"I'll be twenty-six this fall," Susan said, wiping her eyes, "and I'm not started yet! I don't know how to begin. Sometimes I think," said Susan, with angry vigor, "that if I was picked right out of this city and put down anywhere else on the globe, I could be useful and happy! But here I can't! How—-" she appealed to the older woman passionately, "How can I take an interest in Auntie's boarding-house when she herself never keeps a bill, doesn't believe in system, and likes to do things her own way?"
"Sue, I do think that things at home are very hard for you," Mrs. Carroll said with quick sympathy. "It's too bad, dear, it's just the sort of thing that I think you fine, energetic, capable young creatures ought to be saved! I wish we could think of just the work that would interest you."
"But that's it—I have no gift!" Susan said, despondingly.
"But you don't need a gift, Sue. The work of the world isn't all for girls with gifts! No, my dear, you want to use your energies—you won't be happy until you do. You want happiness, we all do. And there's only one rule for happiness in this world, Sue, and that's service. Just to the degree that they serve people are happy, and no more. It's an infallible test. You can try nations by it, you can try kings and beggars. Poor people are just as unhappy as rich people, when they're idle; and rich people are really happy only when they're serving somebody or something. A millionaire—a multimillionaire—may be utterly wretched, and some poor little clerk who goes home to a sick wife, and to a couple of little babies, may be absolutely content—probably is."
"But you don't think that the poor, as a class, are happier than the rich?"
"Why, of course they are!"
"Lots of workingmen's wives are unhappy," submitted Susan.
"Because they're idle and shiftless and selfish, Sue. But there are some among them who are so busy mixing up spice cake, and making school-aprons, and filling lamps and watering gardens that they can't stop to read the new magazines,—and those are the happiest people in the world, I think. No, little girl, remember that rule. Not money, or success, or position or travel or love makes happiness,—service is the secret."
Susan was watching her earnestly, wistfully. Now she asked simply:
"Where can I serve?"
"Where can you serve—you blessed child!" Mrs. Carroll said, ending her little dissertation with a laugh. "Well, let me see—I've been thinking of you lately, Sue, and wondering why you never thought of settlement work? You'd be so splendid, with your good-nature, and your buoyancy, and your love for children. Of course they don't pay much, but money isn't your object, is it?"
"No-o, I suppose it isn't," Susan said uncertainly. "I—I don't see why it should be!" And she seemed to feel her horizon broadening as she spoke.
She and Billy did not leave until ten o'clock, fare-wells, as always, were hurried, but Josephine found time to ask Susan to be her bridesmaid, Betsey pleaded for a long visit after the wedding, "we'll simply die without Jo!" and Anna, with her serious kiss, whispered, "Stand by us, Sue—it's going to break Mother's heart to have her go so far away!"
Susan could speak of nothing but Josephine's happiness for awhile, when she and Billy were on the boat. They had the dark upper deck almost to themselves, lights twinkled everywhere about them, on the black waters of the bay. There was no moon. She presently managed a delicately tentative touch upon his own feeling in the matter. "He— he was glad, wasn't he? He hadn't been seriously hurt?"
Bill, catching her drift, laughed out joyously.
"That's so—I was crazy about her once, wasn't I?" Billy asked, smilingly reminiscent. "But I like Anna better now. Only I've sort of thought sometimes that Anna has a crush on someone—Peter Coleman, maybe."
"No, not on him," Susan hesitated. "There's a doctor at the hospital, but he's awfully rich and important—-" she admitted.
"Oh." Billy withdrew. "And you—are you still crazy about that mutt?" he asked.
"Peter? I've not seen him for months. But I don't see why you call him a mutt!"
"Say, did you ever know that he made a pretty good thing out of Mrs. Carroll's window washer?" Billy asked confidentally, leaning toward her in the dark.
"He paid her five hundred dollars for it!" Susan flashed back. "Did YOU know that?"
"Sure I knew that," Billy said.
"Well—well, did he make more than THAT?" Susan asked.
"He sold it to the Wakefield Hardware people for twenty-five thousand dollars," Billy announced.
"For twenty-five thousand," he repeated. "They're going to put them into lots of new apartments. The National Duplex, they call it. Yep, it's a big thing, I guess."
"Bill, you mean twenty-five hundred!"
"Twenty-five thousand, I tell you! It was in the 'Scientific American,' I can show it to you!"
Susan kept a moment's shocked silence.
"Billy, I don't believe he would do that!" she said at last.
"Oh, shucks," Billy said good-naturedly, "it was rotten, but it wasn't as bad as that! It was legal enough. She was pleased with her five hundred, and I suppose he told himself that, but for him, she mightn't have had that! Probably he meant to give her a fat check—-."
"Give her? Why, it was hers!" Susan burst out. "What did Peter Coleman have to do with it, anyway!"
"Well, that's the way all big fortunes are built up," Billy said. "You happen to see this, though, and that's why it seems so rotten!"
"I'll never speak to Peter Coleman again!" Susan declared, outraged.
"You'll have to cut out a good many of your friends in the Saunders set if you want to be consistent," Billy said. "This doesn't seem to me half as bad as some others! What I think is rotten is keeping hundreds of acres of land idle, for years and years, or shutting poor little restless kids up in factories, or paying factory girls less than they can live on, and drawing rent from the houses where they are ruined, body and soul! The other day some of our men were discharged because of bad times, and as they walked out they passed Carpenter's eighteen-year-old daughter sitting in the motor, with a chauffeur in livery in front, and with her six-hundred-dollar Pekingese sprawling in her lap, in his little gold collar. Society's built right on that sort of thing, Sue! you'd be pretty surprised if you could see a map of the bad-house district, with the owners' names attached."
"They can't be held responsible for the people who rent their property!" Susan protested.
"Bocqueraz told me that night that in New York you'll see nice- looking maids, nice-looking chauffeurs, and magnificent cars, any afternoon, airing the dogs in the park," said Billy.
The name silenced Susan; she felt her breath come short.
"He was a dandy fellow," mused Billy, not noticing. "Didn't you like him?"
"Like him!" burst from Susan's overcharged heart. An amazed question or two from him brought the whole story out. The hour, the darkness, the effect of Josephine's protected happiness, and above all, the desire to hold him, to awaken his interest, combined to break down her guard.
She told him everything, passionately and swiftly, dwelling only upon the swift rush of events that had confused her sense of right and wrong, and upon the writer's unparalleled devotion.
Billy, genuinely shocked at her share of the affair, was not inclined to take Bocqueraz's protestations very seriously. Susan found herself in the odious and unforeseen position of defending Stephen Bocqueraz's intentions.
"What a dirty rotter he must be, when he seemed such a prince!" was William's summary. "Pretty tough on you, Sue," he added, with fraternal kindly contempt, "Of course you would take him seriously, and believe every word! A man like that knows just how to go about it,—and Lord, you came pretty near getting in deep!"
Susan's face burned and she bit her lip in the darkness. It was unbearable that Billy should think Bocqueraz less in earnest than she had been, should imagine her so easily won! She wished heartily that she had not mentioned the affair.
"He probably does that everywhere he goes," said Billy, thoughtfully. "You had a pretty narrow escape, Sue, and I'll bet he thought he got out of it pretty well, too! After the thing had once started, he probably began to realize that you are a lot more decent than most, and you may bet he felt pretty rotten about it—-"
"Do you mean to say that he DIDN'T mean to—-" began Susan hotly, stung even beyond anger by outraged pride. But, as the enormity of her question smote her suddenly, she stopped short, with a sensation almost of nausea.
"Marry you?" Billy finished it for her. "I don't know—probably he would. Lord, Lord, what a blackguard! What a skunk!" And Billy got up with a short breath, as if he were suffocating, walked away from her, and began to walk up and down across the broad dark deck.
Susan felt bitter remorse and shame sweep her like a flame as he left her. She felt, sitting there alone in the darkness, as if she would die of the bitterness of knowing herself at last. In beginning her confidence, she had been warmed by the thought of the amazing and romantic quality of her news, she had thought that Bocqueraz's admiration would seem a great thing in Billy's eyes. Now she felt sick and cold and ashamed, the glamour fell, once and for all, from what she had done and, as one hideous memory after another roared in her ears, Susan felt as if her thoughts would drive her mad.
Billy came suddenly back to his seat beside her, and laid his hand over hers. She knew that he was trying to comfort her.
"Never you mind, Sue," he said, "it's not your fault that there are men rotten enough to take advantage of a girl like you. You're easy, Susan, you're too darned easy, you poor kid. But thank God, you got out in time. It would have killed your aunt," said Billy, with a little shudder, "and I would never have forgiven myself. You're like my own sister, Sue, and I never saw it coming! I thought you were wise to dope like that—-"
"Wise to dope like that!" Susan could have risen up and slapped him, in the darkness. She could have burst into frantic tears; she would gladly have felt the boat sinking—sinking to hide her shame and his contempt for her under the friendly, quiet water.
For long years the memory of that trip home from Sausalito, the boat, the warm and dusty ferry-place, the jerking cable-car, the grimy, wilted street, remained vivid and terrible in her memory.
She found herself in her room, talking to the aroused Mary Lou. She found herself in bed, her heart beating fast, her eyes wide and bright. Susan meant to stop thinking of what could not be helped, and get to sleep at once.
The hours went by, still she lay wakeful and sick at heart. She turned and tossed, sighed, buried her face in her pillow, turned and tossed again. Shame shook her, worried her in dreams, agonized her when she was awake. Susan felt as if she would lose her mind in the endless hours of this terrible night.
There was a little hint of dawn in the sky when she crept wearily over Mary Lou's slumbering form.
"Ha! What is it?" asked Mary Lou.
"It's early—I'm going out—my head aches!" Susan said. Mary Lou sank back gratefully, and Susan dressed in the dim light. She crept downstairs, and went noiselessly out into the chilly street.
Her head ached, and her skin felt dry and hot. She took an early car for North Beach, sat mute and chilled on the dummy until she reached the terminal, and walked blindly down to the water. Little waves shifted wet pebbles on the shore, a cool wind sighed high above her.
