ACROSS THE YEARS
ELEANOR H. PORTER
WHEN FATHER AND MOTHER REBELLED JUPITER ANN THE AXMINSTER PATH PHINEAS AND THE MOTOR CAR THE MOST WONDERFUL WOMAN THE PRICE OF A PAIR OF SHOES THE LONG ROAD A COUPLE OF CAPITALISTS IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF KATY THE BRIDGE ACROSS THE YEARS FOR JIMMY A SUMMONS HOME THE BLACK SILK GOWNS A BELATED HONEYMOON WHEN AUNT ABBY WAKED UP WRISTERS FOR THREE THE GIVING THANKS OF CYRUS AND HULDAH A NEW ENGLAND IDOL
The stories in this volume are here reprinted by the courteous permission of the publishers of the periodicals in which they first appeared,—The Ladies' Home Journal, Ainslee's Magazine, The Scrap Book, The New England Magazine, The Pictorial Review, The Housewife, The Pacific Monthly, The Arena, Lippincott's Magazine, Harper's Bazar, The Century Magazine, Woman, Holland's Magazine, The Designer.
When Father and Mother Rebelled
"'Tain't more 'n a month ter Christmas, Lyddy Ann; did ye know it?" said the old man, settling back in his chair with a curiously resigned sigh.
"Yes, I know, Samuel," returned his wife, sending a swift glance over the top of her glasses.
If Samuel Bertram noticed the glance he made no sign. "Hm!" he murmured. "I've got ten neckerchiefs now. How many crocheted bed-slippers you got?—eh?"
"Oh, Samuel!" remonstrated Lydia Ann feebly.
"I don't care," asserted Samuel with sudden vehemence, sitting erect in his chair. "Seems as if we might get somethin' for Christmas 'sides slippers an' neckerchiefs. Jest 'cause we ain't so young as we once was ain't no sign that we've lost all our faculty for enj'yment!"
"But, Samuel, they're good an' kind, an' want ter give us somethin'," faltered Lydia Ann; "and—"
"Yes, I know they're good an' kind," cut in Samuel wrathfully. "We've got three children, an' each one brings us a Christmas present ev'ry year. They've got so they do it reg'lar now, jest the same as they—they go ter bed ev'ry night," he finished, groping a little for his simile. "An' they put jest about as much thought into it, too," he added grimly.
"My grief an' conscience, Samuel,—how can you talk so!" gasped the little woman opposite.
"Well, they do," persisted Samuel. "They buy a pair o' slippers an' a neckerchief, an' tuck 'em into their bag for us—an' that's done; an' next year they do the same—an' it's done again. Oh, I know I'm ongrateful, an' all that," acknowledged Samuel testily, "but I can't help it. I've been jest ready to bile over ever since last Christmas, an' now I have biled over. Look a-here, Lyddy Ann, we ain't so awful old. You're seventy-three an' I'm seventy-six, an' we're pert as sparrers, both of us. Don't we live here by ourselves, an' do most all the work inside an' outside the house?"
"Yes," nodded Lydia Ann timidly.
"Well, ain't there somethin' you can think of sides slippers you'd like for Christmas—'specially as you never wear crocheted bed-slippers?"
Lydia Ann stirred uneasily. "Why, of course, Samuel," she began hesitatingly, "bed-slippers are very nice, an'—"
"So's codfish!" interrupted Samuel in open scorn. "Come," he coaxed, "jest supposin' we was youngsters again, a-tellin' Santa Claus what we wanted. What would you ask for?"
Lydia Ann laughed. Her cheeks grew pink, and the lost spirit of her youth sent a sudden sparkle to her eyes. "You'd laugh, dearie. I ain't a-goin' ter tell."
"I won't—'pon honor!"
"But it's so silly," faltered Lydia Ann, her cheeks a deeper pink. "Me— an old woman!"
"Of course," agreed Samuel promptly. "It's bound ter be silly, ye know, if we want anythin' but slippers an' neckerchiefs," he added with a chuckle. "Come—out with it, Lyddy Ann."
"It's—it's a tree."
"Dampers and doughnuts!" ejaculated Samuel, his jaw dropping. "A tree!"
"There, I knew you'd laugh," quavered Lydia Ann, catching up her knitting.
"Laugh? Not a bit of it!" averred Samuel stoutly. "I—I want a tree myself!"
"Ye see, it's just this," apologized Lydia Ann feverishly. "They give us things, of course, but they never make anythin' of doin' it, not even ter tyin' 'em up with a piece of red ribbon. They just slip into our bedroom an' leave 'em all done up in brown paper an' we find 'em after they're gone. They mean it all kind, but I'm so tired of gray worsted and sensible things. Of course I can't have a tree, an' I don't suppose I really want it; but I'd like somethin' all pretty an' sparkly an'—an' silly, you know. An' there's another thing I want—ice cream. An' I want to make myself sick eatin' it, too,—if I want to; an' I want little pink-an'-white sugar pep'mints hung in bags. Samuel, can't you see how pretty a bag o' pink pep'mints 'd be on that green tree? An'—dearie me!" broke off the little old woman breathlessly, falling back in her chair. "How I'm runnin' on! I reckon I am in my dotage."
For a moment Samuel did not reply. His brow was puckered into a prodigious frown, and his right hand had sought the back of his head—as was always the case when in deep thought. Suddenly his face cleared.
"Ye ain't in yer dotage—by gum, ye ain't!" he cried excitedly. "An' I ain't, neither. An' what's more, you're a-goin' ter have that tree—ice cream, pink pep'mints, an' all!"
"Oh, my grief an' conscience—Samuel!" quavered Lydia Ann.
"Well, ye be. We can do it easy, too. We'll have it the night 'fore Christmas. The children don't get here until Christmas day, ever, ye know, so 't won't interfere a mite with their visit, an' 'twill be all over 'fore they get here. An' we'll make a party of it, too," went on Samuel gleefully. "There's the Hopkinses an' old Mis' Newcomb, an' Uncle Tim, an' Grandpa Gowin'—they'll all come an' be glad to."
"Samuel, could we?" cried Lydia Ann, incredulous but joyous. "Could we, really?"
"I'll get the tree myself," murmured Samuel, aloud, "an' we can buy some o' that shiny stuff up ter the store ter trim it."
"An' I'll get some of that pink-an'-white tarl'tan for bags," chimed in Lydia Ann happily: "the pink for the white pep'mints, an' the white for the pink. Samuel, won't it be fun?" And to hear her one would have thought her seventeen instead of seventy-three.
* * * * *
A week before Christmas Samuel Bertram's only daughter, Ella, wrote this letter to each of her brothers:
It has occurred to me that it might be an excellent idea if we would plan to spend a little more time this year with Father and Mother when we go for our usual Christmas visit; and what kind of a scheme do you think it would be for us to take the children, and make a real family reunion of it?
I figure that we could all get there by four o'clock the day before Christmas, if we planned for it; and by staying perhaps two days after Christmas we could make quite a visit. What do you say? You see Father and Mother are getting old, and we can't have them with us many more years, anyway; and I'm sure this would please them—only we must be very careful not to make it too exciting for them.
The letters were dispatched with haste, and almost by return mail came the answers; an emphatic approval, and a promise of hearty cooperation signed "Frank" and "Ned." What is every one's business is apt to be no one's business, however, and no one notified Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Bertram of the change of plan, each thinking that one of the others would attend to it.
"As for presents," mused Ella, as she hurried downtown two days before Christmas, "I never can think what to give them; but, after all, there's nothing better than bed-slippers for Mother, and a warm neckerchief for Father's throat. Those are always good."
The day before Christmas dawned clear and cold. It had been expected that Ella, her husband, and her twin boys would arrive at the little village station a full hour before the train from the north bringing Ned, Mrs. Ned, and little Mabel, together with Frank and his wife and son; but Ella's train was late—so late that it came in a scant five minutes ahead of the other one, and thus brought about a joyous greeting between the reunited families on the station platform itself.
"Why, it's not so bad we were late, after all," cried Ella. "This is fine—now we can all go together!"
"Jove! but we're a cheery sight!" exclaimed Ned, as he counted off on his fingers the blooming faces of those about him. "There are ten of us!"
"Only fancy what they'll say at the house when they catch their first glimpse of us!" chuckled Frank. "The dear old souls! How Father's eyes will shine and Mother's cap-strings bob! By the way, of course they know we're coming to-day?"
There was a moment's silence; then Ella flushed. "Why! didn't—didn't you tell them?" she stammered.
"I? Why, of course not!" cried Frank. "I supposed you were going to. But maybe Ned-" He paused and turned questioning eyes on his brother.
Ned shook his head. "Not I," he said.
"Why, then—then they don't know," cried Ella, aghast. "They don't know a thing!"
"Never mind, come on," laughed Ned. "What difference does it make?"
"'What difference does it make'!" retorted Ella indignantly. "Ned Bertram, do you suppose I'd take the risk of ten of us pouncing down on those two poor dears like this by surprise? Certainly not!"
"But, Ella, they're expecting six of us tomorrow," remonstrated Frank.
