E-text prepared by Al Haines
Author of The Poor Little Rich Girl, Etc.
A story for all mothers who have daughters and for all daughters who have mothers
New York Grosset & Dunlap Publishers
Copyright, 1917, by Sully and Kleinteich All rights reserved
First edition, October, 1917 Second edition, October, 1917
DEAR ANN WILDE,—
It seems to me that there are, broadly speaking, three kinds of mothers. First, there is the kind that does not plan for, or want, a child, but, having borne one, invariably takes the high air of martyrdom, feeling that she has rendered the supreme service, and that, henceforth, nothing is too good for her. Second, there is the mother who loves her own children devotedly, and has as many as her health and the family purse will permit, but who is fairly indifferent to other women's children. Last of all, there is the mother who loves anybody's children—everybody's children. Where the first kind of mother finds "young ones" a bother, and the second revels in a contrast of her darlings with her neighbors' little people (to the disparagement of the latter), the third never fails to see a baby if there is a baby around, never fails to be touched by little woes or joys; belongs, perhaps, to a child-study club, or helps to support a kindergarten, or gives as freely as possible to some orphanage. And often such a woman, finding herself childless, and stirred to her action by a voice that is Nature's, ordering her to fulfill her woman's destiny, makes choice from among those countless little ones who are unclaimed; and if she happens not to be married, nevertheless, like a mateless bird, she sets lovingly about the building of a home nest.
This last kind is the best of all mothers. Not only is the fruit of her body precious to her, but all child-life is precious. She is the super-mother: She is the woman with the universal mother-heart.
You, the "Auntie-Mother" to two lucky little girls, are of this type which I so honor. And that is why I dedicate to you this story—with great affection, and with profound respect.
Your friend, ELEANOR GATES.
New York, 1917.
"I tell you, there's something funny about it, Steve,—having the wedding out on that scrap of lawn." It was the florist who was speaking. He was a little man, with a brown beard that lent him a professional air. He gave a jerk of the head toward the high bay-window of the Rectory drawing-room, set down his basket of smilax on the well-cared-for Brussels that, after a disappearing fashion, carpeted the drawing-room floor, and proceeded to select and cut off the end of a cigar.
"Something wrong," assented Steve. He found and filled a pipe.
The other now dropped his voice to a whisper. "'Mrs. Milo,' I says to the old lady, 'give me the Church to decorate and I'll make it look like something.' 'My good man,' she come back,—you know the way she talks—'the wedding will be in the Close.'"
"A stylish name for not much of anything," observed Steve. "The Close! Why not call it a yard and be done with it?"
"English," explained the florist. "—Well, I pointed out that this room would be a good place for the ceremony. I could hang the wedding-bell right in the bay-window. But at that, click come the old lady's teeth together. 'The wedding will be in the Close,' she says again, and so I shut my mouth."
"Exactly. And why? What's the matter with the Church? and what's the matter with this room?—that they have to go outdoors to marry up the poor youngsters. What's worse, that Close hasn't got the best reputation. For there stands that orphan basket, in plain sight——"
"It's no place for a wedding!"
"Of course not!—a yard where of a night poor things come sneaking in——"
A door at the far end of the long room had opened softly. Now a voice, gentle, well-modulated, and sorrowfully reproving, halted the protesting of the florist, and paralyzed his upraised finger. "That will do," said the voice.
What had frozen the gesture of his employer only accelerated the movements of Steve. Recollecting that he was in his shirt-sleeves, he snatched the pipe from his mouth, seized upon the smilax basket, and sidled swiftly through the door leading to the Close.
"Goo—good-morning, Mrs. Milo," stammered the florist, putting his cigar behind his back with one large motion that included a bow. "Good-afternoon. I've just brought the festoons for the wedding-bower." Once more he jerked his head in the direction of the bay-window, and edged his way toward it a step or two, his fluttering eyelids belieing the smile that divided his beard.
Mrs. Milo, her background the heavy oak door that led to the library, made a charming figure as she looked down the room at him. She was a slender, active woman, who carried her seventy years with grace. Her hair was a silvery white, and so abundant that it often gave rise to justified doubt; now it was dressed with elaborate care. Her eyes were a bright—almost a metallic—blue. Despite her age, her face was silkily smooth, and as fair as a girl's, having none of those sallow spots which so frequently mar the complexions of the old. Her cheeks showed a faint color. Her nose was perhaps too thin, but it was straight and finely cut. Her mouth was small, pretty, and curved by an almost constant smile. Her hands were slender, soft, and young. They were not given to quick movements. Now they hung touching the blue-gray of her morning-dress, which, with ruffles of lace at collar and wrists, had the fresh smartness of a uniform.
"You are smoking?" she inquired. That habitual smile was on her lips, but her eyes were cold.
"Just—just a dry smoke,"—with a note of injured innocence.
"Your cigar is in your mouth," she persisted, "and yet you're not smoking."
At that, the florist took a forward step. "And my teeth are in my mouth," he answered boldly, "but I'm not eating."
Another woman might have shrunk from the impudence of his retort, or replied angrily. Mrs. Milo only advanced, with slow elegance, prepared again to put him on the defensive. "Why do I find you in this room?" she demanded.
"I'm just passing through—to the lawn."
"Do not pass through again."
"Well, I'd like to know about that," returned the florist, argumentatively. "When I mentioned passing through the Church, why, the Rector, he says to me——"
Mrs. Milo lifted a white hand to check him. "Never mind what Mr. Farvel said," she admonished sharply; then, with quick gentleness, "You know that he has lived here only little more than a year."
"Oh, I know."
"And I have lived here fifteen years."
"True," assented the florist. "But I was talking with Miss Susan about passing through the Church, and Miss Susan——"
The blue eyes flashed. And once more Mrs. Milo advanced. "Never mind what my daughter told you," she commanded, but without raising her voice. "I am compelled to make this Rectory my home because Miss Milo does the secretarial work of the parish. And what kind of a home should I have if I allowed the place to be in continual disorder?"
There was a pause, the two facing each other. Then the look of the florist fell. "I'll go in by way of the Church, madam," he announced. And turned away with a stiff bow.
"One moment." The order was curt; but as he brought up, and turned about once more, Mrs. Milo spoke almost confidentially. "As you very well know," she reminded, her face slightly averted, "there is a third entrance to the Close."
The florist saw his opportunity. "Oh, yes," he declared; "—the little white door where the ladies come of a night to leave their orphans."
That brought Mrs. Milo about. And the color deepened in her cheeks. It was the red, not only of anger, but of modesty. "The women who desert their infants in that basket," she replied (again that sorrowful intonation), "are not ladies."
The florist was highly pleased with results. "That may be so," he went on, with renewed boldness; "but for my ladders, and my plants, the little white door is too small, and so——" He stopped short. His jaw dropped. His eyes widened, and fixed themselves in undisguised admiration upon a young woman who had entered the room behind Mrs. Milo—a lankish, but graceful young woman, radiant in a gown of shimmering satin, her fair hair haloed by carefully carried lengths of misty tulle. "And so," resumed the florist, absent-mindedly, "and so—and so——"
Mrs. Milo moved across the carpet to a sofa, adjusted a velvet cushion, and seated herself. "Go and do your work," she said sharply. "It must be finished this afternoon. And remember: I don't want to see you in this room again."
"Very well, madam." With a smile and a bow, neither of which was intended for Mrs. Milo, the florist recovered his self-possession, threw wide his hands in a gesture that was an eloquent tribute to the shining apparition at the farther end of the room, and backed out.
"Ha-a-a!" sighed Mrs. Milo—with gratification in her triumph over the decorator, and with a sense of comfort in that cushioned corner of her favorite sofa. She settled her slender shoulders against the velvet.
Now the satin gown crossed the carpet, and its wearer let fall the veiling which she had upborne on her outstretched arms. "Mrs. Milo," she began.
"Oh!" Mrs. Milo straightened, but without turning, and the fear that the other had heard her curt dismissal of the florist showed in the quick shifting of her look. When she spoke again, her voice was all gentleness. "Yes, my dear new daughter?" she inquired.
Hattie Balcome cocked her head to one side, extended a satin-clad foot, threw out her hands with fingers extended, and struck a grotesque pose. "Turn—and behold!" she bade sepulchrally.
Mrs. Milo turned. "A-a-a-ah!" Then having given the wedding-gown a brief scrutiny, "Er—yes—hm! It's quite pretty."
"Quite pretty!" repeated Hattie. She revolved once, slowly. "What's the matter with it?"
"We-e-e-ell," began Mrs. Milo, appraising the gown at more length; "isn't it rather simple, my dear,—for a girl whose father is as wealthy as yours? Somehow I expected at least a little real lace."
Hattie laughed. "What on earth could I do with real lace in the mountains of Peru?"
"Peru!" Instantly Mrs. Milo's face grew long. "Then—then my son has finally decided to accept the position in Peru." Now she took her underlip in her teeth; and her lashes fluttered as if to keep back tears.
"But you won't miss him terribly, will you? As it is you don't have him—you don't see such a lot of him."
"Of course, as you say, I don't have him—except for a couple of weeks in the summer, when Sue has her vacation, and we all go to the Catskills. Then at Christmastime he comes here for a week. Sue has never asked permission to have Wallace live at the Rectory——"
"Except of Mr. Farvel."
"Mr. Farvel didn't have to be asked. He and Wallace are old friends. They met years ago—once when Wallace went to Canada with a boy chum. And Canada's the farthest he's ever been, so——"
"It was I who decided on Peru," said the girl, almost defiantly. "The very day he proposed to me he told me about the big silver mine down there that wants a young engineer. And I said Yes on one condition: that Wallace would take me as far away from home as possible."
The elder woman rose, finger on lip. "Sh!" she cautioned, glancing toward the door left open by the florist. "Oh, we don't want any gossip, Hattie!"
Hattie lifted her eyebrows. "We don't want it," she agreed, "but we shall get it. They'll all be asking one another, 'Why not the Church? or the drawing-room? Why the yard?'" She nodded portentously.
