GRACE LIVINGSTON HILL
MARCIA SCHUYLER, THE SEARCH, ETC.
GROSSET & DUNLAP
PUBLISHERS NEW YORK
Made in the United States of America
COPYRIGHT, 1920, BY THE GOLDEN RULE COMPANY
COPYRIGHT, 1920, BY J. B. LIPPINCOTT COMPANY
"Well, all I've got to say, then, is, you're a very foolish woman!"
Ellen Robinson buttoned her long cloak forcefully, and arose with a haughty air from the rocking-chair where she had pointed her remarks for the last half-hour by swaying noisily back and forth and touching the toes of her new high-heeled shoes with a click each time to the floor.
Julia Cloud said nothing. She stood at the front window, looking out across the sodden lawn to the road and the gray sky in the distance. She did not turn around to face her arrogant sister.
"What I'd like to know is what you do propose to do, then, if you don't accept our offer and come to live with us? Were you expecting to keep on living in this great barn of a house?" Ellen Robinson's voice was loud and strident with a crude kind of pain. She could not understand her sister, in fact, never had. She had thought her proposition that Julia come to live in her home and earn her board by looking after the four children and being useful about the house was most generous. She had admired the open-handedness of Herbert, her husband, for suggesting it. Some husbands wouldn't have wanted a poor relative about. Of course Julia always had been a hard worker; and it would relieve Ellen, and make it possible for her to go around with her husband more. It would save the wages of a servant, too, for Julia had always been a wonder at economy. It certainly was vexing to have Julia act in this way, calmly putting aside the proposition as if it were nothing and saying she hadn't decided what she was going to do yet, for all the world as if she were a millionaire!
"I don't know, Ellen. I haven't had time to think. There have been so many things to think about since the funeral I haven't got used yet to the idea that mother's really gone." Julia's voice was quiet and controlled, in sharp contrast with Ellen's high-pitched, nervous tones.
"That's it!" snapped Ellen. "When you do, you'll go all to pieces, staying here alone in this great barn. That's why I want you to decide now. I think you ought to lock up and come home with me to-night. I've spent just as much time away from home as I can spare the last three weeks, and I've got to get back to my house. I can't stay with you any more."
"Of course not, Ellen. I quite understand that," said Julia, turning around pleasantly. "I hadn't expected you to stay. It isn't in the least necessary. You know I'm not at all afraid."
"But it isn't decent to leave you here alone, when you've got folks that can take care of you. What will people think? It places us in an awfully awkward position."
"They will simply think that I have chosen to remain in my own house, Ellen. I don't see anything strange or indecent about that."
Julia Cloud had turned about, and was facing her sister calmly now. Her quiet voice seemed to irritate Ellen.
"What nonsense!" she said sharply. "How exceedingly childish, letting yourself be ruled by whims, when common sense must show you that you are wrong. I wonder if you aren't ever going to be a woman."
Ellen said this word "woman" as if her sister had already passed into the antique class and ought to realize it. It was one of the things that hurt Julia Cloud to realize that she was growing old apparently without the dignity that belonged to her years, for they all talked to her yet as if she were a little child and needed to be managed. She opened her lips to speak, but thought better of it, and shut them again, turning back to the window and the gray, sodden landscape.
"Well, as I said before, you're a very foolish woman; and you'll soon find it out. I shall have to go and leave you to the consequences of your folly. I'm sure I don't know what Herbert will say when he finds out how you've scorned his kindness. It isn't every brother-in-law would offer—yes, offer, Julia, for I never even suggested it—to take on extra expense in his family. But you won't see your ingratitude if I stand here and talk till doomsday; so I'm going back to my children. If you come to your senses, you can ride out with Boyce Bains to-morrow afternoon. Good-by, and I'm sure I hope you won't regret this all your life."
Julia walked to the door with her sister, and stood watching her sadly while she climbed into her smart little Ford and skillfully steered it out of the yard and down the road. The very set of her shoulders as she sailed away toward home was disapproving.
With a sigh of relief Julia Cloud shut the door and went back to her window and the dreary landscape. It was time for a sunset, but the sky was leaden. There Would be nothing but grayness to look at, grayness in front of her, grayness behind in the dim, silent room. It was like her life, her long, gray life, behind and ahead. All her life she had had to serve, and see others happy. First as a child, the oldest child. There had been the other children, three brothers and Ellen. She had brought them all up, as it were, for the mother had always been delicate and ailing. She had washed their faces, kissed their bruises, and taken them to school. She had watched their love-affairs and sent them out into the world one by one. Two of the brothers had come home to die, and she had nursed them through long months. The third brother married a wealthy girl in California, and never came home again except on flying visits. He was dead now, too, killed in action in France during the first year of the Great War. Then her father had been thrown from his horse and killed; and she had borne the burden for her mother, settled up the estate, and made both ends meet somehow, taking upon herself the burden of the mother, now a chronic invalid. From time to time her young nieces and nephews had been thrust upon her to care for in some home stress, and always she had done her duty by them all through long days of mischief and long nights of illness. She had done it cheerfully and patiently, and had never complained even to herself. Always there had been so much to be done that there had been no time to think how the years were going by, her youth passing from her forever without even a glimpse of the rose-color that she supposed was meant to come into every life for at least a little while.
She hadn't realized it fully, she had been so busy. But now, with the last service over, an empty house about her, an empty heart within her, she was looking with startled eyes into the future and facing facts.
It was Ellen's attempt to saddle her with a new responsibility and fit her out to drudge on to the end of her days that had suddenly brought the whole thing out in its true light. She was tired. Too tired to begin all over again and raise those children for Ellen. They were nice, healthy children and well behaved; but they were Ellen's children, and always would be. If she went out to live with the Robinsons, she would be Ellen's handmaid, at her beck and call, always feeling that she must do whatever she was asked, whether she was able or not, because she was a dependent. Never anything for love. Oh, Ellen loved her in a way, of course, and she loved Ellen; but they had never understood each other, and Ellen's children had been brought up to laugh and joke at her expense as if she were somehow mentally lacking.
"O Aunt Julia!" they would say in a tone of pity and scorn, as if she were too ignorant to understand even their sneers.
Perhaps it was pride, but Julia Cloud felt she would rather die than face a future like that. It was respectable, of course, and entirely reliable. She would be fed and clothed, and nursed when she was ill. She would be buried respectably when she died, and the neighbors would say the Robinsons had been kind and done the right thing by her; but Julia Cloud shuddered as she looked down the long, dull vista of that future which was offered her, and drew back for the first time in her life. Not that she had anything better in view, only that she shrank from taking the step that would bring inevitable and irrevocable grayness to the end of her days. She was not above cooking and nursing and toiling forever if there were independence to be had. She would have given her life if love beckoned her. She would have gone to France as a nurse in a moment if she had not been needed at her mother's bedside. Little children drew her powerfully, but to be a drudge for children who did not love her, in a home where love was the only condition that would make dependence possible, looked intolerable.
Julia Cloud had loved everybody that would let her, and had received very little love in return. Back in the years when she was twelve and went to school a boy of fifteen or sixteen had been her comrade and companion. They had played together whenever Julia had time to play, and had roamed the woods and waded the creeks in company. Then his people moved away, and he had kissed her good-by and told her that some day he was coming back to get her. It was a childish affection, but it was the only kiss of that kind she had to remember.
The boy had written to her for a whole year, when one day there came a letter from his grandmother telling how he was drowned in saving the life of a little child; and Julia Cloud had put the memory of that kiss away as the only bright thing in her life that belonged wholly to herself, and plodded patiently on. The tears that she shed in secret were never allowed to trouble her family, and gradually the pain had grown into a great calm. No one ever came her way to touch her heart again. Only little children brought the wistful look to her eyes, and a wonder whether people had it made up to them in heaven when they had failed of the natural things of this life.
Julia Cloud was not one to pity herself. She was sane, healthy, and not naturally morbid; but to-night, for some reason, the gray sky, and the gray, sodden earth, and the gray road of the future had got her in their clutches, and she could not get away from them. With straining eyes she searched the little bit of west between the orchard tree that always showed a sunset if there was one; but no streak of orange, rose, or gold broke the sullen clouds.
Well, what was she going to do, anyway? Ellen's question seemed to ring on stridently in her ears; she tried to face it looking down the gray road into the gray sky.
She had the house, but there were taxes to pay, and there would be repairs every little while to eat up the infinitesimal income which was left her, when all the expenses of her mother's long illness and death were paid. They had been spending their principal. It could not have been helped. In all, she knew, she had something like two hundred dollars a year remaining. Not enough to board her if she tried to board anywhere, to say nothing of clothing. All this had been fully and exhaustively commented upon by Ellen Robinson during the afternoon.
The house might be rented, of course—though it was too antiquated and shabby-looking to bring much—if Julia was not "so ridiculously sentimental about it." Julia had really very little sentiment connected with the house, but Ellen had chosen to think she had; so it amounted to the same thing as far as the argument went. Julia knew in her own heart that the only thing that held her to the dreary old house with its sad memories and its haunting emptiness was the fact that it was hers and that here she could be independent and do as she pleased. If she pleased to starve, no one else need know it. The big ache that was in her heart was the fact that there was nobody really to care if she did starve. Even Ellen's solicitations were largely from duty and a fear of what the neighbors would say if she did not look after her sister.