"Very true. But that's not ten of us today."
"I know; but so far as the work is concerned, you girls always do the most of that," cut in Ned.
"Work! It isn't the work," almost groaned Ella. "Don't you see, boys? It's the excitement—'twouldn't do for them at all. We must fix it some way. Come, let's go into the waiting-room and talk it up."
It was not until after considerable discussion that their plans were finally made and their line of march decided upon. To advance in the open and take the house by storm was clearly out of the question, though Ned remarked that in all probability the dear old creatures would be dozing before the fire, and would not discover their approach. Still, it would be wiser to be on the safe side; and it was unanimously voted that Frank should go ahead alone and reconnoiter, preparing the way for the rest, who could wait, meanwhile, at the little hotel not far from the house.
The short winter day had drawn almost to a close when Frank turned in at the familiar gate of the Bertram homestead. His hand had not reached the white knob of the bell, however, when the eager expectancy of his face gave way to incredulous amazement; from within, clear and distinct, had come the sound of a violin.
"Why, what—" he cried under his breath, and softly pushed open the door.
The hall was almost dark, but the room beyond was a blaze of light, with the curtains drawn, and apparently every lamp the house contained trimmed and burning. He himself stood in the shadow, and his entrance had been unnoticed, though almost the entire expanse of the room before him was visible through the half-open doorway.
In the farther corner of the room a large evergreen tree, sparkling with candles and tinsel stars, was hung with bags of pink and white tarletan and festoons of puffy popcorn. Near it sat an old man playing the violin; and his whole wiry self seemed to quiver with joy to the tune of his merry "Money Musk." In the center of the room two gray-haired men were dancing an old-time jig, bobbing, bowing, and twisting about in a gleeful attempt to outdo each other. Watching them were three old women and another old man, eating ice cream and contentedly munching peppermints. And here, there, and everywhere was the mistress of the house, Lydia Ann herself, cheeks flushed and cap-strings flying, but plainly in her element and joyously content.
For a time the man by the hall door watched in silent amazement; then with a low ejaculation he softly let himself out of the house, and hurried back to the hotel.
"Well?" greeted half a dozen voices; and one added: "What did they say?"
Frank shook his head and dropped into the nearest chair. "I—I didn't tell them," he stammered faintly.
"Didn't tell them!" exclaimed Ella. "Why, Frank, what was the trouble? Were they sick? Surely, they were not upset by just seeing you!" Frank's eyes twinkled "Well, hardly!" he retorted. "They—they're having a party."
"A party!" shrieked half a dozen voices.
"Yes; and a tree, and a dance, and ice cream, and pink peppermints," Frank enumerated in one breath.
There was a chorus of expostulation; then Ella's voice rose dominant. "Frank Bertram, what on earth do you mean?" she demanded. "Who is having all this?"
"Father and Mother," returned Frank, his lips twitching a little. "And they've got old Uncle Tim and half a dozen others for guests."
"But, Frank, how can they be having all this?" faltered Ella. "Why, Father's not so very far from eighty years old, and—Mabel, Mabel, my dear!" she broke off in sudden reproof to her young niece, who had come under her glance at that moment. "Those are presents for Grandpa and Grandma. I wouldn't play with them."
Mabel hesitated, plainly rebellious. In each hand was a gray worsted bed-slipper; atop of her yellow curls was a brown neckerchief, cap fashion.
There were exclamations from two men, and Ned came forward hurriedly. "Oh, I say, Ella," he remonstrated, "you didn't get those for presents, did you?"
"But I did. Why not?" questioned Ella.
"Why, I got slippers, you see. I never can think of anything else. Besides, they're always good, anyhow. But I should think you, a woman, could think of something—"
"Never mind," interrupted Ella airily. "Mother's a dear, and she won't care if she does get two pairs."
"But she won't want three pairs," groaned Frank; "and I got slippers too!"
There was a moment of dismayed silence, then everybody laughed.
Ella was the first to speak. "It's too bad, of course, but never mind. Mother'll see the joke of it just as we do. You know she never seems to care what we give her. Old people don't have many wants, I fancy."
Frank stirred suddenly and walked the length of the room. Then he wheeled about.
"Do you know," he said, a little unsteadily, "I believe that's a mistake?"
"A mistake? What's a mistake?"
"The notion that old people don't have any—wants. See here. They're having a party down there—a party, and they must have got it up themselves. Such being the case, of course they had what they wanted for entertainment—and they aren't drinking tea or knitting socks. They're dancing jigs and eating pink peppermints and ice cream! Their eyes are like stars, and Mother's cheeks are like a girl's; and if you think I'm going to offer those spry young things a brown neckerchief and a pair of bed-slippers you're much mistaken—because I'm not!"
"But what—can—we do?" stammered Ella.
"We can buy something else here—to-night—in the village," declared Frank; "and to-morrow morning we can go and give it to them."
"I haven't the least idea," retorted Frank, with an airy wave of his hands. "Maybe 'twill be a diamond tiara and a polo pony. Anyway, I know what 'twon't be—'twon't be slippers or a neckerchief!"
* * * * *
It was later than usual that Christmas morning when Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Bertram arose. If the old stomachs had rebelled a little at the pink peppermints and ice cream, and if the old feet had charged toll for their unaccustomed activity of the night before, neither Samuel nor Lydia Ann would acknowledge it.
"Well, we had it—that tree!" chuckled Samuel, as he somewhat stiffly thrust himself into his clothes.
"We did, Samuel,—we did," quavered Lydia Ann joyfully, "an' wa'n't it nice? Mis' Hopkins said she never had such a good time in all her life before."
"An' Uncle Tim an' Grandpa Gowin'—they was as spry as crickets, an' they made old Pete tune up that 'Money Musk' three times 'fore they'd quit"
"Yes; an'—my grief an' conscience, Samuel! 'tis late, ain't it?" broke off Lydia Ann, anxiously peering at the clock. "Come, come, dear, you'll have ter hurry 'bout gettin' that tree out of the front room 'fore the children get here. I wouldn't have 'em know for the world how silly we've been—not for the world!"
Samuel bridled, but his movements showed a perceptible increase of speed.
"Well, I do' know," he chuckled.
"'T wa'n't anythin' so awful, after all. But, say," he called triumphantly a moment later, as he stooped and picked up a small object from the floor, "they will find out if you don't hide these 'ere pep'mints!"
The tree and the peppermints had scarcely disappeared from the "front room" when Frank arrived.
"Oh, they're all coming in a minute," he laughed gayly in response to the surprised questions that greeted him. "And we've brought the children, too. You'll have a houseful, all right!"
A houseful it certainly proved to be, and a lively one, too. In the kitchen "the girls" as usual reigned supreme, and bundled off the little mother to "visit with the boys and the children" during the process of dinner-getting, and after dinner they all gathered around the fireplace for games and stories.
"And now," said Frank when darkness came and the lamps were lighted, "I've got a new game, but it's a very mysterious game, and you, Father and Mother, must not know a thing about it until it's all ready." And forthwith he conducted the little old man and the little old woman out into the kitchen with great ceremony.
"Say, Samuel, seems as if this was 'most as good as the party," whispered Lydia Ann excitedly, as they waited in the dark. "I know it; an' they hain't asked us once if we was gettin' too tired! Did ye notice, Lyddy Ann?"
"Yes, an' they didn't make us take naps, either. Ain't it nice? Why, Samuel, I—I shan't mind even the bed-slippers now," she laughed.
"Ready!" called Frank, and the dining-room door was thrown wide open.
The old eyes blinked a little at the sudden light, then widened in amazement. Before the fireplace was a low sewing-table with a chair at each end. The table itself was covered with a white cloth which lay in fascinating little ridges and hillocks indicating concealed treasures beneath. About the table were grouped the four eager-eyed grandchildren and their no less eager-eyed parents. With still another ceremonious bow Frank escorted the little old man and the little old woman to the waiting chairs, and with a merry "One, two, three!" whisked off the cloth.
For one amazed instant there was absolute silence; then Lydia Ann drew a long breath.
"Samuel, Samuel, they're presents—an' for us!" she quavered joyously. "It's the bed-slippers and the neckerchiefs, an' they did 'em all up in white paper an' red ribbons just for us."
At the corner of the mantelpiece a woman choked suddenly and felt for her handkerchief. Behind her two men turned sharply and walked toward the window; but the little old man and the little old woman did not notice it. They had forgotten everything but the enchanting array of mysteries before them.
Trembling old hands hovered over the many-sized, many-shaped packages, and gently patted the perky red bows; but not until the grandchildren impatiently demanded, "Why don't you look at 'em?" did they venture to untie a single ribbon. Then the old eyes shone, indeed, at sight of the wonderful things disclosed; a fine lace tie and a bottle of perfume; a reading-glass and a basket of figs; some dates, raisins, nuts, and candies, and a little electric pocket lantern which would, at the pressure of a thumb, bring to light all the secrets of the darkest of rooms. There were books, too, such as Ella and Frank themselves liked to read; and there was a handsome little clock for the mantel—but there was not anywhere a pair of bed-slippers or a neckerchief.
