The meal was not long over, and the stiffened boots were being buttoned with the aid of bent hairpins, when the usual horrifying discovery of the time was made. Frantic hurrying ensued, the tin cups, dripping salt water, were strung on a cord, the cardboard boxes fed the last flicker of the fire, the coffee-pot was emptied into the waves.
And they were off again, climbing up—up—up the long rise of the hills. The way home always seemed twice the way out, but Susan found it a soothing, comforting experience to-day. The sun went behind a cloud; cows filed into the ranch gates for milking; a fine fog blew up from the sea.
"Wonderful day, Anna!" Susan said. The two were alone together again.
"These walks do make you over," Anna's bright face clouded a little as she turned to look down the long road they had come. "It's all so beautiful, Sue," she said, slowly, "and the spring is so beautiful, and books and music and fires are so beautiful. Why aren't they enough? Nobody can take those things away from us!"
"I know," Susan said briefly, comprehending.
"But we set our hearts on some silly thing not worth one of these fogs," Anna mused, "and nothing but that one thing seems to count!"
"I know," Susan said again. She thought of Peter Coleman.
"There's a doctor at the hospital," Anna said suddenly. "A German, Doctor Hoffman. Of course I'm only one of twenty girls to him, now. But I've often thought that if I had pretty gowns, and the sort of home,—you know what I mean, Sue! to which one could ask that type of really distinguished man—-"
"Well, look at my case—-" began Susan.
It was almost dark when the seven stormed the home kitchen, tired, chilly, happy, ravenous. Here they found Mrs. Carroll, ready to serve the big pot-roast and the squares of yellow cornbread, and to have Betsey and Billy burn their fingers trying to get baked sweet potatoes out of the oven. And here, straddling a kitchen chair, and noisily joyous as usual, was Peter Coleman. Susan knew in a happy instant that he had gone to find her at her aunt's, and had followed her here, and during the meal that followed, she was the maddest of all the mad crowd. After dinner they had Josephine's violin, and coaxed Betsey to recite, but more appreciated than either was Miss Brown's rendition of selections from German and Italian opera, and her impersonation of an inexperienced servant from Erin's green isle. Mrs. Carroll laughed until the tears ran down her cheeks, as indeed they all did.
The evening ended with songs about the old piano, "Loch Lomond," "Love's Old Sweet Song," and "Asthore." Then Susan and Peter and Billy must run for their hats and wraps.
"And Peter thinks there's MONEY in my window-washer!" said Mrs. Carroll, when they were all loitering in the doorway, while Betts hunted for the new time-table.
"Mother's invention" was a standing joke with the young Carrolls, but their mother had a serene belief that some day SOMETHING might be done with the little contrivance she had thought of some years ago, by which the largest of windows might be washed outside as easily as inside. "I believe I really thought of it by seeing poor maids washing fifth-story windows by sitting on the sill and tipping out!" she confessed one day to Susan. Now she had been deeply pleased by Peter's casual interest in it.
"Peter says that there's NO reason—-" she began.
"Oh, Mother!" Josephine laughed indulgently, as she stood with her arm about her mother's waist, and her bright cheek against her mother's shoulder, "you've NOT been taking Peter seriously!"
"Jo, when I ask you to take me seriously, it'll be time for you to get so fresh!" said Peter neatly.
"Your mother is the Lady Edison of the Pacific Coast, and don't you forget it! I'm going to talk to some men at the shop about this thing—-"
"Say, if you do, I'll make some blue prints," Billy volunteered.
"You're on!" agreed Mr. Coleman.
"You wouldn't want to market this yourself, Mrs. Carroll?"
"Well—no, I don't think so. No, I'm sure I wouldn't! I'd rather sell it for a lump sum—-"
"To be not less than three dollars," laughed Phil.
"Less than three hundred, you mean!" said the interested Peter.
"Three hundred!" Mrs. Carroll exclaimed. "Do you SUPPOSE so?"
"Why, I don't know—but I can find out"
The trio, running for their boat, left the little family rather excited, for the first time, over the window-cleaner.
"But, Peter, is there really something in it?" asked Susan, on the boat.
"Well,—there might be. Anyway, it seemed a good chance to give them a lift, don't you know?" he said, with his ingenuous blush. Susan loved him for the generous impulse. She had sometimes fancied him a little indifferent to the sufferings of the less fortunate, proof of the contrary warmed her to the very heart! She had been distressed one day to hear him gaily telling George Banks, the salesman who was coughing himself to death despite the frantic care of his wife, a story of a consumptive, and, on another occasion, when a shawled, shabby woman had come up to them in the street, with the whined story of five little hungry children, Susan had been shocked to hear Peter say, with his irrepressible gaiety, "Well, here! Here's five cents; that's a cent apiece! Now mind you don't waste it!"
She told herself to-night that these things proved no more than want of thought. There was nothing wrong with the heart that could plan so tactfully for Mrs. Carroll.
On the following Saturday Susan had the unexpected experience of shopping with Mrs. Lancaster and Georgie for the latter's trousseau. It was unlike any shopping that they had ever done before, inasmuch as the doctor's unclaimed bride had received from her lord the sum of three hundred dollars for the purpose. Georgie denied firmly that she was going to start with her husband for the convention at Del Monte that evening, but she went shopping nevertheless. Perhaps she could not really resist the lure of the shining heap of gold pieces. She became deeply excited and charmed over the buying of the pretty tailor-made, the silk house dresses, the hat and shoes and linen. Georgie began to play the bride, was prettily indignant with clerks, pouted at silks and velvets. Susan did not miss her cousin's bright blush when certain things, a linen suit, underlinen, a waist or two, were taken from the mass of things to be sent, and put into Georgie's suitcase.
"And you're to have a silk waist, Ma, I INSIST."
"Now, Baby love, this is YOUR shopping. And, more than that, I really need a pair of good corsets before I try on waists!"
"Then you'll have both!" Mrs. Lancaster laughed helplessly as the bride carried her point.
At six o'clock the three met the doctor at the Vienna Bakery, for tea, and Georgie, quite lofty in her attitude when only her mother and cousin were to be impressed, seemed suddenly to lose her powers of speech. She answered the doctor's outline of his plans only by monosyllables. "Yes," "All right," "That's nice, Joe." Her face was burning red.
"But Ma—Ma and I—and Sue, too, don't you, Sue?" she stammered presently. "We think—and don't you think it would be as well, yourself, Joe, if I went back with Ma to-night—-"
Susan, anxiously looking toward the doctor, at this, felt a little thrill run over her whole body at the sudden glimpse of the confident male she had in his reply,—or rather, lack of reply. For, after a vague, absent glance at Georgie, he took a time-table out of his pocket, and addressed his mother-in-law.
"We'll be back next Sunday, Mrs. Lancaster. But don't worry if you don't hear from Georgie that day, for we may be late, and Mother won't naturally want us to run off the moment we get home. But on Monday Georgie can go over, if she wants to. Perhaps I'll drive her over, if I can."
"He was the coolest—-!" Susan said, half-annoyed, half-admiring, to Mary Lou, late that night. The boarding-house had been pleasantly fluttered by the departure of the bride, Mrs. Lancaster, in spite of herself, had enjoyed the little distinction of being that personage's mother.
"Well, she'll be back again in a week!" Virginia, missing her sister, sighed.
"Back, yes," Mrs. Lancaster admitted, "but not quite the same, dear!" Georgie, whatever her husband, whatever the circumstances of her marriage, was nearer her mother than any of the others now. As a wife, she was admitted to the company of wives.
Susan spent the evening in innocently amorous dreams, over her game of patience. What a wonderful thing, if one loved a man, to fare forth into the world with him as his wife!——
"I have about as much chance with Joe Carroll as a dead rat," said Billy suddenly. He was busied with his draughting board and the little box of draughts-man's instruments that Susan always found fascinating, and had been scowling and puffing over his work.
"Why?" Susan asked, laughing outright. "Oh, she's so darn busy!" Billy said, and returned to his work.
Susan pondered it. She wished she were so "darned" busy that Peter Coleman might have to scheme and plan to see her.
"That's why men's love affairs are considered so comparatively unimportant, I suppose," she submitted presently. "Men are so busy!"
Billy paid no attention to the generality, and Susan pursued it no further.
But after awhile she interrupted him again, this time in rather an odd tone.
"Billy, I want to ask you something—-"
"Ask away," said Billy, giving her one somewhat startled glance.
Susan did not speak immediately, and he did not hurry her. A few silent minutes passed before she laid a card carefully in place, studied it with her head on one side, and said casually, in rather a husky voice:
"Billy, if a man takes a girl everywhere, and gives her things, and seems to want to be with her all the time, he's in love with her, isn't he?"
Billy, apparently absorbed in what he was doing, cleared his throat before he answered carelessly:
"Well, it might depend, Sue. When a man in my position does it, a girl knows gosh darn well that if I spend my good hard money on her I mean business!"
"But—it mightn't be so—with a rich man?" hazarded Susan bravely.
"Why, I don't know, Sue." An embarrassed red had crept into William's cheeks. "Of course, if a fellow kissed her—-"
"Oh, heavens!" cried Susan, scarlet in turn, "he never did anything like THAT!"
"Didn't, hey?" William looked blank.
"Oh, never!" Susan said, meeting his look bravely. "He's—he's too much of a gentleman, Bill!"