Susan found a sheltered niche among piles of lumber—and sat staring dully ahead of her. The water was dark, but the fog was slowly lifting, to show barges at anchor, and empty rowboats rocking by the pier. The tide was low, piles closely covered with shining black barnacles rose lank from the water; odorous webs of green seaweed draped the wooden cross-bars and rusty iron cleats of the dock.
Susan remembered the beaches she had known in her childhood, when, a small skipping person, she had run ahead of her father and mother, wet her shoes in the sinking watery sand, and curved away from the path of the waves in obedience to her mother's voice. She remembered walks home beside the roaring water, with the wind whistling in her ears, the sunset full in her eyes, her tired little arms hooked in the arms of the parents who shouted and laughed at each other over the noisy elements.
"My good, dear, hungry, little, tired Mouse!" her mother had called her, in the blissful hour of supper and warmth and peace that followed.
Her mother had always been good—her father good. Every one was good,—even impractical, absurd Mary Lou, and homely Lydia Lord, and little Miss Sherman at the office, with her cold red hands, and her hungry eyes,—every one was good, except Susan.
Dawn came, and sunrise. The fog lifted like a curtain, disappeared in curling filaments against the sun. Little brown-sailed fishing- smacks began to come dipping home, sunlight fell warm and bright on the roofs of Alcatraz, the blue hills beyond showed soft against the bluer sky. Ferry boats cut delicate lines of foam in the sheen of the bay, morning whistles awakened the town. Susan felt the sun's grateful warmth on her shoulders and, watching the daily miracle of birth, felt vaguely some corresponding process stir her own heart. Nature cherishes no yesterdays; the work of rebuilding and replenishing goes serenely on. Punctual dawn never finds the world unready, April's burgeoning colors bury away forever the memories of winter wind and deluge.
"There is some work that I may still do, in this world, there is a place somewhere for me," thought Susan, walking home, hungry and weary, "Now the question is to find them!"
Early in October came a round-robin from the Carrolls. Would Susan come to them for Thanksgiving and stay until Josephine's wedding on December third? "It will be our last time all together in one sense," wrote Mrs. Carroll, "and we really need you to help us over the dreadful day after Jo goes!"
Susan accepted delightedly for the wedding, but left the question of Thanksgiving open; her aunt felt the need of her for the anniversary. Jinny would be at home from Berkeley and Alfred and his wife Freda were expected for Thanksgiving Day. Mrs. Alfred was a noisy and assertive little person, whose complacent bullying of her husband caused his mother keen distress. Alfred was a bookkeeper now, in the bakery of his father-in-law, in the Mission, and was a changed man in these days; his attitude toward his wife was one of mingled fear and admiration. It was a very large bakery, and the office was neatly railed off, "really like a bank," said poor Mrs. Lancaster, but Ma had nearly fainted when first she saw her only son in this enclosure, and never would enter the bakery again. The Alfreds lived in a five-room flat bristling with modern art papers and shining woodwork; the dining-room was papered in a bold red, with black wood trimmings and plate-rail; the little drawing-room had a gas-log surrounded with green tiles. Freda made endless pillows for the narrow velour couch, and was very proud of her Mission rocking-chairs and tasseled portieres. Her mother's wedding- gift had been a piano with a mechanical player attached; the bride was hospitable and she loved to have groups of nicely dressed young people listening to the music, while she cooked for them in the chafing-dish. About once a month, instead of going to "Mama's" for an enormous Sunday dinner, she and Alfred had her fat "Mama" and her small wiry "Poppa" and little Augusta and Lulu and Heinie come to eat a Sunday dinner with them. And when this happened stout Mrs. Hultz always sent her own cook over the day before with a string of sausages and a fowl and a great mocha cake, and cheese and hot bread, so that Freda's party should not "cost those kits so awful a lot," as she herself put it.
And no festivity was thought by Freda to warrant Alfred's approach to his old habits. She never allowed him so much as a sherry sauce on his pudding. She frankly admitted that she "yelled bloody murder" if he suggested absenting himself from her side for so much as a single evening. She adored him, she thought him the finest type of man she knew, but she allowed him no liberty.
"A doctor told Ma once that when a man drank, as Alfie did, he couldn't stop right off short, without affecting his heart," said Mary Lou, gently.
"All right, let it affect his heart then!" said the twenty-year-old Freda hardily. Ma herself thought this disgustingly cold-blooded; she said it did not seem refined for a woman to admit that her husband had his failings, and Mary Lou said frankly that it was easy enough to see where THAT marriage would end, but Susan read more truly the little bride's flashing blue eyes and the sudden scarlet in her cheeks, and she won Freda's undying loyalty by a surreptitious pressure of her fingers.
One afternoon in mid-November Susan and Mary Lou chanced to be in the dining-room, working over a puzzle-card that had been delivered as an advertisement of some new breakfast food. They had intended to go to market immediately after lunch, but it was now three o'clock, and still they hung over the fascinating little combination of paper angles and triangles, feeling that any instant might see the problem solved.
Suddenly the telephone rang, and Susan went to answer it, while Mary Lou, who had for some minutes been loosening her collar and belt preparatory to changing for the street, trailed slowly upstairs, holding her garments together.
Outside was a bright, warm winter day, babies were being wheeled about in the sunshine, and children, just out of school, were shouting and running in the street. From where Susan sat at the telephone she could see a bright angle of sunshine falling through the hall window upon the faded carpet of the rear entry, and could hear Mrs. Cortelyou's cherished canary, Bobby, bursting his throat in a cascade of song upstairs. The canary was still singing when she hung up the receiver, two minutes later,—the sound drove through her temples like a knife, and the placid sunshine in the entry seemed suddenly brazen and harsh.
Susan went upstairs and into Mary Lou's room.
"Mary Lou—-" she began.
"Why, what is it?" said Mary Lou, catching her arm, for Susan was very white, and she was staring at her cousin with wide eyes and parted lips.
"It was Billy," Susan answered. "Josephine Carroll's dead."
"WHAT!" Mary Lou said sharply.
"That's what he said," Susan repeated dully. "There was an accident,—at Yellowstone—they were going to meet poor Stewart—and when he got in—they had to tell him—poor fellow! Ethel Frothingham's arm was broken, and Jo never moved—Phil has taken Mrs. Carroll on to-day—Billy just saw them off!" Susan sat down at the bureau, and rested her head in her hands. "I can't believe it!" she said, under her breath. "I simply CANNOT believe it!"
"Josephine Carroll killed! Why—it's the most awful thing I ever heard!" Mary Lou exclaimed. Her horror quieted Susan.
"Billy didn't know anything more than that," Susan said, beginning hastily to change her dress. "I'll go straight over there, I guess. He said they only had a wire, but that one of the afternoon papers has a short account. My goodness—goodness—goodness—when they were all so happy! And Jo always the gayest of them all—it doesn't seem possible!"
Still dazed, she crossed the bay in the pleasant afternoon sunlight, and went up to the house. Anna was already there, and the four spent a quiet, sad evening together. No details had reached them, the full force of the blow was not yet felt. When Anna had to go away the next day Susan stayed; she and Betsy got the house ready for the mother's home-coming, put away Josephine's dresses, her tennis- racket, her music—-
"It's not right!" sobbed the rebellious little sister. "She was the best of us all—and we've had so much to bear! It isn't fair!"
"It's all wrong," Susan said, heavily.
Mrs. Carroll, brave and steady, if very tired, came home on the third day, and with her coming the atmosphere of the whole house changed. Anna had come back again; the sorrowing girls drew close about their mother, and Susan felt that she was not needed.
"Mrs. Carroll is the most wonderful woman in the world!" she said to Billy, going home after the funeral. "Yes," Billy answered frowningly. "She's too darn wonderful! She can't keep this up!"
Georgie and Joe came to Mrs. Lancaster's house for an afternoon visit on Thanksgiving Day, arriving in mid-afternoon with the two babies, and taking Myra and Helen home again before the day grew too cold. Virginia arrived, using her own eyes for the first time in years, and the sisters and their mother laughed and cried together over the miracle of the cure. When Alfie and Freda came there was more hilarity. Freda very prettily presented her mother-in-law, whose birthday chanced to fall on the day, with a bureau scarf. Alfred, urged, Susan had no doubt, by his wife, gave his mother ten dollars, and asked her with a grin to buy herself some flowers. Virginia had a lace collar for Ma, and the white-coated O'Connor babies, with much pushing and urging, bashfully gave dear Grandma a tissue-wrapped bundle that proved to be a silk gown. Mary Lou unexpectedly brought down from her room a box containing six heavy silver tea-spoons.
Where Mary Lou ever got the money to buy this gift was rather a mystery to everyone except Susan, who had chanced to see the farewells that took place between her oldest cousin and Mr. Ferd Eastman, when the gentleman, who had been making a ten-days visit to the city, left a day or two earlier for Virginia City.
"Pretty soon after his wife's death!" Susan had accused Mary Lou, vivaciously.
"Ferd has often kissed me—like a brother—-" stammered Mary Lou, coloring painfully, and with tears in her kind eyes. And, to Susan's amazement, her aunt, evidently informed of the event by Mary Lou, had asked her not to tease her cousin about Ferd. Susan felt certain that the spoons were from Ferd.
She took great pains to make the holiday dinner unusually festive, decorated the table, and put on her prettiest evening gown. There were very few boarders left in the house on this day, and the group that gathered about the big turkey was like one large family. Billy carved, and Susan with two paper candle-shades pinned above her ears, like enormous rosettes, was more like her old silly merry self than these people who loved her had seen her for years.
It was nearly eight o'clock when Mrs. Lancaster, pushing back an untasted piece of mince pie, turned to Susan a strangely flushed and swollen face, and said thickly:
"Air—I think I must—air!"
She went out of the dining-room, and they heard her open the street door, in the hall. A moment later Virginia said "Mama!" in so sharp a tone that the others were instantly silenced, and vaguely alarmed.
"Hark!" said Virginia, "I thought Mama called!" Susan, after a half- minute of nervous silence, suddenly jumped up and ran after her aunt.
