The blind was drawn within a few inches of the sill, but these inches allowed him a glimpse of a blazing fire, and while he lingered a shadow flitted across the curtain in its direction, and then another, until in his mind's eye he beheld Margaret Elizabeth and Uncle Bob seated beside the hearth. For aught he knew, it might be Augustus McAllister making an evening call, but the Candy Man was just then too determinedly optimistic to harbour such an idea.
As he passed on he was occupied in trying to picture to himself her ladyship sitting before her fire, but that familiar little grey hat, which was so entirely inappropriate, would persist, in spite of all he could do, in getting into the picture. Only once, when curling plumes took its place, had he seen her without it, and though for an instant he would succeed in removing it, presto! before he knew it, there it was again, jammed down anyhow on her bright hair.
With odds in favour of the hat, the struggle came to a sudden pause at sight of a tall figure leaning heavily and in evident pain against one of the ornamental iron fences which prevailed along this street. At once proffering his assistance, he recognised Mr. Knight, the Miser.
It was plain the sufferer would have preferred to decline help. It would soon pass. It was nothing. He had had such attacks before. He spoke brokenly, adding, "I thank you," in a tone of dismissal.
The Candy Man showed himself to be, when occasion demanded, a masterful person. Without arguing the point, he supported the Miser with a firm arm and began to urge him in the direction of his home. Mr. Knight, half fainting as he was, submitted without a word until his door was reached; then, there being no response to his companion's vigorous ring, he murmured something about the servants having gone, and began to fumble in his pocket.
The Candy Man, taking the latch key from his trembling fingers, opened the door, and ignoring the evident expectation conveyed in his renewed thanks, continued to assert authority, supporting the invalid into his library. "I shall not leave you alone until you are relieved," he said.
Again Mr. Knight submitted to his captor's will, and lying back in his arm-chair directed him to the restorative that was prescribed for these seizures. When it had been administered he lay quiet with closed eyes.
The Candy Man now turned his attention to the fire, which had burned low, coaxing it skilfully out of its sullen apathy. He was brushing up tidily, when Mr. Knight, to whose face the colour was returning, spoke.
"You are very kind," he said, adding as the Candy Man felt his pulse and nodded his satisfaction, "are you a physician?"
"No," was the smiling answer. "Merely something of a nurse. My father was an invalid for some years."
The sick man said "Ah!" his eyes resting, perhaps a little wistfully, upon the vigorous young fellow before him. "Don't let me keep you," he added. "I am quite relieved, and my housekeeper will return very shortly from church."
Instead of leaving him the Candy Man sat down. "I have nothing to do this evening, Mr. Knight, and unless you turn me out forcibly I mean to stay with you till some member of your household comes in."
"I fear my strength is hardly equal to turning you out," the Miser replied with a smile. "You are most kind." Then after a pause he added apologetically: "Will you kindly tell me your name? Your face is familiar, but my memory is at fault."
"My name is Reynolds, Robert Reynolds, and I am at present conducting a candy wagon on the Y.M.C.A. corner. That is where you have seen me." He had no mind to sail under false colours again.
The sick man's "Indeed!" was spoken with careful courtesy, but his surprise was plain enough.
The Candy Man leaned forward, an arm on his crossed knee; his eyes met those of the older man frankly. "It is not my chosen profession," he said. "I happened to be free to follow any chance impulse, and the opportunity offered to help in this way a friend in need. It may have been foolish. I am alone in the world, and entirely unacquainted here. I should not care for the permanent job, but there's more in it than you would suppose. More enjoyment, I mean."
"I recall now you mentioned the Little Red Chimney," said Mr. Knight.
The Candy Man grew red. Why had he been so imprudent? The Miser's memory certainly might be worse.
"And now I know why your face is so familiar," the invalid went on. "I sat opposite to you in the car going to the park one Sunday morning. My physician prescribes fresh air. And later I saw you with that bright-faced young girl, Miss Bentley. You were talking together in the pavilion near the river. You both seemed exceedingly merry. I envied you. I seemed to realise how old and lonely I am. I think I envied you her friendship."
"Your impression is natural," answered the Candy Man, "but the truth is I do not know Miss Bentley. We met unexpectedly in the pavilion that morning. I did not at the time realise it, I was unpardonably dense, but she took me for some one else. On the occasion of the accident that foggy evening—you perhaps remember it—I overheard the name she gave to the conductor. Well, it seems she had no idea she was talking to a Candy Man that morning in the park, and I should have known it."
The Miser leaned his head on a thin hand, and certainly there was nothing sordid, nothing mean, in the eyes which looked so kindly at his companion. It was not perhaps a strong face, nor yet quite a weak one; rather it indicated an over-sensitive, brooding nature. "You will not always be a Candy Man," he said. "I have made Miss Bentley's acquaintance recently. She is friendliness itself."
At this moment a grey slip of a woman, with a prayer-book in her hand, entered, and was presented as Mrs. Sampson, the housekeeper. The Candy Man rose to go, but Mr. Knight seemed now in no haste to release him.
"I should be glad to see you again, if some evening you have nothing better to do," he said. "You may perhaps be interested in some of my treasures." He glanced about the room. "You say you too are alone in the world?"
"Quite," the Candy Man answered. "Everyone I know has some relative, or at least an hereditary friend, but owing to the peculiar circumstances of my life, I have none. I do not mean I am friendless, you understand. I have some school and college friends, good ones. It is in background I am particularly lacking," he concluded.
"I have allowed my friends to slip away from me," confessed the Miser. "It was the force of circumstances in my case, too, though I brought it upon myself. I have been justly misunderstood."
"'Justly misunderstood.'" The Candy Man repeated the words to himself as he walked home in the frosty night. They were strange words, but he did not believe them irrational.
Shows how Miss Bentley and the Reporter take refuge in a cave, and how in the course of the conversation which follows, she hears something which disposes her to feel more kindly toward the Candy Man; shows also how Uncle Bob proves faithless to his trust, and his niece finds herself locked out in consequence.
"Let's pretend we are pursued by wild Indians and take refuge in this cave."
The scene was one of those afternoon crushes which everybody attends and few enjoy. Miss Bentley, struggling with an ice, which the state of the atmosphere rendered eminently desirable, and the density of the crowd made indulgence in precarious, addressed her next neighbour, whom she had catalogued as a nice, friendly boy. "It's Mr. Brown, isn't it?" she added in triumph at so easily associating the name with the face.
The young man's beaming countenance showed his delight. "Good for you, Miss Bentley! It would be great. Let me have your plate while you squeeze in."
This corner behind a mass of greens seemed to have been left with the intention of protecting an elaborate cabinet that occupied a shallow recess. However it might be, here was a refuge, difficult of access, but possible. Margaret Elizabeth held on to her hat and dived in.
"Grand!" she cried. "This is beyond my wildest hopes," and she perched herself on a short step-ladder, left here no doubt by the decorators, and held out her hands for the plates. Mr. Brown found a more lowly seat beneath a bay tree. They looked at each other and laughed.
"My position is a ticklish one, so to speak," he observed, vainly trying to dodge the palm leaves to the right of him; "but I think we are reasonably safe from pursuit."
"I haven't the remotest idea where my aunt is," Margaret Elizabeth remarked, eating her ice in serene unconcern.
"Say, Miss Bentley, I have heard my cousin speak of you—Augustus McAllister, you know."
"Are you Mr. McAllister's cousin?" Miss Bentley's tone and smile left it to be inferred that this fact above any other was a passport to her favour. It must be regretfully recognised, however, that it would have been the same if Mr. Brown had mentioned the market-man.
Having thus successfully established his claim to notice, the Reporter, as was his custom, went on to explain that he belonged to the moneyless branch of the family.
Margaret Elizabeth assured him, in a grandmotherly manner, that it was much better for a young man to have his way to make in the world than to have too much money.
The Reporter owned this seemed to be the consensus of opinion. How the strange notion had gained such vogue he could not understand, but there was no use kicking when you were up against it.
"Of course, it must be hard work, but it must be interesting. Don't you have exciting experiences?" Miss Bentley asked.
Oh, he had, certainly, and met such queer people, too. There was a fellow who ran a Candy Wagon on the Y.M.C.A. corner, for instance. "You ought to meet him, really, Miss Bentley, though, of course, you couldn't very well. He's a character, and I have puzzled my brains to discover what he's doing it for."
Miss Bentley was interested and requested further enlightenment.
"Well, I have two theories in regard to him. He is an educated man, and a gentleman, so far as I can tell, and I think he is either studying some social problem, or he is a detective on some trail."
"I never thought——" began Margaret Elizabeth. "I mean," hastily correcting herself, "I should never have thought of such an explanation."
"He's up to something, you may be sure," Mr. Brown continued. "I like to talk to him, and do, every chance I get."
