It was not an elaborate dinner. It was not by any means the sort of dinner Juliet might have prepared had she known that morning whom she was to entertain. It was merely a dinner planned with affectionate care to please and satisfy one hungry man who liked good things to eat—and amplified as much as possible in quantity after Anthony's message reached her. And by that admirable collusion between hostess and feminine friend which can sometimes be effected when the situation demands it, the dinner prepared for three seemed ample for five.
Between them Juliet and Rachel Redding served the various dishes and changed the plates which Anthony handed from his place. It was gracefully done and so simply that the absence of a maid was a thing to be enjoyed rather than regretted. When Juliet, in the softly sweeping dull-red frock which made of her a warm picture for a winter's night, slipped from her chair and moved about the room, or brought in from the kitchen a steaming dish, she seemed the ideal hostess, herself bestowing what her own hands had prepared. And when Rachel Redding offered a man a cup of fragrant coffee, smiling down in the general direction of his uplifted face without meeting his eyes, there was certainly nothing lost from his enjoyment of the beverage.
"Say, but this dinner has tasted just about right," was Wayne Carey's satisfied observation as he leaned back in his chair at last, after draining his third cup of coffee—and the pot itself, if he had but known it.
"Went to the spot?" asked Anthony, leaning back also with the expression of the friendly host. He was young to cultivate that expression, but he appeared to find no difficulty about it.
"It did—every last mouthful."
"Good. Now, if you fellows will come back to the fire and have a pipeful of talk we shall not be missed. In this house on ordinary occasions we reverse the order of after-dinner privileges—the men retire to the atmosphere of the sofa-pillows, and the women—I'm not allowed to tell what they do. But after remaining discreetly out of sight for some little time, during which faint sounds as of the rattle of china penetrate through closed doors, they reappear, pleasantly flushed and full of a sort of relieved joy."
"I know what I wish," said Roger Barnes, looking back from the dining-room doorway at young Mrs. Robeson; "I wish that when the dishes are all ready you would let me know. I should like nothing better than to have a dish-towel at them. I know all about it—my mother taught me how."
He looked so precisely as if he meant it, and the glance he sent past Juliet at Rachel Redding was so suggestive of his dislike to be separated for the coming hour from the feminine portion of the household, that his hostess answered promptly: "Of course you may. We never refuse an offer like that. We will try you—on promise of good behaviour."
XII.—THE BACHELOR BEGS A DISH-TOWEL
When the door closed on the three Juliet produced from somewhere two aprons—attractive affairs on the pinafore order—one of which she slipped upon Rachel, the other donned herself.
"These are my kitchen party-aprons," she said gayly, noting how the pretty garment became the girl, "calculated to impress the masculine mind with the charm of domesticity in women. The doctor needs a little illustrated lesson of the sort. Life in boarding-houses isn't adapted to encourage a man in the belief that real comfort is to be found anywhere outside of a bachelor's club."
Before he was called the doctor forsook a half-smoked cigar and the seductive hollows of Anthony's easiest chair and marched briskly out to the kitchen.
"You see I distrust you," he announced, putting in his head at the door. "I'm afraid you will get them all done without me."
"Not a bit of it. Here you are," and Juliet tied a big white apron about a large-sized waist. "Here's your towel. No, don't touch the glass; a man is too unconscious of his strength."
"A surgeon?" demurred Rachel softly, from over her steaming dishpan.
"Thank you, Miss Redding," said the doctor, smiling.
"Ah, how stupid of me," Juliet made amends swiftly. "Miss Redding remembers that when I got my telephone message to-night I told her that the most distinguished young specialist in the city was coming here to dinner. A hand trained to such delicate tasks as those of surgery—here, Dr. Roger Barnes, forgive me, and wipe my most precious goblets."
"You'll have my nerves unsteady with such speeches as that," said he, but he accepted the trust. He held the goblets and the other daintily cut and engraved pieces of glass with evident pleasure in the task.
Meanwhile Juliet and Rachel made rapid work of the greater part of the dishes, handling thin china with the dexterity of housewives who love their work—and their china. Talk and laughter flowed brightly through it all, and when the doctor had finished his glass he looked disappointed at seeing not much left to do. At the moment Rachel was scrubbing and scraping a big baking-dish, portions of whose surface strongly resisted her efforts, in spite of previous soaking. The assistant, looking about him for new worlds to conquer, fell upon this dish.
"Here, here," said he, "let me have it. I'll use on it some of the unconscious strength Mrs. Robeson credits me with."
But Rachel clung to the dish. "Proper housekeepers," she averred, "always say 'That's all, thank you,' as soon as the china is done, and finish the pots and kettles after the guest has gone back to pleasanter things."
"I see. Did you ever have a man for dish-wiper before?"
"Never a surgeon," admitted Miss Redding.
"Then you don't appreciate the fact that a man likes to do big things which make the most show and get the credit for them."
He took the dish away from her by a dexterous little twist in which conscious strength certainly asserted itself. Rachel, laughing, with a dash of colour in cheeks which were normally of dark ivory tints, accepted the dish-towel he handed her.
* * * * *
"Hallo, there," cried Wayne Carey's voice from the door. "You're having more fun out here than we are in there, and that's not fair. The lord of the manor is getting so chesty over the delights of a country home in a February snowbank that he's becoming heavy company."
"No room for you here," returned the doctor, removing with a flourish the last candied sugar lump from the bottom of the big dish, and beginning to swash about vigorously in the hot water. "We do something besides talk out here; we work. Our kitchen is so small we have to waste no time in steps; as we dry the things we chuck them straight into their places."
Suiting the action to the word he caught up a shining cake-tin and cast it straight at Carey. That gentleman dodged, but Anthony caught it, performed upon it an imitation of the cymbals, then turned about and laid it in a nest of similar tins upon a shelf in an open closet.
"Ah, but I'm well trained," he boasted.
"If you were you wouldn't put it away wet," observed Rachel slyly.
Anthony withdrew the tin, wiped it with much solicitude, and replaced it.
"These little technicalities are beyond me," he apologised. "Your real athlete in kitchen work is your scientific man. See him dry that bean-pot with the glass-towel. Now, I know better than that."
"Go away, all of you," commanded the mistress of the place. "Go back to the fire and we'll join you. If you are very good we'll bring you a special treat by-and-by."
"That settles it," said the doctor, and led the retreat, but not without a backward glance at the little kitchen.
Juliet had gone into the dining-room with a trayful of glass and silver. Rachel Redding was plunging half a dozen white towels into a pan of steaming water. Barnes stood an instant, staring hard at the slender figure in the white pinafore, the round young arms gleaming in the lamplight—then he turned to follow the others. There are some pictures which linger long in a man's memory; why, he can hardly tell. With all his varied experiences Dr. Roger Barnes had never before discovered how attractive a background a well-kept kitchen makes for a beautiful woman, so that she be there mistress of the situation. Long after he had gone back to the fire his absent eyes, while the others talked, were studying the—to him—unaccustomed and singularly charming scene he had just left in the kitchen.
When Juliet and Rachel came in at length they found a plan afoot for their entertainment. Wayne Carey was standing at the window showing cause why the whole party should go out and coast upon the hill near by.
"You admit," he argued with Anthony, "that you know where we can get a pair of bobs—and if you can't I'll bribe some of those youngsters out there to let us have theirs. The storm has stopped; the boys have swept off the whole hill, I should judge, by the way their track shines again under the moonlight. I haven't had a good coast since I left college."
He turned to Juliet. "Will you go?" he asked coaxingly.
"Of course we will," promised Juliet. "Tony wants to go—he's just enjoying making you tease. As for the doctor——"
"If my right hand has not forgot her cunning," he agreed.
In ten minutes the party was off. A young matron of five months' standing is not so materially changed from the girl she used to be that she can fail to be the gayest of company, perhaps with the more zest that the old good times seem a bit far away already and she is glad to bring them back.
As for the real girl of the party, in this case it chanced to be a country lass who had been away to school and half-way through college, had been brought home by love and duty to some elderly people who needed her, and had known many hours of stifled longing for the sort of companionship with which she had grown happily familiar.
Matron and maid—they were a pair for whose sakes the men who were with them gladly made slaves of themselves to give them an evening of glorious outdoor fun—and at small sacrifice.
* * * * *
"What a night!" exulted the doctor, striding up the long hill beside Rachel Redding breathing deep. "I'm thanking all my lucky stars that they led my path across Anthony Robeson's to-night. I've been intending to come out here ever since he was married—and might not have done it for another six months if I hadn't got started. He'll have all he wants of me now. It's the most delightful spot I've been in for many moons."
"It is a dear little home," agreed Rachel warmly. "Mrs. Robeson would make the most commonplace house in the world one where everybody would want to come."
"That's evident. Yet, somehow, knowing her well as a girl, I never should have suspected just those home-making qualities. You didn't know her then, I suppose? She was a girl other girls liked heartily, and men enthusiastically—one of the 'I'll be a good friend, but don't come too near' sort, you know. But she was very fond of travel and change, ready for everything in the way of sport—and, well, I certainly never saw her before in anything resembling an apron of any description. What a delightful article of attire an apron is, anyhow. I think I never appreciated it before to-night."
"That's because you never saw one of Mrs. Robeson's aprons. Hers are not like other people's."
"She makes hers poetic, does she?"
"She certainly does—even the ones for baking and sweeping. Not ruffled or beribboned, but cut with an eye to attractiveness, and always of becoming colour."
"I see. She's an artist—that was noticeable in the oysters—if she made the dish."
"Of course she did."
"The coffee was the best I ever drank."
"You made that, then," remarked the doctor astutely.
"I'm glad it was good," said Rachel demurely.
They had reached the top of the hill. Doctor Barnes insisted that Anthony had been the best steerer of coasting parties known to the juvenile world, and placed him at the helm. Next came Juliet, with both arms clasped as far about her husband's stalwart frame as they would go. Carey had wanted to be the end man, but Doctor Barnes would have none of it. "You have to take care of Mrs. Robeson," he said firmly, and placed him next. This brought Miss Redding last, and Dr. Roger Barnes, knowing man, as hanger-on behind upon bobs already fairly full. The last man, as every coaster understands, has to be alert to help out any possible bad steering, and so keeps a watchful head thrust half over the shoulder in front.