She never forgot the dark hall, and the sensation when her foot struck something soft and inert that lay in the doorway. Susan gave a great cry of fright as she knelt down, and discovered it to be her aunt.
Confusion followed. There was a great uprising of voices in the dining-room, chairs grated on the floor. Someone lighted the hall gas, and Susan found a dozen hands ready to help her raise Mrs. Lancaster from the floor.
"She's just fainted!" Susan said, but already with a premonition that it was no mere faint.
"We'd better have a doctor though—-" she heard Billy say, as they carried her aunt in to the dining-room couch. Mrs. Lancaster's breath was coming short and heavy, her eyes were shut, her face dark with blood.
"Oh, why did we let Joe go home!" Mary Lou burst out hysterically.
Her mother evidently caught the word, for she opened her eyes and whispered to Susan, with an effort:
"Georgia—good, good man—my love—-"
"You feel better, don't you, darling?" Susan asked, in a voice rich with love and tenderness.
"Oh, yes!" her aunt whispered, earnestly, watching her with the unwavering gaze of a child.
"Of course she's better—You're all right, aren't you?" said a dozen voices. "She fainted away!—Didn't you hear her fall?—I didn't hear a thing!—Well, you fainted, didn't you?—You felt faint, didn't you?"
"Air—-" said Mrs. Lancaster, in a thickened, deep voice. Her eyes moved distressedly from one face to another, and as Virginia began to unfasten the pin at her throat, she added tenderly, "Don't prick yourself, Bootsy!"
"Oh, she's very sick—she's very sick!" Susan whispered, with white lips, to Billy who was at the telephone.
"What do you think of sponging her face off with ice-water?" he asked in a low tone. Susan fled to the kitchen. Mary Lou, seated by the table where the great roast stood in a confusion of unwashed plates and criss-crossed silver, was sobbing violently.
"Oh, Sue—she's dying!" whispered Mary Lou, "I know it! Oh, my God, what will we do!"
Susan plunged her hand in a tall pitcher for a lump of ice and wrapped it in a napkin. A moment later she knelt by her aunt's side. The sufferer gave a groan at the touch of ice, but a moment later she caught Susan's wrist feverishly and muttered "Good!"
"Make all these fools go upstairs!" said Alfie's wife in a fierce whisper. She was carrying out plates and clearing a space about the couch. Virginia, kneeling by her mother, repeated over and over again, in an even and toneless voice, "Oh God, spare her—Oh God, spare her!"
The doctor was presently among them, dragged, Susan thought, from the faint odor of wine about him, from his own dinner. He helped Billy carry the now unconscious woman upstairs, and gave Susan brisk orders.
"There has undoubtedly been a slight stroke," said he.
"Oh, doctor!" sobbed Mary Lou, "will she get well?"
"I don't anticipate any immediate change," said the doctor to Susan, after a dispassionate look at Mary Lou, "and I think you had better have a nurse."
"Yes, doctor," said Susan, very efficient and calm.
"Had you a nurse in mind?" asked the doctor.
"Well, no," Susan answered, feeling as if she had failed him.
"I can get one," said the doctor thoughtfully.
"Oh, doctor, you don't know what she's BEEN to us!" wailed Mary Lou.
"Don't, darling!" Susan implored her.
And now, for the first time in her life, she found herself really busy, and, under all sorrow and pain, there was in these sad hours for Susan a genuine satisfaction and pleasure. Capable, tender, quiet, she went about tirelessly, answering the telephone, seeing to the nurse's comfort, brewing coffee for Mary Lou, carrying a cup of hot soup to Virginia. Susan, slim, sympathetic, was always on hand,- -with clean sheets on her arm or with hot water for the nurse or with a message for the doctor. She penciled a little list for Billy to carry to the drugstore, she made Miss Foster's bed in the room adjoining Auntie's, she hunted up the fresh nightgown that was slipped over her aunt's head, put the room in order; hanging up the limp garments with a strange sense that it would be long before Auntie's hand touched them again.
"And now, why don't you go to bed, Jinny darling?" she asked, coming in at midnight to the room where her cousins were grouped in mournful silence. But Billy's foot touched hers with a significant pressure, and Susan sat down, rather frightened, and said no more of anyone's going to bed.
Two long hours followed. They were sitting in a large front bedroom that had been made ready for boarders, but looked inexpressibly grim and cheerless, with its empty mantel and blank, marble-topped bureau. Georgie cried constantly and silently, Virginia's lips moved, Mary Lou alone persisted that Ma would be herself again in three days.
Susan, sitting and staring at the flaring gas-lights, began to feel that in the midst of life was death, indeed, and that the term of human existence is as brief as a dream. "We will all have to die too," she said, awesomely to herself, her eyes traveling about the circle of faces.
At two o'clock Miss Foster summoned them and they went into the invalid's room; to Susan it was all unreal and unconvincing. The figure in the bed, the purple face, the group of sobbing watchers. No word was said: the moments slipped by. Her eyes were wandering when Miss Foster suddenly touched her aunt's hand.
A heavy, grating breath—a silence—Susan's eyes met Billy's in terror—but there was another breath—and another—and another silence.
Miss Foster, who had been bending over her patient, straightened up, lowered the gray head gently into the pillow.
"Gone," said Dr. O'Connor, very low, and at the word a wild protest of grief broke out. Susan neither cried nor spoke; it was all too unreal for tears, for emotion of any kind.
"You stay," said Miss Foster when she presently banished the others. Susan, surprised, complied.
"Sorry to ask you to help me," said Miss Foster then briskly, "but I can't do this alone. They'll want to be coming back here, and we must be ready for them. I wonder if you could fix her hair like she wore it, and I'll have to get her teeth—-"
"Her what?" asked Susan.
"Her teeth, dear. Do you know where she kept them?"
Appalled, sickened, Susan watched the other woman's easy manipulation of what had been a loving, breathing woman only a few hours before. But she presently did her own share bravely and steadily, brushing and coiling the gray-brown locks as she had often seen her aunt coil them. Lying in bed, a small girl supposedly asleep, years before, she had seen these pins placed so—and so— seen this short end tucked under, this twist skilfully puffed.
This was not Auntie. So wholly had the soul fled that Susan could feel sure that Auntie—somewhere, was already too infinitely wise to resent this fussing little stranger and her ministrations. A curious lack of emotion in herself astonished her. She longed to grieve, as the others did, blamed herself that she could not. But before she left the room she put her lips to her aunt's forehead.
"You were always good to me!" Susan whispered.
"I guess she was always good to everyone," said the little nurse, pinning a clever arrangement of sheets firmly, "she has a grand face!" The room was bright and orderly now, Susan flung pillows and blankets into the big closet, hung her aunt's white knitted shawl on a hook.
"You're a dear good little girl, that's what YOU are!" said Miss Foster, as they went out. Susan stepped into her new role with characteristic vigor. She was too much absorbed in it to be very sorry that her aunt was dead. Everybody praised her, and a hundred times a day her cousins said truthfully that they could not see how these dreadful days would have been endurable at all without Susan. Susan could sit up all night, and yet be ready to brightly dispense hot coffee at seven o'clock, could send telegrams, could talk to the men from Simpson and Wright's, could go downtown with Billy to select plain black hats and simple mourning, could meet callers, could answer the telephone, could return a reassuring "That's all attended to, dear," to Mary Lou's distracted "I haven't given one THOUGHT to dinner!" and then, when evening came again, could quietly settle herself in a big chair, between Billy and Dr. O'Connor, for another vigil.
"Never a thought for her own grief!" said Georgie, to a caller. Susan felt a little prick of guilt. She was too busy and too absorbed to feel any grief. And presently it occurred to her that perhaps Auntie knew it, and understood. Perhaps there was no merit in mere grieving. "But I wish I had been better to her while she was here!" thought Susan more than once.
She saw her aunt in a new light through the eyes of the callers who came, a long, silent stream, to pay their last respect to Louisianna Ralston. All the old southern families of the city were represented there; the Chamberlains and the Lloyds, the Duvals and Fairfaxes and Carters. Old, old ladies came, stout matrons who spoke of the dead woman as "Lou," rosy-faced old men. Some of them Susan had never seen before.
To all of them she listened with her new pretty deference and dignity. She heard of her aunt's childhood, before the war, "Yo' dea' auntie and my Fanny went to they' first ball togethah," said one very old lady. "Lou was the belle of all us girls," contributed the same Fanny, now stout and sixty, with a smile. "I was a year or two younger, and, my laws, how I used to envy Miss Louis'anna Ralston, flirtin' and laughin' with all her beaux!"
Susan grew used to hearing her aunt spoken of as "your cousin," "your mother," even "your sister,"—her own relationship puzzled some of Mrs. Lancaster's old friends. But they never failed to say that Susan was "a dear, sweet girl—she must have been proud of you!"
She heard sometimes of her own mother too. Some large woman, wiping the tears from her eyes, might suddenly seize upon Susan, with:
"Look here, Robert, this is Sue Rose's girl—Major Calhoun was one of your Mama's great admirers, dear!"
Or some old lady, departing, would kiss her with a whispered "Knew your mother like my own daughter,—come and see me!"
They had all been young and gay and sheltered together, Susan thought, just half a century ago. Now some came in widow's black, and some with shabby gloves and worn shoes, and some rustled up from carriages, and patronized Mary Lou, and told Susan that "poor Lou" never seemed to be very successful!
"I sometimes think that it would be worth any effort in the first forty years of your life, to feel sure that you would at least not be an object of pity for the last twenty!" said Susan, upon whom these callers, with the contrasts they presented, had had a profound effect.
It was during an all-night vigil, in the room next to the one in which the dead woman lay. Dr. O'Connor lay asleep on a couch, Susan and Billy were in deep chairs. The room was very cold, and the girl had a big wrapper over her black dress. Billy had wrapped himself in an Indian blanket, and put his feet comfortably up on a chair.
"You bet your life it would be!" said Billy yawning. "That's what I tell the boys, over at the works," he went on, with awakening interest, "get INTO something, cut out booze and theaters and graphophones now,—don't care what your neighbors think of you now, but mind your own affairs, stick to your business, let everything else go, and then, some day, settle down with a nice little lump of stock, or a couple of flats, or a little plant of your own, and snap your fingers at everything!"