At last they were all opened, and there remained not one little red bow to untie. On the table, in all their pristine glory, lay the presents, and half-buried in bits of paper and red ribbon sat the amazed, but blissfully happy, little old man and little old woman. Lydia Ann's lips parted, but the trembling words of thanks froze on her tongue—her eyes had fallen on a small pink peppermint on the floor.
"No, no, we can't take 'em," she cried agitatedly. "We hadn't ought to. We was wicked and ongrateful, and last night we—we—" She paused helplessly, her eyes on her husband's face. "Samuel, you—you tell," she faltered.
Samuel cleared his throat.
"Well, ye see, we—yes, last night, we—we—" He could say no more.
"We—we had a party to—to make up for things," blurted out Lydia Ann. "And so ye see we—we hadn't ought ter take these—all these!"
Frank winced. His face grew a little white as he threw a quick glance into his sister's eyes; but his voice, when he spoke, was clear and strong from sheer force of will.
"A party? Good! I'm glad of it. Did you enjoy it?" he asked.
Samuel's jaw dropped. Lydia Ann stared speechlessly. This cordial approval of their folly was more incomprehensible than had been the failure to relegate them to naps and knitting earlier in the afternoon.
"And you've got another party to-night, too; haven't you?" went on Frank smoothly. "As for those things there"—he waved his hand toward the table—"of course you'll take them. Why, we picked them out on purpose for you,—every single one of them,—and only think how we'd feel if you didn't take them! Don't you—like them?"
"'Like them'!" cried Lydia Ann, and at the stifled sob in her voice three men and three women caught their breath sharply and tried to swallow the lumps in their throats. "We—we just love them!"
No one spoke. The grandchildren stared silently, a little awed. Ella, Frank, and Ned stirred restlessly and looked anywhere but at each other.
Lydia Ann flushed, then paled. "Of course, if—if you picked 'em out 'specially for us—" she began hesitatingly, her eyes anxiously scanning the perturbed faces of her children.
"We did—especially," came the prompt reply.
Lydia Ann's gaze drifted to the table and lingered upon the clock, the tie, and the bottle of perfume. "'Specially for us," she murmured softly. Then her face suddenly cleared. "Why, then we'll have to take them, won't we?" she cried, her voice tremulous with ecstasy. "We'll just have to—whether we ought to or not!"
"You certainly will!" declared Frank. And this time he did not even try to hide the shake in his voice.
"Oh!" breathed Lydia Ann blissfully. "Samuel, I—I think I'll take a fig, please!"
It was only after serious consideration that Miss Prue had bought the little horse, Jupiter, and then she changed the name at once. For a respectable spinster to drive any sort of horse was bad enough in Miss Prue's opinion; but to drive a heathen one! To replace "Jupiter" she considered "Ann" a sensible, dignified, and proper name, and "Ann" she named him, regardless of age, sex, or "previous condition of servitude." The villagers accepted the change—though with modifications; the horse was known thereafter as "Miss Prue's Jupiter Ann."
Miss Prue had said that she wanted a safe, steady horse; one that would not run, balk, or kick. She would not have bought any horse, indeed, had it not been that the way to the post office, the store, the church, and everywhere else, had grown so unaccountably long—Miss Prue was approaching her sixtieth birthday. The horse had been hers now a month, and thus far it had been everything that a dignified, somewhat timid spinster could wish it to be. Fortunately—or unfortunately, as one may choose to look at it—Miss Prue did not know that in the dim recesses of Jupiter's memory there lurked the smell of the turf, the feel of the jockey's coaxing touch, and the sound of a triumphant multitude shouting his name; in Miss Prue's estimation the next deadly sin to treason and murder was horse racing.
There was no one in the town, perhaps, who did not know of Miss Prue's abhorrence of horse racing. On all occasions she freed her mind concerning it; and there was a report that the only lover of her youth had lost his suit through his passion for driving fast horses. Even the county fair Miss Prue had refused all her life to attend—there was the horse racing. It was because of all this that she had been so loath to buy a horse, if only the way to everywhere had not grown so long!
For four weeks—indeed, for five—the new horse, Ann, was a treasure; then, one day, Jupiter remembered.
Miss Prue was driving home from the post office. The wide, smooth road led straight ahead under an arch of flaming gold and scarlet. The October air was crisp and bracing, and unconsciously Miss Prue lifted her chin and drew a long breath. Almost at once, however, she frowned. From behind her had come the sound of a horse's hoofs, and reluctantly Miss Prue pulled the right-hand rein.
Jupiter Ann quickened his gait perceptibly, and lifted his head. His ears came erect.
"Whoa, Ann, whoa!" stammered Miss Prue nervously.
The hoof beats were almost abreast now, and hurriedly Miss Prue turned her head. At once she gave the reins an angry jerk; in the other light carriage sat Rupert Joyce, the young man who for weeks had been unsuccessfully trying to find favor in her eyes because he had already found it in the eyes of her ward and niece, Mary Belle.
"Good-morning, Miss Prue," called a boyish voice.
"Good-morning," snapped the woman, and jerked the reins again.
Miss Prue awoke then to the sudden realization that if the other's speed had accelerated, so, too, had her own.
"Ann, Ann, whoa!" she commanded. Then she turned angry eyes on the young man. "Go by—go by! Why don't you go by?" she called sharply.
In obedience, young Joyce touched the whip to his gray mare: but he did not go by. With a curious little shake, as if casting off years of dull propriety, Jupiter Ann thrust forward his nose and got down to business.
Miss Prue grew white, then red. Her hands shook on the reins.
"Ann, Ann, whoa! You mustn't—you can't! Ann, please whoa!" she supplicated wildly. She might as well have besought the wind not to blow.
On and on, neck and neck, the horses raced. Miss Prue's bonnet slipped and hung rakishly above one ear. Her hair loosened and fell in straggling wisps of gray to her shoulders. Her eyeglasses dropped from her nose and swayed dizzily on their slender chain. Her gloves split across the back and showed the white, tense knuckles. Her breath came in gasps, and only a moaning "whoa—whoa" fell in jerky rhythm from her white lips. Ashamed, frightened, and dismayed, Miss Prue clung to the reins and kept her straining eyes on the road ahead.
On and on down the long straight road flew Jupiter Ann and the little gray mare. At door and window of the scudding houses appeared men and women with startled faces and upraised hands. Miss Prue knew that they were there, and shuddered. The shame of it—she, in a horse-race, and with Rupert Joyce! Hurriedly she threw a look at the young man's face to catch its expression; and then she saw something else: the little gray mare was a full half-head in the lead of Jupiter Ann!
It was then that a strange something awoke in Miss Prue—a fierce new something that she had never felt before. Her lips set hard, and her eyes flashed a sudden fire. Her moaning "whoa—whoa" fell silent, and her hands loosened instinctively on the reins. She was leaning forward now, eagerly, anxiously, her eyes on the head of the other horse. Suddenly her tense muscles relaxed, and a look that was perilously near to triumphant joy crossed her face—Jupiter Ann was ahead once more!
By the time the wide sweep of the driveway leading to Miss Prue's home was reached, there was no question of the result, and well in the lead of the little gray mare Jupiter Ann trotted proudly up the driveway and came to a panting stop.
Flushed, disheveled, and palpitating, Miss Prue picked her way to the ground. Behind her Rupert Joyce was just driving into the yard. He, too, was flushed and palpitating—though not for the same reason.
"I—I just thought I'd drive out and see Mary Belle," he blurted out airily, assuming a bold front to meet the wrath which he felt was sure to come. At once, however, his jaw dropped in amazement.
"Mary Belle? I left her down in the orchard gathering apples," Miss Prue was saying cheerfully. "You might look for her there." And she smiled— the gracious smile of the victor for the vanquished.
Incredulously the youth stared; then, emboldened, he plunged on recklessly:
"I say, you know, Miss Prue, that little horse of yours can run!"
Miss Prue stiffened. With a jerk she straightened her bonnet and thrust her glasses on her nose.
"Ann has been bad—very bad," she said severely. "We'll not talk of it, if you please. I am ashamed of her!" And he turned haughtily away.
In the barn two minutes later, Miss Prue patted Jupiter Ann on the neck —a thing she had never done before.
"We beat 'em, anyhow, Ann," she whispered. "And, after all, he's a pleasant-spoken chap, and if Mary Belle wants him—why—let's let her have him!"
The Axminster Path
"There, dear, here we are, all dressed for the day!" said the girl gayly, as she led the frail little woman along the strip of Axminster carpet that led to the big chair.
"And Kathie?" asked the woman, turning her head with the groping uncertainty of the blind.
"Here, mother," answered a cheery voice. "I'm right here by the window."
"Oh!" And the woman smiled happily. "Painting, I suppose, as usual."
"Oh, I'm working, as usual," returned the same cheery voice, its owner changing the position of the garment in her lap and reaching for a spool of silk.
