"Do I owe you fifteen dollars?" asked Steve.
The darky looked mournful.
"Do I owe you twenty?" asked Steve in a somewhat severe tone.
"Reckon yo' hain't gwine ter fergit I paid five fer de table," murmured this meek son of Africa.
"Take twenty-five, then, and make an end of it," said Steve.
"Tank yo', tank yo', massa. I hain't nebber gwine ter fergit yo' ner de cow. Gawd bress yo' bofe, massa."
And grinning and bowing he disappeared, leaving Steve minus a fifth of his monthly salary and plus the beautiful Sarah Maria.
It was part of the procession of events that the butcher should heave in sight at that moment, and that Steve should hail him and take him in to look at the returned prodigal.
"She's so lean she wouldn't be good for much," said the man. "If you'd fatten her up I'd——"
"No, I think not. I'd rather you'd take her now."
"I couldn't give you but ten dollars for her this way."
"Take her," said Steve.
And the bargain was concluded. Shortly after this Bridget was ill with cramps for a few days.
"What has upset you?" asked Nannie.
"I couldn't tell at fust," groaned Bridget, "but I mind now—it's thet Sarah Meriah."
"Why, she's gone! What can she have to do with you now?"
"Shure she was in that last beefsteak I ate. I recognized her the minnit she passed me lips. 'Are ye back agin?' sez I, 'bad cess ter yez!' 'Thrue fer yez,' sez she, 'an' I'll be ther upsettin' of yez yit.' An' faith she is, fer it's feel her I do this blissed minnit, hookin' me in'ards an' kickin' me vitals, an' behavin' in a most disgraceful and unleddylike fashion throughout."
Possibly Nannie found herself more at leisure, now her bovine charge was off her hands, and wanted occupation, or—and this is more likely—the beauty and comfort of Randolph's and Constance's home had stolen to her heart and stirred new impulses there. Other influences had been at work on this neglected region as well, but to these Nannie did not as yet yield their meed of credit. It is a sad but well-known fact that the home agencies for regeneration are the last to receive recognition and gratitude. So it was that while Nannie was dimly conscious that she owed something to Constance's womanliness, she refused to dwell upon the beauty and tenderness of Steve's conduct toward her. His uniform courtesy, gentleness, and forbearance, though the most powerful factors in her dissatisfaction with self and embryonic yearnings toward a more conscientious, nobler life, were as yet utterly ignored by her in actual thought, and had her attention been called to them, she would probably have denied that she owed aught of good to their influence. This was discouraging, to be sure, but one must wait long and patiently for full results. It was enough, perhaps, for the present that Nannie went about her home trying, in a blundering way, to bring to pass some changes for the better. With a deeper insight than she recognized she looked to her table, first of all. Bridget was not a first-class cook, and her limited repertory rendered the bill of fare wearisome and monotonous.
Several dishes that Nannie had seen on Constance's table had caught her eye. A tempting salad was one, and having learned how to make it, she gave her own table the benefit of this knowledge one evening.
Steve's face lighted with surprise and pleasure the moment the new and very attractive dish was brought on. He knew it was none of Bridget's making.
"This must be yours, my dear," he said with a gentle, winning smile.
Now, poor Nannie was terribly awkward about anything that involved a show of feeling, so instead of taking this as she should have done, she merely said brusquely:
"I made it."
Then she colored violently, then immediately looked defiant.
But her color and her defiance were both of them so pretty and engaging that Steve was moved by a rare impulse to go round to her and kiss her.
Shocking as it may seem, Nannie caught him by the nose with a sudden fierce motion and held on with grim, unrelenting grasp.
The whole scene occurred in a flash, as it were, and Steve was utterly unprepared for his own act, and still more so for its consequence. Impulsiveness with him, however, was unusual and short-lived, and even under these untoward circumstances he soon recovered his gentle gravity.
"When are you going to release my nose, Nannie?" he said in his accustomed quiet tone.
"Goodness knows!" she replied brusquely—possibly without intent to pun—but she let go.
Steve retreated a step or two and seemed undecided as to what course to pursue. A certain air of dignity and reserve enveloped him at all times, and up to the present moment this had never failed to be respected by those with whom he had come in contact. It was hardly possible, then, to pass by so flagrant an outrage as this in silence.
"I hardly think," he said gently, "you mean all the things you do."
"I mean every one!" snapped Nannie, whose resentment was stirred, all the more so because she was ashamed of herself.
