"We were just wondering," said one of the girls, "whether anybody here was sport enough to scale that wall in the winter? We've saved that for you, Phil."
Phil lifted her head and scanned the steep slope. She had scaled it often; in fact one of her earliest remembered adventures had been an inglorious tumble into the creek as the reward of her temerity. That was in her sixth year when she had clambered up the cliff a few yards in pursuit of a chipmunk.
"I haven't done that for several moons; but I have done it, children. There wouldn't be any point in doing it, of course, if anybody else had done it—I mean to-day, with ice all over the side."
"You mustn't think of it, Phil," said Mrs. Holton, glancing up anxiously.
"I shan't think of it, Mrs. Holton, unless somebody says it can't be done. I'm not going to take a dare."
"Just for that," said Charles, "I'm going to do it myself."
"Better not tackle it," said one of the college boys, eyeing the cliff critically. "I've done it in summer, and it's hard enough then; but you can see how the ice and snow cover all the footholds. You'd have to do it with ropes the way they climb the Alps."
Holton looked at Phil as she sat huddled in her coat. It was in her eyes that she did not think he would attempt it, and he resented her lack of faith in his courage.
"I don't think," she remarked, helping herself to a sandwich, "that anybody's going to be cruel enough to make me do it."
"If I do it," said Holton, "no one else will ever have to try it again in winter. It will be like discovering the North Pole—there's nothing in it for the second man."
"You're not going to try it! Please don't!" cried Mrs. Holton. "If you got hurt it would spoil the party for everybody."
"Don't worry, Aunt Nellie. It's as easy as walking home."
He was already throwing off his overcoat, measuring the height and choosing a place for his ascent.
Amid a chorus of protests and taunts he began climbing rapidly. Phil rose and watched him with sophisticated eyes as he began mounting. She saw at once that he had chosen the least fortunate place in the whole face of the declivity for an ascent. There were two or three faintly scratched paths, by which the adventurous sometimes struggled to the top, and she had herself experimented with all of them; but Holton had essayed the most precipitous and hazardous point for his attempt.
At the start he sprang agilely up the limestone which for a distance thrust out rough shelves with ladder-like regularity; and when this failed, he caught at the wild tangle of frozen shrubbery and clutched the saplings that had hopefully taken root wherever patches of earth gave the slightest promise of succor. As his difficulties increased a hush fell upon the spectators.
He accomplished half the ascent, and paused to rest, clinging with one hand to a slender maple. He turned and waved his cap, and was greeted with a cheer.
"Better let it go at that!" called one of the young men. "Come on back."
Charles flung down a contemptuous answer and addressed himself to the more difficult task beyond. Particles of ice and frozen earth detached by his upward scramble clattered down noisily. Withered leaves, shaken free from niches where the winds had gathered them, showered fitfully into the valley. He began drawing himself along by shrubs and young trees that covered a long outward curve in the face of the cliff. Those below heard the crackle of frozen twigs, and the swish of released boughs that marked his progress. Phil stood watching him with an absorbed interest in which fear became dominant. Better than the others Phil knew the perils of the cliff, the scant footholds offered by even the least formidable points in the rough surface.
He was rounding the bulging crag with its sparse vegetation when, as he seemed to have cleared it safely, a sapling that he had grasped for a moment yielded, and he tumbled backward.
Those below could see his frantic struggles to check his descent as his body shot downward with lightning-like swiftness. A short clump of bushes caught and held him for an instant, then gave way, and they saw him struggling for another hold. Then a shelf of rock caught him. He lay flat for a moment afraid to move, and those below could not see him. Then he sat up and waved his cap, and shouted that he was safe.
The awe-struck crowd hardly knew what Phil was doing until she had crossed the ice and begun to climb. While Charles was still crashing downward, she had run to a favorable point her quick eyes had marked and was climbing up a well-remembered trail. The snow and ice had increased its hazards, and an ominous crackling and snapping of twigs attended her flight.
"Come back! Come back!" they called to her. Half a dozen young men plunged after her; but already well advanced, she cried to them not to follow.
"Tell him to stay where he is," she called; and was again nimbly creeping upward. There was no way to arrest or help her, and she had clearly set forth with a definite purpose and could not be brought back. Cries of horror marked every sound as her white sweater became the target of anxious eyes.
The white sweater paused, hung for tremulous instants, was lost and discernible again. A frozen clod, loosened as she clutched at the projecting roots of a young beech, ricocheted behind her. Her course, paralleling that taken by Holton, was about ten yards to the left of it. To those below it seemed that her ascent was only doubling the hour's peril. Charles, perched on the rock that had seemingly flung out its arm to save him, was measuring his chances of escape without knowing that Phil was climbing toward him.
As she drew nearer he heard the sounds of her ascent, and peering over saw the sweater dangling like a white ball from the cliff-side.
"Go down, Phil! You can't make it; nobody can do it! Tell the boys to get a rope," he shouted. "Please go back!"
Already messengers had run for assistance, but the little canon in its pocket-like isolation was so shut in that it was a mile to the nearest house.
Along the tiny thread of a trail, transformed by sleet and snow until it was scarcely recognizable, Phil pressed on steadily. Charles, seeing that she would not go back, ceased his entreaties, fearing to confuse or alarm her. Her hands caught strong boughs with certainty; the tiny twigs slapped her face spitefully. Here and there she flung herself flat against the rocky surface and crept guardedly; then she was up dancing from one vantage-point to another, until finally she paused, clinging to a sapling slightly above Holton. When she had got her breath she called an "All right!" that echoed and reechoed through the valley.
"You thought you could do it, didn't you?" she said mockingly; "and now I've had to spoil my clothes to get you off that shelf."
"For God's sake, stay where you are! There's nothing you can do for me. The boys have gone round to bring a rope, and until they come you must stay right there!"
Phil, still panting, laughed derisively.
"You're perfectly ridiculous—pinned to a rock like Prometheus—Simeon on his pillar! But it wouldn't be dignified for you to let the boys haul you up by a rope. You'd never live that down. They'll be years getting a rope; and it would be far from comfortable to sit there all night."
While she chaffed she was measuring distances and calculating chances. The shelf which had caught him was the broader part of a long edge of outcrop. Phil beat among the bushes to determine how much was exposed, but the ledge was too narrow for a foothold.
"Please stop there and don't move!" Holton pleaded. "If you break your neck, I'd never forgive myself, and I'd never be forgiven."
Phil laughed her scorn of his fears and began creeping upward again. The situation appealed to her both by reason of its danger and its humor; there was nothing funnier than the idea of Charlie Holton immured on a rock, waiting to be hauled up from the top of the cliff. She meant to extricate him from his difficulties: she had set herself the task; it was like a dare. Her quick eyes searching the rough slope noted a tree between her and the shelf where Holton clung, watching her and continuing his entreaties not to heed him, but to look out for her own safety. Its roots were well planted in an earthy cleft and its substantial air inspired confidence. It had been off the line of his precipitous descent and he had already tried to reach it; but in the cautious tiptoeing to which his efforts were limited by the slight margin of safety afforded by the rock he could not touch it.
"If I swing down from that tree and reach as far as I can, you ought to be able to catch my hand; and if you can I'll pull, and you can make your feet walk pitty-pat up the side."
Her face, aglow from the climb, hung just above him. She had thrown off her hat when she began the ascent and her hair was in disorder. Her eyes were bright with excitement and fun. It was immensely to her liking—this situation: her blood sang with the joy of it. She addressed him with mocking composure.
"It's so easy it isn't right to take the money."
He protested that it was a foolish risk when he would certainly be rescued in a short time. She, too, must remain where she was until the ropes were brought.
"They never do that way in books," said Phil. "If I'd taken that tumble, some man would have rescued me; and now that you're there, it's only fair that I should pull you off. If I hadn't as good as told you you couldn't, you wouldn't be there. That's the simple philosophy of that. All ready! Here goes!"
Clinging to the tree with her knees to get a better grip she swung herself down as far as possible. The sapling bent, but held stoutly. Holton ceased protesting, held up his arms to catch her if she fell; then as she repeated her "ready," he tiptoed, but barely touched her finger-tips. She drew back slowly to gather strength for another effort. It was the most foolhardy of undertakings. Only the tree, with its questionable hold upon the cliff-side, held her above the gorge. She strained her arms to the utmost; their finger-tips touched and she clasped his hand. There was a tense moment; then her aid making it possible, he dug his feet into the little crevices of the rocky surface and began creeping up.
Once begun there was no letting go. The maple under their combined weight curved like a bow. Phil set her teeth hard; her arms strained until it seemed they would break. Then, as Holton began to aid himself with his free hand, his weight diminished, and in one of these seconds of relief, Phil braced herself for a supreme effort and drew him toward her until he clutched the tree. He dragged himself up, and flung himself down beside her. Neither spoke for several minutes. Those of the party who remained below were now calling wildly to know what had happened.
"Trumpet the tidings that we are safe," said Phil when she had got her breath.
"That was awful; horrible! What did you do it for? It was so absurd—so unnecessary!" he cried, relief and anger mingling in his tone. "The horror of it—I'll never get over it as long as I live."
"Forget it," said Phil. "It was just a lark. But now that it's over, I'll confess that I thought for about half a second—just before you began edging up a little—that I'd have to let go. But don't you ever tell anybody I said so; that's marked confidential."
The note was obviously forced. Her heart still pounded hard and weariness was written plainly in her face. Now that the stress of the half-hour had passed, she was not without regret for what she had done. Her father would not be pleased; her uncle would rebuke her sharply; her aunts would shudder as much at the publicity her wild adventure was sure to bring her as at the hazard itself. She was conscious of the admiration in Holton's eyes; conscious, indeed, of something more than that.
"I want to know that you did that for me: I must think so!" he said hoarsely.
