Somebody was playing Walther's song from "Die Meistersinger" far downstairs, and the plaintive passionate notes drew Susan as if they had been the cry of her name. She went down to find Emily and Peter Coleman laughing and flirting over a box of chocolates, at the inglenook seat in the hall, and Stephen Bocqueraz alone in the drawing-room, at the piano. He stopped playing as she came in, and they walked to the fire and took opposite chairs beside the still brightly burning logs.
"Anything new?" he asked.
"Oh, lots!" Susan said wearily. "I've seen Kenneth. But they don't know that I can't—can't do it. And they're rather taking it for granted that I am going to!"
"Going to marry him!" he asked aghast. "Surely you haven't equivocated about it, Susan?" he asked sharply.
"Not with him!" she answered in quick self-defense, with a thrill for the authoritative tone. "I went up there, tired as I am, and told him the absolute truth," said Susan. "But they may not know it!"
"I confess I don't see why," Bocqueraz said, in disapproval. "It would seem to me simple enough to—-"
"Oh, perhaps it does seem simple, to you!" Susan defended herself wearily, "but it isn't so easy! Ella is dreadful when she's angry,— I don't know quite what I will do, if this ends my being here—-"
"Why should it?" he asked quickly.
"Because it's that sort of a position. I'm here as long as I'm wanted," Susan said bitterly, "and when I'm not, there'll be a hundred ways to end it all. Ella will resent this, and Mrs. Saunders will resent it, and even if I was legally entitled to stay, it wouldn't be very pleasant under those circumstances!" She rested her head against the curved back of her chair, and he saw tears slip between her lashes.
"Why, my darling! My dearest little girl, you mustn't cry!" he said, in distress. "Come to the window and let's get a breath of fresh air!"
He crossed to a French window, and held back the heavy curtain to let her step out to the wide side porch. Susan's hand held his tightly in the darkness, and he knew by the sound of her breathing that she was crying.
"I don't know what made me go to pieces this way," she said, after a moment. "But it has been such a day!" And she composedly dried her eyes, and restored his handkerchief to him.
"You poor little girl!" he said tenderly. "—-Is it going to be too cold out here for you, Sue?"
"No-o!" said Susan, smiling, "it's heavenly!"
"Then we'll talk. And we must make the most of this too, for they may not give us another chance! Cheer up, sweetheart, it's only a short time now! As you say, they're going to resent the fact that my girl doesn't jump at the chance to ally herself with all this splendor, and to-morrow may change things all about for every one of us. Now, Sue, I told Ella to-day that I sail for Japan on Sunday—-"
"Oh, my God!" Susan said, taken entirely unawares.
He was near enough to put his arm about her shoulders.
"My little girl," he said, gravely, "did you think that I was going to leave you behind?"
"I couldn't bear it," Susan said simply.
"You could bear it better than I could," he assured her. "But we'll never be separated again in this life, I hope! And every hour of my life I'm going to spend in trying to show you what it means to me to have you—with your beauty and your wit and your charm—trust me to straighten out all this tangle! You know you are the most remarkable woman I ever knew, Susan," he interrupted himself to say, seriously. "Oh, you can shake your head, but wait until other people agree with me! Wait until you catch the faintest glimpse of what our life is going to be! And how you'll love the sea! And that reminds me," he was all business-like again, "the Nippon Maru sails on Sunday. You and I sail with her."
He paused, and in the gradually brightening gloom Susan's eyes met his, but she did not speak nor stir.
"It's the ONLY way, dear!" he said urgently. "You see that? I can't leave you here and things cannot go on this way. It will be hard for a little while, but we'll make it a wonderful year, Susan, and when it's over, I'll take my wife home with me to New York."
"It seems incredible," said Susan slowly, "that it is ever RIGHT to do a thing like this. You—you think I'm a strong woman, Stephen," she went on, groping for the right words, "but I'm not—in this way. I think I COULD be strong," Susan's eyes were wistful, "I could be strong if my husband were a pioneer, or if I had an invalid husband, or if I had to—to work at anything," she elucidated. "I could even keep a store or plow, or go out and shoot game! But my life hasn't run that way, I can't seem to find what I want to do, I'm always bound by conditions I didn't make—-"
"Exactly, dear! And now you are going to make conditions for yourself," he added eagerly, as she hesitated. Susan sighed.
"Not so soon as Sunday," she said, after a pause.
"Sunday too soon? Very well, little girl. If you want to go Sunday, we'll go. And, if you say not, I'll await your plans," he agreed.
"But, Stephen—what about tickets?"
"The tickets are upstairs," he told her. "I reserved the prettiest suite on board for Miss Susan Bocqueraz, my niece, who is going with me to meet her father in India, and a near-by stateroom for myself. But, of course, I'll forfeit these reservations rather than hurry or distress you now. When I saw the big liner, Susan, the cleanness and brightness and airiness of it all; and when I thought of the deliciousness of getting away from the streets and smells and sounds of the city, out on the great Pacific, I thought I would be mad to prolong this existence here an unnecessary day. But that's for you to say."
"I see," she said dreamily. And through her veins, like a soothing draught, ran the premonition of surrender. Delicious to let herself go, to trust him, to get away from all the familiar sights and faces! She turned in the darkness and laid both hands on his shoulders. "I'll be ready on Sunday," said she gravely. "I suppose, as a younger girl, I would have thought myself mad to think of this. But I have been wrong about so many of those old ideas; I don't feel sure of anything any more. Life in this house isn't right, Stephen, and certainly the old life at Auntie's,—all debts and pretense and shiftlessness,—isn't right either."
"You'll not be sorry, dear," he told her, holding her hands.
An instant later they were warned, by a sudden flood of light on the porch, that Mr. Coleman had come to the open French window.
"Come in, you idiots!" said Peter. "We're hunting for something to eat!"
"You come out, it's a heavenly night!" Stephen said readily.
"Nothing stirring," Mr. Coleman said, sauntering toward them nevertheless. "Don't you believe a word she says, Mr. Bocqueraz, she's an absolute liar!"
"Peter, go back, we're talking books," said Susan, unruffled.
"Well, I read a book once, Susan," he assured her proudly. "Say, let's go over to the hotel and have a dance, what?"
"Madman!" the writer said, in indulgent amusement, as Peter went back. "We'll be in directly, Coleman!" he called. Then he said quickly, and in a low tone to Susan. "Shall you stay here until Sunday, or would you rather be with your own people?"
"It just depends upon what Ella and Emily do," Susan answered. "Kenneth may not tell them. If he does, it might be better to go. This is Tuesday. Of course I don't know, Stephen, they may be very generous about it, they may make it as pleasant as they can. But certainly Emily isn't sorry to find some reason for terminating my stay here. We've—perhaps it's my fault, but we've been rather grating on each other lately. So I think it's pretty safe to say that I will go home on Wednesday or Thursday."
"Good," he said. "I can see you there!"
"Oh, will you?" said Susan, pleased.
"Oh, will I! And another thing, dear, you'll need some things. A big coat for the steamer, and some light gowns—but we can get those. We'll do some shopping in Paris—-"
He had touched a wrong chord, and Susan winced.
"I have some money," she assured him, hastily, "and I'd rather— rather get those things myself!"
"You shall do as you like," he said gravely. Silently and thoughtfully they went back to the house.
Susan lay awake almost all night, quiet and wide-eyed in the darkness, thinking, thinking, thinking. She arraigned herself mentally before a jury of her peers, and pleaded her own case. She did not think of Stephen Bocqueraz to-night,—thought of him indeed did not lead to rational argument!—but she confined her random reflections to the conduct of other women. There was a moral code of course, there were Commandments. But by whose decree might some of these be set aside, and ignored, while others must still be observed in the letter and the spirit? Susan knew that Ella would discharge a maid for stealing perfumery or butter, and within the hour be entertaining a group of her friends with the famous story of her having taken paste jewels abroad, to be replaced in London by real stones and brought triumphantly home under the very eyes of the custom-house inspectors. She had heard Mrs. Porter Pitts, whose second marriage followed her divorce by only a few hours, addressing her respectful classes in the Correction Home for Wayward Girls. She had heard Mrs. Leonard Orvis congratulated upon her lineage and family connections on the very same occasion when Mrs. Orvis had entertained a group of intimates with a history of her successful plan for keeping the Orvis nursery empty.
It was to the Ellas, the Pitts, the Orvises, that Susan addressed her arguments. They had broken laws. She was only temporarily following their example. She heard the clock strike four, before she went to sleep, and was awakened by Emily at nine o'clock the next morning.
It was a rainy, gusty morning, with showers slapping against the windows. The air in the house was too warm, radiators were purring everywhere, logs crackled in the fireplaces of the dining-room and hall. Susan, looking into the smaller library, saw Ella in a wadded silk robe, comfortably ensconced beside the fire, with the newspapers.
"Good-morning, Sue," said Ella politely. Susan's heart sank. "Come in," said Ella. "Had your breakfast?"
"Not yet," said Susan, coming in.