"You know I've been thinking," Susan said slowly, "For all the wise people that have ever lived, and all the goodness everywhere, we go through life like ships with sealed orders. Now all these friends of Auntie's, they thought she made a brilliant match when she married Uncle George. But she had no idea of management, and no training, and here she is, dying at sixty-three, leaving Jinny and Mary Lou practically helpless, and nothing but a lot of debts! For twenty years she's just been drifting and drifting,—it's only a chance that Alfie pulled out of it, and that Georgie really did pretty well. Now, with Mrs. Carroll somehow it's so different. You know that, before she's old, she's going to own her little house and garden, she knows where she stands. She's worked her financial problem out on paper, she says 'I'm a little behind this month, because of Jim's dentist. But there are five Saturdays in January, and I'll catch up then!'"
"She's exceptional, though," he asserted.
"Yes, but a training like that NEEDN'T be exceptional! It seems so strange that the best thing that school can give us is algebra and Caesar's Commentaries," Susan pursued thoughtfully. "When there's so MUCH else we don't know! Just to show you one thing, Billy,—when I first began to go to the Carrolls, I noticed that they never had to fuss with the building of a fire in the kitchen stove. When a meal was over, Mrs. Carroll opened the dampers, scattered a little wet coal on the top, and forgot about it until the next meal, or even overnight. She could start it up in two seconds, with no dirt or fuss, whenever she wanted to. Think what that means, getting breakfast! Now, ever since I was a little girl, we've built a separate fire for each meal, in this house. Nobody ever knew any better. You hear chopping of kindlings, and scratching of matches, and poor Mary Lou saying that it isn't going to burn, and doing it all over—-
"Gosh, yes!" he said laughing at the familiar picture. "Mary Lou always says that she has no luck with fires!"
"Billy," Susan stated solemnly, "sometimes I don't believe that there is such a thing as luck!"
"SOMETIMES you don't—why, Lord, of course there isn't!"
"Oh, Billy," Susan's eyes widened childishly, "don't you honestly think so?"
"No, I don't!" He smiled, with the bashfulness that was always noticeable when he spoke intimately of himself or his own ideas. "If you get a big enough perspective of things, Sue," he said, "everybody has the same chance. You to-day, and I to-morrow, and somebody else the day after that! Now," he cautiously lowered his voice, "in this house you've heard the Civil War spoken of as 'bad luck' and Alf's drinking spoken of as 'bad luck'"—-
Susan dimpled, nodded thoughtfully.
"—And if Phil Carroll hadn't been whipped and bullied and coaxed and amused and praised for the past six or seven years, and Anna pushed into a job, and Jim and Betsy ruled with an iron hand, you might hear Mrs. Carroll talking about 'bad luck,' too!"
"Well, one thing," said Susan firmly, "we'll do very differently from now on."
"You girls, you mean," he said.
"Jinny and Mary Lou and I. I think we'll keep this place going, Billy."
"I think you're making a big mistake, if you do. There's no money in it. The house is heavily mortgaged, half the rooms are empty."
"We'll fill the house, then. It's the only thing we can do, Billy. And I've got plenty of plans," said Susan vivaciously. "I'm going to market myself, every morning. I'm going to do at least half the cooking. I'm going to borrow about three hundred dollars—-"
"I'll lend you all you want," he said.
"Well, you're a darling! But I don't mean a gift, I mean at interest," Susan assured him. "I'm going to buy china and linen, and raise our rates. For two years I'm not going out of this house, except on business. You'll see!"
He stared at her for so long a time that Susan—even with Billy!— became somewhat embarrassed.
"But it seems a shame to tie you down to an enterprise like this, Sue," he said finally.
"No," she said, after a short silence, turning upon him a very bright smile. "I've made a pretty general failure of my own happiness, Bill. I've shown that I'm a pretty weak sort. You know what I was willing to do—-"
"Now you're talking like a damn fool!" growled Billy.
"No, I'm not! You may be as decent as you please about it, Billy," said Susan with scarlet cheeks, "but—a thing like that will keep me from ever marrying, you know! Well. So I'm really going to work, right here and now. Mrs. Carroll says that service is the secret of happiness, I'm going to try it. Life is pretty short, anyway,— doesn't a time like this make it seem so!—and I don't know that it makes very much difference whether one's happy or not!"
"Well, go ahead and good luck to you!" said Billy, "but don't talk rot about not marrying and not being happy!"
Presently he dozed in his chair, and Susan sat staring wide-eyed before her, but seeing nothing of the dimly lighted room, the old steel-engravings on the walls, the blotched mirror above the empty grate. Long thoughts went through her mind, a hazy drift of plans and resolutions, a hazy wonder as to what Stephen Bocqueraz was doing to-night—what Kenneth Saunders was doing. Perhaps they would some day hear of her as a busy and prosperous boarding-house keeper; perhaps, taking a hard-earned holiday in Europe, twenty years from now, Susan would meet one of them again.
She got up, and went noiselessly into the hall to look at the clock. Just two. Susan went into the front room, to say her prayers in the presence of the dead.
The big dim room was filled with flowers, their blossoms dull blots of light in the gloom, their fragrance, and the smell of wet leaves, heavy on the air. One window was raised an inch or two, a little current of air stirred the curtain. Candles burned steadily, with a little sucking noise; a clock ticked; there was no other sound.
Susan stood, motionless herself, looking soberly down upon the quiet face of the dead. Some new dignity had touched the smooth forehead, and the closed eyes, a little inscrutable smile hovered over the sweet, firmly closed mouth. Susan's eyes moved from the face to the locked ivory fingers, lying so lightly,—yet with how terrible a weight!—upon spotless white satin and lace. Virginia had put the ivory-bound prayer-book and the lilies-of-the-valley into that quiet clasp, Georgie, holding back her tears, had laid at the coffin's foot the violets tied with a lavender ribbon that bore the legend, "From the Grandchildren."
Flowers—flowers—flowers everywhere. And auntie had gone without them for so many years!
"What a funny world it is," thought Susan, smiling at the still, wise face as if she and her aunt might still share in amusement. She thought of her own pose, "never gives a thought to her own grief!" everyone said. She thought of Virginia's passionate and dramatic protest, "Ma carried this book when she was married, she shall have it now!" and of Mary Lou's wail, "Oh, that I should live to see the day!" And she remembered Georgie's care in placing the lettered ribbon where it must be seen by everyone who came in to look for the last time at the dead.
"Are we all actors? Isn't anything real?" she wondered.
Yet the grief was real enough, after all. There was no sham in Mary Lou's faint, after the funeral, and Virginia, drooping about the desolate house, looked shockingly pinched and thin. There was a family council in a day or two, and it was at this time that Susan meant to suggest that the boarding-house be carried on between them all.
Alfred and his wife, and Georgie and the doctor came to the house for this talk; Billy had been staying there, and Mr. Ferd Eastman, in answer to a telegram, had come down for the funeral and was still in the city.
They gathered, a sober, black-dressed group, in the cold and dreary parlor, Ferd Eastman looking almost indecorously cheerful and rosy, in his checked suit and with his big diamond ring glittering on his fat hand. There was no will to read, but Billy had ascertained what none of the sisters knew, the exact figures of the mortgage, the value of the contents of Mrs. Lancaster's locked tin box, the size and number of various outstanding bills. He spread a great number of papers out before him on a small table; Alfred, who appeared to be sleepy, after the strain of the past week, yawned, started up blinking, attempted to take an intelligent interest in the conversation; Georgie, thinking of her nursing baby, was eager to hurry everything through.
"Now, about you girls," said Billy. "Sue feels that you might make a good thing of it if you stayed on here. What do you think?"
"Well, Billy—well, Ferd—-" Everyone turned to look at Mary Lou, who was stammering and blushing in a most peculiar way. Mr. Eastman put his arm about her. Part of the truth flashed on Susan.
"You're going to be married!" she gasped. But this was the moment for which Ferd had been waiting,
"We are married, good people," he said buoyantly. "This young lady and I gave you all the slip two weeks ago!"
Susan rushed to kiss the bride, but upon Virginia's bursting into hysterical tears, and Georgie turning faint, Mary Lou very sensibly set about restoring her sisters' composure, and, even on this occasion, took a secondary part.
"Perhaps you had some reason—-" said Georgie, faintly, turning reproachful eyes upon the newly wedded pair.
"But, with poor Ma just gone!" Virginia burst into tears again.
"Ma knew," sobbed Mary Lou, quite overcome. "Ferd—Ferd—-" she began with difficulty, "didn't want to wait, and I WOULDN'T,—so soon after poor Grace!" Grace had been the first wife. "And so, just before Ma's birthday, he took us to lunch—we went to Swains—-"
"I remember the day!" said Virginia, in solemn affirmation.
"And we were quietly married afterward," said Ferd, himself, soothingly, his arm about his wife, "and Mary Lou's dear mother was very happy about it. Don't cry, dear—-"
Susan had disliked the man once, but she could find no fault with his tender solicitude for the long-neglected Mary Lou. And when the first crying and exclaiming were over, there was a very practical satisfaction in the thought of Mary Lou as a prosperous man's wife, and Virginia provided for, for a time at least. Susan seemed to feel fetters slipping away from her at every second.
Mr. Eastman took them all to lunch, at a modest table d'hote in the neighborhood, tipped the waiter munificently, asked in an aside for a special wine, which was of course not forthcoming. Susan enjoyed the affair with a little of her old spirit, and kept them all talking and friendly. Georgie, perhaps a little dashed by Mary Lou's recently acquired state, told Susan in a significant aside, as a doctor's wife, that it was very improbable that Mary Lou, at her age, would have children; "seems such a pity!" said Georgie, shrugging. Virginia, to her new brother-in-law's cheerful promise to find her a good husband within the year, responded, with a little resentful dignity, "It seems a little soon, to me, to be JOKING, Ferd!"
But on the whole it was a very harmonious meal. The Eastmans were to leave the next day for a belated honeymoon; to Susan and Virginia and Billy would fall the work of closing up the Fulton Street house.