"Perhaps that's being a gentleman, and perhaps it's not," said Billy, scowling. "He—but he—he makes love to you, doesn't he?" The crude phrase was the best he could master in this delicate matter.
"I don't—I don't know!" said Susan, laughing, but with flaming cheeks. "That's it! He—he isn't sentimental. I don't believe he ever would be, it's not his nature. He doesn't take anything very seriously, you know. We talk all the time, but not about really serious things." It sounded a little lame. Susan halted.
"Of course, Coleman's a perfectly decent fellow—-" Billy began, with brotherly uneasiness.
"Oh, absolutely!" Susan could laugh, in her perfect confidence. "He acts exactly as if I were his sister, or another boy. He never even- -put his arm about me," she explained, "and I—I don't know just what he DOES mean—-"
"Sure," said Billy, thoughtfully.
"Of course, there's no reason why a man and a girl can't be good friends just as two men would," Susan said, more lightly, after a pause.
"Oh, yes there is! Don't you fool yourself!" Billy said, gloomily. "That's all rot!"
"Well, a girl can't stay moping in the house until a man comes along and says, 'If I take you to the theater it means I want to marry you!'" Susan declared with spirit. "I—I can't very well turn to Peter now and say, 'This ends everything, unless you are in earnest!'"
Her distress, her earnestness, her eagerness for his opinion, had carried her quite out of herself. She rested her face in her hands, and fixed her anxious eyes upon him.
"Well, here's the way I figure it out," Billy said, deliberately, drawing his pencil slowly along the edge of his T-square, and squinting at it absorbedly, "Coleman has a crush on you, all right, and he'd rather be with you than anyone else—-"
Yes," nodded Susan. "I know that, because—-"
"Well. But you see you're so fixed that you can't entertain him here, Sue, and you don't run in his crowd, so when he wants to see you he has to go out of his way to do it. So his rushing you doesn't mean as much as it otherwise would."
"I suppose that's true," Susan said, with a sinking heart.
"The chances are that he doesn't want to get married at all yet," pursued Billy, mercilessly, "and he thinks that if he gives you a good time, and doesn't—doesn't go any further, that he's playing fair."
"That's what I think," Susan said, fighting a sensation of sickness. Her heart was a cold weight, she hoped that she was not going to cry.
"But all the same, Sue," Billy resumed more briskly, "You can see that it wouldn't take much to bring an affair like that to a finish. Coleman's rich, he can marry if he pleases, and he wants what he wants—-You couldn't just stop short, I suppose? You couldn't simply turn down all his invitations, and refuse everything?" he broke off to ask.
"Billy, how could I? Right in the next office!"
"Well, that's an advantage, in a way. It keeps the things in his mind. Either way, you're no worse off for stopping everything now, Sue. If he's in earnest, he'll not be put off by that, and if he's not, you save yourself from—from perhaps beginning to care."
Susan could have kissed the top of Billy's rumpled head for the tactful close. She had thrown her pride to the winds to-night, but she loved him for remembering it.
"But he would think that I cared!" she objected.
"Let him! That won't hurt you. Simply say that your aunt disapproves of your being so much with him, and stop short."
Billy went on working, and Susan shuffled her pack for a new game.
"Thank you, Bill," she said at last, gratefully. "I'm glad I told you."
"Oh, that's all right!" said William, gruffly.
There was a silence until Mary Lou came in, to rip up her old velvet hat, and speculate upon the clangers of a trip to Virginia City.
Life presented itself in a new aspect to Susan Brown. A hundred little events and influences combining had made it seem to her less a grab-bag, from which one drew good or bad at haphazard, and more a rational problem, to be worked out with arbitrarily supplied materials. She might not make herself either rich or famous, but she COULD,—she began dimly to perceive,—eliminate certain things from her life and put others in their places. The race was not to the swift, but to the faithful. What other people had done, she, by following the old copybook rules of the honest policy, the early rising, the power of knowledge, the infinite capacity of taking pains that was genius, could do, too. She had been the toy of chance too long. She would grasp chance, now, and make it serve her. The perseverance that Anna brought to her hospital work, that Josephine exercised in her studies, Susan, lacking a gift, lacking special training, would seriously devote to the business of getting married. Girls DID marry. She would presumably marry some day, and Peter Coleman would marry. Why not, having advanced a long way in this direction, to each other?
There was, in fact, no alternative in her case. She knew no other eligible man half as well. If Peter Coleman went out of her life, what remained? A somewhat insecure position in a wholesale drug- house, at forty dollars a month, and half a third-story bedroom in a boarding-house.
Susan was not a calculating person. She knew that Peter Coleman liked her immensely, and that he could love her deeply, too. She knew that her feeling for him was only held from an extreme by an inherited feminine instinct of self-preservation. Marriage, and especially this marriage, meant to her a great many pleasant things, a splendid, lovable man with whom to share life, a big home to manage and delight in, a conspicuous place in society, and one that she knew that she could fill gracefully and well. Marriage meant children, dear little white-clad sons, with sturdy bare knees, and tiny daughters half-smothered in lace and ribbons; it meant power, power to do good, to develop her own gifts; it meant, above all, a solution of the problems of her youth. No more speculations, no more vagaries, safely anchored, happily absorbed in normal cares and pleasures, Susan could rest on her laurels, and look about her in placid content!
No more serious thought assailed her. Other thoughts than these were not "nice." Susan safe-guarded her wandering fancies as sternly as she did herself, would as quickly have let Peter, or any other man, kiss her, as to have dreamed of the fundamental and essential elements of marriage. These, said Auntie, "came later." Susan was quite content to ignore them. That the questions that "came later" might ruin her life or unmake her compact, she did not know. At this point it might have made no difference in her attitude. Her affection for Peter was quite as fresh and pure as her feeling for a particularly beloved brother would have been.
"You're dated three-deep for Thursday night, I presume?"
"Peter—how you do creep up behind one!" Susan turned, on the deck, to face him laughingly. "What did you say?"
"I said—but where are you going?"
"Upstairs to lunch. Where did you think?" Susan exhibited the little package in her hand. "Do I look like a person about to go to a Browning Cotillion, or to take a dip in the Pacific?"
"No," gurgled Peter, "but I was wishing we could lunch together. However, I'm dated with Hunter. But what about Thursday night?"
"Thursday." Susan reflected. "Peter, I can't!"
"All foolishness. You can."
"No, honestly! Georgie and Joe are coming. The first time."
"Oh, but you don't have to be there!"
"Oh, but yes I do!"
"Well—-" Mr. Coleman picked a limp rubber bathing cap from the top of a case, and distended it on two well-groomed hands. "Well, Evangeline, how's Sat.? The great American pay-day!"
"Busy Saturday, too. Too bad. I'm sorry, Peter."
"Woman, you lie!"
"Of course you can insult me, sir. I'm only a working girl!"
"No, but who have you got a date with?" Peter said curiously. "You're blushing like mad! You're not engaged at all!"
"Yes, I am. Truly. Lydia Lord is taking the civil service examinations; she wants to get a position in the public library. And I promised that I'd take Mary's dinner up and sit with her."
"Oh, shucks! You could get out of that! However——I'll tell you what, Susan. I was going off with Russ on Sunday, but I'll get out of it, and we'll go see guard mount at the Presidio, and have tea with Aunt Clara, what?"
"I don't believe they have guard mount on Sundays."
"Well, then we'll go feed the gold-fish in the Japanese gardens,— they eat on Sundays, the poor things! Nobody ever converted them."
"Look here, Susan!" he exclaimed, suddenly aroused. "Are you trying to throw me down? Well, of all gall!"
Susan's heart began to thump.
"No, of course I'm not!"
"Well, then, shall I get tickets for Monday night?"
"Look here, Susan! Somebody's been stuffing you, I can see it! Was it Auntie? Come on, now, what's the matter, all of a sudden?"
"There's nothing sudden about it," Susan said, with dignity, "but Auntie does think that I go about with you a good deal—-"
Peter was silent. Susan, stealing a glance at his face, saw that it was very red.
"Oh, I love that! I'm crazy about it!" he said, grinning. Then, with sudden masterfulness, "That's all ROT! I'm coming for you on Sunday, and we'll go feed the fishes!"
And he was gone. Susan ate her lunch very thoughtfully, satisfied on the whole with the first application of the new plan.
On Sunday afternoon Mr. Coleman duly presented himself at the boarding-house, but he was accompanied by Miss Fox, to whom Susan, who saw her occasionally at the Saunders', had taken a vague dislike, and by a Mr. Horace Carter, fat, sleepy, and slightly bald at twenty-six.
"I brought 'em along to pacify Auntie," said Peter on the car.
Susan made a little grimace.
"You don't like Con? Oh, she's loads of sport!" he assured her. "And you'll like Carter, too, he's loads of fun!"
But Susan liked nobody and nothing that day. It was a failure from beginning to end. The sky was overcast, gloomy. Not a leaf stirred on the dripping trees, in the silent Park, fog filled all the little canons. There were very few children on the merry-go-rounds, or in the swings, and very few pleasure-seekers in the museum and the conservatories. Miss Fox was quite comfortable in white furs, but Susan felt chilly. She tried to strike a human spark from Mr. Carter, but failed. Attempts at a general conversation also fell flat.