Julia was lonely and idle for the first time in her busy, dull life, and her heart had just discovered its love-hunger, and was crying out in desolation. She wanted something to love and be loved by. She missed even the peevish, childish invalid whose last five years had been little else than a living death, with a mind so vague and hazy as seldom to know the faithful daughter who cared for her night and day. She missed the heart and soul out of life, the bit of color that would glorify all living and make it beautiful.
Well, to come back to sordid things, what was there that she could do to eke out her pitiful little living? For live she must, since she was here in this bleak world and it seemed to be expected of her. Keep boarders? Yes, if there were any to keep; but in this town there were few who boarded. There was nothing to draw strangers, and the old inhabitants mostly owned their own houses.
She could sew, but there were already more sewing women in the community than could be supported by the work there was to be done, for most of the women in Sterling did their own sewing. There were two things which she knew she could do well, which everybody knew she could do, and for which she knew Ellen was anxious to have her services. She was the best nurse in town and a fine cook. But again the women of Sterling, most of them, did their own cooking, and there was comparatively little nursing where a trained nurse would not be hired. In short, the few things she could do were not in demand in this neighborhood.
Nevertheless, she knew in her heart that she intended trying to live by her own meagre efforts, going out for a few days nursing, or to care for some children while their mothers went out to dinner or to the city, to the theatre or shopping. There would be but little of that, but perhaps by and by she could manage to make it the fashion.
As she looked into the future, she saw herself trudging gloomily down the sunset way into a leaden sky, caring for the Brown twins all day while their mother was shopping; while they slept, mending stockings out of the big round basket that Mrs. Brown always kept by her sewing-chair; coming home at night to a cheerless house and a solitary meal for which she had no appetite; getting up in the night to go to Grandma Fergus taken down suddenly with one of her attacks; helping Mrs. Smith out with her sewing and spring cleaning. Menial, monotonous tasks many of them. Not that she minded that, if they only got somewhere and gave her something from life besides the mere fighting for existence.
She looked clear down to the end of her loveless life, and saw the neighbors coming virtuously to perform the last rites, and wondered why it all had to be. She was unaware of all her years of sacrifice, glorious patience, loving toil. Her life seemed to have been so without point, so useless heretofore; and all that could yet be, how useless and dreary it looked! Her spirit was at its lowest ebb. Her soul was weary unto death. She looked vainly for a break in that solid wall of cloud at the end of the road, and looked so hard that the tears came and fell plashing on the window-seat and on her thin, tired hands. It was because of the tears that she did not see the boy on a bicycle coming down the road, until he vaulted off at the front gate, left his wheel by the curb, and came whistling up the path, pulling a little book and pencil out of his pocket in a business-like way.
With a start she brushed the tears away, pushed back the gray hair from her forehead, and made ready to go to the door. It was Johnny Knox, the little boy from the telegraph office. He had made a mistake, of course. There would be no telegram for her. It would likely be for the Cramers next door. Johnny Knox had not been long in the village, and did not know.
But Johnny did know.
"Telegram for Miss Julia Cloud!" he announced smartly, flourishing the yellow envelope at her and putting the pencil in her hand. "Sign 'ere!" indicating a line in the book.
Julia Cloud looked hard at the envelope. Yes, there was her name, though it was against all reason. She could not think of a disaster in life of which it might possibly be the forerunner. Telegrams of course meant death or trouble. They had never brought anything else to her.
She signed her name with a vague wonder that there was nothing to pay. There had been so many things to pay during the last two painful weeks, and her little funds were almost gone.
She stood with the telegram in her hand, watching the boy go whistling back to his wheel and riding off with a careless whirl out into the evening. His whistle lingered far behind, and her ears strained to hear it. Now if a whistle like that were coming home to her! Some one who would be glad to see her and want something she could do for him! Why, even little snub-nosed, impudent Johnny Knox would be a comfort if he were all her own. Her arms suddenly felt empty and her hands idle because there was nothing left for her to do. Involuntarily she stretched them out to the gray dusk with a wistful motion. Then she turned, and went back to the window to read her telegram.
"DEAR CLOUDY JEWEL: Leslie and I are on our way East for a visit, and will stop over Wednesday night to see you. Please make us some caraway cookies if not too much trouble.
"Your loving nephew, "ALLISON CLOUD."
A glad smile crept into Julia Cloud's lonely eyes. Leslie and Allison were her California brother's children, who had spent three happy months with her when they were five and seven while their father and mother went abroad. "Cloudy Jewel" was the pet name they had made up for her. That was twelve long years ago, and they had not forgotten! They were coming to see her, and wanted some caraway cookies! A glad light leaped into her face, and she lifted her eyes to the gray distance. Lo! the leaden clouds had broken and a streak of pale golden-rose was glowing through the bars of gray.
Leslie and Allison!
Julia Cloud stood gazing out into the west, while the whole sky lightened and sank away into dusk with a burning ruby on its breast. The gloom of her spirit glowed into brightness, and joy flooded her soul.
Leslie and Allison! What round little warm bodies they had, and what delicate, refined faces! They had not seemed like Ellen's blowsy, obstreperous youngsters, practical and grasping to the last extreme after the model of their father. They had starry eyes and hair like tangled sunbeams. Their laughter rippled like brooks in summer, and their hands were like bands that bound the heart. Cookies and stories and long walks and picnics! Those had made up the beautiful days that they spent with her, roaming the woods and meadows, picking dandelions and violets, and playing fairy stories. It had been like a brief return of her old childish days with her boy comrade. She remembered the heartache and the empty days after they had gone back to their Western home, and the little printed childish letters that came for a few months till she was forgotten.
But not really forgotten, after all. For some link of tenderness must still remain that they should think of her now after all these years of separation, and want to visit her. They remembered the cookies! She smiled reminiscently. What a batch of delectable cookies she would make in the morning! Why, to-morrow would be Wednesday! They would be here to-morrow night! And there was a great deal to be done!
She turned from the belated sunset unregretting, and hastened to begin her preparations. There were the two front rooms up-stairs to be prepared. She would open the windows at once, and let the air sweep through all night. They had been shut up a long time, for she had brought the invalid down-stairs to the little sitting-room the last few months to save steps and be always within hearing. The second story had been practically unused except when Ellen or the children were over for a day or two.
She hurried up-stairs, and lit the gas in the two rooms, throwing wide the windows, hunting out fresh sheets and counterpanes. She could dust and run the carpet-sweeper over the rooms right away, and have them in order; and that would save time for to-morrow. Oh, it was good to have something cheerful to do once more. Just supposing she had yielded—as once that afternoon she almost had—to Ellen's persistent urgings, and had gone home with her to-night! Why, the telegram might not have reached her till after the children had come, and found the house empty, and gone again!
Julia bustled around happily, putting the rooms into charming order, hunting up a little picture of the child Samuel kneeling in the temple, that Allison used to like, going to the bottom of an old hair trunk for the rag doll she had made for Leslie to cuddle when she went to sleep at night.
Mrs. Ambrose Perkins across the way looked uneasily out of her bedroom window at half-past nine, and said to her husband:
"Seems like Julia Cloud is staying up awful late to-night. She's got a light in both front rooms, too. There can't be company. I s'pose Ellen and some of her children have stayed down after all. Poor Ellen! She told me she simply couldn't spare the time away from home any longer, but Julia was set on staying there. I never thought Julia was selfish; but I s'pose she doesn't realize how hard it is for Ellen, living that way between two houses. Julia'll go to live with Ellen now, of course. It's real good of Herbert Robinson to ask her. Julia ought to appreciate having relatives like that."
"Relatives nothing!" said Mr. Ambrose, pulling off his coat and hanging it over a chair. "She'll be a fool if she goes! She's slaved all her life, and she deserves a little rest now. If she goes out to Herbert Robinson's, she won't be allowed to call her eyelashes her own; you mark my words!"
"Well, what else can she do?" said his wife. "She hasn't any husband or children, and I think she'll be mighty well off to get a good home. Men are awful hard on each other, Ambrose. I always knew that."
Julia Cloud meanwhile, with a last look at the neat rooms, put out her lights, and went to bed, but not to sleep. She was so excited that the darkness seemed luminous about her. She was trying to think how those two children would look grown up. Allison was nineteen and Leslie nearly seventeen now. Their mother had been dead five years, and they had been in boarding-schools. Their guardian was an old gentleman, a friend of their mother's. That was about all she knew concerning them. Would they seem like strangers, she wondered, or would there be enough resemblance to recall the dear girl and boy of the years that were gone? How she clung to those cookies with hope! There was some remembrance left, or they would not have put cookies in a telegram. How impetuous and just like Allison, the boy, that telegram had sounded!
It was scarcely daylight when Julia Cloud arose and went down to the kitchen to bake the cookies; and the preparations she made for baking pies and doughnuts and other toothsome dainties would lead one to suppose that she was expecting to feed a regiment for a week at least.
She filled the day with hard work, as she had been wont to do, and never once thought of gray sunsets or dreary futures. Not even the thought of her sister Ellen came to trouble her as she put the house in order, filled her pantry with good things to eat, and set the table for three with all the best things the house afforded.