"Well, I just want to speak to you a moment," said Ella, and Susan knew, from the tone, that she was in for an unpleasant half-hour. Emily, following Susan, entered the library, too, and seated herself on the window-seat. Susan did not sit down.
"I've got something on my mind, Susan," Ella said, frowning as she tossed aside her papers, "and,—you know me. I'm like all the Roberts, when I want to say a thing, I say it!" Ella eyed her groomed fingers a moment, bit at one before she went on. "Now, there's only one important person in this house, Sue, as I always tell everyone, and that's Mamma! 'Em and I don't matter,' I say, 'but Mamma's old, and she hasn't very much longer to live, and she DOES count!' I—you may not always see it," Ella went on with dignity, "but I ALWAYS arrange my engagements so that Mamma shall be the first consideration, she likes to have me go places, and I like to go, but many and many a night when you and Em think that I am out somewhere I'm in there with Mamma—-"
Susan knew that they were in the realm of pure fiction now, but she could only listen. She glanced at Emily, but Emily only looked impressed and edified.
"So—" Ella, unchallenged, went on. "So when I see anyone inclined to be rude to Mamma, Sue—-"
"As you certainly were—-" Emily began.
"Keep out of this, Baby," Ella said. Susan asked in astonishment;
"But, good gracious, Ella! When was I ever rude to your mother?"
"Just—one—moment, Sue," Ella said, politely declining to be hurried. "Well! So when I realize that you deceived Mamma, Sue, it— I've always liked you, and I've always said that there was a great deal of allowance to be made for you," Ella interrupted herself to say kindly, "but, you know, that is the one thing I can't forgive!— In just a moment—-" she added, as Susan was about to speak again. "Well, about a week ago, as you know, Ken's doctor said that he must positively travel. Mamma isn't well enough to go, the kid can't go, and I can't get away just now, even," Ella was deriving some enjoyment from her new role of protectress, "even if I would leave Mamma. What Ken suggested, you know, seemed a suitable enough arrangement at the time, although I think, and I know Mamma thinks, that it was just one of the poor boy's ideas which might have worked very well, and might not! One never can tell about such things. Be that as it may, however—-"
"Oh, Ella, what on earth are you GETTING at!" asked Susan, in sudden impatience.
"Really, Sue!" Emily said, shocked at this irreverence, but Ella, flushing a little, proceeded with a little more directness.
"I'm getting at THIS—please shut up, Baby! You gave Mamma to understand that it was all right between you and Ken, and Mamma told me so before I went to the Grahams' dinner, and I gave Eva Graham a pretty strong hint! Now Ken tells Mamma that that isn't so at all,— I must say Ken, for a sick boy, acted very well! And really, Sue, to have you willing to add anything to Mamma's natural distress and worry now it,—well, I don't like it, and I say so frankly!"
Susan, angered past the power of reasonable speech, remained silent for half-a-minute, holding the back of a chair with both hands, and looking gravely into Ella's face.
"Is that all?" she asked mildly.
"Except that I'm surprised at you," Ella said a little nettled.
"I'm not going to answer you," Susan said, "because you know very well that I have always loved your Mother, and that I deceived nobody! And you can't make me think SHE has anything to do with this! It isn't my fault that I don't want to marry your brother, and Emily knows how utterly unfair this is!"
"Really, I don't know anything about it!" Emily said airily.
"Oh, very well," Susan said, at white heat. She turned and went quietly from the room.
She went upstairs, and sat down crosswise on a small chair, and stared gloomily out of the window. She hated this house, she said to herself, and everyone in it! A maid, sympathetically fluttering about, asked Miss Brown if she would like her breakfast brought up.
"Oh, I would!" said Susan gratefully. Lizzie presently brought in a tray, and arranged an appetizing little meal.
"They're something awful, that's what I say," said Lizzie presently in a cautious undertone. "But I've been here twelve years, and I say there's worse places! Miss Ella may be a little raspy now, Miss Brown, but don't you take it to heart!" Susan, the better for hot coffee and human sympathy, laughed out in cheerful revulsion of feeling.
"Things are all mixed up, Lizzie, but it's not my fault," she said gaily.
"Well, it don't matter," said the literal Lizzie, referring to the tray. "I pile 'em up anyhow to carry 'em downstairs!"
Breakfast over, Susan still loitered in her own apartments. She wanted to see Stephen, but not enough to risk encountering someone else in the halls. At about eleven o'clock, Ella knocked at the door, and came in.
"I'm in a horrible rush," said Ella, sitting down on the bed and interesting herself immediately in a silk workbag of Emily's that hung there. "I only want to say this, Sue," she began. "It has nothing to do with what we were talking of this morning, but—I've just been discussing it with Mamma!—but we all feel, and I'm sure you do, too, that this is an upset sort of time. Emily, now," said Ella, reaching her sister's name with obvious relief, "Em's not at all well, and she feels that she needs a nurse,—I'm going to try to get that nurse Betty Brock had,—Em may have to go back to the hospital, in fact, and Mamma is so nervous about Ken, and I—-" Ella cleared her throat, "I feel this way about it," she said. "When you came here it was just an experiment, wasn't it?"
"Certainly," Susan agreed, very red in the face.
"Certainly, and a most successful one, too," Ella conceded relievedly. "But, of course, if Mamma takes Baby abroad in the spring,—you see how it is? And of course, even in case of a change now, we'd want you to take your time. Or,—I'll tell you, suppose you go home for a visit with your aunt, now. Monday is Christmas, and then, after New Year's, we can write about it, if you haven't found anything else you want to do, and I'll let you know—-"
"I understand perfectly," Susan said quietly, but with a betraying color. "Certainly, I think that would be wisest."
"Well, I think so," said Ella with a long breath. "Now, don't be in a hurry, even if Miss Polk comes, because you could sleep upstairs— -"
"Oh, I'd rather go at once-to-day," Susan said.
"Indeed not, in this rain," Ella said with her pleasant, half- humorous air of concern. "Mamma and Baby would think I'd scared you away. Tomorrow, Sue, if you're in such a hurry. But this afternoon some people are coming in to meet Stephen—he's really going on Sunday, he says,—stay and pour!"
It would have been a satisfaction to Susan's pride to refuse. She knew that Ella really needed her this afternoon, and would have liked to punish that lady to that extent. But hurry was undignified and cowardly, and Stephen's name was a charm, and so it happened that Susan found herself in the drawing-room at five o'clock, in the center of a chattering group, and stirred, as she was always stirred, by Stephen's effect on the people he met. He found time to say to her only a few words, "You are more adorable than ever!" but they kept Susan's heart singing all evening, and she and Emily spent the hours after dinner in great harmony; greater indeed than they had enjoyed for months.
The next day she said her good-byes, agitated beyond the capacity to feel any regret, for Stephen Bocqueraz had casually announced his intention to take the same train that she did for the city. Ella gave her her check; not for the sixty dollars that would have been Susan's had she remained to finish out her month, but for ten dollars less.
Emily chattered of Miss Polk, "she seemed to think I was so funny and so odd, when we met her at Betty's," said Emily, "isn't she crazy? Do YOU think I'm funny and odd, Sue?"
Stephen put her in a carriage at the ferry and they went shopping together. He told her that he wanted to get some things "for a small friend," and Susan, radiant in the joy of being with him, in the delicious bright winter sunshine, could not stay his hand when he bought the "small friend" a delightful big rough coat, which Susan obligingly tried on, and a green and blue plaid, for steamer use, a trunk, and a parasol "because it looked so pretty and silly," and in Shreve's, as they loitered about, a silver scissors and a gold thimble, a silver stamp-box and a traveler's inkwell, a little silver watch no larger than a twenty-five-cent piece, a little crystal clock, and, finally, a ring, with three emeralds set straight across it, the loveliest great bright stones that Susan had ever seen, "green for an Irish gir-rl," said Stephen.
Then they went to tea, and Susan laughed at him because he remembered that Orange Pekoe was her greatest weakness, and he laughed at Susan because she was so often distracted from what she was saying by the flash of her new ring.
"What makes my girl suddenly look so sober?"
Susan smiled, colored.
"I was thinking of what people will say."
"I think you over-estimate the interest that the world is going to take in our plans, Susan," he said, gravely, after a thoughtful moment. "We take our place in New York, in a year or two, as married people. 'Mrs. Bocqueraz'"—the title thrilled Susan unexpectedly,— "'Mrs. Bocqueraz is his second wife,' people will say. 'They met while they were both traveling about the world, I believe.' And that's the end of it!"
"But the newspapers may get it," Susan said, fearfully.
"I don't see how," he reassured her. "Ella naturally can't give it to them, for she will think you are at your aunt's. Your aunt—-"
"Oh, I shall write the truth to Auntie," Susan said, soberly. "Write her from Honolulu, probably. And wild horses wouldn't get it out of HER. But if the slightest thing should go wrong—-"
"Nothing will, dear. We'll drift about the world awhile, and the first thing you know you'll find yourself married hard and tight, and being invited to dinners and lunches and things in New York!"