Margaret Elizabeth certainly showed a flattering interest in all the Reporter had to say. "Some day when you have become a great editor," she assured him at parting, "I shall refer proudly to the afternoon when we sat together in a cave and ate ice cream."
"Oh, now, Miss Bentley," the Reporter protested in some embarrassment, "I'm sure I shall always think of it with pride, whatever I get to be, though that probably won't be much."
This conversation was not without its influence upon Miss Bentley's subsequent attitude toward the Candy Man. That some one else had found him a unique and interesting personality was reassuring, and the thought that he might be engaged on some secret mission was novel and suggestive. She began to reconsider and readjust, and in future, although she still avoided the Y.M.C.A. corner, she allowed her thoughts to turn once in a while in that direction.
Meanwhile she paid two more visits to the Miser's library, on these occasions laying deliberate siege to his reserve with all the charm of her bright friendliness. She asked questions about his beloved prints; intelligent questions, for Margaret Elizabeth had grown up in an atmosphere of appreciation for things rare and fine. She chatted about her father and his work, and even ventured some wise advice about fresh air and its tonic effect. Indeed, it is a cause for wonder that she was able at the same time to collect the material which took shape later in that most erudite paper.
Under this invasion of youth and gaiety, the sombre, student atmosphere became charged with a new, electric current. It was not owing solely to Miss Bentley, however, for Sunday evening now frequently found the Candy Man dropping in sociably to chat with Mr. Knight in his library.
In these days the Miser often sat leaning his head on his hand, a meditative, half whimsical expression on his face, as if he found both wonder and amusement in the chance that had so strangely brought these young people across his threshold.
One Sunday afternoon the Pennington motor, having deposited Margaret Elizabeth at the Vandegrift gate, with a scornful snort went on its swift way to more select regions. It was the first really cold weather of the season, and while she waited at the door Margaret Elizabeth examined the thermometer, and then buried her nose in her muff. "Dear me!" she exclaimed impatiently. "Why doesn't somebody come?"
She rang again with no uncertain touch upon the button this time, and then, crunching across the frozen grass, peeped in at her own window, where a glimpse of smouldering fire rewarded her. She returned to the door to ring and rap, still with no response.
This was a most unusual state of affairs, for it was an inexorable decree of Dr. Prue's that the telephone must never be left alone. Somebody must have gone to sleep. The cold and the darkness deepened and it became more and more evident that she was locked out. What should she do? After canvassing the situation thoroughly, she could think of nothing for it but to seek refuge with the Miser. Her acquaintance in the neighbourhood was limited. Miss Kitty the dressmaker had gone to vespers, and her cottage was dark. The apartment house was too far away. From the Miser's library she could watch for the light which would betoken the waking up of the delinquent one. So across the street, her nose in her muff, ran Margaret Elizabeth.
The little housekeeper, Mrs. Sampson, who opened the door, was all solicitude. Such a cold evening to be locked out! She knew Mr. Knight would be glad to have her wait in the library. He had stepped out for a little walk, though she had warned him it was too cold. Thus saying, Mrs. Sampson ushered her in, and followed to see if the fire was all it should be.
It was, for the Candy Man had just given it a vigorous poking and put on fresh coal. The room was full of its pleasant light.
Mrs. Sampson was surprised to find him there. "Miss Bentley, this is Mr. Reynolds, a friend of Mr. Knight's," she explained, adding that Miss Bentley was locked out, and wished to sit by the window and watch for her uncle to come back. "And if you'll excuse me, Miss Bentley, the cook has her Sunday evenings out, and I get supper myself," she added as she withdrew.
Margaret Elizabeth and the Candy Man faced each other in silence for a second or two, then she said, very gravely indeed, "I am glad to meet you, Mr. Reynolds."
"Thank you, Miss Bentley. May I give you a chair?" he asked.
"Thank you, I will sit here by the window." The window was some distance from the fire, but as she sat down Margaret Elizabeth loosened her furs as if she felt its heat.
The Candy Man waited, uncertain what course he should pursue.
"Please sit down, Mr. Reynolds. I should like to talk to you, now the opportunity has so unexpectedly offered." She regarded him still seriously, her hands clasped within her large muff. "I think you owe me an explanation."
"I am not sure I understand." The Candy Man's heart was beating in an absurd and disconcerting way, but he would keep his head and follow her lead.
"Of course you are aware that you allowed me to talk to you that morning in the park, in a—most unsuitable manner, without even——"
"How could I?" cried the Candy Man entreatingly. "I did not know."
"Did not know what?" demanded Miss Bentley sternly, as he hesitated.
"I thought perhaps—I was dreadfully lonely, you see, and I thought—it was preposterous—but I hoped you—don't you see?—didn't mind talking to an unknown Candy Man."
"Oh! was that it?" exclaimed Margaret Elizabeth in a tone difficult to interpret. Did she think it preposterous, or not? It seemed to indicate she found something preposterous. "Then you were disappointed in me," she added.
Never would the Candy Man admit such a thing. He had realised since then what a cad he must have seemed, but——
"That, however, is neither here nor there," she continued, "since I did not recognise you. It was——"
"Preposterous?" he suggested.
"Yes, preposterous, to suppose that I could. Why, it was nearly dark that afternoon, and I——"
"Please don't rub it in. I know. You see I knew you so well."
"Me?" cried Margaret Elizabeth.
"I had seen you pass, I mean."
Again Miss Bentley said "Oh!" adding: "You are also the person who laughed when I made an idiotic remark about lighthouses in the grocery."
The Candy Man protested. He had not laughed.
"Your eyes laughed. That is how I first discovered my mistake. Your resemblance to Mr. McAllister is remarkable."
"So I have been told." The Candy Man shrugged his shoulders, ever so little.
"However, to go back, I think you owe me an explanation, Mr. Reynolds, considering how you allowed me to talk to you under a false impression. I am not absolutely lacking in grey matter," she added, while a smile curled her lips, "and I think you owe it to me to tell me why you became a Candy Man."
"In return for the Fairy Godmother idea?" he asked mischievously.
Miss Bentley's brows drew together. "If you knew how bitterly I have regretted all the foolish things I said that day, you would not laugh," she cried.
"Do not say that, please, Miss Bentley. I beg your pardon, and I am not laughing. I could not. If you only knew what it all meant to me. How I——"
His distress was so genuine that Margaret Elizabeth was touched. "Well, never mind now. It can't be helped, and I am willing to have it in return for the Fairy Godmother nonsense, if you choose to put it so."
And now perforce the Candy Man must explain himself.
"You see," he began, "I had been knocked out of everything through a bad accident that occurred at my home near Chicago—a runaway. Speaking of grey matter, there was some doubt for a time whether mine was not permanently injured. However, I gradually recovered, but I was still forbidden for another six months at least to do any brain work, and ordered by my doctor to loaf in the fresh air. Doing nothing when you are longing to get to work is no easy job. I left home with the intention of going South, and stopped off here for no particular reason. Perhaps I should have said that I have no family. My father died something over a year ago. Oddly enough, in front of the station here I met an Irish woman, once a servant in my father's house. She was overjoyed to see me, and poured out her troubles. Her son, who ran a candy wagon, had been taken ill with fever, and his employers would not promise to keep the place for him, and altogether she was in hard lines, this boy being the main support of a large family. So now you see how the idea occurred to me. To amuse myself and keep the boy's place. And having no family or friends to be disgraced——"
"No one has intimated there was any disgrace about it," Miss Bentley interrupted. "At worst it can be called eccentric. It was also very, very kind."
"Oh, now, Miss Bentley, thank you, but I can't let you overrate that. Any help I have given was merely by the way. You must remember I was in need of some occupation, and I assure you it has been very much of a lark."
"Yes?" said Miss Bentley. "Then no doubt before long you will be writing 'The Impressions of a Candy Man,' or 'Life as Seen from a Candy Wagon.' It will be new."
"Thanks for the suggestion, I'll consider it. But for the chance that made me a Candy Man I should have missed a great deal—for one thing, a realisation of the opportunity that awaits the Fairy Godmother Society."
"But Tim will soon be about again," said Margaret Elizabeth.
"Then I must look out for another job; but your remark implies some further knowledge of Tim. I was not aware I had mentioned his name even."
Miss Bentley bit her lip, then decided to smile frankly. "I met Tim the other day," she said. "My cousin, Dr. Vandegrift, often visits St. Mary's, and I sometimes go with her. Tim is a nice boy, and full of praises for the kind gentleman who has done so much for him."
"And also, let me add, for the lovely young lady who gave him a red rose, and——"
Margaret Elizabeth laughed. There was no getting ahead of this Candy Man. Had he known all along, or had he just guessed? "I see a light at last," she said, rising. "I must go, or they will be wondering what has become of me." ...