His lips trembled and his hands shook. Her foolhardiness had placed both their lives in jeopardy. It pleased him to think that she had saved his life—whereas in strictest truth she had only added to his peril.
"I didn't do it for you: I did it for fun," she replied shortly; and yet deep down in her heart she did not dislike his words or the intense manner in which he spoke them. Her dallyings with boys of her own age, with only now and then a discreet flirtation with one of the college seniors, comprised her personal experiences of romance.
"You are beautiful—wonderful! Yours is the bravest soul in the world. I loved you the day I first saw you in your father's office. Phil—"
For a moment his hand lay upon hers that was trembling still from its grip of the tree.
"We must climb to the top; the joke will be spoiled if we let them help us," she cried, springing to her feet. "Come! The way will be easier along the old path."
Across the vale some one hallooed to them. Her white sweater was clearly printed against the cliff and a man on the edge of the farther side stood with the light of the declining sun playing round him. The ravine narrowed here and the distance across was not more than a hundred yards.
Phil fluttered her handkerchief.
"It's Fred!" she said. "See! There by the big sycamore."
Fred waved his cap, then dropped his arm to his side and stood, a sentinel-like figure, at the edge of his acres, etched in heroic outline against the winter sky. His trousers were thrust into his boots; the collar of the mackinaw coat he wore at his work was turned up about his throat. He leaned upon an axe with which he had been cutting the coarser brush in the fence corners. The wind ruffled his hair as he stood thus, in the fading light. He had been busy all afternoon and quite unmindful of his aunt's party, to which, for reasons sufficient to that lady, he had not been bidden.
A sense of his rugged simplicity and manliness seemed to be borne to Phil across the ravine. Something in Fred Holton touched her with a kind of pathos—there was in him something of her father's patience, and something of his capacity for suffering. As she looked he swung the axe upon his shoulders and struck off homeward across the fields.
Charles sprang ahead of her and began the remainder of the ascent. It was he who was now impatient.
"We must hurry unless you want the crowd to carry us up."
"Let me go ahead," she answered, ignoring the hand he reached down to her, and eager to finish the undertaking. "There's nothing hard about the rest of it and I know every inch of the path."
A lady stepped from the westbound train at Montgomery just at nightfall on the day before Christmas. The porter of the parlor car pulled down more luggage than travellers usually bring to Montgomery, and its surfaces were plastered with steamship and hotel labels. Amzi Montgomery, who had been lurking in the shadow of the baggage-room for some time, advanced and shook hands hurriedly.
In the electric-lighted shed the lady might have been seen to smile at the brevity and colorlessness of this exchange, or possibly at the haste with which Amzi was crossing the platform to the hack-stand.
"Here are my checks, please, Amzi. Don't be discouraged—there are only six of them!" she said cheerfully; her remarks being punctuated by the thump of her trunks as they were tumbled out of the baggage-car. She stood glancing about with careless interest while Amzi shouted for the transfer man. She trailed her umbrella composedly as she idled about the platform, refreshing herself with deep inhalations of the crisp December air, while Amzi ordered the trunks delivered to his own house.
Her brother's perturbation was in no wise reflected in Mrs. Holton's manner. To all appearances she was at peace with the world, and evidently the world had treated her kindly. Her handsome sables spoke for prosperity, her hat for excellent taste; she was neatly gloved and booted. She gave an impression of smoothness and finish. In her right hand she carried a tiny purse, which she loosened carelessly from time to time, letting it swing by its chain, and catching it again with a graceful gesture.
"The town may have changed," she remarked, when Amzi came back and put her into the dingy carriage, "but the hacks haven't. I recall the faint bouquet of old times. That must be the court-house clock," she continued, peeping from the window. "They were building the new courthouse about the time I left. I miss something; it must be the old familiar jiggle of the streets. Asphalt? Really! I suppose the good citizens have screamed and protested at the improvements, as good citizens always do. It's stuffy in here. If you don't mind, Amzi, we'll have some air."
She gave the strap a jerk and the window dropped with a bang.
"How's your asthma these days? You never speak of yourself in your letters, and when I saw you in Chicago I didn't like your wheeze."
"Thunder! I haven't got the asthma. I'm as fit as a fiddle. Doctors tell me to watch my blood pressure and cut off my toddies. Remember? I used to like 'em pretty well."
"Verily you did!"—and she laughed merrily. "You used to mix a toddy about once a month as near as I can remember. Frightful dissipation! Unless you've changed mightily, you're a model, Amzi; a figure to point young men and maidens to. Whee!" she exclaimed as the hack rattled across the interurban track in Main Street, "behold the lights! Not so different from Paris after all. What did I see there—Hastings's Theater? Didn't that use to be the Grand Opera House? What a fall, my countrymen! That must be where our illustrious brother-in-law holds forth in royal splendor. What's his first name, Amzi?"
"Lawrince," he replied, and she saw him grin broadly as the light from an overhead lamp shone upon them. "That's what Phil calls him."
"Phil's at home, of course?"
This was her first reference to Phil, and she had spoken of her daughter carelessly, casually. Amzi shuffled his feet on the hack floor.
"I guess Phil's back; she's been in Indianapolis. Phil's all right. There's nothing the matter with Phil."
He was so used to declaring Phil's all-rightness to his other sisters that the defensive attitude was second nature. His tone was not lost upon Lois and she replied quickly:—
"Of course, Phil's all right; I just wondered whether she were at home."
"She's with Tom," Amzi added; and as the hack had reached his house he clambered out and bade the driver carry in the bags.
She paused midway of the walk that led in from the street and surveyed the near landscape. This had been her father's house, and there within a stone's throw stood the cottage in which she had begun her married life. The street lights outlined it dimly, and her gaze passed on to the other houses upon the Montgomery acres, in which her sisters lived. These had not been there when she left, and the change they effected interested her, though, it seemed, not deeply.
The door was opened by a white-jacketed Negro.
"This is my sister, Mrs. Holton, Jerry. You can take her things right up to the front room."
"Yes, sah. Good-evenin', ma'am; good-evenin'. Mighty fine weather we're havin'; yes, ma'am, it shore is cole."
He helped her deftly, grinning with the joy of his hospitable race in "company," and pleased with the richness of the coat he was hanging carefully on the old rack in the hall.
"Tell Sarah we'll have supper right away. Want to go to your room now, Lois?"
"Thanks, no; I'm hungry and the thought of food interests me. You don't dress for dinner, do you, Amzi?"
"Thunder, no! I'll put on my slippers and change my collar. Back in a minute."
As he climbed the stairs she gave herself an instant's inspection in the oblong gilt-framed mirror over the drawing-room mantel, touching her hair lightly with her fingers, and then moved through the rooms humming softly. When Amzi came down she met him in the hall.
"Well, old fellow, it's wonderful how you don't change! You're no fatter than you were twenty years ago, but your hair has gone back on you scandalously. Kiss me!"
She put her arm round his neck and when the kiss had been administered, patted his cheeks with her small delicate hands. Supper was announced immediately and she put her arm through his as they walked to the dining-room.
"It's a dear old house, just as it always was; and it's like your sentimental old soul to hang on to it. Sentiment counts, after all, Amzi. Too bad you had to be a banker, when I distinctly remember how you used to drive us all crazy with your flute; and you did spout Byron—you know you did! You ought to travel; there's nothing like it—a sentimental pilgrimage would brighten you up. If I couldn't move around I'd die. But I always was a restless animal. Dear me! If this isn't the same old dinner service father bought when we were youngsters. It's wonderful that you've kept it; but I don't miss a thing. You've even hung on to the old double-barreled pickle thing and the revolving castor."
She tasted her soup with satisfaction.
"I can see that you are not averse to the fleshpots. I dare say your bachelor establishment is a model. Don't the neighbors try to break in and steal the help? As I remember Fanny she always took the easiest way round. Which is Kate's house, the one beyond the next, or the third?"
"The second; she came next. There's nothing in between your old house and Kate's place."
Amzi met his sister's eyes with a scrutiny that expressed mild surprise that she should thus make necessary a reference to her former domicile, and with somewhat less interest than she had taken in the ancestral china. To Amzi her return was a fact of importance, and since receiving her telegram from New York announcing her visit to Montgomery he had been in the air as to its meaning. Jack Holton's appearance only a few weeks earlier still agitated the gossips. He assumed that Lois knew nothing of this, as, indeed, she did not; but there was nothing in his knowledge of his sister to encourage the belief that she would have cared if she had known. His old love for her warmed his heart as he watched her across the table. In the one interview he had had with her after her flight,—an hour's talk in Chicago,—he had not so fully realized as now, in this domestic setting, how gracefully she bore her years and her griefs! It was this that puzzled him. Sorrow was not written in her still youthful face, nor was it published in her fine brown eyes. They were singularly lovely eyes—retaining something of their girlish roguishness. His masculine eye saw no hint of gray in her brown hair. She was astonishingly young, not only in appearance but in manner, and her vivacity—her quick smile, her agreeable murmurous laughter—deepened his sense of her charm. She had not only been his favorite sister in old times; but through all these years he had carried her in his heart. And though his restraint yielded before her good humor he was appalled by the situations—no end of them!—created by her return.
Not a soul knew of her coming. As he reflected that his sisters were even then dining tranquilly in their several domiciles, quite oblivious of the erring Lois's proximity, he inwardly chuckled. They had for years been "poor-Loising" Lois, and Jack Holton's re-appearance had strengthened their belief that she was in straitened circumstances, a pensioner on Amzi; and they deplored any drain upon resources to which they believed themselves or their children after them justly entitled. They would be outraged to learn that the prodigal had reentered by the front door of her father's house, followed by a wagonload of trunks, presumably filled with fine raiment.
