"Good-by, dear, my dear, and God bless you.
* * * * *
It was less than a week after this letter to Jimmie that Margaret spending a week-end in a town in Connecticut adjoining that in which Eleanor's school was located, telephoned Eleanor to join her overnight at the inn where she was staying. She had really planned the entire expedition for the purpose of seeing Eleanor and preparing her for the revelations that were in store for her, though she was ostensibly meeting a motoring party, with which she was going on into the Berkshires.
She started in abruptly, as was her way, over the salad and cheese in the low studded Arts and Crafts dining-room of the fashionable road house, contrived to look as self-conscious as a pretty woman in new sporting clothes.
"Your Uncle David and your Uncle Jimmie are going to be married," she told her. "Did you know it, Eleanor?"
"No, I didn't," Eleanor said faintly, but she grew suddenly very white.
"Aren't you surprised, dear? David gave a dinner party one night last week in his studio, and announced his intentions, but we don't know the name of the lady yet, and we can't guess it. He says it is not a society girl."
"Who do you think it is?"
"Who do you think it is, Eleanor?"
"I—I can't think, Aunt Margaret."
"We don't know who Jimmie is marrying either. The facts were merely insinuated, but he said we should have the shock of our lives when we knew."
"When did he tell you?"
"A week ago last Wednesday. I haven't seen him since."
"Perhaps he has changed his mind by now," Eleanor said.
"I don't think that's likely. They were both very much in earnest. Aren't you surprised, Eleanor?"
"I—I don't know. Don't you think it might be that they both just thought they were going to marry somebody—that really doesn't want to marry them? It might be all a mistake, you know."
"I don't think it's a mistake. David doesn't make mistakes."
"He might make one," Eleanor persisted.
Margaret found the rest of her story harder to tell than she had anticipated. Eleanor, wrapped in the formidable aloofness of the sensitive young, was already suffering from the tale she had come to tell,—why, it was not so easy to determine. It might be merely from the pang of being shut out from confidences that she felt should have been shared with her at once.
She waited until they were both ready for bed (their rooms were connecting)—Eleanor in the straight folds of her white dimity nightgown, and her two golden braids making a picture that lingered in Margaret's memory for many years. "It would have been easier to tell her in her street clothes," she thought. "I wish her profile were not so perfect, or her eyes were shallower. How can I hurt such a lovely thing?"
"Are the ten Hutchinsons all right?" Eleanor was asking.
"The ten Hutchinsons are very much all right. They like me better now that I have grown a nice hard Hutchinson shell that doesn't show my feelings through. Haven't you noticed how much more like other people I've grown, Eleanor?"
"You've grown nicer, and dearer and sweeter, but I don't think you're very much like anybody else, Aunt Margaret."
"I have though,—every one notices it. You haven't asked me anything about Peter yet," she added suddenly.
The lovely color glowed in Eleanor's cheeks for an instant.
"Is—is Uncle Peter well?" she asked. "I haven't heard from him for a long time."
"Yes, he's well," Margaret said. "He's looking better than he was for a while. He had some news to tell us too, Eleanor."
Eleanor put her hand to her throat.
"What kind of news?" she asked huskily.
"He's going to be married too. It came out when the others told us. He said that he hadn't the consent of the lady to mention her name yet. We're as much puzzled about him as we are about the other two."
"It's Aunt Beulah," Eleanor said. "It's Aunt Beulah."
She sat upright on the edge of the bed and stared straight ahead of her. Margaret watched the light and life and youth die out of the face and a pitiful ashen pallor overspread it.
"I don't think it's Beulah," Margaret said. "Beulah knows who it is, but I never thought of it's being Beulah herself."
"If she knows—then she's the one. He wouldn't have told her first if she hadn't been."
"Don't let it hurt you too much, dear. We're all hurt some, you know. Gertrude—and me, too, Eleanor. It's—it's pain to us all."
"Do you mean—Uncle David, Aunt Margaret?"
"Yes, dear," Margaret smiled at her bravely.
"And does Aunt Gertrude care about Uncle Jimmie?"
"She has for a good many years, I think."
Eleanor covered her face with her hands.
"I didn't know that," she said. "I wish somebody had told me." She pushed Margaret's arm away from her gently, but her breath came hard. "Don't touch me," she cried, "I can't bear it. You might not want to—if you knew. Please go,—oh! please go—oh! please go."
As Margaret closed the door gently between them, she saw Eleanor throw her head back, and push the back of her hand hard against her mouth, as if to stifle the rising cry of her anguish.
* * * * *
The next morning Eleanor was gone. Margaret had listened for hours in the night but had heard not so much as the rustle of a garment from the room beyond. Toward morning she had fallen into the sleep of exhaustion. It was then that the stricken child had made her escape. "Miss Hamlin had found that she must take the early train," the clerk said, "and left this note for Miss Hutchinson." It was like Eleanor to do things decently and in order.
* * * * *
"Dear Aunt Margaret," her letter ran. "My grandmother used to say that some people were trouble breeders. On thinking it over I am afraid that is just about what I am,—a trouble breeder.
