"I was surprised when you said you kept a store,—you did not look like it; but if this is the way you live—" Miss Martin did not finish her sentence as she allowed Norah to take her hat.
That everything about the small domain impressed her, it was easy to see. The simple dinner served so deftly by Susanna, the appointments of the table, and by no means least, her two hostesses.
Before eight o'clock the basket makers arrived, with them Madelaine, who made a pretty pretence of being deeply grateful to Miss Pennington for allowing her to come. Miss Martin watched her with serious admiration in her eyes. Here was a girl little younger than herself, whose whole business in life was to be beautiful and engaging.
"I have brought my prettiest valentine to show you," Madelaine said. "Isn't it a dear?" and taking from its box a gauzy fan, she held it out for inspection.
Norah, who was nearest, took it. "It is certainly pretty if not durable," she remarked.
"I hate durable things," said its owner, with a shrug of her dainty shoulders. "I know it cost a great deal, for I priced one like it."
"Madelaine!" expostulated her sister.
"Goosie, I don't mean since this came."
"And you don't know who sent it?" asked Charlotte.
"Think of sending a gift like this and not getting the credit for it," said Miss Sarah, viewing it from a practical standpoint.
"If I knew who sent it, mamma wouldn't let me keep it,—at least Alex wouldn't,—so of course I do not know."
It was impossible not to smile at her.
"You are a fraud, Madelaine," Miss Sarah said. "I wish I had the money some people spend on valentines."
"James Mandeville has a more practical mind than Miss Russell's unknown admirer; he delivered his valentines in person and demanded full credit," Marion observed.
Norah whispered to Alex, "Please be nice to my little girl," so Alex took a seat beside Miss Martin and showed her how to begin a basket.
"Miss Pennington says you are a stenographer. I am trying to learn, but I am hopelessly stupid. Do you think one can learn by one's self?"
"I learned at the Business College," answered Miss Martin; and looking Alex up and down she added, "but you do not have to do it, do you? I am glad I can support myself, but there are other ways,—like this,—only I never dreamed of it before. In a business office generally you are just part of a machine." Discovering that Miss Wilbur, too, was listening, she came to an embarrassed pause.
"What would you do if you were to become suddenly rich, Miss Sarah?" Madelaine asked, and everybody stopped to listen.
"Lose my mind, probably," was the answer.
"Riches make people so dreadfully commonplace," said Norah.
"What can be more commonplace than poverty?" Alex demanded.
"Well, I suppose both extremes are bad. It is, after all, the people who have neither poverty nor riches who have ideas and make something out of life."
"I could get heaps out of life if I were rich," Madelaine said.
"I still insist that rich people are to a considerable extent unoriginal and stupid. They associate with persons exactly like themselves, do the same things, say the same things, eat the same things—"
"This is Miss Pennington's hobby," Marion remarked, smiling.
"What would you do if you were to become rich?" Miss Virginia asked her.
"I believe I should go on with the shop for the present," was the reply.
"I think I should start a Settlement like the one you have told me about," Alex said, turning to Norah. "But then," she added, "I should have to learn a great deal first. You can't do anything that amounts to anything without learning how."
Miss Sarah had been meditating, now she spoke, "I think I'd try to give a good time to some persons who never have any fun, to whom life is only a grind."
"There are so many of them," added Miss Martin, timidly.
"I am afraid I have always been dreadfully selfish," sighed Miss Virginia.
"Oh, no, Virginia, you aren't that," said Miss Sarah. "Like some of the rest of us, you may have lived in a small circle, but within its bounds no one could accuse you of selfishness. Let's all promise to remember each other when we come into our fortunes," she added.
After they had gone,—Miss Martin lingering to say with shy earnestness, "I have had such a good time," and receiving in return a cordial invitation to consider herself a member of the basket society,—Norah joined Marion before the fire.
"Do you know, Wayland Leigh gave that fan to Madelaine," she said.
"Are you sure? It must have cost twenty-five or thirty dollars."
"I saw him looking at them the other day. I rather suspect his aunts have spoiled him."
Late in February, after some weeks of unusually cold weather, an epidemic of grip developed. In the Terrace there were several victims, among the first the Leighs' cook; and when it came to filling her place, it was discovered that she was by no means the only member of that useful profession laid low. It was quite impossible to find a substitute. Miss Sarah was obliged to do her own cooking, with the assistance of a not very intelligent housemaid.
There were ten in her family now, and it was no light task; but she might have proved equal to it if she had not been overworking all winter. Her spare moments had been given to sewing and embroidering for the shop, she had indulged and petted her aunt and Wayland just as usual, besides attending to her housekeeping in the most painstaking fashion; and all the while like an ominous cloud hovering over her was the doubt whether she would be able to make the two ends meet.
Perhaps she was extravagant with the table, but during her brother's lifetime they had lived in an easy, lavish way, and she knew no other.
It hurt Miss Sarah,—foolishly, but naturally,—that her nephew should have to pay board out of his small salary; and when one week he omitted to hand her the usual five dollars, she could not bear to ask him for it, although the lack of it put her to some inconvenience.
To Wayland things seemed moving on easily enough at home. He had become almost reconciled to the boarders, who made possible the more elaborate table; and it seemed to him quite impossible that so small a sum could make any great difference. He meant to pay it in time, but just now he was hard up. He had made the mistake of trying to be a society man, to compete with those whose incomes were many times as large as his own. In his heart he knew the purchase of that fan for Madelaine was a piece of inexcusable extravagance, but he had been too weak to resist.
Madelaine was most gracious in these days to Winston Graham, a pampered youth whom Wayland had despised from his babyhood, and had tyrannized over at school. Now the tables were turned. Years had improved Winston, and any lack of brilliancy was more than atoned for by an ample fortune, in the management of which he was showing unexpected shrewdness.
For the moment that foolish fan had brought him a little pleasure. There could be no doubt Madelaine guessed the sender. Somebody was absurd, she said; if she were certain who sent it, she would return it,—and then she smiled bewitchingly over the gauzy trifle that had cost more than half a month's salary.
Miss Sarah was in some measure to blame. She should have taken her nephew into her confidence. Such things as taxes and unexpected plumber's bills did not present themselves to his mind, and when he presently found himself in debt, he went so far as to wonder if she might not be able to help him out,—temporarily, of course.
It was not till matters had grown desperate that he decided to do this. Wayland was not in the habit of getting into debt, and an insistent tailor and florist made his life miserable. With masculine obtuseness he chose the most unpropitious moment. Miss Sarah, after a hard day, had dropped into an easy-chair for a little rest after dinner. Wayland had forgotten the absence of the cook, and in the lamplight his aunt looked placid and comfortable.
"Aunt Sarah," he began, "I am rather hard up just now—"
"Never mind, dear, I can get along, I think. You can pay me back sometime when it is convenient."
"Yes, I mean to,—but I have been a fool. I—I am going to turn over a new leaf,—not go out any more, and save up," Wayland stammered.
Usually to a remark of this kind his aunt would respond with consoling assurance that he was young and must have a little pleasure; but to-night she only said with a sigh it would perhaps be better; that when one was poor the only peaceful thing was to accept it.
"Then I suppose you couldn't lend me a little?" he faltered.
"Lend?" Miss Sarah sat up very straight. "Oh, Wayland, are you in debt?"
"Oh, well, if you can't it is all right; but you needn't jump all over a fellow."
"I do not understand what you mean by 'jumping all over you.' I certainly don't feel like such gymnastics. But I want you to tell me honestly the state of affairs."
