It had come to her with a shock, that Mary was looking down on her, Ethelinda Hurst, pitying her for some things and despising her for others; and though she shrugged her shoulders at first and was angry at the thought, she found herself many a time trying to measure up to Mary's standards. She couldn't bear for those keen gray eyes to look her through, as if they were weighing her in the balance and finding her wanting.
A FAD AND A CHRISTMAS FUND
For a Freshman to start a fad popular enough to spread through the entire school was an unheard of thing at Warwick Hall, but A.O. Miggs had that distinction early in the term. Her birthday was in October, and when she appeared that morning with a zodiac ring on her little finger, set with a brilliant fire opal, there was a mingled outcry of admiration and horror.
"Oh, I wouldn't wear an opal for worlds!" cried one superstitious girl. "They're dreadfully unlucky."
"Not if it is your birthstone," announced A.O., calmly turning her hand to watch the flashing of red and blue lights in the heart of the gem. "It's bad luck not to wear one if you were born in October. It says on the card that came in the box with this:
"'October's child is born for woe And life's vicissitudes must know, Unless she wears the opal's charm To ward off every care and harm.'
"And they say too that you are beloved of the gods and men as long as you keep your faith in it."
"Then I'll certainly have to get one," laughed Jane Ridgeway, who had joined the group, "for I am October's child. Let me see it, A.O."
She adjusted her glasses and took the plump little hand in hers for inspection. "I always have thought that opals are the prettiest of all the stones. Write the verse out for me, A.O., that's a good child. I'll send it home for the family to see how important it is that I should be protected by such a charm."
This from a senior, the dignified and exclusive Miss Ridgeway, put the seal of approval on the fashion, and when, a week later, she appeared with a beautiful Hungarian opal surrounded by tiny diamonds, with her zodiac signs engraved on the wide circle of gold, every girl in school wanted a birth-month ring.
Elise wrote home asking if agates were expensive, and if she might have one. Not that she thought they were pretty, but it was the stone for June, so of course she ought to wear one. The answer came in the shape of an old heirloom, a Scotch agate that had been handed down in the family, almost since the days of Malcolm the Second. It had been a small brooch, worn on the bosom of many a proud MacIntyre dame, but never had it evoked such interest as when, set in a ring, it was displayed on Elise's little finger.
After that there was a general demand for a jeweller's catalogue which appeared in their midst about that time. One page was devoted to illustrations of such stones with a rhyme for each month. The firm which issued the catalogue would have been surprised at the rush of orders had they not had previous dealings with Girls' Schools. The year before there had been almost as great a demand for tiny gold crosses, and the year before for huge silver horse-shoes. This year the element of superstition helped to swell the orders. When the verse said,
"The August born, without this stone, 'Tis said must live unloved and lone,"
of course no girl born in August would think of living a week longer without a sardonyx, especially when the catalogue offered the genuine article as low as $2.75. The daughters of April and May, July and September had to pay more for their privileges, but they did it gladly. When Cornie Dean read,
"Who wears an emerald all her life Shall be a loved and honoured wife,"
she sold her pet bangle bracelet that afternoon for ten dollars, and added half her month's allowance to buy an emerald large enough to hold some potency.
Mary pored over the catalogue longingly when it came her turn to have it. She liked her verse:
"Who on this world of ours their eyes In March first open shall be wise. In days of peril firm and brave, And wear a bloodstone to their grave."
When she had considered sizes and prices for awhile she took out her bank book and Christmas list and began comparing them anxiously. Betty, coming into the room presently, found her so absorbed in her task that she did not notice the open letter Betty carried, and the gay samples of chiffon and silk fluttering from the envelope. She looked up with a little puckered smile as Betty drew a chair to the opposite side of the table, asking as she seated herself, "What's the matter? You seem to be in some difficulty."
"It's just the same old wolf at the door," said Mary, soberly. "I have enough for this term's expenses, all the necessary things, but there's nothing for the extras. There isn't a single person I can cut off my Christmas list. I've put down what I've decided to make for each one, and what the bare materials will cost, and although I've added it up and added it down, it always comes out the same; nothing left to get the ring with."
She sat jabbing her pencil into the paper for a moment. "I wish there were ways to earn money here as there are at some schools. There are so many things I need it for. They'll expect me to contribute something to the mock Christmas tree fund, and I want to get Jack something nice. I couldn't take his own money to buy him a present even if there were enough, which there isn't. I've already made him everything I know how to make, that he can use, and men don't care for things they can't use, but that are just pretty, as girls do. Just look what a beauty bright of a watch-fob I've found in this catalogue."
She turned the pages eagerly. "It is a bloodstone. The very thing for Jack, for his birthday is in March, too, and it is such a dark, unpretentious stone that he would like it. But—it costs eight dollars."
She said it in an awed tone as if she were naming a small fortune.
"Maybe we can think of some way for you to earn it," said Betty, encouragingly. "I'll set my wits to work this evening as soon as I've finished looking over the A class themes. Because none of the girls has ever done such a thing before in the school is no reason why you should not. Look! This is what I came in to show you."
It was several pages from Lloyd's last letter, and the samples of some new dresses she was having made. For a little space the wolf at the door drew in its claws, and Mary forgot her financial straits. Early in the term Betty had divined how much the sharing of this correspondence meant to Mary. She could not fail to see how eagerly she followed the winsome princess through her gay social season in town, rejoicing over her popularity, interested in everything she did and wore and treasuring every mention of her in the home papers. The old Colonel sent Betty the Courier-Journal, and the society page was regularly turned over to Mary. There was a corner in her scrap-book marked, "My Chum," rapidly filling with accounts of balls, dinners and house-parties at which she had been a guest. This last letter had several messages in it for Mary, so Betty left the page containing them with her, knowing they would be folded away in the scrap-book with the samples, as soon as her back was turned.
"I was out at Anchorage for this last week-end," ran one of the messages. "And it rained so hard one night that what was to have been an informal dance was turned into an old-fashioned candy-pull. Not more than half a dozen guests managed to get there. Tell Mary that I tried to distinguish myself by making some of that Mexican pecan candy that they used to have such success with at the Wigwam. But it was a flat failure, and I think I must have left out some important ingredient. Ask her to please send me the recipe if she can remember it."
"Probably it failed because she didn't have the real Mexican sugar," said Mary, at the end of the reading. "It comes in a cone, wrapped in a queer kind of leaf, so I'm sure she didn't have it. I'll write out the recipe as soon as I get back from my geometry recitation, and add a foot-note, explaining about the sugar."
Somehow it was hard for Mary to keep her mind on lines and angles that next hour. She kept seeing a merry group in the Wigwam kitchen. Lloyd and Jack and Phil Tremont were all ranged around the white table, cracking pecans, and picking out the firm full kernels, while Joyce presided over the bubbling kettle on the stove. She wondered if Lloyd had enjoyed her grown-up party as much as she had that other one, when Jack said such utterly ridiculous things in pigeon English, like the old Chinese vegetable man, and Phil cake-walked and parodied funny coon-songs till their sides ached with laughing.
At the close of the recitation a hastily scribbled note from Betty was handed to her.
"I have just found out," it ran, "that Mammy Easter will be unable to furnish her usual pralines and Christmas sweets to her Warwick Hall customers this year. Why don't you try your hand at that Mexican candy Lloyd mentioned. If the girls once get a taste it will be 'advertised by its loving friends' and you can sell quantities. I am going to the city this afternoon, and can order the sugar for you. If they wire the order you ought to be able to get it within a week. E.S."
Mary went up stairs two steps at a bound, stepping on the front of her dress at every other jump, and only saving herself from sprawling headlong as she reached the top, by catching at A.O., who ran into her on the way down. She could not get back to her bank book and her Christmas list soon enough, to see how much cash she had on hand, and compute how much she dared squeeze out to invest in material.
A week later the Domestic Science room was turned over to her during recreation hour, and presently a delicious odour began to steal out into the halls, which set every girl within range to sniffing hungrily. Betty explained it to several, and there was no need to do anything more. Every one was on hand for her share when the samples were passed around, and the new business venture was discussed in every room.
"Wouldn't you like to know Jack Ware?" asked Dorene of Cornie, her mouth so full of the delicious sweets that she could only mumble. "Any man who can inspire such adoration in his own sister must be nothing short of a wonder."
"I feel that I do know him," responded Cornie, "That I am quite well acquainted with him, in fact. And I quite approve of 'my brother Jack.' It's queer, too, for usually when you hear a person quoted morning, noon and night you get so that you want to scream when his name is mentioned. Now there's Babe Meadows. Will you ever forget the way she rang the changes on 'my Uncle Willie'? I used to quote that line from Tennyson under my breath—'A quinsy choke thy cursed note!' It was 'Uncle Willie says this isn't good form' and 'Uncle Willie says they don't do that in England' till you got worn to a frazzle having that old Anglomaniac eternally thrown at your head. But the more Mary quotes Jack the better you like him."
"I wonder how he feels about Mary taking this way to earn his Christmas present."
"Oh, of course he doesn't know she is doing it, and of course he wouldn't like it if he did. But he'd have hard work stopping her. She is as full of energy and determination as a locomotive with a full head of steam on, and I imagine he's exactly like her. She fondly imagines that he will be governor of Arizona some day."
"There!" exclaimed Dorene. "That suggests the dandiest thing for us to put on the mock Christmas tree for her. A Jack-in-the-box! She's always springing him on an unsuspecting public, and just about as unexpectedly as those little mannikins bob up. She has used him so often to 'point her morals and adorn her tales' that every girl in school will see the joke."
"Well, the future governor of Arizona will get his bloodstone fob all right as far as my patronage will help," said Cornie, when she had laughingly applauded Dorene's suggestion. She carefully picked up the last crumb. "I shall speak for three pounds of this right off. Papa has such a sweet tooth that he'd a thousand times rather have a box of this than a dozen silk mufflers and shaving cases and such things that usually fall to a man's lot at Christmas."
