BY JOHN BRECKENRIDGE ELLIS
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY
W. B. KING
TO MY MOTHER
I A KNOCK AT THE DOOR.
II A DISTURBING LAUGH.
III ON THE FOOT-BRIDGE.
IV THE WOMAN WHO WAS NOT MRS. GREGORY.
V WE REAP WHAT WE SOW.
VI MRS. GREGORY.
VII A FAMILY CONFERENCE.
VIII WAR DECLARED.
X AN AMBUSCADE.
XI THE NEW BRIDGE AT MIDNIGHT.
XII GRACE CAPTURES THE OUTPOSTS.
XIII ALLIANCE WITH ABBOTT.
XIV FIGHTING FOR HER LIFE.
XV IN SURE-ENOUGH COUNTRY.
XVI A TAMER OF LIONS.
XVII SHALL THE SECRET BE TOLD?
XVIII JUST THIRTY MINUTES.
XIX THE FIRST VICTORY.
XX THE ENEMY TRIUMPHS.
XXII THE STREET FAIR.
XXIII THE CONQUEROR.
XXIV NEAR THE SKY.
A KNOCK AT THE DOOR
Fran knocked at the front door. It was too dark for her to find the bell; however, had she found it, she would have knocked just the same.
At first, no one answered. That was not surprising, since everybody was supposed to be at the Union Camp-meeting that had been advertised for the last two months. Of course it was not beyond possibility that some one might have stayed at home to invite his soul instead of getting it saved; but that any one in Littleburg should go visiting at half-past eight, and especially that any one should come knocking at the door of this particular house, was almost incredible. No doubt that is why the young woman who finally opened the door— after Fran had subjected it to a second and more prolonged visitation of her small fist—looked at the stranger with surprise which was, in itself, reproof. Standing in the dim light that reached the porch from the hall, Fran's appearance was not above suspicion. She looked very dark, sharp-faced, and small. Her attitude suggested one who wanted something and had come to ask for it. The lady in the doorway believed herself confronted by a "camper"—one of those flitting birds of outer darkness who have no religion of their own, but who are always putting that of others to the proof.
The voice from the doorway was cool, impersonal, as if, by its very aloofness, it would push the wanderer away: "What do you want?"
"I want Hamilton Gregory," Fran answered promptly, without the slightest trace of embarrassment. "I'm told he lives here."
"Mr. Gregory"—offering the name with its title as a palpable rebuke—"lives here, but is not at home. What do you want, little girl?"
"Where is he?" Fran asked, undaunted.
At first the young woman was tempted to close the door upon the impudent gaze that never faltered in watching her, but those bright unwavering eyes, gleaming out of the gloom of straw hat and overshadowing hair, compelled recognition of some sort.
"He is at the camp-meeting," she answered reluctantly, irritated at opposition, and displeased with herself for being irritated. "What do you want with him? I will attend to whatever it is. I am acquainted with all of his affairs—I am his secretary."
"Where is that camp-meeting? How can I find the place?" was Fran's quick rejoinder. She could not explain the dislike rising within her. She was too young, herself, to consider the other's youth an advantage, but the beauty of the imperious woman in the doorway—why did it not stir her admiration?
Mr. Gregory's secretary reflected that, despite its seeming improbability, it might be important for him to see this queer creature who came to strange doors at night-time.
"If you will go straight down that road"—she pointed—"and keep on for about a mile and a half, you will come to the big tent. Mr. Gregory will be in the tent, leading the choir."
"All right." And turning her back on the door, Fran swiftly gained the front steps. Half-way down, she paused, and glanced over her thin shoulder. Standing thus, nothing was to be seen of her but a blurred outline, and the shining of her eyes.
"I guess," said Fran inscrutably, "you're not Mrs. Gregory."
"No," came the answer, with an almost imperceptible change of manner— a change as of gradual petrifaction, "I am not Mrs. Gregory." And with that the lady, who was not Mrs. Gregory, quietly but forcibly closed the door.
It was as if, with the closing of that door, she would have shut Fran out of her life.
A DISTURBING LAUGH
A long stretch of wooden sidewalks with here and there a leprous breaking out of granitoid; a succession of dwellings, each in its yard of bluegrass, maple trees, and whitewashed palings, with several residences fine enough to excite wonder—for modest cottages set the architectural pace in the village; a stretch of open country beyond the corporate limits, with a footbridge to span the deep ravine—and then, at last, a sudden glow in the darkness not caused by the moon, with a circle of stamping and neighing horses encompassing the glow.
The sermon was ended, the exhortation was at the point of loudest voice and most impassioned earnestness. A number of men, most of them young, thronged the footpath leading from the stiles to the tent. A few were smoking; all were waiting for the pretty girls to come forth from the Christian camp. Fran pushed her way among the idlers with admirable nonchalance, her sharp elbow ready for the first resistive pair of ribs.
The crowd outside did not argue a scarcity of seats under the canvas. Fran found a plank without a back, loosely disposed, and entirely unoccupied. She seated herself, straight as an Indian, and with the air of being very much at ease.
The scene was new to her. More than a thousand villagers, ranged along a natural declivity, looked down upon the platform of undressed pine. In front of the platform men and women were kneeling on the ground. Some were bathed in tears; some were praying aloud; some were talking to those who stood, or knelt beside them; some were clasping convulsive hands; all were oblivious of surroundings.
Occasionally one heard above the stentorian voice of the exhorter, above the prayers and exclamations of the "seekers", a sudden shout of exultation—"Bless the Lord!" or a rapturous "A-a-MEN!" Then a kneeling figure would rise, and the exhorter would break off his plea to cry, "Our brother has found the Lord!"
From the hundred members of the choir, Fran singled out the man she had been seeking for so many years. It was easy enough to distinguish him from the singers who crowded the platform, not only by his baton which proclaimed the choir-leader, but by his resemblance to the picture she had discovered in a New York Sunday Supplement.
Hamilton Gregory was clean-shaved except for a silken reddish mustache; his complexion was fair, his hair a shade between red and brown, his eyes blue. His finely marked face and striking bearing were stamped with distinction and grace.
It was strange to Fran that he did not once glance in her direction. True, there was nothing in her appearance to excite especial attention, but she had looked forward to meeting him ever since she could remember. Now that her eyes were fastened on his face, now that they were so near, sheltered by a common roof, how could he help feeling her presence?
The choir-leader rose and lifted his baton. At his back the hundred men and women obeyed the signal, while hymn-books fluttered open throughout the congregation. Suddenly the leader of the choir started into galvanic life. He led the song with his sweet voice, his swaying body, his frantic baton, his wild arms, his imperious feet. With all that there was of him, he conducted the melodious charge up the ramparts of sin and indifference. If in repose, Fran had thought him singularly handsome and attractive, she now found him inspiring. His blue eyes burned with exaltation while his magic voice seemed to thrill with more than human ecstasy. The strong, slim, white hand tensely grasping the baton, was the hand of a powerful chieftain wielded in behalf of the God of Battles.
On the left, the heavy bass was singing,
"One thing we know, Wherever we go— We reap what we sow, We reap what we sow."
While these words were being doled out at long and impressive intervals, like the tolling of a heavy bell, more than half a hundred soprano voices were hastily getting in their requisite number of half notes, thus—
"So scatter little, scatter little, scatter little, scatter little, Scatter little seeds of kindness."
In spite of the vast volume of sound produced by these voices, as well as by the accompaniment of two pianos and a snare-drum, the voice of Hamilton Gregory, soaring flute-like toward heaven, seemed to dart through the interstices of "rests", to thread its slender way along infinitesimal crevices of silence. One might have supposed that the booming bass, the eager chattering soprano, the tenor with its thin crust of upper layers, and the throaty fillings of the alto, could have left no vantage points for an obligato. Yet it was Hamilton Gregory's voice that bound all together in divine unity. As one listened, it was the inspired truth as uttered by Hamilton Gregory that brought the message home to conscience. As if one had never before been told that one reaps what one sows, uneasy memory started out of hidden places with its whisper of seed sown amiss. Tears rose to many eyes, and smothered sobs betrayed intense emotion.
Of those who were not in the least affected, Fran was one. She saw and heard Hamilton Gregory's impassioned earnestness, and divined his yearning to touch many hearts; nor did she doubt that he would then and there have given his life to press home upon the erring that they must ultimately reap what they were sowing. Nevertheless she was altogether unmoved. It would have been easier for her to laugh than to cry.
Although the preacher had ceased his exhortations for the singing of the evangelistic hymn, he was by no means at the end of his resources. Standing at the margin of the platform, looking out on the congregation, he slowly moved back and forth his magnetic arms in parallel lines. Without turning his body, it was as if he were cautiously sweeping aside the invisible curtain of doubt that swung between the unsaved and the altar. "This way," he seemed to say. "Follow my hands."
Not one word did he speak. Even between the verses, when he might have striven against the pianos and the snare-drum, he maintained his terrible silence. But as he fixed his ardent eyes upon space, as he moved those impelling arms, a man would rise here, a woman start up there—reluctantly, or eagerly, the unsaved would press their way to the group kneeling at the front. Prayers and groans rose louder. Jubilant shouts of religious victory were more frequent. One could, now hardly hear the choir as it insisted—
"We reap what we sow, We reap what we sow."
Suddenly the evangelist smote his hands together, a signal for song and prayer to cease.
Having obtained a silence that was breathless he leaned over the edge of the platform, and addressed a man who knelt upon the ground:
"Brother Clinton, can't you get it?"
The man shook his head. "You've been kneeling there night after night," the evangelist continued; "don't you feel that the Lord loves you? Can't you feel it? Can't you feel it now? Can't you get it? Can't you get it now? Brother Clinton, I want you to get through before these revival services close. They close this night. I go away to-morrow. This may be your last opportunity. I want you to get it now. All these waiting friends want you to get it now. All these praying neighbors want to see you get it. Can't you get through to- night? Just quietly here, without any excitement, without any noise or tumult, just you and your soul alone together—Brother Clinton, can't you get through to-night?"
Brother Clinton shook his head.
Fran laughed aloud.