They listened to the band for a little while, but it was too cold to sit still very long, and when Peter proposed tea at the Occidental, Susan visibly brightened. But the shamed color rose in her face when Miss Fox languidly assured him that if he wanted her mother to scalp her, well and good; if not, he would please not mention tea downtown.
She added that Mama was having a tea herself to-day, or she would ask them all to come home with her. This put Susan in an uncomfortable position of which she had to make the best.
"If it wasn't for an assorted bunch of boarders," said Susan, "I would ask you all to our house."
Miss Fox eyed her curiously a moment, then spoke to Peter.
"Well, do let's do something, Peter! Let's go to the Japanese garden."
To the Japanese garden they went, for a most unsatisfactory tea. Miss Fox, it appeared, had been to Japan,—"with Dolly Ripley, Peter," said she, carelessly mentioning the greatest of California's heiresses, and she delighted the little bowing, smiling tea-woman with a few words in her native tongue. Susan admired this accomplishment, with the others, as she drank the tasteless fluid from tiny bowls.
Only four o'clock! What an endless afternoon it had been!
Peter took her home, and they chatted on the steps gaily enough, in the winter twilight. But Susan cried herself to sleep that night. This first departure from her rule had proven humiliating and disastrous; she determined not to depart from it again.
Georgie and the doctor came to the house for the one o'clock Christmas dinner, the doctor instantly antagonizing his wife's family by the remark that his mother always had her Christmas dinner at night, and had "consented" to their coming, on condition that they come home again early in the afternoon. However, it was delightful to have Georgie back again, and the cousins talked and laughed together for an hour, in Mary Lou's room. Almost the first question from the bride was of Susan's love-affair, and what Peter's Christmas gift had been.
"It hasn't come yet, so I don't know myself!" Susan said readily. But that evening, when Georgie was gone and her aunt and cousins were at church, she sat down to write to Peter.
MY DEAR PETER (wrote Susan):
This is a perfectly exquisite pin, and you are a dear to have remembered my admiring a pearl crescent months ago. I never saw a pin that I liked better, but it's far too handsome a gift for me to keep. I haven't even dared show it to Auntie and the girls! I am sending it back to you, though I hate to let it go, and thank you a thousand times.
Always affectionately yours,
Peter answered immediately from the country house where he was spending the holidays. Susan read his letter in the office, two days after Christmas.
DEAR PANSY IRENE:
I see Auntie's fine Italian hand in this! You wait till your father gets home, I'll learn you to sass back! Tell Mrs. Lancaster that it's an imitation and came in a box of lemon drops, and put it on this instant! The more you wear the better, this cold weather!
I've got the bulliest terrier ever, from George. Show him to you next week. PETER.
Frowning thoughtfully, her eyes still on the scribbled half-sheet, Susan sat down at her desk, and reached for paper and pen. She wrote readily, and sent the letter out at once by the office boy.
Please don't make any more fuss about the pin. I can't accept it, and that's all there is to it. The candy was quite enough—I thought you were going to send me books. Hadn't you better change your mind and send me a book? As ever, S. B.
To which Peter, after a week's interval, answered briefly:
This fuss about the pin gives me a pain. I gave a dozen gifts handsomer than that, and nobody else seems to be kicking.
Be a good girl, and Love the Giver. PETER.
This ended the correspondence. Susan put the pin away in the back of her bureau-drawer, and tried not to think about the matter.
January was cold and dark. Life seemed to be made to match. Susan caught cold from a worn-out overshoe, and spent an afternoon and a day in bed, enjoying the rest from her aching head to her tired feet, but protesting against each one of the twenty trips that Mary Lou made up and downstairs for her comfort. She went back to the office on the third day, but felt sick and miserable for a long time and gained strength slowly.
One rainy day, when Peter Coleman was alone in Mr. Brauer's office, she took the little jeweler's box in and laid it beside him on the desk.
"This is all darn foolishness!" Peter said, really annoyed.
"Well—-" Susan shrugged wearily, "it's the way I feel about it."
"I thought you were more of a sport!" he said impatiently, holding the box as if he did not quite know what to do with it.
"Perhaps I'm not," Susan said quietly. She felt as if the world were slowly, dismally coming to an end, but she stood her ground.
An awkward silence ensued. Peter slipped the little box into his pocket. They were both standing at his high desk, resting their elbows upon it, and half-turned, so that they faced each other.
"Well," he said, discontentedly, "I've got to give you something or other for Christmas. What'll it be?"
"Nothing at all, Peter," Susan protested, "just don't say anything more about it!"
He meditated, scowling.
"Are you dated for to-morrow night?" he asked.
"Yes," Susan said simply. The absence of explanation was extremely significant.
"So you're not going out with me any more?" he asked, after a pause.
"Not—for awhile," Susan agreed, with a little difficulty. She felt a horrible inclination to cry.
"Well, gosh, I hope somebody is pleased at the trouble she has made!" Peter burst out angrily.
"If you mean Auntie, Peter," indignation dried Susan's tears, "you are quite mistaken! Anyway, she would be quite right not to want me to accept expensive gifts from a man whose position is so different from my own—-"
"Rot!" said Peter, flushing, "that sounds like servants' talk!"
"Well, of course I know it is nonsense—-" Susan began. And, despite her utmost effort, two tears slipped down her cheeks.
"And if we were engaged it would be all right, is that it?" Peter said, after an embarrassed pause.
"Yes, but I don't want you to think for one instant—-" Susan began, with flaming cheeks.
"I wish to the Lord people would mind their own business," Peter said vexedly. There was a pause. Then he added, cheerfully, "Tell 'em we're engaged then, that'll shut 'em up!"
The world rocked for Susan.
"Oh, but Peter, we can't—it wouldn't be true!"
"Why wouldn't it be true?" he demanded, perversely.
"Because we aren't!" persisted Susan, rubbing an old blot on the desk with a damp forefinger.
"I thought one day we said that when I was forty-five and you were forty-one we were going to get married?" Peter presently reminded her, half in earnest, half irritated.
"D-d-did we?" stammered Susan, smiling up at him through a mist of tears.
"Sure we did. We said we were going to start a stock-ranch, and raise racers, don't you remember?"
A faint recollection of the old joke came to her.
"Well, then, are we to let people know that in twenty years we intend to be married?" she asked, laughing uncertainly.
Peter gave his delighted shout of amusement. The conversation had returned to familiar channels.
"Lord, don't tell anyone! WE'LL know it, that's enough!" he said.
That was all. There was no chance for sentiment, they could not even clasp hands, here in the office. Susan, back at her desk, tried to remember exactly what HAD been said and implied.
"Peter, I'll have to tell Auntie!" she had exclaimed.
Peter had not objected, had not answered indeed.
"I'll have to take my time about telling MY aunt," he had said, "but there's time enough! See here, Susan, I'm dated with Barney White in Berkeley to-night—is that all right?"
"Surely!" Susan had assured him laughingly.
"You see," Peter had explained, "it'll be a very deuce of a time before we'll want everyone to know. There's any number of things to do. So perhaps it's just as well if people don't suspect—-"
"Peter, how extremely like you not to care what people think as long as we're not engaged, and not to want them to suspect it when we are!" Susan could say, smiling above the deep hurt in her heart.
And Peter laughed cheerfully again.
Then Mr. Brauer came in, and Susan went back to her desk, brain and heart in a whirl. But presently one fact disengaged itself from a mist of doubts and misgivings, hopes and terrors. She and Peter were engaged to be married! What if vows and protestations, plans and confidences were still all to come, what if the very first kiss was still to come? The essential thing remained; they were engaged, the question was settled at last.
Peter was not, at this time, quite the ideal lover. But in what was he ever conventional; when did he ever do the expected thing? No; she would gain so much more than any other woman ever had gained by her marriage, she would so soon enter on a life that would make these days seem only a troubled dream, that she could well afford to dispense with some of the things her romantic nature half expected now. It might not be quite comprehensible in him, but it was certainly a convenience for her that he seemed to so dread an announcement just now. She must have some gowns for the entertainments that would be given them; she must have some money saved for trousseau; she must arrange a little tea at home, when, the boarders being eliminated, Peter could come to meet a few of the very special old friends. These things took time. Susan spent the dreamy, happy afternoon in desultory planning.
Peter went out at three o'clock with Barney White, looking in to nod Susan a smiling good-by. Susan returned to her dreams, determined that she would find the new bond as easy or as heavy as he chose to make it. She had only to wait, and fate would bring this wonderful thing her way; it would be quite like Peter to want to do the thing suddenly, before long, summon his aunt and uncle, her aunt and cousins, and announce the wedding and engagement to the world at once.
Lost in happy dreams, she did not see Thorny watching her, or catch the intense, wistful look with which Mr. Brauer so often followed her.
Susan had a large share of the young German's own dreams just now, a demure little Susan in a checked gingham apron, tasting jelly on a vine-shaded porch, or basting a chicken in a sunny kitchen, or pouring her lord's coffee from a shining pot. The dream Susan's hair was irreproachably neat, she wore shining little house-slippers, and she always laughed out,—the ringing peal of bells that Henry Brauer had once heard in the real Susan's laugh,—when her husband teased her about her old fancy for Peter Coleman. And the dream Susan was the happy mother of at least five little girls—all girls!—a little Susan that was called "Sanna," and an Adelaide for the gross-mutter in the old country, and a Henrietta for himself—-
Clean and strong and good, well-born and ambitious, gentle, and full of the love of books and music and flowers and children, here was a mate at whose side Susan might have climbed to the very summit of her dreams. But she never fairly looked at Mr. Brauer, and after a few years his plump dark little dumpling of a Cousin Linda came from Bremen to teach music in the Western city, and to adore clever Cousin Heinrich, and then it was time to hunt for the sunny kitchen and buy the shining coffee-pot and change little Sanna's name to Linchen.