Amzi did not know what had brought her back, nor did he care, now that he saw her across his table, enjoying tearlessly her fricassee chicken, and sipping the claret he always produced for a guest. The penitential husks which her sisters would have thought proper in the circumstances were not for Lois. He could not imagine her, no matter how grievously she might sin, as meekly repenting in sackcloth and ashes. He wondered just what she meant to do now that she had come back; he wondered what her sisters and the rest of Montgomery would do! The situation interested him impersonally. It sufficed for the moment that she was there, handsome, cheerful, amusing, for he had been seriously troubled about her of late. He was aware that a lone woman, with her history, and blessed or cursed with her undeniable charm, is beset by perils, and it was a comfort to see her under his roof, with no visible traces of the rust of time.
She smiled into his eyes and lifted her glass.
"To the old house, Amzi!"
He saw her lips quiver and her eyes fill. There was sincere feeling in her voice, but the shadow upon her spirit was a fleeting one.
"I'm going to run up and change my shoes," she said as they left the table, and in a few moments he heard the click of her heels as she came down.
"This is much cozier," she remarked, resting her smart pumps on the fender beside his worn leathern slippers. "Now tell me about the girls; how do they get on?"
He sketched for her briefly the recent history of the family, replying to her constant interruptions with the frankness she demanded. Waterman she remembered; she had never seen Fosdick or Hastings. Amzi's description of Hastings amused her, and she laughed gayly at her brother's account of the former actor's efforts to lift the local dramatic standard.
"So that's what Kate did, is it? Well, I suppose she has had some fun spending her money on him. Alec Waterman was always an absurd person, but from what you say I judge Josie has held on to her money better than the others. Alec never had sense enough to be a big spender."
"Thunder!" Amzi ejaculated. "Josie's broke like the rest of 'em. Alec has a weakness for gold mines. That's cost a heap, and he doesn't earn enough practicing law to pay for the ice in Josie's ice-box. Fosdick lives up in the air—away up, clean out of sight. I figure that as a floorwalker in a department store Hastings would be worth about twelve dollars a week; and Fosdick might succeed as barker for a five-legged calf in a side-show; but Alec's place in the divine economy is something I have never placed, and I defy any man to place it!"
Amzi was enjoying himself. It was with real zest that he hit off his brothers-in-law to this sister, who afforded him an outlet for long-stifled emotions. He had been honestly loyal to the three homekeeping sisters and to their husbands also for that matter; and the fact that he could at last let himself go deepened his sense of the sympathy and the understanding that had always existed between him and Lois. He hated fuss; and his other sisters were tiresomely fussy and maddeningly disingenuous. In half an hour Lois had learned all she cared to know of the family history. She merely dipped into the bin, brought up a handful of wheat, blew away the chaff, eyed the remaining kernels with a sophisticated eye, and tossed them over her shoulder.
"As near as I can make out they're all broke; is that about it?"
"Just about," Amzi replied. "They haven't mortgaged their homes yet, but if Mrs. Bill Holton turns up with a new automobile next spring or gets some specially dazzling rags, I expect to see three nice fresh mortgages on those homes out there."
"Ah! Mrs. William sets the pace, does she? It's a good thing father died before he saw the Montgomerys trying to keep up with the Holtons. William prospers?"
"Judged by Mrs. Bill's doings he does. By the way, Jack has been back here."
Amzi turned to see what effect the mention of Jack Holton would have upon her; but in no wise embarrassed, with only a slight lifting of the brows, she said quickly:—
"I thought it likely. I suppose William ran to meet him—general love-feast and all that?"
They were approaching delicate ground; but it seemed as well to go on and be done with it. He told her, more fully than he had recounted any other incident of the sixteen years, of Phil's party; of the insistence of her sisters upon a reconciliation with the William Holtons, and of Jack's appearance on the threshold. His indignation waxed hot; the enormity of the offense was intensified by the fact that he was describing it to Lois; it seemed even more flagrantly directed against her, now that he thought of it, than to Phil or Phil's father. He rose and stood with his back to the fire as he dilated upon it. Lois frowned once or twice, but at the end she laughed, her light little laugh, saying:—
"And William has got rid of him, of course."
"Oh, they had it out the next day at the bank, but Jack's not far away. He's been in Indianapolis making trouble. He resented being kicked out of the bank—which is about what it came to. And Bill bounced him with reason. He's in trouble. In spite of automobiles and the fine front they put up generally, Bill and the First National are not so all-fired prosperous. Tom's been trying to fix things up for them."
"Tom Kirkwood?" She frowned again at the mention of her first husband, but appeared interested, listening attentively as he described the Sycamore Traction difficulties.
"Samuel always was a bad case. So it's come to this, that Tom is trying to keep William out of jail? It's rather a pretty situation, as you think of it," she murmured. "Just how does Tom get on?"
"Tom didn't get on at all for a long time; but whenever he was pushed into a case he burnt himself up on it. Tom was always that kind of a fellow—if the drums beat hard enough he would put on his war paint and go out and win the fight. There's a dreamy streak in Tom; I guess he never boiled out all the college professor he had in him; but he's to the front now. They think a lot of him over at Indianapolis; he's had a chance to go into one of the best law firms there. He's got brains in his head—and if—"
His jaws shut with a snap, as he remembered that his auditor was a woman who had weighed Tom Kirkwood in the balance and found him wanting. Lois noted his abrupt silence. She had clasped her knees and bent forward, staring musingly into the fire, as he began speaking of Kirkwood. Amzi's cheeks filled with the breath that had nearly voiced that "if."
"If he hadn't married a woman who didn't appreciate him and who wrecked his life for him, there's no telling what he might have done."
She finished his sentence dispassionately, and sat back in her chair; and as he blinked in his fear of wounding her by anything he might say, she took matters in her own hands.
"I was a fool, Amzi. There you have it all tied up in a package and labeled in red ink; and we needn't ever speak of it again. It's on the shelf—the top one, behind the door, as far as I'm concerned. I haven't come back to cry over spilt milk, like a naughty dairymaid who trips and falls on the cellar steps. I ought to; I ought to put on mourning for myself and crawl into Center Church on my knees and ask the Lord's forgiveness before the whole congregation. But I'm not going to do anything of the kind. One reason is that it wouldn't do me any good; and the other is that I'd never get out of the church alive. They'd tear me to pieces! It's this way, Amzi, that if we were all made in the same mould you could work out a philosophy from experience that would apply to everybody; but the trouble is that we're all different. I'm different; it was because I was different that I shook Tom and went off with Jack. Of course, the other man is a worthless cur and loafer; that's where fate flew up and struck at me—a deserved blow. But when I saw that I had made a bad break, I didn't sit down and sob; I merely tried to put a little starch into my self-respect and keep from going clear downhill. Tom's probably forgotten me by this time; he never was much of a hater and I guess that's what made me get tired of him. He always had the other cheek ready, and when I annoyed him he used to take refuge in the Greek poets, who didn't mean anything to me."
She smiled as though the recollection of the Greek poets amused her and ran on in her low, musical voice:—
"When I saw I'd drawn a blank in Jack Holton, it really didn't bother me so much as you might think. Of course, I was worried and humiliated at times; and there were days when I went into the telegraph office and went through the motions of sending for you to come and fish me out of my troubles. I tore up half a dozen of those messages, so you never heard me squeal; and then I began playing my own game in my own way. I hung a smile on the door, so to speak, and did my suffering inside. For ten years Jack never knew anything about me—the real me. For a long time I couldn't quite come to the point of shaking him, and he couldn't shake me,—he couldn't without starving"; and she smiled the ghost of a grim little smile. "I suppose I wasn't exactly in a position to insist on a husband's fidelity, but when he began to be a filthy nuisance I got rid of him. Just before I went abroad this last time I divorced him, and gave him enough to keep him running for a while. My story in a nutshell is this," and she touched her fingers lightly as she epitomized her personal history: "married at eighteen, to a gentleman; a mother at twenty; at twenty-three, ran off with a blackguard; married him in due course to satisfy the convenances. Not forty yet and divorced twice! And here I am, tolerably cheerful and not so much the worse for wear."
She waited for him to say something; but there appeared to be little for Amzi to say.
"I guess we all do the best we can, Lois. You don't have to talk to me about those things. I'm glad you're back; that's all."
He showed his embarrassment, shifting from one foot to the other, and rubbing his hand nervously across his head.
"Amzi, you're the best man in the world, and I didn't come back here to be a nuisance to you. I can sleep here and run off on the early train—I looked it up before I came. But I thought I'd like to see the house—and you in it—once more. It's a big world, and there are plenty of places to go. There's a lot of Europe I haven't seen yet, and I like it over there. I have some good friends in Dresden, and I promised them to come back. So don't feel that I'm on your hands. I'm not! I can clear out in the morning and nobody need know that I've been here."
He walked up to her and laid his hands on her shoulders. He gasped at her suggestion of immediate flight. He had not known how much she meant to him; and oh, she was so like Phil! It was Phil who had danced in his mind while she summarized her life; it was the Phil she did not know—had never known—and for whom, astonishingly, she had not asked beyond her casual inquiry as to the girl's whereabouts. Nothing was clear in his mind save that Lois must see and know Phil.
"I want you to stay, Lois; you've got to stay. And everything's going to be all right."
"Please be square with me, Amzi. This is a small town and a woman can't coolly break all the commandments and then come back and expect to be met with a brass band. You and I understand each other; but you've got to think of the rest of the family; my coming will doubtless outrage our sisters' delicate moral natures—I know that—and there's Tom—it's hardly fair to him to come trailing back. And the town's too small for me to hide in—it was always a gossipy hole."
He clasped her wrists tightly. The working of his face showed his deep feeling. Not often in his life had he been so touched, so moved. Two big tears rolled down his ruddy cheeks.
"You've got to stay because of Phil! I tell you there's nobody to think about but Phil!"
Suddenly she threw her arms about his neck and burst into tears.
"Oh, I couldn't speak of her! You don't understand that it's because of Phil I ought to go! You thought I was heartless about it, but it's not that I don't care. I'm afraid to see Phil! I'm afraid!"