At evening she stood once more beside the front window, looking out sunsetward. There was nothing gray about either sky or road or landscape now. There had been brilliant sunshine all day long, and the sky lay mellow and yellow behind the orchard, with a clear, transparent greenish-blue above and a hint of rosy light in the long rays that reached their fingers along the ground between the apple-trees. In a few minutes the evening train would be in, and there would be rose in the sunset. She knew the signs, and the sky would be glorious to-night. They would see it as they came from the train. In fifteen minutes it would be time for her to put on her hat and go down to meet them! How her heart throbbed with anticipation!
Forebodings came to shadow her brightness. Suppose they should not come! Suppose they were delayed, or had changed their minds and should send another telegram saying so! She drew a deep breath, and tried to brace herself for the shock of the thought. She looked fearfully down the road for a possible Johnny Knox speeding along with another telegram, and was relieved to see only Ambrose Perkins ambling home for supper followed by his tall, smiling Airedale.
There was a shadow, too, that stood behind her, though she ignored it utterly; it was the thought of the afterwards, when the two bright young things had been and gone, and she would have to face the gray in her life again without the rose. But that would be afterwards, and this was now! Ten minutes more, and she would go to the station!
At that minute a great blue automobile shot up to the front gate, and stopped. A big lump flew into Julia Cloud's throat, and her hand went to her heart. Had it then come, that telegram, saying they had changed their minds? She stood trembling by the window, unable to move.
But out from the front seat and the back as if ejected from a catapult shot two figures, and flew together up the front walk, a tall boy and a little girl, just as the sun dropped low and swung a deep red light into the sky, flooding the front yard with glory, and staining the heavens far up into the blue.
They had come! They had come before it was yet train-time!
Julia Cloud got herself to her front door in a tremor of delight, and instantly four strong young arms encircled her, and nearly smothered the life out of her.
"O you dear Cloudy Jewel! You look just the same. I knew you would. Only your hair is white and pretty," Leslie gurgled.
"Sure, she is just the same! What did I tell you?" cried Allison, lifting them both and carrying them inside.
"Now, who on earth can that be?" said Mrs. Ambrose Perkins, flying to her parlor window at the first sound of the automobile. "It isn't any of them folks from the city that were out to the funeral, for there wasn't a car like that there, I'm certain! I mean to run over and borrow a spoonful of soda pretty soon, just to find out. It couldn't be any of Tom's folks from out West, for they couldn't come all that way in a car. It must be some of her father's relations from over in Maryland, though I never heard they were that well off. A chauffeur in livery! The idea of all that style coming to see Julia Cloud!"
"No, we didn't come on the train," explained Leslie eagerly. "We came in Allison's new car. Mr. Luddington—that's our guardian—was coming East, and he said we might come with him. We've been dying to come for ages. And he'd been promising Allison he might get this new car; so we stopped in the city and bought it, and Allison drove it down. Of course Mr. Luddington made his man come along. He wouldn't let us come alone. He's gone up to Boston for three days; and, when he comes back, he's coming down here to see you."
Leslie was talking as fast as an express train, and Julia Cloud stood and admired her in wonder.
She was slim and delicately pretty as ever, with the same mop of goldy-brown curls, done up in a knot now and making her look quaintly like the little five-year-old on a hot day with her curls twisted on the top of her head for comfort. She wore a simple little straight frock of some dark silk stuff, with beaded pockets and marvellous pleats and belts and straps in unexpected places, such as one sees in fashion-books, but not on young girls in the town of Sterling; and her hat was a queer little cap with a knob of bright beads, wonderfully becoming, but quite different from anything that Julia Cloud had ever seen before. Her movements were darting and quick like a humming-bird's; and she wore long soft suede gloves and tiny high suede boots. The older woman watched her, fascinated.
"And you're sure we're not being an inconvenience, dropping down upon you in this unexpected way?" asked Allison in a quite grown-up man's voice, and looking so tall and handsome and responsible that Julia Cloud wanted to take him in her arms and hug him to make sure he was the same little boy she used to tuck into bed at night.
"So soon after Grandma's death, too," put in Allison. "We didn't know, of course, till we got about a mile from Sterling and stopped to ask the way to the house, and a man told us about the funeral being Monday. We weren't sure then but it would be an intrusion. You see we left California about two weeks ago, and none of our mail has reached us yet; so we hadn't heard. You're sure we won't bother you a bit, you dear?"
Their aunt assured them rapturously that their coming was the most blessed thing that could have been just at this time.
"Oh! then I'm relieved," said Leslie, throwing off her hat and dropping into the nearest chair. "Allison, tell that man to put the car somewhere in a garage and get back to the city. They said there was a train back about this time. The man who directed us told us so. No, dear, he doesn't need any dinner. He's not used to it till seven, and he'll be in the city by that time. He's in a hurry to get back. Cookies? Well, yes, you might give him a cooky or two if you're sure there'll be enough left for us. I've just dreamed of those cookies all these years. I'm so anxious to see if they'll taste as they did when I was a child. May I come with you and see if I remember where the cooky-jar is? Oh, joy, Allison! Just look! A whole crock and a platter full! Isn't this peachy? Allison, do hustle up and get that man off so we can begin our visit!"
It was like having a couple of dolls suddenly come alive and begin to talk.
They talked so fast and they took everything so delightfully for granted that Julia Cloud was in a tremble of joy. It seemed the most beautiful thing in the world that these two strong, handsome, vivid young things should have dropped into her life and taken her into their hearts in this way as if she really belonged, as if they loved her! She was too excited to talk. She hardly knew what to do first. But they did not wait for her initiative. Allison was off with his car and his man, munching cookies as he went, and promising to return in fifteen minutes hungry as a bear.
"Now let's go up-stairs, you dear Cloudy Jewel, and I'll smooth my hair for dinner. I'm crazy to see if I remember things. There was a little red chair that I used to sit in——"
"It's here, in your room, dear, and the old rag doll, Betsey; do you remember her?"
"Well, I should say I did! Is Betsey alive yet? Dear old Betsey! How ducky of you to have kept her for me all these years! Oh, isn't it perfectly peachy that we could come? That we're really here at last, and you want us? You do, don't you, Cloudy, dear? You're sure you do?" Lesley's tone was anxious, and her bright brown eyes studied the older woman's face eagerly; but what she saw there was fully satisfactory, for she smiled, and rattled joyfully on in the old babbling-brook voice that reminded one so of years ago.
"I'm not to tell you what we've really come for till Allison comes, because I've promised; and anyway he's the man, and he wants to tell you himself; but it's the dandiest reason, perfectly peachy! It's really a plan. And say, Cloudy, dear, won't you promise me right here and now that you will say 'Yes' to what he asks you if you possibly, possibly can?"
Julia Cloud promised in a maze of delight.
She stood in hovering wonder, and watched the mass of curls come down and go up again with the swift manipulation of the slim white fingers, remembering how she used to comb those tangled curls with the plump little body leaning sturdily against her knee. It seemed to be the first time since she was a child that youth and beauty had come to linger before her. All her experience had been of sickness and suffering and death, not life and happiness.
There was stewed chicken and little biscuits with gravy for supper. It was a dish the children used to love. It was all dished up and everything ready when Allison came back. He reported that the car was housed but a block away, and the man had gone to his train, tickled to death with his cookies. Allison was so glad to be back that he had to take his aunt in his arms again and give her a regular bear-hug till she pleaded for mercy, but there was a happy light in her eyes and a bright color in her cheeks when he released her that made her a very good-looking aunt indeed to sit down at the table with two such handsome children.
Just at that moment Ellen Robinson in her own home was pouring her husband's second cup of coffee.
"Don't you think I'd better take the car and run down for Julia before dark?" she said. "I think she'll be about ready to come back with me by this time, and I need her early in the morning if I'm going to begin cleaning house."
"Better wait one more night," said Herbert stolidly. "Let her get her fill of staying alone nights. It'll do her good. We don't want her to be high and mighty when she gets here. I'm boss here, and she's got to understand that. She's so mighty independent, you know, it's important she should find that out right at the start. I'm not going to have her get bossy with these children, either. They aren't her children."
Four pairs of keen little Robinson eyes took in this saying with quick intelligence, and four stolid sets of shoulders straightened up importantly with four uplifted saucy chins. They would store these remarks away for future reference when the aunt in question arrived on the scene. They would come in well, they knew, for they had had experience with her in times past.
"Aunt Jule ain't goin' to boss me," swaggered the youngest.
"Ner me, neither!"
"I guess she wouldn't dast try it on me!" boasted the eldest.
"You haven't asked us what we came for," opened up Allison as soon as everybody was served with chicken, mashed potato, succotash, stewed tomatoes, biscuits, pickles, and apple-sauce.
"I thought you came for cookies," said Julia Cloud, with a mischievous twinkle in her gray eyes.
"Hung one on me, didn't you?" said Allison, laughing. "But that wasn't all. Guess again."
"Perhaps you came to see me," she suggested shyly.
"Right you are! But that's not all, either. That wouldn't last much longer than the cookies. Guess again."
