"How did you find the gathering of the clans at Amzi's?"
"Just about as cheerful as usual," replied Phil colorlessly.
"Amzi's seat will be in the front row of the heavenly choir-loft," observed Nan. "What he has taken from those women has given him a clear title to joys ineffable."
"Amy is not a mere man," said Phil; "he is a great soul."
She had spoken so earnestly that they all looked at her in surprise. If she had referred to her uncle as a brick, or a grand old sport, or the dearest old Indian on the reservation, they would have taken it as a matter of course; but Phil was not quite herself to-day.
"Don't you feel well, Phil?" asked Nan, so pointedly referring to the unwonted sobriety with which she had spoken of her uncle that they all laughed.
"The aunts must have been unusually vexatious to-day. You're not quite up to pitch, Phil. Too much candy has spoiled your appetite," remarked her father.
"I guess my sweet tooth did betray me into indiscretions," she answered with an effort at lightness; and added,
"The bon-bon and the caramel Poor Phyllis did waylay; And being only a weak mortal young thing to whom Christmas comes but once a year Is it surprising what befell? For she knew not the sad word Nay."
"Oh, unutterable horrors! That's the worst you ever perpetrated!" cried her father. "Just for that you shall eat another piece of mince pie."
"Nothing of the kind, Tom; we must not add to the sufferings of one whose own rhymes are punishment enough," said Nan.
The two women looked at Phil more closely. She seemed preoccupied and her contributions to their banter were perfunctory and spiritless. When they were established in the living-room, Phil crouched on a stool by the fire. Concealment and dissimulation were so wholly foreign to her nature that it was with difficulty that she resisted an impulse to blurt out the whole thing. They would know within a few hours of her mother's return, and the fact that she had withheld the information would make her situation more difficult. She saw her father furtively touch Nan's hand; he was beyond question very much in love with her; and Nan had practically confessed, on that memorable afternoon following Amzi's party, her regard for Kirkwood. Then it had seemed to Phil the most natural and rational thing in the world for her father and Nan to marry; but now in this whirling chaos to which the world had been reduced, the thought of it was abhorrent. No wonder they looked at her curiously, not understanding her silence. Phil loved them all! Phil wanted everybody to be happy! Yet clearly happiness even in the small circle of her nearest and dearest was impossible. Her nimble fancy led her over rough chaotic peaks in an effort to find a point from which to survey the general desolation. In practical terms she reasoned that men and women sometimes remarried after a long estrangement. Perhaps—But she was unable to push beyond that perhaps.
The bell rang and she was glad of the interruption. Fred Holton had come to call. Kirkwood greeted him cordially, and they widened the circle before the grate to admit him. Phil addressed herself to Fred with the kindliness he always inspired in her. He was a trifle abashed by the presence of the Bartletts, and on seeing them, furtively dropped a package he had brought on a chair by the door. Phil, inspecting it glancingly, saw her name scribbled on the paper wrapper.
"Christmas gift! Who guesses this is a Christmas gift for me?"
"Everybody!" cried the Bartletts.
"I guess it's a book. I hope it's a book. I shall be disappointed if it isn't a book," continued Phil.
Fred blushed, and said it wasn't anything. The clerk in the bookstore had recommended it, and he thought Phil might like it. Phil tore off the wrapper and held up "The Gray Knight of Picardy." The sight of it sent a quick, sharp pain through her heart. It was no longer merely the best tale of the season that her father and one of her dearest friends had written, but a book her father and the woman he loved had written; and this, in the light of the day's events, was a very different matter.
"Thank you, Fred. It's nice of you to think of me. And I'm sure it's a good story."
"They say it's awfully funny," said Fred.
Nothing seemed funny to Phil; but she exerted herself to be entertaining. She was in a mood to be touched by his gift. Charles Holton had sent her a box of roses from Indianapolis and they were nodding from the tall vase on the mantel. She saw Fred eyeing them, and hastened to say that books made the finest possible gifts.
"It must be lonely in the country to-day," remarked Nan. "But I suppose you've spent the day in town."
"Only part of it," replied Fred. "I couldn't desert the live stock; and I have a man there with me. We had our Christmas feast and I hopped on the interurban."
"Turkey?" asked Phil.
"No; rabbit. Rabbit's much more wholesome for Christmas than turkey. We sell turkeys to the city folks and feast on rabbits when we need them. I poached this one, too. But don't tell Mr. Montgomery. It ran under his fence into my pasture, and fearing it was my last chance for Christmas dinner, I pulled the trigger. Is that a high crime, Mr. Kirkwood?"
"Not at all. We'll assume that it was really your rabbit that had just been out for a stroll on Mr. Montgomery's side of the fence. I'll promise to get you off if you're prosecuted."
"I should think it would be quite grand and splendid to own a farm and go out and pick off game that way," said Phil musingly. "Monarch of all you survey, and that sort of thing. When I had a Flobert rifle in my enchanted youth and shot sparrows in our back yard, I had something of the same exalted feeling. Only our estate here is too limited. The neighbors kicked; so many wild shots. Absurd how sensitive people are. But I suppose if I hadn't broken a few glasses of new quince preserves the lady across our alley had put to sun in her kitchen window, I might never have lost the gun."
"I don't seem to remember that incident of your career, Phil," said Rose.
"I hope nobody does. The lady's husband happened to be the town marshal, and he told daddy a lot of sad things that were going to happen to me if I didn't stop shooting at his perfectly good wife as she followed her usual avocations."
The Bartletts were relieved to find Phil restored to something like her normal cheerful self. They all enlarged upon the impingement of her bullets upon the marshal's wife's quinces, discussing the subject in the mock-serious vein that was common in their intercourse. If Phil had killed her neighbor, would it have been proper for the defense to prove that the quinces were improperly prepared? Kirkwood insisted that such testimony would have been grossly irregular and that an able jurist like Judge Walters would certainly have rejected it. They played with the idea of Phil's heinous crime until they wore it out.
"Put on the black cap and tell me when I'm to die," said Phil. "I'm guilty. I really did kill the woman and I buried her under the plum tree in her back yard. Now let's think of something cheerful."
Nan and Kirkwood dropped out of the circle a little later, and Phil heard them talking in subdued tones in the library. Rose withdrew to the window and became absorbed in a book.
"I saw you and Charlie that day you climbed up the bluff," said Fred the moment Rose was out of hearing. "I hope you won't do that any more. I hope you won't ever do things like that again!" he ended earnestly.
"It was just a lark; why shouldn't I do it?"
"The chances were that you'd fall and be killed. You had no right to take the chance. And Charlie had no right to let you do it."
"Charlie hadn't anything to do with it. He couldn't have helped himself," said Phil defensively.
"Then the rest of them down on the creek should have stopped you. It was the craziest thing I ever saw."
"I suppose it was silly," Phil admitted tamely, "but it's all over now."
It was in her heart to say that nothing greatly mattered, and yet there was a certain comfort in knowing that he cared. His blue eyes told her frankly how much he cared; and she was not unmindful of the wistful smile with which he regarded her.
His glance wandered from her face to the long-stemmed roses on the mantel-shelf behind her. He knew perfectly well where those roses had come from. She saw the resentment in his eyes. The resumption of social relations between her aunts and the Holtons that had brought her in contact with these nephews of Jack Holton struck her in a new light, with Fred there before her, with Charles's roses flaunting themselves unrebuked in her father's house. She had no business to be receiving Fred Holton; Charles's flowers assumed suddenly a dire significance. She meant to be rid of them the moment she could do so without attracting attention. It was on her tongue to say something unkind to Fred; her loyalty to her mother seemed to demand it. And yet neither Fred nor Charles had been in any wise responsible for her mother's tragedy. Fred had risen and stood before the fire with his arms folded. The care he took to make himself presentable, expressed in his carefully brushed clothes; the polish on his rough shoes; his clean-shaven face, touched her now as at other times. She wondered whether, if they had been alone, she would not have confessed her perplexities and asked his counsel. In their talks she had been impressed by his rugged common sense, and her plight was one that demanded the exercise of just that quality. Rose turned the pages of her book. Her father and Nan continued their conference in low tones in the adjoining room.
"You promise—don't you—that you won't ever do foolish things like that any more," and Fred put out his hand half in farewell, half as though the clasp he invited would mean a pledge.
"Please forget it. I'll probably never have another chance. That was the kind of thing you do only once; there wouldn't be any fun in doing it over again."
"Your father has been mighty nice to me: I wanted to tell him I appreciated it. I felt I'd like to say that to him on Christmas—just a kind of sentimental feeling about it. But you please say it for me. He'll understand; I couldn't say it before the others."
She responded passively: there were a good many things that she must say to her father!
Kirkwood and Nan reappeared as they heard Fred saying good-bye to Rose.
Nan said she and her sister must be going, too, as they had some calls to make. At the door Nan kissed Phil, and asked her to come to see her the next day. The kiss and this special invitation, half-whispered, confirmed Phil's belief that her father and Nan would have told her of their engagement if Fred's coming had not interfered. She was glad for the delay, and yet it would have been easier in many ways to have met the issue squarely before Nan and Rose. She and her father watched Fred and the women pass from sight toward town.