The truth was hard to extract. Wayland was sullen, apologetic, and contrite by turns. At last it came out. He owed one hundred and fifty dollars.
"I am sorry." Miss Sarah sank back in her chair. "I fear you have been very foolish. To go in debt seems to me not quite honest. But I am glad you told me. I'll try to help you; and you'll promise, won't you, not to do this again?"
Somehow his aunt's low, controlled tone exasperated Wayland far more than if she had shown anger. "I guess if you knew what other fellows spend, you wouldn't think I was so awful. Of course I am sorry, and of course I don't mean to do it again," and he flung out of the room.
Two days later Miss Sarah alarmed the household at the breakfast table by fainting, something she had never been known to do before. Simple restoratives proved of no avail, and Wayland rushed off to the nearest telephone to call a physician, almost running over Miss Pennington, who was starting for a morning walk.
"Could I be of any help?" she asked as he hurriedly explained.
"If you would," Wayland cried gratefully.
Norah entered upon a scene of confusion. Old Mrs. Leigh was frightened out of her senses, and no one seemed able to think what to do. Knowing something of illness and possessing a cool head and steady hand, Norah took command; and when the doctor arrived, Miss Sarah was beginning to recover consciousness.
She was ordered to bed at once; and when she ventured to expostulate feebly, Norah said: "Now, Miss Sarah, we can manage things for to-day. For once trust to your friends and don't worry. You will get well just so much sooner."
Miss Sarah looked up in to the bright face that bent over her. "You are very good. Perhaps I will,—just for to-day."
"She is threatened with pneumonia; she must have a nurse," the doctor said, outside her door.
It was the beginning for Miss Sarah of a serious illness which in one way and another involved a number of her neighbors. Owing to the prevailing epidemic, it was at first impossible to get a satisfactory nurse, and Norah and Miss Virginia Wilbur offered their services. Miss Wilbur also lent her cook until Anne should be able to return, saying she and Charlotte could do very well with Martha.
In the shop Alex took Norah's place. Norah herself suggested it with some hesitation, thinking Mrs. Russell might object; but this lady, like many others, had somewhat modified her opinion of the shop. "You know," she explained on more than one occasion, "those young women are most interesting. Miss Carpenter, indeed, has a great deal of elegance. Alex, with her eccentric ideas, is delighted with them, and was so anxious to go I could not refuse."
Without the shop these would have been lonely days for Charlotte, with Aunt Virginia absent so much of the time, and her friend Helen one of the grip victims. Miss Carpenter had exerted a peculiar fascination over Charlotte since the evening when she had come to her rescue. Others might prefer Miss Pennington; Charlotte never wavered in her admiration for the more quiet member of the firm. On her way to school each morning she invariably crossed the street that she might pass the shop, and perhaps receive a smile from Marion.
This new enthusiasm overshadowed all former ones, and Miss Carpenter seemed by no means indifferent to the little girl's adoration, making her welcome to run in and out at all times. After hours, or when business was dull, Charlotte would often talk to her about the Landors, and their Philadelphia home, and Miss Carpenter seemed quite ready to listen; but Charlotte's curiosity about her cousin who lived across the street, was never satisfied.
Miss Sarah, to whom indirectly this cementing of the ties between the shop and its neighbors was due, called Norah to her bedside on the first day of her illness, and confided to her a certain railroad bond.
"I am afraid it will be some time before I am able to attend to this myself," she said, "so I am going to ask you to see if you can sell it for me. I went yesterday to see about it, but they told me to hold on to it for a while, if possible, and I thought I could perhaps wait; but now I want the money. It will have to go at whatever price it will bring. It is too bad to ask you,—you are so good."
Norah assured her she would not mind in the least, and leaving the patient in Miss Virginia's hands she walked thoughtfully toward home. She happened to know that there was considerable interest felt at present in the fluctuation of these bonds, for she sometimes read the market news to Mr. Goodman, and he had a few days before spoken of buying some. Was there any possible way by which she could sell Miss Sarah's bond without sacrificing it?
At the corner she met Mr. Goodman, and at sight of him a sudden idea took possession of her.
"Mr. Goodman, can you tell me how G. W. & S. bonds are selling to-day?" she asked.
"Seventy-two they are asking to-day. A good thing if you want to buy. They are bound to go up," was the old gentleman's reply.
"Could you come in and let me ask you a few questions?" said Norah.
Mr. Goodman never objected to talking stocks and bonds, and therefore assented affably.
To the very evident amusement of Alex and Marion, Norah conducted her companion through the shop into the next room, flashing a mischievous glance over her shoulder as she pushed the door to. Giving the old man a chair, she seated herself opposite him; and leaning forward with her folded arms on the table, she told him of Miss Sarah's illness and her need of money. "Now," she concluded, "she has one of those bonds, and I want to sell it for a thousand dollars."
"My dear young lady, you can't do the impossible. Keep it six months and it may be at par."
"But she can't wait. She must have the money,—at least she thinks so; and she is too ill to be argued with. I want to make her mind easy. Why couldn't—somebody—give a thousand dollars for it?" Norah's heart beat quickly at her own daring. "What would be lost?"
"Why doesn't somebody give her three hundred dollars, you mean?"
"No, that is not at all what I mean," urged Norah. "I think you said you were buying to sell? Now, if that bond is worth a thousand dollars six months from now, what would—anybody lose who gave that for it now? Only the interest on not quite three hundred dollars. That is, of course, taking for granted he expected to sell."
"Upon my word!" exclaimed Mr. Goodman. "What is she talking about? I didn't say they would be at par in six months."
"Well, say a year, then. If you'll buy the bond, I'll pay the interest. I'll give you my note," Norah said, laughing.
"It is the most astonishing proposition I ever heard," growled the old man.
"It is to help a neighbor out, and that is the best thing in life, particularly any one so brave and bright as Miss Sarah. She would never let us do it if she guessed, but I can tell her they are going up steadily. I think I can manage it." Norah beamed across the table.
Whether she had won or not was difficult to tell, for Mr. Goodman rose suddenly, buttoned up his coat, and saying he would see her the next day, strode off without so much as good evening.
"Norah, what made you do it?" Marion exclaimed when she heard the story. "Surely, it could have been arranged."
"I don't know. It popped into my head when I saw him. It won't do any harm to get some of his rusty dollars into circulation. I almost believe he will do it."
And she was right. Mr. Goodman gave her a check for a thousand dollars, and, moreover, suggested that if Miss Sarah did not need the whole amount at present, he could invest several hundred of it advantageously. And this was the kindest thing Giant Despair had done for many a year. As for Norah's scheme for paying him interest, he only laughed at that.
Poor Miss Sarah was too ill to understand more than that the bond was sold. She was feverishly anxious till she could put the money for his debts into Wayland's hands. After this she grew rapidly worse, and the outcome began to seem doubtful.
Wayland blamed himself bitterly. He could not forget the touch of those burning fingers pressing the money into his hand. He tried to refuse it, but his aunt whispered: "Take it, dear. It is all right. I shall not be happy till you do." After this he had been sent from the room and not allowed to see her again.
Old Mrs. Leigh, bemoaning Sarah's hard lot and accusing herself of selfishness, unconsciously enlightened him as to the true state of affairs. Wayland sincerely loved his aunt,—the only mother he had ever known,—and he realized with shame how unworthy had been his attitude toward her of late. While she had been struggling to make a home for him and her old aunt, thinking and spending for him till there was nothing left for herself, he, absorbed in his own affairs, had been disdainful and critical, fretted by her habit of laughing at things, annoyed by her style of dress.
