But on this particular August morning, when an all-day expedition had been planned to Huckleberry Mountain, Joel revolted. Whether he had really been surfeited with picnics, or only feared that he might grow to enjoy such puerile forms of entertainment, and so lose some of the austere dignity which had hitherto distinguished him, it is certain that he came down to breakfast with his mind made up. Even to Celia's coaxing he was adamant.
"You mustn't tease Uncle Joel any more," Persis finally admonished the child. "You don't want him to go if he wouldn't have a good time." And to her brother she added, "You'd better go to the hotel for your dinner, Joel."
"Oh, I can pick up something that'll do me for a dinner," Joel replied with his old keen relish for playing the martyr. And then Celia, dropping her oatmeal spoon, lurched forward in her chair and imprinted a milky kiss upon his coat sleeve.
"I'll get Uncle Joel's dinner," Celia murmured. "I'll take care of him."
"But you're going on the picnic."
"No, Aunt Persis," Celia resumed an upright position with a suddenness that endangered her half-emptied bowl of porridge. "I don't like picnics 'thout Uncle Joel. I'd rather stay with him."
Joel groped for the toast. The plate was directly in front of him, but he could not see it for a blinding rush of tears. Never in his life had he known such sweet elation, never such humility. There is an irresistible flattery in the preference of a child. Except for the love of his dead mother and for his sister's affection, the latter a curious blending of duty and traditional sentiment which would have kept on working automatically whatever he might have done, Joel had never inspired a single unselfish attachment until Celia came into his life. The thing was overwhelming. His hand shook till his fork clattered against his plate. What was he to have won the heart of a child?
In the two hours that elapsed before their departure, he suffered agonies of apprehension that Celia would change her mind. Scraps of cynical comment on the fickleness of her sex, some of them dating back to Virgil and Juvenal, flitted through his memory and stung like gad-flies. After winning such honor, after Celia had elected to remain with him, he felt himself unable to endure the ignominy of having her reconsider. While Mary made the beds, and Persis packed the luncheon in the kitchen, and the children raced about getting in one another's way, and prolonging the preparations they were desirous of hastening, Joel waited in a cold sweat, half realizing the absurdity of his misgiving, but quite at its mercy. He knew that if Celia changed her mind at the last minute and departed with the others, life would not be worth the living.
But the elf-like little creature showed no signs of vacillation. After rendering valuable assistance in getting the others ready, including the feat of breaking a fruit jar containing the lemon juice and sugar, she came and stood at Joel's side, serenely contemplative and content. Even toward Celia Joel had never been demonstrative. But as the picnic party took possession of the machine, and half a dozen hands waved a farewell, he slipped his arm about the child's shoulders and drew her to him. The day was edged with gold. The warm August sunshine seemed to reach the very depths of his heart. He had a confused impression that he had done life an injustice.
"Tell me a story, Uncle Joel," commanded Celia, nestling closer. "Tell me about Miranda and Ariel and that horrid old Caliban." For to reduce Shakespeare to the juvenile comprehension had been one of the tasks imposed on Joel by his new fealty, nor did it seem to him, as once it might have done, a base perversion of the matchless creations of the English tongue that in diluted and modified form, they should interest and entertain a little maid of six.
The morning was a long rapture for the two strange comrades. Joel told stories till Celia tired of a passive role and entertained him with some of those flights of fancy compared with which the most audacious attempts of the adult imagination seem tame and groveling. Then they took a walk, hand in hand, after which Celia discovered that she was hungry and a raid was made upon the pantry. Perhaps nothing so conclusively proved the completeness of Joel's subordination as the overthrow of his dietetic theories. The first course of their meal was bread and molasses and it wound up with honey and ginger snaps.
By this time the sun had taken full possession of the front piazza, and Joel pulled his chair around to the shady north side of the house and sat there in after-dinner tranquillity while Celia played about on the lawn. Joel's eyes followed every movement of the quaint little figure. He remembered with wonder that other people thought Betty the prettier of the two girls. To him that small piquant face with the unruly hair, the straight black brows and the wonderful kindling eyes, embodied all that was beautiful. His selfish middle-aged heart ached under the strain of accommodating this wealth of sweet swelling tenderness.
Celia had wandered across the grass toward the clump of maples which once had shaded the big barn erected in Joel's youth and never rebuilt after the fire. She turned to kiss her hand, and he kissed his back, the first time in a matter of some five and thirty years that his dignity had so unbent. The realization that the act would prove highly diverting to his neighbors caused him to glance anxiously toward the road. But the white ribbon of dust was undisturbed by vehicles, and his mind relieved, he looked again for Celia.
A full half minute he stared incredulously, looking this way and that, wavering between startled apprehension and a conviction of his own folly. For Celia was nowhere to be seen. The grass over which her little feet had twinkled as he turned his head, rippled in the wind and gave no sign. The child had not had time to reach the trees, behind, whose trunks her slight form might easily be concealed. And then as Joel told himself that he was a fool, a faint wailing cry brought him to his feet.
He was running before he had time to formulate his fear. And then a startling memory spurred him to more desperate haste. He recalled the old well by the barn, boarded over years before and later so concealed by the encroachment of grass and weeds that its very existence had been forgotten. But time had taken its toll even from the stubborn oak, and at last it had yielded under a child's light weight. Joel knew it as he ran, but the sight of the splintered irregular opening, across which the clover heads nodded serenely to one another, gave a poignant anguish to his realization. He tore the rotting planks aside, and looked as it seemed, down into unrelieved blackness. Then his sun-dazzled vision adjusted itself to the gloom and he saw the dank, slime-covered stones that formed the sides of the well, and below the black gleam of water and something pink and white, that struggled and went under, and showed again.
"Celia, Celia!" Joel shouted. "Don't be scared. Uncle Joel's coming."
He had been a coward all his life. In his boyhood he had shrunk away from risks which to Persis were exhilarating and delightful. The ill health of twenty years had tended to confirm and increase that native weakness. Yet at this supreme moment no thought of his own danger crossed his mind, The saving of Celia was all.
He kicked off his slippers and gripping the curb for support, lowered himself into the pit. A rush of cold air like a breath from an open grave enveloped him. Finding foothold in the crevices of the green damp stones, digging his fingers into slimy crannies, panting, slipping, bruising his flesh without feeling the hurt, this frail hypochondriac went to the aid of the child who somehow had blundered into his heart.
The water in the well reached Joel's arm-pits as he stood on its bottom and lifted Celia to his shoulder. She clung to him for a little with a suffocating grip, strangling, sobbing, panic-stricken. And as he strove to soothe her, for the first time fear laid its cold hand upon him. He looked up to the circle of blue sky so terrifyingly distant and it seemed incredible that he could ever have made that precipitous descent. Unencumbered he had accomplished the miracle, but he knew he could never climb back to the warm peace of the upper air with Celia in his arms.
The child's sobs were quieting. She was perched upon his shoulder, her arm wound tightly about his neck. Even at the moment when all the tragic possibilities of the event crowded on his mind, he felt the tremor of her rigid little body and thought anxiously that Celia was in danger of taking cold.