"I've been a worry and bother and care to you all since the beginning, and I have repaid all your kindness by bringing trouble upon you. Perhaps you can guess what I mean. I don't think I have any right to tell you exactly in this letter. I can only pray that it will be found to be all a mistake, and come out right in the end. Surely such beautiful people as you and Uncle David can find the way to each other, and can help Uncle Jimmie and Aunt Gertrude, who are a little blinder about life. Surely, when the stumbling block is out of the way, you four will walk together beautifully. Please try, Aunt Margaret, to make things as right as if I had never helped them to go wrong. I was so young, I didn't know how to manage. I shall never be that kind of young again. I grew up last night, Aunt Margaret.
"You know the other reason why I am going. Please do not let any one else know. If the others could think I had met with some accident, don't you think that would be the wisest way? I would like to arrange it so they wouldn't try to find me at all, but would just mourn for me naturally for a little while. I thought of sticking my old cap in the river, but I was afraid that would be too hard for you. There won't be any use in trying to find me. I am going where you can not. I couldn't ever bear seeing one of your faces again. I have done too much harm. Don't let Uncle Peter know, please, Aunt Margaret. I don't want him to know,—I don't want to hurt him, and I don't want him to know.
"Oh! I have loved you all so much. Good-by, my dears, my dearests. I have taken all of my allowance money. Please forgive me.
Eleanor had not bought a ticket at the station, Margaret ascertained, but the ticket agent had tried to persuade her to. She had thanked him and told him that she preferred to buy it of the conductor. He was a lank, saturnine individual and had been seriously smitten with Eleanor's charms, it appeared, and the extreme solicitousness of his attitude at the suggestion of any mystery connected with her departure made Margaret realize the caution with which it would be politic to proceed. She had very little hope of finding Eleanor back at the school, but it was still rather a shock when she telephoned the school office and found that there was no news of her there. She concocted a somewhat lame story to account for Eleanor's absence and promised the authorities that she would be sent back to them within the week,—a promise she was subsequently obliged to acknowledge that she could not keep. Then she fled to New York to break the disastrous news to the others.
She told Gertrude the truth and showed her the pitiful letter Eleanor had left behind her, and together they wept over it. Also together, they faced David and Jimmie.
"She went away," Margaret told them, "both because she felt she was hurting those that she loved and because she herself was hurt."
"What do you mean?" David asked.
"I mean—that she belonged body and soul to Peter and to nobody else," Margaret answered deliberately.
David bowed his head. Then he threw it back again, suddenly.
"If that is true," he said, "then I am largely responsible for her going."
"It is I who am responsible," Jimmie groaned aloud. "I asked her to marry me and she refused me."
"I asked her to marry me and didn't give her the chance to refuse," David said; "it is that she is running away from."
"It was Peter's engagement that was the last straw," Margaret said. "The poor baby withered and shrank like a flower in the blast when I told her that."
"The damned hound—" Jimmie said feelingly and without apology. "Who's he engaged to anyway?"
"Eleanor says it's Beulah, and the more I think of it the more I think that she's probably right."
"That would be a nice mess, wouldn't it?" Gertrude suggested. "Remember how frank we were with her about his probable lack of judgment, Margaret? I don't covet the sweet job of breaking it to either one of them."
Nevertheless she assisted Margaret to break it to them both late that same afternoon at Beulah's apartment.
"I'll find her," Peter said briefly. And in response to the halting explanation of her disappearance that Margaret and Gertrude had done their best to try to make plausible, despite its elliptical nature, he only said, "I don't see that it makes any difference why she's gone. She's gone, that's the thing that's important. No matter how hard we try we can't really figure out her reason till we find her."
"Are you sure it's going to be so easy?" Gertrude asked. "I mean—finding her. She's a pretty determined little person when she makes up her mind. Eleanor's threats are to be taken seriously. She always makes good on them."
"I'll find her if she's anywhere in the world," Peter said. "I'll find her and bring her back."
Margaret put out her hand to him.
"I believe that you will," she said. "Find out the reason that she went away, too, Peter."
Beulah pulled Gertrude aside.
"It wasn't Peter, was it?" she asked piteously. "She had some one else on her mind, hadn't she?"
"She had something else on her mind," Gertrude answered gravely, "but she had Peter on her mind, too."
"She didn't—she couldn't have known about us—Peter and me. We—we haven't told any one."
"She guessed it, Beulah. She couldn't bear it. Nobody's to blame. It's just one of God's most satirical mix-ups."
"I was to blame," Beulah said slowly. "I don't believe in shifting responsibility. I got her here in the first place and I've been instrumental in guiding her life ever since. Now, I've sacrificed her to my own happiness."
"It isn't so simple as that," Gertrude said; "the things we start going soon pass out of our hands. Somebody a good deal higher up has been directing Eleanor's affairs for a long time,—and ours too, for that matter."
"Don't worry, Beulah," Peter said, making his way to her side from the other corner of the room where he had been talking to Margaret. "You mustn't let this worry you. We've all got to be—soldiers now,—but we'll soon have her back again, I promise you."
