THE BRIDE-CAKE SHILLING COMES TO LIGHT
All the way home she kept nervously rehearsing to herself the explanation which she intended to make, so absorbed in her thoughts, that she started guiltily when the girls laughed, and she found that Phil had asked her a question three times without attracting her attention. When they reached the house it was some time before she could slip upstairs unobserved. No amateur burglar, afraid of discovery, ever made a more stealthy approach towards his booty than she made towards the telephone. At any moment some one might come running up to the nursery. Three times she started out of her door, and each time the upstairs maid came through the hall and she drew back again.
When she finally screwed up her courage to sit down at the desk and find the rector's number, her heart was beating so fast that her voice trembled, as if she were on the verge of tears. Luckily the Reverend Eames had just returned to his study and answered immediately. In her embarrassment she plunged as usual into the middle of her carefully prepared speech, explaining so tremulously and incoherently that for a moment her puzzled listener was doubtful of his questioner's sanity. Finally, when made to understand, he was very kind and very sympathetic, but his answer merely sent her on another quest. She would have to apply to the treasurer, he told her, Mr. Charles Oatley, who always took charge of all collections of the church, depositing them in the bank in the city, in which he was a director. That was all the information he could give her about it. Yes, Mr. Oatley lived in the country, near the village, at Oatley Crest. As this was a holiday, probably he would not take the money to the bank until the following morning.
Hastily thanking him, Mary listened a moment for coming footsteps, then called up Oatley Crest. To her disappointment a maid answered her. The family had all gone to take dinner with the James Oatleys, and would not be home until late at night. No, she did not know where the place was—some twenty miles away she thought. They had gone in a touring-car.
Baffled in her pursuit, Mary turned away, perplexed and anxious. She had forgotten to ask the name of the bank. But the glimpse she caught of her worried face in a mirror in the hall made her pause to smooth the pucker out of it.
"It is foolish of me to let it spoil my Christmas day like this," she reasoned with herself. "If I can't keep inflexible any better than this I don't deserve to have fortune change in my favour."
So armed with the good vicar's philosophy, she went down to the group in the library. Almost immediately she had her reward.
"Well, what did you think of the offertory, Miss Mary?" asked Stuart, who had just come in, and was listening to the account that the girls were giving Eugenia of the morning's music. "Your sister thinks the soloist had the voice of an angel."
"I'll have to confess that I didn't pay as much attention to that as I did to the first solos," said Mary honestly. "I was so busy staring at the fat man who took up the collection in our aisle. He had at least four chins and was so bald and shiny he fascinated me. His poor head looked so bare and chilly I really think that must have been what made me sneeze—just pure sympathy."
"Oh, you mean Oatley," laughed Stuart. "He considers himself the biggest pillar in St. Boniface, if not its chief corner-stone. Awfully pompous and important, isn't he? But they couldn't get along without him very well. He is a joke at the bank, where he is a sort of fifth wheel. They made a place for him there, because he married the president's daughter, and it was necessary for him to draw a salary."
One question more and Mary breathed easier. She had learned the name of the bank, and early in the morning she intended to start out to find it. With that matter settled it was easy for her to throw herself into the full enjoyment of all that followed. The Christmas dinner was served in the middle of the day instead of at night, and the afternoon flew by so fast that Eugenia protested against their going when the time came, saying that she had had no visit at all. Joyce explained that she had promised Mrs. Boyd to help with an entertainment that night for a free kindergarten over on the East Side, and that she must get to work again early in the morning to fill an order for some menu cards she had promised to have ready for the twenty-seventh.
Betty, also, had promised to go back. Mrs. Boyd was sure she would find material and local colour for several stories, and she felt that it was an opportunity that she could not afford to miss.
"Then Mary must stay with me," declared Eugenia, and Mary found it hard to refuse her hospitable insistence. Had it not been for the lost shilling she would have stayed gladly, and once, she was almost on the verge of confessing the real reason to Eugenia.
"I don't see why I should mind her knowing how much I think of it," she mused. "But I don't want anybody to know. They'd remember about its being a 'Philip and Mary shilling,' and they'd smile at each other behind my back as if they thought I attached some importance to it on that account."
To the delight of each of the girls, the invitation which they felt obliged to decline was changed to one for the week-end, so when they waved good-bye from the sleigh on their way to the station, it was with the prospect of a speedy return.
"'And they had feasting and merry-making for seventy days and seventy nights,'" quoted Mary, as the train drew into the city. "I used to wonder how they stood it for such a long stretch, but I know now. We have been celebrating ever since the mock Christmas tree at Warwick Hall—ages ago it seems—but there has been such constant change and variety that my interest is just as keen as when I started."
Mrs. Boyd and Lucy were at the flat waiting for them when they arrived, and after a light supper, eaten picnic fashion around the chafing-dish, they started off for the novel experience of a Christmas night among the children of the slums. Betty did find the material which Mrs. Boyd had promised, and came home so eager to begin writing the tale, that she was impatient for morning to arrive. Joyce found suggestions for two pictures for a child's story which she had to illustrate the following week, and Mary came home a bundle of tingling sympathies and burning desires to sacrifice her life to some charitable work for neglected children.
She was also a-tingle with another thought. At the corner where they changed cars on the way to the Mission, she had made a discovery. The bank where St. Boniface deposited its money loomed up ahead of them, massive and grim. The name showed so plainly on the brilliantly illuminated corner, that it almost seemed to leap towards them. It would be an easy matter to find by herself. Now she need not ask anybody, but could slip away from the girls early in the morning, and be on the steps first thing when the doors opened.
Fortunately for her plans, Joyce announced that they would have an early breakfast, in order that she might begin work as soon as possible. Mrs. Boyd and Lucy had not returned with them the night before, but had gone back to Brooklyn to finish their visit with their friends immediately after the exercises at the Mission. So only a small pile of dishes awaited washing when their simple breakfast was over. Mary insisted on attending to them by herself so that Betty could begin her story at once.
"Strike while the iron is hot!" she commanded dramatically. "Open while opportunity knocks at the door, lest she never knock again! I'll gladly be cook-and-bottle-washer in the kitchen while genius burns for artist and author in the studio! Scat! Both of you!"
So they left her, glad to be released from household tasks when others more congenial were calling. They heard her singing happily in the kitchenette, as she turned the faucet at the sink, and then forgot all about her, in the absorbing interest of the work confronting them. With so many conveniences at hand the washing of the dainty china was a pleasure to Mary, after her long vacation from such work. Quickly and deftly, with the ease of much practise, she polished the glasses to crystal clearness, laid the silver in shining rows in its allotted place, and put everything in spotless order.
Joyce heard her go into the bath-room to wash her hands, and thought complacently of Mary's wonderful store of resources for her own entertainment, wondering what she would do next. She had been asking questions about the roof garden, and how to open the scuttle. Probably she would be investigating that before long, getting a bird's-eye view of the city from the chimney tops.
"I believe she could find some occupation on the top of a church steeple," thought Joyce, recalling some of the things with which she had seen Mary amuse herself. There was the time in Plainsville when a burned foot kept her captive in the house, and she couldn't go to the neighbours. Always an indefatigable visitor, she amused herself with a pile of magazines, visiting in imagination each person and place pictured in the illustrations, and on the advertising pages. She played with the breakfast-food children, talked to the smiling tooth-powder ladies, and invented histories for the people who were so particular about their brands of soap and hosiery.
There was always something her busy fingers could turn to when tired of household tasks; bead-work and basket-weaving, embroidery, knitting, even strange feats of upholstering, and any repair work that called for a vigorous use of hammer and saw and paint-brush. A girl who could sit by the hour watching ants and spiders and bees, who could quote poems by the yard, who loved to write letters and could lose herself to the world any time in a new book, was not a difficult guest to entertain. She could easily find amusement for herself even in the top flat of a New York apartment house. So Joyce went on with her painting with a care-free mind.
Meanwhile Mary was slipping into her travelling suit, hurrying on hat and gloves and furs, and with her heart beating loud at her own daring, boldly stepping out into the strange streets by herself. It was easy to find the corner where they had taken the car the night before. Only one block to the right and then one down towards a certain building whose mammoth sign served her as a landmark. But the night before she had not noticed that the track turned and twisted many times before it reached the corner where they changed for the East Side car, and she had not noticed how long it took to travel the distance. Rigid with anxiety lest she should pass the place she kept a sharp look-out, till she began to fear that she must have already done so, and finally mustered up courage to tell the conductor the name of the bank at which she wished to stop.
"Quarter of an hour away, Miss," he answered shortly. So she relaxed her tension a trifle, but not her vigilance. There were a thousand things to look at, but she dared not become too interested, for fear the conductor should forget her destination, and she should pass it.
At last she spied the grim forbidding building for which she was watching, and almost the next instant was going up the steps, just three minutes before the clock inside pointed to the hour of opening. She could not see the time, however, as the heavy iron doors were closed, and the moments before they were swung open seemed endless. It seemed to her that people stared at her curiously, and her face grew redder than even the cold wind warranted. Then she heard the porter inside shoot the bolts back and turn the key, and as the door swung open she darted past him so suddenly that he fell back with a startled exclamation.
In her confusion all she saw was the teller's window, with a shrewd-eyed man behind its bars, looking at her so keenly that she was covered with confusion, and forgot the name of the man she wanted to see.