"Yes, I know it was my afternoon in," said Uncle Bob plaintively, while Margaret Elizabeth made toast at the grate and Dr. Prue set the table. "I merely ran over to the drug store for a second, but Barlow was there and I got to talking."
"It is quite unnecessary to explain, but I do wish, father, you would refrain from speaking as if you were required to stay in. It was your own proposition to let Nancy go. I could have made other arrangements." Dr. Prue was aggrieved. There was no telling how many telephone calls had been unanswered.
Margaret Elizabeth laughed. "You are absolutely untrustworthy, Uncle Bob. Hereafter I shall carry a latch key."
"By the way, who was that young man who brought you home?" the doctor asked.
"His name is Reynolds. He is a stranger here. I have met him once or twice." This casual explanation was accompanied by side glances which indicated to Uncle Bob that there was more in it than appeared on the surface.
Margaret Elizabeth had been extremely reserved upon the subject of the Candy Man. Uncle Bob had not heard a word of it till now, when, beside the Little Red Chimney hearth, supper having been cleared away, and Dr. Prue resting with a book on the office lounge, she told him the whole story.
"You don't say so! That beats anything I ever heard. Well, I said it would come out all right, didn't I?" Margaret Elizabeth's narrative was punctured, as Mrs. Partington would have said, with many exclamations such as these.
"I own you were right. It isn't as bad as it seemed. He is really very gentlemanly and nice. Still, it is a bit awkward too," she added thoughtfully.
It is possible she was thinking of Mrs. Gerrard Pennington at the moment.
In which the Little Red Chimney keeps Festival, and the Candy Man receives an unexpected Invitation.
The Candy Man, letting himself in at his lodging house, one gloomy Sunday afternoon, stumbled upon a deputation of pigeons, in a state of fluttering impatience.
"She said to wait, and we thought you were never, never coming!" was their chorus.
"Never is a long day," said the Candy Man. "What will you have?"
It appeared they were the bearers of a missive which read briefly and to the point: "Her ladyship requests the pleasure of the Candy Man's presence at the Pigeons' Christmas Tree, at four o'clock this afternoon."
It had seemed to the Candy Man that he was altogether outside the holiday world, that for him Christmas had ended with his visit to the hospital that afternoon. He had ventured to send a basket of fruit to his fellow lodgers, the invalid professor and his wife, and had played Santa Claus to two or three newsboys who frequented the Y.M.C.A. corner and to the small Malones, and the state of his exchequer scarcely warranted anything more. The social calendar in the morning paper overflowed with festivities for the week, and he had pleased his fancy by picturing Miss Bentley, radiant and lovely, in the midst of them. He, the lonely Candy Man, without the pale, could yet enjoy her pleasure in imagination. And lo! this lonely Candy Man was bidden to a tree on Christmas Eve, by her ladyship. He could not believe his eyes.
"It takes you a long time to read it," said Virginia. "You'd better come. It's late."
Dark was beginning to fall outside, but the Little Red Chimney room was full of firelight when the Candy Man was ushered in, in the wake of the children, by cordial Uncle Bob. It was a frolicsome, magical light that played about a row of red stockings hanging from the shelf above it; that advanced to the farthest corner and then retreated; that coaxed and dared the unlighted Christmas tree by the piano to wake up and do its part; that gleamed in Miss Bentley's hair as she seated the pigeons in a semicircle on the rug.
Was it the magic of the firelight, or the absence of the grey hat, or the blue frock with its deep white collar, or, or—The Candy Man got no further with his questions, for just then Margaret Elizabeth turned and gave him her hand, explaining that they were so much stiller when they sat on the floor. She added that it was very good of him to come—a purely conventional and entirely inaccurate statement. He was also instructed to sit on the sofa with Uncle Bob.
"And now," began Miss Bentley, standing with her back to the row of red stockings and looking into the upturned faces, "we are going to be rather quiet, for this, you know, is both Christmas Eve and Sunday. First, we'll sing 'While Shepherds Watched,' very softly."
She sat down at the piano and struck a few chords, then her voice rose, clear and sweet, the pigeons following her lead, a bit quaveringly at first, but doing wonderfully well considering they were not song birds. "She's been training them for weeks," Uncle Bob whispered.
After this came "Stille Nacht," and Uncle Bob joined in, and then the Candy Man, and presently the entrance of Dr. Prue was proclaimed by a vigorous alto. The effect was most gratifying to the performers, and from the piano Margaret Elizabeth murmured, "Very good."
When the singing was over she took her seat on a low ottoman in the midst of the children, who drew closer. "Next," she said, patting the hand Virginia slipped within her arm, "comes the story, which on Christmas Eve everybody should either hear or read for himself."
Stillness fell on the Little Red Chimney room, the pigeons listened in breathless absorption, while, forgetting herself and her audience, her hands loosely clasped on her knees, Margaret Elizabeth began the story which, as often as it may be told, yet throbs with tenderness and wonder. As she went on her eyes grew dark and deep, and in her face shone something more than the sweetness and charm hitherto so endearing. Was it a prophecy? A glimpse into the unsounded heart of her?
Dr. Prue shaded her eyes with her hand; Uncle Bob wiped his glasses; the Candy Man's soul was stirred within him, but he gave no sign.
"And they brought gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh, to the little Child in the manger; so now in keeping his birthday, we give each other gifts and are happy because of the wonderful night so long ago," ended Margaret Elizabeth.
After that it was no longer still in the Little Red Chimney room. Uncle Bob set the tree alight, and her ladyship distributed the red stockings. Nobody was left out, not even the Candy Man, or Nancy and Jenny hovering in the background.
Upon occasions like the Pigeons' Christmas Tree we long to linger, but they are evanescent. The Candy Man must see the children home after a few brief words with Miss Bentley.
"The Fairy Godmother Society must have been organised, and my name entered among its beneficiaries," he told her.
"I am glad if you liked it," she replied. "I thought you would. To-morrow I am going to Pennington Park to stay till after New Year's, but Christmas Eve belonged by rights to the Little Red Chimney." She smiled, and the Candy Man nodded understandingly.
This much in the midst of the chatter that accompanied the putting on of small coats and leggings.
"And I may hope that I am forgiven?" he had a chance to add as she gave him her hand at parting.
Miss Bentley's eyes twinkled. "It will do no harm to hope," she told him.
The Candy Man, his red stocking protruding from his overcoat pocket, conducted the noisy flock to their homes, then turning southward he walked on and on toward the edge of the town. As is fitting on Christmas Eve, a fine snow had begun to fall, sifting silently over everything, transforming even the ugly and pitiful with a mantle of beauty.
The Candy Man, striding on through the night, felt an unreasoning joy as he thought of Margaret Elizabeth telling the story with the firelight on her face. The world seemed throbbing with expectancy. Who could tell what splendid event awaited its near fulfilment?
In which a radical change of atmosphere is at once noticed; which shows how Miss Bentley repents of a too coming-on disposition, and lends an ear to the advantages of wealth.
The Christmas fire was not cold upon the hearth of the Little Red Chimney before Miss Bentley was whisked away to other scenes, into an atmosphere so different that of necessity things took on another aspect.
Mrs. Gerrard Pennington found intense satisfaction in her niece's social success. Given every advantage, she pointed out, one could never tell how a girl would take, and Dick had brought up his daughter in such an odd way. Yet in spite of everything, even this awkward arrangement of living in two places, Margaret Elizabeth was popular beyond her fondest hopes.
There were not wanting those who remarked that it would be a marvel if she were not spoiled. Probably they were right, and Margaret Elizabeth, at the flood tide of her social career, courted, feted, the kingdoms of this world at her feet, was in danger.
"And who sent this?" Mrs. Pennington demanded.
It was Christmas Day, and "this" was an Indian basket of holly and mistletoe, conspicuous, among many costly floral offerings, by its simplicity. The card which accompanied it read, "To her Ladyship, from the Candy Man," but this Mrs. Pennington had not seen.
"Oh," answered her niece, "I don't know how to tell you who he is. He is a stranger here—a Mr. Reynolds. I met him at Mr. Knight's, where you remember I went to get some material for my paper for the Tuesday Club."
This was all true, and, unaccompanied by a heightened colour, might have allayed her aunt's lurking suspicions, born of that unexplained interview in the park with some one who was not Augustus.
Only once had Mrs. Pennington referred to this, asking half jokingly if Margaret Elizabeth had ever discovered the identity of that person; putting a somewhat disdainful emphasis upon "person."
"Never," Margaret Elizabeth could at that time assure her, and she added, "I do not expect to, and certainly do not wish to."