"And I promise you," Beulah said chokingly, "that if you'll get her back again, I—I will be a soldier."
* * * * *
Peter began by visiting the business schools in New York and finding out the names of the pupils registered there. Eleanor had clung firmly to her idea of becoming an editorial stenographer in some magazine office, no matter how hard he had worked to dissuade her. He felt almost certain she would follow out that purpose now. There was a fund in her name started some years before for the defraying of her college expenses. She would use that, he argued, to get herself started, even though she felt constrained to pay it back later on. He worked on this theory for some time, even making a trip to Boston in search for her in the stenography classes there, but nothing came of it.
Among Eleanor's effects sent on from the school was a little red address book containing the names and addresses of many of her former schoolmates at Harmon. Peter wrote all the girls he remembered hearing her speak affectionately of, but not one of them was able to give him any news of her. He wrote to Colhassett to Albertina's aunt, who had served in the capacity of housekeeper to Eleanor's grandfather in his last days, and got in reply a pious letter from Albertina herself, who intimated that she had always suspected that Eleanor would come to some bad end, and that now she was highly soothed and gratified by the apparent fulfillment of her sinister prognostications.
Later he tried private detectives, and, not content with their efforts, he followed them over the ground that they covered, searching through boarding houses, and public classes of all kinds; canvassing the editorial offices of the various magazines Eleanor had admired in the hope of discovering that she had applied for some small position there; following every clue that his imagination, and the acumen of the professionals in his service, could supply;—but his patient search was unrewarded. Eleanor had apparently vanished from the surface of the earth. The quest which had seemed to him so simple a matter when he first undertook it, now began to assume terrible and abortive proportions. It was unthinkable that one little slip of a girl untraveled and inexperienced should be able permanently to elude six determined and worldly adult New Yorkers, who were prepared to tax their resources to the utmost in the effort to find her,—but the fact remained that she was missing and continued to be missing, and the cruel month went by and brought them no news of her.
The six guardians took their trouble hard. Apart from the emotions that had been precipitated by her developing charms, they loved her dearly as the child they had taken to their hearts and bestowed all their young enthusiasm and energy and tenderness upon. She was the living clay, as Gertrude had said so many years before, that they had molded as nearly as possible to their hearts' desire. They loved her for herself, but one and all they loved her for what they had made of her—an exquisite, lovely young creature, at ease in a world that might so easily have crushed her utterly if they had not intervened for her.
They kept up the search unremittingly, following false leads and meeting with heartbreaking discouragements and disappointments. Only Margaret had any sense of peace about her.
"I'm sure she's all right," she said; "I feel it. It's hard having her gone, but I'm not afraid for her. She'll work it out better than we could help her to. It's a beautiful thing to be young and strong and free, and she'll get the beauty out of it."
"I think perhaps you're right, Margaret," David said. "You almost always are. It's the bread and butter end of the problem that worries me."
Margaret smiled at him quaintly.
"The Lord provides," she said. "He'll provide for our ewe lamb, I'm sure."
"You speak as if you had it on direct authority."
"I think perhaps I have," she said gravely.
Jimmie and Gertrude grew closer together as the weeks passed, and the strain of their fruitless quest continued. One day Jimmie showed her the letter that Eleanor had written him.
"Sweet, isn't she?" he said, as Gertrude returned it to him, smiling through her tears.
"She's a darling," Gertrude said fervently. "Did she hurt you so much, Jimmie dear?"
"I wanted her," Jimmie answered slowly, "but I think it was because I thought she was mine,—that I could make her mine. When I found she was Peter's,—had been Peter's all the time, the thought somehow cured me. She was dead right, you know. I made it up out of the stuff that dreams are made of. God knows I love her, but—but that personal thing has gone out of it. She's my little lost child,—or my sister. A man wants his own to be his own, Gertrude."
"Yes, I know."
"My—my real trouble is that I'm at sea again. I thought that I cared,—that I was anchored for good. It's the drifting that plays the deuce with me. If the thought of that sweet child and the grief at her loss can't hold me, what can? What hope is there for me?"
"I don't know," Gertrude laughed.
"Don't laugh at me. You've always been on to me, Gertrude, too much so to have any respect for me, I guess. You've got your work," he waved his arm at the huge cast under the shadow of which they were sitting, "and all this. You can put all your human longings into it. I'm a poor rudderless creature without any hope or direction." He buried his face in his hands. "You don't know it," he said, with an effort to conceal the fact that his shoulders were shaking, "but you see before you a human soul in the actual process of dissolution."
Gertrude crossed her studio floor to kneel down beside him. She drew the boyish head, rumpled into an irresistible state of curliness, to her breast.
"Put it here where it belongs," she said softly.
"Do you mean it?" he whispered. "Sure thing? Hope to die? Cross your heart?"
"Yes, my dear."
"Praise the Lord."
"I snitched him," Gertrude confided to Margaret some days later,—her whole being radiant and transfigured with happiness. "You snitch David."