The foregoing explanation will show how it came about that all down the long, swift descent, Rachel, breathless with the unaccustomed delight of the flight, felt upon her cheek a warm breath, and was conscious of a most extraordinary nearness of the lips which kept saying merry things into her ear. The ear itself grew warm before the bottom of the track was reached.
"That was a great coast," cried the doctor as they reached the end of the long slide. "Now for another. I'm a boy again. This beats the best thing I could have had in town if I hadn't run across Anthony."
So they had another—and another—and one more. Then Rachel Redding, stopping in front of a small house which lay at the foot of the hill, said good-night to them and slipped away before Barnes had realised what had happened.
* * * * *
"Does she live there?" he questioned Juliet, as the four who were left moved on toward home. Anthony and Wayne were discussing a subject on which they had differed at the top of the hill. "Somehow, I got the impression she lived with you."
"No—but she comes over a good deal. I couldn't get on without her."
"As a friend?"
Juliet looked up at him. "I think it would be better that you should know, Roger," she said, "and I'm sure Miss Redding herself would prefer it—that I pay her for several hours a day of regular work. You've only to see her to understand that she does this simply because it's the only thing open to her as long as her father and mother can't spare her to go away. She gave up her college course in the middle because she said they were pining to death for her. They are in very greatly reduced circumstances, after a lifetime of prosperity. She's a rare creature—I'm learning to appreciate her more every day. She's never said a word about her loneliness here, but it shows in her eyes. It's a perfect delight to me to have her with me, and I mean to give her all the fun I can. For all that demure manner and her Madonna face she's as full of mischief as a kitten when something starts her off."
"Juliet," said the doctor soberly, turning to look searchingly down at her in the moonlight, "would you be willing to let me come often?"
Juliet looked up quickly. "So that you may see her?" she asked straightforwardly.
"Yes. I won't pretend it's anything else. I can tell you honestly that if there were no other reason I should want to come because of my old friendship for you and Anthony, and because this evening in your little home has given me a rare pleasure. I know of no place like it. But I'll tell you squarely that I want the chance to meet your friend often and at once. If I don't you will have other people coming out from town——"
"Yes," said Juliet, and something in the way she said it made him ask quickly: "Has that already happened? Am I too late?"
"I don't know whether you're too late, but I know that we've suddenly grown most attractive to another man from town. If you had gone into Rachel's home the odour of violets would have met you at the door. He sends them every few days."
"Ah!" said the doctor. It was not much of a comment, but it spoke volumes. He had been keen before—he was determined now. Violets—well, there were rarer flowers than those.
XIII.—SMOKE AND TALK
At the house there remained for the guests an hour before the fire, where Juliet brought in something hot and sweet and sour and spicy, which tasted delicious and brought her a shower of compliments while they drank a friendly draught to her. When she had left them, standing in an admiring group on the hearth-rug and wishing her happy dreams, they settled into luxurious positions of ease before the fire—a fire in the last stages of red comfort before it dies into a smoulder of torrid ashes.
"Anthony Robeson," said Wayne Carey, regarding the andirons fixedly over his bed-time pipe, "you're a happy man."
Anthony laughed contentedly. He had thrown himself down upon the hearth-rug with his head on a pillow pulled from the settle, and lay flat on his back with his hands clasped behind his neck. It was an attitude deeply expressive of masculine comfort.
"You're exactly right," said he. "And you would be the same if you would give up living in that infernal boarding-house. What do you want to fool with your first year of married life like that for? You told me that Judith was bowled over by our wedding, and was ready to go in for this sort of thing with a will."
"I know it," admitted Carey, "but"—he spoke hesitatingly—"we couldn't seem to find this sort of thing. You had corralled all there was."
"You had. Everything we looked at was so old and mouldy, or so new and inartistic, or so high-priced, or so far away—well, we couldn't seem to get at it, so we said we'd board a while and wait until we could look around."
"How does it work?"
"Why, I suppose it works very well," said Carey cautiously. "Judith seems contented. We have as good meals as the average in such houses, and the people are rather a nice lot. We're invited around quite a good deal, and Judith likes that. I ought to like it better than I do, somehow. I'm so confoundedly tired when I get home nights I can't help thinking of you and Juliet here in this jolly room. There's an abominable blue and yellow wall-paper on our sitting-room—and it has a way of appearing to turn seasick in the evening under the electrics. Sometimes I think it's that that makes me feel——"
"Seasick, too?" inquired the doctor with his professional air. He was standing with his arm on the chimney-piece, looking alternately down on his friends and around the long, low room. It was a jolly room—the very essence of comfort and cosiness. It was a beautiful room, too, in a simple way; one which satisfied his sense of harmony in colours and fabrics—a keen sense with him, as it is apt to be with men of his profession.
"Judith likes this, too, you know," Carey went on loyally. "She thinks it's great. But how to get it for ourselves—that's another matter. Somehow, you were lucky."
"Did you ever happen to see," asked Anthony, "a photograph I took, just for fun, of this house as it was when Juliet saw it first? No? Well, just look in that box on the end of the farther bookcase, will you? It's near the top—there—that's it."
He lay looking up through half-closed lashes at the two men as they studied the photograph, the doctor leaning over Carey's shoulder.
"On your word, man, did it look like that?" cried Barnes.
"Just like that."
"Yes, I've heard it did," admitted Carey; "but I never quite believed it could have been as bad as that."
"Who planned it all?" the doctor asked, getting possession of the photograph as Carey laid it down, and giving it careful scrutiny.
"My little home-maker."
"Jove—are there any more like her?"
"They're pretty rare, I understand. Juliet has one in training—one with a good deal of native capacity, I should judge."
"Let me know when her graduation day approaches," remarked the doctor.
* * * * *
When he fell asleep that night in the dainty guest-room Barnes was wondering whether Mrs. Robeson got her own breakfasts, and hoping that she certainly did not, at least when guests were in the house. He was down half an hour earlier than necessary, and to his great satisfaction found a slender figure brushing up ashes and setting the fireplace in order for the morning fire. As he begged leave to help he noted the satin smoothness of Miss Redding's heavy black hair and the trim perfection of her attire. She reminded him of his hospital nurses in their immaculate blue and white. When he saw the mistress of the house and found her similarly dressed a certain skepticism grew in his mind.
When he went out to breakfast he murmured in Anthony's ear: "Just tell me, old fellow—to satisfy the curiosity of a bachelor—do these girls of your household always look like this in the early morning? I know it's mean—but you will know how to evade me if I'm too impertinent——"
Anthony glanced from Juliet, resembling a pink carnation in her wash frock—February though it was—to Rachel Redding in dark blue and white, and smiled mischievously. "Mrs. Robeson—and Miss Redding—you are challenged," he announced. "Here's a fine old chump who has an awful suspicion that maybe when there are no guests you come down in calico wrappers with day-before-yesterday's aprons on."
Juliet gave the doctor a glance which made him pretend to shrink behind Carey for protection. "Will you please answer him, Tony?" she said.
"On my word and honour, Roger Barnes, then," said Anthony proudly, "they always look like this."
When the doctor left he was weighing carefully in his mind an urgent problem: After waiting six months before making his first visit at the Robesons, how soon could he decently come again?
"Here are yer strawberries, ma'm."
Juliet, alone in her little kitchen, ran to the door in dismay. She looked down at a freckle-faced boy carrying a big basket filled with strawberry-boxes.
"But my order was for next Wednesday," she said.
"Well, Pa said he cal'lated you'd ruther have 'em when they was at the best, an' that's now. This hot weather's a dryin' 'em up. May not be any good ones by Wednesday."
Every housekeeper knows that if there is one thing particularly liable to happen it is the arrival of fruit for preserving at the most inopportune moment of the week. It matters little what the excuse of the sender may be—there is always a sufficient reason why the original date set by the buyer has been ignored. In this case the strawberries had been engaged from a neighbour, and Juliet understood at once that she must not refuse to take them.
She stood looking at the rows of baskets upon the table, when the boy had placed them there and gone whistling away. She was in the midst of a flurry of work. It was Saturday, and she was cooking and baking, putting together various dishes to be used upon the morrow. Mr. Horatio Marcy had lately returned from abroad. He and Mrs. Dingley were to spend the coming Sabbath with Juliet and Anthony—the first occasion on which Juliet's father should be entertained in the house. It was an event of importance, and his daughter meant to show him several things concerning her fitness for her present position.
Rachel Redding was not available upon this Saturday morning. Her mother had been taken seriously ill the night before, and Rachel had sent word that she could not leave her. Juliet had not minded much, although it was a day when Rachel's help would have been especially acceptable. As it was, she had reached a point where her housewifely marshalling of the day's work was at a critical stage. A cake had been put into the oven. A large bowl of soup stock had been brought from a cool retreat to have the smooth coating of fat removed from its surface. Various other dishes, in process of construction, awaited the skilled touch of the cook.
"I shall have to do them, I suppose," said Mrs. Robeson to herself, regarding the strawberries with a disapproving eye. "But why they had to come to-day——"
She went at the strawberries, wishing she had ordered less. They were fine berries—on top; by degrees, as the boxes lowered, they became less fine. It seemed desirable to separate the superior from the inferior and treat them differently. Only the best would do for the delectable preserve which was to go into glasses and be served on special occasions; the others could be made into jam less attractive to the eye if hardly less acceptable to the palate. Juliet was obliged to put down her berry-boxes every fifth minute to attend to one or other of the various saucepans and double-boilers upon the little range. Her cheeks grew flushed, for the day was hot and the kitchen hotter. It must be admitted that her occasional glance out over the green fields and the woods beyond was a longing one.
The better selection of the berries went into the clear syrup in the preserving-kettle. Juliet flew to get her glass pots ready. She stopped to stir something in a saucepan. She thrust some eggs into the small ice-chest to cool them for the salad dressing soon to be made. She kept one eye on the clock, for the strawberry preserve had to be timed to a minute—ten, no more, no less. It was a strenuous hour.
As she dipped up the fourth ladleful of crimson richness—translucent as a church window—and filled the waiting jar, a peculiar pungent odour drifted across the fragrance of the strawberries. Juliet dropped her ladle and pulled open the oven door.
The delicate cake which she had compounded with especial care because it was Mrs. Dingley's favourite, lay a blackened ruin. Some of it had run over upon the oven bottom and become a mass of cinders. Juliet jerked the cake-tin out into the daylight and shut the oven door with a slam.