"Don't you worry about Phil," he answered, digging the tears out of his eyes with his knuckles. "Phil's all right," he concluded.
He crossed the hall and when he returned, carrying a bulky photograph album, she had regained her composure, and stood holding her hands to the fire.
"Sit here and look at Phil: I've got all her pictures from the time she was a baby. I guess you remember these first ones."
She sat down by the center table and he turned up the gas in the blue-shaded lamp. She passed the baby pictures quickly, but looked closely at those that showed her daughter at school age. Under each photograph Amzi had written the date, so that as a record the collection was complete. There were half a dozen disclosures of Phil in her M.H.S. sweater. Amzi called attention to these with a chuckle.
"Nearly killed the girls; Phil chasing round town in that thing! And here she's trigged out in her graduating clothes. I guess you'd have been proud of her that night. Her piece was about tramp dogs; funniest thing you ever heard! And here she is—let me see—yes, that was last summer. Those other things are just little snapshots; and here's a group showing Phil with her class. Phil in front—she was the head of her class all right!" he ended proudly.
Whatever emotions may have been aroused by this pictorial review of her child's life, Lois outwardly made no sign. She murmured her pleasure at one and another of the pictures, looked closely at the latest in point of time, sighed and closed the book.
"She looks like me, I suppose. Is she taller?"
"The least bit, maybe; but you're as like as two peas," answered Amzi; and then added, with the diffidence of a man unused to graceful speeches, "I guess you'd almost pass for sisters. By George, Lois, you're a wonder! You ain't a year older!"
"That's no compliment, Amzi! I ought to have changed," she replied soberly. "But there's gray in my hair if you know where to look, and the wrinkles are getting busy."
"The more I think of it, the more remarkable the resemblance gets," he persisted, ignoring her confessions.
"That doesn't make it any easier, Amzi; please don't speak of that again."
She tossed the book on the table, as though dismissing a disagreeable subject.
"Well," she said, "about going?"
"You're not going," he replied with decision. "I won't let you go. I don't know how we're going to work it all out, but it won't be so bad. The girls have got to take it."
She caught a gleam of humor in his eye. The displeasure of his other sisters at her return clearly had no terrors for him. It may have been that she herself shared his pleasure in the thought of their discomfiture. She crossed the hall, wandering aimlessly about, while he waited and wondered. When she returned she said with the brisk manner of one given to quick decisions:—
"I'm going to stay, Amzi. But let us understand now that if I'm a trouble to you, or the rest of them make you uncomfortable, I'll clear out and go to the hotel, or set up a house of my own. So don't be silly about it. I'm a practical person and can take care of myself. I'm not on your hands, you know, financially speaking or any other way."
This was the first time she had touched upon money matters. While she turned the leaves of the album, the clumsy baggage-men had pounded laboriously up the back stairs with her trunks, emphasizing the prosperity of which her visible apparel spoke. He was not without an acute curiosity as to the state of her fortunes. Lois had always been a luxurious person, but she was, unaccountably, the only one of his sisters who had never asked him for money. He had made what they called "advances" to all of them and these had increased as their fortunes dwindled. There was something bafflingly mysterious here. It was a fair assumption that Jack Holton had spent Lois's money long ago, and the fact that she had floated home with her flags flying and had just announced her ability to set up an establishment for herself was disquieting rather than reassuring. He was ashamed of his fears, but it was against reason that she should have escaped the clutches of a worthless blackguard like Jack Holton with any of her patrimony.
Now that she had announced her determination to remain her spirits rose buoyantly. The thought of meeting Phil had shaken her; and yet that had been but a moment's fleeting shadow, as from a stray cloud wandering across a summer sky. When she referred to Phil again, it was with a detachment at which he marveled. If he had not loved her so deeply and if his happiness at her return had been less complete, he should have thought her heartless. She had called herself "different"; and she was, indeed, different in ways that defied his poor powers of analysis. She was a mystifying creature. Her assurance, her indifference toward the world in general, the cool fashion in which she had touched off on her pretty fingers the chief incidents of her life did not stagger him so much as they fascinated him. She was of his own blood, and yet it was almost another language that she spoke.
She had brought down a box of bon-bons which she now remembered and urged him to try, moving fitfully about the room and poking at the box from time to time absently, while he volunteered information touching old friends. Her interest in local history was apparently the slightest: he might have been talking of the Gauls in the time of Caesar for all the interest she manifested in her contemporaries and their fortunes. He finally mentioned with dogged daring the Bartletts whom she had known well; they had been exceedingly kind to Phil, he said. Her manner was so provokingly indifferent that he was at the point of bringing Kirkwood into the picture in a last effort to shatter her unconcern. She bit a bon-bon in two, made a grimace of dissatisfaction, and tossed the remaining half into the fire.
"Oh, the Bartlett girls! Let me see, which was the musical one—Rose or Nan?"
"Rose. Nan's literary. They're fine women, and they've been a mighty big help to Phil," he persisted.
"Very nice of them, I'm sure," she said, yawning.
The yawn reminded her that she was sleepy, and without prelude she kissed him, asked the breakfast hour, and went up to bed.
He followed to make sure that she had what she needed, surveyed the trunks that loomed in the hall like a mountain range, and went below to commune with the fire.
As he reviewed the situation, to the accompaniment of her quick, light patter on the guest-room floor, he was unable to key himself to a note of tragedy. The comedy of life had never been wasted on him, and it was, after all, a stupendous joke that Lois should have come back almost as tranquilly as though she had been away for a week's visit. The longer he brooded the more it tickled him. She either was incapable of comprehending the problems involved in her return or meant to face them with the jauntiness which her troubled years had increased rather than diminished.
Life with her, he mused, was not a permanent book of record, but a flimsy memorandum, from which she tore the leaves when they displeased her and crumpled them into the wastebasket of oblivion. It was a new idea; but it had, he reflected, its merits. He went to the front door, as was his habit, to survey the heavens before retiring. The winter stars shone gloriously, and the night was still. The town clock boomed twelve, ushering in Christmas. He walked a little way down the path as he counted the strokes, glanced up at Lois's window, then across the hedges to the homes of the other daughters of the house of Montgomery, chuckled, said "Thunder!" so loudly that his own voice startled him, and went hurriedly in and bolted the door.
On every Christmas morning it was the custom of Amzi's sisters to repair with their several families to his house, carrying their gifts and bearing thence such presents as he might bestow. The Fosdicks and the Watermans had children, and these were encouraged to display themselves frequently at their uncle's. And Amzi was kind and generous in his relations with all of them. Amzi Waterman and Amzi Fosdick, still in short trousers, had been impressed at their respective homes with the importance of ingratiating themselves with Uncle Amzi, and Amzi, fully cognizant of this, was an ideal uncle to each impartially. Mrs. Fosdick hoped that her little Susan would be as thoroughly established in Amzi's regard as Phil; there was always Phil,—that unbridled, unbroken, fearless young mustang of a Phil.
Amzi was down early giving the final revision to his list of presents. Having found in years gone by that it was decidedly unsafe to buy gifts for his sisters, as they were never satisfied with his selections and poorly concealed their displeasure, he had latterly adopted the policy of giving each of them one hundred dollars in gold.
Ten was the usual hour for the family gathering, and as the clock struck, Amzi began wandering through the house restlessly. Occasionally he grinned, and said "Thunder!" quietly to himself. In the night watches he had pondered the advisability of warning Lois's sisters of her return; but he saw nothing to be gained by this. Something of Lois's serene indifference had communicated itself to him; and as an attentive student of the continuing human comedy he speculated cheerfully as to the length and violence of the impending storm. Kirkwood had never participated in these Christmas morning visits, and Phil usually dropped in after her aunts had departed. It seemed easier to let Fate take charge of the disclosure.
A door slammed in the upper hall, and Amzi heard the colored woman descending the back stairs. Lois was having her breakfast in her room, an unprecedented circumstance in the domestic economy. Then Jeremiah was summoned to distribute the much-belabeled trunks. Amzi's sensations during these unwonted excitements were, on the whole, not disagreeable. The invasion of his bachelor privacy was too complete for any minute analysis of what he liked or didn't like. It was a good deal of a joke,—this breakfasting in bed, this command of the resources of his establishment to scatter trunks about. As he crossed the hall he was arrested by a cheerful "Merry Christmas."
Lois, in a pink kimona, smilingly waved her hand from the top step where she sat composedly watching him.
"Merry Christmas!" he called back.
"Here's a present for you,—got it in Paris, special. If you don't like it, I'll trade you another for it. Catch!"
She tossed him a box containing a scarfpin, and she nursed her knees, humming to herself and clicking her slipper heels while he examined it. She interrupted his stammered thanks to ask whether any of the "folks" had been in yet.
She had dressed her hair in the prevailing pompadour fashion, which was highly becoming; and the kimona imparted to her face a soft rose color. She was a pretty rose of a woman, and he leaned against the newel and regarded her with appreciation.
"I slept like a top; it's as still as the woods around here. I suppose Montgomery's never going to grow much; and it's just as well. What's property worth a front foot on Main Street,—oh, say within a couple of blocks of the court-house?"
"About five hundred dollars, I guess."
She lifted her head as though thinking deeply.
"Real estate's the only thing, if you get into it right. You were never much on speculation, were you, Amzi? Well, you were wise to keep out of it. It takes imagination—" She brushed the subject away gracefully. "You still own a farm or two?"
"I always thought I'd like to go in for farming sometime. I've looked into the fruit business out West and there must be a lot of cheap land in Indiana that would do splendidly for apples. There's no reason why you should have to pay the freight on apples all the way from Oregon. Ever tackled apples?"
"Yes; I have an orchard or two," he admitted wonderingly.