And this money. He guessed where it came from. She must have sold a bond left to her by a friend some years ago, which she called her rainy-day legacy. He fiercely promised himself he would pay it back.
But in the terrible fear that she would not recover, this thought ceased to console him. What if he should never have the opportunity to tell her how sorry he was, how ashamed? The doctor looked very grave, the nurse and Miss Virginia shook their heads and said, "No better." Norah was the only one who gave him any encouragement. She bade him not give up yet, and devised errands to distract him from his misery, and make him feel that he was of some use. He hung upon her words with such an appealing face her heart was touched, for she guessed that remorse mingled with his sorrow.
There came a dreadful day when even she had no hopeful word to say; when, hurrying home at the earliest moment, he found the house hushed in a terrible suspense.
Miss Virginia sat with Mrs. Leigh, and they talked of Miss Sarah, and wiped the tears from their eyes as if she were already dead. Wayland could not endure it.
In his longing for comfort he thought of Madelaine. Surely, she would be kind to him now. She was tender-hearted and sympathetic; just the touch of her pretty hand would help him. He had not seen her for more than a week.
Miss Madelaine was dressing to go out, but would see him for a moment if he cared to wait, the servant said; and presently as he strode back and forth, too restless to sit down, she floated in, lovely and gracious as ever.
"I am going to dinner at the Mays'. I am sorry I can't see you for more than a minute. How is Miss Sarah to-night?"
"No better—worse," Wayland answered brokenly, holding fast the hand she offered him. Gently Madelaine drew it away, and began to put on her glove.
"I am so sorry," she said, "but you mustn't despair. I am sure she is going to get well."
Upon Wayland's sensitive ear the words fell with a hollowness almost unbearable. "She does not care at all," he told himself.
This was perhaps a little unjust to Madelaine. She was very full at that moment of the joy of living; she knew nothing by experience, of illness and death. She was sorry for Wayland, but the thought of the evening's pleasure was not for an instant dimmed by it.
Wayland went blindly home again, conscious of nothing but the pain in his heart. At the door Norah met him with a note which she asked him to take to Miss Carpenter. "The doctor thinks there will be no change for some hours," she told him.
He sat staring into the fire in the same blind way when Marion entered the room.
"There is no haste about the answer. Won't you stay with me for a while?" she said. "I am alone, and I know you must be feeling the strain of suspense."
Norah's note had said: "Do keep the poor boy and comfort him if you can. He does nothing but wander in and out."
"Thank you, I think I must go back," he answered, lingering aimlessly however.
Marion brought him a cup of after-dinner coffee, and he submitted and drank it, although he felt it must choke him; and when he had swallowed it, he was the better for it.
Marion did not make the mistake of trying to cheer him in the face of this terrible anxiety, but in every possible way she showed her sympathy. She spoke of his aunt, of her brightness and kindness, of her evident attachment for him; and poor Wayland, longing to pour out his unhappiness to some one, forgot she was almost a stranger and came out with his confession. His foolishness and extravagance, his carelessness of his aunt's comfort. It was very boyish and perfectly sincere. Madelaine was not mentioned by name, but the wound showed plainly, and Marion guessed what he did not tell.
"And now I shall never have a chance to show her how sorry I am," he groaned, hiding his face.
"Don't say that. There is still some room for hope that you may have another opportunity; and even if you do not, you can yet make of yourself what she would wish," Marion said; adding, "If you will let me speak to you as if you were my younger brother, I should say that all the trouble has come from a natural but selfish determination to have what, after all, was not meant for you. I think I understand; and although you may not believe me, I am sure it could never have made you happy if you had been able to obtain it."
"If you mean Madelaine," Wayland said, lifting his head, "that is all over."
Afterward he could look back on that evening and feel that out of his grief he had won a friend who might never have been his under other circumstances. At the moment he was conscious only of the new courage and determination that inspired him, when after the long talk he said good night.
With the morning new hope came. There was a chance for recovery; and this grew, until at length Miss Sarah began slowly to climb the hill toward health again.
It was some time before Wayland could pour out to her his repentance, and then his aunt would not let him say half he wanted to say.
"Why, child," she exclaimed, patting the head bowed on the arm of her chair, "you have done nothing to call forth all this. You have been thoughtless, as most young persons are; but I suspect it is my fault. I spoiled you. I did so want you to have what you wanted, always. I suppose it is foolish, but it is the way we feel about the children we bring up."
"You shall have that bond back, or one just as good, Aunt Sarah," he assured her; and there was something in his face which showed he meant it.
THE PRICE OF A BOND
"Mr. Goodman, I want to understand about that bond Miss Pennington sold for me. I have been reading the papers, and I don't see how it could have brought a thousand dollars when they are only quoted at eighty-something." Miss Sarah was still white and weak, but she spoke with a touch of her old energy.
Ever since she had been able to think connectedly, the matter had puzzled her. Norah, when appealed to, was innocence itself.
"I am sure he did not lose anything, Miss Sarah," she said. "I offered it to him because I happened to know he had already bought some."
So now she had summoned Giant Despair himself, happening to see from her window his clumsy figure coming up the street.
"I am glad to see you better, Miss Sarah," he said, appearing rather ill at ease as he seated himself ponderously in a wicker chair.
"Goodness! I hope it won't give way with him," thought Miss Sarah; then aloud she repeated her question, adding, "I have no confidence whatever in Miss Pennington."
Giant Despair squinted at her with his best eye, as if to see just what she meant.
"My own opinion," Miss Sarah continued, "has always been that she is a witch; but even then I don't understand it."
Mr. Goodman smiled grimly and slapped his gloves across his knee. "Probably you don't know much about the ways of witches," he remarked.
"I ought to know something. I can't imagine what I should have done without Norah. Everybody was kind,—more than kind,—but she knew how to take hold and manage things. I—" she hesitated a moment before she added, "and we didn't want them in the neighborhood!"
"I guess you are right about the witch business," agreed the old man.
"But the bond," urged Miss Sarah.
"Well, there is nothing to be said about the bond, so far as I know. As a general thing women don't know much about business, but Miss Norah has taught me a thing or two. I haven't lost anything on your bond, Miss Sarah, and I expect to make before I get through."
"And you are sure that she—"
"She didn't lose anything, either,—if that is what you mean. That bond was worth to me what I paid for it, and that is all I can say on the subject, unless—" Giant Despair hesitated. "Years ago your brother saved me a good deal of money at one time and another. He was a good man. I have sometimes wished I had taken his advice. If you aren't satisfied, just remember that."
There had been a time when Miss Sarah's brother, Wayland's father, had managed Mr. Goodman's law business; but the relations had come to a sudden end. The only explanation Mr. Leigh had ever made to his sister was that he did not care for certain of the drug company's methods.
"Then all I can do is to thank you most warmly," she said as he rose.
"If I have helped you, Miss Sarah, I am glad. As I say, I have not lost anything, and I am a useless old codger, anyhow."
Miss Sarah wiped some tears away; she was far from strong yet. "I think it was a conspiracy between you and Miss Pennington, but I'll have to let it go."
"I am in good company, at any rate," said Giant Despair.
James Mandeville waited for Mr. Goodman at the gate, and the two walked away together, hand in hand, the little boy taking great pains to point out all obstacles in the path, chattering ceaselessly, his radiant face lifted constantly to the rugged one so far above him. Miss Sarah watched them and smiled.
