Tangible proof of his affection there was indeed, to display to the eyes of her world. But it was for intangible proof that Susan's heart longed day after day. In spite of comment and of envy from the office, in spite of the flowers and messages and calls upon which Auntie and the girls were placing such flattering significance, Susan was far too honest with life not to realize that she had not even a thread by which to hold Peter Coleman, that he had not given an instant's thought, and did not wish to give an instant's thought to her, or to any woman, as a possible sweetheart and wife.
She surprised him, she amused him, she was the company he liked best, easiest to entertain, most entertaining in turn, this she knew. He liked her raptures over pleasures that would only have bored the other girls he knew, he liked the ready nonsense that inspired answering nonsense in him, the occasional flashes of real wit, the inexhaustible originality of Susan's point-of-view. They had their own vocabulary, phrases remembered from plays, good and bad, that they had seen together, or overheard in the car; they laughed and laughed together at a thousand things that Susan could not remember when she was alone, or, remembering, found no longer amusing. This was all wonderful, but it was not love.
But, perhaps, she consoled herself, courtship, in his class, was not the serious affair she had always known it to be in hers. Rich people took nothing very seriously, yet they married and made good husbands for all that. Susan would blame herself for daring to criticize, even in the tiniest particular, the great gift that the gods laid at her feet.
One June day, when Susan felt rather ill, and was sitting huddled at her desk, with chilled feet and burning cheeks, she was sent for by old Mr. Baxter, and found Miss Emily Saunders in his office. The visitor was chatting with Peter and the old man, and gaily carried Susan off to luncheon, after Peter had regretted his inability to come too. They went to the Palace Hotel, and Susan thought everything, Miss Emily especially, very wonderful and delightful, and, warmed and sustained by a delicious lunch, congratulated herself all during the afternoon that she herself had risen to the demand of the occasion, had really been "funny" and "nice," had really "made good." She knew Emily had been amused and attracted, and suspected that she would hear from that fascinating young person again.
A few weeks later a letter came from Miss Saunders asking Susan to lunch with the family, in their San Rafael home. Susan admired the handsome stationery, the monogram, the bold, dashing hand. Something in Mary Lou's and Georgianna's pleasure in this pleasure for her made her heart ache as she wrote her acceptance. She was far enough from the world of ease and beauty and luxury, but how much further were these sweet, uncomplaining, beauty-starved cousins of hers!
Mary Lou went with her to the ferry, when the Sunday came, just for a ride on the hot day, and the two, being early, roamed happily over the great ferry building, watching German and Italian picnics form and file through the gateways, and late-comers rush madly up to the closing doors. Susan had been to church at seven o'clock, and had since washed her hair, and washed and pressed her best shirtwaist, but she felt fresh and gay.
Presently, with a shout of pleasure that drew some attention to their group, Peter Coleman came up to them. It appeared that he was to be Miss Saunders' guest at luncheon, too, and he took charge of the radiant Susan with evident satisfaction, and much laughter.
"Dear me! I wish I was going, too," said Mary Lou mildly, as they parted. "But I presume a certain young man is very glad I am not," she added, with deep finesse. Peter laughed out, but turned red, and Susan wished impatiently that Mary Lou would not feel these embarrassing inanities to be either welcome or in good taste.
But no small cloud could long shadow the perfect day. The Saunders' home, set in emerald lawns, brightened by gay-striped awnings, fragrant with flowers indoors and out, was quite the most beautiful she had ever seen. Emily's family was all cordiality; the frail, nervous, richly dressed little mother made a visible effort to be gracious to this stranger, and Emily's big sister, Ella, in whom Susan recognized the very fat young woman of the Zinkand party, was won by Susan's irrepressible merriment to abandon her attitude of bored, good-natured silence, and entered into the conversation at luncheon with sudden zest. The party was completed by Mrs. Saunders' trained nurse, Miss Baker, a placid young woman who did not seem, to Susan, to appreciate her advantages in this wonderful place, and the son of the house, Kenneth, a silent, handsome, pale young man, who confined his remarks during luncheon to the single observation, made to Peter, that he was "on the wagon."
The guest wondered what dinner would be, if this were luncheon merely. Everything was beautifully served, smoking hot or icy cold, garnished and seasoned miraculously. Subtle flavors contended with other flavors, whipped cream appeared in most unexpected places—on the bouillon, and in a rosette that topped the salad—of the hot bread and the various chutneys and jellies and spiced fruits and cheeses and olives alone, Susan could have made a most satisfactory meal. She delighted in the sparkling glass, the heavy linen and silver, the exquisite flowers. Together they seemed to form a lulling draught for her senses; Susan felt as if undue cold, undue heat, haste and worry and work, the office with its pencil-dust and ink-stains and her aunt's house, odorous, dreary and dark, were alike a half-forgotten dream.
After luncheon they drove to a bright, wide tennis-court, set in glowing gardens, and here Susan was introduced to a score of noisy, white-clad young people, and established herself comfortably on a bench near the older women, to watch the games. This second social experience was far happier than her first, perhaps because Susan resolutely put her thoughts on something else than herself to-day, watched and laughed, talked when she could, was happily silent when she could not, and battled successfully with the thought of neglect whenever it raised its head. Bitter as her lesson had been she was grateful for it to-day.
Peter, very lithe, very big, gloriously happy, played in one set, and, winning, came to throw himself on the grass at Susan's feet, panting and hot. This made Susan the very nucleus of the gathering group, the girls strolled up under their lazily twirling parasols, the men ranged themselves beside Peter on the lawn. Susan said very little; again she found the conversation a difficult one to enter, but to-day she did not care; it was a curious, and, as she was to learn later, a characteristic conversation, and she analyzed it lazily as she listened.
There was a bright insincerity about everything they said, a languid assumption that nothing in the world was worth an instant's seriousness, whether it was life or death, tragedy or pathos. Susan had seen this before in Peter, she saw him in his element now. He laughed incessantly, as they all did. The conversation called for no particular effort; it consisted of one or two phrases repeated constantly, and with varying inflections, and interspersed by the most trivial and casual of statements. To-day the phrase, "Would a nice girl DO that?" seemed to have caught the general fancy. Susan also heard the verb to love curiously abused.
"Look out, George—your racket!" some girl said vigorously.
"Would a nice girl DO that? I nearly put your eye out, didn't I? I tell you all I'm a dangerous character," her neighbor answered laughingly.
"Oh, I love that!" another girl's voice said, adding presently, "Look at Louise's coat. Don't you love it?"
"I love it," said several voices. Another languidly added, "I'm crazy about it."
"I'm crazy about it," said the wearer modestly, "Aunt Fanny sent it."
"Can a nice girl DO that?" asked Peter, and there was a general shout.
"But I'm crazy about your aunt," some girl asserted, "you know she told Mother that I was a perfect little lady—honestly she did! Don't you love that?"
"Oh, I LOVE that," Emily Saunders said, as freshly as if coining the phrase. "I'm crazy about it!"
"Don't you love it? You've got your aunt's number," they all said. And somebody added thoughtfully, "Can a nice girl DO that?"
How sure of themselves they were, how unembarrassed and how marvelously poised, thought Susan. How casually these fortunate young women could ask what friends they pleased to dinner, could plan for to-day, to-morrow, for all the days that were! Nothing to prevent them from going where they wanted to go, buying what they fancied, doing as they pleased! Susan felt that an impassable barrier stood between their lives and hers.
Late in the afternoon Miss Ella, driving in with a gray-haired young man in a very smart trap, paid a visit to the tennis court, and was rapturously hailed. She was evidently a great favorite.
"See here, Miss Brown," she called out, after a few moments, noticing Susan, "don't you want to come for a little spin with me?"
"Very much," Susan said, a little shyly.
"Get down, Jerry," Miss Saunders said, giving her companion a little shove with her elbow.
"Look here, who you pushing?" demanded the gray-haired young man, without venom.
"I'm pushing you."
"'It's habit. I keep right on loving her!'" quoted Mr. Phillips to the bystanders. But he got lazily down, and Susan got up, and they were presently spinning away into the quiet of the lovely, warm summer afternoon.
Miss Saunders talked rapidly, constantly, and well. Susan was amused and interested, and took pains to show it. In great harmony they spent perhaps an hour in driving, and were homeward bound when they encountered two loaded buckboards, the first of which was driven by Peter Coleman.
Miss Saunders stopped the second, to question her sister, who, held on the laps of a girl and young man on the front seat, was evidently in wild spirits.
"We're only going up to Cameroncourt!" Miss Emily shouted cheerfully. "Keep Miss Brown to dinner! Miss Brown, I'll never speak to you again if you don't stay!" And Susan heard a jovial echo of "Can a nice girl DO that?" as they drove away.
"A noisy, rotten crowd," said Miss Saunders. "Mamma hates Emily to go with them, and what my cousins—the Bridges and the Eastenbys of Maryland are our cousins, I've just been visiting them—would say to a crowd like that I hate to think! That's why I wanted Emily to come out in Washington. You know we really have no connections here, and no old friends. My uncle, General Botheby Hargrove, has a widowed daughter living with him in Baltimore, Mrs. Stephen Kay, she is now,—well, I suppose she's really in the most exclusive little set you could find anywhere—"
Susan listened interestedly. But when they were home again, and Ella was dressing for some dinner party, she very firmly declined the old lady's eager invitation to remain. She was a little more touched by Emily's rudeness than she would admit, a little afraid to trust herself any further to so uncertain a hostess.
