.
"Nope. She's upstairs, and Violet's in Brauer's office. What is it?"
"Well, say, listen. Last night—" began Miss Thornton, impressively, "Last night I and Min and Floss and Harold Clarke went into the Techau for supper, after the Orpheum show. Well, after we got seated—we had a table way at the back—I suddenly noticed Violet Kirk, sitting in one of those private alcoves, you know—?"
"For Heaven's sake!" said Susan, in proper horror.
"Yes. And champagne, if you please, all as bold as life! And all dressed up, Susan, I wish you could have seen her! Well. I couldn't see who she was with—"
"A party—no! One man."
"Oh, Thorny—" Susan began to be doubtful, slowly shook her head.
"But I tell you I SAW her, Sue! And listen, that's not all. We sat there and sat there, an hour I guess, and she was there all that time. And when she got up to go, Sue, I saw the man. And who do you suppose it was?"
"Do I know him?" A sick premonition seized Susan, she felt a stir of agonizing jealousy at her heart. "Peter Coleman?" she guessed, with burning cheeks. "Peter Coleman! That kid! No, it was Mr. Phil!"
"Mr. Phil HUNTER!" But, through all her horror, Susan felt the warm blood creep back to her heart.
"But—but Thorny, he's married!"
Miss Thornton shrugged her shoulders, and pursed her lips, as one well accustomed, if not reconciled, to the wickedness of the world.
"So now we know how she can afford a velvet tailor-made and ostrich plumes," said she. Susan shrank in natural cleanness of heart, from the ugliness of it.
"Ah, don't say such things, Thorny!" she said. Her brows contracted. "His wife enjoying Europe!" she mused. "Can you beat it?"
"I think it's the limit," said Miss Thornton virtuously, "and I think old J. B. would raise the roof. But anyway, it shows why she got the crediting."
"Oh, Thorny, I can't BELIEVE it! Perhaps she doesn't realize how it looks!"
"Violet Hunter!" Thorny said, with fine scorn. "Now you mark my words, Susan, it won't last—things like this don't—"
"But—but don't they sometimes last, for years?" Susan asked, a little timidly, yet wishing to show some worldly wisdom, too.
"Not like her, there's nothing TO her," said the sapient Miss Thornton. "No. You'll be doing that work in a few months, and getting forty. So come along to the big game, Sue."
"Well—" Susan half-promised. But the big game was temporarily lost sight of in this horrid news of Violet Kirk. Susan watched Miss Kirk during the remainder of the afternoon, and burst out with the whole story, to Mary Lou, when they went out to match a piece of tape that night.
"Dear me, Ma would hate to have you coming in contact with things like that, Sue!" worried Mary Lou. "I wonder if Ma would miss us if we took the car out to the end of the line? It's such a glorious night! Let's,—if you have carfare. No, Sue, it's easy enough to rob a girl of her good name. There were some people who came to the house once, a man and his wife. Well, I suppose I was ordinarily polite to the man, as I am to all men, and once or twice he brought me candy—but it never entered my head—"
It was deliciously bracing to go rushing on, on the car, past the Children's Hospital, past miles of sandhills, out to the very shore of the ocean, where the air was salt, and filled with the dull roaring of surf. Mary Lou, sharing with her mother a distaste for peanuts, crowds, tin-type men, and noisy pleasure-seekers, ignored Susan's hints that they walk down to the beach, and they went back on the same car.
When they entered the close, odorous dining-room, an hour later, Georgie, lazily engaged with Fan-tan, had a piece of news.
"Susan, you sly thing! He's adorable!" said Georgie.
"Who?" said Susan, taking a card from her cousin's hand. Dazedly she read it. "Mr. Peter Coleman."
"Did he call?" she asked, her heart giving a great bound.
"Did he call? With a perfect heart-breaker of a puppy—!"
"London Baby," Susan said, eagerly.
"He was airing the puppy, he SAID" Georgie added archly.
"One excuse as well as another!" Mary Lou laughed delightedly as she kissed Susan's glowing cheek.
"He wouldn't come in," continued Georgie, "which was really just as well, for Loretta and her prize idiot were in the parlor, and I couldn't have asked him down here. Well, he's a darling. You have my blessing, Sue."
"It's manners to wait until you're axed," Susan said demurely. But her heart sang. She had to listen to a little dissertation upon the joys of courtship, when she and Mary Lou were undressing, a little later, tactfully concealing her sense of the contrast between their two affairs.
"It's a happy, happy time," said Mary Lou, sighing, as she spread the two halves of a shabby corset upon the bed, and proceeded to insert a fresh lacing between them. "It takes me back to the first time Ferd called upon me, but I was younger than you are, of course, Sue. And Ferd—!" she laughed proudly, "Do you think you could have sent Ferd away with an excuse? No, sir, he would have come in and waited until you got home, poor Ferd! Not but what I think Peter—" He was already Peter!—"did quite the correct thing! And I think I'm going to like him, Sue, if for no other reason than that he had the sense to be attracted to a plainly-dressed, hard-working little mouse like my Sue—"
"His grandfather ran a livery stable!" said Susan, smarting under the role of the beggar maiden.
"Ah, well, there isn't a girl in society to-day who wouldn't give her eyes to get him!" said Mary Lou wisely. And Susan secretly agreed.
She was kept out of bed by the corset-lacing, and so took a bath to- night and brushed and braided her hair. Feeling refreshed in body and spirit by these achievements, she finally climbed into bed, and drifted off upon a sea of golden dreams. Georgie's teasing and Mary Lou's inferences might be all nonsense, still, he HAD come to see her, she had that tangible fact upon which to build a new and glorious castle in Spain.
Thanksgiving broke dull and overcast, there was a spatter of rain on the sidewalk, as Susan loitered over her late holiday breakfast, and Georgie, who was to go driving that afternoon with an elderly admirer, scolded violently over her coffee and rolls. No boarders happened to be present. Mrs. Lancaster and Virginia were to go to a funeral, and dwelt with a sort of melancholy pleasure upon the sad paradox of such an event on such a day. Mary Lou felt a little guilty about not attending the funeral, but she was responsible for the roasting of three great turkeys to-day, and could not be spared. Mrs. Lancaster had stuffed the fowls the night before.
"I'll roast the big one from two o'clock on," said Mary Lou, "and give the little ones turn and turn about. The oven won't hold more than two."
"I'll be home in time to make the pudding sauce," her mother said, "but open it early, dear, so that it won't taste tinny. Poor Hardings! A sad, sad Thanksgiving for them!" And Mrs. Lancaster sighed. Her hair was arranged in crisp damp scallops under her best bonnet and veil, and she wore the heavy black skirt of her best suit. But her costume was temporarily completed by a light kimono.
"We'll hope it's a happy, happy Thanksgiving for dear Mr. Harding, Ma," Virginia said gently.
"I know, dear," her mother said, "but I'm not like you, dear. I'm afraid I'm a very poor, weak, human sort!"
"Rotten day for the game!" grumbled Susan.
"Oh, it makes me so darn mad!" Georgie added, "here I've been working that precious idiot for a month up to the point where he would take his old horse out, and now look at it!"
Everyone was used to Georgie's half-serious rages, and Mrs. Lancaster only smiled at her absently.
"But you won't attempt to go to the game on a day like this!" she said to Susan.
"Not if it pours," Susan agreed disconsolately.
"You haven't wasted your good money on a ticket yet, I hope, dear?"
"No-o," Susan said, wishing that she had her two and a half dollars back. "That's just the way of it!" she said bitterly to Billy, a little later. "Other girls can get up parties for the game, and give dinners after it, and do everything decently! I can't even arrange to go with Thorny, but what it has to rain!"
"Oh, cheer up," the boy said, squinting down the barrel of the rifle he was lovingly cleaning. "It's going to be a perfect day! I'm going to the game myself. If it rains, you and I'll go to the Orpheum mat., what do you say?"
"Well—" said Susan, departing comforted. And true to his prediction the sky really did clear at eleven o'clock, and at one o'clock, Susan, the happiest girl in the world, walked out into the sunny street, in her best hat and her best gown, her prettiest embroidered linen collar, her heavy gold chain, and immaculate new gloves.
