"Good afternoon, Miss Persis. Mother said that you—"
"Walk in, Thad. Yes, I've a little package to send your mother. Sit down while I look for it."
Would the girl never come! The curtain was rung up, the audience waiting. But the stage was empty. How long a time in Heaven's name did Diantha expect to spend in combing her hair. "I should think she was waiting for it to grow," thought the harassed Persis. Very deliberately she opened and closed every drawer in the old-fashioned secretary, though she knew the upper contained only old letters and the second, garden seeds.
Thad was fidgeting. "If you can't put your hand on it, Miss Persis, don't bother to hunt. I'll drop in again in a day or two."
"Just a minute, Thad. It must be right around here. It can't—ah!" Persis forgot the ending of the unnecessary sentence. For now Thad West was at liberty to leave whenever he pleased.
A tall slender figure advanced into the room. Diantha's grace had always made her an anomaly among tall children. Her hair was parted and drawn back simply, after the fashion doubtless designed by earth's beauties, since it is the despair of plain women. The yellow curls, sacrificing their individual distinction, had magnanimously contributed to the perfection of the exquisite golden coil at the back of her shapely head. No one would have looked twice at the plain little lawn, but it proved superior to some more pretentious gowns in that it set off the charms of the wearer, instead of distracting attention from them. The unlooked-for apparition brought Thad West to his feet, and so Youth and Beauty met as if hitherto they had been strangers.
For a long half minute they stood without speaking. "Oh, good afternoon," Diantha said at last, and veiled her eyes from his fascinated stare. Formerly she had treated him with the free-and-easy pertness of a precocious child. Now the exquisite shyness of maidenhood enveloped her. Instinct drew her back from the man's inevitable advance. "I didn't know it was so late," she said to Persis, oblivious to Thad's gasping greeting. "I must hurry."
Thad's sense of confusion was like a physical dizziness. This regal young beauty was the daughter of the woman whose hand he had held surreptitiously the previous evening. With an effort he steadied himself, only to make the discovery that in that hazy moment the world had undergone a process of readjustment. He knew as well as he was ever to know it, that Annabel Sinclair belonged to another generation from his own.
"I suppose you want to take this along." Persis' gesture indicated the package containing the discarded serge which Diantha would have been glad to contribute to the wardrobe of the youthful Trotters. But with all her daring, her courage was hardly equal to such a step. She put out her hand for the package, but Thad had already pounced upon it.
"I—I'm going your way," he said, a trace of his recent disorder in his stammering speech. "I'll carry it for you."
Silently Diantha accepted the offer. She kissed Persis good-by in a fashion which the critical might have pronounced needlessly provocative, though her dreamy eyes protested that nothing was further from her maiden thoughts than the presence of Thad West. Persis, who was intensely alive to every phase of the dramatic situation, had caught a glimpse of the young fellow's face during the affectionate leave-taking and was abundantly satisfied.
"Thad's no fool, though he's acted like the twin brother to an idiot. He can't help seeing that the mother of a grown-up girl like Diantha hadn't ought to be flirting with a boy like him. If he doesn't see it now he will before he gets her home, or I miss my guess."
Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Sinclair were seated side by side on their front porch, presenting an agreeable picture of domesticity. The reason for Annabel's presence was that the tenor singer of the Unitarian choir was accustomed to pass the house at that hour. Sinclair stayed on simply because he suspected that his wife wished him indoors. He read aloud inane items of village news from the weekly paper, and only the veiled mockery of his eyes betrayed the fact that he was not the most devoted and the most complacent of husbands.
As the two young people came into view, Annabel's air of indifferent listlessness changed to rigid attention. She recognized the gallant figure of the young man considerably before she knew his graceful companion. Her husband's eyes were quicker. His paper dropped from his hand, and his emotions found vent in an explosive and needlessly profane monosyllable.
The two culprits came up the walk, Thad with a fine color, Diantha extraordinarily self-possessed. The girl's eyes rested on her mother's face, then went in swift appeal to her father's. Their consternation was too obvious to be ignored.
"I wore my new dress home," she remarked casually. Then with sudden recklessness: "Do you like it?"
"It's—it's absurd," pronounced Annabel almost with a snarl. So a mother tigress might have corrected her offspring. Never had she seemed less prepossessing to her youthful adorer than at that moment. Anger aged her indescribably. The young man looked at her and dropped his eyes ashamed.
"It's no longer than other girls of sixteen are wearing," said Diantha, and turned to Thad. "Thank you for carrying my bundle." She took the package and vanished. Nothing in her outward composure indicated that her heart was thumping, and girlhood's ready tears burning under her drooping lids.
Persis' device had been eminently successful, entailing consequences, indeed, she was far from anticipating. For Stanley Sinclair had waked to the fact that he was the father of a beautiful girl on the verge of womanhood, and his sense of parental responsibility, long before drugged, manacled and locked into a dark cell, had roused at last and was clamoring to be free from its prison. Annabel, his wife, had recognized a possible rival in her own household. And lastly, Thad West was the prey of an uneasy suspicion that perhaps, after all, the mother of Diantha Sinclair had been making a fool of him.
THE NEW ARRIVAL
Mindful of her promise to Mrs. Trotter, Persis had looked through her piece-bag apparently with excellent results. For the little garments symbolic of humanity's tenderest hopes, the garments that are to clothe the unborn child, were growing rapidly under her skilful fingers.
The first slip had been severely plain, and then Persis, yielding to a temptation most women will understand, began to fashion scraps of embroidery and odds and ends of lace and insertion into tiny yokes and bands. After many a long day's work she sat by the shaded lamp finishing the diminutive garments with stitches worthy of a bridal outfit.
"Who is it that's expecting?" Joel demanded one evening, his sex not proving an impregnable armor against the assaults of curiosity.
The brevity of Persis' answer indicated reluctance to import the desired information. "Mis' Trotter."
"Bartholomew Trotter's wife? And of course she's going to pay you for all this fiddling and folderol."
Persis accepted the implied rebuke meekly. "I guess I'm paying myself in the satisfaction I get out of it. I started in to stitch up some slips on the machine, but I just couldn't stand it. Machine sewing's all right for grown folks, but it does seem that when a little child's getting ready to come into the world, there'd ought to be a needle weaving back and forth, and tender thoughts and hopes weaving along with it. And specially if a baby's going to be born into a home like the Trotters', you can't grudge it a little bit of beauty to start out with."
"Well, I must say it's lucky that so far you women have been kept where you belong. Weaving hopes, indeed! As if 'twould make any difference to that young one of Trotter's whether it was rigged out like a millionaire baby or wrapped up in a horse blanket."
Persis sewed on unmoved. "I don't say the baby'd know the difference. It's just my way of showing respect for the human race."
Her industry was not premature. One Saturday night she carried to the Trotters' squalid home a daintily fashioned, freshly laundered outfit which took Mrs. Trotter's restrained and self-respecting gratitude quite by storm. Forgetting for once the public obligation to provide for the needs of her family present and to come, she accepted the gift in a silence vastly more eloquent than her usual volubility. Then the muscles of her scrawny throat twitched, and a tear splashed down on the soft cambric. Nor did she, during the interview, recover her usual poise sufficiently to refer to the obligation under which Bartholomew and herself were placing the community; and Persis returned home in a mood of even more than her customary tolerance.
That was Saturday night. Early Monday morning little Benny brought word that his mother was sick and wanted Miss Persis to come right away. Joel had not risen, and Persis scrawled a hasty note explaining her abrupt departure and set out for the Trotter establishment, stopping on the way to ask a favor of Susan Fitzgerald.
Susan was finishing her early breakfast, her hair still wound about her crimping pins, the painfully strained and denuded effect which resulted being a necessary preliminary to the rippling luxuriance of the afternoon. Persis stated her errand tersely.
"Susan, they've sent for me from Trotters', and there's no telling when I'll be home. I wish you'd go up to the house, if you've nothing particular on hand and look after Joel. He's the helplessest man ever born when it comes to doing for himself."
In her complex excitement, Susan fluttered like an impaled butterfly. "Oh, dear me! I mean of course I will, Persis. But what do you want me to do?"
"Oh, just get his meals and amuse him till I get back. You can keep Joel pretty cheerful if you'll let him unload all his notions on you. Joel generally finds a good listener good comp'ny."
"And so poor Lizzie Trotter's going through that again," exclaimed Susan, momentarily forgetting her own prospective ordeal, in sympathy for the other woman's severer trial. "I don't want to accuse Divine Providence, but I must say it hardly seems fair to put all the responsibility for getting the children into the world off on women. If 'twas turn and turn about, now, I wouldn't say a word."
"I guess if that was the way of it, there'd never be more'n three in a family, and it took a sight of people to fill up the world, starting with the garden of Eden. Well, I must hurry, Susan. I won't be gone a mite longer'n I can help."