Susan's dimples came into view.
"I forget what a very big person you are," she smiled. "I begin to think you can do anything you want to do!"
She had a reminder of his greatness even before they left the tea- room, for while they were walking up the wide passage toward the arcade, a young woman, an older woman, and a middle-aged man, suddenly addressed the writer.
"Oh, do forgive me!" said the young woman, "but AREN'T you Stephen Graham Bocqueraz? We've been watching you—I just couldn't HELP—"
"My daughter is a great admirer—-" the man began, but the elder woman interrupted him.
"We're ALL great admirers of your books, Mr. Bocqueraz," said she, "but it was Helen, my daughter here!—who was sure she recognized you. We went to your lecture at our club, in Los Angeles—-"
Stephen shook hands, smiled and was very gracious, and Susan, shyly smiling, too, felt her heart swell with pride. When they went on together the little episode had subtly changed her attitude toward him; Susan was back for the moment in her old mood, wondering gratefully what the great man saw in HER to attract him!
A familiar chord was touched when an hour later, upon getting out of a carriage at her aunt's door, she found the right of way disputed by a garbage cart, and Mary Lou, clad in a wrapper, holding the driver in spirited conversation through a crack in the door. Susan promptly settled a small bill, kissed Mary Lou, and went upstairs in harmonious and happy conversation.
"I was just taking a bath!" said Mary Lou, indignantly. Mary Lou never took baths easily, or as a matter of course. She always made an event of them, choosing an inconvenient hour, assembling soap, clothing and towels with maddening deliberation, running about in slippered feet for a full hour before she locked herself into, and everybody else out of, the bathroom. An hour later she would emerge from the hot and steam-clouded apartment, to spend another hour in her room in leisurely dressing. She was at this latter stage now, and regaled Susan with all the family news, as she ran her hand into stocking after stocking in search of a whole heel, and forced her silver cuff-links into the starched cuffs of her shirtwaist.
Ferd Eastman's wife had succumbed, some weeks before, to a second paralytic stroke, and Mary Lou wept unaffectedly at the thought of poor Ferd's grief. She said she couldn't help hoping that some sweet and lovely girl,—"Ferd knows so many!" said Lou, sighing,—would fill the empty place. Susan, with an unfavorable recollection of Ferd's fussy, important manner and red face, said nothing. Georgie, Mary Lou reported, was a very sick woman, in Ma's and Mary Lou's opinion. Ma had asked the young O'Connors to her home for Christmas dinner; "perhaps they expected us to ask the old lady," said Mary Lou, resentfully, "anyway, they aren't coming!" Georgie's baby, it appeared, was an angel, but Joe disciplined the poor little thing until it would make anyone's heart sick.
Of Alfie the report was equally discouraging: "Alfie's wife is perfectly awful," his sister said, "and their friends, Sue,—barbers and butchers! However, Ma's asked 'em here for Christmas dinner, and then you'll see them!" Virginia was still at the institution, but of late some hope of eventual restoration of her sight had been given her. "It would break your heart to see her in that place, it seems like a poorhouse!" said Mary Lou, with trembling lips, "but Jinny's an angel. She gets the children about her, and tells them stories; they say she's wonderful with them!"
There was really good news of the Lord sisters, Susan was rejoiced to hear. They had finally paid for their lot in Piedmont Hills, and a new trolley-car line, passing within one block of it, had trebled its value. This was Lydia's chance to sell, in Mary Lou's opinion, but Lydia intended instead to mortgage the now valuable property, and build a little two-family house upon it with the money thus raised. She had passed the school-examinations, and had applied for a Berkeley school. "But better than all," Mary Lou announced, "that great German muscle doctor has been twice to see Mary,—isn't that amazing? And not a cent charged—-"
"Oh, God bless him!" said Susan, her eyes flashing through sudden mist. "And will she be cured?"
"Not ever to really be like other people, Sue. But he told her, last time, that by the time that Piedmont garden was ready for her, she'd be ready to go out and sit in it every day! Lydia fainted away when he said it,—yes, indeed she did!"
"Well, that's the best news I've heard for many a day!" Susan rejoiced. She could not have explained why, but some queer little reasoning quality in her brain made her own happiness seem the surer when she heard of the happiness of other people.
The old odors in the halls, the old curtains and chairs and dishes, the old, old conversation; Mrs. Parker reading a clean, neatly lined, temperate little letter from Loretta, signed "Sister Mary Gregory"; Major Watts anxious to explain to Susan just the method of building an army bridge that he had so successfully introduced during the Civil War,—"S'ee, 'Who is this boy, Cutter?' 'Why, sir, I don't know,' says Captain Cutter, 'but he says his name is Watts!' 'Watts?' says the General, 'Well,' s'ee, 'If I had a few more of your kind, Watts, we'd get the Yanks on the run, and we'd keep 'em on the run.'"
Lydia Lord came down to get Mary's dinner, and again Susan helped the watery vegetable into a pyramid of saucers, and passed the green glass dish of pickles, and the pink china sugar-bowl. But she was happy to-night, and it seemed good to be home, where she could be her natural self, and put her elbows on the table, and be listened to and laughed at, instead of playing a role.
"Gosh, we need you in this family, Susie!" said William Oliver, won from fatigue and depression to a sudden appreciation of her gaiety.
"Do you, Willie darling?"
"Don't you call me Willie!" he looked up to say scowlingly.
"Well, don't you call me Susie, then!" retorted Susan. Mrs. Lancaster patted her hand, and said affectionately, "Don't it seem good to have the children scolding away at each other again!"
Susan and William had one of their long talks, after dinner, while they cracked and ate pine-nuts, and while Mary Lou, at the other end of the dining-room table, painstakingly wrote a letter to a friend of her girlhood. Billy was frankly afraid that his men were reaching the point when a strike would be the natural step, and as president of their new-formed union, and spokesman for them whenever the powers had to be approached, he was anxious to delay extreme measures as long as he could. Susan was inclined to regard the troubles of the workingman as very largely of his own making. "You'll simply lose your job," said Susan, "and that'll be the end of it. If you made friends with the Carpenters, on the other hand, you'd be fixed for life. And the Carpenters are perfectly lovely people. Mrs. Carpenter is on the hospital board, and a great friend of Ella's. And she says that it's ridiculous to think of paying those men better wages when their homes are so dirty and shiftless, and they spend their money as they do! You know very well there will always be rich people and poor people, and that if all the money in the world was divided on Monday morning—-"
"Don't get that old chestnut off!" William entreated.
"Well, I don't care!" Susan said, a little more warmly for the interruption. "Why don't they keep their houses clean, and bring their kids up decently, instead of giving them dancing lessons and white stockings!"
"Because they've had no decent training themselves, Sue—-"
"Oh, decent training! What about the schools?"
"Schools don't teach anything! But if they had fair play, and decent hours, and time to go home and play with the kids, and do a little gardening, they'd learn fast enough!"
"The poor you have always with you," said Mary Lou, reverently. Susan laughed outright, and went around the table to kiss her cousin.
"You're an old darling, Mary Lou!" said she. Mary Lou accepted the tribute as just.
"No, but I don't think we ought to forget the IMMENSE good that rich people do, Billy," she said mildly. "Mrs. Holly's daughters gave a Christmas-tree party for eighty children yesterday, and the Saturday Morning Club will have a tree for two hundred on the twenty-eighth!"
"Holly made his money by running about a hundred little druggists out of the business," said Billy, darkly.
"Bought and paid for their businesses, you mean," Susan amended sharply.
"Yes, paid about two years' profits," Billy agreed, "and would have run them out of business if they hadn't sold. If you call that honest!"
"It's legally honest," Susan said lazily, shuffling a pack for solitaire. "It's no worse than a thousand other things that people do!"
"No, I agree with you there!" Billy said heartily, and he smiled as if he had had the best of the argument.
Susan followed her game for awhile in silence. Her thoughts were glad to escape to more absorbing topics, she reviewed the happy afternoon, and thrilled to a hundred little memories. The quiet, stupid evening carried her back, in spirit, to the Susan of a few years ago, the shabby little ill-dressed clerk of Hunter, Baxter & Hunter, who had been such a limited and suppressed little person. The Susan of to-day was an erect, well-corseted, well-manicured woman of the world; a person of noticeable nicety of speech, accustomed to move in the very highest society. No, she could never come back to this, to the old shiftless, penniless ways. Any alternative rather!
"And, besides, I haven't really done anything yet," Susan said to herself, uneasily, when she was brushing her hair that night, and Mary Lou was congratulating her upon her improved appearance and manner.
On Saturday she introduced her delighted aunt and cousin to Mr. Bocqueraz, who came to take her for a little stroll.
"I've always thought you were quite an unusual girl, Sue," said her aunt later in the afternoon, "and I do think it's a real compliment for a man like that to talk to a girl like you! I shouldn't know what to say to him, myself, and I was real proud of the way you spoke up; so easy and yet so ladylike!"
