Kirkwood's sometime sisters-in-law had been three sharp thorns in his side; and Phil's joy at the prospect of their discomfiture when they beheld their sister rolling about in an expensive motor was not without justification. Lois's prosperity was, however, deeply mystifying. It flashed upon him suddenly that he did not in the least know this Lois of whom Phil had been speaking: she was certainly not the young woman, scarcely out of her girlhood, who had so shamelessly abandoned him. And over this thought stumbled another: he had never known her! As he reflected, his eyes roamed to a large calendar on the wall over Phil's head. This was the 12th of April, his wedding-day. The date interested him only passively; it had long ago ceased to affect him emotionally.
He meant to speak to Nan before he left town and endeavor once more to persuade her that Lois's return had made no difference. As he swung idly in his chair he sought to analyze his feelings. Those little tricks of manner that Phil imitated so unconsciously kept recurring and he tried to visualize the Lois of the present as she must be;—clever, impulsive in her generosities, heedless, indifferent. In all his conjecturing since Christmas he had experienced no longing to have her back; nothing beyond a mild impersonal curiosity as to how time had dealt with her.
The success that had attended his labors had strengthened all the fibers of his will; he was the master of himself, a man again. He had demonstrated to his own surprise and satisfaction that he could devise a plan and put it through; that he could bring an iron hand to his dealings with men. And buoyed up by this fresh knowledge he was impatient at the frustration of any of his plans and hopes. Lois had shaken down the pillars of his life once; but she could not repeat that injury. He had built himself a new argosy and found a new companion for his voyaging. Nan should marry him; if she liked they would remove to Indianapolis to escape gossipy tongues; but he had definitely determined that the marriage should not be delayed. He was a free man and he meant to exercise and enjoy his freedom. He had taken soundings where he had gone down on that first venture and touched nowhere any trace of the wreck; the waters of oblivion rippled listlessly over those unmarked shoals.
He swung round with an uncomfortable sense that Phil had been watching him as she bent forward, her elbow resting on the arm of one of the old office chairs, her hand against her cheek. That had been one of Lois's ways and Phil's brown eyes were very like Lois's! He did not want Phil to attribute his long reverie to retrospective regrets or present longings.
"Well, Phil; I've got to go to the court-house to see Judge Walters. About that money, it's perfectly right for you to accept it; but I think it best that your Uncle Amzi should have the care of it. It's a considerable responsibility, however, and you must let him know that you appreciate his doing it; and I'll speak to him about it myself. If you're going home you can walk as far as the court-house with me."
He had spoken briskly, to emphasize his own indifference to Lois and her money.
While Kirkwood was collecting some papers, Phil, after moving restlessly about and glancing down at Amzi—he happened just then to be standing on the bank steps talking to an agent of the Comptroller's office who had been dispatched from Washington to observe the metamorphosis of the First National into the Montgomery National,—Phil, with an embarrassment that was new to her relations with her father, asked diffidently,—
"Shall I say anything to mamma—I mean about the money?"
This was not at all what she had meant to say. She had hoped that he would send some message to her mother. It was incredible that the wires should be so utterly broken between them as to make all communication impossible. They were both so much to her liking; in her own heart admiration and love enfolded them both so completely that her spirit chafed at the thought of standing first with one and then with the other on the respective sides of the barricade that had risen between them. Her father replied brusquely:—
"No; that's all, I believe, Phil."
As they walked toward the court-house, Lois passed on the opposite sidewalk. It is not against Montgomery conventions to nod to friends across Main Street or even to pause and converse across that thoroughfare if one is so disposed. Phil nodded to her mother. She was unable to tell whether her father was conscious that his former wife was so near; he lifted his hat absently, seeing that Phil was speaking to some one.
"By the way, Phil, have you been in the house lately—the old place, I mean? Amzi's carpenter tells me the wind has torn off the water-spouts and that the veranda posts have rotted badly."
He had so rarely mentioned the long-abandoned house that she was startled. He did not care! This was the most conclusive proof possible that he no longer cared; and the thought of it did not make her happy. Clearly Love was not, after all, a limitless dominion, without other bounds than those set by the farthest stars, but a narrow, dark, and unstable realm. That these two should dwell in the same town, walk the same street, at the same hour, without any desire to see and speak to each other, was the strangest of phenomena.
"Drop in to-morrow and have luncheon with me at the hotel. I want to see all of you I can while I'm here," he remarked when they reached the court-house.
"Very well, daddy."
That evening, after he had eaten the hotel supper with a printed brief for company, Kirkwood went to the Bartletts', but no one answered his summons and he turned away disappointed. Thinking they were probably at some neighbor's house he decided to walk about and return later. His idle roaming led him past Center Church. It was prayer-meeting night, and through the open windows floated a hymn sung waveringly by the small gathering of the faithful. It was here, on just such an April night, that he and Lois had sworn to love and cherish each other to the end of their days. He had been profoundly moved that night, standing before the reverend president of the college in the crowded church and repeating his vows after the kindly, lovable old man. And he remembered how, as they left the church, the assembled students had shown their good-will in ringing cheers. But these memories had lost their poignancy. Verily, he did not care!
Finding himself presently before Amzi's house, he remembered without emotion that Lois was established there. It was an ironic fling of the dice that had brought her back prosperous and presumably happy to lure Phil away from him! He walked slowly; the proximity of his recreant wife gave him neither pang nor thrill. He loitered that the test might be the more complete.
A man had been walking toward him from the farther side of the Montgomery place, and something furtive in his movements caused Kirkwood to pause. Then, after halting uncertainly and fumbling at the chain that held the Kirkwood gate together, the man retraced his steps, and guardedly let himself into the Fosdicks' yard. Kirkwood listened, and hearing no further sounds dismissed the matter. It now occurred to him to visit his own property, whose decrepitude Amzi had brought to his attention, and finding that he had matches and the house key, he lifted the chain from the rickety gate and passed into the garden. Kirkwood was preoccupied with the idea of putting the house and lot in order and selling it. Now that he was confident that it no longer held any associations for him, he was in haste to be rid of it. He would sell the place and invest the proceeds for Phil. He smiled ironically as he remembered the disparity between his own fortunes and those of his former wife. He did not resent her prosperity; he did not understand it; but if it was the way of the gods to visit fortune upon the unrighteous, so much the worse for the gods.
A brick walk curved round the house, and as he was about to step from it to the veranda he heard voices that came seemingly from the jutting corner of a wing that had been his library. He had no wish to be found there. Very likely the yard was visited frequently by prowlers; and there was a beaten path across the rear which had been for years a short cut between Amzi's and his sisters' houses. He was in no mood for a meeting with any intruder who might be there at this hour, and he was about to steal back the way he had come when a man's voice rose suddenly in anger. A woman replied, evidently counseling a lower tone.
"Here in Tom's graveyard is a fitting place to talk over our affairs. You needn't be in such a hurry to go. We may as well fix this thing up now and be done with it. I'm broke; I haven't got a cent, and it's tough, I can tell you. But it's some satisfaction to know that Will's broke, too. I took care that he got his, all right. The Holtons are all down and out. Will's as poor as I am, and my gay nephew Charlie's busy dodging the sheriff. Not much left for Will now but to go out and rustle for life insurance—the common fate of inglorious failure."
The woman's voice rose crisp and assured on the tender spring air.
"Your note said it was something of importance. I can't stay here all night. I haven't any money for you and your family troubles don't interest me. And let me say, once and for all, that I don't propose to have you following me round. This is a big world and there's room in it for both of us."
Kirkwood could not see them, though he heard perfectly every word that had been spoken, and he could not escape without attracting their attention.
"See here, Lois, I've just heard a whisper from Seattle that you cleaned up a lot of money out there. Good joke on me, wasn't it? I thought you were pretty thick with the Barkleys, but I didn't know he had let you into his deals. I want my share; if it hadn't been for me, you wouldn't have known Seattle was on the map. It's only fair; I'll call it fifty thousand and let it go at that."
"Nothing; absolutely not a penny! I advise you to make yourself scarce. And if you attempt to annoy me while I'm here, I'll do something very unpleasant about it. I agreed to meet you to-night merely to tell you that."
Kirkwood heard her step on the walk, and drew back. The light of the moon was full upon her. She was bareheaded and wrapped in a long coat. It was thus that he saw her again, in the shadow of the house where together they had kindled their hearth,—in the garden plot whose disorder and ruin were eloquent of her broken faith.
She was moving away swiftly, with the light step he remembered. Holton gained her side in a long leap.
"No, you don't! Not by a damned sight, you don't!"
Kirkwood saw them both clearly in their attitude of antagonism—the wife who had wronged him, the friend who had betrayed him.
"You don't shake me so easily. I want my share of the profits. It was a low trick—getting rid of me so you could spend your money on yourself; humiliating me by showing me up as a drunkard in the divorce court. I owe you a good one for that!"
"Not a cent!" she repeated, lifting her head in mockery of his clumsy attempt to becloud the real issue.
Her taunting tone maddened him; without warning he gripped her throat roughly. His tightening clasp stifled her cry as she struggled to free herself.
Kirkwood stood suddenly beside them, caught Holton by the collar, and flung him back. Holton's arm was up instantly to ward off an expected blow. He turned guardedly, and his arm fell as he recognized Kirkwood.
"So that's the ticket! It was a trap, was it?" And then his anger mounting, he flung round at Lois. "So this is what brought you back! Well, it doesn't lower my price any! He can have you and be damned to him, but I double my price!"