"He seems to be a nice fellow," remarked Kirkwood, as they returned to the living-room—"a clean, manly sort of chap."
"He's all that," replied Phil. "He came to thank you for something: he's too shy to talk much in company and he asked me to tell you how much he appreciated something or other you had done for him."
"Queer chap, for a Holton," Kirkwood observed, striking a match on the underside of the slate mantel-shelf. "There's a real nobility in that boy. He didn't tell you what he wanted to speak to me about? That's better yet. I imagine his brother isn't so shy about publishing his good works before men."
Kirkwood's eyes sought the roses. The "attentions" Phil was receiving had roused in him the mixed bewilderment and awe with which a father realizes that he has on his hands a daughter upon whom other men have begun to look covetously. Half a dozen young fellows were dancing attendance upon Phil. In the hotel and at the theater in Indianapolis men and women had paid her the tribute of a second glance, and Mrs. Fitch had been enthusiastic about her. His tolerant spirit had not visited upon the young Holtons the sins of their uncle. Charles's devotion to Phil had rather amused him; he had taken it as an oblique compliment to himself, assuming that it was due to anxiety on Charles's part to ingratiate himself with Phil's father quite as much as with Phil.
"I suppose what Fred meant was a little matter between us in the traction business. You know that farm he settled on next to Amzi's? He's turned it over to me."
"You mean he doesn't own it any more?" asked Phil.
"Strictly speaking, no. In the general Holton mess he thought he ought to surrender the property. Rather quixotic, but creditable to the boy. You see Charlie was executor of their father's estate. Charlie's beyond doubt a very smooth young person. And no end plausible. He got Fred to take that farm in settlement of all claims against Samuel's estate. And when Fred found out there was trouble over his father's financiering of the Sycamore he hopped on the trolley and came to the city and turned over the farm to me as trustee. He seemed no end grateful to me for allowing him to do it."
"But you didn't let him—it isn't fair! Why the farm's no good anyhow! And besides, Charlie wouldn't have done Fred an injury. He talked to me the other day at his aunt's skating-party about all that traction business and I'm sure he never meant any harm. He couldn't help what his father did. But to take Fred's farm away—why, daddy, that would be the supreme grand limite!"
Kirkwood laughed and pinched her chin.
"What a terrible young person you are! You seem to forget that I'm not the Holtons' attorney. I'm hired by the poor innocents who bought Sam Holton's bonds, and it's my business to get all the money for them I can. Charles's tricks with his father's estate only figure incidentally, but they have a dark look. It's merely a case of the sins of the parents being visited upon the children—"
He had been speaking half-carelessly, not really heeding what he said, and he arrested himself with an impatient shrug of the shoulders. The visitation of a parent's sins upon children was not a subject for discussion in that household, as Phil realized with a poignancy born of her morning's adventure. Kirkwood was instantly contrite as he saw tears in Phil's eyes. He would not for worlds have wounded her. It was impossible for him to know how in her new sensitiveness this careless speech, which a day earlier would have passed unheeded, aroused all her instincts of defense. She was half-aware of the irony by which their talk about the nephews of Jack Holton had carried them with so fateful a directness to her mother.
Kirkwood frowned. His former wife was of all subjects the most ungrateful on this Christmas day. The old wounds had healed absolutely and the scars even had vanished in his new hope and happiness. He did not mean to have his day spoiled. He crossed the room to the window where Phil stood pulling idly at a withered geranium leaf. He drew her round and kissed her.
"Forgive me, dear old Phil! I wouldn't hurt you for ten thousand kingdoms. And I didn't mean that. I don't think it; moreover, I don't believe in that philosophy."
His contrition was unmistakedly sincere; yet she knew that if he had not obliterated the thought of her mother from his mind he would not have let slip that reference to parental sins. His forgetfulness was worse than the offense itself.
She experienced a sensation, new in all their intercourse, of wanting to hurt him. This was, in all kindness and charity, the instant for announcing her mother's return; and yet before making that disclosure Phil meant to force him to tell her in so many words that he was engaged to marry Nan. This was the most astonishing of all Phil's crowding experiences of the day, that she harbored with cruel satisfaction the thought of inflicting pain upon her father—her old comrade, with whom she had so joyfully camped and tramped and lived so many happy days in this little house, where now for the first time shadows danced malevolently.
"I wanted this to be a happy day, Phil. What do we care about the Holtons or Sycamore Traction! Charlie and Fred are all right, and I must say that I've been a good deal pleased by the attitude of both the young fellows. But I have something to tell you; something you've been prepared for for a long time in that wise, old head of yours. It's made me the happiest man in the world; and I hope it will make you almost as happy. And I believe it's for your good; that it's going to be a great big factor in working out all your problems and mine! Come now, forgive me, and tell me whether you want three guesses as to what it is!"
He rested the tips of his fingers on her shoulders, standing off and looking at her with all the old fondness in his eyes. He had spoken buoyantly; his manner was that of a young man about to confide a love affair to a sympathetic sister.
Phil slipped from under his hands and stood rigid, with her back against the geranium box. She swallowed a sob and lifted her head to meet the blow. He would not have it thus, but caught her hands and swung them in a tight clasp.
"It's Nan, Phil, dear: Nan's promised to marry me! She's been saying she never would. It was only last night she agreed to take this poor old wreck and try to make a man of me. We meant to tell you to-day if Fred Holton hadn't come in, and then the girls had to run. But nobody is to know for a month yet; we mean to be married at Easter. That last point we fixed up just now in the library. You see what a lot of things can happen right here in dear old Montgomery within twenty-four hours."
He waited for one of her characteristic Philesque outbursts—one of the tumultuous mussings with which she celebrated her happy surprises. Nothing was needed to complete his joy but Phil's approval, about which he had never had the slightest question. In his last talk with Nan on Christmas Eve they had discussed Phil and the effect of their marriage upon her rather more than upon themselves. And he had now exhausted himself upon the announcement; there was nothing more that he could say. Phil's hands were cold in his, and with an almost imperceptible pressure she was thrusting him away from her. Two great tears welled in her eyes and stole down her cheeks.
"Why, Phil! I thought you—you of all people in the world—"
"Mamma has come back!" said Phil colorlessly; and repeated, "mamma has come back. She is at Uncle Amy's, and I have seen her."
There was silence for a little space while he stared at her. Their eyes met in a long gaze. He grew suddenly white and she felt the trembling of his hands.
"O God, no!" he said hoarsely. "You don't mean that, Phil. This is a joke—not here; not in Montgomery! She would never do that. Come, you mustn't trifle with me; it's—it's too horrible."
His voice sank to a whisper with his last word. The word and his tone in uttering it had not expressed the full sense of the horror that was in his face.
"It is true, daddy," she said softly, kindly. "I have seen her; I have talked with her."
"You saw her at Amzi's?" he asked dully.
"Yes; she came last night. I didn't know it until I got to the house this morning. They were all there, and when I went in they tried to send me off; they thought I oughtn't to see her."
"There was a scene, then; they were ugly about it?"
"They tried to be; but it didn't go!"
He noted the faltering triumph of her tone and looked at her more closely.
"They wanted her to go and she held her ground against them?"
"I held it with her," said Phil.
"You didn't think she should go; was that it, Phil?"
"I didn't think she should be treated like a dog!"
Phil drew away, with her head held high, her fists tightly clenched. Kirkwood walked slowly across the room thrice while she stood immovable. He recalled her presence in a moment and remarked absently:—
"Amzi should have told me. It wasn't fair for him to do this. If I had known last night that she was here—"
He broke off with a groan. The resigned, indifferent air he had lately flung off possessed him again, and seeing it the pity stole back into her heart. She moved about, avoiding him, fearful of meeting again that hurt, wounded look in his eyes. The short day was drawing to an end, and the shadows deepened. He was mechanically lighting his pipe, and she crouched in her favorite seat by the fire.
"It's a little tough, Phil," he said finally with a revival of courage, pausing in his slow, aimless wandering through the rooms. "It's a little tough after so long, and now."
She could not controvert this; she merely waited to see what further he had to say. He paused presently, his arm on the mantel-shelf, his fingers nervously playing with his pipe.
"What is she like, Phil?"
"Oh, she is lovely! She is the most charming woman that ever lived!"
"You liked her, then; she was nice to you?"
"She is dear and sweet and wonderful! Oh, I didn't know she would be like that!"
His eyes opened and shut quickly. There was an implied accusation against him in the fervor of her admiration for the wife who had deserted him. He groped for something in self-justification with which to confute Lois Montgomery's daughter.
"You found her what you would like your mother to be,—you didn't think her hard or cruel?"
"You wouldn't have thought her a woman who would desert a husband and a helpless baby and run away with another man?"
