"Ha! there goes that left corner!" he exulted with his comrade-at-arms, as the last of a series of well-directed shots reduced a part of the enemies' defences to a gratifying slump. "And here comes a bit of ours," he added, as a ball of Stuart's ploughed through a weakened upper portion of their own rampart.
"He'll be game to the last," panted Georgiana, working furiously.
"So will we! We'll fight to a finish, if we go without our suppers."
The battle raged on. The combatants took no heed of passing time, until Jeannette, growing reckless with excitement, lifted an incautious head and received a spent ball full upon her chin. No harm was done, as she protested, but Stuart raised a flag of truce and Mr. Jefferson ran across the lines to apologize.
"It didn't hurt a bit," Jeannette reaffirmed, showing a very pink chin.
"It's lucky it didn't. I wasn't properly protecting you," Stuart declared warmly.
"Both sides come in to supper!" commanded Georgiana. "Please stay, Jimps; it's the only amends we can make you, and you must be as hungry as a bear."
"Thanks; I'd like to, but I'm not properly dressed, I'm afraid."
"Jean and I won't make a change, and you can take us coasting this evening, if you will. Do you suppose Mr. Jefferson would dream of staving off his dignity a bit longer and going, too?"
They all looked at the person mentioned and their glances were all gayly audacious.
"Is that an invitation or a challenge?" He put it to Georgiana.
"Whichever you choose to take it."
"I'll take it as I choose, then, and accept. The spirit of sport is upon me; I couldn't work this evening if I tried."
"Good for you! 'All work and no play,' you know," quoted Stuart, as they went in together, a moist and merry company.
Upstairs, while Jeannette dried her hair, she reflected that she didn't know when she had had so gay a time. She ran in to say this to Georgiana, but found that that young woman had already put her hair in order without drying it, as its damply curling locks above her forehead testified, and was rushing away downstairs to the kitchen.
"Won't you take cold?" suggested Jeannette, struggling with her own wet braids, and very naturally wishing for her maid to dry and put them in order.
"Mercy, no; not over the kitchen stove. They'll be dry soon enough," was the reply; and Georgiana vanished, the supper on her mind.
When Jeannette came down, half an hour later, and appeared in the kitchen doorway, she saw that the speed of her young hostess's labours and the warmth of the kitchen were quite likely to prevent all chance of undried locks.
There was system about Georgiana's work, fast as was its pace. Each trip across the floor, from pantry to dining-room and back again, demonstrated housewifely efficiency. Both hands were always full and she seemed never to forget what she meant to do. If she passed the stove on her way somewhere she stopped to stir something or to glance into the oven, and when she went to the storeroom for cream she brought away bread and butter as well.
Jeannette commented admiringly. "Don't you ever forget and have to run back for something?" she inquired.
"Goodness, yes! But when you've been over certain ground several million times, it's a pity if you can't make your head save your heels as a rule. Excuse me, dear; but if you wouldn't mind standing just a foot or two to the left——"
Jeannette turned. "I see; I'm in the way when I'd like so much to help. Isn't there anything I could do?"
"All done, thank you—except—would you just arrange that boxful of scarlet geraniums Jimps brought over, for the table? That would help very much. Take any bowl or glass from the dining-room cupboard that looks appropriate to you."
"I'd love to." And Jeannette fell to work—if it could be called work. Never in her life had she arranged scarlet geraniums as a table decoration, or, for that matter, seen them so used. But as she placed the splendid, thrifty blooms, each with its accompanying rich green leaves, in the plain brown bowl which she felt best matched their undistinguished beauty, she discovered for the first time that other blossoms besides roses and orchids, chrysanthemums, and the rest of the ordinary florists' products, may charm the eye from the centre of a snowy cloth.
"That's gorgeous! Thank you so much! Aren't they the jolliest flowers in the world for a winter night? Jimps's greenhouses certainly are doing well. Don't you want a bit of a blossom in your hair? Their grower would feel tremendously complimented."
"Red's not my colour, but it is yours. Let me tuck this little sprig in these braids, and I'll risk the grower's being better pleased than if I wore them."
Georgiana submitted, and promptly forgot all about the scarlet decoration. But the others did not—found forgetting it, indeed, quite impossible. As they gathered about the table, it caught the eye of each in turn. Georgiana's cheeks, from the vigorous exercise in the frosty air, were glowing brilliantly; her eyes were wonderful to look at; her dark cloth dress had upon it no relief of colour; so the scarlet geranium in her hair was the touch of the artist which drew the eye and held it. She had placed upon the table, instead of the customary lamp, one of the few treasures of the house, a fine old candelabrum, with pendent crystals, and the burning candles threw their mellow light directly into her face.
She looked up suddenly, after having served each one from the dish before her, and found them all looking at her. James Stuart's fork was suspended above his plate, but the others had not yet taken theirs. She gazed at them in amazement.
"Why, what is the matter?" she cried. "Do I—is something queer about me? Have I missed a point somebody has made?"
They all turned then, laughing, to their plates, and nobody would tell her what was wrong. Stuart seemed to think it a great joke—her mystification. When she removed the plates for the second course—there were but two in the simple, hearty little supper—she glanced into the small kitchen mirror. Her eye caught the scarlet geranium.
"I suppose I look ridiculously sentimental with that flower just there," she thought. "But I won't take it out after Jean put it there. No wonder they laughed."
An hour afterward they were all out upon the hill nearby. Stuart possessed a splendid pair of "bobs," and they were soon dashing down the hill at a pace which, while it made Jeannette hold her breath with mingled fear and joy, made Georgiana cry out, "Oh! is there anything so glorious?" and made Mr. Jefferson, just behind her, watching over her shoulder, respond with heartiness: "The snow fight took five years off my age, and now here goes another five. I must be almost as young as you are now, Miss Warne."
"Oh, no; I'm only ten myself to-night," she answered. "Coasting was one of my earliest joys. I was so proud when I could steer Jimps Stuart's first pair of bobs—small and primitive ones compared with these."
She found Mr. Jefferson beside her when it came to the walk back up the hill. A new side of him was visible to-night. He was not the quiet student and writer, the man who discussed with her father and herself the course of the world's events or the problems of social service, but a light-hearted boy, much like Stuart, and ready to abet all the other man's efforts for the amusement of the party.
The fun went on for an hour; then Jeannette, unaccustomed to so much vigorous exercise, began quite against her will to show evidences of fatigue, and after one particularly long, swift flight the party went back to the house. There followed another gay hour before the fire, while Stuart roasted chestnuts, and Georgiana, sitting on the floor against her father's knee, told stones of madcap pranks at college, illustrating them by such changes of facial expression and such significant gestures that her hearers spent themselves with their laughter.
Jeannette, lying back in a shabby but comfortable old armchair, looked and listened with the absorbed interest of one to whom such simple pleasures as these had the flavour of absolute novelty. Her eyes wandered from Georgiana's vivid face to her father's delicate one; to James Stuart's comely features glowing ruddily in the firelight as he tended his chestnuts, showing splendid white teeth as he roared at Georgiana's clever mimicry or turned to laugh into Jeannette's eyes as he offered her a particularly plump and succulently bursting specimen of his labours; to Mr. Jefferson's maturer personality, his brown eyes keenly intent, his face lighted with enjoyment, his occasional comments on Georgiana's adventures flashing with a dry humour which matched hers and sometimes quite outdid it. To Jeannette they were all an engrossing study. As for herself——
"She's the loveliest thing I ever saw," thought Georgiana from time to time as she glanced up at her cousin, whose fair hair against the dark cushion of the old chair caught and held the charm of the fire's own warmth in its gleaming strands. Jeannette's eyes were matchless by lamplight; her cheeks and lips were glowing from the outdoor life of the day and evening; her smile was a thing to imprison hearts and hold them fast. If she spoke little no one thought of her as silent, and the charm of her low laughter at the sallies of the others was the sheerest flattery, it was so evidently born of genuine delight in the cleverness she did not attempt to emulate.
"I'm a clown beside her," said Georgiana to herself. "Who cares how a woman talks when she looks like that? Every line of her is absolute grace and beauty, every turn of her head is fascination itself. I never saw such eyes. That little twist in the corner of her lip when she smiles is the most delicious thing I ever saw. Jimps looks at it forty times in every five minutes and I can't blame him. Mr. Jefferson keeps his chair facing that way so he can have her all the time in focus, though he doesn't eat her up as Jimps does. I can't blame either of them. And I shall go on being a clown, because that's what I can do and it amuses them. If I should lie back in a chair like that and just smile without saying anything, Father Davy would say, 'Daughter, don't you feel quite well?' and Jimps would propose getting me a cup of tea. Oh, well—how absurd of me to mind because another girl looks like a picture by a wonderful painter while I look like—a lurid lithograph by nobody at all!"
Whereupon she set her strong, white teeth into a hot, roasted chestnut, cracked it, and, regarding the halves, said: "This reminds me of the night Prexy lost his head"—and brought down the house with the merriest tale of all. It was so irresistibly absurd that Jeannette, helpless with her mirth, buried her face in her cobweb handkerchief, Stuart rocked upon his knees and made the welkin ring, and Mr. Jefferson laughed in a growling bass that gathered volume as the preposterousness of the situation grew upon him with consideration of it. Even Mr. Warne, whose expressions of amusement were usually noiseless, gave way to soft little chuckles of appreciation, and wiped his tear-filled eyes.