"This is my property," said Kirkwood coldly; "if you don't leave instantly, I'll turn you over to the police."
"She's come back to you, has she! Well, you needn't be so set up about it. She's anybody's woman for the asking; you ought to have learned that—"
Kirkwood's stick fell with a sharp swish across his shoulders.
"Leave these grounds at once or I'll send you to the lockup!"
Holton looked coweringly from one to the other. The strangeness of the encounter was in the mind of each: that the years had slipped away and that Kirkwood was defending her from the man for whom she had abandoned him. An unearthly quiet lay upon the garden. Children's voices rose faintly on the silvery April night from the grounds beyond. Far away, beyond the station, a locomotive puffed slowly on a steep grade. The noises of the town seemed eerily blurred and distant.
"Clear out! Your business here is finished. And don't come back," said Kirkwood firmly.
"She asked me to meet her here;—you must have known it; it was a damned vile trick—" Holton broke out violently; but Kirkwood touched him with the end of his stick, pointed toward the gate, and repeated his order more sharply. Holton whirled on his heel, found an opening in the hedge, and left them, the boughs snapping behind him.
Kirkwood was the first to speak.
"He's gone, I think. I'll watch until you get safely back to Amzi's."
He lifted his hat; his tone was one of dismissal and she turned as though to leave, hesitated and drew a step nearer.
"If you don't mind, I'd like to speak to you a moment. I shouldn't have thought of seeking you, of course, but this makes it possible."
He made no reply, but waited, leaning on his stick. Her foot tapped the walk nervously; as she readjusted the cloak it exhaled the faint scent of orris that reached him as though wafted down some dim aisle of memory.
"I want to speak about Phil. It was to see Phil that I came back. I want you to know that I wouldn't take her away from you if I could. There must be no misunderstanding about this. Whatever I am or have been or may be, I am not base enough for that."
He was silent for a moment.
"That is something that is not in your hands or mine," he answered. "Phil is the mistress of her own affairs. I was perfectly willing that she should go to Amzi's to be with you; it's for her to decide whether she ever comes back to me."
"That is—generous; very generous," she replied, as though, after hesitating before using the word, her second thought confirmed the choice.
"And about the money; she told me she spoke to you about that to-day. I appreciate your attitude. I want you to understand that I'm not trying to bribe her. I'm glad of a chance to say that I would do nothing to spoil her loyalty to you. You deserve that; and I have no illusions about myself. If I thought my coming would injure her—or you—in any way, I should go at once and never come back. But I had to see her, and it has all happened fortunately—Amzi's kindness, and hers—and your own! Phil is so dear—so lovable!"
Her last words broke in a sob, but she quickly regained her self-control.
"I'm glad," he replied, "if you are not disappointed in her. We have been very close—comrades and friends; but she has gone beyond me; and that was inevitable. She's an independent spirit—quite capable of managing her own affairs."
"I don't think she will ever go beyond you," Lois answered. "She has told me all the story—and I have read a good deal into it that she didn't tell me. And I am very grateful. She didn't have to tell me that you had not embittered her against me; her way of meeting me was reassuring as to that. It was fine of you; it wasn't what I expected or deserved."
Unconsciously they had begun walking back and forth in the path, and once, as they turned, they looked at each other fixedly for the first time. It was the deliberate frank scrutiny of old acquaintances who seek affirmation of fading memories after long absence.
"As to the money, I want to protect her, as far as money can do it, from hardship and need hereafter. I don't want you to think I offer it as restitution—or—penance. I have plenty for myself; I'm giving up nothing in doing it."
He tried to phrase carefully his disavowal of any thought that her gift was a penitential act. He confessed that he had been concerned for Phil's future; and that so far he had not been able to provide for her in case of his death. This brought him to Amzi, whose devotion to Phil he praised warmly. They met immediately upon the safe ground of Amzi's nobility. Then they recurred to Phil. Presently as they passed the veranda, she sat down on the steps and after a moment he seated himself beside her. They had sat thus, looking out upon the newly planned garden, when the mystery and wonder of Phil's coming filled their hearts and minds.
"I've thought," she said, bending forward with her arms folded upon her knees, "that Phil ought to travel—that I might take her away for a little while." She waited for his assent; but when he was silent, she hurried on to set herself right in this. "But I don't believe that would be best. Not with me. Trotting around with me over there wouldn't do her any good. It might spoil her point of view, which is—just right—sound and healthy. The child's a genius. She wants to write—of course you know that."
He did not know it. Jealousy pricked him at this sudden revelation of something in Phil that he had not with all his opportunity realized.
"She's very clever," he responded tamely.
"It's more than that! She has a trunkful of stuff she's written—some of it rubbish; some of it amazingly good."
He resented these appraisements of Phil's literary experiments. It was disagreeable to hear from Phil's mother things which he should have learned for himself. His trained analytical faculties were disturbed; he had regarded the theory of the superior keenness of maternal perception as rather fantastic. Phil had never confided her ambitions to him; in fact, it was now clear that she had concealed them, perhaps fearing his criticisms.
"She's so droll!"—and Lois laughed at some recollection. "She has a delicious humor—her own special flavor. All these people in Montgomery are story-book people to her. She's a deep one—that little Phil! She has written pages about them—and the drollest of all about those women over there."
She indicated with a gesture the domiciles of her sisters. The fact that Phil had utilized her aunts as literary material amused Lois profoundly. But finding that the burden of the talk lay with her she asked, "What would you think of college for Phil? Or is it too late?"
"She didn't seem a good subject when the time came; and besides," he added bluntly, "I couldn't afford it."
"Oh, she didn't speak of it regretfully; she didn't complain because you hadn't sent her!"
"No, of course not; that wouldn't be like Phil. I'm not sure college would be a good thing for her now; she's read prodigiously—away ahead of most girls, ahead of most people! There wouldn't be so much that college could do for her. And if she really has the creative faculty, it's better not to curb or check it. Not in her case. She led her class in high school without working at it. Whatever she wants to know she will get without tying herself up in a college course."
Lois nodded. He was an educated man who had himself been a teacher, and his testimony was entitled to respect. She was far more comfortable than he as they continued the discussion. The breadth of her understanding of Phil piqued him. In these few weeks Lois had learned much about Phil that had been a sealed book to him. His position was absurd; it was preposterous for him to be learning about Phil from Phil's mother, when it was he who had shaped the course of Phil's life. He wondered whether Lois knew that her disclosures hurt his pride, shattered his vanity.
"The dear child seems to be the sole prop of most of the paupers in the bottoms. I went with her to look at one of her families yesterday, and I could see where her spare change has been going. She's set up a piano in the box factory so the girls can amuse themselves at noontime and you may be sure they're all crazy about her. Everybody seems to be!"
The remembrance of Phil's generosities amused her. She mentioned a number of them with murmurous glee and unmistakable admiration. Phil had never confided these things to him, and he reflected ruefully that her indulgence in pianos for working-girls probably accounted for deficiencies in her own wardrobe that had not at times escaped his masculine eye. He had mildly wondered what became of the money he gave Phil for shoes! It argued an unresponsiveness in his own nature that Phil had concealed her adventures as Lady Bountiful from him—and he had thought she told him everything!
He was learning about Phil from the last person in the world who had any right to know Phil. He had seen in her precociousness, her healthy delight in books, nothing astonishing, and he had known nothing of her scribbling. His irritation grew. He was impatient to escape from this garden that Holton had spoken of as Kirkwood's graveyard; from this cheerful ghost beside him, with her low, musical voice and her murmurous laughter. His thoughts flew to Nan, to whom he now meant to go with his last appeal.
It flashed upon him that he might assure his victory over Nan's qualms by carrying to her the definite knowledge that there was absolutely no hope, as he fancied Nan believed there was, that he and Lois might bridge the wide chasm that had separated them for so many years and renew the old tie. If he could go from Lois to Nan with that news, he believed his case would be invincible. He would make the offer to Lois now, on this spot whose associations might be supposed to create an atmosphere of sentiment favorable to its serious consideration. The interview had run into a dead wall. Quite imaginably his proximity had begun to bore Lois. He idled with his stick, pondering. She rose suddenly.
"I must go back; Phil won't know what's become of me."
"Perhaps it would be as well to tell her that we've met," he said. "In fact, I think she should know."
"I prefer not," she answered with decision. "It might trouble her; she might think—she thinks of everything!"
"Lois, there are ways—important ones—in which it would be best for her, make her happier, if we could—try again!"
She raised her hand with one of her quick gestures, and it rested for an instant on his arm. As she lifted her face he saw the tears bright in her eyes.
"Don't say it; don't think of it!" she whispered brokenly.
"For Phil's sake we ought to do it if we can," he persisted, surprised to find how unmoved he was.
"For Phil's sake we wouldn't if we could!" Their gaze met searchingly. "It would be doing Phil a terrible wrong!"
"I don't understand; I can't follow that," he answered.
And still unmoved, untouched, he saw grief and fear in her eyes, her face twitching with the pain of inner conflict.
"No; you don't understand!" she cried softly. "But if you meant it—if we either of us cared any more, don't you see that it wouldn't do! Don't you know how unjust—how horribly unjust it would be to her, to—to lead her to think that Love could be like that; something to be taken on and put off? It would be an unholy thing! It would be a sacrilege! No one would be deceived by it; and Phil would know we both lied!"