She went soberly home, in the summer twilight, soothed in spite of herself by the beauty of the quiet bay, and pondering deeply. Had she deserved this slight in any way? she wondered. Should she have come away directly after luncheon? No, for they had asked her, with great warmth, for dinner! Was it something that she should, in all dignity, resent? Should Peter be treated a little coolly; Emily's next overture declined?
She decided against any display of resentment. It was only the strange way of these people, no claim of courtesy was strong enough to offset the counter-claim of any random desire. They were too used to taking what they wanted, to forgetting what it was not entirely convenient to remember. They would think it absurd, even delightfully amusing in her, to show the least feeling.
Arriving late, she gave her cousins a glowing account of the day, and laughed with Georgie over the account of a call from Loretta's Doctor O'Connor. "Loretta's beau having the nerve to call on me!" Georgie said, with great amusement.
Almost hourly, in these days when she saw him constantly, Susan tried to convince herself that her heart was not quite committed yet to Peter Coleman's keeping. But always without success. The big, sweet-tempered, laughing fellow, with his generosity, his wealth, his position, had become all her world, or rather he had become the reigning personage in that other world at whose doorway Susan stood, longing and enraptured.
A year ago, at the prospect of seeing him so often, of feeling so sure of his admiration and affection, of calling him "Peter," Susan would have felt herself only too fortunate. But these privileges, fully realized now, brought her more pain than joy. A restless unhappiness clouded their gay times together, and when she was alone Susan spent troubled hours in analysis of his tones, his looks, his words. If a chance careless phrase of his seemed to indicate a deepening of the feeling between them, Susan hugged that phrase to her heart. If Peter, on the other hand, eagerly sketched to her plans for a future that had no place for her, Susan drooped, and lay wakeful and heartsick long into the night. She cared for him truly and deeply, although she never said so, even to herself, and she longed with all her ardent young soul for the place in the world that awaited his wife. Susan knew that she could fill it, that he would never be anything but proud of her; she only awaited the word- -less than a word!—that should give her the right to enter into her kingdom.
By all the conventions of her world these thoughts should not have come to her until Peter's attitude was absolutely ascertained. But Susan was honest with herself; she must have been curiously lacking in human tenderness, indeed, NOT to have yielded her affection to so joyous and so winning a claimant.
As the weeks went by she understood his ideals and those of his associates more and more clearly, and if Peter lost something of his old quality as a god, by the analysis, Susan loved him all the more for finding him not quite perfect. She knew that he was young, that his head was perhaps a little turned by sudden wealth and popularity, that life was sweet to him just as it was; he was not ready yet for responsibilities and bonds. He thought Miss Susan Brown was the "bulliest" girl he knew, loved to give her good times and resented the mere mention of any other man's admiration for her. Of what could she complain?
Of course—Susan could imagine him as disposing of the thought comfortably—she DIDN'T complain. She took things just as he wanted her to, had a glorious time whenever she was with him, and was just as happy doing other things when he wasn't about. Peter went for a month to Tahoe this summer, and wrote Susan that there wasn't a fellow at the hotel that was half as much fun as she was. He told her that if she didn't immediately answer that she missed him like Hannibal he would jump into the lake.
Susan pondered over the letter. How answer it most effectively? If she admitted that she really did miss him terribly—but Susan was afraid of the statement, in cold black-and-white. Suppose that she hinted at herself as consoled by some newer admirer? The admirer did not exist, but Peter would not know that. She discarded this subterfuge as "cheap."
But how did other girls manage it? The papers were full of engagements, men WERE proposing matrimony, girls WERE announcing themselves as promised, in all happy certainty. Susan decided that, when Peter came home, she would allow their friendship to proceed just a little further and then suddenly discourage every overture, refuse invitations, and generally make herself as unpleasant as possible, on the ground that Auntie "didn't like it." This would do one of two things, either stop their friendship off short,—it wouldn't do that, she was happily confident,—or commence things upon a new and more definite basis.
But when Peter came back he dragged his little aunt all the way up to Mr. Brauer's office especially to ask Miss Brown if she would dine with them informally that very evening. This was definite enough! Susan accepted and planned a flying trip home for a fresh shirtwaist at five o'clock. But at five a troublesome bill delayed her, and Susan, resisting an impulse to shut it into a desk drawer and run away from it, settled down soberly to master it. She was conscious, as she shook hands with her hostess two hours later, of soiled cuffs, but old Mr. Baxter, hearing her apologies, brought her downstairs a beautifully embroidered Turkish robe, in dull pinks and blues, and Susan, feeling that virtue sometimes was rewarded, had the satisfaction of knowing that she looked like a pretty gipsy during the whole evening, and was immensely gratifying her old host as well. To Peter, it was just a quiet, happy evening at home, with the pianola and flashlight photographs, and a rarebit that wouldn't grow creamy in spite of his and Susan's combined efforts. But to Susan it was a glimpse of Paradise.
"Peter loves to have his girl friends dine here," smiled old Mrs. Baxter in parting. "You must come again. He has company two or three times a week." Susan smiled in response, but the little speech was the one blot on a happy evening.
Every happy time seemed to have its one blot. Susan would have her hour, would try to keep the tenderness out of her "When do I see you again, Peter?" to be met by his cheerful "Well, I don't know. I'm going up to the Yellands' for a week, you know. Do you know Clare Yelland? She's the dandiest girl you ever saw—nineteen, and a raving beauty!" Or, wearing one of Peter's roses on her black office-dress, she would have to smile through Thorny's interested speculations as to his friendship for this society girl or that. "The Chronicle said yesterday that he was supposed to be terribly crushed on that Washington girl," Thorny would report. "Of course, no names, but you could tell who they meant!"
Susan began to talk of going away "to work."
"Lord, aren't you working now?" asked William Oliver in healthy scorn.
"Not working as hard as I could!" Susan said. "I can't—can't seem to get interested—" Tears thickened her voice, she stopped short.
The two were sitting on the upper step of the second flight of stairs in the late evening, just outside the door of the room where Alfred Lancaster was tossing and moaning in the grip of a heavy cold and fever. Alfred had lost his position, had been drinking again, and now had come home to his mother for the fiftieth time to be nursed and consoled. Mrs. Lancaster, her good face all mother-love and pity, sat at his side. Mary Lou wept steadily and unobtrusively. Susan and Billy were waiting for the doctor.
"No," the girl resumed thoughtfully, after a pause, "I feel as if I'd gotten all twisted up and I want to go away somewhere and get started fresh. I could work like a slave, Bill, in a great clean institution, or a newspaper office, or as an actress. But I can't seem to straighten things out here. This isn't MY house, I didn't have anything to do with the making of it, and I can't feel interested in it. I'd rather do things wrong, but do them MY way!"
"It seems to me you're getting industrious all of a sudden, Sue."
"No." She hardly understood herself. "But I want to GET somewhere in this life, Bill," she mused. "I don't want to sit back and wait for things to come to me. I want to go to them. I want some alternative. So that—" her voice sank, "so that, if marriage doesn't come, I can say to myself, 'Never mind, I've got my work!'"
"Just as a man would," he submitted thoughtfully.
"Just as a man would," she echoed, eager for his sympathy.
"Well, that's Mrs. Carroll's idea. She says that very often, when a girl thinks she wants to get married, what she really wants is financial independence and pretty clothes and an interest in life."
"I think that's perfectly true," Susan said, struck. "Isn't she wise?" she added.
"Yes, she's a wonder! Wise and strong,—she's doing too much now, though. How long since you've been over there, Sue?"
"Oh, ages! I'm ashamed to say. Months. I write to Anna now and then, but somehow, on Sundays—"
She did not finish, but his thoughts supplied the reason. Susan was always at home on Sundays now, unless she went out with Peter Coleman.
"You ought to take Coleman over there some day, Sue, they used to know him when he was a kid. Let's all go over some Sunday."
"That would be fun!" But he knew she did not mean it. The atmosphere of the Carrolls' home, their poverty, their hard work, their gallant endurance of privation and restriction were not in accord with Susan's present mood. "How are all of them?" she presently asked, after an interval, in which Alfie's moaning and the hoarse deep voice of Mary Lord upstairs had been the only sounds.
"Pretty good. Joe's working now, the little darling!"
"Joe is! What at?"
"She's in an architect's office, Huxley and Huxley. It's a pretty good job, I guess."
"But, Billy, doesn't that seem terrible? Joe's so beautiful, and when you think how rich their grandfather was! And who's home?"
"Well, Anna gets home from the hospital every other week, and Phil comes home with Joe, of course. Jim's still in school, and Betsey helps with housework. Betsey has a little job, too. She teaches an infant class at that little private school over there."
"Billy, don't those people have a hard time! Is Phil behaving?"
"Better than he did. Yes, I guess he's pretty good now. But there are all Jim's typhoid bills to pay. Mrs. Carroll worries a good deal. Anna's an angel about everything, but of course Betts is only a kid, and she gets awfully mad."