"And what about you, Sue?" asked Billy, as they were walking home that afternoon.
"I'm going to New York, Bill," she answered. And, with a memory of the times she had told him that before, she turned to him a sudden smile. "—But I mean it this time!" said Susan cheerfully. "I went to see Miss Toland, of the Alexander Toland Settlement House, a few weeks ago, about working there. She told me frankly that they have all they need of untrained help. But she said, 'Miss Brown, if you COULD take a year's course in New York, you'd be a treasure!' And so I'm going to borrow the money from Ferd, Bill. I hate to do it, but I'm going to. And the first thing you know I'll be in the Potrero, right near your beloved Iron Works, teaching the infants of that region how to make buttonholes and cook chuck steak!"
"How much money do you want?" he asked, after a moment's silence.
"Three hundred! The fare is one hundred!"
"I know it. But I'm going to work my way through the course, Bill, even if I have to go out as a nurse-girl, and study at night."
Billy said nothing for awhile. But before they parted he went back to the subject.
"I'll let you have the three hundred, Sue, or five hundred, if you like. Borrow it from me, you know me a good deal better than you do Ferd Eastman!"
The next day the work of demolishing the boarding-house began. Susan and Virginia lived with Georgie for these days, but lunched in the confusion of the old home. It seemed strange, and vaguely sad, to see the long-crowded rooms empty and bare, with winter sunlight falling in clear sharp lines across the dusty, un-carpeted floors. A hundred old scars and stains showed on the denuded walls; there were fresher squares on the dark, faded old papers, where the pictures had been hung; Susan recognized the outline of Mary Lord's mirror, and Mrs. Parker's crucifix. The kitchen was cold and desolate, a pool of water on the cold stove, a smooth thin cake of yellow soap in a thick saucer, on the sink, a drift of newspapers on the floor, and old brooms assembled in a corner.
More than the mortgage, the forced sale of the old house had brought only a few hundreds of dollars. It was to be torn down at once, and Susan felt a curious stirring of sadness as she went through the strange yet familiar rooms for the last time.
"Lord, how familiar it all is!" said Billy, "the block and the bakery! I can remember the first time I saw it."
The locked house was behind them, they had come down the street steps, and turned for a last look at the blank windows.
"I remember coming here after my father died," Susan said. "You gave me a little cologne bottle filled with water, and one of those spools that one braids worsted through, do you remember?"
"Do you remember Miss Fish,—the old girl whose canary we hit with a ball? And the second-hand type-writer we were always saving up for?"
"And the day we marked up the steps with chalk and Auntie sent us out with wet rags?"
"Lord—Lord!" They were both smiling as they walked away.
"Shall you go to Nevada City with the Eastmans, Sue?"
"No, I don't think so. I'll stay with Georgie for a week, and get things straightened out."
"Well, suppose we go off and have dinner somewhere, to-morrow?"
"Oh, I'd love it! It's terribly gloomy at Georgie's. But I'm going over to see the Carrolls to-morrow, and they may want to keep me—-"
"They won't!" said Billy grimly.
"WON'T?" Susan echoed, astonished.
"No," Billy said with a sigh. "Mrs. Carroll's been awfully queer since—since Jo, you know—-"
"Why, Bill, she was so wonderful!"
"Just at first, yes. But she's gone into a sort of melancholia, now, Phil was telling me about it."
"But that doesn't sound a bit like her," Susan said, worriedly.
"No, does it? But go over and see them anyway, it'll do them all good. Well—look your last at the old block, Sue!"
Susan got on the car, leaning back for a long, goodbye look at the shabby block, duller than ever in the grimy winter light, and at the dirt and papers and chaff drifting up against the railings, and at the bakery window, with its pies and bread and Nottingham lace curtains. Fulton Street was a thing of the past.
The next day, in a whirling rainstorm, well protected by a trim raincoat, overshoes, and a close-fitting little hat about which spirals of bright hair clung in a halo, Susan crossed the ferry and climbed up the long stairs that rise through the very heart of Sausalito. The sky was gray, the bay beaten level by the rain, and the wet gardens that Susan passed were dreary and bare. Twisting oak trees gave vistas of wind-whipped vines, and of the dark and angry water; the steps she mounted ran a shallow stream.
The Carrolls' garden was neglected and desolate, chrysanthemum stalks lay across the wet flagging of the path, and wind screamed about the house. Susan's first knock was lost in a general creaking and banging, but a second brought Betsey, grave and tired-looking, to the door.
"Oh, hello. Sue," said Betsey apathetically. "Don't go in there, it's so cold," she said, leading her caller past the closed door of the sitting-room. "This hall is so dark that we ought to keep a light here," added Betsey fretfully, as they stumbled along. "Come out into the dining-room, Sue, or into the kitchen. I was trying to get a fire started. But Jim NEVER brings up enough wood! He'll talk about it, and talk about it, but when you want it I notice it's never there!"
Everywhere were dust and disorder and evidences of neglect. Susan hardly recognized the dining-room; it was unaired, yet chilly; a tall, milk-stained glass, and some crumbs on the green cloth, showed where little Betsey had had a lonely luncheon; there were paper bags on the sideboard and a litter of newspapers on a chair. Nothing suggested the old, exquisite order.
The kitchen was even more desolate, as it had been more inviting before. There were ashes sifting out of the stove, rings of soot and grease on the table-top, more soot, and the prints of muddy boots on the floor. Milk had soured in the bottles, odds and ends of food were everywhere, Betsey's book was open on the table, propped against the streaked and stained coffee-pot.
"Your mother's ill?" asked Susan. She could think of no other explanation.
"Doesn't this kitchen look awful?" said Betsey, resuming operations with books and newspapers at the range. "No, Mother's all right. I'm going to take her up some tea. Don't you touch those things, Sue. Don't you bother!"
"Has she been in bed?" demanded Susan.
"No, she gets up every day now," Betsey said impatiently. "But she won't come downstairs!"
"Won't! But why not!" gasped Susan.
"She—" Betsey glanced cautiously toward the hall door. "She hasn't come down at all," she said, softly. "Not—since!"
"What does Anna say?" Susan asked aghast.
"Anna comes home every Saturday, and she and Phil talk to Mother," the little sister said, "but so far it's not done any good! I go up two or three times a day, but she won't talk to me.—Sue, ought this have more paper?"
The clumsy, roughened little hands, the sad, patient little voice and the substitution of this weary little woman for the once-radiant and noisy Betsey sent a pang to Susan's heart.
"Well, you poor little old darling, you!" she burst out, pitifully. "Do you mean that you've been facing this for a month? Betsey—it's too dreadful—you dear little old heroic scrap!"
"Oh, I'm all right!" said Betsey, beginning to tremble. She placed a piece or two of kindling, fumbled for a match, and turned abruptly and went to a window, catching her apron to her eyes. "I'm all right—don't mind me!" sobbed Betsey. "But sometimes I think I'll go CRAZY! Mother doesn't love me any more, and everybody cried all Thanksgiving Day, and I loved Jo more than they think I did—they think I'm too young to care—but I just can't BEAR it!"
"Well, you poor little darling!" Susan was crying herself, but she put her arms about Betsey, and felt the little thing cling to her, as they cried together.
"And now, let me tackle this!" said Susan, when the worst of the storm was over a few moments later. She started the fire briskly, and tied an apron over her gown, to attack the disorder of the table. Betsey, breathing hard, but visibly cheered, ran to and fro on eager errands, fell upon the sink with a vigorous mop.
Susan presently carried a tea-tray upstairs, and knocked on Mrs. Carroll's door. "Come in," said the rich, familiar voice, and Susan entered the dim, chilly, orderly room, her heart beyond any words daunted and dismayed. Mrs. Carroll, gaunt and white, wrapped in a dark wrapper, and idly rocking in mid-afternoon, was a sight to strike terror to a stouter heart than Susan's.
"Oh, Susan?" said she. She said no more. Susan knew that she was unwelcome.
"Betsey seems to have her hands full," said Susan gallantly, "so I brought up your tea."
"Betts needn't have bothered herself at all," said Mrs. Carroll. Susan felt as if she were in a bad dream, but she sat down and resolutely plunged into the news of Georgie and Virginia and Mary Lou. Mrs. Carroll listened attentively, and asked a few nervous questions; Susan suspected them asked merely in a desperate effort to forestall the pause that might mean the mention of Josephine's name.
"And what are your own plans, Sue?" she presently asked.
"Well, New York presently, I think," Susan said. "But I'm with Georgie now,—unless," she added prettily, "you'll let me stay here for a day or two?"
Instant alarm darkened the sick eyes.
"Oh, no, dear!" Mrs. Carroll said quickly. "You're a sweet child to think of it, but we mustn't impose on you. No, indeed! This little visit is all we must ask now, when you are so upset and busy—"
"I have nothing at all to do," Susan said eagerly. But the older woman interrupted her with all the cunning of a sick brain.
"No, dear. Not now! Later perhaps, later we should all love it. But we're better left to ourselves now, Sue! Anna shall write you—"
Susan presently left the room, sorely puzzled. But, once in the hall, she came quickly to a decision. Phil's door was open, his bed unaired, an odor of stale cigarette smoke still in the air. In Betsey's room the windows were wide open, the curtains streaming in wet air, everything in disorder. Susan found a little old brown gingham dress of Anna's, and put it on, hung up her hat, brushed back her hair. A sudden singing seized her heart as she went downstairs. Serving these people whom she loved filled her with joy. In the dining-room Betsey looked up from her book. Her face brightened.
"Oh, Sue—you're going to stay overnight!"
"I'll stay as long as you need me," said Susan, kissing her.
She did not need Betsey's ecstatic welcome; the road was clear and straight before her now. Preparing the little dinner was a triumph; reducing the kitchen to something like its old order, she found absorbing and exhilarating. "We'll bake to-morrow—we'll clean that thoroughly to-morrow—we'll make out a list of necessities to- morrow," said Susan.
She insisted upon Philip's changing his wet shoes for slippers when the boys came home at six o'clock; she gave little Jim a sisterly kiss.
