E-text prepared by Al Haines
Author of "Kathleen's Probation"
[Frontispiece: Elsie . . . repeated the performance in a manner that was only the more captivating.]
New York Charles Scribner's Sons
Copyright, 1918, by Charles Scribner's Sons
MARY BULLIONS GRAY ANDERSON
Elsie . . . repeated the performance in a manner that was only the more captivating . . . . . . Frontispiece
"Well, I mustn't stay here and keep you from 'redding' up your kitchen, as you call it"
"You and I will do better with checks, Elsie, though Aunt Milly will have none of them," he remarked
"Well, Elsie, we know the whole story now"
ELSIE MARLEY, HONEY
Mrs. Bennet, her travelling companion from San Francisco, having proved to be talkative and uninteresting, Elsie Marley was more than content to find herself alone after the change had been made and her train pulled out of Chicago. It was characteristic of the girl that she did not even look out of the window to see the last of Mrs. Bennet, who, having waited on the platform until the train started and waved her handkerchief in vain, betook herself indignantly to her carriage. Quite unaware of any remissness on her part, Elsie settled herself comfortably—Mrs. Bennet had disposed of her luggage—folded her hands in her lap, and gazed idly out the window opposite.
A pale, colorless girl, the simplicity of her dress was in almost too great contrast with its elegance—a contrived simplicity that left no room for any trace of careless youth or girlishness. Slender and rather delicate-looking, she had brown eyes, regular features, and soft, light-brown hair waving loosely about her face and hanging in two long, demure curls from a shell clasp at her neck. But her eyes were of rather a shallow brown, her brows and lashes still lighter; her features were almost too regular, and her skin, though soft and clear, was quite colorless. Even so, she might have been pretty, perhaps lovely, had she possessed any animation. But the girl's face and even her eyes were as nearly expressionless as human features may be. She was like a superior sort of doll with white cheeks in lieu of red.
After a little she opened a small leather satchel, took out a letter, and perused it attentively. It was the last she had received from her guardian and only living relative, Cousin Julia Pritchard, and, as she was to see her soon, it behooved her to prepare herself so far as she might for that occasion. For Elsie Marley realized, though dimly, that she was to encounter a personality unlike any with which she had come in contact in all her sheltered, luxurious life.
"My dear Elsie," the letter ran, "I find myself very much pleased at the thought of having you with me. The heart of a woman of fifty cannot but rejoice in anticipation of the company of a young girl with the ideals, the vigor, and buoyancy of sixteen. And since we are both alone in the world, you representing all my kith and kin as I believe myself to represent all yours, it is only fitting that we should be together instead of being separated by the breadth of our great American continent.
"You will, I am sure, like this great, busy, restless, humming city, though the only home I have to offer you, I am truly sorry to say, is in a boarding-house, comfortable though it is. Remembering Aunt Ellen's beautiful home in California, which I visited fifteen years ago, I fear the change may be difficult, though, for a young person, not too painfully so, I trust. A boarding-house is the only home I have myself known for thirty years, and this particular one is excellent and full of interesting people, though the youngest among them are middle-aged.
"I am, I repeat, happy to say that I can give you a home here and clothe you suitably. That will release your income, which can be put to any use which we may decide upon after consultation together. Your lawyer tells me that you are through school, and neither you nor he speak of any desire on your part to go to college. I suppose, however, like most young girls, you will wish to take up some study or occupation to fit yourself to become self-supporting or to be useful to the world in some definite manner. I heartily sympathize with such an aim, having worked since my eighteenth year myself, and shall be cordially interested in helping you either to plan or to carry out a future for yourself."
Here Elsie broke off. Cousin Julia was certainly absurd! She had always been regarded, indeed, by the California Pritchards as a singular, eccentric person, rather wanting in refinement and careless of social amenities—one from whom they were quite content to be separated by the "breadth of our great American continent." She had taken after her mother, who came from Nebraska—or some such place—and the family had considered it a pity that she should have been and remained Pritchard by name, particularly since Elsie herself, Pritchard of Pritchards, had to go by the name Marley.
Still the girl's smooth brow did not contract. In any event, she said to herself, after Cousin Julia had seen her, it wasn't likely that she would suggest that she go out and earn her living. And as for her future, which the letter mentioned—why, her future was of course far ahead. Elsie had rather taken it for granted that she should marry when the proper time came, as girls did in books, as her grandmother and mother had done, and as Aunt Ellen would have done had she not been so frail. Once it had even occurred to her that it would be rather appropriate if she should marry some one named Pritchard, though she realized that to be only a remote possibility. In any event, she didn't know why going to New York should necessarily make any essential difference in her future, and she was thankful that she hadn't to consider it for some years yet. Meantime, the boarding-house confronted her.
Very likely, however, she could endure even that. She knew it would be comfortable, so far as that went, and she needn't mingle with the other people. She could have a piano and continue her lessons, and she might study vocal music. She could buy books and attend concerts and perhaps even the theatre and opera. She could go alone in a carriage to matinee performances, and quite likely there would be some reduced gentlewoman living at the boarding-house who might be glad of the chance to accompany her as chaperon in the evenings.
For Elsie took it for granted that Cousin Julia wouldn't care for the sort of things she was accustomed to any more than she herself would be interested to go about with her. Somehow the girl felt that Miss Pritchard would be devoted to vaudeville and even moving pictures—she might even refer to the latter as "movies"! Of course, that was the worst of the whole situation—Cousin Julia herself! For, no matter how singular or even coarse she might be, Elsie had to live with her and to put up with a certain amount of her society.
That would be very difficult; still, even now, the girl seemed to see wide spaces between. Except for Sundays and evenings when neither of them went out, she wouldn't have to see a great deal of the older woman. She might have to dine with her every night, but, as she worked in a business office, she probably wouldn't be home to lunch, and of course Elsie would have her breakfast in her room. Sunday might be long and boring, but, whatever Cousin Julia's ideas might be, Elsie would always insist upon going to service, and that would occupy a part of the day.
An hour had passed since Mrs. Bennet had left Elsie Marley. As she returned the letter to the satchel she became aware that the train was at a standstill and not before a station. Indeed, there was not a building in sight: only a dreary waste of sunburnt prairie-grass extended flatly to the glare of the burning horizon. She looked about wonderingly, vaguely aware that they must already have waited some time.
Her gaze included the rear of the car and emboldened a young girl who had been watching her longingly a great part of the way from San Francisco, to act upon her desire. Immediately she donned a coquettish little red hat and linen top-coat, and made her way to the other girl's seat.
"Don't you want to come out and walk a little?" she asked in a singularly sweet, eager voice. "There's a hot-box, or some such thing, and they say it'll be an hour more before we get away. It might seem good to stretch our legs on the prairie yonder?"
Elsie Marley didn't care at all to go. Indeed, she didn't wish to make the acquaintance of this conspicuous-looking girl with her dark hair cut square about her ears who had travelled alone all the way from San Francisco and seemed to know every one in the car. If she should give her any encouragement, no doubt she would hang about her all the rest of the way. She excused herself coldly.
"Oh, please do, please come for just a wee turn," urged the other, smiling and displaying a pair of marvellous dimples. And Elsie Marley surprised herself by yielding. Possibly she was too indolent to hold out; perhaps she felt something in the stranger that wouldn't take no for an answer, and didn't care to struggle against it. Again, she may have felt, dimly and against her will, something of the real charm of the other. However that was, she yielded listlessly, put on her neat sailor hat reluctantly, drew on the jacket of her severe and elegant dark-blue suit, and followed the stranger slowly from the car.
The stranger, who was dressed in a rather graceful and perhaps rather flamboyant adaptation of the prevailing fashion, was picturesque and radiant to the extreme: slender, dark, vivid, with big, dark eyes in a small pointed face, dark hair "bobbed" and curling sufficiently to turn under about her ears and neck, a rather large mouth flanked by really extraordinary dimples, and an expression at once gay and saucy and sweet and appealing withal. Her voice was very sweet, her unusually finished pronunciation and enunciation giving a curious effect to her slangy speech. She wore her clothes jauntily, carried herself with charming grace, and her great dimples made her frank smile irresistible.
"Do you know, I've been simply crazy all the way to come and speak to you," she confessed as soon as they were outside. "I spotted you the very first thing, but I was rather phased by that woman with you. Wasn't she the—goodness gracious! I hope she wasn't any relation—your aunt or mother?"
"Oh, no indeed, scarcely an acquaintance," returned the other, surprised that any one should even conjecture that Mrs. Bennet might be connected with her. Then it occurred to her that Cousin Julia might be even worse!
"I never met her until a week ago," she went on languidly. "She happened to be a friend of my lawyer's wife, and he wished me to come as far as I could in her company. I suppose I oughtn't to travel the rest of the way alone, but he didn't make any other arrangement."
"Oh, it isn't bad. I've come all the way alone and everything's been jolly. I've made awfully good friends, though they're all either elderly or children. So your being about my age only made me want to know you the more. Well, now that we're acquainted, we'll have to make the most of what's left of the way. I am Elsie Moss and I was sixteen Christmas day. Aren't you about that age?"
"I am sixteen, Miss Moss," returned Elsie Marley formally.
"But don't call me Miss," pleaded the other. "Everybody calls me Elsie."
Elsie Marley did not reply. She disliked the idea that the unchaperoned stranger should be Elsie, also, and should even have the same initials. Her imagination was limited; still it occurred to her that the situation would have been much worse had the girl happened to bear the surname Pritchard.
She stifled a sigh. They seemed to be getting acquainted perforce. Now that she was out, however, she didn't care to go back at once, even though the sun beat down upon them fiercely, and the dry grass was full of dust and cinders. She glanced about irresolutely.
