BY BOOTH TARKINGTON
AUTHOR OF PENROD, PENROD AND SAM, THE TURMOIL, ETC.
ILLUSTRATED BY C. ALLAN GILBERT and WORTH BREHM
GROSSET & DUNLAP PUBLISHERS NEW YORK
Made in the United States of America
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COPYRIGHT, 1922, BY DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
COPYRIGHT, 1918, BY P. F. COLLIER AND SON COMPANY COPYRIGHT, 1919, BY THE PICTORIAL REVIEW COMPANY
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES AT THE COUNTRY LIFE PRESS, GARDEN CITY, N. Y.
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TO M. L. K.
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"Rising to the point of order, this one said that since the morgue was not yet established as the central monument and inspiration of our settlement, and true philosophy was as well expounded in the convivial manner as in the miserable, he claimed for himself, not the license, but the right, to sing a ballad, if he chose, upon even so solemn a matter as the misuse of the town pump by witches."
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Superciliousness is not safe after all, because a person who forms the habit of wearing it may some day find his lower lip grown permanently projected beyond the upper, so that he can't get it back, and must go through life looking like the King of Spain. This was once foretold as a probable culmination of Florence Atwater's still plastic profile, if Florence didn't change her way of thinking; and upon Florence's remarking dreamily that the King of Spain was an awf'ly han'some man, her mother retorted: "But not for a girl!" She meant, of course, that a girl who looked too much like the King of Spain would not be handsome, but her daughter decided to misunderstand her.
"Why, mamma, he's my Very Ideal! I'd marry him to-morrow!"
Mrs. Atwater paused in her darning, and let the stocking collapse flaccidly into the work-basket in her lap. "Not at barely thirteen, would you?" she said. "It seems to me you're just a shade too young to be marrying a man who's already got a wife and several children. Where did you pick up that 'I'd-marry-him-to-morrow,' Florence?"
"Oh, I hear that everywhere!" returned the damsel, lightly. "Everybody says things like that. I heard Aunt Julia say it. I heard Kitty Silver say it."
"About the King of Spain?" Mrs. Atwater inquired.
"I don't know who they were saying it about," said Florence, "but they were saying it. I don't mean they were saying it together; I heard one say it one time and the other say it some other time. I think Kitty Silver was saying it about some coloured man. She proba'ly wouldn't want to marry any white man; at least I don't expect she would. She's been married to a couple of coloured men, anyhow; and she was married twice to one of 'em, and the other one died in between. Anyhow, that's what she told me. She weighed over two hunderd pounds the first time she was married, and she weighed over two hunderd-and-seventy the last time she was married to the first one over again, but she says she don't know how much she weighed when she was married to the one in between. She says she never got weighed all the time she was married to that one. Did Kitty Silver ever tell you that, mamma?"
"Yes, often!" Mrs. Atwater replied. "I don't think it's very entertaining; and it's not what we were talking about. I was trying to tell you——"
"I know," Florence interrupted. "You said I'd get my face so's my underlip wouldn't go back where it ought to, if I didn't quit turning up my nose at people I think are beneath contemp'. I guess the best thing would be to just feel that way without letting on by my face, and then there wouldn't be any danger."
"No," said Mrs. Atwater. "That's not what I meant. You mustn't let your feelings get their nose turned up, or their underlip out, either, because feelings can grow warped just as well as——"
But her remarks had already caused her daughter to follow a trail of thought divergent from the main road along which the mother feebly struggled to progress. "Mamma," said Florence, "do you b'lieve it's true if a person swallows an apple-seed or a lemon-seed or a watermelon-seed, f'r instance, do you think they'd have a tree grow up inside of 'em? Henry Rooter said it would, yesterday."
Mrs. Atwater looked a little anxious. "Did you swallow some sort of seed?" she asked.
"It was only some grape-seeds, mamma; and you needn't think I got to take anything for it, because I've swallowed a million, I guess, in my time!"
"In your time?" her mother repeated, seemingly mystified.
"Yes, and so have you and papa," Florence went on. "I've seen you when you ate grapes. Henry said maybe not, about grapes, because I told him all what I've just been telling you, mamma, how I must have swallowed a million, in my time, and he said grape-seeds weren't big enough to get a good holt, but he said if I was to swallow an apple-seed a tree would start up, and in a year or two, maybe, it would grow up so't I couldn't get my mouth shut on account the branches."
"Henry said another boy told him, but he said you could ask anybody and they'd tell you it was true. Henry said this boy that told him's uncle died of it when he was eleven years old, and this boy knew a grown woman that was pretty sick from it right now. I expect Henry wasn't telling such a falsehood about it, mamma, but proba'ly this boy did, because I didn't believe it for a minute! Henry Rooter says he never told a lie yet, in his whole life, mamma, and he wasn't going to begin now." She paused for a moment, then added: "I don't believe a word he says!"
She continued to meditate disapprovingly upon Henry Rooter. "Old thing!" she murmured gloomily, for she had indeed known moments of apprehension concerning the grape-seeds. "Nothing but an old thing—what he is!" she repeated inaudibly.
"Florence," said Mrs. Atwater, "don't you want to slip over to grandpa's and ask Aunt Julia if she has a very large darning needle? And don't forget not to look supercilious when you meet people on the way. Even your grandfather has been noticing it, and he was the one that spoke of it to me. Don't forget!"
Florence went out of the house somewhat moodily, but afternoon sunshine enlivened her; and, opening the picket gate, she stepped forth with a fair renewal of her chosen manner toward the public, though just at that moment no public was in sight. Miss Atwater's underlip resumed the position for which her mother had predicted that regal Spanish fixity, and her eyebrows and nose were all three perceptibly elevated. At the same time, her eyelids were half lowered, while the corners of her mouth somewhat deepened, as by a veiled mirth, so that this well-dressed child strolled down the shady sidewalk wearing an expression not merely of high-bred contempt but also of mysterious derision. It was an expression that should have put any pedestrian in his place, and it seems a pity that the long street before her appeared to be empty of human life. No one even so much as glanced from a window of any of the comfortable houses, set back at the end of their "front walks" and basking amid pleasant lawns; for, naturally, this was the "best residence street" in the town, since all the Atwaters and other relatives of Florence dwelt there. Happily, an old gentleman turned a corner before she had gone a hundred yards, and, as he turned in her direction, it became certain that they would meet. He was a stranger—that is to say, he was unknown to Florence—and he was well dressed; while his appearance of age (proba'ly at least forty or sixty or something) indicated that he might have sense enough to be interested in other interesting persons.
An extraordinary change took place upon the surface of Florence Atwater: all superciliousness and derision of the world vanished; her eyes opened wide, and into them came a look at once far-away and intently fixed. Also, a frown of concentration appeared upon her brow, and her lips moved silently, but with rapidity, as if she repeated to herself something of almost tragic import. Florence had recently read a newspaper account of the earlier struggles of a now successful actress: As a girl, this determined genius went about the streets repeating the lines of various roles to herself—constantly rehearsing, in fact, upon the public thoroughfares, so carried away was she by her intended profession and so set upon becoming famous. This was what Florence was doing now, except that she rehearsed no role in particular, and the words formed by her lips were neither sequential nor consequential, being, in fact, the following: "Oh, the darkness ... never, never, never! ... you couldn't ... he wouldn't ... Ah, mother! ... Where the river swings so slowly ... Ah, no!" Nevertheless, she was doing all she could for the elderly stranger, and as they came closer, encountered, and passed on, she had the definite impression that he did indeed take her to be a struggling young actress who would some day be famous—and then he might see her on a night of triumph and recognize her as the girl he had passed on the street, that day, so long ago! But by this time, the episode was concluded; the footsteps of him for whom she was performing had become inaudible behind her, and she began to forget him; which was as well, since he went out of her life then, and the two never met again. The struggling young actress disappeared, and the previous superiority was resumed. It became elaborately emphasized as a boy of her own age emerged from the "side yard" of a house at the next corner and came into her view.