It was at this unpropitious moment that a figure appeared in the doorway—a tall, slim figure, in crisp, cool, white linen. A charming white hat surmounted Mrs. Wayne Carey's carefully ordered hair, a white parasol in her hands completed a particularly chaste and appropriate morning toilette for a young woman who had nothing to do with kitchens.
She was regarding with interest the young person at the range. Juliet wore one of her characteristic working frocks, and the big pinafore which enveloped it from head to foot was of an attractive design. But the morning's flurry had set its signs upon her, and the pinafore was not as immaculate as it had been three hours earlier. Her hair, curling moistly about her flushed face, had been impatiently pushed back more than once, and its disorder, while not unpicturesque, was suggestive of a somewhat perturbed mind. Her hands were pink with strawberry juice. She looked warm, tired, and—if the truth must be told—at the moment not a little out of temper. The smile with which she welcomed her friend could hardly be said to be one of absolute pleasure.
"I'm afraid I've come at the wrong time," said Judith, regretfully. "Did you just burn something? Too bad. I suppose all young housekeepers do that. Where's your—assistant?"
"She's not here to-day," said Juliet, ladling up strawberry preserve with more haste than caution. Her fingers shook a little but she kept her voice tranquil. "It's all right. A number of things had to be done at once, that's all. Please don't stay in this hot place. Take off your hat and find a cool corner somewhere in the house. I'll be in presently."
"I mustn't bother you. I was going to stay for lunch with you, it was so hot in town, but I mustn't think of it when you're so——"
"Of course you'll stay," said Juliet with decision. "What you see before you is only the smoke of battle. It will soon clear away. Run off—and I'll be with you presently. You'll find the late magazines in the living-room."
Her tone was intended to deceive and it was sufficiently successful. Judith was anxious to stay. She was also interested in the situation. She had heard much from Wayne in praise of Juliet's successful housekeeping, and had seen enough of it herself to be curious about its inner workings. For the first time she had happened upon a scene which would seem to indicate that there were phases in this sort of domestic life less ideal than she was asked to believe. She went back into the coolness and quiet of the living-room with a full appreciation of the fact that no hot kitchens ever threatened her own peace of mind.
Juliet finished her strawberry preserve, saw that everything liable to burn was removed to safe quarters; then deliberately took off her apron and stole out of the kitchen door. She went swiftly down through the orchard to the willow-bordered path by the brook; then, out of sight of everything human, ran several rods down it with a sweep of skirts which put everything in the bird creation to flight. At a certain pleasant spot among the willows, sheltered from all possible observation, she paused and flung herself down upon the warm ground.
But not in any attitude of despair. Neither did she cry tears of vexation and weariness. She was a healthy girl, with the perfect physical being whose poise is not upset by so small a matter as a fatiguing morning. Because a cake had burned, an extra amount of work had had to be conquered and an unexpected guest had arrived, her nerves were not worn to the rending point. But, having been reared in the belief that a breath of outdoors is the great antidote for all physical or mental discomforts born of confinement indoors, she had acquired a habit of running away from her cares at any and all times of day in precisely this fashion—and many were the advantages she had reaped from this somewhat unusual course of procedure.
Mrs. Anthony Robeson lay upon one side, her arm outstretched, her cheek pillowed upon her arm. She was drawing long, deep breaths, and looking lazily off at a stretch of blue sky cleft in the exact centre by one great graceful elm tree. One would have thought she had forgotten every care in the world, not to mention the guest from the city waiting expectantly for her hostess to appear. After ten minutes of this sort of indolence the figure in the blue and white print dress sat up, clasped both arms about her knees and remained regarding with half closed eyes the softly fluttering leaves of the willows along the edge of the brook. The hot flush died out of her cheeks; the lips whose expression a few minutes since had indicated self-control under a combination of trying circumstances, relaxed into their natural sweetness with a tendency toward mirth; and her whole aspect became that merely of the young athlete resting from one encounter and preparing herself for another.
At length she rose, shook out her skirts, and said aloud: "Now, Judith Dearborn Carey, I'm ready to upset your expectations. Since you looked in at me this morning you've been thinking I wished I hadn't—haven't you? Well, you may just understand that I don't wish anything of the sort." And in five minutes more she had walked in upon her guest by way of the front door, her pretty face serene, her hands full of pink June roses which she threw in a fragrant mass of beauty into her friend's lap.
"Put those into bowls for me, will you?" she requested. "Arrange them to suit yourself. Aren't they lovely? I suppose you're getting hungry. In half an hour you shall be served with a very modest but, I trust, not insufficient lunch. Would you like hot chocolate or iced tea?"
"Iced tea, by all means," chose Judith, who, being used to the privileges of selection from a variety of offered foods and beverages, was apt to want what was not set before her, when at a private table. Juliet understood this propensity of her friend and slyly took advantage of it. As it happened, she knew that at the moment she was quite out of chocolate, but she had counted advisedly upon Judith's choice on a hot June day, and she smiled to herself as she chopped ice and sliced lemon.
At the end of the half hour, Judith, who found the coolness of the living-room too delightful to allow her to keep watch of her friend in the hot kitchen, much as she was tempted to do so, was summoned to an equally cool dining-room. Upon the bare table, daintily set out upon some of the embroidered white doilies of Juliet's wedding linen, was a simple lunch of a character which appealed to the guest's critical appetite in a way which made her draw a long breath of satisfaction.
"You certainly do have a trick of serving things to make them taste better than other people's," she acknowledged, glancing from the little platter of broiled chicken with its bit of parsley to the crisp fruit salad made up of she knew not what, but presenting an appetising appearance—then regarding fondly a dish of spinach, pleasingly flanked by thin slices of boiled egg.
"It's really too hot to eat anything very solid," agreed Juliet with guile. "Rachel and I have a way of planning our lunches a day or two ahead, so that the leftovers we use up are not yesterday's but the day before's, and we remember with surprise how good the original dish was far back in the past. I wish Anthony could have his midday meal at home—though perhaps if he did the dinners wouldn't strike him so happily. Don't you think it's great fun to see a big, hearty man sit down at a table and look at it with an expression of adoration? Women may deride the fact as they will, but a healthy body does demand good things to eat, and shouldn't be blamed for liking them."
"Wayne hasn't much appetite," said Judith, eating away with relish. "He dislikes the people at our table—sometimes I think that's why he bolts his food and gets off in such a hurry. By the way, Juliet, are you and Tony coming in to the Reardons' to-night? Of course you are."
"I suppose we must," admitted Juliet with reluctance. "We have refused a good many things since we've been here, but I did promise Mrs. Reardon we would try to come to-night."
The little repast over, Judith offered, with well simulated warmth, to help her friend with the after work. But Juliet would have none of her. She sent her guest out into a hammock under the trees, and despatched the business of putting the little kitchen to rights with the celerity of one who means to have done with it.
In the middle of the June afternoon Judith awoke from a nap in the hammock to find her hostess standing laughing beside her, fresh in a thin gown of flowered dimity.
"Well," yawned Judith, heavily, "I must have gone off to sleep. I was tired—I am tireder. This is a fatiguing sort of weather—don't you think so? But you don't look it. And after all that work I found you in! Why aren't you used up? It kills me to do things in the heat."
Juliet dropped a big blue denim pillow on the ground and sat down upon it in a flutter of dimity. She lifted a smiling face and said with spirit:
"Last summer I could walk miles over a golf course twice a day and not mind it in the least. The year before I was most of the time on the river, rowing till I was as strong as a girl could be. I've had gymnasium work and fencing lessons and have been brought up to keep myself in perfect trim by my baths and exercise. What frail thing am I that a little housework should use me up?"
"Yes—I know—you always did go in for that sort of thing," reflected Judith, eyeing her companion's fresh colour and bright eyes. "I suppose I ought, but I never cared for it—I don't mean the baths and all that—of course any self-respecting woman adores warm baths. I don't like the cold plunges and showers you always add on."
"Then don't expect the results."
"It isn't everybody who has your energetic temperament. I hate golf, despise tennis, never rowed a stroke in my life, and could no more keep house as you are doing than I could fly."
"Let me see," said Juliet demurely, pretending to consider. "What is it that you do like to do?"
"You know well enough. And little enough of it I can get now with a husband who never cares to stir." There was a suspicion of bitterness in Judith's voice. But Juliet, ignoring it, went blithely on:
"I've a strong conviction that one can't be happy without being busy. Now that I can't keep up my athletic sports I should become a pale hypochondriac without these housewifely affairs to employ me. I don't like to embroider. I can't paint china. I'm not a musician. I somehow don't care to begin to devote myself to clubs in town. I love my books and the great outdoors—and plenty of action."
"You're a strange girl," was Judith's verdict, getting languidly out of the hammock, an hour later, after an animated discussion with her friend on various matters touching on the lives of both. "Either you're a remarkable actress or you're as contented as you seem to be. I wish I had your enthusiasm. Everything bores me—Look at this frock, after lying in a hammock! Isn't white linen the prettiest thing when you put it on and the most used up when you take it off, of any fabric known to the shops?"
"It is, indeed. But if anybody can afford to wear it it's you, who never sit recklessly about on banks and fences, but keep cool and correct and stately and——"
"—discontented. I admit I've talked like a fractious child all day. But I've had a good time and want to come oftener than I have. May I?"
"Of course you may. Must you go? I'll keep you to dinner and send for Wayne."
"You're an angel, but I've an engagement for five o'clock, and there's the Reardons' this evening. You won't forget that? You and Anthony will be sure to come?"
"I'll not promise absolutely, but I'll see. Mrs. Reardon was so kind as to leave it open. It's an informal affair, I believe?"
"Informal, but very gorgeous, just the same. She wouldn't give anybody but you such an elastic invitation as that, and you should appreciate her eagerness to get you," declared Judith, who cared very much from whom her invitations came and could never understand her friend's careless attitude toward the most impressive of them.
Juliet watched her guest go down the street, and waved an affectionate hand at her as Judith looked back from her seat in the trolley car. "Poor old Judy," she said to herself. "How glad you are you're not I!—And how very, very glad I am I'm not you!"
An observation, it must be admitted, essentially feminine. No man is ever heard to felicitate himself upon the fact that he is not some other man.