"Gosh, this is something like!" said Jim simply, eyes upon the hot dinner and the orderly kitchen. "This house has been about the rottenest place ever, for I don't know how long!"
Philip did not say anything, but Susan did not misread the look in his tired eyes. After dinner they kept him a place by the fire while he went up to see his mother. When he came down twenty minutes later he seemed troubled.
"Mother says that we're imposing on you, Sue," he said. "She made me promise to make you go home tomorrow. She says you've had enough to bear!"
Betsey sat up with a rueful exclamation, and Jimmy grunted a disconsolate "Gosh!" but Susan only smiled.
"That's only part of her—trouble, Phil," she said, reassuringly. And presently she serenely led them all upstairs. "We've got to make those beds, Betts," said Susan.
"Mother may hear us," said Betsey, fearfully.
"I hope she will!" Susan said. But, if she did, no sound came from the mother's room. After awhile Susan noticed that her door, which had been ajar, was shut tight.
She lay awake late that night, Betts' tear-stained but serene little face close to her shoulder, Betts' hand still tight in hers. The wind shook the casements, and the unwearied storm screamed about the house. Susan thought of the woman in the next room, wondered if she was lying awake, too, alone with sick and sorrowful memories?
She herself fell asleep full of healthy planning for to-morrow's meals and house-cleaning, too tired and content for dreams.
Anna came quietly home on the next Saturday evening, to find the little group just ready to gather about the dinner-table. A fire glowed in the grate, the kitchen beyond was warm and clean and delightfully odorous. She said very little then, took her share, with obvious effort at first, in their talk, sat behind Betsey's chair when the four presently were coaxed by Jim into a game of "Hearts," and advised her little sister how to avoid the black queen.
But later, just before they went upstairs, when they were all grouped about the last of the fire, she laid her hands on Susan's shoulders, and stood Susan off, to look at her fairly.
"No words for it, Sue," said Anna steadily.
"Ah, don't, Nance—" Susan began. But in another instant they were in each other's arms, and crying, and much later that evening, after a long talk, Betsey confided to Susan that it was the first time Anna had cried.
"She told me that when she got home, and saw the way that you have changed things," confided Betsey, "she began to think for the first time that we might—might get through this, you know!"
Wonderful days for Susan followed, with every hour brimming full of working and planning. She was the first one up in the morning, the last one in bed at night, hers was the voice that made the last decision, and hers the hands for which the most critical of the household tasks were reserved. Always conscious of the vacant place in their circle, and always aware of the presence of that brooding and silent figure upstairs, she was nevertheless so happy sometimes as to think herself a hypocrite and heartless. But long afterward Susan knew that the sense of dramatic fitness and abiding satisfaction is always the reward of untiring and loving service.
She and Betsey read together, walked through the rain to market, and came back glowing and tired, to dry their shoes and coats at the kitchen fire. They cooked and swept and dusted, tried the furniture in new positions, sent Jimmy to the White House for a special new pattern, and experimented with house-dresses. Susan heard the first real laughter in months ring out at the dinner-table, when she and Betsey described their experiences with a crab, who had revived while being carried home in their market-basket. Jimmy, silent, rough-headed and sweet, followed Susan about like an affectionate terrier, and there was another laugh when Jimmy, finishing a bowl in which cake had been mixed, remarked fervently, "Gosh, why do you waste time cooking it?"
In the evening they played euchre, or hearts, or parchesi; Susan and Philip struggled with chess; there were talks about the fire, and they all straggled upstairs at ten o'clock. Anna, appreciative and affectionate and brave, came home for almost every Saturday night, and these were special occasions. Susan and Betsey wasted their best efforts upon the dinner, and filled the vases with flowers and ferns, and Philip brought home candy and the new magazines. It was Anna who could talk longest with the isolated mother, and Susan and she went over every word, afterwards, eager to find a ray of hope.
"I told her about to-day," Anna said one Saturday night, brushing her long hair, "and about Billy's walking with us to the ridge. Now, when you go in tomorrow, Betsey, I wish you'd begin about Christmas. Just say, 'Mother, do you realize that Christmas is a week from to- morrow?' and then, if you can, just go right on boldly and say, 'Mother, you won't spoil it for us all by not coming downstairs?'"
Betsey looked extremely nervous at this suggestion, and Susan slowly shook her head. She knew how hopeless the plan was. She and Betsey realized even better than the absent Anna how rooted was Mrs. Carroll's unhappy state. Now and then, on a clear day, the mother would be heard going softly downstairs for a few moments in the garden; now and then at the sound of luncheon preparations downstairs she would come out to call down, "No lunch for me, thank you, girls!" Otherwise they never saw her except sitting idle, black-clad, in her rocking-chair.
But Christmas was very close now, and must somehow be endured.
"When are you boys going to Mill Valley for greens?" asked Susan, on the Saturday before the holiday.
"Would you?" Philip asked slowly. But immediately he added, "How about to-morrow, Jimsky?"
"Gee, yes!" said Jim eagerly. "We'll trim up the house like always, won't we, Betts?"
"Just like always," Betts answered.
Susan and Betsey fussed with mince-meat and frosted cookies; Susan accomplished remarkably good, if rather fragile, pumpkin pies. The four decorated the down-stairs rooms with ropes of fragrant green. The expressman came and came and came again; Jimmy returned twice a day laden from the Post Office; everyone remembered the Carrolls this year.
Anna and Philip and Billy came home together, at midday, on Christmas Eve. Betsey took immediate charge of the packages they brought; she would not let so much as a postal card be read too soon. Billy had spent many a Christmas Eve with the Carrolls; he at once began to run errands and carry up logs as a matter of course.
A conference was held over the turkey, lying limp in the center of the kitchen table. The six eyed him respectfully.
"Oughtn't this be firm?" asked Anna, fingering a flexible breast- bone.
"No-o—" But Susan was not very sure. "Do you know how to stuff them, Anna?"
"Look in the books," suggested Philip.
"We did," Betsey said, "but they give chestnut and mushroom and sweet potato—I don't know how Mother does it!"
"You put crumbs in a chopping bowl," began Susan, uncertainly, "at least, that's the way Mary Lou did—"
"Why crumbs in a chopping bowl, crumbs are chopped already?" William observed sensibly.
"Well—" Susan turned suddenly to Betsey, "Why don't you trot up and ask, Betts?" she suggested.
"Oh, Sue!" Betsey's healthy color faded. "I can't!" She turned appealing eyes to Anna. Anna was looking at her thoughtfully.
"I think that would be a good thing to do," said Anna slowly. "Just put your head in the door and say, 'Mother, how do you stuff a turkey?'"
"But—but—" Betsey began. She got down from the table and went slowly on her errand. The others did not speak while they waited for her return.
"Hot water, and butter, and herbs, and half an onion chopped fine!" announced Betts returning.
"Did she—did she seem to think it was odd, Betts?"
"No, she just answered—like she would have before. She was lying down, and she said 'I'm glad you're going to have a turkey—-'"
"What!" said Anna, turning white.
"Yes, she did! She said 'You're all good, brave children!'"
"Oh, Betts, she didn't!"
"Honest she did, Phil—" Betsey said aggrievedly, and Anna kissed her between laughter and tears.
"But this is quite the best yet!" Susan said, contentedly, as she ransacked the breadbox for crumbs.
Just at dinner-time came a great crate of violets. "Jo's favorites, from Stewart!" said Anna softly, filling bowls with them. And, as if the thought of Josephine had suggested it, she added to Philip in a low tone:
"Listen, Phil, are we going to sing to-night?"
For from babyhood, on the eve of the feast, the Carrolls had gathered at the piano for the Christmas songs, before they looked at their gifts.
"What do you think?" Philip returned, troubled.
"Oh, I couldn't—-" Betts began, choking.
Jimmy gave them all a disgusted and astonished look.
"Gee, why not?" he demanded. "Jo used to love it!"
"How about it, Sue?" Philip asked. Susan stopped short in her work, her hands full of violets, and pondered.
"I think we ought to," she said at last.
"I do, too!" Billy supported her unexpectedly. "Jo'd be the first to say so. And if we don't this Christmas, we never will again!"
"Your mother taught you to," Susan said, earnestly, "and she didn't stop it when your father died. We'll have other breaks in the circle some day, but we'll want to go right on doing it, and teaching our own children to do it!"
"Yes, you're right," said Anna, "that settles it."
Nothing more was said on the subject; the girls busied themselves with the dinner dishes. Phil and Billy drew the nails from the waiting Christmas boxes. Jim cracked nuts for the Christmas dinner. It was after nine o'clock when the kitchen was in order, the breakfast table set, and the sitting-room made ready for the evening's excitement. Then Susan went to the old square piano and opened it, and Phil, in absolute silence, found her the music she wanted among the long-unused sheets of music on the piano.
"If we are going to DO this," said Philip then, "we mustn't break down!"
"Nope," said Betts, at whom the remark seemed to be directed, with a gulp. Susan, whose hands were very cold, struck the opening chords, and a moment later the young voices rose together, through the silent house.
"Adeste, fideles, Laeti triumphantes, Venite, venite in Bethlehem...."
Josephine had always sung the little solo. Susan felt it coming, and she and Betts took it together, joined on the second phrase by Anna's rich, deep contralto. They were all too conscious of their mother's overhearing to think of themselves at all. Presently the voices became more natural. It was just the Carroll children singing their Christmas hymns, as they had sung them all their lives. One of their number was gone now; sorrow had stamped all the young faces with new lines, but the little circle was drawn all the closer for that. Phil's arm was tight about the little brother's shoulder, Betts and Anna were clinging to each other.
And as Susan reached the triumphant "Gloria—gloria!" a thrill shook her from head to foot. She had not heard a footstep, above the singing, but she knew whose fingers were gripping her shoulder, she knew whose sweet unsteady voice was added to the younger voices.