Georgiana, finishing her chestnut, looked upon them all and told them they were the most gratifying audience she had ever addressed, but that she feared it was not good for them to give way to their emotions so unrestrainedly, and that she should therefore not open her lips again that night. As they found it impossible to break down this resolution, even with entreaties backed by offerings of worldly goods, the party broke up. Georgiana carried off her guest to put her to bed with her own hands, while Mr. Jefferson and James Stuart smoked a bedtime pipe together in the boarder's room; after which Stuart let himself quietly out of a door that was never locked, to reflect, as he tramped homeward over the snow, on what an inordinately jolly evening it had been.
"Will you think I'm dreadful, Georgiana dear," asked Jeannette, lying luxuriously back upon her pillow while her cousin sat braiding her own thick locks by the little bedroom fireplace in which the last remnants of the fire were smouldering, "if I say I shouldn't have believed I could possibly have such a good time in such a way? I never did anything the least bit like it."
"Never threw snowballs?"
"Not that I can remember."
"Nor roasted chestnuts?"
"I never tasted one before—except perhaps in the stuffing of a fowl."
"Poor child! But at least you've sat by the fire with other girls and men and told stories, little Jean?"
The guest considered. "Of course—at house parties. Yet I can't seem to recall any such scene as the one we just left, down by your fire. I certainly never sat on the floor with my arm on my father's knee, with a group of people around, while somebody told stories—sure not such stories as you told. Oh, you're the cleverest girl I ever knew, to tell such things in such a way! It was perfectly splendid! How those two men did enjoy it! I don't know when I've heard men laugh in just that way."
"Just what way? Please tell me how they laughed differently from other men. To be sure, Jimps just lets go when he's amused and raises the rafters with his howls of glee; but so do other young men of his age. And certainly Mr. Jefferson laughed decorously enough."
"Yes, but it was so whole-souled with both of them; and yet there wasn't a thing in your stories but—oh, I can't tell you just what I mean, if you don't know. But somehow it all struck me so differently from the way any girl-and-man evening ever struck me before. There—there seems a different air to breathe here—if that expresses it—from any I've ever been in."
The two regarded each other, Jeannette from between half-closed, deeply fringed eyelids as she lay back upon her pillows, one arm, half veiled with the finest of linen and lace, outstretched upon the treasured old-time counterpane, the other beneath her neck; Georgiana sitting up straight, with two long, dark braids hanging over her shoulders, her dusky eyes wide open, her cheeks still bright with colour balanced by the scarlet hue of the loose garment she had put on.
"I've no doubt there is," agreed Georgiana thoughtfully. "Still, though you live a very different life from any I've ever known, I didn't suppose your education in the matter of roast chestnuts—and the things that go with them—had been quite so badly neglected. To think of never having had them except so disguised by the manipulations of a French chef that you couldn't recognize them! And to have gone to balls and horse shows and polo games—and never to have built a snow fort! Dear, dear, what we have to teach you! Life hasn't been really fair to you, has it, my dear?"
This was sheer audacity, from a poor girl to a rich one, but it was charming audacity none the less and by no means wholly ironic. To Jeannette, studying her cousin with eyes which were envious of the physical superiority for lack of which no training in the social arts or mere ability to purchase the aid of dressmaker and milliner could possibly atone, conscious that Georgiana possessed a mind far keener and better trained than her own, the question called for a serious answer. She half sat up and pushed her pillow into a soft mountain behind her as she spoke:
"No, it hasn't! I thought so before I came here and now I'm sure of it. I feel a weak and helpless creature beside you—helpless in every way. I can't do anything you can. If my father should lose his money and I should be thrown upon my own resources, I shouldn't be able to make so much as a—snowball for myself!"
Both laughed in spite of Jeannette's earnestness, for the words brought back vivid memories of the wild sport of the afternoon. Then Georgiana's ready brain leaped to the inevitable corollary:
"Ah, but there'd be sure to be a man ready to dash into your fort and make your snowballs for you!"
"I'm not so sure."
"Of course the men I know don't seem to mind whether a girl is helpless or not, if she can look and act the way they want her to. But—I'm discovering that there are other kinds of men, and somehow I like this new kind. And I imagine this kind wouldn't care for helpless girls. You made snowballs for your man to throw, and they were good hard ones, as my chin can still testify."
"You can learn to make hard snowballs," said Georgiana, smiling.
Jeannette held up one beautifully modelled but undeniably slender arm and clasped it with her hand. "Soft as——" She paused for a simile.
"Sponge cake," supplied Georgiana, coming over to feel critically of the extended arm. "It is pretty spongy. It needs exercise with a punchball or"—she flashed a mischievous glance at the languid form beside her—"a batch of bread dough."
"Bread dough! Would that help it?"
"Rather! So would sweeping, and scrubbing, and moving furniture about. But you're born to a life of ease, my dear, so those things are out of the question for you. But fencing lessons would be good for you—and fashionable, too, which would double their value, of course."
"Georgiana!" Jeannette sat straight up and laid two coaxing arms about her cousin's firmly moulded neck. "Teach me to make bread, will you, while I'm here?"
"Oh, good gracious!" Georgiana threw back her head to laugh. "Hear the child! What good would that do, if you learned? You wouldn't do it when you went back."
"I would!—Well, of course, I might have difficulty in—but mother wants me to be strong; she's always fussing about it because I can't endure the round of society things she says any girl ought to—and enjoy. If you thought bread-making would really help——"
"It would be a drop in the bucket of exercise you ought to take."
"Nevertheless, I want to learn," persisted Jeannette as Georgiana moved away, evidently with the intention of leaving her for the night. "I'd like to feel I knew how. And your bread is the most delicious I ever tasted. Please!"
"Oh, very well; I'll teach you with pleasure. I shall be setting bread sponge at six to-morrow morning. Will you be down?" Georgiana's smile was distinctly wicked.
"Six o'clock!" There was a look of mingled incredulity and horror in the lovely face on the pillow. "But—does bread—does bread have to be made so early?"
"Absolutely. After the morning dew is off the grass, bread becomes heavy."
Jeannette stared into the mocking eyes of her cousin; then she laughed. "Oh, I see. You're testing me. Well,"—with a stifled sigh—"I'll get up if you'll call me. I'm afraid I should never wake myself—especially after all that snowballing——"
"Exactly. And I'll not call you. So lie still in your nest, ladybird, and don't bother your pretty head about bread sponges. What's the use? You'll never need to know, and you'll soon forget having had even a faint desire toward knowledge. Good-night—and sleep sweetly."
"Oh, but wait! I'm really serious. Please call me!"
With one laughing backward look and with a kiss waved toward the slender figure now sitting up in bed, Georgiana opened the door and fled. That she did not want to teach her cousin an earthly thing, even if she could have believed Jeannette serious in her request, was momentarily growing more evident to her own consciousness. Just why, she might have been unwilling to explain.
Next morning, however, she found herself destined to carry out the plan Jeannette had so impulsively proposed. She crept downstairs as quietly as the creaking boards under the worn stair carpet would permit, and began her work in a whirl of haste. But she had not more than assembled her ingredients on the scrupulously scoured top of the old pine table when she heard the kitchen door softly open. Wheeling, she beheld a vision which brought a boyish whistle to her lips.
Jeannette, enveloped in a long silken garment evidently thrown on over her night attire, a little cap of lace and ribbon confining her hair, the most impractical of slippers on her feet, stood smiling at her cousin, sleep still clinging to her eyelids.
"I'm down," she announced in triumph.
"So I see. But you're not up," replied Georgiana, regarding the vision with critical eyes.
Jeannette's gaze left the trim morning garb of the young cook, her perfectly arranged hair, her whole aspect of efficiency, and dropped to her own highly inappropriate attire, and she flushed a little. But she held her ground.
"You didn't call me, and when I woke it was so near six I didn't dare wait to dress. Can't I learn unless I'm dressed like you?"
"If a French doll had come to life and offered to help me in the kitchen I couldn't feel more stunned. What will happen to all those floating ends of lace and ribbon, when they get mixed with flour and yeast? Be sensible, child, and go back to bed."
"I'll pin everything out of the way, and perhaps you'll lend me an apron. I really don't want to bother you, Georgiana, but I do want to learn."
Georgiana relented. "Very well. Come here, and I'll cover you up as best I can. Or I'll wait while you run up and dress—if you've anything to put on that's fit for bread-making."
"Nothing much fitter than this, I'm afraid," admitted Jeannette reluctantly.
"Poor little girl!" Georgiana's momentary irritation was gone, as it usually was, in no time at all. "Well, here go the frills under a nice big gingham all-over; and now you look like a combination of Sleeping Beauty and Mother Bunch! All right; here we go into business. Do you know how to scald that cupful of milk you see before you?"
"Scald it?" repeated Jeannette doubtfully—and so the lesson began.