Mrs. Milo came nearer. "They'll never suspect," she promised. "Outdoor weddings are very fashionable."
"Maybe. But what I can't understand is this: Dad's heart is set on this marriage. He wants to get me out of the way." Then as Mrs. Milo's expression changed from a gratified beam to a stare of horror, "Oh, don't be shocked; he has his good reasons. But as I'm going, why can't he make a few concessions, instead of trying to spoil the wedding?"
"Spoil, dear?" chided the elder woman. "The wedding will be beautiful in the Close."
Hattie's brown eyes swam with sudden tears. "Perhaps," she answered. "But just for this one time, why can't my father and mother——"
"Please, Hattie!" pleaded Mrs. Milo. "We must be discreet!" Then to change the subject, "My dear, let me see the back."
Once more Hattie revolved accommodatingly. Close to the door leading to the lawn was a door which led, by a short passage, to the little, old Gothic church which, long planted on its generous allowance of grounds, had defied—along with an Orphanage that was all but a part of the Church, so near did the two buildings stand—the encroachment of new, tall, office structures. As Hattie turned about, she kept her watch on the door leading to the Church.
"It's really very sweet," condescended Mrs. Milo. "But—you mustn't let Wallace get a glimpse of this dress before tomorrow." She shook a playful finger. "That would be bad luck. Now,—what does Susan think of it?" She seated herself to receive the verdict.
Hattie wagged her head in mock despair. "Oh," she complained, "how I've tried to find out!"
All Mrs. Milo's playfulness went. She stood up, her manner suddenly anxious. "Isn't she upstairs?" she asked.
One solemn finger was pointed ceilingward. "I have even paged the attic!"
Mrs. Milo hastened across the room. "Why, she must be upstairs," she cried. "I sent her up not an hour ago."
"Well, the villain has just naturally come down."
"Susan! Susan!"—Mrs. Milo was calling into the hall leading to the upper floors of the Rectory. "Look in the vestibule, Hattie."
"Perhaps she has escaped to the Orphanage." Hattie gave a teasing laugh over her shoulder as she moved to obey.
Mrs. Milo had abandoned the hall door by now, and was fluttering toward the library. "Orphanage?" she repeated. "Oh, not without consulting me. And besides there's so much to be done in this house before tomorrow.—Susan! Susan!" She went out, calling more impatiently.
As Hattie disappeared into the vestibule, that door from the passage, upon which she had kept a watch, was opened, slowly and cautiously, and the tousled head of a boy was thrust in. Seeing that the drawing-room was vacant, the boy now threw the door wide, disclosing nine other small heads, but nine more carefully combed. The ten were packed in the narrow passage, and did not move forward with the opening of the door. Their freshly washed faces were eager; but they contented themselves with rising on tiptoe to peer into the room. About them, worn over black cassocks, hung their spotless cottas. Choir boys they were, but on every small countenance was written the indefinable mark of the orphan-reared.
Now he of the tousled hair stole forward across the sill. And boldly signaled the others. "St!—Aw, come on!" he cried. "What're you 'fraid of! Didn't the new minister tell us to wait in here?"
The choir obeyed him, but without argument. As each cotta-clad figure advanced, eyes were directed toward doors, and hands mutely signed what tongues feared to utter. One boy came to the sofa and gingerly smoothed a velvet pillow; whispering and pointing, the others scattered—to look up at a painting of a bishop of the Anglican Church, which hung above the mantel, to open the Bible on the small mahogany table that held the center of the room, to touch the grand piano with moist and marking finger-tips, and to gaze with awe upon two huge and branching candlesticks that flanked a marble clock above the hearth.
Now a husky whisper broke the unwonted silence of the choir; and an excited, finger directed all eyes to the painting of the Bishop: "Oh, fellers! Fellers!" He rallied his companions with his other arm. "Look-ee! Look-ee! That's Momsey's father!"
"Momsey's father!" It was the tousled chorister, and he plowed his way forward through the gathering choir before the hearth. "What're you talkin' about? Momsey's father wasn't a minister."
But the other was not to be gainsaid. "Yes, he was," he persisted; "and it's him."
"Aw, that's a Bishop,—or somethin'. There's Momsey's father." Beside the library door stood a small writing-desk. Atop it, in a wooden frame, was a photograph. This was now caught up, and went from hand to hand among the crowding boys. "That's him, and he's been dead twenty years."
"Let me see!" A shining tow-head wriggled up from under the arms of taller boys, and a freckled hand captured the picture. "Why, he looks like Momsey!"
The tousled songster seized the photograph in righteous anger. "Sure!" he cried, waving it in the face of the tow-headed boy; "you don't think she takes after her mother, do y'?"
A chorus of protests, all aimed at the tow-head, which was turned defensively from side to side.
"Y' know what I think?" demanded the tousled one. He motioned the others to gather round. "I don't believe the old lady is Momsey's mother at a-a-all!"
"Oo-oo-oo!" The choir gasped and stared.
"No, I don't," persisted the boy. "I believe that years, and years, and years ago, some nice, poor lady come cree-ee-eepin' through the little white door, and left Momsey—in the basket!"
Nine small countenances beamed with delight. "You're right!" the choir clamored. "You're right! You're dead right!" White sleeves were waved joyously aloft.
Now the heavy door to the library began to swing against the backs of two or three. The choir did not wait to see who was entering. Smiles vanished. Eyes grew frightened. Like one, the boys wheeled and fled. The door into the passage stood wide. They crowded through it, and halted only when the last cotta was across the sill. Then, like a flock of scared quail, they faced about, panting, and ready for further flight.
One look, and ten musical throats emitted as many unmusical shouts of laughter. While the tousle-headed boy, swinging the photograph which he had failed to restore to its place, again set foot upon the Brussels of the drawing-room. "Oh! Oh!" he laughed. "Oh, golly, Dora, you scared me!"
With all the dignity of her sixteen years, and with all the authority of one who has graduated from the ranks of an Orphanage to the higher, if rarer, air of a Rector's residence, Dora surveyed with shocked countenance the saucy visages of the ten. On occasions she could assume a manner most impressive—a manner borrowed in part from a butler who had been installed, at one time, by a wealthy and high-living incumbent of St. Giles, and in part from ministers who had reigned there by turns and whose delivery and outward manifestations of inward sanctity she had carefully studied during the period of her own labor in the house. Now with finger-tips together, and with the spirit of those half-dozen ecclesiastics sounding in her nasal sing-song, she voiced her stern reproof:
"My dear brothers!"
"Aw," scoffed a boy, "we ain't neither your brothers."
"I am speaking in the broad sense," explained Dora, with the loftiness of one who addresses a throng from a pulpit. Then shaking a finger, "'The wicked flee when no man pursueth'—Proverbs, twenty-eighth chapter, and first verse."
"We're not wicked," denied the boy. "Mr. Farvel told us to come."
"We're goin' to rehearse for the weddin'," chimed in the tow-headed one.
Dora let her look travel from face to face, the while she shook her head solemnly. "But," she reminded, "if Mrs. Milo finds you here, only a miracle can save you!"
"Aw, I'm not afraid of her,"—the uncombed chorister advanced bravely. "She's only a boarder. And after this, I'm goin' to mind just Mr. Farvel."
Something like horrified pity lengthened the pale face of Dora. "Little boys," she advised, "in these brief years since I left the Orphanage, I've seen ministers come and ministers go. But Mrs. Milo"—she turned away—"like the poor——" Her ministerial gesture was eloquent of hopelessness.
The boys in the passage stared at one another apprehensively. But their leader was flushed with excitement and wrath. "Dora," he cried, hurrying over to check her going, "do you know what I wish would happen?"
She turned accusingly. "Oh, Bobbie! What a sinful thought!"
"But I wasn't wishin' that!"
"Drive it out of your heart!" she counseled, with all the passion of an evangelist. "Drive it out of your heart! Remember: she can't live forever. She ain't immortal. But let her stay her appointed time,"—this last with the bowed head proper to the sentiment, so that two short, tight braids stood ceilingward.
The stifled exclamations of the waiting ten brought her head up once more. From the vestibule, resplendent in shining satin and billows of tulle, had appeared a vision. The choir gazed on it in open-mouthed wonder. "Oh, look! The bride! Mm! Ain't it beautiful!"
Hattie was equal to the occasion. Dropping all the tulle into place, she walked from bay-window to table and back again, displaying her finery. "Isn't it pretty?" she agreed. "See the veil. And look!"
Head on one side, the ever-philosophical Dora watched her. And Hattie, halting, turned once around for the benefit of all observers, but with an inviting smile toward the girl, as to a sister-spirit who would be certain to appreciate.
Dora lifted gingham-clad shoulders in a weary shrug. "'Can a maid forget her ornaments?'" she quoted; "'or a bride her attire?'"
"Well, I like that!" cried Hattie.
Quickly Dora extended a hand with a gesture unmistakably cleric. "Jeremiah," she explained; "—second chapter, and thirty-second verse."
But Hattie was not deceived. She rustled forward. "Yes!" she retorted. "And Hattie Balcome, first chapter, and first verse, reads: 'Can a maid forget her manners?'"
Dora was suddenly all meekness. "If she forgets her duties," she answered, "she shall flee from Mrs. Milo—and the wrath to come!" Whereupon, with a bounce and a giggle, neither of which was in keeping with her spoken fears, she went out, banging the library door.
Hattie turned, and here was the choir at her back, engrossed in the beauties of her apparel. She gave the little group a friendly nod and a smile. "So you are the boys," she commented.
Bobbie was quick to explain. "We're some of the boys," he said. "There's about fifty more of us, and pretty near fifty girls, too, over in the Orphanage."
"But—aren't you all rather big to be left in a basket?"
"Oh, not all of us are left in the basket." Bobbie shook his rumpled mop with great finality.
"No." It was a smaller boy. "Just the fellers that never had any mothers or fathers."