With an effort he took a grip upon realities. Gently he loosened the pressure of the child's encircling arms.
"Celia, honey, don't hold Uncle Joel so tight. He's got to get breath enough to holler, so somebody will come and take us out of this."
He had shouted till he was hoarse before he realized his folly. There were no neighbors near enough to hear his cries. The sensible thing was to husband his strength till some vehicle passed and then call lustily. Again he addressed the child.
"Celia, dearie, keep your ears open. When we hear wheels coming, we'll holler for all we're worth."
They listened till they heard upon the road the rhythmic foot-beats of horses, and the rattle of some farmer's wagon rumbling homeward from the village. Then together they screamed for help. But the hoofs went on beating their tattoo till the sound grew faint, and the rattle of the wagon died in the distance. Again and again the sound which told of human nearness woke hope in their hearts only to die in the ensuing silence.
"Uncle Joel," Celia wailed, "I'm co-old." Her sobs echoed uncannily as if the well were filled with the ghosts of weeping children. Again he gazed at the disk of blue sky overhead. He seemed to himself to be viewing it from some indeterminate half-way house between life and death. And yet of the two, the invisible world seemed nearer than the earth roofed over by that placid sky.
As time passed his suffering became acute. The weight of the child on his shoulder was an increasing torture. The cramped arm raised to hold her secure was racked by intolerable pain. The chill of the water was paralyzing. His heart labored. His breath came with difficulty. Celia seemed to be relapsing into an unnatural drowsiness. Her body sagged lifelessly. He found it necessary to stand close to the side of the well, that the wet stones might help to support her weight.
There was only once he prayed, unless his struggle be counted as one long prayer. But when his appeal found words, it was less a petition than a suggestion. "She's so little, Lord, for it to end here, and she's had a hard time so far. The fun's just beginning." It showed no lack of wisdom, perhaps, that his prayer ended there.
His mind must have wandered a little later. It seemed as if his mother were beside him, encouraging him as she had done long before in his boyhood when he had wrestled with a difficult task. And then he was out in the woods with a crowd of his boyhood companions and the wild geese were flying south. Honk! Honk! Honk! "Guess that's why it's so cold," Joel said, addressing the shadowy assembly. "Winter's coming."
The sound of his own voice brought him back to reality. What he had heard was the horn of Persis' car. She had returned. And the love of life woke in him and gave him strength to scream lustily again and again.
As the children scrambled out upon the grass, all talking at once, Persis lifted an authoritative hand. "Hush! I thought I heard some one call."
"I don't hear nothing, Miss Dale," said Mary tranquilly. Persis again enjoined silence. As her gaze swept uneasily over the peaceful, familiar scene, her eyes were arrested by one of the rotting boards which had formed the cover of the unused well.
Joel, wrenching it from its place, had flung it out into the clover. It had not been there that morning, Persis knew.
She ran toward it with a conviction of calamity which only took concrete form when she heard her brother's call issuing from the depths of the earth.
"The well," she cried with self-accusing anguish. "The old well." But when she stood by its edge and sent her voice ringing down into its depth, it was steady and strong.
"I'm going for help, Joel. 'Twon't be much of any time now. Just a little longer."
Mary and the children had never seen the Persis who came running toward them. They shrank back from her stern presence, half afraid.
"Mary, take the children into the house and keep them there. Call up the doctor and tell him to get here as quick as he can. And have that coil of new rope that's in the shed ready for me by the time I'm back."
She had leaped into the machine while she was giving her orders. It described a dizzy circle in the grass, shot down the driveway, and sped screaming along the dusty road. Before the trembling Mary had had more than time to discharge her commissions the car was back with half a dozen strong men, harvesters from the farm just below, crowded into the seats. And when Doctor Ballard turned his sweating horse up the drive half an hour later, Joel and Celia were between hot blankets, and stimulants had already stirred their sluggish blood.
It was eight o'clock before the doctor left. "I've got to see the Packard boy, or I wouldn't go. I'll come back and stay the night through."
Persis nodded. "I'd feel easier to have you in the house. There won't be no need for you to lose your sleep. The spare room's all made up."
Some twenty minutes later Joel roused and spoke. His respiration was hurried and articulation difficult.
She understood the syncopated sentence.
"Celia's doing fine, the doctor thinks. She's got a little temperature, but a child's likely to have fever for any little thing."
He waited some time before putting the next question, rallying his strength for the ordeal of speech.
"Don't s'pose—'twould do for me—to see her?"
Persis looked at him with a curious tightening of the lips, in her eyes an unaccustomed blending of tenderness and pride.
"You shall see her, if you want to, Joel. 'Tain't going to hurt her—to speak of."
From the room across the hall she brought Celia, a chrysalid child, sleeping heavily, closely wrapped in an old plaid shawl, and laid her on Joel's bed. Celia's thatch of black hair fell untidily across the pillow. The fever gave her olive skin an unwonted color. Joel made an ineffectual effort to lift his arm. Then as he desisted, sighing, his sister gently lifted his hand till it touched the hot fingers of the sleeping child.
"They're—such little—things—Persis." His labored breath made speech fragmentary. "It's funny, how—they fill up—all the room in—a man's heart."
"Yes, I know, Joel. But I guess maybe you'd better not talk."
"Makes me think of—what the Good Book says, Persis. 'A little child—'"
He did not finish the quotation. After Persis was sure that he was asleep, she carried Celia back to her bed and renewed her watch. The doctor came in about ten o'clock and stood for a little with his fingers on his patient's pulse.
"You'd better not lose your sleep, Doctor," Persis suggested, glancing at the weary young face. "You go into the spare room and I'll call you if I need you."
"I'm not tired," the doctor answered. "I'd as soon sit here for a while." But he did not meet her eye.
It was an hour later when the struggling breath lengthened into a sigh, deep-drawn and profound, irresistibly suggestive of untold relief. The doctor was at the bedside instantly, but after a moment he laid the limp hand gently down and turned away.
Persis sank upon her knees, putting her hands over her face down which the tears were streaming, those strange illogical tears which are life's tribute to death, however it may come. Yet even while she wept, phrases of thanksgiving sang melodiously through her brain and echoed in her heart. For to this brother of hers it had been given to redeem a life of weakness and failure by a single heroic sacrifice and to die a man.
The winter following Joel's death was unusually severe and to Persis seemed well-nigh endless. Though Celia had escaped the attack of pneumonia anticipated by the doctor, her long hours of exposure, coupled with the shock, had told on the sensitive child, and it was months before she seemed her usual blithe, audacious self. Without question Celia sorely missed her vanished play-fellow, and Persis, who had postponed her entering school for another year, because she did not feel that the child was strong enough for the confinement of the school room, sometimes doubted her own wisdom and was half convinced that the companionship of other children and the distraction of Celia's thoughts would have proved sufficient advantage to counterbalance all drawbacks. The others of Persis' flock with occasional digressions varying in seriousness from chilblains to croup, maintained as satisfactory a health average as the mother of a young family can expect.