Absolute ignorance on the part of the pupil, assured knowledge on that of the teacher—the lesson was a very kindergarten in methods. There were times when Georgiana had much difficulty in restraining her inward mirth, but she soon saw that this must be done, though Jeannette herself laughed at her own clumsiness, and evidently was determined to let nothing escape her.
"Kneading looks so easy when you do it," she lamented; "but I can't seem to help getting stuck."
"That will come with practice—if you ever try another batch, which I doubt. And it's the kneading that is so good for your arms."
"Yours are beautiful—and so strong, it must be fun to own them."
"There are times when a bit of muscle is of use in a hustling world," admitted her cousin. "There, I think that dough will do very well. Turn it over and lay it smoothly in the bowl—so. Cover it with its white blanket—so; and leave it right here, where it will have a good warm temperature to rise in. Now, run up and snatch another nap; you'll have plenty of time."
"You're not going back to bed?"
"Rather not!" Georgiana's smile strove to be tolerant. "There are just a few things to be done about the house, and they are best done before breakfast. Off with you, lady cousin!"
"Do you always get up so early?" Jeannette persisted.
"I have an extraordinary fondness for early rising," Georgiana explained. "It's foolish, of course, but it's an old habit. Good-bye, my dear; my next errand is down cellar," and she vanished from the sight of her guest, quite unable to keep herself longer in hand before the amazing point of view of this daughter of luxury.
The "next errand" was the washing of the handful of fine towels with which the painstaking hostess was keeping the guest-room supplied, unwilling to furnish the aristocratic young person upstairs with the coarser articles used by herself and the others. Jeannette, all unaware that the snowy linen with which her room was kept plentifully supplied was constantly relaundered in secret by Georgiana's own hands, was as lavish in her use of it as she was accustomed to be at home, and the result was a quite unbelievable amount of extra work for her cousin.
Mr. Warne, coming upon his daughter by chance in this very early morning flurry of laundering, expressed himself upon the subject in the gentle but positive way which was his.
"Why do it, my dear?" he questioned. "Are the sheets and towels we use not quite good enough for others?"
"Not half good enough for Lady Jean," responded the laundress, rubbing energetically away—yet carefully, too, for the old linen was not so stout as it once had been.
"You are intentionally deceiving her, aren't you, daughter? Why do that?—since it is not necessary for her comfort."
"But it is. She would shudder at the touch of a cotton sheet. As for a common huck towel——"
Mr. Warne shook his head. "I can't agree with you. So that the sheets and towels are spotless—as your sheets and towels are—the mere degree of fineness is not essential. And if she knew how much labour it costs you, I am very certain she would infinitely prefer to be less of a spendthrift in the matter of quantity."
"I've no doubt she would. But I'd rather wash my fingers off than not give her the fresh towel for her perfect face each time she uses one. I'd like it myself. I'd like a million towels, all fine as silk. I'd like——" She stopped abruptly, seeing the look upon her father's face. "Oh, I'm sorry!" she flashed at him repentantly. "I truly don't mind being poor in most ways. It's the lack of certain things that go with nicety of living that grinds me most. I shouldn't mind wearing gingham outside, if I could have all the fine linen I want underneath. It's—it's—oh, well, you know! And I'm an idiot to talk about it when the thing we really need is books—books for your starving mind. If I could get you all you want of those——" Her voice broke upon the wish, always strong with her.
"My dear, my mind will never starve while it has the old books to feed upon. Listen, on what a pertinent thought did I come this morning. I was delving in good old Thomas Fuller, of those fine seventeenth-century writers whose works still glow with fire: 'Though my guest was never so high, yet, by the laws of hospitality, I was above him whilst under my roof.'"
The girl laughed, dashing away a hot tear with the back of a soapy hand. "Trust you to find a classic to turn a tragedy into a comedy," she said. "Go away now, Father Davy, and I'll soon be through. It's a poor washerwoman I am to be thinning my suds with brine!"
A REASONABLE PROPOSITION
"You'll come, too, Georgiana dear?" Jeannette, furrily clad for a walk with James Stuart, stood in the doorway looking back. "Please do."
"Come, George;—you need a good tramp," Stuart urged at Jeannette's elbow.
He looked the picture of anticipation. He had undertaken getting the visitor into training by increasingly long daily walks, and the result was proving eminently satisfactory. At the end of the first half of the visit Jeannette was looking wonderfully well and happy—hardly the same girl who had come to the little village to try if she could endure such life as was likely to be offered her there.
"Thank you, my dears, nothing could persuade me. Run along and leave me to diversions of my own," answered Georgiana gayly.
So they had gone, Jeannette wafting back a kiss, Stuart waving an enthusiastic arm. Georgiana had smiled at them, had closed the door softly behind them—and had immediately banged to another conveniently near at hand, one opening into a small clothespress under the stair landing.
"Diversions of my own!" she repeated with emphasis. "Happy phrase! I wonder what they think my diversions are—with this family to look after. Well, you got yourself into it, George Warne. You can stick it out if it kills you."
She deliberately thumped one door after another all the way along her progress through the empty rooms and up the stairs to the second floor. Her father was away for the afternoon on a rare visit to a neighbour who had sent for him, an old parishioner, who, falling ill, longed for the gentle offices of his friend and long-time minister. As for Mr. Jefferson, this was the time of day when he was always away on his usual long walk. It was a comfort to be alone in the quiet house—and to bang and thump.
In her room Georgiana arrayed herself in a heavy red sweater, then ascended to the attic and stood eying the great hand loom of antique pattern, a relic of an earlier century. It was equipped with a black warp, upon which a few rows of parti-coloured woof had been woven.
"Diversions!" she repeated, and shook her round fist at the lumbering object.
Then she sat down on the old weaver's bench and began to weave with heavy, jarring thuds which shook the floor, as with strong arms she pulled and pushed and sent her clumsy shuttle flying back and forth. The attic was very cold; but she was soon warm with the violent exercise and presently had discarded the sweater and was working away with might and main.
"Go at it—go at it!" she was saying to herself. "Jealous idiot that you are! Jealous of Jeannette, of her clothes, her money, her beauty, her power to attract—jealous because Jimps likes her so well—because Father Davy looks at her with the eyes of an appreciative uncle—because Mr. E. C. Jefferson talks to her as if he enjoyed it. Pound—pound—pound away at the old loom till your arms ache, and see if you can get the nonsense out of you!"
"I beg your pardon," said a deep voice at the top of the narrow stairs not far away.
The loom stopped with a jerk as the weaver flashed round upon the head and shoulders protruding above the rafters. "Oh! I'm sorry! Did I disturb you?" cried Georgiana, fire in her voice. She did not look in the least sorry. "I thought you were out, too. And I'm just over your head. Of course you came up to——"
"No, I didn't," replied Mr. Jefferson. He ascended two steps more, looking curiously at the loom "I came up because I thought something extraordinary had happened up here and I ought to find out about it."
"Nothing extraordinary, merely something very ordinary. I do this whenever I have time and the coast is clear. You usually go out at this hour," she said accusingly.
"So I do. I came back just now, when I saw Miss Crofton and Mr. Stuart starting off alone, in hopes that you might consent to go with me. It's a great day. Won't you?"
"Thank you, no," the girl replied. "I'm behind with my work. These rugs are orders very much overdue. I've been rather delayed lately, since my machine is so noisy I can't work when anybody is on the second floor."
"Please never mind me," urged her visitor. "I can time my work to fit in with yours, if you need to make haste. But that must be a rather strenuous business. It's a very old affair, isn't it? Do you mind if I look at it? I never saw one of just that pattern."
"I mind very much," replied Georgiana crisply, moving off the bench and standing on the floor. "But that's no reason why you shouldn't examine the Monster if you like. That's what I call it. I'll run down and be back when you are through."
And this she would have done, but that he barred her way.
"But I won't," he said gravely, "if you prefer that I should not. Come back, please! I'm intruding, and I'll apologize and go."
The light from a dusty attic window fell full on her face as she stood, and he saw that in it which made him look again.
"Miss Warne," he said gently, "something is wrong, I'm afraid. Can't I be of use to you in some way? The reason I wanted to look at this loom was that I saw your last two strokes with the bar as I came up, and I recognized what a tremendous push you had to give. I'm something of a mechanic and I wondered if I couldn't do a bit of oiling, perhaps, to make it easier. I'm afraid it's tiring you unduly."
"I need to be tired," she said, low but vehemently. "I'm in a black mood, and the more I tire myself the quicker I shall get the better of it. Now you know. I suppose you never have black moods."
"Do I not? So black that I could grind myself under my own heel. Do you have them, too? I might have known by the look of you."
"You don't look as if you ever had them," she said rather curiously, her eyes on his quiet face.
"Ah, you can't always tell—luckily. It's pretty cold up here. Are you sure you wouldn't do better to take a run in the wind with me? You know somehow heavy tasks look lighter after a breath of outdoor air."
"So you know what heavy tasks are?" For the life of her she could not resist the question.
He looked steadily back at her, smiling a little. His eyes were very clear in their quiet scrutiny. She felt as if he saw much that she would prefer to conceal. "I have known a few that seemed to me fairly heavy at the time," he said. "Afterward, I was thankful to have had them—to prepare me for heavier ones."