"Oh, I couldn't!" said Julia Cloud, growing suddenly stricken with the thought of their going. "I give it up."
"Well, then I'll tell you. You see we've come East to college, both of us. Of course I've had my freshman year, but the Kid's just entering. We haven't decided which college it's to be yet, but it's to be co-ed, we know that much, because we're tired of being separated. When one hasn't but two in the family and has been apart for five years, one appreciates a home, I tell you that. And so we've decided we want a home. We're not just going to college to live there in the usual way; we're going to take a house, live like real folks, and go to school every day. We want a fireplace and a cooky-jar of our own; a place to bring our friends and have good times. But most of all we want a mother, and we've come all this way to coax you to come and live with us, play house, you know, as you used to do down on the mossy rocks with broken bits of china for dishes and acorns for cups and saucers. Play house and you be mother. Will you do it, Cloudy Jewel? It means a whole lot to us, and we'll try to play fair and make you have a good time."
Julia Cloud put her hand on her heart, and lifted her bewildered eyes to the boy's eager face.
"Me!" she said wonderingly. "You want me!"
"We sure do!" said Allison.
"Indeed we do, Cloudy, dear! That's just what we do want!" cried Leslie, jumping up and running around to her aunt's chair to embrace her excitedly. "And you promised, you know, that you would do what we wanted if you possibly, possibly could."
"You see, we put it up to our guardian about the house," went on Allison, "and he said the difficulty would be to get the right kind of a housekeeper that he could trust us with. Of course he's way off in California, and he has to be fussy. He's built that way. But we told him we didn't want any housekeeper at all, we wanted a mother. He said you couldn't pick mothers off trees, but we told him we knew where there was one if we could only get her. So he let us come and ask; and, if you say you'll do it, he's coming down to see you and fix it up about the money part. He said you'd have to have a regular salary or he wouldn't consider it, because there were things he'd have to insist upon that he had promised mother; and, if there wasn't a business arrangement about it, he wouldn't know what to do. Besides, he said it was worth a lot to run a couple of rough-necks like Les and me, and he'd make the salary all right so you could afford to leave whatever you were doing and just give your time to mothering us. Now it's up to you, Cloudy Jewel, to help us out with our proposition or spoil everything, because we simply won't have a housekeeper, and we don't know another real mother in the whole world that hasn't a family of her own."
They both left their delicious dinner, and got around her, coaxing and wheedling exactly as if she had already declined, when the truth was she was too dazed with joy to open her lips, even if they had given her opportunity to speak.
It was some time before the excitement quieted down and they gave her a chance to say she would go. Even then she spoke the words with fear and trembling as one might step off a commonplace threshold into a fairy palace, not sure but it might be stepping into space.
Outside the sky was still flooded with after-sunset glory, but there was so much glory in the hearts of the three inside the dining-room that they never noticed it at all. It might have been raining or hailing, and they would not have known, they were so happy.
Both the guests donned long gingham aprons and wiped the dishes when the meal was over, both talking with all their might, recalling the days of their childhood when they had had towels pinned around them and been allowed to dry the cups and pans; then suddenly jumping ahead and planning what they would do in the dear new home of the future. They were all three as excited about it as if they had been a bridal couple planning for their honeymoon.
"We shall want five bedrooms," said Leslie decidedly. "I've thought that all out, one for each of us and two guest-rooms, so we can have a boy and a girl home for overnight with us as often as we want to. And there simply must be a fireplace, or we won't take the house. If there isn't the right kind of a house in town, we'll choose some other college. There are plenty of colleges, but you can have only one home, and it must be the right kind. Then of course we want a big kitchen where we can make fudge as often as we choose in the evenings, and a dining-room with a bay-window, with seats and flowers and a canary. Cloudy Jewel, you don't mind cats, do you? I want two at least. I've been crazy for a kitten all the time I was in school, and Al wants a big collie. You won't mind, will you?"
Suddenly Julia Cloud discovered that latent in her heart all these years there had also lain a desire for a cat and a dog; and she lifted guilty eyes, and confessed it. She felt a pang of remembrance as she recalled how her mother used so often to tell her she was nothing but an "old child."
"Perhaps your guardian will not think me a proper person to chaperon you," she suggested in sudden alarm.
"Well, he'd just better not!" declared Allison, bristling up. "I'd like to know where he could find a better."
"I've never been in society," said Julia Cloud thoughtfully. "I don't know social ways much, and I've never been considered to have any dignity or good judgment."
"That's just why we like you," chorused the children. "You've never grown up and got dull and stiff and poky like most grown folks."
"We were so afraid," began Leslie, putting a loving arm about her aunt's waist, "that you would have changed since we were children. We talked it all over on the way here. We had a kind of eyebrow code by which we could let each other know what we thought about it without your seeing us. We were to lift one eyebrow, the right one, if we were favorably impressed, and draw down the left if we were disappointed. But in case we were sure both eyebrows were to go up. And of course we were sure you were just the same dear the minute we laid eyes on you, and all four of our eyebrows went high as they'd go the first instant. Didn't you notice Allison? His eyebrows were almost up to his hair, and they pulled his eyes so wide open they were perfectly round like saucers. As for me I think mine went way up under my hair. I'm not sure if they've got back to their natural place even yet!" And Leslie laid a rosy finger over her brow, and felt anxiously along the delicate velvety line.
"I shall go out and telegraph Mr. Luddington that you are willing," announced Allison as he hung up the dish-towel. "He'll get it in the morning when he reaches Boston, and then he needn't fuss and fume any longer about what he's going to do with us. Besides, I like to have the bargain clinched somehow, and a telegram will do it." Allison slammed out of the house noisily to the extreme confusion of Mrs. Ambrose Perkins, who hadn't been able to eat her supper properly for watching the house to see what would happen next. Who could that young man be?
She simply couldn't get a clew; for, when she went over for the soda, though she knocked several times, and heard voices up-stairs, and altogether unseemly laughter for a house where there had just been a funeral, not a soul came to the door! Could it be that Julia Cloud heard her and stayed up-stairs on purpose? She felt that as the nearest neighbor and a great friend, of Ellen's it would be rather expected of her to find out what was going on. She resolutely refrained from lighting the parlor lamp, and took up her station at the dark window to watch; but, although she sat there until after ten o'clock, she was utterly unable to find out anything except that the household across the way stayed up very late and there were lights in both front rooms again. She felt that if nothing developed by morning she would just have to get Ambrose to hitch, up and drive out to Ellen's. Ellen ought to know.
But Julia Cloud was serenely unconscious of this espionage. She had entered an Eden of bliss, and was too happy to care about anything else.
Seated on the big old couch in the parlor with a child on either side of her, a hand in each of hers, often a head on each shoulder nestling down, they talked. Planned and talked. Now the brother would break in with some tale of his school-days; now the sister would add a bit of reminiscence, just as if they had been storing it all up to tell her. The joyous happiness of them all seemed like heaven dropped down to earth. It was as she had sometimes dreamed mothers might talk with their own children. And God had granted this unspeakable gift to her! Was it real? Would it last? Or was she only dreaming? Once it vaguely passed through her mind that she would not be sure of the reality of the whole thing until she had seen Ellen. If she could talk with Ellen about it, tell her what she was going to do, show her the children, and then come back and find it all the same, it would last. But somehow she shrank unspeakably from seeing Ellen. She could not get away from the feeling that Ellen would dispel it all; that someway, somehow, she would succeed in breaking up all the bright plans and scattering them like soap-bubbles in the wind.
Nevertheless, it was a very beautiful illusion, if illusion it was; and one to be prolonged as late as possible.
She was horrified when at last she heard the rebuking strokes of the town clock, ten! eleven! twelve!
She started to her feet ashamed.
And even then they would not let her go to bed at once. She must turn out the lights, and sit in the hall between their rooms as she did long ago, and tell the story of "The Little Rid Hin" just as she had told it night after night when they were children.
It was characteristic of the unfailing youth of the woman that she entered into the play with zest. Attired in a long kimono, with her beautiful white hair in two long silver braids down over her shoulders, she sat in the dark and told the story with the same vivid language; and then she stole on tiptoe first to the sister's bedside, to tuck her in and kiss her softly, and then to the brother's; and at each bedside a young, strong arm reached out and drew her face down, whispering "Good-night" with a kiss and "I love you, Cloudy Jewel," in tender, thrilling tones.
The two big children were asleep at last, and Julia Cloud stole to her own bed to lie in a tumult of wonder and joy, and finally sink into a light slumber, wherein she dreamed that she had fallen heir to a rose-garden, and all the roses were alive and could talk; until Ellen came driving up in her Ford and ran right over them, crushing them down and cutting their heads off with a long, sharp whip she carried that somehow turned out to be made of words strung together with biting sarcasm.
She awoke in the broad morning sunlight to find both children done up in bath-robes and slippers, sitting one each side of her on the bed, laughing at her and tickling her chin with a feather from the seam of the pillow.
"Now, Cloudy Jewel, you've just got to begin to make plans!" announced Leslie, curling up in a ball at her feet and looking very business-like with her fluffy curls around her face like a golden fleece. "There isn't much time, and Guardy Lud will be down upon us by to-morrow or the next day at least."