"And Josephine," Susan smiled. "How's she?"
"Honestly, Sue," Mr. Oliver's face assumed the engaging expression reserved only for his love affairs, "she is the dearest little darling ever! She followed me out to the porch on Sunday, and said 'Don't catch cold, and die before your time,'—the little cutie!"
"Oh, Bill, you imbecile! There's nothing to THAT," Susan laughed out gaily.
"Aw, well," he began affrontedly, "it was the little way she said it—"
"Sh-sh!" said Mary Lou, white faced, heavy-eyed, at Alfred's door. "He's just dropped off... The doctor just came up the steps, Bill, will you go down and ask him to come right up? Why don't you go to bed, Sue?"
"How long are you going to wait?" asked Susan.
"Oh, just until after the doctor goes, I guess," Mary Lou sighed.
"Well, then I'll wait for you. I'll run up and see Mary Lord a few minutes. You stop in for me when you're ready."
And Susan, blowing her cousin an airy kiss, ran noiselessly up the last flight of stairs, and rapped on the door of the big upper front bedroom.
This room had been Mary Lord's world for ten long years. The invalid was on a couch just opposite the door, and looked up as Susan entered. Her dark, rather heavy face brightened instantly.
"Sue! I was afraid it was poor Mrs. Parker ready to weep about Loretta," she said eagerly. "Come in, you nice child! Tell me something cheerful!"
"Raw ginger is a drug on the market," said Susan gaily. "Here, I brought you some roses."
"And I have eleven guesses who sent them," laughed Miss Lord, drinking in the sweetness and beauty of the great pink blossoms hungrily. "When'd they come?"
"Just before dinner!" Susan told her. Turning to the invalid's sister she said: "Miss Lydia, you're busy, and I'm disturbing you."
"I wish you'd disturb us a little oftener, then," said Lydia Lord, affectionately. "I can work all the better for knowing that Mary isn't dying to interrupt me."
The older sister, seated at a little table under the gaslight, was deep in work.
"She's been doing that every night this week," said Miss Mary angrily, "as if she didn't have enough to do!"
"What is it?" asked Susan. Miss Lydia threw down her pen, and stretched her cramped fingers.
"Why, Mrs. Lawrence's sister is going to be married," she explained, "and the family wants an alphabetic list of friends to send the announcements to. This is the old list, and this the new one, and here's his list, and some names her mother jotted down,—they're all to be put in order. It's quite a job."
"At double pay, of course," Miss Mary said bitterly.
"I should hope so," Susan added.
Miss Lydia merely smiled humorously, benevolently, over her work.
"All in the day's work, Susan."
"All in your grandmother's foot," Susan said, inelegantly. Miss Lydia laughed a little reproachfully, but the invalid's rare, hearty laugh would have atoned to her for a far more irreverent remark.
"And no 'Halma'?" Susan said, suddenly. For the invalid lived for her game, every night. "Why didn't you tell me. I could have come up every night—" She got out the board, set up the men, shook Mary's pillows and pushed them behind the aching back. "Come on, Macduff," said she.
"Oh, Susan, you angel!" Mary Lord settled herself for an hour of the keenest pleasure she ever knew. She reared herself in her pillows, her lanky yellow hand hovered over the board, she had no eyes for anything but the absurd little red and yellow men.
She was a bony woman, perhaps forty-five, with hair cut across her lined forehead in the deep bang that had been popular in her girlhood. It was graying now, as were the untidy loops of hair above it, her face was yellow, furrowed, and the long neck that disappeared into her little flannel bed-sack was lined and yellowed too. She lay, restlessly and incessantly shifting herself, in a welter of slipping quilts and loose blankets, with her shoulders propped by fancy pillows,—some made of cigar-ribbons, one of braided strips of black and red satin, one in a shield of rough, coarse knotted lace, and one with a little boy printed in color upon it, a boy whose trousers were finished with real tin buttons. Mary Lord was always the first person Susan thought of when the girls in the office argued, ignorantly and vigorously, for or against the law of compensation. Here, in this stuffy boarding-house room, the impatient, restless spirit must remain, chained and tortured day after day and year after year, her only contact with the outer world brought by the little private governess,—her sister—who was often so tired and so dispirited when she reached home, that even her gallant efforts could not hide her depression from the keen eyes of the sick woman. Lydia taught the three small children of one of the city's richest women, and she and Mary were happy or were despondent in exact accord with young Mrs. Lawrence's mood. If the great lady were ungracious, were cold, or dissatisfied, Lydia trembled, for the little sum she earned by teaching was more than two-thirds of all that she and Mary had. If Mrs. Lawrence were in a happier frame of mind, Lydia brightened, and gratefully accepted the occasional flowers or candy, that meant to both sisters so much more than mere carnations or mere chocolates.
But if Lydia's life was limited, what of Mary, whose brain was so active that merely to read of great and successful deeds tortured her like a pain? Just to have a little share of the world's work, just to dig and water the tiniest garden, just to be able to fill a glass for herself with water, or to make a pudding, or to wash up the breakfast dishes, would have been to her the most exquisite delight in the world.
As it was she lay still, reading, sometimes writing a letter, or copying something for Lydia, always eager for a game of "Halma" or "Parchesi," a greater part of the time out of pain, and for a certain part of the twenty-four hours tortured by the slow-creeping agonies that waited for her like beasts in the darkness of every night. Sometimes Susan, rousing from the deep delicious sleep that always befriended her, would hear in the early morning, rarely earlier than two o'clock or later than four, the hoarse call in the front room, "Lyddie! Lyddie!" and the sleepy answer and stumbling feet of the younger sister, as she ran for the merciful pill that would send Miss Mary, spent with long endurance, into deep and heavenly sleep. Susan had two or three times seen the cruel trial of courage that went before the pill, the racked and twisting body, the bitten lip, the tortured eyes on the clock.
Twice or three times a year Miss Mary had very bad times, and had to see her doctor. Perhaps four times a month Miss Lydia beamed at Susan across the breakfast table, "No pill last night!" These were the variations of the invalid's life.
Susan, while Mary considered her moves to-night, studied the room idly, the thousand crowded, useless little possessions so dear to the sick; the china statuettes, the picture post-cards, the photographs and match-boxes and old calendars, the dried "whispering-grass" and the penwipers. Her eyes reached an old photograph; Susan knew it by heart. It represented an old-fashioned mansion, set in a sweeping lawn, shaded by great trees. Before one wing an open barouche stood, with driver and lackey on the box, and behind the carriage a group of perhaps ten or a dozen colored girls and men were standing on the steps, in the black-and-white of house servants. On the wide main steps of the house were a group of people, ladies in spreading ruffled skirts, a bearded, magnificent old man, young men with heavy mustaches of the sixties, and some small children in stiff white. Susan knew that the heavy big baby on a lady's lap was Lydia, and that among the children Mary was to be found, with her hair pushed straight back under a round-comb, and scallops on the top of her high black boots. The old man was her grandfather, and the house the ancestral home of the Lords... Whose fault was it that just a little of that ease had not been safely guarded for these two lonely women, Susan wondered. What WAS the secret of living honestly, with the past, with the present, with those who were to come?
"Your play. Wake up. Sue!" laughed Mary. "I have you now, I can yard in seven moves!"
"No skill to that," said Susan hardily, "just sheer luck!"
"Oh you wicked story-teller!" Mary laughed delightedly, and they set the men for another game.
"No, but you're really the lucky one, Sue," said the older woman presently.
"I lucky!" and Susan laughed as she moved her man.
"Well, don't you think you are?"
"I think I'm darned unlucky!" the girl declared seriously.
"Here—here! Descriptive adjectives!" called Lydia, but the others paid no heed.
"Sue, how can you say so!"
"Well, I admit, Miss Mary," Susan said with pretty gravity, "that God hasn't sent me what he has sent you to bear, for some inscrutable reason,—I'd go mad if He had! But I'm poor—"
"Now, look here," Mary said authoritatively. "You're young, aren't you? And you're good-looking, aren't you?"
"Don't mince matters, Miss Mary. Say beautiful," giggled Susan.
"I'm in earnest. You're the youngest and prettiest woman in this house. You have a good position, and good health, and no encumbrances—"
"I have a husband and three children in the Mission, Miss Mary. I never mentioned them—"
"Oh, behave yourself, Sue! Well! And, more than that, you have—we won't mention one special friend, because I don't want to make you blush, but at least a dozen good friends among the very richest people of society. You go to lunch with Miss Emily Saunders, and to Burlingame with Miss Ella Saunders, you get all sorts of handsome presents—isn't this all true?"
"Absolutely," said Susan so seriously, so sadly, that the invalid laid a bony cold one over the smooth brown one arrested on the "Halma" board.
"Why, I wasn't scolding you, dearie!" she said kindly. "I just wanted you to appreciate your blessings!"
"I know—I know," Susan answered, smiling with an effort. She went to bed a little while later profoundly depressed.