She went on to the next song without daring to turn around;—this was the little old nursery favorite,
"Oh, happy night, that brings the morn To shine above the child new-born! Oh, happy star! whose radiance sweet Guided the wise men's eager feet...."
and after that came "Noel,"—surely never sung before, Susan thought, as they sang it then! The piano stood away from the wall, and Susan could look across it to the big, homelike, comfortable room, sweet with violets now, lighted by lamp and firelight, the table cleared of its usual books and games, and heaped high with packages. Josephine's picture watched them from the mantel; "wherever she is," thought Susan, "she knows that we are here together singing!"
"Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices! Oh, night divine, oh night, when Christ was born!"
The glorious triumphant melody rose like a great rising tide of faith and of communion; Susan forgot where she was, forgot that there are pain and loss in the world, and, finishing, turned about on the piano bench with glowing cheeks and shining eyes.
"Gee, Moth', I never heard you coming down!" said Jim delightedly, as the last notes died away and the gap, his seniors had all been dreading, was bridged.
"I heard you," Betts said, radiant and clinging to her mother.
Mrs. Carroll was very white, and they could see her tremble.
"Surely, you're going to open your presents to-night, Nance?"
"Not if you'd rather we shouldn't, Mother!"
"Oh, but I want you to!" Her voice had the dull, heavy quality of a voice used in sleep, and her eyes clung to Anna's almost with terror. No one dared speak of the miracle; Susan spoke with nervousness, but Anna bustled about cheerfully, getting her established in her big chair by the fire. Billy and Phil returned from the cellar, gasping and bent under armfuls of logs. The fire flamed up, and Jimmy, with a bashful and deprecatory "Gosh!" attacked the string of the uppermost bundle.
So many packages, so beautifully tied! Such varied and wonderful gifts? Susan's big box from Virginia City was not for her alone, and from the other packages at least a dozen came to her. Betts, a wonderful embroidered kimono slipped on over her house dress, looked like a lovely, fantastic picture; and Susan must button her big, woolly field-coat up to her chin and down to her knees. "For ONCE you thought of a DANDY present, Billy!" said she. This must be shown to Mother; that must be shown to Mother; Mother must try on her black silk, fringed, embroidered Chinese shawl.
"Jimmy, DEAR, no more candy to-night!" said Mother, in just the old voice, and Susan's heart had barely time for a leap of joy when she added:
"Oh, Anna, dear, that is LOVELY. You must tell Dr. and Mrs. Jordan that is exactly what you've been wanting!"
"And what are your plans for to-morrow, girls?" she asked, just before they all went up-stairs, late in the evening.
"Sue and I to early ..." Anna said, "then we get back to get breakfast by nine, and all the others to ten o'clock."
"Well, will you girls call me? I'll go with you, and then before the others get home we can have everything done and the turkey in."
"Yes, Mother," was all that Anna said, but later she and Susan were almost ready to agree with Betts' last remark that night, delivered from bed:
"I bet to-morrow's going to be the happiest Christmas we ever had!"
This was the beginning of happier days, for Mrs. Carroll visibly struggled to overcome her sorrow now, and Susan and Betsey tried their best to help her. The three took long walks, in the wet wintry weather, their hats twisting about on their heads, their skirts ballooning in the gale. By the middle of March Spring was tucking little patches of grass and buttercups in all the sheltered corners, the sunshine gained in warmth, the twilights lengthened. Fruit blossoms scented the air, and great rain-pools, in the roadways, gave back a clear blue sky.
The girls dragged Mrs. Carroll with them to the woods, to find the first creamy blossoms of the trillium, and scented branches of wild lilac. One Sunday they packed a lunch basket, and walked, boys and girls and mother, up to the old cemetery, high in the hills. Three miles of railroad track, twinkling in the sun, and a mile of country road, brought them to the old sunken gate. Then among the grassy paths, under the oaks, it was easy to find the little stone that bore Josephine's name.
It was an April day, but far more like June. There was a wonderful silence in the air that set in crystal the liquid notes of the lark, and carried for miles the softened click of cowbells, far up on the ridges. Sunshine flooded buttercups and poppies on the grassy slopes, and where there was shade, under the oaks, "Mission bells" and scarlet columbine and cream and lavender iris were massed together. Everywhere were dazzling reaches of light, the bay far below shone blue as a turquoise, the marshes were threaded with silver ribbons, the sky was high and cloudless. Trains went by, with glorious rushes and puffs of rising, snowy smoke; even here they could hear the faint clang of the bell. A little flock of sheep had come up from the valley, and the soft little noises of cropping seemed only to underscore the silence.
Mrs. Carroll walked home between Anna and Phil; Susan and Billy and the younger two engaged in spirited conversation on ahead.
"Mother said 'Happiness comes back to us, doesn't it, Nance!'" Anna reported that night. "She said, 'We have never been happier than we have to-day!'"
"Never been so happy," Susan said sturdily. "When has Philip ever been such an unmitigated comfort, or Betts so thoughtful and good?"
"Well, we might have had that, and Jo too," Anna said wistfully.
"Yes, but one DOESN'T, Anna. That's just it!"
Susan had long before this again become a woman of business. When she first spoke of leaving the Carrolls, a violent protest had broken out from the younger members of the family. This might have been ignored, but there was no refusing the sick entreaty of their mother's eyes; Susan knew that she was still needed, and was content to delay her going indefinitely.
"It seems unfair to you, Sue," Anna protested. But Susan, standing at the window, and looking down at the early spring flood of blossoms and leaves in the garden, dissented a little sadly.
"No, it's not, Nance," she said. "I only wish I could stay here forever. I never want to go out into the world, and meet people again—"
Susan finished with a retrospective shudder.
"I think coming to you when I did saved my reason," she said presently, "and I'm in no hurry to go again. No, it would be different, Nance, if I had a regular trade or profession. But I haven't and, even if I go to New York, I don't want to go until after hot weather. Twenty-six," Susan went on, gravely, "and just beginning! Suppose somebody had cared enough to teach me something ten years ago!"
"Your aunt thought you would marry, and you WILL marry, Sue!" Anna said, coming to put her arm about her, and lay her cheek against Susan's.
"Ah, well!" Susan said presently with a sigh, "I suppose that if I had a sixteen-year-old daughter this minute I'd tell her that Mother wanted her to be a happy girl at home; she'd be married one of these days, and find enough to do!"
But it was only a few days after this talk that one Orville Billings, the dyspeptic and middle-aged owner and editor of the "Sausalito Weekly Democrat" offered her a position upon his editorial staff, at a salary of eight dollars a week. Susan promptly accepted, calmly confident that she could do the work, and quite justified in her confidence. For six mornings a week she sat in the dingy little office on the water-front, reading proof and answering telephone calls, re-writing contributions and clipping exchanges. In the afternoons she was free to attend weddings, club-meetings or funerals, or she might balance books or send out bills, word advertisements, compose notices of birth and death, or even brew Mr. Billings a comforting cup of soup or cocoa over the gas-jet. Susan usually began the day by sweeping out the office. Sometimes Betsey brought down her lunch and they picnicked together. There was always a free afternoon or two in the week.
On the whole, it was a good position, and Susan enjoyed her work, enjoyed her leisure, enormously enjoyed the taste of life.
"For years I had a good home, and a good position, and good friends and was unhappy," she said to Billy. "Now I've got exactly the same things and I'm so happy I can scarcely sleep at night. Happiness is merely a habit."
"No, no," he protested, "the Carrolls are the most extraordinary people in the world, Sue. And then, anyway, you're different—you've learned."
"Well, I've learned this," she said, "There's a great deal more happiness, everywhere, than one imagines. Every baby brings whole tons of it, and roast chickens and apple-pies and new lamps and husbands coming home at night are making people happy all the time! People are celebrating birthdays and moving into bigger houses, and having their married daughters home for visits, right straight along. But when you pass a dark lower flat on a dirty street, somehow it doesn't occur to you that the people who live in it are saving up for a home in the Western Addition!"
"Well, Sue, unhappiness is bad enough, when there's a reason for it," William said, "but when you've taken your philanthropy course, I wish you'd come out and demonstrate to the women at the Works that the only thing that keeps them from being happy and prosperous is not having the sense to know that they are!"
"I? What could I ever teach anyone!" laughed Susan Brown.
Yet she was changing and learning, as she presently had reason to see. It was on a hot Saturday in July that Susan, leaving the office at two o'clock, met the lovely Mrs. John Furlong on the shore road. Even more gracious and charming than she had been as Isabel Wallace, the young matron quite took possession of Susan. Where had Susan been hiding—and how wonderfully well she was looking—and why hadn't she come to see Isabel's new house?
"Be a darling!" said Mrs. Furlong, "and come along home with me now! Jack is going to bring Sherwin Perry home to dinner with him, and I truly, truly need a girl! Run up and change your dress if you want to, while I'm making my call, and meet me on the four o'clock train!"
Susan hesitated, filled with unreasoning dread of a plunge back into the old atmosphere, but in the end she did go up to change her dress,—rejoicing that the new blue linen was finished, and did join Isabel at the train, filled with an absurd regret at having to miss a week-end at home, and Anna.
Isabel, very lovely in a remarkable gown and hat, chatted cheerfully all the way home, and led the guest to quite the smartest of the motor-cars that were waiting at the San Rafael station. Susan was amazed—a little saddened—to find that the beautiful gowns and beautiful women and lovely homes had lost their appeal; to find herself analyzing even Isabel's happy chatter with a dispassionate, quiet unbelief.
The new home proved to be very lovely; a harmonious mixture of all the sorts of doors and windows, porches and roofs that the young owners fancied. Isabel, trailing her frothy laces across the cool deep hallway, had some pretty, matronly questions to ask of her butler, before she could feel free for her guest. Had Mrs. Wallace telephoned—had the man fixed the mirror in Mr. Furlong's bathroom— had the wine come?
"I have no housekeeper," said Isabel, as they went upstairs, "and I sha'n't have one. I think I owe it to myself, and to the maids, Sue, to take that responsibility entirely!" Susan recognized the unchanged sweetness and dutifulness that had marked the old Isabel, who could with perfect simplicity and reason seem to make a virtue of whatever she did.
They went into the sitting-room adjoining the young mistress' bedroom, an airy exquisite apartment all colonial white and gay flowered hangings, with French windows, near which the girls settled themselves for tea.