After the unprecedented severity of the winter the spring came early, as if nature had repented her harshness and had set herself to make amends. The sparkle came back to Celia's eyes and the lilt to her voice. The children who had been models of deportment while the cold lasted, developed a frisky unruliness, resulting in Malcolm's playing truant and Algie's coming home with a black eye, trophy of his first fight. Persis was too thankful over being able to raise every window in the house and have the sweet spring air flooding in upon her, to take these enormities very much to heart. Indeed, she was almost too busy to deal with the culprits as they deserved.
After two years in which she had hardly touched a needle, except for the children's little garments, Persis was again busy dressmaking. For she had not forgotten her promise to Diantha Sinclair, and Diantha's wedding-day was approaching, simultaneously with her eighteenth birthday. Backed up by Persis, Diantha had declared her intentions and put in a plea for a church wedding. And when her mother stormed and threatened, Diantha made her defiance.
"Oh, very well, mama. Only I'm going to be married in church. And if you won't give me a wedding, Miss Persis will."
In a frenzy Annabel appealed to her husband. Since he felt as keenly as she in the matter of what he called "Miss Dale's unwarrantable interference," their mutual indignation was actually proving a bond between that ill-mated pair. Since Persis had committed the indiscretion of reminding her of her age, Annabel had never spoken to her quondam dressmaker, and even such a crisis as the present could not bring her to the point of submitting to another interview, in which she might hear other truths equally unwelcome. If was her husband who faced the enemy.
Persis listened unperturbed while he stated his grievance. "Mr. Sinclair, if it hadn't been for me that girl of yours would have been married a year ago. It would have been a runaway match if I hadn't coaxed her into giving up and waiting until she could marry with the law to back her up in doing as she pleased. I made Diantha some promises then, and I'm going to keep 'em."
"Your conscience is too tractable, I suppose, to trouble you over setting a young girl like Diantha against her parents."
Persis regarded him with a slow smile, the significance of which Sinclair plainly had no difficulty in understanding. He flushed to the roots of his whitening hair.
"Mr. Sinclair, when a girl's happy at home, I do think it's a pity for her to jump into being a woman at eighteen. More'n one I've coaxed into waiting. But when a girl's disposition is wearing thin through bickering and nagging day in and day out, the sooner she's in a home of her own the better."
"I am glad you are ready to guarantee the success of this affair for which you are so largely responsible," remarked Mr. Sinclair. This was more of a home-thrust than he knew, but Persis did not wince.
"As for guaranteeing that anybody's going to be happy anywhere, Mr. Sinclair, only the Almighty can do that. My idea is that Diantha has a better chance with a young man who loves her than with a mother who is jealous of her and a father who hasn't got the courage to take her part."
"If you're going to fall back on vilification, Miss Dale," remarked the other participant in the dialogue, plainly in a towering rage, "the sooner this interview terminates, the better."
"Well, Mr. Sinclair, I guess you're right about that. Talking things over won't convert either of us. And you understand," continued Persis, following her caller to the door, "that you're not to feel driven to give Diantha a church wedding. Only if you don't, I will."
It was due to Persis' effective championship that Diantha's wedding bade fair to prove what the reporter of the Clematis Weekly News called "A social event of almost metropolitan importance." There were to be bridesmaids and ushers and a best man. Admission to the church was by card, and the ensuing reception at the home of the bride's parents was scheduled to set a new pace for Clematis society. And while Annabel, inwardly raging, struggled to put a bold face on her defeat, Persis was busy with the gown she was resolved to make her masterpiece. The children were not allowed to enter the room where the work was progressing, though they sometimes took awe-stricken peeps through the crack at the mysterious, sheet-draped object suspended from hooks, and in the twilight taking on an aspect distinctly ghostly. It was necessary, too, to carpet the floor of the workroom with sheets when Diantha had a fitting, all of which added enormously to the romance and mystic glamour inevitably connected with a wedding dress. The children, with whom Diantha had always been a prime favorite, instead of rushing tumultuously to meet her, now stood off when she presented herself, and looked her over, as if like the dress in Persis's workroom, she had become enveloped in mystery.
Mingled with the scraps of white satin which littered the floor were scraps of black silk. After the wedding-day had been fixed upon, the mother of the groom swept down upon Persis, wheedling and peremptory by turns.
"Persis Dale, I don't care if you are worth enough to buy and sell me twice over, you've got to make me a dress to wear to my boy's wedding. It's no use for you to shake your head, Persis, I ain't had a waist-line since you went out of business. And when I think how Annabel Sinclair's going to be rigged out, I'm worried for fear Thad will be ashamed of me. They say she's going up the city every week for fittings, just as if she was going to be the bride 'stead of Diantha."
It was clearly reprehensible in Mrs. West after throwing herself on Persis' sympathy and carrying her point, to be late to a fitting. Persis, who planned to clear the cobwebs from her tired brain by an exhilarating spin in her car at four o'clock, had appointed two for Mrs. West to try on the black silk. By quarter past she was fidgety, and as the clock struck the half hour, she waxed indignant.
"Now, Etta West needn't think I'm going to put myself out to make her dress if she can't keep her appointments. Folks that ask favors ought to be particular not to make any more trouble than they can help."
Another ten minutes of waiting quite exhausted Persis' store of patience. She stepped into the kitchen where Mary's sister was helping Mary with the extra work due to Persis' engrossing activities.
"Keep an eye on Celia and the baby, girls. If they say they're hungry try 'em with bread and butter without any sugar. I'll probably be back before the rest get home from school, but if I'm not here, tell 'em not to go away. We'll have a good ride before supper."
The West dwelling had that look of peaceful complacency characteristic of well-ordered establishments in mid-afternoon. Persis entered by the unlocked kitchen door, carrying Mrs. West's skirt over her arm. "Mis' West," she called challengingly, "Mis' West." And then as the silence remained unbroken, she found her irritation evaporating in anxiety. Could anything be wrong? "Mis' West," she called again at the foot of the stairs, and an observer could have argued from her altered voice a corresponding psychological change.
A sound answered her, something between a grunt and a groan, and sufficient to send her scurrying up the stairs with a marked acceleration of the pulse. Her vague foreboding took shape when as she reached the upper hall, she caught sight of a prostrate figure, partially visible through a half-open door. "A stroke!" thought Persis, and the black silk slipping from her arm, dropped in an unheeded heap.
The recumbent figure did not move as Persis flew down the hall, but as she entered the room, the head stirred slightly as if to look in her direction. Persis dropped upon her knees.
"Can you understand me, Etta?" she spoke with terrifying gentleness.
"Don't be a fool, Persis Dale." The vehemence of the rejoinder was startling. "Why shouldn't I understand?"
"Then it's just a fall, is it?"
Mrs. West hesitated before replying. "No," she returned in a tone of marked irritability, "I didn't fall."
"Then what's the matter?"
"I didn't say there was anything the matter, did I?" Mrs. West's ill humor seemed to be gaining on her. "I s'pose if a body wants to lie down for a while—in her own room—after her day's work is done—her neighbors haven't any real call to make a fuss."