The boy caught sight of Florence in plenty of time to observe this emphasis, which was all too obviously produced by her sensations at sight of himself; and, after staring at her for a moment, he allowed his own expression to become one of painful fatigue. Then he slowly swung about, as if to return into that side-yard obscurity whence he had come; making clear by this pantomime that he reciprocally found the sight of her insufferable. In truth, he did; for he was not only her neighbour but her first-cousin as well, and a short month older, though taller than she—tall beyond his years, taller than need be, in fact, and still in knickerbockers. However, his parents may not have been mistaken in the matter, for it was plain that he looked as well in knickerbockers as he could have looked in anything. He had no visible beauty, though it was possible to hope for him that by the time he reached manhood he would be more tightly put together than he seemed at present; and indeed he himself appeared to have some consciousness of insecurity in the fastenings of his members, for it was his habit (observable even now as he turned to avoid Miss Atwater) to haul at himself, to sag and hitch about inside his clothes, and to corkscrew his neck against the swathing of his collar. And yet there were times, as the most affectionate of his aunts had remarked, when, for a moment or so, he appeared to be almost knowing; and, seeing him walking before her, she had almost taken him for a young man; and sometimes he said something in a settled kind of way that was almost adult. This fondest aunt went on to add, however, that of course, the next minute after one of these fleeting spells, he was sure to be overtaken by his more accustomed moods, when his eye would again fix itself with fundamental aimlessness upon nothing. In brief, he was at the age when he spent most of his time changing his mind about things, or, rather, when his mind spent most of its time changing him about things; and this was what happened now.
After turning his back on the hateful sight well known to him as his cousin Florence at her freshest, he turned again, came forth from his place of residence, and joining her upon the pavement, walked beside her, accompanying her without greeting or inquiry. His expression of fatigue, indicating her insufferableness, had not abated; neither had her air of being a duchess looking at bugs.
"You are a pretty one!" he said; but his intention was perceived to be far indeed from his words.
"Oh, am I, Mister Herbert Atwater?" Florence responded. "I'm awf'ly glad you think so!"
"I mean about what Henry Rooter said," her cousin explained. "Henry Rooter told me he made you believe you were goin' to have a grapevine climbin' up from inside of you because you ate some grapes with the seeds in 'em. He says you thought you'd haf to get a carpenter to build a little arbour so you could swallow it for the grapevine to grow on. He says——"
Florence had become an angry pink. "That little Henry Rooter is the worst falsehooder in this town; and I never believed a word he said in his life! Anyway, what affairs is it of yours, I'd like you to please be so kind and obliging for to tell me, Mister Herbert Illingsworth Atwater, Exquire!"
"What affairs?" Herbert echoed in plaintive satire. "What affairs is it of mine? That's just the trouble! It's got to be my affairs because you're my first-cousin. My goodness I didn't have anything to do with you being my cousin, did I?"
"Well, I didn't!"
"That's neither here nor there," said Herbert. "What I want to know is, how long you goin' to keep this up?"
"Keep what up?"
"I mean, how do you think I like havin' somebody like Henry Rooter comin' round me tellin' what they made a cousin of mine believe, and more than thirteen years old, goin' on fourteen ever since about a month ago!"
Florence shouted: "Oh, for goodness' sakes!" then moderated the volume but not the intensity of her tone. "Kindly reply to this. Whoever asked you to come and take a walk with me to-day?"
Herbert protested to heaven. "Why, I wouldn't take a walk with you if every policeman in this town tried to make me! I wouldn't take a walk with you if they brought a million horses and—"
"I wouldn't take a walk with you," Florence interrupted, "if they brought a million million horses and cows and camels and—"
"No, you wouldn't," Herbert said. "Not if I could help it!"
But by this time Florence had regained her derisive superciliousness. "There's a few things you could help," she said; and the incautious Herbert challenged her with the inquiry she desired.
"What could I help?"
"I should think you could help bumpin' into me every second when I'm takin' a walk on my own affairs, and walk along on your own side of the sidewalk, anyway, and not be so awkward a person has to keep trippin' over you about every time I try to take a step!"
Herbert withdrew temporarily to his own side of the pavement. "Who?" he demanded hotly. "Who says I'm awkward?"
"All the fam'ly," Miss Atwater returned, with a light but infuriating laugh. "You bump into 'em sideways and keep gettin' half in front of 'em whenever they try to take a step, and then when it looks as if they'd pretty near fall over you—"
"You look here!"
"And besides all that," Florence went on, undisturbed, "why, you generally keep kind of snorting, or somep'n, and then making all those noises in your neck. You were doin' it at grandpa's last Sunday dinner because every time there wasn't anybody talking, why, everybody could hear you plain as everything, and you ought to've seen grandpa look at you! He looked as if you'd set him crazy if you didn't quit that chuttering and cluckling!"
Herbert's expression partook of a furious astonishment. "I don't any such thing!" he burst out. "I guess I wouldn't talk much about last Sunday dinner, if I was you neither. Who got caught eatin' off the ice cream freezer spoon out on the back porch, if you please? Yes, and I guess you better study a little grammar, while you're about it. There's no such words in the English language as 'cluckling' and 'chuttering.'"
"I don't care what language they're in," the stubborn Florence insisted. "It's what you do, just the same: cluckling and chuttering!"
Herbert's manners went to pieces. "Oh, dry up!" he bellowed.
"That's a nice way to talk! So gentlemanly——"
"Well, you try be a lady, then!"
"'Try!'" Florence echoed. "Well, after that, I'll just politely thank you to dry up, yourself, Mister Herbert Atwater!"
At this Herbert became moody. "Oh, pfuff!" he said; and for some moments walked in silence. Then he asked: "Where you goin', Florence?"
The damsel paused at a gate opening upon a broad lawn evenly divided by a brick walk that led to the white-painted wooden veranda of an ample and honest old brick house. "Righ' there to grandpa's, since you haf to know!" she said. "And thank you for your delightful comp'ny which I never asked for, if you care to hear the truth for once in your life!"
Herbert meditated. "Well, I got nothin' else to do, as I know of," he said. "Let's go around to the back door so's to see if Kitty Silver's got anything."
Then, not amiably, but at least inconsequently, they passed inside the gate together. Their brows were fairly unclouded; no special marks of conflict remained; for they had met and conversed in a manner customary rather than unusual.
They followed a branch of the brick walk and passed round the south side of the house, where a small orchard of apple-trees showed generous promise. Hundreds of gay little round apples among the leaves glanced the high lights to and fro on their polished green cheeks as a breeze hopped through the yard, while the shade beneath trembled with coquettishly moving disks of sunshine like golden plates. A pattern of orange light and blue shadow was laid like a fanciful plaid over the lattice and the wide, slightly sagging steps of the elderly "back porch"; and here, taking her ease upon these steps, sat a middle-aged coloured woman of continental proportions. Beyond all contest, she was the largest coloured woman in that town, though her height was not unusual, and she had a rather small face. That is to say, as Florence had once explained to her, her face was small but the other parts of her head were terribly wide. Beside her was a circular brown basket, of a type suggesting arts-and-crafts; it was made with a cover, and there was a bow of brown silk upon the handle.
"What you been up to to-day, Kitty Silver?" Herbert asked genially. "Any thing special?" For this was the sequel to his "so's we can see if Kitty Silver's got anything." But Mrs. Silver discouraged him.
"No, I ain't," she replied. "I ain't, an' I ain't goin' to."
"I thought you pretty near always made cookies on Tuesday," he said.
"Well, I ain't this Tuesday," said Kitty Silver. "I ain't, and I ain't goin' to. You might dess well g'on home ri' now. I ain't, an' I ain't goin' to."
Docility was no element of Mrs. Silver's present mood, and Herbert's hopeful eyes became blank, as his gaze wandered from her head to the brown basket beside her. The basket did not interest him; the ribbon gave it a quality almost at once excluding it from his consciousness. On the contrary, the ribbon had drawn Florence's attention, and she stared at the basket eagerly.
"What you got there, Kitty Silver?" she asked.
"What I got where?"
"In that basket."
"Nemmine what I got 'n 'at basket," said Mrs. Silver crossly, but added inconsistently: "I dess wish somebody ast me what I got 'n 'at basket! I ain't no cat-washwoman fer nobody!"