There was silence in the room. He had mercilessly condensed the case against Lois Montgomery, reducing it to its harshest terms for Phil's contemplation. It was in Phil's mind that she had nothing to do with those things; that the woman against whose cheek she had laid her own was not Thomas Kirkwood's recreant wife, but another and very different person. She did not know how to express this; it seemed preposterous to insist to her father that his former wife was not the same woman that she had held speech with that day.
"I can't talk about her in that way, daddy. I can't tell you just how I feel. But it seemed so wonderful, when I went into the house, and those horrible creatures were circling round her like wolves, that we understood each other, she and I, without a word being said! And I hated them all, except dear old Amy. They all went home and Amy went off and left us alone, and we talked just as though we had been old friends."
She ceased as though to attempt to describe it would be profanation.
"What did she say—about me?" he asked blindly.
"Oh, she didn't talk about you at all! It wasn't that kind of talk—not about what she had done—not even about what she meant to do! She is so young! She is just like a girl! And she speaks so charmingly, with the loveliest voice. It's like the way the water ripples round the big boulders at The Run."
"She hadn't anything to say about her going off? I don't quite believe you mean that, Phil."
"That's exactly the truth, daddy"; and there was grieved surprise in her tone. "Why, she isn't like that; she wouldn't ever say anything to hurt any one. I haven't words to tell you about her, because there was never any one like her. She is all sunniness and sweetness. And she's the most amusing person I ever saw,—ever so droll and funny!"
Phil's refusal or inability to see her mother in robes of sin irritated Kirkwood. For Phil to call her an amusing person was sheer childish naivete. Phil was the victim of an infatuation which he could understand now that his wife began to live again in his imagination. He had read in books that the maternal instinct will assert itself after long separations, where mother and child are without other clue than that of the mysterious filial and maternal tie to guide them; but his practical sense rejected the idea. If he had been warned of Lois's unaccountable return, he might have fortified Phil against her charms, but now it was too late. Lois was Phil's mother. Shocked as he was by this termination of his Christmas-Day happiness, his nature revolted against any attempt to shatter Phil's new idol. The fact that Lois had sinned as much against Phil as against himself was not something that he could urge now that Phil had taken her stand. The thought of Lois brought before him not only the unhappy past, but she seemed, with the cruelest calculation, to have planted herself in the path of his happy future.
He was intent upon a situation that called for immediate handling. He tried to bring the scattered dim stars in this new firmament to focus. He might go to Nan and endeavor to minimize the effects of Lois's return, urging that if she wished to spend the rest of her life in Montgomery it was her affair, and had nothing whatever to do with her former husband or the woman he meant to marry. This was a sane, reasonable view of the situation; but its sanity and reasonableness were not likely to impress Nan Bartlett. Such an event as the sudden return of Lois would pass into local history as a great sensation. Jack Holton's re-appearance only a few weeks earlier had caused his fellow-townsmen to attack the old scandal with the avidity of a dog unearthing a neglected bone; and the return of the woman in the case could hardly fail to prove far more provocative of gossip. If Lois persisted in remaining in Montgomery, it was wholly unlikely that Nan would ever marry him; nor could he with any delicacy insist upon her doing so. They might marry and move to Indianapolis, thereby escaping the discomforts of the smaller town's criticism; and this was made possible by his brightening prospects. At any rate, it was only fair to go to Nan at once and lay the matter before her. Even now the news might have reached her; news spreads quickly in the world's compact Montgomerys.
Phil aroused herself as she heard him fumbling for his coat at the hall-rack. She found a match and lighted the gas.
"Going out, daddy?" she asked in something like her usual tone.
He looked at her vaguely as he drew on his coat, as though trying to understand what she had said.
"Well, you'll be back for supper. There'll be the usual holiday-cold-turkey supper, daddy."
"Yes, Phil; I'll be back after while. I'm going for a tramp."
But she knew that he had gone to see Nan.
AMZI IS FLABBERGASTED
Struby's drug-store did a large business in hot drinks in the week following Christmas, as citizens and citizenesses met to discuss the return of Lois Montgomery. The annual choir-row in Center Church caused scarcely a ripple; the county poorhouse burned to the ground, and nobody cared particularly; an august professor in the college was laid low with whooping-cough, and even this calamity failed to tickle the community as it would have done in ordinary circumstances.
Wonder and mystery were in the air of Main Street. Persons who had no money in Montgomery's Bank, and whom the liveliest imagination could not dramatize as borrowers from that institution, dropped in casually on fictitious errands, in the hope of seeing or hearing something. Housewives who lived beyond the college, or over in the new bungalow addition across the Monon tracks, who had no business whatever in the neighborhood of the old Montgomery place, made flimsy excuses for visiting that region in the hope of catching a glimpse of a certain lady who, after a long absence, had reappeared in town with bewildering suddenness. What Amzi had said to his sisters Kate, Josie, and Fanny and what they had said to him, and what Mrs. Lois Montgomery Holton had said to them all afforded an ample field for comment where facts were known; and where there were no facts, speculation and invention rioted outrageously. Had Tom Kirkwood seen his former wife? Would Phil break with her father and go to live at Amzi's with her mother? Was it true that Lois had come back to Indiana in the hope of effecting a reconciliation with Jack Holton, of whom unpleasant reports were now reaching Montgomery from the state capital? An intelligent community possessed of a healthy curiosity must be pardoned for polishing its spectacles when a drama so exciting and presenting so many characters is being disclosed upon its stage.
It was said that Mrs. Holton emerged from Amzi's house daily to take the air. She had been observed by credible witnesses at the stamp window of the post-office; again, she had bought violets at the florist's; she had been seen walking across the Madison campus. The attendants in the new Carnegie library had been thrilled by a visit from a strange lady who could have been none other than Mrs. Holton.
At four o'clock on the afternoon of January 2, Mrs. Holton drank a cup of bouillon at Struby's counter, informed the white-jacketed attendant that it was excellent, and crossed Main Street to Montgomery's Bank under the admiring eyes of a dozen young collegians who happened to be loafing in the drug-store. Amzi escorted his sister at once to his private room at the rear, poked the fire, buttoned his coat and sat down.
"Well, Lois, how goes it?"
His question was the one he habitually asked his customers, and he had no idea that anything of importance had happened to his sister since he left her at one o'clock.
"The air in the counting-room is bad, Amzi; you ought to put in ventilators. A little fresh air would increase the efficiency of the clerks one hundred per cent," she remarked, tossing her muff and a package on the table. It was a solid package that fell with a bang.
"Then they'd want more pay. You've got another guess coming."
"No. You'd cut down their wages because they worked less time."
He rubbed his head and chuckled. It was plainly written on his face that he was immensely fond of her, that her presence in the dim, dingy old room gave him pleasure. He clasped his hands behind his head to emphasize his comfort.
"I passed Center Church on my way down just as my perfectly good sisters three were entering the side door. The Presbyterians haven't set up a confessional, have they?"
"Lemme see. I guess this is the afternoon they sew for the heathen. No. This is Tuesday. Pastor's Aid Society. Caught 'em in the act, did you?"
"I suppose I did. They bowed and I bowed. When I got to the corner I turned round to take a look at the steeple and they were inspecting my clothes. They're rather funny human beings, those sisters of ours. How do you suppose they ever happened anyhow? How do you suppose they came to be so good and you and I so naughty? I mention your naughtiness, Amzi, just to keep from being so lonesome."
"Thunder!" he puffed, evidently rejoicing in the wickedness she conferred upon him.
"I came to talk business a little, Amzi. Didn't want to do it at the house. In fact, I'm out of money; broke; busted. I bought a cup of soup at the drug-store over the way and left my last dime on the counter."
He rubbed his pink pate and cleared his throat. He was not surprised; he had expected her to be broke. Several times in the week that had passed since her return, he had thought of broaching the subject of money, but had refrained. Lois could have anything he had; that was his feeling about it; and no doubt when she needed money she would ask for it. His other sisters had never hesitated.
"Just say how much, Lois."
His tone was reassuring. The others had bled him for years; he had kept an account of his "advances," as they called them, in a pass-book, and within a few days he had credited Lois with an amount equal to the total of these sums. It was approximately this amount that he had tried to bestow upon Phil the previous fall when that unreasonable young person had scorned it.
Lois had not answered him. Her face wore a look of abstraction and she compressed her lips poutingly. He had found her increasingly interesting and amusing as the days passed. The subjects she discussed in their long evenings together were as various as her costumes. She was always cheery, always a delight to his admiring eyes. Now that she needed money she would be sure to ask for it in her own charming fashion.
"Speak up; don't be afraid. The sooner we fix it the quicker we can forget it," he added kindly.
"I was just wondering how to divide things around a little," she replied.
"Divide how? Among your creditors?"
"Creditors? Bless your silly head, Amzi, I haven't any creditors!"
"I thought you said you were broke."
"Oh, I believe I did," she replied, still only half-attentive to what he said, and apparently not particularly interested in explaining herself. She reached for a pad and made rapid calculations. He lighted a cigar and watched her gloved hand dancing over the paper. The package she had tossed on the table was much bewaxed and sealed. "When I said I was broke, I meant that I hadn't any money in my pocket. I want to open an account here so I can cash a check. I suppose you haven't any prejudices against accepting small deposits?"