"But we might work it out some way; with her to help it might not go badly. I would do my best! I promise you that," he said, more sincere than he had meant to be.
She was greatly moved and he wondered where emotion might lead her. He was alertly watchful for any quick thrust that might find him off guard. She went on hurriedly.
"Tom," she said gently, "Phil had thought of it; she spoke of it. But nothing worse could happen to her. It would spoil the dear illusions she has about me; and in the end she would think less of you. For you don't mean it; it's only for Phil's sake you suggest it."
"And for your own sake, too; to protect you from—from just such occurrences as—"
His eyes turned away from her to the point in the hedge through which Holton had vanished.
She shivered as though a cold wind had touched her and drew the cloak closer about her shoulders.
"I don't need any one's protection. That poor beast won't bother me. I must say now all I shall ever have to say to you. We won't lie to each other; we need not! There is no real soul in me. If there had been, this house would not have been standing here empty all these years. And yet you see that I haven't changed much; it hasn't really made a great deal of difference in me. I have had my hours of shame, and I have suffered—a little. I believe I am incapable of deep feeling: I was born that way. If I appealed to your mercy now, I should be lying. And for a long time I have lived the truth the best I could. I believe I understand the value of truth and honor, too; I believe I realize the value of such things now. I'm only a little dancing shadow on the big screen; but I mean to do no more mischief; not if I can help it, and I think that at last I have mastered myself. You see," and quite composed she laughed again, "I'm almost a fool, but not quite."
He murmured something as she paused, but she did not heed him, nor ask what he had said. He was not so relieved as he had expected to be by her prompt refusal of his offer, whose fine quixotism he felt had been wasted upon her. He was nothing to her; and never could have been; and this rejection was not the less disagreeable because he had expected it. It is difficult to imagine any circumstances in which a man will accept without resentment the idea that he is a negligible figure in a woman's life. The finer his nature the greater his astonishment at finding that she is able to complete her reckoning without including him as a factor in her calculations. And in Kirkwood's case the woman had put him in the wrong when all the right was so incontrovertibly on his side. She had taken high ground for her refusal, and he could not immediately accommodate himself to the air of this new altitude, which he had never expected to breathe in her company. Her thistledown nature might be the prey of the winds, but even so they might bear her high and far.
"I must go on and finish, for there will never be another chance. You deserve the best life can give you. I'm glad to know things have been going well with you; and Amzi says it's only the beginning. With all my heart I'm glad. It makes it easier for me—don't you see! And I know about Nan Bartlett; not from Phil, but from Mrs. King. I hope you will marry Nan; and if my coming has made any difference, don't let that trouble you! In a little while I shall be gone; but Phil mustn't know that. And I shall never come back here—you may rely on that; but I hope to have Phil come to me now and then. I want to keep in touch with her,—have some part in her life. And you needn't fear that I shan't be—quite a proper person for Phil to visit! You will believe that, won't you?"
"Yes, Lois," he said wonderingly; for he was touched by the wistfulness of her plea that he should not fear her influence upon Phil. "You wouldn't have come back to Phil unless you felt you had a right to; I'm sure of that," he said with warmth.
"No; I should not have been base enough for that," she replied, with a little forlorn sigh.
"And as for your going away, it must not be on my account. It isn't necessary for you to go."
He did not speak of Nan; nor did she refer to her again.
"I'm glad this has happened this way. I think we understand a little better. Good-night, Tom!"
Their hands touched. He saw the flutter of her cloak as she passed round the house, seeking the path to Amzi's. The garden was very still when she had gone.
PHIL ENCOUNTERS THE SHERIFF
The May number of "Journey's End" containing Phil's veracious account of the dogs of Main Street created almost as much of a sensation as the consolidation of the First National with Montgomery's Bank. The "Evening Star" did not neglect its duty to Indiana literature. A new planet blazed in the Hoosier heavens, and it was the business of Montgomery's enterprising afternoon daily to note its appearance and speculate upon its course and destiny. The "Evening Star's" "local" wrote a two-column "story" about Phil for the Sunday supplement of the Indianapolis "Advertiser." The fact that Miss Kirkwood belonged to one of the oldest and most distinguished families in central Indiana was not overlooked; but this was merely the prelude to a breezy description of her many adventures, her athletic prowess, her broad democracy. The "Evening Star's" "local" was under obligations to Phil for many quiet news tips; and beyond question he fully balanced the account. The pastor of Center Church made "The Dogs of Main Street" the text of a sermon on the humane treatment of dumb animals—a sermon that Phil heard perforce, as she sat, blushing furiously, beside Amzi in the Montgomery pew.
Amzi nearly perished with pride. Busy as he was with the remodeling of the old bank, made necessary by the consolidation (he scorned the idea of moving his bank into the Holton property!), he found time to stand on the bank steps and invite comments on "Phil's latest";—there hadn't been a time since Phil was six when her "latest" wasn't a subject of spirited conversation. Phil's own happiness was mitigated somewhat by the fact that "Journey's End" had lately refused two other manuscripts. Still the editor wrote explaining why her stories were not available and urged her to try again. "Stick to the local flavor," he said, "and don't read Stevenson so much. Anybody can write stories about the French Revolution; not many are able to catch the character and life of Main Street." While she pondered this, she resolved to be a poet and sold a jingle to "Life."
Kirkwood wired his congratulations from Chicago. He had not fully recovered from the shock of Lois's declaration of her belief in Phil's genius. Reading Phil's sketch over a lonely dinner in a Chicago hotel, he was pricked anew by the consciousness that he had never fully appreciated Phil's qualities. What Lois had said made a difference. He would have chuckled over the Philesque touches in "The Dogs of Main Street" in any circumstances, but he remembered enough of the commencement essay to value her changes, and to note the mark of the file on certain sentences. The thing had form and something akin to style. While he had been counseling Nan Bartlett as to "The Gray Knight," writing that was quite as individual as hers had been done without his guidance under his own roof!
In spite of his professional successes, Fate still played pranks with him. Nan had set herself determinedly against the idea of marrying him, and his assurance that Lois had rejected the idea of remarriage, even for Phil's sake, had not shaken her resolution. Lois's return had dimmed the glow of his second romance. And Nan and Rose had gone to call on her—an act whose finality was not wasted on Kirkwood.
The authorship of "The Gray Knight of Picardy" was now generally known, and when the Bartletts called on Phil's mother the talk ran naturally upon books and writers; and as Nan would not talk of herself, Phil's ambitions were thoroughly discussed. Phil, knowing that the Bartletts were coming, had discreetly taken herself off. Lois's account of the visit, given before Amzi at the dinner-table, lacked all those emotional elements which Phil had assumed to be inevitable where a man's former wife describes a call from a woman whom that man has been at the point of marrying. Phil had not lost her feeling that the world is a queer place.
"They are splendid women, Amzi," Lois declared. "If you don't marry Rose pretty soon, I shall have to take the matter into my own hands."
"Thunder! Rose marry me!" Amzi ejaculated.
"Why not!" Lois answered, composedly dropping a lump of sugar into his coffee. "Nan can't marry you; I should never have chosen you for Nan!"
The ice cracked ominously and Amzi began talking about the furniture he was buying for the new bank. Of course Lois knew! Phil had no doubts on that point. That astonishing mother of hers had a marvelous gift of penetration. Phil's adoration was increasing as the days passed. It was little wonder that following Mrs. John Newman King's courageous example, people seemed to be in haste to leave cards at Amzi's for Mrs. Holton. The gossip touching Lois's return lost its scandalous tinge and became amiable, as her three sisters were painfully aware. The "stand" they had taken in support of their private dignity and virtue and in the interest of public morals had not won the applause they had counted on. People to whom they went for sympathy politely changed the subject when they attempted to explain themselves. Mrs. John Newman King told the pastor of Center Church, who had sought her advice as to his own duty, that she hoped he wouldn't make a fool of himself. These were shocking words from a woman who had known Abraham Lincoln, and who was a greater power in Center Church than the ruling elders.
The Presbyterians were just then canvassing the town in the interest of a projected hospital, and the "Evening Star" printed the subscriptions from day to day. Amzi's name led all the rest with one thousand dollars; and immediately below his modest "A. Montgomery," "Cash" was credited with a like sum. It was whispered that Lois Montgomery Holton was the anonymous contributor. Lois's three sisters were appalled by the increasing rumors that their erring sister had come back with money. It was a sinful thing, if true; they vacillated between demanding an inquiry as to the source of the unknown contributor's cash or boldly suing for peace with Lois and Amzi. And to add to their rage, they knew that neither Lois nor Amzi cared a picayune whether peace was restored or not. Lois's sisters were not the first among humankind to conclude that there is a difference between Sin begging bread and Sin with cake to throw away.
Lois's automobile dazzled Main Street at this juncture. The William Holton car, splendid as it had been in its day, was a junk-pile compared to it. The accompanying chauffeur received, it was said, a salary of seventy-five dollars a month. Public interest fastened upon this person. A crowd that gathered in front of the old bank to inspect the car on the day that Lois and Phil brought it home from Indianapolis heard Mrs. Holton address him in a strange tongue. By nightfall every one in Montgomery knew that Lois had bought the most expensive car in town; that her chauffeur was French, and that she gave him orders in his own language just as though she had spoken it all her life. Main Street was impressed; all Montgomery felt the thrill of these departures from its usual, normal life.