If the girls in this exclusive school thought it strange that one of their number should start a money-making enterprise, no whisper of it reached Mary. Her sturdy independence forbade any air of patronage, and she was such a general favourite that whatever she did was passed over with a laugh. The few who might have been inclined to criticize found it an unpopular thing to do. The object for which she was working enlisted every one's interest. Jack would have ground his teeth with mortification had he known that every girl in school was interested in his getting a bloodstone watch-fob in his Christmas stocking, and daily discussed the means by which it was being procured.
Orders came in rapidly, and Mary spent every spare moment in cracking pecans, and picking out the kernels so carefully that they fell from the shells in unbroken halves. It was a tedious undertaking and even her study hours were encroached upon. Not that she ever neglected a lesson for the sake of the pecans, for, as she said to Elise, "I've set my heart on taking the valedictory for Jack's sake, and of course I couldn't sacrifice that ambition for all the watch-fobs in the catalogue. He wouldn't want one at that price. But I've found that I can pick out nuts and learn French verbs at the same time. If you and A.O. will come up to the Dom. Sci. this afternoon at four thirty, and not let any of the other girls know, I'll let you scrape the kettle and eat the scraps that crumble from the corners when I cut the squares. But I can not let any one in while I'm measuring and boiling. I couldn't afford to make a mistake."
Promptly at the time set, the girls tapped for admission, for there was no denying the drawing qualities of Mary's wares. The pun was common property in the school.
"Elise," said A.O., pausing in her critical tasting, when they had been at it some time. "I really believe that this is better than Huyler's hot fudge Sun-balls. And it is lots better than the candy that Lieutenant Logan sent you last week."
Elise made a face expressing both surprise and reproof. "Considering that you ate the lion's share of it, Miss Miggs, that speech is neither pretty nor polite."
"I wonder," continued A.O., paying no attention to her, "if the Lieutenant knows what a public benefactor he is, when he sends you bon-bons and books and things." She had enjoyed his many offerings to Elise as much as the recipient and thought it wise to follow her first speech with a compliment.
"Well, Agnes Olive, if you feel that you have profited so much by his benefactions, then you are not playing fair if you don't invite some of us down to meet your 'special,' when he comes next week. Mary, what do you think? A.O. has a suitor! A boy from home. He is to come next week, armed with a note from her 'fond payrents,' giving him permission to call. After talking about him all term and getting my curiosity up to fever heat about such a paragon as she makes him out to be, she blasts all my hopes by flatly refusing to let me meet him. Pig!" she made a grimace of mock disgust at A.O.
"I wouldn't care, if you weren't such an awful tease," admitted A.O. "But I know how you'll criticize him afterward. You'll make a byword of everything he said and quote it to me till kingdom come. You know how it would be, don't you, Mary?" turning to her. "You wouldn't want her taking notes on everything he said if you had a—a—a friend—"
"'Oh, call it by some better name, for friendship sounds too cold,'" interrupted Elise.
"Well, I haven't any a—a—whatever it is Elise wants to call it," said Mary, laughing. "I only wish I had. I've always thought it would be nice to have one, but I suppose I'll have to go to the end of my days singing: 'Every lassie has her laddie, Nane they say hae I.' That has always seemed such a sad song to me."
"Oh, oh!" cried Elise, perversely, who seemed to be in a mood for teasing everybody. She pointed an accusing spoon at her before putting it back in her mouth.
"What about Phil Tremont, I'd like to know! He saved her from an Indian once, A.O., out on the desert. It was dreadfully romantic. And when he was best man at Eugenia Forbes's wedding, and Mary was flower girl, Mary got the shilling that was in the bride's cake. It was an old English shilling, coined in the reign of Bloody Mary, with Philip's and Mary's heads on it. That is a sure sign they were meant for each other. Phil said right out at the table before everybody that fate had ordered that he should be the lucky man. Mary has that shilling this blessed minute, put away in her purse for a pocket piece, and she carries it everywhere she goes. I saw it yesterday when she was looking in her purse for a key, and she got as red as—as red as she is this minute."
Elise finished gleefully, elated with the success of her teasing. "My! How you are blushing, Mary. Look at her, A.O." Her dark eyes twinkled mischievously as she sang in a meaning tone:
"Amang the train there is a swain I dearly lo'e mysel'. But what's his name or where's his hame I dinna choose to tell."
"I'm not blushing," protested Mary, hotly. "And it is silly to talk that way when everybody knows that Phil Tremont never cared anything for any girl except Lloyd Sherman."
"Maybe not at one time," insisted Elise. "And neither did Lieutenant Logan care about any girl but my beloved sister Allison at one time. I'm not mentioning names, but you know very well that she's not the one he is crazy about now. Just wait till fate brings you and Phil together again. You'll probably meet him during the Christmas vacation if you go to New York."
Mary made no answer, only thrust a knife under the edge of the candy in the largest plate, as if her sole interest in life was testing its hardness. Then she spread out several sheets of paraffine paper with a great show of indifference. It had its effect on Elise, and she promptly changed her target back to A.O. There was no fun in teasing when her arrows made no impression.
Usually A.O. enjoyed it, but she had tangled herself in a web of her own weaving lately, and for the last few days had been in terror lest Elise should find her out. Inspired by the picture of the handsome young lieutenant on Elise's desk, and not wanting to seem behind her room-mate in romantic experiences, silly little A.O. had drawn on her imagination for most of the confidences she gave in exchange. When Elise talked of the lieutenant, A.O. talked of "Jimmy," adding this trait and that grace until she had built up a beautiful ideal, but a being so different from the original on which she based her tales, that Jimmy himself would never have recognized her dashing hero as the bashful fellow he was accustomed to confront in his mirror.
He had carried her lunch basket when they went to school together, he had patiently worked the sums on her slate with his big clumsy fingers when she cried over the mysteries of subtraction. Later, when shy and overgrown, and too bashful to speak his admiration, he had followed her around at picnics and parties with a dog-like devotion that touched her. He had sent her valentines and Christmas cards, and at the last High School commencement when the graduating exercises marked the parting of their ways, he had presented her with a photograph album bound in celluloid, with a bunch of atrociously gaudy pansies and forget-me-nots painted thereon.
In matching stories with Elise, the album and his awkwardness and his plodding embarrassed speech somehow slipped into the background, and it was his devotion and his chivalry she enlarged upon. Elise, impressed by her hints and allusions, believed in the idealized Jimmy as thoroughly as A.O. intended she should.
For several days A.O. had been in a quandary, for her mother's last letter had announced a danger which had never entered her thoughts as being imminent. "Jimmy Woods will be in Washington soon. He is going up with his uncle, who has some business at the patent office. I have given him a note to Madam Chartley, granting him my permission to call on you. He is in an agony of apprehension over the trip to Warwick Hall. He is so afraid of meeting strange girls. But I tell him it will be good for him. It is really amusing to see how interested everybody in town is over Jimmy's going. Do be kind to the poor fellow for the sake of your old childish friendship, no matter if he does seem a bit countrified and odd. He is a dear good boy, and it would never do to let him feel slighted or unwelcome."
When A.O. read that, much as she liked Jimmy Woods, she wished that the ground would open and swallow him before he could get to Washington, or else that it had opened and swallowed her before she drew such a picture of him for Elise to admire. There were only two ways out of the dilemma that she could see: confession or a persistent refusal to let her see him. She must not even be allowed to hang over the banister and watch him pass through the hall, as she had proposed doing.
The more she persisted in her refusal the more determined Elise was to see him. A.O. imagined she could feel herself growing thin and pale from so much lying awake of nights to invent some excuse to circumvent her. If she only knew what day Jimmy was to be in Washington she could arrange to meet him there. So she could plan a trip to the dentist with Miss Gilmer, the trained nurse, as chaperon. She wouldn't have minded introducing him to Elise if she had never painted him to her in such glowing colours as her hero. She wished she hadn't told her it was Jimmy who was coming. She could have called him by his middle name, Gordon—Mr. Gordon, and passed him off as some ordinary acquaintance in whom Elise could have no possible interest.
It was a relief when Elise turned her attention to Mary's affairs, and when she saw that her turn was coming again, she set her teeth together grimly, determined to make no answer.
Presently, to her surprise, Elise relapsed into silence, and stood looking out of the window, tapping on the kettle with her spoon in a preoccupied way. Then she laughed suddenly as if she saw something funny, and being questioned, refused to give the reason.
"I just thought of something," she said, laughing again. "Something too funny for words. I'll have to go now," she added, as if the cause of her mysterious mirth was in some way responsible for her departure.
"Thanks mightily for the candy, Mary. It's the best ever. You're going to be overflowed with orders, I'm sure. Well, farewell friends and fellow citizens, I'll see you later."
"What do you suppose it was that made her laugh so," asked A.O., suspiciously. "There's always some mischief brewing when she acts that way. I don't dare leave her by herself a minute for fear she'll plot something against me. I'll have to be going, too, Mary."
Left to herself, Mary began washing the utensils she had used. By the time she had removed every trace of her candy-making, the confections set out on the window sill in the wintry air were firm and hard, all ready to be wrapped in the squares of paraffine paper and packed in the boxes waiting for them. She whistled softly as she drew in the plates, but stopped with a start when she realized that it was Elise's song she was echoing:
"Amang the train there is a swain I dearly lo'e mysel'."
"It must be awfully nice," she mused, "to have somebody as devoted to you as the Lieutenant is to Elise and Jimmy is to A.O. If I were A.O. I wouldn't care if the whole school came down to meet him. I'd want them to see him. I made up my mind at Eugenia's wedding that it was safer to be an old maid, but I'd hate to be one without ever having had an 'affair' like other girls. It must be lovely to be called the Queen of Hearts like Lloyd, and to have such a train of admirers as Mister Rob and Mister Malcolm and Phil and all the others."