"There!" breathed the blind woman, as she sank into the great chair. "Now I am all ready for my breakfast. Tell cook, please, Margaret, that I will have tea this morning, and just a roll besides my orange." And she smoothed the folds of her black silk gown and picked daintily at the lace in her sleeves.
"Very well, dearie," returned her daughter. "You shall have it right away," she added over her shoulder as she left the room.
In the tiny kitchen beyond the sitting-room Margaret Whitmore lighted the gas-stove and set the water on to boil. Then she arranged a small tray with a bit of worn damask and the only cup and saucer of delicate china that the shelves contained. Some minutes later she went back to her mother, tray in hand.
"'Most starved to death?" she demanded merrily, as she set the tray upon the table Katherine had made ready before the blind woman. "You have your roll, your tea, your orange, as you ordered, dear, and just a bit of currant jelly besides."
"Currant jelly? Well, I don't know,—perhaps it will taste good. 'T was so like Nora to send it up; she's always trying to tempt my appetite, you know. Dear me, girls, I wonder if you realize what a treasure we have in that cook!"
"Yes, dear, I know," murmured Margaret hastily. "And now the tea, Mother—it's getting colder every minute. Will you have the orange first?"
The slender hands of the blind woman hovered for a moment over the table, then dropped slowly and found by touch the position of spoons, plates, and the cup of tea.
"Yes, I have everything. I don't need you any longer, Meg. I don't like to take so much of your time, dear—you should let Betty do for me."
"But I want to do it," laughed Margaret. "Don't you want me?"
"Want you! That isn't the question, dear," objected Mrs. Whitmore gently. "Of course, a maid's service can't be compared for an instant with a daughter's love and care; but I don't want to be selfish—and you and Kathie never let Betty do a thing for me. There, there! I won't scold any more. What are you going to do to-day, Meg?"
Margaret hesitated. She was sitting by the window now, in a low chair near her sister's. In her hands was a garment similar to that upon which Katherine was still at work.
"Why, I thought," she began slowly, "I'd stay here with you and Katherine a while."
Mrs. Whitmore set down her empty cup and turned a troubled face toward the sound of her daughter's voice.
"Meg, dear," she remonstrated, "is it that fancy-work?"
"Well, isn't fancy-work all right?" The girl's voice shook a little.
Mrs. Whitmore stirred uneasily.
"No, it—it isn't—in this case," she protested. "Meg, Kathie, I don't like it. You are young; you should go out more—both of you. I understand, of course; it's your unselfishness. You stay with me lest I get lonely; and you play at painting and fancy-work for an excuse. Now, dearies, there must be a change. You must go out. You must take your place in society. I will not have you waste your young lives."
"Mother!" Margaret was on her feet, and Katherine had dropped her work. "Mother!" they cried again.
"I—I shan't even listen," faltered Margaret. "I shall go and leave you right away," she finished tremulously, picking up the tray and hurrying from the room.
It was hours later, after the little woman had trailed once more along the Axminster path to the bed in the room beyond and had dropped asleep, that Margaret Whitmore faced her sister with despairing eyes.
"Katherine, what shall we do? This thing is killing me!"
The elder girl's lips tightened. For an instant she paused in her work— but for only an instant.
"I know," she said feverishly; "but we mustn't give up—we mustn't!"
"But how can we help it? It grows worse and worse. She wants us to go out—to sing, dance, and make merry as we used to."
"Then we'll go out and—tell her we dance."
"But there's the work."
"We'll take it with us. We can't both leave at once, of course, but old Mrs. Austin, downstairs, will be glad to have one or the other of us sit with her an occasional afternoon or evening."
Margaret sprang to her feet and walked twice the length of the room.
"But I've—lied so much already!" she moaned, pausing before her sister. "It's all a lie—my whole life!"
"Yes, yes, I know," murmured the other, with a hurried glance toward the bedroom door. "But, Meg, we mustn't give up—'twould kill her to know now. And, after all, it's only a little while!—such a little while!"
Her voice broke with a half-stifled sob. The younger girl shivered, but did not speak. She walked again the length of the room and back; then she sat down to her work, her lips a tense line of determination, and her thoughts delving into the few past years for a strength that might help her to bear the burden of the days to come.
* * * * *
Ten years before, and one week after James Whitmore's death, Mrs. James Whitmore had been thrown from her carriage, striking on her head and back.
When she came to consciousness, hours afterward, she opened her eyes on midnight darkness, though the room was flooded with sunlight. The optic nerve had been injured, the doctor said. It was doubtful if she would ever be able to see again.
Nor was this all. There were breaks and bruises, and a bad injury to the spine. It was doubtful if she would ever walk again. To the little woman lying back on the pillow it seemed a living death—this thing that had come to her.
It was then that Margaret and Katherine constituted themselves a veritable wall of defense between their mother and the world. Nothing that was not inspected and approved by one or the other was allowed to pass Mrs. Whitmore's chamber door.
For young women only seventeen and nineteen, whose greatest responsibility hitherto had been the selection of a gown or a ribbon, this was a new experience.
At first the question of expense did not enter into consideration. Accustomed all their lives to luxury, they unhesitatingly demanded it now; and doctors, nurses, wines, fruits, flowers, and delicacies were summoned as a matter of course.
Then came the crash. The estate of the supposedly rich James Whitmore was found to be deeply involved, and in the end there was only a pittance for the widow and her two daughters.
Mrs. Whitmore was not told of this at once. She was so ill and helpless that a more convenient season was awaited. That was nearly ten years ago—and she had not been told yet.
Concealment had not been difficult at first. The girls had, indeed, drifted into the deception almost unconsciously, as it certainly was not necessary to burden the ears of the already sorely afflicted woman with the petty details of the economy and retrenchment on the other side of her door.
If her own luxuries grew fewer, the change was so gradual that the invalid did not notice it, and always her blindness made easy the deception of those about her.
Even the move to another home was accomplished without her realizing it —she was taken to the hospital for a month's treatment, and when the month was ended she was tenderly carried home and laid on her own bed; and she did not know that "home" now was a cheap little flat in Harlem instead of the luxurious house on the avenue where her children were born.
She was too ill to receive visitors, and was therefore all the more dependent on her daughters for entertainment.
She pitied them openly for the grief and care she had brought upon them, and in the next breath congratulated them and herself that at least they had all that money could do to smooth the difficult way. In the face of this, it naturally did not grow any easier for the girls to tell the truth—and they kept silent.
For six years Mrs. Whitmore did not step; then her limbs and back grew stronger, and she began to sit up, and to stand for a moment on her feet. Her daughters now bought the strip of Axminster carpet and laid a path across the bedroom, and another one from the bedroom door to the great chair in the sitting-room, so that her feet might not note the straw matting on the floor and question its being there.
In her own sitting-room at home—which had opened, like this, out of her bedroom—the rugs were soft and the chairs sumptuous with springs and satin damask. One such chair had been saved from the wreck—the one at the end of the strip of carpet.
Day by day and month by month the years passed. The frail little woman walked the Axminster path and sat in the tufted chair. For her there were a china cup and plate, and a cook and maids below to serve. For her the endless sewing over which Katherine and Margaret bent their backs to eke out their scanty income was a picture or a bit of embriodery, designed to while away the time.
As Margaret thought of it it seemed incredible—this tissue of fabrications that enmeshed them; but even as she wondered she knew that the very years that marked its gradual growth made now its strength.
And in a little while would come the end—a very little while, the doctor said.
Margaret tightened her lips and echoed her sister's words: "We mustn't give up—we mustn't!"
Two days later the doctor called. He was a bit out of the old life.
His home, too, had been—and was now, for that matter—on the avenue. He lived with his aunt, whose heir he was, and he was the only one outside of the Whitmore family that knew the house of illusions in which Mrs. Whitmore lived.
His visits to the little Harlem flat had long ceased to have more than a semblance of being professional, and it was an open secret that he wished to make Margaret his wife. Margaret said no, though with a heightened color and a quickened breath—which told at least herself how easily the "no" might have been a "yes."
Dr. Littlejohn was young and poor, and he had only his profession, for all he was heir to one of the richest women on the avenue; and Margaret refused to burden him with what she knew it would mean to marry her. In spite of argument, therefore, and a pair of earnest brown eyes that pleaded even more powerfully, she held to her convictions and continued to say no.
All this, however, did not prevent Dr. Littlejohn from making frequent visits to the Whitmore home, and always his coming meant joy to three weary, troubled hearts. To-day he brought a great handful of pink carnations and dropped them into the lap of the blind woman.
"Sweets to the sweet!" he cried gayly, as he patted the slim hand on the arm of the chair.
"Doctor Ned—you dear boy! Oh, how lovely!" exclaimed Mrs. Whitmore, burying her face in the fragrant flowers. "And, doctor, I want to speak to you," she broke off earnestly. "I want you to talk to Meg and Kathie. Perhaps they will listen to you. I want them to go out more. Tell them, please, that I don't need them all the time now."
"Dear me, how independent we are going to be!" laughed the doctor. "And so we don't need any more attention now, eh?"
"Betty will do."
"Betty?" It was hard, sometimes, for the doctor to remember.