"I—I—think it is Wheatley," she stammered. "Any way he is awfully fat, and has two double chins, and married the president's daughter, and he takes up the collection at St. Boniface."
The man's mouth twitched under his bristling moustache, but he only said politely, "You probably mean Mr. Oatley. He's just come in." Then to Mary's horror, the man she had described rose from a desk somewhere behind the teller, and came forward pompously. It seemed to Mary that she stood there a week, explaining and explaining as one runs in a nightmare without making any progress, about dropping the wrong coin in the St. Boniface collection; an old family heirloom, something she would not have parted with for a fortune; then about telephoning to the rectory and to Oatley Crest. The perspiration was standing out on her forehead when she finished.
But in a moment the ordeal was over. A clerk was at that instant in the act of counting the money which Mr. Oatley had brought in to deposit. The shilling rolled out from among the quarters, and as she hurriedly repeated the date and inscription to prove her story, the coin was passed back to her with a polite bow.
She looked into her purse for the quarter which she had started to put into the collection, then remembered that she had loaned it to Joyce for car-fare the night before. There was a dollar in the middle compartment, and eager to get away, she plumped it down on the marble slab, saying hastily, "That's for the plate—what I should have put in instead of the shilling, and I can never begin to tell you how grateful I am to get this back."
In too great haste to see the amused glances that followed her, she hurried out to the corner to wait for a home-going car. While she stood there she opened her purse again for one more look at the rescued shilling. Then she gave a gasp. When she left the house the purse had held a nickel and a dollar. She had spent the nickel for car fare and left the dollar at the bank. Nothing was in it now but the shilling, and that was not a coin of the realm, even had she been willing to spend it. She would have to walk home.
"Now I am in for an adventure," she groaned, looking helplessly around at the hundreds of strange faces sweeping past her. "It's like 'water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.' People, people everywhere, and not a soul that I dare speak to."
Knowing that she could never find her way home should she undertake to walk all those miles, and that she would attract unpleasant attention if she stood there much longer, she started to stroll on, trying to decide what to do next. One block, two blocks and nearly three were passed, and she had reached no decision, when she came upon a motherly-looking woman and two half-grown girls, who had stopped in front of a window to look at a display of hats, marked down to half price. Mary stopped too. Not that she was interested in hats, but because she felt a sense of protection in their company.
"No, mamma," one of the girls was saying, "I'm sure we'll find something at Wanamaker's that will suit us better, and it's only a few blocks farther. Let's go there."
Wanamaker's had a familiar sound to Mary. The place where she had lunched only two days before would seem like home after these bewildering stranger-filled streets. So when the bargain-hunting trio started in that direction, she followed in their wake. They paused often to look in at the windows, and each time Mary paused too, as far from them as possible, since she did not want to call attention to the fact that she was following them.
The last of these stops was before a window which looked so familiar that Mary glanced up to see the name of the firm. Then she felt that she had indeed reached a well-known haven, for the name was the same that was woven in gold thread in the tiny silk tag inside her furs. It was the place where Joyce had brought her to select her Christmas present, and there inside the window was the pleasant saleswoman who had sold them to her. She had been so nice and friendly and seemed to take such an interest in pleasing them that Joyce had spoken of it afterward.
Then the woman recognized her—looked from the furs to the eager little face above them and smiled. It seemed incredible to Mary that she should have been remembered out of all the hundreds of customers who must pass through the shop every day, but she did not know that the sight of her delight over her gift had been the one bright spot in the saleswoman's tiresome day.
Instantly her mind was made up, and darting into the shop in her impetuous way, she told her predicament to the amused woman, and asked permission to telephone to her sister.
Joyce, painting away with rapid strokes, in a hurry to finish the stent she had set for herself, looked up a trifle impatiently at the ringing of the telephone bell. Her first impulse was to call Mary to answer it, but reflecting that probably the call would require her personal attention sooner or later, laid down her brush and went to answer it herself. She could hardly credit the evidence of her own ears when a meek little voice called imploringly, "Oh, Joyce, could you come and get me? I'm at the furrier's where you bought my Christmas present, and I haven't a cent in my pocket and don't know the way home."
"What under the canopy!" gasped Joyce, startled out of her self-possession. All morning she had been so sure that Mary was in the next room that it was positively uncanny to hear her voice coming from so far away.
"I've never known anything so spooky," she called. "I can't be sure its you."
"Well, I wish it wasn't," came the almost tearful reply. "I'm awfully sorry to interfere with your work, and you needn't stop till you get through. They'll let me wait here until noon. I've got a comfortable seat where I can peep out at the people on the street, and I don't feel lost now that you know where I am." Then with a little giggle, "I'm like the Irishman's tea-kettle that he dropped overboard. It wasn't lost because he knew where it was—in the bottom of the sea."
"Well, you're Mary, all right," laughed Joyce. "That speech certainly proves it. Don't worry, I'll get you home as soon as possible."
"Telephones are wonderful things," confided Mary to the saleswoman. "They are as good as genii in a bottle for getting you out of trouble. I should think the man who invented them would feel so much like a wizard, that he'd be sort of afraid of himself."
The woman answered pleasantly, and would, gladly have continued the conversation, but was called away just then to a customer. Hidden from view of the street by a large dummy lady in a sealskin coat and fur-trimmed skirt, Mary peeped out from behind it at the panorama rolling past the window. At first she was intensely interested in the endless stream of strange faces, but when an hour had slipped by and still they came, always strange, always different, a sense of littleness and loneliness seized her, that amounted almost to panic. She longed to get away from this great myriad-footed monster of a city, back to something small and familiar and quiet; to neighbourly greetings and friendly faces. The loneliness caused by the strange crowds depressed her. It was like a dull ache.
The moments dragged on. She had no way to judge how long she waited, but the hour seemed at least two. Then suddenly, through the mass of people came a well-known figure with a firm, athletic tread. A man, who even in this crowd of well-dressed cosmopolitans attracted a second look.
"Oh, it's Phil!" she exclaimed aloud, her face brightening as if the sun had suddenly burst out on a cloudy day. She wondered if she dared do such a thing as to tap on the window to attract his attention. She would not have hesitated in Plainsville or Phoenix, but here everything was so different. Somebody else might look and Phil never turn his head.
While she waited, half-rising from her chair, he stopped, looked up at the sign, and then came directly towards the door. Wondering at the strange coincidence that should bring him into the one shop in all New York in which she happened to be sitting, she started up, thinking to surprise him. Then the surprise was hers, for she saw that he was in search of her. With a word to the obsequious salesman who met him, he came directly towards her hiding-place behind the dummy in sealskin. His face lighted with a merry smile that was good to see as he crossed over to her with outstretched hand, saying laughingly:
"The lost is found! Well, young lady, this is a pretty performance! What do you mean by shocking your fond relatives and friends almost into catalepsy? I happened to drop in at the studio just as Joyce got your message, and she and Betty were at their wits' end to account for your disappearance."
"Oh, I'm so glad to see you," answered Mary. "You can't imagine! I'm even as glad as I was that time you happened along when the Indian chased me." She ignored his question as entirely as if he had not asked it.
He asked it again when they were presently seated on a homeward bound car. "What I want to know is, what made you wander from your own fireside?"
Mary felt her cheeks burn. She was prepared to make a full confession to the girls, but not for worlds would she make it to him. Quickly turning her back on him as if to look at something that had attracted her attention in the street, she groped frantically around in her mind for an answer. He leaned forward, peering around till he could see her face, and repeated the question.
"Oh," she answered indifferently, bending slightly to examine the toe of her shoe with a little frown, as if it interested her more than the question. "I just went out into the wide world to seek my fortune. You know I never had a chance before."
"And did you find it?"
She laughed. "Well, some people might not think so, but I'm satisfied."
"Did you have any adventures?" he persisted.
"Yes, heaps and heaps, but I'm saving them to go in my memoirs, so you needn't ask what they were."
"Lost on Broadway, or Arizona Mary's Mystery!" exclaimed Phil. "I shall never rest easy until I unearth it."
"Then you'll have a long spell of uneasiness," was the grim reply. "Horses couldn't drag it from me."
He had begun his questioning merely in a spirit of banter, but as she stubbornly persisted in her refusals, he began to think that she really had had some ridiculous adventure, and was determined to find out what it was. So he set traps for her, and cross-questioned her, secretly amused at the quick-witted way in which she continually baffled him.
"I see that you are sadly changed," he said finally, with a shake of the head. "The little Mary I used to know would have given the whole thing away by this time—would have blurted out the truth before she knew what she was doing. She was too honest and straight-forward to evade a question. But you've grown as worldly-wise as an old trout—won't bite at any kind of bait. Never mind, though, I'll get you yet."
Thus put on her guard, Mary refused to tell even the girls what had possessed her to take secret leave that morning, but as she passed Joyce in the hall she whispered imploringly, "Please don't ask me to tell now. It isn't much, but I don't want to tell while he's in the house. He has been teasing me so."
"I'd stay to lunch if anybody would ask me three times," announced Phil, presently. "I have to have my welcome assured."
"I'll ask you if Mary is willing," said Joyce, who had gone back to her work. "She has promised to be chef to-day."