THE YOUNG NURSE
The local hospital of the village of Harmonville, which was ten miles from Harmon proper, where the famous boarding-school for young ladies was located, presented an aspect so far from institutional that but for the sign board tacked modestly to an elm tree just beyond the break in the hedge that constituted the main entrance, the gracious, old colonial structure might have been taken for the private residence for which it had served so many years.
It was a crisp day in late September, and a pale yellow sun was spread thin over the carpet of yellow leaves with which the wide lawn was covered. In the upper corridor of the west wing, grouped about the window-seat with their embroidery or knitting, the young nurses were talking together in low tones during the hour of the patients' siestas. The two graduates, dark-eyed efficient girls, with skilled delicate fingers taking precise stitches in the needlework before them, were in full uniform, but the younger girls clustered about them, beginners for the most part, but a few months in training, were dressed in the simple blue print, and little white caps and aprons, of the probationary period.
The atmosphere was very quiet and peaceful. A light breeze blew in at the window and stirred a straying lock or two that escaped the starched band of a confining cap. Outside the stinging whistle of the insect world was interrupted now and then by the cough of a passing motor. From the doors opening on the corridor an occasional restless moan indicated the inability of some sufferer to take his dose of oblivion according to schedule. Presently a bell tinkled a summons to the patient in the first room on the right—a gentle little old lady who had just had her appendix removed.
"Will you take that, Miss Hamlin?" the nurse in charge of the case asked the tallest and fairest of the young assistants.
"Certainly." Eleanor, demure in cap and kerchief as the most ravishing of young Priscillas, rose obediently at the request. "May I read to her a little if she wants me to?"
"Yes, if you keep the door closed. I think most of the others are sleeping."
The little old lady who had just had her appendix out, smiled weakly up at Eleanor.
"I hoped 'twould be you," she said, "and then after I'd rung I lay in fear and trembling lest one o' them young flipperti-gibbets should come, and get me all worked up while she was trying to shift me. I want to be turned the least little mite on my left side."
"That's better, isn't it?" Eleanor asked, as she made the adjustment.
"I dunno whether that's better, or whether it just seems better to me, because 'twas you that fixed me," the little old lady said. "You certainly have got a soothin' and comfortin' way with you."
"I used to take care of my grandmother years ago, and the more hospital work I do, the more it comes back to me,—and the better I remember the things that she liked to have done for her."
"There's nobody like your own kith and kin," the little old lady sighed. "There's none left of mine. That other nurse—that black haired one—she said you was an orphan, alone in the world. Well, I pity a young girl alone in the world."
"It's all right to be alone in the world—if you just keep busy enough," Eleanor said. "But you mustn't talk any more. I'm going to give you your medicine and then sit here and read to you."
* * * * *
On the morning of her flight from the inn, after a night spent staring motionless into the darkness, Eleanor took the train to the town some dozen miles beyond Harmonville, where her old friend Bertha Stephens lived. To "Stevie," to whom the duplicity of Maggie Lou had served to draw her very close in the ensuing year, she told a part of her story. It was through the influence of Mrs. Stephens, whose husband was on the board of directors of the Harmonville hospital, that Eleanor had been admitted there. She had resolutely put all her old life behind her. The plan to take up a course in stenography and enter an editorial office was to have been, as a matter of course, a part of her life closely associated with Peter. Losing him, there was nothing left of her dream of high adventure and conquest. There was merely the hurt desire to hide herself where she need never trouble him again, and where she could be independent and useful. Having no idea of her own value to her guardians, or the integral tenderness in which she was held, she sincerely believed that her disappearance must have relieved them of much chagrin and embarrassment.
Her hospital training kept her mercifully busy. She had the temperament that finds a virtue in the day's work, and a balm in its mere iterative quality. Her sympathy and intelligence made her a good nurse and her adaptability, combined with her loveliness, a general favorite.
She spent her days off at the Stephens' home. Bertha Stephens had been the one girl that Peter had failed to write to, when he began to circulate his letters of inquiry. Her name had been set down in the little red book, but he remembered the trouble that Maggie Lou had precipitated, and arrived at the conclusion that the intimacy existing between Eleanor and Bertha had not survived it. Except that Carlo Stephens persisted in trying to make love to her, and Mrs. Stephens covertly encouraged his doing so, Eleanor found the Stephens' home a very comforting haven. Bertha had developed into a full breasted, motherly looking girl, passionately interested in all vicarious love-affairs, though quickly intimidated at the thought of having any of her own. She was devoted to Eleanor, and mothered her clumsily.
It was still to her diary that Eleanor turned for the relief and solace of self-expression.
* * * * *
"It is five months to-day," she wrote, "since I came to the hospital. It seems like five years. I like it, but I feel like the little old woman on the King's Highway. I doubt more every minute if this can be I. Sometimes I wonder what 'being I' consists of, anyway. I used to feel as if I were divided up into six parts as separate as protoplasmic cells, and that each one was looked out for by a different cooperative parent. I thought that I would truly be I when I got them all together, and looked out for them myself, but I find I am no more of an entity than I ever was. The puzzling question of 'what am I?' still persists, and I am farther away from the right answer than ever. Would a sound be a sound if there were no one to hear it? If the waves of vibration struck no human ear, would the sound be in existence at all? This is the problem propounded by one of the nurses yesterday.