If he had spent the night guessing what subject she would choose for a morning confab, apple culture would not have been on the list. He had thought that perhaps the day would bring a torrent of questions about old friends, but she seemed more aloof than ever. The pearl in his scarfpin was a splendid specimen; he roughly calculated that it represented an expenditure of at least a hundred dollars; and she had flung it at him as carelessly as though she were tossing cherries from a tree.
"Can I do anything for you about the trunks? You can have Jerry as long as you like."
"Oh, I shan't work on that job all day. It's too much bother. I'll dig the stuff out gradually. I'll have to throw most of it away anyhow. I've got everything I own in that pile. I suppose I'd better get dressed—What did you say about the morning gathering,—is it a ceremonial affair?"
"Well, the girls have liked to do it that way,—all come in a bunch after their home doings."
"That's very nice, really picturesque! I suppose they're all a lot of comfort to you, living alone this way. Do they dine here to-day? How about Tom and Phil?"
It was clear from her tone that the identity of his guests was a negligible matter. She mentioned her former husband without emotion, and her tone implied no particular interest in the answer.
"We were all of us to dine with Josie to-day; we sort o' move around, and it's her turn; but if you'd rather stay here we'll have dinner together or any way you like. Tom never mixes up in the dinner parties. But Phil will be here after a while; say about eleven. You'd better be ready."
"Certainly; I'll get into some other clothes right away." She stood, lifted her arms, and stretched herself lazily. "It's nice to see you looking so well; but Sarah confided to me when she brought up my breakfast that you eat altogether too much. Sarah's very nice; I like Sarah. And I can see that Jerry dotes on you. You're pampered, Amzi; I can see that you don't resist the temptation to stuff yourself with Sarah's cooking. I'd be a roly-poly myself if I didn't cut off starch and sweets now and then."
There was a sound of steps at the front door, followed by a prolonged tinkle of the doorbell. Amzi glanced up to make sure she was out of sight. He heard her humming as she passed down the hall to her room and then he rubbed his head vigorously as though rallying his wits in readiness for the invasion, and flung open the door.
The two young Amzis and little Susan greeted him effusively and he yielded himself with avuncular meekness to their embraces. They had come bearing gifts which they bestowed upon him noisily, while the remainder of the delegation crowded in. His three sisters kissed him in succession, in the ascending order of age, and he shook hands with his brothers-in-law.
These greetings were as stiff as those that pass between a visiting statesman and the local yeomanry at a rural reception. Lawrence, Paul, and Alec undoubtedly hated this perfunctory annual tribute to the head of the house of Montgomery, but Amzi liked the perpetuation of his father's house as a family center. It did not matter that greed and sentimentalism were back of his sisters' stubborn devotion to the Montgomery tradition; with him it was an honest sentiment; and as to their avarice, to which he was not insensible, it should be said that charity was not least among his rugged virtues.
He made a lark of opening his gifts for the delight of the children. A truce had been effected between the Fosdicks and Watermans by which each of the young Amzis bestowed a box of neckties of approximately the same value upon their uncle. Little Susan gave him a muffler; the sisters had joined in a new easy chair which Jeremiah now carried in; their husbands had combined in their usual tribute of cigars. A toy and a five-dollar gold-piece for each child; the little chamois-skin bags of gold-pieces for the sisters; a book for each brother-in-law, completed Amzi's offerings. He announced to the children that he was going to build a toboggan in the back yard for their joint use just as soon as spring came. This was a surprise and called forth much joyous chorusing from the youngsters, whose parents viewed this pendant to the expected gifts with satisfaction, as indicating the increasing warmth of Amzi's affection for their children.
"You are always generous, Amzi," said Mrs. Waterman fervidly. "You can put the toboggan on our lot if you like."
"And cut down the trees! I should rather do without it than destroy a single one of the old beeches," averred Mrs. Hastings, who, having no children to enjoy the felicities of tobogganing, was not deeply interested in the project.
"No trees shall be cut down," replied Amzi quickly; "I'm going to put it on my own place. You can't tell but I may use it myself more or less—after dark. The children won't mind, and the doctors say I need exercise."
Mrs. Waterman pinched her young Amzi, who sweetly chirruped, "We'd love to have you use it, Uncle Amzi."
"If Uncle Amzi falls off and breaks hims neck, it would be so fun-nee," piped Susan delightedly.
"Susan!" exclaimed Susan's mother, lifting a severe finger.
"It would be fun-nee. Wouldn't it be fun-nee, Aunt Katie? Danny Holton, he fell off hims bicycle going down hims toboggan and breaked one leg; and it ain't got mended yet. And papa says Uncle Amzi's so fat an' he tumble on the ice it would smash him like a old cucumber. Yes, I did, too, hear him say it. Didn't you hear him say it, mamma?"
Mrs. Fosdick had heard nothing of the kind, for the excellent reason, as her husband declared, that no such impious thought had ever crossed his mind, much less expressed itself in Susan's presence.
Amzi roared with delight, caught up Susan and planted her on his shoulder. Even if Paul Fosdick really had compared him to a mature cucumber it did not greatly matter. Fanny Fosdick glared at her Paul. All the adults present except Amzi were plainly distressed. Mrs. Hastings, being childless and therefore entitled to her opinions as to the rearing of children, resolved that at last she must speak to Fanny about Susie. And all this embarrassment and irritation by the guileless Susie had not disturbed Amzi one whit. Amzi had no intention of rewriting his will to punish Susie, or her forbears.
Hastings, gloomily inhaling a cigarette, turned over the pages of the book which Amzi had given him. It was a late study of the art of Henry Irving, and its bestowal had been a conscious flattery on Amzi's part. Still, it touched unhappy chords in Hastings's bosom. Who was better equipped than he to catch up the fallen mantle of Irving? And here he lay impotent in the hands of the fates that had set him down in a dull village, without means even to hang a moving-picture screen upon the deserted stage of his theater.
Amzi, having crawled over the floor with Susie at some personal inconvenience and distress, was now helping his namesakes to set up the engines he had given them, while their mothers murmured suggestions and warnings. Waterman stood at the window looking out upon the snow-covered lawn. Fosdick scanned the market page in Amzi's copy of the Indianapolis "Advertiser." It was in Waterman's mind that if he had the essential funds he might the next year renew his assaults upon the halls of Congress. The brothers-in-law distrusted and disliked each other. Each, after his fashion, was a failure; and the angle of their several failures had become acute. Their wives made a brave showing to the public and to each other; there was always the Montgomery pride to be sustained.
Amzi, having abandoned the field of engineering to his nephews, contemplated the scene philosophically with his back to the fire. His sisters discussed the annual ball to be given in January by the Sons of Montgomery. They were on the invitation committee, and were confronted with the usual problems of elimination. There was a standard to maintain, and the Newells, who had just moved from Ladoga, and set up a new house and a six-cylinder automobile, were, as every one was saying, such nice people; and Newell undoubtedly made a lot of money out of his sawmills; and all that. They were painfully conscious that their husbands were not amusing Amzi or each other.
"Where's Phil, Amzi?" asked Mrs. Waterman.
"Phil hasn't showed up yet. I guess she'll be along pretty soon."
"Tom has had her with him over at Indianapolis all week. I don't think he ought to take her over there, to run around town while he's busy. She's had so little experience, and with her heedlessness; and all—"
Mrs. Waterman left the conclusion to their imaginations, and as Amzi made no response and as the other gentlemen seemed indifferent, Mrs. Fosdick threw a bit of kindling upon the dull ashes of the conversation.
"Mary Fanning said she saw Phil on the street with a young man over at Indianapolis, only last Tuesday. It isn't fair of Tom; or right, Amzi—"
"Thunder! I heard what Mary was saying. She saw Phil in Washington Street, with Charlie Holton. What have you girls got against Charlie? If it hadn't been for you Phil wouldn't have known him."
"Oh, there's nothing against Charlie; he's a fine fellow. I didn't know it was Charlie," she ended weakly.
"Well, it was Charlie. Nan Bartlett heard what Mary was saying, and asked her about it, and that was all there was to it: she saw Phil and Charlie walking along Washington Street, just as they might walk down Main Street here at home if they happened to meet. And for that matter Phil hasn't been depending on her father for amusement over there. She's been visiting the Fitches—the lawyer Fitch, of Wright and Fitch. Tom's been offered a place in the firm; they're the best lawyers in Indiana; and I guess there's nothing the matter with Mrs. Fitch, is there?"
This was not only news, but it was astonishing news. Mrs. Fitch's name not only guaranteed a scrupulous chaperonage, but the fact that Phil was a guest in her house was significant of Tom Kirkwood's standing at the capital and of Phil's social acceptance by a woman whose name was constantly impressed upon all students of the society columns of the Indianapolis newspapers.
"The last time I was over I saw Mrs. Fitch in a box at the theater, and I must say that I couldn't do much for her clothes," remarked Mrs. Hastings.
"You didn't have to do anything for them," said Amzi amiably. "Here, Jerry, put that down on the side table."
Jeremiah had appeared with a tray that supported a huge bowl. This followed established custom: eggnog was always served at these gatherings of the clan. Amzi sent the darky away and began filling the glasses, as he liked to serve the tipple himself. The faces of his brothers-in-law brightened. The persistence with which their wives fussed about Phil exasperated them, and their attacks upon their niece, open or veiled, always roused Amzi. And there was nothing whatever to be gained, as they knew from long experience, by suggesting Phil's delinquencies. The husbands of Phil's aunts admired Phil; the more the girl annoyed her aunts, the more they admired her.
"Why doesn't Phil come?" demanded Fosdick. "The circle isn't complete without her."
Mrs. Waterman had several times during the hour pricked up her ears at sounds above which she was unable to adjust to her knowledge of Amzi's menage. The step on the floor above was not that of the heavy-footed Sarah, nor yet that of the shuffling Jeremiah. Sarah could be heard in the kitchen, and Jeremiah was even now passing cakes and orange juice to the children at the dining-room table.