How could she possibly have hesitated about it, she wondered, when she came near the ball-grounds, and saw the gathering crowds; tall young men, with a red carnation or a shaggy great yellow chrysanthemum in their buttonholes; girls in furs; dancingly impatient small boys, and agitated and breathless chaperones. And here was Thorny, very pretty in her best gown, with a little unusual and unnatural color on her cheeks, and Billy Oliver, who would watch the game from the "dollar section," providentially on hand to help them through the crowd, and buy Susan a chrysanthemum as a foil to Thorny's red ribbons. The damp cool air was sweet with violets; a delightful stir and excitement thrilled the moving crowd. Here was the gate. Tickets? And what a satisfaction to produce them, and enter unchallenged into the rising roadway, leaving behind a line of jealously watching and waiting people. With Billy's help the seats were easily found, "the best seats on the field," said Susan, in immense satisfaction, as she settled into hers. She and Thorny were free to watch the little tragedies going on all about them, people in the wrong seats, and people with one ticket too few.
Girls and young men—girls and young men—girls and young men— streamed in the big gateways, and filed about the field. Susan envied no one to-day, her heart was dancing. There was a racy autumnal tang in the air, laughter and shouting. The "rooters" were already in place, their leader occasionally leaped into the air like a maniac, and conducted a "yell" with a vigor that needed every muscle of his body.
And suddenly the bleachers went mad and the air fluttered with banners, as the big teams rushed onto the field. The players, all giants they looked, in their clumsy, padded suits, began a little practice play desperately and violently. Susan could hear the quarter's voice clear and sharp, "Nineteen-four-eighty-eight!"
"Hello, Miss Brown!" said a voice at her knee. She took her eyes from the field. Peter Coleman, one of a noisy party, was taking the seat directly in front of her.
"Well!" she said, gaily, "be you a-follering of me, or be I a- follering of you?"
"I don't know!—How do you do, Miss Thornton!" Peter said, with his delighted laugh. He drew to Susan the attention of a stout lady in purple velvet, beside him. "Mrs. Fox—Miss Brown," said he, "and Miss Thornton—Mrs. Fox."
"Mrs. Fox," said Susan, pleasantly brief.
"Miss Brown," said Mrs. Fox, with a wintry smile.
"Pleased to meet any friend of Mr. Coleman's, I'm sure," Thorny said, engagingly.
"Miss Thornton," Mrs. Fox responded, with as little tone as is possible to the human voice.
After that the newcomers, twelve or fourteen in all, settled into their seats, and a moment later everyone's attention was riveted on the field. The men were lining up, big backs bent double, big arms hanging loose, like the arms of gorillas. Breathless attention held the big audience silent and tense.
"Don't you LOVE it?" breathed Susan, to Thorny.
"Crazy about it!" Peter Coleman answered her, without turning.
It was a wonderful game that followed. Susan never saw another that seemed to her to have the same peculiar charm. Between halves, Peter Coleman talked almost exclusively to her, and they laughed over the peanuts that disappeared so fast.
The sun slipped down and down the sky, and the air rose chilly and sweet from the damp earth. It began to grow dark. Susan began to feel a nervous apprehension that somehow, in leaving the field, she and Thorny would become awkwardly involved in Mrs. Fox's party, would seem to be trying to include themselves in this distinguished group.
"We've got to rush," she muttered, buttoning up her coat.
"Oh, what's your hurry?" asked Thorny, who would not have objected to the very thing Susan dreaded.
"It's so dark!" Susan said, pushing ahead. They were carried by the crowd through the big gates, out to the street. Lights were beginning to prick through the dusk, a long line of street cars was waiting, empty and brightly lighted. Suddenly Susan felt a touch on her shoulder.
"Lord, you're in a rush!" said Peter Coleman, pushing through the crowd to join them. He was somehow dragging Mrs. Fox with him, the lady seemed outraged and was breathless. Peter brought her triumphantly up to Susan.
"Now what is it that you want me to do, you ridiculous boy!" gasped Mrs. Fox,—"ask Miss Brown to come and have tea with us, is that it? I'm chaperoning a few of the girls down to the Palace for a cup of tea, Miss Brown,—perhaps you will waive all formality, and come too?"
Susan didn't like it, the "waive all formality" showed her exactly how Mrs. Fox regarded the matter. Her pride was instantly touched. But she longed desperately to go. A sudden thought of the politely interested Thorny decided her.
"Oh, thank you! Thank you, Mr. Coleman," she smiled, "but I can't, to-night. Miss Thornton and I are just—"
"Don't decline on MY account, Miss Brown," said Thorny, mincingly, "for I have an engagement this evening, and I have to go straight home—"
"No, don't decline on any account!" Peter said masterfully, "and don't tell wicked lies, or you'll get your mouth washed out with soap! Now, I'll put Miss Thornton on her car, and you talk to Hart here—Miss Brown, this is Mr. Hart—Gordon, Miss Brown—until I come back!"
He disappeared with Thorny, and Susan, half terrified, half delighted, talked to Mr. Hart at quite a desperate rate, as the whole party got on the dummy of a car. Just as they started, Peter Coleman joined them, and during the trip downtown Susan kept both young men laughing, and was her gayest, happiest self.
The Palace Hotel, grimy and dull in a light rainfall, was nevertheless the most enchanting place in the world to go for tea, as Susan knew by instinct, or hearsay, or tradition, and as all these other young people had proved a hundred times. A covered arcade from the street led through a row of small, bright shops into the very center of the hotel, where there was an enormous court called the "Palm-garden," walled by eight rising tiers of windows, and roofed, far above, with glass. At one side of this was the little waiting-room called the "Turkish Room," full of Oriental inlay and draperies, and embroideries of daggers and crescents.
To Susan the place was enchanting beyond words. The coming and going of strange people, the arriving carriages with their slipping horses, the luggage plastered with labels, the little shops,—so full of delightful, unnecessary things, candy and glace fruits, and orchids and exquisite Chinese embroideries, and postal cards, and theater tickets, and oranges, and paper-covered novels, and alligator pears! The very sight of these things aroused in her heart a longing that was as keen as pain. Oh, to push her way, somehow, into the world, to have a right to enjoy these things, to be a part of this brilliant, moving show, to play her part in this wonderful game!
Mrs. Fox led the girls of her party to the Turkish Room to-night, where, with much laughter and chatter, they busied themselves with small combs, mirrors powder boxes, hairpins and veils. One girl, a Miss Emily Saunders, even loosened her long, thin, silky hair, and let it fall about her shoulders, and another took off her collar while she rubbed and powdered her face.
Susan sat rather stiffly on a small, uncomfortable wooden chair, entirely ignored, and utterly miserable. She smiled, as she looked pleasantly from one face to another, but her heart was sick within her. No one spoke to her, or seemed to realize that she was in the room. A steady stream of talk—such gay, confidential talk!—went on.
"Let me get there, Connie, you old pig, I'm next. Listen, girls, did you hear Ward to-day? Wasn't that the richest ever, after last night! Ward makes me tired, anyway. Did Margaret tell you about Richard and Ward, last Sunday? Isn't that rich! I don't believe it, but to hear Margaret tell it, you'd think—Wait a minute, Louise, while I pin this up! Whom are you going with to-night? Are you going to dinner there? Why don't you let us call for you? That's all right, bring him along. Will you? All right. That's fine. No, and I don't care. If it comes I'll wear it, and if it doesn't come I'll wear that old white rag,—it's filthy, but I don't care. Telephone your aunt, Con, and then we can all go together. Love to, darling, but I've got a suitor. You have not! I have TOO! Who is it? Who is it, I like that! Isn't she awful, Margaret? Mother has an awful crush on you, Mary, she said—Wait a minute! I'm just going to powder my nose. Who said Joe Chickering belonged to you? What nerve! He's mine. Isn't Joe my property? Don't come in here, Alice, we're just talking about you—"
"Oh, if I could only slip out somehow!" thought Susan desperately. "Oh, if only I hadn't come!"