"If that is the case," Steve replied, and as he spoke, quietly and without anger, he was conscious of a dull dread of her reply—"if that is the case, it can't be that you feel either love or respect for me."
"I guess I don't, then," said Nannie rudely, and she rose from the table and went out into the garden.
Steve stood irresolute for a time; then he took his hat and left the house. Never in all his life before had he felt as miserable and as helpless. At that moment the beauty died not only out of his own life, but out of nature as well. There was no longer a balm in Gilead. He walked on, instinctively taking one of his old paths, from which he had heretofore received so much of comfort and inspiration, but which to-night gave him absolutely nothing of either. It would seem that nature had shared the blow he had received and had been deadened by it. Poor Mother Nature, she was just the same, but her child was out of gear and she could do nothing but wait. By-and-by a change came, not in the way of happiness, perhaps, but in a lightening of that deadness which is of necessity the most hopeless of all conditions.
Awaking from his torpor to a certain extent, Steve found himself engaged in some practical thoughts. He had lately been balancing his books, and the result was not encouraging. He was now reviewing this with a certain grim despondency and also a certain grim humor.
"We've spent eighteen hundred dollars in one year. I earn fifteen hundred a year and there's six hundred in the bank. We've just one year and two months to live. We'd better begin to repent," he said to himself.
Then presently he began to wonder what the use of it all was. He had given Nannie shelter and protection—that was all there was to it. They were no more to each other than strangers. He had done his utmost, and she was as far away from him as ever; that made an end of hope; he might as well give it up. At that moment there was nothing he would have liked better. What with the care and perplexity he had endured over women, cows, and hens, he was more than ready to wash his hands of the entire lot.
But Steve was unaccustomed to following inclination when duty pointed in another direction, so although he was apparently doing that now, yet he had no other thought than of returning to his post by-and-by.
He walked on in an aimless sort of fashion, merely because he did not know what else to do just then, and soon found himself near the cottage whose glorified windows attracted him on his tramp some time ago. It was dull enough now, for the departing sunlight streamed in another direction, leaving the little house in shadow. Steve would have passed it without a thought had not a woman's cry caught his ear—a bitter, wailing cry, on which came words as bitter:
"Oh, I'm sick of it all! Would God that I were dead!"
Without meaning to intrude on private grief, Steve stood stock-still. There was something so horrible in the contrast between a cry of such lawless despair and the idea of the contentment and happiness for which that little house should stand that it fairly paralyzed the man's steps, just as the motion of the heart is arrested by a shock.
The cottage stood on the edge of the woods. Just now these were bare and gaunt, and the steep-sided ravine to the left seemed to-day a barren crack in a gloomy landscape.
It was all of it unbearable, unendurable. Anything was better than this, and Steve turned with relief in the direction of a familiar train whistle, hurried to the station, and soon was speeding toward his former bachelor quarters.
How desolate the old building looked when he reached it! The sun had sunk below the tall chimney tops, and the narrow street lay in gloomy shadow. Nothing daunted, however, Steve entered, and forgetful of the custom of the building, he stepped to the elevator shaft. It was dark, but looking far up he thought he could discern a faint glimmer of the sunset. Some lines he once read came to him:
"The emptying tide of life has drained the iron channel dry; Strange winds from the forgotten day Draw down, and dream, and sigh:"
They were passing and repassing him—these winds. A sigh, a certain coolness, a faint whisper—that was all as they entered the shaft and sped upward like ghosts of a busy world.
Steve turned and ran rapidly up the stairs. He could hardly fit his key, he was in such haste to escape from that lonesome hallway. Day was passing out by the western gate when he entered his room, and it would seem that heaven, in all its untold beauty, had come forth to greet her. Such a sky! It fairly overwhelmed him, and he turned to the east, as one seeks shelter in the shadow from a too brilliant light. Even the east was whispering the story, but gently and in cadences fit for weak human senses, just as winds in the tall tree-tops faintly repeat the harmonies of heaven.
To and fro Steve walked in the spacious lonesome apartments. Was his present solitude an earnest of his future? Was he forever to be denied the warm human clasp of another's hand? Was he doomed evermore to see the oncoming of the night from out some deserted room?
The west was fading now. Day had passed and carried light and sunshine with her. The clouds were moving hither and yonder restlessly, and in their ghostly passage they took on weird shapes.
Steve watched them with a strange interest—an interest just tinged with superstition, half rejecting, half receiving their import, something as one watches the shifting of cards in the hands of a wizard.