"Like me," piped a chorister from the rear.
"And me," put in the tow-headed boy.
Hattie looked them over carefully. "Which," she inquired, "is the one that is borrowed from his aunt?"
The group stirred. A murmur went from boy to boy. "Mm! Yes! That one! Oh, him!"
"That's Ikey Einstein," explained Bobbie. "And he's in the Church right now. You see, he's borrowed on account of his won-der-ful voice. Momsey says Ikey's got a song-bird in his throat."
Once more the group stirred, murmuring its assent. It was the testimony of a choir to its finest songster—a testimony strong with pride.
At that same moment, sounding from beyond the heavy door that gave to the Church, came a long-drawn howl of mingled rage and woe. "Wa-ah!"—it was the voice of a boy; "oh, wa-a-a-ah!"
Bobbie lifted a finger to point. "That," said he proudly, "is Ikey now." He motioned the choir into the bay-window, and Hattie followed.
The wails increased in volume. The door at the end of the passage swung open; and into sight, amid loud boo-hoos, pressed a squirming trio. There were two torn and dirty boys, their faces streaked with tears, their hands vainly trying to grapple. And between the two, holding to each by a handful of cassock, and by turns scolding and beseeching the quarreling pair, came Sue Milo.
Strangers saw Sue Milo as an attractive, middle-aged woman, tall, and full-figured, whose face was expressive and inclined toward a high color, whose shining brown hair was well grayed at the temples, and whose eyes, blue-gray, and dark-lashed, were wide and kindly.
Strangers marked her for a capable, dependable woman, too; and found suited to her the adjective "motherly." This for the same reason which moved new acquaintances instinctively to address her as "Mrs." For Sue Milo, at forty-five, bore none of the marks of the so-called typical spinster.
But a curious change of attitude toward her was the experience of that man or woman who came to know her even casually. Though at a first meeting she seemed to be all of her age, with better acquaintance she appeared to grow rapidly younger. So that it was not strange to hear her referred to as "the Milo girl," and not infrequently she was included at gatherings of people who were still in their twenties. In just what her youthfulness lay it was hard to define. At times an expression of the eye, a trick of straight-looking, or perhaps the lifting and turning of the chin, or a quick bringing together of the hands,—all these were girlish. There was that about her which made her seem as simple and unaffected as a child.
Yet capable and dependable she was—as any crisis at Rectory or Orphanage had proven repeatedly. And when quick decisions were demanded, all turned as if with one accord to Sue. And she was as quick to execute. Or if that was beyond her power, she roused others to action. It was a rector of St. Giles who once applied to her a description that was singularly fitting: "She is," he said, "like a ship under full sail."
Just now she was a ship in a storm.
"Aw, you did said it!" cried the wailing Ikey, pointing at his adversary a forefinger wrapped in a handkerchief. "You did! You did! I heard you said it!"
"I never! I never!" denied his opponent. "It ain't so! Boo-hoo!"
Sue gave them an impartial shake. "That will do!" she declared, trying hard to speak with force, while her eyes twinkled. "—Ikey, do you hear me?—Put down that fist, Clarence!—Now, be still and listen to me!" With another shake, she quieted them; whereupon, holding each at arm's length, she surveyed them by turns. "Oh, my soul, such little heathen!" she pronounced. "Now what do you think I am? A fight umpire? Do you want to damage each other for life?"
Clarence was all sniffles, and rubbed at the injured arm. But Ikey had no mind to be blamed undeservedly. He squared about upon Sue with flashing eye. "But, Momsey, he did said it!" he repeated.
Sue tightened her grip on his cassock. "And, oh, my soul, such grammar!" she mourned. "'He did said it!' You mean, He do said—he do say—he done—oh, now you've got me twisted!"
"Just de same, he called it to me," asserted Ikey.
"I never, I tell you! I never!"
"Ah! Ah!" Once more Sue struggled to hold them apart. "And what, Mr. Ikey, did he call you?"
"He calls me," cried the insulted Ikey, "—he calls me a pie-faces!—Ach!"
"And what did you call him?"
"I didn't call him not'ing!" answered Ikey, beginning to wail again at the very thought of his failure to do himself justice; "not—von—t'ing!"
"But"—with a wisdom born of long choir experience—"you must have said something."
"All I says," chanted Ikey, "—all I says is, 'You can't sing. What you do is——'" And lowering and raising his head, he emitted a long, lifelike bray.
"Yah!" burst forth the enraged Clarence, struggling to clutch his hated fellow.
"Wa-a-a-ah!" wept Ikey, who had struck out and hurt his already injured digit. "You donkey!—donkey!"
Breathing hard, Sue managed to keep them apart; to bring them back to their proper distance. "Look at them!" she said with fine sarcasm. "Oh, look at Ikey Einstein!—Where's your handkerchief?"
Weeping, he indicated it by a duck of the chin.
At such a point of general melting, it was safe to release combatants. Sue freed the two, and took from Ikey's pocket a square of cotton once white, but now characteristically gray, and strangely heavy. "Here, put up that poor face," she comforted. But at this unpropitious moment, the handkerchief, clear of the pocket, sagged with its holdings and deposited upon the carpet several yellowish, black-spotted cubes. "Dice!" exclaimed Sue, horrified. "Dice!—Ikey Einstein, what do you call yourself!"
Pride stopped Ikey's tears. He thrust out his underlip and waved a hand at the scattered cubes. "Momsey," he answered stoutly, "don't you know? Why, ever since day before yesterdays, I am a t'ree-card-monte man!"
"You're a three-card-what?"
Unable longer to restrain their mirth, that portion of the choir that was in the bay-window now whooped with delight. And Sue, turning, beheld ten figures writhing with joy.
"So!" she began severely. The ten sobered, and their cottas billowed in a backward step. "So here you are!—where you have no business to be!"
Bobbie, the spokesman, ventured to the rescue of his mates. "But, Momsey——"
"Now! No excuses! You all know that you do not come into this drawing-room, to track up the carpet—look at your feet! And to pull things about, like a lot of red Indians! And finger-print the mahogany! And, oh, how disappointed I am in you! To disobey!"
"But the minister——" piped up the tow-headed boy.
"That's right!" she retorted sarcastically. "Blame it on Mr. Farvel! As if you don't know the regulations!"
"But this is Mr. Farvel's house," urged Bobbie.
"A-a-ah!—Now that makes it worse! Now I know you've deliberately ignored my mother's wishes! And if she finds you out, and, oh, I hope she does, don't you come to me to save you from punishment? Depend upon it, I shan't lift my little finger to help you! No! Not if it's bread and water for a week! Not if you——"
A door slammed. From the library came the sound of quick steps. Then a voice was upraised: "Susan! Susan!"
The red paled in Sue's cheeks. "Oh!" She threw out both arms as if to sweep the entire choir to her. "Oh, my darlings!" she whispered hoarsely. "Oh! Oh, mother mustn't see you! Go! Hurry!" As they crowded to her, she thrust them backward, through the door to the passage. "Oh, quick! Bobbie! My dears!"
Eight were crammed into the shelter of the passage. Four pressed against their fellows but could not get across the sill in time. These Sue swept into a crouching line at her back—as the library door opened, and Mrs. Milo came panting into the room.
As mother and daughter faced each other, Hattie, seated quietly in the bay-window, smiled at the two—so amazingly unlike. It was as if an aristocratic, velvet-footed feline were bristling before a great, good-tempered St. Bernard. In a curious way, too, and in a startling degree, each woman subtracted sharply from the other. In the presence of Sue, Mrs. Milo's petiteness became weakness, her dainty trimness accentuated her helplessness, her delicate coloring looked ill-health; while Sue, by contrast, seemed over-high as to color, almost boisterous of voice, and careless in dress.
Mrs. Milo's look was all reproval. "Susan Milo," she began, "where have you been?"
Sue was standing very still—in order not to uncover a vestige of boy. She smiled, half wistfully, half mischievously. "Just—er—in the Church, mother." She had her own way of saying "mother." On her lips it was no mere title, lightly used. Her very prolonging of the "r" gave the word all the tender meanings—undivided love, and loyalty, protection, yet dependence. She spoke it like a caress.
Mrs. Milo recognized in her daughter's tone an apology for something. Quick suspicion took the place of reproval. "And what were you doing in the Church?"—with a rising inflection.
"Well, I—I was sort of—poking around."
"St!"—an exclamation of impatience. Then, "Churches are not made to poke in."
Now there came to Sue that look that suggested a little girl, and a naughty little girl at that. She turned on her mother a beguiling smile. "I—I was—er—poking in the vestry," she explained.
Mrs. Milo observed that the bay-window held a young person in white satin, who was sitting very still, and was all attention. She managed a faint returning smile, therefore, and assumed a playful tone. "The vestry is not a part of your duties as secretary," she reminded. "And there's so much to do, my daughter,—the decorations, the caterer, the——"
"I know, mother. I shan't neglect a thing." Sue swayed a little, to the clutch of a small hand dragging at her skirt.
"And as I've said before, I prefer that you'd take all of Mr. Farvel's dictation in the library; I don't want you hanging about in the vestry unless I'm with you.—Will you please pay attention to what I'm saying?"—this with much patience.
Over one arm, folded, Sue carried a garment of ministerial black. This she now unfolded and spread, the better to hide the boy crouching closest at her back. "Oh, yes, mother dear," she admitted reassuringly. "Yes."
"And what is that you have?" The tone might have been used to a child.
Hurriedly Sue doubled the black lengths. "It's—it's just a vestment," she explained, embarrassed.
"Please." Mrs. Milo held out a white hand.
To go forward and lay the vestment in that hand meant to disclose the presence of the hiding quartette. With quick forethought, Sue leaned far forward in what might be mistaken for a bow, tipped her head gaily to one side, and stretched an arm to proffer the offending garment. "Here, motherkins! It's in need of mending."
Mrs. Milo tossed the vestment to the piano. "What has your work—your accounts and statements and stenography—what have they to do with the Rector's mending?" she demanded.