Their loosened wraps were displaying all sorts of pretty little costumes now. Susan knew that the simplest of blue linen shirtwaists was under her own coat. She had not courage to ask to borrow a comb, to borrow powder. She knew her hair was mussed, she knew her nose was shiny—
Her heart was beating so fast, with angry resentment of their serene rudeness, and shame that she had so readily accepted the casual invitation that gave them this chance to be rude, that she could hardly think. But it seemed to be best, at any cost, to leave the party now, before things grew any worse. She would make some brief excuse to Mrs. Fox,—headache or the memory of an engagement—
"Do you know where Mrs. Fox is?" she asked the girl nearest her. For Mrs. Fox had sauntered out into the corridor with some idea of summoning the men.
The girl did not answer, perhaps did not hear. Susan tried again.
"Do you know where Mrs. Fox went to?"
Now the girl looked at her for a brief instant, and rose, crossing the little room to the side of another girl.
"No, I really don't," she said lightly, civilly, as she went.
Susan's face burned. She got up, and went to the door. But she was too late. The young men were just gathering there in a noisy group. It appeared that there was sudden need of haste. The "rooters" were to gather in the court presently, for more cheering, and nobody wanted to miss the sight.
"Come, girls! Be quick!" called Mrs. Fox. "Come, Louise, dear! Connie," this to her own daughter, "you and Peter run ahead, and ask for my table. Peter, will you take Connie? Come, everybody!"
Somehow, they had all paired off, in a flash, without her. Susan needed no further spur. With more assurance than she had yet shown, she touched the last girl, as she passed, on the arm. It chanced to be Miss Emily Saunders. She and her escort both stopped, laughing with that nervous apprehension that seizes their class at the appearance of the unexpected.
"Miss Saunders," said Susan quickly, "will you tell Mrs. Fox that my headache is much worse. I'm afraid I'd better go straight home—"
"Oh, too bad!" Miss Saunders said, her round, pale, rather unwholesome face, expressing proper regret. "Perhaps tea will help it?" she added sweetly.
It was the first personal word Susan had won. She felt suddenly, horrifyingly—near to tears.
"Oh, thank you, I'm afraid not!" she smiled bravely. "Thank you so much. And tell her I'm sorry. Good-night."
"Good-night!" said Miss Saunders. And Susan went, with a sense of escape and relief, up the long passageway, and into the cool, friendly darkness of the streets. She had an unreasoning fear that they might follow her, somehow bring her back, and walked a swift block or two, rather than wait for the car where she might be found.
Half an hour later she rushed into the house, just as the Thanksgiving dinner was announced, half-mad with excitement, her cheeks ablaze, and her eyes unnaturally bright. The scene in the dining-room was not of the gayest; Mrs. Lancaster and Virginia were tired and depressed, Mary Lou nervously concerned for the dinner, Georgie and almost all of the few boarders who had no alternative to dining in a boarding-house to-day were cross and silent.
But the dinner was delicious, and Susan, arriving at the crucial moment, had a more definite effect on the party than a case of champagne would have had. She chattered recklessly and incessantly, and when Mrs. Lancaster's mild "Sue, dear!" challenged one remark, she capped it with another still less conventional.
Her spirits were infectious, the gaiety became general. Mrs. Parker laughed until the tears streamed down her fat cheeks, and Mary Lord, the bony, sallow-faced, crippled sister who was the light and joy of Lydia Lord's drudging life, and who had been brought downstairs to- day as a special event, at a notable cost to her sister's and William Oliver's muscles, nearly choked over her cranberry sauce. Susan insisted that everyone should wear the paper caps that came in the bonbons, and looked like a pretty witch herself, under a cone- shaped hat of pink and blue. When, as was usual on all such occasions, a limited supply of claret came on with the dessert, she brought the whole company from laughter very close to tears, as she proposed, with pretty dignify, a toast to her aunt, "who makes this house such a happy home for us all." The toast was drunk standing, and Mrs. Lancaster cried into her napkin, with pride and tender emotion.
After dinner the diminished group trailed, still laughing and talking, upstairs to the little drawing-room, where perhaps seven or eight of them settled about the coal fire. Mrs. Lancaster, looking her best in a low-necked black silk, if rather breathless after the hearty dinner, eaten in too-tight corsets, had her big chair, Georgia curled girlishly on a footstool at her feet. Miss Lydia Lord stealthily ate a soda mint tablet now and then; her sister, propped with a dozen pillows on the sofa, fairly glowed with the unusual pleasure and excitement. Little Mrs. Cortelyou rocked back and forth; always loquacious, she was especially talkative after to- night's glass of wine.
Virginia, who played certain simple melodies very prettily, went to the piano and gave them "Maryland" and "Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes," and was heartily applauded. Mary Lou was finally persuaded to sing Tosti's "Farewell to Summer," in a high, sweet, self-conscious soprano.
Susan had disappeared. Just after dinner she had waylaid William Oliver, with a tense, "Will you walk around the block with me, Billy? I want to talk to you," and William, giving her a startled glance, had quietly followed her through the dark lower hall, and into the deserted, moonlighted, wind-swept street. The wind had fallen: stars were shining.
"Billy," said Susan, taking his arm and walking him along very rapidly, "I'm going away—"
"Going away?" he said sympathetically. This statement always meant that something had gone very wrong with Susan.
"Absolutely!" Susan said passionately. "I want to go where nobody knows me, where I can make a fresh start. I'm going to Chicago."
"What the DEUCE are you raving about?" Mr. Oliver asked, stopping short in the street. "What have you been doing now?"
"Nothing!" Susan said, with suddenly brimming eyes. "But I hate this place, and I hate everyone in it, and I'm simply sick of being treated as if, just because I'm poor—"
"You sound like a bum second act, with somebody throwing a handful of torn paper down from the wings!" Billy observed. But his tone was kinder than his words, and Susan, laying a hand on his coat sleeve, told him the story of the afternoon; of Mrs. Fox, with her supercilious smile; of the girls, so bitterly insulting; of Peter, involving her in these embarrassments and then forgetting to stand by her.
"If one of those girls came to us a stranger," Susan declared, with a heaving breast, "do you suppose we'd treat her like that?"
"Well, that only proves we have better manners than they have!"
"Oh, Bill, what rot! If there's one thing society people have, it's manners!" Susan said impatiently. "Do you wonder people go crazy to get hold of money?" she added vigorously.
"Nope. You've GOT to have it. There are lots of other things in the world," he agreed, "but money's first and foremost. The only reason I want it," said Billy, "is because I want to show other rich people where they make their mistakes."
"Do you really think you'll be rich some day, Billy?"
Susan walked on thoughtfully.
"There's where a man has the advantage," she said. "He can really work toward the thing he wants."
"Well, girls ought to have the same chance," Billy said generously. "Now I was talking to Mrs. Carroll Sunday—"
"Oh, how are the Carrolls?" asked Susan, diverted for an instant.
"Fine. They were awfully disappointed you weren't along.—And she was talking about that very thing. And she said her three girls were going to work just as Phil and Jim do."
"But Billy, if a girl has a gift, yes. But you can't put a girl in a foundry or a grocery."
"Not in a foundry. But you could in a grocery. And she said she had talked to Anna and Jo since they were kids, just as she did to the boys, about their work."
"Wouldn't Auntie think she was crazy!" Susan smiled. After a while she said more mildly:
"I don't believe Peter Coleman is quite as bad as the others!"
"Because you have a crush on him," suggested Billy frankly. "I think he acted like a skunk."
"Very well. Think what you like!" Susan said icily. But presently, in a more softened tone, she added, "I do feel badly about Thorny! I oughtn't to have left her. It was all so quick! And she DID have a date, at least I know a crowd of people were coming to their house to dinner. And I was so utterly taken aback to be asked out with that crowd! The most exclusive people in the city,—that set."
"You give me an awful pain when you talk like that," said Billy, bluntly. "You give them a chance to sit on you, and they do, and then you want to run away to Chicago, because you feel so hurt. Why don't you stay in your own crowd?"