For Susan was engaged to Peter Coleman! She went home on this particular evening to find a great box of American Beauty roses waiting for her, and a smaller box with them—the pearl crescent again! What could the happy Susan do but pin on a rose with the crescent, her own cheeks two roses, and go singing down to dinner?
"Lovey, Auntie doesn't like to see you wearing a pin like that!" Mrs. Lancaster said, noticing it with troubled eyes. "Didn't Peter send it to you?"
"Yes'm," said Susan, dimpling, as she kissed the older woman.
"Don't you know that a man has no respect for a girl who doesn't keep him a little at a distance, dear?"
"Oh,—is—that—so!" Susan spun her aunt about, in a mad reel.
"Susan!" gasped Mrs. Lancaster. Her voice changed, she caught the girl by the shoulders, and looked into the radiant face. "Susan?" she asked. "My child—-!"
And Susan strangled her with a hug, and whispered, "Yes—yes—yes! But don't you dare tell anyone!"
Poor Mrs. Lancaster was quite unable to tell anyone anything for a few moments. She sat down in her place, mechanically returning the evening greetings of her guests. Her handsome, florid face was quite pale. The soup came on and she roused herself to serve it; dinner went its usual way.
But going upstairs after dinner, Mary Lou, informed of the great event in some mysterious way, gave Susan's waist a girlish squeeze and said joyously, "Ma had to tell me, Sue! I AM so glad!" and Virginia, sitting with bandaged eyes in a darkened room, held out both hands to her cousin, later in the evening, and said, "God bless our dear little girl!" Billy knew it too, for the next morning he gave Susan one of his shattering hand-grasps and muttered that he was "darned glad, and Coleman was darned lucky," and Georgie, who was feeling a little better than usual, though still pale and limp, came in to rejoice and exclaim later in the day, a Sunday.
All of this made Susan vaguely uneasy. It was true, of course, and yet somehow it was all too new, too strange to be taken quite happily as a matter of course. She could only smile when Mary Lou assured her that she must keep a little carriage; when Virginia sighed, "To think of the good that you can do"; when Georgie warned her against living with the old people.
"It's awful, take my word for it!" said Georgie, her hat laid aside, her coat loosened, very much enjoying a cup of tea in the dining- room. Young Mrs. O'Connor did not grow any closer to her husband's mother. But it was to be noticed that toward her husband himself her attitude was changed. Joe was altogether too smart to be cooped up there in the Mission, it appeared; Joe was working much too hard, and yet he carried her breakfast upstairs to her every morning; Joe was an angel with his mother.
"I wish—of course you can explain to Peter now—but I wish that I could give you a little engagement tea," said Georgie, very much the matron.
"Oh, surely!" Susan hastened to reassure her. Nothing could have been less to her liking than any festivity involving the O'Connors just now. Susan had dined at the gloomy Mission Street house once, and retained a depressing memory of the dark, long parlor, with only one shutter opened in the bay window, the grim elderly hostess, in mourning, who watched Georgie incessantly, the hard-faced elderly maid, so obviously in league with her mistress against the new- comer, and the dinner that progressed from a thick, sad-looking soup to a firm, cold apple pie. There had been an altercation between the doctor and his mother on the occasion of Susan's visit because there had been no fire laid in Georgie's big, cold, upstairs bedroom. Susan, remembering all this, could very readily excuse Georgie from the exercise of any hospitality whatever.
"Don't give it another thought, Georgie!" said she.
"There'll be entertaining enough, soon!" said Mary Lou.
"But we aren't going to announce it for ever so long!" Susan said.
"Please, PLEASE don't tell anyone else, Auntie!" she besought over and over again.
"My darling, not for the world! I can perfectly appreciate the delicacy of feeling that makes you wish to leave all that to Peter! And who knows? Only ourselves, and Billy, who is as close to you as a dear brother could be, and Joe—-"
"Oh, is Georgie going to tell Joe?" Susan asked, dismayed.
"Well, now, perhaps she won't," Mrs. Lancaster said soothingly. "And I think you will find that a certain young gentleman is only too anxious to tell his friends what a lovely girl he has won!" finished Auntie archly.
Susan was somehow wretchedly certain that she would find nothing of the kind. As a matter of fact, it chanced to be a week when she had no engagements made with Peter, and two days went by—three—and still she did not hear from him.
By Thursday she was acutely miserable. He was evidently purposely avoiding her. Susan had been sleeping badly for several nights, she felt feverish with anxiety and uncertainty. On Thursday, when the girls filed out of the office at noon, she kept her seat, for Peter was in the small office and she felt as if she must have a talk with him or die. She heard him come into Front Office the moment she was alone, and began to fuss with her desk without raising her eyes.
"Hello!" said Peter, sitting on a corner of the desk. "I've been terribly busy with the Gerald theatricals, and that's why you haven't seen me. I promised Mary Gerald two months ago that I'd be in 'em, but by George! she's leaving the whole darn thing to me! How are you?"
So gay, so big, so infinitely dear! Susan's doubts melted like mist. She only wanted not to make him angry.
"I've been wondering where you were," she said mildly.
"And a little bit mad in spots?" queried Peter.
"Well—-" Susan took firm grip of her courage. "After our little talk on Saturday," she reminded him, smilingly.
"Sure," said Peter. And after a moment, thoughtfully staring down at the desk, he added again rather heavily, "Sure."
"I told my aunt—I had to," said Susan then.
"Well, that's all right," Peter responded, after a perceptible pause. "Nobody else knows?"
"Oh, nobody!" Susan answered, her heart fluttering nervously at his tone, and her courage suddenly failing.
"And Auntie will keep mum, of course," he said thoughtfully. "It would be so deuced awkward, Susan," he began.
"Oh, I know it!" she said eagerly. It seemed so much, after the unhappy apprehensions of the few days past, to have him acknowledge the engagement, to have him only concerned that it should not be prematurely made known!
"Can't we have dinner together this evening, Sue? And go see that man at the Orpheum,—they say he's a wonder!"
"Why, yes, we could. Peter,—-" Susan made a brave resolution. "Peter, couldn't you dine with us, at Auntie's, I mean?"
"Why, yes, I could," he said hesitatingly. But the moment had given Susan time to reconsider the impulsively given invitation. For a dozen reasons she did not want to take Peter home with her to-night. The single one that the girls and Auntie would be quite unable to conceal the fact that they knew of her engagement was enough. So when Peter said regretfully, "But I thought we'd have more fun alone! Telephone your aunt and ask her if we can't have a pious little dinner at the Palace, or at the Occidental—we'll not see anybody there!" Susan was only too glad to agree.
Auntie of course consented, a little lenience was permissible now.
"... But not supper afterwards, dear," said Auntie. "If Peter teases, tell him that he will have you to himself soon enough! And Sue," she added, with a hint of reproach in her voice, "remember that we expect to see Peter out here very soon. Of course it's not as if your mother was alive, dear, I know that! Still, even an old auntie has some claim!"
"Well, Auntie, darling," said Susan, very low, "I asked him to dinner to-night. And then it occurred to me, don't you know?—-that it might be better—-"
"Gracious me, don't think of bringing him out here that way!" ejaculated Mrs. Lancaster. "No, indeed. You're quite right. But arrange it for very soon, Sue."
"Oh, surely I will!" Susan said, relievedly.
After an afternoon of happy anticipation it was a little disappointing to find that she and Peter were not to be alone, a gentle, pretty Miss Hall and her very charming brother were added to the party when Peter met Susan at six o'clock.
"Friends of Aunt Clara's," Peter explained to Susan. "I had to!"
Susan, liking the Halls, sensibly made the best of them. She let Miss Katharine monopolize Peter, and did her best to amuse Sam. She was in high spirits at dinner, laughed, and kept the others laughing, during the play,—for the plan had been changed for these guests, and afterwards was so amusing and gay at the little supper party that Peter was his most admiring self all the way home. But Susan went to bed with a baffled aching in her heart. This was not being engaged,—something was wrong.
She did not see Peter on Friday; caught only a glimpse of him on Saturday, and on Sunday learned, from one of the newspapers, that "Mr. Peter Coleman, who was to have a prominent part in the theatricals to take place at Mrs. Newton Gerald's home next week, would probably accompany Mr. Forrest Gerald on a trip to the Orient in February, to be gone for some months."
Susan folded the paper, and sat staring blankly ahead of her for a long time. Then she went to the telephone, and, half stunned by the violent beating of her heart, called for the Baxter residence.
Burns answered. Mr. Coleman had gone out about an hour ago with Mr. White. Burns did not know where. Mr. Coleman would be back for a seven o'clock dinner. Certainly, Burns would ask him to telephone at once to Miss Brown.
Excited, troubled, and yet not definitely apprehensive, Susan dressed herself very prettily, and went out into the clear, crisp sunshine. She decided suddenly to go and see Georgie. She would come home early, hear from Peter, perhaps dine with him and his uncle and aunt. And, when she saw him, she would tell him, in the jolliest and sweetest way, that he must make his plans to have their engagement announced at once. Any other course was unfair to her, to him, to his friends.