"Now if this were a scene in a play," remarked Elsie Moss reflectively, "the engine would have broken down near a grove with immemorial trees, or there'd be a dell hard by where the hero and heroine could wander by a stream. Or else—" she hesitated. "You don't feel comfy, do you?"
"The sun is so hot, it's hardly safe to be out. I'd better go in again," replied the other.
"But the car'll be awfully hot, too, standing right in the sun. I know—I'll get an umbrella."
She rushed off at full speed lest the other should remonstrate—something that Elsie Marley didn't think of doing. She accepted the favor as a matter of course, and they walked on slowly, the one restraining her eager feet with difficulty.
"Oh, dear, I suppose you're going to New York, too?" she asked. "Everybody seems to be except poor me."
The other returned a spiritless affirmative.
"Of course! Oh, dear, and I'm simply perishing to go! But I'm due in a poky little place in Massachusetts called Enderby. Isn't that the limit? The name alone would queer the place, don't you think so? It's fairly near Boston, but they say Boston's slow compared with New York or even with San Francisco."
She waited a moment, then rattled on.
"Do you know, sometimes it seems my duty to go to New York. I've got five hundred dollars all my own. Dad had a long sickness, and, anyhow, he never got much ahead; but he left me that clear, and I'm just going to beg and implore my uncle on bended knee to let me take it and go to New York to study. I could get a start with that, I'm sure."
She looked up so eagerly that something strange seemed to stir within the quiet girl. It was almost as if she would have liked to express her sympathy had she known how. And when the light suddenly died out of the sparkling eyes and even the shadows of the dimples disappeared, she felt almost at fault.
The other girl did not resent her want of sympathy, however.
"But he'll never, never consent," she went on mournfully, "because he's an orthodox minister and I want to be an actress. Of course he couldn't approve, and I ought not to blame him. And yet, if I wait until I'm of age, I'll be too old. I'd like to run away right now, but for the row it would make and for frightening auntie. Really, you know, I'd rather join the circus than go to Enderby."
"But I have always understood that to be an actress one must go through much that—isn't nice," remarked Elsie Marley in her colorless voice.
"Oh, but that's half the fun—the struggle against odds," exclaimed Miss Moss with the assurance of untried youth. "Our class motto at the high school was 'Per aspera ad astra.' Isn't that fine and inspiring?"
The other assented listlessly,
A breeze had arisen, and now, at a little distance from the track, the air, though warm, was fresh and sweet. The yellowed grass extended to the brilliant blue of the sky as far as the eye could reach. For the first time, perhaps, in centuries, the plain was peopled by a throng; for by now nearly every one in the long train had come out. Men stood in groups discussing politics and the Mexican affair; women wandered sedately about, most of them keeping a watchful eye upon the engine, as if it might suddenly start and plunge on, dragging an empty train of cars; children ran and frisked and shouted, making the most of the occasion, as only children can. The two Elsies happened to be the only young girls.
They had gone some little distance beyond the others. Failing to draw out her companion, Elsie Moss took it for granted that she was shy, and chatted on about her own affairs, hoping presently to effect an exchange of confidences.
"I can't help wondering what my uncle will be like," she said soberly, thrusting her hand into the pocket of her coat. "You see, I've never seen him, though he and my mother were the greatest chums ever when they were young—almost like twins, though he was heaps older. But mother went to California when she married and I was born there, and though he always meant to, he never got out to see us. His wife couldn't stand the journey. And when mother died, he was way over in Egypt, so of course he didn't come. All that I know is that he's handsome and dignified and lives in a very proper place where they have everything correct and conventional—musical advantages and oratorios and lectures on Emerson, and village improvement and associated charities and all that, but no vaudeville nor movies. I suppose if there were a theatre they'd only play Ibsen and Bernard Shaw."
Elsie Marley opened her eyes rather wider than usual. For it all sounded attractive to her, particularly in contrast with the boarding-house and New York.
"He's awfully religious-looking, you know," Elsie Moss continued. "He wears the same sort of waistcoats and collars the Episcopalians do, though he's a Congregationalist, and his picture is more than dignified, I can tell you. Well, no doubt he's dreading me just as much as I am him, or else he's expecting me to be just like mother and will have the surprise of his life."
She hesitated. "I suppose I do look like her," she added gently and quite as if she believed the other girl to be deeply interested. Then her voice dropped suddenly and her eyes filled with tears. "Mother died—in the earthquake," she added.
Something vaguely uncomfortable just stirred the surface of Elsie Marley's consciousness, though it wasn't sufficiently acute to be called a pang. The earthquake had happened seven or eight years ago—and this girl's grief seemed fresh to-day. Her own mother had been dead less than three years.
She did not acknowledge that her mother was only a memory. She hardly realized it, indeed. Only, conscious of that vague, strange discomfort, she had an impulse to get away from it. She put a languid question.
"What have you done since?"
"I've learned what a difference mothers make," returned the girl soberly. Then she darted suddenly outside the range of the umbrella.
"What's that? A gopher?" she cried. "Oh, my goodness, it's only one of those ridiculous Dutch dogs.
"It might have been, you know," she said as she returned to the shade. Then she resumed the subject she had dropped. Elsie Marley said to herself that she needn't listen, but as a matter of fact she heard every word.
"I was so small I couldn't do much, and we had an awful time for a year. Dad was always more or less hard up, but he was worse after the earthquake, and if we had a servant she wasted things so that he was wild. He married again—a schoolteacher, and it wasn't a year, quite, after—the earthquake. Most people didn't blame him, but Uncle John where I'm going did, and wanted me to come right on East and live with him, but dad wouldn't hear of it. And, anyhow, she was the nicest thing. I loved her dearly at the end of a week. She wanted to keep me with her after dad died, but my uncle insisted upon my coming to him, so here I am."
She looked into the other girl's eyes half appealingly, though her big dimples were dimly visible.
"She wouldn't stand for my being an actress, either, so there you are. And I liked her so much I couldn't half urge her. And that's the worst of it; if I stay with my uncle the least little while I shall get to liking him so much I shan't be able to run away. It's perfectly terrible to get so fond of people when you want a career. I suppose the thing to do would really be to disappear right now. Oh, not this moment, but simply never to go to Enderby. Suppose I should go right on to New York with you?"
Elsie Marley gazed at her without a word and almost without expression. But within, she was secretly roused. She marvelled at the stranger's audacity. She was surprised to feel that she was not bored. She decided that she would not return to the car until they should be summoned.
As she was fumbling in her mind for the response the Moss girl evidently awaited, one of the children whose acquaintance the latter had made came running up to her and shyly took her hand and kissed it. Again putting the umbrella into the other girl's hands, Elsie Moss impulsively caught the little thing into her arms and fondled her. Then dropping her gently, she took both the little hands in hers and danced away with her.
They made a charming picture against the long, yellow prairie-grass. The little girl moved with the grace of a child, but Elsie Moss danced like a fairy. Her cheeks glowed, her dark eyes shone, her dimples twinkled, her feet scarcely seemed to touch the ground. Her red hat was like a poppy-cup, and the dark hair tumbling about her little face, elf-locks. Elsie Marley gazed spellbound.
But only for a moment; on a sudden she turned and made her way back to the car, which was almost empty. She returned not because she wanted to, not even because she was indifferent as to what she did. She went because she didn't want to. Unconsciously she was struggling against yielding to the charm of the vivid young creature who threatened to take her by storm. In all her life she had never been deeply or warmly affected by another personality. Perhaps now she realized this dimly, and some instinct warned her subtly to avoid any departure from old habitude, even when avoidance meant the first real struggle she had ever made against definite inclination.
It seemed long before the other occupants of the car began to stroll in. Then the engine whistled sharp warning, the laggards trooped back, and the train started briskly. Elsie Moss entered by the rear door, as Elsie Marley knew, though she did not turn around. She said to herself that no doubt she would be upon her directly, that she would have her company for the rest of the day and the remainder of the journey. But she established herself in the middle of the seat lest she seem to give any invitation.
Elsie Marley was not interrupted, as it happened. Some little time passed and still she was alone. The girl could not understand a certain unrest that was upon her. She waited a few moments longer, then she moved close to the window so as to leave more than half the seat vacant. Still nothing happened.
At length she turned and looked back. Elsie Moss, who sat between an old lady and a little boy, smiled and nodded. Elsie Marley half smiled. Still the other made no move. Then she looked back, really smiled, and beckoned her to a place beside her.
Elsie Moss, more than willing to be summoned, had some difficulty in getting away from her present companions. But the grandmother prevailed upon the little boy to spare her, and she presented herself at Elsie Marley's seat smiling in her irresistible way with the big dimples indented, and looking as if she would like to hug her as she had hugged the little girl outside. And Elsie Marley had a curious intimation that she shouldn't have minded greatly.
"What do you think," exclaimed Miss Moss as she seated herself, "you know all my family history and I don't even know your name. I've been guessing. It ought to be either Isabel or Hildegarde. Is it? Oh, I do wish it were, they're both so sort of stately and princess-like that they'd just suit you."
"It isn't either," responded the other with a curious sense of disappointment. "My name is Elsie also."
"Of all things! But it's rather jolly, after all. And what's the rest?"
"Marley, Elsie Pritchard Marley. But at home they called me Elsie Pritchard, because I am—all Pritchard."
Unacquainted with the Pritchard distinction, Elsie Moss was not impressed. But she exclaimed gleefully over the real surname.
"Elsie Marley!" she cried. "Why, isn't that funny, and oh, isn't it dear! Elsie Marley, honey!"
The other girl looked blank.