"No prejudices exactly, Lois; but it's so long since any member of the family came into this bank without wanting to make a touch that I'm likely to drop dead."
She laughed, drew out her purse, and extracted three closely folded slips of crisp paper, took up a pen and scratched her name across the back of each.
"There," she said, "consider these on deposit and give me a check-book."
He ran the drafts through his fingers, reading the amounts, and from force of habit compared the indorsement with the name on the face. He smoothed them out on the table and laid a weight on them. He looked at the end of his cigar, then at her. Of the three bills of exchange on New York, one was for ten thousand dollars, issued by a Seattle bank; another was for fifteen thousand, issued by a San Francisco house, and the third was a certified check for seven thousand and some odd dollars and cents. Something over thirty-two thousand dollars!
He unconsciously adopted with her something of his way with Phil. He would not express surprise at the magnitude of the sum she had so indifferently fished out of her purse, but rather treat the matter as though he had been prepared for it. The joke of it—that Lois should have come back with money, when her sisters certainly, and the rest of the community probably, assumed that her return to Montgomery meant nothing more or less than the collapse of her fortunes—this was a joke so delicious, so stupendous, that his enjoyment of it dulled the edge of his curiosity as to the history the fact concealed. She hadn't even taken off her gloves to write her name on the drafts! There were depositors who had shown more emotion over confiding one hundred dollars to his care than she had displayed in writing her name on the books as his largest individual depositor. He wanted to giggle; it was the funniest thing that had ever happened. He remarked casually,—
"Got a gold mine, Lois?"
He was so full of the joy of it that he gasped at her reply.
"How did you know?" she asked sharply.
"I thought not. Nobody knows. And nobody need know. Just between ourselves—all this."
He nodded. She was an amazing creature, this sister! The joke grew. He hoped she would delay and prolong her revelations, that he might miss nothing of their humor.
"Nevada," she remarked sententiously.
"Something like that."
She pushed toward him the pad with her calculations. They read thus:—
Seattle R. E. 175,000 (about) Broken Axe (Gov't 3's) 250,000 A. T. & S. F. bonds 20,000 Phoenix Lumber 75,000 Other securities 100,000 (maybe)
His jaw fell and he gulped when he tried to speak. Even Amzi could not joke about half a million dollars.
"Thunder! You must be fooling, Lois."
"I may be fooled about some of that stuff, but those figures are supposed to be conservative by people who ought to know."
"Lord! you're a rich woman, Lois," he remarked with awe. "It's flabbergasting!"
"Oh, I haven't done so badly. You'd probably like to know how it came about, and I might as well tell you the whole story. Jack was an awful fizzle—absolutely no good. I saw that early in the game, and I knew where I'd bring up if I didn't look out for myself. He began nibbling like a hungry rat at my share of father's estate as soon as you sent it to me. I backed him in half a dozen things he wanted to go into. He hadn't the business sense of a baby, and I began to see that I was going to bump my head good and hard if I didn't look sharp. He began to cheer himself during his failures by getting drunk, which wasn't exactly pretty. He went his way and I went mine, and as he lied to me about everything I began to lie to him about my money. I made some friends, and one of these happened to be the wife of a banker with brains. Through him I made some small turns in real estate, covering them up so Jack wouldn't know. The fifth year after I left here I made twenty thousand dollars in one turn. Then I grub-staked two young fellows who wanted to try their luck in Nevada—nice college boys, all on the square. I invested about two thousand dollars in those youngsters, and as a result got into Broken Axe. It was so good that it scared me, and I sold out for the two hundred and fifty thousand you see on the slip there, and bought Government bonds with it. My banker covered all these things up for me as long as I had Jack on my hands. When he became intolerable I got rid of him, legally, for fear he'd cause trouble if he found what I'd been doing. I'm a little tired of running my own business now and mean to dump it off on you if you don't mind. I left my papers in a safety vault in Chicago, but here's my Phoenix Lumber and a jumble of miscellaneous junk I want to send West to be sold so I can put it into things around here. I'm not going back there any more."
"Lord!" he ejaculated, rubbing his head. "You made all that money yourself?"
"Sheer luck, mostly. But it isn't so bad, take it all round. By the way, in that junk there are some Sycamore Traction bonds I took off the bank's hands out there. They were carrying them as collateral for a man Sam Holton stung on one of his Western trips. He'd planted all he could in New York and had to try a new field. The bank foreclosed on the bonds and I bought twenty of them at sixty-five. I suppose from what I hear that they're not good for much but kindling."
"You got 'em at sixty-five, Lois?"
"The bank only lent on them at that, and there was no market for them out there. What's going to become of that road?"
Amzi glanced toward the empty counting-room where a single clerk was sealing the mail.
"Tom's trying to save it. And I've been buying those things myself at seventy."
"You think it's a good buy at that? Going to clean up something out of it?"
Amzi flushed, and moved uneasily in his seat.
"No. That's not just the way of it. I don't want to make any money out of it; neither does Tom. We're trying to protect the honest people around here at home who put their money into that scheme. Sam and Bill Holton made a big play for small investors, and a lot of people put their savings into it—the kind o' folks who scrimp to save a dollar a week. Tom's trying to sift out the truth about the building of the line, and if he can force the surrender of the construction company's graft over and above the fair cost of the road, Sycamore will be all right. Your bonds are good, I think. People have been up in the air over the rumors, and anxious to sell at any price. What I'm doing, Lois, as far as I'm able—"
He fidgeted uneasily, seemingly reluctant to disclose just what he was doing.
"Well," she said impatiently.
"I'm picking up all I can from these little fellows—farmers, widows, and so on, and if Tom works out his scheme and the bonds are good, I'm going to let them have them back. That's all," he ended shamefacedly; and added, as though such a piece of quixotism required justification to a woman who had rolled up a fortune and was therefore likely to be critical of business methods, "I suppose I'd be entitled to interest."
"I suppose you would, you gay Napoleon of finance!" She looked at him musingly with good humor and affection in her fine eyes.
"I sort o' like this old town, Lois, and I don't want any harm to come to the folks—particularly these little fellows that don't know how to take care of themselves."
"Is Tom animated by the same philanthropic motives, or is he going to get a fee for his work?"
"Oh, he'll get paid all right. It's different with Tom."
"I suppose so. He ought to have a good fee if he can straighten out that tangle. But, Amzi—" She hesitated a moment, then began again more deliberately. "If you're getting more of those bonds than you want, you might buy some with my money—I mean with a view to taking care of these home investors who are in a panic about Sycamore. I suppose I owe something to the community myself—after—"
She gave him her quick, radiant smile.
He nodded gravely.
"All right, Lois. I'll remember that. And I'll tell you something else, now that we're on business matters. The First National Bank over the way there is built up in the air too high; it's got all the weaknesses of the Holton family—showy without any real bottom to it. Some of their stock has always been owned around through the state—quite a bunch of it—and Bill has had to sell part of his own holdings lately; he's got only a scant majority. I've been picking up a little myself, on the quiet. After Tom gets through with the Holtons, I doubt if Bill's going to be able to hold on. I know his line of customers; I guess I could tell you about every piece of paper he's got. It's a poor line, wobbly and uncertain. There was a new examiner here not long ago, and he stayed in town two or three days when he usually cleans up in a day. Banking is a business, Lois, not a pastime, and Bill isn't a banker; he's a promoter. Do you get the idea?"
"I think I see the point, but if his bank's going to smash, why don't you keep away from it? There's a double liability on national bank stock, isn't there? Seems to me that's the reason I never bought any."
"Right, Lois; but I don't intend the First shall bust. It won't do me or my bank or the town any good to have it go to smash. A town of the size of this don't live down a bank failure in one generation. It soaks clear in. I've got enough now to assert my rights as a stockholder, only I'm keeping under cover; there's no use in screaming in the newspapers. I haven't anything against Bill Holton, and if he pulls through, all right; but if he can't—well, I've never wanted to nationalize this bank, but that would be one way of doing it."
"You seem to be full of large thoughts, brother. You may play with my money all you like in your charitable games, with a few reservations. I like to eat and I don't want to spend my old age in the poorhouse. There's cash enough here to run me for some time and you can use half of that in any way you like. I'll take any chance you do, and you'll find I won't cry if the boiler bursts. My Seattle real estate is all right—and I mean to hold fast to it. Now I want to do something for Phil; I want to make sure she never comes to want. That's only right, you know."
She waited for his affirmation.
"You ought to do it, Lois," he said. "I mean to do the right thing by her myself. If I should die to-night, Phil would be taken care of."
"That's like you, Amzi, but it isn't necessary. I want to set aside one hundred thousand for Phil. I'd like to make a trust fund of it, and let her have the income from now on, and turn over the principal when she's thirty, say. How does that strike you?"
"It's splendid, Lois. By George, it's grand!"