XV.—ANTHONY PLAYS MAID
After dinner that night, Juliet, having once more put things in order and slipped off the big pinafore which had kept her spotless, joined her husband in the garden up and down which he was comfortably pacing, hands in pockets, pipe in mouth.
"Jolly spot, isn't it? Come and perambulate," he suggested.
"Just for a minute. Tony, are we going to the Reardons?"
He stood still and considered. "I don't know. Are we? Did you accept?"
"On condition that you felt like it. I represented you as coming home decidedly fagged these hot nights and not always caring to stir."
"Wise schemer! I don't mind the aspersion on my physical being. She urged, I suppose?"
"She did. I don't know why."
"I do." Anthony smiled down at his wife. "Everybody is a bit curious about us these days. Your position, you see, is considered very extraordinary."
"Nonsense, Tony. Shall we go?"
"Possibly we'd better, though it racks my soul to think of dressing. The less I wear my festive garments the less I want to. For that very reason, suppose we discipline ourselves and go. Do you mind?"
"Not at all. We'll have to dress at once, for it's nearly eight now, and by the time we have caught a train and got to Hollyhurst——"
"To be sure. Here goes, then."
Half an hour later Anthony, wrestling with a refractory cuff button, looked up to see his wife at his elbow. She was very nearly a vision of elegance and beauty; the lacking essential was explained to him by a voice very much out of breath and a trifle petulant:
"If you care anything for me, Tony, stop everything and hook me up. I'm all mixed up, and I can't reach, and I'm sure I've torn that little lace frill at the back."
"All right. Where do I begin?"
"Under my left arm, I think—I can't possibly see."
"Neither can I." He was poking about under the lifted arm, among folds of filmy stuff. "Here we are—no, we aren't. Does this top hook go in this little pocket on the other side?"
"I suppose so—can't you tell whether it does by the look?"
"It seems a bit blind to me," murmured Anthony, struggling.
"It's meant to be blind—it mustn't show when it's fastened."
"It certainly doesn't now. Hold on—don't wriggle. I've got it now. I've found the combination. Three turns to the right, five to the left, clear around once, then—Hullo! I've come out wrong. The thing doesn't track at the bottom."
"You've missed a hook."
"Oh, no. I hung onto 'em all the way down."
"Then you missed an eye. You'll have to unhook it all and begin again."
Anthony obeyed. "I'm glad I don't have to get into my clothes around the corner this way," he commented. "Here you are. We stuck to the schedule this time."
"Wait, dear. You haven't fastened the shoulder. There are ever so many little hooks along there and around the arm hole."
"I should say there were. What's the good of so many?—Where do they begin? Look out—wait a minute—Juliet, if you don't stop twisting around so I never can do it. I can do great, heroic acts, it's the little trials that floor me—There—no!—that doesn't look right."
Juliet ran to the mirror. "It isn't right," she cried. "Look—that corner shouldn't lap over like that. Oh, if I could only reach myself!"
"You can't—I've often tried it. The human anatomy—Stand still, Julie—you're getting nervous."
"If there's one thing that's trying——" murmured Juliet.
"Why do you let your dressmakers build your frocks this way? Why not get into 'em all in front, where you can see what you're doing?—Now I've got it. Isn't that right?"
"Yes. Wait, Tony—here's the girdle. It fastens behind."
Anthony surveyed the incomprehensible affair of silk and velvet ribbon she put into his hands. "Looks like a head-stall to me," he said. Juliet laughed and fitted it about her own waist. Anthony attempted to make it join at the back of the points she held out to him.
"It won't come together," he said.
"Oh, yes, it will. Draw it tight."
"I am drawing it tight. It's smaller than you are. You can't wear it."
Juliet laughed again. Anthony tugged.
"Wait till I hold my breath," she said.
"Great guns!" he ejaculated, and by the exertion of much force fastened the girdle. Then he stood off a step or two and looked at his wife curiously. Flushed and laughing she returned his gaze.
"Can you breathe?" he asked solicitously.
"Of course I can."
"It is a little tight, of course," she admitted. "This is one of my trousseau dresses. I've grown a little stouter, I suppose. Never mind, I can stand it for to-night. Thank you very much. You must hurry now, Tony."
"I haven't had my pay for playing maid," he said, and came close. He surveyed his wife's fair neck and shoulders, turned her around and deliberately kissed the soft hollow where the firm white flesh of her neck met the waving brown hair drawn lightly upwards.
"That's the spot that tantalized me for about six years," he observed.
Hunting hurriedly through various drawers and boxes in the blue-and-white room, in search of gloves and fan, Juliet heard her husband come in his turn to her open door.
"Will you have the goodness to look at me?" he requested, in a melancholy voice. Juliet turned, gave him one glance, and broke into a merry peal.
"Oh, Tony!—What's the matter? Have you been growing stouter, too?"
"It must be," he said solemnly.
His clawhammer coat was so tight across the shoulders that the strain was evident. He was holding his arms in the exaggerated position of the small boy who wears a last year's suit. Juliet revolved around her husband's well built figure with interest.
"It does look tight," she said. "But have you grown heavier all at once? It can't be long since you wore that coat before."
"Don't believe I have for months. It's been altogether frock-coats and informals. I haven't been to an evening affair with ladies for a good while."
"It doesn't look as it feels, I'm sure. It's getting very late—we ought to be off," and Juliet gathered up her belongings and gave him a long loose coat to hold for her which covered her finery completely.
"Now's the hour when I regret that I haven't a carriage for you," said Anthony, as they descended the stairs. He got into his outer coat reluctantly. "I shall split something around my back before the evening is over," he prophesied resignedly.
"Never mind. Remember how tight my girdle is. It grows tighter every minute."
They got out upon the porch and Anthony locked the door. "If I should show that door-key to any man I know except Carey he would howl," he remarked, holding up the queer old brass affair before he slipped it into his pocket. He looked down at Juliet in the gathering June twilight. "Don't you wish we didn't have to go?"
"Yes, I do," she agreed frankly.
"My dear boy! At this hour?"
"We could telephone."
"Shouldn't you feel rather ashamed to, so late?"
"Not a bit. But of course we'll go if you say so."
She laughed, and he joined her boyishly. She hesitated.
"If I see you looking faint in that girdle shall I throw a glass of cold water over you?"
"Please do. If I hear a sound as of rending cloth shall I divert the attention of the company?"
"By all means."
They were laughing like two children. Anthony sat down in one of the porch chairs. He drew a long sigh. "I never hated to leave my dear home so since I came into it," he said gloomily.
Juliet pulled off her coat. "If you'll do the telephoning I'll stay," she said.
He jumped to his feet. "Let me loosen that girdle for you. I haven't been breathing below the fifth rib myself since you put it on, just in sympathy," he declared.
"The trouble is," said Anthony Robeson, shifting his position on the step below Juliet so that he could rest his head against her knee, "the trouble is we're getting too popular."
Juliet laughed and ran her fingers through his thick locks, gently tweaking them. The two were alone together in the warm darkness of a July evening, upon their own little porch.
"It's the first evening we've had to ourselves since the big snowdrift under the front windows melted. That was about the date Roger Barnes met Louis Lockwood here the first time. Ye gods—but they've kept each other's footprints warm since then, haven't they? And now Cathcart is giving indications of having contracted the fatal malady. Can't Rachel Redding be incarcerated somewhere until the next moon is past? I notice they all have worse symptoms each third quarter. That girl looks innocent, but—by heaven, Julie, I think she has it down fine."
"No, you don't," said Juliet persuasively. "I should catch her at it if she were deliberately trying to keep two such men as Roger and Louis pitted against each other. They're doing it all themselves. I've known her to run away when she saw one of them coming—so that she couldn't be found. But, Tony dear, I've a plan."
"Good. I hope it's a duel between the two principals. If it is I'm going to tamper with the weapons and see that each injures himself past help. I'm getting a little weary of playing the hospitable host to a trio of would-bes."
"Listen. We'll entertain them all at once for a week, with some extra girls, and Judith and Wayne, and then we'll announce that we're not at home for a month."
"All at once—a house-party?" Anthony sat up and laughed uproariously. "I've tremendous faith in you, love, but where in the name of all the French sardines that ever were dovetailed would you put such a crowd?"
"I've a practical plan. Louis Lockwood belongs to a fishing club that spends every August up in Canada. They have a big tent, twenty by twenty-five, for he told me so the other day. He would get it for us; we would put it out in the orchard, close to the river. You and Wayne, and Roger and Louis, and Stevens Cathcart could sleep down there, and I could easily take care of Judith and Suzanne Gerard and Marie Dresser, here in the house. Rachel should stay here, too. And Auntie Dingley would send down Mary McKaim to cook for us, I'm sure."
"That's not so bad. But why Rachel—when you have so little room?"
"Because I want her to have all the fun; because if I don't keep her here she will be running away half the time; and because——"
"Now comes the real reason," observed Anthony sagely.
"I don't want the other girls thinking she has the unfair advantage of taking a man away from the party every evening to walk down home with her."
"Wise little chaperon. I can see Roger and Louis now, glaring at each other as the hour approaches for her departure."
"What do you think of my plan? It's only a plan, you know, Tony—subject to your approval."
"Diplomat!" murmured Anthony, reaching up one arm and drawing it about her shoulders. "You know you're safe to have my approval when you put it in that tone. Well, provided you can figure out the finances—and I know you wouldn't propose it if you hadn't done that already—I don't see any objection. On one condition, though, Julie, mind you—on one condition."
"Of course, I can only be here evenings during your house party. So my condition is that I have you and the home all to myself for my vacation afterward. Not a wooer nor a chum admitted. No overdressed women out from town, taking afternoon tea—no invitations to lonesome husbands out to dinner. Just you and I. Did you ever imagine life in the rural localities would be so gay, anyhow? I want to go fishing with you—tramping through the woods with you—sitting out here on the porch with you—in short, have you all to myself—and"—he turned completely about, kneeling below her on the step, crushing her in both arms so vigorously that he stopped her breath—"eat—you—up!"
"What a prospect," she cried softly, when she found herself partially released. "Are you sure you need a vacation, just for that?"
"Certain of it. I've had to share you with other people all the year—and now I've got to give you up to a jealous lovers' assemblage. So after that, mind you, I have my satisfaction."
* * * * *
When Doctor Barnes was told of the plan he looked gloomy. "Going to ask Lockwood?" he inquired at once.
"Of course," assented Juliet promptly.