As Susan removed her crimping pins, her agitation grew. The favor Persis had asked so lightly, and she had granted so readily, took on a new aspect as she considered it. Susan shared the respect of Clematis for Joel Dale's intellectuality and stood rather in awe of his foibles. Her hands trembled as she arranged her undulating locks in the fashion ordinarily reserved for afternoons. Her cooking might not suit him. Her efforts to be entertaining might not measure up to his lofty standards. She quaked, picturing his possible displeasure. For this courageous champion of the rights of womankind who did not hesitate to call the Creator Himself to account for seeming injustice, became the meekest of the meek when confronted with the sex from which oppressors are made.
Susan's apprehensions were not so groundless as might be fancied. Joel Dale was in a very bad humor after he had finished reading his sister's note. Joel held the not unpopular theory that the supreme duty of woman is to make some man comfortable. Religion and philanthropy were legitimate diversions if not allowed to interfere with the higher claim. Even the exercise of talent might be tendered a patronizing approval, if this, too, knew its place. Joel was willing that Persis should utilize her gifts in earning his living provided she did not forget the complex ministrations involved in making him "comfortable." He was ready to allow her to help her poorer neighbors, so that she was never absent when he wanted her. But if that jealous divinity, his Comfort, were denied its due, the indulgent brother was lost in the affronted tyrant.
Poor Susan Fitzgerald found her tremors doubled by the sight of his lowering face. "Mr. Dale, I've come up to keep house for you to-day, seeing—seeing Persis has been called away." She blushed, realizing that Joel was undoubtedly in the secret of that errand. After forty years in a world where birth is the one inevitable human experience, aside from death, she had never been able to rid herself of the impression that it was essentially immodest.
Though the cloud of Jovian displeasure did not remove immediately from Joel's brow, his mood underwent an instant change. His sister had not been guilty of leaving him to shift for himself. The opportune appearance of Susan Fitzgerald indicated a proper regard for the masculine helplessness, which is also, by some obscure process of reasoning, the badge of masculine superiority. Moreover Susan's presence furnished the opportunity of setting forth in detail sundry theories which to Persis were an old story. To a gentleman of Joel's temperament, a new audience is at times a necessity.
"You won't have much trouble getting my meals," he assured her, his cold dignity thawing rapidly. "Just set on the dish of apples and nuts."
Susan's near-sighted eyes narrowed as she gazed at him. "You mean for dessert?"
"Dessert! When Adam and Eve started housekeeping do you s'pose they sat down to soup to begin with and wound up with pie? The Lord put 'em in a garden instead of a butcher's shop, because He wanted 'em to eat vegetable food and not poison themselves with dead animals." Joel's voice had grown almost cheerful. His ardor in the dissemination of his dietetic theories waxed and waned, but when there was a new observer to be impressed, he always found the crucifixion of his appetites well worth while. He seated himself at the table with a gesture which seemed to wave into some remote background the temptation of sausages and buckwheat cakes.
"No trouble for me. Just set on the nuts and apples, same as our ancestors ate before they got wiser'n their Creator and learned to cook their victuals. We're the only animals that ain't satisfied with raw food. And we're the only ones that are everlastingly kicking about indigestion."
"I declare!" exclaimed Susan Fitzgerald, carried away by this masterly logic. "You certainly have your own way of looking at subjects, Mr. Dale."
"Well, I'll admit that I'm not much at taking up with second-hand opinions. Now, here's another idea of mine." He held up a walnut between his thumb and finger. "There's a tree in that, ain't there?"
"Why, yes." Susan's ready admission gave every indication of a willingness to be impressed.
"Well, what's enough to give a start to a tree that may grow seventy feet or over, ought to start a man off to his day's work pretty well. That's my way of reasoning."
"But don't you feel an awful goneness after a breakfast like that?"
"Goneness!" Magnificently Joel waved away the suggestion. "With an apple and five or six good nuts inside me, I feel like I could run through a troop, as the psalmist says, and leap over a wall."
Susan's admiring murmur indicated that the sustaining effect of the diet Joel recommended was due less to its intrinsic virtue than to some unusual and dominating quality of Joel's personality. And Joel, struggling with a peculiarly tough Brazil nut, reflected that Susan Fitzgerald was an intelligent woman as well as an agreeable one.
The morning passed pleasantly for both. Susan possessed the gift which men have ever highly esteemed in the sex, the faculty of continued silence, combined with close attention. Some of Joel's theories impressed her as startling, but like many very proper people, Susan rather enjoyed being shocked, if the sensation was not overdone. Whether she murmured approval or blushed in decorous protest, it was plain that she found Joel's monologues immensely interesting. She could hardly believe her ears when the clock struck twelve.
Susan brought the nuts and apples out again after their brief period of retirement, and seated herself at the table, to share the Eden-like repast. "You'd be an awful easy man to cook for, Mr. Dale," she said, with a glance which in another woman would have been coquettish.
But the arrow glanced harmless. Joel's mood was abstracted. Not for some time had he put into practise his theories regarding uncooked food, and his rebellious appetite craved more stimulating fare. He munched his nuts with distracting memories of yesterday's pot roast. He found himself resenting Susan's eager compliance. She should have insisted on preparing him a good meal—good from her standpoint—and as a gentleman he could have done no less than show his appreciation by eating it.
For once Joel had lost interest in his own eloquence. Inward voices were protesting against this return to the fare which had satisfied Father Adam. When he retired to the armchair, after dinner, and relapsed into a sulky silence, Susan remembered that the obligation to amuse him was also nominated in the bond. Luckily his tastes were literary, which rendered her task a simple one.
Susan stepped into the tightly-closed, partially darkened parlor which never in the sultriest weather seemed wholly to lose the chill of its unwarmed winter days. The center of the room was occupied by a square table, on each corner of which lay a book, the four arranged with geometrical nicety. Susan was too familiar with Clematis traditions not to know that the books on the center-table were seldom of a sort one would care to open, but as she lifted the nearest volume and saw that it was a collections of poems, she felt a comforting certainty that luck was with her.
"You're a great admirer of po'try, ain't you, Mr. Dale? I've always understood so."
With an effort Joel roused himself.
"Another has expressed my sentiments, Miss Fitzgerald.
"Verse sweetens toil, however rude the sound.'"
"Then if you'd like, I'll read you a little so's to help pass the time." Susan seated herself near the window, cleared her throat and opening the volume at random, began in the self-conscious and unnatural voice characterizing ninety-nine people out of every hundred who attempt the reading of verse.
"'O there's a heart for every one If every one could find it. Then up and seek, ere youth is gone, Whate'er the task, ne'er mind it. For if you chance to meet at last With that one heart intended—'"
Susan's voice had grown husky. She cleared her throat again. "I'm afraid I made a poor selection," she apologized. "You see I'm not as familiar with po'try as you are, Mr. Dale." She turned the leaves in a confusion that increased as her groping vision stumbled continually on lines startlingly sentimental.
"'Let thy love in kisses rain On my cheeks and eye-lids pale.'"
Susan opened ten pages ahead and tried again.
"'When stars are in the quiet skies, Then most I pine for thee. Bend on me, then, thy tender eyes, As stars look on the sea.'"
Joel's change of position was subtly suggestive of weariness. Susan whirled the leaves and took a desperate plunge.
"'Ask if I love thee? O, smiles can not tell Plainer what tears are now showing too well. Had I not loved thee my sky had been clear; Had I not loved thee, I had not been here.'"
It was plainly impossible for a self-respecting single woman to continue. "Why, they're all silly," she exclaimed, with a little nervous giggle. Her face flamed. What was she to say next, not only to carry out Persis Dale's injunction, but to occupy the blank silence which contradictorily seemed echoing with that fateful refrain, "Had I not loved thee I had not been here."
When in doubt, play trumps. Susan Fitzgerald's chief interest in life was the question of woman's suffrage. And the confusion which had swept her mind bare of small talk, had not jostled her substantial ideas on the familiar theme. She determined to broach the subject delicately and with caution. If Joel cared for discussion, this would occupy a good portion of the afternoon, and be a sufficient antidote for her unfortunate poetical selections. It was even possible that a strong forceful presentation of the case might result in making a convert. Susan thrilled, realizing what such an accession would mean to the cause.
"Mr. Dale," she began, feeling her way to a tactful introduction. "I am sure you must have a pretty good opinion of women. A man with such a sister as you've got couldn't help it."
Her opening was unfortunate. No man is so reluctant to recognize feminine superiority as the one who profits most by the gifts of some woman. Joel's brow clouded, and his answer showed a cautious resolve not to be trapped into any compromising admission.
"Oh, I haven't anything against women folks. I've always thought the poet went too far when he said:
"'Mankind from Adam has been woman's fools. Women from Eve have been the Devil's tools.'"
Despite the negative nature of this encouragement, Susan continued.
"I'm sure a fair-minded man like you are, Mr. Dale, wouldn't want to keep any woman out of what rightfully belonged to her. You'd want her to have a chance to fill her place in the world, wouldn't you?"
"Why, yes, I'd be in favor of that." Joel's voice was less positive than his words, owing to an inward uncertainty as to the trend of these observations.