"Cats!" Florence cried. "Are there cats in that basket, Kitty Silver? Let's look at 'em!"
The lid of the basket, lifted by the eager, slim hand of Miss Atwater, rose to disclose two cats of an age slightly beyond kittenhood. They were of a breed unfamiliar to Florence, and she did not obey the impulse that usually makes a girl seize upon any young cat at sight and caress it. Instead, she looked at them with some perplexity, and after a moment inquired: "Are they really cats, Kitty Silver, do you b'lieve?"
"Cats what she done tole me," the coloured woman replied. "You betta shet lid down, you don' wan' 'em run away, 'cause they ain't yoosta livin' 'n 'at basket yit; an' no matter whut kine o' cats they is or they isn't, one thing true: they wile cats!"
"But what makes their hair so long?" Florence asked. "I never saw cats with hair a couple inches long like that."
"Miss Julia say they Berjum cats."
"I ain't tellin' no mo'n she tole me. You' aunt say they Berjum cats."
"Persian," said Herbert. "That's nothing. I've seen plenty Persian cats. My goodness, I should think you'd seen a Persian cat at yow age. Thirteen goin' on fourteen!"
"Well, I have seen Persian cats plenty times, I guess," Florence said. "I thought Persian cats were white, and these are kind of gray."
At this Kitty Silver permitted herself to utter an embittered laugh. "You wrong!" she said. "These cats, they white; yes'm!"
"Why, they aren't either! They're gray as——"
"No'm," said Mrs. Silver. "They plum spang white, else you' Aunt Julia gone out her mind; me or her, one. I say: 'Miss Julia, them gray cats.' 'White,' she say. 'Them two cats is white cats,' she say. 'Them cats been crated,' she say. 'They been livin' in a crate on a dirty express train fer th'ee fo' days,' she say. 'Them cats gone got all smoke' up thataway,' she say. 'No'm, Miss Julia,' I say, 'No'm, Miss Julia, they ain't no train,' I say, 'they ain't no train kin take an' smoke two white cats up like these cats so's they hair is gray clean plum up to they hide.' You betta put the lid down, I tell you!"
Florence complied, just in time to prevent one of the young cats from leaping out of the basket, but she did not fasten the cover. Instead, she knelt, and, allowing a space of half an inch to intervene between the basket and the rim of the cover, peered within at the occupants. "I believe the one to this side's a he," she said. "It's got greenisher eyes than the other one; that's the way you can always tell. I b'lieve this one's a he and the other one's a she."
"I ain't stedyin' about no he an' she!"
"What did Aunt Julia say?" Florence asked.
"Whut you' Aunt Julia say when?"
"When you told her these were gray cats and not white cats?"
"She tole me take an' clean 'em," said Kitty Silver. "She say, she say she want 'em clean' up spick an' spang befo' Mista Sammerses git here to call an' see 'em." And she added morosely: "I ain't no cat-washwoman!"
"She wants you to bathe 'em?" Florence inquired, but Kitty Silver did not reply immediately. She breathed audibly, with a strange effect upon vasty outward portions of her, and then gave an incomparably dulcet imitation of her own voice, as she interpreted her use of it during the recent interview.
'Miss Julia, ma'am,' I say—'Miss Julia, ma'am, my bizniss cookin' vittles,' I say. 'Miss Julia, ma'am,' I tole her, 'Miss Julia, ma'am, I cook fer you' pa, an' cook fer you' fam'ly year in, year out, an' I hope an' pursue, whiles some might make complaint, I take whatever I find, an' I leave whatever I find. No'm, Miss Julia, ma'am,' I say—'no'm, Miss Julia, ma'am, I ain't no cat-washwoman!'"
"What did Aunt Julia say then?"
"She say, she say: 'Di'n I tell you take them cats downstairs an' clean 'em?' she say. I ain't nobody's cat-washwoman!"
Florence was becoming more and more interested. "I should think that would be kind of fun," she said. "To be a cat-washwoman. I wouldn't mind that at all: I'd kind of like it. I expect if you was a cat-washwoman, Kitty Silver, you'd be pretty near the only one was in the world. I wonder if they do have 'em any place, cat-washwomen."
"I don' know if they got 'em some place," said Kitty Silver, "an' I don't know if they ain't got 'em no place; but I bet if they do got 'em any place, it's some place else from here!"
Florence looked thoughtful. "Who was it you said is going to call this evening and see 'em?"
"She means Newland Sanders," Herbert explained. "Aunt Julia says all her callers that ever came to this house in their lives, Kitty Silver never got the name right of a single one of 'em!"
"Newland Sanders is the one with the little moustache," Florence said. "Is that the one you mean by 'Sammerses,' Kitty Silver?"
"Mista Sammerses who you' Aunt Julia tole me," Mrs. Silver responded stubbornly. "He ain't got no moustache whut you kin look at—dess some blackish whut don' reach out mo'n halfway todes the bofe ends of his mouf."
"Well," said Florence, "was Mr. Sanders the one gave her these Persian cats, Kitty Silver?"
"I reckon." Mrs. Silver breathed audibly again, and her expression was strongly resentful. "When she go fer a walk 'long with any them callers she stop an' make a big fuss over any li'l ole dog or cat an' I don't know whut all, an' after they done buy her all the candy from all the candy sto's in the livin' worl', an' all the flowers from all the greenhouses they is, it's a wonder some of 'em ain't sen' her a mule fer a present, 'cause seem like to me they done sen' her mos' every kine of animal they is! Firs' come Airydale dog you' grampaw tuck an' give away to the milkman; 'n'en come two mo' pups; I don't know whut they is, 'cause they bofe had dess sense enough to run away after you' grampaw try learn 'em how much he ain't like no pups; an' nex' come them two canaries hangin' in the dinin'-room now, an' nex'—di'n' I holler so's they could a-hear me all way down town? Di'n' I walk in my kitchen one mawnin' right slam in the face of ole warty allagatuh three foot long a-lookin' at me over the aidge o' my kitchen sink?"
"It was Mr. Clairdyce gave her that," said Florence. "He'd been to Florida; but she didn't care for it very much, and she didn't make any fuss at all when grandpa got the florist to take it. Grandpa hates animals."
"He don' hate 'em no wuss'n whut I do," said Kitty Silver. "An' he ain't got to ketch 'em lookin' at him outen of his kitchen sink—an' he ain't fixin' to be no cat-washwoman neither!"
"Are you fixing to?" Florence asked quickly. "You don't need to do it, Kitty Silver. I'd be willing to, and so'd Herbert. Wouldn't you, Herbert?"
Herbert deliberated within himself, then brightened. "I'd just as soon," he said. "I'd kind of like to see how a cat acts when it's getting bathed."
"I think it would be spesh'ly inter'sting to wash Persian cats," Florence added, with increasing enthusiasm. "I never washed a cat in my life."
"Neither have I," said Herbert. "I always thought they did it themselves."
Kitty Silver sniffed. "Ain't I says so to you' Aunt Julia? She done tole me, 'No,' she say. She say, she say Berjum cats ain't wash they self; they got to take an' git somebody else to wash 'em!"
"If we're goin' to bathe 'em," said Florence, "we ought to know their names, so's we can tell 'em to hold still and everything. You can't do much with an animal unless you know their name. Did Aunt Julia tell you these cats' names, Kitty Silver?"
"She say they name Feef an' Meemuh. Yes'm! Feef an' Meemuh! Whut kine o' name is Feef an' Meemuh fer cat name!"
"Oh, those are lovely names!" Florence assured her, and, turning to Herbert, explained: "She means Fifi and Mimi."
"Feef an' Meemuh," said Kitty Silver. "Them name don' suit me, an' them long-hair cats don' suit me neither." Here she lifted the cover of the basket a little, and gazed nervously within. "Look at there!" she said. "Look at the way they lookin' at me! Don't you look at me thataway, you Feef an' Meemuh!" She clapped the lid down and fastened it. "Fixin' to jump out an' grab me, was you?"