There was a wistful look in the gray eyes that peered dreamily out of the window into the gathering dusk of the December twilight. But it was not the wintry landscape that she saw. It was a big boyish figure, cake-walking in the little Wigwam kitchen. A handsome young fellow turning in the highroad to wave his hat with a cheery swing to the disconsolate little girl who was flapping a farewell to him with her old white sunbonnet. And then the same face, older grown, smiling at her through the crowds at the Lloydsboro Valley depot, as he came to her with outstretched hands, exclaiming, "Good-bye, little Vicar! Think of the Best Man whenever you look at the Philip on your shilling."
She was thinking of him now so intently that she lost count of the pieces she had packed into the box she was filling with the squares of sweets, and had to empty them all out and begin again. But as she recalled other scenes, especially the time she had overheard a conversation not intended for her about a turquoise he was offering Lloyd, she said to herself, "He is for Lloyd. They are just made for each other, and I am glad that the nicest man I ever knew happens to like the dearest girl in the world. And I hope if there ever should be 'a swain amang the train' for me, he'll be as near like him as possible. I don't know where I'd ever meet him, though. Certainly not here and most positively not in Lone-Rock."
"Not like other girls," she laughed presently, recalling the title of the book Ethelinda was reading. "That fits me exactly. No Lieutenant, no Jimmy, and no birthstone ring, and no prospect of ever having any. But I don't care—much. The candy is a success and Jack is going to have his bloodstone fob."
With her arms piled full of boxes, she started down to her room. As she opened the door a burst of music came floating out from the gymnasium where the carol-singers were practising for the yearly service. This one was a new carol to her. She did not know the words, but to the swinging measures other words fitted themselves; some lines which she had read that morning in a magazine. She sang them softly in time with the carol-singers as she went on down the stairs:
"For should he come not by the road, and come not by the hill And come not by the far sea way, yet come he surely will. Close all the roads of all the world, love's road is open still."
Elise spent Saturday and Sunday in Washington with the Claiborne family, and A.O. almost prayed that Jimmy would make his visit in her absence. On her return she had so much to tell that she did not mention his name, and A.O. hoped that he was forgotten. All Monday afternoon she went around in a flutter of nervousness, "feeling in her bones" that Jimmy would be there that night, and afraid that Elise would find some way in which to carry out her threat of seeing him at all hazards. One of the ways she had suggested trying, was to sound a burglar or a fire alarm, so that every one would rush out into the hall. But when the dreaded moment actually arrived and A.O. stood in the middle of the floor with his card in her hand, Elise merely looked up from her book with a provoking grin.
"Oh, haven't I had you going for the last week!" she exclaimed. "Really made you believe that I wanted to see your dear Jimmy-boy! A.O., you are dead easy! I haven't had so much fun out of anything for ages."
Almost giddy with the sense of relief, A.O. hurried away, leaving Elise poring over her French lesson. At the lower landing she paused to tear Jimmy's card to atoms and drop them in a waste basket which was standing there. Even his card might betray him, for it was not an elegant correct bit of engraved board like the Lieutenant's. It was a large square card inscribed by a professional penman; the kind who sets up stands on street corners or in convenient doorways, and executes showy scrolls and tendrils in the way of initial letters "while you wait."
As the door closed behind A.O., Elise sent her book flying across the room, and the next moment was groping under the bed for a dress-box which she had hidden there. A blond wig that she had bought while in Washington for next week's tableaux tumbled out first, with a motley collection of borrowed articles, which she had been at great pains to procure.
Laughing so that she could hardly dress, Elise began to make a hurried change. Five minutes later she stood before the glass completely disguised. Cornie Dean's long black skirt trailed around her. A.O.'s own jacket fitted her snugly, with Margaret Elwood's new black feather boa, which had just been sent her from home, hiding the cut of its familiar collar. Jane Ridgeway's second best spectacles covered her mischievous eyes, and a black veil was draped over the small toque and blond hair in such a way that its broad band of crape hid the lower part of her face. As a finishing touch a piece of gold-leaf, pressed over part of an upper front tooth, gave the effect of a large gold filling, whenever she smiled.
She had provided herself with a pair of black gloves, but at the last moment the left-hand glove could not be found. When all her frantic overturnings failed to bring it to light, she gave up the search, not wanting to lose any more valuable time. The little flat feather muff which went with the boa would hide the fact that she had only one glove. Thrusting her bare hand into it, she stopped for only one thing more, a black bordered card, which bore the name in old English type, Mrs. Robertson Redmond. It was one which had been sent up to her by one of her mother's friends, who called at the Claiborne's, and was partly responsible for this disguise. It had suggested the black veil with the crape border.
Dodging past several open doors she reached the south corridor in safety and raising the window that opened on a back court, she stepped out on the fire escape. Cornie's long skirt nearly tripped her, and it was no easy matter to cling to the rounds of the iron ladder, with a muff in one hand and her skirts constantly wrapping around her. Luckily she had only one flight to descend. Stopping a moment to smooth her ruffled plumage and get her breath, she walked around to the front of the house, climbed the steps, and boldly lifted the great knocker.
It was a dark, cold night, and the sudden appearance of a lady on the doorstep, so far from the station, astonished the footman who opened the door. He had heard no sound of wheels, and he peered out past her, expecting to see some manly escort emerge from the night. None came. But she was unmistakably a lady, and her mourning costume seemed to furnish the necessary credentials. When she handed him a black-bordered card and asked for Miss Mary Ware of Arizona, with an air of calm assurance and with the broadest of English accents, he bowed obsequiously and ushered her into the drawing room.
In the far end of it Herr Vogelbaum was talking lustily in German to two young men, evidently fellow musicians. Otherwise it was deserted, except for A.O., and a bashful, overgrown boy of seventeen, who sat opposite her on a chair far too low for him. It gave him the effect of sprawling, and he was constantly drawing in his long legs and thrusting them out again. The teacher who was to be drawing room chaperon for the evening had not yet come down.
The lady in black glided into the room with the air of being so absorbed in her own affairs that she looked upon the other occupants as she did the furniture. Without even a direct glance at the young people in the corner she swept up to a chair within a few feet of them and sat down to wait. Jimmy, in the midst of some tale about a prank that the High School Invincibles had played on a rival base-ball team, faltered, grew confused and finished haltingly. For all her spectacles and crape the golden haired stranger was fascinatingly young and pretty.
A.O. was provoked that her visitor should show to such disadvantage even before this unknown lady who apparently was taking no notice of them. But when he paused she could think of nothing to say herself for a moment or two. Then, to break the silence which was growing painful, she plunged into an account of one of the last escapades of her wicked room-mate, whom she pictured as a most fascinating, but a desperately reckless creature. It was funny, the way she told it, and it sent Jimmy off into a spasm of mirth. But she would almost rather have bitten her tongue out than to have caused Jimmy to explode in that wild bray of a laugh. He slapped his knee repeatedly, and doubled up as if he could laugh no longer, only to break out in a second bray, louder than the first. It made the gentlemen in the other end of the room look around inquiringly.
A.O. was so mortified she could have cried. Jimmy, feeling the instant change in her manner, and not able to account for it, grew self conscious and ill at ease. The conversation flagged, and presently stopped for such a long time that the lady in black turned a slow glance in their direction.
Meanwhile, Mary Ware, up in the Domestic Science room, was anxiously watching a kettle which refused to come to the proper boiling point, where it could be safely left. What was to be the last batch of her Christmas candy was in that kettle, for she had emptied the last pound of Mexican sugar into it. If it wasn't cooked exactly right it would turn to sugar again when it was cold, and not be of the proper consistency to hold the nuts together. She did not know what effect it might have on the mixture to set it off the fire while she went down to receive her unknown visitor, and then bring it to the boiling point again after it had once grown cold. She was afraid to run any risks. If the watch-fob was to reach Jack on time, it would have to be started on its way in a few days, and on the success of this last lot of candy depended the getting of the last few dollars necessary to its purchase. She wished that she had ordered more of the sugar in the first place. There wouldn't be time now. She had twice as many orders as she had been able to fill. It would have been so delightful to have gone shopping with a whole pocket full of money which she had earned herself.
She looked at the clock and then back again at the black-bordered card on the table. "Mrs. Robertson Redmond." She had never heard of her. Burning with curiosity, she tried to imagine what possible motive the stranger had for calling. It was unpardonable that a mere school-girl should keep a lady waiting so long; a lady in mourning, too, who since she could not be making social calls, must have a very important reason for coming. Fidgeting with impatience she bent over the kettle, testing the hot liquid once more by dropping a spoonful into a cup of cold water. Still it refused to harden. Finally with a despairing sigh she slipped off her apron and turned down the gas so low that only a thin blue circle of flame flickered under the kettle. "In that way it can't boil over and it can't get cold," she thought. Then she washed her hands and hurried down to the drawing room.
Until that moment she had forgotten that A.O. was there with her "suitor," but one hasty glance was all she had time to give him. The tall lady in black was rising from her chair, was trailing forward to meet her, was exclaiming in that low full voice which had so impressed the footman. "Ah! Joyce Ware's own little sister! You've probably never heard of me, dear, but I've heard of you, often. And I knew that Joyce would want me to take back some message direct from you, so I just came out to-night for a glimpse."
Not giving the bewildered Mary opportunity to speak a word, she drew her to a seat beside her and went on rapidly, talking about Joyce and the success she was making in New York, and the many friends she had among famous people. Mary grew more and more bewildered. She had not heard that at the studio receptions which Joyce and her associates in the flat gave fortnightly, that all these world-known artists and singers and writers were guests. It was strange Joyce had never mentioned them. But Mrs. Redmond named them all so glibly and familiarly, that she could not doubt her.