It was all true, it was all true! But, now that she had it, it seemed so little! She was beginning to be popular in the Saunders set,—her unspoiled freshness appealed to more than one new friend, as it had appealed to Peter Coleman and to Emily and Ella Saunders. She was carried off for Saturday matinees, she was in demand for one Sunday after another. She was always gay, always talkative, she had her value, as she herself was beginning to perceive. And, although she met very few society men, just now, being called upon to amuse feminine luncheons or stay overnight with Emily when nobody else was at home, still her social progress seemed miraculously swift to Thorny, to Billy and Georgie and Virginia, even sometimes to herself. But she wanted more—more—more! She wanted to be one of this group herself, to patronize instead of accepting patronage.
Slowly her whole nature changed to meet this new hope. She made use of every hour now, discarded certain questionable expressions, read good books, struggled gallantly with her natural inclination to procrastinate. Her speech improved, the tones of her voice, her carriage, she wore quiet colors how, and became fastidious in the matter of belts and cuffs, buttons and collars and corsets. She diverted Mary Lou by faithfully practicing certain beautifying calisthenics at night.
Susan was not deceived by the glittering, prismatic thing known as Society. She knew that Peter Coleman's and Emily Saunders' reverence for it was quite the weakest thing in their respective characters. She knew that Ella's boasted family was no better than her own, and that Peter's undeniable egoism was the natural result of Peter's up- bringing, and that Emily's bright unselfish interest in her, whatever it had now become, had commenced with Emily's simple desire to know Peter through Susan, and have an excuse to come frequently to Hunter, Baxter & Hunter's when Peter was there.
Still, she could not divest these three of the old glory of her first impressions. She liked Emily and Ella none the less because she understood them better, and felt that, if Peter had his human weaknesses, he was all the nearer her for that.
Mrs. Lancaster would not allow her to dine down-town with him alone. Susan laughed at the idea that she could possibly do anything questionable, but kept the rule faithfully, and, if she went to the theater alone with Peter, never let him take her to supper afterward. But they had many a happy tea-hour together, and on Sundays lunched in Sausalito, roamed over the lovely country roads, perhaps stopped for tea at the Carrolls', or came back to the city and had it at the quiet Palace. Twice Peter was asked to dine at Mrs. Lancaster's, but on the first occasion he and Susan were begged by old Mrs. Baxter to come and amuse her loneliness instead, and on the second Susan telephoned at the last moment to say that Alfie was at home and that Auntie wanted to ask Peter to come some other time.
Alfie was at home for a dreadful week, during which the devoted women suffered agonies of shame and terror. After that he secured, in the miraculous way that Alfie always did secure, another position and went away again.
"I can stand Alfie," said Susan to Billy in strong disgust. "But it does make me sick to have Auntie blaming his employers for firing him, and calling him a dear unfortunate boy! She said to me to-day that the other clerks were always jealous of Alfie, and tried to lead him astray! Did you ever hear such blindness!"
"She's always talked that way," Billy answered, surprised at her vehemence. "You used to talk that way yourself. You're the one that has changed."
Winter came on rapidly. The mornings were dark and cold now when Susan dressed, the office did not grow comfortably warm until ten o'clock, and the girls wore their coats loose across their shoulders as they worked.
Sometimes at noon Miss Thornton and Susan fared forth into the cold, sunny streets, and spent the last half of the lunch-hour in a brisk walk. They went into the high-vaulted old Post Street Library for books, threaded their way along Kearney Street, where the noontide crowd was gaily ebbing and flowing, and loitered at the Flower Market, at Lotta's Fountain, drinking in the glory of violets and daffodils, under the winter sun. Now and then they lunched uptown at some inexpensive restaurant that was still quiet and refined. The big hotels were far too costly but there were several pretty lunchrooms, "The Bird of Paradise," "The London Tearoom," and, most popular of all, "The Ladies Exchange."
The girls always divided a twenty-five-cent entree between them, and each selected a ten-cent dessert, leaving a tip for the waitress out of their stipulated half-dollar. It was among the unwritten laws that the meal must appear to more than satisfy both.
"Thorny, you've got to have the rest of this rice!" Susan would urge, gathering the slender remains of "Curried chicken family style" in her serving spoon.
"Honestly, Susan, I couldn't! I've got more than I want here," was the orthodox response.
"It'll simply go to waste here," Susan always said, but somehow it never did. The girls loitered over these meals, watching the other tables, and the women who came to the counters to buy embroidered baby-sacques, and home-made cakes and jellies.
"Wouldn't you honestly like another piece of plum pie, Sue?" Thorny would ask.
"I? Oh, I couldn't! But YOU have one, Thorny—"
"I simply couldn't!" So it was time to ask for the check.
They were better satisfied, if less elegantly surrounded, when they went to one of the downtown markets, and had fried oysters for lunch. Susan loved the big, echoing places, cool on the hottest day, never too cold, lined with long rows of dangling, picked fowls, bright with boxes of apples and oranges. The air was pleasantly odorous of cheeses and cooked meats, cocks crowed unseen in crates and cages, bare-headed boys pushed loaded trucks through the narrow aisles. Susan and Miss Thornton would climb a short flight of whitewashed stairs to a little lunch-room over one of the oyster stalls. Here they could sit at a small table, and look down at the market, the shoppers coming and going, stout matrons sampling sausages and cheeses, and Chinese cooks, bareheaded, bare-ankled, dressed in dark blue duck, selecting broilers and roasts.
Their tablecloth here was coarse, but clean, and a generous management supplied several sauces, a thick china bowl of crackers, a plate heaped with bread, salty yellow butter, and saucers of boiled shrimps with which guests might occupy themselves until the arrival of the oysters. Presently the main dish arrived, some forty small, brown, buttery oysters on each smoking hot plate. No pretense was necessary at this meal, there was enough, and more than enough. Susan's cheeks would burn rosily all afternoon. She and Thorny departing never tailed to remark, "How can they do it for twenty- five cents?" and sometimes spent the walk back to the office in a careful calculation of exactly what the meal had cost the proprietor.
"Did he send you a Christmas present?" asked Thorny one January day, when an irregular bill had brought her to Susan's desk.
"Who? Oh, Mr. Coleman?" Susan looked up innocently. "Yes, yes indeed he did. A lovely silver bureau set. Auntie was in two minds about letting me keep it." She studied the bill. "Well, that's the regular H. B. & H. Talcum Powder," she said, "only he's made them a price on a dozen gross. Send it back, and have Mr. Phil O. K. it!"
"A silver set! You lucky kid! How many pieces?"
"Oh, everything. Even toilet-water bottles, and a hatpin holder. Gorgeous." Susan wrote "Mr. P. Hunter will please O. K." in the margin against the questioned sale.
"You take it pretty coolly, Sue," Miss Thornton said, curiously.
"It's cool weather, Thorny dear." Susan smiled, locked her firm young hands idly on her ledger, eyed Miss Thornton honestly. "How should I take it?" said she.
The silver set had filled all Mrs. Lancaster's house with awed admiration on Christmas Day, but Susan could not forget that Peter had been out of town on both holidays, and that she had gained her only knowledge of his whereabouts from the newspapers. A handsome present had been more than enough to satisfy her wildest dreams, the year before. It was not enough now.
"S'listen, Susan. You're engaged to him?"
"Honestly,—cross my heart!—I'm not."
"But you will be when he asks you?"
"Thorny, aren't you awful!" Susan laughed; colored brilliantly.
"Well, WOULDN'T you?" the other persisted.
"I don't suppose one thinks of those things until they actually happen," Susan said slowly, wrinkling a thoughtful forehead. Thorny watched her for a moment with keen interest, then her own face softened suddenly.
"No, of course you don't!" she agreed kindly. "Do you mind my asking, Sue?"
"No-o-o!" Susan reassured her. As a matter of fact, she was glad when any casual onlooker confirmed her own secret hopes as to the seriousness of Peter Coleman's intention.
Peter took her to church on Easter Sunday, and afterward they went to lunch with his uncle and aunt, spent a delightful rainy afternoon with books and the piano, and, in the casual way that only wealth makes possible, were taken downtown to dinner by old Mr. Baxter at six o'clock. Taking her home at nine o' clock, Peter told her that he was planning a short visit to Honolulu with the Harvey Brocks. "Gee, I wish you were going along!" he said.
"Wouldn't it be fun!" Susan agreed.
"Well, say! Mrs. Brock would love it—" he began eagerly.
"Oh, Peter, don't talk nonsense!" Susan felt, at a moment like this, that she actually disliked him.
"I suppose it couldn't be worked," he said sadly. And no more of it was said.
He came into the office but once that week. Late in a summer-like afternoon Susan looked down at Mr. Baxter's office to see Peter spreading his steamer tickets on the desk. He looked up and laughed at her, and later ran up to the deck for a few minutes to say good- bye. They said it laughingly, among the hot-water bags and surgical accessories, but when Susan went back to her desk the laughter had died from her eyes.
It was an unseasonably warm spring day, she was wearing the first shirtwaist of the year, and had come downtown that morning through the fresh early air on the dummy-front. It was hard to-day to be shut up in a stuffy office. Outside, the watercarts were making the season's first trip along Front Street and pedestrians chose the shady side to-day. Susan thought of the big Oriental liner, the awnings that shaded the decks, the exquisitely cool and orderly little cabins, the green water rushing alongside. And for her the languorous bright afternoon had lost its charm.