"Amzi, who's upstairs?" demanded Mrs. Waterman.
"Upstairs? Thunder! A woman!"
Whereupon Amzi, having handed round the eggnog, stood sipping a glass contentedly in his favorite post by the hearth.
"A woman upstairs!"
"Yep. She's a woman."
Their backs grew rigid. They had never believed their brother capable of such a thing. They exchanged glances that telegraphed the horror of this depravity. If it had been any one else on earth! And the brazenness of it! Hastings and Fosdick grinned at each other, as much as to say that after all you never can tell. It was a pleasant discovery that their brother-in-law was only human. The cheek of the thing was stupendous; his indifference to the fine scorn of their impeccable wives was superb. Hereafter those ladies would be more tolerant of weak and erring man.
Amzi rocked himself on his heels, ignoring them. He had wondered why Lois did not add herself to the family circle. He, too, had heard her quick steps on the floor above, and had grown impatient at her long delay; but that was part of the joke of it all: Lois would take her time and appear when it suited her convenience. Not for gold, not for much fine gold would he have preluded her approach with any warning. And their ready assumption that they had caught him in an act of impropriety tickled him tremendously. They were all listening now; and there was undeniably something really naughty and devilish in the patter of those French heels!
A door above closed with a bang. The shameless creature was tripping downstairs as gayly as though the house belonged to her. The ease of her descent spoke for youth; it was in three minds that old fools are always more susceptible to the wiles of young adventuresses. The sisters averted their faces from the contaminating sight. Amzi was crossing the room and reached the open door as it framed his sister. He had a fine, instinctive sense of courtesy and even his pudgy figure could not diminish his dignity. He took Lois by the hand and led her to the broad hearth as though the fireplace symbolized the domestic altar, and he was restoring her to its protection.
"This is Lois," he said simply, as she swung round; and as they stared dully he repeated, "This is Lois."
Mrs. Fosdick was nearest, and Mrs. Holton put out her hand to her.
"Well, Fanny!" she said; and then, sweeping them all with her smile, "Merry Christmas!"
Her clasp of Mrs. Fosdick's hand seemed to bring them all to their feet, and she moved quickly from one to the other, with some commonplace of greeting, and a bright smile for each. Clasping the hands of Kate and Josephine together she looked from one to the other and said in her pleasant voice,—
"How like old times it seems; and how nice to come in on you all at Christmas! You are a bit stouter—you two—but Fanny hasn't changed a bit. Alec"—she swung round toward the bewildered men—"I don't believe you know me, but I should have recognized you anywhere. Please, now, which is which of you?"
"That's Paul Fosdick, Lois; and that's Lawrence Hastings. Gentlemen, Mrs. Holton."
"Very glad to meet you, gentlemen. Odd, isn't it? that this should be the first time!"
She gave them her hand in turn in her quick graceful way. Since marrying into the family they had heard much of this Lois, and lo! their preconceived notions of her went down with a bang. They had been misled and deceived; she was not that sort of person at all! She had effected as by a miracle a change in the atmosphere of the room. It was as though the first daffodil had daringly lifted its head under a leaden February sky. Amzi, prepared for an explosion, marveled that none had shaken the house from its foundations. But while the masculine members of the family yielded up their arms without a struggle their wives were fortifying themselves against the invader. Amzi's conduct was wholly reprehensible; he had no right to permit and sanction Lois's return; the possibilities implied in her coming were tremendous and far-reaching. It was a staggering blow, this unlooked-for return. While their husbands stood grinning before the shameless woman, they conferred in glances, furtively looking from each other to the prodigal. Amzi fortified himself with another glass of eggnog.
Lois had dominated the scene from the moment of her appearance. Her entrance had been the more startling by reason of its very simplicity. She was taking everything as a matter of course, quite as though there were nothing extraordinary in the parting of the waters to afford her passage dry shod, through those sixteen years, to a promised land imaginably represented by Montgomery. Her sisters, huddled by the center table, struggled against their impotence to seize the situation. This was not their idea of the proper return of a woman who had sinned against Heaven, to say nothing of the house of Montgomery. Their course was the more difficult by reason of their ignorance of the cause of her descent upon them. Amzi should suffer for this; but first she must be dealt with; and they meant to deal with her. Their rage surged the more hotly as they saw their husbands' quick capitulation. They, too, should be dealt with!
"Let us all sit down and be comfortable," said Lois easily, and Hastings and Fosdick bumped heads in their mad haste to place a chair for her.
Hastings, with his theatric instincts stimulated, and realizing that silence would give the massed artillery of the enemy a chance to thunder, immediately engaged the newcomer in conversation. Paris and its theaters served admirably as a theme. Lois clearly knew her Paris well; and she had met Rostand—at a garden party—and spoke of the contemporaneous French drama with the light touch of sophistication. French phrases slipped from her tongue trippingly, and added to her charm and mystery, her fellowship with another and wider world. From Hastings she turned to embrace them all in her talk. The immobile countenances of her sisters, reflecting stubborn resentment and antagonism, were without effect upon her. Instead of sitting before them as the villainess of this domestic drama, a culprit arraigned for her manifold wickednesses, she was beyond question the heroine of the piece.
"You remember, Fanny, what a hard business we used to make of our French? Well, in Seattle I had a lot of time on my hands and I put in a good deal of it studying languages. There was a wonderful Frenchwoman out there and I got her to teach me,—all good fun, with her; we used to go places together, and I finally reached the point where I could talk back to a French waiter. I really believe I could set up as a teacher now without being indicted for taking money under false pretenses. You have been over, haven't you, Kate? It seems to me I heard of your being there; but you might all have gone round the world a dozen times! Whose children are those out there? Bring them in and let me have a look at them."
The children were brought in by their fathers and presented without any interruption to her flow of talk. She let fall a question here and there that was presumably directed to one or the other of her sisters, but their faint, reluctant answers apparently did not disturb her. She was treating them as though they were dingy frumps; and they revolted against all this prattle about Paris. It was distinctly unbecoming in a woman whose sins were so grievous to ripple on so light-heartedly about the unholiest of cities when they sat there as jurors waiting to hear her plea for mercy.
"Susan, you dear angel, come here!"
Susie toddled into her aunt's arms, raised a face that stickily testified to her Uncle Amzi's plentiful provision of candy, and was kissed. Mrs. Waterman, formulating a plan of campaign, took a step toward Susan as though to save the child from this desecration of its innocence; but a glance from Amzi gave her pause.
"Oo have booful clothes. Whas oor name?"
"I'm a new aunt; I'm your Aunt Lois. You never heard of me, did you? Well, it doesn't matter the tiniest little bit. Something tells me that we're going to get on famously. I shouldn't wonder, I shouldn't wonder at all, Susan, if we became the best of friends."
Her voice softened into new and charming tones. She held the sticky, chubby hands unmindfully. She was one of those women who are incapable of an awkward attitude. The child lingered, examining with wide-eyed scrutiny the enchantments of the new lady's apparel.
"She's charming, Fanny," Lois remarked, glancing up suddenly at Susan's mother; "a perfectly adorable baby."
"Oo going to stay in this house? This Uncle Amzi ims house."
"Now, Susan, do you really want me to stay?"
Susan surveyed her newfound aunt gravely before passing upon this question that was so much more momentous than she realized. Lois, bending forward in her low chair with her head slightly to one side, met the child's gaze with like gravity. It might have been assumed from her manner that she attached the greatest importance to Susan's verdict; there may even have been an appeal in the brown eyes; but if there was it was an affair between the woman and the child in which the spectators had no share.
"Oo stay and play wif me. Uncle Amzi ims going to make big toboggan in ims yard and oo can slide down wif me. And Phil she come and play. Phil make me bow and arroo and Phil, her shooted it at old rooster and ims est runned and runned."
"How splendid!" laughed Lois.
"You may go now, Susan," said her mother, feeling that this flirtation had progressed far enough.
Thus admonished Susan withdrew, while her brother and cousin submitted themselves to the new aunt's closer inspection.
"Two Amzis! It's quite fine of you to perpetuate the name, girls. You must be sure, boys, always to spell your name out; don't hide in behind an initial. These old Bible names are a lot better than these new fancy ones. There must be a million Donalds and Dorothys right now scattered over the United States. Where do you go to school, boys?"
She plainly interested them. She was a new species, and had for them the charm of strangeness. She wore on her wrist a tiny watch, the like of which they had never seen before, and one of them poked it shyly with his finger. She accommodatingly slipped it off and gave it to them to examine, telling them of the beautiful shop in Geneva where she had bought it. Susan returned to share in these further revelations by the wonderful lady. The spectacle of their children gathered at the erring Lois's knees, filled the watchful sisters with dismay. The ease of the woman's conquests, her continued indifference to their feelings, caused their indignation to wax hot.
"The children must go. Run along home now, and, boys, see that Susie gets home safely. No; you must go at once!" said Mrs. Waterman.
"Oo bring lady home to ours house, mamma; my wants to play with lady's watch."
"Skip along, Susan; you'll have lots of time to play with my watch," said Lois. "Oh, wait a minute!"
Jeremiah was bringing fresh glasses for the eggnog, and she sent him to her room to bring down some packages she had left on her bed.
While he was gone she romped with Susan, running back through the hall into the dining-room with the chirruping child trotting after her, and paused breathless as Jeremiah placed the parcels on the center table.
"That is altogether unnecessary; the children have had enough presents," said Mrs. Fosdick. "The children must go at once."
"Oh, these are only trifles; just a minute more," Lois flung over her shoulder.
She peered into a box, inspected the contents with a moment's quick appraisement, and clasped on Susie's chubby wrist a tiny bracelet.
"There, Susan! What do you think of that?"
Susan thought well of it beyond question and trotted to her mother to exhibit the treasure.