"I guess, maybe," said Florence, "maybe I better go ask Aunt Julia if I and Herbert can't wash 'em. I guess I better go ask her anyhow." And she ran up the steps and skipped into the house by way of the kitchen. A moment later she appeared in the open doorway of a room upstairs.
It was a pretty room, lightly scented with the pink geraniums and blue lobelia and coral fuchsias that poised, urgent with colour, in the window-boxes at the open windows. Sunshine paused delicately just inside, where forms of pale-blue birds and lavender flowers curled up and down the cretonne curtains; and a tempered, respectful light fell upon a cushioned chaise longue; for there fluffily reclined, in garments of tender fabric and gentle colours, the prettiest twenty-year-old girl in that creditably supplied town.
It must be said that no stranger would have taken Florence at first glance to be her niece, though everybody admitted that Florence's hair was pretty. ("I'll say that for her," was the family way of putting it.). Florence did not care for her hair herself; it was dark and thick and long, like her Aunt Julia's; but Florence—even in the realistic presence of a mirror—preferred to think of herself as an ashen blonde, and also as about a foot taller than she was. Persistence kept this picture habitually in her mind, which, of course, helps to explain her feeling that she was justified in wearing that manner of superciliousness deplored by her mother. More middle-aged gentlemen than are suspected believe that they look like the waspen youths in the magazine advertisements of clothes; and this impression of theirs accounts (as with Florence) for much that is seemingly inexplicable in their behaviour.
Florence's Aunt Julia was reading an exquisitely made little book, which bore her initials stamped in gold upon the cover; and it had evidently reached her by a recent delivery of the mail, for wrappings bearing cancelled stamps lay upon the floor beside the chaise longue. It was a special sort of book, since its interior was not printed, but all laboriously written with pen and ink—poems, in truth, containing more references to a lady named Julia than have appeared in any other poems since Herrick's. So warmly interested in the reading as to be rather pink, though not always with entire approval, this Julia nevertheless, at the sound of footsteps, closed the book and placed it beneath one of the cushions assisting the chaise longue to make her position a comfortable one. Her greeting was not enthusiastic.
"What do you want, Florence?"
"I was going to ask you if Herbert and me—I mean: Was it Noble Dill gave you Fifi and Mimi, Aunt Julia?"
"Noble Dill? No."
"I wish it was," Florence said. "I'd like these cats better if they were from Noble Dill."
"Why?" Julia inquired. "Why are you so partial to Mr. Noble Dill?"
"I think he's so much the most inter'sting looking of all that come to see you. Are you sure it wasn't Noble Dill gave you these cats, Aunt Julia?"
A look of weariness became plainly visible upon Miss Julia Atwater's charming face. "I do wish you'd hurry and grow up, Florence," she said.
"I do, too! What for, Aunt Julia?"
"So there'd be somebody else in the family of an eligible age. I really think it's an outrageous position to be in," Julia continued, with languid vehemence—"to be the only girl between thirteen and forty-one in a large connection of near relatives, including children, who all seem to think they haven't anything to think of but Who comes to see her, and Who came to see her yesterday, and Who was here the day before, and Who's coming to-morrow, and Who's she going to marry! You really ought to grow up and help me out, because I'm getting tired of it. No. It wasn't Noble Dill but Mr. Newland Sanders that sent me Fifi and Mimi—and I want you to keep away from 'em."
"Why?" asked Florence.
"Because they're very rare cats, and you aren't ordinarily a very careful sort of person, Florence, if you don't mind my saying so. Besides, if I let you go near them, the next thing Herbert would be over here mussing around, and he can't go near anything without ruining it! It's just in him; he can't help it."
Florence looked thoughtful for a brief moment; then she asked: "Did Newland Sanders send 'em with the names already to them?"
"No," said Julia, emphasizing the patience of her tone somewhat. "I named them after they got here. Mr. Sanders hasn't seen them yet. He had them shipped to me. He's coming this evening. Anything more to-day, Florence?"
"Well, I was thinking," said Florence. "What do you think grandpa'll think about these cats?"
"I don't believe there'll be any more outrages," Julia returned, and her dark eyes showed a moment's animation. "I told him at breakfast that the Reign of Terror was ended, and he and everybody else had to keep away from Fifi and Mimi. Is that about all, Florence?"
"You let Kitty Silver go near 'em, though. She says she's fixing to wash 'em."
Julia smiled faintly. "I thought she would! I had to go so far as to tell her that as long as I'm housekeeper in my father's house she'd do what I say or find some other place. She behaved outrageously and pretended to believe the natural colour of Fifi and Mimi is gray!"
"I expect," said Florence, after pondering seriously for a little while—"I expect it would take quite some time to dry them."
"No doubt. But I'd rather you didn't assist. I'd rather you weren't even around looking on, Florence."
A shade fell upon her niece's face at this. "Why, Aunt Julia, I couldn't do any harm to Fifi and Mimi just lookin' at 'em, could I?"
Julia laughed. "That's the trouble; you never do 'just look' at anything you're interested in, and, if you don't mind my saying so, you've got rather a record, dear! Now, don't you care: you can find lots of other pleasant things to do at home—or over at Herbert's, or Aunt Fanny's. You run along now and——"
"Well——" Florence said, moving as if to depart.
"You might as well go out by the front door, child," Julia suggested, with a little watchful urgency. "You come over some day when Fifi and Mimi have got used to the place, and you can look at them all you want to."
"Well, I just——"
But as Florence seemed disposed still to linger, her aunt's manner became more severe, and she half rose from her reclining position.
"No, I really mean it! Fifi and Mimi are royal-bred Persian cats with a wonderful pedigree, and I don't know how much trouble and expense it cost Mr. Sanders to get them for me. They're entirely different from ordinary cats; they're very fine and queer, and if anything happens to them, after all the trouble papa's made over other presents I've had, I'll go straight to a sanitarium! No, Florence, you keep away from the kitchen to-day, and I'd like to hear the front door as you go out."
"Well," said Florence; "I do wish if these cats are as fine as all that, it was Noble Dill that gave 'em to you. I'd like these cats lots better if he gave 'em to you, wouldn't you?"
"No, I wouldn't."
"Well——" Florence said again, and departed.
Twenty is an unsuspicious age, except when it fears that its dignity or grace may be threatened from without; and it might have been a "bad sign" in revelation of Julia Atwater's character if she had failed to accept the muffled metallic clash of the front door's closing as a token that her niece had taken a complete departure for home. A supplemental confirmation came a moment later, fainter but no less conclusive: the distant slamming of the front gate; and it made a clear picture of an obedient Florence on her homeward way. Peace came upon Julia: she read in her book, while at times she dropped a languid, graceful arm, and, with the pretty hand at the slimmer end of it, groped in a dark shelter beneath her couch to make a selection, merely by her well-experienced sense of touch, from a frilled white box that lay in concealment there. Then, bringing forth a crystalline violet become scented sugar, or a bit of fruit translucent in hardened sirup, she would delicately set it on the way to that attractive dissolution hoped for it by the wistful donor—and all without removing her shadowy eyes from the little volume and its patient struggle for dignified rhymes with "Julia." Florence was no longer in her beautiful relative's thoughts.
Florence was idly in the thoughts, however, of Mrs. Balche, the next-door neighbour to the south. Happening to glance from a bay-window, she negligently marked how the child walked to the front gate, opened it, paused for a moment's meditation, then hurled the gate to a vigorous closure, herself remaining within its protection. "Odd!" Mrs. Balche murmured.
Having thus eloquently closed the gate, Florence slowly turned and moved toward the rear of the house, quickening her steps as she went, until at a run she disappeared from the scope of Mrs. Balche's gaze, cut off by the intervening foliage of Mr. Atwater's small orchard. Mrs. Balche felt no great interest; nevertheless, she paused at the sound of a boy's voice, half husky, half shrill, in an early stage of change. "What she say, Flor'nce? D'she say we could?" But there came a warning "Hush up!" from Florence, and then, in a lowered tone, the boy's voice said: "Look here; these are mighty funny-actin' cats. I think they're kind of crazy or somep'n. Kitty Silver's fixed a washtub full o' suds for us."