The amazed Persis continued in a kneeling position, her bewilderment rendering her incapable of movement.
"You mean that you're lying here—because you like it?"
"On a warm day," said Mrs. West with dignity, "a floor's cooler than a bed and it saves mussing the spread."
Persis studied her thoughtfully. "I can't say you look cool, Mis' West. I guess I never saw you so fire-red as you are at this minute. But if that's your idea of having a good time, why, every one to his taste, as the old woman said when she kissed the cow."
She rose with a dignity that matched Mrs. West's own and moved toward the door. "Maybe you remember that you had an appointment for a fitting at two," she suggested coldly, "I brought your dress over, but of course if you're busy enjoying yourself—"
"Persis Dale," cried Mrs. West, her voice breaking, "I didn't think you had it in you to be so hard-hearted."
Slowly Persis retraced her steps. Her prostrate friend was weeping. Large impressive tears rolled slowly over cheeks whose fiery hue suggested the possibility that each drop might immediately be converted into steam.
"Mis' West," began Persis in a tone of strained patience, "will you please tell me if you've taken leave of your senses or what?"
Mrs. West's tears flowed faster. Hysterical tremors agitated the recumbent mass. "I—I can't get up," she exploded at length, in seemingly reluctant confidence.
"Can't get up? But how did you get down?"
"Persis—I—I was rolling."
"To reduce, Persis. My cousin Aggie said she took off twenty pounds in ten weeks rolling half an hour a day. And I thought it was worth trying."
Persis suddenly averted her face.
"Don't laugh, Persis. It may be funny for a man to be fat, but it's a tragedy for a woman. I've been thinking how Annabel Sinclair will look at that wedding, with a figure like a girl of twenty-one, and it didn't seem as if I could stand two hundred and twenty-six. But if rolling's a cure, I guess I started too late."
"Why can't you get up, Mis' West?" inquired Persis, regarding the prostrate woman with a becomingly serious countenance. "You haven't wrenched yourself, anywhere, have you?"
"Not that I know of, Persis. I didn't hear anything snap. I guess I'm stalled, like a horse. Maybe if I wasn't quite so near the couch I could manage. If Thad or his father get home before I'm up, I'll never hear the last of it."
Realizing that her friend's apprehension was well grounded, Persis brought her strong muscles and resolute will to bear upon the problem. She had lifted many a sick patient too weak to turn upon his pillow, and she knew the trick of making every ounce of energy count. Inspired by her example, Mrs. West put forth all her strength and as a result of their combined efforts she rose with ponderous slowness into a sitting position. The rest was easy. With Persis boosting and panting encouragement, the unhappy exponent of other people's theories regained her feet and tottered to a chair.
"Goodness, gracious, Persis, I'm as limp as a wash-rag. No more rolling for me, not if I get up to three hundred pounds." She looked at her friend appealingly. "Don't ask me to stand up and be fitted, Persis. There's no more starch in my knees than if they were pieces of string."
Persis made haste to disclaim any such intention. "What you want is a fan, Mis' West, and a cup of tea, to quiet your nerves down. You've got to get braced up before Mr. West comes in, or he'll be at you to find out what the trouble is. And when a man gets a little joke like this on his wife, he's bound to make it last the rest of his natural life."
Leaving her friend to compose herself, Persis hurried to the kitchen and brewed the restorative cup of tea she had recommended. As she carried it to her patient the telephone lifted up its voice.
Mrs. West counted the rings. "One, two, three, four. That's Nellie Gibson's call, Persis. I wish you'd listen and see if you can find out if Josephine Newhall has got there yet. Nellie's been talking of that visit all winter."
Persis complied unhesitatingly. In Clematis no kill-joy had arisen to question the propriety of listening to the conversation of the other subscribers to a party line. It was the universal understanding that one of the foremost if not the chief advantage in having a telephone, was the gratification to be derived from overhearing the confidences of one's neighbors. To have denominated this eavesdropping, would have aroused general indignation.
Persis took down the telephone without a qualm and instantly recognized the high-pitched voice of Mrs. Gibson, Thomas Hardin's sister. She was speaking more loudly than is necessary in such conversation and with a seeming lack of amiability.
"Well if you won't come to supper to-night, when will you come? Set a time right now."
"Really I don't know, Nellie." Persis started as the gentle deprecating tones reached her ears. "I'm pretty busy at this season. I guess I hadn't better say—"
"Fiddlesticks and folderol! I know just how busy you are. I guess if Persis Dale hadn't thrown you over like a worn-out shoe, you'd have found time enough to get over to see her every blessed night of the world."
It was clearly the moment for Persis to hang up the receiver. Regrettable as it is to record, she listened with a seeming accession of interest for Thomas' reply. But his only answer was a discreet silence.
"When you talk of being busy," Mrs. Gibson continued witheringly, "I know what's in your mind. You mean you won't come to this house while Josephine is here."
Still silence on the part of Thomas.
"Thomas Hardin," his sister burst out, "why don't you say something? I can stand a man that takes the roof off when he's mad lots better than the kind that shut up like clams. Are you coming to supper this week or not?"
"No, Nellie, I guess not."
"You mean you're not coming near the house while Josephine stays? Be a man. Speak out plain."
"Nellie," said the goaded Thomas, acting on her counsel, "I haven't got a thing against any friend of yours, but I'm tired of your match-making."
"Match-making!" Mrs. Gibson repeated, like most who adopt that most thankless of the professions ready on the instant to repudiate it. "Me!"
"Yes, Nellie, I'm not a suspicious man, but a child in arms could see through your little game. I dare say you mean it kindly, but when a man's not looking for a wife, it's embarrassing to have first one woman and then another thrown at his head."
"I suppose," commented Mrs. Gibson acridly, "you'd rather end up your days a pitiable old bachelor, mooning over the woman who played with you for a dozen years and threw you down at last."
"If she threw me down, 'twas because I deserved it."
"Deserve nothing. You haven't the sense to go in when it rains, Thomas Hardin, and a week-old kitten would beat you for gumption. But for all that, you're a long sight more of a catch than most men."
This impassioned tribute apparently left Thomas dumb. Mrs. Gibson followed up her advantage.
"I suppose you'd rather set in meeting and look at the back of Persis Dale's bonnet than to have a nice wife of your own in the pew beside you."
"Well, since you ask me, Nellie, I would."
"She's made you a laughing-stock. She don't care any more for you—"
"Of course she don't. Why should she? A woman like her."
"Then I wash my hands of you." Mrs. Gibson's voice suggested tears.
"Thank you, Nellie," Thomas returned gratefully, and his sister's receiver slammed into the hook. Thomas followed suit, and last of all, Persis Dale, after assuring herself that she was not likely to hear more, returned the receiver to its place and went to satisfy her friend's curiosity.
"Well?" Mrs. West had emptied her teacup and the soothing effects of the potion showed in her altered voice.
"Yes, Josephine's there," Persis replied to the elliptical inquiry. "But I gathered from something that was let drop that maybe she wouldn't stay long. So if you want a visit with her you'd better not waste any time."