"Guardy Lud!" exclaimed Julia Cloud bewildered. "Who is that?"
"That's our pet name for Mr. Luddington," explained Leslie, wrinkling up her nose in a grin of merriment. "Isn't it cute? Wait till you see him, and you'll see how it fits. He's round and bald with a shiny red nose, and spectacles; and he doesn't mind our kidding at all. He'd have made a lovely father if he wasn't married, but he has a horrid wife. We don't like her at all. She's like a frilly piece of French china with too much decoration; and she's always sick and nervous; and she jumps, and says 'Oh, mercy!' every time we do the least little thing. She doesn't like us any better than we like her. Her name is Alida, and Allison says we're always trying to 'elude' her. The only good thing she ever did was to advise Guardy Lud to let us come East to college. She wanted to get us as far away from her as possible. And it certainly was mutual."
"There, now, Leslie, you're chattering again," broke in Allison, looking very tall and efficient in his blue bath-robe. "You said you would talk business, and not bleat."
"Well, so I am," pouted Leslie. "I guess Cloudy has got to understand about our family."
"Well, now let's get down to business," said her brother. "Cloudy, what have you got to do before you leave? You know it isn't very long before the colleges open, and we've got to start out and hunt a home right away. Do you have to pack up here or anything?"
"Oh, I don't know!" gasped Julia Cloud, looking around half frightened. "I suppose I ought to ask Ellen. She will be very much opposed to anything I do, but I suppose she ought to be told first."
"Gee whiz! I don't see why Aunt Ellen has to butt into our affairs. She's got her own home and family, and she never did like us very much. I remember hearing her tell Grandma that we were a regular nuisance, and she would be glad when we were gone back to California."
"That was because you hid behind the sofa when Uncle Herbert was courting her, and kidded them," giggled Leslie.
A stray little twinkle of a dimple peeped out by the corner of Julia Cloud's mouth. It hadn't been out for a number of years, and she knew she ought not to laugh at such pranks now; but it was so funny to think of Herbert Robinson being kidded in the midst of his courting!
The dimple started the lights dancing in Leslie's eyes.
"There! now you dear old Jewel, you know you don't want to talk to Aunt Ellen about us. She'll just mess things all up. Let's just do things, and get 'em all fixed up, and then tell her when it's too late for her to make a fuss," gurgled Leslie down close to Julia's ear, finishing up with a delicious bear-hug.
"I suppose she'll be mortally offended," murmured Julia Cloud in troubled hesitancy.
"Well, suppose she is; she'll get over it, won't she?" growled Allison. "And anyhow you're old enough to manage your own affairs, Cloudy Jewel. I guess you're older than she is, aren't you? I guess you've got a right to do as you please, haven't you? And you do want to go with us, don't you?" His voice was anxious.
"I certainly do, dear boy," said Julia Cloud eagerly; "but you know your guardian may not approve at all when he sees what a foolish 'young' aunt I am, allowing you to sit up late and talk fairy stories all the time."
They smothered her in kisses, compliments, and assurances; and it was some time before the conversation swung around again to the important subject of the morning.
"You don't have to do anything to the house but just shut it up, do you?" asked Allison, looking anxiously about in a helpless, mannish way. "Because, if you do, we ought to be getting to work."
"There's a man over at Harmony Village that wanted to rent a house here," said Julia Cloud thoughtfully. "I might write a letter to him. I don't know whether he's found anything or not. He's the new superintendent of the high school. But it's time we got dressed and had breakfast."
"Write to him nothing!" said Allison eagerly. "I'll get the car, and we'll drive over to Harmony in no time, and get the thing fixed up. Hustle there, Leslie, and get yourself togged up. We don't need to wait for breakfast; we can eat cookies. Hurry everybody!" And he slammed over to his own room and began to stir about noisily.
Julia Cloud arose and made a hasty toilet, with a bright spot of excitement on each cheek; but she had no time to think what Ellen would say, for she meant that these children should have a real old-time breakfast before they began the day; and now that she was up her little round black clock on the bureau told her that it was high time the day had begun. She looked fearfully out of the window, half expecting to see Ellen's Ford bobbing down the hill already, and then hurried down to the kitchen. Allison soon came down, calling out to her to be ready when he came back with the car; but the delicious odors that had already begun to float out from the old kitchen made him lenient toward the idea of breakfast; and, when he came back with the full cut-out roaring the announcement of his arrival to the Perkinses, he was quite ready to wait a few minutes and eat some of Julia Cloud's flapjacks and sausages with maple-syrup and apple-sauce.
Julia Cloud herself ate little. She was in a tremor of delightful uncertainty and dread. Ought she to go ahead this way and manage her own affairs, leaving her own sister out of the question? But then, if she consulted with Ellen that meant consulting with Herbert; for Herbert ran his wife most thoroughly, and Herbert could make things very unpleasant when he took the trouble.
So, when the children, unable at last to eat any more, pleaded with her to leave the dishes and go to see the man about the house at once, she gave one swift, apprehensive glance about, and assented. If Ellen should come to the house while they were away, and should look in at the window and see the breakfast dishes standing! It would be appalling! But, as the children said, why worry? Somehow she felt like a little schoolgirl playing hookey as she carefully drew down the dining-room and kitchen window-shades that looked on the back porch, and locked the front door behind her. Well, perhaps she had earned the right to take this bit of a holiday, and wash her dishes when she liked. Anyhow, hadn't God sent these blessed children to her in answer to her earnest prayer that He would show her what to do and save her if possible from having to spend the remainder of her days under Herbert Robinson's roof? Well, then she would just accept it that way and be grateful, at least until He showed her otherwise. So she drew a long breath of delight, and climbed into the luxurious back seat of the great blue car, utterly oblivious of the prying eyes behind the parlor shade across the way.
Down the little village street, past the station, and across the railroad toward Harmony swept the great blue car, with the villagers turning to stare at Miss Cloud taking a ride so early in the morning in so gaudy a car, so soon after the funeral, and even without a veil!
A few minutes later Ellen in her Ford rattled up to the door and got out with the air of one who had come to do things. She walked confidently up to the front door and tried it, rattled it, knocked, and then went angrily around to the back, trying all the doors and windows. Mrs. Perkins from her parlor window watched a minute; and, when she saw Ellen come around to the front again and look up at the second story, she threw a shawl around her shoulders and ran across the street to impart faithfully her story.
"For the land's sake!" said Ellen indignantly. "What can Julia be about? Mother always said she never would grow up, and I believe it. I was afraid when I went away she had some scheme in her mind. She's always getting up fool ideas. I remember that time when Mrs. Marsh died she wanted to adopt the twins and bring them up. The idea! When there was a county poorhouse and no reason why they shouldn't go to it! But she'll have to come down off her independence and be sensible. Herbert says we can't have any of her foolishness. It's us that would have to suffer if she got into trouble and lost what little she's got, and I suppose I've got to have it out with her once and for all and get this thing settled. It's getting on all our nerves, and I've got the fall house-cleaning and jelly to do, and I can't fool around any longer. Well, I suppose I better try to get into this house. Have you got any keys that might fit?"
Mrs. Perkins hurried over for all her keys, including trunk-keys; and soon they had tried every door and every key with no effect, and had to call in the youngest Perkins and boost him up to the upper-hall window.
Under the guise of looking after Julia Cloud the two good ladies invaded her home and proceeded to investigate. The parlor and the hall gave forth no secrets except for a couple of handsome raincoats slung carelessly upon chairs. But the dining-room, oh, the dining-room! If Julia Cloud could have seen their faces as they swung open that carefully closed door and stood upon the threshold aghast, looking at the wreck of the breakfast, she would have cringed and shivered even on her way to Harmony.
But Julia Cloud could not see; she was safely over the bridge and out on the highway where she would not be likely to be followed, and the wine of the morning was rising in her veins. Such wonderful air, such clear blue sky and flying clouds! She felt like a flying cloud herself as she sped along in the great blue car with the chatter of the children in her ears and the silvery laughter of Leslie by her side. How could she help smiling and letting her cheeks grow pink and her eyes grow bright? Too soon after a funeral? The thought did come to her. But she knew by the thrill of her heart that her mother in heaven was gladder now than she had been for years of her bedridden life on earth, and, if she could look down to see, would no doubt be happy that some joy was coming to her hard-worked daughter at last. Julia would just enjoy this day and this delight to the full while it lasted. If it was not meant to last longer than the day, at least she would have this wonderful ride to remember always, this bird-like motion as if she were floating through a panorama! Not a thought of Ellen poking through her half-cleared house, finding unswept hearth and unmade beds and unwashed dishes, came to trouble her joy. It was as if the childhood of her life, long held in abeyance, had come back to her, and would not be denied.
Ellen and Mrs. Perkins in their inspection of the house came at last to the upper story and the guests' room strewn with brushes bearing silver monograms and elaborate appointments of travel that kept them guessing their use and exclaiming in wonder and horror that any one would spend so much on little details. Leslie's charming silk negligee and her frilly little nightgown with its lace and floating ribbons came in for a large amount of contempt, and it was some time before the good ladies arrived at Julia Cloud's room and found the open telegram on her bureau that gave the key to the mystery of the two visitors.