"Well, Mr. Dale, there's lots of us that are ready to take up our share of the duties the Creator designed for us. We are standing waiting like the people in the parable that nobody had hired. The trouble is you won't let us, you men won't. We've got to wait for you to give us our rights. All our willingness doesn't amount to anything till you are ready."
A sudden harassing suspicion assailed the target of Susan's eloquence, and no sooner had it entered his mind than a dozen details instantly corroborated it. Joel remembered the look which had accompanied Susan's declaration that he would be an easy man to cook for. The love poems had in themselves been equivalent to an avowal of passion even without her tell-tale blushes. And now at last he grasped the underlying meaning of her vague hints and obscure figures of speech. For though she talked of rights and duties and the designs of the Creator, there could be no doubt that she meant a husband.
Joel rose to his feet and his mute tempestuous indignation was not without interest as throwing light on the workings of the masculine mind. In such a design as he attributed to Susan, it would seem that the lady had much to lose and little to gain. She was vigorous, well-preserved, possessed of a competence, while Joel was doubly bankrupt. Yet his mood was far removed from humble gratitude. He was furious at her presumption, alert to defend his threatened prerogatives, angry at Persis for exposing him to such an attack under his own roof where ignominious retreat was his only safety.
"I've just thought of a little matter I've got to look after this afternoon," he said, his manner nicely calculated to repel any tender advances. "I'll have to hurry along, and there won't be any occasion for you to linger. Please hang the key on the nail so Persis can let herself in when she comes."
His sudden hauteur was not lost on Susan. She sighed as he withdrew.
"Funny how real liberal-minded men won't listen to argument when it comes to some questions. But maybe he'll think over what I said and it'll have an influence sooner or later. Anyway, we've got to be prepared to sow beside all waters."
The leather-covered book, whose failure to serve her purpose was indirectly responsible for the broaching of so delicate a question, caught her wandering attention. She picked it up, reading the title aloud.
"Love Songs of Many Lands. No wonder I couldn't find one that was sensible. Well, I declare!"
The book had opened at the fly-leaf. "Persis from Justin," Susan read, bringing her near-sighted eyes close to the faded ink. She pursed her lips and shook her head in disapproving surprise.
"Persis Dale must have known some man pretty well to let him give her anything so pointed. I should have thought she'd have felt awfully embarrassed if she ever read the poems. Justin! Justin! There was a Justin Ware, but I never heard there was anything between them."
She returned the book to the chilly front room, adjusting it to the proper angle on the center-table, as if it had been a part of a geometrical diagram, And finally, after locking the door and hanging the key where Persis, or any other arrival, would immediately notice it, she turned her downcast face toward home.
"I'm afraid I hurt Mr. Dale's feelings. It beats all how sensitive some natures are. It's lucky I didn't get as far as what you would call the real telling arguments."
If Susan Fitzgerald's mood was despondent, as she reviewed the activities of the day, such was not the case with Persis Dale. In the Trotters' shabby cottage, exaltation reigned. Young Doctor Ballard, lean and boyish, looked ready to be congratulated on a good piece of work, though perfectly aware ha could never in this world, at least, collect his fee for medical attendance. Bartholomew's complacent self-importance almost straightened his bowed shoulders and redeemed the weakness of his sagging lips and feeble chin. Lizzie, his wife, spent and pallid, her gaunt temples hollowed and her face chiseled by suffering, smiled contentedly as she lay against her pillow, a creature lifted for the moment above the petty weaknesses, pitiable fruit of life-long and grinding poverty, by the gracious dignity of motherhood. As for Persis, as she carried the new arrival down-stairs to make the acquaintance of his brothers and sisters, her comely face was radiant. Weariness was forgotten. The hours of uncertainty, the long hours when Life and Death matched forces in that old duel renewed with each new existence, had all been forgotten. For a man was born.
The little Trotters gathered around in an ecstasy of pleasure and surprise. In a household where food was scanty, and every new pair of shoes was a serious economic problem, there was no lack of welcome for the newcomer. Chirpy little voices commented on the new brother's surprising pinkness, his diminutive proportions and his belligerent fashion of clenching his fists.
"He's got on the nice clean dress the angels made him," said Winnie, the observant. "See the lace in the sleeves."
"I wish the angels had made him some hair instead," suggested Wilbur, plainly aggrieved. "'Cause he could have worn some of our old clothes, but he can't wear our hair."
"He can have my jack-knife when he gets big enough," declared Benny, the oldest of the flock. He drew the cherished possession from his pocket as if ready to surrender it on the instant. And that offer was a signal for a general outburst of generosity.
"He can have my tooth brush."
"I'll give him my rubber boot. Maybe when he's big enough to wear it, somebody will give him one for the other leg."
"You're going to let the new baby have your high chair, ain't you, Essie?" Thus Winnie prompted the sister now compelled to relinquish the honors and dignities attaching to the post of baby of the family. And Essie, nodding her little tow head, laid a rose-leaf cheek against the crumpled carnation of the newcomer. "Nice litty brudder," she cooed. "Essie loves 'oo."
"My gracious me!" thought Persis Dale, as she tucked the baby into the battered cradle, never long without an occupant, "It's queer that we ain't shaking our heads and groaning over this. The Trotters can't afford a new baby any more than I can afford a steam yacht. There ain't enough of anything to go around, and yet we're all holding up our heads and acting as if this was the best day's work we ever had a hand in. It's no use talking. Down in our hearts we know that life's a good thing, even when we've got to take poverty and hardships along with it. And that's why we start in singing Psalms in spite of ourselves when a new baby comes."
A CONFIDENTIAL CHAT
"I believe," said young Mr. Thompson, "that I've been owing you a little bill for some weeks, Miss Dale. It had completely slipped my mind."
He looked old and worn, Persis thought, more like the man who must settle for the spring finery of a family of grown daughters, than a complacent young husband paying for his wife's first new gown since the wedding. There was a flatness in his voice that matched the weariness in his eyes, and forthwith a dozen questions raced through her alert brain.
"Well, Mr. Thompson, I hope you like the dress. I always tell my customers that I'm as anxious to please their husbands as I am to please them. 'Tain't fair, from my point of view, to ask a man to pay out good money for clothes he just despises."
Evasion is an art possessed in its perfection by few of the sterner sex.
"Mrs. Thompson hasn't worn the dress yet," explained Mrs. Thompson's husband. "I dare say it's very pretty." He had taken a little roll of bills from his pocket, but his absent air showed conclusively that he was thinking neither of them nor of his answer.
Persis lowered her voice confidentially.
"If I was you, Mr. Thompson, I wouldn't encourage her in that way of doing. Maybe it seems like prejudiced advice, coming from a dressmaker, so, but I never could see there was any saving in hanging a dress away in the closet and not getting any wear out of it, till it was clear out of style. You know how it is with young wives. They've got their hearts so set on having their husbands praise 'em for being saving that they make those little mistakes. You just tell her that you'd rather spend a little more money, if it came to that, and see her look her prettiest."
"Mrs. Thompson is not—" began the young husband and broke off uncertainly. His troubled eyes went to the kind resolute face opposite, and the little roll of greenbacks dropped to the floor unheeded. "Fact is," said the young fellow, carried away by that impulse toward confidence which the sight of Persis was likely to inspire in the least communicative, "fact is we're having the deuce of a time."
Persis nodded understandingly. "That ain't strange the first year or so. After the honeymoon's over, then comes the getting acquainted. I don't care how well folks have known each other beforehand, they've got to start all over again after they're married. But don't worry; it don't take long as a rule."
"You don't quite get my idea." Young Mr. Thompson scowled at the floor. "It's worse than you think. I'm in a fix, a devil of a fix. Part of it I'm to blame for. I'm one of those guys with a sense of humor, you know. I'm the regular George Cohan kind, and between my practical jokes and some interfering old maids—I—I beg your pardon."
"I'm not partial to 'em myself," smiled Persis reassuringly.
There was an instant of understanding silence. "Well, anyway," groaned the young man, "with a little outside help, I've queered myself for good. And that's tough on a chap not a year married, believe me."
He stared at the floor gloomily and when he lifted his eyes, she saw the whole story on its way. "You wouldn't call Thompson an unusual name, would you?"
"One of the commonest, I should say."
"And there's nothing so strange about 'W. Thompson' that you'd strain your neck getting another look at it on a sign. Half the men you meet are named William, to say nothing of the Walters and the Warrens, and the new crop of Woodrow Wilsons."
Persis' murmur of agreement was admirably calculated to encourage the flow of confidence, not to check it.
"Look at that." Young Mr. Thompson pulled a letter from his pocket and slammed it down on the table. "There's the proof that I'm a hound and a blackguard and that hanging would be too good for me. At least that's what all the women tell my wife. And take it from me, they know."