"Oh—but they weren't the same dismal round——"
"Weren't they? Most tasks are. But I never had one quite like this. I am concerned for you, lest this prove too heavy. Now that I am here—do you really mind so very much if I look the machine over?"
She permitted it, and she did not run away as she had meant to do. Presently he asked for a screw-driver and a can of oil, and when she had procured them he did a number of things to the cumbersome loom, the result of which, when she attacked it once more, proved that he had relieved to a certain extent the hardest of her efforts.
"But it is still much too severe for any woman," he said seriously, standing, oil can in hand, a little lock of hair, shaken down by his labours, straying across his forehead. "Please tell me, and don't think me merely curious—is there no way in which you can add to your resources except this? You have a college training——"
"And no way whatever to make use of it," she exclaimed with some bitterness. "But I can weave, and I have a feeling for colour and form and can work out effects which find a market. Hand-woven rugs bring their price these days. Really, Mr. Jefferson, I am no subject for pity and——"
"You don't want it. Let me assure you that I don't feel a particle. To be young and strong and fit for hard work is no cause for pity. But—I have reason for persisting in my inquiry. You see, I happen to know of some one in need of such training as you undoubtedly have. Would you consider giving a few hours daily to one who needs a copyist and critic?"
Georgiana scanned his face with intent, incredulous eyes. Then, "Do you mean yourself?" she questioned.
"I mean myself. I hesitate to mention that I am the candidate, knowing that that admission must instantly create a prejudice against me." He was smiling a little. "But I state an actual fact. I have reached a point in my labours where I need a copyist. Do you think it possible that I may secure one without sending away for her?"
"I must suspect you," she said slowly and with rising colour, "of manufacturing a need. It is very, very kind of you, Mr. Jefferson—but I think I must continue to weave my rugs."
"But I am not manufacturing a need," he insisted. "I declare to you that I have been on the point of consulting you for some time. If it had not been that your days seemed very full with your guest and your housewifery, I should have put it to you before now. I am in earnest, Miss Warne. Won't you, as a matter of everyday business, lend me your eyes and your hand—and your critical judgment? If you can't do it while Miss Crofton is here, may I engage your spare time after she goes? Please don't deny me." He began to descend the stairs. "I won't stay for an answer," he said. "Think it over, will you? And please don't refuse until you have consulted your father."
"Why do you ask that?"
"Because I know he will look at it as any man would, without unreasonable prejudice against accepting a business proposition simply because it happens to come from a temporary member of the household. It takes a woman to bother about that."
With this straight shot he left her, laughing back at her as he descended in a way that went far toward disarming her, though she would not at once admit it. Instead, she went back to her loom, putting into the next section of weaving a quite unnecessary amount of force purely from tension of mind over the possibilities opened up by this most unexpected offer. There was no denying that it was precisely the sort of thing which she had often longed to do, and for which, she knew, as he had suggested, she was more than ordinarily well fitted. It was impossible, as she had said, not to suspect the lodger of creating a want to fit her need of earning money, yet there could be no doubt of the fact that any writer of books who draws upon all manner of collected notes and reference books for his material must be able to make valuable use of an assistant in a variety of ways.
Why should she not take him at his word? Well, she would think of it. And meanwhile—suddenly—the black mood was gone!
That night, after Mr. Jefferson's unexpected proposal that she should assist him in his literary work, Georgiana, running out upon an errand in the business part of the village, encountered James Stuart. This had been a not infrequent happening in days past, but since Jeannette's arrival it had not once occurred. Stuart was much at the house, but not for a fortnight had Georgiana had ten minutes alone with him.
That he welcomed the chance as well as she was evident from his first word: "Great luck! At last I get you to myself for half a wink without a soul around. Where are you going? Wherever it is, you don't go back to the house till you've given me what I want."
"And what's that?" queried Georgiana.
Her tone was cool in spite of herself. She had missed the almost daily walks and talks with Stuart, glad as she had been to have him do his effectual part in helping her entertain her guests. And there had been, as she was obliged to confess to herself, a sense that if he had been very anxious not to lose altogether her society he would have managed, in spite of lack of ordinary opportunity, to bring about such meetings. How much she could feel the absence of his companionship she had not dreamed until she had been tried.
After the friendly village fashion of intimate acquaintance he lightly grasped her arm in its covering of the scarlet-lined military cape she always wore on such walks, and turned her from her course toward a side street leading away, instead of toward, the centre she had been approaching. She protested, but he was laughingly determined and she yielded. It was good, undeniably good, to have Jimps by her side again, and hear his voice in his old eagerly devoted tones in her ear. That he was really overjoyed at coming upon her in a free hour it was impossible to doubt.
"My word! George, but you've kept me on short rations lately," he began accusingly. "One would think you had suddenly put me on a diet list. Nothing but sweets, contrary to the usual prohibitions of the medical men for the husky male! Do you think I have no appetite for the good substantial food? Parties and drives and candy-pulls, always with the lovely guest, and never an old-time hobnob with my chum! What's the matter with you, George? What have I done?"
"But such sweets! And so soon they will be gone, and nothing for the hungry youth but plain bread and butter. How absurd of you to complain!"
"Bread and butter! Beefsteak and mushrooms, you mean; roast turkey and cranberry sauce! A fellow can live on them. But not on eternal honey and fudge—with my apologies to the lady."
"I should say so, Jimps. You're outrageous, and you don't mean it. I wouldn't walk another step with you if you did."
"She's undoubtedly the sweetest thing on earth," admitted Stuart. "There are times when I think I'd like to ask her to marry me on the spot—if she'd have me, which she wouldn't—me, a farmer! She dazzles me, bewitches me, makes me all but lose my head. And then I look at my chum, the girl I've known all my life, and I think—well, sugar is all right, but you can't get on without salt—and pepper—and ginger—and——"
"Jimps!" In spite of herself Georgiana was laughing infectiously, and Stuart joined her. "How absolutely ridiculous! I sound like a whole spice box, and nothing but the 'bitey' spices at that."
"That's what you are," declared James Stuart contentedly. "And when I'm with you I have no hankering after sugar. Mustard plasters for me; they're warming."
They walked on, the spirit of good fellowship keeping step with them. If Georgiana had allowed herself to believe that Stuart was completely absorbed with the enchantments of the beautiful guest, she now discovered that, quite as he had said, the enchantment was by no means complete and he had not lost appreciation of the old friendship and what it meant to him. This was good to feel. It was all she wanted. If she had been guilty of a creeping sense of jealousy as she watched Stuart and Jeannette together, so evidently enjoying each other's society to the full, it was because it made her suddenly and unpleasantly understand what it would be to her to live her days in this commonplace little village without Stuart at her right hand. But here he was, literally at her right hand, and he was making her walk with him, not a beggarly square or two out of her way, but a good three miles around a certain course which once entered upon could not be cut short by any crossroads. And all the way he was telling her, as he had always done, all manner of intimate things about his affairs, and asking her of hers.
Before the circuit had been made Georgiana had done that which an hour before she would have thought far from her intention, natural as such a procedure would have been a month ago, before Jeannette came—she had told Stuart of Mr. Jefferson's offer. If the truth must be confessed, after suffering the mood which had only lately been dissipated, she could not resist producing the effect she knew, if Jimps were still Jimps, was bound to be produced. Such is woman!
Quite as she had foreseen, he was aroused on the instant. The generous sharing of Georgiana Warne with other aspirants for her favour had never been one of James Stuart's characteristics, open-hearted though he was in every other way. He stopped short in the snowy path, regarding her sternly while she smiled in the darkness. This was balm for a heavy heart, indeed, this recognition she had of his disapproval even before he jerked out the quick words:
"Great Scott! You don't mean to tell me you'd do it! Spend hours every day working with E. C. Jefferson? Not a bit of it. Not so you'd notice it! Tell him to go to thunder!"
"James McKenzie Stuart! What a tone to take! Why on earth should you object?" Georgiana's tone was rich and sweet and astonished—it certainly sounded astonished.
"Because you're my chum, my partner; and I won't have you going into partnership with any other man—not much!"
"Partnership! Secretaries and stenographers aren't partners——"
"Aren't they, though! The most intimate sort. And a fellow like Jefferson, full of books and literary lore—he'd be breaking off work half his time to talk Montaigne and Samuel Johnson and—and Bernard Shaw with you. And you'd drink it all in with those eyes of yours and make him think——" Georgiana's uncontrollable laughter halted but did not stop him. "What's his work, anyhow? Writing a History of Art?" growled Stuart, marching on, with Georgiana beside him bursting into fresh mirth with every step. Her heart was quite light enough now; no danger that she had lost her friend!
"I've no idea what it is, but it's certainly not that. He seldom speaks of art in any form—except literary art, of course. I've an idea it's scientific research of some sort."
"Then why isn't he in a laboratory somewhere, boiling acids? Why isn't he digging in city libraries or hunting scientific stuff over in Vienna? Vienna's the place for him. I wish him there fast enough," irritably continued this asperser of other men's vocations.
"His research work has undoubtedly been done; he has pile upon pile of notebooks and papers on file. His handwriting is a fright; that's probably what he wants me for—to make it legible to the printer."