As for Mr. Goodman, he felt a strange sense of exhilaration,—so much so, that when they met an organ-grinder and a monkey (spring being now at hand) he contributed a dime instead of the usual five-cent piece.
A week later he went to a hospital to have his eye operated on, and during the weeks of helplessness that followed he was the recipient of an amount of attention that greatly surprised him.
The hospital was only a few blocks away from the Terrace, and hardly a day passed without a visit from some of his neighbors. Marion, Norah, and Alexina took turns in reading to him; and James Mandeville came whenever he could induce any one to bring him.
In the same corridor was a man recovering from a stroke of paralysis, who, rolling himself back and forth in his chair, occasionally encountered Mr. Goodman and exchanged a few words.
"I notice you have a great many friends," the stranger remarked one day.
"I?" exclaimed Giant Despair, who looked fiercer than ever with one eye bandaged. "Well, I suppose I have," he admitted, and became lost in thought. Eight months ago probably not a soul would have done more than leave a card, unless it had been a member of the firm. How had it come about? Undoubtedly the shopkeepers had something to do with it. They had showed themselves friendly. Then he thought of that bond. Suppose he had refused Norah? Ah, he had told Miss Sarah the strict truth when he said he had not lost anything in that transaction. He really felt the impulse to do another kindness to somebody, but not being in practice, nothing suggested itself.
An opportunity came, however. One Sunday afternoon James Mandeville brought his father with him to see Mr. Goodman. The child's joyous air of proprietorship was pretty to see.
"Here's my father," he announced. "Isn't you glad he's come home?" Then, as the two men shook hands, he asked, leaning confidingly against his old friend, "Does your eye hurt, still yet?"
The conversation turned naturally to business, and after a time Mr. Goodman suddenly said, "Norton, it has just occurred to me— We are making some changes this spring, and we need an experienced man to look after the city trade. How would you like the place?"
Mr. Norton's careworn, boyish face flushed and brightened. "It would mean a great deal to me now, Mr. Goodman. My wife will be at home soon; I was dreading the thought of having to leave. Thank you very much."
"You needn't thank me. I am considering my own interest," the old man replied, with an affability that astounded himself.
"I rather think Jenks is expecting the place, but he isn't married; he can wait," he added.
* * * * *
"Miss Norah, does you reckon old Marse Goodman's gittin' religion?" asked Mammy Belle one day. "Looks like he's mighty soft-hearted."
Alexina said the shop, like a little leaven, was leavening the whole neighborhood, and truly it seemed so. To her those two weeks of association with Marion had been a joy. In the congenial surroundings of the shop she found it easy to live in to-day, leaving the future to unfold as it would. Her shorthand book lay unopened; she began to feel the truth of Marion's assurance, "Your forte is dainty, feminine things, Alex, in spite of your disdain for them."
In their leisure moments they had built many castles concerned with the future of the shop, one of these being a millinery department of which Alex was to have charge.
Indeed, the two weeks of Miss Sarah's illness saw the beginning of many things. Between Miss Virginia and Norah Pennington a strong friendship grew up.
"Miss Virginia is such a dear!" Norah said. "I adore her stilted little expressions, such as 'busy with my needle or pen,' instead of sewing or writing, and with it all she is at heart a child."
"That is the point of contact between you," Marion answered, smiling.
Miss Virginia was like one who had thrown off a yoke, yet she hardly understood her own light-heartedness. It was quite true that she had never outgrown her girlhood. It was only overlaid by grown-up manners, and unconsciously she was beginning to let the burden of convention slip from her shoulders and to enjoy herself as her nature prompted.
Charlotte was an hourly pleasure. Miss Virginia enjoyed looking after her wardrobe as in the past she had enjoyed dressing her dolls. She listened to the schoolgirl experiences poured into her ear, with genuine interest. They were like two children together; but Miss Virginia's sweetness and sincerity, her delicate refinement, could not but have their influence on her impetuous little niece.
One broadening influence came from those Friday evenings in the shop, with their basket making and pleasant talk. Miss Virginia had been accustomed to accept things as they were. When in her very infrequent visits to business offices she had encountered young women acting as bookkeepers and stenographers, she had looked upon them as a class apart. Not that she felt consciously superior, or anything but kindly, but simply that her life and theirs did not touch. She was actually surprised to find Norah's friend Louise Martin so much like other girls, and when Norah described the hall bedroom in the gloomy boarding-house, which was her only home, Miss Virginia began to wish and then to wonder if she could not do something to brighten a life that seemed so dreary.
Another addition to the Friday gatherings was a Miss Jackson, a fellow-boarder of Miss Martin's, a public school teacher and an ambitious, high-spirited girl.
Toward these two Miss Virginia began to show a timid friendliness so plainly sincere it was irresistible. She found them much more interesting than many of the people who belonged to her own sphere, and whom she was accustomed to call friends. The end of it was, she asked them to tea with Alex and the shopkeepers,—a tremendous departure, a step taken with fear and trembling. But when it was over, she found herself looking back on it as one of the happiest occasions of her life.
And now the Friday evenings at the shop began to be enlarged in their scope. It came about quite naturally. Norah, the sunny-hearted, could not breathe without attracting friends; and while the basket making still went on, and Miss Sarah and Miss Virginia brought their embroidery, others dropped in for the pleasant talk.
Alex induced her grandfather to go with her on one occasion, and the judge was clearly both bewildered and charmed. He renewed his acquaintance with Norah, of whom he had not ceased to speak in admiration, and was greatly impressed by Marion's graceful bearing.
Madelaine, who enjoyed doing unexpected things, appeared upon the scene this same night with Winston Graham in tow. This gentleman's astonishment was only exceeded by his willingness to follow Madelaine anywhere. He professed some interest in baskets, whereupon Marion gave him a seat beside Miss Martin.
"'The rich and the poor meet together, the Lord is the maker of them all,'" Miss Sarah quoted to Miss Virginia.
"What do you call this place, Miss Pennington? It isn't really a shop—you don't sell things?" asked Mr. Graham, when, a little later, Norah came to the rescue.
"Why, of course we do. How else could we make a living? And it has several names," she replied. "Has Alex told you the latest," turning to Judge Russell. "She saw Mammy Belle on the corner one morning, gazing over here with all her eyes. 'It shorely do look like a Norah's Ark, Miss Alex,' she said. And really there is no doubt about its resembling an ark although we had none of us thought of it; and while I can't claim exclusive proprietorship, I accept the honor of having it named for me. What do you think of it?"
The old gentleman glanced about him. "It is not nearly poetic enough, my dear," he said.
Norah laughed at this gallant speech. "You see," she went on, "we are simply reviving a cosey old custom of living over the shop, which should interest you as a lover of old things."
"And also of young things—if you will pardon the expression," said the judge, smiling.
"Why, grandfather," cried Alex, "I shall be afraid to bring you again."
"I expect to wake some morning and find the shop has disappeared, leaving no trace of itself," Miss Sarah remarked.
"I trust not," exclaimed Norah. "Where would we be?"
"An enchanted prince would have carried you off," laughed Charlotte.
"Two princes," suggested Miss Virginia.
A sudden gravity fell on Norah, so noticeable that Miss Sarah said, as she turned away, "She seems not to like the idea of the prince."
* * * * *
The days grew long, the air soft and warm; the Terrace gardens bloomed again and the rich foliage of summer succeeded the delicate lace-work of spring. The Russell house was again a Palace Beautiful in its mantle of vines, and the judge sat on the rustic bench beneath the Ginkgo tree, his hands on his stick and a faraway look in his eyes.