Mrs. Balche was reminded of her own cat, and went to give it a little cream. Mrs. Balche was a retired widow, without children, and too timid to like dogs; but after a suitable interval, following the loss of her husband, she accepted from a friend the gift of a white kitten, and named it Violet. It may be said that Mrs. Balche, having few interests in life, and being of a sequestering nature, lived for Violet, and that so much devotion was not good for the latter's health. In his youth, after having shown sufficient spirit to lose an eye during a sporting absence of three nights and days, Violet was not again permitted enough freedom of action to repeat this disloyalty; though, now, in his advanced middle-age, he had been fed to such a state that he seldom cared to move, other than by a slow, sneering wavement of the tail when friendly words were addressed to him; and consequently, as he seemed beyond all capacity or desire to run away, or to run at all, Mrs. Balche allowed him complete liberty of action.
She found him asleep upon her "back porch," and placed beside him a saucer of cream, the second since his luncheon. Then she watched him affectionately as he opened his eye, turned toward the saucer his noble Henry-the-Eighth head with its great furred jowls, and began the process of rising for more food, which was all that ever seemed even feebly to rouse his mind. When he had risen, there was little space between him anywhere and the floor.
Violet took his cream without enthusiasm, pausing at times and turning his head away. In fact, he persisted only out of an incorrigible sensuality, and finally withdrew a pace or two, leaving creamy traces still upon the saucer. With a multitude of fond words his kind mistress drew his attention to these, whereupon, making a visible effort, he returned and disposed of them.
"Dat's de 'itty darlin'," she said, stooping to stroke him. "Eat um all up nice clean. Dood for ole sweet sin!" She continued to stroke him, and Violet half closed his eye, but not with love or serenity, for he simultaneously gestured with his tail, meaning to say: "Oh, do take your hands off o' me!" Then he opened the eye and paid a little attention to sounds from the neighbouring yard. A high fence, shrubberies, and foliage concealed that yard from the view of Violet, but the sounds were eloquent to him, since they were those made by members of his own general species when threatening atrocities. The accent may have been foreign, but Violet caught perfectly the sense of what was being said, and instinctively he muttered reciprocal curses within himself.
"What a matta, honey?" his companion inquired sympathetically. "Ess, bad people f'ighten poor Violet!"
From beyond the fence came the murmurings of a boy and a girl in hushed but urgent conversation; and with these sounds there mingled watery agitations, splashings and the like, as well as those low vocalizings that Violet had recognized; but suddenly there were muffled explosions, like fireworks choked in feather beds; and the human voices grew uncontrollably somewhat louder, so that their import was distinguishable. "Ow!" "Hush up, can't you? You want to bring the whole town to—ow!" "Hush up yourself!" "Oh, goodness!" "Look out! Don't let her——" "Well, look what she's doin' to me, can't you?" "For Heavenses' sakes, catch holt and——Ow!"
Then came a husky voice, inevitably that of a horrified coloured person hastening from a distance: "Oh, my soul!" There was a scurrying, and the girl was heard in furious yet hoarsely guarded vehemence: "Bring the clo'es prop! Bring the clo'es prop! We can poke that one down from the garage, anyway. Oh, my goodness, look at 'er go!"
Mrs. Balche shook her head. "Naughty children!" she said, as she picked up the saucer and went to the kitchen door, which she held open for Violet to enter. "Want to come with mamma?"
But Violet had lost even the faint interest in life he had shown a few moments earlier. He settled himself to another stupor in the sun.
"Well, well," Mrs. Balche said indulgently. "Afterwhile shall have some more nice keem."
* * * * *
Sunset was beginning to be hinted, two hours later, when, in another quarter of the town, a little girl of seven or eight, at play on the domestic side of an alley gate, became aware of an older girl regarding her fixedly over the top of the gate. The little girl felt embarrassed and paused in her gayeties, enfolding in her arms her pet and playmate. "Howdy' do," said the stranger, in a serious tone. "What'll you take for that cat?"
The little girl made no reply, and the stranger, opening the gate, came into the yard. She looked weary, rather bedraggled, yet hurried: her air was predominantly one of anxiety. "I'll give you a quarter for that cat," she said. "I want an all-white cat, but this one's only got that one gray spot over its eye, and I don't believe there's an all-white cat left in town, leastways that anybody's willing to part with. I'll give you twenty-five cents for it. I haven't got it with me, but I'll promise to give it to you day after to-morrow."
The little girl still made no reply, but continued to stare, her eyes widening, and the caller spoke with desperation.
"See here," she said, "I got to have a whitish cat! That'n isn't worth more'n a quarter, but I'll give you thirty-five cents for her, money down, day after to-morrow."
At this, the frightened child set the cat upon the ground and fled into the house. Florence Atwater was left alone; that is to say, she was the only human being in the yard, or in sight. Nevertheless, a human voice spoke, not far behind her. It came through a knot-hole in the fence, and it was a voice almost of passion.
"You grab it!"
Florence stood in silence, motionless; there was a solemnity about her. The voice exhorted. "My goodness!" it said. "She didn't say she wouldn't sell it, did she? You can bring her the money like you said you would, can't you? I got mine, didn't I, almost without any trouble at all! My Heavens! Ain't Kitty Silver pretty near crazy? Just think of the position we've put her into! I tell you, you got to!"
But now Florence moved. She moved slowly at first: then with more decision and rapidity.
* * * * *
That evening's dusk had deepened into blue night when the two cousins, each with a scant, uneasy dinner eaten, met by appointment in the alley behind their mutual grandfather's place of residence, and, having climbed the back fence, approached the kitchen. Suddenly Florence lifted her right hand, and took between thumb and forefinger a lock of hair upon the back of Herbert's head.
"Well, for Heavenses' sakes!" he burst out, justifiably protesting.
"Hush!" Florence warned him. "Kitty Silver's talkin' to somebody in there. It might be Aunt Julia! C'm'ere!"
She led him to a position beneath an open window of the kitchen. Here they sat upon the ground, with their backs against the stone foundation of the house, and listened to voices and the clink of dishes being washed.
"She's got another ole coloured darky woman in there with her," said Florence. "It's a woman belongs to her church and comes to see her 'most every evening. Listen; she's telling her about it. I bet we could get the real truth of it maybe better this way than if we went in and asked her right out. Anyway, it isn't eavesdropping if you listen when people are talkin' about you, yourself. It's only wrong when it isn't any of your own bus—"
"For Heavenses' sakes hush up!" her cousin remonstrated. "Listen!"
"'No'm, Miss Julia, ma'am,' I say"—thus came the voice of Mrs. Silver—"'no'm, Miss Julia, ma'am. Them the same two cats you han' me, Miss Julia, ma'am,' I say. 'Leas'wise,' I say, 'them the two same cats whut was in nat closed-up brown basket when I open it up an' take an' fix to wash 'em. Somebody might 'a' took an' change 'em 'fo' they got to me,' I say, 'Miss Julia, ma'am, but all the change happen to 'em sence they been in charge of me, that's the gray whut come off 'em whiles I washin' 'em an' dryin' 'em in corn meal and flannel. I dunno how much washin' 'em change 'em, Miss Julia, ma'am,' I say, ''cause how much they change or ain't change, that's fer you to say and me not to jedge,' I say."
"Lan' o' misery!" cried the visitor, chuckling delightedly. "I wonder how you done kep' you face, Miss Kitty. What Miss Julia say?"
A loud, irresponsible outburst of mirth on the part of Mrs. Silver followed. When she could again control herself, she replied more definitely. "Miss Julia say, she say she ain't never hear no sech outragelous sto'y in her life! She tuck on! Hallelujah! An' all time, Miz Johnson, I give you my word, I stannin' there holdin' nat basket, carryin' on up hill an' down dale how them the same two Berjum cats Mista Sammerses sen' her: an' trouble enough dess ten'in' to that basket, lemme say to you, Miz Johnson, as anybody kin tell you whutever tried to take care o' two cats whut ain't yoosta each other in the same basket. An' every blessed minute I stannin' there, can't I hear that ole Miz Blatch nex' do', out in her back yod an' her front yod, an' plum out in the street, hollerin': 'Kitty? Kitty? Kitty?' 'Yes!' Miss Julia say, she say, 'Fine sto'y!' she say. 'Them two cats you claim my Berjum cats, they got short hair, an' they ain't the same age an' they ain't even nowheres near the same size,' she say. 'One of 'em's as fat as bofe them Berjum cats,' she say: 'an' it's on'y got one eye,' she say. 'Well, Miss Julia, ma'am,' I say—'one thing; they come out white, all 'cept dess around that there skinnier one's eye,' I say: 'dess the same you tell me they goin' to,' I say. 'You right about that much, ma'am!' I say."