"How much of us lives when we are entirely shut out of the consciousness of those whom we love? If there is no one to realize us day by day,—if all that love has made of us is taken away, what is left? Is there anything? I don't know. I look in the glass, and see the same face,—Eleanor Hamlin, almost nineteen, with the same bow shaped eyebrows, and the same double ridge leading up from her nose to her mouth, making her look still very babyish. I pinch myself, and find that it hurts just the same as it used to six months ago, but there the resemblance to what I used to be, stops. I'm a young nurse now in hospital training, and very good at it, too, if I do say it as shouldn't; but that's all I am. Otherwise, I'm not anybody to anybody,—except a figure of romance to good old Stevie, who doesn't count in this kind of reckoning. I take naturally to nursing they tell me. A nurse is a kind of maternal automaton. I'm glad I'm that, but there used to be a lot more of me than that. There ought to be some heart and brain and soul left over, but there doesn't seem to be. Perhaps I am like the Princess in the fairy story whose heart was an auk's egg. Nobody had power to make her feel unless they reached it and squeezed it.
"I feel sometimes as if I were dead. I wish I could know whether Uncle Peter and Aunt Beulah were married yet. I wish I could know that. There is a woman in this hospital whose suitor married some one else, and she has nervous prostration, and melancholia. All she does all day is to moan and wring her hands and call out his name. The nurses are not very sympathetic. They seem to think that it is disgraceful to love a man so much that your whole life stops as soon as he goes out of it. What of Juliet and Ophelia and Francesca de Rimini? They loved so they could not tear their love out of their hearts without lacerating them forever. There is that kind of love in the world,—bigger than life itself. All the big tragedies of literature were made from it,—why haven't people more sympathy for it? Why isn't there more dignity about it in the eyes of the world?
"It is very unlucky to love, and to lose that which you cherish, but it is unluckier still never to know the meaning of love, or to find 'Him whom your soul loveth.' I try to be kind to that poor forsaken woman. I am sorry for his sake that she calls out his name, but she seems to be in such torture of mind and body that she is unable to help it.
"They are trying to cut down expenses here, so they have no regular cook, the housekeeper and her helper are supposed to do it all. I said I would make the desserts, so now I have got to go down-stairs and make some fruit gelatin. It is best that I should not write any more to-day, anyway."
* * * * *
Later, after the Thanksgiving holiday, she wrote:
* * * * *
"I saw a little boy butchered to-day, and I shall never forget it. It is wicked to speak of Doctor Blake's clean cut work as butchery, but when you actually see a child's leg severed from its body, what else can you call it?
"The reason that I am able to go through operations without fainting or crying is just this: other people do. The first time I stood by the operating table to pass the sterilized instruments to the assisting nurse, and saw the half naked doctors hung in rubber standing there preparing to carve their way through the naked flesh of the unconscious creature before them, I felt the kind of pang pass through my heart that seems to kill as it comes. I thought I died, or was dying,—and then I looked up and saw that every one else was ready for their work. So I drew a deep breath and became ready too. I don't think there is anything in the world too hard to do if you look at it that way.
"The little boy loved me and I loved him. We had hoped against hope that we would be able to save his poor little leg, but it had to go. I held his hand while they gave him the chloroform. At his head sat Doctor Hathaway with his Christlike face, draped in the robe of the anesthetist. 'Take long breaths, Benny,' I said, and he breathed in bravely. It was over quickly. To-morrow, when he is really out of the ether, I have got to tell him what was done to him. Something happened to me while that operation was going on. He hasn't any mother. I think the spirit of the one who was his mother passed into me, and I knew what it would be like to be the mother of a son. Benny was not without what his mother would have felt for him if she had been at his side. I can't explain it, but that is what I felt.
"To-night it is as black as ink outside. There are no stars. I feel as if there should be no stars. If there were, there might be some strange little bit of comfort in them that I could cling to. I do not want any comfort from outside to shine upon me to-night. I have got to draw all my strength from a source within, and I feel it welling up within me even now.
"I wonder if I have been selfish to leave the people I love so long without any word of me. I think Aunt Gertrude and Aunt Beulah and Aunt Margaret all had a mother feeling for me. I am remembering to-night how anxious they used to be for me to have warm clothing, and to keep my feet dry, and not to work too hard at school. All those things that I took as a matter of course, I realize now were very significant and beautiful. If I had a child and did not know to-night where it would lie down to sleep, or on what pillow it would put its head, I know my own rest would be troubled. I wonder if I have caused any one of my dear mothers to feel like that. If I have, it has been very wicked and cruel of me."
The ten Hutchinsons having left the library entirely alone in the hour before dinner, David and Margaret had appropriated it and were sitting companionably together on the big couch drawn up before the fireplace, where a log was trying to consume itself unscientifically head first.
"I would stay to dinner if urged," David suggested.
"You stay," Margaret agreed laconically.