The wedding dress was finished and a success.
"I guess it'll have to be my valedictory," Persis said with ill-concealed elation. "I'm never going to beat that if I dressmake till I'm a hundred." As for Diantha, her ecstasy implied that whatever the risks attached to the matrimonial venture, they were abundantly offset by the privilege of arraying one's self in habiliments of such transcendental charm.
But of the two, the girl's happiness was the least overcast. Diantha did not realize the pathos of her ability to leave her home without a pang. Since tears are only the reverse side of joy, the bride who says farewell to her girlhood dry-eyed is a legitimate object of sympathy. Diantha's unclouded happiness was significant of all that her youth had lacked.
But Persis' satisfaction was superficial. Underneath her stubborn cheer, her genial vivacity, self-reproach was astir. While she listened to the outpourings of Diantha's ardent confidence and laughed over the children's naive inquiries regarding the approaching and stupendous event, she stood a prisoner at the bar of her conscience, summoned to defend herself against the charge of injustice to a friend. And the more she pondered the question, the more advisable it seemed for her to plead guilty and throw herself upon the mercy of the court.
She recalled in extenuation of Thomas's offense that his confession had been strictly voluntary, prompted only by his own sense of honor. He might have retained the confidence and friendship he valued above all else, simply by holding his peace. Moreover his provocation had not been slight. "She looked so like a kitten," he had said of Annabel. Persis knew the look he meant, that inimitable blending of challenge and retreat, shyness and daring so commingled as to be most provocative. Of course he was no match for Annabel, poor honest Thomas.
"It's the good men they make the quickest work of," thought Persis, turning restlessly on an uneasy pillow. "It never would have entered Thomas' head, to think any harm of a married woman. A different kind of man would be on his guard against her and against himself, too. It came on Thomas like a thunder-clap out of a clear sky."
Having reached the point of leniency toward her one-time lover, severity with herself was a natural sequence. "'Tain't as if I was a girl," Persis owned, in sorrowful compunction. "I'd ought to know what men are by this time, and that the best of 'em need to be braced up by some good woman's backbone." She could not escape from the painful conviction that she had failed her friend. He had turned to her for help and her hurt pride had rendered her oblivious to his need.
And pride was still to be reckoned with. Even now when she realized her fault, she shrank from extending the olive branch. Thomas loved her and had always loved her. The episode of Annabel Sinclair had not altered his loyalty by so much as a ripple on the surface. And yet to show by a lifted eyelash or a hand held out that she was ready to let bygones be bygones seemed among the impossibilities. The generations of dumb women whose blood ran in her veins stretched out ghostly hands to hold her back from frankness. That was a woman's lot, to endure silently and leave the initiative to the man.
June came and found her vacillating and uncertain. Mystic fragrances, still whispery nights, dewy mornings, gay with flowers, were flung into the scale. And when Diantha's wedding was but two days off, Persis suddenly capitulated.
"I've always said that folks who'd let their lives go to smash for want of speaking out deserved all they got. And now it looks as if I was that sort of a fool myself. Algie!" Apparently apprehensive that common sense would again yield the field to tradition, she flew: to the window. "Algie!" she shrieked.
The boy came on the run. Something in Persis' voice made him aware that the occasion did not admit of trifling.
"Algie, jump on your wheel and ride down to Mr. Hardin's store. Tell him that if it's convenient I'd like to see him this evening. Quick now."
Algie's obedience was instantaneous. With compressed lips Persis watched his vanishing figure, her color coming and going.
"Well, so far, so good. I guess now I've got up my courage to send for him I can leave the rest to luck."
Thomas came that evening, extremely self-conscious in a new suit, his air of unwonted elegance heightened by a fresh shave and with his shoes polished into almost immodest prominence. The children, in spite of their aggrieved protests, had been sent to bed with the chickens. Mary had been despatched to young Mrs. Thompson's on an errand, and the two had the house to themselves. Thomas waited for Persis to explain her summons. As she rendered him no assistance, he took the responsibility of steering the conversation.
"I looks pretty fine round here, Persis. Shouldn't hardly know the place."
"Well, there have been lots of changes, Thomas, Joel gone and all. Five children in a house change things without anybody to help 'em."
"They're nice-looking children, too. That oldest boy, Algie, takes my eye."
"He'll be better-looking when that cut on his lip heals up. He got hurt in a fight the other day, the second he's had in three months. I wanted to ask you what you thought I'd ought to do when he gets to fighting."
Thomas' heart went down with a thud. So this was why she had sent for him, to consult him regarding the training of the boys. He had not known how her summons had inflated his hopes until this sickening collapse. It was only by an effort that he rallied his thoughts sufficiently to answer.
"Well, I wouldn't worry about that if I was you, Persis. Seems like all young things was taken the same way. Puppies are always squabbling, but 'tisn't that there's any hard feeling. They just want to try their teeth. Seems to me I'd be pretty worried over a boy who never wanted to fight."
Persis listened appreciatively. "Thank you, Thomas. It's a good thing for a woman who's bringing up a pair of boys to get a man's point of view now and then. I'm afraid I've kind of neglected those children this spring. I've been so taken up with Diantha Sinclair's wedding."
"She'll be a mighty pretty bride," observed Thomas, striving manfully to do his part in the conversational see-saw. "She looks a lot like her mother when—" He broke off, overwhelmed by the realization that he had introduced the one topic which should never have been mentioned between Persis and himself. Choking with mortification, turning deeply crimson as all the blood in his body seemed rushing toward his brain, he sat motionless, an unhappy martyr consumed in the fires of his own sensitiveness.
But something had given Persis a clew. She leaned forward, quite forgetful of her recent shrinking.
"Thomas, you remember what you told me about Annabel Sinclair the last time you were here?"
"Lord!" he panted, but her gaze held him mercilessly. "I'm not likely to forget it."
"What I want to know is this. How old was Annabel when—when you kissed her?"
Thomas drew out his handkerchief and mopped his damp forehead.
"Why, I s'pose she was fifteen or sixteen. She wasn't as tall as Diantha is, and I guess she was a few years younger."
Persis did not reply. When he ventured to look in her direction, she was regarding him with strange dilated eyes.
"Thomas, you said she was Stanley Sinclair's wife."
"Well, she is, isn't she? Why, you don't mean—"
He interrupted himself, his look changing. "What kind of a man d'ye think I am, Persis Dale?" he challenged her angrily. "If you've known me all your life and think I'm the sort to be carrying on with other men's wives—well, I guess I'd better be going."
He got to his feet and then sank helplessly into a chair. He had never seen Persis cry before. He had not realized that she could cry. Yet without doubt those were tears upon her cheeks.
But if crying, Persis was smiling, too. His heart fluttered, and performed some extraordinary gymnastic feat, when she held out her hand.
"Thomas, I was in the wrong, I'll own it. I never favored jumping at conclusions and less than ever now. Maybe—maybe if I hadn't thought so much of you, I'd have been slower to think evil."