He looked out over the waters of the lake, but the east was leaden now; her lips were sealed; she had passed silently into the night. Even in the west there was but a fitful glowing, and the clouds came and went.
The room had grown black—insupportable! Steve could not endure it—he must light it in some way. A lamp would not do. It was a warm evening, wonderfully warm for that season, but he must have firelight.
He looked about him and soon found kindling and fuel, for he had as yet disturbed none of the room's furnishings. His lease was not spent; he could use the place for storage for quite a time yet.
The warmth of the cheery flame was welcome to him, for despite the heat of the evening he felt a chilliness which he did not know meant fever. It was not among possibilities that a man of Steve's fine sensitive fiber could do violence to his idea of right without disaster to his physical being. He had fled from his post of duty, he felt himself to be a deserter, and this deflection was necessarily accompanied by physical disturbance.
As he sat beside the bright blaze he heard Randolph telling of his successful wooing and saw him tilted back in his chair against the opposite wall of the chimney. Then he stepped from out the ingle-nook and stood in a little old cemetery. They were putting mother and Mary into the same grave, and he thought the gravediggers cruel because they hurled the clods of earth so heavily upon them.
The cemetery was growing colder now, and he wakened, oppressed with the dreariness of it all. He replenished his failing fire and then sat down to dream again, but this time he was not alone, for Nannie sat by the cheery little blaze—not across the way, but close by his side. She had all her brilliant beauty, all her tantalizing, bewitching ways, but he no longer feared to touch her; no longer feared to smooth back the tangled curls and kiss the dear, piquant face, for the drawbridge was down, the gates were flung open, and Castle Delight was his at last.
It was a great moment for Steve. Now he had life and had it abundantly; now he had wife and hearthstone.
He wakened again in a cold, dark room, and he saw gleaming through the blackness a tearful, wistful face which he knew was Nannie's. She was in trouble—she wanted something, she was calling him in weird, spirit fashion, and he must go!
When Nannie went out into the garden she saw old Hayseed leaning over the fence contemplating some of the ruins of Steve's vegetables. Glad of any diversion, she opened a conversation on the subject of Mr. Seymour, of whose death she had heard that day. In far-away times, old Hayseed had known Mr. Seymour's father.
"I didn't think he could die," said Nannie. "He was always trying to, but I didn't think he was really sick enough."
"He hed ter die ter vindercate hisself," said Hayseed. "Some folks, yer know, hez ter live ter set 'emselves right, but this one 'bleeged ter die. He was allers goin' on erbout his bein' out o' health, an' nobody believed him, so he was 'bleeged ter die. Mrs. Seymour's young woman was tellin' me she tho't he died to spite folks that wouldn't 'low he was sick. She said he was mean enough to do anything."
"He was; mean as he could be!" exclaimed Nannie. "He was so little and so narrow-minded, and he had no excuse for it either, for he had a good education and he'd been all over the world."
"Well, now, once in awhile ye see a prune that won't swell. Ye put 'em all in water alike, an' most on 'em gits fat an' smooth, but this one stays small an' shriveled up. There's no accountin' fer ther difference."
Nannie turned and walked toward the house. She was restless and felt at a loss to know what to do with herself. Since her caper in the garden Steve had left her absolutely to her own way, and she had found, as folks will soon or late, that nothing could be more dreary. She finally started over to see her cousins, the Misfits, but on her way thither she had occasion to pass the house of some plain folk by the name of Meader, and she suddenly decided to go in there. It was the same house from which Steve had heard that anguished wail, and when Nannie entered, shortly after Steve had passed on, she found Mrs. Meader weeping bitterly. The woman was so far gone in misery that she did not resent Nannie's entrance or her question.
"What is the matter?"
"Oh, I can't stand it no longer. He don't give me nothin' to git anything with, an' we can't live on nothin'. Whenever he gits mad he plagues me by keepin' everything out o' my han's, an' he won't answer when I ask him fer anything. I'd like to know if a woman an' five children kin live without money! Before I was married I used to earn some. I had enough to live on, but now, what with the cookin', an' washin' an' nussin' all these babies, I ain't no time ter earn a livin'!"
"I should say you were earning it! You earn more than he does!" exclaimed Nannie hotly.
"He don't look at it that way," sobbed the woman. "He's ferever makin' me feel so beholten ter him fer every penny an' ter-day when I needed some money awful fer tea an' I went ter his pocket an' got it, he went on so afore ther children it seems like I can't never look them in ther face agin. He said—he said"—she stammered amid her sobs—"thet I was a thief—a low-down common thief—that's what he said, and the children heard him."