She did not see Peter Coleman again for a long time. Summer came, and Susan went on quiet little Sunday picnics to the beach with Auntie and Mary Lou, or stayed at home and pressed her collars and washed her hair. Once or twice she and Billy went over to the Carrolls' Sausalito home, to spend a happy, quiet week-end. Susan gossiped with the busy, cheerful mother over the dish-pan, played "Parchesi" with fifteen-year-old Jim and seventeen-year-old Betsey, reveled in a confidential, sisterly attitude with handsome Phil, the oldest of the half-dozen, and lay awake deep into the warm nights to talk, and talk, and talk with Josephine, who, at her own age, seemed to Susan a much finer, stronger and more developed character. If Anna, the lovely serious oldest daughter, happened to be at home on one of her rare absences from the training-hospital, Susan became her shadow. She loved few people in the world as she loved Anna Carroll. But, in a lesser degree, she loved them all, and found these hours in the shabby, frugal little home among the very happiest of a lonely summer.
About once a month she was carried off by the Saunders, in whose perfectly appointed guest-room she was by this time quite at home. The Fourth of July fell on a Friday this year, and Mr. Brauer, of his own volition, offered Susan the following day as a holiday, too. So that Susan, with a heart as light as sunshine itself, was free to go with Ella Saunders for a memorable visit to Del Monte and Santa Cruz.
It was one of the perfect experiences only possible to youth and irresponsibility. They swam, they went for the Seventeen-Mile Drive, they rode horseback. Ella knew every inch of the great hotels, even some of the waiters and housekeepers. She had the best rooms, she saw that Susan missed nothing. They dressed for dinner, loitered about among the roses in the long twilight, and Susan met a young Englishman who later wrote her three letters on his way home to Oxfordshire. Ella's exquisite gowns had a chapter all to themselves when Susan was telling her cousins about it, but Susan herself alternated contentedly enough between the brown linen with the daisy-hat and the black net with the pearl band in her hair. Miss Saunders' compliments, her confidences, half-intoxicated the girl.
It was with a little effort that she came back to sober every-day living. She gave a whole evening to Mary Lord, in her eagerness to share her pleasure. The sick woman was not interested in gowns, but she went fairly wild when Susan spoke of Monterey,—the riotous gardens with their walls of white plaster topped with red pipe, the gulls wheeling over the little town, the breakers creaming in lazy, interlocking curves on the crescent of the beach, and the little old plaster church, with its hundred-year-old red altar-cloth, and its altar-step worn into grooves from the knees of the faithful.
"Oh, I must see the sea again!" cried Mary.
"Well, don't talk that way! You will," Lydia said cheerfully. But Susan, seeing the shadow on the kind, plain face, wished that she had held her tongue.
It was late in July that Georgianna Lancaster startled and shocked the whole boarding-house out of its mid-summer calm. Susan, chronically affected by a wish that "something would happen," had been somewhat sobered by the fact that in poor Virginia's case something HAD happened. Suddenly Virginia's sight, accepted for years by them all as "bad," was very bad indeed. The great eye- doctor was angry that it had not been attended to before. "But it wasn't like this before!" Virginia protested patiently. She was always very patient after that, so brave indeed that the terrible thing that was coming swiftly and inevitably down upon her seemed quite impossible for the others to credit. But sometimes Susan heard her voice and Mrs. Lancaster's voice rising and falling for long, long talks in the night. "I don't believe it!" said Susan boldly, finding this attitude the most tenable in regard to Virginia's blindness.
Georgie's news, if startling, was not all bad. "Perhaps it'll raise the hoodoo from all of us old maids!" said Susan, inelegantly, to Mr. Oliver. "O'Connor doesn't look as if he had sense enough to raise anything, even the rent!" answered Billy cheerfully.
Susan heard the first of it on a windy, gritty Saturday afternoon, when she was glad to get indoors, and to take off the hat that had been wrenching her hair about. She came running upstairs to find Virginia lying limp upon the big bed, and Mary Lou, red-eyed and pale, sitting in the rocking-chair.
"Come in, dear, and shut it," said Mary Lou, sighing. "Sit down, Sue."
"What is it?" said Susan uneasily.
"Oh, Sue—-!" began Virginia, and burst into tears.
"Now, now, darling!" Mary Lou patted her sister's hand.
"Auntie—" Susan asked, turning pale.
"No, Ma's all right," Mary Lou reassured her, "and there's nothing really wrong, Sue. But Georgie—Georgie, dear, she's married to Joe O'Connor! Isn't it DREADFUL?"
"But Ma's going to have it annulled," said Virginia instantly.
"Married!" Susan gasped. "You mean engaged!"
"No, dear, married," Mary Lou repeated, in a sad, musical voice. "They were married on Monday night—"
"Tell me!" commanded Susan, her eyes flashing with pleasurable excitement.
"We don't know much, Sue dear. Georgie's been acting rather odd and she began to cry after breakfast this morning, and Ma got it out of her. I thought Ma would faint, and Georgie just SCREAMED. I kept calling out to Ma to be calm—" Susan could imagine the scene. "So then Ma took Georgie upstairs, and Jinny and I worked around, and came up here and made up this room. And just before lunch Ma came up, and—she looked chalk-white, didn't she, Jinny?"
"She looked-well, as white as this spread," agreed Virginia.
"Well, but what accounts for it!" gasped Susan. "Is Georgie CRAZY! Joe O'Connor! That snip! And hasn't he an awful old mother, or someone, who said that she'd never let him come home again if he married?"
"Listen, Sue!—You haven't heard half. It seems that they've been engaged for two months—"
"Yes. And on Monday night Joe showed Georgie that he'd gotten the license, and they got thinking how long it would be before they could be married, what with his mother, and no prospects and all, and they simply walked into St. Peter's and were married!"
"Well, he'll have to leave his mother, that's all!" said Susan.
"Oh, my dear, that's just what they quarreled about! He WON'T."
"No, if you please! And you can imagine how furious that made Georgie! And when Ma told us that, she simply set her lips,—you know Ma! And then she said that she was going to see Father Birch with Georgie this afternoon, to have it annulled at once."
"Without saying a word to Joe!"
"Oh, they went first to Joe's. Oh, no, Joe is perfectly willing. It was, as Ma says, a mistake from beginning to end."
"But how can it be annulled, Mary Lou?" Susan asked.
"Well, I don't understand exactly," Mary Lou answered coloring. "I think it's because they didn't go on any honeymoon—they didn't set up housekeeping, you know, or something like that!"
"Oh," said Susan, hastily, coloring too. "But wouldn't you know that if any one of us did get married, it would be annulled!" she said disgustedly. The others both began to laugh.
Still, it was all very exciting. When Georgie and her mother got home at dinner-time, the bride was pale and red-eyed, excited, breathing hard. She barely touched her dinner. Susan could not keep her eyes from the familiar hand, with its unfamiliar ring.
"I am very much surprised and disappointed in Father Birch," said Mrs. Lancaster, in a family conference in the dining-room just after dinner. "He seems to feel that the marriage may hold, which of course is too preposterous! If Joe O'Connor has so little appreciation—!"
"Ma!" said Georgie wearily, pleadingly.
"Well, I won't, my dear." Mrs. Lancaster interrupted herself with a visible effort. "And if I am disappointed in Joe," she presently resumed majestically. "I am doubly disappointed in Georgie. My baby- -that I always trusted—!"
Young Mrs. O'Connor began silently, bitterly, to cry. Susan went to sit beside her, and put a comforting arm about her.
"I have looked forward to my girls' wedding days," said Mrs. Lancaster, "with such feelings of joy! How could I anticipate that my own daughter, secretly, could contract a marriage with a man whose mother—" Her tone, low at first, rose so suddenly and so passionately that she was unable to control it. The veins about her forehead swelled.
"Ma!" said Mary Lou, "you only lower yourself to her level!"
"Do you mean that she won't let him bring Georgie there?" asked Susan.
"Whether she would or not," Mrs. Lancaster answered, with admirable loftiness, "she will not have a chance to insult my daughter. Joe, I pity!" she added majestically. "He fell deeply and passionately in love—"
"With Loretta," supplied Susan, innocently.
"He never cared for Loretta!" her aunt said positively. "No. With Georgie. And, not being a gentleman, we could hardly expect him to act like one! But we'll say no more about it. It will all be over in a few days, and then we'll try to forget it!"
Poor Georgie, it was but a sorry romance! Joe telephoned, Joe called, Father Birch came, the affair hung fire. Georgie was neither married nor free. Dr. O'Connor would not desert his mother, his mother refused to accept Georgie. Georgie cried day and night, merely asseverating that she hated Joe, and loved Ma, and she wished people would let her alone.
These were not very cheerful days in the boarding-house. Billy Oliver was worried and depressed, very unlike himself. He had been recently promoted to the post of foreman, was beginning to be a power among the men who associated with him and, as his natural instinct for leadership asserted itself, he found himself attracting some attention from the authorities themselves. He was questioned about the men, about their attitude toward this regulation or that superintendent. It was hinted that the spreading of heresies among the laborers was to be promptly discouraged. The men were not to be invited to express themselves as to hours, pay and the advantages of unifying. In other words, Mr. William Oliver, unless he became a little less interested and less active in the wrongs and rights of his fellow-men in the iron-works, might be surprised by a request to carry himself and his public sentiments elsewhere.