Every moment that could be spared from the shop found Marion and Norah off to the country, to return laden with fragrant trophies. The delicate look had gone from Marion's face, and the disfiguring glasses were rarely seen.
One evening in May an unexpected visitor appeared in the shop. A tall, wiry man, past middle age, with a keen, kindly face.
"Why, Dr. Baird!" cried Norah, "I was just wishing for you."
"You were?" he said, shaking hands. "Anything wrong with my patient?"
"Here she is, to speak for herself," said Marion, entering from the next room.
The physician looked at her long and intently. "I give up," he said at length. "It has worked. You are all right, and"—turning to Norah—"I suppose you think you are very clever, miss. Your wild-goose scheme has been a success."
"You shall not call it names, for it has been the happiest winter of my life," said Marion.
"Miss Marion, are you here? I am so glad to see you! I have something to show you. Where is Miss Norah?" Charlotte punctuated her breathless remarks with an ardent embrace.
"Why, Charlotte, how rosy you look, and I believe you have grown two inches!" Miss Carpenter had risen to meet her, and now took the brown face in both her hands and smiled into the blue eyes. "It is good to see you again. When did you get home?"
"Early this morning; and now Aunt Virginia has everything out of our trunks—you would think there had been ten instead of two—and she and Martha are putting away, so I ran," Charlotte answered gayly.
It was September again. The shop, which had been closed for a month while its proprietors took a holiday, had reopened, but the days were still warm, and little was doing. This afternoon, with its shaded windows and its autumn decorations of goldenrod and asters, it looked cool and inviting.
Marion, who had been reading when Charlotte entered, laid her book on the table and motioned to a place beside her in the window-seat. "What have you to show me?" she asked.
"You'll never guess, so I shall have to tell you. And, oh, Miss Marion, I want to ask you something, but I'm afraid."
"Am I so very formidable? I can't imagine what it can be. I'll promise not to answer if I do not like the question."
"It isn't that," cried Charlotte. "It is nothing I want you to tell me, it is something I want you to do."
"Then I am more puzzled than ever. Do let me see what you have. Is it a book?"
For answer Charlotte slipped the outer cover from a small green and gold volume and put it into Marion's hand, drawing near and leaning against her shoulder as she did so. "It is Cousin Frank's book," she said. "It came while he was with us at Rocky Point. He gave me the very first. Isn't it a dear?"
Marion turned the leaves in silence. "Love's Reason, and Other Poems," the title-page said. She turned another leaf, "To One Far Away," was the dedication. She paused here for a moment, then went on turning the pages.
"It is a very pretty little book," she said, in a tone that seemed to Charlotte less interested than the occasion called for.
"I thought you'd like it, because I have talked to you so much about Cousin Frank. And, oh, Miss Marion, it is about Miss Carpenter I want to ask you." Charlotte's head was against Marion's arm, and she did not lift her eyes.
"It was one evening when Cousin Frank and I were sitting on the sand in the moonlight. Some man—I forget his name, but at any rate he is a great critic—stopped us as we were leaving the hotel, to say something very nice about the poems; and I asked Cousin Frank if he were not pleased. He said he was glad, of course, to have it liked, and he valued this man's judgment; but that after all it was for the opinion of just one person he cared the most. I was certain it must be Miss Carpenter, because of the dedication,—that couldn't mean any one else; so I said I knew she must like it. He looked at me in such a funny way and asked what I meant. So I told him what I had guessed, and he did not seem to mind.
"I asked if he had sent her a book, but he said he did not know where she was, and the only person who did know was away, too. Then for a long time he did not say anything; but after a while I slipped my hand in his, and told him I knew she must care,—she couldn't help it,—although I hadn't any idea why she had gone away without letting him know where she was.
"He said if he were sure she did not care at all, he would give it up, for that would be the only manly thing; but until he was sure, he must hope. It was then I began to wonder if you knew where she was, Miss Marion. If you do, couldn't you tell her how much he cares? I don't see why she went away; but Cousin Frank said she had a reason, although he didn't think it was a good one. Could you tell her, Miss Marion?"
"Did you ever say anything to Mr. Landor about the shop or—" Marion left the question unfinished.
"Yes, that very evening I told him I was certain my Miss Carpenter was lovelier than his." Charlotte squeezed the hand she held. "He smiled, and asked a great many questions. But could you tell her?" Charlotte was nothing if not persistent.
This Miss Carpenter, of whom she had grown so fond, was a quiet person, not given to demonstration of any sort, but Charlotte suddenly felt herself drawn into a close embrace, while a very gentle voice said in her ear: "Charlotte, you may tell him I know she cares. I think she was right to go away—she had a reason, but—"
"What is going on here?" broke in Norah's gay tones. "Why, Charlotte, how are you? You two look as if you had been in mischief."
A moment later who should walk in but Mrs. Leigh, looking like an old ivory portrait, her apple-blossom face framed in silver puffs and white frills. "Are you at home, and ready to show your pretty things? Upon my word, I am glad to see the shop open again. We have missed you."
"Thank you, dear Mrs. Leigh; we are glad to be back again," said Norah, greeting her cordially, while Marion pushed forward a chair and Charlotte brought a cushion.
Mrs. Leigh adored to be waited upon; she beamed graciously on the three. "Thank you, my dears. This is a charming place, and I must say I didn't expect to see you here again."
"Why not? We had no idea of not coming back," Marion said.
"Oh, I have never believed it would last," Mrs. Leigh's bright eyes twinkled. "You are too—well, there is a mystery about you, you know."
"I didn't know. How interesting!" exclaimed Norah, laughing.
"Well, I suppose there is no use in talking about it. You won't tell me. Charlotte, when is your Aunt Caroline expected?"
"They were looking for her in a day or two," Charlotte replied, putting on her hat as she spoke. She did not care to stay and listen to Mrs. Leigh just now.
Marion caught her hand. "May I have the little book for a while?" she whispered.
"I have a piece of news for you," announced the old lady, as Charlotte disappeared.
"Madelaine Russell is engaged to Winston Graham. It is to be announced this week. It will be a relief to her mother to have her well married, and I expect she is getting what she wants."
"I think it is an excellent match," remarked Norah. "Winston is not a bad fellow, and Madelaine couldn't be happy without money. Why, if there isn't Mammy Belle!" she added, looking up.
In the doorway stood that dusky personage, arrayed not in her usual starched calico and white apron, but in her Sunday dress of black, with floating crepe veil.
"Howdy, Miss Norah; howdy, Miss Marion. I des come to see how you all was gettin' on. I'se tolable, thank you, ma'am. Yes'm, James Mandeville's gone wid his mamma to see his grandpaw, and Marse Tom's the onliest one lef'."
"Sit down and rest," said Marion. "Mrs. Leigh, you know Aunt Belle, don't you?"
"Is that Belle Campbell? Of course I do. I remember you, Belle, when you lived at the Graingers'."
"Yes'm, Miss Sally, I 'members you. Looks like you's mighty peart yit." Mammy Belle smoothed the front of her skirt and then folded her black gloved hands in her lap.
"Oh, I'm not good for much any more," answered Mrs. Leigh. "But tell me, Belle, what made you leave the Graingers? I thought you were a fixture there."
"Yes'm, I reckon I'd be living there yit, if 'twarn't fur ole Marse Andrew. He done sassed me too much, Miss Sally. Aunt Judy she say, 'Better stay whar de pot biles hardes', Belle,' but I couldn't stan' ole Marse Andrew."