He blew his nose violently and wiped his eyes. And then his humor was touched again. Phil, the long-unmothered, the Main Street romp, the despair of sighing aunts, coming in for a hundred thousand dollars! And from the mother whom those intolerant, snobbish sisters had execrated. He was grateful that he had lived to see this day.
"You've been fine to Phil, and I appreciate it, Amzi. She's told me all about it; the money you offered her and all that; and how you've stood by her. Those dear sisters of mine have undoubtedly worked me hard as an awful example. If they hadn't painted me so black, the dear beautiful child wouldn't have warmed to me as she has."
"If the girls knew you had all that money, Lois, it would brace 'em up a good deal. It's a funny thing about this funny old world, how the scarletest sins fade away into pale pink at the jingle of money."
This bit of philosophy seemed not to interest her; she was thinking of something else, humming softly. Her sins were evidently so little in her mind that she paid no heed to his remark or the confusion that covered him when he realized that he had been guilty of a tactless and ungracious speech.
"Mrs. King called on me this afternoon, the dear old soul."
"You don't say!"
"I do, indeed. She put on her best clothes and drove up in the old family chariot. She hasn't changed a bit."
Amzi sat pigeon-toed. Mrs. John Newman King, whose husband had been United States Senator and who still paid an annual visit to Washington, where the newspapers interviewed her as to her recollections of Lincoln, was given to frank, blunt speech as Amzi well knew. It was wholly possible that she had called on Lois to administer a gratuitous chastisement, and if she had done so, all Montgomery would know of it.
"Don't worry! She was as nice as pie. Josie had kindly gone to see her to tell her the 'family' had warned me away; the 'family' wanted her to know, you know. Didn't want an old and valued friend like the widow of John Newman King to think the good members of the House of Montgomery meant to overlook my wickedness. Not a bit of it! You can hear Josie going on. She evidently laid it on so thick it made the old lady hot. When she came in, she took me by both hands and said, 'You silly little fool, so you've come back.' Then she kissed me. And I cried, being a silly little fool, just as she said. And she didn't say another word about what I'd done or hadn't done, but began talking about her trip abroad in 1872, when she saw it all, she says—the Nile and everything. She swung around to Phil and told me a lot of funny stories about her. She talked about Tom and you before she left; said she'd never made out how you and Tom meant to divide up the Bartlett girls; seems to be bent on marrying you both into the family."
"Thunder!" he exploded. This unaccountable sister had the most amazing way of setting a target to jingling and then calmly walking off. The thought of her husband's marrying again evidently gave her no concern whatever.
"Not nice of you to be keeping your own prospects a dark secret when I'm living under the same roof with you. Out with it."
"Don't be foolish, Lois."
"But why don't you be a good brother and 'fess up? As I remember they're both nice women—quite charming and fine. I should think you'd take your pick first, and then let Tom have what's left. You deserve well of the world, and time flies. Don't you let my coming back here interfere with your plans. I'm not in your way. If you think I'm back on your hands, and that you can't bring home your bonny bride because I'm in your house, you're dead wrong. You ought to be relieved." She ended by indicating the memorandum of her assets; and then tore it into bits and began pushing them into a little pile on the table.
"It must be Rose—the musical one. Phil has told me about the good times you and she and Tom have had in Buckeye Lane. I looked all over the house for your flute and wondered what had become of it; so you keep it there, do you—you absurd brother! Rose plays the piano, you flute, and Tom saws the 'cello, and Nan and Phil are the audience. By the way, Mrs. King mentioned a book Nan Bartlett seems to be responsible for—'The Gray Knight of Picardy.' Everybody was reading it on the train when I came out, but I didn't know it was a Montgomery production. Another Hoosier author for the hall of fame! It comes back to me that Nan always was rather different—quiet and literary. I don't doubt that she would be a splendid woman for Tom to marry."
"I don't know anything about it," said Amzi.
"Humph!" She flung the scraps of paper into the air and watched them fall about him in a brief snowstorm. She seemed to enjoy his discomfiture at the mention of the Bartletts. "Let's not be silly, you dear, delightful, elusive brother! If you want to marry, go ahead; the sooner the better. And if Tom wants to try again, I'll wish him the best luck in the world—the Lord knows I ought to! I suppose it's Nan, the literary one, he's interested in. She writes for the funny papers; Phil told me that; and if she's done a book that people read on trains, she'll make money out of it. And Tom's literary; I always had an idea he'd go in for writing sometime."
She mused a moment while Amzi mopped his head. He found it difficult to dance to the different tunes she piped. He would have given his body to be burned before referring to the possibility of Tom's marrying again; and yet Lois broached the subject without embarrassment. Nothing, in fact, embarrassed her. He knew a great banker in Chicago who made a point of never allowing any papers to lie on his desk; who disposed of everything as it came; and Lois reminded him of that man. There was no unfinished business on her table, no litter of memories to gather dust! He not only loved her as a sister, but her personality fascinated him.
"They've been good to Tom; and they've been perfectly bully to Phil. They're fine women," he said. "But as to whether Tom means to marry, I don't know; I honestly don't."
"Tut! You needn't be so solemn about it. I intend to see that you get married. If you wait much longer, some widow will come along and marry you for your money—a poor shrimp of a woman with a lot of anaemic children to worry you into your grave. And as for Tom, the quicker the better. I wonder—"
He waited while she wondered. She had an exceedingly pretty way of wondering.
"I wonder," she finished briskly, as though chagrined that she hadn't thought of it before—"I wonder if I oughtn't to tell Tom so!"
The "Thunder!" died in his throat at the appalling suggestion.
"O Lord, no!" he cried hoarsely.
PHIL MOVES TO AMZI'S
When he had recovered from the first shock of his wife's return, Kirkwood adjusted himself to the new order of things in a philosophic temper. Nan had withdrawn absolutely her day-old promise to marry him. That episode in his life was ended. He felt the nobility of her attitude without wholly accepting its conclusions. He had tried to persuade her that the geography of the matter had nothing to do with it; that having promised to marry him when they believed Lois to be safely out of the way, her return did not affect their status in the least. This was the flimsiest casuistry, as he well knew. It made a tremendous difference where Lois was!
"I have to go away to-morrow, Phil, and I'm likely to be in Indianapolis much of the time until spring. I can't take you with me very well; a hotel is no place for you, and I shall be very busy. And I can't leave you here alone, you know."
His tone was kind; he always meant to be kind, this dear father of hers! He hurried on with an even greater thoughtfulness to anticipate a solution of this problem which had occurred to her instantly, but which she lacked the courage to suggest.
"I saw your Uncle Amzi to-day and had a long talk with him about you. I proposed that you go to his house and stay, at least until I get through my work with the Sycamore Company. We won't make any definite date for your return, for the reason that I don't just know when I'll be free to settle down here again. Amzi was perfectly agreeable to the idea—quite splendid about it, in fact. Your mother, it seems, means to stay with him. And now there's this further thing, Phil. You won't mind my going into it a little bit, once and for all. The law gave you to me long ago, but apart from that I suppose I have a certain moral claim to you. But I want you to feel free to do as you like where your mother's concerned. What I said of her yesterday I'm sorry for; I shouldn't have done that if I'd been myself. And I'm not making it necessary for you to make a choice between us. We're old comrades, you and I, Phil, and there can't be any shadow of a difference between us, now or ever. It's the simplest and easiest thing for you to go to your uncle's house, and we won't even consider the fact that your mother is there; we'll just assume that her being there is the most natural thing in the world, and that it's a matter of our common convenience for you to be there, too. You see how perfectly easy and natural it all comes about."
She clung to him, the tears welling. She had never been disappointed in him, and this generosity moved her deeply. He was making it easy for her to go to her mother; that was all. Her soul rebelled against the fate that made necessary any choice when her father was so gentle, so wise, so kind, and her mother so transcendently charming and lovable.
"You are so good to me; you have always been so good!" she sobbed. "And I'm sorry I was ugly yesterday, about Nan. You know I love Nan. No one was ever kinder to me than Nan—hardly you, even! And I don't want you to give her up; you need each other; you do understand each other! Oh, everything is so queer and wrong!"
"No, Phil; things are not as queer and wrong as they look. Don't get that idea into your head. Life isn't queer or wrong; life simply isn't as easy as it looks, and that's very different."
He smiled, turning her face so that she could see that he smiled not unhappily.
"But I don't want you to go away; I'd die if I thought I shouldn't see you any more—and all the good times we've had, right here in this old house—and everything—"
"But this isn't the end of things. When I'm back, as I shall be for a day or two frequently, I'll always let you know; or you can run over to the city and do a theater with me whenever you like. So let's be cheerful about everything."
The passing of her trunk from her father's house to her uncle's was not neglected by the gossips. Her three aunts noted it, and excoriated Kirkwood and Amzi. They took care that every one should know how they felt about the transfer of poor, dear Phil (on whom they had lavished their love and care for years, to the end that she might grow up respectable, etc., etc.) to a roof that sheltered her Jezebel of a mother.
"That was nice of him," said Lois, when Phil explained her coming. "How's your father getting on these days?"