"Of course you know the song, or at least the rhyme?"
"Why, yes. You must have heard it: 'And Do You Ken Elsie Marley, Honey?'"
"Is it really and truly Elsie Marley?" queried the pale Elsie speaking for the first time like a real girl, though she had no girlish vocabulary from which to draw.
"Sure," asserted the other, delighted to be able to surprise her seatmate. And she sang a stanza in the sweetest voice Elsie Marley had ever heard, though she had heard good music all her life, and famous singers.
"Do you ken Elsie Marley, honey? The wife who sells the barley, honey? She won't get up to serve her swine, And do you ken Elsie Marley, honey?"
"Is there—any more?" demanded Elsie Marley almost eagerly.
"One more, and then you just repeat the first. I've known it all my life. Mother used to sing it to me when I was a baby. Then a few years ago when I first went to see vaudeville, I 'got it up,' as they say, with dancing and a little acting. I used to spring it on people that came to the house. Dad liked it, but it made my stepmother feel bad—dad said because I was too professional."
She sighed deeply.
"Sing the rest, please, Elsie?" asked the other, using her name for the first time.
"I will if you'll let me call you Elsie-Honey? You see it really belongs."
Elsie knew that it was silly, but she found herself quite willing. She seemed under a strange spell.
"Only," she added, with a stronger sensation of discomfort, "after to-morrow it isn't likely we'll ever see one another again."
"Oh, yes we will, sure. Why, we just must—at least if you want to half as much as I do, Elsie-Honey?"
"I do," Elsie confessed shyly and now with a curiously pleasant feeling. "And now, Elsie, please sing the other stanzas."
"It sounds just dear to say stanzas," cried the other. "I should always say verses, even if I didn't forget which was which."
With an absurd little flourish of her hands, she turned slightly in her seat. The dimples came out strongly, and though she sat quite still, there was truly something dramatic in the manner in which the would-be actress sang the lines.
"Elsie Marley is grown so fine She won't get up to feed the swine, But lies in bed till eight or nine, And surely she does take her time.
Do you ken Elsie Marley, honey? The wife who sells the barley, honey? She won't get up to serve her swine, And do you ken Elsie Marley, honey?"
Both girls broke into natural, infectious laughter. Mr. and Mrs. Bliss, or any one who had known Elsie Marley, could scarcely have believed their eyes or credited their hearing. But Elsie's father, who had died while she was an infant, had had a warm heart and a keen sense of humor, and it might well be that his daughter had inherited something of this that had lain dormant all the while. For truly, the wholesome, hardy qualities brought out in others through simple human association had had little chance to germinate in her hothouse existence in the Pritchard household.
Despite the rumble of the train, four children in the rear of the car caught the sound of the singing and came trooping up begging for more. A pretty nursemaid followed with a fat, smiling infant. Elsie Moss made her sit down with it (beside Elsie Marley!) and she herself perched on the arm of the seat and sang song after song until it was time to go into the dining-car. The children, wild with enthusiasm, were not in reality more appreciative of the lovely voice than Elsie Marley herself. The two girls went in to dinner together in happy companionship.
Elsie Marley lay in her berth that night for some time in a state between musing and actually dreaming. She was conscious—partly conscious, that is—of a new sensation of happiness. She did not, however, at all realize how fortunate she was. She did not know that for the first time in her life the door of her heart had been opened in response to another. It was, perhaps, open only a crack. Possibly it had been fast so long that it would not remain open. None the less, at the moment it stood ajar.
After dinner the girls had talked late—late for sleeping-car hours, that is to say. Elsie Marley herself had talked; had said more in an hour than she had ever before said in a day. Questioned in a frank, sympathetic manner by the other Elsie, she had been led to speak of her grandmother's household and of her daily life there, going into details so far as she knew how, as she found the other so generously and romantically concerned. Then she had gone on to speak of Cousin Julia Pritchard and the boarding-house, confessing her apprehension and dread, which seemed somehow to have become more definite in the interval. She even showed the stranger Cousin Julia's letter.
Having perused it, Elsie Moss acknowledged that it wasn't altogether a pleasant outlook for such a one as Elsie Marley, honey, though she herself wouldn't mind it. Indeed, she declared that she should have liked it immensely. And finally, as she left to go back to her berth, she exclaimed with fervor that she only wished that Miss Pritchard were her cousin, and the Reverend John Middleton Elsie Marley's uncle and guardian.
As those were Elsie Moss's last spoken words that night, so that thought was uppermost in her mind as she fell asleep shortly after her cropped head touched the pillow. And next morning when she woke early with a startlingly delightful idea, it almost caused her to bound from her upper berth as if it had been a bed in the middle of a stationary floor. For it came not in embryo, not in the egg, so to speak, but full-fledged. It seemed as if she couldn't possibly wait until she was dressed to divulge it to Elsie Marley.
But Elsie Marley was, like her prototype, late in rising, and the other Elsie's eagerness grew yet keener as she waited. Finally, however, they were alone together in the former's seat, as the train sped rapidly eastward.
Elsie Marley's countenance seemed almost to have changed overnight. There was truly something in it that had not been there before. Of course it was not animated now; nevertheless, it was not so utterly wanting in expression as it had been the day before, even in juxtaposition with the vivid little face beside her.
"Oh, Elsie-Honey, I've got something perfectly gorgeous to tell you," cried the dark Elsie. "Listen—you're not very keen about going to your cousin's, are you?"
Elsie confessed that she liked the idea less than ever.
"And I just hate—the short of it is—I simply cannot go anywhere but to New York. You'd ever so much prefer Enderby because it's select and has culture and advantages, and you'd sooner have a dignified clergyman uncle than a newspaper cousin. As for me, I should adore Cousin Julia."
"It seems a pity, surely," admitted Elsie quietly.
The other looked at her. "You see what's coming, honey?"
She shook her head, perplexed.
"Oh, Elsie-Honey! It's plain as pudding. Presto! change! That's all. Aren't we both Elsie, and don't we both want just what's coming to the other? All we have to do is to swap surnames. See?"
Still Elsie Marley did not understand.
"Shake us up in a box, you know," the other explained, her dimples very conspicuous, "and you come out Elsie Moss and I, Elsie Marley, without the honey. You go to live with Reverend John Middleton and I'll go to New York and try to persuade your Cousin Julia to let her supposed relative study for the stage. What could be better? It's simply ripping and dead easy. Neither of them has seen either of us. Uncle John would draw a prize instead of me, and—I'd be awfully good to your cousin, Elsie-Honey."
Really to grasp a conception so daring and revolutionary took Elsie Marley some time. But when she had once grasped it, she considered it seriously. It did not seem to her, even at first, either unreasonable or impossible. Indeed, influenced by the enthusiasm of the other girl, she began to feel it both reasonable and fitting. In a way, too, it was only natural. For after all, the girl had always had her way made smooth for her, and this appeared only a continuation of that process. She certainly didn't want to go to Cousin Julia's, and she liked the idea of living in the quiet parsonage of the aristocratic country town.
Indeed, she agreed to the proposal more readily and unquestioningly than a girl of more imagination or experience could have done. For her part, Elsie Moss foresaw certain complications, though in truth only the most obvious ones. They discussed these gravely, yet with much confidence. Indeed, an older person must have been both amused and amazed at the youthfulness, the inexperience, and the ignorance of life the girls exhibited, at their utter unconsciousness that they were not qualified to act as responsible human beings and shuffle blood relationships about like pawns on a chess-board.
"There's certainly nothing about it that even my stepmother could object to," Elsie Moss concluded. "Nobody's being cheated: they are both going to get what they would really choose if they had a chance, and to escape what might be very uncomfortable, and so are we. We're both Elsies, and about the same age, and have brown eyes: if Uncle John were to take his pick, wouldn't he take a quiet, dignified, ladylike Elsie, instead of a harum-scarum one with short hair that was mad for the stage? And Aunt Milly being rather frail, I should have driven her to drink, while you're used to an invalid aunt. Isn't it just wonderful? The more I think of it, the righter it seems. I almost feel now as if it would be wrong not to do it, don't you?"
Like one in a dream, Elsie Marley assented. She was almost giddy at the swift flight of the other's imagination. She listened spellbound while Elsie Moss spun plans, able herself to contribute nothing but assent and applause. Under skilful questioning, however, she related all the Pritchard traditions and family history that Cousin Julia might be expected to be familiar with, and endeavored in a docile manner to learn enough of Moss and Middleton annals to take her part in the Middleton household.
Elsie Moss possessed a certain sort of executive ability which enabled her to make the practical arrangements for carrying through the plan. Quite self-reliant, she planned to accompany the other to Boston to make sure that all went well, going thence herself to New York. After consultation with the conductor in regard to time-tables, she sent a telegram asking Miss Pritchard to meet a later train. The change in the destination of their respective luggage was more difficult to effect, but she accomplished that also, and both girls changed cars for Boston.
Indeed, presently it seemed as if the only difficult part of the whole affair would be the parting from each other. They were to write frequently, of course, and not only for the sake of mutual information; but it seemed, particularly to the pale Elsie, who had never had a friend, cruelly hard to have to be separated so soon from this most charming companion. She gazed at her wistfully, unable to express herself.
The other Elsie, as quick, nearly, to read as to express feeling, and naturally the more impulsive, answered from her heart.
"Oh, we'll see each other often, we'll just have to, Elsie-Honey," she cried. "And anyhow, we'll want to compare notes and brush up on our parts. We'll visit back and forth. You come to New York and I——"
She stopped short.
"My goodness, that'll never do! I can never come to Enderby. You'll have to do all the visiting, honey. I'm the very image of my mother, and I'd give it all away."