"I had forgotten about Aunt Judy. Is she still living?" asked Mrs. Leigh.
"Yes, ma'am, she's livin', but she is mighty porely."
"Isn't she very old?"
"Yes'm, Miss Sally, Aunt Judy's tolable ole. Look like she don' know fur shore how ole she is. You knows Marse Andrew, Miss Sally? Well, Aunt Judy say she war a little gal runnin' round when Marse Andrew was bawn, an' dey tuk her into de house dat day to wait on ole Miss, Marse Andrew's grandmaw, and it was corn-shuckin' time; so if you knows how ole Marse Andrew is, you knows how ole Aunt Judy is."
These interesting reminiscences were interrupted by Alex and her grandfather, who stopped at the door to welcome their neighbors back, as the judge explained, his fine old face beaming with friendliness.
"What do you think Caroline is going to say when she finds us all friends of the shop, Judge?" asked plain-spoken Mrs. Leigh.
"I am of the opinion that even Mrs. Millard will be unable to hold out against it very long. You know she hasn't had our opportunities," was the reply. "I have some new books to show you,—or some old ones, rather,—Miss Norah," the judge added.
* * * * *
Norah had been sitting alone in the south window for some time when Marion joined her.
"Where have you been? and what is that small green book you are carrying about?" Norah asked.
Marion put it into her hand; as she did so, a paper fluttered out and fell to the floor. Stooping for it, Norah's quick eyes read involuntarily,
"I love her whether she love me or no,"
and something told her it was the valentine of last winter.
Marion's fingers closed over it. "Charlotte brought me the book," she explained; "but don't try to read by this light."
"I shall not read much; I want to see what it is."
There was silence for some minutes; then Norah put an arm around her friend. "Marion, I have been thinking I'd ask Alex to be my partner when you go." Try as she would, there was a little break on that last word.
"No, let me finish. You know a shop is not the station to which you are called, dear. I see clearly that the fairy prince is coming, and there is no reason why he should not." Norah pressed her cheek against Marion's. "Do you realize this is the anniversary of our coming here?"
"It seems to me you are very ready to give me up," said Marion.
"Forgive me, dear, I know you aren't. That was not fair. But I don't know—I can't talk about it now. I feel drawn two ways, and I am jealous of Alex when I think of her in my place."
"I don't want you to be altogether glad, but I am proud of what the shop has done for you. And of course I have known all along it could not last. We have had a good time, haven't we?"
"And it is not over yet," Marion said, pressing the hand she held. "There is one thing that perplexes me. The time has come for explanations, I suppose, and the situation seems a little melodramatic and silly."
"Don't think about it, then. It will work out of itself. Does it not seem strange when you look back to that evening when we first thought of the shop, that it has really been tried and proved a success?"
"Indeed, it does. How miserable I was, and determined not to go abroad, as Dr. Baird wished, but to stay there at home. Then you declined to stay with me, Norah; and when I was in despair you proposed the wild scheme of keeping a shop. I was interested at first, but you don't know how often I would have given up if it had not been for the fear of losing you. And now, Norah, I wouldn't give a hundred thousand dollars for the experience."
"That is a good deal of money. I ought to be very triumphant that my plan worked so well." Norah's tone was sad, however.
After the lamps were lighted Marion became absorbed in the little book, bending over it with a pretty glow in her face. From the other side of the table Norah watched her. After a while she rose and took down the rainbow bag and drew out a card.
"If I make dark my countenance, I shut my life to happier chance."
She pondered it. "That is true," she told herself, "and there is no end to the beautiful things that may happen if only one is ready for them."
WHAT IT MEANT
Charlotte walked slowly home. She wondered what Miss Marion meant. "Tell him I know she cares." Charlotte had often noticed that Miss Carpenter seemed not to be deeply interested in her Philadelphia cousin, and now suddenly she turned around and was apparently intimately acquainted with her feelings. It was a puzzle.
She sat down in one of the porch chairs to think it over, making a pleasant picture in her white dress, with the feathery clematis for a background, her blue eyes serious and thoughtful, as she rocked softly back and forth. The old self-assertion which a year ago had shown itself in attitude and speech had become softened now until it was no more than a gentle independence.
She had toned down, Cousin Francis told her, with evident approval. In spite of its tempestuous beginning, the year in the Terrace had in great measure resulted as her guardian hoped it would.
Aunt Virginia's sweet refinement, Alexina's earnestness, Madelaine's grace,—all these had had their influence; but most potent had been her admiration—almost adoration—for Miss Carpenter. Charlotte had made pleasant friends in school, but after all her happiest hours had been spent in the Terrace, where a year ago life had promised to be so dull.
Aunt Virginia joined her presently, dropping into a chair with a sigh of satisfaction. "It is good to be at home again, and Martha and I have everything put away," she said. "Where have you been?"
"Over to see Miss Marion, but Mrs. Leigh came in and I didn't care to stay."
Miss Virginia rocked briskly for some minutes, then she remarked, "There was something in your Aunt Caroline's last letter I did not understand." Taking it from the envelope she unfolded it and glanced down the page. "Here it is. 'I infer from certain hints you have dropped at different times that you have not taken my advice in regard to the shop—' I didn't hint, I only said—" Miss Virginia hesitated. She did not recall just what she had said, but she knew she had by no means revealed the true extent of her intimacy with the shopkeepers. She went on with the letter. "'I have lately received some first-hand information concerning these young women, who seem to have fulfilled my prophecy that they would lose no opportunity to ingratiate themselves. I fear you have been too credulous, my dear Virginia, but I will not enter into the matter further till I see you.'
"I wonder what she means by 'first-hand information'?" said Miss Virginia. "I know Caroline will never feel as the rest of us do, but she can't know anything against them."
"No, indeed," Charlotte cried. "There isn't anything about Miss Marion, or Miss Norah either, that is not lovely."
The thought of Marion's caress returned, and with it the question whether she should tell Cousin Frank or not; for it occurred to her he might think her officious to have spoken of the matter to a stranger. If— Charlotte became lost in thought again.
A good many miles to the northward two gentlemen were dining together at the very hour when Miss Virginia and Charlotte sat on the porch and watched the sunset without thinking of it.
"You have great reason to be pleased with the reviews of your book, Frank," the elder man remarked, gratified affection in the grave smile with which his gaze rested on his son.
"Yes, for the most part the critics are kind," Francis Landor replied, drawing hieroglyphics in an absent manner on the cloth with the handle of his spoon.
"But one thing is lacking," thought the father, his glance still resting on the bent head. "The boy must come to something with such a head," he had often said in his childhood; and now the belief was likely to be justified. The face before him was showing the strong, serious lines of maturity, yet he almost regretted the lost boyishness as he noted them.
Suddenly Frank looked up. "I am thinking of going away for a week or so," he announced.
A smile hovered about his father's lips. "May I ask in what direction?—To see Charlotte?"
Their eyes met. "Yes, to see Charlotte," Francis answered.
"When do you go?"
"I wish you good luck, my son."
"So he, too, has guessed," thought Frank.
When he was alone, he took out a letter which bore evidence of more than one reading. Its date showed it to be a year old.
"I am going away," the letter said, "to be gone a long time,—at least a year. By then my fate ought to be decided. I am trying to hope, as Dr. Baird assures me I may, trying to live entirely in the present. It is not easy, but how can I make any plans for the future when a possible life of helplessness lies before me? You are generous, and I know you will forgive if this causes you pain. Forget—everything but that I am always your friend,
"I have told no one where I am going, as it seems best to make as complete a break as possible with my life here. Dr. Baird, of course, knows."