"The maid," explained Mrs. Whitmore; "though, for that matter, there might as well be no maid—the girls never let her do a thing for me."
"No?" returned the doctor easily, sure now of where he stood. "But you don't expect me to interfere in this housekeeping business!"
"Somebody must," urged Mrs. Whitmore. "The girls must leave me more. It isn't as if we were poor and couldn't hire nurses and maids. I should die if it were like that, and I were such a burden."
"Mother, dearest!" broke in Margaret feverishly, with an imploring glance toward her sister and the doctor.
"Oh, by the way," interposed the doctor airily, "it has occurred to me that the very object of my visit to-day is right along the lines of what you ask. I want Miss Margaret to go driving with me. I have a call to make out Washington Heights way."
"Oh, but—" began Margaret, and paused at a gesture from her mother.
"There aren't any 'buts' about it," declared Mrs. Whitmore. "Meg shall go."
"Of course she'll go!" echoed Katherine. And with three against her, Margaret's protests were in vain.
* * * * *
Mrs. Whitmore was nervous that night. She could not sleep.
It seemed to her that if she could get up and walk, back and forth, back and forth, she could rest afterward. She had not stepped alone yet, to be sure, since the accident, but, after all, the girls did little more than guide her feet, and she was sure that she could walk alone if she tried.
The more she thought of it the more she longed to test her strength. Just a few steps back and forth, back and forth—then sleep. She was sure she could sleep then. Very quietly, that she might not disturb the sleepers in the bedroom beyond, the blind woman sat up in bed and slipped her feet to the floor.
Within reach were her knit slippers and the heavy shawl always kept at the head of her bed. With trembling hands she put them on and rose upright.
At last she was on her feet, and alone. To a woman who for ten years had depended on others for almost everything but the mere act of breathing, it was joy unspeakable. She stepped once, twice, and again along the side of her bed; then she stopped with a puzzled frown—under her feet was the unyielding, unfamiliar straw matting. She took four more steps, hesitatingly, and with her arms outstretched at full length before her. The next instant she recoiled and caught her breath sharply; her hands had encountered a wall and a window—and there should have been no wall or windows there!
The joy was gone now.
Shaking with fear and weakness, the little woman crept along the wall and felt for something that would tell her that she was still at home. Her feet made no sound, and only her hurried breathing broke the silence.
Through the open door to the sitting-room, and down the wall to the right-on and on she crept.
Here and there a familiar chair or stand met her groping hands and held them hesitatingly for a moment, only to release them to the terror of an unfamiliar corner or window-sill.
The blind woman herself had long since lost all realization of what she was doing. There was only the frenzied longing to find her own. She did not hesitate even at the outer door of the apartment, but turned the key with shaking hands and stepped fearlessly into the hall. The next moment there came a scream and a heavy fall. The Whitmore apartment was just at the head of the stairs, and almost the first step of the blind woman had been off into space.
* * * * *
When Mrs. Whitmore regained consciousness she was alone in her own bed.
Out in the sitting-room, Margaret, Katherine, and the doctor talked together in low tones. At last the girls hurried into the kitchen, and the doctor turned and entered the bedroom. With a low ejaculation he hurried forward.
Mrs. Whitmore flung out her arm and clutched his hand; then she lay back on the pillow and closed her eyes.
"Doctor," she whispered, "where am I?"
"At home, in your own bed."
"Where is this place?"
Dr. Littlejohn paled. He sent an anxious glance toward the sitting-room door, though he knew very well that Margaret and Katherine were in the kitchen and could not hear.
"Where is this place?" begged the woman again.
"Why, it—it—is—" The man paused helplessly.
Five thin fingers tightened their clasp on his hand, and the low voice again broke the silence.
"Doctor, did you ever know—did you ever hear that a fall could give back—sight?"
Dr. Littlejohn started and peered into the wan face lying back on the pillow. Its impassiveness reassured him.
"Why, perhaps—once or twice," he returned slowly, falling back into his old position, "though rarely—very rarely."
"But it has happened?"
"Yes, it has happened. There was a case recently in England. The shock and blow released the pressure on the optic nerve; but—"
Something in the face he was watching brought him suddenly forward in his chair. "My dear woman, you don't mean—you can't—"
He did not finish his sentence. Mrs. Whitmore opened her eyes and met his gaze unflinchingly. Then she turned her head.
"Doctor," she said, "that picture on the wall there at the foot of the bed—it doesn't hang quite straight."
"Mrs. Whitmore!" breathed the man incredulously, half rising from his chair.
"Hush! Not yet!" The woman's insistent hand had pulled him back. "Why am I here? Where is this place?"
There was no answer.
"Doctor, you must tell me. I must know."
Again the man hesitated. He noted the flushed cheeks and shaking hands of the woman before him. It was true, she must know; and perhaps, after all, it was best she should know through him. He drew a long breath and plunged straight into the heart of the story.
Five minutes later a glad voice came from the doorway.
"Mother, dearest—then you're awake!" The doctor was conscious of a low- breathed "Hush, don't tell her!" in his ears; then, to his amazement, he saw the woman on the bed turn her head and hold out her hand with the old groping uncertainty of the blind.
"Margaret! It is Margaret, isn't it?"
Days afterward, when the weary, painracked body of the little mother was forever at rest, Margaret lifted her head from her lover's shoulder, where she had been sobbing out her grief.
"Ned, I can't be thankful enough," she cried, "that we kept it from Mother to the end. It's my only comfort. She didn't know."
"And I'm sure she would wish that thought to be a comfort to you, dear," said the doctor gently. "I am sure she would."
Phineas and the Motor Car
Phineas used to wonder, sometimes, just when it was that he began to court Diantha Bowman, the rosy-cheeked, golden-haired idol of his boyhood. Diantha's cheeks were not rosy now, and her hair was more silver than gold, but she was not yet his wife.
And he had tried so hard to win her! Year after year the rosiest apples from his orchard and the choicest honey from his apiary had found their way to Diantha's table; and year after year the county fair and the village picnic had found him at Diantha's door with his old mare and his buggy, ready to be her devoted slave for the day. Nor was Diantha unmindful of all these attentions. She ate the apples and the honey, and spent long contented hours in the buggy; but she still answered his pleadings with her gentle: "I hain't no call to marry yet, Phineas," and nothing he could do seemed to hasten her decision in the least. It was the mare and the buggy, however, that proved to be responsible for what was the beginning of the end.
They were on their way home from the county fair. The mare, head hanging, was plodding through the dust when around the curve of the road ahead shot the one automobile that the town boasted. The next moment the whizzing thing had passed, and left a superannuated old mare looming through a cloud of dust and dancing on two wabbly hind legs.
"Plague take them autymobiles!" snarled Phineas through set teeth, as he sawed at the reins. "I ax yer pardon, I'm sure, Dianthy," he added shamefacedly, when the mare had dropped to a position more nearly normal; "but I hain't no use fur them 'ere contraptions!"
Diantha frowned. She was frightened—and because she was frightened she was angry. She said the first thing that came into her head—and never had she spoken to Phineas so sharply.
"If you did have some use for 'em, Phineas Hopkins, you wouldn't be crawlin' along in a shiftless old rig like this; you'd have one yourself an' be somebody! For my part, I like 'em, an' I'm jest achin' ter ride in 'em, too!"
Phineas almost dropped the reins in his amazement. "Achin' ter ride in 'em," she had said—and all that he could give her was this "shiftless old rig" that she so scorned. He remembered something else, too, and his face flamed suddenly red. It was Colonel Smith who owned and drove that automobile, and Colonel Smith, too, was a bachelor. What if—Instantly in Phineas's soul rose a fierce jealousy.
"I like a hoss, myself," he said then, with some dignity. "I want somethin' that's alive!"
Diantha laughed slyly. The danger was past, and she could afford to be merry.
"Well, it strikes me that you come pretty near havin' somethin' that wa'n't alive jest 'cause you had somethin' that was!" she retorted. "Really, Phineas, I didn't s'pose Dolly could move so fast!"
"Dolly knew how ter move—once," he rejoined grimly. "'Course nobody pretends ter say she's young now, any more 'n we be," he finished with some defiance. But he drooped visibly at Diantha's next words.
"Why, I don't feel old, Phineas, an' I ain't old, either. Look at Colonel Smith; he's jest my age, an' he's got a autymobile. Mebbe I'll have one some day."
To Phineas it seemed that a cold hand clutched his heart.
"Dianthy, you wouldn't really—ride in one!" he faltered.
Until that moment Diantha had not been sure that she would, but the quaver in Phineas's voice decided her.
"Wouldn't I? You jest wait an' see!"
And Phineas did wait—and he did see. He saw Diantha, not a week later, pink-cheeked and bright-eyed, sitting by the side of Colonel Smith in that hated automobile. Nor did he stop to consider that Diantha was only one of a dozen upon whom Colonel Smith, in the enthusiasm of his new possession, was pleased to bestow that attention. To Phineas it could mean but one thing; and he did not change his opinion when he heard Diantha's account of the ride.
"It was perfectly lovely," she breathed. "Oh, Phineas, it was jest like flyin'!"