Nannie rose from her chair with clinched hands and a flaming face.
"Where is he?" she asked under her breath.
"He's gone ter ther grocery. He ain't working ter-day. He said he'd 'tend ter the spendin' of the money. I couldn't be trusted with it. He said thet, he did, afore the children."
And she broke down again.
Just then the man himself came walking in.
"What's up now?" he asked when he saw Nannie's face.
"You are!" she blazed, "and you're a contemptible brute!"
His face flushed. He looked both ashamed and angry, but a man in his position is at a loss to know what to do when attacked by a woman outside his family. He had enough pride to shrink from this invasion of his affairs, but he did not know just how to resent it.
"It ain't no matter fer discussion," he said, "but she's been into my pockets, an' thet's what I can't stand."
"What do you steal her money for, then?" demanded Nannie.
He stared at her in stupid astonishment.
"It's you who steal!" continued Nannie in ringing tones. "There she is, earning more than you do, and——"
"I don't know how you make that out," said the man in a sulky tone.
"Try to hire some one to take her place, and you'll learn. She could hire your work done fast enough, but there never has been and there never will be money enough in all your horrid pockets put together to hire what she does for you and the children; and then you are so nasty, and mean, and dishonest as to clutch the money and pretend you have the right to dole out what belongs to her. I wonder you aren't ashamed to be alive!"
He certainly did look ashamed now. He had probably never before viewed matters from this point.
"Well, I don't suppose I done just the right thing. I'm not going ter deny it, but money comes hard, anyhow."
"And her life is hard enough, anyhow, without your making it harder by tyrannizing over her."
Here one of the five little ones began to cry, and the mother started forward to take it, but Nannie intercepted her.
"You go and get your dinner," she said. "I'll look after the children."
And taking the two youngest in her arms she coaxed the others along, and they all went out into the warm, pleasant sunlight, and there Nannie sang to them, told them stories, washed their dirty little faces, and mothered them generally until their own poor mother could recover herself and their father had time to see the error of his way and repent.
The sun was setting when Nannie wended her way homeward. She dreaded to see Steve, but found relief in the thought that he would probably appear as usual. When she learned that he had not returned she felt surprised, but decided not to wait dinner, and so ate alone.
She spent the evening at her cousin's house. She did not quite dare to go to Constance's, for she instinctively felt that Constance would heartily disapprove of her leaving home in that way at a time when her husband was likely to be alone.
Returning, she found the house dark. Steve had probably retired, and she remembered she had given Bridget permission to go to the city for the night to look after a sick cousin. Something impelled her to do an unusual thing—open Steve's door a crack and peep in. He was not there.
The shock of this discovery was so great that for a moment Nannie was almost too bewildered to know what she did, and was half frightened when she found herself at the front door calling "Steve! Steve!"
The leaves rustling on the trees in the soft night wind was her only answer, and she closed the door with a feeling of desolate misery new to her experience.
At no time was she afraid. The fact of her being alone in the house merely served to emphasize her realization of her loss, for she had no doubt that Steve had left her. There was no resentment in her attitude now; she felt that she deserved her fate. None the less she also felt that she could not endure it—could not live without Steve. And yet she had told him that very day that she had neither love nor respect for him. How could he stay with her after that?
The night passed somehow, and morning found Nannie with a white face, save where the shadows rested 'neath her large eyes.
Bridget had not yet come home, and she could not endure to stay alone any longer, so she wrapped a little parcel and started over to Constance's. The parcel was one of a set of articles she was learning to make. Some weeks before this she had appeared at Constance's one day, and unrolling a large bundle she carried, had spread upon the latter's bed a quantity of tiny clothing, cut and made in most original fashion.
"Why, Nannie!" exclaimed Constance, who had no other idea than that they were meant for little baby Chance. "How lovely of you! Thank you ever so much!"
"They're not for you," said Nannie in her crude way. "They're mine."
The chagrin and embarrassment Constance might have felt over her mistake was swallowed up now in her amazement and delight.
"Yours! Oh, Nannie, I'm so glad."
"I haven't any use for them," said Nannie, bluntly, "but"—and here there was a hardly perceptible quiver of her lips—"I just wanted them around."
"I declare, that's really pathetic," said Randolph afterward when Constance told him. "Why don't you teach her, sweetheart—teach her to make the pretty little things?"