Mrs. Pennington, however, had her intuitions in regard to this unknown individual. She anticipated his reappearance, and, like a wise general, in time of peace prepared for war. Keeping her vague fears to herself, she increased her vigilance.
Annoyed because of that uncalled-for blush, far away from the Little Red Chimney, with fairy-tales forgot, Margaret Elizabeth repeated her aunt's question. After all, who was Mr. Reynolds? That which had so lately seemed an adventure compounded of kindliness and fun, she now beheld only as an awkward situation. She began to feel that she had overstepped the bounds in asking him to the Christmas tree; and the red stocking! What nonsense! Why should she have felt concerned over his loneliness? Were there not many lonely people in the world? Might he not infer from it all a rather excessive interest in him and his affairs? Her interview with Tim at the hospital, for instance, though it had come about by the purest chance, looked on the surface as if she had been bent upon investigating him.
The Candy Man's offering, which she at first found so happily significant and appropriate, now began to seem almost a piece of presumption. It lay ignored if not forgotten, till its brown and withered contents were tossed into the fire by one of the maids. Did Miss Bentley wish her to save the basket?
No, Miss Bentley cared nothing for it. Or, wait—she liked sweet grass, and on second thought she would keep it.
Never had the holiday season been so gay. There was not time for a minute's connected thought. Margaret Elizabeth honestly tried to keep her promise to stop and reflect for at least ten minutes a day, but either she went to sleep, or fell into a waking dream that bore small relation to the sober realities upon which she was supposed to dwell.
There were guests at Pennington Park for the holidays—English friends of her uncle and aunt, persons of a broader culture than Margaret Elizabeth had ever before encountered. They afforded her an object lesson of the best that accrues from wealth and tradition, and is only to be attained by means of them. Within herself she was aware of an aptitude of her own for these things.
But half divining her niece's mood, Mrs. Gerrard Pennington skilfully and subtly fostered it, and Augustus McAllister, with unexpected tact, followed her lead.
Augustus was genuinely in love, and it brought out the best that was in him. For the first time in his life something resembling humility manifested itself, a humility which sat gracefully upon the possessor of variously estimated millions. It seemed to say: "Here is one who, although not brilliant, may be led into any desirable path." And with his other substantial attractions he combined his full share of good looks.
To be unresponsive was not in Miss Bentley's make-up, and the attentions of Augustus assumed in these days a delicate and pleasing character. What girl could be indifferent to the prestige born of the generally accepted opinion that the position of mistress of the Towers was hers for the word?
In truth, all this homage—and Augustus was far from being alone in it—was to Margaret Elizabeth an exciting game, that need not be taken too seriously. It was only when she thought of the Candy Man that she became serious and annoyed. How impossible, in the atmosphere of Pennington Park, appeared any explanation or justification of so absurd a position as his!
When, after a morning recital by the Musical Club, Miss Bentley was seen walking down the avenue with Augustus McAllister, society seized upon it as confirming an interesting rumour. It was absurd, of course. Margaret Elizabeth did it quite innocently. She really felt the need of exercise in the open air, and could not very easily dismiss Mr. McAllister, who had accompanied her aunt and herself to the concert, and who also felt the need of air.
Did she think of the Candy Man when they passed the Y.M.C.A. corner? Yes, she did. Though she gave not so much as half a glance in the direction of the Candy Wagon, she hoped he was not too busy to observe. It might counteract possible false impressions in the past.
A few days later there appeared in a column of the Evening Record, given up to such matters, an item regarding the soon-to-be-announced engagement of a certain charming and beautiful girl, only recently a resident of the city, and a young man of wealth and social position.
It brought Miss Bentley up short. She disliked newspaper gossip extremely, and an allusion so faintly veiled that everyone must understand, was under the circumstances most embarrassing, for the truth was she had not been asked. Her cheeks burned. Yet it was thanks only to some clever fencing on her part, and perhaps some words of caution to Augustus from his mentor, that she had not been, and she knew in her heart it must come soon.
Just when you were having a good time and did not wish to be bothered, it was tiresome to have to decide momentous questions, she told herself almost fretfully, as she was borne swiftly and smoothly downtown one afternoon. There was the usual detention at the Y.M.C.A. corner, and Margaret Elizabeth looked out and almost into the Candy Wagon before she knew it. But there was no cause for alarm. Beneath the white cap of the Candy Man shone the round Irish countenance of Tim Malone.
Was it Tim after all who had viewed her triumphal walk down the avenue? The question brought not a hint of a smile to Miss Bentley's lips; and this was a very grave symptom.
If Uncle Bob had been within reach! But he wasn't. He had run down to Florida to look after his orange grove, and Dr. Prue was up to her eyes in grip cases. There was every reason why Margaret Elizabeth should stay on at Pennington Park.
So the Little Red Chimney had no chance to get in its work. In vain Virginia looked from the dining-room window for its curling smoke. In vain did the invalid sister of Miss Kitty, the dressmaker, dream of the beautiful young lady who brought her roses. In vain did the postman and the market-man inquire of Nancy when Miss Bentley was coming back. To the Miser alone, who from his study window had also noted the deadness of the Little Red Chimney, was the privilege of a word with the enchantress accorded. It came about through Mrs. Gerrard Pennington's interest in the furnishing of the new quarters of the Colonial Dames.
Hearing of a desirable print owned by Mr. Knight, which it was understood he might be induced to part with, she drove thither to canvass the matter, accompanied by her niece. On the way they picked up Augustus, who knew nothing of prints, but was pleased to join the expedition.
The Miser, beneath his grave courtesy, seemed taken aback by this invasion of his solitude. Mrs. Pennington's conventional suavity plainly embarrassed him. He smiled indeed at Margaret Elizabeth, remarking as he spread out his engravings that it had been long since he last saw her.
The impulse was strong upon her to follow him to his desk and ask if he had any news of the Candy Man. There were moments when she thought it strange she had had no word. These were but fleeting moments, however; for the most part she succeeded, or thought she succeeded, in dismissing him to the limbo of the past. So now she resisted the impulse to ask news of him.
When it came to negotiations Margaret Elizabeth and Augustus, leaving Mrs. Pennington to conduct them, moved about the room, viewing the Miser's curios.
"Do you care for mezzotints?" she asked him.
"I don't know the first thing about them," Augustus owned. "In fact never saw one."
She laughed. "Oh, yes, you have. Ever so many of the Reynolds and Romney portraits were reproduced in mezzotint. If I am not mistaken there is one hanging in your own hall."
Augustus gazed at her in undisguised admiration. "I don't see how you learn so much, Miss Bentley. I have no doubt I have a lot of things you could help me to appreciate."
From this dangerous ground she moved hastily, calling attention to the portrait above the mantel. Mr. McAllister was more at home here.
"A rattling good picture. General Waite, by the way," he informed her, "was own cousin to my grandmother on my mother's side. My great grandfather and his father were brothers, don't you know."
"Indeed!" said Margaret Elizabeth, politely. The relationship did not interest her, but she wondered, in annoyance, why the cousin of Augustus, on his mother's side, should look down on her with the eyes of the Candy Man. Stern eyes they were, with a sparkle of humour behind the sternness.
On the way home Mrs. Pennington was stirred to reminiscence. "One of the first parties I ever attended was in that old house," she said. "It must have been thirty-five years ago. I was a very young girl—barely seventeen. General Waite was a most courtly man, and his wife was quite famous for her beauty. It was there I met Mr. Pennington. He and the general's nephew, Robert Waite, were great friends. They went to college together. He disappeared strangely. I remember Gerrard was dread fully upset about it at the time. It was just before our marriage."
To all this Margaret Elizabeth only half listened. The eyes of the general lingered reproachfully with her, and perhaps were at the bottom of that policy of postponement with which Augustus was met when the inevitable moment came.
Just a little time was all she asked. Mr. McAllister was talking of a trip to Panama; let him go, and on his return he should have his answer.
Miss Bentley was very sweet as she spoke thus; eminently worth waiting for. So Augustus went to Panama, and she was left to argue matters with herself.
During the process she grew pale. Mixed up with her arguments was that foolish idea that she ought to have heard something from the Candy Man. Had he seen that item in the Evening Record?
Mrs. Pennington noticed the pallor, but treated it lightly. Margaret Elizabeth was tired out, but now Lent was here she would rest. She was worn to death herself, but she would recuperate, and surely her niece, who was years younger, could do the same. She failed to take into consideration the complications lacking in her own case. In fact, having brought matters to the present status, Mrs. Pennington allowed herself to relax.
Mr. Gerrard Pennington looked at Margaret Elizabeth from beneath his bushy brows. Confound them, what were they doing to her? She had a way of joining him in the library, and sitting with a book in her lap, which she seldom read.