Almost petrified at seeing Mary walk into the room, A.O. had relapsed into a silence which she could not break. Jimmy, too, sat tongue-tied, staring in fascination at the strange blonde lady whose fluent, softly modulated speech seemed to exert some kind of hypnotic influence over him. Even through Mary's absorbing interest in Mrs. Robertson Redmond's tales, came the consciousness that A.O. and her friend were sitting there, perfectly dumb, and she stole a curious glance in their direction, wondering why.
"And I have just learned," said Mrs. Redmond, her gold tooth gleaming through her smile, "overheard it, in fact, quite by accident, that a dear little friend of mine is in the school—General Walton's youngest daughter, Elise. I should be so glad to see her also this evening. I should have sent up a card for her, too, had I known. Would it be too much trouble for you to send word to her now?"
A.O. blushed furiously, knowing full well how and where the stranger had overheard that Elise was in the school. She tried frantically to recall just what it was she had said about her, in her endeavour to amuse Jimmy. Something extravagant, she knew, or he would not have laughed so horribly loud.
As Mary rose to send the message to Elise the lady dropped her muff. They both stooped to pick it up. Mary was first to reach it, and as she gave it back two things met her astonished gaze. On the little finger of the bare hand held out for the muff shone the agate that none but MacIntyres had owned since the days of Malcolm the Second. And through the parted lips, where an instant before a gold-crowned tooth had gleamed, shone only perfect little white teeth, with not a glint of dentist's handiwork about them. The gold-leaf had slipped off.
Mary gasped, but before the others had a chance to see her amazed face, the lady had risen and linked her arm through hers, and was drawing her towards the door, saying. "Let me go with you. I am sure that Elise will not mind receiving such a very old friend as I am up in her room."
Although the lady in black clung to her, shaking hysterically with repressed laughter, behind her crape-bordered veil, it was not till they had passed the footman, climbed the stairs and paused at Elise's door that Mary was sure of the identity of her guest. The disguise had been so complete that she could not believe the evidence of her own eyes, until the blond wig was torn off and the spectacles laid aside. Then Elise threw herself across her bed, laughing until she gasped for breath. Her mirth was so contagious that Mary joined in, laughing also until she was weak and breathless, and could only cling to the bedpost, wiping her eyes.
"And wasn't Jimmy a whole menagerie!" Elise exclaimed as soon as she could speak. "You should have been there to have heard him howl and tear his hair at something A.O. told him about me. And I sat there with a perfectly straight face through the whole of it, while she made up dreadful things about me. I'm going away off in the pasture to-morrow and practise that bray all by myself till I can do it to perfection. Then when A.O. begins to sing his praises again, I won't say a word. I'll just give her Jimmy's laugh. Won't she be astonished? She's bound to recognize it, for it's the only one of its kind in the world. I shall keep her guessing until after Christmas, where I heard it."
"Don't you tell her till then!" she exclaimed, sitting up on the side of the bed. "She would be so furious she wouldn't speak to me. But after the holidays, it won't be so fresh in her mind. Promise you won't tell her."
Still laughing, Mary promised, and Elise began to gather up the various articles of her disguise, saying, "It was worth a five-pound box of chocolates to hear her describe me as a reckless scape-grace in that sorority racket we had."
The mention of candy had the effect of an electric shock on Mary. "Mercy!" she cried. "I forgot all about that stuff I left upstairs."
Instantly sobered, she hurried away to its rescue. She had intended to go down only long enough to discover the caller's errand, and then excuse herself until the candy could be safely left. But more than a quarter of an hour had gone by. Somewhere about the premises, and for some reason unknown to her, a greater pressure of gas had been turned on, and the thin blue flame under the kettle had shot up to a full blazing ring. A smell of burnt sugar greeted her as she opened the door. There was no need to look into the kettle. She knew before she did so that the candy was burnt black, and Jack's fob no longer attainable.
Her first impulse was to run to Betty for comfort. It would be easy enough to borrow the money she needed from her, and pay her back after the holidays, but—a sober second thought stopped her. Probably the girls wouldn't want her candy then. Each of the boxes had been ordered as a special Christmas offering for some relative with a well-known sweet tooth. And Mary had a horror of debt, that was part of her heritage from her grandfather Ware. It was his frequent remark that "who goes a-borrowing goes a-sorrowing," and it lay heavy on the conscience of every descendant of his who stepped aside even for a moment from the path of his teachings. She felt that it would be dishonest to send Jack a present that wasn't fully paid for, and yet the disappointment of not being able to send it was so deep, that she could not keep the tears back. They splashed down like rain into the kettle as she scraped away at the scorched places on the bottom.
It was a long time before she went back to her room. Ethelinda looked up curiously.
"Where's your candy?" she asked.
"Spoiled. It scorched and I had to throw it out." Her face was turned away, under pretence of searching for a book, but her voice was subdued and not altogether steady.
"Too bad," was the indifferent answer, and Ethelinda went on with her lesson, but presently a faint sniff made her glance up to see that Mary was not studying, only staring at her book with big tears dropping quietly on the page. In all the weeks they had been together she had never seen Mary in this mood before, and it seemed as strange that she should be crying as that rain should drop from a cloudless sky.
The sight of Mary in trouble awakened a feeling that seldom came to the surface in Ethelinda. She felt moved to pick her up and comfort her and put her out of harm's way as she would have done to a helpless little kitten. But she did not know how to begin. Naturally undemonstrative, any expression of sympathy was hard for her to make. They had grown into very friendly relations this last month. Warwick Hall had widened Ethelinda's horizon, until she was able to take an interest in many things now outside of her own narrow self-centred circle.
As they started to undress she managed to ask, "Well, have you sent for that watch-fob yet?"
Mary shook her head, trying hard to swallow a sob, as she bent over an open bureau drawer. "I've decided not to order it."
Then Ethelinda, putting two and two together, guessed the reason. If Mary could have known how long she lay awake that night, devising some scheme to help her out of her difficulty, she would not have been so surprised next morning when a hesitating voice spoke up from the opposite bed, just after the rising bell.
"Mary, will you promise not to get mad and throw things at me if I ask you something?" She went on hurriedly, for they both recalled a scene when such a thing had happened. She felt she had blundered by alluding to it.
"I wouldn't dare ask it at all if I didn't know that you had failed with your candy, and might want to raise your Christmas funds some other way. No, I guess I'd better not ask you, after all. It might make you furious."
Mary sat up in bed, not only curious to know what it is Ethelinda was afraid to ask, but wondering at her hesitancy. Heretofore she had stopped at nothing; the most cutting allusions to Mary's appearance, behaviour and friends. They had both been appallingly frank at times. Their growing friendship seemed to thrive on this outspokenness.
"Oh, go on!" begged Mary. "I'd rather you'd make me furious than to keep me so curious, and I'll give you my word of honour I won't get mad."
"Well, then," began Ethelinda, slowly, "you know I had such a cold last week when the hair-dresser came, that I couldn't have my usual shampoo, and she always charges a dollar when she makes an extra trip just for one head. She wouldn't come this week anyhow, no matter how much I paid her, because she is so busy, and I simply must have my hair washed before the night of the tableaux. So I thought—if you didn't mind doing a thing like that—for me—you might as well have the dollar."
There was a pause. A long one. Ethelinda knew that Mary was recalling her speech about a lady's maid, and felt that the silence, so long and oppressive, was ominous. If she had asked it as a favour, Mary would not have hesitated an instant. The other girls often played barber for each other, making a frolic out of the affair. But for Ethelinda, and for money! That made a menial task of it, and her pride rose up in arms at the thought.
"Now you are mad! I knew you'd be!" came in anxious tones from the other bed. "I wish I had kept my mouth shut."
"No, I'm not," asserted Mary, stoutly. "I'm making up my mind. I was just thinking that you wouldn't do it if you were in my place, and I wouldn't do it to keep myself from starving, if it were just for myself, but it's for Jack. I'd get down and black the shoes of my worst enemy for Jack, and under the circumstances, I'm very glad to accept your offer, and I think it is very sweet of you to give me such a chance. You shall have the best shampoo in my power to give as soon as you are ready for it."
Later, she paused in her dressing, thinking maybe she had not been gracious enough in expressing her appreciation, and said emphatically, "Ethelinda, that was awfully good of you to think of a way to help me out of my difficulty. Last night I was so down in the dumps, and so disappointed over Jack's Christmas present, that I thought I never could smile again. But now I'm so sure it is coming out all right that I am as light-hearted as a bit of thistledown."
Ethelinda made some trivial reply, but immediately began to hum in a happy undertone. She was feeling surprisingly light-hearted herself. The role of benefactor was an unusual one, and she enjoyed the sensation.
For all her appreciative speeches, Mary approached her task that afternoon with inward reluctance. Only a grim determination to do her best to earn that dollar was her motive at first, and she helped herself by imagining it was the Princess Winsome's sunny hair which she was lathering and rubbing so vigorously. Ethelinda closed her eyes, enjoying the touch of the light fingers, and wishing the operation could be prolonged indefinitely. Somehow this intimate, personal contact seemed to create a friendliness for each other they had never known before. Presently Mary was chatting away almost as cordially as if it were Elise's dusky curls she had in her fingers, or A.O.'s brown braids.
Under promise of secrecy she told of Elise's masquerade the night before, and of A.O.'s wild curiosity about the lady in black. She had persecuted them all morning with questions, and they were almost worn out trying to evade them and to baffle her. Ethelinda appreciated being taken into her confidence, for she had been more lonely than her pride would allow her to admit. Her patronizing airs and ill-guarded speech about being exclusive in the choice of friends had offended most of the lower-class girls. Slowly she was learning that her old standards would not bear comparison with Madam Chartley's and the Lady Evelyn's and that she must accept theirs if she would have any friends at Warwick Hall. Her friendship with Mary took a long stride forward that afternoon.