Mary regarded him doubtfully, as if weighing the matter, then said, "I'm willing if he'll promise not to mention what happened this morning another single time. And he can order any two dishes in the cook-book that can be prepared in an hour, and I'll make them; that is, of course, if the materials are in the house."
"Then I choose doughnuts," was the ready answer. "Doughnuts with holes in them and sugar sprinkled over the top, and light as a feather; the kind you used to keep in a yellow bowl with a white stripe around it, on the middle shelf in the Wigwam pantry. Gee! But they were good! I've never come across any like them since except in my dreams. And for the second choice—let me see!" He pursed up his lips reflectively. "I believe I'd like that to be a surprise, so Mistress-Mary-quite-contrary, you may choose that yourself."
"All right," she assented. "But if it is to be a surprise I must have a clear coast till everything is ready."
Arrayed in a long apron of Joyce's, Mary stood a moment considering the resources of refrigerator and pantry. There were oysters on the ice. An oyster stew would make a fine beginning this cold day. There was a chicken simmering in the fireless cooker. Joyce had put it on while they were getting breakfast, intending to make some sort of boneless concoction of it for dinner. But it would be tender enough by the time she was ready for it, to make into a chicken-pie. In the days when Phil had been a daily guest at the Wigwam, chicken-pie was his favourite dish. That should be the surprise for him.
It was queer how all his little preferences and prejudices came back to her as she set about getting lunch. He preferred his lemon cut in triangles instead of slices, and he liked the cauliflower in mixed pickles, but not the tiny white onions, and he wanted his fried eggs hard and his boiled eggs soft. But then, after all, it wasn't so queer that she should remember these things, she thought, for the likes and dislikes of a frequent guest would naturally make an impression on an observant child who took part in all the household work. It was just the same with other people. She'd never forget if she lived to be a hundred how Holland put salt in everything, and Norman wouldn't touch apple-sauce if it were hot, but would empty the dish if it were cold.
"I can't paint like Joyce, and I can't write like Betty," she thought as she sifted flour vigorously, "but thank heaven, I can cook, and give pleasure that way, and I like to do it."
An hour would have been far too short a time for inexperienced hands to do what hers accomplished, and even Joyce, who knew how quickly she could bring things to pass, was surprised when she saw the table to which they were summoned. The oyster stew was the first success, and good enough to be the surprise they all agreed. Then the chicken-pie was brought in, and Phil, cutting into the light, delicately browned crust, declared it a picture in the first place, and a piece of perfection in the second place, tasting the rich, creamy gravy, and thirdly "a joy for ever," to remember that once in life he had partaken of a dish fit for the gods.
"Honestly, Mary, it's the best thing I ever ate," he protested, "and I'm your debtor for life for giving me such a pleasure."
Mary laughed at his elaborate compliments and shrugged her shoulders at his ridiculous exaggerations, but in her heart she knew that everything was good, and that he was enjoying each mouthful. A simple salad came next, with a French dressing. She had longed to try her hand at mayonnaise, but there wasn't time, and lastly the doughnuts, crisp and feather-light and sugary, with clear, fragrant coffee, whose very aroma was exhilarating.
"Here's a toast to the cook," said Phil, lifting the fragile little cup, and smiling at her through the steam that crowned it:
"Vive Marie! Had Eve served her Adam ambrosia half as good as this, raw apples would have been no temptation, and they would have stayed on in Eden for ever!"
It certainly was pleasant to have scored such a success, and to have it appreciated by her little world.
They might have lingered around the table indefinitely had not a knock on the door announced that Mrs. Maguire had come. It was her afternoon to clean.
"So don't cast any anxious eyes at the dishes, Mary," announced Phil. "We planned other fish for you to fry, this afternoon. I proposed to the girls to take all three of you out for an automobile spin for awhile, winding up at a matinee, but Joyce and Betty refuse to be torn from their work. They've seen all the sights of New York and they've seen Peter Pan, and they won't 'play in my yard any more.' The only thing they consented to do was to offer your services to help me dispose of this last day of my vacation. Will you go?"
"Will I go!" echoed Mary, sinking back into the chair from which she had just risen. "Well, the only thing I'm afraid of is that my enjoyer will be totally worn out. It has stood the wear and tear of so many good times I don't see how it can possibly stand any more. Why, I've been fairly wild to see Peter Pan, and I've felt so green for the last few years because I've never set foot in an automobile that you couldn't have chosen anything that would please me more."
"Hurry, then," laughed Phil. "You've no time to lose in getting ready. And don't you worry about your 'enjoyer'—it's the strongest part of your anatomy in my opinion. I've never known any one with such a capacity. It's forty-horse power at the very least."
Only a matinee programme was all that she brought back with her from that memorable outing, but long after it had grown yellowed and old, the sight of it in her keepsake box brought back many things. One was that sensation of flying, as they whirled through snowy parks and along Riverside drive, past historic places and world-famous buildings. And the delightful sense of being considered and cared for, and entertained, quite as if she had been a grown lady of six and twenty instead of just a little school-girl, six and ten.
How different the streets looked! Not at all as they had that morning, when she wandered through them, bewildered and lost. It was a gay holiday world, as she looked down on it from her seat beside Phil. She wished that the drive could be prolonged indefinitely, but there was only time for the briefest spin before the hour for the matinee. More than all, the programme brought back that bewitching moment when, keyed to the highest pitch of expectation by the entrancing music of the orchestra, the curtain went up, and the world of Peter Pan drew her into its magic spell.
It was a full day, so full that there was no opportunity until nearly bedtime to explain to the girls the cause of her morning disappearance. It seemed fully a week since she had started out to find her lost shilling, and such a trivial affair now, obscured by all that had happened afterward. But the girls laughed every time they thought about it while they were undressing, and Mary heard an animated conversation begin some time after she had gone to bed in the studio davenport. She was too sleepy to take any interest in it till Betty called out:
"Mary, your escapade has given me the finest sort of a plot for a Youth's Companion story. I'm going to block it out while I am here, and finish it when we get back to school. If it is accepted I'll divide the money with you, and we'll come back on it to spend our Easter vacation here."
Mary sat up in bed, blinking drowsily. "I'm honestly afraid my enjoyer is wearing out," she said in a worried tone. "Usually the bare promise of such a thing would make me so glad that I'd lie awake, half the night to enjoy the prospect. But somehow I can't take it all in."
Fortunately it was a tired body instead of a tired spirit that brought this sated feeling, and after a long night's sleep and a quiet day at home, Mary was ready for all that followed: a little more sight-seeing, a little shopping, another matinee, and then the week-end at Eugenia's. The short journey to Annapolis and the few hours with Holland did not take much time from the calendar, but judged by the pages they filled in her journal, and all they added to her happy memories, they prolonged her holidays until it seemed she had been away from Warwick Hall for months, instead of only two short weeks.
HER SEVENTEENTH BIRTHDAY
"Please, Miss Lewis, please do," came in a chorus of pleading voices, as half a dozen Freshmen surrounded Betty in the lower hall, one snowy morning late in January. "I think you might consent when we all want one so tremendously."
"Come on down, Mary Ware," called A.O., catching sight of a wondering face peering over the bannister, curious to see the cause of the commotion. "Come down here and help us beg Miss Lewis to be photographed. There's a man coming out from town this morning to take some snow scenes of the place, and we want her to pose for him. Sitting at the desk, you know, where she wrote her stories, with the editor's letter of acceptance in her hand. Some day when her fame is world-wide a picture of her wearing her first laurels will be worth a fortune."
"Oh, Betty! Have they really been accepted?" cried Mary, almost tumbling down the stairs in her excitement, and forgetting the respectful "Miss" with which she always prefaced her name when with the other girls.
Betty waved a letter which she had just received. "Yes, the editor took them both, and wants more—a series of boarding-school stories. One of these girls heard me telling Miss Chilton about it," she added, laughing, "and to hear them you would think it is an event of national importance."
"It is to us," insisted A.O. "We are so proud to think it is our teacher, our special favourite one, who's turned out to be a sure-enough author, and we aren't going to let you go until you promise to sit for a picture for us."
"Then I suppose I shall be forced to promise," said Betty, smiling down into the eager faces which surrounded her, and breaking away from the encircling arms which held her determinedly. It was good to feel that she had the ardent admiration of her pupils, though it was burdensome sometimes to contemplate that so many of them took her as a model.
"I'm going to write too, some day," she overheard one of them say as she made her laughing escape. "I'd rather be an author than anything else in the world. It's so nice to dash off a new book every year or so and have a fortune come rolling in, and everybody praising you and trying to make your acquaintance and begging for your autograph."
"It is not so easy as it sounds, Judith," Betty paused to say. "There's a long hard road to travel before one reaches such a mountain top as that. I've been at it for years, and I can only count that I've made a very small beginning of the journey."
Still, it seemed quite a good-sized achievement, when later in the morning she beckoned Mary into her room, and watched her eyes grow wide over the check which she showed her.
"One hundred dollars for just two short stories!" Mary exclaimed. "And you wrote most of them during Christmas vacation. Oh, Betty! How splendid!" Then she looked at her curiously. "How does it feel to be so successful at last, after being so bitterly disappointed?"