"Oh, quite well!" Phil replied.
She was establishing herself in a room adjoining her mother's. Lois, in a flowered silk kimona, commented upon Phil's clothes as they were hauled from the trunk. Her opinions in the main were touched with her light, glancing irony.
"I'll wager Jo bought that walnut-stain effect," she remarked, pointing an accusing finger at a dark waist. "That has Josephine stamped on it. Poor old soul!"
Her manner of speaking of her sister set Phil to giggling. Mrs. Waterman had bought that particular article over Phil's solemn protest, and she now sat on the bed and watched her mother carry the odious thing gingerly by the collar to the door and fling it in the direction of the back stairs.
Lois brought from her own room a set of silver toilet articles and distributed them over the top of Phil's bureau.
"I forgot all about these, Phil; but they fit in handily right here. A little self-indulgence of my own, but my old ones are good enough. Oh, please don't!" she exclaimed, as Phil began to thank her. "Why shouldn't you have them? Who has a better right to them, I'd like to know!"
Whereupon she began experimenting with the nail-polisher from Phil's set.
"This is a good polisher, Phil. I'm going to show you how to do your own manicuring—every lady her own maid. Sarah dug up a colored hairdresser, manicurist, and light-running domestic chatterbox this morning, and she gave my hair a pulling I shan't forget in a hurry. Never again! If you can't have a trained maid, you'd better be your own beautifier. I had a wonderful girl the last time I was over, and took her with me on a motor trip through the chateau country. She was an outrageous little flirt. Two chauffeurs got into a row about her during the week we spent at Tours, and one pounded the other into a pulp. The French rural police are duller than the ox, and they locked up Marie as a witness. Imagine my feelings! It was very annoying."
Her smile belied the annoyance. Phil surmised that she had enjoyed the experience; but Lois added no details to her hasty picture. Lois did not trouble herself greatly with details; everything with her was sketchy and impressionistic.
"What about boys, Phil?"
"I've had one proposal; he was a senior with a funny stammer. He went away with his diploma last June, and said he'd never forget. I got his cards to-day. She's a Lafayette girl he had down for the 'Pan' in his senior year. She has golden hair," Phil added musingly.
"The scoundrel; to forget you as quick as that!" And Lois laughed as Phil bent her head and clasped her hands in a mockery of dejection. "You've come out and I suppose you are asked to all the parties. Let me see, when I was a girl there were candy-pullings, and 'companies' where you sat around and were bored until somebody proposed playing 'The Prince of Paris Lost his Hat' or some game like that. When the old folks went to bed, our hostess would find a pack of cards—authors, most likely—or play a waltz on the soft pedal for two couples to dance. Wholesome but not exciting."
"Oh, we're livelier and better than that! They have real balls now at the Masonic Hall; and all the fraternities have dances, and there's the Pan-Hellenic, and so on. And there are dinners in courses, and bridge no end!"
Lois shrugged her shoulders, lifted her pretty brows, and tossed the nail-polisher on to the bureau to emphasize her contempt for bridge in all its forms.
"As to young men, Phil. Tell me all about the Montgomery cavaliers."
"Oh, every girl knows all the boys. They are divided into two classes as usual, nice and un-nice. Some of them have flirted with me and I have flirted with them. I suppose there was nothing very naughty in that."
"We will pass that for the present. Tell me about the young fellows who pay you attentions."
Phil ran over the list, Lois interrupting when some familiar name arrested her attention. Phil hit off one after the other in a few apt phrases. Her mother in a rocking-chair, with arms folded, was more serious than in any of their previous talks. What Phil disclosed was only the social experience of the average country-town girl. The fact that she had made a few acquaintances in Indianapolis interested her mother.
"The Fitches? Yes; nice people. That was through your father? All right. Go on."
"Well, there are the two Holton boys," said Phil, self-conscious for the first time. "You see, my aunts thought everything ought to be fixed up with the Holtons, and they asked Mr. and Mrs. William to my party, and threw in Charlie and Ethel, and I suggested that they add Fred, too. They are Samuel's children. There being the two brothers it didn't seem nice to leave out one; and I already knew Fred anyhow."
"Why this sudden affection of your aunts for the Holtons?—there is a reason for everything those creatures do."
"Mrs. William is stylish and does things. Her maid wears a cap when she opens the door, and Mrs. William makes her calls in a neat electric."
"Everything is explained quite satisfactorily, Phil. Amzi told me our sisters had buried the hatchet, but he didn't put it quite as clearly as you do. He did tell me, though, that Jack had spoiled your beautiful party by turning up drunk. That was nasty, vile," she added, shrugging her shoulders. "Well, about these nephews?"
"Charlie is older, and very citified; quite the most dashing man who lightens our horizons. He sends me flowers and bon-bons, most expensive. And he's a joy at paying compliments; makes you feel that you're the only one, or tries to. He has very large ideas about business and life generally. But nice, I think, and kind and generous. But, mamma—"
She paused, disconcerted by a sudden keen look her mother gave her.
"He sounds like an agreeable person," remarked Lois, glancing at the point of her slipper.
"What I started to say was that if you think I shouldn't see them any more—"
"Bless me, no! I see what's in your mind, Phil, but you needn't trouble about that. We're just trying to get acquainted, you and I. We understand each other beautifully, and after while we'll see whether we have any advice for each other. At your age I hadn't the sense of a kitten. You're most astonishingly wise; I marvel at you! And you've grown up a nice, sensible girl in spite of your aunts—none of their cattishness—not a hint of it. I can't tell you how relieved I am to find you just as you are. The way they have cuddled up to the Holtons is diverting, but nothing more. It's what you would have expected of them. The proud and haughty Montgomerys turned snobs! It's frightful to think of it! As for me, I have nothing against the Holtons. I'm this kind of a sinner, Phil: I carry my own load. No shoving it off on anybody else! Some people are born with ideals; I wasn't! But I hope to acquire some before I die; we're all entitled to a show at them. But, bless me, what are we talking about? There's the other Holton boy; what's he got to say for himself?"
"Oh, he'd never say it if it were left to him! He's shy, modest, proud. No frills."
"Well, he has a nice face," Phil answered, so earnestly that her mother laughed. "And he's modest and genuine and sincere."
"Those are good qualities. As near as I can make out, you like all these young men well enough—the boys you knew in high school and the college boys. And these Holtons have broken into the circle lately, and have shown you small attentions—nothing very important."
"Charlie sends me American Beauties, and Fred has brought me quails and a book."
"What was the book?"
"'The Gray Knight of Picardy.'"
"That's Nan Bartlett's?" Lois looked at the palm of her hand carelessly.
"Yes; it's a great success—the hit of the season."
"I suppose your father and Nan have been good friends—literary interests in common, and all that?"
"Of course," Phil answered, uncomfortable under this seemingly indifferent questioning.
"I have read the story. There are pages in it that are like your father. I suppose, seeing so much of each other, they naturally talked it over—a sort of collaboration?"
The question required an answer, and Phil shrank from answering. Closeted with her mother she was reluctant to confess how close had been the relationship between her father and Nan Bartlett. Her mind worked quickly. She was outspokenly truthful by habit; but she was a loyal soul, too. She decided that she could answer her mother's question without violating her father's confidence as to his feelings toward Nan. That was all over now; her father had told her so in a word. Lois hummed, picking bits of lint from her skirt while Phil deliberated.
"Father did help with it. I suppose he even wrote part of it, but nobody need know that. Daddy doesn't mean to go in for writing; he says the very suspicion that he's literary would hurt him in the law."
"I suppose he helped on the book just to get Nan interested. Now that she's launched as a writer, he drops out of the combination."
"Something like that. Daddy is very busy, you know."
Phil entertained views of her own as to the cause of her father's sudden awakening. She was sure that his interest in Nan was the inspiration of it, quite as much as alarm at the low ebb of his fortunes. In the general confusion into which the world had been plunged, Phil groped in the dark along unfamiliar walls. It was a grim fate that flung her back and forth between father and mother, a shuttle playing across the broken, tangled threads of their lives. She started suddenly as a new thought struck her. Perhaps behind this seemingly inadvertent questioning lay some deeper interest. Suddenly the rose light of romance touched the situation. Phil looked at Lois guardedly. What if—? With an accession of feeling she flung herself at her mother's knees and took her hands.
"Could you and daddy ever make it up? Could you do that now, after all these years?" she asked earnestly.
Lois looked at her absently, with her trick of trying to recall a question not fully comprehended.
"Oh, that! Never in this world! What do you think your father's made of?" Again the shrug, so becoming, so expressive, so final! She freed her hands, and drew out and replaced a hairpin. For an instant Phil was dismayed, but once so far afield in dangerous territory she would not retreat.
"But what would you say?" she persisted.
"Dear Phil, don't think of such a terrible thing; it fairly chills me. Your father is a gentleman; he wouldn't—he wouldn't do anything so cruel as that!" she said ambiguously.
"I don't see how it would be cruel, if he meant it—if he wanted to!"