The rest of the money came in various ways. Mary found appropriate quotations for a set of unique dinner cards, to fit the pen and ink illustrations which one of the Seniors bought to give her sister, a prominent club-woman, whose turn it was to give the yearly club dinner. She did some indexing for the librarian and some copying for Miss Chilton, and by the end of the week not only was Jack's fob on its way to Arizona, with presents for the rest of the family, but there was enough left in her purse to pay her share towards the mock Christmas tree.
It gave her a thrill to think that out of the entire school she had been chosen as one of the committee of nine for the delightful task of tying up the parcels for that tree. It was such bliss to share all the secrets and anticipate the surprise and laughter each ridiculous gift would call forth. And when all the joking and rollicking was over there was the carol service on the last night of the term, so sweet and solemn and full of the real Christmas gladness, that it was something to remember always as the crowning beauty of that beautiful time.
Old Bishop Chartley came down as usual for the service, and the chapel, fragrant with pine and spicy cedar boughs and lighted only by tall white candles, was just as Lloyd had described it, when she told of the Bishop's talk about keeping the White Feast on the birthday of the King. When the great doors swung wide for the white-robed choir to enter, Mary knew that it was only the Dardell twins leading in the processional with flute and cornet. But as they came slowly up the dim aisle under the arches of Christmas greens, their wide, flowing sleeves falling back from their arms, they made her think of two of Fra Angelico's trumpet-blowing angels, and she clasped her hands with a quick indrawing of breath. The high silvery flute notes and the mellow alto of the deep horn were like the voices of the Seraphim, leading all the others in their pean of "Glad tidings of great joy." Oh, it was good to be at a school like this she thought with a throb of deep thankfulness. And it was so good to know that all her plans had worked out happily, and her Christmas gifts for the girls were just what she wanted them to be. Her thoughts strayed away from the service a moment to recall the little bundles she had hidden in Elise's and A.O.'s suit-cases, and the package she had ready for Ethelinda, a prettily scalloped linen cover for her dressing-table with her initials, worked in handsome block letters in the centre.
No regrets clouded her face next morning, when she stood at the door, watching the last 'bus load of merry girls start home for the holidays. She was not going home herself. Arizona was too far away. But she had something more thrilling than that in prospect—a visit to Joyce in New York, she and Betty, and Christmas day with Eugenia, at the beautiful Tremont home out on the Hudson. She had been hearing about it for the last two years. And there was Eugenia's baby she was eager to see, the mischievous little year-old Patricia, "as beautiful as her father and as bad as her naughty Uncle Phil," Eugenia had written, in her letter of invitation.
And Phil himself would be there,—maybe. He was trying to get his work in shape so that he could be home at Christmas time. Mary did not realize how much her anticipations of this visit were tinged by the glow of that maybe. Her thoughts ran ahead to that day at Eugenia's oftener than to any other part of the grand outing. There was to be a whole week of sight-seeing in New York sandwiched in between the cozy hours at home with Joyce in her studio, and then on the roundabout way back to school a stop-over at Annapolis, for a few hours with Holland.
Filled with such an ineffable spirit of content that she would not have exchanged places with any one in the whole world, she watched the last 'bus load drive away, waving their handkerchiefs all down the avenue, and singing:
"O Warwick Hall, dear Warwick Hall, The joys of Yule now homeward call. Yet still we'll keep the tryst with you, Though for a time we say adieu. Adieu! Adieu!"
IN JOYCE'S STUDIO
The short winter day was almost at an end. High up in the top flat of a New York apartment house, Joyce Ware sat in her studio, making the most of those last few moments of daylight. In the downstairs flats the electric lights were already on. She moved her easel nearer the window, thankful that no sky-scraper loomed between it and the fading sunset, for she needed a full half hour to complete her work.
There were a number of good pictures on the walls, among them some really fine old Dutch interiors, but any artist would have turned from the best of them to study the picture silhouetted against the western window. The girlish figure enveloped in a long loose working apron was all in shadow, but the light, slanting across the graceful head bending towards the easel, touched the brown hair with glints of gold, and gave the profile of the earnest young face, the distinctive effect of a Rembrandt portrait.
Wholly unconscious of the fact, Joyce plied her brush with capable practised fingers, so absorbed in her task that she heard nothing of the clang and roar of the streets below, seething with holiday traffic. The elevator opposite her door buzzed up and down unheeded. She did not even notice when it stopped on her floor, and some one walked across the corridor with a heavy tread. But the whirr of her door bell brought her to herself with a start, and she looked up impatiently, half inclined to pay no attention to the interruption. Then thinking it might be some business message which she could not afford to delay, she hurried to the door, brush and palette still in hand.
"Why, Phil Tremont!" she exclaimed, so surprised at sight of the tall young man who filled the doorway that she stood for an instant in open-mouthed wonder. "Where did you drop from? I thought you were in the wilds of Oregon or some such borderland. Come in."
"I got in only a few hours ago," he answered, following her down the hall and into the studio. "I have only been in town long enough to make my report at the office. I'm on my way out to Stuart's to spend Christmas with him and Eugenia, but I couldn't resist the temptation of staying over a train to run in and take a peep at you. It has been nearly six months, you know, since I've had such a chance."
Joyce went back to her easel, as he slipped off his overcoat. "Don't think that because I keep on working that I'm not delighted to see you, but my orders are like time and tide. They wait for no man. This must be finished and out of the house to-night, and I've not more than fifteen minutes of good daylight left. So just look around and make yourself at home and take my hospitable will for the deed till I get through. In the meantime you can be telling me all about yourself."
"There's precious little to tell, no adventures of any kind—just the plain routine of business. But you've had changes," he added, looking around the room with keen interest. "This isn't much like the bare barn of a place I saw you in last. You must have struck oil. Have you taken a partner?"
"Several of them," she replied, "although I don't know whether they should be called partners or boarders or adopted waifs. They are all three of these things in a way. It began with two people who sat at the same table with me those first miserable months when I was boarding. One was a little cheerful wren of a woman from a little Western town, a Mrs. Boyd. That is, she is cheerful now. Then she was like a bird in a cage, pining to death for the freedom she had been accustomed to, and moping on her perch. She came to New York to bring her niece, Lucy, who is all she has to live for. Some art teacher back home told her that Lucy is a genius—has the makings of a great artist in her, and they believed it. She'll never get beyond fruit-pieces and maybe a dab at china-painting, but she's happy in the hope that she'll be a world-wonder some day. Neither of them have a practical bone in their body, whereas I have always been a sort of Robinson Crusoe at furnishing up desert islands.
"So I proposed to these two castaways that we go in together and make a home to suit ourselves. We were so dead tired of boarding. About that time we picked up Henry, and as Henry has a noble bank account we went into the project on a more lavish scale than we could have done otherwise."
"Henry!" ejaculated Phil, who was watching the silhouette against the window with evident pleasure.
"Yes, Miss Henrietta Robbins, a bachelor maid of some—well, I won't tell how many summers, but she's 'past the freakish bounds of youth,' and a real artist. She's studied abroad, and she's done things worth while. That group of fishermen on the Normandy coast is hers," nodding towards the opposite wall, "and that old woman peeling apples, and those three portraits. Oh, she's the real thing, and a constant inspiration to me. And she's brought so much towards the beautifying of our Crusoe castle: all these elegant Persian rugs, and those four "old masters," and the bronzes and the teakwood carvings—you can see for yourself. Lucy wasn't quite satisfied with the room at first. She missed the fish-net draperies and cozy corners and the usual clap-trap of amateur studios. But she's educated up to it now, and it's a daily joy to me. On the other hand my broiled steaks and feather-weight waffles and first-class coffee are a joy to poor Henry, who can't even boil an egg properly, and who hasn't the first instinct of home-making."
"You don't mean to say that you do the cooking for this happy family!"
Joyce laughed at his surprised tone. "That's what makes it a happy family. No domestic service problems. With a gas range, a fireless cooker and all the conveniences of our little kitchenette, it's mere play after my Wigwam experiences. We have a woman come several times a week to clean and do extras, so I don't get more exercise than I need to keep me in good condition."
"But doesn't all this devotion to the useful interfere with your pursuit of the beautiful? Where do you find time for your art?"
"Oh, my art is all useful," sighed Joyce. "I used to dream of great things to come, but I've come down to earth now—practical designing. Magazine covers and book plates and illustrating. I can do things like that and it is work I love, and work that pays. Of course I'd rather do Madonnas than posters, but since the pot must boil I am glad there are book-covers to be done. And some day—well, I may not always have to stay tied to the earth. My wings are growing, in the shape of a callow bank account. When it is full-fledged, then I shall take to my dreams again. Already Henry and I are talking of a flight abroad together, to study and paint. In two years more I can make it, if all goes well."
The striking of a clock made her glance up, exclaiming over the lateness of the hour. "Phil," she asked, "would you mind telephoning down to the station to find out if that Washington train is on time? That's a good boy. That little sister of mine will think the sky has fallen if I'm not at the station to meet her."
"You don't mean to tell me that Mary is on her way here," exclaimed Phil, as he rose to do her bidding. "Then I certainly have something to live for. Her first impressions of New York will be worth hearing." He scanned the pages of the telephone directory for the number he wanted.
"Yes, she and Betty are to spend their vacation with me. We are going out to Eugenia's to-morrow afternoon to spend Christmas eve and part of Christmas day."
"Then that was the surprise that Eugenia wrote about," said Phil, taking out his watch. "She wouldn't tell what it was, but said that it would be worth my while to come. Yes, the train is on time."
He hung up the receiver. "I won't be able to wait for it, if I get out to Eugenia's for dinner, but I can see you safely to the station on my way. It is about time we were starting if you expect to reach it."