Three pairs of eyes looked upon the trinket coldly. Careless of their scorn Lois was enjoying the mystification of the young Amzis, to whom she held out two boxes and bade them make a choice. She laughed merrily when they opened them and found two silver watches as like as two peas.
There was no questioning Lois's complete success with the children. Their fathers responded in grateful praise of the gifts: their Uncle Amzi said "Thunder!" and expressed his delight.
"Now, you youngsters run along or I'll get scolded for keeping you. Scoot!"
Lois urged them to the door, where Susan presented her face for further osculation.
"You shouldn't have done that, Lois; it was altogether unnecessary," announced Mrs. Fosdick.
"Oh, those things! they're not of the slightest importance. I didn't know just how many youngsters you had, and the shops over there are simply irresistible."
She ladled herself a glass of eggnog composedly, as though wholly unconscious that the withdrawal of the noncombatants had cleared the field for battle.
The sisters, having sipped Amzi's Christmas tipple apprehensively, noted that this was Lois's second glass.
"Well, what are you all doing with yourselves?" she asked, sinking into a chair. "Kate, I believe I look more like you than either Fanny or Jo. I think you are taller than I am, but we have the same complexion. My face is all chopped up from the sea; it was the worst crossing I ever made, but I only missed one day on deck. The captain is the best of fellows and kept an officer trailing me to see that I didn't tumble overboard."
She glanced at Hastings as though he were more likely than the others to respond to observations on sea travel. He declared that he always preferred winter crossings; it was the only way to feel the power and majesty of the sea.
"I always feel so," said Lois.
Amzi fidgeted about the room, wishing they would all go.
"Lois," said Mrs. Waterman, gathering herself together, "you will understand, of course, that we don't mean to be unkind, but we feel that we have a right—that it is only proper and just for us to know why you have come back in this way, without giving us any warning, so that we might prepare ourselves—"
Lois's brows lifted slightly; the slim fingers of her right hand clasped the gold band by which the blue enameled watch was attached to her left wrist. She tilted her head to one side, as though mildly curious as to the drift of her sister's remark.
"Oh, you mustn't mind that at all! I should have been sorry if you had gone to any trouble for me. Dropping in this way, what should one expect?" A pretty shrug expressed her feeling that nothing at all had been expected. "Jo, do you remember that time you were running from Captain Joshua Wilson's cow, in his pasture over there beyond the college, and you fell over a fence and cracked a tooth, and how you bawled about it? And I suppose that gold tooth is a memento of the occasion. We used to be the maddest of harum-scarums in those days!"
It was not wholly kind, perhaps, for a woman whose white, even teeth were undisfigured by fillings thus to direct attention to the marks of the dentist's tool in her sister's mouth. And yet Lois had not meant to be unkind; the past as symbolized by Captain Wilson's cow sent her off tangentially into the recent history of Captain Joshua's family, and she demanded information as to the Wilsons' daughter Amanda, who ran away and married an army officer she had met at Columbus, Ohio. As the sisters had never liked Amanda Wilson, they were not pleased to be obliged to confess that the marriage had been a satisfactory one in every particular, and that Amanda's husband was now a colonel. The barometer fell steadily and the gloom of the Arctic night deepened in the faces of the trio.
"Anybody have any more eggnog?" asked Amzi guilelessly.
"I think," said Mrs. Fosdick furiously, "that we've all had enough of that stuff."
This was the least bit pointed, as her husband was at that moment filling a fourth glass for himself.
Mrs. Waterman renewed her attack, drawing nearer to the culprit.
"Of course, you realize, Lois, that after all that has happened, your coming back here, particularly unannounced, creates a very delicate situation. It can't be possible that you don't understand how it complicates things—that as a matter of fact—"
"Oh, as a matter of fact it's a great bore to talk of it! I suppose I'm the one that's likely to be most annoyed, but you needn't waste any time being sorry for me. I didn't have to come; nobody asked me. You'll not be in the least embarrassed by my coming. I don't look as though I were in deep distress about anything, do I? Well, I'm not. So don't prepare to weep over me. Tears are bad for the complexion and puckering up your face makes wrinkles."
Fosdick snickered, an act of treachery on his part which brought his wife to Mrs. Waterman's support. Fanny Fosdick was readier of speech than Josephine, who was inclined to pomposity when she tried to be impressive.
"You can't dodge the situation in any such way; you had no right to come back. Your coming can only bring up the old scandal, that we have been trying to live down. It's not a thing you can laugh off. A woman can't do what you did in a town like this and come back expecting everybody to smile over it."
"And Jack Holton has just been here; that was bad enough!" threw in Mrs. Hastings. "And if you are still running after him—"
"Girls!" exploded Amzi, "you'd better cut all this out. You're not going to help matters by fussing over what Lois did. I'm sure we're all glad to have her back; I'm sure we've always hoped she would come back."
"I think the least you say about it the better, Amzi," said Mrs. Waterman witheringly. "It's your fault that she's here. And if you had honored us with your confidence and taken our advice—"
"Thunder! what would you have done about it! I didn't think it was any of your business."
This from the potential benefactor of their children was not reassuring. The financial considerations crystallized by the return of the wanderer were not negligible. Every one in Montgomery knew that Jack Holton had come back to wrest money from William, and it was inconceivable that Lois had not flung herself upon Amzi for shelter and support. And as they had long assumed that she was a pensioner upon her brother's bounty, they were now convinced by the smartness of her gown and her general "air" as of one given to self-indulgence in the world's bazaars, that she had become a serious drain upon Amzi's resources.
"I think," declared Mrs. Waterman, "that it is a good deal our business. We can't make the world over to suit ourselves, and we can't fly in the face of decency without getting scratched. And when a woman brought up as Lois was does what she did, and runs through with her money, and comes home—"
She gulped in her effort to express the enormity of her sister's transgressions; whereupon Mrs. Fosdick caught the ball and flung back:—
"Of course, if Lois is in need of help, we all stand ready to help her. She must understand that we feel strongly the ties of blood, and I want to say that I'm willing to do my share, in the very fullest sense."
Lois rose impatiently.
"Don't be a lot of geese, you girls! Of course, you're all cut up at seeing me so unexpectedly, but I'm not going to let you be foolish about it. It's all in a lifetime anyway: and I really wish you wouldn't say things which to-morrow or the day after you'll be sorry for. I understand as perfectly as though you ran on all night just how you feel; you're horrified, ashamed, outraged—all those things. Bless me, you wouldn't be respectable women if you were not! If you fell on my neck and kissed me I should resent it. Really I should! You would be a disgrace to civilization if my showing up here on Christmas morning didn't give you nausea. I've been divorced twice, and anybody with any sort of nice feeling about life would make a rumpus about it. I'm rather annoyed about it myself; so that's all perfectly regular. You have said just what you ought to have said and you feel just as you should feel. Now that's understood, why not talk of something else and be comfortable?"
The three men had discreetly betaken themselves across the hall and the children of Amzi II were alone.
"You forget, Lois, that there are other persons besides ourselves to consider. If it were just Amzi and us—" persisted Mrs. Waterman, shifting her ground before this shameless confession.
"There's the whole world, when you come to that," said Lois. "What's in your mind, Jo,—Tom and Phil? Well, there's nothing novel in that; I thought about them a good deal before I came back. You may scratch Tom off the list; he's clear out of it. But as for Phil—"
"As for Phil, you have no right—"
"I haven't the slightest claim on Phil, of course; I never said I had, and I don't pretend to have. Please don't assume, Fanny, that I've lost all the wits I ever had! I'll say to you frankly that I feel that my coming may be troublesome to Phil; and yet the fact that I am here" (she smiled and threw out her arms, allowing them to fall to emphasize the futility of words)—"the fact that I am here shows that I have considered that and decided to take the risk of coming, in spite of Phil."
"Lois, you don't seem to have the slightest comprehension of the case—not the slightest," urged Mrs. Waterman, resenting the smile with which her sister had ended. "You brutally abandoned Phil; and now you come back to spoil her life. I didn't suppose there was a woman in the world so callous, so utterly without shame, so blindly selfish—"
Amzi paused in his stride across the room and planted himself belligerently before his oldest sister. His eyes bulged angrily.
"Josie, you can't talk like that to Lois; not in this house! I tell you, Lois is all right. If you don't like her, you can let her alone. I'm not going to have you talk to her like this—not here. Now I want you to understand, you, Josie; you, Kate; you, Fanny" (he indicated each in turn with his pudgy forefinger) "I wouldn't let her badger you, and I'm not going to let you jump on her."
"You talk like a fool, Amzi," said Mrs. Waterman, angry tears flashing in her eyes. "If you realized what we have always stood for in this community, and what it means to you as well as the rest of us; and poor little Phil, and all—"
"What have you all got to do with Phil? Phil's all right," he shouted hoarsely.
"I think," shot Mrs. Hastings, "that the easiest thing for Lois, and the best thing, is for her to go quietly without seeing Phil."
"That's my own opinion," affirmed Mrs. Fosdick.
Lois listened with her detached air, as though the subject under discussion related to some one she knew slightly but was not particularly interested in.
"Bless me! Such a wow and a wumpus. You really think I'd better go?" she asked casually.
The three, accepting this as a sign of yielding, chorused an eager, sibilant Yes.
"Think of Phil, just at the threshold of her life. We've done our best for poor dear Phil," said Mrs. Fosdick chokingly. "Amzi can't deny that we've tried to do our duty by her."
"Of course, you have all been nice to her," remarked Lois, picking up a box of candy and shaking it to bring to the surface some particular sweetmeat.
"It has not been so easy to bring Phil up!" declared Mrs. Waterman, enraged that Phil's mother should take their assumption of responsibility for the child's upbringing so lightly, so entirely as a matter of course.
"You ought to know, without our telling you, Lois," said Mrs. Hastings, "that your coming back will be the worst thing possible for dear Phil. If you think about it quietly for an hour or two, I'm sure you will see that."