"'Flyin'!'" Phineas could say no more. He felt as if he were choking,— choking with the dust raised by Dolly's plodding hoofs.
"An' the trees an' the houses swept by like ghosts," continued Diantha. "Why, Phineas, I could 'a' rode on an' on furever!"
Before the ecstatic rapture in Diantha's face Phineas went down in defeat. Without one word he turned away—but in his heart he registered a solemn vow: he, too, would have an automobile; he, too, would make Diantha wish to ride on and on forever!
Arduous days came then to Phineas. Phineas was not a rich man. He had enough for his modest wants, but until now those wants had not included an automobile—until now he had not known that Diantha wished to fly. All through the autumn and winter Phineas pinched and economized until he had lopped off all of the luxuries and most of the pleasures of living. Even then it is doubtful if he would have accomplished his purpose had he not, in the spring, fallen heir to a modest legacy of a few thousand dollars. The news of his good fortune was not two hours old when he sought Diantha.
"I cal'late mebbe I'll be gettin' me one o' them 'ere autymobiles this spring," he said, as if casually filling a pause in the conversation.
At the awed joy in Diantha's voice the man's heart glowed within him. This one moment of triumph was worth all the long miserable winter with its butterless bread and tobaccoless pipes. But he carefully hid his joy when he spoke.
"Yes," he said nonchalantly. "I'm goin' ter Boston next week ter pick one out. I cal'late on gettin' a purty good one."
"Oh, Phineas! But how—how you goin' ter run it?"
Phineas's chin came up.
"Run it!" he scoffed. "Well, I hain't had no trouble yet steerin' a hoss, an' I cal'late I won't have any more steerin' a mess o' senseless metal what hain't got no eyes ter be seein' things an' gittin' scared! I don't worry none 'bout runnin' it."
"But, Phineas, it ain't all steerin'," ventured Diantha, timidly. "There's lots of little handles and things ter turn, an' there's some things you do with your feet. Colonel Smith did."
The name Smith to Phineas was like a match to gunpowder. He flamed instantly into wrath.
"Well, I cal'late what Colonel Smith does, I can," he snapped. "Besides"—airily—"mebbe I shan't git the feet kind, anyhow; I want the best. There's as much as four or five kinds, Jim Blair says, an' I cal'late ter try 'em all."
"Oh-h!" breathed Diantha, falling back in her chair with an ecstatic sigh. "Oh, Phineas, won't it be grand!" And Phineas, seeing the joyous light in her eyes, gazed straight down a vista of happiness that led to wedding bells and bliss.
Phineas was gone some time on his Boston trip. When he returned he looked thin and worried. He started nervously at trivial noises, and his eyes showed a furtive restlessness that quickly caused remark.
"Why, Phineas, you don't look well!" Diantha exclaimed when she saw him.
"Well? Oh, I'm well."
"An' did you buy it—that autymobile?"
"I did." Phineas's voice was triumphant. Diantha's eyes sparkled.
"Where is it?" she demanded.
"An' did you try 'em all, as you said you would?"
Phineas stirred; then he sighed.
"Well, I dunno," he acknowledged. "I hain't done nothin' but ride in 'em since I went down—I know that. But there's such a powerful lot of 'em, Dianthy; an' when they found out I wanted one, they all took hold an' showed off their best p'ints—'demonstatin',' they called it. They raced me up hill an' down hill, an' scooted me round corners till I didn't know where I was. I didn't have a minute ter myself. An' they went fast, Dianthy-powerful fast. I ain't real sure yet that I'm breathin' natural."
"But it must have been grand, Phineas! I should have loved it!"
"Oh, it was, 'course!" assured Phineas, hastily.
"An' you'll take me ter ride, right away?" If Phineas hesitated it was for only a moment.
"'Course," he promised. "Er—there's a man, he's comin' with it, an' he's goin' ter stay a little, jest ter—ter make sure everything's all right. After he goes I'll come. An' ye want ter be ready—I'll show ye a thing or two!" he finished with a swagger that was meant to hide the shake in his voice.
In due time the man and the automobile arrived, but Diantha did not have her ride at once. It must have taken some time to make sure that "everything was all right," for the man stayed many days, and while he was there, of course Phineas was occupied with him. Colonel Smith was unkind enough to observe that he hoped it was taking Phineas Hopkins long enough to learn to run the thing; but his remark did not reach Diantha's ears. She knew only that Phineas, together with the man and the automobile, started off early every morning for some unfrequented road, and did not return until night.
There came a day, however, when the man left town, and not twenty-four hours later, Phineas, with a gleaming thing of paint and polish, stood at Diantha's door.
"Now ain't that pretty," quavered Diantha excitedly. "Ain't that awful pretty!"
"Purty slick, I think myself," he acknowledged.
"An' green is so much nicer than red," cooed Diantha.
Phineas quite glowed with joy—Colonel Smith's car was red. "Oh, green's the thing," he retorted airily; "an' see!" he added; and forthwith he burst into a paean of praise, in which tires, horns, lamps, pumps, baskets, brakes, and mud-guards were the dominant notes. It almost seemed, indeed, that he had bought the gorgeous thing before him to look at and talk about rather than to use, so loath was he to stop talking and set the wheels to moving. Not until Diantha had twice reminded him that she was longing to ride in it did he help her into the car and make ready to start.
It was not an entire success—that start. There were several false moves on Phineas's part, and Diantha could not repress a slight scream and a nervous jump at sundry unexpected puffs and snorts and snaps from the throbbing thing beneath her. She gave a louder scream when Phineas, in his nervousness, sounded the siren, and a wail like a cry from the spirit world shrieked in her ears.
"Phineas, what was that?" she shivered, when the voice had moaned into silence.
Phineas's lips were dry, and his hands and knees were shaking; but his pride marched boldly to the front.
"Why, that's the siren whistle, 'course," he chattered. "Ain't it great? I thought you'd like it!" And to hear him one would suppose that to sound the siren was always a necessary preliminary to starting the wheels.
They were off at last. There was a slight indecision, to be sure, whether they would go backward or forward, and there was some hesitation as to whether Diantha's geranium bed or the driveway would make the best thoroughfare. But these little matters having been settled to the apparent satisfaction of all concerned, the automobile rolled down the driveway and out on to the main highway.
"Oh, ain't this grand!" murmured Diantha, drawing a long but somewhat tremulous breath.
Phineas did not answer. His lips were tense, and his eyes were fixed on the road ahead. For days now he had run the car himself, and he had been given official assurance that he was quite capable of handling it; yet here he was on his first ride with Diantha almost making a failure of the whole thing at the start. Was he to be beaten—beaten by a senseless motor car and Colonel Smith? At the thought Phineas lifted his chin and put on more power.
"Oh, my! How f-fast we're goin'!" cried Diantha, close to his ear.
"Who wants ter crawl?" he shouted; and the car leaped again at the touch of his hand.
They were out of the town now, on a wide road that had few turns. Occasionally they met a carriage or a wagon, but the frightened horses and the no less frightened drivers gave the automobile a wide berth— which was well; for the parallel tracks behind Phineas showed that the car still had its moments of indecision as to the course to pursue.
The town was four miles behind them when Diantha, who had been for some time vainly clutching at the flying ends of her veil, called to Phineas to stop.
The request took Phineas by surprise. For one awful moment his mind was a blank—he had forgotten how to stop! In frantic haste he turned and twisted and shoved and pulled, ending with so sudden an application of the brakes that Diantha nearly shot head first out of the car as it stopped.
"Why, why—Phineas!" she cried a little sharply.
Phineas swallowed the lump in his throat and steadied himself in his seat.
"Ye see I—I can stop her real quick if I want to," he explained jauntily. "Ye can do 'most anythin' with these 'ere things if ye only know how, Dianthy. Didn't we come slick?"
"Yes, indeed," stammered Diantha, hastily smoothing out the frown on her face and summoning a smile to her lips—not for her best black silk gown would she have had Phineas know that she was wishing herself safe at home and the automobile back where it came from.
"We'll go home through the Holler," said Phineas, after she had retied her veil and they were ready to start. "It's the long way round, ye know. I ain't goin' ter give ye no snippy little two-mile run, Dianthy, like Colonel Smith did," he finished gleefully.
"No, of course not," murmured Diantha, smothering a sigh as the automobile started with a jerk.
An hour later, tired, frightened, a little breathless, but valiantly declaring that she had had a "beautiful time," Diantha was set down at her own door.
That was but the first of many such trips. Ever sounding in Phineas Hopkins's ears and spurring him to fresh endeavor, were Diantha's words, "I could 'a' rode on an' on furever"; and deep in his heart was the determination that if it was automobile rides that she wanted, it was automobile rides that she should have! His small farm on the edge of the town—once the pride of his heart—began to look forlorn and deserted; for Phineas, when not actually driving his automobile, was usually to be found hanging over it with wrench and polishing cloth. He bought little food and less clothing, but always—gasolene. And he talked to any one who would listen about automobiles in general and his own in particular, learnedly dropping in frequent references to cylinders, speed, horse power, vibrators, carburetors, and spark plugs.