Betty, leaning forward against the desk, her chin in her hand, looked thoughtfully out of the window. Then after a pause she answered, "Glad and thankful—a deep quiet sort of gladness like a bottomless well, and a queer, uplifted buoyant feeling as if I had been given wings, and could attempt anything. There's nothing in the world," she added slowly, as if talking to herself, "quite so sweet as the realization of one's ambitions. I was almost envious of Joyce when I saw her established in a studio, at last accomplishing the things she has always hoped to do. And it was the same way when I saw Eugenia so radiantly happy in the realizing of her ambition, to make an ideal home for Stuart and her father and to be an ideal mother to little Patricia. In their eyes she is not only a perfect house-keeper, but an adorable home-maker.
"Lloyd, too, is having what she wanted this winter, the social triumph that godmother and Papa Jack coveted for her. Her ambition is to measure up to all their fond expectations, and to leave a Road of the Loving Heart in every one's memory. And she is certainly doing that. Her popularity is the kind that cannot be bought with lavish dinners and extravagant balls. She's just so winsome and dear and considerate of everybody that she's earned the right to be called the Queen of Hearts."
"And now all four of you are happy," remarked Mary, "for your dreams have come true. And seeing that makes me all the more determined to make mine come true."
"Oh, the valedictory that you are to win for Jack's sake," said Betty, coming out of the revery into which she had fallen for a moment.
"That's only one of the things," began Mary. "The others—" Then she stopped, hesitating to put in words the future she foresaw for herself. Sometimes in the daylight it seemed presumptuous for her to aspire to such heights. It was only when she lay awake at night with the moonlight stealing into the room, that such a future seemed reasonable and sure.
Unknowing that the hesitation held a half-escaped confidence, Betty did not wait for her to go on, but held up the check, saying, "You know this is a partnership story, and you are to get another trip to New York out of it. Putting your shilling in the Christmas offering was a good investment for both of us. If you hadn't I never would have thought of the plot which your adventure suggested."
"But you've made your story so different from what actually happened, that I don't see how I can have any claim on it at all," said Mary. "It's just your sweet way of giving me Easter Vacation with Joyce."
"Indeed it is not," protested Betty. "Some day I'll follow out the whole train of suggestions for you, how your shilling made me think of an old rhyme, and that rhyme of something else, and so on, until the whole plot lay out before me. There isn't time now. It is almost your Latin period."
Mary rose to go. "Once I should have been doubtful about accepting such a big favour from any one," she said slowly. "But I've found out now how delightful it is to do things for people you love with money you've earned yourself. Now Jack's watch-fob, for instance. He was immensely pleased with it. I know, not only from what he wrote himself, but from what mamma said. Yet his pleasure in getting it was not a circumstance to mine in giving it. Not that I mean it will be that way about the New York visit," she added hastily, seeing the amused twinkle in Betty's eyes. "Oh, you know what I mean," she cried in confusion. "That usually it's that way, but in this case it will be a thousand times blesseder to receive, and I never can thank you enough."
Throwing her arms around Betty's neck she planted an impetuous kiss on each cheek and ran out of the room.
Part of that first check went to the photographer, for every one of the fifteen Freshmen claimed a picture, and many of the Seniors who had worshipped her from afar when they were Freshmen, and she the star of the Senior class, begged the same favour. The one which fell to Mary's share stood on her dressing-table several days and then disappeared. She felt disloyal when some of the other girls who kept theirs prominently displayed, came in and looked around inquiringly. She evaded their questions but was moved to confess to Betty herself one day.
"I—I—sent your picture to Jack. Just for him to look at and send right back, you know, but he won't send it, I hope you don't mind. He says he needs it to keep him from forgetting what the ideal American girl is like. They don't have them in Lone-Rock. There isn't any young society there at all. And he was so interested in hearing about your literary successes. You know he has always been interested in you ever since Joyce came back from the first house-party and told us about you."
That Betty blushed when Mary proceeded to further confessions and quoted Jack's remarks about her picture is not to be wondered at, and that Mary should see the blush and promptly report it in her next letter to Jack was quite as inevitable. She had no idea how many times during his busy days his glance rested on the photograph on his desk.
It was not the typical American girl as portrayed by Gibson or Christy, but it pleased him better in every way. He liked the sweet seriousness of the smooth brows, the steady glance of the trustful brown eyes, and the little laughter lines about the mouth. Back in God's country, he sometimes mused, fellows knew girls like that. Played golf and tennis with them, rode with them, picnicked with them, sat out in the moonlight with them, talking and singing in a spirit of gay comradery that they only half-appreciated, because they had never starved for want of it as he was doing.
It hadn't been so bad at the Wigwam, for Joyce was always doing something to keep things stirred up; making the most of the material at hand. It wasn't that he minded the grind and the responsibility of his work. He would gladly have shouldered more in his zeal to push ahead. It was the thought that all work and no play was making him the proverbial dull boy, and that he would be an old man before his time, if he went on without anything to relieve the deadly monotony. The spirit of youth in him was crying out for kindred companionship.
All unconscious of the interest she was arousing, Mary filled her letters with reference to Betty; how they all adored her, and how she was always in demand as a chaperon, because she was just a girl herself and could understand how they felt and was such good fun. Presently when word came that she had scored another triumph, that one of the leading magazines had accepted a short story, Jack was moved to send her a note of congratulation.
Now Jack had been as well known to Betty as she to him since the days of the long-ago house-party. When he made his brief visit to The Locusts just before she left for Warwick Hall, they had met like old friends, each familiar with the other's past Unquestioningly she had accepted Papa Jack's estimate of him as the squarest young fellow he had ever met—"true blue in every particular, and a hustler when it comes to bringing things to pass."
Now for five months Mary had talked of him so incessantly, especially while they were visiting Joyce, that Betty had it impressed upon her mind beyond forgetting, that no matter what else he might be he was quite the best brother who had ever lived in the knowledge of man. In answer to her cordial little note of acknowledgment came a letter explaining in a frank straightforward way why he had kept her picture, and how he longed sometimes for the friendships and social life he could not have in a little mining-town. And because there was a question in it about Mary, asking the advisability of her taking some extra course she had mentioned, Betty answered it promptly.
Thus it came about without her realizing just how it happened, that she was drawn into a regular correspondence. Regular on Jack's side, at least, for no matter whether she wrote or not, promptly every Thursday morning a familiar looking envelope, addressed in his big businesslike hand, appeared on her desk.
February came, not only with its George Washington tea and Valentine party, but musicales and receptions and many excursions to the city. No day with any claim to celebration was allowed to pass unheeded. March held fewer opportunities, so Saint Patrick was made much of, and Mary's sorority planned a spread up in the gymnasium in his honour. She had never once mentioned that her birthday fell on the seventeenth also, not even when she first proudly displayed her bloodstone ring, which they all knew was the stone for March.
Nobody would have known that she had any especial interest in the date, had not Jack mentioned in one of his letters to Betty that Mary would be seventeen on the seventeenth, and he was afraid that his remembrance would not reach her in time, as he had forgotten the day was so near until that very moment of writing.
The whisper that went around never reached Mary. She helped decorate the table with sprigs of artificial shamrock and Irish flags, hunted up verses from various poets of Erin to write on the little harp-shaped place cards, and suggested a menu which typified the "wearin' o' the green" in every dish, from the olive sandwiches to the creme de menthe. To further carry out the colour scheme, the girls all came in their gymnasium suits of hunter's green, and the unconventional attire tended to make the affair more of a frolic than the elegant function which the sorority yearly aspired to give.
A huge birthday cake had been ordered in the jovial saint's honour, but nobody could tell how many candles it ought to hold since no one knew how many years he numbered. But Dorene solved the difficulty by saying, "Let X equal the unknown quantity, and just make a big X across the cake with the green candles."
Never once did Mary suspect that the spread was in her honour also, till she was led to the seat at the head of the table, where another birthday cake stood like a mound of snow with seventeen green candles all a-twinkle. She was overwhelmed with so much distinction at first. The musical little acrostic by the sorority poet gratified her beyond expression. Cornie Dean's toast almost brought the tears it was so sweet and appreciative, and the affectionate birthday wishes that circled around the table at candle-blowing time made her feel with a thankful heart that this early in her college life she had reached the best it has to offer, the inner circle of its friendships.
Each one told the funniest Irish bull she had ever heard, and then all sorts of conundrums and foolish questions were propounded, like, "Which would you prefer, to be as green as you look or to look as green as you are?" When the conversation touched on the birthstone for March, some one suggested that Mary ought to be made to do some stunt to show that she was worthy to wear a bloodstone, since it called for such high courage.
"Make her kiss the Blarney stone!" cried Judith Ettrick.
"At Blarney castle they let you down by the heels. That's the only way you can kiss the real stone. But Mary can hang by her knees from one of the turning-pole bars, and we'll build up a pyramid under her to put the Blarney stone on, so that she can barely reach it, you know. Make a shaky one that will topple over at a breath. That will make it harder to reach."
The suggestion was enthusiastically received by all but Mary, who felt somewhat dubious about making the attempt, when she saw them begin to catch up glasses and plates from the table with which to build the pyramid. But by the time the structure was completed and topped by a little china match-safe in the shape of a cupid, to represent the Blarney stone, she was ready for her part of the performance.
"That's what you get for being born in Mars' month," said Elise, as Mary balanced herself a moment on the bar, and then made a quick turn around it to limber herself.