"Let him send for a typist then; that's what he needs if he writes an illegible fist. You can't typewrite."
"I could learn, if necessary. I've often wished I could."
"You could learn! Yes, you could learn to come when E. C. Jefferson whistled, I've no doubt! Oh, I beg your pardon, George—you needn't turn away. Nobody could ever fancy you coming at any man's whistle. I'm just seeing red, that's all, at the thought of your going into a thing like this, that's bound to throw you two into the closest sort of relations."
"That's all nonsense, Jimps. You're behaving like a little boy. And you know I can't afford to lose a chance like this. You know how slow the rug-weaving is——"
"You don't mean you're still at that?"
"Of course I am. The prices are very good now, and I'm——"
"Then you certainly can't lose them to go into copying manuscript by hand. Stick to the weaving; that's my advice."
"Mr. Jefferson saw the loom to-day. He thinks it too hard work for me," suggested Georgiana slyly.
This was a telling shot, for Stuart had often expressed himself in similar fashion in the past. As was to have been expected, her companion became instantly more nettled than ever.
"Oh, he does, does he?" he said hotly. "I'd like to know what affair it is of his. You know well enough I've protested scores of times against that weaving——"
"And now you tell me to stick to it!"
He wheeled upon her. His tone changed: "George, I know I'm absolutely unreasonable. Of course I don't want you pulling that back-breaking thing. I don't want you to have to hustle for money any sort of way; that's the truth. What I do want is—to keep you away from every other earthly beggar but myself!"
"O James Stuart, how absurd! That's not a brotherly attitude at all."
"The role of brother isn't always entirely satisfying," retorted Stuart under his breath. "You know well enough you've only to say the word and I——"
"Jimps dear"—Georgiana's voice was very gentle now—"remember we've left all that boy-and-girl sentimentalizing behind. It was quite settled long ago that you and I were to be brother and sister, 'world without end.' And I know you mean it as brotherly, all this fuss about my taking a bit of perfectly reasonable employment for just a little while."
"Little while? Do you know how long he expects to be at work on that confounded book?"
"No; do you?"
"He told me one night when we were smoking together that he had given himself a year to do this work in. He came in January; this is April. Do you wonder I'm a bit upset at the notion of my best friend's going into harness with him for a year?" Stuart's tone was grim.
Georgiana, now in wild spirits with the relief from her fears, and the suddenly opening prospect of a long period of such work as she dearly loved, had some ado to keep her state of mind from showing. "It doesn't follow," she said, outwardly sober, "that he intends to spend that whole year here."
"He will—if he gets you for a side partner. A man would be a fool not to."
"That's a great tribute—from a brother," admitted Georgiana, smiling to herself. "But as far as our lodger is concerned, you need have no fear of any but the most businesslike relations, even though I worked beside him—as is quite improbable—for a year. He's not that sort."
"Not what sort? Don't you fool yourself. He's human, if his mind is bent on writing a book. And you are—Georgiana!"
"Jimps, there's a path in your brain that's getting worn too deep to-night. Come—let's hurry home. Jeannette will wonder what's become of me."
"Let her wonder. George, are you going to do this thing?"
"Of course I am."
"No matter how I feel about it?"
"Why, Jimps—really, do you think you have any right——"
"Georgiana, I—love you!"
"No, Jimps, you don't. Not so much as all that. You have a brotherly affection——"
"Brotherly affection doesn't hurt; this does," was Stuart's declaration.
"No, it doesn't, my dear boy. You're just made with a queer sort of jealous element in your composition, and when something happens to call it out you think it's—something quite different," explained Georgiana rather lamely. "You know perfectly that you and I fit best as good friends; we should be awfully unhappy tied up together in any way. Why, we settled that long ago, as I reminded you just now."
"It seems to have come unsettled," Stuart muttered.
"Then we must settle it again. Truly—you mean everything to me as a brother, friend, chum—whichever you like, and I—well, I should feel pretty badly to lose you. But——"
"I wish you'd leave it there. I don't fancy what you're going on to say."
"Then I'll not say it. Come, Jimps, give me your hand on the old compact."
"I will—on exactly one condition." Stuart stood still and faced her in a certain secluded spot just where the snowy path was on the point of turning into a wider, well-used thoroughfare.
"What is it? Make it a fair one."
"It is fair—the fairest between a man and a woman. It's this: leave the 'never-never' clause out. I'll agree to any terms of friendship you insist on if—well, just leave me a chance, will you—dear?"
There was a brief silence while Georgiana considered. She had not expected this, certainly not just now, when her long-time friend frankly admitted the drawing power of the winsome visitor. As she had implied, there had been between them, in the days of dawning maturity while they were yet in school together, certain youthfully tender vows which they had later exchanged for the more carefully considered terms of the warm but less sentimental friendship which had now existed for some years. That Stuart was really dearer to her, more a necessary part of her life than she had realized, had been made disconcertingly clear to her by the totally unexpected pangs she had suffered during the last fortnight, when it had seemed to her that she was likely to lose the fine fervor of his devotion. Now, however, that she was assured of his intense loyalty, she was the old Georgiana again, ready to stand beside her friend to the last ditch, if need be, but wholly unwilling to bind herself to his chariot wheels while no ditches threatened.
"'Never' is a big word," she said finally. "It isn't best to say 'never' about anything in this life."
"Then you won't ask me to say it?" His voice was eager.
"Not if you don't want to, Jimps."
"I don't. There was never anything surer than that. Give me your hand—chum."
She gave it. "All right—chum."
He had pulled off his own glove; he now gently drew off hers, and the two warm hands clasped. "Here's our everlasting friendship," he said, with a little thrill in his low voice. "Nothing shall come between us except—love."
"Jimps! That's not the old compact at all."
"It's the new one then. Isn't it sufficiently ambiguous to suit you?"
"It's much too ambiguous."
"I can make it plainer——"
"Perhaps you'd better leave it as it is," she admitted, recognizing danger.
"As you say."
He held her hand for a minute in such a close grasp that it hurt her, but she did not wince. Ah! if she might just have this pleasantly satisfying relation with the man whose presence in her life meant warmth and light and even happiness on the hard road of everyday routine, and then have somehow besides the contentment which comes of accomplishment along a line of chosen activity—and still remain free for whatever God in heaven might send her of real joy, she could ask no better.
"Jimps, I'm perfectly contented," she said radiantly, as they walked on.
"That's good. I wish I were."
"What would make you?"
"Your promise to earn your money making rugs—with me to help you."
"But you couldn't!"
"I could learn."
"Oh, how absurd! You haven't time, if there were no other reason."
He did not answer, and, since they were now back in the village and nearing the object of Georgiana's errand, no more was said until they were once again on their way homeward. They walked in silence until they reached the very doorstep of the manse. Then Stuart made one more protest.
"Not even to please me, George?" he asked, as she stood on the step above him, leading the way in to Jeannette and the warm fireside.
"Jimps, I'm sorry you feel that way about it. But I've talked with Father Davy and he agrees that it's a godsend. There's no reason in the world I could give Mr. Jefferson for refusing to help him when he needs it, and when I need it, too. Therefore—I'm sorry, Jimps, since you are so strange as to care—but I've made up my mind."
"You'll excuse me if I don't come in to-night," he said, and turned away.
She stood looking comprehendingly after him as he left her, then ran in and closed the door. The mood which held her now was so far from being black that it was rosy red.
"Uncle David, I was never so sorry to come to the end of any visit as I am this one," said Jeannette Crofton. She was holding Mr. Warne's frail hand in both her own, and looking straight into the young gray-blue eyes which looked affectionately back at her. She was dressed for her departure, and the great closed town car which had brought her was waiting at the door.
Near her stood Georgiana and James McKenzie Stuart. Mr. E.C. Jefferson had just appeared in the background, come to bid the guest farewell.
"You have given us much pleasure, my dear," responded Mr. Warne, "and if you have received it as well, the balance is pretty evenly struck."
"I might have stayed two days longer," declared Jeannette with evident longing, "if it hadn't been for that sister of mine. I'm sure she could have had a birthday dance without me—but no! How I wish I were taking you all with me—even you, Mr. Jefferson," she added with one of her adorable smiles, as she turned to him; "you, whom I can't possibly imagine caring to dance a step, not even with the prettiest girl I could find for you."
"You almost make me wish I knew how to dance a step," said Mr. Jefferson, advancing to take her hand. "As it is, I can at least wish that prettiest girl a partner worthy of her grace."
"While I am wishing," exclaimed Jeannette with characteristic impulsiveness, "why in the world don't I bring about my own wishes? Oh, where have my wits been! Georgiana, darling, run and dress and go with me! I'll send you back to-morrow in the car. And you, too, Mr. Stuart! Oh, come, both of you, and dance at Rosalie's birthday fete to-night! Please—please do!" She turned to Mr. Warne. "Mayn't she, Uncle David? Couldn't you manage to spare her just for twenty-four hours?"
They looked at one another, smiling, hardly believing that the gay suggestion was a serious one.
But by Jeannette, accustomed to having her own way once a way had occurred to her, all objections were thrust aside. "Oh, but you must come!" she cried. "I'll not take no!"