"Really, Mrs. Millard, you have treated us very shabbily. It is nearly a year since you left us."
"Ten months, Judge Russell. You are very kind to say you have missed me. I had no thought of staying so long when I left, and I am delighted to be at home again." Mrs. Millard stood in the drawing-room, as composed and elegant as if she had not arrived from a three days' railway journey only a few hours before.
It was a summer-like evening, doors and windows were open, and one after another of the neighbors had dropped in, until Charlotte was reminded of the evening a year ago when the shop was under discussion. She felt a little shy in Aunt Caroline's presence, although that lady was graciousness itself; and Wayland Leigh, who came in with his aunt, joined her in the corner by the library door and wanted to know what made her so quiet.
"Quite a party, isn't it?" he said; adding, "but where are Miss Marion and Miss Norah?" Like Charlotte, Wayland always put Marion first.
"I don't believe Aunt Caroline would want them," she replied, smiling.
"To be sure, when she went away we didn't know them."
That others were also thinking of the shop was evident, for Miss Sarah was now heard remarking, "You left us defenceless, Caroline, and we surrendered soon after your departure."
"Yes, the shop has become a neighborhood institution," Judge Russell added.
"I am more than surprised to hear you say so, Judge Russell."
"But Mr. Goodman is the most remarkable convert, Mrs. Millard," said Alex. "Just ask him his opinion of the shop."
"I do not wish to criticise, this first evening at home," Mrs. Millard began graciously; "but as I have been telling Virginia, I cannot understand the fascination these persons seem to have exercised over you."
"But you know they are really charming young women," ventured Mrs. Russell. "I objected to the shop as decidedly as any one until I found out about them. Their popularity is not confined to this neighborhood, and of course you know they are well connected."
"It is about that I wish to speak," interposed Mrs. Millard. "As you may have heard, Miss Unadilla Carpenter, the half-sister of Peter Carpenter, is a friend of my oldest sister. For years they have corresponded; so when I heard from Virginia that these people claimed to be related to the Philadelphia Carpenters, I took it upon myself to write a letter of inquiry to Miss Unadilla. She was ill at the time and some months passed before she replied. A few weeks ago I received a letter, in a part of which you may be interested."
Mrs. Millard was evidently prepared for the occasion, for she at once produced the paper in question.
"I shall be glad to hear it, but it can't alter my opinion of our friends across the street," Miss Sarah said stoutly, at which remark Miss Virginia visibly brightened.
Mrs. Millard paid no heed, but began to read. "'Of the Miss Carpenter of whom you write I know nothing. She is not related to us. My niece, May Carpenter, is my only connection of the name, as I am hers. Of my niece I know little at present. Two years ago she had a long illness which came near being fatal, since then I believe she has been abroad. As to the young woman in question, I repeat we have no cousins.'" Mrs. Millard looked around the circle in triumph.
"Of course," said Miss Sarah, "there are some things difficult to explain; but the most difficult of all would be, how two young women could come into a neighborhood and make it better and happier for their presence, could nurse some of us when we were ill, and show themselves in a thousand ways helpful and kindly and companionable, and all with the utmost simplicity,—to explain how they could do all this and yet be impostors, would be harder still. The good Book says, 'By their fruits ye shall know them,' and that is how we know the shopkeepers."
Wayland clapped noiselessly. "Good for auntie!" he whispered to Charlotte.
"I really don't remember Marion's saying she was a cousin of Miss Carpenter," said Alex. "Perhaps we jumped to the conclusion."
Mrs. Millard's lips were parted to reply when an exclamation from Miss Virginia caused all eyes to turn toward the door. From the awed silence it might have been a ghost, instead of Norah Pennington in a white dress, who stood there.
She could not but be conscious of the excitement her appearance aroused. Her color deepened as for a second she felt herself the object of the silent gaze of this roomful of people. She did not lose her self-possession, however, and in another moment Charlotte was at her side, and Miss Virginia had recovered her power of speech.
"I really came in search of Alex," Norah explained, a most engaging impostor surely, as she smiled upon the assembly.
"Do you know my sister, Miss Pennington?" Miss Virginia's embarrassment was painfully evident.
"I believe I once met Mrs. Millard in the shop." There was a twinkle of mischief in Norah's demureness.
Mrs. Millard bowed distantly.
"I am going to settle this here and now," Miss Sarah whispered to Mrs. Russell as Norah crossed the room to the sofa where Alex sat. Leaning forward she said in a tone quite audible to everybody, "Norah, excuse me for asking a personal question, but did you say Miss Carpenter—Marion—was related to the Philadelphia Carpenters?"
Norah was quick-witted. So this was what they had been talking about! A glance at Mrs. Millard's haughty shoulders explained. "I think I did say so," she replied frankly.
"But Miss Unadilla says she can't be," observed Wayland in an undertone from behind her.
Norah made her decision promptly. "Miss Unadilla would not have said so if she had understood. I am going to take the liberty of explaining what has perhaps puzzled some of you. It was I who in the beginning caused the mistake, and I think now the time has come to set it right." In the faces of her friends she saw nothing but confidence.
"Some of you have perhaps already guessed that there is just one Miss Carpenter. Marion is Miss Unadilla's niece."
"I knew it! I knew it!" Charlotte whispered in an ecstasy.
Norah continued: "We had no idea of making a mystery of it; that simply happened. Marion was recovering from a long illness, which left her with a nervous affection of the eyes, so serious she felt she would lose her sight. She and I were school friends, and when she was taken ill she sent for me, and I was with her through it all. When she grew stronger, her physician felt she must have some radical change—something which would take her thoughts from herself, but nothing seemed the right thing. Then I thought of putting into execution an old plan of mine to open a shop. I coaxed her into it, and we set out to seek our fortune, just as if the rich Miss Carpenter did not exist,—or, at least, was merely our patron. We came here partly because the climate was mild, and also because I had been here before and knew about the place; and it was far enough from Miss Carpenter's home to make it unlikely she would be recognized. We took no one into our confidence except Dr. Baird, and it was generally understood that we were travelling somewhere for Marion's health. The fiction about the rich Miss Carpenter has annoyed Marion all along; but as it came about, I didn't see how to avoid it. It really seemed better that it should not be known." Norah looked at Alex, as if seeking her opinion.
"Of course, I understand," said Alex; "go on."
"There isn't anything more, except that at the outset we were discovered by Mr. Landor, Charlotte's guardian, and an old friend of Marion's. He promised to keep our secret, and also to speak a good word for us to Miss Virginia."
"My dear, he did; and at the time I was a little surprised, but—" Miss Virginia hesitated.
Norah interrupted her. "You have all been so good to us. If Marion were here, she would join me in saying it. The best part of our venture—and it has been a success in other ways—is the friends we have made."
"You showed yourselves friendly and won us in spite of ourselves," said Miss Sarah.
"I always said there was a mystery," old Mrs. Leigh remarked. "And are you, too, a millionnairess, Miss Norah?"
Norah spread out her hands in an odd little gesture: "I am sorry, but I am just a plain poor person."
"Is this the end of the shop?" some one asked.
"I trust not. I have no idea of giving up, unless you drive me away," Norah answered.