Lawrence Hastings carried home details as to the "make," horse-power and finish of the machine that caused his wife and two sisters-in-law indescribable anguish. Still the French chauffeur was a consoling feature; a vulnerable target for their arrows. No woman who valued her reputation would go gallivanting over the country with a foreign chauffeur, when it was the duty of Montgomery people to employ worthy college boys to run their machines whenever possible. The sight of Phil at the wheel, receiving instructions in the management of the big car on the day after its arrival, did not greatly add to their joy in life. The exposure of Phil to the malign influences of a French chauffeur was another of Lois's sins that did not pass unremarked. Still the stars would not always fight against righteousness; Phil would be killed, or she would elope with the Frenchman, and Amzi would be sorry he had brought Lois home and set her up brazenly in the house of her fathers.
Amzi, rolling home to luncheon in the new car and rolling off again with his cigar at a provoking angle, was not unobserved from behind the shutters of his sisters' houses. In the bank merger he had acquired various slips of paper that bore the names of his sisters and their husbands, aggregating something like seven thousand dollars, which the drawers and indorsers thereof were severally unable to pay. The payment of the April interest and the general bright outlook in Sycamore affairs had induced a local sentiment friendly to the company that had already lost Waterman one damage suit. Fosdick thought he saw a way of making his abandoned brickyard pay if he could only command a little ready cash. Hastings had not forgotten Phil's suggestion that he transform his theater into a moving-picture house: there were indications that the highbrows were about to make the "reel" respectable in New York, and a few thousand dollars would hitch Montgomery to the new "movement" for dramatic uplift. And here was Amzi soaring high in the financial heavens, with a sister who gave a thousand dollars to a hospital without even taking credit for her munificence!
Amzi and Lois enjoyed themselves without let or hindrance from their neighboring sisters. Packages arrived by express; decorators from Indianapolis came and went; furniture was unpacked in the front yard; and a long stone bench and a sundial appeared in Amzi's lawn, together with a pool, in the center of which an impudent little god piped joyfully in a cloud of spray. Such trifles as these testified to the prevailing cheer of Amzi's establishment.
The fact that Fred Holton had turned his farm over to Kirkwood was public property now; and people were saying that it was fine of Amzi to give Fred employment. The way in which the Holtons crossed and recrossed the trail of the Montgomerys had been the subject of much discussion. But the situation was clearing in so far as the Holtons were concerned. William had removed to Chicago to begin life anew; and Jack had vanished utterly, the day following the collapse of the panic. Charles, too, had disappeared. It was believed that Kirkwood had recovered enough from Samuel's associates in the construction company to balance the deficiencies occasioned by fraudulent construction and that he was not particularly interested in Charles's whereabouts.
"How about taking a look at the farm?" asked Amzi one Saturday afternoon. "Fred's planting corn and we'll see how the country looks."
Lois and Phil agreed that this was a capital idea and they set off in high spirits.
As they approached the farm, Jack Whittlesey, the sheriff, passed on horseback.
"Looks bad for somebody," said Phil.
"What does?" asked Amzi.
"When Jack goes out on his horse, it's a sign somebody's going to jail."
"Only serving subpoenas, I reckon," said Amzi.
They espied Fred driving a corn-planter across a long level field, and stopped the car. He ran to the fence to talk to them, and they all alighted. It was a warm afternoon and he mopped his face with a big bandanna as he talked to them. He rested his arms on the top rail of the fence, playing with his cap—not the disreputable old coonskin with which Phil had become familiar that winter, but the regular Madison College cap with a scarlet "M" above the visor.
"In the words of the poet," began Phil, "where did you get that hat?"
"This? Oh, the day of the Main Street rumpus I lost mine and one of the boys lent me his. I meant to get him another, but I haven't been to town since. And besides, I've forgotten his name."
"That's George Nesbit's cap," Phil answered, after eyeing it critically. "I know because it's an old style nobody else wore this year. George lives at the Phi Gam house, if you care for his address."
"I hope you don't know them all as well as that, Phil," remarked Lois.
"She does," chuckled Amzi; "she does, indeed."
Amzi and Fred dealt in technicalities. The green of young wheat caught the eye in the distances. These were Amzi's acres; the Holton farm lay beyond—the land that had been Fred's. In February, Phil and Amzi had driven out one afternoon and had found Fred sowing clover seed over the snow-covered wheat in his own field. Her imagination took fire at all these processes. "A calendar might be laid out in great squares upon the earth," she had written in her notebook, "and the months would tell their own stories." It was all a great wonder, that man had learned so perfectly how to draw from the mute soil its sweetness and vigor. Nothing man did seemed more interesting than this tilling and sowing. She noted how even snow had its use in catching and holding seed against the wind, and watched the sower marking his own progress and regulating the distribution by his tracks. Ultimately the clover would give its own life to nourish and strengthen the wheat—these things kindled her fancy. Here was poetry in the making, with suns and frosts, rains and snows taking their part in it. And Fred felt it too; she knew that. In his shy, guarded way he had spoken of it. But to-day he was not a dreamer but a man of action.
"Got all the help you want, Fred?" Amzi was asking.
"Yes, sir. No troubles. I'm using my old place for a boarding-house for the hands. Suppose you won't stay for supper?" he suggested, a little perfunctorily.
"Just because you're so enthusiastic, we will! But we've brought our own fodder—Phil packed the hamper; enough for a couple of regiments. We'll meet you at my house at supper-time and have an indoors picnic."
They waited to watch him start the team. Phil took the wheel, and as they rolled away Lois and Amzi exchanged a glance.
"You trust him?" she asked, glancing meaningly at Phil's back.
"Thunder!" said Amzi; "I don't know about that."
"It might be worse," Lois replied, and her brother looked at her in surprise.
"He's a straightforward, manly fellow; seems to have escaped the family curse. It must be this"—Lois indicated the fields—"that makes the difference. There's a moral influence in it; and," she added with a smile, "there's always a market for corn."
"He's as square a chap as they make 'em, but as for that—" and he nodded towards Phil.
"It isn't for us to say, brother, but I believe I should trust him; and they seem to understand each other. He's far from stupid, and the kind of man to watch over her and protect her."
These utterances greatly astonished Amzi. He wondered whether Lois's own experiences were responsible for her feeling that Phil needed a protector, and her frankly expressed liking for Fred in that connection. He was surprised but not displeased though the thought of Phil's marrying gave him a distinct shock when considered concretely. He never dissociated it from the remembrance of Lois's tragedies.
They found Amzi's house in order. Phil lighted the open fire to take the chill from the living-room, which had been closed since the Perrys' departure. Amzi ran off in the machine to pay a visit to one of the county commissioners who lived near by: Lois with her usual adaptability produced a novel and made herself comfortable on a couch. She was absorbed in her book before Phil left the room. Her mother's ready detachment never ceased to astonish her. Sometimes in the midst of a lively conversation, Lois would abruptly take up a book, or turn away humming to look out of the nearest window. Her ways had been disconcerting at first, but Phil had grown used to them. It argued for the completeness of their understanding that these dismissals were possible. Her mother's love of ease and luxury; the pretty knick-knacks she kept about her; her deftness in self-adornment—the little touches she gave to a hat that utterly re-created it—never failed to fascinate Phil.
Having disposed of her mother, or rather, that lady having forgotten her existence, Phil climbed the blossomy orchard slope and looked off toward Listening Hill. How many things had happened since that fall afternoon when she had talked there with Fred! Life that had seemed simple just then had since shown her its complexities. She watched Fred's slow progress with the corn-planter in the field below.
Glancing again at Listening Hill road her wandering gaze fell upon a horse and rider. Her eye, delighting in the picturesque at all times, was alive to the strong, vigorous lines in which man and horse were drawn against the blue May sky. They gained the crest of the road, and the man turned in his saddle and swept the surrounding fields in a prolonged inspection. She looked away and then sought the figures again, but they had disappeared. A little cloud of dust rose in the hollow toward Turkey Run. It was undoubtedly big Jack Whittlesey, the sheriff. The idea of one man hunting another was repugnant to Phil to-day, in this bright, wakened world of green fields, cheery bird song and laughing waters. She ran down the hill to escape from the very thought of sheriffs and prisons, and set off for the creek, following the Montgomery-Holton fence toward the Holton barn, whither the music had lured her that night of the change o' the year when she had danced among the corn shocks. The laborers were all off at work and no one was in sight.
It was a very respectable-looking barn now that Fred had patched its weather-beaten sides and painted it. She flung back the door to revisualize her recollection of the dance. The bang of the sliding door roused a hen to noisy protest, and it sought the open with a wild beating of wings. The hen had emerged from the manger of an unused stall, and in feeling under the corn-trough for eggs, Phil touched some alien object. She gave a tug that brought to light a corner of brown leather, found handles, and drew out a suit-case. She was about to thrust it back when "C. H." in small black letters arrested her eye. It was an odd place for the storing of luggage and her curiosity was keenly aroused. She had seen and heard nothing of Charles Holton since the night he had taken her to the lecture, and barns were not likely camping-places for gentlemen of his fastidious tastes.
A step on the planked approach to the barn caused her to thrust the case back under the corn-box. She sprang toward the door, and faced Jack Whittlesey, who grinned and took off his hat.
"Stealing eggs, Phil?"
"The hen deceived me; nothing doing."
"Passed you on the way out. Hardly know your old friends now you've set up a machine, I reckon."