"You ought to go down on your knees to God with it!" boomed Mrs. Waterman, "before you think of contaminating her young life. It's only right that we should talk to our pastor before coming to a decision."
Amzi snorted and walked to the window. There he saw as he looked out upon the lawn something that interested him; that caused a grin to fasten itself upon his rubicund countenance. Phil, under a fire of snowballs from a group of boys who were waiting with their Christmas sleds for a chance to hitch to a passing vehicle, gained Amzi's gate, ducked behind the fence to gather ammunition, rose and delivered her fire, and then retreated toward the house. Her aunts, still stubbornly confronting her mother, and sobbingly demanding that Phil be kept away pending a recourse to spiritual counsel, started at the sound of an unmistakable voice. Amzi, chewing his cigar, watched Phil's flight up the path, and noted the harmless fall of the final shots about her. She waved her hand from the doorstep, commented derisively upon the enemy's marksmanship, and flung the door open with a bang. A gust of cold air seemed to precipitate Phil into the room.
"Hello, Amy! Merry Christmas, everybody!"
Amzi walked toward Lois. "Phil, this is your mother." Mrs. Hastings glided from her post by the hearth until she stood between Phil and Lois, who stood with her back to the center table, the tips of her fingers resting upon it. Her face betrayed no apprehensions. For the moment she was out of the scene and the contest lay between Phil and her aunts.
"Phil, this is not the place for you! Go into the other room at once," said Mrs. Hastings, swallowing a sob.
Amzi struck a match and lighted a cigar with his habitual three puffs. Across the flame he saw Phil sweeping the group with her eyes. She stood erect, her hands in her muff to which particles of snow clung where it had fallen in her encounter with the boys at the gate. The crisp air had brightened her cheeks. She wore that look of unconcern for which she had been distinguished as a child. She moved her head slightly, to avoid the figure of the intercepting aunt, and met for an instant her mother's indifferent, unappealing gaze. Her intuitions grasped the situation and weighed its nice points. Phil had rarely in her life been surprised and she showed no surprise now.
"It's rather cold, isn't it, Phil?" Lois remarked.
"Chilly in here—rather!" said Phil in the same key.
"Phil!" thundered the aunts.
"Christmas is nicer with snow. I hate green Christmases," observed Lois, who had not changed her position.
"I've never seen but two," replied Phil, as readily as though the dialogue had been rehearsed; "and I hated them." Then, drawing her hand from her muff, she flung it out in a burlesque of the amateur recitationist:—
"O pray, upon my Christmas morn, Let snow the leaf-shorn boughs adorn.
"How is that, Amy! A little worse than my worst?" She stepped round her Aunt Kate, shook hands with her mother, then upon second thought dropped her muff, seized both her hands, and kissed her.
"Were you all really just about going? I'm late! Made nine stops on the way, took a brief sleigh-ride with Captain Wilson, ate too much butter-scotch at the Bartletts', and here we are!"
She pushed a chair toward the hearth so violently that the castors screeched and her Aunt Kate jumped to avoid being run over.
"Why not sit down, mamma? Amy, where's my present? Here's me to you."
She picked up her muff, drew out a parcel tied with red ribbon, with a bit of mistletoe tucked under the bow-knot, and tossed it to Amzi.
"It's perfectly bully that you're back," she said, addressing herself again to her mother. "Actually here all right,—a real Christmas surprise. I'll take that up with Amy later; he's no business playing such a trick. But it must tickle you to see how dee-lighted everybody is! Oh, are you off, Aunt Josie? Hello, Lawrince!" She turned to wave her hand to Hastings at the door, where Waterman, Fosdick, and he had witnessed their wives' discomfiture. Those ladies were now attempting to impart to their exits the majesty of righteous indignation.
Phil kicked an old carpeted footstool to the hearth, and dropped upon it at her mother's feet.
"What an old fraud Amy is not to have told me!"
She waited for the ultimate sounds of departure, and kissed her fingers to the closed door.
Then she raised her arms quickly and drew down her mother's head until their cheeks touched.
"Thunder!" said Amzi, and left them together.
Phil reached home shortly before one, and called her father's name in the hall without eliciting a response. The odor of roasting turkey was in the house, and she noted that the table was set for four. The maid-of-all-work was moulding cranberry jelly when Phil thrust her head into the kitchen.
"There's going to be company for dinner," the woman explained. "Your pa came in and told me so. He's gone down to his office for a minute."
Phil had not heard that they were to have guests. She stood in the dining-room viewing the two extra places and wondering whom her father had asked. Usually on holidays, when the rest of the family assembled at Amzi's, the Kirkwoods had eaten their midday meal alone. If he had asked the Bartletts' to share this particular Christmas feast it must have been without premeditation, for she had herself visited the sisters on her way to Amzi's, and nothing had been said about a later meeting. It was not like her father to invite guests without consulting her. Her mother's return had changed the world's orbit. Nothing was as it had been; nothing seemed quite real. The house in Buckeye Lane, about which so many happy memories clustered, was suddenly become distorted and all out of drawing, as though she viewed it through a defective window-pane. She went upstairs and glanced warily into her father's bedroom, as though fearing to find ghosts there.
As she redressed her hair she regarded herself in the mirror with a new curiosity. She was a stranger to herself; she was not the same Phil Kirkwood who had stood before the glass that morning, but a very different person—a Phil who had come suddenly upon a hidden crevasse in the bright, even meadow of her life and peered into an undreamed-of abyss.
If her mother—that mother who had always lived less vividly in her imagination than her favorite characters in fiction—had not proved so bewilderingly, so enthrallingly captivating, so wholly charming and lovable, she might have grappled the situation with some certainty. But no woman had ever been like that! Her mother was the most wonderful being in the world! Little by little through the years her aunts had been creating in Phil's mind a vulgar, vain, wicked figure and pointing to it as a fair portrait of her mother. She had always disliked her aunts; she found herself hating them now with a passionate intensity that frightened her.
She flung herself down in the window-seat and looked toward Main Street with unseeing eyes. A wonderful voice murmured in her ears, speaking a new language. She tried to recall what had been said as she crouched at her mother's feet, her head in her lap, before the fire in Amzi's living-room; but it was like the futile effort to recall an elusive strain of music. She had felt curiously no disparity of years in that interview; it had been like a talk with a newfound sister, or with a girl with whom she had established one of the sudden intimate friendships of school days. This wonderful Lois touched with a warm brilliancy innumerable points and surfaces that flashed and gleamed before Phil's fascinated, eager eyes. She had satisfied her curiosity as to Phil in a dozen direct questions that elicited information without leaving any ground for discussing it. Was Phil well?—and happy? What was Phil most interested in? Had there been money enough for her needs? And always with the implication that if the answers to these questions should not prove satisfactory, it did not greatly matter, as the deficiencies could easily be supplied.
They were to see each other, Phil and this enchanting mother—to-morrow; yes, there had been definite agreement upon that. But Lois had seemed as indifferent to days after to-morrow as to days before yesterday. And while this troubled Phil, she had caught so much of her mother's spirit, she had been so responsive to the new amazing language that fell so fascinatingly from her mother's lips, that she accepted the promise of a single to-morrow without misgivings. Sufficient unto the day was the wonder thereof!
She drew from her pocket a wristlet of diamonds, which Lois had given her as they parted at Amzi's door. The gems sparkled in the sunny window. It was a trinket of beauty and value, and Phil clasped it upon her wrist and contemplated it with awe and delight. It was worth, she assumed, almost or quite as much as the house in which she lived; and yet her mother had bestowed it upon her with gay apologies for its paltriness—this mother out of a fairy-tale, this girlish mother with the wise, beautiful eyes, and most entrancing of voices.
The gate clicked and she glanced down at the yard. Her father was bringing Rose and Nan to the house! They were walking briskly, and advanced to the door laughing. The women looked up, saw Phil, and waved their hands. Her father flung a snowball at the window. Happiness was in the faces of the trio—a happiness that struck Phil with forebodings. She had never in her imaginings thought an hour would come when she would begrudge her father any joy that might come to him; even less had it ever seemed possible that she would look forward with dread to meeting Rose and Nan. She hid her mother's gift and ran down to let them in.
"You remember," said her father, "the Maryland epicure's remark about the turkey being an annoying bird—just a leetle too big for one and not quite big enough for two? I decided to see how it would work for four."
"We didn't know we were coming, Phil, when we saw you. Your father came along afterward and found we were going to eat a plain, domestic duck by ourselves; and we weakly, meekly fell," explained Rose.
"There can't be a real Christmas unless there's a party; and I thought it about time we had a quiet little celebration of 'The Gray Knight of Picardy'—seventh edition now printing, and the English rights well placed. Phil, it's up to you to carry on the literary partnership with Nan. I'm out of it. I'm going to write the publisher at once to go ahead and enlighten the wondering world as to the authorship of the 'Gray Knight'—Miss Nancy Bartlett, of Buckeye Lane!"
"You shall do nothing of the kind, Tom," declared Nan with emphasis; and immediately blushed.
This was the first time Phil had heard Nan call her father by his first name. To be sure, he always addressed both Nan and Rose by their Christian names; but that was not surprising, as he had known the Bartletts' well from the time of his coming to the college, when every one called him Professor or Doctor.
At the table Nan and Kirkwood did most of the talking, and now and then they exchanged glances that expressed to Phil some new understanding between them. It had never before been so clear to Phil how perfectly sympathetic these two were. Her father was a clever man and Nan Bartlett an unusually clever woman. At other times Phil would have delighted in their sharp fencing; the snap and crackle of their dialogue; but her heart ached to-day. She felt the presence of a specter at the table. She heard that other voice with its new and thrilling accents, that careless, light laugh with its gentle mockery. She was recalled from a long reverie by a question from Rose.