"You wouldn't be expected to do such things if the signs of your zodiac were different."
"Look out!" warned Cornie. "You'll see more stars than the ones in your horoscope if you lose your grip."
"Abracadabra!" cried Mary gamely. "May I hold on to the pole, and the pole hold on to me till we've done all that's expected of us."
It was a dizzy moment for Mary, and a breathless one for all of them as she swung head downward over the tottering pile of china and glass ware. The china cupid was almost beyond her reach, but by a desperate effort she managed to swing a fraction of an inch nearer, and seizing its head in her mouth came up gasping and purple.
"Now what about being born in Mars' month!" she demanded triumphantly of Elise as soon as she could get her breath. "A bloodstone will do more for you any day than an agate."
Taking this as a challenge, all sorts of feats were attempted to prove the superior virtues of each girl's birthstone charm, so that the performance ended in a gale of romping and laughter. Then at the last, to the tune of "They kept the pig in the parlour and that was Irish too," Mary was gravely presented on behalf of the sorority with the gift it had chosen for her.
"For your dowry," it was marked. It was a toy savings-bank in the form of a china pig, with a slit in its back, into which each member dropped seventeen pennies, as they sang in jolly chorus,
"Because it's your seventeenth birthday, March seventeen shall be mirth-day. Oh, may you long on the earth stay, With pence a-plenty too."
"That's an example in mental arithmetic," cried A.O. "Quick, Mary! Tell us how much your dowry amounts to. Seventeen times sixteen—"
But Mary was occupied with a discovery she had just made. "There are just seventeen of us counting me!" she cried. "I never knew such a strange coincidence in numbers."
"If you save all your pennies till you have occasion for a dowry you'll have enough to buy a real pig," counselled Cornie wisely.
"More like a whole drove of them," laughed Mary. "That time is so far off."
"Not necessarily so far," was Cornie's answer. "Sometimes it is only a few steps farther when you are seventeen. Come on, before they turn out the lights on us."
Mary stopped in the door to look back at the room in which they had spent such a jolly evening. "I'd like to stop the clock right here," she declared, "and stay just at this age for years and years. It's so nice to be as old as seventeen, and yet at the same time to be as young as that."
Then she went skipping off to her room with the dowry pig in one hand and a green candle from the cake in the other, to report the affair to Ethelinda. They were not members of the same sorority, but they had many interests in common now. They had learned how to adjust themselves to each other. Mary still reserved her deepest confidences for her shadow-chum, but Ethelinda shared the rest.
TROUBLE FOR EVERYBODY
Up in Joyce's studio, Easter lilies had marked the time of year for nearly a week. They had been ordered the day that Betty and Mary arrived to spend the spring vacation, and still stood fresh and white at all the windows, in the glory of their newly opened buds. They were Henrietta's contribution. Mrs. Boyd and Lucy were away.
On the wall over the desk the calendar showed a fanciful figure of Spring, dancing down a flower-strewn path, and Mary, opening her journal for the first time since her arrival, paused to read the couplet at the bottom of the calendar. Then she copied it at the top of the page which she was about to fill with the doings of the last five days.
"How noiseless falls the foot of time That only treads on flowers."
"That must be the reason that I can hardly believe that three whole months have gone by since the Christmas holidays. I've trodden on nothing but flowers. Even though the school work was a hard dig sometimes, I enjoyed it, and there was always so much fun mixed up with it, that it made the time fairly fly by. As for the five days we have been here in New York, they have simply whizzed past. Miss 'Henry' has done so much to make it pleasant for us. She is great. She calls herself a bachelor maid, and if she is a fair sample of what they are, I'd like to be one. The day after we came she gave a studio reception, so that we could meet some of her famous friends. She wrote on a slip of paper, beforehand, just what each one was famous for, and the particular statue or book or painting that was his best known work, and instead of copying it, I'll paste the page in here to save time.
"It was a great event for Betty. Mrs. LaMotte, who does such beautiful illustrating for the magazines had seen Betty's last story, and asked her for her next manuscript. If she illustrates it, the pictures will be an open sesame to any editor's attention. She gave her so much encouragement too, and made some suggestions that Betty said would help her tremendously.
"One of the best parts of the whole affair to me was to see Joyce playing hostess in such a distinguished company. They all seem so fond of her, and so interested in her work, that Miss Henrietta calls her 'Little Sister to the Great.'
"I thought that I'd be so much in awe of them that I couldn't say a word. But I wasn't. They were all so friendly and ordinary in their manners and so extraordinary in the interesting things they talked about that I had a beautiful time. I helped serve refreshments and poured tea. After they had all gone Joyce came over and took me by the shoulders, and said 'Little Mary, is it Time or Warwick Hall that has made such a change in you? You are growing up. You've lost your self-conscious little airs with strangers and you are no longer a chatter-box. I was proud of you!'
"Maybe I wasn't happy! Joyce never paid me very many compliments. None of my family ever have, so I think that ought to have a place in my good times book.
"I've had a perfect orgy of sight-seeing—gone to all the places strangers usually visit, and lots besides. We've been twice to the matinee. Phil has been here once to lunch, and is coming this afternoon to take us away out of town in a big touring-car. We're to stop at some wayside inn for dinner. Then we'll see him again when we go out to Eugenia's for a day and night. We've saved the best till the last."
"Letters," called Joyce, coming into the room with a handful. "The postman was good to every one of us." She tossed two across the room to Betty, who sat reading on the divan, and one to Henrietta, who had just finished cleaning some brushes.
"Oh, mine is from Jack!" cried Mary joyfully. "But how queer," she added in a disappointed tone, when she had torn open the envelope. "There are only six lines." Then exclaiming, "I wish you'd listen to this!" She read aloud:
"Mamma thinks that your clothes may be somewhat shabby by this time, so here's a little something to get some fine feathers with which to make yourself a fine bird. You will find check to cover remainder of year's expenses waiting for you on your return to school. Glad you are having such a grand time. Keep it up, little pard.—Jack."
If Mary had not been so carried away with her good fortune, and so immediately engrossed in discussing the best way to spend the check she would have noticed that the envelope in Betty's lap was exactly like the one in her own, and that the same hand had addressed them both. Betty's first impulse was to read her letter aloud. It was so unusually breezy and amusing. But remembering that she had never happened to mention her correspondence with Jack to Mary, and that her surprise over it might lead her to say something before Henrietta that would be embarrassing, she dropped it into her shopping bag as soon as she had read it, and said nothing about it.
That is how it happened to be with her when she accompanied Mary that afternoon on her joyful quest of "fine feathers." They went to many places, and at last found a dress which suited her and Joyce exactly. Some slight alteration was needed, and while the two were in the fitting room, Betty passed the time by taking out the letter for a second reading. A glance at the post-mark showed that it had been delayed somewhere on the road. It should have reached her the day that she left Warwick Hall. It had been forwarded from there. She had grown so accustomed to his weekly letter that she missed it when it did not come, and had wondered for several days why he had failed to write. Now she confessed to herself that she was glad the fault was with some postal clerk, and that Jack had not forgotten. She turned to the last page.
"I don't know why I should be telling you all this. I hope it does not bore you. I usually wait till my hopes and plans work out into something practical before I mention them; but lately everything has gone so well that I can't help being sanguine over these new plans, and it makes their achievement seem nearer to talk them over with you. It certainly is good to be young and strong and feel your muscle is equal to the strain put upon it. This old world looks just about all right to me this morning."
When Mary came dancing out of the fitting room a few minutes later her first remark was so nearly an echo of Jack's that Betty smiled at the coincidence.
"Oh, isn't this a good old world? Everybody is so obliging. They are going to make a special rush order of altering my dress, and send it out by special messenger early in the morning, so that I can have it to take out to Eugenia's. I'm holding fast to my new spring hat, though. I can't risk that to any messenger boy. Phil will just have to let me take it in the automobile with us."
Promptly at the hour agreed upon, Phil met them at the milliner's. As Betty predicted he did laugh at the huge square bandbox which Mary clung to, and inquired for the bird-cage which was supposed to be its companion piece. But Mary paid little heed to his teasing, upheld by the thought of that perfect dream of a white hat which the derided box contained. Her only regret was that she could not wear it for him to see. Joyce and the mirror both assured her that it was the most becoming one she ever owned, and it seemed a pity that it was not suitable for motoring. The wearing of it would have added so much to her pleasure. However, the thought of it, and of the new dress that was to be sent up in the morning, ran through her mind all that afternoon, like a happy undercurrent. She said so once, when Phil asked her what she was smiling about all to herself.
"It's just as if they were singing a sort of alto to what we are doing now, and making a duet of my pleasure; a double good time. Oh, I wish Jack could be here to see how happy he has made me!"
The grateful thought of him found expression a dozen times during the course of the drive. When they stopped for dinner at the quaint wayside inn she wished audibly that he were there. Somehow, into the keen enjoyment of the day crept a wistful longing to see him again, and the ache that caught her throat now and then was almost a homesick pang. Going back, as they sped along in the darkness towards the twinkling lights of the vast city, she decided that she would write to him that very night, before she went to sleep, and make it clear to him how much she appreciated all he had done for her. He was the best brother in the world, and the very dearest.