"Cut that out, Jack, and feed it to the larks. You had only ten votes to spare when you were elected and I landed seven of them for you, so don't be gay with me."
"I'm not gay; I'm tired. I'm looking for a party."
"What's your friend's name?" asked Phil, picking up a straw and chewing it.
"That would be telling. You haven't seen a man chasing over the country with a brown suit-case, have you?"
"Nope; nor with a black, pink, or green one. Where does the story begin?"
"Well, not in my county. They send all the hard jobs out to us farmers. Suppose there's anybody in this barn?"
"There was a hen; but she went off mad when I came in. You'd better go back and pose on Listening Hill again; you looked rather well there—a lone picket on an Alp watching for Napoleon's advance.
"He saw afar The coming host, but thought the glint of arms, Betokened milk-cans in some peasant's cart,"—
Phil added, bending forward and shading her eyes with her hand.
Whittlesey, knowing Phil well, laughed his appreciation absently.
"He's been dodgin' up and down the creek here for two days, trying to muster nerve enough to hit the trolley and clear out. There's a nice bunch of plunder in his suit-case."
"Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief?" Phil repeated—touching the buttons on her shirt-waist.
"That would be tellin'."
"Well, don't tell, then. But not mentioning any names that particular person wouldn't be likely to hang around here," suggested Phil meditatively.
The sheriff eyed her critically.
"You know who I mean? Sure you ain't seen him?"
"No, I haven't, Jack," replied Phil truthfully.
"If you spot a gent with a suit-case, hop for a telephone and call the jail, and mebbe I'll whack the reward."
"It doesn't sound like such easy money," Phil replied.
"Charlie and Fred ain't so terribly chummy, I guess," remarked the sheriff leadingly. "That's why I thought I'd take a look around here. A fellow as smart as Charlie would pick the unlikeliest place to hide in. I'll have a word with Fred as I go back. I got a deputy at Stop 7, watching the cars. If Charlie's in the neighborhood we'll pinch him all right. So long, Phil."
Whittlesey moved across the barn-lot toward his horse. Phil's mind had been working busily. Beyond doubt Charles Holton was lurking in the neighborhood, waiting for a chance to escape. The suit-case pointed to this clearly. It was undeniably her duty to tell the sheriff of her discovery, and it had been on the tip of her tongue to do so half a dozen times during their colloquy at the barn door. Whittlesey was an old friend and one of her admirations, and it was only the part of good comradeship to help him.
The remembrance of her last meeting with Charles still flamed angrily in her heart when she thought of him. There was certainly no reason why she should shield him from the outstretched arm of the law; yet she had first hesitated, then rejected the idea of communicating to the sheriff her knowledge that the plunder with which Charles was seeking to escape was hidden in the barn. Contemptible as Charles was and doubtless deserving of his impending punishment, she would not aid in his apprehension. She did not believe that Fred in like circumstances would do so; and there was Ethel, their sister, on whom the disgrace of Charles's arrest would fall heavily.
Whittlesey swung himself into his saddle and rode slowly toward the highway. Phil returned to the barn, considering whether she should tell Fred of her discovery of the suit-case.
She stopped short on the threshold, all her senses alert. The rear door of the barn had been opened during her brief absence. She saw across the fields the trees that marked the Turkey Run defile, and she was confident that this long vista had not been visible when she first entered. She took a step toward the stall where she had found the suit-case, looked round cautiously before bending down to draw it out again, and a pair of eyes met hers, unmistakably Charles Holton's eyes, fear-struck, as he peered across a farm wagon behind which he had concealed himself. While she had been talking to Whittlesey in the barn-lot, he had stolen in by the rear door to be nearer his booty.
Phil walked to the door and glanced toward Listening Hill. A quarter of a mile away she saw Whittlesey and Fred conversing earnestly at the edge of the cornfield. No one else was in sight. The farm hands were scattered over the fields, and were not likely to visit the barn until they brought home their teams. Phil, standing in the door, spoke in a low tone.
"You can get away, by the back door. The sheriff's talking to Fred down the lane; his man's watching Stop 7. Go back to the Run and follow it to the red covered bridge. Keep away from the trolley line; they're watching it. Better make for Gaston's and take the Chicago train there—it comes along a little before five."
He was furtively creeping round the wagon while Phil spoke. She heard the creaking of the planks and turned to see him tiptoeing toward the stall. His clothing was soiled and crumpled. His bent, slinking figure as he stole toward his booty affected her disagreeably. She took a step toward him.
"You can't do that; you can't have that."
"It's all the baggage I've got; just a few clothes," he muttered huskily. "I crawled in here last night to sleep. I've got to see Fred before I go. I've been waiting two days for a chance to get to him."
He watched her with fearful intentness as he continued his cautious advance upon the stall.
"You can't have that suit-case," said Phil in a sharper tone. "Go out by the rear door, and keep close to the fence. There's nobody in those fields, and I'll watch till you get to the creek."
"I want my things; I've got to have them," he blurted hoarsely, his hand on the stall-post.
"You can't have it. If you don't go at once I'll call the sheriff back. There's nothing in that suit-case you need. Quick! Whittlesey knows you're around here somewhere, and if it hadn't been for me he'd have searched the barn."
"He's a fool. I heard his talk through the cracks, and there's nothing in that case but a suit of clothes, and I've got to have it. It's all I've got in the world."
"Then you won't miss it much! I'm giving you a chance to get away. If you don't take it and clear out in ten seconds, I'll call Whittlesey. He's still talking to Fred just a little way down the lane."
As she turned to reassure herself of the fact, he made a dive for the suit-case, brought it out and rushed toward the rear door. His foot caught on the edge of a rough plank and he fell headlong, the case flying from his hand. Phil pounced upon it, flung it with all her strength into the farthest corner of the barn, pulled him to his feet, and pushed him through the door. She drew it shut, jerked the bar into place, and ran through the front door into the barn-lot. She continued running until she had gained the mound on which the house stood. She reasoned that the fugitive would hardly venture to reenter the barn, as this would bring him into the open lot with a possibility of encountering new foes. She saw him presently stealing along the edge of the field toward the creek, dodging along the stake-and-rider fence and pausing frequently to rest or make sure that he was not followed. She saw Whittlesey bid Fred good-bye, watched the young farmer return to his corn-planting, and heard his voice as he called cheerily to the horses.
Charles gained the edge of the ravine, clambered over the fence, and disappeared. Then Phil sighed deeply and shuddered; the fear in the man's eyes had not been good to see; and yet she had been touched with pity for him. The night he had taunted her about her mother she had taken the measure of his baseness; but she was glad she had helped him to escape. If there was really anything of value in the suit-case, as Whittlesey had said, the law might have it and welcome; and she was already wondering just how to dispose of it. If Charles followed her instructions, he would strike across country and catch the northbound evening train. His fate was out of her hands, and it was wholly unlikely that he would make any further effort to regain his property now that Phil had seen it. She doubted whether he had had any real errand with Fred. It was much more probable that chance alone had directed his steps to this neighborhood, and that all he wanted was to beg his brother's protection and aid. Now that the excitement of the episode had passed, Phil hid the bag in a dark corner of the corn-crib and continued her tramp.
* * * * *
Fred, having gone for a shower and change of raiment, was late to the supper that Phil spread in the dining-room of the Montgomery farmhouse. He seemed unusually grave when they met at the table, and Phil surmised that Whittlesey had discussed Charles's plight with him fully. Amzi had spent an enjoyable afternoon cruising in the neighborhood among his farmer friends, and was in the best of humor. Lois, who had taken her ease, reading and napping, declared that she must cultivate a closer acquaintance with farm life. She pronounced it immensely interesting, feigning to ignore the ironical glances exchanged by Phil and Amzi. She exclaimed in a mockery of rapture over a bowl of scentless wild violets which Phil had gathered. They were amazingly fragrant, she said, waving her hand lately splashed with toilet water.
"The fraud! She hasn't been out of the house," Phil remarked to Amzi.
"Why should I go out and walk over the clods in my best slippers? I don't return to Nature; Nature returns to me. It's much pleasanter that way." She nibbled a sandwich, elbows on table, and asked if Montgomery still indulged itself in picnics, a form of recreation which she associated only with a youthful horror of chigres.
"Met Jack Whittlesey again, on my way back," said Amzi. "What's he hanging round here for?"
Fred looked up suddenly, the color deepening in his face.
"Jack's always looking for somebody," said Phil lamely, seeking to turn the talk. "He must dream that he's looking for people. I shouldn't like his job."
"He's looking for Charlie," said Fred, raising his head squarely and speaking directly across the table to Amzi. "Jack thinks he's hiding about here somewhere."
Amzi blew out his cheeks to hide his embarrassment. It was not his way to cause pain, and there was a hurt, unhappy look in Fred's eyes. And Amzi liked Fred—liked his simplicity and earnestness, and stubborn pluck, his manly attitude in adversity.
"How absurd," murmured Lois, regarding critically one of Phil's deviled eggs, made, by the way, after Rose Bartlett's recipe.
"I thought that was all a bluff about dragging Charlie into the traction business," remarked Amzi, who had not thought anything of the kind.
"He never surrendered the bonds he got from father," said Fred, relieved, now that the matter had been broached, that he could speak of Charlie's plight to friendly hearers. "Jack said he was trying to get away with them, and there's an indictment against him at Indianapolis."
"Oh, they won't catch him," said Lois in her spacious fashion. "They never catch anybody."