Persis picked up the envelope and studied the superscription. It had originally been addressed to Mr. W. Thompson, Hollenden Hotel, Cleveland, Ohio, and later redirected in another hand to the firm by which Mr. Thompson was employed. The unhappy husband explained:
"Our men generally stop at the Hollenden when they are in Cleveland. I never was there in my life. But Hudson, one of our fellows, blew in one night and noticing a letter directed to W. Thompson, he knew, of course, it must be for me. That's just the sort of 'buttinski' that Hudson is. If he'd run across a tombstone with W. Thompson on it, he'd have expressed it to me before he'd eaten his dinner. So he told the clerk he knew me and sent the letter on to the main office. Now, perhaps you'll appreciate the rest of my story better, if you'll read the letter."
Gratified by the permission, for young Mr. Thompson had succeeded in piquing her curiosity, Persis drew the enclosure from the envelope and for an instant studied the monogram at the head of the sheet. When her gaze dropped to the address, her eyebrows lifted.
"Yes, I know," murmured young Mr. Thompson. "'Tommy darling.' Tommy is short for Thompson, I suppose. Tommy-rot, I call it. You might read it aloud if you don't mind. It'll help me to have a realization of what I'm up against."
"Here I am writing you again for all I promised myself that I wouldn't—not ever. It makes me feel so dishonorable when I think of Her. And then, dear, I think of you and everything else is forgotten for a little while.
"That lovely, sad, happy, heart-breaking afternoon together! I've lived on the memory of it ever since. I thought when we said good-by that it was for the last time. I really meant it, dear. But now the thought of never seeing you again is like a great black wall shutting out everything bright and beautiful. I'm not brave enough to bear it.
"Tell me when and where we can see each other, Tommy. I'm not going to think of Her, but only of you and me and the joy of loving and being loved.
"She seems," observed Persis Dale, folding the letter carefully, "to be of a real affectionate disposition." Young Mr. Thompson passed the comment over without remark.
"They gave me the letter at the office. It was pretty near a month after it was written and I judged the two of them had seen each other before that, and one lost letter wouldn't matter. And then it occurred to me that I'd have a little fun with Molly. Get me?"
Persis' look indicated understanding rather than approval.
"You can't think worse than I've said to myself a thousand times. I put the letter in my pocket, and I had it all figured out how she'd find it and ask me about it, and then read it and be angry for about half a minute. And I took it for granted that I was going to be right there to explain and that I'd have the laugh on her before she had the chance to get to feeling real bad. It looked awful funny to me. It's a great thing to have a man-size sense of humor."
Persis was too interested to smile.
"Then the weather got warm and I changed to another suit and forgot to change the letter. I'd laid several little plots to help her to find it, like sending her to my pocket for postage stamps, but she didn't fall to 'em, and finally the letter got to be an old story. I pretty nearly forgot all about it. When she did find it, I was off on a trip and she'd talked the thing over with all the old women in the neighborhood before I got back." He ran his fingers through his hair. "Explain! Well, she thinks it's a mighty slim story, and the deuce of it is that she's right. Any dam fool could make up a better one."
"I b'lieve you could have done better yourself," Persis suggested smoothly, "if you'd been in the story business."
The young fellow looked at her, and a quick flush swept to the roots of his hair.
"That sounds," he began breathlessly, "that sounds as if you took stock in me in spite of the way things look."
"I've lived long enough to know that looks are deceiving whether you're talking about women or just things." Persis studied the address again and compressed her lips. "See that this letter don't get lost, strayed or stolen," she directed, with that instinctive assumption of authority which is the badge of the competent. "We might find it useful in clearing things up."
The young man's ruddy color rose again. "Then you think—" he faltered and broke off.
"I think that when folks act fair and square, their lives ain't going to be ruined by a little mistake. Of course it's going to be cleared up. Careful, Mr. Thompson. You seem to be stepping on a lot of money. And it must belong to you, because I can't afford to carpet my room with greenbacks."
His answering laugh showed the contagion of her optimism. Young Mr. Thompson picked up his money and paid his bill, "I'm going home and coax Molly into putting on that new dress," he declared boyishly. "It's the first dress I ever bought for her, and I'm crazy to see how she looks in it."
Persis approved the suggestion. "But don't be discouraged if she needs a lot of coaxing. It's as natural for women to primp and fuss and fix their hair up pretty ways when they're feeling happy as 'tis for plants to put out leaves in the spring. But heavy hearts are like winter weather. If you want any blossoms in December, you've got to work for 'em." She wrote "received payment" beneath Mr. Thompson's bill and went to the secretary for the change. Young Mr. Thompson pocketed his forty-five cents and detained the hand that tendered it.
"Look here, Miss Dale," he said, "you've braced me up wonderfully. I feel more like a man and less like a feather-bolster than I did when I came in. I wonder if you couldn't—" He hesitated and pressed her fingers persuasively. "Couldn't you manage to drop a hint to Molly about appearances being deceptive, you know."
"I'll say more than that before I'm done with her," Persis promised briskly. And they shook hands over again, and young Mr. Thompson departed with an alert step that argued a corresponding lightness of heart. And because Persis Dale was a woman of action, she sat down at the secretary and penned a letter to a total stranger, to Mr. W. Thompson, care of the Hollenden Hotel, Cleveland. The letter itself was brief and to the point.
"I should like to know if you are expecting word from a young woman named Enid. In case you are, kindly communicate with the undersigned.
Brief as the letter was its composition took some little time. The deftness which characterized Persis in most of her work, did not extend to her epistolary efforts. She was still puckering her forehead over the page when Thomas Hardin knocked. The door was ajar and glancing over her shoulder, she called to him to enter.
"You'll excuse me for not getting up, Thomas. When once I sit down to an ink bottle, I stick to it till I finish. I'm in a hurry to get this letter off to-night." She wrote the address and dried the ink by moving the paper gently back and forth.
Thomas' face showed relief. He had come prepared to make a painful disclosure and the brief period of waiting was as welcome as similar postponement to the possessor of an aching tooth who calls at the dentist's office and finds the practitioner busy. But as Persis immediately proceeded to fold the letter and seal the envelope, his respite was brief.
"Persis, did you know there was insanity in my family?"
Persis, applying a crumpled stamp to the tip of her tongue, started violently. "Good gracious, Thomas, no! I never heard it mentioned."
"I thought maybe 'twas my duty to speak to you about it. It was my great-uncle, Captain Silas Hardin. He was my father's uncle, and he—"
"Why, I know all about him, Thomas. How he was shipwrecked off in the Indian Ocean somewhere and floated around on a raft, and the different ones got crazy with the heat and thirst and all and jumped overboard. And it was an English ship that found the old captain, and he was just raving when they took him aboard. I can remember him when I was a little girl. There was a blue anchor tattooed on his hand, and I thought it was the most wonderful thing in the world. But then he was as sensible as anybody."
"Yes, he was all right in his later days, but when he first came home from England, he had lots of queer ways about him, I've heard my mother say. And as long as he lived, he'd stand off and stare at the corner of the room where there wasn't nothing with his eyes kind of fixed, and it was enough to make your hair rise up to look at him."
"I don't wonder, poor soul. I guess if we'd seen what he had, there'd be times when it would all come back to us. By the way, Thomas, seeing as you go right past the post-office, I'll ask you to mail this letter. I want it to be sure to get off the first mail."
Thomas tacitly accepted the commission by holding out his hand for the letter. Then he read the superscription. "W. Thompson! Why, there's a W. Thompson in Clematis."
"This," replied Persis, and the confidence of her tone would have warmed the heart of young Mr. Thompson, "this is a different one."
Thomas waited to hear more, but no further particulars were vouchsafed. He felt mildly aggrieved. "Didn't know you had acquaintances in Cleveland," he suggested by way of a stimulus to confidence.
"I haven't many." Persis compressed her lips, and Thomas looked again at the envelope. The sense of elation due to the discovery that Persis was disposed to regard the insanity of Captain Silas Hardin lightly, was eclipsed by a new anxiety. Persis had friends of whose existence he was unaware. She corresponded with men in distant cities. These apparently trivial facts took on greater import as he mused. His own chances to win her, dishearteningly small at the best of times in view of his checkered record, suddenly sank below the level of insignificance and ceased to exist.
He looked across at Persis on the other side of the table. She had picked up a piece of sewing, but her look of absorption showed that her trained fingers were doing their work without the supervision of the brain. Nor could he flatter himself that her thoughts were of him. He was a modest man, but for the moment he resented with bitterness the self-evident fact that she was temporarily oblivious to his presence.
He got to his feet, pushing back his chair noisily. "Maybe I'd better be going, so's your letter will be dead sure to get to the post-office on time," he said, his voice harsh with disappointment.
Persis stooped to bite a thread. "Thank you, Thomas," she answered placidly. "I'll be easier in my mind when I know it's mailed."
EVE AND THE APPLE
Joel was aggrieved. For the second time in a month his sister was planning to desert him. Putting the claims of an unborn infant before his comfort, Persis had basely abandoned him to the wiles of Susan Fitzgerald. And now she had agreed, though reluctantly, to do a day's work for Mrs. Hornblower at the latter's home. That thrifty housewife had urged a lame knee as her reason for requesting Persis to depart so radically from her usual custom, and Persis had accepted the excuse with reservations.