One day, laying down his paper, and after a cautious glance over his shoulder, he remarked: "Did it ever occur to you, Margaret Elizabeth, that you don't have to marry anybody?"
She stared at him with surprised eyes, in which a smile slowly dawned. "Why, Uncle Gerry, what do you mean? Of course I don't have to."
"There is a great deal in suggestion," continued Mr. Pennington. "Keep telling people a certain thing, confront them with it on all occasions, and they will be influenced in spite of themselves; and it has occurred to me——"
"Yes?" said Margaret Elizabeth.
"Well, that it applies in your case." Mr. Pennington cleared his throat. "A certain person whom we know has behaved very well of late; better than I thought was in him, but—unless you are pretty sure you can't live without him—Now this is rank treason on my part, but don't be too soft-hearted, Margaret Elizabeth."
Mr. Pennington returned to his stock-market reports, and silence reigned, but presently two hands rested on his shoulders, and a velvet cheek touched his for a moment. "Thank you, Uncle Gerry," said Margaret Elizabeth.
Which shows Miss Bentley recovering from a fit of what Uncle Bob calls Cantankerousness; in which a shipwrecked letter is brought to light, and Dr. Prue is called again to visit the child of the Park Superintendent.
"And he turned into a splendid prince (he had been one all the time really, you know), and he laid all his riches at Violetta's feet, and made her a princess, because she had been true to him through thick and thin."
Virginia's voice rose in triumphant climax.
"That's all very fine in a fairy-tale, Virginia, and it is an extremely good one for a little girl like you to make up out of her own head. But you know in real life it is different." Margaret Elizabeth gazed pensively into the fire.
Virginia, prone upon the hearth-rug, was disposed to argue what she did not understand. "How different?"
"Well, in a fairy-tale you can have things as you want them, but in real life you get tangled up in what other people want, and with duty and common sense; and when you determine to follow your—" Margaret Elizabeth was going to say "heart," but changed to "intuitions," "you are left high and dry on a desert island."
Virginia was to be excused if she failed to make head or tail of this. "I wish the Candy Man would come back," she remarked irrelevantly. "He was much nicer than Tim. He liked fairy-tales. He said he was coming some time."
"Oh, did he?" said Miss Bentley.
The reference to a desert island, and a disposition to quarrel with fairy-tales, go to show that while she was decidedly more like herself than in the last chapter, her recovery was not yet complete. In fact Margaret Elizabeth was suffering from the irritability that so often accompanies convalescence. Cantankerousness was Uncle Bob's word for it, and he defended it with all the eloquence of which he was master, his finger on the page in the dictionary where it was to be found in good and regular standing.
It really did not matter what you called it; the point was, that in an argument with her aunt, Margaret Elizabeth had gone further than she intended; had said what had better have been left unsaid. This she confessed to Dr. Prue.
"Let me see your tongue," commanded that professional lady, regarding her searchingly.
Margaret Elizabeth displayed the unruly member, laughing as she did so.
"What did you say to Mrs. Pennington?"
"We were speaking," Margaret Elizabeth answered meekly, "of gratitude, and Aunt Eleanor said, as you are always hearing people say, that there is little or none of it in the world. You see, in some matter which came up in the Colonial Dames, Nancy Lane sided against her. 'And after all I've done for her!' cried Aunt Eleanor. I said I thought gratitude was an overrated virtue anyway, and that to expect a person to vote your way because you had been good to her, was a kind of graft."
"Humph!" said Dr. Prue.
"I know it was a dreadful, dreadful thing to say." Tears were in Margaret Elizabeth's eyes. "When she has been loveliness itself to me. There it is, you see. I have thought about it, and thought about it, until I'm all mixed up."
"What did your aunt say?"
"She was very dignified. She had not expected to hear such a thing from me. Then she walked away."
"I hope you asked her pardon."
"I had no chance. She has gone to Chicago—was on her way to the station then. I will, of course."
"For a young thing your ideas are not bad, though your problem is entangled in foolish convention, personal pride and so on. But neither you nor I was born to set the world right. Now cheer up and think no more about it for the present. Be ready at two o'clock to go to the park with me. The superintendent's child is ill again."
Having delivered her prescription, Dr. Prue left, and her patient returned to her hearth-stone and an endeavour to be honest with herself. Virginia had interrupted this most difficult process with her fairy-tale. While it could not be said to bear upon the situation, after she had left Margaret Elizabeth was conscious of a faint lightening of the fog.
As they sped smoothly toward the park, in the new electric, Margaret Elizabeth driving, Dr. Prue exclaimed, "There, I'm forgetting that letter again." Unfastening her bag she held it open while she continued, "I hope you'll forgive whoever is to blame, but when the hall was being cleaned yesterday, James fished this out of the umbrella jar. Dear knows how it got there or when; it looks as if it had been in a shipwreck." She produced a stained and sorry-looking missive from her bag. "You can just make out the address, the postmark is quite gone," she added, laying it in her companion's lap. "You haven't missed an important letter, have you?"
"Not that I know of," Margaret Elizabeth replied with a laugh that was a bit unsteady. "It is probably nothing of value." She kept her gaze on the road ahead. "Just slip it in my pocket, please."
All the rest of the way to the park her heart thumped uncomfortably. Could it be? Of course not, it was an advertisement. Why get excited? Meanwhile she chatted pleasantly with Dr. Prue.
"All you need is fresh air and a simple life for a while. Your colour has come back wonderfully," the doctor remarked as they drew up at the cottage gate. "Will you wait for me here?"
"If you don't mind, I think I'll go into the park, and if I'm not back by the time you are ready, don't wait. I can take the street car."
Turning in at the entrance to the park, Margaret Elizabeth was for a fleeting moment aware of a Candy Wagon standing at the curb a few yards away. There was nothing unusual in this except the odd way in which it fitted into the situation, and the next moment she had forgotten everything but the letter in her hand.
She walked slowly down the path. The April sunshine sifted through a faint and feathery greenness overhead, the air was clear and fresh. She was thinking that she had seen just one little scrap of the Candy Man's writing—on the card accompanying the Christmas basket; and this on the letter was blurred and stained, yet she was sure of it. He had written. She had been sure he would. She was glad. She would be honest with herself. She wanted him for a friend. In many ways she liked him better than any one she had met this winter. She wanted to know more about him.
She tried to tear the letter open, but for all it was so damaged the paper had remained tough. She would wait to read it till she reached the summer house. That little vine-hung arbour had been in her thought ever since Dr. Prue proposed to bring her down to the park. She had a foolish desire to sit there and look at the river, and go on being honest with herself.
Margaret Elizabeth, mounting the steps and looking at her letter as she did so, was confronted by somebody who started up in surprise from the bench where she had sat with her flowers that autumn day.
For one surprised moment she and the stranger faced each other, then Miss Bentley exclaimed, "I saw the wagon at the gate, but I didn't know it was yours." And then the mischief faded into simple honest gladness as she held out her hand. "I certainly did not expect to see you," she added, "but you are an unexpected sort of person."
"Nothing so wonderful as the chance of meeting you occurred to me for a moment," the Candy Man assured her. "In fact I was not certain you cared to see me." Those same pleasant eyes, so emphatically not the eyes of Augustus, looked into hers questioningly.
Margaret Elizabeth held up the letter. "It was shipwrecked," she said. "I got it only a few minutes ago. I haven't read it. I thought it was you who didn't care to be friends."
The Candy Man did not exactly understand how a letter could be shipwrecked in an overland journey of ten hours, but he dismissed it as of no importance. "It isn't worth reading now," he said. "It was just to make my adieus and ask if some time when I had lived down my past," here he smiled, "I might come back and tell you my strange story. I was counting on your willingness to be friends. You remember you said it would do no harm to hope."
"Oh, did I? And when you did not hear from me, what did you think? Honestly," asked Margaret Elizabeth.
"I thought of course there must be a reason. A shipwreck did not occur to me."
"Do you mean a reason for not being friends? But you came."
"The suspense was too much for me. I haven't many friends; and besides, this is on the way to Texas."
"So you are going to Texas this time?"
It seemed the Candy Man had heard of an opening there.
Margaret Elizabeth wanted to ask why he had come to the park, but something told her not to; instead she said, looking away to the shining river, "I know of no reason why we should not be friends. So I am ready to hear the story you speak of. Is it more strange than the adventures of a Candy Wagon?" Her eyes came back and met his as they had done the day when the conversation turned upon fairy godmothers. Margaret Elizabeth was not spoiled.
"It is more serious," was his reply. "In fact, it is very serious. The Candy Wagon was a mere episode. What I wish to tell you now goes deeper."
In which the Candy Man relates his story, and the Miser comes upon Volume I of the shabby book with the funny name.
"I want you to know all about me," began the Candy Man, taking from his pocket the shabby little book Virginia had once remarked on, "so there may be no more wrong impressions."