This was a well-intentioned effort to eliminate Charles and his troubles from the conversation; but Fred, not heeding, spoke again directly to Amzi.
"I think it wasn't altogether Charlie's fault that he got mixed up in this. The temptation to keep the bonds must have been strong. But he ought to have turned them over. I can't defend his not doing it."
Amzi was still annoyed by his unfortunate reference to the sheriff. He fumbled in his breast pocket and drew out a brown envelope.
"I've got something for you, Fred, that ought to cheer you up. Charlie's troubles haven't anything to do with you. Here's the deed you gave Mr. Kirkwood for your farm. It's never been recorded, and it stands as though it had never been made. I told Tom he had got back enough money to straighten up the Sycamore business out of those construction fellows without taking your farm, and here you are. I've been holding it a little while just to see how you would take your troubles. Burn it; and now let's forget about Charlie."
Fred stared, frowning, at the deed which Amzi tossed across the table.
"This isn't right; it isn't square," he began.
"Be careful how you sign papers. You may not get 'em back the next time. They tried to swindle you out of your share in your father's estate—a clean case on Charlie's part, as everybody knows. You needn't worry about Charlie. He got a lot of stuff that never figured in his administrator's inventory. The Sycamore Company's perfectly satisfied with what's been wrung out of the other fellows, and if Charlie really has some of those bonds, they belong to you."
Lois shrugged her shoulders. The subject was distasteful. Discussions of disagreeable business affairs were not to her liking; and she was sincerely sorry for Fred's discomfiture.
"The sheriff's mistaken," remarked Phil. "Charlie hasn't any of those bonds, and Jack won't catch him; not to-day."
At an early age Phil had learned the dramatic value of downright statements. She helped herself to an olive and waited for Amzi to explode. He exploded immediately.
"Charlie hasn't them! Jack won't catch him?"
"Of course not. I have the bonds and Charlie's a long way from here by this time."
She recounted her meeting with Charles in the Holton barn, and when they expressed incredulity, she sprang up and darted from the room. When she reappeared with the suit-case and dumped its contents on the table, Amzi, narrowly averting apoplexy, counted the bonds carefully, and made a calculation of the accrued and unpaid interest.
"Thunder!" he blurted. "Now, look here, Fred, don't you do anything foolish! We'll stack these up in the bank until Kirkwood can pass on this business. He might have them annulled, I suppose; but we'll wait and see."
"You wouldn't have Fred steal them, Amy!"
"Steal them! Thunder! We'll run 'em through the estate and out to Fred again. I guess Charlie took care of his sister in the original whack; but if he didn't we'll give her a slice." He glared at Phil fiercely. "You, Phil!"
"What's the matter, Amy?"
"You lied to the sheriff of this county!"
"If you talk to me like that I'll most certainly muss you; I will, I will!"
"You concealed stolen property! You helped a fugitive to escape from justice! You—you—!" Words failing him, he bent over the table, shaking an accusing finger under her nose.
"Forget it, Amy! If I did I glory in my shame. Put that in your pipe. Incidentally, it occurs to me that it's about time to think of going home."
"I don't know what to say to all this," said Fred as they rose from the table. He looked from one to the other, the deep feeling showing in his face. "It was fine of you, Phil, to help Charlie get away; I appreciate that. I want to say again that I think Charlie means all right. He's the best-hearted fellow in the world."
"Well," said Lois kindly, "we hope he will find another chance and make good." Then after a moment she added: "We most of us need two chances in this world, and some of us three!"
"And about the farm, I didn't expect that: I'm not sure it's right to take it back," said Fred. "I want to do the square thing."
"Thunder!" ejaculated Amzi; and then, seeing that Phil was already engaged in repacking the hamper with the empty dishes he turned upon her with his mock fury and demanded that she give him another pickled peach before the jar was disposed of.
"Get that article at my house, Phil?"
Phil walked close to him and shouted in his ear as to a deaf man:—
"No, you grand old imbecile! Anybody but you would know that they represent the perfection of Rose Bartlett's art! Now, will you be good!"
A CALL IN BUCKEYE LANE
"Going out, mamma?"
"Rather think so, Phil!" replied Lois.
It was the week after the visit to the farm, and Phil, who was now scratching away furiously on a short story, had opened her mother's door late in the afternoon to find that lady contemplating with unusual gravity a frock she had flung across the bed for inspection.
"What are you up to, Phil?"
"Up to my chin in ink," replied Phil, holding up a forefinger empurpled from the ink she was affecting. She had read in a literary note that one of the most distinguished of contemporaneous women novelists always used purple ink. Phil was spreading a good deal of it over legal cap purloined from her father's office. Kirkwood was just now in town, and he had called her on the telephone to invite her to supper with him at the Morton House, an arrangement which she disclosed to her mother.
"Your father's home again?" Lois asked indifferently.
"Yes. He has something to do here about those bonds of Charlie Holton's. It sounded rather complicated; and he wants to see Fred, and Amy was to call him into town."
Lois's mind was upon the gown. She compressed her lips as she continued to scrutinize it. It was a gown from Paris and a very handsome one. Having decided that it suited her purposes, she brought out a hat that matched it and tossed it onto the bed.
"How do you think I'd look in those things?"
"Adorable! Shall I order up the machine?"
"Um, no: I'll walk, I think."
"I rather take it that I'm not invited," laughed Phil.
"Bless me, no! I have a call to make that wouldn't interest you."
Phil walked to the bureau—a new one of mahogany that had been among her mother's recent substitutions for the old walnut with which the house had been filled. The folder of a steamship company lay sprawled open across the neatly arranged toilet articles. Phil picked it up idly, and noted certain pencilings that caused her heart to give a sudden bound. She flung round upon her mother with tears in her eyes.
"You are not—not thinking of that!"
Lois walked over to her and kissed her. She took Phil's face in her hands, looking into her eyes steadily.
"You dear chick, you would care!"
"Oh, you mustn't! You must not!" Phil cried. "And you have been thinking of it and not telling me! And just when I thought we understood everything."
"I meant to tell you to-day: I really did. It wasn't easy. But I've got to go, Phil. I'm not sure that I haven't stayed too long! You know I never meant to stay forever."
"Then you haven't been happy here! You don't—you don't like me!"
Lois sank into a chair by the window and drew the girl down beside her. Phil gripped her mother's hands tight, and stared into her face with tear-filled eyes.
"It's as hard for me as it is for you, Phil. But we may as well have it out. I've taken passage for the first Saturday in June, and it's not far off. Some friends are spending the summer in Switzerland and I'm going to join them. It was half-understood when I came here."
"It's hard; it's unkind," Phil whispered. The fact that her mother had planned flight so long ahead did not mitigate the hurt of it. Nothing, it seemed, could ever be right in this world! And she had just effected all the difficult readjustments made necessary by her mother's return! She had given herself so unreservedly to this most wonderful of women! Lois was touched by her show of feeling.
"I'm sorry," she said, stroking Phil's brown head. "I have had thoughts of taking you with me. That would be easy enough—" she paused uncertainly, as the clasp of Phil's hands tightened. "But, Phil, I have no right to do that. It wouldn't be for your happiness in the end; I know that; I'm sure of that."
"Oh, if you only would! I'll be very good—a lot nicer than you think I am if you will take me."
"No!" said Lois sharply, but with a slight quaver in her voice that caused hope to stir in Phil's breast.
"You hadn't any right to come back and make me love you and then run away again! It isn't kind; it isn't just!"
"You wouldn't love me much longer if I stayed! You wouldn't love me very long if I carried you off. You've seen the best of me: I've shown you my best box of tricks. I don't wear well, Phil; that's the trouble with me."
She rose abruptly and drew Phil to her feet, with an effort at gayety.
"As it is we really love each other a lot, and it would be hazardous for me to stay longer. When I saw the first blossoms in the cherry tree, I knew it was time to go. I used to feel that way when I was a child—as though I just couldn't bear to stay any longer. I remember the days and hours when I used to fight it, away back there when I was a school girl. There must be gypsy blood in me. I can go on being just as you have seen me—lazy and comfortable for a long time, and then the thing becomes intolerable. It's the cause of all my troubles, one of the wobbles in my wobbly character. But now that I know what's the matter—that it isn't just malaria—and that the curse or whatever it is will pass in time, I suppose it isn't a weakness any longer, because I know just what to do for it. How's that, Phil, for philosophy!"
"Oh, you're so dear, so wonderfully dear!" cried Phil, touching her mother's cheeks lightly with her hands: "and we have had such good times; and I thought we should go on forever, just chumming; and you have stirred me all up about doing things, working—how am I ever to go on trying without you?"
"Nothing could keep you from going on and doing things; you will do great things. It's in you. I think maybe it's the wildness in me that has taken this turn in you. You have more brains in a little minute than I ever had: you are amazingly clever and wise. I'm glad it was left for me to discover it; that's one credit I've got on the Good Book."
There was a new sweetness and a wistfulness in her gravity that did not escape Phil. Phil knew that she could not change her mother's decision. Lois was already preening her wings for flight. Like a migratory bird she was moved by an irresistible call to other lands and other summers. Phil felt the strong columns of her young life totter; but they did not fall, and she knew they would not. It was a sad business, viewed in any light, but life, Phil had realized since Christmas brought her mother back to her, was not a holiday affair.