"Because I like nice people. And besides, the Fox crowd isn't ONE bit better than I am!" said the inconsistent Susan, hotly. "Who were their ancestors! Miners and servants and farmers! I'd like to go away," she resumed, feverishly, "and work up to be something GREAT, and come back here and have them tumbling over themselves to be nice to me—"
"What a pipe dream!" Billy observed. "Let 'em alone. And if Coleman ever offers you another invitation—"
"He won't!" interposed Susan.
"—Why, you sit on him so quick it'll make his head spin! Get busy at something, Susan. If you had a lot of work to do, and enough money to buy yourself pretty clothes, and to go off on nice little trips every Sunday,—up the mountain, or down to Santa Cruz, you'd forget this bunch!"
"Get busy at what?" asked Susan, half-hopeful, half in scorn.
"Yes, and Thorny getting forty-five after twelve years!"
"Well, but you've told me yourself how Thorny wastes time, and makes mistakes, and conies in late, and goes home early—-"
"As if that made any difference! Nobody takes the least notice!" Susan said hotly. But she was restored enough to laugh now, and a passing pop-corn cart made a sudden diversion. "Let's get some crisps, Bill! Let's get a lot, and take some home to the others!"
So the evening ended with Billy and Susan in the group about the fire, listening idly to the reminiscences that the holiday mood awakened in the older women. Mrs. Cortelyou had been a California pioneer, and liked to talk of the old prairie wagons, of Indian raids, of flood and fire and famine. Susan, stirred by tales of real trouble, forgot her own imaginary ones. Indians and wolves in the strange woods all about, a child at the breast, another at the knee, and the men gone for food,—four long days' trip! The women of those days, thought Susan, carried their share of the load. She had heard the story of the Hatch child before, the three-year-old, who, playing about the wagons, at the noontime rest on the plains, was suddenly missing! Of the desperate hunt, the half-mad mother's frantic searching, her agonies when the long-delayed start must be made, her screams when she was driven away with her tinier child in her arms, knowing that behind one of those thousands of mesquite or cactus bushes, the little yellow head must be pillowed on the sand, the little beloved mouth smiling in sleep.
"Mrs. Hatch used to sit for hours, strainin' her eyes back of us, toward St. Joe," Mrs. Cortelyou said, sighing. "But there was plenty of trouble ahead, for all of us, too! It's a life of sorrow."
"You never said a truer word than that," Mrs. Lancaster agreed mournfully. And the talk came about once more to the Harding funeral.
"Good-morning!" said Susan, bravely, when Miss Thornton came into the office the next morning. Miss Thornton glanced politely toward her.
"Oh, good-morning, Miss Brown!" said she, civilly, disappearing into the coat closet. Susan felt her cheeks burn. But she had been lying awake and thinking in the still watches of the night, and she was the wiser for it. Susan's appearance was a study in simple neatness this morning, a black gown, severe white collar and cuffs, severely braided hair. Her table was already piled with bills, and she was working busily. Presently she got up, and came down to Miss Thornton's desk.
"Mad at me, Thorny?" she asked penitently. She had to ask it twice.
"Why should I be?" asked Miss Thornton lightly then. "Excuse me—" she turned a page, and marked a price. "Excuse me—" This time Susan's hand was in the way.
"Ah, Thorny, don't be mad at me," said Susan, childishly.
"I hope I know when I am not wanted," said Miss Thornton stiffly, after a silence.
"I don't!" laughed Susan, and stopped. Miss Thornton looked quickly up, and the story came out. Thorny was instantly won. She observed with a little complacence that she had anticipated just some such event, and so had given Peter Coleman no chance to ask HER. "I could see he was dying to," said Thorny, "but I know that crowd! Don't you care, Susan, what's the difference?" said Thorny, patting her hand affectionately.
So that little trouble was smoothed away. Another episode made the day more bearable for Susan.
Mr. Brauer called her into his office at ten o'clock. Peter was at his desk, but Susan apparently did not see him.
"Will you hurry this bill, Miss Brown?" said Mr. Brauer, in his careful English. "Al-zo, I wished to say how gratifite I am wiz your work, before zese las' weeks,—zis monss. You work hardt, and well. I wish all could do so hardt, and so well."
"Oh, thank you!" stammered Susan, in honest shame. Had one month's work been so noticeable? She made new resolves for the month to come. "Was that all, Mr. Brauer?" she asked primly.
"What was your rush yesterday?" asked Peter Coleman, turning around.
"Headache," said Susan, mildly, her hand on the door.
"Oh, rot! I bet it didn't ache at all!" he said, with his gay laugh. But Susan did not laugh, and there was a pause. Peter's face grew red.
"Did—did Miss Thornton get home all right?" he asked. Susan knew he was at a loss for something to say, but answered him seriously.
"Quite, thank you. She was a little—at least I felt that she might be a little vexed at my leaving her, but she was very sweet about it."
"She should have come, too!" Peter said, embarrassedly.
Susan did not answer, she eyed him gravely for a few seconds, as one waiting for further remarks, then turned and went out, sauntering to her desk with the pleasant conviction that hers were the honors of war.
The feeling of having regained her dignity was so exhilarating that Susan was careful, during the next few weeks, to preserve it. She bowed and smiled to Peter, answered his occasional pleasantries briefly and reservedly, and attended strictly to her affairs alone.
Thus Thanksgiving became a memory less humiliating, and on Christmas Day joy came gloriously into Susan's heart, to make it memorable among all the Christmas Days of her life. Easy to-day to sit for a laughing hour with poor Mary Lord, to go to late service, and dream through a long sermon, with the odor of incense and spicy evergreen sweet all about her, to set tables, to dust the parlor, to be kissed by Loretta's little doctor under the mistletoe, to sweep up tissue- paper and red ribbon and nutshells and tinsel, to hook Mary Lou's best gown, and accompany Virginia to evening service, and to lend Georgie her best gloves. Susan had not had many Christmas presents: cologne and handkerchiefs and calendars and candy, from various girl friends, five dollars from the firm, a silk waist from Auntie, and a handsome umbrella from Billy, who gave each one of the cousins exactly the same thing.
These, if appreciated, were more or less expected, too. But beside them, this year, was a great box of violets,—Susan never forgot the delicious wet odor of those violets!—and inside the big box a smaller one, holding an old silver chain with a pendant of lapis lazuli, set in a curious and lovely design. Susan honestly thought it the handsomest thing she had ever seen. And to own it, as a gift from him! Small wonder that her heart flew like a leaf in a high wind. The card that came with it she had slipped inside her silk blouse, and so wore against her heart. "Mr. Peter Webster Coleman," said one side of the card. On the other was written, "S.B. from P.— Happy Fourth of July!" Susan took it out and read it a hundred times. The "P" indicated a friendliness that brought the happy color over and over again to her face. She dashed him off a gay little note of thanks; signed it "Susan," thought better of that and re- wrote it, to sign it "Susan Ralston Brown"; wrote it a third time, and affixed only the initials, "S.B." All day long she wondered at intervals if the note had been too chilly, and turned cold, or turned rosy wondering if it had been too warm.
Mr. Coleman did not come into the office during the following week, and one day a newspaper item, under the heading of "The Smart Set," jumped at Susan with the familiar name. "Peter Coleman, who is at present the guest of Mrs. Rodney Chauncey, at her New Year's house party," it ran, "may accompany Mr. Paul Wallace and Miss Isabel Wallace in a short visit to Mexico next week." The news made Susan vaguely unhappy.
One January Saturday she was idling along the deck, when he came suddenly up behind her, to tell her, with his usual exuberant laughter, that he WAS going away for a fortnight with the Wallaces, just a flying trip, "in the old man's private car." He expected "a peach of a time."
"You certainly ought to have it!" smiled Susan gallantly, "Isabel Wallace looks like a perfect darling!"
"She's a wonder!" he said absently, adding eagerly, "Say, why can't you come and help me buy some things this afternoon? Come on, and we'll have tea at the club?"