She moved away from him, relaxing rather limply in the corner of the couch, with a hand dangling over the farther edge of it.
"You're an inconsistent being," David said. "You buoy all the rest of us up with your faith in the well-being of our child, and then you pine yourself sick over her absence."
"It's Christmas coming on. We always had such a beautiful time on Christmas. It was so much fun buying her presents. It isn't like Christmas at all with her gone from us."
"Do you remember how crazy she was over the ivory set?"
"And the bracelet watch?"
"Do you remember the Juliet costume?" David's eyes kindled at the reminiscence. "How wonderful she was in it."
Margaret drew her feet up on the couch suddenly, and clasped her hands about her knees. David laughed.
"I haven't seen you do that for years," he said.
"Hump yourself in that cryptic way."
"Haven't you?" she said. "I was just wondering—" but she stopped herself suddenly.
"Wondering what?" David was watching her narrowly, and perceiving it, she flushed.
"This is not my idea of an interesting conversation," she said; "it's getting too personal."
"I can remember the time when you told me that you didn't find things interesting unless they were personal. 'I like things very personal,' you said—in those words."
"I did then."
"What has changed you?" David asked gravely.
"The chill wind of the world, I guess; the most personal part of me is frozen stiff."
"I never saw a warmer creature in my life," David protested. "On that same occasion you said that being a woman was about like being a field of clover in an insectless world. You don't feel that way nowadays, surely,—at the rate the insects have been buzzing around you this winter. I've counted at least seven, three bees, one or two beetles, a butterfly and a worm."
"I didn't know you paid that much attention to my poor affairs."
"I do, though. If you hadn't put your foot down firmly on the worm, I had every intention of doing so."
"On that occasion to which you refer I remember I also said that I had a queer hunch about Eleanor."
"Margaret, are you deliberately changing the subject?"
"Then I shall bring the butterfly up later."
"I said," Margaret ignored his interruption, "that I had the feeling that she was going to be a storm center and bring some kind of queer trouble upon us."
"She did, didn't she?"
"I'm not so sure that's the way to put it," David said gravely. "We brought queer trouble on her."
"She gave my vanity the worst blow it has ever had in its life," David corrected her. "Look here, Margaret, I want you to know the truth about that. I—I stumbled into that, you know. She was so sweet, and before I knew it I had—I found myself in the attitude of making love to her. Well, there was nothing to do but go through with it. I wanted to, of course. I felt like Pygmalion—but it was all potential, unrealized—and ass that I was, I assumed that she would have no other idea in the matter. I was going to marry her because I—I had started things going, you know. I had no choice even if I had wanted one. It never occurred to me that she might have a choice, and so I went on trying to make things easy for her, and getting them more tangled at every turn."
"You never really—cared?" Margaret's face was in shadow.
"Never got the chance to find out. With characteristic idiocy I was keeping out of the picture until the time was ripe. She really ran away to get away from the situation I created and she was quite right too. If I weren't haunted by these continual pictures of our offspring in the bread line, I should be rather glad than otherwise that she's shaken us all till we get our breath back. Poor Peter is the one who is smashed, though. He hasn't smiled since she went away."
"You wouldn't smile if you were engaged to Beulah."
"Are they still engaged?"
"Beulah has her ring, but I notice she doesn't wear it often."
"Jimmie and Gertrude seem happy."
"They are, gloriously."
"That leaves only us two," David suggested. "Margaret, dear, do you think the time will ever come when I shall get you back again?"
Margaret turned a little pale, but she met his look steadily.
"Did you ever lose me?"
"The answer to that is 'yes,' as you very well know. Time was when we were very close—you and I, then somehow we lost the way to each other. I'm beginning to realize that it hasn't been the same world since and isn't likely to be unless you come back to me."
"Was it I who strayed?"
"It was I; but it was you who put the bars up and have kept them there."
"Was I to let the bars down and wait at the gate?"
"If need be. It should be that way between us, Margaret, shouldn't it?"
"I don't know," Margaret said, "I don't know." She flashed a sudden odd look at him. "If—when I put the bars down, I shall run for my life. I give you warning, David."
"Warning is all I want," David said contentedly. He could barely reach her hand across the intervening expanse of leather couch, but he accomplished it,—he was too wise to move closer to her. "You're a lovely, lovely being," he said reverently. "God grant I may reach you and hold you."
She curled a warm little finger about his.
"What would Mrs. Bolling say?" she asked practically.
"To tell you the truth, she spoke of it the other day. I told her the Eleanor story, and that rather brought her to her senses. She wouldn't have liked that, you know; but now all the eligible buds are plucked, and she wants me to settle down."
"Does she think I'm a settling kind of person?"
"She wouldn't if she knew the way you go to my head," David murmured. "Oh, she thinks that you'll do. She likes the ten Hutchinsons."
"Maybe I'd like them better considered as connections of yours," Margaret said abstractedly.
David lifted the warm little finger to his lips and kissed it swiftly.
"Where are you going?" he asked, as she slipped away from him and stood poised in the doorway.
"I'm going to put on something appropriate to the occasion," she answered.