Susan gave her aunt only an ecstatic kiss for answer. Bread was needed for dinner, and she flashed out to the bakery for it, and came flying back, the bread, wrapped in paper and tied with pink string, under her arm. She proposed a stroll along Filmore Street to Mary Lou, in the evening, and they wrapped up for their walk under the clear stars. There was a holiday tang to the very air; even the sound of a premature horn, now and then; the shops were full of shoppers.
Mary Lou had some cards to buy, at five cents apiece, or two for five cents, and they joined the gently pushing groups in the little stationery stores. Insignificant little shoppers were busily making selections from the open trays of cards; school-teachers, stenographers, bookkeepers and clerks kept up a constant little murmur among themselves.
"How much are these? Thank you!" "She says these are five, Lizzie; do you like them better than the little holly books?" "I'll take these two, please, and will you give me two envelopes?—Wait just a moment, I didn't see these !" "This one was in the ten-cent box, but it's marked five, and that lady says that there were some just like it for five. If it's five, I want it!" "Aren't these cunnin', Lou?" "Yes, I noticed those, did you see these, darling?" "I want this one—I want these, please,—will you give me this one?"
"Are you going to be open at all to-morrow?" Mary Lou asked, unwilling to be hurried into a rash choice. "Isn't this little one with a baby's face sweet?" said a tall, gaunt woman, gently, to Susan.
"Darling!" said Susan.
"But I want it for an unmarried lady, who isn't very fond of children," said the woman delicately. "So perhaps I had better take these two funny little pussies in a hat!"
They went out into the cold street again, and into a toy-shop where a lamb was to be selected for Georgie's baby. And here was a roughly dressed young man holding up a three-year-old boy to see the elephants and horses. Little Three, a noisy little fellow, with cold red little hands, and a worn, soiled plush coat, selected a particularly charming shaggy horse, and shouted with joy as his father gave it to him.
"Do you like that, son? Well, I guess you'll have to have it; there's nothing too good for you!" said the father, and he signaled a saleswoman. The girl looked blankly at the change in her hand.
"That's two dollars, sir," she said, pleasantly, displaying the tag.
"What?" the man stammered, turning red. "Why—why, sure—that's right! But I thought—-" he appealed to Susan. "Don't that look like twenty cents?" he asked.
Mary Lou tugged discreetly at Susan's arm, but Susan would not desert the baby in the plush coat.
"It IS!" she agreed warmly.
"Oh, no, ma'am! These are the best German toys," said the salesman firmly.
"Well, then, I guess—-" the man tried gently to disengage the horse from the jealous grip of its owner, "I guess we'd better leave this horse here for some other little feller, Georgie," said he, "and we'll go see Santa Claus."
"I thess want my horse that Dad GAVE me!" said Georgie, happily.
"Shall I ask Santa Claus to send it?" asked the saleswoman, tactfully.
"No-o-o!" said Georgie, uneasily. "Doncher letter have it, Dad!"
"Give the lady the horse, old man," said the father, "and we'll go find something pretty for Mamma and the baby!" The little fellow's lips quivered, but even at three some of the lessons of poverty had been learned. He surrendered the horse obediently, but Susan saw the little rough head go down tight against the man's collar, and saw the clutch of the grimy little hand.
Two minutes later she ran after them, and found them seated upon the lowest step of an out-of-the-way stairway; the haggard, worried young father vainly attempting to console the sobbing mite upon his knee.
"Here, darling," said Susan. And what no words could do, the touch of the rough-coated pony did for her; up came the little face, radiant through tears; Georgie clasped his horse again.
"No, ma'am, you mustn't—I thank you very kindly, ma'am, but——" was all that Susan heard before she ran away.
She would do things like that every day of her life, she thought, lying awake in the darkness that night. Wasn't it better to do that sort of thing with money than to be a Mary Lou, say, without? She was going to take a reckless and unwise step now. Admitted. But it would be the only one. And after busy and blameless years everyone must come to see that it had been for the best.
Every detail was arranged now. She and Stephen had visited the big liner that afternoon; Susan had had her first intoxicating glimpse of the joy of sea-travel, had peeped into the lovely little cabin that was to be her own, had been respectfully treated by the steward as the coming occupant of that cabin. She had seen her new plaid folded on a couch, her new trunk in place, a great jar of lovely freesia lilies already perfuming the fresh orderliness of the place.
Nothing to do now but to go down to the boat in the morning. Stephen had both tickets in his pocket-book. A careful scrutiny of the first-cabin list had assured Susan that no acquaintances of hers were sailing. If, in the leave-taking crowd, she met someone that she knew, what more natural than that Miss Brown had been delegated by the Saunders family to say good-bye to their charming cousin? Friends had promised to see Stephen off, but, if Ella appeared at all, it would be but for a moment, and Susan could easily avoid her. She was not afraid of any mishap.
But three days of the pure, simple old atmosphere had somewhat affected Susan, in spite of herself. She could much more easily have gone away with Stephen Bocqueraz without this interval. Life in the Saunders home stimulated whatever she had of recklessness and independence, frivolity and irreverence of law. She would be admired for this step by the people she had left; she could not think without a heartache of her aunt's shame and distress.
However there seemed nothing to do now but to go to sleep. Susan's last thought was that she had not taken the step YET,—in so much, at least, she was different from the girls who moved upon blind and passionate impulses. She could withdraw even now.
The morning broke like many another morning; sunshine and fog battling out-of-doors, laziness and lack of system making it generally characteristic of a Sunday morning within. Susan went to Church at seven o'clock, because Mary Lou seemed to expect it of her, and because it seemed a good thing to do, and was loitering over her breakfast at half-past-eight, when Mrs. Lancaster came downstairs.
"Any plan for to-day, Sue?" asked her aunt. Susan jumped nervously.
"Goodness, Auntie! I didn't see you there! Yes, you know I have to go and see Mr. Bocqueraz off at eleven."
"Oh, so you do! But you won't go back with the others, dear? Tell them we want you for Christmas!"
"With the others?"
"Miss Ella and Emily," her aunt supplied, mildly surprised.
"Oh! Oh, yes! Yes, I suppose so. I don't know," Susan said in great confusion.
"You'll probably see Lydia Lord there," pursued Mrs. Lancaster, presently. "She's seeing Mrs. Lawrence's cousins off."
"On the Nippon Maru?" Susan asked nervously.
"How you do remember names, Sue! Yes, Lydia's going down."
"I'd go with you, Sue, if it wasn't for those turkeys to stuff," said Mary Lou. "I do love a big ship!"
"Oh, I wish you could!" Susan said.
She went upstairs with a fast-beating heart. Her heart was throbbing so violently, indeed, that, like any near loud noise, it made thought very difficult. Mary Lou came in upon her packing her suitcase.
"I suppose they may want you to go right back," said Mary Lou regretfully, in reference to the Saunders, "but why don't you leave that here in case they don't?"
"Oh, I'd rather take it," said Susan.
She kissed her cousin good-bye, gave her aunt a particularly fervent hug, and went out into the doubtful morning. The fog-horn was booming on the bay, and when Susan joined the little stream of persons filing toward the dock of the great Nippon Maru, fog was already shutting out all the world, and the eaves of the pier dripped with mist. Between the slow-moving motor-cars and trucks on the dock, well-dressed men and women were picking their way through the mud.
Susan went unchallenged up the gang-plank, with girls in big coats, carrying candy-boxes and violets, men with cameras, elderly persons who watched their steps nervously. The big ship was filled with chattering groups, young people raced through cabins and passageways, eager to investigate.
Stevedores were slinging trunks and boxes on board; everywhere were stir and shouting and movement. Children shrieked and romped in the fitful sunlight; there were tears and farewells, on all sides; postal-writers were already busy about the tables in the writing- room, stewards were captured on their swift comings and goings, and interrogated and importuned. Fog lay heavy and silent over San Francisco; and the horn still boomed down the bay.
Susan, standing at the rail looking gravely on at the vivid and exciting picture, felt an uneasy and chilling little thought clutch at her heart. She had always said that she could withdraw, at this particular minute she could withdraw. But in a few moments more the dock would be moving steadily away from her; the clock in the ferry- tower, with gulls wheeling about it, the ferry-boats churning long wakes in the smooth surface of the bay, the stir of little craft about the piers, the screaming of a hundred whistles, in a hundred keys, would all be gone. Alcatraz would be passed, Black Point and the Golden Gate; they would be out beyond the rolling head-waters of the harbor. No withdrawing then.
Her attention was attracted by the sudden appearance of guards at the gang-plank, no more visitors would be allowed on board. Susan smiled at the helpless disgust of some late-comers, who must send their candy and books up by the steward. Twenty-five minutes of twelve, said the ferry clock.
"Are you going as far as Japan, my dear?" asked a gentle little lady at Susan's shoulder.
"Yes, we're going even further!" said friendly Susan.
"I'm going all alone," said the little lady, "and old as I am, I so dread it! I tell Captain Wolseley—-"
"I'm making my first trip, too," said Susan, "so we'll stand by each other!"