The evangelist had already turned to Hamilton Gregory as a signal for the hymn to be resumed, for sometimes singing helped them "through", but the sound of irreverent laughter chilled his blood. To his highly wrought emotional nature, that sound of mirth came as the laughter of fiends over the tragedy of an immortal soul.
"Several times," he cried, with whitened face, "these services have been disturbed by the ungodly." He pointed an inflexible finger at Fran: "Yonder sits a little girl who should not have been allowed in this tent unaccompanied by her parents. Brethren! Too much is at stake, at moments like these, to shrink from heroic measures. Souls are here, waiting to be saved. Let that little girl be removed. Where are the ushers? I hope she will go without disturbance, but go she shall! Now, Brother Gregory, sing."
The corps of ushers had been sadly depleted by the young men's inclination to bivouac outside, where one could see without being obliged to hear. As the song swept over the worshipers in a wave of pleading, such ushers as still remained, held a brief consultation. The task assigned them did not seem included in their proper functions. Only one could be found to volunteer as policeman, and he only because the evangelist's determined eye and rigid arm had never ceased to indicate the disturber of the peace.
Fran was furious; her small white face seemed cut in stone as she stared at the evangelist. How could she have known she was going to laugh? Her tumultuous emotions, inspired by the sight of Hamilton Gregory, might well have found expression in some other way. That laugh had been as a darting of tongue-flame directed against the armored Christian soldier whose face was so spiritually beautiful, whose voice was so eloquent.
Fran was suddenly aware of a man pausing irresolutely at the end of the plank that held her erect. Without turning her head, she asked in a rather spiteful voice, "Are you the sheriff?"
He spoke with conciliatory persuasiveness: "Won't you go with me, little girl?"
Fran turned impatiently to glare at the usher.
He was a fine young fellow of perhaps twenty-four, tall and straight, clean and wholesome. His eyes were sincere and earnest yet they promised much in the way of sunny smiles—at the proper time and place. His mouth was frank, his forehead open, his shoulders broad.
Fran rose as swiftly as if a giant hand had lifted her to her feet. "Come on, then," she said in a tone somewhat smothered. She climbed over the "stringer" at the end of her plank, and marched behind the young man as if oblivious of devouring eyes. The men at the tent- entrance scurried out of the way, scattering the shavings and sawdust that lined the path.
As they passed the last pole that supported a gasolene-burner, Fran glanced up shyly from under her broad hat. The light burned red upon the young usher's face, and there was something in the crimson glow, or in the face, that made her feel like crying, just because—or so she fancied—it revived the recollection of her loneliness. And as she usually did what she felt like doing, she cried, silently, as she followed the young man out beneath the stars.
ON THE FOOT-BRIDGE
To the young usher, the change of scene was rather bewildering. His eyes were still full of the light from gasolene-burners, his ears still rang with the confusion of tent-noise into which entered the prolonged monotones of inarticulate groanings, and the explosive suddenness of seemingly irrelevant Amens. Above all, he tingled from the electric atmosphere of intense religious excitement; he was charged with currents at a pressure so high that his nerves were unresponsive to dull details of ordinary life.
Nothing just then mattered except the saving of souls. Having faithfully attended the camp-meeting for three weeks he found other interests blotted out. The village as a whole had given itself over to religious ecstasy. Those who had professed their faith left no stone unturned in leading others to the altar, as if life could not resume its routine until the unconverted were brought to kneel at the evangelist's feet.
As Abbott Ashton reflected that, because of this young girl with the mocking laugh, he was losing the climacteric expression of the three- weeks' campaign, his displeasure grew. Within him was an undefined thought vibration akin to surprise, caused by the serenity of the hushed sky. Was it not incongruous that the heavens should be so peaceful with their quiet star-beacons, while man was exerting himself to the utmost of gesture and noise to glorify the Maker of that calm canopy? From the weather-stained canvas rolled the warning, not unmusically:
"We reap what we sow, We reap what we sow."
Above the tide of melody, the voice of the evangelist rose in a scream, appalling in its agony—"Oh, men and women, why will you die, why will you die?"
But the stars, looking down at the silent earth, spoke not of death, spoke only as stars, seeming to say, "Here are April days, dear old earth, balmy springtime and summer harvest before us!—What merry nights we shall pass together!" The earth answered with a sudden white smile, for the moon had just risen above the distant woods.
At the stile where the footpath from the tent ended, Abbott paused. Why should he go farther? This scoffer, the one false note in the meeting's harmony, had been silenced. "There," he said, showing the road. His tone was final. It meant, "Depart."
Fran spoke in a choking voice, "I'm afraid." It was not until then, that he knew she had been crying, for not once had he looked back. That she should cry, changed everything. And no wonder she was afraid. To the fences on either side of the country road, horses and mules were tethered. Torch-lights cast weird shadows. Here and there lounged dimly some fellow who preferred the society of side-kicking, shrilly neighing horses, to the suing melody of soul-seekers.
"But I must go back to the tent," said the usher softly, not surprised that a little girl should be afraid to venture among these vague terrors.
"I am so little," Fran said plaintively, "and the world is so large."
Abbott stood irresolute. To take Fran back to the tent would destroy the Influence, but it seemed inhuman to send her away. He temporized rather weakly, "But you came here alone."
"But I'm not going away alone," said Fran. Her voice was still damp, but she had kept her resolution dry.
In the gloom, he vainly sought to discern her features. "Whose little girl are you?" he asked, not without an accent of gentle commiseration.
Fran, one foot on the first step of the stile, looked up at him; the sudden flare of a torch revealed the sorrow in her eyes. "I am nobody's little girl," she answered plaintively.
Her eyes were so large, and so soft and dark, that Abbott was glad she was only a child of fourteen—or fifteen, perhaps. Her face was so strangely eloquent in its yearning for something quite beyond his comprehension, that he decided, then and there, to be her friend. The unsteady light prevented definite perception of her face. He noted that her legs were thin, her arms long, her body slight, though there was a faint suggestion of curving outline of hips and bosom that lent an effect of charm.
There was, in truth, an element of charm in all he could discern. Even the thin limbs appealed to him oddly. Possibly the big hat helped to conceal or accentuate—at any rate, the effect was somewhat elfish. As for those great and luminously soft black eyes, he could not for the life of him have said what he saw in them to set his blood tingling with feeling of protecting tenderness. Possibly it was her trust in him, for as he gazed into the earnest eyes of Fran, it was like looking into a clear pool to see oneself.
"Nobody's little girl?" he repeated, inexpressibly touched that it should be so. What a treasure somebody was denied! "Are you a stranger in the town?"
"Never been here before," Fran answered mournfully.
"But why did you come?"
"I came to find Hamilton Gregory."
The young man was astonished. "Didn't you see him in the tent, leading the choir?"
"He has a house in town," Fran said timidly. "I don't want to bother him while he is in his religion. I want to wait for him at his house. Oh," she added earnestly, "if you would only show me the way."
Just as if she did not know the way!
Abbott Ashton was now completely at her mercy. "So you know Brother Gregory, do you?" he asked, as he led her over the stiles and down the wagon-road.
"Never saw him in my life," Fran replied casually. She knew how to say it prohibitively, but she purposely left the bars down, to find out if the young man was what she hoped.
And he was. He did not ask a question. They sought the grass-grown path bordering the dusty road; as they ascended the hill that shut out a view of the village, to their ears came the sprightly, Twentieth Century hymn. What change had come over Ashton that the song now seemed as strangely out of keeping as had the peacefulness of the April night, when he first left the tent? He felt the prick of remorse because in the midst of nature, he had so soon forgotten about souls.
Fran caught the air and softly sang—"We reap what we sow—"
"Don't!" he reproved her. "Child, that means nothing to you."
"Yes, it does, too," she returned, rather impudently. She continued to sing and hum until the last note was smothered in her little nose. Then she spoke: "However—it means a different thing to me from what it means to the choir."
He looked at her curiously. "How different?" he smiled.
"To me, it means that we really do reap what we sow, and that if we've done something very wrong in the past—ugh! Better look out— trouble's coming. That's what the song means to me."
"And will you kindly tell me what it means to the choir?"
"Yes, I'll tell you what it means to the choir. It means sitting on benches and singing, after a sermon; and it means a tent, and a great evangelist and a celebrated soloist—and then going home to act as if it wasn't so."
Abbott was not only astonished, but pained. Suddenly he had lost "Nobody's little girl", to be confronted by an elfish spirit of mischief. He asked with constraint, "Did this critical attitude make you laugh out, in the tent?"
"I wouldn't tell you why I laughed," Fran declared, "for a thousand dollars. And I've seen more than that in my day."
They walked on. He was silent, she impenetrable. At last she said, in a changed voice, "My name's Fran. What's yours?"
He laughed boyishly. "Mine's Abbott."
His manner made her laugh sympathetically. It was just the manner she liked best—gay, frank, and a little mischievous. "Abbott?" she repeated; "well—is that all?"
"Ashton is the balance; Abbott Ashton. And yours?"
"The rest of mine is Nonpareil—funny name, isn't it!—Fran Nonpareil. It means Fran, the small type; or Fran who's unlike everybody else; or—Oh, there are lots of meanings to me. Some find one, some another, some never understand."
It was because Abbott Ashton was touched, that he spoke lightly:
"What a very young Nonpareil to be wandering about the world, all by yourself!"
She was grateful for his raillery. "How young do you think?"
"Let me see. Hum! You are only—about—" She laughed mirthfully at his air of preposterous wisdom. "About thirteen—fourteen, yes, you are more than fi-i-ifteen, more than...But take off that enormous hat, little Nonpareil. There's no use guessing in the dark when the moon's shining."
Fran was gleeful. "All right," she cried in one of her childish tones, shrill, fresh, vibratory with the music of innocence.
By this time they had reached the foot-bridge that spanned the deep ravine. Here the wagon-road made its crossing of a tiny stream, by slipping under the foot-bridge, some fifteen feet below. Down there, all was semi-gloom, pungent fragrance of weeds, cooling breath of the half-dried brook, mystery of space between steep banks. But on a level with the bridge, meadow-lands sloped away from the ravine on either hand. On the left lay straggling Littleburg with its four or five hundred houses, faintly twinkling, and beyond the meadows on the right, a fringe of woods started up as if it did not belong there, but had come to be seen, while above the woods swung, the big moon with Fran on the foot-bridge to shine for.