He did not trouble himself with the feminine lack of logic indicated in her closing words. He had clasped her hand in both of his and was holding it last, as if he never meant to let it go.
"Persis—Persis, you weren't fair to me in that, but I don't lay any claim to being all I'd ought to be. There's no end of things you'd have to forgive. I don't know as I've ever told you about the time Ed Collins and I—"
A movement on the part of Persis' disengaged hand checked his confession.
"Thomas," she protested while she smiled, "if you own up to any more things, I declare I believe I'll have to even up by telling you how old I am. And that's one thing a woman don't like to mention, except, of course, to her husband."
Two days later Diantha Sinclair was married at eight o'clock in the evening. The church was crowded. Wide-eyed girls took in every detail and dreamed of acting the star role on a similar happy occasion. Complacent matrons, in their Sunday best, exchanged voluble comments. The wedding party was a trifle late, and the guests were all early which gave opportunity for soul-satisfying gossip.
"Ain't those flowers lovely! I never saw anything to beat 'em except maybe, at Elder Larkins' funeral. They say Persis Dale went over to the Lakeview florist's in that car of hers and brought back flowers enough to fill a wash tub."
"Mis' West looks real nice in that new black silk. There's nothing like black for toning down a fat woman."
"There's Eddie Ryan in a dress-suit. Wonder if it's his'n or just borrowed. It hangs kind of baggy. Shouldn't wonder if his cousin up to Boston let him take his."
Annabel Sinclair's slight girlish figure was the center of interest until the entrance of the bridal party. She must have guessed how the tongues were wagging but her color did not fluctuate under the ordeal. At last Annabel had come to the point of assisting nature. The carmine had been applied with artistic restraint, and she had never looked lovelier, but her happiness in her beauty had vanished. To retain the admiration which was the breath in her nostrils, she must henceforth resort to artifice, covering up and hiding what would sooner or later be revealed in spite of her. She was not thinking of Diantha as she sat looking straight before her but only of her own hard fate.
"Annabel Sinclair might be the bride herself," remarked one kindly matron on the other side of the church. "Beats all how she keeps her looks."
"Ain't that a handsome dress, though," sighed her companion. "She had it made in the city. But Persis Dale made Diantha's dress, and somebody who saw it, told me it was the handsomest thing she ever clapped her eyes on. Persis Dale sets everything by that girl."
If the occupants of the pews enjoyed the long wait, not so Thad West. Pale and perspiring, he looked more like a patient about to be conveyed to an operating table, than a bridegroom on the threshold of his happiness.
"What do you s'pose is wrong, Scotty?" He clutched the arm of the friend selected to stand by him in this ordeal. "It's way past time."
"Oh, well, girls are always late," returned Scotty with soothing intent. Thad thought wrathfully that it was all very well for him to take that tone. He wasn't going to be married, hang it.
"Ring all right, Scotty?"
"Sure thing." But in spite of the prompt assurance the best man's hand went to his waistcoat pocket and fumbled a long nervous minute while the perspiration trickled down Thad's spine. And then young Scott felt in the other pocket and breathed a sigh of relief. "Here 'tis."
"You want to keep better track of your dates than that," exclaimed Thad angrily. "You'll queer everything if you go feeling around in all your pockets when he's ready for the ring." His voice took on a tone of appeal. "Haven't you got an extra handkerchief, Scotty? If I keep on at this rate, my collar—"
"You just keep quiet and I'll mop you up a bit," returned the obliging Scotty, but his friendly ministrations were interrupted by a blood-curdling whisper from the bridegroom.
"My God, here they come."
There was no doubt about it. The little organ was wheezing out the wedding march as if it meant to be equal to the occasion if this proved its swan-song. The ushers were advancing up the aisle two by two. With drooping heads and measured steps, the bridesmaids followed, and then came Diantha on her father's arm. The little flutter that went over the waiting assembly was chiefly an involuntary tribute to her girlish grace and beauty, though the dress, too, came in for its share.
"Might have been bought in Paris for all anybody could tell," was the assurance passed from lip to lip. Clematis was proud of that wedding dress.
Stanley Sinclair, very straight and handsome as he moved up the aisle, looked down on the bright head near his shoulder and remembered that other girl who twenty years before had come up the church aisle to meet him at the altar. He had learned long before to sneer at his own lost illusions, but singularly enough, never until this moment had it occurred to him to wonder what her dreams might have been that far-away June day. To his discomfiture the query brought a pang, and he had thought himself beyond such weakness. The petrified heart has a certain advantage over that of flesh, though possibly the ache which proves it human is a ground for felicitation.
Ten minutes later Thad was wondering what he had been afraid of. Why, it was nothing. He could hardly believe that a matter so momentous could be disposed of in so few minutes. And yet it was true, and Diantha's little hand was in his, to have and to hold till death did them part.
Diantha's composure throughout the ceremony had suggested that being married was an every-day matter to a person of her wide experience. Her poise and self-possession were the occasion of wondering comment among the many who were hardly able to realize even now that she had really grown up. It was not till the reception, when Persis with Thomas following bashfully in her wake came up lo proffer her good wishes, that Diantha relapsed into youthfulness. She flung her arms about her old friend's neck and kissed her tumultuously.
"Darling Miss Persis, how perfectly lovely you look! Did you get that beautiful dress just for my wedding?"
The composition of Persis' reply apparently took a little time. She did not speak for a minute.
"Yes, I made it for your wedding," she returned at length. "But I used it for my own, too. Thomas and I slipped over to the minister's after supper and got married. So we'll both wish each other joy, my dearie."
It was a shock of course, but Clematis was getting used to that where Persis was concerned. And Mrs. Hornblower voiced the feeling of more than herself when she commented on the affair at the next meeting of the Woman's Club. Persis was not present. She and Thomas had gone on a wedding trip to the seashore, and taken all the children.
"It's a kind of back-handed way of getting a family," said Mrs. Hornblower. "Picking up one child here and another there, and then winding up with a husband. But I must say it'll take a load off my mind to see a man at the head of Persis Dale's pew."
The late October sunshine poured its prodigal gold into the little room of which Annabel Sinclair was the sole occupant, and as its single door and window were both closed, the resulting temperature was suggestive of mid-July. The room itself was plain and bare. The cottage Thad West had purchased the year following his marriage was needlessly spacious for the immediate requirements of the two young people and for that reason, several of the rooms had been left unfurnished or nearly so, until time should justify Thad's foresight. As a rule Annabel had a feline instinct for comfort, selecting the easiest chair and the pleasantest outlook almost unconsciously. To-day her discomfort and the convent-like austerity of her surroundings failed to impress her. She was hardly aware of them.
She was not in her daughter's home of her own volition that October morning. She had yielded as the most self-willed must on occasion to the assumption of her little world that this was the place where she would wish to be. But the first glimpse of Diantha had convinced her that her shrinking recoil had been well-grounded. Diantha, deadly pale and yet with little flickering, unsteady smiles, Diantha, quiet and self-possessed, with nothing but those white cheeks to show how flesh and spirit shrank from the approaching ordeal, was terrifyingly a stranger. But that she was a woman there could be no doubt. And this woman, soon to be a mother, was her child.