A touch on her arm made her turn suddenly about; her heart thundering. But it was only Lydia Lord.
"Isn't this thrilling, Sue?" asked Lydia, excited and nervous. "What WOULDN'T you give to be going? Did you go down and see the cabins; aren't they dear? Have you found the Saunders party?"
"Are the Saunders here?" asked Susan.
"Miss Ella was, I know. But she's probably gone now. I didn't see the younger sister. I must get back to the Jeromes," said Lydia; "they began to take pictures, and I'd thought I run away for a little peep at everything, all to myself! They say that we shore people will have to leave the ship at quarter of twelve."
She fluttered away, and a second later Susan found her hand covered by the big glove of Stephen Bocqueraz.
"Here you are, Susan," he said, with business-like satisfaction. "I was kept by Ella and some others, but they've gone now. Everything seems to be quite all right."
Susan turned a rather white and strained face toward him, but even now his bracing bigness and coolness were acting upon her as a tonic.
"We're at the Captain's table," he told her, "which you'll appreciate if you're not ill. If you are ill, you've got a splendid stewardess,—Mrs. O'Connor. She happens to be an old acquaintance of mine; she used to be on a Cunarder, and she's very much interested in my niece, and will look out for you very well." He looked down upon the crowded piers. "Wonderful sight, isn't it?" he asked. Susan leaned beside him at the rail, her color was coming back, but she saw nothing and heard nothing of what went on about her.
"What's he doing that for?" she asked suddenly. For a blue-clad coolie was working his way through the crowded docks, banging violently on a gong. The sound disturbed Susan's overstrained nerves.
"I don't know," said Stephen. "Lunch perhaps. Would you like to have a look downstairs before we go to lunch?"
"That's a warning for visitors to go ashore," volunteered a bright- faced girl near them, who was leaning on the rail, staring down at the pier. "But they'll give a second warning," she added, "for we're going to be a few minutes late getting away. Aren't you glad you don't have to go?" she asked Susan gaily.
"Rather!" said Susan huskily.
Visitors were beginning now to go reluctantly down the gang-plank, and mass themselves on the deck, staring up at the big liner, their faces showing the strained bright smile that becomes so fixed during the long slow process of casting off. Handkerchiefs began to wave, and to wipe wet eyes; empty last promises were exchanged between decks and pier. A woman near Susan began to cry,—a homely little woman, but the big handsome man who kissed her was crying, too.
Suddenly the city whistles, that blow even on Sunday in San Francisco, shrilled twelve. Susan thought of the old lunch-room at Hunter, Baxter & Hunter's, of Thorny and the stewed tomatoes, and felt the bitter tears rise in her throat.
Various passengers now began to turn their interest to the life of the ship. There was talk of luncheon, of steamer chairs, of asking the stewardess for jars to hold flowers. Susan had drawn back from the rail, no one on the ship knew her, but somebody on the pier might.
"Now let us go find Mrs. O'Connor," Stephen said, in a matter-of- fact tone. "Then you can take off your hat and freshen up a bit, and we can look over the ship." He led her cleverly through the now wildly churning crowds, into the comparative quiet of the saloon.
Here they found Mrs. O'Connor, surrounded by an anxious group of travelers. Stephen put Susan into her charge, and the two women studied each other with interest.
Susan saw a big-boned, gray-haired, capable-looking Irishwoman, in a dress of dark-blue duck, with a white collar and white cuffs, heard a warming, big voice, and caught a ready and infectious smile. In all the surrounding confusion Mrs. O'Connor was calm and alert; so normal in manner and speech indeed that merely watching her had the effect of suddenly cooling Susan's blood, of reducing her whirling thoughts to something like their old, sane basis. Travel was nothing to Mrs. O'Connor; farewells were the chief of her diet; and her manner with Stephen Bocqueraz was crisp and quiet. She fixed upon him shrewd, wise eyes that had seen some curious things in their day, but she gave Susan a motherly smile.
"This is my niece, Mrs. O'Connor," said Stephen, introducing Susan. "She's never made the trip before, and I want you to help me turn her over to her Daddy in Manila, in first-class shape."
"I will that," agreed the stewardess, heartily.
"Well, then I'll have a look at my own diggings, and Mrs. O'Connor will take you off to yours. I'll be waiting for you in the library, Sue," Stephen said, walking off, and Susan followed Mrs. O'Connor to her own cabin.
"The very best on the ship, as you might know Mr. Bocqueraz would get for anyone belonging to him," said the stewardess, shaking pillows and straightening curtains with great satisfaction, when they reached the luxurious little suite. "He's your father's brother, he tells me. Was that it?"
She was only making talk, with the kindliest motives, for a nervous passenger, but the blood rushed into Susan's face. Somehow it cut her to the heart to have to remember her father just at this instant; to make him, however distantly, a party to this troubled affair.
"And you've lost your dear mother," Mrs. O'Connor said, misunderstanding the girl's evident distress. "Well, my dear, the trip will do you a world of good, and you're blessed in this—you've a good father left, and an uncle that would lay down and die for you. I leave my own two girls, every time I go," she pursued, comfortably. "Angela's married,—she has a baby, poor child, and she's not very strong,—and Regina is still in boarding-school, in San Rafael. It's hard to leave them—-"
Simple, kindly talk, such as Susan had heard from her babyhood. And the homely honest face was not strange, nor the blue, faded eyes, with their heartening assurance of good-fellowship.
But suddenly it seemed to Susan that, with a hideous roaring and rocking, the world was crashing to pieces about her. Her soul sickened and shrank within her. She knew nothing of this good woman, who was straightening blankets and talking—talking—talking, three feet from her, but she felt she could not bear—she could not BEAR this kindly trust and sympathy—she could not bear the fear that some day she would be known to this woman for what she was!
A gulf yawned before her. She had not foreseen this. She had known that there were women in the world, plenty of them, Stephen said, who would understand what she was doing and like her in spite of it, even admire her.
But what these blue eyes would look when they knew it, she very well knew. Whatever glories and heights awaited Susan Brown in the days to come, she could never talk as an equal with Ann O'Connor or her like again, never exchange homely, happy details of babies and boarding-school and mothers and fathers again!
Plenty of women in the world who would understand and excuse her,— but Susan had a mad desire to get among these sheltering women somehow, never to come in contact with these stupid, narrow-visioned others—-!
"Leo—that's my son-in-law, is an angel to her," Mrs. O'Connor was saying, "and it's not everyone would be, as you know, for poor Angela was sick all the time before Raymond came, and she's hardly able to stir, even yet. But Leo gets his own breakfasts——"
Susan was at the washstand busy with brush and comb. She paused.
Life stretched before her vision a darkened and wearisome place. She had a sudden picture of Mrs. O'Connor's daughter,—of Georgie—of all helpless women upon whom physical weakness lays its heavy load. Pale, dispirited women, hanging over the little cradles, starting up at little cries in the night, comforted by the boyish, sympathetic husbands, and murmuring tired thanks and appreciations—-
She, Susan, would be old some day, might be sick and weak any day; there might be a suffering child. What then? What consolation for a woman who set her feet deliberately in the path of wrong? Not even a right to the consolation these others had, to the strong arm and the heartening voice at the day's end. And the child—what could she teach a child of its mother?
"But I might not have one," said Susan to herself. And instantly tears of self-pity bowed her head over the little towel-rack, and turned her heart to water. "I love children so—and I couldn't have children!" came the agonized thought, and she wept bitterly, pressing her eyes against the smooth folds of the towel.
"Come now, come now," said Ann O'Connor, sympathetic but not surprised. "You mustn't feel that way. Dry your eyes, dear, and come up on deck. We'll be casting off any moment now. Think of meeting your good father—-"
"Oh, Daddy!—-" The words were a long wail. Then Susan straightened up resolutely.
"I mustn't do this," she said sensibly. "I must find Mr. Bocqueraz."
Suddenly it seemed to her that she must have just the sight and touch of Stephen or she would lose all self-control. "How do I get to the library?" she asked, white lipped and breathing hard.
Sympathetic Mrs. O'Connor willingly directed her, and Susan went quickly and unseeingly through the unfamiliar passageway and up the curving staircase. Stephen—said her thoughts over and over again— just to get to him,—to put herself in his charge, to awaken from the nightmare of her own fears. Stephen would understand—would make everything right. People noticed her, for even in that self-absorbed crowd, she was a curious figure,—a tall, breathless girl, whose eyes burned feverishly blue in her white face. But Susan saw nobody, noticed nothing. Obstructions she put gently aside; voices and laughter she did not hear; and when suddenly a hand was laid upon her arm, she jumped in nervous fright.
It was Lydia Lord who clutched her eagerly by the wrist, homely, excited, shabbily dressed Lydia who clung to her, beaming with relief and satisfaction.
"Oh, Sue,—what a piece of good fortune to find you!" gasped the little governess. "Oh, my dear, I've twisted my ankle on one of those awful deck stairways!" she panted. "I wonder a dozen people a day don't get killed on them! And, Sue, did you know, the second gong has been rung? I didn't hear it, but they say it has! We haven't a second to lose—seems so dreadful—and everyone so polite and yet in such a hurry—this way, dear, he says this way—My! but that is painful!"