Susan saw no reason against it, they would meet at one.
"I'll be down in J.G.'s office," he said, and Susan went back to her desk with fresh joy and fresh pain at her heart.
On Saturdays, because of the early closing, the girls had no lunch hour. But they always sent out for a bag of graham crackers, which they nibbled as they worked, and, between eleven and one, they took turns at disappearing in the direction of the lunch-room, to return with well scrubbed hands and powdered noses, fresh collars and carefully arranged hair. Best hats were usually worn on Saturdays, and Susan rejoiced that she had worn her best to-day. After the twelve o'clock whistle blew, she went upstairs.
On the last flight, just below the lunch-room, she suddenly stopped short, her heart giving a sick plunge. Somebody up there was laughing—crying—making a horrible noise—! Susan ran up the rest of the flight.
Thorny was standing by the table. One or two other girls were in the room, Miss Sherman was mending a glove, Miss Cashell stood in the roof doorway, manicuring her nails with a hairpin. Miss Elsie Kirk sat in the corner seat, with her arm about the bowed shoulders of another girl, who was crying, with her head on the table.
"If you would mind your own affairs for about five minutes, Miss Thornton," Elsie Kirk was saying passionately, as Susan came in, "you'd be a good deal better off!"
"I consider what concerns Front Office concerns me!" said Miss Thornton loftily.
"Ah, don't!" Miss Sherman murmured pitifully.
"If Violet wasn't such a darn FOOL—" Miss Cashell said lightly, and stopped.
"What IS it?" asked Susan.
Her voice died on a dead silence. Miss Thornton, beginning to gather up veil and gloves and handbag scattered on the table, pursed her lips virtuously. Miss Cashell manicured steadily. Miss Sherman bit off a thread.
"It's nothing at all!" said Elsie Kirk, at last. "My sister's got a headache, that's all, and she doesn't feel well." She patted the bowed shoulders. "And parties who have nothing better to do," she added, viciously turning to Miss Thornton, "have butted in about it!"
"I'm all right now," said Violet suddenly, raising a face so terribly blotched and swollen from tears that Susan was genuinely horrified. Violet's weak eyes were set in puffy rings of unnatural whiteness, her loose, weak little mouth sagged, her bosom, in its preposterous, transparent white lace shirtwaist, rose and fell convulsively. In her voice was some shocking quality of unwomanliness, some lack of pride, and reserve, and courage.
"All I wanted was to do like other girls do," said the swollen lips, as Violet began to cry again, and to dab her eyes with a soaked rag of a handkerchief. "I never meant nothing! 'N' Mamma says she KNOWS it wasn't all my fault!" she went on, half maudlin in her abandonment.
Susan gasped. There was a general gasp.
"Don't, Vi!" said her sister tenderly. "It ain't your fault if there are skunks in the world like Mr. Phil Hunter," she said, in a reckless half-whisper. "If Papa was alive he'd shoot him down like a dog!"
"He ought to be shot down!" cried Susan, firing.
"Well, of course he ought!" Miss Elsie Kirk, strong under opposition, softened suddenly under this championship, and began to tremble. "Come on, Vi," said she.
"Well, of course he ought," Thorny said, almost with sympathy. "Here, let's move the table a little, if you want to get out."
"Well, why do you make such a fuss about it?" Miss Cashell asked softly. "You know as well as—as anyone else, that if a man gets a girl into trouble, he ought to stand for—"
"Yes, but my sister doesn't take that kind of money!" flashed Elsie bitterly.
"Well, of course not!" Miss Cashell said quickly, "but—"
"No, you're doing the dignified thing, Violet," Miss Thornton said, with approval, "and you'll feel glad, later on, that you acted this way. And, as far as my carrying tales, I never carried one. I DID say that I thought I knew why you were leaving, and I don't deny it- -Use my powder, right there by the mirror—But as far as anything else goes—"
"We're both going," Elsie said. "I wouldn't take another dollar of their dirty money if I was starving! Come on, Vi."
And a few minutes later they all said a somewhat subdued and embarrassed farewell to the Misses Kirk, who went down the stairs, veiled and silent, and out of the world of Hunter, Baxter & Hunter's forever.
"Will she sue him, Thorny?" asked Susan, awed.
"Sue him? For what? She's not got anything to sue for." Miss Thornton examined a finger nail critically. "This isn't the first time this has happened down here," she said. "There was a lovely girl here—but she wasn't such a fool as Violet is. She kept her mouth shut. Violet went down to Phil Hunter's office this morning, and made a perfect scene. He's going on East to meet his wife you know; it must have been terribly embarrassing for him! Then old J.G. sent for Violet, and told her that there'd been a great many errors in the crediting, and showed 'em to her, too! Poor kid—"
Susan went wondering back to Front Office. The crediting should be hers, now, by all rights! But she felt only sorry, and sore, and puzzled. "She wanted a good time and pretty things," said Susan to herself. Just as Susan herself wanted this delightful afternoon with Peter Coleman! "How much money has to do with life!" the girl thought.
But even the morning's events did not cloud the afternoon. She met Peter at the door of Mr. Baxter's office, and they went laughing out into the clear winter sunshine together.
Where first? To Roos Brothers, for one of the new folding trunks. Quite near enough to walk, they decided, joining the released throng of office workers who were streaming up to Kearney Street and the theater district.
The trunk was found, and a very smart pigskin toilet-case to go in the trunk; Susan found a sort of fascination in the ease with which a person of Peter's income could add a box of silk socks to his purchase, because their color chanced to strike his fancy, could add two or three handsome ties. They strolled along Kearney Street and Post Street, and Susan selected an enormous bunch of violets at Podesta and Baldocchi's, declining the unwholesome-looking orchid that was Peter's choice. They bought a camera, which was left that a neat "P.W.C." might be stamped upon it, and went into Shreve's, a place always fascinating to Susan, to leave Mr. Coleman's watch to be regulated, and look at new scarf-pins. And finally they wandered up into "Chinatown," as the Chinese quarter was called, laughing all the way, and keenly alert for any little odd occurrence in the crowded streets. At Sing Fat's gorgeous bazaar, Peter bought a mandarin coat for himself, the smiling Oriental bringing its price down from two hundred dollars to less than three-quarters of that sum, and Susan taking a great fancy to a little howling teakwood god; he bought that, too, and they named it "Claude" after much discussion.
"We can't carry all these things to the University Club for tea," said Peter then, when it was nearly five o'clock. "So let's go home and have tea with Aunt Clara—she'd love it!"
Tea at his own home! Susan's heart raced—
"Oh, I couldn't," she said, in duty bound.
"Couldn't? Why couldn't you?"
"Why, because Auntie mightn't like it. Suppose your aunt is out?"
"Shucks!" he pondered; he wanted his way. "I'll tell you," he said suddenly. "We'll drive there, and if Aunt Clara isn't home you needn't come in. How's that?"
Susan could find no fault with that. She got into a carriage in great spirits.
"Don't you love it when we stop people on the crossings?" she asked naively. Peter shouted, but she could see that he was pleased as well as amused.
They bumped and rattled out Bush Street, and stopped at the stately door of the old Baxter mansion. Mrs. Baxter fortunately was at home, and Susan followed Peter into the great square hall, and into the magnificent library, built in a day of larger homes and more splendid proportions. Here she was introduced to the little, nervous mistress of the house, who had been enjoying alone a glorious coal fire.
"Let in a little more light, Peter, you wild, noisy boy, you!" said Mrs. Baxter, adding, to Susan, "This was a very sweet thing of you to do, my dear, I don't like my little cup of tea alone."
"Little cup—ha!" said Peter, eying the woman with immense satisfaction. "You'll see her drink five, Miss Brown!"
"We'll send him upstairs, that's what we'll do," threatened his aunt. "Yes, tea, Burns," she added to the butler. "Green tea, dear? Orange-Pekoe? I like that best myself. And muffins, Burns, and toast, something nice and hot. And jam. Mr. Peter likes jam, and some of the almond cakes, if she has them. And please ask Ada to bring me that box of candy from my desk. Santa Barbara nougat, Peter, it just came."