"I don't see any 'of course' about it."
"What would Marie Dresser do to me if I didn't invite him?"
"He doesn't care for her——"
"Oh, yes, he does. Why, last winter he seemed to be on the point of asking her to marry him. Everybody expected the announcement any day."
"Last winter and this summer are two different propositions."
"Marie doesn't think so."
"She'll get mightily undeceived, then. Whom else are you asking?"
The doctor groaned. "Is this a dose you're fixing for me? I'm going to be too busy—I can't come."
"Very well," said Juliet placidly. She was sewing, upon the porch, and the doctor sat on the step.
He looked up with a grimace. "I suppose you think I'll be out on the next train after the rest arrive."
"I certainly do, Dr. Roger Williams Barnes."
"I presume you are inviting Suzanne?" he queried.
"No reason why not. Cathcart admires her immensely—or did, before he began to cultivate this place."
Juliet laughed. "Suzanne would never forgive you if she heard that."
"By-the-way," said the doctor slowly, "has she ever met—Miss Redding?"
He meditated for several minutes in silence, while Juliet sewed, glancing from time to time at one of the most attractive masculine profiles with which she was familiar. He was not as handsome a man as Louis Lockwood, but every line of his face stood for strength, not without some pretensions to good looks. He looked up at length and straight at her.
"Would you mind telling me," he began, "just what you intend to effect with this combination? I never gave you credit, you know, Juliet, for wanting to manage Fate, and I don't believe it now."
"No, I don't want to manage Fate," said Juliet, smiling over her work, "but I admit I want two things: I want you to see Rachel Redding beside Suzanne Gerard, and—I want Rachel to see you beside Louis Lockwood and—Suzanne."
"I see," said the doctor grimly. "In other words, you want your protegee to have fair play."
"Just that," Juliet answered, more gravely now. "I think lots of you, Roger, and well of you—you know I do—and yet——"
"Let me guard my girl. She's not like the others, and you and Louis are making it tremendously hard for her between you."
"You seem to be planning to make it infinitely harder."
Juliet shook her head. "Trust me, Roger, please."
"All right, I will," promised the doctor. "But just assure me that you're on my side."
"I'm on nobody's side," was all the comfort he got.
Juliet's invitations received delighted acceptances, though Wayne Carey and Doctor Barnes would be able to come out only for the nights—in time, however, for late and festive suppers outdoors. The tent in the orchard, with its comfortable bunks, was accepted by all the men with enthusiasm.
"And to satisfy the men is the essential thing, you know, Tony," Juliet had observed sagely when she saw their pleasure in their quarters. "The girls will accept any crowding together if they have a mirror and room to tie a sash in, as long as devoted admirers are not wanting."
The moment Miss Dresser and Miss Gerard saw Miss Rachel Redding—to quote Anthony—the fun began. Mrs. Wayne Carey had already met her, and had been carefully coached by Juliet as to the bearing she must assume toward Juliet's new friend. So when Marie and Suzanne began to inquire of Judith the latter was prepared to answer them.
"She's a beauty in her way, isn't she?" Judith asserted. "Juliet's immensely fond of her, I should judge."
"But who is she?" demanded Suzanne.
"A neighbour, a country girl, a school and college girl, a comparatively poor girl—and a lucky girl, for Juliet likes her."
"Have the men met her before?"
"Goodness, yes. Haven't you heard how they beg invitations home to dinner of Anthony, just to see her?" Judith was enjoying the situation. This statement, however, was no part of Juliet's coaching.
"I didn't see anything particularly attractive about her," said Marie promptly. "She's a demure thing. One wouldn't think she ever lifted those long lashes to look at a man—but that's just the kind. Awfully plainly dressed."
"That's her style," said Suzanne. "These poor, pretty girls are once in a while just clever enough to make capital out of their poverty by wearing simply fetching things in pale gray dimity and dark blue lawn and sunbonnets. Stevens Cathcart would be just the kind to be carried away with her. Roger Barnes wouldn't look at her twice."
"Louis might pretend to admire her, to please Juliet," admitted Marie. "He has a way of making every girl think he is in love with her—and he is, to a certain extent. But it's never serious."
Whether it were serious in this instance Miss Dresser soon had opportunity to judge.
After dinner that first night Anthony proposed taking all his guests out upon the river in a big flat-boat he had rented. But when he made up the party Rachel was not to be found.
"I'm afraid she's gone home," said Juliet.
"I'll run down and see," proposed Lockwood instantly, and was suiting the action to the word when Cathcart got off ahead of him.
"I'll have her back presently," he called as he dashed down the road. "You people go on—we'll catch you."
"We'll wait for you," Lockwood shouted after him.
"Why should we wait?" demurred Marie, beginning to walk away toward the river.
"If we don't he's liable not to find it convenient to catch up with us," Lockwood retorted.
"If they prefer their own company why not let them have it?" she said over her shoulder.
"Run along, Louis," murmured Doctor Barnes. "One girl at a time."
He turned to Juliet. "Shall we go?" he said.
Anthony caught his glance, and, laughing, turned to Suzanne. "Will you console an old married man, Miss Gerard?" he inquired.
But when Cathcart reappeared, which he did very soon, Rachel was not with him. "She said she had to stay with her mother," he explained in a tone which so closely resembled a growl that everybody laughed.
"Bear up, Stevie, boy," chaffed Wayne Carey. "I'm confident she likes you, but she may not like you all the time, you know. They seldom do."
XVII.—RACHEL CAUSES ANXIETY
In spite of all Juliet's efforts to bring about Rachel's presence as one of her guests she found herself unable to accomplish it. Whenever she was needed for help Rachel was never absent, but the moment she was free the girl was off, and that quite without the appearance of running away. The men of the party followed her, but they were not allowed to remain. The girls, confident that her disappearances were part of a very deep game, begged her to stay; it was useless. Rachel's excuses were ready, her manner charmingly regretful in a quiet way, but stay she would not.
Dr. Roger Barnes waylaid her one evening as she was vanishing down the willow-bordered path by the brook, leading to her own home.
"Here you go again," he began discontentedly. "I wish I knew why."
Rachel paused. It was difficult to do otherwise with a large and determined figure blocking a very narrow path.
"I have ever so many things waiting at home for me to do."
"At nine o'clock in the evening?"
"At whatever hour I am through at Mrs. Robeson's."
"I wish I could imagine something of what they are. It might relieve my mind a little."
"Why, I will tell you," said Rachel with great appearance of frankness. "I have to do some mending for mother, read the evening paper for father, and set the bread. Then the clothes must be sprinkled for ironing in the morning."
The doctor studied her face in the dimming light. "Who washed the clothes?" he asked bluntly.
"Do you think you ought to ask?" said Rachel.
"Yes. I'm in the habit of asking questions."
"Of everybody I care for. You don't have to answer, but if you don't I shall know who did the washing."
"Yes, I did it," said Rachel steadily. "It is easily done."
"And then you came over here and got breakfast?"
"Not at all. I helped Mrs. Robeson and Mary McKaim get it. Doctor Barnes, do you know that you are standing directly in my path?"
"Certainly," said the doctor. "It's what I'm here for."
"Then I shall have to go back and take the road home."
"If you do you will evade me only to encounter another man. Lockwood's keeping a ferret's eye on the Robeson house door; and I think Cathcart is already patrolling the road in front of your house."
The girl turned. "You are making me feel very absurd," she said. "I want to go home, Doctor Barnes. Please let me pass you."
"May I go with you?"
"I would rather not."
"Well, that's frank," he said, amusement and chagrin struggling for the uppermost. "I wonder I don't stalk angrily away——"
"I wish you would."
Roger Barnes threw back his head and laughed. "I wish you would give some other girls a leaf out of your book," he said. "The more you turn me down the more ardently I long to be with you; while the opposite sort of thing—I'll tell you, Miss Redding, if you want to be rid of me try these tactics: Say with a languishing smile, 'Oh, Doctor Barnes, won't you take me a little way down this lovely path?' Perhaps that will accomplish your ends. I've often felt an instant desire not to do the thing I'm begged to."
"'Oh, Doctor Barnes,'" said Rachel Redding—and he caught the mischief in her tone—even Rachel could be mischievous, as Juliet had said—"'won't you take me a little way down this lovely path?'"
"With the greatest pleasure in the world," replied the doctor promptly, and stood aside to let her pass him. Whereupon she slipped by him, and before he could realise that she had gone was running fleetly away in the twilight down the winding, willow-hung path. With an exclamation he was off after her, but though he dashed at the pace of a hunter through the intricacies of the way he presently discovered that he was following nothing but the summer breeze rustling the willow leaves and wafting into his face the breath of new-cut hay, the aftermath of late July. He stopped at length and stared about him, baffled and half angry.
"There never was a girl like you," he muttered. "If you are deliberately trying to make men mad to get you you are succeeding infuriatingly well. If I catch you to-night it will be your fault if I tell you what I think of you. I'll tell you now, for I suppose you are hiding somewhere in this undergrowth till I give it up and you can get away home. You shall listen to me if you are here, for you can't help yourself."
He was speaking in a low, even tone, walking slowly along the path and peering sharply into the bushes on both sides. Suddenly he stood still. He had detected a spot beside a low-hanging willow which showed nearly white in the deepening darkness. Rachel was wearing white to-night, he remembered. His heart quickened its paces and he paused an instant to get past a certain tightening in his throat.
Then he bent forward and whispered: "If that's not you there I can say what I like, and there'll be some satisfaction in that. If you'll speak now you may save yourself, but if you don't I've no reason to think it's you, and so I can say——"
There was a sharply perceptible noise farther down the path toward the Redding home. Barnes turned quickly and stood up straight, waiting. Footsteps came rapidly along the path—no footsteps of hers, evidently. A man's voice humming a tune grew momentarily plainer—then the voice stopped humming and began to sing in a subdued but clear and fine barytone:
"Down through the lane Come I again Seeking, my love, for you; Run to me, dear, Losing all fear, Love and——"
The voice stopped. Two men's figures confronted each other in an extremely narrow path. It was not too dark yet for each to be plainly recognisable to the other.
"Hallo—that you, Lockwood?"
"Hi there, Roger Barnes; what you doing here? Fishing?"
"Looking for something I've lost."
"Getting pretty dark to find it. Something valuable?"
"Rather. Think I'll give it up for to-night."