If Peter objected, Susan would assume an offended air. That would subdue him instantly. Or, if it did not, they might quarrel, and Susan liked the definiteness of a quarrel. She must force this thing to a conclusion one way or the other now, her own dignity demanded it. As for Peter, his own choice was as limited as hers. He must agree to the announcement,—and after all, why shouldn't he agree to it?—or he must give Susan up, once and for all. Susan smiled. He wouldn't do that!
It was a delightful day. The cars were filled with holiday-makers, and through the pleasant sunshine of the streets young parents were guiding white-coated toddlers, and beautifully dressed little girls were wheeling dolls.
Susan found Georgie moping alone in the big, dark, ugly house; Aggie was out, and Dr. O'Connor and his mother were making their annual pilgrimage to the grave of their husband and father. The cousins prepared supper together, in Aggie's exquisitely neat kitchen, not that this was really necessary, but because the kitchen was so warm and pleasant. The kettle was ticking on the back of the range, a scoured empty milk-pan awaited the milk-man. Susan contrasted her bright prospects with her cousin's dull lot, even while she cheerfully scolded Georgie for being so depressed and lachrymose.
They fell to talking of marriage, Georgie's recent one, Susan's approaching one. The wife gave delicate hints, the wife-to-be revealed far more of her secret soul than she had ever dreamed of revealing. Georgie sat, idly clasping the hands on which the wedding-ring had grown loose, Susan turned and reversed the wheels of a Dover egg-beater.
"Marriage is such a mystery, before you're into it," Georgie said. "But once you're married, why, you feel as if you could attract any man in the world. No more bashfulness, Sue, no more uncertainty. You treat men exactly as you would girls, and of course they like it!"
Susan pondered this going home. She thought she knew how to apply it to her attitude toward Peter.
Peter had not telephoned. Susan, quietly determined to treat him, or attempt to treat him, with at least the frank protest she would have shown to another girl, telephoned to the Baxter house at once. Mr. Coleman was not yet at home.
Some of her resolution crumbled. It was very hard to settle down, after supper, to an evening of solitaire. In these quiet hours, Susan felt less confident of Peter's attitude when she announced her ultimatum; felt that she must not jeopardize their friendship now, must run no risks.
She had worked herself into a despondent and discouraged frame of mind when the telephone rang, at ten o'clock. It was Peter.
"Hello, Sue!" said Peter gaily. "I'm just in. Burns said that you telephoned."
"Burns said no more than the truth," said Susan. It was the old note of levity, anything but natural to to-night's mood and the matter in hand. But it was what Peter expected and liked. She heard him laugh with his usual gaiety.
"Yes, he's a truthful little soul. He takes after me. What was it?"
Susan made a wry mouth in the dark.
"Nothing at all," she said, "I just telephoned—I thought we might go out somewhere together."
"GREAT HEAVEN, WE'RE ENGAGED!" she reminded her sinking heart, fiercely.
"Oh, too bad! I was at the Gerald's, at one of those darn rehearsals."
"Oh, all right!" said Susan. A writhing sickness of spirit threatened to engulf her, but her voice was quiet.
"I'm sorry, Sue," Peter said quickly in a lower tone, "I couldn't very well get out of it without having them all suspect. You can see that!"
Susan knew him so well! He had never had to do anything against his will. He couldn't understand that his engagement entailed any obligations. He merely wanted always to be happy and popular, and have everyone else happy and popular, too.
"And what about this trip to Japan with Mr. Gerald?" she asked.
There was another silence. Then Peter said, in an annoyed tone:
"Oh, Lord, that would probably be for a MONTH, or six weeks at the outside!"
"I see," said Susan tonelessly.
"I've got Forrest here with me to-night," said Peter, apropos of nothing.
"Oh, then I won't keep you!" Susan said.
"Well," he laughed, "don't be so polite about it!—I'll see you to- morrow?"
"Surely," Susan said. "Good-night."
"Over the reservoir!" he said, and she hung up her receiver.
She did not sleep that night. Excitement, anger, shame kept her wakeful and tossing, hour after hour. Susan's head ached, her face burned, her thoughts were in a mad whirl. What to do—what to do— what to do——! How to get out of this tangle; where to go to begin again, away from these people who knew her and loved her, and would drive her mad with their sympathy and curiosity!
The clock struck three—four—five. At five o'clock Susan, suddenly realizing her own loneliness and loss, burst into bitter crying and after that she slept.
The next day, from the office, she wrote to Peter Coleman:
MY DEAR PETER:
I am beginning to think that our little talk in the office a week ago was a mistake, and that you think so. I don't say anything of my own feelings; you know them. I want to ask you honestly to tell me of yours. Things cannot go on this way. Affectionately, SUSAN.
This was on Monday. On Tuesday the papers recorded everywhere Mr. Peter Coleman's remarkable success in Mrs. Newton Gerald's private theatricals. On Wednesday Susan found a letter from him on her desk, in the early afternoon, scribbled on the handsome stationery of his club.
MY DEAR SUSAN:
I shall always think that you are the bulliest girl I ever knew, and if you throw me down on that arrangement for our old age I shall certainly slap you on the wrist. But I know you will think better of it before you are forty-one! What you mean by "things" I don't know. I hope you're not calling ME a thing!
Forrest is pulling my arm off. See you soon. Yours as ever, PETER.
The reading of it gave Susan a sensation of physical illness. She felt chilled and weak. How false and selfish and shallow it seemed; had Peter always been that? And what was she to do now, to-morrow and the next day and the next? What was she to do this moment, indeed? She felt as if thundering agonies had trampled the very life out of her heart; yet somehow she must look up, somehow face the office, and the curious eyes of the girls.
"Love-letter, Sue?" said Thorny, sauntering up with a bill in her hand. "Valentine's Day, you know!"
"No, darling; a bill," answered Susan, shutting it in a drawer.
She snapped up her light, opened her ledger, and dipped a pen in the ink.
The days that followed were so many separate agonies, composed of an infinite number of lesser agonies, for Susan. Her only consolation, which weakened or strengthened with her moods, was that, inasmuch as this state of affairs was unbearable she would not be expected to bear it. Something must happen. Or, if nothing happened, she would simply disappear,—go on the stage, accept a position as a traveling governess or companion, run away to one of the big eastern cities where, under an assumed name, she might begin life all over again.
Hour after hour shame and hurt had their way with her. Susan had to face the office, to hide her heart from Thorny and the other girls, to be reminded by the empty desk in Mr. Brauer's office, and by every glimpse she had of old Mr. Baxter, of the happy dreams she had once dreamed here in this same place.
But it was harder far at home. Mrs. Lancaster alternated between tender moods, when she discussed the whole matter mournfully from beginning to end, and moods of violent rebellion, when everyone but Susan was blamed for the bitter disappointment of all their hopes. Mary Lou compared Peter to Ferd Eastman, to Peter's disadvantage. Virginia recommended quiet, patient endurance of whatever might be the will of Providence. Susan hardly knew which attitude humiliated and distressed her most. All her thoughts led her into bitterness now, and she could be distracted only for a brief moment or two from the memories that pressed so close about her heart. Ah, if she only had a little money, enough to make possible her running away, or a profession into which she could plunge, and in which she could distinguish herself, or a great talent, or a father who would stand by her and take care of her—-
And the bright head would go down on her hands, and the tears have their way.
"Headache?" Thorny would ask, full of sympathy.
"Oh, splitting!" And Susan would openly dry her eyes, and manage to smile.
Sometimes, in a softer mood, her busy brain straightened the whole matter out. Peter, returning from Japan, would rush to her with a full explanation. Of course he cared for her—he had never thought of anything else—of course he considered that they were engaged! And Susan, after keeping him in suspense for a period that even Auntie thought too long, would find herself talking to him, scolding, softening, finally laughing, and at last—and for the first time!—in his arms.
Only a lovers' quarrel; one heard of them continually. Something to laugh about and to forget!
She took up the old feminine occupation of watching the post, weak with sudden hope when Mary Lou called up to her, "Letter for you on the mantel, Sue!" and sick with disappointment over and over again. Peter did not write.
Outwardly the girl went her usual round, perhaps a little thinner and with less laughter, but not noticeably changed. She basted cuffs into her office suit, and cleaned it with benzine, caught up her lunch and umbrella and ran for her car. She lunched and gossiped with Thorny and the others, walked uptown at noon to pay a gas-bill, took Virginia to the Park on Sundays to hear the music, or visited the Carrolls in Sausalito.
But inwardly her thoughts were like whirling web. And in its very center was Peter Coleman. Everything that Susan did began and ended with the thought of him. She never entered the office without the hope that a fat envelope, covered with his dashing scrawl, lay on the desk. She never thought herself looking well without wishing that she might meet Peter that day, or looking ill that she did not fear it. She answered the telephone with a thrilling heart; it might be he! And she browsed over the social columns of the Sunday papers, longing and fearing to find his name. All day long and far into the night, her brain was busy with a reconciliation,—excuses, explanations, forgiveness. "Perhaps to-day," she said in the foggy mornings. "To-morrow," said her undaunted heart at night.