"I'm only a foolish butterfly down there in the garden," Lois was saying. "I can't stop long anywhere. If I did I'd make mischief. Trouble!" She threw up her hand and snapped her fingers. "What a lot of trouble I've caused in this world! I'm causing some right now; I know it: and it has worried me a lot. And before I flit I've got to straighten things out a little. Don't worry: I'm not going to do anything foolish."
She presented her back for Phil to unhook her gown; and proceeded to array herself in the Paris frock, which she had never worn before.
"By the way, Phil, I subscribed to a clipping bureau so you could see how far your dog piece traveled, and it's being quoted all over creation. Some paper calls it inimitably droll, which I think rather nice. You'll find a bunch of clippings in my second drawer there. Be sure and show them to your father, and don't fail to keep him in touch with your work: he can help you once he's aroused to what you can do. By the way, you must boil the slang out of your system. It's charming, but it won't do. First thing you know it will be slipping in to your ink-pot and corrupting your manuscripts. You know better; I don't! As you go on Nan Bartlett can probably save you a good many bumps: she's a clever woman. I read her book twice, and I can point out everything your father put into that tale. There's not much of him there; only one of his dry jokes now and then. Don't imitate anybody; write about things you see and feel. One reason I'm not going to take you away with me is the danger of spoiling your American point of view. Two years from now you can go over and have a look; we'll see to that; but meanwhile make yourself into a blotter that soaks up everything. I once met a literary critic who said that the only American literature that's worth anything or is ever going to be worth anything will be dug right out of the soil. I didn't know then that I had a little digger in my own family! No; the other gloves; and get me the pink parasol—the one with the white handle."
She was deftly thrusting the pins through her hat before the oval mirror which had been one of her acquisitions. As she drew on the gloves she turned her supple body to make sure of the satisfactory hang of her skirt. Her good spirits had returned, and she hummed softly as Phil surveyed her. She seemed less indifferent to-day to Phil's admiration. Phil's spirits rose slowly; it was difficult to mourn in this radiant presence.
Lois had exercised all her arts in preparing for this mysterious call. She looked astonishingly well!—and amazingly young! Dressing had always been to Phil one of the nuisances and troubles of life. Her aunts had so annoyed her by their fussiness, and their efforts at self-embellishment had so disgusted her that it had been a revelation to find her mother making herself into charming pictures with so few strokes and so blithe an indifference to results.
Phil watched Lois to the gate, delighting in her easy, graceful step; following the pink dot of the parasol as it was lost and found again through the greenery. Lois sauntered toward the college and Phil turned into the house, speculating as to her destination. Her mother's general spontaneousness and inadvertence had led Phil to the belief that Lois withheld nothing; it was inconsonant with her understanding of Lois that there should be any recesses where the sun did not strike upon glittering mirrors in the long corridors down which, in Phil's adoration, her mother was forever loitering.
Students encountered near the campus turned their heads for a second glance at Lois, thinking her a new girl in town who had escaped their vigilance. She walked through Buckeye Lane to the Bartletts'; lowered her parasol as she passed under the maples in the yard; bent over the lilacs that overflowed upon the path, and smiled at the drumstick as she took it in hand to announce herself.
Nan opened the door. If she was surprised to find Mrs. Holton on her threshold, her manner did not betray the fact. Mrs. Holton owed her a call—a call which by the social canons was slightly overdue.
"I am very glad to see you," said Nan cordially.
It was cool and pleasant in the little cottage. (Houses in Montgomery are always pleasant and cool on the warmest days!) Lois sank into a seat, her eyes taking in the room at a glance. The flute on the music cabinet and the 'cello beside the piano did not escape her. On the table, where presumably Nan performed her literary labors, lay the week's darning. There was no denying the essential domesticity of the atmosphere. Lois vaguely remembered that room from the days when Professor Bartlett was living, and she had been a frequent visitor, delighting in the cookies and raspberry shrub that were the inevitable items of Bartlett hospitality when youngsters were about.
"I'm sorry Rose isn't here; she's spending the day in Indianapolis," Nan observed.
"I knew that. That's why I came to-day," replied Lois, smiling. "I wished to see you alone."
They exchanged the quick glance called for by this statement. Nan nodded.
"I shall be leaving very soon," Lois remarked, holding her parasol at arm's length and whirling it idly.
"I'm sorry to hear that," Nan replied.
She shook the bracelet down upon her round white arm with her accustomed gesture, rested her elbow on the writing-table, and waited. She had just come in from a walk and was clad in a blue wash waist and dark skirt. She was immediately conscious of the perfections of Lois's raiment, noting its points from silk hose and modish pumps to the utmost tip of the feather on the beguiling Paris hat.
Nan's imagination was at work upon the situation: Tom Kirkwood's former wife had come to call upon her, and wished to see her alone; and Tom Kirkwood was in love with her, and she would have married him had not this lovely apparition returned to shake her resolution. In the way of people who write she began to view the encounter with unconscious detachment. She was not to remain long in doubt as to the purpose of Lois's visit.
"I am going abroad for an indefinite stay. I may return, of course, now and then, but just to pass the time of day. Montgomery will never be my home. Amzi and Phil—"
A smile, a slight movement of her head, a lifting of the hand completed the sentence.
"They are strong ties," Nan replied, smiling in return.
"I want to tell you how deeply grateful I am to you and your sister, for your kindnesses to dear Phil. In these years that I have been gone you and Rose have been"—she hesitated—"like mothers and grown-up sisters to her. The result speaks for itself. Without you those sisters of mine would have made a fool of her."
"Oh, Phil couldn't have been spoiled!" exclaimed Nan.
"Anybody might be spoiled," Lois insisted. "I'm rather a sad example of the spoiled child myself. I speak, you see, from a weight of experience!"
The smile continued in lips and eyes. She was tremendously at ease and her ease was disconcerting.
"Phil has kept us delighted and bewildered. She was born with understanding; there's genius in the child!" said Nan, with warmth.
"Ah! I knew you realized that! Tom"—she spoke her discarded husband's name unwaveringly, smiling still—"Tom has not quite taken her at full value, though he has been—splendid. Amzi has been a dear angel to her,—but even he has never fully taken in the real Phil. But here, in this house"—she looked about, as though the more fully to place the room in evidence—"you have taken her into your hearts! And she needed the oversight of women—of women like you and Rose. You have been her great stimulus, the wisest of counselors. It seems almost as though I had left her on your doorstep! I am not so dull but that I see it all."
Nan colored deeply. Lois's suggestion, so bluntly put, that she had cast her child upon the Bartletts' doorstep aroused uncomfortable memories. After an instant's reflection Nan said:—
"Phil and her father have been unusually close; I don't believe Mr. Kirkwood has failed at any point in duty or sympathy. He is immensely proud of her development."
"Yes. But—he is not a woman! And there's a difference, if I haven't forfeited my right to an opinion on that point!"
She skirted the fringes, the dim borders of the past with the lightest step. She fumbled the keys of the closed doors as though they were silver trinkets on a chatelaine. In Nan's consciousness they seemed to tinkle and jingle softly in the quiet room.
"I thought of taking Phil away with me, to see the world,"—Nan felt a sudden tightening of the throat—"but I have decided against it. That will come later. In the work she wants to do it is better for her to stay here. If she learns Montgomery she will know the world! Does that sound a little studied? I am not a maker of phrases—far from it! But she has splendid talents?" she ended questioningly.
"Phil has the best mind of any girl I ever knew: she takes my breath away!" cried Nan.
"So! I knew you wouldn't fail me there!"
"We all realize it: we expect great things of her," added Nan.
Lois bent toward her with her winning manner. She drew the parasol across her lap and clasped it in both hands.
"That is why I am appealing to you; that is what brought me here to see you—alone. I am leaving Phil here with you because—because it is so much better for her to be with you than with me! You have done my work for me—oh, we won't discuss that! I know it all. You must credit me with some little understanding before we go further!"
Just where that "further" was to lead, Nan could not guess. She murmured something to the effect that Mrs. Holton was far too kind.
"There is every reason why I should be kind," Lois retorted. "And this brings me to a rather more serious matter, and one—one I am not broaching without reason. I want to speak of Tom!" she flashed. The smile had left her face; her lovely eyes were very grave.
"There is nothing that we need say about Mr. Kirkwood," said Nan, reddening and stirring uneasily.
"Please do not say that! This is an important moment in your life and mine. And I must speak to you of Tom before I go away. We are not children—you and I. You are a woman and a very noble one and—you must let me say it—I have been one of the worst. There's no finer man in the world than Tom; I never knew that until I had flung him away. And it's only because of you and Phil that he found himself again. I know it all as clearly as though I had been here every day of all these years. You picked up the broken pieces and made a man of him again—you and Phil. And you very much more than Phil! I've come to tell you that I'm grateful for that. He deserves well of the world. He loves you; he wants to marry you. If I hadn't come back just when I did, you would have married him."
She knelt beside Nan with lifted face. There were tears in her eyes.
"Don't you see—don't you understand—that that is the only way I can be happy? I'm not saying this for your sake—and only half for Tom's. It's the old selfish me that is asking it," she ended, smiling once more, though with brimming eyes.
Nan turned her head.
"I can never do it! It's not fair for you to speak to me of him."
"Oh, don't I know that! But I never in my life played fair! I want you to promise me that you won't say no to him! He is started on the way up and on once more: I want you to help him gain the top. He needs you just as Phil does! You have already been to him what I never could have been. It is all so easy and so plain! And in no other way can I be right with myself. I shall never trouble you by coming back! Phil can come to me sometimes—I'm sure you will not mind that! And I shall find peace that way! For Phil's sake you and Tom must marry!"