"Well, mother, I used to mend for the last minister."
"Oh, my daughter!" mourned Mrs. Milo.
"Ye-e-e-s, mother?"—fearful that the boys were at last discovered.
"Do you mean to say that you see no difference in mending for a single man? a young man? an utter stranger?"
Sue heaved a sigh of relief. "Mother darling," she protested fondly; "hardly a stranger."
"We'll not discuss it," said her mother gently; then taking a more judicial attitude, "Now, I'll speak to those boys."
Long experience had shown Sue Milo that there were times when it was best to put off the evil moment, since at any juncture something quite unforeseen—such as an unexpected arrival—might solve her difficulty. This was such an occasion. So with over-elaborate care, she proceeded to outline the forthcoming program of the morning. "You see, mother, we're to rehearse—choir and all. They'll march from the library, right across here——" She indicated the route of procession.
But long experience had taught Mrs. Milo that procrastination often robbed her of her best opportunities. She pointed a slender finger to the carpet in front of her. "The boys," she said more firmly.
One by one, Sue brought them forward—Bobbie in the lead, then the tow-headed boy; this to conceal the unfortunate state of Ikey and the war-like Clarence. "Here they are, mother!" she announced gaily. "Here are our fine little men!"
Neither cheerful air nor kindly adjective served to pacify Mrs. Milo's anger at sight of the four intruders. Her nostrils swelled. "What are you doing here?" she questioned, with a mildness contradicted by her look; "—against my strict orders."
Bobbie, the ever-ready, strove to answer, swallowed, paled, choked, and turned appealingly to Sue; while the remaining three, with upraised eyes, beseeched her like dumb things.
"Absolutely necessary, mother," declared Sue. She gave each boy a reassuring pat. "As I was saying, they march from the library, preceding the bride——"
But Mrs. Milo was not listening. There was that still white figure in the bay-window, observing the scene intently. She bestowed a pleasant nod upon the quartette. "You may go now, boys," she said cooingly; "I'll speak to you later."
Bobbie found his voice. "Yes, ma'am. Thank you!"—and took one long step churchward. The tow-headed boy moved with him.
This left unshielded the erstwhile contesting twain. Mrs. Milo's look seemed to fall upon them like a blow. "Oh! Oh!" she cried in horror, pointing.
As one, Ikey and Clarence began rubbing tell-tale streaks from their countenances with their rumpled cottas, and pressing down their upstanding hair.
"No! No-o-o!" cried Mrs. Milo. "That photograph! What are you doing with it?"
In sudden panic, Bobbie shifted the photograph from hand to hand; tried to force it into the hands of the tow-headed boy, then bent to consign it to the carpet.
Sue was beforehand. She caught the picture away from the small trembling hand, and smiled upon her mother. "Oh—I—I was just going to look at it," she explained. "Thank you, Bobbie.—Isn't it good of father! So natural, and—and——"
Mrs. Milo was not deceived. "Give it to me," she said coldly. And as Sue obeyed, "Now, go, boys. Dora, poor child, works so hard to keep this drawing-room looking well. We can't have you disarrange it. Come! Be prompt!"
Sue urged the four passageward. "They were just going, mother.—Don't touch the woodwork; use the door knob."
And now, when it seemed that even Ikey and Clarence might escape undetected, Mrs. Milo gave another cry. "Oh, what's the matter with those two?" she demanded.
There was no long term of orphanage life to quiet the young savage in Ikey. And with his much-prized voice, he was even accustomed to being listened to on more than musical occasions. Now he bolted forward, disregarding Sue's hand, which caught at him as he passed. "Missis," began the borrowed soloist, meeting Mrs. Milo's horrified gaze with undaunted eye, "Clarence, he is jealousy dat I sing so fine."
To argue with Sue, or to subdue her, that was one thing; to come to cases with Ikey was quite another. He had an unpleasant habit of threatening to betake himself out and away to his aunt, or to go on strike at such dramatic times as morning service. Therefore, it seemed safer now to ignore the question of torn and muddied cottas, and seize upon some other pretext for censure. "What kind of language is that?" questioned Mrs. Milo, gently chiding. "'He is jealousy'!"
"Yes, quaint, isn't it, mother?" broke in Sue. "Really quaint." And to Ikey, "Not jealousy—jealous."
Ikey bobbed. Before him, like a swathed candle, he upheld his sore finger.
"Please, Susan!" begged Mrs. Milo, with a look which made her daughter fall back apologetically. And to Ikey, "How did you come by that wound?"
The truth would not do. And the truth was even now on the very tip of Ikey's heedless tongue. Sue gave him a little sidewise push. "Mother dear," she explained, "it was accidental."
Aghast at the very boldness of the statement, Ikey came about upon the defender. "Ac-ci-den-tal!" he cried; "dat he smashes me in de hand? Oh, Momsey!"
"Sh! Sh!" implored Sue.
But the worst had happened. Now, voice or no voice, aunt or no aunt, Ikey must be disciplined. Mrs. Milo caught him by a white sleeve. "Ikey Einstein!" she breathed, appalled.
"Please don't 'Missis' me! What did you call my daughter?"
"I—I mean Miss Milo."
"What did you call my daughter?"
"Mother," pleaded Sue, "it slipped out."
"Do not interrupt me."
"Answer me, Ikey."
"I says to her, Momsey."
Mrs. Milo glared at the boy, her breast heaving. There was more in her hostile attitude toward him than the fact that he bore signs of a fracas, or that he had dared in her hearing to let slip the "Momsey" he so loved to use. To her, pious as she was (but pious through habit rather than through any deep conviction), the mere sight of the child was enough to rouse her anger. She resented his ever having been taken into the choir of St. Giles, no matter how good his voice might be. She even resented his having a voice. He was "that little Jew" always, and a living symbol "in our Christian church" of a "race that had slain the Lord." And it was all this which added to his sin in daring to look upon her daughter with an affection that was filial.
"Ikey Einstein,"—she emphasized the name—"haven't you been told never to address Miss Susan as 'Momsey'?"
"He forgot," urged Sue. "But he won't ever——"
"You're interrupting again——"
"How do you expect these boys to be obedient when you don't set them a good example?" Her sorrowful smile was purely muscular in its origin.
"I am to blame, mother——"
Mrs. Milo returned to the errant soloist. "And you were willfully disobeying, you wicked little boy!"
A queer look came into Ikey's eyes. His angular face seemed to draw up. His ears moved under their eaves of curling hair. "Ye-e-es, Missis," he drawled calmly.
Mrs. Milo was a judge of moods. She knew she had gone far enough. She assumed a tone of deepest regret. "Ungrateful children!" she said, distributing her censure. "Think of the little orphans who don't get the care you get! Think——" And arraigning the sagging Clarence, "Don't lean against Miss Milo."
Ikey grinned. Experience had taught him that when Mrs. Milo permitted herself to halt a scolding, she would not resume it. Furthermore, a loud, burring bell was ringing from somewhere beyond the Church, and that summons meant the choirmaster, a personage who was really formidable. Before Sue, he raised that candle-like finger.
"Practice," announced Mrs. Milo, pointing to the passage.
Three boys drew churchward on sluggish feet. But Sue held Ikey back. "His finger hurts," she comforted. "Come! We'll get some liniment."
"Susan!"—gently reproving again. "There's liniment in the Dispensary."
Up, as before a teacher, came Ikey's well hand. "Please, Missis, de Orphan medicine, she is not a speck of good."
Sue added her plea. "No, mother, she is not a speck."
Mrs. Milo shook her head sadly. "You're not going to help these children by coddling them," she reminded. And to Ikey, "Let Nature repair the bruise." She waved all four to go.
"Out of here, you little rascals!" Sue covered her chagrin by a laugh. "Oh, you go that way,"—this to Ikey, who was treading too close upon the heels of the still mourning Clarence. She guided the wounded chorister toward the Close.
Ikey took his banishment with a sulky look at Mrs. Milo. "Nature," she had recommended to him. He did not know any such person, and resented being turned over to a stranger.
Mrs. Milo saw the look. "Wait!" And as he halted, "Is that your handkerchief, Sue?"
"Why—why—er—I think so."
"Kindly take it."
Gently as this was said, it was for Ikey the last straw. As Sue unwound the square of linen, he emitted a heart-rending "Ow!" and fell to weeping stormily. "Oh, boo-hoo! Oh! Oh! Oh, dis is wat I gets for singin' in a Christian choir!" With which stinging rebuke, he fled the drawing-room.
"Now, Susan." Mrs. Milo folded her hands and regarded her daughter sorrowfully.
"Haven't I asked you not to allow those boys to call you Momsey?"
"Yes, mother, but——"
The white-clad figure in the bay-window stirred, rose, and came forward, and Hattie ranged herself at Sue's side, the whole movement plainly one of defense.
Her bridal raiment afforded Sue an excuse for changing the subject. "Oh, mother, look! How lovely!"
"Don't evade my question," chided the elder woman.
Sue reached for her mother's hand. "Ah, poor little hungry hearts," she pleaded. "Those boys just long to call somebody mother."
Mrs. Milo drew her hand free. "Then let them call me mother," she returned.
"Hup!" laughed Hattie, hastily averting her face.
Sue turned to her, mild wonder in her eyes. "Oh, mother's the best mother in the world," she declared; "—and the sweetest.—And you love the boys, don't you, dear?"
Mrs. Milo was watching Hattie's lowered head through narrowed eyes. "I love them—naturally," she answered, with a note of injury.
"Of course, you do! You're a true mother. And a true mother loves anybody's baby. But—the trouble is"—this with a tender smile—"you—you don't always show them the love in your heart."
"Well," retorted her mother, "I shan't let them make you ridiculous.—Momsey!"
From the Church came the sound of boyish laughter, mingled with snatches of a hymn. The hymn was Ikey's favorite, and above all the other voices sounded his—
"O Mutter Dear, Jaru-u-u-usalem——"
Sue turned her head to listen. "They know they've got a right to at least one parent," she said, almost as if to herself. "Preferably a mother."