"Come and talk it over a minute with me, crazy child," bade Georgiana; and she drew her cousin out of the room, where she could state the great difficulty which, being a woman, had instantly assailed her. "Jean, I hate to quash such a glorious idea, but—I shall have to be frank—clothes!"
"With loads of frocks hanging in my wardrobe at home? And half of them too trying for me to wear at all, while they would suit you perfectly. Nonsense! Oh, hurry and make ready. James Stuart will go if you will; I saw it in his eyes."
It could not be refused, this tempting invitation, with such a lovely tyrant to enforce her will. One word, however, did James Stuart and Georgiana Warne exchange in a corner before they capitulated.
"George, my evening togs—they've been put away for the four years since I left college. They must be about the most hopelessly ancient cut conceivable to eyes like hers. Shall I risk looking like a rustic in such a house as that?" But Stuart's eyes were eager as a boy's.
"I'll not go if you won't, Jimps. As for rusticity, I can keep you company. Can you bear to lose such a frolic? I can't."
"Neither can I, hang it! All right, I'll be a sport if you will," agreed Stuart with a laugh, and rushed away to pack a bag in short order, all the zest of irrepressible youth, in one who had been forced by circumstance to foreswear most of the joys of youth for stern labour, coming uppermost to bid him make merry once more at any cost of after fall of spirits.
"Thank goodness I've had the sense always to keep the latest of Jeannette's 'Semi-Annual' tailored suits pressed and trim," thought Georgiana as she dressed. "This is a year behind the extreme style, but I know perfectly well I look absolutely all right in it, and my hat, having once been hers, is mighty becoming and smart, if it is a make-over. It's lucky I can do those things; that's one benefit of going to college, anyhow."
A few other "make-overs" in the way of dress accessories, all of exquisite material, on account of their source, and daintily preserved because of their frailty after having served two owners, went into her traveling bag. For the dance itself, since there was no other way, she was not loath to accept Jeannette's generous offer, and, being a very human creature, could not help looking forward with delight to the prospect of finding herself arrayed in such apparel as would successfully sustain any scrutiny which might be brought to bear upon the country cousin. As for Stuart, she had no fears for him, for his years of college life had made him an acceptable figure upon any occasion, and she was confident his broad shoulders and fine carriage could atone for any slightly antique cut of lapel or coat-tail.
Altogether, it was a very happy young person who embraced Mr. David Warne, shook hands with Mr. Jefferson, and ran down the path to the great car in the wake of Jeannette, and followed by James Stuart looking extremely personable. Well-cut clothes were the one extravagance Stuart allowed himself now that he was immured for at least the early half of his life, as he expected, upon the farm of his inheritance.
"Well, well, I'm glad to have my little girl run away for a few hours," said Father Davy, from the window where, with Mr. Jefferson at his shoulder, he stood watching for the final wave of Georgiana's hand. "She has enjoyed her cousin's visit, but it has meant considerable extra labour for her. This seems a fitting return for Jeannette to make."
"One can hardly blame Miss Crofton for wanting to prolong her enjoyment of your daughter's society," observed Mr. Jefferson, his eyes watching closely the laughing faces behind the glass as the travelers settled themselves. "I can imagine one's feeling a very decided emptiness in a place which she had left."
"There, they're off!" announced Mr. Warne, waving his slender arm with eagerness, his delicate features alight with pleasure in this unexpected happening. "Emptiness, you say, Jefferson?" he added as the two turned away, with the car out of sight down the snowy road. "That quite expresses it. Even for a few hours I am conscious of a distinct sense of loneliness without Georgiana. Her personality is one which makes itself felt; it has individuality, audacity; even—I think—that curious quality which for want of a better name we call 'charm.' Am I too prejudiced?"
He placed himself upon his couch, plainly very weary with the flurry of the last hour. He lay looking up at Mr. Jefferson, who had lingered a little before going back to the work which loudly called to him. It was quite possible for the younger man to comprehend how desolate was the gentle invalid's feeling at being left, if only for a day and a night, in the care of the friendly neighbour who was to minister to his needs and who was already to be heard bustling about the dining-room, laying the table for the coming meal.
"You may be prejudiced," admitted his companion, "but it is a prejudice which can be readily forgiven—and even shared," he added, smiling.
"Her cousin," pursued Mr. Warne slowly, "would outshine her in beauty and in sweetness of disposition, perhaps, though I doubt if Jeannette has ever had a fraction of the tests of character and endurance my girl has had."
"She surely never has," agreed the other. "And as for mere sweetness of disposition, there are other qualities which make their own appeal."
A whimsical smile appeared upon the pale face resting against one of Georgiana's crimson couch pillows. "How she would make me signals of distress and warning," he mused, "if she could hear me carrying on an antiphonal service in her praise with our lodger, who, she would consider, knows her not at all. Well, well——
"'Man, she is mine own, And I as rich in having such a jewel, As twenty seas, if all their sand were pearl, The water nectar, and the rocks pure gold.'
You'll forgive an old man's romanticism, Mr. Jefferson, I hope?"
"You are one of the youngest men I know. And if you may quote Shakespeare to your purpose, I may quote good old Doctor Holmes," said Mr. Jefferson, drawing the pillow into an easier position as he spoke:
"'He doth not lack an almanac Whose youth is in his soul.'"
To Georgiana Warne, a year out of college, and during that year having sorely missed the many gayeties of the life she had known for four happy years, the present experience was delightful. She enjoyed every minute of the swift drive over the sixty miles to her cousin's home, enjoyed the arrival there, the meeting with the family and their house guests assembled for afternoon tea, the installment in a luxuriously furnished room where Jeannette presently brought her an armful of gowns to choose from for the evening. A small dinner was to precede the dance, and all sorts of scheming for Georgiana's pleasure had been fermenting in Jeannette's brain on the way home.
"I've arranged with Rosalie to put you next her special prize—the most wonderful man she knows. All her set are crazy over him, though he belongs in ours fast enough. It's Miles Channing, just home after a year's travel, and as good looking as any illustrator ever drew. You see you simply must be your most brilliant self. And here's the way to do it—wear this!"
She held up before Georgiana's disconcerted gaze such a marvel of colour and cunning as brought a gasp of astonishment and a quick denial: "Oh, my dear! Not that—for me. It's bad enough to wear your things at all, but don't give me something that will make everybody look at me, like that!"
"That's precisely what I want," laughed Jeannette. "And this is a thing I haven't ventured to wear and never shall, though I'm wild to do it. But I couldn't carry it off; you can. Those orange shades will be glorious with your eyes and hair. Besides, as for making you conspicuous above the rest, on account of any gorgeousness of colour or eccentricity of style, it simply can't be done these days. So put this on and see for yourself. You needn't wear it, of course, if you don't like it; but you will."
Reluctantly Georgiana allowed a slim French maid to slip the marvel of her country's art over the bared shoulders, and the next minute she was staring at herself in a long mirror, while Susette clasped her hands, and gay young Rosalie, passing the door at the moment and summoned to the private view, cried joyously:
"Oh, Georgiana, you're perfectly stunning! Of course you must wear it, and you'll be the star of the evening."
Rosalie rushed on, having settled the questions out of hand, after the manner of the youthful. Jeannette was laughing as she called her mother in to confirm the decision.
Mrs. Crofton, languidly interested, surveyed her niece with approval. She was an impressive lady, was Aunt Olivia, and was accustomed to have her opinion carry weight. "It suits you, my dear," was her verdict. "Those who can wear such daring effects should do it, for every scene needs points of light and intensity."
"And these other frocks," Jeannette declared, pointing to them where Susette had spread them out upon the bed, "are just colourless baby things that anybody can wear."
"They look exquisite to me," regretted Georgiana, eying them wistfully.
Somehow, now that she was here, she did not so much enjoy the thought of appearing in borrowed finery, and, since it must be done, would have preferred the simplest white frock in Jeannette's wardrobe. But this was not to be without displeasing her hostesses, and she reluctantly submitted. Susette begged leave to arrange her hair, Jeannette hunted out silk stockings and slippers to match the frock, and Rosalie contributed the long white gloves which completed the costuming.
When Georgiana was ready to descend she took one last look at the girl in the long mirror, and turned to Jeannette, herself a picture in the delicate colourings which she affected and which set off her golden beauty. "I feel like the old woman in the nursery song," she said, "doubtful of my identity."
"But you must admit you're simply glorious," cried Jeannette. "I knew you were a beauty, but I didn't know you were such a raving one as this."
"I'm no beauty," denied Georgiana with spirit. "It's just the clothes. But you—I never saw anything so enchanting as you to-night."
"Delightful! I'm so glad, for—there's somebody I want to enchant. Come on," and Jeannette led the way.
At the foot of the great staircase, about a wide fireplace, Georgiana saw James Stuart with a group of other young men, and noted swiftly that there was no too-striking contrast to be noted between her friend and his faultlessly attired companions, except that his face and hands wore a deeper coat of winter tan than theirs, and he looked stronger and more virile than any of them. And even in his outdoor colouring, there was among them one who rivalled him, the one who, as Georgiana instantly guessed, was the lately arrived traveler. A moment later she met Stuart's eyes and saw his look of astonishment as he gazed at her.