The hope was all that sustained her, and how bitterly it failed her at times only Susan knew. Before the world she kept a brave face, evading discussion of Peter when she could, quietly enduring it when Mrs. Lancaster's wrath boiled over. But as the weeks went by, and the full wretchedness of the situation impressed itself upon her with quiet force, she sank under an overwhelming sense of wrong and loss. Nothing amazing was going to happen. She—who had seemed so free, so independent!—was really as fettered and as helpless as Virginia and Mary Lou. Susan felt sometimes as if she should go mad with suppressed feeling. She grew thin, dyspeptic, irritable, working hard, and finding her only relief in work, and reading in bed in the evening.
The days slowly pushed her further and further from those happy times when she and Peter had been such good friends, had gone about so joyfully together. It was a shock to Susan to realize that she had not seen him nor heard from him for a month—for two months—for three. Emily Saunders was in the hospital for some serious operation, would be there for weeks; Ella was abroad. Susan felt as if her little glimpse of their world and Peter's had been a curious dream.
Billy played a brother's part toward her now, always ready to take her about with him when he was free, and quite the only person who could spur her to anything like her old vigorous interest in life. They went very often to the Carrolls, and there, in the shabby old sitting-room, Susan felt happier than she did anywhere else. Everybody loved her, loved to have her there, and although they knew, and she knew that they knew, that something had gone very wrong with her, nobody asked questions, and Susan felt herself safe and sheltered. There was a shout of joy when she came in with Phil and Jo from the ferryboat. "Mother! here's Sue!" Betsey would follow the older girls upstairs to chatter while they washed their hands and brushed their hair, and, going down again, Susan would get the motherly kiss that followed Jo's. Later, when the lamp was lit, while Betsey and Jim wrangled amicably over their game, and Philip and Jo toiled with piano and violin, Susan sat next to Mrs. Carroll, and while they sewed, or between snatches of reading, they had long, and to the girl at least, memorable talks.
It was all sweet and wholesome and happy. Susan used to wonder just what made this house different from all other houses, and why she liked to come here so much, to eat the simplest of meals, to wash dishes and brush floors, to rise in the early morning and cross the bay before the time she usually came downstairs at home. Of course, they loved her, they laughed at her jokes, they wanted this thing repeated and that repeated, they never said good-by to her without begging her to come again and thought no special occasion complete without her. That affected her, perhaps. Or perhaps the Carrolls were a little nicer than most people; when Susan reached this point in her thoughts she never failed to regret the loss of their money and position. If they had done this in spite of poverty and obscurity, what MIGHTN'T they have done with half a chance!
In one of the lamplight talks Peter was mentioned, in connection with the patent window-washer, and Susan learned for the first time that he really had been instrumental in selling the patent for Mrs. Carroll for the astonishing sum of five hundred dollars!
"I BEGGED him to tell me if that wasn't partly from the washer and partly from Peter Coleman," smiled Mrs. Carroll, "and he gave me his word of honor that he had really sold it for that! So—there went my doctor's bill, and a comfortable margin in the bank!"
She admitted Susan into the secret of all her little economies; the roast that, cleverly alternated with one or two small meats, was served from Sunday until Saturday night, and no one any the worse! Susan began to watch the game that Mrs. Carroll made of her cooking; filling soups for the night that the meat was short, no sweet when the garden supplied a salad, or when Susan herself brought over a box of candy. She grew to love the labor that lay behind the touch of the thin, darned linen, the windows that shone with soapsuds, the crisp snowy ruffles of curtains and beds. She and Betts liked to keep the house vases filled with what they could find in the storm- battered garden, lifted the flattened chrysanthemums with reverent fingers, hunted out the wet violets. Susan abandoned her old idea of the enviable life of a lonely orphan, and began to long for a sister, a tumble-headed brother, for a mother above all. She loved to be included by the young Carrolls when they protested, "Just ourselves, Mother, nobody but the family!" and if Phil or Jimmy came to her when a coat-button was loose or a sleeve-lining needed a stitch, she was quite pathetically touched. She loved the constant happy noise and confusion in the house, Phil and Billy Oliver tussling in the stair-closet among the overshoes, Betts trilling over her bed-making, Mrs. Carroll and Jim replanting primroses with great calling and conference, and she and Josephine talking, as they swept the porches, as if they had never had a chance to talk before.
Sometimes, walking at Anna's side to the beach on Sunday, a certain peace and content crept into Susan's heart, and the deep ache lifted like a curtain, and seemed to show a saner, wider, sweeter region beyond. Sometimes, tramping the wet hills, her whole being thrilled to some new note, Susan could think serenely of the future, could even be glad of all the past. It was as if Life, into whose cold, stern face she had been staring wistfully, had softened to the glimmer of a smile, had laid a hand, so lately used to strike, upon her shoulder in token of good-fellowship.
With the good salt air in their faces, and the gray March sky pressing close above the silent circle of the hills about them, she and Anna walked many a bracing, tiring mile. Now and then they turned and smiled at each other, both young faces brightening.
"Noisy, aren't we, Sue?"
"Well, the others are making noise enough!"
Poverty stopped them at every turn, these Carrolls. Susan saw it perhaps more clearly than they did. A hundred delightful and hospitable plans came into Mrs. Carroll's mind, only to be dismissed because of the expense involved. She would have liked to entertain, to keep her pretty daughters becomingly and richly dressed; she confided to Susan rather wistfully, that she was sorry not to be able to end the evenings with little chafing-dish suppers; "that sort of thing makes home so attractive to growing boys." Susan knew what Anna's own personal grievance was. "These are the best years of my life," Anna said, bitterly, one night, "and every cent of spending money I have is the fifty dollars a year the hospital pays. And even out of that they take breakage, in the laboratory or the wards!" Josephine made no secret of her detestation of their necessary economies.
"Did you know I was asked to the Juniors this year?" she said to Susan one night.
"The Juniors! You weren't!" Susan echoed incredulously. For the "Junior Cotillion" was quite the most exclusive and desirable of the city's winter dances for the younger set.
"Oh, yes, I was. Mrs. Wallace probably did it," Josephine assured her, sighing. "They asked Anna last year," she said bitterly, "and I suppose next year they'll ask Betts, and then perhaps they'll stop."
"Oh, but Jo-why couldn't you go! When so many girls are just CRAZY to be asked!"
"Money," Josephine answered briefly.
"But not much!" Susan lamented. The "Juniors" were not to be estimated in mere money.
"Twenty-five for the ticket, and ten for the chaperone, and a gown, of course, and slippers and a wrap—Mother felt badly about it," Josephine said composedly. And suddenly she burst into tears, and threw herself down on the bed. "Don't let Mother hear, and don't think I'm an idiot!" she sobbed, as Susan came to kneel beside her and comfort her, "but—but I hate so to drudge away day after day, when I know I could be having GORGEOUS times, and making friends—-!"
Betts' troubles were more simple in that they were indefinite. Betts wanted to do everything, regardless of cost, suitability or season, and was quite as cross over the fact that they could not go camping in the Humboldt woods in midwinter, as she was at having to give up her ideas of a new hat or a theater trip. And the boys never complained specifically of poverty. Philip, won by deep plotting that he could not see to settle down quietly at home after dinner, was the gayest and best of company, and Jim's only allusions to a golden future were made when he rubbed his affectionate little rough head against his mother, pony-fashion, and promised her every luxury in the world as soon as he "got started."
When Peter Coleman returned from the Orient, early in April, all the newspapers chronicled the fact that a large number of intimate friends met him at the dock. He was instantly swept into the social currents again; dinners everywhere were given for Mr. Coleman, box- parties and house-parties followed one another, the club claimed him, and the approaching opening of the season found him giving special attention to his yacht. Small wonder that Hunter, Baxter & Hunter's caught only occasional glimpses of him. Susan, somberly pursuing his name from paper to paper, felt that she was beginning to dislike him. She managed never to catch his eye, when he was in Mr. Brauer's office, and took great pains not to meet him.
However, in the lingering sweet twilight of a certain soft spring evening, when she had left the office, and was beginning the long walk home, she heard sudden steps behind her, and turned to see Peter.
"Aren't you the little seven-leagued booter! Wait a minute, Susan! C'est moi! How are you?"
"How do you do, Peter?" Susan said pleasantly and evenly. She put her hand in the big gloved hand, and raised her eyes to the smiling eyes.
"What car are you making for?" he asked, falling in step.
"I'm walking," Susan said. "Too nice to ride this evening."
"You're right," he said, laughing. "I wish I hadn't a date, I'd like nothing better than to walk it, too! However, I can go a block or two."
He walked with her to Montgomery Street, and they talked of Japan and the Carrolls and of Emily Saunders. Then Peter said he must catch a California Street car, and they shook hands again and parted.
It all seemed rather flat. Susan felt as if the little episode did not belong in the stormy history of their friendship at all, or as if she were long dead and were watching her earthly self from a distance with wise and weary eyes. What should she be feeling now? What would a stronger woman have done? Given him the cut direct, perhaps, or forced the situation to a point when something dramatic- -satisfying—must follow.
"I am weak," said Susan ashamedly to herself; "I was afraid he would think I cared,—would see that I cared!" And she walked on busy with self-contemptuous and humiliated thoughts. She had made it easy for him to take advantage of her. She had assumed for his convenience that she had suffered no more than he through their parting, and that all was again serene and pleasant between them. After to- night's casual, friendly conversation, no radical attitude would be possible on her part; he could congratulate himself that he still retained Susan's friendship, and could be careful—she knew he would be careful!—never to go too far again.