Susan, in her turn, was a little disturbed by the rumor that Front Office was soon to be abolished; begun for a whim, it might easily be ended for another whim. For herself she did not very much care; a certain confidence in the future was characteristic of her, but she found herself wondering what would become of the other girls, Miss Sherman and Miss Murray and Miss Cottle.
She felt far more deeply the pain that Peter's attitude gave her, a pain that gnawed at her heart day and night. He was home from Honolulu now, and had sent her several curious gifts from Hawaii, but, except for distant glimpses in the office, she had not seen him.
One evening, just before dinner, as she was dressing and thinking sadly of the weeks, the months, that had passed since their last happy evening together, Lydia Lord came suddenly into the room. The little governess looked white and sick, and shared her distress with Susan in a few brief sentences. Here was Mrs. Lawrence's check in her hand, and here Mrs. Lawrence's note to say that her services, as governess to Chrissy and Donald and little Hazel, would be no longer required. The blow was almost too great to be realized.
"But I brought it on myself, Sue, yes I did!" said Lydia, with dry lips. She sat, a shapeless, shabby figure, on the side of the bed, and pressed a veined hand tightly against her knobby temples, "I brought it on myself. I want to tell you about it. I haven't given Mary even a hint! Chrissy has been ill, her throat—they've had a nurse, but she liked me to sit with her now and then. So I was sitting there awhile this morning, and Mrs. Lawrence's sister, Miss Bacon, came in, and she happened to ask me—oh, if only she HADN'T!- -if I knew that they meant to let Yates operate on Chrissy's throat. She said she thought it was a great pity. Oh, if only I'd held my tongue, fool, fool, FOOL that I was!" Miss Lydia took down her hand, and regarded Susan with hot, dry eyes. "But, before I thought," she pursued distressedly, "I said yes, I thought so too,—I don't know just what words I used, but no more than that! Chrissy asked her aunt if it would hurt, and she said, 'No, no, dear!' and I began reading. And now, here's this note from Mrs. Lawrence saying that she cannot overlook the fact that her conduct was criticized and discussed before Christina—! And after five years, Sue! Here, read it!"
"Beast!" Susan scowled at the monogrammed sheet, and the dashing hand. Miss Lydia clutched her wrist with a hot hand.
"What shall I do, Sue?" she asked, in agony.
"Well, I'd simply—" Susan began boldly enough. But a look at the pathetic, gray-haired figure on the bed stopped her short. She came, with the glory of her bright hair hanging loose about her face, to sit beside Lydia. "Really, I don't know, dear," she said gently. "What do YOU think?"
"Sue, I don't know!" And, to Susan's horror, poor Lydia twisted about, rested her arm on the foot of the bed, and began to cry.
"Oh, these rich!" raged Susan, attacking her hair with angry sweeps of the brush. "Do you wonder they think that the earth was made for them and Heaven too! They have everything! They can dash you off a note that takes away your whole income, they can saunter in late to church on Easter Sunday and rustle into their big empty pews, when the rest of us have been standing in the aisles for half an hour; they can call in a doctor for a cut finger, when Mary has to fight perfect agonies before she dares afford it—Don't mind me," she broke off, penitently, "but let's think what's to be done. You couldn't take the public school examinations, could you, Miss Lydia? it would be so glorious to simply let Mrs. Lawrence slide!"
"I always meant to do that some day," said Lydia, wiping her eyes and gulping, "but it would take time. And meanwhile—And there are Mary's doctor's bills, and the interest on our Piedmont lot—" For the Lord sisters, for patient years, had been paying interest, and an occasional installment, on a barren little tract of land nine blocks away from the Piedmont trolley.
"You could borrow—" began Susan.
But Lydia was more practical. She dried her eyes, straightened her hair and collar, and came, with her own quiet dignity, to the discussion of possibilities. She was convinced that Mrs. Lawrence had written in haste, and was already regretting it.
"No, she's too proud ever to send for me," she assured Susan, when the girl suggested their simply biding their time, "but I know that by taking me back at once she would save herself any amount of annoyance and time. So I'd better go and see her to-night, for by to-morrow she might have committed herself to a change."
"But you hate to go, don't you?" Susan asked, watching her keenly.
"Ah, well, it's unpleasant of course," Lydia said simply. "She may be unwilling to accept my apology. She may not even see me. One feels so—so humiliated, Sue."
"In that case, I'm going along to buck you up," said Susan, cheerfully.
In spite of Lydia's protests, go she did. They walked to the Lawrence home in a night so dark that Susan blinked when they finally entered the magnificent, lighted hallway.
The butler obviously disapproved of them. He did not quite attempt to shut the door on them, but Susan felt that they intruded.
"Mrs. Lawrence is at dinner, Miss Lord," he reminded Lydia, gravely.
"Yes, I know, but this is rather—important, Hughes," said Lydia, clearing her throat nervously.
"You had better see her at the usual time to-morrow," suggested the butler, smoothly. Susan's face burned. She longed to snatch one of the iron Japanese swords that decorated the hall, and with it prove to Hughes that his insolence was appreciated. But more reasonable tactics must prevail.
"Will you say that I am here, Hughes?" Miss Lord asked quietly.
"Presently," he answered, impassively.
Susan followed him for a few steps across the hall, spoke to him in a low tone.
"Too bad to ask you to interrupt her, Mr. Hughes," said she, in her friendly little way, "but you know Miss Lord's sister has been having one of her bad times, and of course you understand—?" The blue eyes and the pitiful little smile conquered. Hughes became human.
"Certainly, Miss," he said hoarsely, "but Madam is going to the theater to-night, and it's no time to see her."
"I know," Susan interposed, sympathetically.
"However, ye may depend upon my taking the best moment," Hughes said, before disappearing, and when he came back a few moments later, he was almost gracious.
"Mrs. Lawrence says that if you wish to see her you'll kindly wait, Miss Lord. Step in here, will you, please? Will ye be seated, ladies? Miss Chrissy's been asking for you the whole evening, Miss Lord."
"Is that so?" Lydia asked, brightening. They waited, with fast- beating hearts, for what seemed a long time. The great entrance to the flower-filled embrasure that led to the dining-room was in full view from where they stood, and when Mrs. Lawrence, elegantly emacinated, wonderfully gowned and jeweled, suddenly came out into the tempered brilliance of the electric lights both girls went to meet her.
Susan's heart burned for Lydia, faltering out her explanation, in the hearing of the butler.
"This is hardly the time to discuss this, Miss Lord," Mrs. Lawrence said impatiently, "but I confess I am surprised that a woman who apparently valued her position in my house should jeopardize it by such an extraordinary indiscretion—"
Susan's heart sank. No hope here!
But at this moment some six or seven young people followed Mrs. Lawrence out of the dining-room and began hurriedly to assume their theater wraps, and Susan, with a leap of her heart, recognized among them Peter Coleman, Peter splendid in evening dress, with a light overcoat over his arm, and a silk hat in his hand. His face brightened when he saw her, he dropped his coat, and came quickly across the hall, hands outstretched.
"Henrietta! say that you remember your Percy!" he said joyously, and Susan, coloring prettily, said "Oh, hush!" as she gave him her hand. A rapid fire of questions followed, he was apparently unconscious of, or indifferent to, the curiously watching group.
"Well, you two seem to be great friends," Mrs. Lawrence said graciously, turning from her conversation with Miss Lord.
"This is our cue to sing 'For you was once My Wife,' Susan!" Peter suggested. Susan did not answer him. She exchanged an amused, indulgent look with Mrs. Lawrence. Perhaps the girl's quiet dignity rather surprised that lady, for she gave her a keen, appraising look before she asked, pleasantly:
"Aren't you going to introduce me to your old friend, Peter?"
"Not old friends," Susan corrected serenely, as they were introduced.
"But vurry, vurry de-ah," supplemented Peter, "aren't we?"
"I hope Mrs. Lawrence knows you well enough to know how foolish you are, Peter!" Susan said composedly.
And Mrs. Lawrence said brightly, "Indeed I do! For we ARE very old friends, aren't we, Peter?"
But the woman's eyes still showed a little puzzlement. The exact position of this girl, with her ready "Peter," her willingness to disclaim an old friendship, her pleasant unresponsiveness, was a little hard to determine. A lady, obviously, a possible beauty, and entirely unknown—
"Well, we must run," Mrs. Lawrence recalled herself to say suddenly. "But why won't you and Miss Lord run up to see Chrissy for a few moments, Miss Brown? The poor kiddy is frightfully dull. And you'll be here in the morning as usual, Miss Lord? That's good. Good- night!"
"You did that, Sue, you darling!" exulted Lydia, as they ran down the stone steps an hour later, and locked arms to walk briskly along the dark street. "Your knowing Mr. Coleman saved the day!" And, in the exuberance of her spirits, she took Susan into a brightly lighted little candy-store, and treated her to ice-cream. They carried some home in a dripping paper box for Mary, who was duly horrified, agitated and rejoiced over the history of the day.