"Oh, me!" Mrs. Johnson moaned, worn with applausive laughter. "What she respon' then?"
"I set that basket down," said Kitty Silver, "an' I start fer the do', whiles she unfasten the lid fer to take one mo' look at 'em, I reckon: but open window mighty close by, an' nat skinny white cat make one jump, an' after li'l while I lookin' out thishere window an' see that ole fat Miz Blatch's tom, waddlin' crost the yod todes home."
"What she doin' now?" Mrs. Johnson inquired.
"Who? Miss Julia? She settin' out on the front po'che talkin' to Mista Sammerses."
"My name! How she goin' fix it with him, after all thishere dishcumaraddle?"
"Who? Miss Julia? Leave her alone, honey! She take an' begin talk so fas' an' talk so sweet, no young man ain't goin' to ricklect he ever give her no cats, not till he's gone an' halfway home! But I ain't tole you the en' of it, Miz Johnson, an' the en' of it's the bes' part whut happen."
"What's that, Miss Kitty?"
"Look!" said Mrs. Silver. "Mista Atwater gone in yonder, after I come out, an' ast whut all them goin's-on about. Well suh, an' di'n' he come walkin' out in my kitchen an' slip me two bright spang new silbuh dolluhs right in my han'?"
"Yessuh!" said Mrs. Silver triumphantly. And in the darkness outside the window Florence drew a deep breath. "I'd of felt just awful about this," she said, "if Noble Dill had given Aunt Julia those Persian cats."
"Why?" Herbert inquired, puzzled by her way of looking at things. "I don't see why it would make it any worse who gave 'em to her."
"Well, it would," Florence said. "But anyway, I think we did rather wrong. Did you notice what Kitty Silver said about what grandpa did?"
"I think we ought to tell him our share of it," Florence returned thoughtfully. "I don't want to go to bed to-night with all this on my mind, and I'm going to find grandpa right now and confess every bit of it to him."
Herbert hopefully decided to go with her.
Julia, like Herbert, had been a little puzzled by Florence's expression of a partiality for the young man, Noble Dill; it was not customary for anybody to confess a weakness for him. However, the aunt dismissed the subject from her mind, as other matters pressed sharply upon her attention; she had more worries than most people guessed.
The responsibilities of a lady who is almost officially the prettiest person in a town persistently claiming sixty-five thousand inhabitants are often heavier than the world suspects, and there were moments when Julia found the position so trying that she would have preferred to resign. She was a warm-hearted, appreciative girl, naturally unable to close her eyes to sterling merit wherever it appeared: and it was not without warrant that she complained of her relatives. The whole family, including the children, she said, regaled themselves with her private affairs as a substitute for theatre-going. But one day, a week after the irretrievable disappearance of Fifi and Mimi, she went so far as to admit a note of unconscious confession into her protest that she was getting pretty tired of being mistaken for a three-ring circus! Such was her despairing expression, and the confession lies in her use of the word "three."
The misleading moderation of "three" was pointed out to her by her niece, whose mind at once violently seized upon the word and divested it of context—a process both feminine and instinctive, for this child was already beginning to be feminine. "Three!" she said. "Why, Aunt Julia, you must be crazy! There's Newland Sanders and Noble Dill and that old widower, Ridgley, that grandpa hates so, and Mister Clairdyce and George Plum and the two new ones from out of town that Aunt Fanny Patterson said you had at church Sunday morning—Herbert said he didn't like one of 'em's looks much, Aunt Julia. And there's Parker Kent Usher and that funny-lookin' one with the little piece of whiskers under his underlip that Noble Dill got so mad at when they were calling, and Uncle Joe laughed about, and I don't know who all! Anyhow, there's an awful lot more than three, Aunt Julia."
Julia looked down with little favour upon the talkative caller. Florence was seated upon the shady steps of the veranda, and Julia, dressed for a walk, occupied a wicker chair above her. "Julia, dressed for a walk"—how scant the words! It was a summer walk that Julia had dressed for: and she was all too dashingly a picture of coolness on a hot day: a brunette in murmurous white, though her little hat was a film of blackest blue, and thus also in belt and parasol she had almost matched the colour of her eyes. Probably no human-made fabric could have come nearer to matching them, though she had once met a great traveller—at least he went far enough in his search for comparisons—who told her that the Czarina of Russia had owned a deep sapphire of precisely the colour, but the Czarina's was the only sapphire yet discovered that had it. One of Newland Sanders's longest Poems-to-Julia was entitled "Black Sapphires."
Julia's harmonies in black sapphire were uncalled for. If she really had been as kind as she was too often capable of looking, she would have fastened patches over both eyes—one patch would have been useless—and she would have worn flat shoes and patronized a dressmaker with genius enough to misrepresent her. But Julia was not great enough for such generosities: she should have been locked up till she passed sixty; her sufferings deserve no pity.
And yet an attack of the mumps during the winter had brought Julia more sympathy than the epidemic of typhoid fever in the Old Ladies' Infirmary brought all of the nine old ladies who were under treatment there. Julia was confined to her room for almost a month, during which a florist's wagon seemed permanent before the house: and a confectioner's frequently stood beside the florist's. Young Florence, an immune who had known the mumps in infancy, became an almost constant attendant upon the patient, with the result that the niece contracted an illness briefer than the aunt's, but more than equalling it in poignancy, caused by the poor child's economic struggle against waste. Florence's convalescence took place in her own home without any inquiries whatever from the outer world, but Julia's was spent in great part at the telephone. Even a poem was repeated to her by the instrument:
How the world blooms anew To think that you Can speak again, Can hear The words of men And the dear Own voice of you.
This was Newland Sanders. He was just out of college, a reviewer, a poet, and once, momentarily, an atheist. It was Newland who was present and said such a remarkable thing when Julia had the accident to her thumb-nail in closing the double doors between the living-room and the library, where her peculiar old father sat reading. "To see you suffer," Newland said passionately as she nursed her injury:—"to see you in pain, that is the one thing in the universe which I feel beyond all my capacities. Do you know, when you are made to suffer pain, then I feel that there is no God!"
This strong declaration struck Herbert as one of the most impressive things he had ever heard, though he could not account for its being said to any aunt of his. Herbert had just dropped in without the formality of ringing the bell, and had paused in the hall, outside the open door of the living-room. He considered the matter, after Newland had spoken, and concluded to return to his own place of residence without disturbing anybody at his grandfather's. At home he found his mother and father entertaining one of his uncles, one of his aunts, two of his great-uncles, one of his great-aunts, and one of his grown-up cousins, at cards: and he proved to be warranted in believing that they would all like to know what he had heard. Newland's statement became quite celebrated throughout the family: and Julia, who had perceived almost a sacred something in his original fervour, changed her mind after hearing the words musingly repeated, over and over, by her fat old Uncle Joe.
Florence thought proper to remind her of this to-day, after Julia's protest containing the too moderately confessional word "three."
"If you don't want to be such a circus," the niece continued, reasoning perfectly, "I don't see what you always keep leadin' all of 'em on all the time just the same for."
"Who've you heard saying that, Florence?" her aunt demanded.
"Aunt Fanny Patterson," Florence replied absently. "F'r instance, Aunt Julia, I don't see what you want to go walking with Newland Sanders for, when you said yourself you wished he was dead, or somep'n, after there got to be so muck talk in the family and everywhere about his sayin' all that about the Bible when you hurt your thumb. All the family——"
Julia sighed profoundly. "I wish 'all the family' would try to think about themselves for just a little while! There's entirely too little self-centredness among my relatives to suit me!"