As for Diantha—she went to bed every night with thankfulness that she possessed her complement of limbs and senses, and she rose every morning with a fear that the coming night would find some of them missing. To Phineas and the town in general she appeared to be devoted to this breathless whizzing over the country roads; and wild horses could not have dragged from her the truth: that she was longing with an overwhelming longing for the old days of Dolly, dawdling, and peace.
Just where it all would have ended it is difficult to say had not the automobile itself taken a hand in the game—as automobiles will sometimes—and played trumps.
It was the first day of the county fair again, and Phineas and Diantha were on their way home. Straight ahead the road ran between clumps of green, then unwound in a white ribbon of dust across wide fields and open meadows.
"Tain't much like last year, is it, Dianthy?" crowed Phineas, shrilly, in her ear—then something went wrong.
Phineas knew it instantly. The quivering thing beneath them leaped into new life—but a life of its own. It was no longer a slave, but a master. Phineas's face grew white. Thus far he had been able to keep to the road, but just ahead there was a sharp curve, and he knew he could not make the turn—something was the matter with the steering-gear.
"Look out—she's got the bits in her teeth!" he shouted. "She's bolted!"
There came a scream, a sharp report, and a grinding crash—then silence.
* * * * *
From away off in the dim distance Phineas heard a voice.
Something snapped, and he seemed to be floating up, up, up, out of the black oblivion of nothingness. He tried to speak, but he knew that he made no sound.
The voice was nearer now, so near that it seemed just above him. It sounded like—With a mighty effort he opened his eyes; then full consciousness came. He was on the ground, his head in Diantha's lap. Diantha, bonnet crushed, neck-bow askew, and coat torn, was bending over him, calling him frantically by name. Ten feet away the wrecked automobile, tip-tilted against a large maple tree, completed the picture.
With a groan Phineas closed his eyes and turned away his head.
"She's all stove up—an' now you won't ever say yes," he moaned. "You wanted ter ride on an' on furever!"
"But I will—I don't—I didn't mean it," sobbed Diantha incoherently. "I'd rather have Dolly twice over. I like ter crawl. Oh, Phineas, I hate that thing—I've always hated it! I'll say yes next week—to- morrow—to-day if you'll only open your eyes and tell me you ain't a-dyin'!"
Phineas was not dying, and he proved it promptly and effectually, even to the doubting Diantha's blushing content. And there their rescuers found them a long half-hour later—a blissful old man and a happy old woman sitting hand in hand by the wrecked automobile.
"I cal'lated somebody'd be along purty soon," said Phineas, rising stiffly. "Ye see, we've each got a foot that don't go, so we couldn't git help; but we hain't minded the wait—not a mite!"
The Most Wonderful Woman
And a Great Man who proves himself truly great
It was Old Home Week in the little village, and this was to be the biggest day. From a distant city was to come the town's one really Great Man, to speak in the huge tent erected on the Common for just that purpose. From end to end the village was aflame with bunting and astir with excitement, so that even I, merely a weary sojourner in the place, felt the thrill and tingled pleasantly.
When the Honorable Jonas Whitermore entered the tent at two o'clock that afternoon I had a good view of him, for my seat was next the broad aisle. Behind him on the arm of an usher came a small, frightened- looking little woman in a plain brown suit and a plainer brown bonnet set askew above thin gray hair. The materials of both suit and bonnet were manifestly good, but all distinction of line and cut was hopelessly lost in the wearing. Who she was I did not know; but I soon learned, for one of the two young women in front of me said a low something to which the other gave back a swift retort, woefully audible: "His wife? That little dowdy thing in brown? Oh, what a pity! Such an ordinary woman!"
My cheeks grew hot in sympathy with the painful red that swept to the roots of the thin gray hair under the tip-tilted bonnet. Then I glanced at the man.
Had he heard? I was not quite sure. His chin, I fancied, was a trifle higher. I could not see his eyes, but I did see his right hand; and it was clenched so tightly that the knuckles were white with the strain. I thought I knew then. He had heard. The next minute he had passed on up the aisle and the usher was seating the more-frightened-than-ever little wife in the roped-off section reserved for important guests.
It was then that I became aware that the man on my right was saying something.
"I beg your pardon, but-did you speak—to me?" I asked, turning to him hesitatingly.
The old man met my eyes with an abashed smile.
"I guess I'm the party what had ought to be askin' pardon, stranger," he apologized. "I talk to myself so much I kinder furgit sometimes, and do it when folks is round. I was only sayin' that I wondered why 'twas the good Lord give folks tongues and forgot to give 'em brains to run 'em with. But maybe you didn't hear what she said," he hazarded, with a jerk of his thumb toward the young woman in front.
"About Mrs. Whitermore? Yes, I heard."
His face darkened.
"Then you know. And she heard, too! 'Ordinary woman,' indeed! Humph! To think that Betty Tillington should ever live to hear herself called an 'ordinary woman'! You see, I knew her when she was Betty Tillington."
"Did you?" I smiled encouragingly. I was getting interested, and I hoped he would keep on talking. On the platform the guest of honor was holding a miniature reception. He was the picture of polite attention and punctilious responsiveness; but I thought I detected a quick glance now and then toward the roped-off section where sat his wife and I wondered again—had he heard that thoughtless comment?
From somewhere had come the rumor that the man who was to introduce the Honorable Jonas Whitermore had been delayed by a washout "down the road," but was now speeding toward us by automobile. For my part, I fear I wished the absentee a punctured tire so that I might hear more of the heart-history of the faded little woman with the bonnet askew.
"Yes, I knew her," nodded my neighbor, "and she didn't look much then like she does now. She was as pretty as a picture and there wa'n't a chap within sight of her what wa'n't head over heels in love with her. But there wa'n't never a chance for but two of us and we knew it: Joe Whitermore and a chap named Fred Farrell. So, after a time, we just sort of stood off and watched the race—as pretty a race as ever you see. Farrell had the money and the good looks, while Whitermore was poor as a church mouse, and he was homely, too. But Whitermore must have had somethin'—maybe somethin' we didn't see, for she took him.
"Well, they married and settled down happy as two twitterin' birds, but poor as Job's turkey. For a year or so she was as pretty and gay as ever she was and into every good time goin'; then the babies came, one after another, some of 'em livin' and some dyin' soon after they came.
"Of course, things was different then. What with the babies and the housework, Betty couldn't get out much, and we didn't see much of her. When we did see her, though, she'd smile and toss her head in the old way and say how happy she was and didn't we think her babies was the prettiest things ever, and all that. And we did, of course, and told her so.
"But we couldn't help seein' that she was gettin' thin and white and that no matter how she tossed her head, there wa'n't any curls there to bob like they used to, 'cause her hair was pulled straight back and twisted up into a little hard knot just like as if she had done it up when some one was callin' her to come quick."
"Yes, I can imagine it," I nodded.
"Well, that's the way things went at the first, while he was gettin' his start, and I guess they was happy then. You see, they was pullin' even them days and runnin' neck and neck. Even when Fred Farrell, her old beau, married a girl she knew and built a fine house all piazzas and bow-winders right in sight of their shabby little rented cottage, I don't think she minded it; even if Mis' Farrell didn't have anythin' to do from mornin' till night only set in a white dress on her piazza, and rock, and give parties, Betty didn't seem to mind. She had her Joe.
"But by and by she didn't have her Joe. Other folks had him and his business had him. I mean, he'd got up where the big folks in town begun to take notice of him; and when he wa'n't tendin' to business, he was hobnobbin' with them, so's to bring more business. And—of course she, with her babies and housework, didn't have no time for that.
"Well, next they moved away. When they went they took my oldest girl, Mary, to help Betty; and so we still kept track of 'em. Mary said it was worse than ever in the new place. It was quite a big city and just livin' cost a lot. Mr. Whitermore, of course, had to look decent, out among folks as he was, so he had to be 'tended to first. Then what was left of money and time went to the children. It wa'n't long, too, before the big folks there begun to take notice, and Mr. Whitermore would come home all excited and tell about what was said to him and what fine things he was bein' asked to do. He said 'twas goin' to mean everythin' to his career.
"Then come the folks to call, ladies in fine carriages with dressed-up men to hold the door open and all that; but always, after they'd gone, Mary'd find Betty cryin' somewhere, or else tryin' to fix a bit of old lace or ribbon on to some old dress. Mary said Betty's clo's were awful, then. You see, there wa'n't never any money left for her things. But all this didn't last long, for very soon the fine ladies stopped comin' and Betty just settled down to the children and didn't try to fix her clo's any more.
"But by and by, of course, the money begun to come in—lots of it—and that meant more changes, naturally. They moved into a bigger house, and got two more hired girls and a man, besides Mary. Mr. Whitermore said he didn't want his wife to work so hard now, and that, besides, his position demanded it. He was always talkin' about his position those days, tryin' to get his wife to go callin' and go to parties and take her place as his wife, as he put it.