Through Susan's mind, as she lay wakeful in bed that night, one scene after another flitted and faded. She saw Mrs. Lawrence, glittering and supercilious, saw Peter, glowing and gay, saw the butler, with his attempt to be rude, and the little daughter of the house, tossing about in the luxurious pillows of her big bed. She thought of Lydia Lord's worn gloves, fumbling in her purse for money, of Mary Lord, so gratefully eating melting ice-cream from a pink saucer, with a silver souvenir spoon!
Two different worlds, and she, Susan, torn between them! How far she was from Peter's world, she felt that she had never realized until to-night. How little gifts and pleasures signified from a man whose life was crowded with nothing else! How helpless she was, standing by while his life whirled him further and further away from the dull groove in which her own feet were set!
Yet Susan's evening had not been without its little cause for satisfaction. She had treated Peter coolly, with dignity, with reserve, and she had seen it not only spur him to a sudden eagerness to prove his claim to her friendship, but also have its effect upon his hostess. This was the clue, at last.
"If ever I have another chance," decided Susan, "he won't have such easy sailing! He will have to work for my friendship as if I were the heiress, and he a clerk in Front Office."
August was the happiest month Susan had ever known, September even better, and by October everybody at Mrs. Lancaster's boarding-house was confidently awaiting the news of Susan Brown's engagement to the rich Mr. Peter Coleman. Susan herself was fairly dazed with joy. She felt herself the most extraordinarily fortunate girl in the world.
Other matters also prospered. Alfred Lancaster had obtained a position in the Mission, and seemed mysteriously inclined to hold it, and to conquer his besetting weakness. And Georgie's affair was at a peaceful standstill. Georgie had her old place in the house, was changed in nothing tangible, and, if she cried a good deal, and went about less than before, she was not actively unhappy. Dr. O'Connor came once a week to see her, an uncomfortable event, during which Georgie's mother was with difficulty restrained from going up to the parlor to tell Joe what she thought of a man who put his mother before his wife. Virginia was bravely enduring the horrors of approaching darkness. Susan reproached herself for her old impatience with Jinny's saintliness; there was no question of her cousin's courage and faith during this test. Mary Lou was agitatedly preparing for a visit to the stricken Eastmans, in Nevada, deciding one day that Ma could, and the next that Ma couldn't, spare her for the trip.
Susan walked in a golden cloud. No need to hunt through Peter's letters, to weigh his words,—she had the man himself now unequivocally in the attitude of lover.
Or if, in all honesty, she knew him to be a little less than that, at least he was placing himself in that light, before their little world. In that world theatre-trips, candy and flowers have their definite significance, the mere frequency with which they were seen together committed him, surely, to something! They paid dinner-calls together, they went together to week-end visits to Emily Saunders, at least two evenings out of every week were spent together. At any moment he might turn to her with the little, little phrase that would settle this uncertainty once and for all! Indeed it occurred to Susan sometimes that he might think it already settled, without words. At least once a day she flushed, half-delighted, half- distressed,—under teasing questions on the subject from the office force, or from the boarders at home; all her world, apparently, knew.
One day, in her bureau drawer, she found the little card that had accompanied his first Christmas gift, nearly two years before. Why did a keen pain stir her heart, as she stood idly twisting it in her fingers? Had not the promise of that happy day been a thousand times fulfilled?
But the bright, enchanting hope that card had brought had been so sickeningly deferred! Two years!—she was twenty-three now.
Mrs. Lancaster, opening the bedroom door a few minutes later, found Susan in tears, kneeling by the bed.
"Why, lovey! lovey!" Her aunt patted the bowed head. "What is it, dear?"
"Nothing!" gulped Susan, sitting back on her heels, and drying her eyes.
"Not a quarrel with Peter?"
"Oh, auntie, no!"
"Well," her aunt sighed comfortably, "of course it's an emotional time, dear! Leaving the home nest—" Mrs. Lancaster eyed her keenly, but Susan did not speak. "Remember, Auntie is to know the first of all!" she said playfully. Adding, after a moment's somber thought, "If Georgie had told Mama, things would be very different now!"
"Poor Georgie!" Susan smiled, and still kneeling, leaned on her aunt's knees, as Mrs. Lancaster sat back in the rocking chair.
"Poor Georgie indeed!" said her mother vexedly. "It's more serious than you think, dear. Joe was here last night. It seems that he's going to that doctor's convention, at Del Monte a week from next Saturday, and he was talking to Georgie about her going, too."
Susan was thunderstruck.
"But, Auntie, aren't they going to be divorced?"
Mrs. Lancaster rubbed her nose violently.
"They are if I have anything to say!" she said, angrily. "But, of course, Georgie has gotten herself into this thing, and now Mama isn't going to get any help in trying to get her out! Joe was extremely rude and inconsiderate about it, and got the poor child crying—!"
"But, Auntie, she certainly doesn't want to go!"
"Certainly she doesn't. And to come home to that dreadful WOMAN, his mother? Use your senses, Susan!"
"Why don't you forbid Joe O'Connor the house, Auntie?"
"Because I don't want any little whipper-snapper of a medical graduate from the Mission to DARE to think he can come here, in my own home, and threaten me with a lawsuit, for alienating his wife's affections!" Mrs. Lancaster said forcibly. "I never in my life heard such impudence!"
"Is he mad!" exclaimed Susan, in a low, horrified tone.
"Well, I honestly think he is!" Mrs. Lancaster, gratified by this show of indignation, softened. "But I didn't mean to distress you with this, dear," said she. "It will all work out, somehow. We mustn't have any scandal in the family just now, whatever happens, for your sake!"
Pursuant to her new-formed resolutions, Susan was maintaining what dignity she could in her friendship with Peter nowadays. And when, in November, Peter stopped her on the "deck" one day to ask her, "How about Sunday, Sue? I have a date, but I think I can get out of it?" she disgusted him by answering briskly, "Not for me, Peter. I'm positively engaged for Sunday."
"Oh, no, you're not!" he assured her, firmly.
"Oh, truly I am!" Susan nodded a good-by, and went humming into the office, and that night made William Oliver promise to take her to the Carrolls' in Sausalito for the holiday.
So on a hazy, soft November morning they found themselves on the cable-car that in those days slipped down the steep streets of Nob Hill, through the odorous, filthy gaiety of the Chinese quarter, through the warehouse district, and out across the great crescent of the water-front. Billy, well-brushed and clean-shaven, looked his best to-day, and Susan, in a wide, dashing hat, with fresh linen at wrists and collar, enjoyed the innocent tribute of many a passing glance from the ceaseless current of men crossing and recrossing the ferry place.
"If they try to keep us for dinner, we'll bashfully remain," said Billy, openly enchanted by the prospect of a day with his adored Josephine.
But first they were to have a late second breakfast at Sardi's, the little ramshackle Sausalito restaurant, whose tables, visible through green arches, hung almost directly over the water. It was a cheap meal, oily and fried, but Susan was quite happy, hanging over the rail to watch the shining surface of the water that was so near. The reflection of the sun shifted in a ceaselessly moving bright pattern on the white-washed ceiling, the wash of the outgoing steamer surged through the piles, and set to rocking all the nearby boats at anchor.
After luncheon, they climbed the long flights of steps that lead straight through the village, which hangs on the cliff like a cluster of sea-birds' nests. The gardens were bare and brown now, the trees sober and shabby.
When the steps stopped, they followed a road that ran like a shelf above the bay and waterfront far below, and that gave a wonderful aspect of the wide sweep of hills and sky beyond, all steeped in the thin, clear autumn haze. Billy pushed open a high gate that had scraped the path beyond in a deep circular groove, and they were in a fine, old-fashioned garden, filled with trees. Willow and pepper and eucalyptus towered over the smaller growth of orange and lemon- verbena trees; there were acacia and mock-orange and standard roses, and hollyhock stalks, bare and dry. Only the cosmos bushes, tall and wavering, were in bloom, with a few chrysanthemums and late asters, the air was colder here than it had been out under the bright November sun, and the path under the trees was green and slippery.
On a rise of ground stood the plain, comfortable old house, with a white curtain blowing here and there at an open window and its front door set hospitably ajar. But not a soul was in sight.
Billy and Susan were at home here, however, and went through the hallway to open a back door that gave on the kitchen. It was an immaculate kitchen, with a fire glowing sleepily behind the shining iron grating of the stove, and sunshine lying on the well-scrubbed floor. A tall woman was busy with plants in the bright window.
"Well, you nice child!" she exclaimed, her face brightening as Susan came into her arms for her motherly kiss. "I was just thinking about you! We've been hearing things about you, Sue, and wondering—and wondering—! And Billy, too! The girls will be delighted!"
This was the mother of the five Carrolls, a mother to whom it was easy to trace some of their beauty, and some of their courage. In the twelve long years of her widowhood, from a useless, idle, untrained member of a society to which all three adjectives apply, this woman had grown to be the broad and brave and smiling creature who was now studying Susan's face with the insatiable motherliness that even her household's constant claims failed to exhaust. Manager and cook and houseworker, seamstress and confidante to her restless, growing brood, still there was a certain pure radiance that was never quite missing from her smile, and Susan felt a mad impulse to- day to have a long comforting cry on the broad shoulder. She thoroughly loved Mrs. Carroll, even if she thought the older woman's interest in soups and darning and the filling of lamps a masterly affectation, and pitied her for the bitter fate that had robbed her of home and husband, wealth and position, at the very time when her children needed these things the most.