Phil went up with them when they reached the entrance to the flats. He could not stay long, he said, but he must see the contents of that bandbox. The air of the studio was heavy with the fragrance of the Easter lilies, and he went about opening windows at Joyce's direction, while she and the other girls unwound themselves from the veils in which they had been wrapped, and put a few smoothing touches to their wind-blown hair. Joyce was the first to come back to the studio. She carried a letter which she had picked up in the hall.
"This seems to be a day for letters," she remarked. "This is a good thick one from home." She made no movement to open it then, thinking to read it aloud after Phil had taken his leave. But when Mary joined them, and he seemed absorbed in the highly diverting process they made of trying on the new hat, she opened the envelope to glance over the first few pages. She read the first paragraph with one ear directed to the amusing repartee. Then the smile suddenly left her face, and with a startled exclamation she turned back to re-read it, hurrying on to the bottom of the page.
"Oh, what is it?" cried Mary in alarm. Joyce had looked up with a groan, her face white and shocked. She was trembling so that the letter shook perceptibly in her hand.
"There has been an accident out at the mines," she answered, trying to steady her voice, "and Jack was badly hurt. So very badly that mamma didn't telegraph us, but waited to see how it would terminate. Oh, he's better," she hurried to add, seeing Mary grow faint and white, and sit down weakly on the floor beside the bandbox. "He is going to live, the doctors say, but they're afraid—" Her voice faltered and she began to sob. "They're afraid he'll be a cripple for life! Never walk again!"
Throwing herself across the couch, she buried her face in the cushions, crying chokingly, "Oh, I can't bear to think of it! Oh, Jack! how could such an awful thing happen to you!"
Sick and trembling, Mary sat as if dazed by a blow on the head, her stunned senses trying to grasp the fact that some awful calamity had befallen them; that out of a clear sky had dropped a deadly bolt to shatter all the happiness of their little world. For an instant the thought came to her that maybe she was only having a dreadful dream, and in a few moments would come the blessed relief of awakening. But instead came only the sickening realization of the truth, for Joyce, with an imploring gesture, held the letter out to Phil for him to read aloud.
Mrs. Ware had written as bravely as she could, trying not to alarm or distress them unduly, but there could be no disguising or softening one terrible fact. Jack, strong, sinewy, broad-shouldered Jack, whose strength had been his pride, lay as helpless as a baby, and all the hope the physicians could give was that in a few months he might be able to go about in a wheeled chair. They had had three surgeons up from Phoenix for a consultation. A trained nurse was with him at present and they must not worry. Of course they mustn't think of coming home. Joyce could do most good where she was, if later on they should have to depend on her partly, as one of the bread-winners. And Mary must make the most of the rest of the year at school. Jack had sent the check for the balance of her expenses only the morning before the accident occurred.
Mary waited to hear no more. With the tears streaming down her face, and her lips working pitifully, she scrambled up from the floor, and ran into the next room, shutting the door behind her. The hurt was too deep for her to bear another moment, in any one's presence. She must go off with it into the dark alone.
There was a page or two more, giving some details of the accident. Some heavy timbers had fallen while they were making some extensions, and Jack had been crushed under them. The blow on the spine had caused paralysis of both limbs. When Phil finished the last sentence, he sat staring helplessly at the floor, wishing he could think of something to say; something comforting and hopeful, for Joyce's shoulders still heaved convulsively, and Betty was crying quietly over by the window. But he could find no grain of comfort in the whole situation. Mrs. Ware had rejoiced in the fact that his life had been spared, but to Phil, death seemed infinitely preferable to the crippled helpless half-existence which the future held out for poor Jack.
Of all the young fellows of his acquaintance, he could think of none on whom such a blow would fall more crushingly. He had counted so much on his future. Phil got up and began to pace back and forth at the end of the long studio, his hands in his pockets, recalling the days of their old intimacy on the desert. Scene after scene came up before him, till he felt a tightening of the throat that made him set his teeth together grimly. Then Joyce sat up and began to talk about him brokenly, with gushes of tears now and then, as one recalls the good traits of those who have passed out of life.
"He was so little when papa died, but he's tried to take his place in every way possible, ever since. So unselfish and uncomplaining—always taking the brunt of everything! You know how it was, Phil. You saw him a thousand times giving up his own pleasure to make life easier for us. And it doesn't seem right that just when things were getting where he could reach out for what he wanted most, it should be snatched away from him!"
"I wish Daddy were home," sighed Phil. "I'd take him out for a look at him. I can't believe that it is so hopeless as all that. And anyhow, I've always felt that Daddy could put me together again if I were all broken to bits. He has almost performed miracles several times when everybody else gave the case up. But he won't be back for months and maybe a whole year."
"Oh, it's no use hoping, when the three best surgeons in Phoenix give such a report," said Joyce gloomily. "If it was anything but his spine, it wouldn't be so bad. We've just got to face the situation and acknowledge that it means he'll be a life-long invalid. And I know he'd rather have been killed outright."
"And it was just before his accident," said Betty, wiping her eyes, "that he wrote to me so jubilantly about his plans. He said he couldn't help being sanguine over them. It was so good to be young and strong and feel that your muscle was equal to the strain put upon it, and that the old world looked about all right to him that morning. It is going to be such a disappointment to him not to be able to send Mary back to school."
"Poor little Mary!" said Phil. "All this is nearly going to kill her. She is so completely wrapped up in Jack, I am afraid that it will make her bitter."
"Isn't it strange?" asked Betty. "I was wondering about that while we were out at the Inn this evening. She was in such high spirits, that I thought of that line from Moore:
"'The heart that is soonest awake to the flowers, Is always the first to be touched by the thorns,'
and thought if she should take sorrow as intensely as she does her pleasures, any great grief would overwhelm her."
They had been discussing the situation for more than an hour, when the door from the bedroom opened, and Mary came out. Her eyes were red and swollen as if she had been crying a week, but she was strangely calm and self-possessed. She had rushed away from them an impetuous child in an uncontrollable storm of grief. Now as she came in they all felt that some great change had taken place in her, even before she spoke. She seemed to have grown years older in that short time.
"I am going home to-morrow," she announced simply. "I would start to-night if it wasn't too late to get the Washington train. I shall have to go back there to pack up all my things."
"But, Mary," remonstrated Joyce, "mamma said not to. She said positively we were to stay here and you were to make the most of what is left to you of this year at school."
"I know," was the quiet answer. "I've thought it all over, and I've made up my mind. Of course you mustn't go back. For no matter if the company does pay the expenses of Jack's illness and allows him a pension or whatever it was mamma called it, for awhile, you couldn't make fifty cents there where you could make fifty dollars here. So for all our sakes you ought to stay. But as long as I can't finish my course, a few weeks more or less can't make any difference to me. And I know very well I am needed at home."
"But Jack—he'll be so disappointed if you don't get even one full year," argued Joyce, who had never been accustomed to Mary's deciding anything for herself. Even in the matter of hair-ribbons she had always asked advice as to which to wear.
"Oh, I can make it all right with Jack," said Mary confidently. "I wouldn't have one happy moment staying on at school knowing I was needed at home. And I am needed every hour, if for nothing more than to keep them all cheered up. When I think of how busy Jack has always been, and then those awful days and weeks and years ahead of him when he can't do anything but lie and think and worry, I'm afraid he'll almost lose his mind."
"If mamma only hadn't been so decided," was Joyce's dubious answer. "It does seem that you are right, and yet—we've never gone ahead and done things before without her consent. I wish we could talk it over with her."
"Well, I don't," persisted Mary. "I'm going home and I'm perfectly sure that down in her heart she'll be glad that I took matters in my own hands and decided to come—for Jack's sake if nothing else."
"Then we'd better telegraph her to-night—"
"No," interrupted Mary, "not until I'm leaving Washington. Then it will be too late for her to stop me."
"Oh, dear, I don't know what to do about it," sighed Joyce wearily, passing her hand over her eyes.
"Just help me gather up my things," was the firm reply. The big bandbox still stood open in the middle of the floor and the hat with its wreath of white lilacs lay atop just as Mary had dropped it. She stooped to pick it up with a pathetic little smile that hurt Phil worse than tears, and stood looking down on it as if it were something infinitely dear.
"The last thing Jack ever gave me," she said as if speaking to herself. "It doesn't seem possible that it was only this afternoon we bought it. It seems months since then—my last happy day!"
Henrietta's latch-key sounded in the lock of the front door, and Phil rose to go, knowing the situation would all have to be explained to her. No, there was nothing he could do, they assured him. Nothing anybody could do. And promising to come around before train-time next morning he took his leave, heart-sick over the tragedy that had ruined Jack's life, and would always shadow the little family that had grown as dear to him as his own.
THE GOOD-BYE GATE
Fortunately they were so late in getting to the station that there was no time for a prolonged leave-taking. Phil hurried away to the baggage-room to check their trunks. Henrietta made a move as if to follow. Her overwrought sympathies kept her nervously opening and shutting her hands, for she dreaded scenes, and would not have put herself in the way of witnessing a painful parting, had she not thought she owed it to Joyce to stand by her to the last.
Joyce noticed the movement, and divining the cause, said with a little smile, as she laid a detaining hand on her arm, "Don't be scared, Henry. We are not going to have any high jinks, are we, Mary. We made the old Vicar's acquaintance too early in the game and have been practising his motto too many years to go back on him now. We're going to keep inflexible, no matter what happens. Aren't we, Mary?"