The little, bare, remote room seemed a refuge. Annabel closed the door and would have locked it, but the key was missing. She sank into the single chair, her face storm-swept, transformed by her emotion almost beyond recognition. The natural assumption would have been that she was enduring vicariously the suffering of her daughter, bearing for the second time the pangs that had given Diantha life. As a matter of fact, Diantha's pain and peril were remote from her mood. Her mind had room for one thought: "Hast thou found me, O mine enemy!"
As she stared before her, hand gripping hand, her bloodless lips moving inarticulately, she saw the monstrous folly of her self-deception. She had played at youth, listened to the love-making of undeveloped boys whose mother she might have been, and made herself believe that she could cheat Time. And Time, too, had had his fun. For the moment it almost seemed to her that her girlish prettiness had been his merciless concession to add to the spirit of the game, as a cat lets a mouse run with a sense of recovered freedom, only to pounce again.
And now she was to be a grandmother. She made a futile effort to face the thought, to adjust her idea of herself to so astounding a development. But it was like the effort to imagine herself belonging to another race, Ethiopian or Oriental. It was unthinkable. She had a clearly defined conception of grandmothers, persons with a generous waist-line and white hair. Undoubtedly they were useful people in their way, and worthy of regard. But she found it impossible to realize that she herself might belong to their number.
As if recalling some experience far distant, she fell to reviewing the events of the previous evening. Her caller had been a young fellow with a carefully nurtured and on the whole a promising mustache and with a lurid taste in socks. She had enjoyed the call. The boy's crude efforts at veiled sentiment, his languishing glances had been incense to her vanity. But to-morrow! "How is your little grandchild, Mrs. Sinclair?" he would say. Or no! He would not say it. He would not come again. He must realize, as she was doing, the absurdity of their acquaintance. He would laugh at the old woman who had painted her cheeks that she might look a girl and had let him kiss her hand as though granting a priceless favor. Annabel moaned faintly as she writhed. Every one would laugh. Every one must have been laughing for years over her silly pretenses.
She did not know how long a time had elapsed before heavy footsteps creaked down the hall. She shuddered and her body stiffened. The knock was twice repeated before she could utter an audible, "Come in."
Mrs. West pushed the door ajar and started violently as her eyes fell on Annabel. As not infrequently happens with women who preserve an unnaturally youthful appearance, under the stress of deep emotion, Annabel had aged years in an hour. It was a moment before Mrs. West could recover herself.
"I've made us a cup of tea, Mis' Sinclair, and set out a light lunch. We'll both feel better for a bite."
Annabel shook her head. "I don't want—anything." It took an effort to stifle a frenzied appeal to be left to herself.
This was far from Mrs. West's thoughts. She creaked into the little room, her ample proportions making it seem more cramped and small than ever, and patted Annabel's shoulder.
"Oh, come now, Mis' Sinclair, I know just how you feel."—Never was boast vainer.—"But Diantha's going to come through this all right. She's young and she's strong. The doctor says she's got everything in her favor."
Annabel's answer was a vague uncomprehending stare. Then she began to understand. Mrs. West supposed her consumed with anxiety for her daughter's safety, whereas the possibility that Diantha might die had hardly occurred to her. She found herself wondering if she were unlike all other women, an abnormality in her selfishness. In the larger matters Annabel had remained contemptuously indifferent to the opinion of her sex, though she would have found their criticism of her personal appearance disquieting. But now she was conscious of an unaccustomed sense of relief that Mrs. West could not read her thoughts.
"I don't want—anything," she repeated mechanically, and Thad's mother departed with obvious reluctance. In five minutes she was back with a cup of tea which Annabel swallowed in hopes of thus purchasing immunity from further kindly attentions. And Mrs. West, bearing away the empty tea-cup, carried too, a better opinion of Annabel Sinclair than she would have believed possible.
"I never thought she cared anything much for Diantha," she told Persis who had dropped in several times during the day to see how matters were progressing. "But I must say, I did her an injustice. She's been pretty nearly crazy all day. She looks like a ghost."
"Well, she's Diantha's mother when all's said and done," Persis responded. Happiness makes for tolerance. With all her charity for the wrong-doer, Persis had made an exception of Annabel Sinclair. But now the years of fatness, following instead of preceding the lean years, the overflowing fulness of her heart and life had taught her new indulgence. She was capable of believing that there was good in the woman.
The afternoon dragged cruelly. Now and then some faint sound reached Annabel, vaguely suggestive of the battle which must be waged for every new existence, and each time the sagging body of the woman stiffened, and her breath grew hurried. Once Thad passed her window, his young face set and white, and his eyes reddened as if from weeping. Annabel shrank away fearful that his glance might fall on her, but the fixed eyes of the young husband saw only his wife's girlish face as he had seen it last, colorless, quivering, undaunted.
It was not far from four o'clock when the sound of hurrying feet quickened Annabel's lagging pulses. A door shut quickly and then another. Some one was hurrying down the hall; some one who brought news. Annabel found herself on her feet. And then, instinctively she caught at the back of her chair to support herself, for the floor was undulating and the sunny room had grown dark.
Out of the shapeless blur in which her surroundings blended, a face took shape, the face of Mrs. West, wet with tears and radiant with smiles. It was she who had sped so lightly down the long hall as if joy had given wings to her feet.
"It's a boy!" She laughed out the three exultant words and hurried back to some interrupted task. Annabel continued to stand. When at length she released her grip of the chair, her fingers were numb and stiff. The thought crossed her mind that now she was at liberty to go home, since her grandson had come into the world, but the effort seemed beyond her strength. She sank into the chair again, half closing her eyes. The poignant pain of the past hours had changed to an overwhelming listlessness. She was too tired to think any longer, too tired even to suffer.
A brisk knock at the door roused her from her apathy sufficiently for a resentful wish that they would leave her to herself. Then the door opened and Persis entered. Her face wore the look that had impressed Annabel on the face of Mrs. West, that look of supreme satisfaction, blended with a curious, vicarious pride, and with it all, something that told of tears held back. Annabel's eyes went from that radiant look to the shawl-draped bundle in Persis' arms. She put out her hand as if to ward off a danger.
Persis halted, gazing in consternation at the wreck of Annabel. In that shallow face the record of mental anguish was so unmistakable that the other woman felt a pang of self-reproach.
"Here I've been leaving this poor little bundle of nerves to fight this thing through all alone. I'd ought to have known she'd be scaring herself into a conniption." As a reaction from the severity with which she dealt with her own thoughtlessness, Persis' voice, in addressing Annabel was as tender and caressing as if she strove to soothe a troubled child.
"Well, Mis' Sinclair, your worry's over. Diantha came through this fine, and before we know it, she'll be up and about and as lively as a cricket. But it's been a hard day for you same as for the rest of us. The Lord asks a good deal of women, to help Him keep this old world a-going, but He's got His own way of making it up to 'em."