Perhaps the only person present who was greatly surprised was Mrs. Millard. She had planned her little scene with some care, anticipating just such a gathering in honor of her return. To have the title role—as it were—snatched from her in the moment of triumph was annoying. But whatever her faults, Mrs. Millard was a lady, and as such she accepted the situation. She said little, but what she said was graceful and to the point. The eccentricity of the whole thing was, it seemed to her, sufficient excuse for her attitude, which, now she understood, she regretted.
"Did you want anything in particular of me, Norah?" Alex asked as they were leaving.
"Yes," was the answer. "I want you to be my partner."
"Norah!" Alex cried. "You know I'll be glad, glad to be; but, oh, I am sorry for you, if you must lose Marion."
"Was I not right to come? You said a year, and that is over."
"I did not expect you so soon." Marion smiled over the great bunch of wild sunflowers she held. Coming in a few minutes earlier she had found Francis Landor pacing impatiently back and forth. Something, perhaps it was the unexpectedness of it, made her a trifle stately.
It seemed to Francis that those flaunting yellow flowers made a barrier between them. "It was only by chance I found you. Charlotte gave me a hint. How long did you intend to leave me in uncertainty? Was it quite fair?"
"I have been in uncertainty myself; happily my fears have not been realized. I did what seemed best at the time, and please remember the year is only just over." Marion looked at him gravely from behind her flowery screen.
"I did not mean to begin by reproaching you," he said, drawing nearer. "But you cannot realize what it has meant to be left in complete ignorance. Even now I don't understand why you are here." He glanced about the room.
"Norah Pennington and I are living here, earning our daily bread—really doing it,"—she laughed a little; "and, as you see, it has made me over. It was Norah's plan, and you can see how we were obliged to keep it to ourselves, if it was to be carried out. I had to cut loose from everything,—the suspense about my eyes was killing me. Of course, looking back, it seems needless; but one cannot argue with nerves."
She paused a moment, then continued: "There is one thing I want to explain at the beginning. This winter's experience has made a different person of me. I can never go back to the old life of a society woman, with perhaps a little charitable work thrown in. I want to come in touch with people—all sorts of people. I want to try experiments. I think I must have inherited some of my grandfather's business instincts. I haven't made any very definite plans, but I should like to start other shops such as this, where women who have some ability and the gift for making useful and beautiful things can find their opportunity. I shall make mistakes, and lose money perhaps, but I want to experiment. I want you to understand how I feel, before—before—" Marion's eyes shone, a lovely flush was on her face as she hesitated.
Francis Landor took sudden possession of the yellow flowers, tossing them with scant courtesy on the table, and leaning forward he grasped her hands. "May, what has this to do with it? Does it crowd me out of your life? Since you were a little girl, since the days when we played together, you have been my help and inspiration. Do you mean this has come between us, or do you still care?"
Tears shone in Marion's eyes; she bent her head till it touched his shoulder. "Francis, I do care—I have always cared; I told Charlotte to tell you."
"You will forgive me if I am only half glad to see you, Mr. Landor," was Norah's greeting a little later. "Susanna, now, is wholly delighted. She sees the end of what has been to her a long exile, but I must needs go in search of another partner."
"Why not take me in as a third, Miss Norah? I believe I should like it."
"I shouldn't," she replied, laughing. "It would end in my playing third fiddle, and you must know this place is Norah's Ark; I am chief manager." She went off gayly, pausing at the door to ask, "You do not mind my speaking to Alex to-night, Marion?"
What happened in the course of her search for Alex, we have already seen.
The two in the shop were left undisturbed. It must have been nearly ten o'clock, which was considered late in the Terrace, when a voice was heard insisting, "I must see Miss Marion, Susanna, just for a minute. Is she here?" and Charlotte burst into the room.
"Oh, Miss Marion, I had half guessed,—I was not quite sure. Oh, I am so glad!" Oblivious to the presence of any one else she threw her arms about Miss Carpenter, who had risen hastily as she entered.
"What are you talking about, dearie?" she asked, returning the embrace of the excited girl.
"Where is that message you were told to deliver to me, Charlotte?" Mr. Landor demanded.
"Cousin Frank!" she cried, releasing Marion, "where did you come from?" Then glancing from one to the other, she added, "But you didn't wait for it. Oh, I am so glad!"
"You are a tremendous goose, Charlotte," said Marion, but she laughed. In fact they all three laughed a great deal in the course of the next few minutes.
"I have never exactly understood how you came to be so wise on this subject, Charlotte," Mr. Landor said, making her sit beside him.
"You know you never could keep anything to yourself, Francis," Miss Carpenter remarked reproachfully.
Charlotte looked mischievous. "The beginning of it was when I found those verses about the rose that was out of reach, and you were so provoked I thought they must mean something. Then Aunt Cora said—"
"Never mind Aunt Cora," Francis said, laughing; "this will do."
"I agree with you," remarked Marion.
"Charlotte, Miss Virginia is standing at the door. I know she is distracted over your absence," said Norah, entering.
"She knows I am here, but I mustn't stay," she rose regretfully.
Francis accompanied her. "And so you think your Miss Carpenter is lovelier than mine?" he remarked, as they crossed the street.
"Well, at least she is just as lovely," Charlotte answered blithely.
* * * * *
The news spread quickly. The Terrace was stirred to its depths. Life within its quiet borders was becoming exciting. The announcement of Madelaine's engagement with all the splendors in prospect would have sufficed for one season, but even this was eclipsed by the romance of the shop,—so named by Mrs. Leigh.
"Look like I already knowed Miss Marion was a rich lady," Aunt Belle was heard to declare. "Yes'm, she done carry her haid so proud-like."
In the shop many a serious conference was held by Marion, Norah, and Alexina, and at length Miss Sarah was called in. As a result, another surprise was sprung upon the Terrace. The corner shop was to be given up—Norah could not live there alone—and a new one opened in the spacious drawing-rooms of the Leigh house. Here there would be room to expand, Norah would have a home, and Miss Sarah would be freed from the necessity of boarders. There were those who held moreover that by this arrangement the enterprise acquired a new dignity. The idea originated with Mrs. Millard, who, while she did not give the shop her full approval, from henceforth withdrew all opposition.
Old Mrs. Leigh was heard to remark that she had in her life done many things she had not expected to do, but living over a shop was about the last.
"I suppose you'll agree it is better than the poorhouse, or even boarders," said her niece.
"Better? I am as proud of it as I can be," the old lady replied, and proud of it she seemed.
Norah called her their advertising agent. Her acquaintance was extensive, and at church or on the street, wherever she happened to be, she waylaid her friends and gave them a cordial invitation to visit our shop. On more than one occasion she constituted herself hostess. Recognizing from her window a familiar carriage, she would descend, dainty and bright-eyed, to enjoy a social chat, which would sometimes result in her holding a reception, for everybody enjoyed her merry talk, and she was quickly made the centre of an interested group.
Miss Sarah was inclined to interfere, but Norah and Alex protested. They liked to have her. She was an added attraction. But all this was afterward.
It was on the last evening, as they walked arm in arm around the dismantled shop, that Marion said: "I am selfish about it, but I could not have endured to go away and have you go on without me in this dear little place where we have been so happy. How wonderfully everything has worked out! and it was all your doing."
"I don't know; I think we owe a great deal to our friend the rich Miss Carpenter." There was a mist in Norah's eyes, but she smiled.
* * * * *
Obvious punctuation errors repaired.
Italic text is surround by tags and bold is denoted by tags.
Page 9 and Illustration, "intrenched" changed to "entrenched" to conform to text. (Securely entrenched behind)
Page 216, "who one" changed to "one who" (the only one who gave)
One instance each of type-writer and typewriter were retained.