"Oh," said the other feebly.
"You've noticed that I have dimples, I suppose?" inquired the other gloomily.
Elsie could not deny it, though denial was evidently what the other craved.
The latter sighed deeply. "Then they're just as plain as ever, and would give me away first thing," she said. "Dad used to say he had never seen such big dimples as mother's, and that mine were just like 'em. He said if I had straight yellow hair and blue eyes, any one that had seen her would know me. Oh, dear, aren't you lucky to have nothing conspicuous about you? I'm sure you're not the image of any one, Elsie-Honey, and you'll come to see me often enough to make up, won't you?"
"Oh, yes, Elsie, unless he—Mr. Middleton—should object to my coming to New York alone?"
"You'd better begin right away calling him Uncle John, so as to get used to it as soon as you can," suggested the other. "And I'm sure he won't object. I'm sure from his letters that he's not an old fuss, and it's a straight trip with no changes from Boston to New York. And Cousin Julia and I will meet you at the Grand Central!"
She grinned at her own cheek, as she called it, and the other Elsie smiled happily.
"Just the same, I'm more than sorry not to be able to come to Enderby to visit," Elsie Moss declared. "You know it would be simply stunning practice, playing the stranger in my uncle's house—something like the real wife in 'East Lynne,' you know."
"I never saw 'East Lynne.'"
"Dear me, I cried quarts and bucketsful over it. It's the most tragic play! If I had time I could show you how it goes. I always act things out over and over after I've seen them, making up words where I don't remember them. But, alas! we haven't any time to spare with what we've got ahead of us, have we, honey? Now we must arrange for meeting Uncle—no, I must call him Mr. Middleton."
On a sudden the girl clasped her hands in apparent distress.
"Oh, I never thought!" she cried. "It won't even be safe for Uncle John to see me at the station in Boston. Well, I shall have to drop behind and keep perfectly sober. I'll just watch out to see that everything's all right with you, and then I'll skidoo. Dear me, I hope I don't look so awfully unlike the Marleys as to frighten Cousin Julia?"
Had she said the Pritchards, Elsie would have been in a quandary; as it was, her face brightened.
"She never knew the Marleys, and there aren't any now," she said. "She knows only the Pritchards."
"Hooray! I shall harp on the Marleys morning, noon, and night!"
"She'll like you," observed Elsie wistfully. "You know she spoke in her letter of young life."
"I shall adore her, dear old thing!" cried the warm-hearted girl. "And Uncle John will adore you. He adored my mother, who was quiet and deep like you. He was always sending her rare things, and pitying her because she was poor and longing to send her money, though dad wouldn't have that."
The appearance of an expressman warned them that they were nearing Boston.
"You're perfectly sure that you're willing to exchange New York for Enderby?" demanded Elsie Moss suddenly.
"Oh, yes, indeed, Elsie."
"And you don't yearn for Cousin Julia?"
Elsie Marley half smiled. "Oh, no," she declared.
But the other was determined not to take any undue advantage.
"Now listen," she said; "if after you see Uncle John you don't fancy him, just say the word or nudge me or wink and I'll swap back without a word. I'll simply step up and say, 'Oh, Uncle John, you've kissed the wrong girl!' though, of course, he may be too dignified to kiss at a train. And then I'll introduce you properly."
They sped on. Soon a trainman entered to say that the next station was Boston and request them not to leave any articles in the car. They said good-by to each other before the train stopped, kissing warmly like real friends. Then Elsie Moss tied a large, dark veil over her hat and well down over her forehead and eyes. It looked as inappropriate for the hot day as the scowling expression she assumed to cloak the dimples was ill suited to her charming little face.
As they alighted, and a handsome, distinguished-looking gentleman in grey clerical garb advanced to meet them, she fell behind. Raising his hat, he took the hand of the girl who was not his niece.
"And this is Elsie?" he said in a fine, kindly voice.
She murmured a weak affirmative. He kissed her affectionately, took her portmanteau from the porter, and turned to the girl who had come from the car with her.
"And this is your friend, Elsie?" he inquired.
Elsie Moss came forward, scowling so fiercely that the other, despite her blunted sense of humor, could scarcely keep from laughing out.
"My friend, Miss M-Marley," she stammered.
Mr. Middleton shook hands with his sister's daughter, took her satchel, and asked how he could serve her. The girl replied in a thin falsetto voice, which she realized immediately didn't go with the scowl so well as a gruff tone would have done, that she had only twenty-five minutes to get the train for New York and must say good-by at once and take a cab for the other station.
However, he didn't let her go so easily. Assuming charge in a simple, offhand manner, he found a taxicab which took them to the South Station, led her to the ticket-office, secured a chair, and put her on the train.
She kissed Elsie Marley again, squeezing her hand meaningly. And she nearly forgot and showed her dimples, looking out of the window as her train pulled out, to see them together, her uncle with his hat in his hand, Elsie waving her pocket-handkerchief.
"He's a darling," she said to herself as they moved toward the Trinity Place Station, "and it's mighty lucky for my career that I didn't see more of him. But he'll be far happier with that lovely honey-princess, and I'm glad she's drawn a prize. As for me, hooray for Cousin Julia and the footlights!"
"I hope, Elsie, your friend wasn't in pain?" Mr. Middleton inquired with concern shortly after they were established in the train for Enderby.
"Oh, no," the girl assured him, trying, but vainly, to add "Uncle John."
"I thought she might be suffering from toothache or neuralgia, wearing that scarf about her face on such a warm day—particularly as she frowned and screwed her mouth in a rather distressed way," he explained.
Elsie smiled. Indeed she almost laughed, partly because she was herself struck by the humor of it, partly because it would so amuse Elsie Moss when she wrote her about it.
"Oh, no," she repeated. "Oh, no, Uncle John"—resolutely—"she was just—well—she was acting, I suppose. She wants very much to go on the stage."
"And doesn't lose any opportunity for practice?" He smiled, but rather ruefully. "Poor child! Somehow, of all ambitions, there seems to be more tragedy, more pitifulness, underlying that than any other. Where one succeeds, so many fail—go down into darkness and obscurity. Your mother had the fever at one time as a very young girl, Elsie. As a matter of fact, she had some little talent in that direction, but fortunately we were able to persuade her to give up the idea entirely." He sighed. "She was so tender-hearted and affectionate that she could have been induced to give up far more precious things than an ambition of that sort."
Elsie was gazing out of the window. He pointed out a country club and several fine estates at a distance, then asked:
"What is your friend going in for, Elsie, comedy or tragedy?"
Elsie didn't know. She explained that while Miss M-Marley seemed like an old friend, she had only met her on the train as they had left Chicago.
"Ah, that's just like your mother!" he exclaimed. "She was just that way, quick to make friends, and yet as loyal and true as any slower and more cautious person could be."
Again he sighed; then added in a lighter tone: "She wanted to play tragic parts—youth is apt to—but of course with those dimples she would have been doomed to comedy, if not farce."
He gazed reminiscently at her.
"Your baby pictures had her dimples in small, but I see that as you have grown thin you have lost them. You scarcely resemble her at all, and yet already I see how very like her you are."
Elsie could think of no response, and fearing that he was awaking painful feelings, Mr. Middleton changed the subject by inquiring kindly after her stepmother. Elsie replied according to instructions that she was quite well and much gratified to have secured her former position in one of the San Francisco high schools for the coming year.
As he went on to ask about her journey and to exhibit points of interest along the way, he was so chivalrous and thoughtful that the girl realized that she would be considered and cared for as she never would have been with Cousin Julia, and was genuinely relieved. Then her thoughts flew back to those hours with Elsie Moss between Chicago and Boston, which seemed to her the happiest she had ever known. It came to her that if she could have the other girl's companionship, could see her every day, she didn't know that she would greatly care where she was. Perhaps she could even endure hardship. How serious Elsie Moss had been about her motto, "Per aspera ad astra." For all her gayety, she felt she could go through hardship bravely. Ah, she was a rare person! For the first time in her life Elsie Marley was homesick—and for a stranger!
Happily, there was that about Mr. Middleton which reminded her of his niece. She glanced at him from under her long, pale lashes. A man of fifty, he was tall and thin, with a fine florid face set off by a mass of thick, white hair. His eyes were brown and youthful, full of serenity and kindliness, with a shadow of the idealism that characterized his whole face. His voice was good, his speech elegant, appealing particularly to one accustomed to the tones and inflections of the West. Looking forward to meeting his wife, who would probably be equally pleasing, Elsie felt that in any event she should be as happy between visits as it would be possible to be anywhere without Elsie Moss.
A short drive through the quiet, shady streets of what seemed to be an old, historic town brought them to the parsonage, one of a group of handsome, rather stately buildings near and about a green common. Of colonial style, built of brick, it had a portico with great Corinthian pillars, window-frames and cornices of wood painted white, and stood far back from the street with a beautiful lawn studded by great elms and a glimpse of a garden in the rear.
The driveway led to a side entrance under a porte-cochere. As the carriage drew up, Mr. Middleton glanced eagerly toward the door. His face fell.
"Your Aunt Milly will be here directly," he said and ushered her in. As she entered the beautiful hall, Elsie couldn't help feeling how fortunate she was to escape the boarding-house.
There was no one in sight. Mr. Middleton looked about, then led her into one of the great front rooms on either side of the wide hall and asked her to make herself comfortable while he went to see if her aunt were ill.
"She is not very strong, as you know, Elsie, and the excitement may have been too much for her," he explained. "She has looked forward so eagerly to your arrival."