And Constance did, and as a result of all the ripping and cutting over Nannie had made some exquisite little garments, two of which she presented to Constance, and the rest kept in a little chiffonier in her room, to gaze at and kiss many times a day.
Returning from her sewing lesson rather earlier than usual, for she longed and dreaded to go back to her house, she found Steve awaiting her.
He was sitting in the little parlor, and his face was flushed and his eyes strangely bright.
Nannie stood stock-still on the threshold when she saw him.
"Steve," she asked at length, "have you come back to live with me?"
"Yes," he said, and then something impelled him to hold out his arms to her.
She hesitated, wavered for a moment like some beautiful wild bird that had strayed from the forest; then she ran to him in headlong fashion.
"Steve!" she fairly cried, "I can't make the words, but you know! you know!"
Steve folded her in his arms and—the dream came true. In the rapture of that moment he knew indeed—knew that this strange, untutored child was the one woman in all the world to satisfy him.
Time has run on. It is just three years from the morning Steve came home. He was quite ill for awhile after that, and from his feverish talk Nannie learned several things. In his convalescence they became acquainted, and Steve felt that his wife's handy, pretty nursing was the sweetest experience he had ever known.
Shortly after he was on his feet again Nannie returned from Constance's, whither she had run of an errand one morning, with a great distress working on her face.
She entered the study, where Steve sat at his desk writing, and tried to speak, but words failed her, and she sobbed instead.
Steve went to her quickly, and his gentle face and manner were eloquent with concern and sympathy.
"Why, my dear, what has happened?"
"It's the little baby! She's been so ill all night! She can't live!"
"Oh, my dear! Oh, that is too sad!" and Steve's face flushed and quivered.
"You must come right back with me, Steve; they are in such grief."
They went in without pausing to ring and tiptoed their way to Constance's room. The house was very still.
In response to their soft tap Randolph opened the door. When he saw Steve he broke into a great sob and laid his head on the shoulder of the dear friend of olden days.
"Oh, is she gone?" cried Nannie, entering the room.
Constance nodded and turned away, but Nannie burst into uncontrollable grief as she saw the little white-faced figure lying in the crib.
"I never want a child!" cried Nannie passionately. "If God can be so cruel as to take her, I never want one!"
It was Constance who was forced to comfort.
"Don't say that, dear," she urged gently. "I don't understand why we couldn't keep her, but I know that God is good. And we'd rather have her this way than never to have held our own little baby——"
But here she broke down and wept convulsively over the tiny crib.
And Steve and Nannie wept as they went homeward together hand in hand.
There is another baby there now—a jolly, roystering little fellow, just one year old to-day, on his mother's birthday, and a very precious little man he is; but the dear little girl who just alighted in their arms long enough to lay hold upon their heartstrings and then flew away with the other angels is not forgotten.
Randolph stepped over to Steve's desk this morning to ask if he and Nannie would be sure to come in the evening to celebrate the double birthday.
"If it's at all clear we will, old man, and gladly," said Steve, "but it looks to me as if a big storm were brewing."
"Well, I hope you can come. We think a deal of these anniversaries. Each one of 'em marks off a happy year, I tell you, old man."
"No doubt," said Steve gently.
"And the years have been successful, too," continued Randolph. "On the whole—to speak between friends—I've managed pretty well, I think."
"Pretty well with one," said Steve, and there was a slight gleam in his eye as he recalled Randolph's bachelor boast that he could manage forty women. "Now for the thirty-nine."
"Steve," said Randolph, "you're a good fellow, but you'll have to let up on that forty. I had sense enough, after all, to marry only one of them, and occasionally I have my doubts—looks a little as if even that one managed me. Just you drop the thirty-nine. You're using the poker too freely."
And then they fell to talking about how warm it was on this same day three years ago.
Steve was right, for that afternoon it began to snow and it forgot to stop. He had hard work to get home and still harder to get out and attend to the little stock. The chickens, he found, had had the sense to go to roost before time; both Brownie and the cat were safe indoor; they could look out for themselves, but the gentle, fawn-like Jersey (quite a different animal from the wild-eyed beast of three years agone) had expectations, and she must needs receive especial care.
After Steve had fed her and seen that she was comfortable for the night, he made his way into the house with a feeling that only a very happy man can understand.
Nannie was busy upstairs and called to him not to come up, as she had a surprise in store. He was to stir the fire and set her chair, which she would fill directly, and Steve had done all this and now was walking about the room, which was bright and pretty in the firelight, handling the books and magazines, trying a chord or two on the piano, and looking occasionally from the windows out into the night.