They two went into the sitting-room now, while Billy raced after the young people who had taken their luncheon, it appeared, and were walking over the hills to a favorite spot known as "Gioli's" beach.
Susan liked this room, low-ceiled and wide, which ran the length of the house. It seemed particularly pleasant to-day, with the uncertain sunlight falling through the well-darned, snowy window- curtains, the circle of friendly, shabby chairs, the worn old carpet, scrupulously brushed, the reading-table with a green-shaded lamp, and the old square piano loaded with music. The room was in Sunday order to-day, books, shabby with much handling, were ranged neatly on their shelves, not a fallen leaf lay under the bowl of late roses on the piano.
Susan had had many a happy hour in this room, for if the Carrolls were poor to the point of absurdity, their mother had made a sort of science of poverty, and concentrated her splendid mind on the questions of meals, clothes, and the amusements of their home evenings. That it had been a hard fight, was still a hard fight, Susan knew. Philip, the handsome first-born, had the tendencies and temptations natural to his six-and-twenty years; Anna, her mother's especial companion, was taking a hard course of nursing in a city hospital; Josephine, the family beauty, at twenty, was soberly undertaking a course in architecture, in addition to her daily work in the offices of Huxley and Huxley; even little Betsey was busy, and Jimmy still in school; so that the brunt of the planning, of the actual labor, indeed, fell upon their mother. But she had carried a so much heavier burden, that these days seemed bright and easeful to Mrs. Carroll, and the face she turned to Susan now was absolutely unclouded.
"What's all the news, Sue? Auntie's well, and Mary Lou? And what do they say now of Jinny? Don't tell me about Georgie until the girls are here! And what's this I hear of your throwing down Phil completely, and setting up a new young man?"
"Please'm, you never said I wasn'ter," Susan laughed.
"No, indeed I never did! You couldn't do a more sensible thing!"
"Oh, Aunt Jo!" The title was only by courtesy. "I thought you felt that every woman ought to have a profession!"
"A means of livelihood, my dear, not a profession necessarily! Yes, to be used in case she didn't marry, or when anything went wrong if she did," the older woman amended briskly. "But, Sue, marriage first for all girls! I won't say," she went on thoughtfully, "that any marriage is better than none at all, but I could ALMOST say that I thought that! That is, given the average start, I think a sensible woman has nine chances out of ten of making a marriage successful, whereas there never was a really complete life rounded out by a single woman."
"My young man has what you'll consider one serious fault," said Susan, dimpling.
"Dear, dear! And what's that?"
"Peter Coleman, yes, of course he is!" Mrs. Carroll frowned thoughtfully. "Well, that isn't NECESSARILY bad, Susan!"
"Aunt Josephine," Susan said, really shaken out of her nonsense by the serious tone, "do you honestly think it's a drawback? Wouldn't you honestly rather have Jo, say, marry a rich man than a poor man, other things being equal?"
"Honestly no, Sue," said Mrs. Carroll.
"But if the rich man was just as good and brave and honest and true as the poor one?" persisted the girl.
"But he couldn't be, Sue, he never is. The fibers of his moral and mental nature are too soft. He's had no hardening. No," Mrs. Carroll shook her head. "No, I've been rich, and I've been poor. If a man earns his money honestly himself, he grows old during the process, and he may or may not be a strong and good man. But if he merely inherits it, he is pretty sure not to be one."
"But aren't there some exceptions?" asked Susan. Mrs. Carroll laughed at her tone.
"There are exceptions to everything! And I really believe Peter Coleman is one," she conceded smilingly. "Hark!" for feet were running down the path outside.
"There you are, Sue!" said Anna Carroll, putting a glowing face in the sitting-room door. "I came back for you! The others said they would go slowly, and we can catch them if we hurry!"
She came in, a brilliant, handsome young creature, in rough, well- worn walking attire, and a gipsyish hat. Talking steadily, as they always did when together, she and Susan went upstairs, and Susan was loaned a short skirt, and a cap that made her prettier than ever.
The house was old, there was a hint of sagging here and there, in the worn floors, the bedrooms were plainly furnished, almost bare. In the atmosphere there lingered, despite the open windows, the faint undefinable odor common to old houses in which years of frugal and self-denying living have set their mark, an odor vaguely compounded of clean linen and old woodwork, hot soapsuds and ammonia. The children's old books were preserved in old walnut cases, nothing had been renewed, recarpeted, repapered for many years.
Still talking, the girls presently ran downstairs, and briskly followed the road that wound up, above the village, to the top of the hill. Anna chattered of the hospital, of the superintendent of nurses, who was a trial to all the young nurses, "all superintendents are tyrants, I think," said Anna, "and we just have to shut our teeth and bear it! But it's all so unnecessarily hard, and it's wrong, too, for nursing the sick is one thing, and being teased by an irritable woman like that is another! However," she concluded cheerfully, "I'll graduate some day, and forget her! And meantime, I don't want to worry mother, for Phil's just taken a real start, and Bett's doctor's bills are paid, and the landlord, by some miracle, has agreed to plaster the kitchen!"
They joined the others just below the top of the hill, and were presently fighting the stiff wind that blew straight across the ridge. Once over it, however, the wind dropped, the air was deliciously soft and fresh and their rapid walking made the day seem warm. There was no road; their straggling line followed the little shelving paths beaten out of the hillside by the cows.
Far below lay the ocean, only a tone deeper than the pale sky. The line of the Cliff House beach was opposite, a vessel under full sail was moving in through the Golden Gate. The hills fell sharply away to the beach, Gioli's ranch-house, down in the valley, was only one deeper brown note among all the browns. Here and there cows were grazing, cotton-tails whisked behind the tall, dried thistles.
The Carrolls loved this particular walk, and took it in all weathers. Sometimes they had a guest or two,—a stray friend of Philip's, or two or three of Anna's girl friends from the hospital. It did not matter, for there was no pairing off at the Carroll picnics. Oftener they were all alone, or, as to-day, with Susan and Billy, who were like members of the family.
To-day Billy, Jimmy and Betsey were racing ahead like frolicking puppies; up banks, down banks, shrieking, singing and shouting. Phil and Josephine walked together, they were inseparable chums, and Susan thought them a pretty study to-day; Josephine so demurely beautiful in her middy jacket and tam-o-shanter cap, and Philip so obviously proud of her.
She and Anna, their hands sunk in their coat-pockets, their hair loosening under the breezes, followed the others rather silently.
And swiftly, subtly, the healing influences of the hour crept into Susan's heart. What of these petty little hopes and joys and fears that fretted her like a cloud of midges day and night? How small they seemed in the wide silence of these brooding hills, with the sunlight lying warm on the murmuring ocean below, and the sweet kindly earth underfoot!
"I wish I could live out here, Nance, and never go near to people and things again!"
"Oh, DON'T you, Sue!"
There was a delay at the farmhouse for cream. The ranchers' damp dooryard had been churned into deep mud by the cows, strong odors, delicious to Susan, because they were associated with these happy days, drifted about, the dairy reeked of damp earth, wet wood, and scoured tinware. The cream, topping the pan like a circle of leather, was loosened by a small, sharp stick, and pushed, thick and lumpy, into the empty jam jar that Josephine neatly presented. A woman came to the ranch-house door with a grinning Portuguese greeting, the air from the kitchen behind her was close, and reeked of garlic and onions and other odors. Susan and Anna went in to look at the fat baby, a brown cherub whose silky black lashes curved back half an inch from his cheeks. There were half a dozen small children in the kitchen, cats, even a sickly chicken or two.
"Very different from the home life of our dear Queen!" said Susan, when they were out in the air again.
The road now ran between marshy places full of whispering reeds, occasional crazy fences must be crossed, occasional pools carefully skirted. And then they were really crossing the difficult strip of sandy dead grasses, and cocoanut shells, and long-dried seaweeds that had been tossed up by the sea in a long ridge on the beach, and were racing on the smooth sand, where the dangerous looking breakers were rolling so harmlessly. They shouted to each other now, above the roar of the water, as they gathered drift-wood for their fire, and when the blaze was well started, indulged in the fascinating pastime of running in long curves so near to the incoming level rush of the waves that they were all soon wet enough to feel that no further harm could be done by frankly wading in the shallows, posing for Philip's camera on half-submerged rocks, and chasing each other through a frantic game of beach tag. It was the prudent Josephine,— for Anna was too dreamy and unpractical to bring her attention to detail,—who suggested a general drying of shoes, as they gathered about the fire for the lunch—toasted sandwiches, and roasted potatoes, and large wedges of apple-pie, and the tin mugs of delicious coffee that crowned all these feasts. Only sea-air accounted for the quantities in which the edibles disappeared; the pasteboard boxes and the basket were emptied to the last crumb, and the coffee-pot refilled and emptied again.