"H'm!" said Ellen. "So that's it! Well, I thought she had some bee in her bonnet. She must have written to them or they never would have come. Now, I suppose she means to keep them all winter, perhaps, and feed them, and baby them up; and, when she has spent all she has, she'll come back on us. Well, she'll find out she's much mistaken; and, when she gets back, I'll just tell her plainly that she can bundle up her company and send them home and come out to us now, to-day or to-morrow, or the offer is withdrawn, and she needn't think she can fall back on Herbert, either, when she's spent everything. Herbert is not a man to be put upon."
"I should say not!" said Mrs. Perkins sympathetically, looking over her friend's shoulder at the telegram. "So those were your brother's two children! He must 'uv been pretty well off for them to have a car like that. I must say I think it's a harm to children to be brought up wealthy."
"Their mother was rich," said Ellen sourly. It had always been a thorn in her flesh. "She was a snob, too, and her children'll likely be the limit by this time. But Julia is such a fool!"
They sat in Julia Cloud's parlor, one at each window, discussing the probabilities until half-past eleven. Then Ellen said she must go. She positively couldn't wait another minute; but she would return, in the afternoon, and Mrs. Perkins must tell her sister that she was coming and wanted her to remain at home. That it was very important.
"I'll settle her!" she said with her thin lips set in a hard line. Then she stooped to crank her Ford.
Mrs. Perkins watched her away, then hurried to her own neglected work; and ten minutes later the big blue car sailed noiselessly up to the place. It was not until the Perkins children discovered it and told their mother that she knew it had arrived. This was very annoying. She had wanted to catch them quite casually on their arrival, and now she would have to make a special errand over, and as likely as not have them not come to the door again. Besides, she was getting dinner, and things were likely to burn. Nevertheless, she dared not wait with that big blue car standing so capably at the door, ready to spirit them away again at any moment. She wiped her hands on her apron, grabbed a teacup for an excuse, and ran over to borrow that soda once more.
Peals of laughter were echoing through the old house when she knocked at the door, and a regular rush and scramble was going on, so unseemly just after a funeral! The door was on the latch, too, as if they did not care who heard; and to save her life she couldn't help pushing it a little with her foot, just enough to see in. And there was Julia Cloud, her white hair awry, and her face rosy with mirth, an ear of corn in one hand and a knife in the other, being carried—yes, actually carried—across the dining-room in the arms of a tall young man and deposited firmly on the big old couch.
"There, Cloudy Jewel! You'll lie right there and rest while Leslie and I get lunch. You're all tired out; I can see it in your eyes; and we can't afford to let you stay so. No, we don't need any succotash for lunch or dinner, either. I know it's good; but we haven't time now, and we aren't going to let you work," announced the young man joyously as he towered above her lying quiescent and weak with laughter.
"No, nor you aren't going to wash the dishes, either," gurgled the young girl who danced behind the young man; "Allison and I will wash them all while you take a nap, and then we're going to ride again."
Julia Cloud, her eyes bright with the joy of all this loving playfulness, tried to protest; but suddenly into the midst of this tumult came Mrs. Perkins's raucous assertion:
The two young people whirled around alertly, and Julia Cloud sat up with a wild attempt to bring her hair into subjection as she recognized her neighbor. The color flooded into her sweet face, but she rose with gentle dignity.
"O Mrs. Perkins, we must have been making such a noise that we didn't hear your knock," she said.
As a matter of fact Mrs. Perkins hadn't knocked. She had been led on by curiosity until she stood in the open dining-room door, rank disapproval written on her face.
"It did seem a good bit of noise for a house of mourning," said Mrs. Perkins dryly.
Julia Cloud's sweet eyes suddenly lost their smile, and she drew herself up ever so little. There was just a ripple of a quiver of her gentle lips, and she said quite quietly and with a dignity that could not help impressing her caller:
"This is not a house of mourning, Mrs. Perkins. I don't think my dear mother would want us to mourn because she was released from a bed of pain where she had lain for nine long years, and gone to heaven where she could be young and free and happy. I'm glad for her, just as glad as I can be; and I know she would want me to be. But won't you sit down? Mrs. Perkins, this is my niece and nephew, Leslie and Allison Cloud from California. I guess you remember them when they were little children. Or no; you hadn't moved here yet when they were here——"
Mrs. Perkins with pursed lips acknowledged the introduction distantly, one might almost say insolently, and turned her back on them as if they had been little children.
"Your sister's been here all morning waiting for you!" she said accusingly. She gave a significant glance at the unwashed breakfast dishes, only part of which had been removed to the kitchen. "She couldn't imagine where you'd gone at that hour an' left your beds and your dishes."
A wave of indignation swept over Julia Cloud's sweet face.
"So you have been in my house during my absence!" she said quietly. "That seems strange since Ellen has no key!"
There was nothing in her voice to indicate rebuke, but Mrs. Perkins got very red.
"I s'pose your own sister has a right to get into the house where she was born," she snapped.
"Oh, of course," said Julia Cloud pleasantly. "And Ellen used to be a good climber before she got so fat. I suppose she climbed in the second-story window, although I hadn't realized she could. However, it doesn't matter. I suppose you have had to leave your dishes and beds once in a while when you were called away on business. You have a cup there; did you want to borrow something?"
Mrs. Perkins was one of those people who are never quite aware of it when they are in a corner; but she felt most uncomfortable, especially as she caught a stifled giggle from Allison, who bolted into the parlor hastily and began noisily to turn over the pages of a book on the table; but she managed to ask for her soda and get herself out of the house.
"Thank you for bringing my sister's message," called Julia Cloud after her. She never could quite bear to be unpleasant even to a prying neighbor, and Mrs. Perkins through the years had managed to make herself unpleasant many times.
"The old cat!" said Leslie in a clear, carrying voice. "Why did you thank her, Auntie Jewel? She didn't deserve it."
"Hush, Leslie, dear! She will hear you!" said Julia Cloud, hastily closing the door on the last words.
"I hope she did," said Leslie comfortably. "I meant she should."
"But, deary, that isn't right! It isn't—Christian!" said her aunt in distress.
"Then I'm no Christian," chanted Leslie mischievously. "Why isn't it right, I'd like to know? Isn't she an old cat?"
"But you hurt her feelings, dear. I'm afraid I was to blame, too; I didn't answer her any too sweetly myself."
"Well, didn't she hurt yours first? Sweet! Why, you were honey itself, Cloudy, dear, thanking her for her old prying!"
"I hope it's the kind of honey that gets bitter after you swallow it!" growled Allison, coming out of the parlor. "If she'd said much more, I'd just have put her out of the house, talking to you like that, as if you were a little child, Cloudy!"
"Why, children! That didn't really hurt me any; it just stirred up my temper a little; but I'm ashamed that I let it, and I don't want you to talk like that. It isn't a bit right. It distresses me to have you think it's right to answer back that way and take vengeance on people."
"Well, there, Cloudy, let's lay that subject on the table for some of our night talks; and you can scold us all you like. We have a lot of work to do now, and let's forget the old pry. Now you lie down on that couch where I put you, and Leslie and I'll wash these dishes."
Julia Cloud lay obediently on the couch, but her mind was not at rest. She was in a tumult of indignation at her prying neighbor and an uncertainty of anxiety about Ellen and what she might do next. But beneath it all was a vague fear about these her dear children who were about to become her responsibility. Could she do it? Dared she do it? How differently they had been brought up from all the traditions which had controlled her life!
Take, for instance, that matter of Christianity. How would they feel about it? Would they be in sympathy with her ideas and ideals of right and wrong? They were no longer little children to obey her. They would have ideas of their own, yes, and ideals. Would there be constant clashing? Would she be haunted with a feeling that she was not doing her duty by them? There were so many such questions, amusements, and Sabbath, and churchgoing, and how to treat other people. And doubtless she was old-fashioned, and they would chafe under her rule.
Take the little matter of Leslie's calling Mrs. Perkins a cat. She was a cat, but Leslie ought not to have told her so. It wasn't polite, and it wasn't Christian. And yet how could she, plain Julia Cloud, who had never been anywhere much outside of her home town, who had had no opportunity for study or wide reading, and who had only worked quietly all her life, and thought her plain little thoughts of love to God and to her neighbors, be able to explain all those things to this pair of lovable, uncontrolled children, who had always had their own way, and whose ideals were the ideals of the great wide unchristian world?
A little pucker grew between her brows, and a tired, troubled tear stole softly between her lashes. When the children, tiptoeing about and whispering, came to peek in at the door and see whether she was asleep, they discovered her expression at once, and, drawing near, sighted the tear. Then they went down upon their knees beside her couch, and noisily demanded the cause thereof.
Little by little they drew her fears from her.
"Why, Cloudy, dear! We'll do what you want. We'll let all the old cats in the community walk over you if that will make you happy," declared Leslie, patting her face.