"That's because you are an angel and don't know anything about this sad old world of ours. Life isn't like the story-books, Phil. In a novel a nice dear daughter like you might reconcile her parents with tears and flowers and that sort of thing; but in real life it's very different as you will see when you think of it; only I don't want you to think of it at all. I believe you like me; we hit it off quite wonderfully; and I should expect you to hate me if I ever dreamed of anything so contemptible as spoiling a man's life twice."
And remembering Nan, Phil could not argue the matter. She was unable to visualize her father on his knees to her mother. No flimsy net of sentiment flung across the chasm could bring them within hailing distance of each other; they were utterly irreconcilable characters. It was incredible that they had ever pledged themselves to love and cherish each other forever.
"Phil, what did your father say about my coming back?" asked Lois abruptly.
Phil hesitated. Her mother looked at her keenly in that instant of delay, and then laid her hand gently upon Phil's lips.
"No; don't answer that! It isn't a fair question. And now let us forget all these things forever and ever!"
She proposed a walk before dinner. "I'll get into my boots and be ready in a minute."
Phil heard her whistling as she moved about her room.
BACK TO STOP SEVEN
Charles Holton met his brother Fred in the lobby of the Morton House on an afternoon near the end of January. Charles was presenting a buoyant exterior to the world despite a renewal of the disquieting rumors of the fall as to Sycamore Traction and equally disagreeable hints in inner financial and legal circles as to the reopening of Samuel Holton's estate. He resented Fred's meddling in the matter; he was the head of the family and a man of affairs, and he was not pleasantly impressed by the fact that on two occasions to his knowledge Fred had visited Kirkwood at his Indianapolis office.
"I want to see you," said Charles. "Why don't you come to see me when you're in the city and save me the trouble of chasing over here?"
"Well, Charlie, you've found me now. What is it you want?"
"Come up to my room. I don't care to have all Montgomery hear us."
When the door closed on them, Charles threw off his overcoat and confronted his brother with a dark countenance.
"You're playing the devil with the whole bunch of us—do you realize that! You've been sneaking over to Kirkwood to tell him all our family history. You think by playing up to him you'll get a lot of money. If you had any claims against father's estate you ought to have come to me with them—not gone to the man that's trying to pull us all down."
"Stop, right where you are! I went to Kirkwood because I felt that the only square thing was to turn the farm over to him until things were straightened out. And after I'd turned in the farm, you fell over yourself to surrender some stuff you had—things you'd tried to hide or placed a fake appraisement on."
Charles, standing by the window with his hands in his pockets, smiled derisively. Fred's long ulster accentuated his rural appearance. He was a big fellow and his deep voice had boomed with an aggressive note his brother resented.
"Don't bawl as though you were driving cattle. There's no need of telling all Main Street our affairs. Do you know what's the matter with you—Kirkwood's working you! He's trying to scare you with threats of the penitentiary into telling him a lot of stuff about the family. He meant to try it on me, but I beat him to it—I told him to go to the bottom of everything. And if you'd kept your mouth shut I'd have taken care of you, too. You took that farm with your eyes open; and I'll say to you right now that you got a better share of the estate than Ethel and I did."
"Then you haven't anything to be afraid of. If it's all straight there can't be any trouble. Is this all you wanted?"
This was evidently not in the least what Charles wanted, for he changed his tone and the direction of the talk.
"You know, Fred, I was in father's confidence very fully. I am older than you, and I was associated with him in his schemes and knew all about them. Father was a very able man; you know that; everybody said he was one of the shrewdest and most farseeing men in the state. I won't say that his methods were always just what they should have been; but he's dead and gone, and it's not for us to jump on him or let anybody else kick him. So far we understand each other, don't we?"
"All right; hurry up with the rest of it."
"This is not a hurrying matter. I've got to take you into my confidence, and I want it understood that what I say doesn't go back to Kirkwood. He's a relentless devil, once he gets started. I suppose it hasn't occurred to you that he may have a motive for pursuing us—you and me and any other Holton he has a chance to injure. You see that point, don't you?"
"No. What is it?"
"Well, you're duller than I think you are if it hasn't occurred to you that Kirkwood is trying to even up with us for the loss of his wife. It was our dear Uncle Jack that ran off with her; it was a Holton that did it! You recollect that, don't you?"
"I seem to recall it," replied Fred ironically. He had mechanically drawn out his pipe and was filling it from a canvas bag of cheap tobacco.
"And that's all there is to it. Kirkwood had mooned around town here for years, doing nothing. Then suddenly an old friend of his in the East took pity on him and gave him this Sycamore Company to meddle in, and he's contemptible enough to use a law case for personal vengeance against perfectly innocent people. And you walked into the trap like a silly sheep!"
"You know you don't believe that, Charlie. Kirkwood isn't that kind of man. He's on the level and high grade."
"He may be all that; but he's a human being too. There's no man on earth who'd pass a thing like that. An ignorant, coarse beast would have shot somebody; but an educated man like Kirkwood calculates carefully and sticks the knife in when he sees a chance to make it go clear through. That girl of his is the cutest kid in Indiana, and I wouldn't do anything to hurt her. But we've got to protect ourselves, you and I, Fred. We're not responsible for Uncle Jack's sins. The whole thing is blistering Kirkwood right now because Uncle Jack's turned up and the lady in the case has had so little decency as to follow him."
"I don't suppose she thought of doing anything of the kind. She and Uncle Jack broke long ago. He told me so, in fact, at Indianapolis, and made her cruel abandonment an excuse for borrowing five dollars of me."
"Well, we've got to get rid of him! He's doing all he can against us; sending people to Kirkwood with stories about father, and the traction business. I tell you, Fred," he declared ardently, "our family is in danger of going to hell if you and I don't do something pretty quick to stop it."
Fred puffed his pipe and watched his brother fidgeting nervously about the room. A phonograph across the street called attention to a moving-picture show. In the hotel office below, the porter proclaimed the departure of the 'bus to connect with the six-three for Peoria and all points West.
"There they go now!" exclaimed Charles from the window. "By George! She's a good-looking woman yet!"
Fred joined him and looked down. Phil and her mother were passing rapidly on the opposite side of the street. Unconsciously Fred drew off his cap.
"She's a very pleasant woman," he remarked. "Phil introduced me to her the other day."
"The devil she did! Where did all this happen?"
"At Mr. Montgomery's. Phil's staying there while her father's away."
"I like your cheek! They say my nerve is pretty well developed, but it isn't equal to that. How did our late aunt—I suppose that's what she is," he grinned—"take you?"
"Like a lady, for instance. My going there wasn't as cheeky as you imagine. I was invited."
"No; Mr. Montgomery."
"There must be a trick in it somewhere. He's a foxy old boy, that Amzi. Has the general appearance of a fool, but he never loses any money."
"He's offered me a job," said Fred.
"Offered me a job."
"What's the joke? You don't mean that with all this fuss over his sister's coming back he's picked out a Holton to offer a job to!"
"That's what's happened. They want Perry—his farmer—to take a teaching place at the agricultural school. It's a fine chance for him, and Mr. Montgomery has released him from his contract. Perry recommended me, and Mr. Montgomery asked me to the house a few evenings ago to talk it over. The arrangement includes my own farm, too, which Kirkwood holds as trustee until the Sycamore business is straightened out."
Charles backed away and stared at his brother scornfully.
"You idiot! don't you see what they're doing? They're buying you body and soul. They want to get you on their side—don't you see it?—to use against Uncle Will and me. Well! of all the smooth, cold-blooded, calculating scoundrels I ever heard of, they are the beatingest. Of course you saw it; you haven't walked into the trap!"
"I've accepted the position."
"You blundering fool, you can't accept it! I won't let you accept it!"
"I'm moving my traps to the Montgomery farmhouse to-morrow, so you'll have to call out the troops if you stop me."
"Well, of all the damned fools!" Then after a turn across the room he flashed round at his brother. "Look here, Fred; I see your game. You want to marry that girl. Well, you can't do that either!"
"All right, Charlie. Suppose you write out a list of the various things I can't do so I won't miss any of them. You haven't any sense of humor or you wouldn't talk about Phil marrying me. Phil's not likely to marry a clodhopper, her uncle's hired hand."
"Don't be an ass, Fred. Phil's a fine girl; she's a wonder."
"I suppose," said Fred deliberately, "that if you wanted to marry Phil Kirkwood yourself there would be no disloyalty to our family in that. It would be perfectly proper; quite the right thing."
"I didn't say I wanted to marry her," jerked Charles.
He was pacing the floor with bent head. His brother's equanimity irritated him and intensified his anger. He struck his hands together suddenly as though emphasizing a resolution, and arrested Fred, who had knocked the ashes from his pipe and was walking slowly toward the door.
"I say, Fred, I didn't mean to flare up that way, but all this Sycamore business has got on my nerves. Sit down a minute. Uncle Will's in a terrible funk. Plumb scared to death. And just between you and me he's got a right to be."