For several minutes Mary had been seeing things through a blur of tears, which came at the thought of what a long parting this might be. There was no telling when she would see Joyce again. It might be years. But she answered a resolute yes, and Joyce went on.
"Why, we taught it even to Norman when he wasn't more than a baby. 'Swallow your sobs, and stiffen,' we'd say, and he'd gulp them down every time, and brace up like a little soldier. Oh, if I'd just flop and let myself go I could cry myself into a shoestring in five minutes. But thanks to early discipline we're not going to do it. Are we, Mary?"
By this time Mary could only shake her head in reply, but she did it resolutely, and the determination carried her safely through the parting with Joyce. But Phil almost broke down the self-control she was struggling to maintain, when he came back with the checks and hurried aboard the train with her and Betty. Taking both her hands in his he looked down with both voice and face so full of tender sympathy, that her lips quivered and her eyes filled with tears.
"You brave little thing!" he exclaimed in a low tone. "If there is ever anything that I can do to make it easier, let me know, and I'll come. Promise me now. You'll let me know."
"I—I promise," she answered, faltering over the sob that rose in her throat as she tried to speak, but smiling bravely up at him.
With one more hand-clasp that spoke sympathy and understanding even more than his words had done, and somehow left her with a sense of being comforted and protected, he went away. But half way down the aisle he turned and dashed back, drawing a little package from his pocket as he came.
"Something to read on the way," he explained. "Wait till you get to that lonesome stretch of desert," Then with a smile that she carried in her memory for years, he said once more, "Good-bye, little Vicar! Remember, I'll come!"
He swung down the steps at the front end of the car just as the train started, and through the open window she had one more glimpse of him, as he stood there lifting his hat. Farther back, at the station gate Joyce waited with her arm linked in Henrietta's, for the moment when Mary's last glance should be turned to seek her. She met it with a blithe wave of her handkerchief, and Mary waved vigorously in response. It was a long time before she turned away from the window. When she did she had nearly recovered her self-control, and grateful for Betty's considerate silence, she busied herself with her suit-case a few minutes, fumbling with the lock, and making a pretence of repacking, in order to find room for the book that Phil had brought.
The night before, in the first numb apathy of the shock, it had seemed to her that nothing mattered any more. Nothing could make the dreadful state of affairs more bearable; but now she acknowledged to herself that some things did help. How wonderfully comforting Phil's assurance of sympathy had been; the silent assurance of that firm, tender hand-clasp. It was easier to be brave since he had called her so and expected it of her.
Betty, in a seat across the aisle, opened a magazine, but Mary could not settle down to read. A nervous unrest kept her going over and over in her mind, as she had done through the previous night, the scenes that lay ahead of her. There was the packing, and she checked off on her fingers the many details that she must be sure to remember. There were those borrowed books she mustn't forget to return. Her scissors were in Cornie's room. Miss Gilmer had her best basketry patterns. There were so many things that finally she made a memorandum of them, dully wondering as she did so how she could think of them at all. One would have supposed that the awful disaster that was continually in her thoughts would have blotted out these little commonplace trivial concerns. But they didn't. She couldn't understand it.
Presently the sound of a low crooning in the seat behind her made her glance over her shoulder. An old coloured mammy, in the whitest of freshly starched aprons and turbans, was rocking a child to sleep in her arms. He was a dear little fellow, pink and white as an apple-blossom, with a Teddy bear hugged close in his arms. One furry paw rested on his dimpled neck. The bit of Uncle Remus song the nurse was singing had a soothing effect on him, but it fell dismally on Mary's ears:
"Oh, don't stay long! Oh, don't stay late! My honey, my love. Hit ain't so mighty fur ter de Good-bye Gate, My honey, my love!"
"The Good-bye Gate!" she repeated to herself. That was what they had come to now, she and Jack. Not a little wicket through which one might push his way back some day, but a great barred thing that was clanging behind them irrevocably, shutting them away for ever from the fair road along which they had travelled so happily. Shutting out even the slightest view of those far-off "Delectable Mountains," towards which they had been journeying. In the face of Jack's misfortune and all that he was giving up, her part of the sacrifice sank into comparative insignificance. Her suffering for him was so great that it dulled the sharpness of her own renunciations, and even dulled her disappointment for Joyce. The year in Paris had meant as much to her as the course at Warwick Hall had meant to Mary.
All through the trip she sat going round and round the same circle of thoughts, ending always with the hopeless cry, "Oh, why did it have to be? It isn't right that he should have to suffer so!" Once when the train stopped for some time to take water and wait on a switch for the passing of a fast express, she opened her suit-case and took out her journal and fountain-pen. Going on with the record from the place where she had dropped it the day before when Jack's letter interrupted it, she chronicled the receipt of the check, the shopping expedition that followed, and the gay outing afterward in the touring-car. Then down below she wrote:
"But now I have come to the Good-bye Gate. Good-bye to all my good times. So good-bye, even to you, little book, since you were to mark only the hours that shine. Here at the bottom of the page I must write the words, 'The End.'"
When they reached Warwick Hall she was too tired to begin any preparations that night for the longer journey, and still so dazed with the thought of Jack's calamity to be keenly alive to the fact that this was the last night she would ever spend in the beloved room. She was thankful to have it to herself for these last few hours, and thankful when Betty and Madam Chartley finally went out and left her alone. She was worn out trying to keep up before people and to be brave as they bade her. It was a relief to put out the light and, lying there alone in the dark, cry and cry till at last she sobbed herself to sleep.
Not till the next morning did she begin to feel the wrench of leaving, when the fresh fragrance of wet lilacs awakened her, blowing up from the old garden where all the sweetness of early April was astir. Then she remembered that she would be far, far away when the June roses bloomed at Commencement, and that this was the last time she would ever be wakened by the blossoms and bird-calls of the dear old garden.
She sat up and looked around the room from one familiar object to another, oppressed and miserable at the thought that she would never see them again. Then her glance rested on Lloyd's picture, and for once the make-believe companionship of Lloyd's shadow-self brought a comfort as deep as if her real self had spoken. She held out her arms to it, whispering brokenly:
"Oh, you understand how hard it is, don't you, dear? You're the only one in the world who does, because you had to give up all this, too."
Gazing at the pictured face through her tears, she recalled how Lloyd had met her disappointment, trying to live each day so unselfishly that she could go on, stringing the little pearls on her rosary.
"If you could do it, I can too," she said presently. "And the best of having such a chum is I needn't leave you behind when I leave school. You are one thing that I don't have to give up."
That picture was the last thing she put into her trunk. She left it hanging on the wall while she did all the rest of her packing, that she might glance at it now and then. It helped wonderfully to remember that Lloyd had had the same experience. Madam Chartley came in while she was in the midst of her preparations for leaving, glad to find her making them with her usual energy and interest When in answer to her offers of assistance Mary assured her there was nothing any one could do, she said, "I'll not stay then, except to say one thing that I may not have opportunity for later." She paused and laid her hands on Mary's shoulders, looking down at her searchingly and kindly.
"I want you to know this—that I have never had a pupil whom I parted from as reluctantly as I shall part from you. Your enthusiasm and love of school have been a joy to your teachers and an inspiration to every girl in Warwick Hall. If it were merely a matter of expense I would not let you go, but under the circumstances I have no right to interfere. You ought to go. And my dear little girl, remember this, whenever regrets come up for the school days brought so suddenly to a close, that school is only to prepare us to meet the tests of life, and already you have met one of its greatest—'To renounce when that shall be necessary, and not be embittered!' And you are doing that so bravely that I want you to know how much I admire and love you for it."
To Madam's surprise the words of praise did not carry the comfort she intended. Mary's arms were thrown around her neck and a tearful face hidden on her shoulder, as leaning against her she sobbed, "Oh, Madam Chartley! I wish you could feel that way about me, but honestly I haven't stood the test. I can renounce for myself, and not feel bitter, but I can't renounce for Jack! It makes me wild whenever I think of all he has to give up. It isn't right! How could God let such an awful thing happen to him, when he has always lived such a beautiful unselfish life?"
Drawing her to a seat beside the window, Madam sat with an arm around her, until the sobs grew quiet, and then began to answer her question—the same old cry that has gone up from stricken souls ever since the world began. And Mary, listening, felt the comfort and the uplift of a strong faith that had learned to go unfaltering through the sorest trials, knowing that out of the worst of them some compensating good should be wrested in the end. For months afterwards, whenever that bitter cry rose to her lips again, she stilled it with the remembrance of those words. Sometime, somehow, even this terrible calamity should be made the stepping-stone to better things. How such a thing could come to pass Mary could not understand, but Madam's faith that such would be so, comforted her. It was as if one little glimmering star struggled out through the blackness of the night, and in the light of that she plucked up courage to push on hopefully through the dark.
That afternoon just as her trunk was being carried out, the 'bus drove up, bringing back its first instalment of returning pupils. Cornie Dean was among them, and Elise and A.O. Mary, looking out of the window, heard the familiar voices, and feeling that their questions and sympathy would be more than she could bear, caught up her hat and hand-baggage, and ran over to Betty's room to wait there until time to go.
"No, I can't see any of them, please." she begged, when Betty came in to say how distressed and shocked they all were to hear about Jack, and to know that she was leaving school. They were all crying over it, and wanted to see her, if only for a moment.