When she came back to him she was wearing the most delicate and cobwebby of muslins with a design of pale purple passion flowers trellised all over it, and she gave him no chance for a moment alone with her all the rest of the evening.
Sometime later she showed him Eleanor's parting letter, and he was profoundly touched by the pathetic little document.
As the holidays approached Eleanor's absence became an almost unendurable distress to them all. The annual Christmas dinner party, a function that had never been omitted since the acquisition of David's studio, was decided on conditionally, given up, and again decided on.
"We do want to see one another on Christmas day,—we've got presents for one another, and Eleanor would hate it if she thought that her going away had settled that big a cloud on us. She slipped out of our lives in order to bring us closer together. We'll get closer together for her sake," Margaret decided.
But the ordeal of the dinner itself was almost more than they had reckoned on. Every detail of traditional ceremony was observed even to the mound of presents marked with each name piled on the same spot on the couch, to be opened with the serving of the coffee.
"I got something for Eleanor," Jimmie remarked shamefacedly as he added his contributions to the collection. "Thought we could keep it for her, or throw it into the waste-basket or something. Anyhow I had to get it."
"I guess everybody else got her something, too," Margaret said. "Of course we will keep them for her. I got her a little French party coat. It will be just as good next year as this. Anyhow as Jimmie says, I had to get it."
"I got her slipper buckles," Gertrude admitted. "She has always wanted them."
"I got her the Temple Shakespeare," Beulah added. "She was always carrying around those big volumes."
"You're looking better, Beulah," Margaret said. "Are you feeling better?"
"Jimmie says I'm looking more human. I guess perhaps that's it,—I'm feeling more—human. I needed humanizing—even at the expense of some—some heartbreak," she said bravely.
Margaret crossed the room to take a seat on Beulah's chair-arm, and slipped an arm around her.
"You're all right if you know that," she whispered softly.
"I thought I was going to bring you Eleanor herself," Peter said. "I got on the trail of a girl working in a candy shop out in Yonkers. My faithful sleuth was sure it was Eleanor and I was ass enough to believe he knew what he was talking about. When I got out there I found a strawberry blonde with gold teeth."
"Gosh, you don't think she's doing anything like that," Jimmie exclaimed.
"I don't know," Peter said miserably. He was looking ill and unlike himself. His deep set gray eyes were sunken far in his head, his brow was too white, and the skin drawn too tightly over his jaws. "As a de-tec-i-tive, I'm afraid I'm a failure."
"We're all failures for that matter," David said. "Let's have dinner."
Eleanor's empty place, set with the liqueur glass she always drank her thimbleful of champagne in, and the throne chair from the drawing-room in which she presided over the feasts given in her honor, was almost too much for them. Margaret cried openly over her soup. Peter shaded his eyes with his hand, and Gertrude and Jimmie groped for each other's hands under the shelter of the table-cloth.
"This—this won't do," David said. He turned to Beulah on his left, sitting immovable, with her eyes staring unseeingly into the centerpiece of holly and mistletoe arranged by Alphonse so lovingly. "We must either turn this into a kind of a wake, and kneel as we feast, or we must try to rise above it somehow."
"I don't see why," Jimmie argued. "I'm in favor of each man howling informally as he listeth."
"Let's drink her health anyhow," David insisted. "I cut out the Sauterne and the claret, so we could begin on the wine at once in this contingency. Here's to our beloved and dear absent daughter."
"Long may she wave," Jimmie cried, stumbling to his feet an instant after the others.
While they were still standing with their glasses uplifted, the bell rang.
"Don't let anybody in, Alphonse," David admonished him.
They all turned in the direction of the hall, but there was no sound of parley at the front door. Eleanor had put a warning finger to her lips, as Alphonse opened it to find her standing there. She stripped off her hat and her coat as she passed through the drawing-room, and stood in her little blue cloth traveling dress between the portieres that separated it from the dining-room. The six stood transfixed at the sight of her, not believing the vision of their eyes.
"You're drinking my health," she cried, as she stretched out her arms to them. "Oh! my dears, and my dearests, will you forgive me for running away from you?"
They left her alone with Peter in the drawing room in the interval before the coffee, seeing that he had barely spoken to her though his eyes had not left her face since the moment of her spectacular appearance between the portieres.
"I'm not going to marry you, Peter," Beulah whispered, as she slipped by him to the door, "don't think of me. Think of her."
But Peter was almost past coherent thought or speech as they stood facing each other on the hearth-rug,—Eleanor's little head up and her breath coming lightly between her sweet, parted lips.
"Where did you go?" Peter groaned. "How could you, dear—how could you,—how could you?"
"I'm back all safe, now, Uncle Peter. I took up nursing in a hospital."
"I didn't even find you. I swore that I would. I've searched for you everywhere."
"I'm sorry I made you all that trouble," Eleanor said, "but I thought it would be the best thing to do."
"Tell me why," Peter said, "tell me why, I've suffered so much—wondering—wondering."
"You've suffered?" Eleanor cried. "I thought it was only I who did the suffering."