Fran's hat dangled idly in her hand as she drew herself with backward movement upon the railing. The moonlight was full upon her face; so was the young man's gaze. One of her feet found, after leisurely exploration, a down-slanting board upon the edge of which she pressed her heel for support. The other foot swayed to and fro above the flooring, while a little hand on either side of her gripped the top rail.
"Here I am," she said, shaking back rebellious hair.
Abbott Ashton studied her with grave deliberation—it is doubtful if he had ever before so thoroughly enjoyed his duties as usher. He pronounced judicially, "You are older than you look."
"Yes," Fran explained, "my experience accounts for that. I've had lots."
Abbott's lingering here beneath the moon when he should have been hurrying back to the tent, showed how unequally the good things of life—experience, for instance—are divided. "You are sixteen," he hazarded, conscious of a strange exhilaration.
Fran dodged the issue behind a smile—"And I don't think you are so awfully old."
Abbott was brought to himself with a jolt that threw him hard upon self-consciousness. "I am superintendent of the public school." The very sound of the words rang as a warning, and he became preternaturally solemn.
"Goodness!" cried Fran, considering his grave mouth and thoughtful eyes, "does it hurt that bad?"
Abbott smiled. All the same, the position of superintendent must not be bartered away for the transitory pleasures of a foot-bridge. "We had better hurry, if you please," he said gravely.
"I am so afraid of you," murmured Fran. "But I know the meeting will last a long time yet. I'd hate to have to wait long at Mr. Gregory's with that disagreeable lady who isn't Mrs. Gregory."
Abbott was startled. Why did she thus designate Mr. Gregory's secretary? He looked keenly at Fran, but she only said plaintively:
"Can't we stay here?"
He was disturbed and perplexed. It was as if a flitting shadow from some unformed cloud of thought-mist had fallen upon the every-day world out of his subconsciousness. Why did this stranger speak of Miss Grace Noir as the "lady who isn't Mrs. Gregory"? The young man at times had caught himself thinking of her in just that way.
Looking intently at the other as if to divine her secret thoughts, he forgot momentarily his uneasiness. One could not long be troubled by thought-mists from subconsciousness, when looking at Fran, for Fran was a fact. He sighed involuntarily. She was such a fact!
Perhaps she wasn't really pretty—but homely? by no means. Her thin face slanted to a sharpened chin. Her hair, drawn to the corner of either eye, left a white triangle whose apex pointed to the highest reach of the forehead. Thus the face, in all its contour, was rising, or falling, to a point. This sharpness of feature was in her verylaugh itself; while in that hair-encircled oval was the light of elfish mockery, but of no human joy.
School superintendents do not enjoy being mystified. "Really," Abbott declared abruptly, "I must go back to the meeting."
Fran had heard enough about his leaving her. She decided to stop that once and for all. "If you go back, I go, too!" she said conclusively. She gave him a look to show that she meant it, then became all humility.
"Please don't be cross with little Nonpareil," she coaxed. "Please don't want to go back to that meeting. Please don't want to leave me. You are so learned and old and so strong—you don't care why a little girl laughs."
Fran tilted her head sidewise, and the glance of her eyes proved irresistible. "But tell me about Mr. Gregory," she pleaded, "and don't mind my ways. Ever since mother died, I've found nothing in this world but love that was for somebody else, and trouble that was for me."
The pathetic cadence of the slender-throated tones moved Abbott more than he cared to show.
"If you're in trouble," he exclaimed, "you've sought the right helper in Mr. Gregory. He's the richest man in the county, yet lives so simply, so frugally—they keep few servants—and all because he wants to do good with his money."
"I guess his secretary is considerable help to him," Fran observed.
"I don't know how he'd carry on his great work without her. I think Mr. Gregory is one of the best men that ever lived."
Fran asked with simplicity, "Great church worker?"
"He's as good as he is rich. He never misses a service. I can't give the time to it that he does—to the church, I mean; I have the ambition to hold, one day, a chair at Yale or Harvard—that means to teach in a university—" he broke off, in explanation.
Fran held out her swinging foot, and examined the dusty shoe. "Oh," she said in a relieved tone, "I was afraid it meant to sit down all the time. Lots of people are ambitious not to move if they can help it."
He looked at her a little uncertainly, then went on: "So it keeps me studying hard, to fit myself for the future. I hope to be reelected superintendent in Littleburg again next year,—this is my first term— there is so much time to study, in Littleburg. After next year, I'll try for something bigger; just keep working my way up and up—"
He had not meant to tell her about himself, but Fran's manner of lifting her head to look at him, as he finished each phrase, had beguiled him to the next. The applause in her eyes warmed his heart.
"You see," said Abbott with a deprecatory smile, "I want to make myself felt in the world."
Fran's eyes shone with an unspoken "Hurrah!" and as he met her gaze, he felt a thrill of pleasure from the impression that he was what she wanted him to be.
Fran allowed his soul to bathe a while in divine eye-beams of flattering approval, then gave him a little sting to bring him to life. "You are pretty old, not to be married," she remarked. "I hope you won't find some woman to put an end to your high intentions, but men generally do. Men fall in love, and when they finally pull themselves out, they've lost sight of the shore they were headed for."
A slight color stole to Abbott's face. In fact, he was rather hard hit. This wandering child was no doubt a witch. He looked in the direction of the tent, as if to escape the weaving of her magic. But he only said, "That sounds—er—practical."
"Yes," said Fran, wondering who "the woman" was, "if you can't be practical, there's no use to be. Well, I can see you now, at the head of some university—you'll make it, because you're so much like me. Why, when they first began teaching me to feed—Good gracious! What am I talking about?" She hurried on, as if to cover her confusion. "But I haven't got as far in books as you have, so I'm not religious."
"Books aren't religion," he remonstrated, then added with unnecessary gentleness, "Little Nonpareil! What an idea!"
"Yes, books are," retorted Fran, shaking back her hair, swinging her foot, and twisting her body impatiently. "That's the only kind of religion I know anything about—just books, just doctrines; what you ought to believe and how you ought to act—all nicely printed and bound between covers. Did you ever meet any religion outside of a book, moving up and down, going about in the open?"
He answered in perfect confidence, "Mr. Gregory lives his religion daily—the kind that helps people, that makes the unfortunate happy."
Fran was not hopeful. "Well, I've come all the way from New York to see him. I hope he can make me happy. I'm certainly unfortunate enough. I've got all the elements he needs to work on."
"From New York!" He considered the delicate form, the youthful face, and whistled. "Will you please tell me where your home is, Nonpareil?"
She waved her arm inclusively. "America. I wish it were concentrated in some spot, but it's just spread out thin under the Stars and Stripes. My country's about all I have." She broke off with a catch in her voice—she tried to laugh, but it was no use.
The high moon which had been obscured by gathering cloud banks, found an opening high above the fringe of woods, and cast a shining glow upon her face, and touched her figure as with silver braid. Out of this light looked Fran's eyes as dark as deepest shadows, and out of the unfathomable depths of her eyes glided two tears as pure as their source in her heart.
Suddenly it came to Abbott Ashton that he understood the language of moon, watching woods, meadow-lands, even the gathering rain-clouds; all spoke of the universal brotherhood of man with nature; a brotherhood including the most ambitious superintendent of schools and a homeless Nonpareil; a brotherhood to be confirmed by the clasping of sincere hands. There was danger in such a confirmation, for it carried Abbott beyond the limits that mark a superintendent's confines.
As he stood on the bridge, holding Fran's hand in a warm and sympathetic pressure, he was not unlike one on picket-service who slips over the trenches to hold friendly parley with the enemy. Abbott did not know there was any danger in this brotherly handclasp; but that was because he could not see a fleshy and elderly lady slowly coming down the hill. As superintendent, he should doubtless have considered his responsibilities to the public; he did consider them when the lady, breathless and severe, approached the bridge, while every pound of her ample form cast its weight upon the seal of her disapproving, low-voiced and significant, "Good evening, Professor Ashton."
The lady heard, but she swept on without once glancing back. There was in her none of that saline tendency that made of Lot a widower; the lady desired to see no more.
Fran opened her eyes at Abbott to their widest extent, as she demurely asked, "How cold is it? My thermometer is frozen."
The young man did not betray uneasiness, though he was really alarmed, for his knowledge of the fleshy lady enabled him to foresee gathering clouds more sinister than those overhead. The obvious thing to be done was to release the slender hand; he did so rather hastily.
"Have I got you into trouble?" Fran asked, with her elfish laugh. "If so, we'll be neighbors, for that's where I live. Who was she?"
"Miss Sapphira Clinton," he answered as, by a common impulse, they began walking toward Hamilton Gregory's house. "Bob Clinton's sister, and my landlady." The more Abbott thought of his adventure, the darker it grew; before they, reached their destination, it had become a deep gray.
"Do you mean the 'Brother Clinton' that couldn't get 'through'?"
"Yes....He's the chairman of the School Board."
"Ah!" murmured Fran comprehendingly. At Gregory's gate, she said, "Now you run back to the tent and I'll beard the lion by myself. I know it has sharp teeth, but I guess it won't bite me. Do try to get back to the tent before the meeting's over. Show yourself there. Parade up and down the aisles."
He laughed heartily, all the sorrier for her because he found himself in trouble.
"It was fun while it lasted, wasn't it!" Fran exclaimed, with a sudden gurgle.
"Part of it was," he admitted. "Good-by, then, little Nonpareil."
He held out his hand.
"No, sir!" cried Fran, clasping her hands behind her. "That's what got you into trouble. Good-by. Run for it!"
THE WOMAN WHO WAS NOT MRS. GREGORY
Hardly had Abbott Ashton disappeared down the village vista of moonlight and shadow-patches, before Fran's mood changed. Instead of seeking to carry out her threat of bearding the lion in the den, she sank down on the porch-steps, gathered her knees in her arms, and stared straight before her.