Joyce made a final dab at her picture, dropped the brush and hurried into the next room for her wraps. It seemed to Phil that he had scarcely turned around till she was back again, hatted and gloved. The artist in the long apron had given place to a stylish tailor-made girl in a brown street-suit. Phil looked down at her approvingly as they stepped out into the wintry air together.
The great show windows were ablaze with lights by this time, and the rush of the crowds almost took her off her feet. Phil at her elbow piloted her along to a corner where they were to take a car.
"I'm glad that I happened along to take you under my wing," he said. "You ought not to be out alone on the streets at night."
"It isn't six o'clock yet," she answered. "And this is the first time that I had no escort arranged for. Mrs. Boyd always comes with me. She's little and meek, but her white hair counts for a lot. She would have gone to the station with me, but she and Lucy are dining out. We girls will be all alone to-night. I wish they were not expecting you out at Eugenia's to dinner. I'd take you back with me. I have prepared quite a company spread, things that you especially like."
"There's a telephone out to the place," he suggested. "I could easily let them know if I missed my train, and I could easily miss it—if my invitation were pressing enough."
"Then do miss it," she insisted, smiling up at him so cordially that he laughed and said in a complacent tone, "We'll consider it done. I'll telephone Eugenia from the station, that I'll not be out till morning. Really," he added a moment later, "it will be more like a sure-enough home-coming to come back to you and that little chatterbox of a Mary than to go out to my brother's. Eugenia is a dear, but I've never known her except as a bride or a dignified young matron, so of course we have no youthful experiences in common to hark back to together. That is the very back-bone of a family reunion in my opinion. Now that year in Arizona, when you all took me in as one of yourselves, is about all that I can remember of real home-life, and somehow, when I think of home, it is the Wigwam that I see, and the good cheer and the jolly times that I always found there."
Joyce looked up again, touched and pleased. "I'm so glad that you feel that way, for we always count you in, right after Jack and the little boys. Mamma always speaks of you as 'my other' boy, and as for Mary, she quotes you on all occasions, and thinks you are very near perfection. She is going to be so delighted when she sees you, that I'd not be a bit surprised if she should jump up and down and squeal, right in the station."
The mention of this old habit of Mary's brought up to each of them the mental picture of the child, as she had looked on various occasions when her unbounded pleasure was forced to find expression in that way. In the year that Joyce had been away from her she had been in her thoughts oftener as that quaint little creature of eight, than the sixteen-year old school girl she had grown into.
Phil, too, accustomed to thinking of Mary as he had known her at the Wigwam, could hardly believe he saw aright, when the train pulled in and she flew down the steps to throw her arms around Joyce. It was the same, lovable, eager little face that looked up into his, the same impetuous unspoiled child, yet a second glance left him puzzled. There was some intangible change he could not label, and it interested him to try to analyze it.
She was taller, of course, almost as tall as Joyce, with skirts almost as long, but it was not that which impressed him with the sense of change. It was a certain girlish winsomeness, something elusive, which cannot be defined, but which lends a charm like nothing else in all the world to the sweet unfolding of early maidenhood.
If Phil had been asked to describe the girl that Mary would grow into, he never would have pictured this development. He expected her desert experiences to give her a strong forceful character. She would be like the pioneer women of early times, he imagined; rugged and energetic and full of resources. But he had not expected this gentleness of manner, this unconscious dignity and a certain poise that reminded him of—he was puzzled to think of what it did remind him. Later, it came to him, as he continued to watch her. Not for naught had Mary set up a shrine to her idolized Princess Winsome and striven to grow like her in every way possible. Not in feature, of course, but often in manner there was a fleeting, shadowy undefinable something that recalled her.
In her younger days she would have appropriated Phil as her rightful audience, and would have swung along beside him, amusing him with her original and unsolicited opinions of everything they passed. But a strange shyness seized her when she looked up and saw how much older he was in reality than he had been in her recollections. She had no answer ready when he began his accustomed teasing. Instead she clung to Joyce when they left the street-car, leaving Betty to walk with Phil as they threaded their way through the crowded thoroughfares. It was so good to be with her again, and as they hurried along she squeezed the arm linked in hers to emphasize her delight.
For the time, Joyce found no change in her, for with child-like abandon she exclaimed over the strange sights. "Oh, Joyce! Snow!" she cried, when a falling flake brushed her face. "After all these years of orange-blossoms and summer sun at Christmas, how good it seems to have real old Santa Claus weather! I can almost see the reindeer and smell the striped peppermint and pop-corn. And oh, oh! look at that shop-window. It is positively dazzling! And the racket—" she put her hands over her ears an instant. "I feel that I've never really heard a loud noise till now."
Joyce laughed indulgently, and stopped with her whenever she wanted to gaze in at some particularly attractive show window. When they reached the flat, Mary still kept near her, "tagging after her," as she would have expressed it in her earlier days, so much like the little sister of that time, that Joyce still failed to see how much she had changed during their separation.
"You see it's just like a doll-house," Joyce said as she led them through the tiny rooms on a tour of inspection. "All except the studio. We had a partition taken out and two rooms thrown together for that. Now the company will have to go in there and entertain themselves while I put the finishing touches to the dinner. The kitchenette will only hold one at a time."
Betty and Phil obediently went into the studio to renew their acquaintance of two years before, begun at Eugenia's wedding, and wandered around the room looking at the various specimen's of Joyce's handicraft pinned about on the walls. One of the first pauses was before a sketch of Lloyd, done from memory, a little wash drawing of her. Mary, standing in the doorway, heard Phil say, "Tell me about her, Miss Betty. She writes so seldom that I can only imagine her conquests."
For a moment Mary watched him, as he studied the sketch intently. Then she turned away to the kitchenette to help Joyce, thinking how lovely it must be to have a handsome man like that bend over your picture so adoringly, and speak of you in such a fashion.
It was a merry little dinner party, and afterwards it was almost like old times at the Wigwam, for Phil insisted on helping wipe the dishes, and was so boyish and jolly with his teasing reminiscences that she almost forgot her new awe of him. But afterward when they sat around the woodfire in the studio ("a piece of Henry's much enjoyed extravagance," Joyce explained, "and only lighted on gala occasions like this") they were suddenly all grown up and serious again. Joyce talked about her work, and the friends she had made among editors and illustrators, and ambitious workaday people whose acquaintance was both a delight and an inspiration. It was Henrietta who brought them to the studio, along with the Persian rugs and the "old masters," and Joyce could never get done being thankful that she had found such a friend in the beginning of her career.
Phil told of his work too, and his travels, and in the friendly shadows cast by the flickering firelight talked intimately of his plans and ambitions, and what he hoped ultimately to achieve.
Betty confessed shyly some of her hopes and dreams, warranted now, by the success of several short flights in essay writing and verse, and then Phil said laughingly, "Do you remember what Mary's dearest wish used to be? How we roared the day she gravely informed us that it was her highest ambition to be 'the toast of two continents,' Is it still that, Mary?"
"No," she answered, laughing with the rest, but blushing furiously. "I had just been reading the biography of a great Baltimore belle who was called that, and it appealed to me as the most desirable thing on earth to be honoured with such a title. But that was away back in the dark ages. Of course I wouldn't wish such a silly thing now."
"But aren't you going to tell us what is your greatest ambition?" persisted Phil. "We have all confessed. It isn't fair for you to withhold your confidence when we've given ours."
Mary shook her head. "I've had my lesson," she declared. "You'll never have the chance to laugh twice, and this one is such a sky-scraper it would astonish you."
When she spoke, she was thinking of that moment on the stair, under the amber window, when through the music she heard the king's call, and was first awakened to the knowledge that a high destiny awaited her. What it was to be was still unrevealed to her, but of the voice and the vision she had no doubt. Whatever it was she was sure it would be higher and greater than anything any one she knew aspired to. Yet somehow, sitting there in the friendly shadows, with the firelight shining on the earnest manly face opposite, she did not care so much about a Joan of Arc career as she had. It would be glorious, of course, but it might be lonesome. People on pedestals were shut off from dear delightful intimacies like this.
And then those lines began running through her head that she had not been able to get rid of, since the morning she read them in the magazine:
"For if he come not by the road, and come not by the hill, And come not by the far seaway—"
She wished that she was certain that she could add that last part of the line, "Yet come he surely will!" Just then, to have one strong true face bending towards hers in the firelight, with a devotion all for her, seemed worth a lifetime of public plaudits, and having one's name handed down to posterity on monoliths and statues.
"For if he come not by the road, and come not by the hill, And come not by the far seaway—"
"Yes, it certainly would be lonesome," she decided. She would miss the best that earth holds for a home-loving, hero-worshipping woman.
CHRISTMAS DAY AT EUGENIA'S
"Although this is only the twenty-fourth of December, my Christmas has already begun," wrote Mary in her diary next day; "for this morning when I looked out of the window everything was white with snow. It has been so long since I have seen such a sight, all the roofs and chimney tops a-glisten, that I could hardly keep away from the window long enough to dress.
"Phil stayed quite late last night. Just as he was leaving, Mrs. Boyd and Miss Lucy came home, and of course we had to stay up a little while longer to meet them. By the time Joyce had turned the davenport in the studio into a bed for me, it was past midnight, and I couldn't go to sleep for hours. There was so much to think about.
"The next thing I knew I smelled coffee, and heard Joyce whistling just as she used to at home when she was getting breakfast, and I didn't waste many minutes in going out to her in that cunning kitchenette. It is all white tiling and shining nickel-plate, as easy to keep clean as a china dish, and just a delight to work in. I never thought so before, but now it seems to me that it is just as nice to know how to serve a delicious meal as easily as Joyce does as it is to put a picture on canvas. I can see now what a good thing it was for both of us that we had to serve such a long apprenticeship in work and housekeeping, even if it did seem hard at the time.