Dashed in an instant from absolute security to this terrible danger of discovery, Susan experienced something like vertigo. Her senses seemed actually to fail her. She could do only the obvious thing. Dazed, she gave Lydia her arm, and automatically guided the older woman toward the upper deck. But that this astounding enterprise of hers should be thwarted by Lydia Lord! Not an earthquake, not a convulsed conspiracy of earth and sea, but this little teacher, in her faded little best, with her sprained ankle!
That Lydia Lord, smiling in awkward deprecation, and giving apologetic glances to interested bystanders who watched their limping progress, should consider herself the central interest of this terrible hour!—-It was one more utterly irreconcilable note in this time of utter confusion and bewilderment. Terror of discovery, mingled in the mad whirl of Susan's thoughts with schemes of escape; and under all ran the agonizing pressure for time—minutes were precious now—every second was priceless!
Lydia Lord was the least manageable woman in the world. Susan had chafed often enough at her blunt, stupid obstinacy to be sure of that! If she once suspected what was Susan's business on the Nippon Maru—less, if she so much as suspected that Susan was keeping something, anything, from her, she would not be daunted by a hundred captains, by a thousand onlookers. She would have the truth, and until she got it, Susan would not be allowed out of her arm's reach. Lydia would cheerfully be bullied by the ship's authorities, laughed at, insulted, even arrested in happy martyrdom, if it once entered into her head that Mrs. Lancaster's niece, the bright-headed little charge of the whole boarding-house, was facing what Miss Lord, in virtuous ignorance, was satisfied to term "worse than death." Lydia would be loyal to Mrs. Lancaster, and true to the simple rules of morality by which she had been guided every moment of her life. She had sometimes had occasion to discipline Susan in Susan's naughty and fascinating childhood; she would unsparingly discipline Susan now.
Mary Lou might have been evaded; the Saunders could easily have been silenced, as ladies are easily silenced; but Lydia was neither as unsuspecting as Mary Lou, nor was she a lady. Had Susan been rude and cold to this humble friend throughout her childhood, she might have successfully defied and escaped Lydia now. But Susan had always been gracious and sympathetic with Lydia, interested in her problems, polite and sweet and kind. She could not change her manner now; as easily change her eyes or hair as to say, "I'm sorry you've hurt your foot, you'll have to excuse me,—I'm busy!" Lydia would have stopped short in horrified amazement, and, when Susan sailed on the Nippon Maru, Lydia would have sailed, too.
Guided by various voices, breathless and unseeing, they limped on. Past staring men and women, through white-painted narrow doorways, in a general hush of shocked doubt, they made their way.
"We aren't going to make it!" gasped Lydia. Susan felt a sick throb at her heart. What then?
"Oh, yes we are!" she murmured as they came out on the deck near the gang-plank. Embarrassment overwhelmed her; everyone was watching them—suppose Stephen was watching—suppose he called her—-
Susan's one prayer now was that she and Lydia might reach the gang- plank, and cross it, and be lost from sight among the crowd on the dock. If there was a hitch now!—-
"The shore gong rang ten minutes ago, ladies!" said a petty officer at the gang-plank severely.
"Thank God we're in time!" Lydia answered amiably, with her honest, homely smile.
"You've got to hurry; we're waiting!" added the man less disapprovingly.
Susan, desperate now, was only praying for oblivion. That Lydia and Stephen might not meet—that she might be spared only that—that somehow they might escape this hideous publicity—this noise and blare, was all she asked. She did not dare raise her eyes; her face burned.
"She's hurt her foot!" said pitying voices, as the two women went slowly down the slanting bridge to the dock.
Down, down, down they went! And every step carried Susan nearer to the world of her childhood, with its rigid conventions, its distrust of herself, its timidity of officials, and in crowded places! The influence of the Saunders' arrogance and pride failed her suddenly; the memory of Stephen's bracing belief in the power to make anything possible forsook her. She was only little Susan Brown, not rich and not bold and not independent, unequal to the pressure of circumstances.
She tried, with desperate effort, to rally her courage. Men were waiting even now to take up the gang-plank when she and Lydia left it; in another second it would be too late.
"Is either of you ladies sailing?" asked the guard at its foot.
"No, indeed!" said Lydia, cheerfully. Susan's eye met his miserably- -but she could not speak.
They went slowly along the pier, Susan watching Lydia's steps, and watching nothing else. Her face burned, her heart pounded, her hands and feet were icy cold. She merely wished to get away from this scene without a disgraceful exposition of some sort, to creep somewhere into darkness, and to die. She answered Lydia's cheerful comments briefly; with a dry throat.
Suddenly beside one of the steamer's great red stacks there leaped a plume of white steam, and the prolonged deep blast of her whistle drowned all other sounds.
"There she goes!" said Lydia pausing.
She turned to watch the Nippon Maru move against the pier like a moving wall, swing free, push slowly out into the bay. Susan did not look.
"It makes me sick," she said, when Lydia, astonished, noticed she was not watching.
"Why, I should think it did!" Lydia exclaimed, for Susan's face was ashen, and she was biting her lips hard to keep back the deadly rush of faintness that threatened to engulf her.
"I'm afraid—air—Lyd—-" whispered Susan. Lydia forgot her own injured ankle.
"Here, sit on these boxes, darling," she said. "Well, you poor little girl you! There, that's better. Don't worry about anyone watching you, just sit there and rest as long as you feel like it! I guess you need your lunch!"
December was unusually cold and bleak, that year, and after the holidays came six long weeks during which there were but a few glimpses of watery sunlight, between long intervals of fogs and rains. Day after day broke dark and stormy, day after day the office-going crowds jostled each other under wet umbrellas, or, shivering in wet shoes and damp outer garments, packed the street- cars.
Mrs. Lancaster's home, like all its type, had no furnace, and moisture and cold seemed to penetrate it, and linger therein. Wind howled past the dark windows, rain dripped from the cornice above the front door, the acrid odor of drying woolens and wet rubber coats permeated the halls. Mrs. Lancaster said she never had known of so much sickness everywhere, and sighed over the long list of unknown dead in the newspaper every morning.
"And I shouldn't be one bit surprised if you were sickening for something, Susan," her aunt said, in a worried way, now and then. But Susan, stubbornly shaking her head, fighting against tears, always answered with ill-concealed impatience:
"Oh, PLEASE don't, auntie! I'M all right!"
No such welcome event as a sudden and violent and fatal illness was likely to come her way, she used bitterly to reflect. She was here, at home again, in the old atmosphere of shabbiness and poverty; nothing was changed, except that now her youth was gone, and her heart broken, and her life wrecked beyond all repairing. Of the great world toward which she had sent so many hopeful and wistful and fascinated glances, a few years ago, she now stood in fear. It was a cruel world, cold and big and selfish; it had torn her heart out of her, and cast her aside like a dry husk. She could not keep too far enough away from it to satisfy herself in future, she only prayed for obscurity and solitude for the rest of her difficult life.
She had been helped through the first dreadful days that had followed the sailing of the Nippon Maru, by a terrified instinct of self-protection. Having failed so signally in this venture, her only possible course was concealment. Mary Lord did not guess—Mrs. Saunders did not guess—Auntie did not guess! Susan spent every waking hour, and many of the hours when she was supposedly asleep, in agonized search for some unguarded move by which she might be betrayed.
A week went by, two weeks—life resumed its old aspect outwardly. No newspaper had any sensational revelation to make in connection with the news of the Nippon Maru's peaceful arrival in Honolulu harbor, and the reception given there for the eminent New York novelist. Nobody spoke to Susan of Bocqueraz; her heart began to resume its natural beat. And with ebbing terror it was as if the full misery of her heart was revealed.
She had severed her connections with the Saunders family; she told her aunt quietly, and steeled herself for the scene that followed, which was more painful even than she had feared. Mrs. Lancaster felt indignantly that an injustice had been done Susan, was not at all sure that she herself would not call upon Miss Saunders and demand a full explanation. Susan combated this idea with surprising energy; she was very silent and unresponsive in these days, but at this suggestion she became suddenly her old vigorous self.
"I don't understand you lately, Sue," her aunt said disapprovingly, after this outburst. "You don't act like yourself at all! Sometimes you almost make auntie think that you've got something on your mind."
Something on her mind! Susan could have given a mad laugh at the suggestion. Madness seemed very near sometimes, between the anguished aching of her heart, and the chaos of shame and grief and impotent rebellion that possessed her soul. She was sickened with the constant violence of her emotions, whether anger or shame shook her, or whether she gave way to desperate longings for the sound of Stephen Bocqueraz's voice, and the touch of his hand again, she was equally miserable. Perhaps the need of him brought the keenest pang, but, after all, love with Susan was still the unknown quantity, she was too closely concerned with actual discomforts to be able to afford the necessary hours and leisure for brooding over a disappointment in love. That pain came only at intervals,—a voice, overheard in the street, would make her feel cold and weak with sudden memory, a poem or a bit of music that recalled Stephen Bocqueraz would ring her heart with sorrow, or, worst of all, some reminder of the great city where he made his home, and the lives that gifted and successful and charming men and women lived there, would scar across the dull wretchedness of Susan's thoughts with a touch of flame. But the steady misery of everyday had nothing to do with these, and, if less sharp, was still terrible to bear.