"But you're an unmarried woman!"
"Still what difference does that make in——"
"Please don't argue."
"To refer to yourself in such a way is most indelicate. Especially before Hattie."
There was no dissembling in the look Hattie Balcome gave the older woman. The young eyes were full of comprehension, and mockery; they said as plainly as words, "Here is one who knows you for what you are—in spite of your dainty manners, your gentle voice, your sweet words." Nor could the girl keep out of her tone something of the dislike and distrust she felt. "Well, Mrs. Milo!" she exclaimed. "I think it's a terrible pity that Sue's not a mother."
"Oh, indeed!"—with quick anger, scarcely restrained. "Well, the subject is not appropriate to unmarried persons, especially young girls. Let us drop it."
"Mother!"—And having diverted Mrs. Milo's resentful stare to herself, Sue now deliberately swung the possibility of censure her way in order to protect Hattie. "Mother, shouldn't a woman who hasn't children fill her arms with the children who haven't mothers? Why shouldn't I mother our orphan boys and girls?"
"I repeat: The subject is closed. And when the wedding is over, I don't want the boys in here again."
Sue blinked guiltily. "But—er—hasn't Mr. Farvel told you?"
"Told me what?"
"Of—of his plan."
"Oh, it's a splendid idea!"
"Really,"—with fine sarcasm.
"Every day, five orphans in to dinner."
Mrs. Milo was aghast. "Dinner? Here?"
"As Ikey says, 'Ve vill eat mit a napkins.'"
Mrs. Milo could not find words for the counter-arguing of such a monstrous plan. "But,—but, Sue," she stammered; "they—they're natural!"
A hearty laugh. "Natural, dear mother? I hope they are."
"Well, I can't tell them from other children with the naked eye. And they're just as dear and sweet, and just as human—if not a little more so."
"You have your duty to the Rectory."
"But what's this Rectory here for? And the Church, too, for that matter?"
"And how better can we worship than——"
Seeing that she was losing out in the argument, Mrs. Milo now resorted to personalities. "Darling," she said gently, "do you know that you're contradicting your mother?"
"The children are given food, clothes, and religious instruction."
"But not love!—Oh, mother, I must say it! We herd them out there in that great building, just because their fathers and mothers didn't take out a license to be parents!"
Shocked, Mrs. Milo stepped back. "My daughter!"
"Can we punish those poor little souls for that? And, oh, how they'd relish a taste of home life!"
Her position decidedly weakened—and that before watchful Hattie—Mrs. Milo adopted new tactics. "Of course, I have nothing to say," she began. "I am only here because you hold this secretaryship. You don't have to make me feel that I'm an intruder, Sue. I feel that sharply enough." There was a trace of tears in her voice. "But even as an intruder, I have a certain responsibility toward the Rectory—all the greater, perhaps, because I'm a guest. Many a day I tire myself out attending to duties that are not mine. And I do——" She interrupted herself to point carpet-ward. "Please pick up that needle. Dora must have overlooked it this morning. What is a needle doing in here? Thank you." Then as she spied that mocking look in Hattie's eyes once more, "Well, I'm not going to see the place pulled to pieces!"
There was scorn written even in Hattie's profile. Sue came quickly to her mother's defense. "I get mother's viewpoint absolutely," she declared stoutly. "We've lived here a long time. Naturally, you see——" Then, with a shake of the head, "But this is Mr. Farvel's home."
Mrs. Milo laughed—a low, musical, well-bred laugh. "His home?" she repeated, raising delicate brows.
"And he can do as he chooses. If we oppose——"
"I shall oppose." It was said cheerfully. "So let him dismiss you. I've never touched your father's life insurance, and I can get along nicely on his pension. And you're a first-class secretary—rector after rector has said that. So you can easily find another position."
"You find another job, Sue," interposed Hattie, "and my mother will invite your mother to Buffalo to live. I'll bequeath my room." She laughed.
Mrs. Milo ignored her. "But while I am forced to live here, I shall protect the Rectory. Furthermore, I shall tell Mr. Farvel so." She turned toward the library.
"Oh, mother, no!" Sue followed, and caught at her mother's arm. "Not today! There's a dear, sweet mother!"
"Sue!" cried Hattie. Her look questioned the other anxiously.
But Mrs. Milo felt no concern for the minister. She freed herself from Sue's hold. "You seem very much worried about him," she returned jealously, staring at Sue.
"You think he's unhappy?" persisted Hattie.
"There!" exclaimed Sue. "You see, mother? Hattie's worried, too. It's natural, isn't it, Hattie?"
"Well, it's all nonsense," pronounced Mrs. Milo. "He isn't unhappy. Wallace has known him longer than we have, and he says Mr. Farvel has always been like that."
Sue patted her mother's cheek playfully. "Then let's not make him any sadder," she said. "Everything must be 'Bless you, my children' around this place today. We don't want any 'Earth to earth, ashes to ashes.'" She gave her parent a hearty kiss.
Mrs. Milo was at once mollified. "I hope," she went on gently, "that Mr. Farvel didn't have to know why Hattie is being married here instead of in Buffalo."
Sue made a comical face. "I explained," she began roguishly, "that the Rectory is—er—neutral territory."
"Neutral," repeated Hattie, with a hint of bitterness.
Once more a jealous light had crept into Mrs. Milo's blue eyes. "Why should you give Mr. Farvel the confidences of the family?" she demanded.
"I had to." Sue threw up helpless hands. "Mr. Balcome refused to walk down the aisle with Mrs. Balcome after the ceremony. That meant no Church. Then he refused to have her stand beside him in here. But he can't refuse to gather on the lawn!"
"Sue," said Hattie, "you have a trusting nature."
"But what's he afraid of?" Sue asked. "She wouldn't bite him."
"Who wouldn't bite who?"
The three turned toward the vestibule door. A large person was entering—a lady, in an elaborate street gown of a somewhat striking plum-color, crowned by an ample hat with spreading, fern-like plumes. About her throat was a veritable cascade of white crepe collar; and against the crepe, carried high, and appearing not unlike a decoration, was a tiny buff-and-black dog.
"Ah, my dear!" cried Mrs. Milo, warmly.
Sue chuckled. "I was just remarking, Mrs. Balcome," she replied, "that you wouldn't bite Hattie's father."
Mrs. Balcome, her face dyeing with the effort, set down the tiny dog upon the cherished Brussels. "Don't be so sure!" she cautioned. She had a deep voice that rumbled.
Hattie pointed a finger at Sue. "Ah-h-a-a-a!" she triumphed.
"Ah-h-a-a-a-a!" mocked her mother. Then coming closer, and looking the wedding-dress over critically, "Rehearsing, eh, in your wedding-dress! What would Buffalo think if it saw you!" With which rebuff, she sank, blowing, upon the couch, and drew Mrs. Milo down beside her.
"Oh, why didn't you have your parents toss up?" asked Sue.
"Pitchforks?" inquired Hattie.
"No! To see which one would be unavoidably called out of town."
"Oh, I've tried compromise," said the girl, wearily.
"Well, ABC mediation never was much of a success up around Buffalo," went on Sue, her eyes twinkling with fun. "Ho-hum! The Secretary of State"—she indicated herself—"will see what she can do." And strolling to the sofa, "Mrs. Balcome, hadn't we better talk this rehearsal over with the head of the house?"
Mrs. Balcome swept round. "Talk?" she cried. "Talk? Why, I never speak to him."
Sue gasped. "Wha-a-at?"
"Never," confirmed Hattie. "And he never talks to her—except through me."
Sue was incredulous. "You mean——" And pantomimed, pointing from an imaginary speaker to Hattie; from Hattie to a second speaker; then back.
Sue pretended to be overwhelmed. She sank to a chair. "Oh, that sounds wonderful!" she cried. "I want to try it!"
"That new job you're looking for," suggested Hattie. "You know I resign tomorrow."
Sue rose and struck an absurd attitude. "Behold Susan Milo, the Human Telephone!" she announced. And to Hattie's mother, "Where is Mr. Balcome?"
By now, Mrs. Balcome had entirely recovered her breath. "Where he is," she answered calmly, "or what he does, is of no importance to me." She picked at the crepe cascade.
Sue exchanged a look with her mother. "Well—er—he'll be here?" she ventured.
Mrs. Balcome lifted her ample shoulders. "I don't know, and I don't care." She fell to caressing the dog.
Sue nodded understandingly to Hattie. "The Secretary of State," she declared, "is going to have her hands full." Whereupon the two sat down at either side of the center table, leaned their arms upon it, and gave themselves up to paroxysms of silent laughter.
Not far away, in an upper room, two men were facing each other across a table—the wide, heavy work-table of the Rectory "study." The "study" was a south room, and into it the May sun poured like a warm stream, to fade further the green of the "cartridge" paper on the walls and the figures of the "art-square" that covered the floor, and to bring out with cruel distinctness the quantities of dust that Dora was allowed to disturb not more frequently than once a week. For the "study" was a place sacred to the privacy of each succeeding clergyman. And here, face to face, Alan Farvel and the bridegroom-to-be were ending a long, grave conversation—a prenuptial conversation invited by the younger man.
Wallace Milo was twenty-eight, and over-tall, so that he carried himself with an almost apologetic drooping stoop, as if he were conscious of his length and sought to make it less noticeable. It was an added misfortune in his eyes that he was spare. In sharp contrast to his sister, he was pale—a paleness accentuated by his dark hair, which was thick, and slightly curly, and piled itself up in an unconquerable pompadour that added to his height. Those who saw Mrs. Milo and Sue together invariably remarked, "Isn't the devotion of mother and daughter perfectly beautiful!" Just as surely did these same people observe, when they saw brother and sister side by side, "There are two children who look as if they aren't even related."