They sat in the sunshine on the top step of the little pavilion, facing the river. Margaret Elizabeth, supporting her chin in her hand, regarded him gravely. The west wind was cool on their faces.
"I have often imagined myself telling you," he went on. "Not that there is much to it, besides its strangeness. In fact, to be brief, I don't know who I am."
The surprise in Miss Bentley's eyes caused him to add quickly: "Not that I am a foundling. But my father and mother were lost at sea when I was three years old. We were coming from Victoria to San Francisco, when the steamer went down. Only a few of the passengers were saved, I among them."
"How sad and terrible!" cried Margaret Elizabeth. "Can you remember it? How lost and lonely you must have been! Poor little child!"
"I recall it only in a vague way," he answered, "confused with what has since been told me. When it was known that my parents were lost, a man and his wife, fellow passengers, offered to adopt me. Beyond the name 'Robert Deane, Wife and Child,' on the list at the ship's office, they were unable to learn anything about me, and I was too young and bewildered to give any clue."
"That is very strange," said Margaret Elizabeth. "Your new father and mother were kind to you?"
"So kind I soon forgot the terror and loneliness, and grew happy and content. Everything was done to make me forget, and I think while they made every effort to find out something about me, they were glad when they failed. I wish now that my childish memories might have been fostered, for I find myself reaching back into a mist full of vague shapes.
"My new father was a civil engineer, whose work took him here, there and everywhere throughout the broad West. I never knew a permanent home. My adopted mother died when I was twelve. After that came boarding school and college. About the time I left college my father's health failed, and for several years he was helpless and very dependent upon me, so I gave up my plan of entering a mining school.
"It was during his illness that he began to speak to me of my own parents. He had talked to them on several occasions during the voyage, and he described them as young people of refinement and education. My mother, he thought from her speech, was English. They rather held aloof, he said, and seemed disinclined to mention their own affairs. While he was ill the news came to us of the finding in a storage warehouse in San Francisco of an old trunk which it seemed probable had belonged to my parents. Without going into detail, I may say it was through an old acquaintance of my adopted father's, who knew the circumstances of my adoption, that we heard of it. He had some interest in the warehouse, which was about to be torn down and rebuilt. This trunk was found in some forgotten corner where it had lain for twenty-five years."
"And did it throw any light?" asked Margaret Elizabeth.
"Not much, it rather deepened the mystery. There was little of significance in it, but this book and a package of letters. From them I learned nothing definite, but gathered the unwelcome probability that my father was under some sort of cloud, and was not using his real name. This was a matter of inference—of deduction, largely, but it was plain he had left his home in some sort of trouble.
"It is not easy to piece together scattered allusions, when you have no clue. The letters were most of them written by my father to my mother, just before and soon after their marriage, with one or two from her to him. One of these, which I found between the leaves of this little book, I want you to read. It concludes my story, and to my mind lightens it a little."
The letter the Candy Man held out to Margaret Elizabeth was written on thin paper, in a delicate angular hand.
"Ought I to read it?" she demurred. "Are you sure she would like it?"
"Somehow I am very sure," he answered. "And I feel that it will be a grip on our friendship. I have told you the worst, I wish you to know the best of me."
She acquiesced, and, an elbow on her knee, shading her eyes with her hand, she read the letter, whose date was thirty years ago. Far back in the past this seemed to Margaret Elizabeth, yet it was a girl like herself who wrote.
The first sentences were almost meaningless, so strong was the feeling that she had no right to be reading it at all, but as she went on she forgot her scruples. It was evidently a reply to a letter from her lover in which he had spoken of the cloud that hung over his name, and it was a confession of her faith in him, girlish, sweet and tender. "I trust you, Robert," it said. "It is in you to do heedless things, to be reckless, if only because you are young and eager and strong; but it is not in you to be dishonourable; of this I am as certain as I am of anything in life. Some day the truth will be known and you will be cleared, but whether it is or no, I choose to walk beside you. I choose it gladly, happily. I write the words again, gladly, happily, Robert. Yours, Mary."
"Oh!" cried Margaret Elizabeth, lifting a glowing face, "I love Mary."
"She was brave and unselfish," said the Candy Man.
Margaret Elizabeth nodded. "Yes, that is one side of it. Still, you see, she was sure, and it was, as she says, a joy to cast in her lot with him. 'Gladly, happily.'" Her eyes shone. She gazed far away down the river. The wind blew little tendrils of bright hair across her cheek. "It must be so when you care very much," she went on.
"But," argued the Candy Man, "under the stress of very noble feeling people sometimes do foolish things, do they not?"
"But this was not. Do you think for a moment Mary ever regretted it? I see what you mean by the best of you. It is something to have such credentials." Margaret Elizabeth's gaze met the Candy Man's, and her eyes were deep as they had been on Christmas Eve, in the firelight.
Oh, Margaret Elizabeth, it is your own fault, for being so dear, so unworldly! Could you, can you, cast in your lot with an unknown Candy Man? He has no business to ask you. He did not mean to, but only to prepare the way. He knows he is no great catch, even from the point of view of a Little Red Chimney. These are not the precise words of the Candy Man, but something like them....
So absorbed was Margaret Elizabeth in the thought of Mary, she was a bit slow in taking in their meaning. She gave him one startled glance, and then looked down, as it happened, upon the shabby little book which lay on the step between them. Absently she drew it toward her, and with fingers that trembled, opened it, as if to find her answer in its pages. Then a smile began faintly to curl about her lips, and she read aloud from the book:
"What we find then to accord with love and reason, that we may safely pronounce right and good."
"Judged at the bar of reason I fear my case is hopeless," protested the Candy Man, putting out his hand to close the book.
But Margaret Elizabeth clasped it to her breast. "I see nothing unreasonable in it," she declared stoutly. As she spoke a faded crimson flower fell in her lap.
Somewhat later in the afternoon, Miss Bentley and the Candy Man, walking together along the river path, had they not been so engrossed in their own affairs, might have recognised the tall, stooping figure of the Miser strolling slowly ahead of them. It was for a minute only, for near a turn in the path he bent forward and disappeared in a thicket of althea bushes. At this season it was not a dense thicket, and Mr. Knight, poking in the soft mould with his cane in search of a certain tiny plant, had no thought of hiding, but, as it chanced, was unobserved by his friends.
"Oh, Margaret Elizabeth," her companion was saying as they passed, "you are so dear! I have no business to be telling you so, but indeed I can't help it."
And she with a little laugh replied: "I am glad you can't, Candy Man." And the next moment they were gone around the turn.
That was all, but it was enough. What rarer flower was likely to come the Miser's way, on this or any day?
He stood and looked after them. These two had brought into his grey life the touch of golden youth. He began to tremble under the force of a wonderful thought. He sought a bench and sank upon it. It would be a solution of his problem. He had come out to-day into the spring sunshine, feeling his burden more than he could bear, for in his pocket was a letter which put an end to the hope he had long cherished of at length righting a great wrong.
There must be a way of doing what he wished. The consent of the Candy Man once gained, that hateful fortune, which through these years had been slowly crushing him, might become a minister of joy and well being, might make possible for others those best things of life that he had missed.
The thought thrilled him. He rose and walked on, back to the pavilion, where he paused again to rest. There on the step lay the shabby book with the funny name and the small oval bit cut from the fly leaf, beneath which was the Candy Man's name, Robert Deane Reynolds.
Shows how Mrs. Gerrard Pennington, unhappy and distraught, beseeches Uncle Bob to help her save Margaret Elisabeth; also how Mr. Gerrard Pennington comes to the rescue, and how in the end his wife submits gracefully to the inevitable, which is not so bad after all.
When Mrs. Gerrard Pennington was shown into the room of the Little Red Chimney, there was nobody there. A chilly wind outside, which dashed the rain against the windows, only served to call attention to the pleasantness within. It was indeed an aggressively cheerful room, entirely out of keeping with Mrs. Pennington's mood. The open piano, the row of thrifty ferns on the window-sill, the new novel on the table with a foreign letter between its leaves, and the work basket beside it—which, by the way, was of sweet grass—all sang the same song to the accompaniment of the fire's quiet crackle.
The burden of the song was Margaret Elizabeth. You saw her sitting bolt upright on the sofa, being very intense about something, or lost in thought, elbows on knees, on the ottoman beside the hearth, or occupied with that bit of embroidery, her curling lashes almost on her cheek. Oh, Margaret Elizabeth, how could you? How could you?
Mrs. Pennington, pacing uneasily back and forth, glanced at the music on the piano rack.
"Oh, stay at home, my heart, and rest, Home-keeping hearts are happiest,"
it admonished her. In this disarming atmosphere she began to feel herself the victim of some wretched dream. Yet here in her bag was Margaret Elizabeth's note, found awaiting her on her return from Chicago an hour ago.