"'It gives a girl a sort of Midas touch,' Phil said last night; 'makes her able to gild even a garret and to turn any old place into a home,' He was so charmed with everything about the flat that he said he wanted to move into one right away, and make biscuits himself on a glass-topped table, and do stunts with the fireless cooker like Joyce. He has had a surfeit of cafes and hotels and boarding-houses.
"While we were at breakfast the postman came, and there were letters and packages for everybody. Lloyd sent a present to each of us. Mine was a darling little lace fan all spangled, like a cobweb with dew-drops caught in its meshes. We opened everything then and there, as we had already had part of our presents. Jack's to me was this holiday trip, and Mamma's was the shirt-waist that I travelled in from Washington.
"Joyce got a check that she hadn't expected before next month, and another one that she hadn't expected at all. It was for some initial letter sketches and tail-pieces that had been travelling around to different magazines for months. Besides, there was an order for a frontispiece for a child's magazine. She was so happy she could hardly finish her breakfast, and said now she could give me the present she had planned to give me in the beginning. She had been disappointed about some other work she had counted on, and thought she would have to cut my present down to some gloves and a book, but now she could play Santa Claus in fine style, and carry out her original intention. Just as soon as things were in order, she would take me down town and let me choose it.
"It was so exciting, not knowing what it was going to be, and hurrying along with the crowds of shoppers; everybody so smiling and happy and good-natured, no matter how much they were bumped into. I felt Christmasey down to my finger-tips, although they were nearly frozen. Last night's snow was almost a blizzard, and left it stinging cold.
"At last, after buying a lot of little things to put on the tree at Eugenia's, and keeping me guessing for over an hour about my present, Joyce took us into a furrier's, and bought me a beautiful set of furs; a lovely long boa and a muff like the one Lloyd had her picture taken in the first year she was at Warwick Hall. I've always wanted furs like them. They look so opulent and luxurious. And maybe I wasn't proud and happy when I saw myself in the mirror! They just make my costume, and they made a world of difference in my comfort when we went out into the icy air again. I certainly would have squealed if I hadn't remembered that we were on Broadway, when Joyce told me that I looked so stunning that she could not keep her eyes off me. I knew just how happy it made her to be able to give me such a present, for I remembered what pleasure I had in sending Jack the watch-fob that I had earned all myself.
"Then we went to Wanamaker's and by that time it was so late she said we'd better go up stairs and take lunch there. There wouldn't be time to go home and prepare it ourselves. There was music playing, and it was all so gay and lively that I kept getting more and more excited every moment. Finally, while we were waiting for our orders to be filled, Betty said, 'It is so festive, I believe I'll give Mary my present now, instead of waiting till we get to Eugenia's.' Then she took a jeweller's box from her shopping bag, and, lo and behold, when I opened it, the little bloodstone ring that I'd been longing for all these weeks! I was so happy I nearly cried.
"After lunch we came back to the flat to get our suit-cases. Joyce is packing hers now. In just a few minutes she will be ready, and then we will turn the key in the door and be off for Eugenia's. Mrs. Boyd and Miss Lucy have gone to Brooklyn to spend Christmas, and Miss Henrietta is away on a month's vacation."
The suburban train was crowded when the girls reached it. Even the aisles were full of bundle-laden passengers, until the first few stations were past. Then Betty and Joyce found seats together, and a fat old lady good-naturedly drew herself up as far as possible, in order that Mary might squeeze past her to the vacant seat next the window.
"I can't set there myself, on account of the cold coming in the cracks so," she wheezed apologetically. "But young people don't feel draughts, and anyway, you can put your muff up between you and it if you do."
"Mary has a travelling companion after her own heart," laughed Joyce to Betty, as they watched the old lady's bonnet bobbing an energetic accompaniment to her remarks. "She's always picking up acquaintances on the train. She can get more enjoyment out of a day's railroad journey than some people get in a trip around the world."
"It is the same way at school," answered Betty. "You have no idea how popular she is, just because she is interested in everybody in that sweet friendly way."
They went on to talk of other things, so absorbed in their own conversation that they thought no more about Mary's. So they did not see that presently she turned away from her garrulous companion, and, wrapped in her own thoughts, sat gazing at the flying landscape. It was not at the snowy fields she was smiling with that happy light in her eyes, nor at the gleaming river. She was only dimly conscious of them and had forgotten entirely that it was the famous Hudson whose shore-line they were following. For once she was finding her own thoughts more interesting than the conversation of an unexplored stranger, although the old lady had taken her generously into her confidence during the first quarter of an hour. Indeed, it was one of those very confidences which had sent Mary off into her revery.
"I tell Silas that no one ever does keep Christmas just right till they get to be grand-parents like us, and have the children bringing their children home to hang up their stockings in the old chimney corner. 'Peared like, that first Christmas that Silas and me spent together in our own house couldn't be happier, but it didn't hold a candle to them that came afterwards, when there was little Si and Emmy and Joe to buy toys for. Silas says we get a triple extract out of the day now, because we not only have our enjoyment of it, but what we get watching our children enjoy watching their children's fun."
She reached forward and with some difficulty extracted a toy from the covered basket on the floor at her feet, a wooden monkey on a stick. "I'm just looking forward to seeing Pa's face when he drops that into Joe's baby's little sock."
Her own kindly old face was a study, as she slid the grotesque monkey up and down the rod, chuckling in pleased anticipation. And Mary, with her readiness to put herself into another's place, smiled with her, sharing sympathetically the anticipation of her return. Straightway in her imagination, she herself was a grandmother, going home to some adoring old Silas, who had shared her joys and troubles for over half a century.
Up to this moment she had been thinking that it could not be possible for any one to have a happier Christmas than she was having. A dozen times she had smoothed the soft fur of her boa with a caressing hand, and slipped back her glove to delight her eyes with the sight of her bloodstone ring, while her thoughts ran on ahead to the house-party towards which they were speeding. But the old lady's words had opened up a vista that set her to day-dreaming.
If by the road or by the hill or by the far seaway "he" should really come, some day, then of course the Christmases they would spend together would be happier than this. Jack had always said that she would have her "innings" when she was a grandmother. All her life Mary had been dreaming romances about other people, now in a vague sweet way those dreams began to centre around herself.
It was almost dark when they left the train. Phil was at the station to meet them with a sleigh and a team of spirited black horses.
"Oh, sleighbells!" sighed Joyce, ecstatically, as she climbed into the back seat beside Betty. "I haven't been behind any since I left Plainsville. I wish we had forty miles to go. Nothing makes me feel so larky as the sound of sleighbells."
Phil glanced back over his shoulder. "It is a bare mile and a half to the house, but I told Eugenia I'd bring you home the roundabout way to make the drive longer, if you all were not cold. What do you say?"
"The long way by all means!" cried Joyce and Betty in the same breath.
Phil laughed. "The ayes have it. Even Mary's eyes, although she doesn't say anything," he added, seeing the beaming smile that crossed her face at the prospect of a longer drive. "They are shining like two stars," he went on mischievously, amused to see the colour flame up into her cheeks, and noticing how becoming it was. Then his mettlesome horses claimed his attention for awhile.
Later, as he looked back from time to time, in conversation with the older girls, his glance rested on Mary, sitting beside him as contented and happy as a kitten in those becoming furs, and he thought with satisfaction that the little Vicar was growing up to be a very pretty girl after all. Her eyes were positively starry under her long, curling lashes.
That Eugenia regarded their coming as a great event, they felt from the moment the sleigh drew up to the house. From every window streamed a welcoming light, and the front door, flung open at their approach, showed that the wide reception hall had been transformed into a bower of Christmas greens. Eugenia, radiant in her most becoming dinner gown of holly red, came running down the steps to meet them.
Ever since she had been established as mistress of this beautiful country place, she had longed for them to visit her. Guests she had in plenty, for young Doctor Tremont and his wife were noted for their lavish hospitality, but the welcome accorded her new friends and neighbours was nothing to the one reserved for these old friends of her girlhood. She wanted them to see for themselves that she had made no mistake in her weaving, and that marriage had indeed brought her the "diamond leaf" that Abdallah found only in Paradise.
"Patricia had just dropped asleep," she told them as she led the way up stairs. Not that it was the proper time, but she was always doing unexpected things. That very day she had surprised them with four new words which they had not dreamed she could say. Eliot had orders to bring her in the moment that she awakened, so they could soon see the most remarkable child in the world. Yes, Eliot was still with her, good old Eliot. She intended to keep her always. Not as a maid, however. She had earned the position of guardian angel to Patricia by all her years of devoted service, and she played her part to perfection.
While the girls opened their suit-cases and changed their dresses to costumes more suitable for evening, Eugenia stood in the door between the two rooms, turning first one way and then the other to answer the questions rapidly propounded. Mary, thankful that her white pongee had not wrinkled, divided her attention between the donning of that, and the information that Eugenia was imparting.
She had named the baby for Stuart's great-aunt Patricia, who for so many years had been like a mother to the boys and Elsie. She felt that she owed the dear, prim old lady that much as a sort of reparation for all she had suffered at the hands of the boys whom she had loved so dearly in spite of her inability to understand them. Father Tremont had been so touched and pleased when she proposed it. No, he could not be with them this Christmas. He had taken Elsie to the south of France. She was not very strong. Yes, Phil approved of her choice of names, but he said just as soon as she was old enough he intended to buy her a monkey and name it Dago, so that there would be one Patricia who was not afraid of such a pet.
[1: See "The Story of Dago" for an account of Phil's and Stuart's childhood.]
Mary, who had watched with keen interest the unwrapping of the dozens of beautiful wedding gifts at The Locusts, took a peculiar pleasure in looking around for them now, and recognizing them among the handsome furnishings of the different rooms. Heretofore the Locusts had been her ideal of all that a home should be, but this far surpassed anything she had ever seen in luxurious fittings.