Desperately, with deadly determination, she began to plan an escape. She told herself that she would not go away until she was sure that Stephen was not coming back for her, sure that he was not willing to accept the situation as she had arranged it. If he rebelled,—if he came back for her,—if his devotion were unaffected by what had passed, then she must meet that situation as it presented itself.
But almost from the very first she knew that he would not come back and, as the days went by, and not even a letter came, however much her pride suffered, she could not tell herself that she was very much surprised. In her most sanguine moments she could dream that he had had news in Honolulu,—his wife was dead, he had hurried home, he would presently come back to San Francisco, and claim Susan's promise. But for the most part she did not deceive herself; her friendship with Stephen Bocqueraz was over. It had gone out of her life as suddenly as it had come, and with it, Susan told herself, had gone so much more! Her hope of winning a place for herself, her claim on the life she loved, her confidence that, as she was different, so would her life be different from the other lives she knew. All, all was gone. She was as helpless and as impotent as Mary Lou!
She had her moods when planning vague enterprises in New York or Boston satisfied her, and other moods when she determined to change her name, and join a theatrical troupe. From these some slight accident might dash her to the bitterest depths of despondency. She would have a sudden, sick memory of Stephen's clear voice, of the touch of his hand, she would be back at the Browning dance again, or sitting between him and Billy at that memorable first supper—-
"Oh, my God, what shall I do?" she would whisper, dizzy with pain, stopping short over her sewing, or standing still in the street, when the blinding rush of recollection came. And many a night she lay wakeful beside Mary Lou, her hands locked tight over her fast- beating heart, her lips framing again the hopeless, desperate little prayer: "Oh, God, what shall I do!"
No avenue of thought led to comfort, there was no comfort anywhere. Susan grew sick of her own thoughts. Chief among them was the conviction of failure, she had tried to be good and failed. She had consented to be what was not good, and failed there, too.
Shame rose like a rising tide. She could not stem it; she could not even recall the arguments that had influenced her so readily a few months ago, much less be consoled by them. Over and over again the horrifying fact sprang from her lulled reveries: she was bad—she was, at heart at least, a bad woman—she was that terrible, half- understood thing of which all good women stood in virtuous fear.
Susan rallied to the charge as well as she could. She had not really sinned in actual fact, after all, and one person only knew that she had meant to do so. She had been blinded and confused by her experience in a world where every commandment was lightly broken, where all sacred matters were regarded as jokes.
But the stain remained, rose fresh and dreadful through her covering excuses. Consciousness of it influenced every moment of her day and kept her wakeful far into the night. Susan's rare laughter was cut short by it, her brave resolves were felled by it, her ambition sank defeated before the memory of her utter, pitiable weakness. A hundred times a day she writhed with the same repulsion and shock that she might have felt had her offense been a well-concealed murder.
She had immediately written Stephen Bocqueraz a shy, reserved little letter, in the steamship company's care at Yokohama. But it would be two months before an answer to that might be expected, and meanwhile there was great financial distress at the boarding-house. Susan could not witness it without at least an effort to help.
Finally she wrote Ella a gay, unconcerned note, veiling with nonsense her willingness to resume the old relationship. The answer cut her to the quick. Ella had dashed off only a few lines of crisp news; Mary Peacock was with them now, they were all crazy about her. If Susan wanted a position why didn't she apply to Madame Vera? Ella had heard her say that she needed girls. And she was sincerely Susan's, Ella Cornwallis Saunders.
Madame Vera was a milliner; the most popular of her day. Susan's cheeks flamed as she read the little note. But, meditating drearily, it occurred to her that it might be as well to go and see the woman. She, Susan, had a knowledge of the social set that might be valuable in that connection. While she dressed, she pleased herself with a vision of Mademoiselle Brown, very dignified and severely beautiful, in black silk, as Madame Vera's right-hand woman.
The milliner was rushing about the back of her store at the moment that Susan chanced to choose for her nervously murmured remarks, and had to have them repeated several times. Then she laughed heartily and merrily, and assured Susan in very imperfect and very audible English, that forty girls were already on her list waiting for positions in her establishment.
"I thought perhaps—knowing all the people—" Susan stammered very low.
"How—why should that be so good?" Madame asked, with horrible clearness. "Do I not know them myself?"
Susan was glad to escape without further parley.
"See, now," said Madame Vera in a low tone, as she followed Susan to the door, "You do not come into my workshop, eh?"
"How much?" asked Susan, after a second's thought.
"Seven dollars," said the other with a quick persuasive nod, "and your dinner. That is something, eh? And more after a while."
But Susan shook her head. And, as she went out into the steadily falling rain again, bitter tears blinded her eyes.
She cried a great deal in these days, became nervous and sensitive and morbid. She moped about the house, restless and excited, unwilling to do anything that would take her away from the house when the postman arrived, reading the steamship news in every morning's paper.
Yet, curiously enough, she never accepted this experience as similar to what poor Mary Lou had undergone so many years ago,—this was not a "disappointment in love,"—this was only a passing episode. Presently she would get herself in hand again and astonish them with some achievement brilliant enough to sweep these dark days from everyone's memory.
She awaited her hour, impatiently at first, later with a sort of resentful calm. Susan's return home, however it affected them financially, was a real delight to her aunt and Mary Lou. The cousins roomed together, were together all day long.
Susan presently flooded the house with the circulars of a New York dramatic school, wrote mysterious letters pertaining to them. After a while these disappeared, and she spent a satisfied evening or two in filling blanks of application for admission into a hospital training-school. In February she worked hard over a short story that was to win a hundred dollar prize. Mary Lou had great confidence in it.
The two loitered over their toast and coffee, after the boarders' breakfast, made more toast to finish the coffee, and more coffee to finish the toast. The short winter mornings were swiftly gone; in the afternoon Susan and Mary Lou dressed with great care and went to market. They would stop at the library for a book, buy a little bag of candy to eat over their solitaire in the evening, perhaps pay a call on some friend, whose mild history of financial difficulties and helpless endurance matched their own.
Now and then, on Sundays, the three women crossed the Oakland ferry and visited Virginia, who was patiently struggling back to the light. They would find her somewhere in the great, orderly, clean institution, with a knot of sweet-faced, vague-eyed children clustered about her. "Good-bye, Miss 'Ginia!" the unearthly, happy little voices would call, as the uncertain little feet echoed away. Susan rather liked the atmosphere of the big institution, and vaguely envied the brisk absorbed attendants who passed them on swift errands. Stout Mrs. Lancaster, for all her panting and running, invariably came within half a second of missing the return train for the city; the three would enter it laughing and gasping, and sink breathless into their seats, unable for sheer mirth to straighten their hats, or glance at their fellow-passengers.
In March Georgie's second little girl, delicate and tiny, was born too soon, and the sturdy Myra came to her maternal grandmother for an indefinite stay. Georgie's disappointment over the baby's sex was instantly swallowed up in anxiety over the diminutive Helen's weight and digestion, and Susan and Mary Lou were delighted to prolong Myra's visit from week to week. Georgie's first-born was a funny, merry little girl, and Susan developed a real talent for amusing her and caring for her, and grew very fond of her. The new baby was well into her second month before they took Myra home,—a dark, crumpled little thing Susan thought the newcomer, and she thought that she had never seen Georgie looking so pale and thin. Georgie had always been freckled, but now the freckles seemed fairly to stand out on her face. But in spite of the children's exactions, and the presence of grim old Mrs. O'Connor, Susan saw a certain strange content in the looks that went between husband and wife.
"Look here, I thought you were going to be George Lancaster O'Connor!" said Susan, threateningly, to the new baby.
"I don't know why a boy wouldn't have been named Joseph Aloysius, like his father and grandfather," said the old lady disapprovingly.
But Georgie paid no heed. The baby's mother was kneeling beside the bed where little Helen lay, her eyes fairly devouring the tiny face.
"You don't suppose God would take her away from me, Sue, because of that nonsense about wanting a boy?" Georgie whispered.
Susan's story did not win the hundred dollar prize, but it won a fifth prize of ten dollars, and kept her in pocket money for some weeks. After that Mary Lord brought home an order for twenty place- cards for a child's Easter Party, and Susan spent several days happily fussing with water colors and so earned five dollars more.
Time did not hang at all heavily on her hands; there was always an errand or two to be done for auntie, and always a pack of cards and a library book with which to fill the evening. Susan really enjoyed the lazy evenings, after the lazy days. She and Mary Lou spent the first week in April in a flurry of linens and ginghams, making shirtwaists for the season; for three days they did not leave the house, nor dress fully, and they ate their luncheons from the wing of the sewing-machine.