She made a woebegone little figure with her dusty shoes, her black stockings, her huddled body, while the big hat threw all into deepest gloom. From hat to drawn-in feet, she was not unlike a narrow edge of darkness splitting the moon-sheen, a somber shadow cast by goodness- knows-what and threatening goodness-knows-whom.
Though of skilful resources, of impregnable resolution, Fran could be despondent to the bluest degree; and though competent at the clash, she often found herself purpling on the eve of the crisis. The moment had come to test her fighting qualities, yet she drooped despondently.
Hamilton Gregory was coming through the gate. As he halted in surprise, the black shadow rose slowly, wearily. He, little dreaming that he was confronted by a shadow from the past, saw in her only the girl who had been publicly expelled from the tent.
The choir-leader had expected his home-coming to be crowned by a vision very different. He came up the walk slowly, not knowing what to say. She waited, outwardly calm, inwardly gathering power. White-hot action from Fran, when the iron was to be welded. Out of the deepening shadows her will leaped keen as a blade.
She addressed him, "Good evening, Mr. Gregory."
He halted. When he spoke, his tone expressed not only a general disapproval of all girls who wander away from their homes in the night, but an especial repugnance to one who could laugh during religious services. "Do you want to speak to me, child?"
"Yes." The word was almost a whisper. The sound of his voice had weakened her.
"What do you want?" He stepped up on the porch. The moon had vanished behind the rising masses of storm-clouds, not to appear again, but the light through the glass door revealed his poetic features. Flashes of lightning as yet faint but rapid in recurrence, showed his beauty as that of a young man. Fran remained silent, moved more than she could have thought possible. He stared intently, but under that preposterous hat, she was practically invisible, save as a black shadow. He asked again, with growing impatience, "What do you want?"
His unfriendliness gave her the spur she needed. "I want a home," she said decidedly.
Hamilton Gregory was seriously disturbed. However evil-disposed, the waif should not be left to wander aimlessly about the streets. Of the three hotels in Littleburg, the cheapest was not overly particular. He would take her there. "Do you mean to tell me," he temporized, "that you are absolutely alone?"
Fran's tone was a little hard, not because she felt bitter, but lest she betray too great feeling, "Absolutely alone in the world."
He was sorry for her; at the same time he was subject to the reaction of his exhausting labors as song-leader. "Then," he said, with tired resignation, "if you'll follow me, I'll take you where you can spend the night, and to-morrow, I'll try to find you work."
"Work!" She laughed. "Oh, thank you!" Her accent was that of repudiation. Work, indeed!
He drew back in surprise and displeasure.
"You didn't understand me," she resumed. "What I want is a home. I don't want to follow you anywhere. This is where I want to stay."
"You can not stay here," he answered with a slight smile at the presumptuous request, "but I'm willing to pay for a room at the hotel—"
At this moment, the door was opened by the young woman who, some hours earlier, had responded to Fran's knocking. Footsteps upon the porch had told of Gregory's return.
The lady who was not Mrs. Gregory, was so pleased to see the gentleman who was Mr. Gregory—they had not met since the evening meal—that, at first, she was unaware of the black shadow; and Mr. Gregory, in spite of his perplexity, forgot the shadow also, so cheered was he by the glimpse of his secretary as she stood in the brightly lighted hall. Such moments of delighted recognition are infinitesimal when a third person, however shadowy, is present; yet had the world been there, this exchange of glances must have taken place.
Fran did not understand—her very wisdom blinded her as with too great light. She had seen so much of the world that, on finding a tree bearing apples, she at once classified it as an apple tree. To Gregory, Grace Noir was but a charming and conscientious sympathizer in his life-work, the atmosphere in which he breathed freest. He had not breathed freely for half a dozen hours—no wonder he was glad to see her. To Grace Noir, Hamilton Gregory was but a benefactor to mankind, a man of lofty ideals whom it was a privilege to aid, and since she knew that her very eyes gave him strength, no wonder she was glad to see him.
Could Fran have read their thoughts, she would not have found the slightest consciousness of any shade of evil in their sympathetic comradeship. As she could read only their faces, she disliked more than ever the tall, young, and splendidly formed secretary.
"Oh!" said Grace with restraint, discovering Fran.
"Yes," Fran said with her elfish smile, "back again."
Just without the portal, Hamilton Gregory paused irresolutely. He did not know what course to pursue, so he repeated vacantly, "I am willing to pay—"
Fran interrupted flippantly: "I have all the money I want." Then she passed swiftly into the hall, rudely brushing past the secretary.
Gregory could only follow. He spoke to Grace in a low voice, telling all he knew of the night wanderer. Her attitude called for explanations, but he would have given them anyway, in that low confidential murmur. He did not know why it was—or seek to know— butwhenever he spoke to Grace, it was natural to use a low tone, as if modulating his touch to sensitive strings—as if the harmony resulting from the interplay of their souls called for the soft pedal.
"What is to be done?" Grace inquired. Her attitude of reserve toward Gregory which Fran's presence had inspired, melted to potential helpfulness; at the same time, her dislike for the girl solidified. That Fran should have laughed aloud in the tent, removed her from the secretary's understanding. But the worst indictment had been pronounced against her by her own shameless tongue. That one so young, without a home, without fear of the dark streets, should have all the money she wants....
"What do you advise?" Gregory asked his secretary gently.
Grace cast a disdainful look at Fran. Then she turned to her employer and her deliciously curved face changed most charmingly. "I think," she responded with a faint shake of rebuke for his leniency, "that you should not need my advice in this matter." She had occasionally feared that his irresolution at moments calling for important decisions hinted at weakness. Why should he stand apparently helpless before this small bundle of arrogant impudence?
Gregory turned upon Fran with affected harshness. "You must go." He was annoyed that Grace should imagine him weak.
Fran's face hardened. It became an ax of stone, sharpened at each end, with eyes, nose, and mouth in a narrow line of cold defiance. To Grace, the acute wedge of white forehead, gleaming its way to the roots of the black hair, and the sharp chin cutting its way down from the tightly drawn mouth, spoke only of cunning. She regarded Fran as a fox, brought to bay.
Fran spoke with calm deliberation: "I am not going away."
"I would advise you," said Grace, looking down at her from under drooping lids, "to go at once, for a storm is rising. Do you want to be caught in the rain?"
Fran looked up at Grace, undaunted. "I want to speak to Mr. Gregory. If you are the manager of this house, he and I can go outdoors. I don't mind getting wet. I've been in all kinds of weather."
Grace looked at Gregory, Her silences were effective weapons.
"I have no secrets from this lady," he said, looking into Grace's eyes, answering her silence. "What do you want to say to me, child?"
Fran shrugged her shoulders, always looking at Grace, while neither of the others looked at her. "Very well, then, of course it doesn't matter to me, but I thought it might to Mr. Gregory. Since he hasn't any secrets from you, of course he has told you that one of nearly twenty years ago—"
It was not the rumble of distant thunder, but a strange exclamation from the man that interrupted her; it was some such cry as human creatures may have uttered before the crystallizing of recurring experiences into the terms of speech.
Fran gave quick, relentless blows: "Of course he has told you all about his Springfield life—"
"Silence!" shouted Gregory, quivering from head to foot. The word was like an imprecation, and for a time it kept hissing between his locked teeth.
"And of course," Fran continued, tilting up her chin as if to drive in the words, "since you know all of his secrets—all of them—you have naturally been told the most important one. And so you know that when he was boarding with his cousin in Springfield and attending the college there, something like twenty years ago—"
"Leave us!" Gregory cried, waving a violent arm at his secretary, as if to sweep her beyond the possibility of overhearing another word.
"Leave you—with her?" Grace stammered, too amazed by his attitude to feel offended.
"Yes, yes, yes! Go at once!" He seemed the victim of some mysterious terror.
Grace compressed her full lips till they were thinned to a white line. "Do you mean for ever?"
"Oh, Grace—I beg your pardon—Miss Grace—I don't mean that, of course. What could I do without you? Nothing, nothing, Grace—you are the soul of my work. Don't look at me so cruelly."
"Then you just mean," Grace said steadily, "for me to go away for a little while?"
"Only half an hour; that's all. Only half an hour, and then come back to me, and I will explain."
"You needn't go at all, on my account," observed Fran, with a twist of her mouth. "It's nothing to me whether you go or stay."
"She has learned a secret," Gregory stammered, "that vitally affects— affects some people—some friends of mine. I must talk to her about— about that secret, just for a little while. Half an hour, Miss Grace, that is all. That is really all—then come back to me. You understand that it's on account of the secret that I ask you to leave us. You understand that I would never send you away from me if I had my way, don't you, Grace?"
"I understand that you want me to go now," Grace Noir replied, unresponsive. She ascended the stairway, at each step seeming to mount that much the higher into an atmosphere of righteous remoteness.
No one who separated Gregory from his secretary could enjoy his toleration, but Fran had struck far below the surface of likings and dislikings. She had turned back the covering of conventionality to lay bare the quivering heartstrings of life itself. There was no time to hesitate. The stone ax which on other occasions might be a laughing elfish face was now held ready for battle.
"Hadn't we better go in a room where we can talk privately?" Fran asked. "I don't like this hall. That woman would just as soon listen over the banisters as not. I've seen lots of people like her, and I understand her kind."
WE REAP WHAT WE SOW
If anything could have prejudiced Hamilton Gregory against Fran's interests it would have been her slighting allusion to the one who typified his most exalted ideals as "that woman". But Fran was to him nothing but an agent bringing out of the past a secret he had preserved for almost twenty years. This stranger knew of his youthful folly, and she must be prevented from communicating it to others. It was from no sense of aroused conscience that he hastened to lead her to the front room. In this crisis, something other than shuddering recoil from haunting deeds was imperative; unlovely specters must be made to vanish.
How much did this girl know? And how could her silence be purchased? His conscience was seldom asleep; but coals of remorse are endurable, however galling, if the winds of publicity do not threaten to fan them to a blaze.
He tried desperately to cover his dread under a voice of harshness: "What have you to say to me?"