"No, we won't!" put in Allison; "we'll keep 'em away from her, but we won't let 'em know how we despise 'em. Won't that do, Cloudy? And as for all those other things you are afraid about, why couldn't you just wait till we come to them? We're anything but angels, I admit, but we're going to try to do what you want us to if it busts the eye-teeth out of us, because we want you. And you always have been such a good scout. As for the church dope and all that, why, it's like that guy in the Bible you used to tell us about when we were children—or was she a lady? It's a case of 'Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God,' or words to that effect. If we don't agree on our own account, we'll do it because you want it. Isn't that about the idea? Wouldn't that fill the bill?"
"You dear children!" said Julia Cloud, her eyes full of smiles and tears now as she gathered them both into a loving embrace. "I don't know how anybody could promise more than that. I wasn't afraid of you; it was myself. You know I'm not at all wise, and it's pretty late in life for me to begin to bring up children."
"Well, you're all right, anyhow, Cloudy; and you're the only person in the world we'll let bring us up; so it's up to you to do it the best you can, or it won't get done. Come on now; we've got lunch ready. There's cold chicken and bread and milk and pie and cake, and I've got the teakettle boiling like a house afire, so if you want any tea or anything you can have it."
So they had a merry meal, and Julia Cloud ate and laughed with them, and thought she never had been so happy since she was a little girl. Then, mindful of her prying neighbor and her imminent sister, she insisted on putting the house in order to the last bed and dish before she was ready for the afternoon.
"And now we're going to call on Aunt Ellen!" announced Allison as Julia Cloud hung up the clean dish-towels steaming from their scalding bath, and washed her hands at the sink.
"Why, she's coming here!" said his aunt, whirling around with a troubled look. "And, as she's left word she was coming, I suppose we'll have to wait for her. It's too bad, for she won't be here till three, and it's only a quarter of two. I'm sorry, because you wanted to go out in the car, didn't you?"
"We're going!" said Allison, again with a commanding twinkle in his eye. "We can't waste all that time; and, besides, don't you see if she comes here, she'll likely stay all the afternoon and argue? If we go there, we can come away when we like; and she'll feel we're more polite to come to her, anyhow, won't she, Cloudy?"
Julia Cloud looked into the boy's convincing eyes, and her trouble cleared away. Perhaps he was right. Anyhow, why should they spoil a whole day to conciliate Ellen? Ellen would be disagreeable about it, however they did; and they might as well rise above it, and just be pleasant, and let it go at that.
It was the first time in her long life of self-sacrifice that Julia Cloud had been able to rise above her anxiety about her sister's tantrums and go calmly on her way. It is scarcely likely that she would have managed it now if it hadn't been that she felt that Allison and Leslie ought not to be sacrificed.
She never did anything just for herself. It was not in her.
"All right," she said briskly, glancing at the clock; "then we must go at once, or we shall miss her. I'll be ready in five minutes. How about you, Leslie?"
"Oh, I'm ready now," said the girl, patting her curly hair into shape before the old mahogany-framed mirror in the hall.
In five minutes more they were stowed away in the big blue car again, speeding down the road, with Mrs. Perkins indignantly and openly watching them from her front porch.
"We put one over on Mrs. Pry, didn't we, Cloudy?" said Allison, turning around to wink a naughty eye back toward the Perkins house. "She thinks you've dared to run away after she gave you orders to stay at home."
Julia Cloud could not suppress a smile of enjoyment, and wondered whether she was getting childish that she should be so happy with these children.
The air was fine; the sky was clear without a cloud; and the spice of autumn flavored everything. Along the roadside blackberry vines were turning scarlet, and here and there in the distance a flaming branch proclaimed the approach of a frosty wooing. One could not ask anything better on such a day than to be speeding along this white velvet road in the great blue car with two beloved children.
But all too soon Herbert Robinson's ornate house loomed up, stark and green, with very white trimmings, and regular flower-beds each side of the gravel walk. It was the home of a prosperous man, and as such asserted itself. There had never been anything attractive about it to Julia Cloud. She preferred the ugly old house in which she had always lived, with its scaling gray paint and no pretensions to fineness. At least it was softened by age, and had a look of experience which saved its ugliness from being crude, and gave it the dignity of time.
And now Julia Cloud's heart began to beat rapidly. All at once she felt that she had done a most foolish thing in allowing the children to overrule her and bring her here. Ellen would not be dressed up nor have the children ready for inspection, and she would be angry at her sister for not having given warning of their coming. She leaned forward breathlessly to suggest turning back; but Allison, perhaps anticipating her feeling, said:
"Now don't you get cold feet, Cloudy Jewel. If Aunt Ellen is sore, just you talk up to her, and smile a lot, and we'll back you up. Remember everything's, going fine, and the whole thing's settled. It's too late to change it now. Is this the place? We'll turn right in, shall we?" And with the words he swept up under the elaborate wooden porte-cochere, and, swinging down, flung the door open for Julia Cloud to alight.
Leslie gave a quick, disdainful glance about, fluttered out beside her aunt, and, catching the look of apprehension on her face, tripped up the steps and rang the bell, poising bird-like on the threshold and calling in a sweet, flute-like voice:
"Aunt Ellen! O Aunt Ellen! Where are you? Don't you know you've got company all the way from California?"
It was just like taking the bull by the horns, and Julia Cloud paused on the upper step in wonder. How winning a child she was! and how she had known by intuition just how to mollify her unpleasant relative!
What would Ellen say? How would she take it?
Ellen Robinson bustled frowning into the hall, whetting her sharp tongue for an encounter. She had seen the big blue car turn in at the gate, and knew from Mrs. Perkins's description who it must be. Julia Cloud had well judged her state of mind, for her four children could not have been caught in a worse plight so far as untidiness was concerned, and there had barely been time to marshal them all up the back stairs with orders to scrub and dress or not to come down till the visitors were gone. They were even now creeping shufflingly about overhead on their bare feet, hunting for their respective best shoes and stockings and other garments, and scrapping in loud whispers.
But Leslie, little diplomat that she was, wasted no time in taking stock of her aunt. She flung her arms joyously around that astonished woman, and fairly took her by storm, talking volubly and continuously until they were all in the house and seated in Ellen's best satin brocatelle parlor chairs, surrounded by crayon portraits of Herbert Robinson's ancestors and descendants. Allison too caught on to his sister's game, and talked a good deal about how nice it was to get East again after all the years, and how glad they were to have some relatives of their own. Julia Cloud sat quietly and proudly listening; and Ellen forgot her anger, and ceased to frown. After all, it was something to have such good-looking relatives. For the first few minutes the well-prepared speech wherewith she had intended to dress down poor Julia lay idle on her lips, and a few sentences of grudging welcome even, managed to slip by. Then suddenly she turned to her sister, and the sight of the adoration for the visitors in Julia's transparent face kindled her anger. Never had such a look as this glowed in Julia Cloud's face for any little Robinson, save perhaps in the first few days of their tiny lives before the Robinson had begun to crop out in them.
"Where were you this morning, Jule? It certainly seems queer for you to be gadding around having a good time so soon after poor mother's death. And the dishes not washed, either! Upon my word, you have lost your head! You weren't brought up that way. I stood up-stairs and looked around on those unmade beds, and thought what poor mother would have said if she could see them. Such goings-on! I certainly was ashamed to have Mrs. Perkins see it."
Two rosy spots bloomed out on Julia Cloud's cheeks, and a tremble came in her lips, though one could see she was making a great effort to control herself; and the two long breaths that Leslie and Allison drew simultaneously were heavily threatening, much like the distant rumble of thunder.
"I'm sure I don't see what occasion Mrs. Perkins had to see it," she answered steadily.
"Well, she was there!" said her sister dryly. She seemed to have forgotten the presence of the two young people, who, if they had been in the foreground, might have been noticed doing things with their eyebrows to their mutual understanding and agreement.
"Yes, so she told me," said Julia Cloud significantly. "But that was not what I came over to talk about, Ellen; I wanted to let you know that I've rented the house, and the tenant wants possession next week. I thought you might like to pick out some of mother's things to bring over here before I pack up. You spoke about wishing you had another couch for the sitting-room, and you might just as well have the dining-room one as not. Then I thought perhaps you could use mother's bedroom suit."
"You've rented the house!" screamed Ellen as soon as she got breath from her astonishment to interrupt. "You've rented the house without consulting me? Who to, I'd like to know? I had a tenant already for that house, I told you."
"Why, I had no time to consult you, Ellen; and, besides, why should I? The house is mine, and I knew you didn't want it. You have your own home."
"Well, you certainly are blossoming out and getting independent! I should think mere decency would have made you consult us before you did anything. What do you know about business? Herbert will be mad as anything when I tell him; and like as not you'll get into no end of trouble with a strange tenant, and we'll have to help you out. Herbert always says women make all the trouble they can for him before they call on him for assistance."
"I shall not be obliged to call on Herbert for assistance, Ellen. Everything is arranged. The contract was signed this morning, and I have promised to vacate as soon as possible. The tenant is the new school superintendent, and he wants to come at once. I just heard last evening that he had been disappointed in getting the Harvey house. It's sold to the foreman of the mill. So I went over to Harmony to see him at once."
The news was so overwhelming and so unquestionably satisfactory from a business point of view that Ellen was speechless with astonishment. Allison gave Leslie a grave wink, and turned to look out of the window to prevent an outburst of giggles from his sister.