"ISN'T this fun!" said Susan, so joyously that Mrs. Baxter patted the girl's arm with a veiny, approving little hand, and Peter, eying his aunt significantly, said: "Isn't SHE fun?"
It was a perfect hour, and when, at six, Susan said she must go, the old lady sent her home in her own carriage. Peter saw her to the door, "Shall you be going out to-night, sir?" Susan heard the younger man-servant ask respectfully, as they passed. "Not to- night!" said Peter, and, so sensitive was Susan now to all that concerned him, she was unreasonably glad that he was not engaged to- night, not to see other girls and have good times in which she had no share. It seemed to make him more her own.
The tea, the firelight, the fragrant dying violets had worked a spell upon her. Susan sat back luxuriously in the carriage, dreaming of herself as Peter Coleman's wife, of entering that big hall as familiarly as he did, of having tea and happy chatter ready for him every afternoon before the fire—-
There was no one at the windows, unfortunately, to be edified by the sight of Susan Brown being driven home in a private carriage, and the halls, as she entered, reeked of boiling cabbage and corned beef. She groped in the darkness for a match with which to light the hall gas. She could hear Loretta Barker's sweet high voice chattering on behind closed doors, and, higher up, the deep moaning of Mary Lord, who was going through one of her bad times. But she met nobody as she ran up to her room.
"Hello, Mary Lou, darling! Where's everyone?" she asked gaily, discerning in the darkness a portly form prone on the bed.
"Jinny's lying down, she's been to the oculist. Ma's in the kitchen- -don't light up, Sue," said the patient, melancholy voice.
"Don't light up!" Susan echoed, amazedly, instantly doing so, the better to see her cousin's tear-reddened eyes and pale face. "Why, what's the matter?"
"Oh, we've had sad, sad news," faltered Mary Lou, her lips trembling. "A telegram from Ferd Eastman. They've lost Robbie!"
"No!" said Susan, genuinely shocked. And to the details she listened sympathetically, cheering Mary Lou while she inserted cuff-links into her cousin's fresh shirtwaist, and persuaded her to come down to dinner. Then Susan must leave her hot soup while she ran up to Virginia's room, for Virginia was late.
"Ha! What is it?" said Virginia heavily, rousing herself from sleep. Protesting that she was a perfect fright, she kept Susan waiting while she arranged her hair.
"And what does Verriker say of your eyes, Jinny?"
"Oh, they may operate, after all!" Virginia sighed. "But don't say anything to Ma until we're sure," she said.
Not the congenial atmosphere into which to bring a singing heart! Susan sighed. When they went downstairs Mrs. Parker's heavy voice was filling the dining-room.
"The world needs good wives and mothers more than it needs nuns, my dear! There's nothing selfish about a woman who takes her share of toil and care and worry, instead of running away from it. Dear me! many of us who married and stayed in the world would be glad enough to change places with the placid lives of the Sisters!"
"Then, Mama," Loretta said sweetly and merrily, detecting the inconsistency of her mother's argument, as she always did, "if it's such a serene, happy life—"
Loretta always carried off the honors of war. Susan used to wonder how Mrs. Parker could resist the temptation to slap her pretty, stupid little face. Loretta's deep, wise, mysterious smile seemed to imply that she, at nineteen, could afford to assume the maternal attitude toward her easily confused and disturbed parent.
"No vocation for mine!" said Georgianna, hardily, "I'd always be getting my habit mixed up, and coming into chapel without my veil on!"
This, because of its audacity, made everyone laugh, but Loretta fixed on Georgie the sweet bright smile in which Susan already perceived the nun.
"Are you so sure that you haven't a vocation, Georgie?" she asked gently.
"Want to go to a bum show at the 'Central' to-night?" Billy Oliver inquired of Susan in an aside. "Bartlett's sister is leading lady, and he's handing passes out to everyone."
"Always!" trilled Susan, and at last she had a chance to add, "Wait until I tell you what fun I've been having!"
She told him when they were on the car, and he was properly interested, but Susan felt that the tea episode somehow fell flat; had no significance for William.
"Crime he didn't take you to the University Club," said Billy, "they say it's a keen club."
Susan, smiling over happy memories, did not contradict him.
The evening, in spite of the "bum" show, proved a great success, and the two afterwards went to Zinkand's for sardine sandwiches and domestic ginger-ale. This modest order was popular with them because of the moderateness of its cost.
"But, Bill," said Susan to-night, "wouldn't you like to order once without reading the price first and then looking back to see what it was? Do you remember the night we nearly fainted with joy when we found a ten cent dish at Tech's, and then discovered that it was Chili Sauce!"
They both laughed, Susan giving her usual little bounce of joy as she settled into her seat, and the orchestra began a spirited selection. "Look there, Bill, what are those people getting?" she asked.
"It's terrapin," said William, and Susan looked it up on the menu.
"Terrapin Parnasse, one-fifty," read Susan, "for seven of them,— Gee! Gracious!" "Gracious" followed, because Susan had made up her mind not to say "Gee" any more.
"His little supper will stand him in about fifteen dollars," estimated Billy, with deep interest. "He's ordering champagne,— it'll stand him in thirty. Gosh!"
"What would you order if you could, Bill?" Susan asked. It was all part of their usual program.
"Planked steak," answered Billy, readily.
"Planked steak," Susan hunted for it, "would it be three dollars?" she asked, awed.
"I'd have breast of hen pheasant with Virginia ham," Susan decided. A moment later her roving eye rested on a group at a nearby table, and, with the pleased color rushing into her race, she bowed to one of the members of the party.
"That's Miss Emily Saunders," said Susan, in a low voice. "Don't look now—now you can look. Isn't she sweet?"
Miss Saunders, beautifully gowned, was sitting with an old man, an elderly woman, a handsome, very stout woman of perhaps forty, and a very young man. She was a pale, rather heavy girl, with prominent eyes and smooth skin. Susan thought her very aristocratic looking.
"Me for the fat one," said Billy simply. "Who's she?"
"I don't know. DON'T let them see us looking, Bill!" Susan brought her gaze suddenly back to her own table, and began a conversation.
There were some rolls on a plate, between them, but there was no butter on the table. Their order had not yet been served.
"We want some butter here," said Billy, as Susan took a roll, broke it in two, and laid it down again.
"Oh, don't bother, Bill! I don't honestly want it!" she protested.
"Rot!" said William. "He's got a right to bring it!" In a moment a head-waiter was bending over them, his eyes moving rapidly from one to the other, under contracted brows.
"Butter, please," said William briskly.
"BUTTER. We've no butter."
"Oh, certainly!" He was gone in a second, and in another the butter was served, and Susan and Billy began on the rolls.
"Here comes Miss—-, your friend," said William presently.
Susan whirled. Miss Saunders and the very young man were looking toward their table, as they went out. Catching Susan's eye, they came over to shake hands.
"How do you do, Miss Brown?" said the young woman easily. "My cousin, Mr. Brice. He's nicer than he looks. Mr. Oliver? Were you at the Columbia?"
"We were—How do you do? No, we weren't at the Columbia," Susan stammered, confused by the other's languid ease of manner, by the memory of the playhouse they had attended, and by the arrival of the sardines and ginger-ale, which were just now placed on the table.
"I'm coming to take you to lunch with me some day, remember," said Miss Saunders, departing. And she smiled another farewell from the door.
"Isn't she sweet?" said Susan.
"And how well she would come along just as our rich and expensive order is served!" Billy added, and they both laughed.
"It looks good to ME!" Susan assured him contentedly. "I'll give you half that other sandwich if you can tell me what the orchestra is playing now."
"The slipper thing, from 'Boheme'," Billy said scornfully. Susan's eyes widened with approval and surprise. His appreciation of music was an incongruous note in Billy's character.
There was presently a bill to settle, which Susan, as became a lady, seemed to ignore. But she could not long ignore her escort's scowling scrutiny of it.
"What's that?" demanded Mr. Oliver, scowling at the card. "Twenty cents for WHAT?"