Fran had lost the insolent composure which the secretary had inspired. Now that she was alone with Hamilton Gregory, it seemed impossible to speak. She clasped and unclasped her hands. She opened her mouth, but her lips were dry. The wind had risen, and as it went moaning past the window, it seemed to speak of the yearning of years passing in the night, unsatisfied. At last came the words muffled, frightened—"I know all about it."
"All about what, child?" He had lost his harshness. His voice was almost coaxing, as if entreating the mercy of ignorance.
Fran gasped, "I know all about it—I know—" She was terrified by the thought that perhaps she would not be able to tell him. Her head grew light; she seemed floating away into dark space, as if drawn by the fleeing wind, while the man before her was magnified. She leaned heavily upon a table with hand turned backward, whitening her fingertips by the weight thrown on them.
"About what?" he repeated with the caution of one who fears. He could not doubt the genuineness of her emotion; but he would not accept her statement of its cause until he must.
"Oh," cried Fran, catching a tempestuous breath, uneven, violent, "you know what I mean—that!"
The dew glistened on his brow, but he doggedly stood on the defensive. "You are indefinite," he muttered, trying to appear bold.
She knew he did not understand because he would not, and now she realized that he would, if possible, deny. His bearing suggested something so foreign to her own nature, that it gave her strength. She had been afraid to witness the emotion her knowledge might excite, but all he revealed was a determination to avoid the issue.
Pretense and sham always hardened her. "Then," she said slowly, "I will be definite. I will tell you the things it would have been better for you to tell me. Your early home was in New York, but you had a cousin living in Springfield, where there was a very good college. Your parents were anxious to get you away from the temptations of a big city until you were of age. So you were sent to live with your cousin and attend college. You were with him three or four years, and at last the time came for graduation. Shall I go on?"
He fought desperately for self-preservation. "What is there in all this?"
"You had married, in the meantime," Fran said coldly; "married secretly. That was about nineteen years ago. She was only about eighteen. After graduation, you were to go to New York, break the news to your father, come back to Springfield for your wife, and acknowledge her. You graduated; you went to your father. Did you come back?"
"My God!" groaned the man. So she knew everything; must he admit it? "What is all this to you?" he burst forth. "Who and what are you, anyway—and why do you come here with your story? If it were true—"
"True!" said Fran bitterly. "If you've forgotten, why not go to Springfield and ask the first old citizen you meet? Or you might write to some one you used to know, and inquire. If you prefer, I'll send for one of your old professors, and pay his expenses. They took a good deal of interest in the young college student who married and neglected Josephine Derry. They haven't forgotten it, if you have."
"You don't know," he gasped, "that there's a penalty for coming to people's houses to threaten them with supposed facts in their lives. You don't know that the jails are ready to punish blackmailing, for you are only a little girl and don't understand such things. I give you warning. Although you are in short dresses—"
"Yes," remarked Fran dryly, "I thought that would be an advantage to you. It ought to make things easier."
"How an advantage to me? Easier? What have I to do with you?"
"I thought," Fran said coolly, "that it would be easier for you to take me into the house as a little girl than as a grown woman. You'll remember I told you I've come here to stay."
"To stay!" he echoed, shrinking back. "You?"
"Yes," she said, all the cooler for his attitude of repulsion. "I want a home. Yes, I'm going to stay. I want to belong to somebody."
He cried out desperately, "But what am I to do? This will ruin me—oh, it's true, all you've said—I don't deny it. But I tell you, girl, you will ruin me. Is all the work of my life to be overturned? I shall go mad."
"No, you won't," Fran calmly assured him.
"You'll do what every one has to do, sooner or later—face the situation. You're a little late getting to it, but it was coming all the time. You can let me live here as an adopted orphan, or any way you please. The important fact to me is that I'm going to live here. But I don't want to make it hard for you, truly I don't."
"Don't you?" He spoke not loudly, but with tremendous pressure of desire. "Then, for God's sake, go back! Go back to—to wherever, you came from. I'll pay all expenses. You shall have all you want—"
"All I want," Fran responded, "is a home, and that's something people can't buy. Get used to the thought of my staying here; that will make it easy."
"Easy!" he ejaculated. "Then it's your purpose to compel me to give you shelter because of this secret—you mean to ruin me. I'll not be able to account for you, and they will question—my wife will want to know, and—and others as well."
"Now, now," said Fran, with sudden gentleness, "don't be so excited, don't take it so hard. Let them question. I'll know how to keep from exposing you. But I do want to belong to somebody, and after I've been here a while, and you begin to like me, I'll tell you everything. I knew the Josephine Derry that you deserted—she raised me, and I know she loved you to the end. Didn't you ever care for her, not even at the first, when you got her to keep your marriage secret until you could speak to your father face to face? You must have loved her then. And she's the best friend I ever had. Since she died I've wandered— and—and I want a home."
The long loneliness of years found expression in her eager voice and pleading eyes, but he was too engrossed with his own misfortunes to heed her emotion. "Didn't I go back to Springfield?" he cried out. "Of course I did. I made inquiries for her; that's why I went back—to find out what had become of her. I'd been gone only three years, yes, only three years—but, good heavens, how I had suffered! I was so changed that nobody knew me." He paused, appalled at the recollection. "I have always had a terrible capacity for suffering. I tell you, it was my duty to go back to find her, and I went back. I would have acknowledged her as my wife. I would have lived with her. I'd have done right by her, though it had killed me. Can I say more than that?"
"I am glad you went back,' said Fran softly. "She never knew it. I am so glad that you did—even that."
"Yes, I did go back," he said, more firmly. "But she was gone. I tell you all this because you say she was your best friend."
"A while ago you asked me who I am—and what—"
"It doesn't matter," he interjected. "You were her friend; that is all I care to know. I went back to Springfield, after three years—but she was gone. I was told that her uncle had cast her off, and she had disappeared. It seems that she'd made friends with a class of people who were not—who were not—respectable."
Fran's eyes shone brightly. "Oh, they were not," she agreed, "they were not at all what you would call respectable. They were not religious."
"So I was told," he resumed, a little uncertainly. "There was no way for me to find her."
"Her?" cried Fran, "you keep saying 'her'. Do you mean—?"
He hesitated. "She had chosen her part—to live with those people—I left her to lead the life that pleased her. That's why I never went back to Springfield again. I've taken up my life in my own way, and left her—your friend—"
"Yes, call her that," cried Fran, holding up her head. "I am proud of that title. I glory in it. And in this house—"
"I have made my offer," he interrupted decidedly. "I'll provide for you anywhere but in this house."
Fran regarded him with somber intensity. "I've asked for a home with you on the grounds that your wife was my best friend in all the world, and because I am homeless. You refuse. I suppose that's natural. I have to guess at your feelings because I haven't been raised among 'respectable' people. I'm sorry you don't like it, but you're going to provide for me right here. For a girl, I'm pretty independent; folks that don't like me are welcome to all the enjoyment they get out of their dislike. I'm here to stay. Suppose you look on me as a sort of summer crop. I enjoyed hearing you. sing, to-night—
"'We reap what we sow, We reap what we sow'—
I see you remember."
He shuddered at her mocking holy things. "Hush! What are you saying? The past is cut off from my life. I have been pardoned, and I will not have anybody forcing that past upon me."
Her words came bitingly: "You can't help it. You sowed. You can't pardon a seed from growing."
"I can help it, and I will. The past is no more mine than hers—our marriage was legal, but it bound me no more than it bound her. She chose her own companions. I have been building up a respectable life, here in Littleburg. You shall not overturn the labor of the last ten years. You can go. My will is unalterable. Go—and do what you can!"
Instead of anger, Fran showed sorrow: "How long have you been married to the second Mrs. Gregory—the present one?"
He turned his back upon her as if to go to the door, but he wheeled about: "Ten years. You understand? Ten years of the best work of my life that you want to destroy."
"Poor lady!" murmured Fran. "The first Mrs. Gregory—my 'friend'— has been dead only three years. You and she were never divorced. The lady that you call Mrs. Gregory now,—she isn't your wife, is she?"
"I thought—" he was suddenly ashen pale—"but I thought that she—I believed her dead long ago—I was sure of it—positive. What you say is impossible—"
"But no one can sow without reaping," Fran said, still pityingly. "When you sang those words, it was only a song to you, but music is just a bit of life's embroidery, while you think it life itself. You don't sow, or reap in a choir loft. You can't sow deeds and reap words."
"I understand you, now," he faltered. "You have come to disgrace me. What good will that do you, or—or my first wife? You are no abstraction, to represent sowing or reaping, but a flesh-and-blood girl who can go away if she chooses—"
"She chooses to stay," Fran assured him.
"Then you have resolved to ruin me and break my wife's heart! "The sweet uncomplaining face of the second Mrs. Gregory rose before him. And Grace Noir—what would she think?
"No, I'm just here to have a home."
"Will you enjoy a home that you seize by force?"
"Don't they say that the Kingdom of God may be taken by force? But you know more about the Kingdom than I. Let them believe me the daughter of some old boyhood friend—that'll make it easy. As the daughter of that friend, you'll give me a home. I'll keep out of your way, and be pleasant—a nice little girl, of any age you please." She smiled remotely.
He spoke dully: "But they'll want to know all about that old college friend."
"Naturally. Well, just invent some story—I'll stand by you."
"You do not know me," he returned, drawing himself up. "What! do you imagine I would lie to them?"
"I think," Fran remarked impersonally, "that to a person in your position—a person beginning to reap what he has sown, lying is always the next course. But you must act as your conscience dictates. You may be sure that if you decide to tell the truth, I'll certainly stand by you in that."
Helplessly driven to bay, he flashed out violently, "Unnatural girl— or woman—or whatever you are—there is no spirit of girlhood or womanhood in you."
Fran returned in a low concentrated voice, "If I'm unnatural, what were you in the Springfield days? Was it natural for you to be married secretly when the marriage might have been public? When you went away to break the news to your father, wasn't it rather unnatural for you to hide three years before coming back? When you came back and heard that your wife had gone away to be supported by people who were not respectable, was it natural for you to be satisfied with the first rumors you heard, and disappear for good and all?