Presently, when those whom she had not already met had been made known to her, she found Stuart at her elbow. "Am I dreaming?" said his voice in her ear, "or is this my chum? I'm almost afraid to speak to you!"
"You look awfully nice, Jimps," she returned under her breath. "Yes, isn't it absurd for me to be peacocking like this? But they made me do it."
"You take my breath away."
"Look at Jean," she whispered. "Isn't she the loveliest thing you ever saw in your life?"
He looked. "You and she are a pair," he admitted.
Jeannette came up to them with the tall traveler, and Georgiana found herself looking up into a pair of dark eyes whose glance told her that their owner found her worth studying intently. Miles Channing was of the sort who waste no time in preliminaries. By the time she had sat out half the dinner by his side she felt as if she had been under fire for hours. All her youth and wit responded to his sallies, and she enjoyed the encounter as keenly as a girl might be expected to do, who for a year had seen no men but the slow village swains—always excepting James Stuart, who was her one reliance in time of famine.
Channing made no attempt to disguise his preoccupation with the most attractive of the few strangers in the set of young people whom he had known for years. Between the dinner and the dance, Jeannette, who had been observing without seeming to observe, dropped a word in Georgiana's ear:
"You've done it, dear. I never saw him lose his head so completely. You'll have to be careful or you'll have all the girls down on you. They're crazy over him, you know—including Rosalie."
"Absurd! I shall never see him again, so what does it matter?" retorted Georgiana.
"Don't be too sure of that. Nothing can stop him when he's interested. And you know you are a witch to-night; anybody would be caught in your snare. I didn't know you were such a clever thing at the game, though I might have guessed it."
"If I weren't, I might take lessons of you," Georgiana gave back. "You have Jimps slightly delirious, I can see. Is he the one you wanted to enchant? I'm sure you've done it."
"Isn't he splendid? He looks so much stronger and more interesting than half these boys I've known all my life. I do want him to have a good time."
"He's having it."
Georgiana was sure of this, but she was having so good a time herself she didn't mind. More than once she had caught Stuart's eyes across the table, and had noted how they were sparkling. The glance the two exchanged might have been interpreted to mean: "Fun, isn't it? You play up to your opportunities and so will I. This won't happen again in our lives, perhaps."
Presently the dancing began, in great rooms cleared for the purpose and decorated with every art of the florist. The music was all of a quality more perfect than any Georgiana had ever heard, and the strains which assailed her ears made her wild to dance to every note. She was besieged by invitations.
"But I haven't danced for more than a year, and I don't know one of the latest steps," she said regretfully.
"We'll soon remedy that," promised Chester Crofton, her cousin, who carried her off into an unoccupied room, where the music could yet be heard, and proceeded to teach her. She was easily taught, having all the foundations after four years of practice among college girls, and she was soon able to go upon the floor with young Crofton and the rest.
Miles Channing did not dance, but after watching for a time—while Georgiana was acutely conscious that his eyes constantly followed her—he claimed and bore her off before others could prevent. In a palm-shadowed corner well removed from observation he drew a long breath of content and settled down beside her.
"I hope you will not be too much bored at missing a round or two," he began in the slightly drawling speech which was somehow one of his charms, it was so curiously accompanied by his intent observation. "I haven't danced for so long I can't venture to attempt it, especially with you."
"I should be the most patient of partners, I'm so unaccomplished myself," declared Georgiana.
"Nevertheless I shouldn't want to try you. You dance like a sylph, I like an elephant."
"I don't believe it."
"You do grudge sitting out, then, do you?" he asked.
"Not a bit."
"It wouldn't really matter if you did, for I intend to hold my advantage now I have it. I care more to talk with you than for all the dances on the program. And the time is so short I must make the most of it. You go back to-morrow, I understand?"
"And you'll not be here soon again?"
"I don't expect to. I'm a very busy person at home and can seldom be spared."
"That means that whoever wants to know you must come to your home?"
Georgiana felt her pulse beats quickening. This was certainly losing no time. She assented to the interrogation, explaining that her father was an invalid and she was his housekeeper. She felt no temptation to represent things to Mr. Channing as other than they were. It was somehow an atonement for appearing in her borrowed attire that she should not allow appearances to deceive this new acquaintance into thinking her home the counterpart of her cousin's. The news did not appear in the least to disconcert him.
"I should like very much to meet your father," Channing said; and Georgiana liked him for taking the trouble to put it in that way. He instantly added: "And I should like still more to see you in your own home. May I have that pleasure?"
"We shall be very glad to see you," she promised, careful of her manner.
"No matter how soon I come?"
"I suppose you will allow me to reach home first?" she questioned gayly.
"Barely. This is Wednesday night. You go home to-morrow—Thursday. May I come Saturday?"
"You have been living on railway schedules so long you have acquired the habit," she gave back with slightly heightened colour. In the course of her experience she had seen more than one young man change his plans after encountering her, but she had never known one to form new ones as quickly as this.
"I have discovered that when one wants to reach a place very much, he can't start too soon," he said very low, with such obvious meaning that she had some difficulty in keeping her cool composure. It was not only his words, but his looks and manner which spoke. She had never dreamed that outside of stories men ever really did begin to fire on sight, like this.
The matter settled, Channing began to talk of other things, but through all his speech and acts ran the visible thread of his instant and powerful attraction to her, so that she was conscious of the colour of it. By the time two dances had gone by and she was sought and found by an eager claimant, the girl was quite ready to get away from this new and decidedly disturbing experience. And when, a little later, she allowed James Stuart to try one of the new steps with her, she had a comfortable sense of having got back upon known and solid ground, after having been swimming in a too-swift current.
"You've no idea, Jimpsy," Georgiana said, when she and James Stuart had assured themselves that they were able to suit their steps to each other and were moving smoothly down the floor, "how glad I am to be with some one I know, for a bit."
"Only some one? Not particularly me?"
"Yes, particularly you. My brain needs a little rest."
"There's a compliment for an old friend! But I didn't suppose dancing tired the brain. It's my feet that have bothered me. I've walked all over Jeannette's little toes, but she's perfectly game and won't admit it."
"I thought you and she were getting on beautifully together."
"So we were. I couldn't see how you and Channing got on together, because you went off and hid somewhere. That's not fair with a perfectly new acquaintance."
"Didn't you and Jeannette go off and hide somewhere?"
"We're not new acquaintances."
"Oh, indeed! How old ones are you?"
"A month is a long time compared with one short evening. I never knew, George, you were such a terrific charmer. You've had them all nailed to-night; and as for Channing—well—— Only I suppose he's a shark at the game himself. He shows it. Better look out."
"What an excellent opportunity a dance is for old friends to give each other good advice." Georgiana smiled up into his eyes.
He closed his own for an instant. "Don't do that; it dazzles me."
"Nonsense. You're learning the game yourself. Jeannette's been teaching you. We're all finding each other out to-night. I had no idea she could sparkle so."
"You're the sparkler. She simply glows with a steady light."
"Well, I like that!"
"You like everything to-night. You remind me of a peach—on fire."
"Jimps!" Georgiana's soft laughter assailed his ear. "I believe we're both a bit crazy with this sudden leap into dissipation—such dissipation! Just remember where we'll be to-morrow night."
"I don't want to—except that I'll be with you. We'll talk it all over by your fire, eh?"
"Of course. There'll be that much left, anyhow. Is this over? Thank you, Jimps, for the best dance I've had to-night."
"No use trying it on me," he murmured as he released her. "What's the use of capturing what you've already got?"
By and by it was all over and Georgiana was mounting the stairs with Jeannette, smiling back at certain faces in the disordered spaces below, where flowers lay about the floors and a group of young fellows, belonging to Rosalie's house party, were making merry before they broke ranks.
In Jeannette's room by a blazing fire the girls held brief session, sitting with unbound hair and swinging slippered feet, and cheeks still flushed with the night's gayety.
"Jimps and I were imagining ourselves sitting by the fire in our old living-room to-morrow night," said Georgiana softly, staring into the flame with eyes which reflected little points of light. "It will seem like a dream then, but we shall talk it all over, and remember what fun we had, and how lovely everybody was to us—and how beautiful you were in that blue-and-silver frock."
"You dear thing, you ought to have such times often and often!" cried Jeannette. "But—O Georgiana, you have times I envy you! While you are dreaming of our flowers and music I shall be dreaming of the dear old house, and the jolly evenings you gave me there, and envying you—oh, envying you——"
"Envying me! Are you crazy, child, or are you just——"
"Just speaking the truth. You can't think how many times I shall think of you sitting there with your three splendid men——"
"Jean! What are you talking about?"
"About Uncle David, and Jimps, and Mr. Jefferson——"
"But they're not mine," protested Georgiana, laughing. "Except Father Davy."
"Oh, of course he's my friend, my very good friend. And Mr. Jefferson's only a 'boarder,'"—she made a little grimace at the word. "You speak as if I had them all about me all the time."
"But you do evenings, don't you?"