"Nothing's new with me," Susan said, in answer to Isabel's smiling inquiry. What could she say to hold the interest of this radiant young princess? Isabel accordingly gave her own news, some glimpses of her European wedding journey, some happy descriptions of wedding gifts. The Saunders were abroad, she told Susan, Ella and Emily and their mother with Kenneth, at a German cure. "And Mary Peacock—did you know her? is with them," said Isabel. "I think that's an engagement!"
"Doesn't that seem horrible? You know he's incurable—" Susan said, slowly stirring her cup. But she instantly perceived that the comment was not acceptable to young Mrs. Furlong. After all, thought Susan, Society is a very jealous institution, and Isabel was of its inner circle.
"Oh, I think that was all very much exaggerated!" Isabel said lightly, pleasantly. "At least, Sue," she added kindly, "you and I are not fair judges of it!" And after a moment's silence, for Susan kept a passing sensation of irritation admirably concealed, she added, "—But I didn't show you my pearls!"
A maid presently brought them, a perfect string, which Susan slipped through her fingers with real delight.
"Woman, they're the size of robins' eggs!" she said. Isabel was all sweet gaiety again. She touched the lovely chain tenderly, while she told of Jack's promise to give her her choice of pearls or a motor- car for her birthday, and of his giving her both! She presently called the maid again.
"Pauline, put these back, will you, please?" asked Isabel, smilingly. When the maid was gone she added, "I always trust the maids that way! They love to handle my pretty things,—and who can blame them?—and I let them whenever I can!"
They were still lingering over tea when Isabel heard her husband in the adjoining room, and went in, closing the door after her, to welcome him.
"He's all dirty from tennis," said the young wife, coming back and resuming her deep chair, with a smile, "and cross because I didn't go and pick him up at the courts!"
"Oh, that was my fault!" Susan exclaimed, remembering that Isabel could not always be right, unless innocent persons would sometimes agree to be wrong. Mrs. Furlong smiled composedly, a lovely vision in her loose lacy robe.
"Never mind, he'll get over it!" she said and, accompanying Susan to one of the handsome guest-rooms, she added confidentially, "My dear, when a man's first married, ANYTHING that keeps him from his wife makes him cross! It's no more your fault than mine!"
Sherwin Perry, the fourth at dinner, was a rosy, clean-shaven, stupid youth, who seemed absorbed in his food, and whose occasional violent laughter, provoked by his host's criticism of different tennis-players, turned his big ears red. John Furlong told Susan a great deal of his new yacht, rattling off technical terms with simple pride, and quoting at length one of the men at the ship- builders' yard.
"Gosh, he certainly is a marvelous fellow,—Haley is," said John, admiringly. "I wish you could hear him talk! He knows everything!"
Isabel was deeply absorbed in her new delightful responsibilities as mistress of the house.
"Excuse me just a moment, Susan——Jack, the stuff for the library curtains came, and I don't think it's the same," said Isabel or, "Jack, dear, I accepted for the Gregorys'," or "The Wilsons didn't get their card after all, Jack. Helen told Mama so!" All these matters were discussed at length between husband and wife, Susan occasionally agreeing or sympathizing. Lake Tahoe, where the Furlongs expected to go in a day or two, was also a good deal considered.
"We ought to sit out-of-doors this lovely night," said Isabel, after dinner. But conversation languished, and they began a game of bridge. This continued for perhaps an hour, then the men began bidding madly, and doubling and redoubling, and Isabel good- naturedly terminated the game, and carried her guest upstairs with her.
Here, in Susan's room, they had a talk, Isabel advisory and interested, Susan instinctively warding off sympathy and concern.
"Sue,—you won't be angry?" said Isabel, affectionately "but I do so hate to see you drifting, and want to have you as happy as I am! Is there somebody?"
"Not unless you count the proprietor of the 'Democrat,'" Susan laughed.
"It's no laughing matter, Sue—-" Isabel began, seriously. But Susan, laying a quick hand upon her arm, said smilingly:
"Isabel! Isabel! What do you, of all women, know about the problems and the drawbacks of a life like mine?"
"Well, I do feel this, Sue," Isabel said, just a little ruffled, but smiling, too, "I've had money since I was born, I admit. But money has never made any real difference with me. I would have dressed more plainly, perhaps, as a working woman, but I would always have had everything dainty and fresh, and Father says that I really have a man's mind; that I would have climbed right to the top in any position! So don't talk as if I didn't know ANYTHING!"
Presently she heard Jack's step, and ran off to her own room. But she was back again in a few moments. Jack had just come up to find some cigars, it appeared. Jack was such a goose!
"He's a dear," said Susan. Isabel agreed. "Jack was wonderful," she said. Had Susan noticed him with older people? And with babies——
"That's all we need, now," said the happy Isabel.
"Babies are darling," agreed Susan, feeling elderly and unmarried.
"Yes, and when you're married," Isabel said dreamily, "they seem so- -so sacred—but you'll see yourself, some day, I hope. Hark!"
And she was gone again, only to come back. It was as if Isabel gained fresh pleasure in her new estate by seeing it afresh through Susan's eyes. She had the longing of the bride to give her less- experienced friend just a glimpse of the new, delicious relationship.
Left alone at last, Susan settled herself luxuriously in bed, a heap of new books beside her, soft pillows under her head, a great light burning over her shoulder, and the fragrance of the summer night stealing in through the wide-opened windows. She gave a great sigh of relief, wondered, between desultory reading, at how early an hour she could decently excuse herself in the morning.
"I SUPPOSE that, if I fell heir to a million, I might build a house like this, and think that a string of pearls was worth buying," said Susan to herself, "but I don't believe I would!"
Isabel would not let her hurry away in the morning; it was too pleasant to have so gracious and interested a guest, so sympathetic a witness to her own happiness. She and Susan lounged through the long morning, Susan admired the breakfast service, admired the rugs, admired her host's character. Nothing really interested Isabel, despite her polite questions and assents, but Isabel's possessions, Isabel's husband, Isabel's genius for housekeeping and entertaining. The gentlemen appeared at noon, and the four went to the near-by hotel for luncheon, and here Susan saw Peter Coleman again, very handsome and gay, in white flannels, and very much inclined toward the old relationship with her. Peter begged them to spend the afternoon with him, trying the new motor-car, and Isabel was charmed to agree. Susan agreed too, after a hesitation she did not really understand in herself. What pleasanter prospect could anyone have?
While they were loitering over their luncheon, in the shaded, delightful coolness of the lunch-room, suddenly Dolly Ripley, over- dressed, gay and talkative as always, came up to their table.
She greeted the others negligently, but showed a certain enthusiasm for Susan.
"Hello, Isabel," said Dolly, "I saw you all come in—'he seen that a mother and child was there!'"
This last was the special phrase of the moment. Susan had heard it forty times within the past twenty-four hours, and was at no pains to reconcile it to this particular conversation.
"But you, you villain—where've you been?" pursued Dolly, to Susan, "why don't you come down and spend a week with me? Do you see anything of our dear friend Emily in these days?"
"Emily's abroad," said Susan, and Peter added:
"With Ella and Mary Peacock—'he seen that a mother and child was there!'"
"Oh, you devil!" said Dolly, laughing. "But honestly," she added gaily to Susan, "'how you could put up with Em Saunders as long as you did was a mystery to ME! It's a lucky thing you're not like me, Susan van Dusen, people all tell me I'm more like a boy than a girl,—when I think a thing I'm going to SAY it or bust! Now, listen, you're coming down to me for a week—-"
Susan left the invitation open, to Isabel's concern.
"Of course, as you say, you have a position, Sue," said Isabel, when they were spinning over the country roads, in Peter's car, "but, my dear, Dolly Ripley and Con Fox don't speak now,—Connie's going on the stage, they say!—-"
"'A mother and child will be there', all right!" said John Furlong, leaning back from the front seat. Isabel laughed, but went on seriously,
"—-and Dolly really wants someone to stay with her, Sue, and think what a splendid thing that would be!"
Susan answered absently. They had taken the Sausalito road, to get the cool air from the bay, and it flashed across her that if she COULD persuade them to drop her at the foot of the hill, she could be at home in five minutes,—back in the dear familiar garden, with Anna and Phil lazily debating the attractions of a walk and a row, and Betsey compounding weak, cold, too-sweet lemonade. Suddenly the only important thing in the world seemed to be her escape.
There they were, just as she had pictured them; Mrs. Carroll, gray- haired, dignified in her lacy light black, was in a deep chair on the lawn, reading aloud from the paper; Betsey, sitting at her feet, twisted and folded the silky ears of the setter; Anna was lying in a hammock, lazily watching her mother, and Billy Oliver had joined the boys, sprawling comfortably on the grass.
A chorus of welcome greeted Susan.
"Oh, Sue, you old duck!" said Betsey, "we've just been waiting for you to decide what we'd do!"
These were serene and sweet days for them all, and if sometimes the old sorrow returned for awhile, and there were still bitter longing and grieving for Josephine, there were days, too, when even the mother admitted to herself that some new tender element had crept into their love for each other since the little sister's going, the invisible presence was the closest and strongest of the ties that bound them all. Happiness came back, planning and dreaming began again. Susan teased Anna and Betsey into wearing white again, when the hot weather came, Billy urged the first of the walks to the beach without Jo, and Anna herself it was who began to extend the old informal invitations to the nearest friends and neighbors for the tea-hour on Saturday. Susan was to have her vacation in August; Billy was to have at least a week; Anna had been promised the fortnight of Susan's freedom, and Jimmy and Betsey could hardly wait for the camping trip they planned to take all together to the little shooting box in the mountains.
One August afternoon Susan, arriving home from the office at one o'clock, found Mrs. Carroll waiting to ask her a favor.
"Sue, dear, I'm right in the middle of my baking," Mrs. Carroll said, when Susan was eating a late lunch from the end of the kitchen table, "and here's a special delivery letter for Billy, and Billy's not coming over here to-night! Phil's taking Jimmy and Betts to the circus—they hadn't been gone five minutes when this thing came!"