Fortunately he did not await any reply. Elsie felt suddenly stunned as by a blow. Left alone, she gazed about her in amazement that was almost horror. The large, square, corner room lighted by four great windows that reached from the floor to the heavy cornice was comfortably, even luxuriously, furnished, but—the girl could scarcely believe her eyes—it was the most untidy-looking place she had ever been in! The heavy crimson hangings, faded by the strong summer sunlight, lost further color by their layer of dust, quite visible even at this distance and at first sight. There were ashes on the hearth, though the heap of waste-paper, dust, and miscellaneous rubbish in the fireplace showed that it hadn't been used for some time. The piano, a baby-grand, stood open, with dust on its dingy keys and more dust on its shining case. The centre-table held a handsome reading-lamp and some books, but was littered with piles of old newspapers and magazines without covers. A kitchen-apron was flung across an armchair; a dirty, paper-covered book lay on a little table with a plate beside it covered with cake-crumbs, and there were crumbs on the richly colored Turkish rug and on the arm of the tapestry-covered chair on the edge of which Elsie perched.
Surely there was some mistake, some monstrous mistake! She had somehow been brought to the wrong house. It wasn't possible that a gentleman like Mr. Middleton could belong to a household such as this, she was saying incredulously to herself, when a shadow fell athwart the threshold and she looked up to see Mrs. Middleton entering on her husband's arm.
Mrs. Middleton was the key to the enigma, though Elsie's mind wasn't sufficiently alert to grasp the fact at the moment. She stood beside her tall, immaculate husband, a short, rather stout, flabby-looking woman with a sallow face wherein keener eyes than Elsie's might have detected traces of former prettiness, and frowsy, ginger-colored hair that had been curled on an iron. She wore a dingy pink tea-gown bordered with swan's-down, cut rather low and revealing a yellow, scrawny neck. A large cameo brooch took the place of a missing frog, and a pin in the hem disclosed missing stitches. Her hands were covered with rings, her feet thrust into shapeless knitted boots.
She smiled, cried, "Elsie!" in a weak, sentimental manner, and opened her arms wide as if expecting the girl to fly into them.
Elsie, who had risen, advanced stiffly and reached out her hand in gingerly fashion. But Mrs. Middleton gathered her, willy-nilly, into a warm embrace, holding her close against the dingy pink flannel.
Elsie could not struggle against it, as she was moved to do; she could not burst into tears at the indignity; she could not rush out of the house and back to the train, as she longed to do, with the sense of outrage goading her. She was forced to sit down weakly with the others.
Mrs. Middleton gazed at her fondly.
"Dear child! Little orphan stranger!" she cried. "How I have longed for this hour! Indeed, I so longed for it that at the last moment my strength failed me, and when the train whistled I had to drop on my bed in exhaustion. But enough of that. Welcome to our home and hearts!"
Murmuring some chill, indistinct monosyllable, Elsie glanced dumbly at Mr. Middleton, who was looking at his wife as tenderly as if she had been all that Elsie had expected her to be. Were they both mad?
"Jack, dear, you have never asked Elsie to take off her things—your own niece!" exclaimed Mrs. Middleton reproachfully. And she turned to Elsie with her sentimental smile.
"These men, my dear!" she said, and coming to her side begged the girl to let her have her wraps.
Elsie wanted to cry out that she wasn't going to stay, that she was no kin of theirs, and was going away on the next train. But she couldn't utter a word. She removed her hat and jacket dumbly, wondering which dusty surface they would occupy. As Mr. Middleton carried them into the hall, she could only guess.
On his return, he noticed the kitchen-apron, picked it up and held it a moment irresolutely. Then opening a door in the wainscot near the fireplace he flung it in. Before the door went to, Elsie had a glimpse of worse disorder—of the sort that is supposed to pertain to a junk-shop.
"That's Katy's apron," remarked Mrs. Middleton plaintively. "Do you know, Jack, I feel sure she sits in here when there's no one around. Now that book on the table by the window must be hers."
"It's no harm for her to sit here when the room is not in use," returned Mr. Middleton kindly, "but when she goes, I wish she would take her things along." And he picked up the novel and was about to consign it to the same dump when his wife held out her hand for it.
"What mush!" she cried as she fingered the greasy pages, while Elsie flinched inwardly. And unobservant as the girl naturally was, she could not help noticing that Mrs. Middleton retained the book.
"Don't think, dear Elsie, that we're unkind to our poor but worthy Kate," the latter remarked, sitting down next to Elsie and taking the girl's limp hand in hers. "As a matter of fact, she has a sitting-room of her own. This house, you know, is very old. It matches the other, newer buildings only because they were built to suit its style. The original owners, the Enderbys, for whom the town was renamed, had many servants and provided a parlor for them. Of course your uncle and I can afford to keep only one, but we gave her the parlor, hoping she would appreciate it. But it doesn't look out front, so she doesn't care for it and uses it as a sort of store-room."
"I wonder if Elsie wouldn't like to go to her chamber now," Mr. Middleton suggested, remarking suddenly how tired the girl looked. He had thought her surprisingly fresh after the long journey, but apparently only excitement had kept her up.
Elsie looked at him gratefully. She was longing to be by herself in order to determine what she was to do.
"Yes, Jack, that's exactly what the poor dear wants; I've been trying to get a word in to ask her," agreed Mrs. Middleton plaintively. Elsie rose.
"Where did you decide to put her, Milly? In the blue room?"
"Yes, dear, but I'm not perfectly sure whether Katy got it ready. Do you mind calling her?"
He fetched the handsome, slatternly maid servant, who drew up the lower corner of her apron crosswise to disguise its dirt, but openly and unashamed, and only to uncover a dress underneath that was quite as untidy.
"Katy, this is our niece, Miss Moss, who has come to live with us," Mrs. Middleton announced. "Have you got the blue room ready for her?"
Katy bowed low to Elsie before she replied.
"No'm, not yet," she said.
"Oh, Katy, when I told you to be sure?"
"No'm, you didn't," responded the woman pleasantly.
"Dear me! Well, I meant to; I suppose it slipped my mind."
She turned to Elsie. "I've been particularly wretched all day, scarcely able, with all my will-power at full strain, to hold up my head."
"It seems to me," she addressed Kate reproachfully, "you might have done it anyhow. You knew what Mr. Middleton was going in town for."
"I'll get a place ready for her right now in no time, ma'am," Katy assured her cheerfully. As she was leaving the room with an admiring look at Elsie, she glanced suspiciously at Mrs. Middleton, whose hand was hidden in a fold of her wrapper.
"Is that my story-book you've got, ma'am?" she inquired.
Mrs. Middleton drew forth the book, looked at it as if in great surprise, and gave it to Kate, who disappeared at once. Mr. Middleton followed with Elsie's luggage.
Elsie, who did not resume her seat, walked to the window and gazed out, without, however, seeing anything. Mrs. Middleton began to rhapsodize over the elms and oaks and some rooks in the distance that were really crows. But before she had gone far, Katy appeared to say that the room was ready. If she had not done it in no time, as she had proposed, she had certainly spent as little time as one could and accomplish anything. Mrs. Middleton led Elsie up-stairs, threw open the door of the room with a dramatic gesture, kissed and fondled her, and finally left her to get a good rest.
Elsie closed the door after her, dropped into a chair and, burying her face in her hands, sat motionless.
For some time Elsie could not think. She could only sit there in a sort of dumb horror. Presently she raised her head, opened her eyes, and deliberately surveyed the room.
Like the others she had seen, it was large and handsomely furnished. There was a great brass bed and heavy mahogany furniture. The walls were hung with blue, the large rug was blue-and-gold, and the chintz hangings and covers blue-and-white. There was a great pier-glass, a writing-desk, and a bookcase. In spite of the fact that everything bore the appearance of having been hastily dusted, it was fairly neat and very attractive.
Still confused, with a stunned sensation that precluded decisive action, Elsie decided that she might as well remove the dust of travel, and rising, slipped off her blouse.
As she turned on both faucets in the bowl in the small dressing-room adjoining, a thick scum rose to the surface of the water, and she realized the bowl had not been washed for some time. At first she gazed at the dust helplessly. Utterly unused to doing anything for herself, she looked about anxiously. Two towels, clean but not ironed, lay on the rack. She hesitated, then grasping one of them as if it were the proverbial nettle, she attacked the bowl, gingerly at first, then with some vigor; and presently, with the aid of some dirty fragments of soap she found in the receptacle, using the second towel to dry it, she had the enamelled surface clean and shining. With an odd sense of satisfaction, she threw the towels to the floor, opened her portmanteau, took out her own toilet-case, and proceeded to wash.
Refreshed physically and even a trifle in spirit, she slipped on her dressing-gown and sat down by the window to consider. She knew now that she should have spoken immediately upon seeing Mrs. Middleton, thus avoiding more unpleasantness than the caresses. Having delayed her explanation of the masquerade, she had made it the more difficult. Even now she dreaded shocking or even hurting Mr. Middleton.
She rose and moved about irresolutely. The dress she had taken off lay on the couch against the foot of the bed, and though she had never been accustomed to caring for her clothes, she started instinctively to hang it away. Opening the door into the clothes-press, she shrank back.
A commodious closet with shelves and drawers, it was as much worse in its confusion and disorder than the cupboard down-stairs as it was larger. Each hook bulged and overflowed with clothing: tawdry finery, evening-gowns, old skirts, wrappers, sacks, bath-robes, knitted jackets and shawls and miscellaneous underclothes. The drawers were so crammed that none would shut. The shelves were piled high with blankets, comfortables, old hats, a pair of snow-shoes, pasteboard boxes, and bottles without number; while on the floor were boots, shoes, and slippers in all stages of wear, overshoes, a broken umbrella, a walking-stick, a folding-table, and more boxes. And everywhere the dust lay thick.