Spring came and poured over the whole city a bath of warmth and perfume. The days lengthened, the air was soft and languid. Susan loved to walk to market now, loved to loiter over calls in the late after-noon, and walk home in the lingering sunset light. If a poignant regret smote her now and then, its effect was not lasting, she dismissed it with a bitter sigh.
But constant humiliation was good for neither mind nor body; Susan felt as pinched in soul as she felt actually pinched by the old cheerless, penniless condition, hard and bitter elements began to show themselves in her nature. She told herself that one great consolation in her memories of Stephen Bocqueraz was that she was too entirely obscure a woman to be brought to the consideration of the public, whatever her offense might or might not be. Cold and sullen, Susan saw herself as ill-used, she could not even achieve human contempt—she was not worthy of consideration. Just one of the many women who were weak—-
And sometimes, to escape the desperate circling of her thoughts, she would jump up and rush out for a lonely walk, through the wind- blown, warm disorder of the summer streets, or sometimes, dropping her face suddenly upon a crooked arm, she would burst into bitter weeping.
Books and pictures, random conversations overheard, or contact with human beings all served, in these days, to remind her of herself. Susan's pride and self-confidence and her gay ambition had sustained her through all the self-denial of her childhood. Now, failing these, she became but an irritable, depressed and discouraged caricature of her old self. Her mind was a distressed tribunal where she defended herself day and night; convincing this accuser— convincing that one—pleading her case to the world at large. Her aunt and cousin, entirely ignorant of its cause, still were aware that there was a great change in her, and watched her with silent and puzzled sympathy.
But they gave her no cause to feel herself a failure. They thought Susan unusually clever and gifted, and, if her list of actual achievements were small, there seemed to be no limit to the things that she COULD do. Mary Lou loved to read the witty little notes she could dash off at a moment's notice, Lydia Lord wiped her eyes with emotion that Susan's sweet, untrained voice aroused when she sang "Once in a Purple Twilight," or "Absent." Susan's famous eggless ginger-bread was one of the treats of Mrs. Lancaster's table.
"How do you do it, you clever monkey!" said Auntie, watching over Susan's shoulder the girl's quick fingers, as Susan colored Easter cards or drew clever sketches of Georgie's babies, or scribbled a jingle for a letter to amuse Virginia. And when Susan imitated Mrs. Patrick Campbell as Paula, or Mrs. Fiske as Becky Sharp, even William had to admit that she was quite clever enough to be a professional entertainer.
"But I wish I had one definite big gift, Billy," said Susan, on a July afternoon, when she and Mr. Oliver were on the ferry boat, going to Sausalito. It was a Sunday, and Susan thought that Billy looked particularly well to-day, felt indeed, with some discomfort, that he was better groomed and better dressed than she was, and that there was in him some new and baffling quality, some reserve that she could not command. His quick friendly smile did not hide the fact that his attention was not all hers; he seemed pleasantly absorbed in his own thoughts. Susan gave his clean-shaven, clear- skinned face many a half-questioning look as she sat beside him on the boat. He was more polite, more gentle, more kind that she remembered him—what was missing, what was wrong to-day?
It came to her suddenly, half-astonished and half-angry, that he was no longer interested in her. Billy had outgrown her, he had left her behind. He did not give her his confidence to-day, nor ask her advice. He scowled now and then, as if some under-current of her chatter vaguely disturbed him, but offered no comment. Susan felt, with a little, sick pressure at her heart, that somehow she had lost an old friend!
He was stretched out comfortably, his long legs crossed before him, his hands thrust deep in his trousers pockets, and his half-shut, handsome eyes fixed on the rushing strip of green water that was visible between the painted ropes of the deck-rail.
"And what are your own plans, Sue?" he presently asked, unsmilingly.
Susan was chilled by the half-weary tone.
"Well, I'm really just resting and helping Auntie, now," Susan said cheerfully. "But in the fall—-" she made a bold appeal to his interest, "—in the fall I think I shall go to New York?"
"New York?" he echoed, aroused. "What for?"
"Oh, anything!" Susan answered confidently. "There are a hundred chances there to every one here," she went on, readily, "institutions and magazines and newspapers and theatrical agencies— Californians always do well in New York!"
"That sounds like Mary Lou," said Billy, drily. "What does she know about it?"
Susan flushed resentfully.
"Well, what do you!" she retorted with heat.
"No, I've never been there," admitted Billy, with self-possession. "But I know more about it than Mary Lou! She's a wonder at pipe- dreams,—my Lord, I'd rather have a child of mine turned loose in the street than be raised according to Mary Lou's ideas! I don't mean," Billy interrupted himself to say seriously, "that they weren't all perfectly dandy to me when I was a kid—you know how I love the whole bunch! But all that dope about not having a chance here, and being 'unlucky' makes me weary! If Mary Lou would get up in the morning, and put on a clean dress, and see how things were going in the kitchen, perhaps she'd know more about the boarding- house, and less about New York!"
"It may never have occurred to you, Billy, that keeping a boarding- house isn't quite the ideal occupation for a young gentlewoman!" Susan said coldly.
"Oh, darn everything!" Billy said, under his breath. Susan eyed him questioningly, but he did not look at her again, or explain the exclamation.
The always warm and welcoming Carrolls surrounded them joyfully, Susan was kissed by everybody, and Billy had a motherly kiss from Mrs. Carroll in the unusual excitement of the occasion.
For there was great news. Susan had it from all of them at once; found herself with her arms linked about the radiant Josephine while she said incredulously:
"Oh, you're NOT! Oh, Jo, I'm so glad! Who is it—and tell me all about it—and where's his picture—-"
In wild confusion they all straggled out to the lawn, and Susan sat down with Betsey at her feet, Anna sitting on one arm of her low chair, and Josephine kneeling, with her hands still in Susan's.
He was Mr. Stewart Frothingham, and Josephine and his mother and sister had gone up to Yale for his graduation, and "it" had been instantaneous, "we knew that very day," said Josephine, with a lovely awe in her eyes, "but we didn't say anything to Mrs. Frothingham or Ethel until later." They had all gone yachting together, and to Bar Harbor, and then Stewart had gone into his uncle's New York office, "we shall have to live in New York," Josephine said, radiantly, "but one of the girls or Mother will ALWAYS be there!"
"Jo says it's the peachiest house you ever saw!" Betsey contributed.
"Oh, Sue—right down at the end of Fifth Avenue—but you don't know where that is, do you? Anyway, it's wonderful—-"
It was all wonderful, everybody beamed over it. Josephine already wore her ring, but no announcement was to be made until after a trip she would make with the Frothinghams to Yellowstone Park in September. Then the gallant and fortunate and handsome Stewart would come to California, and the wedding would be in October.
"And you girls will all fall in love with him!" prophesied Josephine.
"Fall?" echoed Susan studying photographs. "I head the waiting list! You grab-all! He's simply perfection—rich and stunning, and an old friend—and a yacht and a motor—-"
"And a fine, hard-working fellow, Sue," added Josephine's mother.
"I begin to feel old and unmarried," mourned Susan. "What did you say, William dear?" she added, suddenly turning to Billy, with a honeyed smile.
They all shouted. But an hour or two later, in the kitchen, Mrs. Carroll suddenly asked her of her friendship with Peter Coleman.
"Oh, we've not seen each other for months, Aunt Jo!" Susan said cheerfully. "I don't even know where he is! I think he lives at the club since the crash."
"There was a crash?"
"A terrible crash. And now the firm's reorganized; it's Hunter, Hunter & Brauer. Thorny told me about it. And Miss Sherman's married, and Miss Cottle's got consumption and has to live in Arizona, or somewhere. However,—-" she returned to the original theme, "Peter seems to be still enjoying life! Did you see the account of his hiring an electric delivery truck, and driving it about the city on Christmas Eve, to deliver his own Christmas presents, dressed up himself as an expressman? And at the Bachelor's dance, they said it was his idea to freeze the floor in the Mapleroom, and skate the cotillion!"
"Goose that he is!" Mrs. Carroll smiled. "How hard he works for his fun! Well, after all that's Peter—one couldn't expect him to change!"
"Does anybody change?" Susan asked, a little sadly. "Aren't we all born pretty much as we're going to be? There are so many lives—-" She had tried to keep out the personal note, but suddenly it crept in, and she saw the kitchen through a blur of tears. "There are so many lives," she pursued, unsteadily, "that seem to miss their mark. I don't mean poor people. I mean strong, clever young women, who could do things, and who would love to do certain work,—yet who can't get hold of them! Some people are born to be busy and happy and prosperous, and others, like myself," said Susan bitterly, "drift about, and fail at one thing after another, and never get anywhere!"
Suddenly she put her head down on the table and burst into tears.
"Why Sue—why Sue!" The motherly arm was about her, she felt Mrs. Carroll's cheek against her hair. "Why, little girl, you musn't talk of failure at your age!" said Mrs. Carroll, tenderly.