"Fact is, Lena Hornblower can never get it into her head that I'm a dressmaker and not a sewing girl," Persis confided to Joel at the breakfast table. "I'm not saying that her knee ain't lame, but I guess if she can stand up to be fitted, she'd be equal to getting in and out of a buggy. Lena Hornblower's always looking for a chance to save a penny. She's got an idea that it's bound to be cheaper to have your sewing done at the house. All I can say," concluded Persis, buttering her toast, "is that she's going to find herself mistaken."
Joel's abstracted gaze indicated a total lack of interest in the subject.
"I've been thinking," he remarked with that suavity of manner as prophetic of a storm as thunder-claps in July, "that I might as well get me a room somewhere in the neighborhood. There's no sense in making a pretense that you're keeping house for me when you're gadding and gadding, here to-day and to-morrow off the Lord knows where. If I had a comfortable room, somewheres," continued Joel, with the noble resignation of conscious martyrdom, "and a little stove so's I could get my meals, then I'd know just what to expect, and I wouldn't have to ask no odds of nobody."
Persis had listened to similar propositions before. It was a perennial threat which in the passing of years had lost its power to terrify. Yet with the inevitable feminine impulse to smooth the feathers of ruffled masculinity, she began, "When I drove by Susan Fitzgerald's yesterday morning—"
Joel set down his coffee cup with an emphasis that splashed the table-cloth.
"That'll do, Persis. I'll tell you once for all that I won't have that woman here. I can go hungry if it comes to that, but I won't stand for your putting that old maid up to set her cap for me."
"Goodness, Joel, Susan hasn't any reason in life to want to marry—anybody." Persis had come very near an uncomplimentary frankness, but her native tact had suddenly asserted itself and made the statement general.
Joel smiled satirically.
"Maybe you know better'n I do about that, and then again, maybe you don't," he replied darkly. Then with a reversion to his air of injury, he added: "Here's Hornblower come for you already."
As a matter of fact, the thrifty Mrs. Hornblower had despatched her husband for Persis at the earliest hour permissible, resolved to prove the economy of her scheme by adding to the activities of the day at both ends. Persis, quite aware of her patron's purpose, smiled comprehendingly and proceeded to clear the table without undue haste or excitement. Mr. Hornblower had waited full thirty minutes before she came lightly down the path and with unruffled serenity bade him good morning.
"Sorry to keep you waiting, but you were half an hour ahead of the time I said."
Robert Hornblower, who had that repressed and submissive air not infrequent in husbands whose wives make a boast of their womanly subjection, mumbled that it didn't matter. As he helped her to her seat, Persis noticed that he had lost flesh since she had seen him last, and that some plow-share, sharper than that of time, had deepened the furrows that criss-crossed his sagging cheeks. "How're the crops coming on?" she asked, as she settled herself beside him.
"Fine!" Mr. Hornblower spoke with a lack of reserve unusual in his pessimistic profession. "Potatoes ain't quite up to last year, but the corn crop's a record breaker."
"Mis' Hornblower's knee trouble her much?"
"Well, no, not to say trouble." Mr. Hornblower plucked his beard with his disengaged hand and cast a thoughtful glance at his companion. "She's a little oneasy in her mind though, Mis' Hornblower is. She's got an idea in her head and it keeps her as oneasy as a flea. If she should open up to you, maybe you'd see your way to say something kind of quieting."
"But what's she got to worry about?"
"That's what I say," said Mr. Hornblower, gesturing with his whip. "We're comf'table and prosperous, ain't we? Maybe there's a way to get more. I don't say there ain't. But what's the use of more, when you've got enough? The house suits me just as 'tis, and my victuals suit me, and my friends that I've summered and wintered with, forty years and over, they suit me, too. What do I want of a villa, or of trips to Europe, where the folks talk all kinds of heathenish gibberish instead of good United States!"
"But I don't see how—"
"Maybe she'll open up to you," repeated Mr. Hornblower, lowering his voice though such a precaution was obviously unnecessary. "Mind I don't say it ain't a pretty scheme. Anyhow, it looks good on paper. But with me the point's just here—enough's enough."
Persis found Mrs. Hornblower more communicative than her spouse. As all roads lead to Rome, so, with Mrs. Hornblower, all topics of conversation led directly to the subject uppermost in her thoughts. The inevitable discussion of the prevailing modes led by a short path to Persis' full enlightenment.
"I want it fixed real tasty, Persis, for all it's not a new dress. I've had it going on four years, but I've been sparing of it and careful, so it's not like a dress you wear for getting supper and for trailing round in the yard after the dew falls. Robert's always been fond of this dress. I s'pose I'm kind of foolish to humor him so, but I'm always careful about consulting his tastes. Seems as if a wife had ought to be satisfied if she dresses in a way that pleases her husband."
"Sometimes I've thought," replied Persis, as she turned the pages of her latest fashion magazine, "that when it comes to women's clothes, men don't know what they do like. If a man goes with his wife to buy a hat, nine times out of ten, he'll pick out the worst-looking thing in the shop, and then he'll wonder why she's falling off in her looks. Now, Mis' Hornblower, what do you think of this pannier style? Taking out the extra fulness from the back and using it in folds, I could hide where it's getting worn on the seams."
"I s'pose we'd have a better choice of styles by waiting for next month's book," said Mrs. Hornblower, regarding the model Persis had indicated with an evident lack of favor. "But my plans are so unsettled that I want to hurry through my dress-making. I dare say you've heard we're likely to leave Clematis 'most any time."
"I'd heard it hinted, but I didn't take much stock in it. Clematis would be sorry to lose you, and it would be pretty hard on you leaving Clematis."
Mrs. Hornblower smiled. "Oh, I haven't a thing against Clematis, Persis. Robert says that of course it doesn't give a man any kind of a chance to make money and I guess he's right. I believe in leaving such things for the men-folks to settle. These new-fangled women who are always setting up to know best and saying what they will do and what they won't do, can't have much of an opinion of the Bible. I'm sure it says as plain as the nose on your face 'wives obey your husbands,' and 'where thou goest I will go.'"
Persis scrutinized the back breadths of the lavender foulard. "But Ruth was talking to her mother-in-law," she objected, off her guard for the instant, since only the death of Mrs. Hornblower senior, had ended the hostilities between herself and her son's wife. Then regretting her tactless words, she hastened to say, "Don't you think that when a man gets to Mr. Hornblower's age, he does better in work he's used to than if he tries his hand at something new? It's easy enough transplanting a sapling, but an old tree's different."
"It all depends," replied Mrs. Hornblower coldly, piqued, as Persis had feared, by her reference to the delicate subject. But her desire to dazzle the plodding dressmaker with visions of her future prosperity, proved too much for her resentment. And soon, as they ripped and basted, Mrs. Hornblower was dilating on the unparalleled opportunity for wealth furnished by the Apple of Eden Investment Company. She quoted freely from its literature and outlined, with more or less detail, the care-free and opulent existence upon which the family of Hornblower would enter when the farm had been sold and the proceeds wisely invested.
"It's a disappointment to me that the whole thing isn't settled and done with by this time. But I always leave Robert to decide such matters, and Robert thought 'twas best to wait till Mr. Ware's visit. Ouch! My goodness gracious, Persis! You must take my arm for a pin-cushion."
This time Persis' contrition was not assumed.
"I'm awfully sorry, Mis' Hornblower. The lining's so thin. I'll have the sleeve off in a shake before it gets spotted."
"That'll have to be bandaged," exclaimed Mrs. Hornblower, surveying her injured arm in the mirror with a not unnatural annoyance. "A little prick is to be expected now and then when you're dress-making, but this was a regular jab. I don't know what ails you, Persis. Looks like your mind must have been running on Thomas Hardin."
Persis' unwonted humility was disarming, and by dinner-time Mrs. Hornblower was sufficiently recovered to be patronizing.
"Of course this foulard is a sort of make-shift, you might say, Persis. It'll do me till I have a chance to get something real up-to-date and dressy in Paris."
Persis, laying down her work as the clock struck twelve, had no reply to make, and Robert Hornblower, whose punctuality at meals was notable, a characteristic shared by all henpecked husbands, entered the house at that moment, casting a quick glance at his wife's face as a sailor watches the sky for signs of a squall.
"We've spent the morning fixing up your favorite gown, so as it'll be pretty near as good as new," Persis informed him, as she accepted a well-filled plate at his hands. Then as the farmer looked a little blank, she directed his attention to the renovated lavender foulard hanging over a chair.
Mr. Hornblower's expression was still vague. "Oh, you mean that pink—"
The women interrupted him with a derisive cry of "Pink!" But while Persis laughed, Mrs. Hornblower flashed upon her husband a look of ineffable scorn.
"As if I'd ever wore pink or ever would, a color for children."