"Why, it's only because you're related to me that I pay the very slightest attention to what goes on here," Florence protested. "It's my own grandfather's house, isn't it? Well, if you didn't live here, and if you wasn't my own grandfather's daughter, Aunt Julia, I wouldn't ever pay the very slightest attention to you! Anyway, I don't much criticize all these people that keep calling on you—anyway not half as much as Herbert does. Herbert thinks he always hass to act so critical, now his voice is changing."
"At your age," said Julia, "my mind was on my schoolbooks."
"Why, Aunt Julia!" Florence exclaimed in frank surprise. "Grandpa says just the opposite from that. I've heard him say, time and time and time again, you always were this way, ever since you were four years old."
"What way?" asked her aunt.
"Like you are now, Aunt Julia. Grandpa says by the time you were fourteen it got so bad he had to get a new front gate, the way they leaned on it. He says he hoped when you grew up he'd get a little peace in his own house, but he says it's worse, and never for one minute the livelong day can he——"
"I know," Julia interrupted. "He talks like a Christian Martyr and behaves like Nero. I might warn you to keep away from him, by the way, Florence. He says that either you or Herbert was over here yesterday and used his spectacles to cut a magazine with, and broke them. I wouldn't be around here much if I were you until he's got over it."
"It must have been Herbert broke 'em," said Florence promptly.
"Papa thinks it was you. Kitty Silver told him it was."
"Mean ole reptile!" said Florence, alluding to Mrs. Silver; then she added serenely, "Well, grandpa don't get home till five o'clock, and it's only about a quarter of two now. Aunt Julia, what are you waitin' around here for?"
"I told you; I'm going walking."
"I mean: Who with?"
Miss Atwater permitted herself a light moan. "With Mr. Sanders and Mr. Ridgely, Florence."
Florence's eyes grew large and eager. "Why, Aunt Julia, I thought those two didn't speak to each other any more!"
"They don't," Julia assented in a lifeless voice. "It just happened that Mr. Sanders and Mr. Ridgley and Mr. Dill, all three, asked me to take a walk this afternoon at two o'clock."
"But Noble Dill isn't going?"
"No," said Julia. "I was fortunate enough to remember that I'd already promised someone else when he asked me. That's what I didn't remember when Mr. Ridgely asked me."
"I'd have gone with Noble Dill," Florence said firmly. "Noble Dill is my Very Ideal! I'd marry him to-morrow."
"It seems to me," her aunt remarked, "I heard your mother telling somebody the other day that you had said the same thing about the King of Spain."
Florence laughed. "Oh, that was only a passing fancy," she said lightly. "Aunt Julia, what's Newland Sanders supposed to do?"
"I think he hasn't entered any business or profession yet."
"I bet he couldn't," her niece declared. "What's that old Ridgely supposed to be? Just a widower?"
"And that George Plum's supposed to do something or other around Uncle Joe's ole bank, isn't he?" Florence continued.
"'Supposed'!" Julia protested. "What is all this 'supposed to be'? Where did you catch that horrible habit? You know the whole family worries over your superciliousness, Florence; but until now I've always thought it was just the way your face felt easiest. If it's going to break out in your talk, too, it's time you began to cure yourself of it."
"Oh, it doesn't hurt anything!" Florence made careless response, and, as she saw the thin figure of young Mr. Sanders approaching in the distance, "Look!" she cried, pointing. "Why, he doesn't even compare to Noble Dill!"
"Don't point at people!"
"Well, he's nothing much to point at!" She lowered her finger. "It's no depredation to me, Aunt Julia, to give up pointing at Newland Sanders. Atch'ly, I wouldn't give Noble Dill's little finger for a hunderd and fifty Newland Sanderses!"
Julia smiled faintly as she watched Mr. Sanders, who seemed not yet to be aware of her, because he thought it would be better to reach the gate and lift his hat just there. "What has brought on all this tenderness in favour of Mr. Dill, Florence?"
Her niece's eyes, concentrated in thought, then became dreamy. "I like him because he's so uncouth," she said. "I think he's the uncouthest of any person I ever saw."
"Yes," said Florence. "Herbert said I was uncouth, and I looked it up in the ditchanary. It said, 'Rare, exquisite, elegant, unknown, obs, unfamiliar, strange,' and a whole lot else. I never did know a word that means so much, I guess. What's 'obs' mean, Aunt Julia?"
"Hush!" said Julia, rising, for Mr. Sanders had made a little startled movement as he reached the gate and caught sight of her; and now, straw hat in hand, he was coming up the brick walk that led to the veranda. His eyes were fixed upon Julia with an intensity that seemed to affect his breathing; there was a hushedness about him. And Florence, in fascination, watched Julia's expression and posture take on those little changes that always seemed demanded of her by the approach of a young or youngish man, or a nicely dressed old one. By almost imperceptible processes the commonplace moment became dramatic at once.
"You!" said Newland in a low voice.
And Julia, with an implication as flattering as the gesture was graceful, did not wait till he was within reach, but suddenly extended her welcoming hand at arm's length. He sprang forward convulsively and grasped it, as if forever.
"You see my little niece?" Julia said. "I think you know her."
"Know her?" Mr. Sanders repeated; then roused his faculties and gave Florence a few fingers dangling coldly after their recent emotion. "Florence. Oh, yes, Florence."
Florence had not risen, but remained seated upon the steps, her look and air committed to that mood of which so much complaint had been made. "How do you do," she said. "There's Mr. Ridgely."
"Where?" Newland asked loudly.
"Comin' in at the gate," said Florence. "He's goin' walkin' with you, too."
In this crisis, Mr. Sanders's feeling was obviously one of startled anguish. He turned to Julia.
"Why, this is terrible!" he said. "You told me——"
"Sh!" she warned him; and whispered hastily, all in a breath: "Couldn't-be-helped-explain-next-time-I-see-you." Then she advanced a gracious step to meet the newcomer.
But the superciliousness of Florence visibly increased with this advent: Mr. Ridgely was easily old enough to be her grandfather, yet she seemed to wish it evident that she would not have cared for him even in that capacity. He was, in truth, one of those widowers who feel younger than ever, and behave as they feel. Since his loss he had shown the greatest willingness to forego whatever advantages age and experience had given him over the descendants of his old friends and colleagues, and his cheerfulness as well as his susceptibility to all that was charming had begun to make him so famous in the town that some of his contemporaries seemed to know scarce another topic. And Julia had a kinder heart, as her father bitterly complained, than most girls.
The widower came, holding out to her a votive cluster of violets, a pink rose among them, their stems wrapped in purple; and upon the lapel of his jovial flannel coat were other violets about a pink rosebud.
"How pretty of you!" said Julia, taking the offering; and as she pinned it at her waist, she added rather nervously, "I believe you know Mr. Sanders; he is going with us."
She was warranted in believing the gentlemen to be acquainted, because no longer ago than the previous week they both had stated, in her presence and simultaneously, that any further communication between them would be omitted for life. Julia realized, of course, that Mr. Ridgely must find the present meeting as trying as Newland did, and, to help him bear it, she contrived to make him hear the hurried whisper: "Couldn't-be-helped-explain-some-day."
Then with a laugh not altogether assured, she took up her parasol. "Shall we be starting?" she inquired.
"Here's Noble Dill," said Florence, "I guess he's goin' to try to go walkin' with you, too, Aunt Julia."
Julia turned, for in fact the gate at that moment clicked behind the nervously advancing form of Noble Dill. He came with, a bravado that was merely pitiable and he tried to snap his Orduma cigarette away with thumb and forefinger in a careless fashion, only to see it publicly disappear through an open cellar window of the house.
"I hope there's no excelsior down there," said Newland Sanders. "A good many houses have burned to the ground just that way."
"It fell on the cement floor," Florence reported, peering into the window. "It'll go out pretty soon."
"Then I suppose we might as well do the same thing," said Newland, addressing Julia first and Mr. Dill second. "Miss Atwater and I are just starting for a walk."
Mr. Ridgely also addressed the new arrival. "Miss Atwater and I are just starting for a walk."
"You see, Noble," said the kind-hearted Julia, "I did tell you I had another engagement."