In it her niece apologised contritely for the inexcusable manner in which she had spoken, and continued: "It makes me unhappy, dearest Aunt Eleanor, to think of disappointing you, for you have been the kindest aunt in the world, but I have discovered in the last few days what I ought to have known all along, that I cannot marry Mr. McAllister. The reason is there is some one else. He is neither rich nor of distinguished family, but there are things that count for more, at least to me. I shall see you very soon, and explain more fully. In the meantime think kindly, if you can, of your niece,
This as it stood was bad enough, wrecking her dearest hopes at the moment when they had seemed most secure; but taken in connection with a story related in artless innocence by her travelling companion of yesterday, Teddy Brown, to use one of that gentleman's cherished phrases, it spelled tragedy.
The Reporter had not been bent on mischief. Far from it. He was merely grappling bravely with the task of being agreeable to the great lady. Surely it was but natural that in the course of a long conversation the Candy Man's curious resemblance to Augustus should suggest itself as a topic; and given a gleam of something like interest in his companion's eyes, it was easy to continue from bad to worse.
He lived in the same apartment house as Virginia, and from her he had heard of the Christmas tree, and the Candy Man's presence on the occasion; also of that old accident on the corner in which the Candy Man had figured as Miss Bentley's rescuer. No wonder those intuitions regarding a person who was not Augustus should have risen to torture Mrs. Pennington. All this circumstantial evidence was very black against Margaret Elizabeth, seemingly so honest and frank. No wonder Mrs. Pennington was distraught.
Meanwhile, wherever her heart might be, Margaret Elizabeth herself was out. Uncle Bob, coming in, paper in hand, to greet the visitor cordially, could not imagine where she had gone, and peered around the room as if after all she might have escaped their notice. If she wasn't in, he was confident she would be, in the course of a few minutes, which confidence was not a logical deduction from known facts, but merely an untrustworthy inference, born of his surprise at finding her out at all.
Placing a chair for Mrs. Pennington, he took one himself and regarded her genially. Some minutes of polite conversation followed, in the course of which Mrs. Pennington, concealing her agitation, spoke of her journey to Chicago in quest of colonial furnishings. Mr. Vandegrift in his turn brought forward Florida and orange groves.
But Margaret Elizabeth delayed her coming, and Mrs. Pennington could stand it no longer. "Mr. Vandegrift," she began, after the silence that followed the last word on oranges, "I regret that my niece is not here, yet it may be as well to speak to you first. I may say, to make an appeal to you. You are, I am sure, fond of Margaret Elizabeth." She played nervously with the fastening of her shopping bag.
Uncle Bob looked at her in surprise, then at the toe of his shoe. "I think I may safely admit it," he owned, crossing his knees and nodding his head.
"Then, Mr. Vandegrift, I beseech you, with all the feeling of which I am capable, to unite with me in saving this misguided girl." At this point all her intuitions and fears rallied around Mrs. Pennington, and gave a quiver to her voice.
Uncle Bob was astonished at her tone, and said so.
"I assure you, Mr. Vandegrift, I have her own word for it." She produced a note from her bag.
"Her word for what?" he asked.
"Why, for—oh, Mr. Vandegrift, let us not waste time in futile fencing. You must know that Margaret Elizabeth has deceived me; has been guilty of base ingratitude; has been meeting clandestinely a person—a mere adventurer. I can scarcely bring myself to say it. My brother Richard's daughter!" Mrs. Pennington had recourse to her handkerchief.
Uncle Bob uncrossed his knees and sat bolt upright. "Madame," he exclaimed, "I am sorry for your distress, whatever its cause, but let me assure you, you are under some grave mistake. My niece has met no one clandestinely, and is incapable of deceit and treachery."
"Do I understand then that it was with your connivance?"
"I have connived at nothing, Madame, and I know of no adventurer." Uncle Bob took his penknife from his pocket and tapped on the table with it. His manner was legal in the extreme. He was enjoying himself.
Mrs. Pennington looked over her handkerchief. "But she says, herself——"
"Says she has been guilty of deceit and treachery? Has been meeting an adventurer clandestinely? Pardon me, but this is incredible."
"What is incredible, Uncle Bob?" came a voice from the half-open door, unmistakably that of the accused. "I'll be there as soon as I get off my raincoat," it added.
"It is hopeless to try to make you understand," Mrs. Pennington almost sobbed, the while sounds from the hall indicated that some one beside Margaret Elizabeth was removing a raincoat. A horrible dread suddenly smote her, lest it be that person. A sleepless night and her distress had unnerved her. She felt herself unequal to the encounter.
She glanced about helplessly for a way of escape, but there was none. "Tell him not to come in. I cannot see him now," she begged tragically of Uncle Bob, who, honestly mystified now, stood between her and the door, looking from it to her.
"She says not to come in," he repeated to Margaret Elizabeth's companion, who was following her in.
"Why, Aunt Eleanor, I didn't know it was you! They told me your train was late. And oh, what is the matter? What are you crying about? Is it I?" Margaret Elizabeth, with raindrops on her hair, knelt beside her aunt and embraced her, pressing a cool cheek against that lady's fevered one.
Mrs. Pennington, her face hidden in her hands, continued to murmur, "I cannot see him. I cannot see him."
"In the name of heaven, Eleanor, why can't you see me? Why must I not come in?" demanded a familiar voice which brought her to with a shock.
"Gerrard!" she cried, in her surprise revealing a sadly tear-stained countenance.
Uncle Bob beat a retreat into the hall, where he paused, chuckling to himself.
"Certainly it is I. Who should it be?" said her husband, taking a seat beside her. "Why are you making such a sight of yourself, my dear? When I telephoned out to know if you had arrived, they said you had and had gone out again immediately, no one knew where. I came out to talk over some business with William Knight, and when I was leaving I saw your car over here, and thought I'd join you; but if my presence is unbearable, I will withdraw." Mr. Pennington smiled at Margaret Elizabeth.
"Don't be silly, please, I have had a most trying day. I don't expect you to understand."
Mrs. Pennington was recovering her poise. There was something irresistibly steadying in her husband's matter-of-fact statement, and in the sight of her niece sitting back on her heels and looking up at her with lovely, solicitous eyes. Treachery and deceit became meaningless terms in such connection.
"You haven't given us a chance to understand, Eleanor. What is the trouble?" Mr. Pennington demanded.
"Uncle Gerry, I am afraid it is I," said Margaret Elizabeth, picking up the note from the floor where it had fallen. "I am sorry, you know I am, that I can't do as she wishes, but you understand that I can't. Tell her, please, that I did honestly try to think I could, but it wasn't of any use."
"Oh, come now, Eleanor, if that is it, of course we wanted Margaret Elizabeth up at the Park; but the young people of this generation like to manage their own affairs, as we did before them." Mr. Pennington looked quizzically at his niece. "She's been getting up a bit of melodrama for our benefit, that's all. If you will pardon the suggestion, my dear, I think possibly it is you who do not understand."
Margaret Elizabeth, rising from her lowly position, threw him a kiss over her aunt's head.
"How can I be expected to, with everything shrouded in mystery?" cried Mrs. Pennington. "Why have I never heard of this person before? Why was I left to be told dreadful things by a reporter?"
"A reporter!" cried Margaret Elizabeth, in her turn aghast.
"Nonsense! If you heard anything dreadful you know Margaret Elizabeth well enough to know it was not true. But how in the world could a reporter have got hold of it?"
"You speak so confidently, Gerrard, tell me, what do you know about this man?" Mrs. Pennington looked from her niece to her husband. "Margaret Elizabeth seems to have completely won you to her side," she added.
"It is really a very strange story, Eleanor, and to begin at the end of it, we have quite sufficient evidence, in my opinion, to prove that he is the son of my old comrade, Robert Waite."
Mrs. Pennington fixed surprised eyes upon her husband. Margaret Elizabeth sat down and folded her hands in her lap.
"You recall how Rob disappeared, without a word to any of his friends? It was not till some years after the general's death that I had the least clue to it; then William Knight came to me to know if I could give any help in tracing him. He owned that there had been some trouble between General Waite and Robert, and that the latter had been unjustly treated. I couldn't give him any assistance, and I never discussed it with him again. Knight was always close-mouthed, and it was only the other day that I learned what the trouble was. It seems the general suspected his nephew of taking a large sum of money from the safe in his library. It was one of those cases of complete circumstantial evidence. Rob was known to have lost money on the races. He was the only one beside the general himself who had access to the safe, and who knew that this money, several thousand dollars, was there at this time. That is, so it was supposed.