As the girls followed their hostess over the house, with admiring exclamations for each room, Mary thought with inward amusement of the cold shivers she had had, as she stood with the bridal party between the Rose-gate and the flower crowned altar, listening to the solemn vow: "I, Eugenia,—take thee, Stuart—for better, for worse—" There had been no worse. It was all better, infinitely better, and the shivers had been entirely unnecessary.
Stuart came in presently, from a long round of professional visits. The young doctor had nearly as large a practise as his father, and had been riding all afternoon. Mary caught a glimpse of his meeting with Eugenia, in the hall, and when he came in, cordial as a boy in his welcome, and by numberless little courtesies showing himself the most considerate of hosts and husbands, she thought again, "This is one time it was certainly all 'for better.'"
"Where is 'Pat's Pill'?" he asked, looking around for Phil. "That is Patricia's name for him, as near as she can say it. Wouldn't you know that she was a doctor's daughter, by giving her doting uncle a pill for a name?"
Phil and Mr. Forbes came in together. To Betty, one of the pleasantest parts of her visit was this meeting with the "Cousin Carl," who had added such vistas of delight to her life by taking her to Europe the year she was threatened with blindness. His hair was grayer now than then, and the years had added a few lines to his kind face, but he was not nearly so grave. He smiled oftener, and she noticed with satisfaction his evident pride in Eugenia since she had blossomed into such a happy, enthusiastic housewife, and his devotion to little Patricia, when she was brought in for awhile just after dinner.
She was a fascinating little creature, all smiles and dimples and coquettish shrugs, and she held royal court the few moments she was allowed to monopolize the attention of the company. It was her second Christmas eve, and she had been brought down for the first public ceremony of hanging her stocking in the great chimney corner. Even after she was carried away it was plain to be seen how the interest of the house centred around her. There was a tender glow in Eugenia's eyes every time she looked at the tiny white stocking hanging from the holly wreathed mantel. And it was also plain to be seen that the little stocking gave a deeper meaning to the words carved underneath, to every one gathered around the fire: "East or West, Home is best." When the trimming of the great tree in the library began, it was found that each member of the household had bought her enough toys to stock a show-window.
"There is really too much for one kid," said Phil gravely, surveying his own lavish contributions. "What can she do with them when it is all over?"
Eugenia glanced from the long row of dolls she was counting, to the assortment of stuffed animals and toys already weighting the tinsel-decked branches. "She shall keep them only a day. I have made up my mind that she shall not grow up to be the selfish child that I was before Betty came along with her Tusitala story and her Road of the Loving Heart. She is to begin to build one now, even before she is old enough to understand. This is her first Christmas tree. To-morrow she shall choose one gift from each person's assortment of offerings. To-morrow night the tree and all the rest of the presents are to be turned over to the little orphans of St. Boniface Refuge."
"Daddy's name for her is Blessing,'" explained Stuart. "So you see she is in a fair way to be trained up to fit it."
Since the tree was for children only, no gifts for the older people appeared among its branches, but in the night some silent-footed Kriss Kringle made his stealthy rounds, and left a gay little red and white stocking by every bedside. Mary discovered hers early in the morning, after the maid had been in to turn on the heat in the radiator, and close the windows. She wondered how it could have been placed there without her knowledge, for the slightest motion set the tiny bells on heel and toe a-jingling. She touched it several times just to start the silvery tinkle, then sitting up in bed emptied its treasures out on the counterpane. It was filled with bon-bons and many inexpensive trifles, but down in the toe was a little gold thimble, from Patricia.
It was in the chair under the stocking that she found the gloves from Eugenia, the book from "Cousin Carl" and a long box that she opened with breathless interest because Phil's card lay atop. On it was scribbled, "The 'Best Man's' best wishes for a Merry Christmas to Mary."
Tearing off the ribbons and the tissue paper wrappings she lifted the lid, and then drew a long rapturous breath, exclaiming, "Roses! American Beauty roses! The first flowers a man ever sent me—and from the Best Man!"
She laid her face down among the cool velvety petals and closed her eyes, drinking in the fragrance. Then she lifted each perfect bud and half blown flower to examine it separately, revelling in the sweetness and colour. Then the uncomfortable thought occurred to her that she was happier over this gift than she had been over the furs or the long-wished-for ring, and she began to make excuses to herself.
"Maybe if I'd always had them sent to me as Lloyd and Betty and the other girls have, it wouldn't seem such a big thing. But this is the first time. Of course it doesn't mean anything as it would if he had sent them to Lloyd. He is in love with her. Still—I'm glad he chose roses."
She touched the last one to her lips. It was so cool and sweet that she held it there a moment before she slipped out of bed and ran across the room to thrust the long stems into the water pitcher. She would ask the maid for a more fitting receptacle after awhile, but in the meantime she would keep them fresh as possible.
When she went down to breakfast she wore one thrust in her belt, and some of its colour seemed to have found its way into her cheeks when she thanked Phil for his gift. The same rose was pinned on her coat, when later in the morning they went to a Christmas service at St. Boniface, the little stone church in the village, a mile away. Eugenia had suggested their going. She said it would be such a picture with the snow on its ivy-covered belfry, and the icicles hanging from the eaves. Some noted singer was to be in the choir, and would sing several solos. The walking would be fine through the dry crunching snow, and as they had right of way through all of the neighbouring estates between them and the village, it would be like going through an English park.
Stuart had an urgent round of professional visits to make and could not join them, and at the last moment some message came from the Orphanage in reference to the tree, which kept Eugenia at home to make some alteration in her plans. So when the time came to start only the four guests set out across the snowy lawn, down the woodland path leading to the village. They went Indian file at first in order that Phil might make a trail through the snow, until they reached the beaten path.
It was colder than they had expected to find it, and presently Mary dropped back to the rear, so that she might hold her muff up, unobserved, to shield the rose she wore. She could not bear to have its lovely petals take on a dark purplish tinge at the edges where the frost curled them. In the church the steam-heated atmosphere brought out its fragrance till it was almost overpoweringly sweet, but when she glanced down she saw that it was no longer crisp and glowing. It had wilted in the sudden change, and hung limp and dying on its stem.
"I'll put it away in an envelope when I get back to the house," thought Mary. "When they all fade I'll save the leaves and make a potpourri of them like we made of Eugenia's wedding roses, and put them away in my little Japanese rose-jar, to keep always."
Then the music began, and she entered heartily into the beautiful Christmas service. The offering was to be divided among the various charities of the parish, it had been announced, and Mary, remembering the bright new quarter in her purse, was glad that she had earned that bit of silver herself. It made it so much more of a personal offering than if she had saved it from her allowance. She slipped her purse out of her jacket pocket as the prelude of the offertory filled the aisles and rose to the arches of the vaulted roof.
The man who carried the plate was slowly making his way towards the pew in which she sat, and with her gaze fixed on him, she began fumbling with the clasp of her purse, under cover of her muff. She had never seen such a rubicund portly gentleman, with two double chins and expansive bald spot on his crown. She held the coin between her fingers awaiting his slow approach. Just as he reached the end of their pew where Phil was sitting, she sneezed. Not a loud sneeze, but one of those inward convulsions that makes the whole body twitch spasmodically.
It sent a handful of petals from the wilted rose showering down into her lap. The coin dropped back into her purse as she made an instinctive grab to save them from going to the floor. Then blushing and embarrassed as the plate paused in front of her, she fumbled desperately in her purse to regain the dropped quarter. The instant the coin left her fingers she saw the mistake she had made, and reached out her hand as if to snatch it back. But it was too late, even if she had had the courage to reclaim it. She had dropped her English shilling into the plate instead of the quarter! Her precious talisman from the bride's cake, that she had carried as a pocket piece ever since Eugenia's wedding.
Betty, who sat next to her, was the only one who saw her confusion, and her sudden movement towards the plate after it passed. She glanced at her curiously, wondering at her agitation, but the next moment forgot it in listening to the wonderful voice that took up the solo.
But the solo, as far as Mary was concerned, might have been a siren whistle or a steam calliope. She was watching the man of the bald head and the double chins, who had walked off with her shilling. Down the central aisle went the pompous gentleman at last in company with two others, and the three plates were received by the rector and blessed and deposited on the altar, all in the most deliberate fashion, while Mary twisted her fingers and thought of desperate but impossible plans to rescue her shilling.
If she had been alone she would have hurried to the front at the close of the service, and watched to see who became the custodian of the alms. Then she could have pounced upon him and begged to be allowed to rectify her mistake. But Phil and the girls would think she had lost her mind if they should see her do such a thing, unless she explained to them. Somehow she shrank from letting anybody know how highly she valued that shilling. All at once she had grown self-conscious. She had not known herself, just how much she cared for it until it was gone beyond recall. Aside from the sentiment for which she cherished it she had a superstitious feeling that her fate was bound up with it in such a way that the gods would cease to be propitious if she lost the talisman that influenced them.
No feasible plan occurred to her, however. The choir passed out in slow recessional. The congregation as slowly followed. Mary loitered as long as possible, even going back for her handkerchief, which she had purposely dropped in the pew to give her an excuse to return. But her anxious glances revealed nothing. The vestry door was closed, and nobody was inside the chancel rail.
As they passed down the steps Phil turned to glance at a small bulletin board outside the door, on which the hours of the service were printed in gilt letters. "Dudley Eames, Rector," he read in a low tone. "Strange I never can remember that man's name, when Stuart is always quoting him. They are both great golf players, and were eternally making engagements with each other over the phone, when I was here last summer. I heard it often enough to remember it, I'm sure."
He did not see the expression of relief which his remark brought to Mary's face. It held a suggestion which she resolved to act upon as soon as she could find opportunity. She would telephone to the rector about it.