"They were there much more while you were visiting me than they will be now. Jimps has heaps of arrears to make up; he let lots of work go while you were there, you must know, my dear. As for Mr. Jefferson—he may never come down any more, now that Jimps won't be going up to beg him to make a fourth for your entertainment. So don't imagine me holding court with those three retainers. It will mostly be just Father Davy and I with a volume of Dumas or Kipling. Isn't it odd how my pale little father loves the red blood of literature?"
"Just the same——" but Jeannette did not finish that. She began afresh: "And oh! how I shall miss you, George—as Jimps calls you. Somehow I must have you before long for a real visit here, or wherever I may be for the summer."
"Thank you, Jean; but I can never get away."
"I'll arrange it somehow. That makes me think—Miles Channing was dreadfully disappointed that you were going in the morning. I've no doubt he will manage to see you off somehow. I think it's too bad of you to insist on going before luncheon. Think how little sleep you'll have."
She gave Georgiana a penetrating look as she said it, but saw only a pair of beautiful bare arms thrown up over a mass of dark locks, as her cousin, with a clever imitation of a half-smothered yawn, answered merrily: "Then we must go to bed this minute or I shall never have strength of mind to get up. And I can't leave Father Davy to the tender mercies of Mrs. Perkins longer than I can help. She'll give him everything that is bad for him, in spite of the best intentions."
It was a wide-awake Georgiana, nevertheless, who, fully dressed for the drive, leaned over Jeannette's bed at ten o'clock that morning and kissed a warm velvet cheek, murmuring: "Don't wake up, Jean. We're just off after breakfast. I'll write soon. You've been a perfect darling, and I'm more grateful than I can tell you."
"Oh, I'm dead to the world, I'm so tired!" moaned the girl in the bed. "I always have to pay up so for dancing all night. But you,"—she lifted languid eyelids to see her cousin's smiling freshness of face and air of vigour—"why, you look as though you had had twelve hours' sleep—and a cold plunge!"
"I've had the cold plunge," admitted Georgiana, laughing. "And I'm 'fit as a fiddle,' as Jimps says. He sent his good-bye to you and told me to tell you he'll never forget you—never!"
"Tell him I'll not let him forget me—or you, either. Oh, how I hate to have you go, both of you!"
Through a silent, sleeping house Georgiana and Stuart stole, the only member of the family up to see them off being Mr. Thomas Crofton himself, the oldest person under the great rooftree.
"My dear, you must come again, you must come often," he urged, holding Georgiana's hand and patting it with a paternal air. He was a handsome man in the early sixties, with graying hair and tired eyes. "You have done a great deal for our Jean; she looks much stronger than when she went to your home. But neither she nor Rosalie can enter the race with you for splendid health. That comes from your country life, I suppose. I envy you, I envy you, my dear."
"Come and see us, Uncle Thomas—do. Father Davy would be so happy; you know he's such an invalid. But his mind and heart are as young as ever."
"I will come; I will drive down some day, thank you, Georgiana. I should like to see David again. Mr. Stuart, come again, come again. Good-bye; sorry your aunt was too much done up to see you off this morning, my dear. Good-bye."
As the two emerged from the door a tall figure sprang up the steps. "What luck! I was passing and I suspected you were just getting off. Good morning! Can you possibly be the girl I saw dancing seven hours ago?"
"I don't wonder you ask, Mr. Channing," laughed Georgiana. "Evening frocks and traveling clothes are quite different affairs."
"Ah, but the traveling clothes are even the nicer of the two, when their wearer looks——" Channing glanced at Stuart standing by. "Confound you, sir!" said he, with a genial grin, shaking hands. "Since you're going to drive all the way home with Miss Warne can't you give me the chance to say something pleasant to her?"
"You can't make it too strong to suit me," observed Stuart—and remained within hearing.
"Saturday, then, if I may," said Channing, looking as far into Georgiana's eyes as he could see, which was not very far. She wore a close little veil, which interfered with her eyelashes, and clearly she could not lift her glance very high.
Then they were off, with Channing waving farewell, his hat high in air. A hand at another window also waved, and Georgiana knew Jeannette had seen this last encounter.
"Well, for sixteen hours' work," remarked James Stuart grimly, as the car gathered headway and the house was left behind, "I should say you had done some fairly deadly execution. Saturday, eh? Why does he delay so long? Isn't to-morrow Friday—and a day sooner?"
The old study of David Warne was a square, austerely furnished room on the second floor of the manse, opposite the sleeping-room now occupied by Mr. Jefferson. It contained several plain bookcases, filled mostly with worn old volumes in dingy yellow calf or faded cloth. An ancient table served for a desk, with a splint-bottomed chair before it. On the walls hung several portrait engravings, that of Abraham Lincoln occupying the post of honour among them. The floor was covered with a rag carpet of pleasantly dimmed colours, and an old Franklin stove, with widely opening doors and a hearth with a brass rail, completed the furnishing of the room.
This was the place now swept and dusted and warmed for the joint labours of the writer of books and his new assistant. Mr. Jefferson had moved the materials of his craft to the new working quarters: he had brought up wood for the fire and had made that fire himself, according to the custom he had inaugurated soon after his arrival. The day and hour for the beginning of that which James Stuart insisted on designating as a partnership had arrived. At ten o'clock that April morning, when Georgiana's housework should have reached a stage when she could safely leave it for a more or less extended period, the study door was to close upon the two and shut them away undisturbed for the first details of their affair in common.
Georgiana had been up since before daybreak, planning and executing a system which should make all this possible. Now, at a quarter before ten, with all well in hand, she flew to her room for certain personal touches which should transform her from housewife to secretary. Two minutes before the clock struck she surveyed herself hurriedly in her small mirror.
"You really look very trim and demure," she remarked to her image. "Your colour is a bit high, but that's exercise, not excitement. Still, you are a little excited, you know, my dear, and you must be very careful not to show it. It's a calm, cool, business person the gentleman wants, George, not a blushing schoolgirl. It would spoil it at once if you should look conscious or coquettish. So now—remember. And forget—for the love of your new occupation—forget that Miles Channing is coming again to-night—again, after one short week! What does it matter if he is? Run along and be good!"
Half a minute left in which to run downstairs, kiss Father Davy on his white forehead, and receive his warm "Bless you, dear, and bless the new work. May you be very happy in it!" and to walk quietly upstairs again and knock at the door of the study. It opened under Mr. Jefferson's hand, and to the cheerful sound of snapping wood on the open hearth of the old Franklin stove he bade her enter.
His smile was very pleasant, his steady eyes seemed to take note of everything about her in one quick glance, as he said with a wave of his hand: "Welcome to my workshop! You see I've swept up all the chips, but we'll soon make more."
"You manage to keep your workshop remarkably free from chips," she commented. "You must have a great system of order."
"Pretty fair. I should be hopelessly lost if I let this mass of material become disordered. Will you take this chair? Must we begin at once or may we talk a little first?"
"I think we had better begin. You know there are just two free hours before I must be back downstairs, if you are to eat, this noon."
He laughed and she noted, as she had noted many times before, how young he looked at such moments, grave as his face could be when in repose.
"Very well," he agreed. "I have no doubt you will work at this task as you do at the loom, with all your might, and I shall have to lengthen my stride to keep up with you. But that promises well. One is likely to fall into habits of soldiering when one works alone. You have no idea how carefully I have to keep certain favourite books out of sight when I want to accomplish big stretches of work. And in this room—hard luck!—I see so many old treasures that I'm going to have a bit of trouble in resisting temptation."
His eyes led hers to the old bookcases. She nodded. "It's a shabby old collection, but it's very dear to father's heart."
"It well may be. Gibbon, Hume, Froude, Parton—Lamb, Johnson, Carlyle—Hugo, Thackeray, Reade, and Trollope—Keats, Shelley, and the rest. What matters the binding? Some time I must read you a passage in good old Christopher North that appeals to me tremendously. No, not now, Miss Warne; I see I must fall upon my task without delay or you will be slipping away on the plea of bad faith on my part. Well——"
He turned his chair toward the table and took up a notebook. His face settled instantly into an expression of serious interest.
"I am going to ask you first," said he, "to copy in order upon a fresh sheet each reference which you find marked with a red cross, so that the references may be all together. Be very exact, please, and very legible. German and French words are easily misread by the typist who will put this work finally into copy for the printer."
Georgiana, glancing at the first marked reference, found cause to credit this statement, for it read:
Cagnetto: Zur Frage der Anat. Beziehung zwischen Akromegalie u. Hypophysistumor, Virchow's Archiv., 1904, clxxvi., 115. Neuer Beitrag. f. Studium der Akromegalie mit besonderer Beruecksichtigung der Frage nach dem zusammenhang der Akromegalie mit Hypophysenganggeschwulste, Virchow's Archiv., 1907, lxxxvi., 197.
"It would be best to print the words as clearly as I can, wouldn't it?" she suggested, suppressing her desire to laugh.
"That depends on your handwriting. Try a line and let me see, please."
When she had shown him a specimen of the peculiarly readable script which she had cultivated in college, he signified his approval with a hearty "Good! That's a splendid hand for work, the hand of a workman, in fact. I congratulate myself. Go ahead with the jaw-breakers, only verifying each reference before you leave it."