Alan Farvel, though only a dozen years the senior of Wallace, had the look and the bearing of a man much older than forty. His face was deep lined, and his hair was well grayed. But his eyes were young; blue and smiling, they transformed his whole face. It was as if his face had registered the responsibilities and worries that his eyes had never recognized.
He was speaking. "I know exactly how you feel, Wallace. I think every decent chap feels like that the day before he marries. He wants to look back on every year, and search out every mean thought, and every unworthy action—if there is one. But"—he reached to take the other's hand—"you needn't be blaming yourself, old man. Ha-ha-a-a! Don't I know you! Why, bless the ridiculous boy, you couldn't do a downright bad thing if you wanted to! You're the very soul of honor."
Wallace got to his feet—started, rather, as if there was something which Farvel's words had all but driven him to say, but which he was striving to keep back. Resolutely he looked out of the window, swaying a little, with one hand holding to the edge of the table so tightly that his finger-ends were bloodless.
"The very soul of honor," repeated Farvel, watching the half-averted face.
Wallace sank down. "Oh, Alan," he began huskily, "I'll treat her right—tenderly and—and honorably. I love her—I can't tell you how I love her."
Farvel did not speak for a moment. Then, "Everybody loves her," he said, huskily too.
"Oh, not the right way—not her parents, I mean. They haven't ever considered her—you know that. She hasn't had a home—or happiness." He touched his eyes with the back of a hand.
"Make her happy." Farvel's voice was deep with feeling. "She's had all the things money can buy. Now—give her what is priceless."
"I will! I will!"
"Faithfulness, and unselfish love, and tenderness when she's ill, and—best of all, Wallace,—peace. Don't ever let the first quarrel——"
"I fancy most men don't anticipate unpleasantness when they marry. But this or that turns up and marriage takes forbearance." He rose. "Now, I've been talking to you as if you were some man I know only casually—instead of the old fellow who's so near and dear to me. I know your good heart, your clean soul——"
Wallace again stood. "Oh, don't think I'm an angel," he plead. "I—I——" Once more that grip on the table. He shut his jaws tight. He trembled.
"Now, this will do," said Farvel, gently. "Come! We'll go down and see how preparations are going forward. A little work won't be a bad thing for you today." He gave the younger man a playful pull around the end of the table. "You know, I find that all bridegrooms get into a very exaggerated state of self-examination and self-blame just before they marry. You're running true to form." He took Wallace's arm affectionately.
As they entered the drawing-room, Mrs. Milo uprose from the sofa, hands thrown wide in a quick warning. "Oh, don't bring him in!" she cried, looking for all the world like an excited figurine.
"It's bad luck!" chimed in Mrs. Balcome, realizing the state of affairs without turning.
The younger women at the table had also risen, and now Hattie came forward to meet the men, smiling at Farvel, and picking out the flounces of her gown to invite his approval.
"Oh, you shouldn't see it till tomorrow," complained Mrs. Milo, appealing to her son.
Farvel laughed. "How could it bring anyone bad luck?" he demanded; "—to see such a picture." He halted, one arm about Wallace's shoulder.
"Do you like it?" cried Hattie. "Do you really? Oh, I'm glad!"
Sue, puzzled, was watching Farvel, who seemed so unwontedly good-spirited, even gay. "Why, Mr. Farvel," she interposed; "I—I—never thought you noticed clothes—not—not anybody's clothes." She looked down at her own dress a little ruefully. It was of serge, dark, neat, but well worn.
"Well, I don't as a rule," he laughed. "But this creation wouldn't escape even a blind man." Hands in pockets, and head to one side, he admired the slowly circling satin-and-tulle.
Before Sue, on the table, was a morning newspaper; behind her, on the piano, the vestment which Mrs. Milo had thrown down. Quickly covering the garment with the paper, Sue caught up both and made toward the hall door.
"Susan dear!" Her mother smiled across Mrs. Balcome's trembling plumes. "Where are you going?"
"Er—some—some extra chairs," ventured Sue. "I thought—one or two——"
Mrs. Milo crossed the room leisurely. The trio absorbed in the wedding-gown were laughing and chatting together. Mrs. Balcome had rushed heavily to the bay-window in the wake of the poodle, who, from the window-seat, was barking, black nose against the glass, at some venturesome sparrows. Quietly Mrs. Milo took paper and vestment from Sue and tucked them under an arm. "We have plenty of chairs," she said sweetly.
"Yes," assented Sue, obediently; "yes, I—I suppose we have." Her eyes fell before her mother's look. Again it was as if a small child had been surprised in naughtiness.
Now from the Church sounded the voices of the choir. The burring bell had summoned to more, and still more, practice of tomorrow's music, and a score of boys, their song coming loud and clear from the near distance, were rendering the Wedding March from "Lohengrin."
A curious, and instant, change came over Farvel. His laughter stopped; he retreated, and fumbled with one hand at his hair. "Oh, that—that——" he murmured under his breath.
"Alan!" Wallace went to him.
"It's nothing," protested Farvel. "Nothing."
Sue made as if to open the library door. It was plain that, ill or troubled, Farvel was eager to get away.
"Wait," said her mother.
Wallace turned the clergyman toward the door leading to the Church. "Come, old man," he urged. "Let's go right in. That's best."
Farvel permitted himself to be half-led. But he paused part way to look back at the quartette of ladies standing, silent and watchful, at the center of the room. "It's all right," he assured them, smiling wanly at Hattie. He tried to speak casually. "Let me know when you're ready to rehearse." Wallace had reached out to draw Farvel through the door. It closed behind them.
Sue made as if to follow the two men. But once more her mother interposed. "Susan!" And then in explanation, "I wouldn't—they'll want to be alone."
Now, as if silenced by an order, the choir stopped in the middle of a bar.
"Well!" exclaimed Mrs. Balcome. "Positively tragic!" She gathered up the dog and sank upon the sofa.
"Of course, you saw what did it," observed Mrs. Milo.
"What?" asked Hattie, almost challengingly.
"The wedding-march." And when that had sunk in, "Wallace knew. Didn't you hear what he said? He wanted Mr. Farvel to—to conquer the—the—whatever it was he felt. I'll wager" (Mrs. Milo permitted herself to "wager" under the stress of excitement, never to "bet") "that he's broken his engagement, or something of that sort."
Hattie stared resentfully.
"Engagement?" repeated Sue.
Mrs. Milo's blue eyes sparkled with triumph. "Well, it wouldn't surprise me," she declared.
Sue's color deepened. "Why, of course, he isn't," she answered defensively. "He'd say so—he wouldn't keep a matter like that secret. It isn't like him—a whole year."
Her mother smiled at her fondly. "There's nothing to get excited about, my daughter."
"But, mother, it's absurd."
Mrs. Milo strolled to a chair and seated herself with elaborate care. "Well, anyway," she argued, "he carries a girl's picture in his pocket."
In the pause that followed, a telephone began to ring persistently from the direction of the library. But Sue seemed not to hear it. "A picture," she said slowly. And as her mother assented, smiling, "And—and what did he say when he showed it to you?"
Mrs. Milo started. "Well,—er—the fact is," she admitted, "he didn't exactly show it to me."
"Oh." It was scarcely more than a breath.
Mrs. Milo tossed her head. "No," she added tartly, a trifle ruffled by what the low-spoken exclamation so plainly implied. "If you must know, it fell out of his bureau drawer."
Mrs. Balcome threw out a plump arm across the bending back of the sofa and touched a sleeve of the satin gown covertly. "Hm!" she coughed, with meaning.
But Hattie only moved aside irritably. Of a sudden, she was strangely pale.
Dora entered. "Miss Susan, a telephone summons," she announced.
When she was gone, Mrs. Milo rose and hastened to Dora, who seemed on guard as she waited, leaned against the library door. "Who is telephoning?" she asked.
Dora's eyes narrowed—to hide their smile. "Oh, Mrs. Milo," she answered, intoning gravely, "the fourth verse, of the thirteenth chapter—or is it the ninth?—of Isaiah." With face raised, as if she were still cudgeling her brain, she crossed toward the vestibule.
"Isaiah—Isaiah," murmured Mrs. Milo. Then, as Dora seemed about to escape, "Dora!—I wouldn't speak in parables, my child, when there are others present." She smiled kindly.
"It is the soloist telephoning," explained Dora; then, so deliberately as almost to be impudent, "A girl."
Mrs. Milo showed instant relief. "Oh, the soloist! Such a dear girl. She sang here a year or so ago. Yes,—Miss Crosby."
Dora out, Mrs. Balcome turned a look of wisdom upon her hostess. "I see," she insinuated, "that we're very much interested in the new minister."
Like that of a startled deer, up came Mrs. Milo's head. "What do you mean?" she demanded.
"If he isn't engaged already, prepare for wedding Number Two."
Mrs. Balcome tipped forward bulkily. "Sue," she nodded.
Mrs. Milo got to her feet. "Sue! What're you talking about? Why, she never even speaks of marriage."
"Well, maybe she—thinks."
"She doesn't think, either. She has her work, and—and her home." Mrs. Milo was fairly trembling.
"How do you know she doesn't think? It's perfectly natural."
"I know. And please don't bring up the subject in her presence."
"Why, my dear!" chided Mrs. Balcome, amazed at the passion flaming in the blue eyes.
"And don't tease her about Mr. Farvel." That voice so habitually well modulated became suddenly shrill.
"Don't you like him?"—soothingly.
"Not well enough to give my daughter to him."
"Well," simpered Mrs. Balcome, all elephantine playfulness, "we mustn't expect perfection in our son-in-laws. Though Wallace is wonderful—isn't he, Hattie?"
Hattie's back was turned. "I—I suppose so," she answered, low.
"You suppose so!" Mrs. Balcome was shocked. "I must say, Hattie, you're taking this whole thing very calmly—very. And right in front of the boy's mother!"
"Sue is perfectly contented,"—it was Mrs. Milo once more—"perfectly happy. And besides, she's a little older than Mr. Farvel." This with a note of satisfaction.
Mrs. Balcome stroked the dog. "What's a year or two," she urged.