"Phil loves you so," said Nan; "you have no right to leave her; you don't know what you mean to her!"
"I'm only a pretty picture in a book! She's too keen; she'd see through me very soon. No! It must be my way," she said, with a little triumphant note. She rose and turned to pick up her parasol.
Nan watched her wonderingly, for an instant dumb before the plea of this woman, so unlooked-for, so amazing in every aspect. Lois touched her handkerchief to her eyes and thrust it into her sleeve.
"Now that's all over!" she said, smiling.
"No; it can't be over that way," returned Nan, quite herself again. "For a day I thought I could do it, but I'm grateful that you came back, for your coming made me see what a mistake it would have been. There's no question of his needing me. If I helped him a little to find himself, I shall always be glad, but he has tasted success now, and he will not drop back. And as for Phil, it is absurd to pretend that she needs any one. The days of her needs are passed, and she is at the threshold of happy womanhood. I am glad you came when you did, for I see now how near I was to losing some of my old ideals that would have made the rest of my life one long regret."
"Those scruples are like you—like what I know to be true of you; but you are wrong. I believe that in a little while you will see that you are."
"No," continued Nan; "I know they are not wrong. I am ashamed of myself that I ever wavered, but now I know I shall never be tempted again. I may seem to be taking myself too seriously"—she smiled in her accession of assurance—"but I have a feeling of greater relief than I dare try to explain. I am provincial and old-fashioned, and there are things I can't bring myself to think of lightly. I suppose the prejudices of my youth cling to me, and I can't dissociate myself from the idea that, inconspicuous as I am in the general scheme of things, I have my responsibility to my neighbors, to society, to the world. I am grateful that I saw the danger in time to save myself. Your coming back was well timed; it makes me believe"—she added softly—"that there is more than a fate in these things. I had misgivings from the first; I knew that it was wrong; but not till now have I seen how wrong it was! And I want you to be sure that this is final—that I shall never waver again."
"But in a little while, when I am safely out of the way—"
"Your going or coming can make no difference. I can say in all sincerity that I wish you would stay. I think it would mean much to Phil if you should. I hope you will change your decision. You must understand that so far as Mr. Kirkwood and I are concerned there is no reason whatever for your going."
Lois drew a line in the rug with the point of her parasol, her head bent in an attitude of reflection.
"As for Tom and me," she said, meeting Nan's eyes after an instant, "it's only right for you to know from me that he has given me another chance. He has offered to try me again! It was for Phil's sake. It was generous—it was noble of him! But"—she shrugged her shoulders—"I've caused enough misery. Not in a thousand years would I do it!"
Nan nodded, but made no reply. It was enough that she had established her own position, and nothing that Lois could add really mattered. And Lois, with her nice sense of values, her feeling for a situation, knew that the interview was at an end.
A copy of the May number of "Journey's End" lay on a little stand with other magazines. Her hand rested upon it a moment, as though she thus referred everything back to Phil, but even this evoked nothing further from Nan.
Lois walked to the door, murmuring nothings about the weather, the charm of the flowering yards in the Lane.
At the door she caught Nan's hands, smiled into her eyes, and said, with all her charm of tone and manner:—
"You will kiss me, won't you!"
In accommodating himself to the splendors of the enlarged bank room, Amzi had not abandoned his old straw hat and seersucker coat, albeit the hat had been decorated with a dab of paint by some impious workman, and the coat would not have been seriously injured by a visit to the laundry.
Amzi was observing the new facade that had been tacked onto the building, when Phil drove up in the machine. This was the afternoon of the 3d of July. Phil and her father were camping for a week in their old haunt in Turkey Run, and she had motored into town to carry Amzi to his farm, where he meant to spend the Glorious Fourth in the contemplation of the wheat Fred had been harvesting.
Phil had experienced a blow-out on her way to town, a fact to which the state of her camping clothes testified.
"Thunder!" said Amzi; "you look as though you had crawled halfway in."
"A naughty nail in a bridge plank was the sinner," she explained.
She jumped out and was admiring the alterations, which had eliminated the familiar steps to the old room, when Mrs. Waterman emerged from a neighboring shop.
"You dear Phil!" she cried effusively. "I've been wanting to see you for weeks!"
Her aunt caught and held the brown hand Phil had drawn from her battered gauntlet.
"Father and I are out at the Run," Phil explained.
These were the first words she had exchanged with either of her aunts since Christmas. She was not particularly interested in what her Aunt Josephine might have to say, though somewhat curious as to why that lady should be saying anything at all.
"I can't talk here," Mrs. Waterman continued, seeing that Amzi lingered in the bank door. "But there are things I want to discuss with you, Phil, dear."
Main Street is hot on July afternoons; and Phil was impatient to get back to the cool hollows of the Run.
"Oh, any time, Aunt Josie," she replied hastily.
"It's only fair—to myself, and to Fanny and to Kate, for me to say to you that we never meant—we never had the slightest intention—in regard to your dear mother—"
"Oh, don't trouble about that!" said Phil. "Mamma never minded! And please excuse me; Amy's waiting."
She nodded good-bye, and walked through the bank to the new directors' room where Amzi was subjecting himself to the breezes of an electric fan.
"I haven't mussed you," observed Phil, placing her gloves on the new mahogany table, "since you started up the new bank. It's about time we were celebrating."
He threw up his arms to ward off the threatened attack, and when he opened his eyes and peered out she was sitting on the table with the demurest of expressions upon her countenance.
"False alarm; only I object to your comments on my complexion. I'm some burnt; but as it isn't painful to me, the rest of creation needn't worry."
"Well, you needn't kick the legs of that table with your sneakers; that table cost money!"
"Really! Woeful extravagance. Did you see Aunt Josephine holding my hand?"
"I did," replied Amzi. "What's eating Josie?"
"She seemed to want to kiss and make up. I excused myself owing to the heat of the day."
"Humph! I'll tell you something, Phil, if you'll sit in a chair and be nice."
She sat in a chair and was nice.
"I was brought up," said Amzi, "to believe in heaven. Ever hear of the place?"
"I have," said Phil; "and no thanks to you."
He ignored the fling as unworthy of his attention, and continued soberly,—
"I never expected, in all the years I've been attending Center Church, that I'd ever see anybody on earth that had a pass right through the pearly gates; but I guess I know one woman that's got a ticket, with stop-over privileges, and a seat in the observation car—all stamped and good for any date. That woman, Phil, is your mother. That idea's been in my mind a good deal lately and I thought I'd mention it."
Phil's face assumed an unwonted gravity. Her mother's departure, in all the circumstances of her going, had still its poignancy. Phil had been brave, but it had cut deep. She did not reply to her uncle's remark, but waited for him to go on. He drew out a cigar, satisfied himself that it was in good condition, and returned it to his pocket.
"The day she left, your mother wrote out three checks for five thousand bucks—one for each of your aunts. She told me not to turn them over until she had landed on the other side. Thunder! After everything they had done to her and tried to do to her, she did that!"
He waited characteristically for her to deny the facts he had stated. A look of great tenderness came into Phil's face.
"Said she didn't want any unkind feelings. Said it was all right the way they acted. Right!" he repeated contemptuously. "I've known men—and women—some; but I can't beat that! And the day the cable came saying she'd got to Cherbourg, I called 'em down in a bunch and gave 'em the checks. You've noticed that your Uncle Lawrence has turned his theater into a moving-picture shop with a yellow-haired girl selling tickets at the gate; and your Uncle Paul has given notice that he's going to start the brickyard again. He's got contracts to keep him going for six months. And your Uncle Waterman's started in to pay a few of his debts on the installment plan. That's all your mother's money."
A wan smile flitted across Phil's face.
"What you laughing at?" Amzi demanded.
"Nothing," said Phil; "only I seem to remember that I once said something to Lawrince about cutting out the drammer and putting on the reel. And Paul and I had some talk once about bricks—" she ended meditatively.
"Your ideas, both of 'em, I bet!" declared Amzi furiously. "I thought those fellows never had that much sense all by themselves."
"Oh, nothing like that!" replied Phil.
"I just thought I ought to tell you what your mother did. Lois didn't say for me not to tell you. I guess she thought I most likely would."
"I'm glad you did, Amy. Everything I know about mamma makes me love her that much more."
Amzi turned to push the regulator on the fan, and when it had ceased humming he rested his arms on the table and said:—
"Seems Nan's not going to marry your father, after all?"
"No, that's all over," she answered indifferently.
"It was fine of your mother to want them to marry."
"Yes, it was like her. She is wonderful about everything,—thinks of everything and wants everybody to be happy."
Phil clasped her crossed knees in her hands, and did not meet her uncle's eyes. The ache in her heart that was not to be stilled wholly through many years cried aloud.
"Nan is a splendid woman and a mighty good friend to all of us. And your father's got a new shove up the ladder, and is doing splendidly. Nan did a lot for him!"
Phil loosened her hands and they fell helplessly to her sides.
"Oh," she cried, "I don't understand all these things, Amy! If mamma hadn't come back, Nan and daddy would have married; but I don't see how they could! It's clear beyond me how people see things one way one day and another way the next. What's the matter with all of us anyhow, that right isn't always right? In old times people mostly got married and stayed married, and knew their minds, but nowadays marriage seems so purely incidental. It's got to be almost ree-diculous, Amy."