"As for me, yes, I have neither the spirit of girlhood nor womanhood, for I'm neither a girl, nor a woman, I'm nothing." Her voice trembled." Don't rouse my anger—when I lose grip on myself, I'm pretty hard to stop. If I let everything rush on my mind—how she—my 'friend'—my sweet darling 'friend'—how she searched for you all the years till she died—and how even on her death-bed she thought maybe you'd come—you—"
Fran choked back the words. "Don't!" she gasped. "Don't reproach me, or I'll reproach you, and I mustn't do that. I want to hide my real heart from you—from all the world. I want to smile, and be like respectable people."
"For God's sake," whispered the other frantically, "hush! I hear my wife coming. Yes, yes, I'll do everything you say, but, oh, don't ruin me. You shall have a home with us, you shall have everything, everything."
"Except a welcome," Fran faltered, frightened at the emotion she had betrayed. "Can you show me to a room—quick—before your wife comes? I don't want to meet her, now, I'm terribly tired. I've come all the way from New York to find you; I reached Littleburg only at dusk—and I've been pretty busy ever since!"
"Come, then," he said hastily. "This way—I'll show you a room.... It's too late," he broke off, striving desperately to regain composure.
The door opened, and a woman entered the room hastily.
The wind had suddenly increased in violence, and a few raindrops had already fallen. Apprehensions of a storm caused hurried movements throughout the house. Blinding flashes of lightning suggested a gathering of the family in the reception-hall, where, according to tradition, there was "less danger"; and as the unknown lady opened the door of the front room, Fran heard footsteps upon the stairs, and caught a glimpse of Grace Noir descending.
The lady closed the door behind her before she perceived Fran, so intent was she upon securing from threatening rain some unfinished silk-work lying on the window-sill. She paused abruptly, her honest brown eyes opened wide.
Fran regarded her with that elfish smile which, to the secretary, had suggested a fox. It was the coolest little smile, slyly playing upon her twisted mouth.
The perspiration shone on Hamilton Gregory's forehead. "Just a moment," he uttered incoherently—"wait—I'll be back when I make sure my library window's closed...." He left the room, his brain in an agony of indecision. How much must be told? And how would they regard him after the telling?
"Who are you?" asked the lady of thirty-five, mildly, but with gathering wonder.
The answer came, with a broken laugh, "I am Fran." It was spoken a little defiantly, a little menacingly, as if the tired spirit was bracing itself for battle.
The lady wore her wavy hair parted in the middle after that fashion which perhaps was never new; and no impudent ribbon or arrogant flounce stole one's attention from the mouth that was just sincere and sweet. It was a face one wanted to look at because—well, Fran didn't know why. "She's no prettier than I," was Fran's decision, measuring from the natural standard—the standard every woman hides in her own breast. The nose was too slight, but it seemed cut to Fran's liking.
Fran smiled in a different way—a smile that did not instantaneously flash, but darted out of the corner of her eye, and slipped along the slightly parted lips, as if afraid of being caught, and vanished, leaving a wistful face.
"And who is Fran?" asked the mild voice. The lady smiled so tenderly, it was like a mellow light stealing from a fairy rose-garden of thornless souls.
Fran caught her breath while her face showed hardness—but not against the other. She felt something like holy wrath as her presentment sounded forth protestingly—"But who are you?"
"I am Mrs. Gregory."
"Oh, no," cried Fran, with violence, "no!" She added rather wildly, "It can't be—I mean—but say you are not Mrs. Gregory."
"I am Mrs. Gregory," the other repeated, mystified.
Fran tried to hide her emotion with a smile, but it would have been easier for her to cry, just because she of the patient brown eyes was Mrs. Gregory.
At that moment Hamilton Gregory reentered the room, brought back by the fear that Fran might tell all during his absence. How different life would have been if he could have found her flown!—but he read in her face no promise of departure.
His wife was not surprised at his haggard face, for he was always working too hard, worrying over his extensive charities, planning editorials for his philanthropic journal, devising means to better the condition of the local church. But the presence of this stranger— doubtless one of his countless objects of charity—demanded explanation.
He loathed the necessity that confronted him, above all the uncertainty of his situation. Hitherto the mistakes of his life had passed over his head without dangerous explosions; he had gone away from them, and they had seemed, somehow, to right themselves.
"Come," he said bruskly, addressing neither directly, "we needn't stop here. I have some explanations to make, and they might as well be made before everybody, once and for all..." He paused wretchedly, seeing no outlook, no possible escape. Something must be told—not a lie, but possibly not all the truth; that would rest with Fran. He was as much in her power as if she, herself, had been the effect of his sin.
He opened the door, and walked with heavy step into the hall. Mrs. Gregory followed, wondering, looking rather at Fran than at her husband. Fran's keen eyes searched the apartment for the actual source of Hamilton Gregory's acutest regrets.
Yes, there stood the secretary.
A FAMILY CONFERENCE
With the coming of the rain, the peals of thunder had grown less violent, and the wind had fallen; but those who had sought the reception room for safety found in Fran's presence something as startling, and as incomprehensible, as the most vivid lightning.
Of the group, it was the secretary who first claimed Fran's attention. In a way, Grace Noir dominated the place. Perhaps it was because of her splendidly developed body, her beauty, her attitude of unclaimed yet recognized authority, that she stood distinctly first.
As for Mrs. Gregory, her mild aloofness suggested that she hardly belonged to the family. Hamilton Gregory found himself instinctively turning to Grace, rather than to his wife. Mrs. Gregory's face did, indeed, ask why Fran was there; but Grace, standing at the foot of the stairs, and looking at Gregory with memory of her recent dismissal, demanded explanations.
Mrs. Gregory's mother, confined by paralysis to a wheel-chair, fastened upon the new-comer eyes whose brightness seventy years or more had not dimmed. The group was completed by Mrs. Gregory's bachelor brother, older than his sister by fifteen years. This brother, Simon Jefferson, though stockily built and evidently well- fed, wore an air of lassitude, as if perennially tired. As he leaned back in a hall chair, he seemed the only one present who did not care why Fran was there.
Gregory broke the silence by clearing his throat with evident embarrassment. A peal of thunder offered him reprieve, and after its reverberations had died away, he still hesitated. "This," he said presently, "is a—the orphan—an orphan—one who has come to me from— She says her name is Frances."
"Fran," came the abrupt correction; "just Fran."
There was a general feeling that an orphan should speak less positively, even about her own name—should be, as it were, subdued from the mere fact of orphanhood.
"An orphan!" Simon Jefferson ejaculated, moving restlessly in his effort to find the easiest corner of his chair. "I hope nothing is going to excite me. I have heart-disease, little girl, and I'm liable to topple off at any moment. I tell you, I must not be excited."
"I don't think," replied Fran, with cheerful interest in his malady, "that orphans are very exciting."
Hamilton Gregory resumed, cautiously stepping over dangerous ground, while the others looked at Fran, and Grace never ceased to look at him. "She came here to-night, after the services at the Big Tent. She came here and, or I should say, to request, to ask—Miss Grace saw her when she came. Miss Grace knew of her being here." He seized upon this fact as if to lift himself over pitfalls.
Grace's eyes were gravely judicial. She would not condemn him unheard, but at the same time she let him see that her knowledge of Fran would not help his case. It did not surprise Mrs. Gregory that Grace had known of the strange presence; the secretary usually knew of events before the rest of the family.
Gregory continued, delicately picking his way: "But the child asked to see me alone, because she had a special message—a—yes, a message to deliver to me. So I asked Miss Grace to leave us for half an hour. Then I heard the girl's story, while Miss Grace waited up-stairs."
"Well," Simon Jefferson interposed irritably, "Miss Grace is accounted for. Go on, brother-in-law, go on, if we must have it."
"The fact is, Lucy—" Gregory at this point turned to his wife—for at certain odd moments he found real relief in doing so—"the fact is— the fact is, this girl is the—er—daughter of—of a very old friend of mine—a friend who was—was a friend years ago, long before I moved to Littleburg, long before I saw you, Lucy. That was when my home was in New York. I have told you all about that time of my youth, when I lived with my father in New York. Well, before my father died, I was acquainted with—this friend. I owed that person a great debt, not of money—a debt of—what shall I say?"
Fran suggested, "Honor."
Gregory mopped his brow while all looked from Fran to him. He resumed desperately: "I owed a great debt to that friend—oh, not of money, of course—a debt which circumstances prevented me from paying—from meeting—which I still owe to the memory of that—er—of that dead friend. The friend is dead, you understand, yes, dead."
Mrs. Gregory could not understand her husband's unaccustomed hesitancy. She inquired of Fran, "And is your mother dead, too, little girl?"
That simple question, innocently preferred, directed the course of future events. Mr. Gregory had not intentionally spoken of his friend in such a way as to throw doubt upon the sex. Now that he realized how his wife's misunderstanding might save him, he had not the courage to undeceive her.
Fran waited for him to speak. The delay had lost him the power to reveal the truth. Would Fran betray him? He wished that the thunder might drown out the sound of her words, but the storm seemed holding its breath to listen.
Fran said quietly, "My mother died three years ago."
Mrs. Gregory asked her husband, "Did you ever tell me about this friend? I'd remember from his name; what was it?"
It seemed impossible for him to utter the name which had sounded from his lips so often in love. He opened his lips, but he could not say "Josephine". Besides, the last name would do.
"Derry," he gasped.
"Come here, Fran Derry," said Mrs. Gregory, reaching out her hand, with that sweet smile that somehow made Fran feel the dew of tears.
Hamilton Gregory plucked up spirits. "I couldn't turn away the daughter of my old friend. You wouldn't want me to do that. None of you would. Now that I've explained everything, I hope there'll be no objection to her staying here in the house—that is, if she wants to stay. She has come to do it, she says—all the way from New York."
Mrs. Gregory slipped her arm about the independent shoulders, and drew the girl down beside her upon a divan. "Do you know," she said gently, "you are the very first of all his New York friends who has come into my life? Indeed, I am willing, and indeed you shall stay with us, just as long as you will."
Fran asked impulsively, as she clasped her hands, "Do you think you could like me? Could—you?"
"Dear child"—the answer was accompanied by a gentle pressure, "you are the daughter of my husband's friend. That's enough for me. You need a home, and you shall have one with us. I like you already, dear."