"Not in a man's life. But in a woman's, a year is like five—at Sue's time of life."
"Those make the happiest kind of marriages," persisted Mrs. Balcome; "—the very happiest."
Again Mrs. Milo's voice rose stridently. "Please drop the subject," she begged.
Mrs. Balcome struggled up. "Oh, very well. But you know, my dear, that a woman finds her real happiness in marriage. Because after all is said and done, marriage——"
"Mr. John Balcome," announced Dora, appearing from the vestibule.
As if knocked breathless by a blow, Mrs. Balcome cut short her sentence, went rigid, and clutched the loose coat of the poodle so tightly that four short legs stood out stiff, and two small eyes became mere slits.
Mrs. Milo met the emergency. "Oh, yes, Dora," she said sweetly; and flashed her guest a look of warning.
"Till rehearsal," went on Dora, in a mournful sing-song, "Mr. Balcome prefers to remain on the sidewalk."
Mrs. Milo pretended not to understand. "Oh, we don't mind his cigar," she protested. "Ask him in." And as the girl trailed out, "I do hope your husband won't say anything to that child. She takes the Scriptures so—so literally."
Hattie crossed to her mother. "Shan't I carry Babette upstairs?" she asked.
"No!" Mrs. Balcome jerked rudely away.
"But she annoys father."
"Why do you think I brought her?"
"Oh!—Well, in that case, please don't let me interfere." She went out, banging a door.
"Now! Now!" pleaded Mrs. Milo, lifting entreating hands.
Balcome entered. He was a large man, curiously like his wife in type, for he had the same florid stoutness, the same rather small and pale eye. His well-worn sack suit hung on him loosely. He carried a large soft hat in one hand, and with it he continually flopped nervously at a knee. As he caught sight of the two women, he twisted his face into a scowl.
Mrs. Milo, all smiles, and with outstretched hands, floated toward him in her most graceful manner. "Ah, Brother Balcome!" she cried warmly.
Balcome halted, seized her left hand, gave it a single shake, dropped it, and stalked across the drawing-room head in air. "Don't call me brother," he said crossly.
Dora, going libraryward, stopped to view him in mingled reproval and sorrow.
"Well, what's the matter with you?" he demanded. "Eh? Eh?"
She shook her head, put her finger-tips together, and directed her gaze upon the ceiling. "'For ye have need of patience,'" she quoted.
"Well, of all the impudent——" began Balcome, giving his knee a loud "whop" with the hat.
"Hebrews," interrupted Dora; "—Hebrews, tenth chapter, and thirty-sixth verse."
Balcome nodded. "I guess you're right," he confided. "Patience. That's it." And to Mrs. Milo, "Say, when do we rehearse this tragedy?"—Whereat Dora cupped one hand over her mouth and fled the room.
Mrs. Balcome was stung to action. "Hear that!" she cried, appealing to Mrs. Milo. "A father, of his daughter's wedding!"
"Oh, sh!" cautioned Mrs. Milo.
Balcome glared. "Let me tell you this," he went on, as if to the room in general, "if Hattie's going to act like her mother, she'd better stop the whole business today." He sat down.
"Now, Brother Balcome,"—this pleadingly.
"Don't call me brother!" shouted Mr. Balcome.
That shout, like a shot, brought Mrs. Balcome down. She plumped upon the sofa. "Oh, now you see what I have to bear!" she wailed. "Now, you understand! Oh! Oh!" She buried her face in the coat of the convenient Babette.
Mrs. Milo hastened to her, soothing, imploring. And Balcome rose, to pace the floor, flapping at his knee with each step.
"Now, you see what I have to bear," he mocked. "My only daughter marries, and her mother brings that hunk of hydrophobia to rehearsal."
At this critical juncture, with Mrs. Balcome's weeping gaining in volume, a gay voice sounded from the library—"Toot-toot-toot-toot-toot-toot-toot!" The library door opened, disclosing Sue. She let the doorway frame her, and waited, inviting attention. She was no longer in her simple work-dress. Silk and net and lace—this was her bridesmaid's gown.
Balcome's face widened in a grin. "By Jove, you look fine!"
"Thanks to you!"
"Shush! Shush!" He shook hands. "Not married yet?"
Mrs. Milo, busily engaged in quieting Mrs. Balcome, lifted her head, but without turning.
"I?" laughed Sue.
"Understand there's a good-looking parson here."
A quick smile—toward the door leading to the Church. Sue fell to arranging her dress. "Mm, yes," she answered, a little absent-mindedly; "yes, there is—one here."
"Oh, marry! Marry! Marry!" scolded Mrs. Milo. "I think people are marry crazy."
Balcome laughed. "I believe you!—Sue, why don't you capture that parson?"
Mrs. Milo rose, taking a peep at the tiny watch hidden under the frill at a wrist. "Susan," she said sweetly, "will you see what the florist is doing?"
"Oh, he's all right, mother dear. He——"
"Do you want your mother to do it?"
"Oh, no, mother. No." All gauze and sheen, like a mammoth butterfly, Sue hurried across the room.
"I must save my strength for tomorrow," explained Mrs. Milo, and turned with that benevolent smile. The next moment she flung up her hands. "Susan!"
Sue halted. "Ah-ha-a-a-a!" she cried triumphantly. "I thought it'd surprise you, mother! Isn't it lovely? Isn't it beautiful? Isn't it an improvement over that old gray satin of mine?" She came back to stroll to and fro, parading. "As Ikey says, 'Ain't it peaches?'"
"Tum-tum-tee-tum," hummed Balcome, in an attempt at the wedding-march.
"Susan! Stop!" ordered Mrs. Milo. "Where, if you please, have you come by such a dress?"
Even Mrs. Balcome was listening, having forgotten her own troubles in the double interest of the promised quarrel and the attractive costume.
Sue arraigned Mr. Balcome with a finger. "Well, this nice person told Hattie to order it for me from her dressmaker."
"To land that parson," added Balcome, wickedly.
"He gave me two," went on Sue, turning a chin over one shoulder in a vain attempt to get a glimpse of her back. "The other one is wonderful! I'm—I'm keeping the other one."
"'Keeping the other one'?" repeated her mother.
Sue tried the other shoulder. "Well, I—I might need it for something special," she explained.
"Will you please stop that performance?" demanded her mother. "My daughter, the dress is ridiculous!"
Sue stared. "Ridiculous?"
"But—but it's my bridesmaid's dress."
"I tell you, it's unsuited—a woman of forty-five! Please go and change."
"Oh, come now," put in Balcome, a little sharply. "You never think of Sue as being forty-five." Then with a large wave of the hand in Sue's direction, "What do you want to make her feel older than she is for?"
"I had no such intention," retorted Mrs. Milo, coldly—and righteously. "On the contrary, I think Susan is well preserved."
"Preserved!" gasped Sue, both hands to her head.
"Preserved grandmother!" scoffed Balcome. "Sue looks like a bride herself. Sue, when that parson gets his eye on you——"
Mrs. Milo saw herself outdone. Her safety lay in harassing him. "Speaking of eyes, Mr. Balcome," she said sweetly, "it strikes me that yours look as if you'd been up all night."
Mrs. Balcome rose to the stimulus. "Susan!" she summoned.
"Yes, dear lady?"
"You will kindly ask my husband——"
"Go ahead, Mrs. Balcome," invited Sue, resignedly. And, turning an imaginary handle, "Ting-a-ling-ling!"
Mrs. Milo, beaming with satisfaction, made her way daintily to the passage door. "I think I'll call the choir," she observed, and disappeared.
Like a war steed pawing the earth with impatient hoof, Mrs. Balcome tapped the carpet. Her eye was set, her mouth was pursed. Though her dress was of some soft material, she seemed fairly to bristle. "How long has Hattie's father been in town?" she demanded.
"But you don't care," reminded Sue.
"How long?" persisted the other.
With comical gravity, Sue turned upon Balcome. "How long has Hattie's father been in town?" she echoed. And as he held up all the fingers of one hand, "Oh, two—or three—or four"—a cautious testing of Mrs. Balcome's temper.
That lady's ample bosom rose and fell tempestuously. "And I've had everything to do!" she complained; "—everything! Why haven't we seen him before?"
"Mister Man," questioned Sue, "why haven't we seen you before?"
Balcome rubbed his hands together, chuckling. "Yes, why? Why?"
"Business, Mrs. Balcome," parried Sue; "—press of business."
"Business!" cried the elder woman, scornfully. "Huh!—and where is he staying?"
"But you said yourself, 'Where he is, or what he does'——" Then as Mrs. Balcome rotated to stare at her resentfully, "Where is 'he' staying, Mr. Balcome?"
"Ha! ha! ha! ha! ha!" bellowed Balcome. Leaning, he imparted something to Sue in a whisper.
"Where?" persisted his wife.
"He's at the Astor," declared Sue, and was swept with Balcome into a gale of mirth.
"Don't treat this as a joke, my dear Susan," warned Mrs. Balcome.
"Oh, joke, Sue! Joke!" cried Balcome, flapping at Sue with his hat. "If there's one thing I like to see in a woman it's a sense of humor."
"Your husband appreciates your sense of humor," chanted Sue, returning to her telephoning.
"If there's one thing I like to see in a man," returned Mrs. Balcome, "it's a sense of decency."
"Your wife admires your sense of decency," continued the transmitter.
"She talks about decency"—Balcome spoke confidentially—"and she brings a pup to rehearsal."
"She brings a darling doggie to rehearsal," translated Sue.
By now, Mrs. Balcome was serenity itself. "A pup at rehearsal," she observed, "is more acceptable than one man I could name."
"Aw," began Balcome, reaching, as it were, for a suitable retort.
Sue put up imploring hands. Hattie had just entered, having changed from her wedding-dress. "Now, wait! This line is busy," she declared. And to Hattie, "Oh, my dear, why didn't you arrange for two ceremonies!"
"Do you mean bigamy?" inquired the girl, dryly, aware of the atmosphere of trouble.