Susan's estimate of Peter Coleman was no longer a particularly idealized one. But she had long ago come to the conclusion that his faults were the faults of his type and his class, excusable and understandable now, and to be easily conquered when a great emotion should sweep him once and for all away from the thought of himself. As he was absorbed in the thought of his own comfort, so, she knew, he could become absorbed in the thought of what was due his wife, the wider viewpoint would quickly become second nature with him; young Mrs. Peter Coleman would be among the most indulged and carefully considered of women. He would be as anxious that the relationship between his wife and himself should be harmonious and happy, as he was now to feel when he met her that he had no reason to avoid or to dread meeting Miss Susan Brown.
If Susan would have preferred a little different attitude on his part, she could find no fault with this one. She had for so many months thought of Peter as the personification of all that she desired in life that she could not readily dismiss him as unworthy. Was he not still sweet and big and clean, rich and handsome and popular, socially prominent and suitable in age and faith and nationality?
Susan had often heard her aunt and her aunt's friends remark that life was more dramatic than any book, and that their own lives on the stage would eclipse in sensational quality any play ever presented. But, for herself, life seemed deplorably, maddeningly undramatic. In any book, in any play, the situation between her and Peter must have been heightened to a definite crisis long before this. The mildest of little ingenues, as she came across a dimly lighted stage, in demure white and silver, could have handled this situation far more skillfully than Susan did; the most youthful of heroines would have met Peter to some purpose,—while surrounded by other admirers at a dance, or while galloping across a moor on her spirited pony.
What would either of these ladies have done, she wondered, at meeting the offender when he appeared particularly well-groomed, prosperous and happy, while she herself was tired from a long office day, conscious of shabby gloves, of a shapeless winter hat? What could she do, except appear friendly and responsive? Susan consoled herself with the thought that her only alternative, an icy repulse of his friendly advances, would have either convinced him that she was too entirely common and childish to be worth another thought, or would have amused him hugely. She could fancy him telling his friends of his experience of the cut direct from a little girl in Front Office,—no names named—and hear him saying that "he loved it—he was crazy about it!"
"You believe in the law of compensation, don't you, Aunt Jo?" asked Susan, on a wonderful April afternoon, when she had gone straight from the office to Sausalito. The two women were in the Carroll kitchen, Susan sitting at one end of the table, her thoughtful face propped in her hands, Mrs. Carroll busy making ginger cakes,— cutting out the flat little circles with an inverted wine-glass, transferring them to the pans with the tip of her flat knife, rolling the smooth dough, and spilling the hot cakes, as they came back from the oven, into a deep tin strainer to cool. Susan liked to watch her doing this, liked the pretty precision of every movement, the brisk yet unhurried repetition of events, her strong clever hands, the absorbed expression of her face, her fine, broad figure hidden by a stiffly-starched gown of faded blue cotton and a stiff white apron.
Beyond the open window an exquisite day dropped to its close. It was the time of fruit-blossoms and feathery acacia, languid, perfumed breezes, lengthening twilights, opening roses and swaying plumes of lilac. Sausalito was like a little park, every garden ran over with sweetness and color, every walk was fringed with flowers, and hedged with the new green of young trees and blossoming hedges. Susan felt a delicious relaxation run through her blood; winter seemed really routed; to-day for the first time one could confidently prophesy that there would be summer presently, thin gowns and ocean bathing and splendid moons.
"Yes, I believe in the law of compensation, to a great extent," the older woman answered thoughtfully, "or perhaps I should call it the law of solution. I truly believe that to every one of us on this earth is given the materials for a useful and a happy life; some people use them and some don't. But the chance is given alike."
"Useful, yes," Susan conceded, "but usefulness isn't happiness."
"Isn't it? I really think it is."
"Oh, Aunt Jo," the girl burst out impatiently, "I don't mean for saints! I dare say there ARE some girls who wouldn't mind being poor and shabby and lonesome and living in a boarding-house, and who would be glad they weren't hump-backed, or blind, or Siberian prisoners! But you CAN'T say you think that a girl in my position has had a fair start with a girl who is just as young, and rich and pretty and clever, and has a father and mother and everything else in the world! And if you do say so," pursued Susan, with feeling, "you certainly can't MEAN so—-"
"But wait a minute, Sue! What girl, for instance?"
"Oh, thousands of girls!" Susan said, vaguely. "Emily Saunders, Alice Chauncey—-"
"Emily Saunders! SUSAN! In the hospital for an operation every other month or two!" Mrs. Carroll reminded her.
"Well, but—-" Susan said eagerly. "She isn't really ill. She just likes the excitement and having them fuss over her. She loves the hospital."
"Still, I wouldn't envy anyone whose home life wasn't preferable to the hospital, Sue."
"Well, Emily is queer, Aunt Jo. But in her place I wouldn't necessarily be queer."
"At the same time, considering her brother Kenneth's rather checkered career, and the fact that her big sister neglects and ignores her, and that her health is really very delicate, I don't consider Emily a happy choice for your argument, Sue."
"Well, there's Peggy Brock. She's a perfect beauty—-"
"She's a Wellington, Sue. You know that stock. How many of them are already in institutions?"
"Oh, but Aunt Jo!" Susan said impatiently, "there are dozens of girls in society whose health is good, and whose family ISN'T insane,—I don't know why I chose those two! There are the Chickerings—-"
"Whose father took his own life, Sue."
"Well, they couldn't help THAT. They're lovely girls. It was some money trouble, it wasn't insanity or drink."
"But think a moment, Sue. Wouldn't it haunt you for a long, long time, if you felt that your own father, coming home to that gorgeous house night after night, had been slowly driven to the taking of his own life?"
Susan looked thoughtful.
"I never thought of that," she admitted. Presently she added brightly, "There are the Ward girls, Aunt Jo, and Isabel Wallace. You couldn't find three prettier or richer or nicer girls! Say what you will," Susan returned undauntedly to her first argument, "life IS easier for those girls than for the rest of us!"
"Well, I want to call your attention to those three," Mrs. Carroll said, after a moment. "Both Mr. Wallace and Mr. Ward made their own money, started in with nothing and built up their own fortunes. Phil may do that, or Billy may do that—we can't tell. Mrs. Ward and Mrs. Wallace are both nice, simple women, not spoiled yet by money, not inflated on the subject of family and position, bringing up their families as they were brought up. I don't know Mrs. Ward personally, but Mrs. Wallace came from my own town, and she likes to remember the time when her husband was only a mining engineer, and she did her own work. You may not see it, Sue, but there's a great difference there. Such people are happy and useful, and they hand happiness on. Peter Coleman's another, he's so exceptionally nice because he's only one generation removed from working people. If Isabel Wallace,—and she's very young; life may be unhappy enough for her yet, poor child!—marries a man like her father, well and good. But if she marries a man like—well, say Kenneth Saunders or young Gerald, she simply enters into the ranks of the idle and useless and unhappy, that's all."
"She's beautiful, and she's smart too," Susan pursued, disconsolately, "Emily and I lunched there one day and she was simply sweet to the maids, and to her mother. And German! I wish you could hear her. She may not be of any very remarkable family but she certainly is an exceptional girl!"
"Exceptional, just because she ISN'T descended from some dead, old, useless stock," amended Mrs. Carroll. "There is red blood in her veins, ambition and effort and self-denial, all handed down to her. But marry that pampered little girl to some young millionaire, Sue, and what will her children inherit? And what will theirs, in time?— Peel these, will you?" went on Mrs. Carroll, interrupting her work to put a bowl of apples in Susan's hands. "No," she went on presently, "I married a millionaire, Sue. I was one of the 'lucky' ones!"
"I never knew it was as much as that!" Susan said impressed.
"Yes," Mrs. Carroll laughed wholesomely at some memory. "Yes; I began my married life in the very handsomest home in our little town with the prettiest presents and the most elaborate wardrobe—the papers were full of Miss Josie van Trent's extravagances. I had four house servants, and when Anna came everybody in town knew that her little layette had come all the way from Paris!"
"But,—good heavens, what happened?"
"Nothing, for awhile. Mr. Carroll, who was very young, had inherited a half-interest in what was then the biggest shoe-factory in that part of the world. My father was his partner. Philip—dear me! it seems like a lifetime ago!—came to visit us, and I came home from an Eastern finishing school. Sue, those were silly, happy, heavenly days! Well! we were married, as I said. Little Phil came, Anna came. Still we went on spending money. Phil and I took the children to Paris,—Italy. Then my father died, and things began to go badly at the works. Phil discharged his foreman, borrowed money to tide over a bad winter, and said that he would be his own superintendent. Of course he knew nothing about it. We borrowed more money. Jo was the baby then, and I remember one ugly episode was that the workmen, who wanted more money, accused Phil of getting his children's clothes abroad because his wife didn't think American things were good enough for them."
"YOU!" Susan said, incredulously.
"It doesn't sound like me now, does it? Well; Phil put another foreman in, and he was a bad man—in league with some rival factory, in fact. Money was lost that way, contracts broken—-"
"BEAST!" said Susan.
"Wicked enough," the other woman conceded, "but not at all an uncommon thing, Sue, where people don't know their own business. So we borrowed more money, borrowed enough for a last, desperate fight, and lost it. The day that Jim was three years old, we signed the business away to the other people, and Phil took a position under them, in his own factory."