As if to give point to her words, Persis' eyes dropped to the bundle in her arms. She came a step nearer.
"I s'pose, of course, you're glad it's a boy. I don't know why it is, but you just can't help feeling tickled when the first baby's a boy. Nine pounds, too. That's a grandson to be proud of."
"Don't! Don't! I don't want to see it."
Annabel's cry was involuntary, wrung from her by the realization of Persis' purpose. And Persis who had lifted the shawl that concealed the little face, let it fall again and stood staring.
"You don't want—to see the baby?"
The revulsion indicated by Annabel's attitude was a sufficient answer. Persis crossed to the cot-bed and sat down. If there was a person on earth she cordially detested, it was Annabel Sinclair, yet the conviction that this poor counterfeit of a woman was in need of strength and sympathy was sufficient to thrust that old dislike into the background.
"I guess to-day's been pretty trying to your nerves, Mis' Sinclair. But you'll feel better if you take a look at this nice boy. I've seen a good many of 'em first and last, and I told Diantha I'd never set eyes on a finer baby."
A curious distortion of Annabel's face broke off Persis' eulogy. "Are you feeling sick, Mis' Sinclair?" she asked in real alarm, thinking that she would never have given Annabel credit for this excess of material solicitude.
"Sick? Yes, I'm sick of everything. I'm glad that child's a boy. Those people that drown the girl babies like kittens, are in the right of it. No woman ought to live beyond thirty."
"Some of us," remarked Persis, recovering herself with difficulty, "would have missed a good deal at that rate." But her lips curled slightly. She was beginning to understand and to acquit herself of past injustice.
Annabel had reached a point where speech was a necessity. For years, she had returned Persis' dislike with the added venom of a small nature. But at this moment, when an outpouring of confidence seemed essential, she knew there was no one to whom she could speak so freely as to this woman she had hated.
"Life's cruel, cruel! It promises us women everything. And then it cheats us and tricks us and takes away all that it gave, one thing after another. It's like bleeding to death, losing your beauty little by little, fighting your hardest and knowing you've got to be beaten in the end. When I was a child in bed I used to think I heard footsteps coming along the hall, slow and stealthy, and I'd lie there trembling and quaking, afraid to open my eyes. That's the way I've been listening to old age, creeping on me—for the last ten years."
"And if only you'd got your courage up to opening your eyes when you were a little, trembly thing, scared of those footsteps, like enough all you'd have seen beside your bed was your mother smiling down on you."
Annabel looked at the speaker without replying. Her look offered little encouragement for Persis to continue, but she needed no such incentive.
"You talk about life's being cruel. Why, you poor little soul, you don't know what life's like. You've never given it a chance. You haven't played fair."
For years Persis had acknowledged to a desire to give Annabel Sinclair "a good talking to." On various occasions she had uttered truths that had cut like knives. She had the same truths to utter now but the spirit had altered.
"I guess every girl that was ever born liked to have men courting her and ready to fight one another for a kind word from her. That's nature. But it ain't nature to have it last, Mis' Sinclair. And that's where you made your mistake. You wanted to keep right on pretending it was May after it got along to August or so."
Something she saw in the poor harassed face caused her to change her position slightly, so that she could pat the listless hand of Diantha's mother while she spoke.
"Life ain't cruel, you poor soul! It comes along with both hands full. It says to the little girl, 'Come, drop that doll-baby, I've got something better than that. Here's a lover for you.' And then it says to the girl that's picking and choosing among her beaux, 'Drop that flirting, I've got something better for you. Here's a husband and a home!' And so it goes. Instead of getting poorer all the time, we're getting richer."
She looked at Annabel tentatively. She was not altogether sure that her eloquence was having effect. But as Annabel sat in an attitude of expectancy, her face turned toward her monitor, though her eyes were downcast, Persis tried again.
"I don't say Thomas and I haven't missed a lot, I'm not belittling youth and its love and its hopes. But I do say that I wouldn't change this last year of my life for any that might have been. Why, when I wake up in the morning, my head's full of the children, thinking of 'em and planning for 'em and sometimes worrying about 'em. It needs a little tart taste, sometimes, to bring out the sweet. Thomas and I have spent hours, trying to decide whether we'll make a doctor out of Algie, or a civil engineer, and we know both of us, that when the time comes, he'll take the bit in his teeth and do as he likes. Only it's such fun planning it out. When I look back five years or ten, or twenty, for that matter, and see how my life has filled up and widened out, I feel real sorry for that little, young, silly Persis Dale who thought she was so happy and knew so little about it. If life takes with one hand, Mis' Sinclair, it gives with two, only you'll never find it out as long as you grip tight to what you've got."
She looked down on the bundle in her arms, and again her face was irradiated by a vivid tenderness, almost as if she had been mother of the child.
"Now, here's a case in point, Annabel Sinclair. Right here in my arms is a little lump of joy that ought to fill up your cup of happiness so full that it would spill over. Seems to me if this little mite belonged to me, if I knew my blood was in his veins, this town wouldn't be big enough to hold me. I love my five, dear knows, but there's a hurt in thinking that I'm never going to see the Dale stubbornness cropping out or any of the Hardin ways. But you haven't got that little nagging hurt to take off your joy, like a pinch in a pair of new shoes. It's all along of you that this boy's here."
As if dominated by the stronger will, Annabel's eyes turned toward the bundle. And inwardly praying that this was the moment for her coup d'etat, Persis started to her feet.
"I b'lieve that's Thad calling. 'Fraid like as not, that I'm going to kidnap his son and heir. You hold the baby, Mis' Sinclair, till I see what's wanted."
She had tucked the baby into the curve of his grandmother's arm before Annabel could protest, and she left the room without looking back. Annabel, breathing fast, stared down into the little red face against her shoulder. Such a queer little face, wrinkled with the ponderous wisdom of the world it had so lately quitted, placid through ignorance of the new life into which it had entered. She could not turn away her eyes. And this being, newer than the morning paper and yet ancient as man, was flesh of her flesh.
The little, tightly clenched fists attracted her as irresistibly as the face. She surprised herself by poking one tentatively, and when the fingers opened and closed about hers, her lips parted as if to cry out. She had not dreamed that there could be such tenacity in those wee fingers. It was uncanny to be thus gripped by a creature so intensely new. And Persis had said that this was one of Heaven's good gifts, a joy that might brim life's cup over.
The door opened and she raised her eyes. Her husband stood there, gravely intent. She had never looked less beautiful than in her pale disorder, but the pathos of her drooping figure and bewildered face touched him strangely. Or perhaps it was the child in her arms.
"It's holding to my finger, Stanley! See!" Annabel's features twisted in a strange distorted smile. "Our little grandchild."
He moved nearer. For all his efforts, he found it impossible to make his voice altogether matter-of-fact.
"You've had a hard day, I'm sure. You'd better speak to Diantha and then let me take you home."
She rose to her feet unsteadily, holding the child with the peculiar awkwardness of the woman in whom the maternal instinct is lacking. But as she passed on before him, her husband saw that the tiny hand still curled tendril-like about her finger.