"For bread and butter, sir," said the waiter, in a hoarse, confidential whisper. "Not served with sandwiches, sir." Susan's heart began to thump.
"Billy—" she began.
"Wait a minute," Billy muttered. "Just wait a minute! It doesn't say anything about that."
The waiter respectfully indicated a line on the menu card, which Mr. Oliver studied fixedly, for what seemed to Susan a long time.
"That's right," he said finally, heavily, laying a silver dollar on the check. Keep it." The waiter did not show much gratitude for his tip. Susan and Billy, ruffled and self-conscious, walked, with what dignity they could, out into the night.
"Damn him!" said Billy, after a rapidly covered half-block.
"Oh, Billy, don't! What do you care!" Susan said, soothingly.
"I don't care," he snapped. Adding, after another brooding minute, "we ought to have better sense than to go into such places!"
"We're as good as anyone else!" Susan asserted, hotly.
"No, we're not. We're not as rich," he answered bitterly.
"Billy, as if MONEY mattered!"
"Oh, of course, money doesn't matter," he said with fine satire. "Not at all! But because we haven't got it, those fellows, on thirty per, can throw the hooks into us at every turn. And, if we threw enough money around, we could be the rottenest man and woman on the face of the globe, we could be murderers and thieves, even, and they'd all be falling over each other to wait on us!"
"Well, let's murder and thieve, then!" said Susan blithely.
"I may not do that—"
"You mayn't? Oh, Bill, don't commit yourself! You may want to, later."
"I may not do that," repeated Mr. Oliver, gloomily, "but, by George, some day I'll have a wad in the bank that'll make me feel that I can afford to turn those fellows down! They'll know that I've got it, all right."
"Bill, I don't think that's much of an ambition," Susan said, candidly, "to want so much money that you aren't afraid of a waiter! Get some crisps while we're passing the man, Billy!" she interrupted herself to say, urgently, "we can talk on the car!"
He bought them, grinning sheepishly.
"But honestly, Sue, don't you get mad when you think that about the only standard of the world is money?" he resumed presently.
"Well, we know that we're BETTER than lots of rich people, Bill."
"How are we better?"
"More refined. Better born. Better ancestry."
"Oh, rot! A lot they care for that! No, people that have money can get the best of people who haven't, coming and going. And for that reason, Sue," they were on the car now, and Billy was standing on the running board, just in front of her, "for that reason, Sue, I'm going to MAKE money, and when I have so much that everyone knows it then I'll do as I darn please. And I won't please to do the things they do, either!"
"You're very sure of yourself, Bill! How are you going to make it?"
"The way other men make it, by gosh!" Mr. Oliver said seriously. "I'm going into blue-printing with Ross, on the side. I've got nearly three thousand in Panhandle lots—"
"Oh, you have NOT!"
"Oh, I have, too! Spence put me onto it. They're no good now, but you bet your life they will be! And I'm going to stick along at the foundry until the old man wakes up some day, and realizes that I'm getting more out of my men than any other two foremen in the place. Those boys would do anything for me—"
"Because you're a very unusual type of man to be in that sort of place, Bill!" Susan interrupted.
"Shucks," he said, in embarrassment. "Well," he resumed, "then some day I'm going to the old man and ask him for a year's leave. Then I'll visit every big iron-works in the East, and when I come back, I'll take a job of casting from my own blue-prints, at not less than a hundred a week. Then I'll run up some flats in the Panhandle—"
"Having married the beautiful daughter of the old man himself—" Susan interposed. "And won first prize in the Louisiana lottery—"
"Sure," he said gravely. "And meanwhile," he added, with a business- like look, "Coleman has got a crush on you, Sue. It'd be a dandy marriage for you, and don't you forget it!"
"Well, of all nerve!" Susan said unaffectedly, and with flaming cheeks. "There is a little motto, to every nation dear, in English it's forget-me-not, in French it's mind your own business, Bill!"
"Well, that may be," he said doggedly, "but you know as well as I do that it's up to you—"
"Suppose it is," Susan said, satisfied that he should think so. "That doesn't give YOU any right to interfere with my affairs!"
"You're just like Georgie and Mary Lou," he told her, "always bluffing yourself. But you've got more brains than they have, Sue, and it'd give the whole crowd of them a hand up if you made a marriage like that. Don't think I'm trying to butt in," he gave her his winning, apologetic smile, "you know I'm as interested as your own brother could be, Sue! If you like him, don't keep the matter hanging fire. There's no question that he's crazy about you— everybody knows that!"
"No, there's no question about THAT," Susan said, softly.
But what would she not have given for the joy of knowing, in her secret heart, that it was true!
Two weeks later, Miss Brown, summoned to Mr. Brauer's office, was asked if she thought that she could do the crediting, at forty dollars a month. Susan assented gravely, and entered that day upon her new work, and upon a new era. She worked hard and silently, now, with only occasional flashes of her old silliness. She printed upon a card, and hung above her desk, these words:
"I hold it true, with him who sings To one clear harp in divers tones, That men may rise on stepping-stones Of their dead selves, to higher things."
On stepping-stones of her dead selves, Susan mounted. She wore a preoccupied, a responsible air, her voice softened, her manner was almost too sweet, too bright and gentle. She began to take cold, or almost cold, baths daily, to brush her hair and mend her gloves. She began to say "Not really?" instead of "Sat-so?" and "It's of no consequence," instead of "Don't matter." She called her long woolen coat, familiarly known as her "sweater," her "field-jacket," and pronounced her own name "Syusan." Thorny, Georgianna, and Billy had separately the pleasure of laughing at Susan in these days.
"They should really have a lift, to take the girls up to the lunch room," said Susan to Billy.
"Of course they should," said Billy, "and a sink to bring you down again!"
Peter Coleman did not return to San Francisco until the middle of March, but Susan had two of the long, ill-written and ill-spelled letters that are characteristic of the college graduate. It was a wet afternoon in the week before Holy Week when she saw him again. Front Office was very busy at three o'clock, and Miss Garvey had been telling a story.
"'Don't whistle, Mary, there's a good girl,' the priest says," related Miss Garvey. "'I never like to hear a girl whistle,' he says. Well, so that night Aggie,"—Aggie was Miss Kelly—"Aggie wrote a question, and she put it in the question-box they had at church for questions during the Mission. 'Is it a sin to whistle?' she wrote. And that night, when he was readin' the questions out from the pulpit, he come to this one, and he looked right down at our pew over his glasses, and he says, 'The girl that asks this question is here,' he says, 'and I would say to her, 'tis no sin to do anything that injures neither God nor your neighbor!' Well, I thought Aggie and me would go through the floor!" And Miss Kelly and Miss Garvey put their heads down on their desks, and laughed until they cried.
Susan, looking up to laugh too, felt a thrill weaken her whole body, and her spine grow cold. Peter Coleman, in his gloves and big overcoat, with his hat on the back of his head, was in Mr. Brauer's office, and the electric light, turned on early this dark afternoon, shone full in his handsome, clean-shaven face.
Susan had some bills that she had planned to show to Mr. Brauer this afternoon. Six months ago she would have taken them in to him at once, and been glad of the excuse. But now she dropped her eyes, and busied herself with her work. Her heart beat high, she attacked a particularly difficult bill, one she had been avoiding for days, and disposed of it in ten minutes.
A little later she glanced at Mr. Brauer's office. Peter was gone, and Susan felt a sensation of sickness. She looked down at Mr. Baxter's office, and saw him there, spreading kodak pictures over the old man's desk, laughing and talking. Presently he was gone again, and she saw him no more that day.
The next day, however, she found him at her desk when she came in. They had ten minutes of inconsequential banter before Miss Cashell came in.
"How about a fool trip to the Chutes to-morrow night?" Peter asked in a low tone, just before departing.
"Lent," Susan said reluctantly.
"Oh, so it is. I suppose Auntie wouldn't stand for a dinner?"
"Pos-i-to-ri-ly NOT!" Susan was hedged with convention.
"Positorily not? Well, let's walk the pup? What? All right, I'll come at eight."