"Knowing them both, one can easily understand the outcome. Robert disappeared, and a few years later, when the general died, he left his fortune to William Knight, his wife's nephew. Then after some little time the real thief turned up. I won't go into that, further than to say that it was through a deathbed confession to a priest. Since then Knight has been searching far and wide for some trace of Robert, only to receive last week the evidence of his death twenty-five years ago. And now comes the strange part of the story. The very day on which he received this news, Knight came by chance upon a book which he recognised as once the property of Robert Waite. The owner's name was cut from the fly leaf, but below it was written the name of a young man whose acquaintance he had made last winter, Robert Deane Reynolds. Deane was Rob's middle name, so naturally it led to an investigation."
Mr. Pennington looked over at Margaret Elizabeth. "Have I told a straight story?" he asked.
"There were letters, you know," she prompted.
"Oh, yes. This young man had letters which I could have identified anywhere."
Mrs. Pennington was interested. She asked questions. That absurd story about a Candy Wagon was untrue then? But how had Margaret Elizabeth met this person? She still referred to him as a person. And somehow the united efforts of Margaret Elizabeth and Mr. Pennington failed to clear up the mystery, though they did their best.
Even if the Candy Wagon episode was to be regarded as humorous, though it did not present itself in that light to Mrs. Pennington, how could Margaret Elizabeth have asked a Candy Man to her Christmas tree?
"But you see, by that time I knew he wasn't real, Aunt Eleanor, and anyway—"
"Now go slow, Margaret Elizabeth," cautioned her uncle. "At heart you are a confounded little socialist, but take my advice and keep it to yourself." He was thinking of what she had said to him only the day before: "You see, Uncle Gerry, you can't have everything. You have to choose. And while I like bigness and richness, I like Little Red Chimneys and what they stand for, best. I want to be on speaking terms with both ends, you see."
"It is odd," Mr. Pennington went on, "the tricks heredity plays, and that this young man and Augustus McAllister should both hark back to a common ancestor for their general characteristics of build and feature. I was struck with the resemblance, myself."
"It was what first attracted me," owned Margaret Elizabeth demurely.
The name of Augustus still had painful associations for Mrs. Pennington. She rose. "Really we must be going," she said. At some future time she felt she might be able to meet Mr. Reynolds or Waite, or whatever his name was, with equanimity, but now she was thankful to hear he had gone back to Chicago for some papers.
She received Margaret Elizabeth's farewell embrace languidly. "Since there is such weight of authority in your favour, and matters have developed so strangely, there is nothing for me to say. I dislike mystery, and prefer to have things go on regularly and according to precedent. It is your welfare I have at heart."
Mr. Pennington's good-by was different.
"I don't wonder you like it down here, Margaret Elizabeth—this room, you know," he said.
As they drove homeward Mrs. Pennington was engaged in mentally reconstructing affairs. "Of course," she heard herself saying, "it was a disappointment to me, but romantic girls are not to be controlled by common-sense aunts, and really it might be worse." And she remarked aloud: "The fact that he is a nephew of General Waite means something."
"That's so," assented her husband. "Something like half a million. Old Knight is determined to hand it all over." He smiled to himself, then added: "He came to see me—the young man, I mean. I liked him. He suggested Rob a little without resembling him. Very gentlemanly; nice eyes."
In which the Fairy Godmother Society is again mentioned, among other things.
"But it is really embarrassing when I had made up my mind to marry a poor Candy Man to have it turn out so. I rather liked defying common sense," said Margaret Elizabeth.
The Candy Man had made a hurried journey to Chicago, and was back before the rain was over, and while it was still cold enough for a fire, so that his old dream of sometime sitting by the Little Red Chimney's hearth was coming true. Margaret Elizabeth in the blue dress, by request, though she declared it wasn't fit to be seen, occupied the ottoman, her elbows on her knees, the firelight playing in her bright hair.
"It is the way it happens in fairy-tales," urged the Candy Man. "And I really couldn't help it."
"Of course you are right," she agreed. "As Virginia's story runs, 'He turned into a prince, and because Violetta had been true to him through thick and thin, he made her a princess.' Anyhow, Candy Man, I'm glad I chose you before your good fortune came."
"It was an extremely venturesome thing to do, Girl of All Others, as I have told you before, though immensely flattering to me. I have to take the money, there is no way out of it. I believe it would break our Miser's heart if I refused. Do you know what he was proposing to do before he found the book?"
"What?" asked Margaret Elizabeth.
"To adopt me. You see we had come to be pretty good friends last winter, and I think he suspected from the start that I had rather lofty aspirations for a Candy Man. In a Little Red Chimney direction—you understand?"
"Well, he saw us in the park——"
"And his suspicions were confirmed, I suppose," put in Margaret Elizabeth, coolly.
"Exactly. And knowing from what I had told him previously that I had my fortune to seek, it occurred to him that as the channel he had been hoping for had been closed, the next best thing would be to make it possible for two young persons to——"
"The dear old Miser!" interrupted Margaret Elizabeth. "But why is he so unwilling to use the money himself? It is honestly his."
"I may not fully understand, but I think from things he has said, that as a boy he was jealous of my father. This feeling would naturally make him, when it came to the test, not unwilling to believe in his guilt. Then, being reticent and introspective, he magnified all this a thousandfold when the truth came out, and he realised he had profited by the unjust suspicion. By dwelling upon it he came to feel as if he had actually obtained the money himself by unfair means. But I am convinced that if he did encourage his uncle to believe in my father's guilt, it was because he firmly believed it himself. Never since the facts were known has he regarded the money as his, and not until he had almost exhausted his own means in the effort to trace the rightful owner, as he regarded him, did he use a penny of it."
"It is so touching to see his surprise and gratitude that I do not feel resentful toward him," added the Candy Man. "His joy at handing over this fortune is wonderful. He already looks a different man."
"We must make it up to him in some way," said Margaret Elizabeth. "I mean for all these lonely years. Speaking of money, I'll tell you what I have been thinking. When we build our house, as I suppose we shall some day, when we come back from our search for the Archaeologist——"
"By all means. That is one mitigating circumstance. We can build a house," responded the Candy Man.
"Well, as I was going to say, we must have a Little Red Chimney. The house will be broad and low," she extended her arms, "and with wings; I love wings. One of them shall have a Little Red Chimney all its own. It shall stand for our ideals. If we should be tempted to a sort of life that separates us from our fellows, it will remind us, you, that you once sat in a Candy Wagon, me, that I fell in love with a Candy Man. And I'll tell you what, speaking of the Miser. Don't you remember? It was he you meant that day when we were talking about the Fairy Godmother Society, and——"
Of course the Candy Man remembered.
"Then, let's organise and make him chief agent while we are gone. I know of a number of things to be done."
"So do I," said the Candy Man. "There is my fellow lodger, the one I told you about, a teacher in the High School. He needs a real change this summer, he and his wife."
"Oh, I am sure we can work it out," cried Margaret Elizabeth.
"I am sure we can," he assented.
"You see it will begin where organised charity leaves off, of necessity. Also where that can't possibly penetrate, and it will be singularly free, because secret."
"Again you sound like the minutes of the first meeting," said the Candy Man.
It was Uncle Bob's voice at the door. "I hate to disturb you, but that old bore at the club wants your father's address."
"You aren't disturbing. Come in and hear about the Fairy Godmother Society."
"You don't mean really?" Uncle Bob stood before the hearth and looked from his niece to the Candy Man.
"Indeed we do," she answered. "You see we have ten times as much money as we thought we had. So why not?"
"Quite correct, as we thought we hadn't any," murmured the Candy Man.
Uncle Bob rubbed his hands in delight. "I told Prue you'd do something of the sort; that you wouldn't just settle down to be ordinary rich people. But Prue says riches bring caution."
Margaret Elizabeth, going to her desk for the address, laughed. "We aren't going to forget our humble beginning," she said; "and we'll act quickly before we are inured to our new estate."
"But then, you know, there is another side to it," her uncle interposed, in a sudden access of prudence. "You must consider the matter carefully with an eye to the future. For instance now, there may be heirs."
A silence fell. The fire crackled, and the clock ticked with unusual distinctness. Then Margaret Elizabeth spoke.
"Here's the address," she said. "I'll put it in your pocket, where you can't forget it." And as she tucked it in, she added, stoutly, with a lovely deepening of the colour in her cheek: "If there are, Uncle Bob, they will be fairy god-brothers and sisters, so it will be all right."
It was after the door had closed upon Uncle Bob, and Margaret Elizabeth was back on her low seat again, that the Candy Man left his chair and sat on the rug beside her. "Girl of All Others, is there any one else in the world as happy as I?" he asked.
Margaret Elizabeth smiled at him with eyes that answered the question before she spoke. Then she said, slipping her hand into his, "One other."