Tears dimmed Fran's eyes. "And I just love you," she cried. "My! What a woman you are!"
Grace Noir was silent. She liked Fran less than ever, but her look was that of a hired secretary, saying, "With all this, I have nothing to do." Doubtless, when alone with Hamilton Gregory, she would express her sincere conviction that the girl's presence would interfere with his work—but these others would not understand. They dwelt entirely apart from her employer's philanthropic enterprises, they did not sympathize with his religious activities, or even read his weekly magazine. Nobody understood him as she did.
Fran's unconventionality had given to Mrs. Gregory's laugh a girlish note, but almost at once her face resumed its wonted gravity. Perhaps the slight hollows in the cheeks had been pressed by the fingers of care, but it was rather lack of light than presence of shadow, that told Fran something was missing from the woman-heart.
In the meantime old Mrs. Jefferson had been looking on with absorbed attention, desperately seeking to triumph over her enemy, a deaf demon that for years had taken possession of her. Now, with an impatient hand, she sent her wheel-chair to her daughter's side and proffered her ear-trumpet.
"Mother," Mrs. Gregory called through this ebony connector of souls, "this is Fran Derry, the daughter of Mr. Gregory's dear friend, one he used to know in New York, many years before he came to Littleburg. Fran is an orphan, and needs a home. We have asked her to live with us."
Mrs. Jefferson did not always hear aright, but she always responded with as much spirit as if her hearing were never in doubt. "And what I'd like to know," she cried, "is what you are asking her to give us."
Grace Noir came forward with quiet resolution. "Let me speak to your mother," she said to Mrs. Gregory.
Mrs. Gregory handed her the tube, somewhat surprised, since Grace made it a point of conscience seldom to talk to the old lady. When Grace Noir disapproved of any one, she did not think it right to conceal that fact. Since Mrs. Jefferson absolutely refused to attend religious services, alleging as excuse that she could not hear the sermon, refusing to offer up the sacrifice of her fleshly presence as an example to others,—Grace disapproved most heartily.
Mrs. Jefferson held her head to the trumpet shrinkingly, as if afraid of getting her ear tickled.
Grace spoke quietly, but distinctly, as she indicated Fran—"You know how hard it is to get a good servant in Littleburg." Then she returned the trumpet. That was all she had to say.
Fran looked at Mr. Gregory.
He bit his lip, hoping it might go at that.
The old lady was greatly at sea. Much as she disliked the secretary, her news was grateful. "Be sure to stipulate," she said briskly, "about wheeling me around in the garden. The last one wasn't told in the beginning, and had to be paid extra, every time I took the air. There's nothing like an understanding at the beginning."
"I'd like a beginning of my sleep," Simon Jefferson announced. "The thunder and lightning's stopped, and the sound of this rain is just what I need, if the house will get quiet." He rose, gnawing his grizzled beard with impatience.
Fran walked up to Grace Noir and shook back her hair in the way that Grace particularly disliked. She said: "Nothing like an understanding at the beginning; yes, the old lady's right. Good thing to know what the trouble is, so we'll know how it'll hit us. I guess I'm the trouble for this house, but I'm going to hit it as the daughter of an old friend, and not as a servant. I'm just about as independent as Patrick Henry, Miss Noir. I'm not responsible for being born, but it's my outlook to hold on to my equality."
"Fran!" exclaimed Mrs. Gregory, in mild reproof.
Grace looked at Mr. Gregory and nothing could have exceeded the saintliness of her expression. Insulted, she was enjoying to the full her pious satisfaction of martyrdom.
"Dear Mrs. Gregory," said Fran kindly, "I'm sorry to have to do this, but it isn't as if you were adopting a penniless orphan. I'm adopting a home. I want to belong to somebody, and I want people to feel that they have something when they have me."
"I reckon they'll know they've got something," remarked Simon Jefferson, shooting a dissatisfied glance at Fran from under bushy brows.
Fran laughed outright. "I'm going to like you, all right," she declared. "You are so human."
It is exceedingly difficult to maintain satisfaction in silent martyrdom. Grace was obliged to speak, lest any one think that she acquiesced in evil. "Is it customary for little girls to roam the streets at night, wandering about the world alone, adopting homes according to their whims?"
"I really don't think it customary," Fran replied politely, "but I'm not a customary girl." At that moment she caught the old lady's eye. It was sparkling with eloquent satisfaction; Mrs. Jefferson supposed terms of service were under discussion. Fran laughed, grabbed the ear- trumpet and called, "Hello. How are you?"
When an unknown voice entered the large end of the tube, half its meaning was usually strained away before the rest reached the yearning ear. Mrs. Jefferson responded eagerly, "And will you wheel me around the garden at least twice a day?"
Fran patted the thin old arm with her thin young hand, as she shouted, "I'll wheel you twenty times a day, if you say so!"
"But I do not see-saw," retorted the old lady with spirit.
"This is going to agitate my heart," interposed Simon Jefferson, as there came a louder dash of rain against the windows. "I ought to be getting the benefits of this soothing sound, in my bed. When is this company going to break up?"
Gregory, finding Grace's eyes fixed on him searchingly, felt himself pushed to the wall. "Of course," he said coldly, "it is understood that the daughter of—er—my friend, comes here as a—as an equal." As he found himself forced into definite opposition to his secretary, his manner grew more assured. Suddenly it occurred to him that he was, in a way, atoning for the past.
"As an equal, yes!" exclaimed his wife, again embracing Fran. "How else could it be?"
"This is going to be a good thing for you, if you only knew it," Fran said, looking into her face with loving eyes.
Hamilton Gregory was almost able to persuade himself that he had received the orphan of his own free choice, thus to make reparation. "It is my duty," he said; "and I always try to do my duty, as I see it."
"Would you like to know more about me?" Fran asked confidentially of Mrs. Gregory.
Gregory turned pale. "I don't think it is neces—"
"Do tell me!" exclaimed his wife.
"Oh, Lord!" murmured Simon Jefferson, sinking back into the hall chair.
"Father and mother married secretly," Fran said, solely addressing Mrs. Gregory, but occasionally sending a furtive glance at her husband. "He was a college-student, boarding with his cousin, who was one of the professors. Mother was an orphan and lived with her half- uncle,—a mighty crusty old man, Uncle Ephraim was, who didn't have one bit of use for people getting married in secret. Father and mother agreed not to mention their marriage till after his graduation; then he'd go to his father and make everything easy, and come for mother. So he went and told him—father's father was a millionaire on Wall Street. Mother's uncle was pretty well fixed, too, but he didn't enjoy anything except religion. When he wasn't at church—he went 'most all the time—he was reading about it. Mother said he was most religious in Hebrew, but he enjoyed his Greek verbs awfully."
Grace Noir asked remotely, "Did you say that your parents eloped?"
"They didn't run far," Fran explained; "they were married in the county, not far from Springfield—"
"I thought you said," Grace interrupted, "that they were in New York."
"Did you?" said Fran politely. "So father graduated, and went away to tell his father all about being married to Josephine Derry. I don't know what happened then, as he didn't come back to tell. My mother waited and waited—and I was born—and then Uncle Ephraim drove mother out of his house with her tiny baby—that's me—and I grew to be—as old as you see me now. We were always hunting father. We went all over the United States, first and last—it looked like the son of a millionaire ought to be easy to find. But he kept himself close, and there was never a clue. Then mother died. Sometimes she used to tell me that she believed him dead, that if he'd been alive he'd have come for her, because she loved him with all her soul, and wrecked her whole life because of him. She was happiest when she thought he was dead, so I wouldn't say anything, but I was sure he was alive, all right, as big and strong as you please. Oh, I know his kind. I've had lots of experience."
"So I'd suppose," said Grace Noir quietly. "May I ask—if you don't mind—if this traveling about the United States didn't take a great deal of money?"
"Oh, we had all the money we wanted," Fran returned easily.
"Indeed? And did you become reconciled to your mother's uncle?"
"Yes—after he was dead. He didn't leave a will, and there wasn't anybody else, and as mother had just been taken from me, the money just naturally came in my hands. But I didn't need it, particularly."
"But before that," Grace persisted; "before, when your mother was first disinherited, how could she make her living?"
"Mother was like me. She didn't stand around folding her hands and crossing her feet—she used 'em. Bless you, I could get along wherever you'd drop me. Success isn't in the world, it's in me, and that's a good thing to know—it saves hunting."
"Do you consider yourself a 'success'?" inquired the secretary with a chilly smile.
"I had everything I wanted except a home," Fran responded with charming good-humor, "and now I've got that. In a New York paper, I found a picture of Hamilton Gregory, and it told about all his charities. It said he had millions, and was giving away everything. I said to myself, 'I'll go there and have him give me a home'—you see, I'd often heard mother speak of him—and I said other things to myself—and then, as I generally do what I tell myself to do—it keeps up confidence in the general manager—I came."
"Dear child," said Mrs. Gregory, stroking her hair, "your mother dead, your father—that kind of a man—you shall indeed find a home with us, for life. And so your father was Mr. Gregory's friend. It seems— strange."
"My father," said Fran, looking at Mr. Gregory inscrutably, "was the best friend you ever had, wasn't he? You loved him better than anybody else in the world, didn't you?"
"I—I—yes," the other stammered, looking at her wildly, and passing his agitated hand across his eyes, as if to shut out some terrible vision, "yes, I—I was—er—fond of—him."
"I guess you were," Fran cried emphatically. "You'd have done anything for him."
"I have this to say," remarked Simon Jefferson, "that I may not come up to the mark in all particulars, and I reckon I have my weaknesses; but I wouldn't own a friend that proved himself the miserable scoundrel, the weak cur, that this child's father proved himself!"
"And I agree with you," declared Grace, who seldom agreed with him in anything. How Mr. Gregory, the best man she had ever known, could be fond of Fran's father, was incomprehensible. Ever since Fran had come knocking at the door, Grace's exalted faith in Mr. Gregory had been perplexed by the foreboding that he was not altogether what she had imagined.
Hamilton Gregory felt the change in her attitude. "That friend," he said quickly, "was not altogether to be censured. At least, he meant to do right. He wanted to do right. With all the strength of his nature, he strove to do right."