"Too bad. Nice night." Lockwood was hastening toward the end of the path which came out near Anthony's house. Barnes looked after him grimly.
"That voice of yours, young man," he thought, "handicaps me from the start. Now, if I could just warble my emotions that way——"
He turned and peered again at the white place by the tree. He moved stealthily toward it, and ascertained presently that it was not what it seemed. He rose to his feet and walked rapidly down the path to the Redding house. When he came in sight of it he saw that the kitchen windows were lighted and that a man stood with his arm on the sill of one of them. Silhouetted against the light were the familiar outlines of Stevens Cathcart. As Barnes stood staring amazedly at this, a slender figure in white came to the window, and in the stillness he could hear the quiet voice:
"Please let me close the window, Mr. Cathcart. Thank you—no—and good-night."
"'Three Men in a Boat,' by Rachel Redding," murmured the doctor to himself, and slipped back to the willow path, from which he at length emerged to join the group upon the porch—which then, it may be observed, held for the first time that night its full complement of men.
Three big Chinese lanterns shed a softly pleasant light upon the porch and the lawn at its foot. Suzanne Gerard and Marie Dresser made a most attractive picture, one in a low chair, the other upon a pile of cushions on the step. Suzanne lightly picked a mandolin. Marie was singing softly:
"Down through the lane Come I again Seeking, my love, for you; Run to me, dear, Losing all fear, Love and my life will be true."
It was one of the songs of the summer—foolish words, seductive music—everybody hummed it half the time. Roger Barnes smiled to himself, remembering where he had heard it last.
"Come here and give account," commanded Suzanne the instant he appeared. "Every unmarried man vanished the moment twilight fell. You are the last to show your face. I challenge you, one and all, to swear that you have not been within sight of a certain small brown house at the foot of the hill since supper."
Her voice was music; in her eyes was laughter. Marie sang on, pointing her words with smiles at one and another of the culprits.
From his seat on the threshold of the door, where his head rested against Juliet's knee as she sat behind him, Anthony laughed to himself. Then he turned his head and whispered to his wife: "Feel the claws through the velvet? Poor boys, they have my sympathy."
XVIII.—AN UNKNOWN QUANTITY
"Rachel," said Juliet decisively, next morning, "to-night is the last of my house party, and I refuse to let you off. I'm asking ten or twelve more people out from town. You must spend this evening with my guests, or forfeit my friendship."
She was smiling as she said it, but her tone was not to be denied.
"If that is the alternative," Rachel answered, returning the smile with an affectionate look of a sort which neither Louis Lockwood nor Stevens Cathcart nor Dr. Roger Barnes had ever seen on her face—though they had dreamed of it—"of course I shall stay. But I'll tell you frankly I would rather not."
"Why not, Rachel?"
"I think you know why not, Mrs. Robeson," Rachel answered.
"Yes, I know why not," admitted Juliet. "Girls are queer things, Ray. They defeat their own ends all the time—lots of them. Suzanne and Marie are dear girls, with ever so many nice things about them, but they don't—they don't know enough not to pursue, chase, run down, the object of their desires. And, of course, the object, being run down panting, into a corner, dodges, evades, gets out and runs away. Rachel, dear, what are you going to wear to-night?"
"My best frock," said Rachel, smiling.
"Cut out at the neck?"
"Short in the sleeves?"
"To the elbows. It was my sophomore evening dress."
"It will be all right, I know. Rachel, wear a white rose in those low black braids of yours—will you?"
"No, I think I won't," refused Rachel.
Rachel did not answer. Into her cool cheek crept a tinge of rebellious, telltale colour.
Juliet studied her a minute in silence, then came up to her and laying both hands on her shoulders looked up into her eyes.
"You try to 'play fair,' don't you, dear?" she said heartily, "whatever the rest may do. And whatever they may do, Rachel Redding, don't you care. It's not your fault that they are as jealous of you as girls can be and keep sweet outside. I'd be jealous of you myself if——" She paused, laughing.
"When you grow jealous," said Rachel, "it will be because you have grown blind. If anybody ever wore his heart on his sleeve—no, not there—but beating sturdily in the right place for one woman in the world it's——"
"Right you are," said Anthony Robeson, coming up behind them, "and I hope you may convince her of it. She has no confidence in her own powers."
Rachel stood looking at them a moment, her dark eyes very bright. "To see you two," she said slowly at length, "is to believe it all."
The evening promised to be a gay one. The men of the party had sent to town for many lanterns, flags and decorations of the sort, and had made the porch and lawn the setting for a brilliant scene. A dozen young people had been asked out, and came enthusiastically.
"We'll wind up with a flourish," said Anthony in his wife's ear as they descended the stairs together, "and then we'll send them all off to-morrow where they'll cease from troubling. I think it was the best plan in the world, but I'll be glad to prowl about my beloved home without observing Cathcart scowling at Lockwood, Roger Barnes evading Suzanne, or even my good boy Wayne with that eternal wonder on his face as to why his flat does not look like our Eden."
"Hush—and don't look too happy to-morrow, Tony. Oh, here comes Rachel. Isn't she lovely?"
"Now, watch," murmured Anthony, his face full of amusement. "It's as good as the best comedy I ever saw. See Suzanne. She never looked toward Rachel, but don't tell me she wasn't aware of the very instant Rachel came upon the porch. I believe she read it in Roger Barnes's face. I'll wager ten to one his pulse isn't countable at the present instant."
"I don't blame him," Juliet answered, smiling at her guests. "She's my ideal of a girl who won't hold out a finger to the men."
"Yes, she's your sort," admitted Anthony. "I know what it is—poor fellows—I've been through it. Your cold shoulder used to warm up my heart hotter than any other girl's kindness. Look at the boys now. They can't jump and run away from the other girls, but they'd like to. And they're all deadly anxious for fear the others will get the start. Say, Julie, you ought not to have asked those new youngsters down from town. They'll catch it, sure as fate; they're at the susceptible age. I see five of them now, all staring at Rachel."
"You positively mustn't stay here with me any longer," whispered Juliet. "Go and devote yourself to her and keep them off for a little."
"Not on your life," Anthony returned "She can take care of herself. If I mix up in this fray you're likely to be husbandless. Lockwood and Roger are getting dangerous, and I'm going to keep on the outskirts where it's safe."
They were all upon the lawn—Rachel, unable to help herself, according to Anthony's intimation, the centre of a group of men who would not give each other a chance—when a stranger appeared upon the edge of the circle of light. He stood watching the scene for a moment—a tall, slender fellow, with a pale face and deep-set eyes. Then he asked somebody to tell Miss Redding that Mr. Huntington would like to speak with her. Rachel, thus summoned, rose, looked about her, caught sight of the stranger, and went swiftly down the lawn. A dozen people, among them all the men who had been the guests of the week, saw the meeting. They observed that the newcomer put out both hands, that his smile was very bright, and that he stood looking down into Miss Redding's face as if at sight of it he had instantly forgotten everything else in the world.
Rachel, leaving him, came back up the lawn to find her hostess. As she passed it became evident to a good many pairs of sharp eyes that her beauty had received a keen accession from the sweeping over her cheeks of a burning blush—so unusual that they could not fail to take note of it.
Juliet came back down the lawn with Rachel, who presented Mr. Huntington; and presently, without a word of leave-taking to any one else, the two went away down the road.
"Now, who under the heavens was that?" grunted Louis Lockwood in Anthony's ear, catching his host around the corner of the house.
"Just a messenger, maybe?"
"Give it up."
"She blushed like anything."
"Did she? Man she is going to marry, probably."
"Oh, that can't be!"
"The lady looks marriageable to me," observed Anthony, strolling away.
He ran into Cathcart.
"Say, who was that fellow, Tony?" began Stevens.
"Don't ask me."
"He looked confoundedly as if he meant to embrace her on the spot."
"So he did," agreed Anthony soothingly. "Don't blame him, do you? He may not have seen her for a month. What condition do you suppose you'd be in if a week should get away from you out of her vicinity?"
"Bother you, Tony—don't you know who he was?"
"Intimate friend, I should judge."
"She turned pink as a carnation."
"Say hollyhock," suggested Anthony, "or peony. Only a vivid colour could do justice to it."
"That's right," groaned Cathcart. "She never looked like that for any of us."
"Never," said Anthony promptly, and got away, chuckling.
"Hold on, there, Robeson, man," said the voice of Dr. Roger Barnes, and Anthony found himself again held up.
"Come on, old Roger boy," said his host pleasantly. "We'll amble down the road a bit and give you a chance to get a grip on yourself. No, I don't know who he is. I'm all worn out assuring Louis and Steve of that. She did turn red, she did look upset—with joy, I infer. That girl has made more havoc in one short week—playing off all the while, too—than Suzanne and Marie have accomplished in the biggest season they ever knew. And I believe, Roger boy, you're about the hardest hit of any of them."
The doctor did not answer. The two had walked away from the house and were marching arm in arm at a good pace down the road.
"She's as poor as a church mouse," suggested Anthony.
There was no reply.
"She has a dead weight of a helpless father and mother."
The doctor put match to a cigar.
"Juliet says her brother died of dissipation in a gambling-house."
Doctor Barnes began to chew hard on a cigar that he had failed to light.
"But she's a mighty sweet girl," said Anthony softly.
"See here, Tony," the doctor burst out.—"Oh, hang it all—"
"I see," said his friend, with a hand on his shoulder. "Go ahead, Roger Barnes—there's nothing in life like it; and the good Lord have mercy on you, for the sort of girl worth caring for doesn't know the meaning of the word."
* * * * *
"All gone, little girl," said Anthony jubilantly, as he turned back into the house the next evening, after watching out of sight the big touring-car of Lockwood's which had carried all his house-party away at once. "They are mighty fine people and I like them all immensely—but—I have enjoyed to the full this speeding the parting guest. And now for my vacation. It begins to-morrow."
"What shall we do?" asked Juliet, allowing him to draw her into his favourite settle corner.
"Go fishing. If you'll put up a jolly little—I mean a jolly big—lunch, and array yourself in unspoilable attire, I'll give you a day's great sport, whether we catch any fish or not. There's one fish you're sure of—he's always on the end of your line: hooked fast, and resigned to his fate. Juliet, are they really all gone?"
"I'm sure they are."
"Good Mary McKaim—peace be to her ashes, for she never gets any on the toast—has she gone, too?"