"Them bright colors is all one to me," said the unhappy Mr. Hornblower, proceeding with fatal facility to make a bad matter worse. "They're all too kind of flashy. Now, my mother used to have a dress," he continued, meeting Persis' sympathetic gaze, "that suited me down to the ground. Satin, it was, or maybe 'twas silk or velvet. Anyhow, it looked rich. And it was sort of silvery, and then again, darker'n silver and sort of ripply and shiny—"
"Robert ain't very well posted on names," said Robert's wife with deadly calm. "But he knows what he likes, same as most men, and that lavender foulard has always been his special favorite. His special favorite," she repeated sternly, as she met her husband's wavering eye.
"Oh, the lavender foulard!" exclaimed Mr. Hornblower, with an unsuccessful attempt to give the impression that only at that moment had he discovered what they were talking about. "The lavender foulard, to be sure." He cut himself an enormous slice from the boiled beef and bowed his head over his plate, as if offering thanks for an excuse to retire gracefully from the conversation.
But this did not agree with Mrs. Hornblower's intentions. "Tired, ain't you, Robert?" Her solicitude was so marked as to suggest an ulterior motive.
"I guess this is about as busy a time of year as any," commented Persis.
And Mr. Hornblower, having now reached a point in his struggle with the boiled beef where he could make himself intelligible, began ponderously, "Oh, as far as that goes—"
"Robert realizes that he ain't as young as he was," said Mrs. Hornblower, taking the words from his mouth. "While he's not an old man yet, he feels that he's done his share of work. If there's a good time waiting for him, he means to get to it before he's so old it won't do him any good."
"Sometimes I think," observed Persis sententiously, "that enjoying one's self's a good deal like jam. You spread it on bread and butter, and you can eat a sight of it. But if you set down to a pot of jam and nothing else, it turns your stomach in no time."
The sudden illumination of Mr. Hornblower's heavy features indicated that he had grasped Persis' metaphor. He broke out eagerly. "Now, that's just what I was saying to my wife. If a man—"
"Robert looks at it this way," explained Mrs. Hornblower, deftly cutting in. "He says he couldn't enjoy himself just idling, but he don't look on travel and improving his mind in that light. Robert feels that enlarging your horizon, and getting culture and polish is a part of anybody's duty. Robert feels real strongly on that subject," concluded Mrs. Hornblower, looking hard at her husband, as if defying him to deny it.
The worm made a visible effort to turn. "Whatever you may say about Clematis," said Mr. Hornblower, apparently with the full intention of paying an impassioned tribute to his native town. But again the supports were cut from beneath his feet, and he was left dangling in midair.
"Robert thinks as well of Clematis as anybody," Mrs. Hornblower acknowledged generously. "He's got a real fondness for the town. But as he says, the world's a big place, and it don't stand to reason that all of it that's worth seeing is right under our noses. Robert says that some folks who think they're so dreadful patriotic are nothing in the world but narrow."
For a moment Mr. Hornblower seemed tempted to take up the gauntlet with himself, challenging his own forcibly expressed convictions. And then as if realizing the uselessness of such an attempt, he sighed heavily and sought consolation in the gravy. And Mrs. Hornblower demonstrated the sweeping character of her victory by saying plaintively: "Of course a woman always feels breaking off old associations the way a man can't understand. Robert laughs at me. He says he b'lieves I fairly get attached to a mop I've used and hate to change to a new one. But a woman can't be a good wife, Persis, and think of herself. She's just got to set aside her own feelings and preferences, and look at what's best for her husband."
It was characteristic of Mrs. Hornblower's shrewdness that supper was always late when she had a dressmaker in the house. The fire refused to draw. A scarcity of eggs necessitated a change in her plans for supper, and the new menu invariably demanded more time than that originally decided upon. Persis, left to herself, and thoroughly understanding the purpose back of these various delays and postponements, smiled grimly, yet not without a certain reluctant admiration, and retaliated by sewing more and more slowly. And for the hundredth time that day, her thoughts returned to Mrs. Hornblower's careless reference to a prospective visit. Mr. Ware! Could she have meant Justin? His connection with the apple company made this seem almost certain, and yet it was inconceivable that Lena Hornblower should refer to his coming with such nonchalant certainty when she herself was in the dark. Persis' capable hands dropped to her lap. For the minute she was a girl again, parting from the boy who loved her, lifting her tear-wet face for the comfort of his kisses. Twenty years! Twenty long hard years! And now Justin Ware was really coming home.
She put the question bluntly to Robert Hornblower as he drove her home after dark. "Your wife said something about a Mr. Ware's coming here before long. I used to go to school with somebody of that name, Justin Ware."
The depressed and silent Mr. Hornblower roused himself.
"It's the same one. The Wares never had nothing, but I guess this here Justin has cleaned up a lot of money. Don't follow that everybody could do the same in his place, though. Some folks have the luck, and some have got the pluck, and some have both." He sighed. "Of course you understand, Persis, that Lena wants me to do exactly as I think best. Only—only when a woman gets her heart set on a thing, a man feels like a brute to think of having his own way."
"Yes," Persis said gently, "I understand." And then with more optimism than she felt she added: "Maybe something will happen so she'll look at it different."
Thomas Hardin and Joel were awaiting her in the unsocial silence characteristic of their sex when no feminine incentive to conversational brilliancy is at hand. Thomas' eyes kindled as he said good evening. Joel, after two meals in which he had fended for himself, looked more than ever like an early Christian martyr. "There's a letter come for you," he said with marked coldness.
Persis whirled about, a wild foolish hope in her heart. "A letter? Where?"
"On the mantel, next the clock!" Joel's eyes followed his sister as she crossed the room with that quick light step, so reminiscent of girlhood. She pounced upon the letter and even her brother's eyes, dimmed by life-long self-absorption, could see that her face fell.
"I didn't know you knew anybody in Cleveland."
"Cleveland." In some mysterious manner, Persis' animation had returned. The confirmed meddler has one thing in her favor, that whatever the crisis of her own fortunes, there are always the affairs of other people to distract her thoughts. She dropped into a chair by the lamp and read the brief letter with breathless interest, too absorbed even to apologize.
"Miss Persis Dale,
"Dear Madam—Yours of the 12th inst. received. I am at a loss to understand your very extraordinary inquiry, unless by some chance a letter intended for me has fallen into your hands. In that case I am enclosing stamps to have it forwarded by special delivery. I hardly need remind you that it is a serious offence in the eyes of the law to retain mail which is the property of another person.
"Hollenden Hotel, Cleveland, Ohio."
Joel stared at his sister as she read down the page, her color rising, a curious, triumphant little smile playing about her lips. Thomas glowered at the floor. So this answer to the letter he himself had posted, was responsible for that look on her face.
"I guess I'll have to be going," he exclaimed, getting to his feet with the conviction that he had borne all that was possible for the time being.
Persis glanced up in surprise. "Already, Thomas? Well, give my love to Nellie when you see her." She crossed the room and placed the letter in her writing-desk, that triumphant smile still transforming her face.
It might have brought comfort to Thomas' heart if he had seen her an hour or two later, for the smile had disappeared. She stood before the plush-framed photograph upon the mantel, a strange wistful wonder on her face.
"Oh, Justin," she whispered as she looked. "Oh, Justin, Justin!" She put out her hands as if for all their capable strength they felt the need of a comforting touch. And then the amiable young face smiling back at her, blurred before her wet appealing eyes.
A DAY TO HERSELF
Persis had resolved on a new gown.
The livelier iris which in spring changes on the burnished dove, reveals nature's universal tactics. On looking over her wardrobe after her day at the Hornblower farm, Persis had been appalled by its manifest shortcomings. The black mohair, held to the light, betrayed an unmistakable greenish tinge. The navy blue was long since out of style. As for the wine-colored henrietta, it had never been becoming. The material had been presented Persis by a customer who had unexpectedly gone into mourning, and she had made it up and worn it with much the emotion of an old-time penitent in his hair-cloth shirt. And yet in twenty-four hours the mohair had not become perceptibly greener nor was the blue more strikingly passee. It was Persis herself who had changed.
As she stood before the mirror, fitting her own lining, she defended her course as the wisest women will do, though when judge, jury and advocate are all one, the verdict is a foregone conclusion. She tightened the seam under her arm, used the scissors discreetly here and there, and continued to argue the point, though there was none who had a right to question or to criticize.
"It's bad policy for a dressmaker to go around shabby. It's like a doctor with an invalid wife and sickly children. And anyway, I haven't had anything new for over a year, unless I count that blue chambray wrapper. As little as I spend on clothes, I guess when I do want a new gown it's nobody's business."
The argument was plausible, convincing. Any listener who had been on the point of accusing Persis of extravagance, must have humbly acknowledged his mistake and begged her pardon. But Persis had a harder task than to convince an outsider that she needed an addition to her wardrobe. She was striving, and without success, to alter her own uneasy conviction that the prospective visit of Justin Ware was responsible for her novel and engrossing interest in her personal appearance.