He crossed to the door, opened it and peered into the hall. Fred balanced himself on the footboard of the bed, and watched his brother expectantly. Earlier in the interview Charles had begun to say something as to their father's affairs, but had failed to reach the point, either by design or through the chance drift of their talk. Charles was deeply worried; that was clear; and Fred resolved to give him time to swing back to the original starting-point.
"I'm sorry if Uncle Will's in trouble," he remarked.
"It's the First National," Charles went on in an excited whisper. "The examiner made a bad report last month and the Comptroller sent a special agent out who's raised the devil—threatened to shut him up. That's bad enough. If old Kirkwood gets ugly about Sycamore, you can't tell what he may do. He's playing an awful deep, quiet game. The fact is he's got us all where he wants us. If he turned the screws right now we're pinched. And here's something I didn't mean to tell you; but I've got to; and you've got to come in and help me. Father knew the Sycamore was over-bonded. The construction company was only a fake and charged about double a fair price for its work. Father only cashed part of the bonds he got on the construction deal and hid the rest; and when he died suddenly I had to think hard and act quick, for I saw the road was going to the bad, and that the people who had bought bonds in good faith would rise up and howl. When I took hold as administrator, I inventoried only the obvious stuff—that's why it looked so small. I meant to give you and Ethel your share when the danger was all over—didn't want to involve you; you see how it was. And now Kirkwood's trying to trace that stuff—about three hundred thousand—a hundred thousand apiece for you and Ethel and me. No; not a word till I get through," he whispered hoarsely as Fred tried to break in. "They can send me up for that; juggling the inventory; but you see how we're all in the same boat. And what you can do to save me and the bank and father's good name is to go to Kirkwood—he thinks well of you and will believe you—and tell him you know positively that father never got any of the construction bonds. You can be sure the construction company fellows got rid of theirs and took themselves off long ago. It was a fake company, anyhow. It's all in Kirkwood's hands; if you shut him off, Uncle Will can pull the bank through. And I'll give you your share of the bonds now."
The perspiration glistened on his forehead; he ran his hands through his hair nervously. Misreading the look in Fred's face for incredulity, he pointed to the closet door.
"I've got the bonds in my suit-case; I was afraid Kirkwood might find a way of getting into my safety box at Indianapolis. He's no end smart, that fellow. And I figure that if the road goes into a receivership the bonds will pay sixty anyhow. You see where that puts you—no more of this farmer rot. You'd be well fixed. And it will be easy for you to satisfy Kirkwood. Just the right word and he will pull his probe out of the administratorship, and get a receiver who will represent us and give us the proceeds when the trouble's all over. Damn it! Don't look at me that way! Don't you see that I've been taking big chances in hiding that stuff, just for you and Ethel! I'm going crazy with the responsibility of all this, and now you've got to help me out. And if Kirkwood gets to the grand jury with that administration business, you see where it puts us—what it means to you and Ethel, the disgrace of it. Don't forget that father took those bonds—his share of Sycamore swag—and left it up to me to defend his good name and divide the proceeds when it was safe. Don't stand there like a dead man! Say something, can't you!"
It had slowly dawned upon Fred that he was listening to an appeal for mercy, a cry for help from this jaunty, cocksure brother. It was a miserable mess; beyond doubt much of what he had heard in the stuffy hotel room was true. It would not be Charles's way to incriminate himself so far unless driven to it by direst necessity. It was clear that he was alarmed for his personal safety. Fred did not doubt that Charles had attempted to swindle him; had in fact gone the full length of doing so. His simple, direct nature was awed by a confession that combined so many twists and turns, so many oblique lines and loops and circles. He sank into a creaky rocker, and rapped the arm idly with his pipe-bowl, conscious that Charles hovered over him as though fearful that he might escape.
"Come back to life, can't you! It's not much I'm asking of you; it won't cost you anything to help tide this thing over with Kirkwood. And you get your share right now—to-night. Why—" His lip curled with scornful depreciation as he began again to minimize the importance of the transaction.
Fred shook himself impatiently.
"Please don't! Don't go over that story again or I may do something ugly. Sit down over there in that chair."
He bent forward, his elbows on his knees and gesticulated with the pipe, speaking slowly.
"Let's shake the chaff out and see what's left of all this. You stole my share of those bonds, and now that you're in danger of getting caught you want me to help you hide the boodle. You flatter me with the idea that my reputation is so much better than yours that I'm in a position to keep you out of jail. And for a little thing like that you're willing to give me my honest share of a crooked deal! You're a wonder, Charlie! It must have tickled you to death to see me turning my poor old farm over to Kirkwood to uphold the family honor while you were chasing over the country with the real stuff packed away with your pajamas. It's picturesque, I must say!"
His eyes rested upon his brother's face lingeringly, but his tone and manner were indulgent, as though he were an older brother who had caught a younger one in a misdemeanor.
"Cut that out! I've told you the whole truth. If you won't help, all right."
"No, it isn't all right. There's no all right about any of this. It's rotten clean through."
He frowned with the stress of his thought, then rose, and began buttoning his coat.
"Well?" Charles questioned harshly, impatient for his brother's decision.
"I won't do it. I won't have anything to do with your scheme. After the trouble you've taken to steal those bonds it would be a shame to take any of them away from you. I advise you to carry them back to Indianapolis and turn them over to Kirkwood. He's not half the cold-blooded scoundrel you seem to think. You'd make a big hit with him."
"And after I've told you everything—after I've shown you that I was only covering up father's share in that construction business, for your sake, and our sister's, that's all you've got to say about it!"
A malevolent grin crossed the older man's face. He was white with passion.
"You'll pay for this; I'll land one on you for this that will hurt."
He waited expectantly for Fred to demand the nature of this vengeance; his rage cried for the satisfaction of seeing him flinch at the blow. Fred settled his cap on his head and walked stolidly toward the door. Charles caught him by the shoulder and flung him round.
"You think you can drop me like that! Not by a damned sight you can't! You think you stand pretty close to the Montgomerys, don't you?—the only real good Holton in the bunch—but I'll give you a jar. You imagine you're going to marry Phil, don't you?—but I'll show you a thing or two. I'm going to marry Phil myself; it's all practically understood."
"That's all right, too, Charlie," replied Fred calmly. "The ambition does you proud. I suppose when you tell Kirkwood you're engaged to his daughter he will call off the dogs."
"Oh, they're not so high and mighty! Now that Phil's mother has brought her smirched reputation back here, Phil will be glad to marry and get out."
"Just for old time's sake, Charlie, I advise you not to play that card."
"You're too late with your advice. That day Phil and I climbed The Cliffs she promised to marry me. You saw us up there; that was before her mother came back. But as far as her mother's concerned, I'll stand for her. A woman that's been through the divorce mill twice has got to be humble. You can be dead sure she would never have shown up here if it hadn't been for old Amzi's ducats. Women like that go where the money comes easiest."
Fred listened with a kind of bewildered intensity. That a man should speak thus of the mother of a girl whom he meant to marry touched the uttermost depths of vulgarity. Little as he had in common with his brother, he had never believed him capable of anything so base. Yet much as he distrusted him, he half-believed the story of the engagement. There must be some basis for his declaration, and it would be quite like Charles to hasten matters with a view to blocking Kirkwood's investigations of the Holton estate. Jealousy and anger surged in his heart. The air of the room stifled him.
"You've lost your mind; that's the only way I can explain you. If you were quite sane, you wouldn't forget the part our father's brother played in Phil's mother's affairs."
"Don't take that tragic tone with me; Uncle Jack's told me all about that woman. She's the very devil. She led him a dog's life until he chucked her."
Fred nodded, slowly drawing on his gloves, whose shabbiness affected his brother disagreeably. Charles had expected to score heavily with his declaration that Phil had promised to marry him; but this had apparently been a wasted shot. He wondered whether he had misread the symptoms that had seemed to indicate Fred's interest in that quarter.
Fred's composure was irritating. Charles was never sure what impression he made on this quiet brother, whose very unresponsiveness had driven him to disclosures he had not meant to make. He had managed the interview clumsily; he was not up to the mark, or he would not have made so many false starts in this talk, on whose results he had counted much.
His fingers touched his scarfpin and tie nervously.
"Now that you know the whole business I needn't ask you to keep your mouth shut. But I suppose with your delicate sense of honor I'm safe."
"You are quite safe, Charlie. I'd repeat my advice if I thought it would do any good. I'd turn that stuff over to Kirkwood as quickly as I could."
He had opened the door and started down the hall when Charles, his apprehensions aroused as he saw his brother's determined stride toward the stairs, sprang after him.
"What are you up to; where are you going?" he demanded excitedly.
"Stop 7. Good-night!"
"This is very kind of you, Mrs. Holton. Please be sure that I appreciate it."
Charles Holton bowed profoundly, and lifted his head for a closer inspection of Mrs. Lois Montgomery Holton.
He had called for Phil, whom he had engaged to escort to a lecture in the Athenaeum Course. When his note proposing this entertainment reached Phil, she dutifully laid it before her mother who lay on her bed reading a French novel.