She moved a step nearer to him, and Peter gripped her hard by the shoulders.
"It wasn't that you cared?" he said. Then his lips met hers dumbly, beseechingly.
* * * * *
"It was all a mistake,—my going away," she wrote some days after. "I ought to have stayed at the school, and graduated, and then come down to New York, and faced things. I have my lesson now about facing things. If any other crisis comes into my life, I hope I shall be as strong as Dante was, when he 'showed himself more furnished with breath than he was,' and said, 'Go on, for I am strong and resolute.' I think we always have more strength than we understand ourselves to have.
"I am so wonderfully happy about Uncle David and Aunt Margaret, and I know Uncle Jimmie needs Aunt Gertrude and has always needed her. Did my going away help those things to their fruition? I hope so.
"I can not bear to think of Aunt Beulah, but I know that I must bear to think of her, and face the pain of having hurt her as I must face every other thing that comes into my life from this hour. I would give her back Peter, if I could,—but I can not. He is mine, and I am his, and we have been that way from the beginning. I have thought of him always as stronger and wiser than any one in the world, but I don't think he is. He has suffered and stumbled along, trying blindly to do right, hurting Aunt Beulah and mixing up his life like any man, just the way Uncle Jimmie and Uncle David did.
"Don't men know who it is they love? They seem so often to be struggling hungrily after the wrong thing, trying to get, or to make themselves take, some woman that they do not really want. When women love it is not like that with them.
"When women love! I think I have loved Peter from the first minute I saw him, so beautiful and dear and sweet, with that anxious look in his eyes,—that look of consideration for the other person that is always so much a part of him. He had it the first night I saw him, when Uncle David brought me to show me to my foster parents for the first time. It was the thing I grew up by, and measured men and their attitude to women by—just that look in his eyes, that tender warm look of consideration.
"It means a good many things, I think,—a gentle generous nature, and a tender chivalrous heart. It means selflessness. It means being a good man, and one who protects by sheer unselfish instinct. I don't know how I shall ever heal him of the hurt he has done Aunt Beulah. Aunt Margaret tells me that Aunt Beulah's experience with him has been the thing that has made her whole, that she needed to live through the human cycle of emotion—of love and possession and renunciation before she could be quite real and sound. This may be true, but it is not the kind of reasoning for Peter and me to comfort ourselves with. If a surgeon makes a mistake in cutting that afterwards does more good than harm, he must not let that result absolve him from his mistake. Nothing can efface the mistake itself, and Peter and I must go on feeling that way about it.
"I want to write something down about my love before I close this book to-night. Something that I can turn to some day and read, or show to my children when love comes to them. 'This is the way I felt,' I want to say to them, 'the first week of my love—this is what it meant to me.'
"It means being a greater, graver, and more beautiful person than you ever thought you could be. It means knowing what you are, and what you were meant to be all at once, and I think it means your chance to be purified for the life you are to live, and the things you are to do in it. Experience teaches, but I think love forecasts and points the way, and shows you what you can be. Even if the light it sheds should grow dim after a while, the path it has shown you should be clear to your inner eye forever and ever. Having been in a great temple is a thing to be better for all your life.
"It means that the soul and the things of the soul are everlasting,—that they have got to be everlasting if love is like this. Love between two people is more than the simple fact of their being drawn together and standing hand in hand. It is the holy truth about the universe. It is the rainbow of God's promise set over the land. There comes with it the soul's certainty of living on and on through time and space.
"Just my loving Peter and Peter's loving me isn't the important thing,—the important thing is the way it has started the truth going; my knowing and understanding mysterious laws that were sealed to me before; Peter taking my life in his hands and making it consecrated and true,—so true that I will not falter or suffer from any misunderstandings or mistaken pain.
"It means warmth and light and tenderness, our love does, and all the poetry in the world, and all the motherliness, (I feel so much like his mother). Peter is my lover. When I say that he is not stronger or wiser than any one in the world I mean—in living. I mean in the way he behaves like a little bewildered boy sometimes. In loving he is stronger and wiser than any living being. He takes my two hands in his and gives me all the strength and all the wisdom and virtue there is in the world.
"I haven't written down anything, after all, that any one could read. My children can't look over my shoulder on to this page, for they would not understand it. It means nothing to any one in the world but me. I shall have to translate for them or I shall have to say to them, 'Children, on looking into this book, I find I can't tell you what love meant to me, because the words I have put down would mean nothing to you. They were only meant to inform me, whenever I should turn back to them, of the great glory and holiness that fell upon me like a garment when love came.'
"And if there should be any doubt in my heart as to the reality of the feeling that has come to them in their turn, I should only have to turn their faces up to the light, and look into their eyes and know.
"I shall not die as my own mother did. I know that. I know that Peter will be by my side until we both are old. These facts are established in my consciousness I hardly know how, and I know that they are there,—but if such a thing could be that I should die and leave my little children, I would not be afraid to leave them alone in a world that has been so good to me, under the protection of a Power that provided me with the best and kindest guardians that a little orphan ever had. God bless and keep them all, and make them happy."