Persis, studying her reflection in the mirror, directed the point of the scissors toward her throat as if deliberating suicide. "I wonder," she mused, "how 'twould look to have it turn away at the neck in a V. 'Tisn't as if I was sixty."
The scissors, obedient to the suggestion, snipped a cautious line directly beneath Persis' chin. The cambric was folded back to give the desired V-effect, and Persis' countenance assumed an expression of complacence altogether justifiable. Then at this most inopportune moment, Joel entered.
"Persis, have you seen my bottle of Rand's Remedy?" Joel had reached the stage, perhaps the most dangerous in his unceasing round, when he was ready to accept implicitly the claims made for every patent panacea. He dosed himself without mercy. He had a different pill for every hour, pills for promoting digestion, for regulating the heart action, for producing flesh. He swallowed weird powders, before and after meals. He took a wine-glass of a sticky unwholesome-looking fluid before retiring. Every periodical that came into the house he scanned for advertisements of proprietary remedies, and his manner sometimes suggested a complete willingness to contract asthma or sciatica in order to have an excuse for testing the cures so glowingly endorsed.
The spectacle of his sister, becomingly arrayed in the lining of the new gown, temporarily eclipsed the claims of Rand's Remedy. Joel came to a jerky halt and stood open-mouthed.
"Dress-goods must be getting expensive." Having convinced himself that his eyes had not deceived him, Joel relieved his feelings by heavy sarcasm. "It's a pity you can't afford cloth enough to cover you. I guess it's true that modesty's getting to be a lost art when a woman of your age will flaunt around—"
The goaded Persis spoke to the point. "Seems to me I remember not so very long back when you were taking a constitutional out on the front lawn without much more'n a bath-towel between you and the public."
"What are you talking about?" Joel reddened angrily. "I'm a man, ain't I?"
"Well, we won't discuss that, seeing it's nothing to do with the case. But I will say that the very men who make the most fuss about women's dressing immodest, wouldn't mind riding through town on a band wagon with nothing on but a pair of tights. And I think they'd be in better business looking after the beams in their own eyes."
"That sort of thing is meant to allure." Joel pointed an accusing finger toward the V-neck. "It's 'stepping o'er the bounds of modesty,' as Shakespeare says, to entice your fellowmen."
"The jaw-bone of that ass that Samson killed a thousand Philistines with," returned Persis severely, "ain't to be compared for deadliness, it seems, with a woman's collar-bone. Looks to me as if 'twas high time to stop calling women the weaker sex when it takes so little to bring about a man's undoing. I've known plenty of foolish women in my time, but the most scatter-brained, silly girl I ever set my eyes on could see any number of men with their collars off and their trousers rolled up and not be any more allured than if she was looking at so many gate-posts. You men have certainly got to be a feeble sex, Joel. The wonder is you don't mind owning up to it."
"'Vanity of vanities,'" taunted Joel from the doorway, "'all is vanity.'" He withdrew hastily, carrying with him the uneasy conviction that he had come off second-best in the encounter. And Persis, her cheeks hot with indignation, cut the V-neck a good eighth of an inch lower than she had intended.
In spite of this inauspicious beginning, she was presently singing over her work. There was something distinctly exhilarating in the idea of devoting a week to her personal needs, keeping her customers waiting, if necessary, though she hardly thought this probable, as the season was still slack. And the elation of her mood reached its climax when Annabel Sinclair sent Diantha down to say that she wished her black net made over, and was in a hurry. Persis had heard nothing from Annabel since Diantha had worn home her first long dress. And though she had reckoned on the probability that the opening of the fall season would bring her irate patron to terms, Persis experienced vast satisfaction in returning a nonchalant reply to the peremptory message.
"Can't do a thing just now, Diantha. Next week, Friday, if your mother hasn't got anybody else—"
"Oh, she won't get anybody else, Miss Persis. Nobody else would suit her."
Diantha looked taller and more mature than ever in a plain, loosely fitting blue serge. Persis appraised it with judicial eye. "Ready made, ain't it, Diantha?"
The girl blushed tempestuously, "Yes, father bought it for me in the city. Mother said— That other dress, you know—"
"Yes, I s'pose your mother thought we'd ought to have consulted her, instead of going ahead. Well, tell her I'm busy for the rest of this week, Diantha, and for next, up till Friday."
If this were a dismissal, Diantha failed to accept it. She perched on the arm of the big chair and watched with fascinated eyes the heavy shears biting their way through a filmy fabric of a delicate gray shade. "How pretty!" Diantha murmured. Then with more animation. "Thad West says you're the best dressmaker anywhere around here. He says that you could make lots of money in the city."
"I'm quite set up by his good opinion—seeing he knows so much about it." That Persis' dry retort veiled sarcasm was far from Diantha's thought. She continued guilelessly.
"He's got such good taste, Thad has. Don't you think men have better taste than women, Miss Persis? All women care about is following the styles, and men think whether the way you do your hair is becoming or not. If a thing isn't pretty, they don't care a bit about its being stylish."
Persis glanced up from her cutting. She had noticed this phenomenon before, the impulse of the girl who feels a proprietary interest in some particular male, to indulge in sweeping generalities concerning the opposite sex. When Persis had schemed to bring about the dramatic encounter between Thad West and the Diantha newly emerged from the chrysalis stage, she had but one end in view; to show the young man the essential absurdity of any sentimental acquaintance between himself and the mother of this blooming maid. With a vague uneasiness she realized the possibility that she had overshot the mark.
"I think Thad dresses beautifully himself," Diantha purred on. "When you're little you can't see but what men's clothes are all alike. Isn't that funny? Now, Thad's neckties—"
There was a heavy step upon the porch, and Persis was spared further harrowing details. "Oh, it's the doctor," Diantha cried, with a sigh for her interrupted confidences. "Is anybody sick?"
"Nobody here," said Persis, and she echoed Diantha's sigh. The doctor's appearance suggested that she might be needed to act as nurse in some household too poor to pay for professional care. For a dozen years the old doctor had called on her freely for such gratuitous service, and his successor had promptly fallen into a similar practise. At this juncture Persis felt a most unchristian reluctance to act the part of ministering angel in any sick room. Nothing adds to a woman's apparent age so rapidly as working by day and caring for the sick at night. Persis had seen herself, on more than one occasion, take on ten years in a week of such double duty. And just now she wanted to appear youthful and pretty, not haggard and worn. She greeted the doctor less cordially than was her wont for the reason that in her heart she knew she must do whatever he asked.
Doctor Ballard shook hands with Persis, nodded casually to Diantha and waited openly for that ingenuous young person to take her departure. As the door closed behind her, he dropped into the armchair she had vacated, crossed his legs and sighed.
"Miss Persis, I'm up a tree. I want some advice."
"You're welcome to all I've got." Persis, regretting the reserve of her greeting, beamed upon him affectionately.
"Did you ever know a woman to die just because she'd decided that was the proper caper?"
"Trouble?" Persis questioned laconically.
"Lord, no! Everything comfortable. Husband who worships her. As far as I can diagnose the case, it's a sort of homesickness for the pearly gates."
"Kind of as if she'd got disgusted with this world," suggested Persis, with one of her flashes of intuition, "and wanted to get some place where things would be more congenial."
"You've hit it to a T. Now, what I want to know is this, can people keep up that kind of nonsense till they die of it? I've got a patient right now who's lost thirty pounds by it. She won't eat. She won't make an effort. She sits around smiling like an angel off on sick-leave, and the same as tells me I can't do anything for her because she's wanted over the river. Husband's about crazy."
"What's her name?"
Professional caution did not seal Doctor Ballard's tips. In many a sick room, by more than one deathbed, he and this keen-eyed woman had come to know each other with a completeness of understanding which even wedlock does not always bring. "It's Nelson Richards' wife," he said without hesitation, nor did he ask her to respect his confidence.
"Yes, I mistrusted it was Charlotte Richards. Goodness has always been Charlotte's specialty, so to speak, the kind of goodness," Persis explained carefully, "that ain't good for anything in particular. And she's lost thirty pounds?"
"I'd stake my professional reputation," said the doctor vehemently, "that nothing ails that woman except that she thinks Heaven would be a better background for her saintliness than earth. The question is whether she can carry it to the point of suicide."
"Of course she can, if she wants to. I've seen it happen more'n once. The thing to do is to give her a reason for wanting to stay on earth—to look after things." Persis stood motionless, the hand holding the shears extended in a fashion suggesting Lady Macbeth. A spark of light illumined her meditative eyes.
"Well?" said the doctor hopefully. He recognized the signs.
"I won't say that I haven't got an idea, but it'll bear thinking about"—Persis' favorite formula. "I'll try to find time to drop in and see Charlotte."
"She doesn't need cheering, you understand," said the doctor. "She's as cheerful as the devil himself. 'A very bad night, doctor, and the palpitation is worse. This morning my Heavenly home seems very near.'" He mimicked Mrs. Richards' sanctimonious tones with a skill which won even from the abstracted Persis the tribute of a smile.