"Oo-oo!" Susan winced.
"Yes, it was hard. I did what I could for my poor old boy, but it was very hard. We lived very quietly; I had begun to come to my senses then; we had but one maid. But, even then, Sue, Philip wasn't capable of holding a job of that sort. How could he manage what he didn't understand? Poor Phil—-" Mrs. Carroll's bright eyes brimmed with tears, and her mouth quivered. "However, we had some happy times together with the babies," she said cheerfully, "and when he went away from us, four years later, with his better salary we were just beginning to see our way clear. So that left me, with my five, Sue, without a cent in the world. An old cousin of my father owned this house, and she wrote that she would give us all a home, and out we came,—Aunt Betty's little income was barely enough for her, so I sold books and taught music and French, and finally taught in a little school, and put up preserves for people, and packed their houses up for the winter—-"
"How did you DO it!"
"Sue, I don't know! Anna stood by me,—my darling!" The last two words came in a passionate undertone. "But of course there were bad times. Sometimes we lived on porridges and milk for days, and many a night Anna and Phil and I have gone out, after dark, to hunt for dead branches in the woods for my kitchen stove!" And Mrs. Carroll, unexpectedly stirred by the pitiful memory, broke suddenly into tears, the more terrible to Susan because she had never seen her falter before.
It was only for a moment. Then Mrs. Carroll dried her eyes and said cheerfully:
"Well, those times only make these seem brighter! Anna is well started now, we've paid off the last of the mortgage, Phil is more of a comfort than he's ever been—no mother could ask a better boy!- -and Jo is beginning to take a real interest in her work. So everything is coming out better than even my prayers."
"Still," smiled Susan, "lots of people have things comfortable, WITHOUT such a terrible struggle!"
"And lots of people haven't five fine children, Sue, and a home in a big garden. And lots of mothers don't have the joy and the comfort and the intimacy with their children in a year that I have every day. No, I'm only too happy now, Sue. I don't ask anything better than this. And if, in time, they go to homes of their own, and we have some more babies in the family—it's all LIVING, Sue, it's being a part of the world!"
Mrs. Carroll carried away her cakes to the big stone jar in the pantry. Susan, pensively nibbling a peeled slice of apple, had a question ready for her when she came back.
"But suppose you're one of those persons who get into a groove, and simply can't live? I want to work, and do heroic things, and grow to BE something, and how can I? Unless—-" her color rose, but her glance did not fall, "unless somebody marries me, of course."
"Choose what you want to do, Sue, and do it. That's all."
"Oh, that SOUNDS simple! But I don't want to do any of the things you mean. I want to work into an interesting life, somehow. I'll— I'll never marry," said Susan.
"You won't? Well; of course that makes it easier, because you can go into your work with heart and soul. But perhaps you'll change your mind, Sue. I hope you will, just as I hope all the girls will marry. I'm not sure," said Mrs. Carroll, suddenly smiling, "but what the very quickest way for a woman to marry off her girls is to put them into business. In the first place, a man who wants them has to be in earnest, and in the second, they meet the very men whose interests are the same as theirs. So don't be too sure you won't. However, I'm not laughing at you, Sue. I think you ought to seriously select some work for yourself, unless of course you are quite satisfied where you are."
"I'm not," said Susan. "I'll never get more than forty where I am. And more than that, Thorny heard that Front Office is going to be closed up any day."
"But you could get another position, dear."
"Well, I don't know. You see, it's a special sort of bookkeeping. It wouldn't help any of us much elsewhere."
"True. And what would you like best to do, Sue?"
"Oh, I don't know. Sometimes I think the stage. Or something with lots of traveling in it." Susan laughed, a little ashamed of her vagueness.
"Why not take a magazine agency, then? There's a lot of money—-"
"Oh, no!" Susan shuddered. "You're joking!"
"Indeed I'm not. You're just the sort of person who would make a fine living selling things. The stage—I don't know. But if you really mean it, I don't see why you shouldn't get a little start somewhere."
"Aunt Jo, they say that Broadway in New York is simply LINED with girls trying—-"
"New York! Well, very likely. But you try here. Go to the manager of the Alcazar, recite for him—-"
"He wouldn't let me," Susan asserted, "and besides, I don't really know anything."
"Well, learn something. Ask him, when next some manager wants to make up a little road company—-"
"A road company! Two nights in Stockton, two nights in Marysville— horrors!" said Susan.
"But that wouldn't be for long, Sue. Perhaps two years. Then five or six years in stock somewhere—-"
"Aunt Jo, I'd be past thirty!" Susan laughed and colored charmingly. "I—honestly, I couldn't give up my whole life for ten years on the chance of making a hit," she confessed.
"Well, but what then, Sue?"
"Now, I'll tell you what I've often wanted to do," Susan said, after a thoughtful interval.
"Ah, now we're coming to it!" Mrs. Carroll said, with satisfaction. They had left the kitchen now, and were sitting on the top step of the side porch, reveling in the lovely panorama of hillside and waterfront, and the smooth and shining stretch of bay below them.
"I've often thought I'd like to be the matron of some very smart school for girls," said Susan, "and live either in or near some big Eastern city, and take the girls to concerts and lectures and walking in the parks, and have a lovely room full of books and pictures, where they would come and tell me things, and go to Europe now and then for a vacation!"
"That would be a lovely life, Sue. Why not work for that?"
"Why, I don't know how. I don't know of any such school."
"Well, now let us suppose the head of such a school wants a matron," Mrs. Carroll said, "she naturally looks for a lady and a linguist, and a person of experience—-"
"There you are! I've had no experience!" Susan said, instantly depressed. "I could rub up on French and German, and read up the treatment for toothache and burns—but experience!"
"But see how things work together, Sue!" Mrs. Carroll exclaimed, with a suddenly bright face.
"Here's Miss Berrat, who has the little school over here, simply CRAZY to find someone to help her out. She has eight—or nine, I forget—day scholars, and four or five boarders. And such a dear little cottage! Miss Pitcher is leaving her, to go to Miss North's school in Berkeley, and she wants someone at once!"
"But, Aunt Jo, what does she pay?"
"Let me see—-" Mrs. Carroll wrinkled a thoughtful brow. "Not much, I know. You live at the school, of course. Five or ten dollars a month, I think."
"But I COULDN'T live on that!" Susan exclaimed.
"You'd be near us, Sue, for one thing. And you'd have a nice bright sunny room. And Miss Berrat would help you with your French and German. It would be a good beginning."
"But I simply COULDN'T—" Susan stopped short. "Would you advise it, Aunt Jo?" she asked simply.
Mrs. Carroll studied the bright face soberly for a moment.
"Yes, I'd advise it, Sue," she said then gravely. "I don't think that the atmosphere where you are is the best in the world for you just now. It would be a fine change. It would be good for those worries of yours."
"Then I'll do it!" Susan said suddenly, the unexplained tears springing to her eyes.
"I think I would. I'll go and see Miss Berrat next week," Mrs. Carroll said. "There's the boat making the slip, Sue," she added, "let's get the table set out here on the porch while they're climbing the hill!"
Up the hill came Philip and Josephine, just home from the city, escorted by Betsey and Jim who had met them at the boat. Susan received a strangling welcome from Betts, and Josephine, who looked a little pale and tired after this first enervating, warm spring day, really brightened perceptibly when she went upstairs with Susan to slip into a dress that was comfortably low-necked and short- sleeved.
Presently they all gathered on the porch for dinner, with the sweet twilighted garden just below them and anchor lights beginning to prick, one by one, through the soft dusky gloom of the bay.
"Well, 'mid pleasures and palaces—-" Philip smiled at his mother.
"Charades to-night!" shrilled Betts, from the kitchen where she was drying lettuce.
"Oh, but a walk first!" Susan protested. For their aimless strolls through the dark, flower-scented lanes were a delight to her.
"And Billy's coming over to-morrow to walk to Gioli's," Josephine added contentedly.
That evening and the next day Susan always remembered as terminating a certain phase of her life, although for perhaps a week the days went on just as usual. But one morning she found confusion reigning, when she arrived at Hunter, Baxter & Hunter's. Front Office was to be immediately abolished, its work was over, its staff already dispersing.
Workmen, when she arrived, were moving out cases and chairs, and Mr. Brauer, eagerly falling upon her, begged her to clean out her desk, and to help him assort the papers in some of the other desks and cabinets. Susan, filled with pleasant excitement, pinned on her paper cuffs, and put her heart and soul into the work. No bills this morning! The office-boy did not even bring them up.
"Now, here's a soap order that must have been specially priced," said Susan, at her own desk, "I couldn't make anything of it yesterday—-"
"Let it go—let it go!" Mr. Brauer said. "It iss all ofer!"
As the other girls came in they were pressed into service, papers and papers and papers, the drift of years, were tossed out of drawers and cubby-holes. Much excited laughter and chatter went on. Probably not one girl among them felt anything but pleasure and relief at the unexpected holiday, and a sense of utter confidence in the future.
Mr. Philip, fussily entering the disordered room at ten o'clock, announced his regret at the suddenness of the change; the young ladies would be paid their salaries for the uncompleted month—a murmur of satisfaction arose—and, in short, the firm hoped that their association had been as pleasant to them as it had been to his partners and himself.