"Then why didn't he do right?" snapped Simon Jefferson. "Why didn't he go back after that young woman, and take care of her? Huh? What was holding him?"
"He did go back," exclaimed Gregory. "Well—not at first, but afterward. He went to tell his father, and his father showed him that it would never do, that the girl—his wife—wasn't of their sphere, their life, that he couldn't have made her happy—that it wouldn't— that it just wouldn't do. For three years he stayed in the mountains of Germany, the most miserable man in the world. But his conscience wouldn't let him rest. It told him he should acknowledge his wife. So he went back—but she'd disappeared—he couldn't find her—and he'd never heard—he'd never dreamed of the birth of a—of the—of this girl. He never knew that he had a daughter. Never!"
"Well," said Simon Jefferson, "he's dead now, and that's one comfort. Good thing he's not alive; I'd always be afraid I might come up with him and then, afterward, that I might not get my sentence commuted to life-imprisonment."
"Who is exciting my son?" demanded the old lady from her wheel-chair. Simon Jefferson's red face and starting eyes told plainly that his spirit was up. There was silence out of respect for his weak heart, but there was a general feeling of surprise that Gregory should so determinedly defend his friend.
"After all," said Fran cheerfully, "we are here, and needn't bother about what's past. My mother wasn't given her chance, but she's dead now, blessed soul—and my father had his chance, but it wasn't in him to be a man. Let's forget him as much as we can, and let's have nothing but sweet and peaceful thoughts about mother. That's all over, and I'm here to take my chance with the rest of you. We're the world, while our day lasts."
"What a remarkable child!" murmured Grace Noir, as they prepared to separate. "Quite a philosopher in short dresses."
"They used to call me a prodigy," murmured Fran, as she obeyed Mrs. Gregory's gesture inviting her to follow up-stairs. "Now it's stopped raining," Simon Jefferson complained, as he wheeled his mother toward the back hall.
"That's a good omen," said Fran, pressing Mrs. Gregory's hand. "The moonlight was beautiful when I was on the bridge—when I first came here."
"But we need rain," said Grace Noir reprovingly. Her voice was that of one familiar with the designs of Providence. As usual, she and Hamilton Gregory were about to be left alone.
"Who needs it?" called the unabashed Fran, looking over the banisters. "The frogs?"
"Life," responded the secretary somberly.
The April morning was brimming with golden sunshine when Fran looked from the window of her second-story room. Between two black streamers left from last night's rain-clouds, she found the sun making its way up an aisle of intense blue. Below, the lawn stretched in level greenness from Hamilton Gregory's residence to the street, and the grass, fresh from the care of the lawn-mower, mixed yellow tints of light with its emerald hue. Shadows from the tender young leaves decorated the whiteness of the smooth village road in dainty tracery, and splashed the ribbons of rain-drenched granitoid walks with warm shadow-spray.
Fran, eager for the first morning's view of her new home, stared at the half-dozen cottages across the street, standing back in picket- fenced yards with screens of trees before their window-eyes. They showed only as bits of weather-boarding, or gleaming fragments of glass, peeping through the boughs. At one place, nothing was to be seen but stone steps and a chimney; at another, there was an open door and a flashing broom; or a curl of smoke and a face at a window. She thought everything homelike, neighborly. These houses seemed to her closer to the earth than those of New York, or, at any rate, closer in the sense of brotherhood. She drew a deep breath of pungent April essence and murmured: "What a world to live in!"
Fran had spoken in all sincerity when declaring that she wanted nothing but a home; and when she went down to breakfast it was with the expectation that every member of the family would pursue his accustomed routine, undeflected by her presence. She was willing that they should remain what they were, just as she expected to continue without change; however, not many days passed before she found herself seeking to modify her surroundings. If a strange mouse be imprisoned in a cage of mice, those already inured to captivity will seek to destroy the new-comer. Fran, suddenly thrust into the bosom of a family already fixed in their modes of thought and action, found adjustment exceedingly difficult.
She did not care to mingle with the people of the village—which was fortunate, since her laughing in the tent had scandalized the neighborhood; she would have been content never to cross the boundaries of the homestead, had it not been for Abbott Ashton. It was because of him that she acquiesced in the general plan to send her to school. In the unanimous conviction of the need of change in Fran, and because there were still two months of school, she must pass through this two-months' wringer—she might not acquire polish, but the family hoped some crudities might be squeezed out. It was on the fifth day of her stay, following her startling admission that she had never been to school a day in her life, that unanimous opinion was fused into expressed command—
"You must go to school!"
Fran thought of the young superintendent, and said she was willing.
When Mr. Gregory and the secretary had retired to the library for the day's work, Mrs. Gregory told Fran, "I really, think, dear, that your dresses are much too short. You are small, but your face and manners and even your voice, sometimes, seem old—quite old."
Fran showed the gentle lady a soft docility. "Well," she said, "my legs are there, all the time, you know, and I'll show just as much of them, or just as little, as you please."
Simon Jefferson spoke up—"I like to see children wear short dresses— " and he looked at this particular child with approval. That day, she was really pretty. The triangle had been broadened to an oval brow, the chin was held slightly lowered, and there was something in her general aspect, possibly due to the arrangement of folds or colors— heaven knows what, for Simon Jefferson was but a poor male observer— that made a merit of her very thinness. The weak heart of the burly bachelor tingled with pleasure in nice proportions, while his mind attained the aesthetic outlook of a classic age. To be sure, the skirts did show a good deal of Fran; very good—they could not show too much.
"I like," Simon persisted, "to see young girls of fourteen or fifteen, dressed, so to say, in low necks and high stockings in—er—in the airy way such as they are by nature..." It was hard to express.
"Yes," Fran said impartially, "it pleases others, and it doesn't hurt me."
"Fran!" Mrs. Gregory exclaimed, gazing helplessly at the girl with something of a child's awe inspired by venerable years. It was a pathetic appeal to a spirit altogether beyond her comprehension.
Fran's quick eye caught the expression of baffled reaching-forth, of uncertain striving after sympathetic understanding. "You darling lady!" she cried, clasping her hands to keep her arms from flying about the other's neck, "don't you be troubled about me. Bless your heart, I can take care of myself—and you, too! Do you think I'd add a straw to your...Now you hear me: if you want to do it, just put me in long trains with Pullman sleepers, for I'm the little girl for you, dear heart, and I'll do whatever you say. If you want to show people how tame I am, just hold up your hand, and I'll crawl into my cage."
The laughter of Mrs. Gregory sounded wholesome and deep-throated—the child was so deliciously ridiculous. "Come, then," she cried, with a lightness she had not felt for months, "come, crawl into your cage!" And she opened her arms.
With a flash of her lithe body, Fran was in her cage, and, for a time, rested there, while the fire in her dark eyes burned tears to all sorts of rainbow colors. It seemed to her that of all the people in the world, Mrs. Gregory was the last to hold her in affectionate embrace. She cried out with a sob, as if in answer to her dark misgivings—"Oh, but I want to belong to somebody!"
"You shall belong to me!" exclaimed Mrs. Gregory, folding her closer.
"To you?" Fran sobbed, overcome by the wonder of it. "To you, dear heart?" With a desperate effort she crowded back intruding thoughts, and grew calm. Looking over her shoulder at Simon Jefferson—"No more short dresses, Mr. Simon," she called, "you know your heart mustn't be excited."
"Fran!" gasped Mrs. Gregory in dismay, "hush!"
But Simon Jefferson beamed with pleasure at the girl's artless ways. He knew what was bad for his heart, and Fran wasn't. Her smiles made him feel himself a monopolist in sunshine. Simon Jefferson might be fifty, but he still had a nose for roses.
Old Mrs. Jefferson was present, and from her wheel-chair bright eyes read much that dull ears missed. "How gay Simon is!" smiled the mother—he was always her spoiled boy.
Mrs. Gregory called through the trumpet, "I believe Fran has given brother a fresh interest in life."
Simon nodded; he didn't care who knew it. Since his sister's marriage to the millionaire philanthropist, Simon had found life appallingly dull; how could he have found interest in the passing years without his heart-complaint? Hamilton Gregory's perennial absorption in the miseries of folk beyond the horizon, and lack of sympathy with those who sat at his table, set him apart as a model; Simon hated models.
Old Mrs. Jefferson beamed upon Fran and added her commendation: "She pushes me when I want to be pushed, and pulls me when I want to be pulled."
Fran clapped her hands like a child, indeed. "Oh, what a gay old world!" she cried. "There are so many people in it that like me." She danced before the old lady, then wheeled about with such energy that her skirts threatened to level to the breeze.
"Don't, don't!" cried Mrs. Gregory precipitately. "Fran!"
"Bravo!" shouted Simon Jefferson. "Encore!"
Fran widened her fingers to push down the rebellious dress. "If I don't put leads on me," she said with contrition, "I'll be floating away. When I feel good, I always want to do something wrong—it's awfully dangerous for a person to feel good, I guess. Mrs. Gregory, you say I can belong to you,—when I think about that, I want to dance...I guess you hardly know what it means for Fran to belong to a person. You're going to find out. Come on," she shouted to Mrs. Jefferson, without using the trumpet—always a subtle compliment to those nearly stone-deaf, "I mustn't wheel myself about, so I'm going to wheel you."
As she passed with her charge into the garden, her mind was busy with thoughts of Grace Noir. Belonging to Mrs. Gregory naturally suggested getting rid of the secretary. It would be exceedingly difficult. "But two months ought to settle her," Fran mused.
In the meantime, Grace Noir and Gregory sat in the library, silently turning out an immense amount of work, feeding the hungry and consoling the weak with stroke of pen and click of typewriter. If conversation sometimes trickled across the dry expanse of statistical benevolence, it was never, on Grace's part, for pastime. Beneath her words was always an underflowing current, tugging at the listener to bear him away to her chosen haven. As an expert player of checkers knows his moves in advance, so her conversations, however brief, were built up with a unity of purpose which her consciousness of purest motives saved from artificiality.
"About this case, number one hundred forty-three," she said, looking up from her work as copyist, "the girl whose father wouldn't acknowledge her..."