Shutting the door hastily, Elsie flung herself upon the couch, covering her face and pressing her fingers upon her closed eyes. What a—heathenish place! She really didn't possess the sort of vocabulary to express the enormity of it. How should she get away? Suppose there were no train to-night? Suppose she should have to remain until morning?
If only it were a hotel! If only Mr. Middleton weren't so fine, or if Mrs. Middleton had gone into Boston! One look at her would have been enough: she would have known she could never endure her. Better Cousin Julia with all her oddities. She would have made the sign agreed upon and gone straight on to New York. And then—poor Elsie Moss! After all, Mrs. Middleton wasn't any real relative of hers, either. She only hoped that the other girl might find Cousin Julia so very disagreeable that she wouldn't too painfully mind being dragged back here.
Some one knocked at the door. Feeling that she couldn't possibly encounter Mrs. Middleton at this juncture, the girl remained silent.
"It's only Katy," said a pleasant voice, and Elsie bade her come in.
The warm-hearted Irishwoman knew in an instant that something was wrong, and suspected homesickness. She spoke fondly, as to a child, saying that tea was nearly ready, and added: "Have you got everything that you want, miss?"
Elsie could have laughed at the unconscious irony.
"The clothes-press is full of mussy things, and the wash-bowl was dirty, and there weren't any clean towels," the girl almost wailed.
"Bless my soul, I guess that wash-bowl was forgot for a matter of a few days!" Katy exclaimed. "Dear me, I'm so sorry. But them towels was clean, only not ironed. I hadn't got round to 'em yet, and I didn't know where to lay my hands on any that was put away. There's a lot somewheres, for we keep a-buyin' and a-buyin'. And I'll just go at this room the first thing after breakfast in the mornin' and make everything clean and shinin'. I meant to 'a' done it to-day, but I didn't get a minute, and I thought one night wouldn't make much matter."
While Elsie was endeavoring to frame some sentence to inform Katy that she needn't take the trouble, the latter suddenly remembered something in the oven and disappeared. Elsie rose and dressed. She couldn't eat in such a place, but she couldn't get away without explaining and, perhaps, the tea-table would be a suitable occasion for that.
Mr. Middleton met her at the foot of the stair and led her to the dining-room. Another surprise! The room was not only large, pleasant, and airy, overlooking a beautiful garden, but it was neat and tidy, and the table was spotless, with fine damask, delicate china, and beautiful silver. The food was delicious—Elsie had taken her place perforce—and was particularly appetizing after five days on the train.
Mrs. Middleton still wore the pink wrapper, but she had little to say, and her husband was so elegant and attractive, was in such good spirits and talked so entertainingly, that Elsie almost forgot. In any event, before the meal was over she had decided to remain overnight, and to postpone her confession until morning.
The evening passed pleasantly. Mrs. Middleton excused herself directly after tea, and Mr. Middleton took Elsie out to show her the garden, which he tended himself, an old-fashioned garden with formal beds radiating from a sun-dial. Thence they went to his study, an attractive room lined with books, which, though untidy, was not startlingly so, not, perhaps, far beyond that peculiar limit of disorder allowed to a student's sanctum.
Here the Reverend John Middleton, unmistakably and infectiously happy, talked with his supposed niece for an hour. Full of enthusiasm, quieter but almost as youthful as that of Elsie Moss, of ideas and ideals, he had not realized his want of companionship and sympathy, nor understood why he had looked forward so eagerly to the coming of the daughter of the sister who had been the companion and intimate friend of his youth and young manhood. Believing he saw already much of the mother in the girl, he seemed to feel no need of preliminaries, of getting acquainted. He strove only to make her feel at home, hoping there might be no strangeness even on the first night.
His powers being by no means inconsiderable, he succeeded so well that Elsie Marley went to her room in a state of real exhilaration that was almost tumult. The door of her inner nature, set ajar by Elsie Moss, had opened wide. She had never in all her sixteen years been really roused out of herself until she met the former; and she had never come in contact with a nature so rich and fine as that of the clergyman. Further than this, something else stirred in the girl's heart—something better than the desire to hold this friend for her own. Unawares, dimly, she felt his reaching out for sympathy, realized dimly that there was something that even a young girl could do for him. And suddenly a feeling of depression that was like regret or even remorse took possession of her. The confession she had to make would hurt him deeply, even now.
Her trunk had been brought in and the straps unfastened. For an instant Elsie wavered. Finally she got her key from her pocketbook. But even as she crossed the room, she thought of Mrs. Middleton, the dingy swan's-down and the caresses, and decided not to unlock the trunk.
She stood by the window looking out absently over the soft, starlit landscape. She felt sorry for Mr. Middleton and sorry for Elsie Moss; and curiously enough those two were the two persons in the world in whom she had any real interest! Perhaps the latter wouldn't mind her aunt as she did; and of course she would be, to use her own expression, "crazy over" her uncle. Then, too, with all her charm and vivacity, she could do much more to brighten the monotony and squalor of his life. And yet, her heart was set upon becoming an actress, and it would be much harder now to give it up than if she hadn't seemed to have a fair chance to pursue her studies. Elsie remembered dimly tales she had heard of people dying from broken hearts. Somehow, it seemed almost as if that vivid, sparkling Elsie Moss would be of the sort to take things so hard that——
She broke off, turned from the window, and began to undress. So far as Mr. Middleton was concerned, it occurred to her that possibly some one who hadn't any ambition might learn to do even better toward helping him than one whose heart was divided. She said to herself that she wouldn't decide definitely against opening her trunk until morning. If she should find, for instance, that Mrs. Middleton kept her room the greater part of the time, it might make some difference.
Ready to put out the light, she noticed that the covers of the bed had not been turned down—an omission unparalleled in her experience. With a sigh, she drew down the counterpane, only to discover, with actual horror, the bare mattress underneath. The bed had not been made!
Such was Elsie Marley's consternation that had she been a person of resource, she would have dressed and left the house at once; but if she possessed any such quality, it was wholly undeveloped. As it was, however, she said to herself she could not even stay for breakfast. She would go at daybreak!
Kate came to the door next morning just as Elsie had finished dressing, and, being admitted, asked if Miss Moss wouldn't come down and pour her uncle's coffee and eat breakfast with him.
"He's sort o' hangin' off as if, perhaps, he was hopin' you might," she added, eying the girl admiringly.
Elsie's purpose to go immediately had been with her as she awoke, but it didn't seem worth while to hold out at the moment: possibly she might have a favorable opportunity to explain at the table.
But she resented Kate's beaming face, and looked reproachfully toward the bed, which told its own shocking story of having no linen nor blankets. Still Kate was oblivious. Elsie really hardly knew how to complain, but perhaps to learn that is easier than to learn to praise; and there was a certain amount of indignation in her voice as she told how she had been obliged to sleep on the couch in her dressing-gown.
Kate was quite as shocked as the mistress of a well-regulated household would have been. As she accompanied Elsie down-stairs she was voluble in her sympathy, and promised all sorts of improvements for a future Elsie knew was not to be hers. And yet the girl, who had always been on the most distant terms with her grandmother's servants who had been in the house for years, found herself confessing to this good-natured slattern that she had nevertheless slept soundly and felt refreshed.
Breakfast was so pleasant as to cause visions of an unlocked trunk to float through Elsie's mind. The dining-room was yet more attractive with the morning sun on the garden. Mrs. Middleton did not appear. The girl found a curious pleasure in pouring out the coffee, which was curiously intensified when Mr. Middleton asked for three lumps of sugar. And when he passed his cup the second time she was elated.
While he seemed fully to appreciate the novelty of her company, he seemed also to take it for granted, as if they were to go on so, breakfasting together, indefinitely. He chatted in his easy way, glanced at the paper, reading bits of it to her, commenting on the situation here and across the border. Fortunately, her mind had seemed to quicken with her sensibility, so that she grasped, or partly grasped, ideas that might well have meant nothing to her.
He proposed to take her out to see the town after he had spent an hour in his study. Though it would again postpone her explanation, Elsie decided she might as well go a step further and get a better idea of the place for which Elsie Moss was to exchange New York and her ambition. The day promised heat; the girl was so tired of her travelling-suit that she was tempted to open her trunk and get out a linen frock and her Panama hat, but she wouldn't allow herself to yield.
They were out nearly two hours, strolling leisurely through the quiet old streets. The church and parish-house and a large hall were across the common, the library and museum nearer the centre of the town—all dignified, rather stately, very attractive buildings in harmonizing styles of architecture, whose low and rambling character, with the ivy that well-nigh covered them, and the wonderful green of their lawns, gave them an air of age, particularly appealing to one whose home had been in the West. Handsome houses and charming cottages bespoke their attention as they walked through the wide avenue with double rows of elms on either side, and grass-plots separating the walks from the highway. Just to wander under that leafy arch of a June morning, with glimpses of blue sky and white cloud, was a sensation that made the thought of New York appalling. Cousin Julia had, indeed, spoken once of going to the shore; but who wanted to go to the shore! For herself, nothing seemed so attractive as tall old trees, abundance of green turf, New England, and—Enderby!
And all the while she became more aware of the unconscious appeal on the part of Mr. Middleton. As they went on, more and more the girl felt how eagerly he had looked forward to the coming of his niece, how he had anticipated her companionship. And she understood dimly that his eagerness to show her the finer points of everything was not only the desire to make her share his enthusiasm, but a desire to begin at once—to start out friends and companions.