"And Mary said Betty did try, and try hard. Of course she had nice clo's now, lots of 'em; but somehow they never seemed to look just right. And when she did go to parties, she never knew what to talk about, she told Mary. She didn't know a thing about the books and pictures and the plays and quantities of other things that everybody else seemed to know about; and so she just had to sit still and say nothin'.
"Mary said she could see it plagued her and she wa'n't surprised when, after a time, Betty begun to have headaches and be sick party nights, and beg Mr. Whitermore to go alone—and then cry because he did go alone. You see, she'd got it into her head then that her husband was ashamed of her."
"And was—he?" demanded I.
"I don't know. Mary said she couldn't tell exactly. He seemed worried, sometimes, and quite put out at the way his wife acted about goin' to places. Then, other times, he didn't seem to notice or care if he did have to go alone. It wa'n't that he was unkind to her. It was just that he was so busy lookin' after himself that he forgot all about her. But Betty took it all as bein' ashamed of her, no matter what he did; and for a while she just seemed to pine away under it. They'd moved to Washington by that time and, of course, with him in the President's Cabinet, it was pretty hard for her.
"Then, all of a sudden, she took a new turn and begun to study and to try to learn things—everything: how to talk and dress and act, besides stuff that was just book-learnin'. She's been doin' that for quite a spell and Mary says she thinks she'd do pretty well now, in lots of ways, if only she had half a chance—somethin' to encourage her, you know. But her husband don't seem to take no notice, now, just as if he's got tired expectin' anythin' of her and that's made her so scared and discouraged she's too nervous to act as if she did know anythin'. An' there 't is.
"Well, maybe she is just an ordinary woman," sighed the old man, a little sternly, "if bein' 'ordinary' means she's like lots of others. For I suspect, stranger, that, if the truth was told, lots of other big men have got wives just like her—women what have been workin' so tarnal hard to help their husbands get ahead that they hain't had time to see where they themselves was goin'. And by and by they wake up to the fact that they hain't got nowhere. They've just stayed still, 'way behind.
"Mary says she don't believe Betty would mind even that, if her husband only seemed to care—to—to understand, you know, how it had been with her and how—Crickey! I guess they've come," broke off the old man suddenly, craning his neck for a better view of the door.
From outside had sounded the honk of an automobile horn and the wild cheering of men and boys. A few minutes later the long-delayed programme began.
It was the usual thing. Before the Speaker of the Day came other speakers, and each of them, no matter what his subject, failed not to refer to "our illustrious fellow townsman" in terms of highest eulogy. One told of his humble birth, his poverty-driven boyhood, his strenuous youth. Another drew a vivid picture of his rise to fame. A third dilated upon the extraordinary qualities of brain and body which had made such achievement possible and which would one day land him in the White House itself.
Meanwhile, close to the speaker's stand sat the Honorable Jonas Whitermore himself, for the most part grim and motionless, though I thought I detected once or twice a repetition of the half-troubled, half-questioning glances directed toward his wife that I had seen before. Perhaps it was because I was watching him so closely that I saw the sudden change come to his face. The lips lost their perfunctory smile and settled into determined lines. The eyes, under their shaggy brows, glowed with sudden fire. The entire pose and air of the man became curiously alert, as if with the eager impatience of one who has determined upon a certain course of action and is anxious only to be up and doing. Very soon after that he was introduced, and, amid deafening cheers, rose to his feet. Then, very quietly, he began to speak.
We had heard he was an orator. Doubtless many of us were familiar with his famous nickname "Silver-tongued Joe." We had expected great things of him—a brilliant discourse on the tariff, perhaps, or on our foreign relations, or yet on the Hague Tribunal. But we got none of these. We got first a few quiet words of thanks and appreciation for the welcome extended him; then we got the picture of an everyday home just like ours, with all its petty cares and joys so vividly drawn that we thought we were seeing it, not hearing about it. He told us it was a little home of forty years ago, and we began to realize, some way, that he was speaking of himself.
"I may, you know, here," he said, "for I am among my own people. I am at home."
Even then I didn't see what he was coming to. Like the rest I sat slightly confused, wondering what it all meant. Then, suddenly, into his voice there crept a tense something that made me sit more erect in my seat.
"My indomitable will-power? My superb courage? My stupendous strength of character? My undaunted persistence and marvelous capacity for hard work?" he was saying. "Do you think it's to that I owe what I am? Never! Come back with me to that little home of forty years ago and I'll show you to what and to whom I do owe it. First and foremost I owe it to a woman—no ordinary woman, I want you to understand—but to the most wonderful woman in the world."
I knew then. So did my neighbor, the old man at my side. He jogged my elbow frantically and whispered:—
"He's goin' to—he's goin' to! He's goin' to show her he does care and understand! He did hear that girl. Crickey! But ain't he the cute one to pay her back like that, for what she said?"
The little wife down front did not know—yet, however. I realized that, the minute I looked at her and saw her drawn face and her frightened, staring eyes fixed on her husband up there on the platform—her husband, who was going to tell all these people about some wonderful woman whom even she had never heard of before, but who had been the making of him, it seemed.
"My will-power?" the Honorable Jonas Whitermore was saying then. "Not mine, but the will-power of a woman who did not know the meaning of the word 'fail.' Not my superb courage, but the courage of one who, day in and day out, could work for a victory whose crown was to go, not to herself, but to another. Not my stupendous strength of character, but that of a beautiful young girl who could see youth and beauty and opportunity nod farewell, and yet smile as she saw them go. Not my undaunted persistence, but the persistence of one to whom the goal is always just ahead, but never reached. And last, not my marvelous capacity for hard work, but that of the wife and mother who bends her back each morning to a multitude of tasks and cares that she knows night will only interrupt—not finish."
My eyes were still on the little brown-clad woman down in front, so I saw the change come to her face as her husband talked. I saw the terror give way to puzzled questioning, and that, in turn, become surprise, incredulity, then overwhelming joy as the full meaning came to her that she herself was that most wonderful woman in the world who had been the making of him. I looked then for just a touch of the old frightened, self-consciousness at finding herself thus so conspicuous; but it did not come. The little woman plainly had forgotten us. She was no longer Mrs. Jonas Whitermore among a crowd of strangers listening to a great man's Old-Home-Day speech. She was just a loving, heart-hungry, tired, all-but-discouraged wife hearing for the first time from the lips of her husband that he knew and cared and understood.
"Through storm and sunshine, she was always there at her post, aiding, encouraging, that I might be helped," the Honorable Jonas Whitermore was saying. "Week in and week out she fought poverty, sickness, and disappointments, and all without a murmur, lest her complaints distract me for one precious moment from my work. Even the nights brought her no rest, for while I slept, she stole from cot to cradle and from cradle to crib, covering outflung little legs and arms, cooling parched little throats with water, quieting fretful whimpers and hushing threatening outcries with a low 'Hush, darling, mother's here. Don't cry! You'll wake father—and father must have his sleep.' And father had it—that sleep, just as he had the best of everything else in the house: food, clothing, care, attention—everything.
"What mattered it if her hands did grow rough and toil-worn? Mine were left white and smooth—for my work. What mattered it if her back and her head and her feet did ache? Mine were left strong and painless—for my work. What mattered her wakefulness if I slept? What mattered her weariness if I was rested? What mattered her disappointments if my aims were accomplished? Nothing!"
The Honorable Jonas Whitermore paused for breath, and I caught mine and held it. It seemed, for a minute, as if everybody all over the house was doing the same thing, too, so absolutely still was it, after that one word—"nothing." They were beginning to understand—a little. I could tell that. They were beginning to see this big thing that was taking place right before their eyes. I glanced at the little woman down in front. The tender glow on her face had grown and deepened and broadened until her whole little brown-clad self seemed transfigured. My own eyes dimmed as I looked. Then, suddenly I became aware that the Honorable Jonas Whitermore was speaking again.
"And not for one year only, nor two, nor ten, has this quintessence of devotion been mine," he was saying, "but for twice ten and then a score more—for forty years. For forty years! Did you ever stop to think how long forty years could be—forty years of striving and straining, of pinching and economizing, of serving and sacrificing? Forty years of just loving somebody else better than yourself, and doing this every day, and every hour of the day for the whole of those long forty years? It isn't easy to love somebody else always better than yourself, you know! It means the giving up of lots of things that you want. You might do it for a day, for a month, for a year even—but for forty years! Yet she has done it—that most wonderful woman. Do you wonder that I say it is to her, and to her alone, under God, that I owe all that I am, all that I hope to be?"
Once more he paused. Then, in a voice that shook a little at the first, but that rang out clear and strong and powerful at the end, he said:
"Ladies, gentlemen, I understand this will close your programme. It will give me great pleasure, therefore, if at the adjournment of this meeting you will allow me to present you to the most wonderful woman in the world—my wife."
I wish I could tell you what happened then. The words—oh, yes, I could tell you in words what happened. For that matter, the reporters at the little stand down in front told it in words, and the press of the whole country blazoned it forth on the front page the next morning. But really to know what happened, you should have heard it and seen it, and felt the tremendous power of it deep in your soul, as we did who did see it.