That was wild enough, what with wind, and ice, and snow. Every now and then the little house shuddered in the blast, which was shrieking in the chimneys. The window glass was bearded with snow, which melted here and there and ran for a little space; then, lest one should fancy the weather were shedding repentant tears, it stiffened into ice straightway. Down at the foot of the bluff the lake was booming; there was something to make the blood run cold about its mighty passion. One thought of the boats at its mercy that night and whispered, God help them!
There, in the center of it all, 'neath the trees that were clashing arms with one another in the storm, stood the snug little home, with the study, over whose pictured walls the cheery, flickering light played at glow and shadow. And there, close to the merry blaze, poker in hand, sat Steve, as happy, as well content a man as you'd find, though you looked far and wide. Brownie occupied the other chair, and it appeared that he had much to say. Nannie was singing—singing to the baby upstairs—and Steve and Brownie hearkened to the pretty notes.
"You hear that, sir?" asked Brownie, with his head slightly tilted and cocked on one side.
Steve poked assent at the fire.
"You didn't think much of her at one time, did you?"
Steve was gravely shocked and promptly poked remonstrance into the glowing coals.
"Well, you were rather discouraged about her—you know that," persisted Brownie.
Steve looked ashamed, but he was honest enough to nod slightly.
"And now you see there isn't a less wearisome, a nicer, brighter——"
Here Steve interrupted by stabbing the fire's front in a manner betokening the heartiest concurrence.
Just at this point the subject of these thrusts entered the room.
"No, you don't, Steve—no, sir. You shan't even have a squint till I get to the fire."
And carefully covering Miss Baby from view, Nannie sidled along to her chair.
"Now! Ask daddy what he thinks of Miss Loveland!" she exclaimed, dropping all disguises suddenly and holding the pretty little creature up in the firelight.
"Oh, Nannie! short clothes!" said Steve with an admiring gasp.
"Yes," said Nannie. "Look at the darling little shoes! See her kick them! Oh, she's so glad to be rid of those long dresses."
Steve's poker was greatly agitated.
"Nannie," he said, in his quiet way, "I hardly think I can wait much longer."
"Then you shall have her. Now! Here she goes, daddy!" and Nannie tossed the baby, all laughter and dimples, into the delighted father's arms.
True to her sex, she proceeded to grasp all he had—the poker. Steve held on for safety, but Miss Baby wielded it, and straightway the fire sent forth a shower of sparks that went frolicking up the chimney in pure glee.
"Steve," said Nannie, pointing to them, "look! See how prone to sin you are."
But Steve had no time for his derelictions; he was busy studying the wonderful baby.
"Nannie," he said, "this marks an epoch; and it's Constance's birthday."
"It's your birthday, too, you dear old stupid!" laughed Nannie.
"Why, so it is. I never realized before that we were twins."
"He never realizes anything about himself, does he, baby?"
The baby gave a great assenting dab at the fire, necessitating a prompt examination of all her gear to see if she had caught anywhere.
"He's always thinking of other people and forgetting himself, isn't he, baby?"
Another dab still bigger and another overlooking.
"Oh, my dear!" stammered Steve.
"Just you hush," said Nannie imperiously. "And he's too foolish and forgetful of himself to dream that there's a birthday dinner almost ready in the dining-room and some be-au-ti-ful things under somebody's plate."
Here Steve was helplessly and hopelessly embarrassed, but Nannie snatched the baby and went on:
"And he's a regular stupid old know-nothing, isn't he, baby?"
And she made the baby give the poker such a thrust of sympathy that it stuck fast in the fire.
"Whew!" she exclaimed, jerking it out. "How hot that fire is! I'm fairly cooked!"
There was a peculiar expression on Steve's face, and all at once Nannie remembered a newspaper clipping that had dropped from one of his note-books that day when she cleared his desk. A sudden thought struck her and caused her to pause with the poker in mid air.
"Have you been cooking me, sir?" she asked in awful tones, taking her seat as a judge might take his bench.
Steve's color started and a strange smile dawned upon his face. His very looks convicted him.
Now it was Nannie who was flushing, and so prettily, pursing up her bewitching mouth in the old way.
"Am I done?" she asked presently in a lower tone.
"To a turn!" he replied.
"Then I think I'll get off the spit, by your leave, sir," she said with saucy bravado.
And she arose to move back from the fire.
"Steve!" she cried, "you are devouring me!"