She returned only the more oppressed by the sense of remissness—of remorse. Kate met her at the door of the chamber she had occupied and proudly ushered her in. A real transformation had taken place. Kate could accomplish wonders when she set out, and the great handsome room had been so thoroughly swept and garnished that everything was like new, only with the sense of the dignity of age. The clothes-press, too, had been cleared out (at the expense of the corresponding one in the chamber opposite!); the little wash-room shone; there was abundance of towels and fresh bed-linen, and a vase of sweet peas stood on the freshly laundered cover of the dresser.
Elsie turned gratefully to Kate, but spoke regretfully.
"Oh, Katy, thank you, but I'm sorry you have taken so much trouble. I——"
"Oh, Miss Moss, dear, I love to do it, and I'll keep it so all the time if you'll only stay," urged Kate. "Now don't tell me, I've seen it in your eyes that you're homesick and don't like the look o' things, and then you ain't opened your trunk, and your dresses all packed in wrinkles like as not. Do try it a bit longer, please, miss. I promise you things'll be better all over the house. You know there'd be more satisfaction keepin' things up for a pretty girl like you as would appreciate than for a woman as lays round all the time and don't take no interest, though believe me, she eats as good as any one, and I can't keep my story-books long enough to find out how they come out at the end if she gets her eye on 'em. All she does is to throw things round for me to pick up, though I will say for her she's pleasant and good-natured, and always a born lady. And Mr. Middleton don't hardly know whether things is upside down or right side up; but he's good as gold and lonesome, though he don't never let on. You can be such a comfort to him; all he hears at home now is about her aches and pains. You couldn't guess how he's blossomed out since you come. He ain't talked so much for years, and he was a-singin' to hisself this mornin' as he hung round wonderin' if you was coming to breakfast—she never does. Now Miss Elsie, you jest stand by him. Let me tell you, you'll run up against lots worse things if you set out to earn your own livin'."
Elsie was tempted, but again the thought of Mrs. Middleton arrested her. And by the time Kate shouted inelegantly up the stair that lunch was ready, the girl had decided to explain everything directly afterward and go to Boston to catch the same train Elsie Moss had taken yesterday. And if Mrs. Middleton should appear and attempt to embrace her, she would say: "Wait, please, I have something to tell you that will change everything!"
That lady stood at the newel-post awaiting her. She wore a wrapper of lavender cassimere to-day, elaborately trimmed with lace and knots of pink ribbon. Somewhat fresher than the pink one, it was not conspicuously so, and her hair was truly a "sight." Elsie was dumb: she couldn't make the prepared speech nor any other. She tried to keep at a distance by reaching out her hand formally. But it proved useless, and again she was gathered to her hostess's heart.
The strangest feature was Mr. Middleton's behavior. He seemed as surprised and delighted to see his wife appear at lunch, as fearful lest she overtax herself, as if she were her own very opposite. The girl couldn't comprehend how one so intelligent, so refined, of such exquisite taste, apparently, could be so blunt in this one particular. She couldn't understand how he could endure, much less care for, this ugly, withered, yellow, untidy woman. However, it made her own position somewhat easier. If he were really aware how impossibly vulgar she was, and took it seriously to heart, Elsie wasn't sure if even thus early she should be able to leave him to bear such misery alone. His unconscious loneliness was appealing enough; conscious unhappiness might have proved more than she could have withstood.
He was called from the table to the telephone. Elsie hoped he wouldn't make any engagement for directly after lunch. If he should, she couldn't risk missing her train. She would speak out at once. She would say: "Oh, Mr. Middleton, I'll say good-by, for I shan't be here when you return." And then she would explain briefly and he wouldn't have time to take it hard while she was there to witness.
Returning to the table, Mr. Middleton announced with troubled face that Miss Stewart, the librarian, was ill, and he must find some one before three o'clock to take her place. He glanced at Elsie hesitatingly.
"I suppose you are tired, Elsie, dear?"
"Oh, no," she returned and added, almost unconsciously, "Uncle John."
"Then I wonder if I can't work you in at the library for a day or so? It isn't at all taxing, indeed, it's really very pleasant. It's open every day from three to six, and except on Saturday, when there's apt to be a crowd, people drop in in a leisurely way. I could go over with you and get you started and stay until nearly four, when I have a committee meeting. Would you be willing to try, dear?"
"Oh, I'd like it ever so much," she returned, really captivated by the idea. He looked relieved and smiled gratefully.
"There, Jack, it's just as I told you it would be," exclaimed Mrs. Middleton, patting a pink satin bow complacently. "I said to your uncle, Elsie love, that a girl of sixteen is almost a woman—I was only seventeen when I was married—and that he could make an assistant of you right away."
Her smile faded and her hand went to her heart in an affected way.
"My being such a sad invalid is a terrible drag on your uncle, though he won't confess it," she added feebly. "I often and often drop a secret tear over it, I own; but now that there'll be some one to help with the little services that would naturally fall to a pastor's wife, I shall be quite content. You know how the poet says that others shall sing the song and right the wrong? 'What matter I or they?' That is how it seems to me."
Mr. Middleton gazed at his wife tenderly, but Elsie's youthful scorn increased. She was not sufficiently mature to understand that it shows something of character to look on kindly while another younger, fairer person steps in to fulfil duties that should have been one's own, even though one may have repudiated them.
Directly lunch was over, Elsie ran up-stairs—something she seldom had done—unfastened her trunk, took out an embroidered white linen suit and dressed quickly. She could scarcely wait until time to go to the library. She was ready to lose the train to-day, and even to-morrow if need be.
At the library, she found the procedure simple and easily acquired. It was fascinating, also, as was the great airy room; and she wandered about through the stacks, and gazed at the books, magazines, pictures, maps and bulletin-board in a sort of dream. It was a warm day and no one came in during the first half-hour.
Mr. Middleton had scarcely left, however, when a little girl in a scant, faded frock that was clean, however, and freshly starched, came shyly in with a book—a child of nine or ten with an anxious expression on her old, refined little face which hadn't yet lost all its baby curves.
"Why, where's Miss Rachel?" she asked, the look of anxiety fading and a shy little smile appearing in its stead.
"Well, I think you're ever 'n' ever so much nicer, and so pretty!" said the child. Then her face clouded again as she opened the book that she held in thin little hands that were like claws.
"The baby did it," she said sorrowfully as she exhibited a picture torn across. "He isn't a year old yet and don't understand. He isn't the least naughty, only mischeevious, you know. Ma says I ought not to have been reading it while I was minding him, but you see I'm always minding him except when he's asleep—and then he wakes right up, mostly."
She sighed. "Do you s'pose you can mend it?" she inquired.
"Yes, indeed," returned Elsie promptly, and smiled involuntarily.
The child fingered her frock. "Miss Rachel would scold," she faltered,
Elsie didn't know what to say. Neither did she understand why tears should come to her eyes, except that the little girl was so small, so thin, so clean and sweet, and so very childish in spite of her responsibility.
She found some gummed paper, cut a strip, brought the torn edges carefully together and mended the picture as neatly as if she had not been a week ago as helpless an able-bodied girl of her age as there was anywhere to be found. Her sense of satisfaction was certainly commensurate, perhaps extravagant.
"There! Miss Stewart will never know," she said. "Do you want another book now?"
"Yes, please; but—is it right for Miss Rachel not to know?"
Elsie considered. "Perhaps not," she admitted, "but at any rate she won't mind since it looks as well as before."
"And I'll be very careful after this," added the child.
She selected another volume from the children's shelf, and having had it charged, turned to go. But somehow Elsie was loath to have her.
"Why don't you sit down at the table and look at the picture papers?" she suggested.
"Oh, I've got to mind the baby," said Mattie—Mattie Howe was the name on her card. "I must be home when he wakes up. Good-by."
She started—came back—stood irresolute.
"Thank you for mending the book so good—so goodly," she said shyly, "and—I'd like to kiss you."
With a curious sensation that had no admixture of reluctance, Elsie bent over and received the kiss.
"You're prettier than the princess," the little girl declared, and ran away with her book.
Elsie Marley hardly knew what would have happened if an elderly lady hadn't come in at that moment and asked for "Cruden's Concordance." She had some difficulty in finding it, but the lady was very pleasant and grateful, and after that there was a constant succession of visitors. Many children came in, all attractive, to Elsie's surprise, though none so appealing as Mattie Howe; and older people in surprising numbers, considering Mr. Middleton's prophecy.
But word had somehow gone round that the minister's niece was "tending library," and things being rather dull in the midsummer pause of most of the activities of the place, no doubt more than one came out of curiosity.
It was a very friendly curiosity, however, expressed in the pleasantest manner, and Elsie found herself responding to their advances without knowing how. She wondered at herself. The girl did not realize that being in the library made a difference. It was her first experience of work, or of doing anything whatever for any one else, so that even the service of getting out books for another established a sort of relationship between them. At the close of the afternoon, though tired, she was strangely happy.
But she couldn't understand it—didn't know herself. She found herself wondering who the stranger was who had worn her frock and occupied the chair of the librarian that afternoon. Grandmother Pritchard wouldn't have recognized her, nor Aunt Ellen. Had she, in assuming another name, changed her nature also?
Shortly before the death of her aunt in California, Miss Julia Pritchard had made up her mind to give up her position at the city desk on her fiftieth birthday, and retire to some pleasant country town to pass the remainder of her life quietly, in friendly intercourse with her neighbors. She felt that she had more than enough to "see her through," as the phrase is, very comfortably. She had worked for over thirty years, her responsibilities and salary increasing periodically; and though she had lived and dressed well and given liberally, she had added each year to a small inheritance that had come to her through her grandfather, and had gained further by judicious investment.