"Rachel safe at home with her presumable fiance?"
"He can't be her fiance, Tony—"
"That's what Lockwood said—but I suppose he can, just the same. Rachel away, do you say?"
"Yes. She didn't come over to-day at all, you know."
"I noticed it—by the gloom on three stalwart men's faces. Well, if everybody's safely out of the way I'm going to commit myself."
"To what, Tony?"
She was laughing, for he had risen, looked all about him with great anxiety, tiptoed to each door and listened at it, and was now come back to stand before her, smiling down at her and holding out his arms.
"To the statement," he said, gathering her close and speaking into her upturned rosy face, "that without doubt this is the dearest home in the world, and that you are the sweetest woman who ever has stood or ever will stand here in it."
XIX.—ALL THE APRIL STARS ARE OUT
It was an April night—balmy with the breath of an exceptionally early spring. All the April stars were out as Anthony came to the door of the little house, and opening it flung himself out upon the porch, drawing great breaths. He looked up into the sky and clasped his arms tightly over his breast.
"O God," he said aloud, "take care of her—"
He went back into the house after a minute, and paced the floor back and forth, back and forth, stopping at each turn to listen at the foot of the stairs; then took up his stride again, his lips set, his eyes dark with anxiety. Over and over he went to the open door to look up at the stars, as if somehow he could bear his ordeal best outdoors.
When half the night had gone Mrs. Dingley came downstairs. Anthony met her at the foot. She smiled reassuringly into his face.
"This is hard for you, dear boy," she said. "But they think by morning——"
"Morning!" he cried.
"Everything is going well——"
"It's only two o'clock. Morning!"
"She says tell you she's going to be very happy soon."
But at that Anthony turned away, where his face could not be seen, and stood by the open door. Mrs. Dingley laid an affectionate hand on his arm.
"Don't worry, Tony," she said gently.
"I can't help it."
"This is new to you. Juliet is young and strong—and full of courage."
"In the morning you'll both be very happy."
"I hope so."
"Why, Anthony, dear," said the kindly little woman, "I never knew you to be so faint of heart."
Anthony faced around again. "If my strength could do her any good I'd be a lion for her," he said. "But when all I can do is to wait—and think what I'd do if——"
He was gone suddenly into the night. With a tender smile on her lips Mrs. Dingley went on upon the errand which had brought her downstairs. "It's worth something to a woman to be able to make a man's heart ache like that," she said to herself with a little sigh. Anthony would not have understood, but even in this hour the older woman, in her wisdom, was envying Juliet.
Morning came at last, as mornings do. With the first streaks of the gray dawn Anthony heard a little, high-keyed, strange cry—new to his ears. He leaped up the stairs, four at a time, and paused, breathless, by the closed door of the blue-and-white room. After what seemed to him an interminable time Mrs. Dingley came out. At sight of Anthony her face broke into smiles, and at the same moment tears filled her eyes.
"It's a splendid boy, Tony," she said. "I meant to come to you the first minute, but I waited to be perfectly sure. He didn't breathe well at first."
But Anthony pushed this news aside impatiently. "Juliet?" he questioned eagerly.
"She's all right, you poor man," Mrs. Dingley assured him. "You shall see her presently, just for a minute. The first thing she said was, 'Tell Tony.' Go down now—I'll call you soon."
Anthony stole away downstairs to the outer door again. This time he ran out upon the porch and down the lawn and orchard, in the early half-light, to the willow path by the brook. He dashed along this path to its end and back again, as if he must in some way give expression to his relief from the tension of the night. But he was back and waiting impatiently long before he received his summons to his wife's room.
On his way up he wrung the friendly hand of Dr. Joseph Wilberforce, the best man in the city at times like these, and thanked him in a few uneven words. Then he came to the door of the blue-and-white room.
"Don't be afraid, Tony," said a very sweet, clear voice; "we're ever so well—Anthony Robeson, Junior, and I."
Anthony Robeson, Senior, walked across the room in a dim, gray fog which obscured nearly everything except the sight of a pair of eyes which were shining upon him brightly enough to penetrate any fog. At the bedside he dropped upon his knees.
"I suppose I'm an awful chump," he murmured, "but nothing ever broke me up so in all my life."
Juliet laughed. It was not a sentimental greeting, but she understood all it meant. "But I'm so happy, dear," she said.
"Are you? Somehow I can't seem to be—yet. I'm too badly scared."
"He's such a beautiful big boy."
"I suppose I shall be devoted to him some time, but all I can think of now is to make sure I've got you."
The pleasant-faced nurse in her white cap came softly in and glanced at Tony meaningly.
"If you'll come in here you may see your son, Mr. Robeson," she said, and went out again.
Anthony bent over his wife. "Little mother," he whispered, with a kiss, and obediently went.
Across the hall he stood looking dazedly down at the round, warm bundle the nurse laid in his arms.
"My son," he said; "how odd that sounds."
Then he hastily gave the bundle back to the nurse and got away downstairs, wiping the perspiration from his brow.
"Never dreamed it was going to knock me over like this," he was saying to himself. "I can't look at her; I can't look at him; I feel like a big boy who has seen a little fellow take his thrashing for him."
And in this humble—albeit most sincerely thankful—frame of mind he absently drank his breakfast coffee, and never realised that in her confusion of spirit good Mary McKaim, who was here again in time of need, had brewed him instead a powerful cup of tea.
XX.—A PRIOR CLAIM
"Come up, come up—you're just the people we want," cried Anthony heartily from his own porch. "Thought you'd be getting out to see us some of these fine August nights. Sit down—Juliet will be out in a minute."
"Baby asleep?" asked Judith Carey, as she and Wayne settled comfortably into two of the deep bamboo chairs with which the porch was furnished.
"To be sure he's asleep at this hour," Anthony assured her proudly; "been asleep for two hours. Regular as a clock, that youngster. Nurse trained him right at the beginning, and Juliet has kept it up. Four months old now, and sleeps from six at night till four in the morning without waking. How's that?"
"I suppose it's remarkable," agreed Wayne meekly, "but I don't know anything about it. He might sleep twenty-three hours out of twenty-four—I shouldn't understand whether to call him a prodigy or an idiot."
"Why, yes, you would," Judith interposed with spirit. "Think of that baby on the floor above us. They're walking the floor half the night with her."
"Girl babies may be different," Carey suggested diffidently, at which Anthony shouted. "I don't care—all the girls I ever knew wanted to sit up nights," Carey insisted with a feeble grin.
Juliet came out, welcoming her friends with the cordiality for which she was famous. "It's so hot in town," she condoled with them. "You should get out into our delicious air oftener. Somehow, with our breezes we don't mind the heat."
"It's heaven here, anyhow," sighed Carey, stretching back in his chair with a long breath. Judith looked sober.
"You say it's heaven," commented Anthony, staring hard at his friend, "and you profess to admire everything we do, and eat, and say, but you continue to pay good money every week for a lot of extremely dubious comforts—from my point of view."
"It's one of the very best places in that part of the city," protested Judith.
Anthony eyed her keenly. "Yes; if that's what you're paying for you've got it, I admit. If it's a consolation to you to know that the address you give when you go shopping is one that you're not ashamed of—why, you're all right. But I reckon Juliet here doesn't blush when she orders things sent home to the country."
"Oh, Juliet—" began Judith; "she doesn't need an address to make all the salespeople pay her their most respectful attention. She——"
"I understand," said Anthony. "That sweetly imperious way of hers when she shops—I remember it the first time I ever went shopping with her——"
Juliet gave him a laughing glance. "If I remember," she said, "it wasn't I who did all the dictating on that historic expedition when we furnished this house."
"We've got to go shopping again," Anthony informed them. "We're planning to put a little wing on the house, opening from under the stairs in the living-room, for a nursery and a den."
"Going to put the two together?" asked a new voice from the dimness of the lawn.
"Oh—hullo, Roger Barnes, M.D., F.R.C.S.—come up. No, I think we'll have a partition between. But I want a room below stairs for Tony, Junior, so his mother won't wear herself out carrying him up and down. That youngster weighs seventeen pounds and a fraction already."
"I was confident I'd get some statistics if I came out," said the doctor, settling himself near Juliet—with a purpose, as she instantly recognised. "It seemed to me I couldn't wait longer to learn how much he had gained since I met Tony day before yesterday. It was seventeen without the fraction then."
"That's right—guy me," returned Anthony comfortably. "I don't mind—I've the boy."
* * * * *
"I want a talk with you," said the doctor softly to Juliet, as the others fell to discussing the project of the enlarged house. "I've got to have it, too—or go off my head."
Juliet nodded, understanding him. Presently she rose. "I have an errand to do," she said. "Will you walk over to the Evanstons' with me, Roger?"
"Now, tell me," began the doctor the instant they were off, "is she going to persist in this awful sacrifice?"
"Poor Rachel," breathed Juliet. "So many lovers—and so unhappy."
"Is she unhappy?" begged the doctor. "Is she? If I only were sure of it——"
"What girl wouldn't be unhappy—to be making even one man out of two as miserable as you?"
"But you know what I mean. Is she going to marry Huntington out of love as well as pity—or only pity?"
"Roger"—Juliet stood still in the road, regarding him in the dim light with kind eyes—"if I knew I wouldn't tell you. That's Rachel's secret. But I don't know. She's as loyal as a magnet, and as reserved as—you would want her to be if you were Mr. Huntington."
"She's everything she ought to be. I'm a dastard for saying it, but I could forgive her for being disloyal enough to him to show me just a corner of her heart. Even if she loves him it's what I called it—an awful sacrifice—a man dying with consumption. If she doesn't—except as the friend of her early girlhood, when she didn't know men or her own heart—Juliet, it's impious."
"Roger, dear, keep hold of yourself," Juliet replied. "You're too strong and fine to want to come between her and her own decision—if she has made it."
"If you were a man," said he hotly, "would you let a woman marry you—dying?"
"Yes," answered Juliet stoutly, "if she insisted."
"Women are capable of saying anything in an argument," he growled. "I say it's outrageous to let her do it. She doesn't love him—she does love me," he blurted.
Juliet turned to him anxiously. "Roger, do you know what you are saying?"