"Well, I think you might have let me know," Ellen resumed with almost her usual poise. "It's rather mortifying not to know what's going on in your own family when the neighbors ask. Here was I without any knowledge of the arrival of my own niece and nephew! Had to be told by Mrs. Perkins."
Then Allison and Leslie did laugh, but they veiled their mirth by talking about the two white chickens out in the yard which were contending for a worm. Suddenly Leslie exclaimed:
"O Allison! I hear the children coming down-stairs, and I forgot their presents! Run out to the car, and bring me that box."
Allison was off at once, and the entrance of the soapy and embarrassed children created a further diversion.
For a few minutes even Ellen Robinson was absorbed in the presents. There was a camera for Junior, a gold chain and locket for Elaine, a beautiful doll for Dorothy, and a small train of cars that would wind up and run on a miniature track for Bertie; so of course everything had to be looked at and tried. Elaine put on her chain, and preened herself before the glass; Junior had to understand at once just how to take a picture; everybody had to watch the doll open and shut its eyes, and to try to unbutton and button its coat and dress; and then the railroad track had to be set up and the train started off on its rounds. Ellen Robinson really looked almost motherly while she watched her happy children; and Julia Cloud relaxed, and let the smile come around her lips once more.
But all things come to an end, and Ellen Robinson was not one to forget her own affairs for long at a time. She sat back from starting the engine on its third round, and fixed her eyes on her sister with that air of commander-general that was so intolerable.
"Well, then, I suppose you won't be over here till next week," she frowned thoughtfully. "I needed you to help with the crabapple jelly. That makes it inconvenient. But perhaps I can hold off the fruit a little longer; I'll see. You ought to be able to get all your packing done this week, I should think. When do they go?" She nodded toward the niece and nephew quite indifferently as though they were deaf.
Julia Cloud's sensitive face flushed with annoyance, but the two pairs of bright eyes that lifted and fixed themselves upon their aunt held nothing but enjoyment of the situation.
"Why, we're not going until Aunt Jewel is ready to go with us, Aunt Ellen," announced Leslie, looking up from the doll she was reclothing. "You know we're all going to college together, Auntie, too!"
Ellen Robinson lifted an indignant chin. She had no sense of humor, and did not enjoy jokes, especially those practised upon herself.
"Going to college! At her age!" she snorted. "Well, I always knew she was childish, but I never expected her to want to go back to kindergarten!"
Leslie rose up straight as a rush, her strong young arms down at her sides, her fingers in their soft suede gloves working restively as if she wanted to rush at her aunt and administer corporal punishment. Her pretty red lips were pursed angrily, and her blue eyes fairly blazed righteous wrath. Julia Cloud caught her breath, and wondered how she was to control this young fury; but before she could say a word Allison stepped in front of her, and spoke coolly.
"That's the reason she's such a good scout, Aunt Ellen. That's why we want her to come and take care of us. Because she knows how to stay young."
He suddenly seemed to have grown very tall and quite mature as he spoke, and there was something about his manly bearing that held Ellen Robinson's tongue in check as he looked at his watch with a polite "Excuse me," and then turned to Julia Cloud. "Aunt Jewel, if we are to meet my guardian on that train, I think we shall have to hurry. It's quite a run into the city, you know." Julia Cloud arose with a breath of relief.
"The city!" gasped Ellen. "You're not going into the city this late in the afternoon, I hope! Do you know how long it takes?"
Allison glanced out to his high-powered machine confidently.
"We made it in an hour and a half coming over. I guess we shall have plenty of time to meet the five-o'clock train if we go at once. I've got a peach of a car, Aunt Ellen. I'll have to come round and take you and the kids a ride to-morrow or the next day if Aunt Jewel can spare me."
"Thank you! I have a car of my own!" snapped his aunt disagreeably.
"Oh! I beg your pardon! Well, Aunt Jewel, we really must go if we are to meet Mr. Luddington. Good-by, Aunt Ellen! Good-by, cousins! We'll see you again before we leave town, of course. Come on, Aunt Jewel!" And he took Julia Cloud lightly, protectingly by the elbow, and steered her out of the room, down the steps, and into the car, while Leslie danced gayly after, chattering away about how nice it was to get back East and meet real relatives.
But Ellen Robinson was not listening to Leslie. She hurried after her departing guests regardless of a noisy struggle that was going on between her two youngest over the railway train, and stood on her front steps, fairly snorting with indignation.
"Julia Cloud, what does all this mean? You shan't go away until you explain. Have you taken leave of your senses? What is this nonsense about going to college?"
Allison with his hand on the starter gave his aunt a swift, reassuring smile; and Julia Cloud from the safe vantage of the back seat leaned forward, smiling.
"Why, it's the children that are going to college, Ellen, not I. I'm only going along to keep house and play mother for them. Isn't it lovely? I'll tell you all about it to-morrow when you come down to pick out your things. Be sure to come early, because I want to get started packing the first thing in the morning. Mr. Luddington, the children's guardian, is coming to-night to complete the arrangements, and we expect to get away just as soon as I can get packed up. So come early."
The engine purred softly for a rhythmical second, and the car slid quickly away from the door.
"But—the very idea!" snorted Aunt Ellen. "Julia Cloud!" she fairly shouted. "Stop! You had no right in the world to go ahead and make plans without consulting me!"
But the car was beyond ear-shot now, and Leslie was waving a pretty, tantalizing hand from the back seat.
"The very idea!" Ellen Robinson gasped to the autumn landscape as she stood alone and watched the car, a mere speck down the road, on its way to town. "The idea!" And then as if for self-justification: "Poor mother! What would she think if she could know? Well, I wash my hands of her."
But Ellen Robinson did not wash her hands of her sister. Instead, she found that it was going to be very hard indeed to wash her hands of her own affairs without her sister's help. She had, in fact, been counting on that help for the last several years, after her mother became an invalid and she knew that it was only a matter of time before Julia's hands would be set free for other labor. It was quite too disconcerting now, after having got along all these years on the strength of the help that was to come, to find her capable sister snatched away from her by two young things in this ridiculous way.
They talked it over at supper, and Herbert was almost savage about it, as if in some way his wife had misrepresented the possibilities, and led him to expect the assistance that would come from her sister and save him from paying wages to a servant.
"Well, she'll be good and sick of it inside of three months, mark my words; and then she'll come whining back and want us to take her in;—be glad enough to get a home. So don't you worry. But what I want understood is this: She's not going to find it so easy to get back. See? You make her thoroughly understand that. You better go down to-morrow and pick out everything you want. Take plenty. You can't tell but something may happen to the house, and the furniture burn up. We might as well have it as anybody. And you make it good and sure that she understands right here and now that if she goes she doesn't come back. Of course, I'm not saying she can't come back if she comes to her senses, and is real humble; but you needn't let her know that. Just give her to understand it is her last chance, that I can't be monkeyed with this way. I've offered her a very generous thing, and she knows it, and she's a fool, that's what she is, a fool I say!" He brought his big fist down heavily on the table, and jarred the dishes; and the children looked up in premature comprehension, storing up the epithet for future use. "She's no end of a fool, going off with those crazy kids. Some one ought to warn their guardian about her. Why, she has no more idea of how to take care of two high and mighty good-for-nothings like that than an infant in arms!"
Meantime the subject of their discussion was seated serenely at a table in one of the best hotels of the great city, having the time of her life. In the years that were to come there might be many more delightful suppers, even more elegantly served, perhaps; but none would ever rival this first time in her existence when she had sat among the wealthy and great of the land and been treated like one of them.
Mr. Luddington was a typical business man, elderly and kind, with wise eyes and a great smile. He turned his eyes keenly on Julia Cloud for an instant at their first meeting, then let his full smile envelop her, and she was somehow made aware of the fact that he had set his seal of approval to the contract already made by his two enthusiastic wards. All the forebodings she had entertained in the little intervals when Leslie and Allison allowed her to think at all were swept aside by his kind look and big, serious tone when he first took her hand and scanned her true face. "I'm glad they've picked such a woman!" he said. "You'll have your hands full, for they're a pair! But it's worth it!"
And, when they all rode home through the moonlight, Julia Cloud nestled under the soft, thick robes of the car, and listened to the pleasant talk between the young people and their guardian with a sense of peace. If this strong, wise business man thought the arrangement was all right, why, then she need not fear any longer. It was real, and not a dream, and she might rely upon the wisdom of her decision. And with that sense of being upheld by something wiser than her own wish she fell asleep that night, haunted by no dreams of her domineering sister.
The pleasant aromas of coffee and sausages were mingling in the air when "Guardy Lud" woke up and looked about the old-fashioned room with a sense of satisfaction. The very pictures on the walls rested him, they reminded him so much of the rooms in his boyhood home. He had a feeling that old-fashioned things were best, and in spite of the fact that he owned a house most different from this one himself and knew that his wife would not for a minute have tolerated any old-fashioned things about unless they were so old-fashioned that they had become the latest rage, he could not help feeling that a woman brought up amid such simple surroundings would be the very best kind to mother these orphan children who had been left on his helpless hands. He would have loved to take them to his heart and his home; but his wife was not so minded, and that ended it. But it rolled a great burden from his shoulders to feel that he might leave them in such capable hands.