But when both her aunt and cousin died, and she was left guardian of the sixteen-year-old Elsie Marley, whose inheritance was small, Miss Pritchard decided to remain where she was a few years longer. It wasn't imperative, indeed, yet she felt that the last little Pritchard should have the best chance she could give her, and until she should have put her on her feet, the woman of fifty, who was strong and well and at the height of her powers, would gladly remain in harness. Her announcement to this effect was hailed with delight at the office, and another increase made in her salary so substantial that she declared she ought to adopt a whole family.
Though the sacrifice was greater than any one dreamed, nevertheless she made it quietly and cheerfully, expecting no reward nor desiring any. She didn't expect much of Elsie Marley, indeed, recollecting the atmosphere of the household in which the girl had been reared, which she had herself found impossibly stifling during a short visit there fifteen years before.
At that time her Cousin Augusta had been living with her husband and baby in Portland, Oregon. What with her knowledge of the Pritchards in general, however, her observation of that stereotyped family after a long interval of years, and their intense anxiety lest the one descendant of that branch become in any way a Marley rather than a Pritchard, she was able to gather a very fair idea of what Elsie's upbringing must have been. Unless she might have inherited a sense of humor from the Marley side (which was unlikely, since no one possessing a sense of humor would have married Augusta Pritchard), the girl could hardly have escaped becoming a prig at the mildest. Cold, colorless, correct, self-sufficient, Elsie Pritchard would doubtless make her mother's cousin feel keenly her fifty years, her lack of grace, and her general and utter lack of claim to the royal name she bore.
On the other hand, she was also, willy-nilly, Elsie Marley, and she was only sixteen. She couldn't have, at that age, completely compassed the woodenness of her adult relations. She might still be amenable to change, to development. In any event, as Miss Pritchard remarked to a friend in the office, any sort of young female connection cannot but be welcome to the heart of a lonely spinster who reaches her half-century milestone on midsummer's day.
Miss Pritchard occupied two large, handsome rooms on the second floor of a boarding-house near Fifth Avenue, a few blocks from the lower end of Central Park. In preparation for the young girl, she had the large alcove of the parlor shut off by curtains and her bed and dressing-table moved into it, and gave over her bedroom to Elsie. She spent much time and thought and not a little money in making it an inviting and attractive place for a girl, and would have felt quite satisfied had it not been for her remembrance of the rather heavy but stately elegance of the mansion in San Francisco.
On the June day on which Elsie was expected, Miss Pritchard confessed to the friend at the office to whom she had spoken before, that she was beginning to feel nervous.
"I almost wish she weren't coming until a week later," she said. "Do you know, I think if I had actually passed my fiftieth birthday, I might feel somehow more solid and fortified. It's really an ordeal for an old-fashioned woman like myself to encounter the modern girl of sixteen. Fifty might pull through, but oh, dear, what of forty-nine plus?"
She was interrupted by the telephone. A telegram which had come to the boarding-house for her was read to her. She was smiling as she hung up the receiver.
"Well, what do you think!" she cried. "My young relative has decided for some reason to take a later train and has telegraphed me to that effect. Now there's something rather alert and self-reliant about that. That girl must have something in her, after all. I can no more imagine her mother or any of the family getting off at any stage of a through journey than I could fancy myself not getting off for a fire or an earthquake or, perhaps, for a wild West show. At the very least, there's a sort of suppleness of mind indicated."
She stood that evening in the station watching the throng emerging from the coaches of the train her cousin had given as hers. A tall, straight woman, large without being stout, her plain face, with large, irregular features, framed in plainly parted iron-grey hair, was singularly strong and fine, and her grey eyes betokened experience bravely met. As she scanned the face of every young girl in the procession, there was something so staunch and true in her appearance as to make it almost striking.
Then on a sudden, right in the midst of it, for a moment she forgot all about Elsie Marley, and what she was standing there for, in the vision that confronted her and surprisingly and instantaneously took her romantic heart by storm. A young girl came straight toward her—such a piquant, sparkling, buoyant young thing as she had never seen before—a small, slender, dark-eyed creature with short brown hair cut square like a little boy's and a charming mouth flanked by dimples that were almost like pockets.
So much she took in in that one long glance. Then, recovering herself, fearful lest she had been lost to all else about her longer than she knew, she glanced anxiously about for the fair, pale little Pritchard. But the radiant child stopped short before her and looked up into her face.
"Cousin Julia?" she asked in the sweetest voice Miss Pritchard had ever heard. She smiled half-shyly and the dimples deepened.
For a single instant, Miss Pritchard stood still and stared at the girl, not so much incredulous as stunned. Then she cried out:
"Sure," said the smiling child, holding out her hand. Miss Pritchard gathered her to her heart.
From that moment, all idea of sacrifice vanished forever. Miss Pritchard felt suddenly, amazingly, and incomparably blessed. Her realization that the girl's charming face and figure were matched by a most lovable personality came so quickly as to seem instantaneous. In very truth, Elsie's bubbling gayety and sweetness of disposition were as natural and inseparable as her very dimples.
At once, Miss Pritchard's life took on new color, new meaning. The change for her was far greater than if she had carried out her former intention and gone from work in the city to leisure in the country. She was in a new, strange, wonderful country where life was interesting, even thrilling, beyond anything she had ever known. She had not dreamed that youth could be at once so gay and blithe and yet so simple and generous, so spontaneous, so affectionately considerate of the older and the less richly endowed.
For her part, the eager, warm-hearted girl adored Miss Pritchard almost at sight. The strength and sincerity of the woman, her utter unselfishness, her wisdom, her humor, and her keen intelligence combined to make her the most impressive personality the sensitive young girl had ever encountered. Quite untroubled by the ethical aspect of the situation, she gave herself up to it wholly, only troubled lest she had gotten the better part of the exchange she had made with the real Elsie Marley; lest she be cheating the other out of companionship with this wonderful Cousin Julia.
No difficulty offered itself. Keen as she was, Miss Pritchard was without shadow of suspicion. Stare as she would, she couldn't discover any slightest resemblance to the Pritchards in the girl, yet she drew only the one conclusion.
"Elsie, you must be altogether a Marley," she said to her as they sat happily together on the third evening after the girl's arrival. And her voice indicated that she was quite satisfied to have it so.
"I'm certainly no Pritchard," returned Elsie coolly, and not without enjoyment, "begging your pardon, Cousin Julia."
"Well, of course, I ought to regret it, you being the last of the family; but I'm afraid I don't," returned Miss Pritchard. "You see I rather dreaded your coming as that of a double-dyed Pritchard. The Pritchards of my father's generation were pretty stiff, I confess, heavy and solemn and rather pompous. My mother who was a Moore, as no doubt you have heard, had a strong sense of humor, and didn't bring me up in very great awe of the family. She was thankful I didn't take after them, and so have I always been. I often think, what a misfortune had I had to have a Pritchard as a bedfellow and roommate all these years, as I must have had if I had taken after my father—who was, I believe, however, the mildest of the Pritchards, and very much altered by my mother's influence. And girls are usually like papa—as you are—and boys like mamma, they say. Surely, no girl could be less like her mother than you, dear."
Elsie sobered. One of the facts she most cherished was the knowledge that she resembled her adored mother in nature as well as in manner and personal appearance. It would be hard, nay, impossible, to give over that solace. But she told herself she must think Augusta Pritchard (what a name!) whenever Cousin Julia said mother to her.
"Of course, you don't remember your father, Elsie, but do you remember any other of the Marleys or know anything of them?"
"Just one member of the family," said Elsie, getting down from the window-seat. "I've heard about her ever since I can remember." And bowing low, she began to sing:
"Do you ken Elsie Marley, honey? The wife who sells the barley, honey? She won't get up to serve her swine, And do you ken Elsie Marley, honey?
Elsie Marley has grown so fine She won't get up to serve the swine, But lies in bed till eight or nine, And surely she does take her time.
Do you ken Elsie Marley, honey? The wife who sells the barley, honey? She won't get up to serve her swine, And do you ken Elsie Marley, honey?"
The wonder and admiration in Miss Pritchard's eyes couldn't be hidden. Elsie threw herself down on the settee by her side.
"That's the only Marley I've ever known, Cousin Julia, but she's rather a dear old body," she said and squeezed Miss Pritchard's arm affectionately.
"How very difficult it's going to be to explain now," Elsie Marley said to herself as she dressed on Friday morning. "How I wish I had done it that very first hour. Mr. Middleton would have understood, then, for I had just told him Elsie liked to act; and he wouldn't have cared. He couldn't have been really hurt as I am afraid he will be now. And yet, how can I help feeling glad I was here to take the library for him? And I did so enjoy doing it, too."
She decided that if Miss Stewart were able to go back this afternoon, she would leave directly after lunch and get the only train for New York that she knew—the one Elsie Moss had taken. And if she couldn't possibly explain in any other manner, she would have to write a note and steal quietly away. It wasn't a nice thing to do; yet she couldn't afford to let the difficulty of explaining the situation keep her here until Elsie Moss should have become so firmly established that it would be cruel to drag her back to Enderby.
On the other hand, as long as she had started in with the library work, if Miss Stewart wasn't well enough to attend this afternoon, she would remain one day more. And if she found that that was to be the case, she would spend her morning writing the note to Mr. Middleton to fall back upon in case of need, and a letter to Elsie Moss warning her of the change.
When she went down to the dining-room, Mr. Middleton had that same air of eagerness mingled with what seemed to Elsie assurance of the permanency of their relationship. After a little he inquired whether her unfamiliar work of the day before had tired her overmuch.
"Oh, no—Uncle John, not at all," she replied, consciously hampered by lack of vocabulary or of tone to express enthusiasm that was new to her.