"No," persisted Mary. "It would just start me all off again to hear one sympathetic word, and my eyes are like red flannel now. I've already said good-bye to Madam, and I'm going to slip out without speaking to another soul."
"You'll have to speak to Hawkins," said Betty. "For he is lying in wait for you with such a box of lunch as never went out of this establishment before. He asked Madam's permission to put it up for you himself. He told her about your binding up his hands the day the chafing-dish turned over and burned him so badly, and about the letter you wrote for one of the maids that got her sister into a school for the blind, and several other things, winding up with 'There's a young lady with a 'eart in 'er, Ma'am!'"
Betty mimicked his accent so well that Mary laughed for the first time since her return. "Well, he's got a 'eart in 'im!" she answered, "though I never would have imagined it the day I made my entrance here. He was like a grand, graven image. Oh, Betty, it is nice to know that people like you and are sorry that you are going. Even if it does make you feel sort of weepy it takes a big part of the sting out of leaving."
Betty went with her in to Washington, and stayed with her until the train left. Hawkins was the only one they encountered on their way out, and Mary took the proffered lunch-box with a smile that was very close to tears. Her voice faltered over her words of thanks, and when she had been handed into the 'bus she dared not trust herself to look back at the faithful old servitor in the doorway. Once, just as they swung around the curve that hid the beautiful grounds from sight, she leaned out for one more look, then hastily pulled down her veil.
At the station, as they sat waiting for her train, Betty said, "I'll write every week and tell you all the news, but don't feel that you must answer regularly. I know how your time will be occupied. But I should like a postal now and then, telling me how Jack is. You know," she went on, stooping to retie her shoe, "he and I have been corresponding for some time, and I think of him as one of my oldest and best friends. I shall always be anxious for news of him."
Betty could fairly feel the surprise in Mary's face, even though she was stooping forward too far to see it, and she heard with inward amusement her astonished exclamations. "Well, of all things! I didn't know you were writing to each other! Jack never said a word about it, and yet he sent you a message nearly every time he wrote to me!"
She was still puzzling about it when her train was called, and she had to take leave of Betty. All too soon the last familiar face was out of sight, and the long, lonely journey home was begun.
It was near the close of the third day's journey when she remembered Phil's book and took it out of its wrappings. She was not in a reading humour, but time hung heavy, and he had said to open it when she reached the desert. Besides, she was a trifle curious to see what kind of a book he had chosen for her. It was a very small one. She could soon skim through it.
"The Jester's Sword" was the title. Not a very attractive subject for any one in her mood, she thought. It would be a sorry smile at best that the gayest of jesters could bring to her. She turned the leaves listlessly, then sat up with an air of attention. There on the title-page was a line from Stevenson, the very thing Madam Chartley had said to her the day she left Warwick Hall. "To renounce when that shall be necessary, and not be embittered."
Phil had chosen wisely after all if his little tale were to tell her how to do it. Then a paragraph on the first page claimed her attention. "Because he was born in Mars' month, the bloodstone became his signet, sure token that undaunted courage would be the jewel of his soul."
Why, she and Jack were both born in Mars' month, and each had a bloodstone, and each had to answer to an awful call for courage. It was dear of Phil to choose such an appropriate story. Settling herself comfortably back in the seat, she began to read, never dreaming what a difference in all her after life the little tale was to make.
THE JESTER'S SWORD
Because he was born in Mars' month, which is ruled by that red war-god, they gave him the name of a red star—Aldebaran; the red star that is the eye of Taurus. And because he was born in Mars' month, the bloodstone became his signet, sure token that undaunted courage would be the jewel of his soul.
Now all his brothers were as stalwart and as straight of limb as he, and each one's horoscope held signs foretelling valorous deeds. But Aldebaran's so far out-blazed them all, with comet's trail and planets in most favourable conjunction, that from his first year it was known the Sword of Conquest should be his. This sword had passed from sire to son all down a line of kings. Not to the oldest one always, as did the throne, though now and then the lot fell so, but to the one to whom the signs all pointed as being worthiest to wield it.
So from the cradle it was destined for Aldebaran, and from the cradle it was his greatest teacher. His old nurse fed him with such tales of it, that even in his play the thought of such an heritage urged him to greater ventures than his mates dared take. Many a night he knelt beside his casement, gazing through the darkness at the red eye of Taurus, whispering to himself the words the old astrologers had written, "As Aldebaran the star shines in the heavens, so Aldebaran the man shall shine among his fellows."
Day after day the great ambition grew within him, bone of his bone and strength of his sinew, until it was as much a part of him as the strong heart beating in his breast. But only to one did he give voice to it, to the maiden Vesta, who had always shared his play; Now it chanced that she, too, bore the name of a star, and when he told her what the astrologers had written, she repeated the words of her own destiny:
"As Vesta the star keeps watch in the heavens above the hearths of mortals, so Vesta the maiden shall keep eternal vigil beside the heart of him who of all men is the bravest."
When Aldebaran heard that he swore by the bloodstone on his finger that when the time was ripe for him to wield the sword he would show the world a far greater courage than it had ever known before. And Vesta smiling, promised by that same token to keep vigil by one fire only, the fire that she had kindled in his heart.
One by one his elder brothers grew up and went out into the world to win their fortunes, and like a restless steed that frets against the rein, impatient to be off, he chafed against delay and longed to follow. For now the ambition that had grown with his growth had come to be more than bone of his bone and strength of his sinew. It was an all-consuming desire which coursed through him even as his heart's blood; for with the years had come an added reason for the keeping of his youthful vow. Only in that way could Vesta's destiny be linked with his.
When the great day came at last for the Sword to be put into his hands, with a blare of trumpets the castle gates flew open, and a long procession of nobles filed through. To the sound of cheers and ringing of bells, Aldebaran fared forth on his quest. The old king, his father, stepped down in the morning sun, and with bared head Aldebaran knelt to receive his blessing. With his hand on the Sword he swore that he would not come home again, until he had made a braver conquest than had ever been made with it before, and by the bloodstone on his finger the old king knew that Aldebaran would fail not in the keeping of that oath.
With the godspeed of the villagers ringing in his ears, he rode away. Only once he paused to look back, when a white hand fluttered at a casement, and Vesta's sorrowful face shone down on him like a star. Then she, too, saw the bloodstone on his finger as he waved her a farewell, and she, too, knew by that token he would fail not in the keeping of his oath.
'Twas passing wonderful how soon Aldebaran began to taste the sweets of great achievement. His name was on the tongue of every troubador, his deeds in every minstrel's song. And though he travelled far to alien lands, scarce known by hearsay even to the folk at home, his fame was carried back, far over seas again, and in his father's court his name was spoken daily in proud tones, as they recounted all his honours.
Young, strong, with the impetuous blood begotten of success tingling through all his veins, he had no thought that dire mishap could seize on him; that pain or malady or mortal weakness could pierce his armour, which youth and health had girt about him. From place to place he went, wherever there was need of some brave champion to espouse a weak one's cause. It mattered not who was arrayed against him, whether a tyrant king, a dragon breathing fire, or some hideous scaly monster that preyed upon the villages. His Sword of Conquest was unsheathed for each; and as his courage grew with every added victory, he thirsted for some greater foe to vanquish, remembering his youthful vow.
And as he journeyed on he pictured often to himself the day of his returning, the day on which his vow should find fulfilment. How wide the gates would be thrown open for his welcome! How loud would swell the cheers of those who thronged to do him honour! His dreams were always of that triumphal entrance, and of Vesta's approving smile. Never once the shadow of a thought stole through his mind that it might be far otherwise. Was not he born for conquest? Did not the very stars foretell success?
One night, belated in a mountain pass, he sought the shelter of a shelving rock, and with his mantle wrapped about him lay down to sleep. Upon the morrow he would sally forth and beard the Province Terror in his stronghold; would challenge him to combat, and after long and glorious battle would rid the country of its dreaded foe. Already tasting victory, he fell asleep, a smile upon his lips.
But in the night a storm swept down the mountain pass with sudden fury, uprooting trees a century old, and rending mighty rocks with sword thrusts of its lightning. And when it passed Aldebaran lay prone upon the earth borne down by rocks and fallen trees. Lay as if dead until two passing goat-herds found him and bore him down in pity to their hut.
Long weeks went by before the fever craze and pains began to leave him, and when at last he crawled out in the sun, he found himself a poor misshapen thing, all maimed and marred, with twisted back and face all drawn awry, and foot that dragged. One hand hung nerveless by his side. Never more would it be strong enough to use the Sword. He could not even draw it from its scabbard.
As in a daze he looked upon himself, thinking some hideous nightmare had him in its hold. "This is not I!" he cried, in horror at the thought. Then as the truth began to pierce his soul, he sat with starting eyes and lips that gibbered in cold fear, the while they still persisted in their fierce denial. "This is not I!"
Again he said it and again as if his frenzied words could work a miracle and make him as he was before. Then when the sickening sense of his calamity swept over him like a flood in all its fulness, he cast himself upon the earth and prayed to die. Despair had seized him. But Death comes not at such a call; kind Death, who waits that one may have a chance to rise again and grapple with the foe that downed him, and conquering, wipe the stigma coward from his soul.