"At eight," said Susan, with a dancing heart.
She thought of nothing else until Friday came, slipped away from the office a little earlier than usual, and went home planning just the gown and hat most suitable. Visitors were in the parlor; Auntie, thinking of pan-gravy and hot biscuits, was being visibly driven to madness by them. Susan charitably took Mrs. Cobb and Annie and Daisy off Mrs. Lancaster's hands, and listened sympathetically to a dissertation upon the thanklessness of sons. Mrs. Cobb's sons, leaving their mother and their unmarried sisters in a comfortable home, had married the women of their own choice, and were not yet forgiven.
"And how's Alfie doing?" Mrs. Cobb asked heavily, departing.
"Pretty well. He's in Portland now, he has another job," Susan said cautiously. Alfred was never criticized in his mother's hearing. A moment later she closed the hall door upon the callers with a sigh of relief, and ran downstairs.
The telephone bell was ringing. Susan answered it.
"Hello Miss Brown! You see I know you in any disguise!" It was Peter Coleman's voice.
"Hello!" said Susan, with a chill premonition.
"I'm calling off that party to-night," said Peter. "I'm awfully sorry. We'll do it some other night. I'm in Berkeley."
"Oh, very well!" Susan agreed, brightly.
"Can you HEAR me? I say I'm—-"
"Yes, I hear perfectly."
"I say I can hear!"
"And it's all right? I'm awfully sorry!"
"All right. These fellows are making such a racket I can't hear you. See you to-morrow!"
Susan hung up the receiver. She sat quite still in the darkness for awhile, staring straight ahead of her. When she went into the dining-room she was very sober. Mr. Oliver was there; he had taken one of his men to a hospital, with a burned arm, too late in the afternoon to make a return to the foundry worth while.
"Harkee, Susan wench!" said he, "do 'ee smell asparagus?"
"Aye. It'll be asparagus, Gaffer," said Susan dispiritedly, dropping into her chair.
"And I nearly got my dinner out to-night!" Billy said, with a shudder. "Say, listen, Susan, can you come over to the Carrolls, Sunday? Going to be a bully walk!"
"I don't know, Billy," she said quietly.
"Well, listen what we're all going to do, some Thursday. We're going to the theater, and then dawdle over supper at some cheap place, you know, and then go down on the docks, at about three, to see the fishing fleet come in? Are you on? It's great. They pile the fish up to their waists, you know—"
"That sounds lovely!" said Susan, eying him scornfully. "I see Jo and Anna Carroll enjoying THAT!"
"Lord, what a grouch you've got!" Billy said, with a sort of awed admiration.
Susan began to mold the damp salt in an open glass salt-cellar with the handle of a fork. Her eyes blurred with sudden tears.
"What's the matter?" Billy asked in a lowered voice.
She gulped, merely shook her head.
"You're dead, aren't you?" he said repentantly.
"Oh, all in!" It was a relief to ascribe it to that. "I'm awfully tired."
"Too tired to go to church with Mary Lou and me, dear?" asked Virginia, coming in. "Friday in Passion Week, you know. We're going to St, Ignatius. But if you're dead—?"
"Oh, I am. I'm going straight to bed," Susan said. But after dinner, when Mary Lou was dressing, she suddenly changed her mind, dragged herself up from the couch where she was lying and, being Susan, brushed her hair, pinned a rose on her coat lapel, and powdered her nose. Walking down the street with her two cousins, Susan, storm- shaken and subdued, still felt "good," and liked the feeling. Spring was in the air, the early darkness was sweet with the odors of grass and flowers.
When they reached the church, the great edifice was throbbing with the notes of the organ, a careless voluntary that stopped short, rambled, began again. They were early, and the lights were only lighted here and there; women, and now and then a man, drifted up the center aisle. Boots cheeped unseen in the arches, sibilant whispers smote the silence, pew-doors creaked, and from far corners of the church violent coughing sounded with muffled reverberations. Mary Lou would have slipped into the very last pew, but Virginia led the way up—up—up—in the darkness, nearer and nearer the altar, with its winking red light, and genuflected before one of the very first pews. Susan followed her into it with a sigh of satisfaction; she liked to see and hear, and all the pews were open to-night. They knelt for awhile, then sat back, silent, reverential, but not praying, and interested in the arriving congregation.
A young woman, seeing Virginia, came to whisper to her in a rasping aside. She "had St. Joseph" for Easter, she said, would Virginia help her "fix him"? Virginia nodded, she loved to assist those devout young women who decorated, with exquisite flowers and hundreds of candles, the various side altars of the church.
There was a constant crisping of shoes in the aisle now, the pews were filling fast. "Lord, where do all these widows come from?" thought Susan. A "Brother," in a soutane, was going about from pillar to pillar, lighting the gas. Group after group of the pendent globes sprang into a soft, moony glow; the hanging glass prisms jingled softly. The altar-boys in red, without surplices, were moving about the altar now, lighting the candles. The great crucifix, the altar-paintings and the tall candle-sticks were swathed in purple cloth, there were no flowers to-night on the High Altar, but it twinkled with a thousand candles.
The hour began to have its effect on Susan. She felt herself a little girl again, yielding to the spell of the devotion all about her; the clicking rosary-beads, the whispered audible prayers, the very odors,—odors of close-packed humanity,—that reached her were all a part of this old mood. A little woman fluttered up the aisle, and squeezed in beside her, panting like a frightened rabbit. Now there was not a seat to be seen, even the benches by the confessionals were full.
And now the organ broke softly, miraculously, into enchanting and enveloping sound, that seemed to shake the church bodily with its great trembling touch, and from a door on the left of the altar the procession streamed,—altar-boys and altar-boys and altar-boys, followed through the altar-gate by the tall young priest who would "say the Stations." Other priests, a score of them, filled the altar-stalls; one, seated on the right between two boys, would presently preach.
The procession halted somewhere over in the distant: arches, the organ thundered the "Stabat Mater." Susan could only see the candles and the boys, but the priest's voice was loud and clear. The congregation knelt and rose again, knelt and rose again, turned and swayed to follow the slow movement of the procession about the church.
When priest and boys had returned to the altar, a wavering high soprano voice floated across the church in an intricate "Veni Creator." Susan and Mary Lou sat back in their seats, but Virginia knelt, wrapped in prayer, her face buried in her hands, her hat forcing the woman in front of her to sit well forward in her place.
The pulpit was pushed across a little track laid in the altar enclosure, and the preacher mounted it, shook his lace cuffs into place, laid his book and notes to one side, and composedly studied his audience.
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen. 'Ask and ye shall receive—-'" suddenly the clear voice rang out.
Susan lost the sermon. But she got the text, and pondered it with new interest. It was not new to her. She had "asked" all her life long; for patience, for truthfulness, for "final perseverance," for help for Virginia's eyes and Auntie's business and Alfie's intemperance, for the protection of this widow, the conversion of that friend, "the speedy recovery or happy death" of some person dangerously ill. Susan had never slipped into church at night with Mary Lou, without finding some special request to incorporate in her prayers.
To-night, in the solemn pause of Benediction, she asked for Peter Coleman's love. Here was a temporal favor, indeed, indicating a lesser spiritual degree than utter resignation to the Divine Will. Susan was not sure of her right to ask it. But, standing to sing the "Laudate," there came a sudden rush of confidence and hope to her heart. She was praying for this gift now, and that fact alone seemed to lift it above the level of ordinary, earthly desires. Not entirely unworthy was any hope that she could bring to this tribunal, and beg for on her knees.
Two weeks later she and Peter Coleman had their evening at the Chutes, and a wonderful evening it was; then came a theater trip, and a Sunday afternoon that they spent in idly drifting about Golden Gate Park, enjoying the spring sunshine, and the holiday crowd, feeding the animals and eating peanuts. Susan bowed to Thorny and the faithful Wally on this last occasion and was teased by Thorny about Peter Coleman the next day, to her secret pleasure. She liked anything that made her friendship for Peter seem real, a thing noticed and accepted by others, not all the romantic fabric of her own unfounded dreams.