"I mean one ceremony for father, and one for mother," answered Sue.
Both belligerents advanced upon her. "Now, Susan," began Mrs. Balcome. And "Look-a here!" exclaimed Balcome.
The sad voice of Dora interrupted. From the vestibule she shook a mournful head in a warning. "Someone is calling," she whispered. "It's Miss Crosby."
Like two combatants who have fought a round, the Balcomes parted, retiring to opposite corners of the room. Dora, having satisfied herself that quiet reigned, went out.
Hattie stifled a yawn. "What is Miss Crosby going to sing, Sue?" she asked indifferently.
"'O Perfect Love.'"
Balcome wheeled with a resounding flop of the hat. "O Perfect What?" he demanded.
"Love, Mr. Balcome,—L-O-V-E."
"Ha-a-a!" cried Balcome. "I haven't heard that word in years!"
Mrs. Balcome, stung again to action, swept forward to a renewed attack. "He hasn't heard the word in years!" she scolded. And Balcome, scolding in concert with her, "I don't think I'd recognize it if I saw it."—"Through whose fault, I'd like to know?"—her voice topped her husband's.
"Please!" A changed Sue was speaking now, not playfully or facetiously, or even patiently: her face was grave, her eyes were angry. "Mrs. Balcome, kindly take your place in the Close, to the left of the big door. Mr. Balcome, you will follow the choir." She waved them out, and they went, both unaccountably meek. Those who knew Sue Milo seldom saw this phase of her personality. Sue, the yielding, the loving, the childlike, could, on occasions, shed all her softer qualities and become, of a sudden, justly vengeful, full of wrath, and unbending. Even her mother had, at rare intervals, seen this phenomenon, and felt respect for it.
Just now, having opened the passage door for the choir, Mrs. Milo had scented something wrong, and was cautioning the boys in a whisper. They came by twos across the room, curving their line a little to pass near to Sue, and looking toward her with troubled eyes. This indeed was a different Sue, in that strange dress, standing so tensely, with averted face.
When the last white gown was gone, Hattie laid her hand on Sue's arm. "It's all right," she said gently. "Don't you care."
Sue did not speak or move.
"Dear Sue," pleaded the girl.
Sue turned. In her look was pity for all that Hattie had borne of bitterness and wrangling. And as a mother gathers a stricken child to her breast, so she drew the other to her. "Oh, Hattie!" she murmured huskily. "Go—go far. Put it all behind you forever! From now on, Hattie, they can't hurt you any more—can't torture you any longer. From now on, happiness, Hattie, happiness!" She dropped her head to Hattie's shoulder.
"There! There!" soothed the younger woman, tenderly. Someone was entering—a girl with a music-roll under an arm. Nodding to the newcomer, she covered the situation by ostentatiously tidying Sue's hair.
"Dear Miss Crosby, I'm so glad to see you again!"
Mrs. Milo came hurrying across the drawing-room to greet the soloist.
Miss Crosby shook hands heartily. She was smartly dressed in a wine-colored velveteen, the over-short skirt of which barely reached to the tops of her freshly whitened spats. Her wide hat was tipped to a rakish angle. She was young (twenty-eight or thirty at most, but she looked less) and distinctly pretty. Her features were regular, her face oval, if too thin—with the thinness of one who is underfed. And this appearance of being poorly nourished showed in her skin, which was pallid, except where she had touched it on cheeks and chin with rouge. A neck a trifle too long and too lean was accentuated by a wide boyish collar of some starched material. But her eyes were fine—not large, but dark and lustrous under their black brows and heavy lashes. Worn in waves that testified to the use of the curling-iron, her yellow hair was in striking contrast to them. But this bright tint was plainly the result of bleaching. And both hair and rouge served to emphasize lines in her face that had not been made by time—lines of want, and struggle, and suffering; lines of experience. These showed mostly about her mouth, a thin mouth made more pronounced by the cautious use of the lip-stick.
"My dear," beamed Mrs. Milo, "are you singing away as hard as ever?"
"Oh, I have a great many weddings," declared the other, with a note that was somewhat bragging.
Mrs. Milo looked down at the long, slender, ungloved hand still held in one of hers. "Ah," she went on, playfully teasing, "but I see you're not always going to sing at other girls' weddings."
Miss Crosby pulled her hand free, and thrust it behind her among the folds of her skirt. "Well,—I—I——" She gave a sudden frightened look around, as if seeking some way of escape.
Sue was quick to her rescue. "Don't you want to wait with the choir?" she asked, waving a hand. "—You, too, Hattie."
Mrs. Milo seemed not to notice the singer's confusion. And when the latter disappeared with Hattie, she appealed to Sue, beaming with excitement. "Did you notice?" she asked. "A solitaire! She's engaged to be married!"
"Married!" echoed Sue, and shook her head.
"Oh, yes. You're thinking of the Balconies. Well, now you see why I've never felt too badly about your not taking the step."
"You mean that most marriages——?"
"It's a lottery—a lottery." Mrs. Milo sighed.
"But your marriage—yours and father's——"
"My marriage was a great exception—a very great exception."
"And there's Hattie and Wallace," went on Sue. "Oh, it would be too terrible——"
"There are few men as good as my son," said Mrs. Milo, proudly; "—you darling boy!" For Wallace had entered the room.
He came to them quickly. His pale face was unwontedly anxious.
"Is anything wrong?" questioned Sue.
"No," he declared. But his whole manner belied his words. "Only—only there'll be a change tomorrow—an outside minister."
"What?" exclaimed Mrs. Milo. And to Sue, "Didn't I tell you!"
"But if Mr. Farvel doesn't wish to officiate," she argued.
Her brother caught at the suggestion. "Exactly," he said. "He doesn't wish."
"What's the matter with him?" demanded Mrs. Milo, harshly.
"He has a reason," explained Wallace, in a tone that was meant to cut off further inquiry.
"A reason? Indeed! And what is it? Isn't dear Hattie to be consulted?"
Wallace put out his hands imploringly. "Hattie won't care," he argued. "And, oh, mother, let's not worry her about it!"
Mrs. Milo smiled wisely. "I've always said," she reminded, turning to Sue, "that there's something about Mr. Farvel that—well——" She shrugged.
Wallace's hands were opening and shutting almost convulsively. "Mother," he begged, "can I see Sue alone?"
Mrs. Milo's eyes softened with understanding. "My baby, of course." She kissed him fondly and hurried out to join Mrs. Balcome. His request was a familiar one. He called upon his sister not infrequently for financial help, and to his mother it was a point greatly in his favor that he shrank from asking for money in the presence of any third person.
His mother gone, Wallace turned to Sue. She had the same thought concerning the nature of what was troubling him; for he looked harassed—worn and pathetically helpless. He was more stooped than usual. The sight of him touched Sue's heart.
"Well, old brother," she said tenderly, putting a hand on his arm. "Is the bridegroom short of cash? Now that would never do. And you know I'm always ready——"
"Not that," he answered; "—not this time. I'm all right. It's—Alan."
"He's not happy!"
"No." Wallace glanced away. "But it's—it's an old story."
"Can I help him?"
He shook his head. "Nobody can do anything. We'll just change ministers."
She struggled against the next question. "It's about a—a girl?"
As if startled, he stared at her. "What makes you say that?"
"Well, I—I don't know." She laughed a little, embarrassed. "But most men at his age——"
"Well, it is about a girl," he admitted. "She disappeared—oh, nine or ten years ago."
"But don't say anything to Hattie about it. She likes Farvel. And—and she isn't any too enthusiastic about marrying me."
A smile came back into Sue's gray eyes. "My dear brother!" she exclaimed.
"Oh, I'm not blind."
Sue addressed the room. "Our young mining-engineer," she observed with mock gravity, "'he is jealousy'."
Wallace was trembling. "I love her," he said half-brokenly; "I love her better than anything else in the world! But—but did you see her look at him? when she had her wedding-dress on, and he and I came in?"
"Wallace!"—pity and reproval mingled in Sue's tone. Again she laid a hand on his sleeve. "Oh, don't let doubt or—or anything enter your heart now—at this wonderful hour of your life—oh, Wallace, when you're just beginning all your years with her! Your marriage must be happy! Marriages can be happy—I know it! They're not all like her mother's. But don't start wrong! Oh, don't start wrong!" There were tears in her eyes.
Farvel came in from the Church. He was himself again, and slammed the door quite cheerily.
Wallace turned almost as if to intercept him. "I've fixed everything, old man," he said quickly. "It's all right."
"But I can officiate as well as not," urged Farvel, passing the younger man by and coming to Sue. "I don't want you to think I'm notional."
"She won't," declared Wallace, before Sue could speak. "I've explained."
"Ah." Farvel nodded, satisfied. "You—you know, then. Well, I've always wanted you to know."
She tried to smile back at him, to find an answer.
Her brother was urging Farvel to go. "You'll find someone to marry us, won't you?" he begged. "Right away, Alan?"
"Oh, I understand," said Farvel. "I'd be a damper, wouldn't I?"
"Oh, no! Not that!"
Farvel laid a hand on Wallace's shoulder. "He feels as bad about it as I do, dear old fellow!" he said.
The other moved away a step, and as if to take Farvel with him. "Yes, Alan. Yes. But don't talk about it today. Not today."
Farvel crossed to the sofa and sat down. "I know," he admitted. "But today—this wedding—I don't—I can't seem to get her out of my mind." Then as if moved by a poignant thought, he bent his head and covered his face with both hands.
Sue was beside him at once. And dropped to a knee. "Oh, I wish I could help you," she said comfortingly.
Farvel did not look up. He began to speak in a muffled voice. "What did I do to deserve it?" he asked brokenly. "That's what I ask myself. What did I do?"
"Nothing!" she answered. "Nothing! Oh, don't blame yourself." Her hand went up to touch one of his.
He uncovered his face and looked at her. He seemed to have aged all at once. "Oh, forgive me," he pleaded. "I don't want to worry you."