"No, I won't try to cheer her," she promised. "Stirring up, not cheering up, is what Charlotte needs. And I don't say but what I've got an idea. I can't spare any time for a few days, though, Doctor. I need to do some sewing for myself, and I'm going to do it, come what may."
Vain boast. Persis was washing the dishes after the midday meal when Joel entered the kitchen to announce a caller. "It's the Chase girl, Mildred I think her name is. Anyway, it's the oldest one. And I guess she wants a dress made. She's got a bundle under her arm."
Persis thought this unlikely. "Those Chase girls make their own clothes and do pretty well at it, too. I've often wanted to give 'em a few hints about the shoulder seams, but except for that, they look real shipshape. And anyway, I can't do anything for a week yet. I'm going to attend to my own sewing."
Mildred Chase greeted Persis with a smile so radiant as to give a misleading impression of comeliness. She shook hands with the dressmaker, apparently struggling against an impulse to fall on her neck and kiss her. Persis, whose acquaintance with the girl was comparatively slight, viewed those indications of overmastering affection with perplexity.
Mildred did not wait to be questioned. Her volubility suggested that she could not have withheld information if she had tried.
"Oh, Miss Dale; I've got the greatest news to tell you. You'd never guess in the world. I'm going to be married."
"Well, all I can say is, Mildred, that it's not the most surprising news I ever heard," Persis answered kindly. There was something pleasant in the sight of this flushed, happy young creature who only the other day had been a dull heavy-eyed girl and soon would be a dull heavy-eyed wife. It was her little hour, her transient spring-time. Persis choked back a sigh.
Mildred was fumbling at the parcel in her lap. "I've always said one thing, that if ever I got married, Miss Dale was going to make my wedding dress. I can sew well enough for ordinary clothes, but a wedding dress is sort of special. That calls for a regular dressmaker, and there ain't but one dressmaker in Clematis that counts."
"When's the wedding to be?" Persis asked. A sudden sinking of the heart foretold the answer.
"It's a week from Saturday. It's so sudden that I can hardly believe it myself. We didn't think we could be married for a year, anyway, but Jim got a raise unexpected. They're going to send him West, and he's bound I shall go when he does."
The parcel was unwrapped at last, its shimmering white contents contrasting with the girl's shabby dress and work-roughened hands, much as the dreams of the wedding-day contrast with the hard realities that follow. Persis looked, hesitated, thought of the filmy gray, just cut and awaiting basting, thought of the hopes that linked the present with her lost girlhood, and ended as she had always ended, by unselfish surrender.
"It's pretty goods," she said, touching it lightly with the tips of her fingers. "And—and there's nothing I like better to make than wedding clothes, my dear."
Certain important details came up for discussion, interrupted frequently by the outgushing of Mildred's artless confidences, to all of which Persis listened patiently. And when the girl took her departure, the impulse which had manifested itself on her arrival proved too strong to resist. She kissed Persis good-by, and Persis returned the kiss.
The rudimentary beginnings of a new gray gown were bundled together and tucked away to wait their fate, while Persis worked till a late hour on Mildred Chase's wedding dress. But tired as she was, with that undercurrent of depression which sometimes most unjustly is the attendant on generous sacrifice, she found time to write a letter to a gentleman named Thompson, in care of the Hollenden Hotel, Cleveland.
"Mr. W. Thompson:
"Dear Sir—Yours received. Nothing could be further from my wish than to keep anything that belongs to somebody else, but you can understand that I don't feel like sending a young lady's letter to the first man who happens to ask for it, especially as Thompson is not what you would call an unusual name. If the young lady who wrote the letter will drop me a line asking me to forward it to you, I'll be happy to oblige her. She won't even have to write any thing but her first name, unless she likes.
"P. S. If the young lady will tell me your full name, when she writes, it will make you a lot surer to get the letter. W. Thompson is a name that fits lots of people."
This epistolary weight off her conscience, Persis went up-stairs to bed, and for the first time in twenty years, she went without a good night to the photograph in the blue plush frame.
SHOULD AULD ACQUAINTANCE BE FORGOT
Justin Ware arrived in town the day Persis finished Mildred's wedding dress. She heard the news from Joel, who had been at the station when the train came in. This was not a happy accident, nor was it intended as a spontaneous welcome to the returning son of Clematis. Year in and year out, except when the state of his health prevented, Joel kept a standing engagement with the four-twenty train, and few left town or entered it without his knowledge.
"He's filled out considerable, Justin Ware has, but except for that he hasn't changed much. Got a seal ring and silk lining to his overcoat. He ain't what you call a flashy dresser, but he lays it all over the young chaps like Thad West who think they're so swell."
Persis listened without comment. She had worked unusually hard that week, and the tired lines of her face acknowledged as much. She set them at defiance in a peculiarly feminine fashion by dressing that evening in the unbecoming henrietta and doing her hair in the plainest, most severe fashion. At half past seven Thomas Hardin came.
"That Ware feller is going to put up at the Clematis House. He's a big bug all right. Wanted a private setting-room, he did," Thomas chuckled. "Guess he's the sort that can't remember back further than he feels like doing. Old man Ware's private setting-room was a keg o' nails in Sol Peter's store. Nobody else ever thought of taking that particular keg. Stood right back of the stove, I remember. You never caught old man Ware putting on any airs."
"Justin and me was always the best of friends," said Joel, puffing out his thin chest pompously, as if he felt himself vicariously honored by Mr. Ware's tendency to exclusiveness. "We took a shine to each other when we were little shavers. As Addison says:
"'Great souls by instinct to each other turn Demand alliance, and in friendship burn!'
"Yes, sir, it was a real David and Jonathan affair. That's his picture upon the mantel now."
Thomas Hardin turned his head. "'Tis so," he assented. "Hasn't changed such an all-fired lot only now he looks as if he'd cut his wisdom teeth quite a spell back." His gaze wandered to Persis, silently basting the breadths of a gray crepe skirt. "You must have been acquainted with him, too," he said politely, striving to include her in the conversation.
"Yes, I knew him." Persis did not lift her eyes.
"All the family knew Justin," Joel explained. "Him and me being such friends, he was in and out of the house same as if he belonged here. I didn't speak to him to-day, because I never was one to cheapen myself by doing my visiting on a depot platform. We'll have plenty of chances to talk over old times.
"'There is nothing can equal the tender hours When life is first in bloom.'"
It seemed to Persis during the next two days that wherever she turned she heard of Justin Ware. There was no escaping the subject. Without question Justin's business methods were the acme of up-to-date effectiveness. An outbreak of war could hardly have stirred the town to more seething excitement than the advent of this well-dressed young man with his self-confident air and full pocketbook. Clematis was apple-mad. The Apple of Eden Investment Company and its optimistic promises eclipsed in interest the combined fascinations of politics and scandal. The groups in those local lounging-places, which in rural communities are the legitimate successors of the Roman forum, passed over prospective congressional legislation and Annabel Sinclair's latest escapade in favor of apple orchards. The statistics which fell so convincingly from Ware's lips were quoted, derided, defended, denied. The hardest argument the objectors had to encounter was Ware himself. The atmosphere of prosperity surrounding him, his air of familiarity with luxury, could not be offset by logic. The program of the Clematis Woman's Club was fairly swamped by the eagerness of the members to question Mrs. Hornblower as to the possibilities of profit in this form of investment. Persis, who had come to the meeting late, went away early while the discussion was at its height and missed a paper by Gladys Wells entitled, No Knot at the End of the Thread.
Persis Dale was not lacking in self-respect. But for twenty years her self-respect had been identical with her loyalty. She could not fancy the one arrayed against the other. She clung desperately to the hope that Justin would explain. For half her lifetime she had found excuses for his silence, and the habit was too strong to be smothered overnight. But even her prejudiced tenderness recognized the insufficiency of the grounds on which she had exonerated the lover of her girlhood from blame. It was no longer possible to judge his faith by her own, scorning all doubt of him as she would have scorned the grossest of temptations. She could have borne the news of his death without outward evidence of emotion, but this bewilderment and uncertainty taxed her strength almost to the breaking point. Through the days, with the help of her work, she kept herself so well in hand as almost to believe that the victory was lasting. But as the dusk settled down, the old questioning began. Would he come? Could he stay away longer? He had been in town five days without seeing her, six days, seven. Against her will and her judgment, she found herself waiting, listening, hoping. Footsteps echoed outside, lagging feet, reluctant to leave comfort behind, swift feet, hurrying to keep some tryst with joy. She heard them pass and repass while her pulses leaped with a hope she knew to be folly, and then steadied to the old monotonous beat. She grew to hate the face of the tall clock in the corner ticking off the seconds glibly, leering as the time grew late, as if it alone knew her secret and mocked her disappointment. Thomas Hardin, coming in on one or two occasions, had exclaimed at the sight of her colorless face. Ordinarily she knew his step, but now her strained nerves misinterpreted the most familiar sights and sounds.