"Yes, I do. I've got to tell somebody, and there's nobody but you—you perfect woman. If ever a man knew a thing without its being put into words I know that. It was only a look, weeks ago, but I'm as sure of it as I am of myself. I've had nothing but coolness from her since, but that's in self-defense. And the thought that, loving me, she's going to give herself to him—a wreck—do you wonder it's driving me mad?"
"You ought not to have told me this," said Juliet, tears in her voice. "If Rachel is doing this it's because she's sure she ought——"
"Of course she is. And that's why I tell you. You have more influence with her than any one. Can't you show her that duty, the most urgent in the world, never requires a thing like that? Let her be his friend to the last—the sort of friend she knows how to be, with a warm hand in his cold one. But never his——"
The doctor grew choky with his vehemence, and stopped short. Juliet was silent, full of distress. She thought of the two men—Huntington, a frail ghost, in the grip of a deadly illness, yet fighting it desperately, and desperately clinging to the girl he loved: a clever fellow, educated as a mining engineer, successful, even beginning to be distinguished in his work until his health gave out; Barnes, the embodiment of strength, standing high in his profession, life and the world before him, a fit mate for the girl who deserved the best there could be for her—Juliet thought of them both and found her heart aching for them—and for Rachel Redding.
They were slowly approaching the brown house at the foot of the hill, the errand at the Evanstons' forgotten, when suddenly a familiar figure in white came toward them from the doorway. The doctor started at sight of it, and Juliet grew breathless all at once.
"I thought it was you two," said Rachel. "This rising moon struck you full just now, and I could see you plainly. I've wanted to see you both—and this is my last chance. I am going away to-morrow."
There was an instant's silence, while Roger Barnes tried to choose which of all the things he wanted to say to her should come first. Juliet broke the stillness.
"Walk back up the road with us, dear," she said, "and tell us how and where you go."
"I have but a minute to spare," said Rachel. "Let me say good-bye to you both here——"
"No, by heaven, you shall not," burst out the doctor in a suppressed voice of fire which startled Juliet. "You owe me ten minutes, in place of the last letter you haven't answered. There are a score of them, you know—but the last has to be answered somehow."
Rachel hesitated. "Very well," she said at length, "but only with Mrs. Robeson."
"Can't you trust me?" He was angry now.
"Yes—but not myself," she answered, so low he barely caught the words. He seized her hand.
"Then trust me for us both," he said, so instantly gentle and tender that Juliet found it possible to say what a moment before she had thought unwise enough: "Go with him, Ray, dear. I think it is his right."
So presently she found herself crossing her own lawn alone, while the two who had just left her went slowly on up the road together. Her heart was beating hard and painfully, for she loved them both, and foresaw for them only the hardest interview of their lives.
* * * * *
At the end of half an hour Rachel Redding stood again upon her own porch, and Roger Barnes looked up at her from the walk below with heavy eyes.
"At least," he said, "you have done what I never would have believed even you could do—convinced me against my will that you are right. You love him—he worships you. There is a promise of life for him in Arizona—with you. I can't forbid the bans. But I shall always believe, what you dare not dispute, that if I had come first—you——"
She held out her hand. "That you must not say," she said. "But there is one thing you may say—that you are my best friend, whom I can count on——"
"As long as there is life left in me," he answered fervently. He wrung her hand in both his, looked long and steadily up into her face as if his eyes could never leave the lovely outlines showing clear in the light from the windows, then turned away and strode off toward the station without a look behind.
XXI.—EVERYBODY GIVES ADVICE
"I should do it in brown leather," said Cathcart decidedly, looking about him.
He stood in the centre of Anthony's den. The carpenters had gone, the plasterers had finished their work, and the floor had just been swept up.
"You're all right as far as you go," observed Anthony, who stood at his elbow, "but you don't go far enough. If you want me to hang these walls with brown leather you'll have to put up the money. I may be sufficiently prosperous to afford the addition to my house, but I haven't reached the stage of covering the walls with cloth-of-gold."
"Burlap would be the thing, Tony," Judith suggested.
Anthony was surrounded by people—the room was half full of them, elbowing each other about.
"Paint the walls," advised Lockwood.
"There are imitation-leather papers," said Cathcart, with the air of one condescending to lower a high standard for the sake of those who could not live up to it.
"I suppose so," admitted Anthony, "at four dollars a roll. I saw a simple thing on that order that struck me the other day at Heminways'. I thought it might be about forty cents a roll. It was a dollar a square yard. I told them I would think it over. I haven't got through thinking it over yet."
"You want a plate-rail," said Wayne Carey.
"Why, to put plates, and steins, and things on."
"Haven't a plate—or a stein. Baby has a silver mug. Would that do?"
Cathcart smiled in a superior way. "You had a lot of mighty fine stuff in your Yale days," he remarked. "Pity you let it all go."
"I shouldn't have cared for that truck now," Anthony declared easily, though he deceived nobody by it. Most of them remembered, if Cathcart had forgotten, how the college boy had sacrificed all his treasures at a blow when the news of his family's misfortunes had come. It had yielded little enough, after all, to throw into the abyss of their sudden poverty, but the act had proved the spirit of the elder son of the house.
"You certainly will want plenty of rugs and hangings of the right sort," Cathcart pursued.
Anthony looked at him good-humouredly. "I can see that you have got to be suppressed," he said, with a hand on Stevens's collar. "I can tell you in a breath just what's going into this room at present. The floor is to have a matting, one of those heavy, cloth-like mattings. Auntie Dingley has presented me with one fine old Persian rug from the Marcy library, which she insists is out of key with the rest of the stuff. I'm glad it is—it'll furnish the key to my decorations. Then I've a splendid old desk I picked up in a place where they temporarily forgot themselves in setting a price on it. That's going by the window. I've a little Duerer engraving, and a few good foreign photographs Juliet has put under glass for me. For the rest I have—what I like best—clear space, pipe-and-hearth room, the bamboo chairs off the porch with some winter cushions in, my books—and that."
He pointed to the windows, outside which lay a long country vista stretching away over fields and river to the woods in the distance, turning rich autumn tints now under the late October frosts.
"It's enough," said Carey, with the suppressed sigh which usually accompanied any allusion of his to Anthony's environment. "Dens are too stuffy, as a rule. Fellows try to see how much useless lumber they can accumulate in altogether inadequate space."
"But you ought to have a couch," said Judith.
"Oh, yes, I'm going to have a couch," assented Anthony, laughing across her head at Juliet. "A gem of a couch—we're making it ourselves. You're not to see it till it's done. It'll be no brickbat couch, either—it'll be a flowery bed of ease—or, if not flowery, invitingly covered with some stunning stuff Juliet has fished out of a neighbour's attic."
"Now, come and see the nursery," Juliet proposed, and the party crowded through the door into the living-room, around to the one by its side which opened into an attractive room behind the den, all air and sunshine.
"I refuse to suggest," said Cathcart instantly, "the decorations for this place."
"That's good," remarked Anthony cheerfully. "So much verbiage out of the way."
"It'll be pink and white, I suppose," said Judith. "Pink is the colour for boys, I'm told."
Behind all their backs Anthony glanced at his wife, affection and amusement in his face. She read the look and smiled back. It was no part of their plan to let the boy grow up alone. And as a mother she seemed to him far more beautiful than she had ever been.
"We are going to have a little paper with nursery-rhyme pictures all over it," explained Juliet. "There are all sorts of softly harmonising colours in it. And just a matting on the floor with a rug to play on, his white crib, and some gay little curtains at the windows."
"Have you made the partition double-thick, old man?" asked Lockwood. "This den-nursery combination strikes me as a little dubious."
"It's no use explaining to a fiendish old bachelor," said Anthony, leading the way out of the place, "that I'd think I was missing a good deal if I should get so far away that I couldn't hear little Tony laugh—or cry. Julie, where's the boy? May I bring him down?"
He disappeared upstairs, whence sounds of hilarity were at once heard. Presently he reappeared on the stairs, bearing aloft upon his shoulder a rosy cherub of a baby, smiling and waving a chubby fist at the company. The beauty in his face was an exquisite mixture of that belonging to both father and mother. Anthony and his son together made a picture worth seeing.
Once more Wayne Carey smothered a sigh. But Judith hardened her heart. Since Baby Anthony had come Wayne had been difficult to manage.
* * * * *
Lockwood stayed after the others had gone. Sitting smoking before the fire with Anthony after Juliet had left them alone he brought the conversation around to a point which Anthony had expected.
"What do you hear of that man Huntington?" he asked, as indifferently as a man is ever able to ask a question which means much to him.
"Huntington? Why, the last was that he was improving a little, I believe. Arizona is a great place for that sort of thing."
"Good deal of a sacrifice for her people to go with her way out there."
"She couldn't leave them behind. Father half-blind—mother a cripple. I understand that Arizona air is bracing them, too."
"The fellow's own mother was one of the party, wasn't she?"
"I believe so. He's all she has."
"I don't see, with all those people to chaperon her, why she couldn't have gone along with him without marrying him," observed Lockwood in a gruff tone.
Anthony smiled. "That would have been a Tantalus draught indeed," he remarked. "I imagine poor Huntington will need all the concessions he can get if he keeps on breathing even Arizona air."
"Anthony," said Lockwood, after a silence of some minutes, during which he had puffed away with his eyes intent on the fire, "do you fancy Rachel Redding cared enough for that man to immolate herself like that?"
"Looks very much like it."
"I know it looks like it; but if I read that girl right she was the sort to stick to anything she'd said she'd do, if it took the breath out of her body. How long had she known him—any idea?"
"A good while, I believe."
"I thought so. Early engagement, you see—ought never to have stood."
"If you'd been Huntington you'd probably have had the unreasonable notion that it should."
"She's a magnificent girl," said Lockwood, blowing a great volume of smoke into the air with head elevated and half-shut eyes. "She made those two who were here with her last summer seem like thirty cents beside her. Nice girls, too—fine girls—elegant dressers; I don't know what the matter was. Neither did they." He chuckled a little. "They couldn't believe their own eyes when they saw three of us going daft over a girl they wouldn't have staked a copper on in a free-for-all with themselves. They took it gamely, I'll say that for them. Marie won't have me back."
"I don't blame her."
"Neither do I. Haven't got to the want-to-be-taken-back stage—sometimes think I never shall. One experience like that spoils a man for the average girl. The truth is, Tony, the most of them—er—overdo the meet-you-half-way act. I want a girl to keep me guessing till the last minute."