"I came by here," Mr. Dill began in a tone commingling timidity, love, and a fatal stubbornness; "I came by here—I mean I just happened to be passing—and I thought if it was a walking-party, well, why not go along? That's the way it struck me." He paused, coughing for courage and trying to look easily genial, but not succeeding; then he added, "Well, as I say, that's the way it struck me—as it were. I suppose we might as well be starting."
"Yes, we might," Newland Sanders said quickly; and he placed himself at Julia's left, seizing upon her parasol and opening it with determination.
Mr. Ridgely had kept himself closely at the lady's right. "You were mistaken, my boy," he said, falsely benevolent. "It isn't a party—though there's Miss Florence, Noble. Nobody's asked her to go walking to-day!"
Now, Florence took this satire literally. She jumped up and said brightly: "I just as soon! Let's do have a walking-party. I just as soon walk with Mr. Dill as anybody, and we can all keep together, kind of." With that, she stepped confidently to the side of her selected escort, who appeared to be at a loss how to avert her kindness.
There was a moment of hesitation, during which a malevolent pleasure slightly disfigured the countenances of the two gentlemen with Julia; but when Florence pointed to a house across the street and remarked, "There's Great-Uncle Milford and Aunt C'nelia; they been lookin' out of their second guestroom window about half an hour," Julia uttered an exclamation.
"Murder!" she said, and moved with decision toward the gate. "Let's go!"
Thus the little procession started, Mr. Sanders and the sprightly widower at Beauty's side, with Florence and Mr. Dill so close behind that, before they had gone a block, Newland found it necessary to warn this rear rank that the heels of his new shoes were not part of the pavement. After that the rear rank, a little abashed, consented to fall back some paces. Julia's heightened colour, meanwhile, was little abated by some slight episodes attending the progress of the walking-party. Her Aunt Fanny Patterson, rocking upon a veranda, rose and evidently called to someone within the house, whereupon she was joined by her invalid sister, Aunt Harriet, with a trained nurse and two elderly domestics, a solemnly whispering audience. And in the front yard of "the Henry Atwater house," at the next corner, Herbert underwent a genuine bedazzlement, but he affected more. His violent gaze dwelt upon Florence, and he permitted his legs slowly to crumple under him, until, just as the party came nearest him, he lay prostrate upon his back in a swoon. Afterward he rose and for a time followed in a burlesque manner; then decided to return home.
"Old heathen!" said Florence, glancing back over her shoulder as he disappeared from view.
Mr. Dill was startled from a reverie inspired by the back of Julia's head. "'Heathen'?" he said, in plaintive inquiry.
"I meant Herbert," Florence informed him. "Cousin Herbert Atwater. He was following us, walking Dutch."
"'Cousin Herbert Atwater'?" said Noble dreamily. "'Dutch'?"
"He won't any more," said Florence. "He always hass to show off, now his voice is changing." She spoke, and she also walked, with dignity—a rather dashing kind of dignity, which was what Herbert's eccentricity of gait intended to point out injuriously. In fact, never before had Florence been so impressed with herself; never before, indeed, had she been a member of a grown-up non-family party; never before had she gone walking with an actual adult young man for her escort; and she felt that she owed it to her position to appear in as brilliant an aspect as possible. She managed to give herself a rhythmical, switching motion, causing her kneelength skirt to swing from side to side—a pomp that brought her a great deal of satisfaction as she now and then caught the effect by twisting her neck enough to see down behind, over her shoulder.
But her poise was temporarily threatened when the walking-party passed her own house. Her mother happened to be sitting near an open window upstairs, and, after gazing forth with warm interest at Julia and her two outwalkers, Mrs. Atwater's astonished eyes fell upon Florence taking care of the overflow. Florence bowed graciously.
"Florence!" her mother called down from the window: whereupon both Florence and her Aunt Julia were instantly apprehensive, for Mrs. George Atwater's lack of tact was a legend in the family. "Florence! Where on earth are you going?"
"Never mind!" Florence thought best to respond. "Never mind!"
"You'd better come in," Mrs. Atwater called, her voice necessarily louder as the party moved onward.
"Never mind!" Florence called back.
Mrs. Atwater leaned out of the window. "Where are you going? Come back and get your hat. You'll get a sunstroke!"
Florence was able to conceal her indignation, and merely waved a hand in airy dismissal as they passed from Mrs. Atwater's sight, leaving her still shouting.
The daughter smiled negligently and shrugged her shoulders. "She'll get over it!" she said.
"My mother. She was the one makin' all that noise," said Florence. "Sometimes I do what she says: sometimes I don't. It's all accordings to the way I feel." She looked up in her companion's face, and her expression became politely fond as she thought how uncouth he was, for in Florence's eye Noble Dill was truly rare, exquisite, and unfamiliar; and she believed that he was obs, too, whatever that meant. She often thought about him, and no longer ago than yesterday she had told Kitty Silver that she couldn't see "how Aunt Julia could look at anybody else!"
Florence's selection of Noble Dill for the bright favourite of her dreams was one of her own mysteries. Noble was not beautiful, neither did he present to the ordinary eye of man anything especially rare, exquisite, unfamiliar, or even so distinguished as to be obsolete. He was about twenty-two, but not one of those book-read sportsmen of that age, confident in clothes and manner, easy travellers and debonair; that is to say, Noble was not of the worldly type twenty-two. True, he had graduated from the High-school before entering his father's Real Estate and Insurance office, but his geographical experiences (in particular) had been limited to three or four railway excursions, at special rates, to such points of interest as Mammoth Cave and Petoskey, Michigan. His other experiences were not more sparkling, and except for the emotions within him, he was in all the qualities of his mind as well as in his bodily contours and the apparel sheltering the latter, the most commonplace person in Florence's visible world. The inner areas of the first and second fingers of his left hand bore cigarette stains, seemingly indelible: the first and second fingers of his right hand were strongly ornamented in a like manner; tokens proving him ambidextrous to but a limited extent, however. Moreover, his garments and garnitures were not comparable to those of either Newland Sanders or that dapper antique, Mr. Ridgely. Noble's straw hat might have brightened under the treatment of lemon juice or other restorative; his scarf was folded to hide a spot that worked steadily toward a complete visibility, and some recent efforts upon his trousers with a tepid iron, in his bedchamber at home, counteracted but feebly that tendency of cloth to sculpture itself in hummocks upon repeated pressure of the human knee.
All in all, nothing except the expression of Noble's face and the somewhat ill-chosen pansy in his buttonhole hinted of the remarkable. Yet even here was a thing for which he was not responsible himself; it was altogether the work of Julia. What her work was, in the case of Noble Dill, may be expressed in a word—a word used not only by the whole Atwater family connection, in completely expressing Noble's condition, but by Noble's own family connection as well. This complete word was "awful."
Florence was the one exception on the Atwater side: she was far, far from thinking or speaking of Noble Dill in that way, although, until she looked up "uncouth" in Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, she had not found suitable means to describe him. And now, as she walked at his side, she found her sensations to be nothing short of thrilling. For it must be borne in mind that this was her first and wholly unexpected outburst into society; the experience was that of an obscure aerolite suddenly become a noble meteor. She longed to say or do something magnificent—something strange and exhilarating, in keeping with her new station in life.
It was this longing, and by no means a confirmed unveracity, that prompted her to amplify her comments upon her own filial independence. "Oh, I guess I pretty near never do anything I don't want to," she said. "I kind of run the house to suit myself. I guess if the truth had to be told, I just about run the whole Atwater family, when it comes to that!"
The statement was so noticeable that it succeeded in turning Noble's attention from the back of Julia's head. "You do?" he said. "Well, that seems queer," he added absently.
"Oh, I don't know!" she laughed. In her increasing exaltation things appeared actually to be as she wished them to be; an atmosphere both queenly and adventurous seemed to invest her, and any remnants of human caution in her were assuaged by the circumstance that her Aunt Julia's attention was subject to the strong demands necessarily imposed upon anybody taking a walk between two gentlemen who do not "speak" to each other. "Oh, I don't know," said Florence. "The family's used to it by this time, I guess. The way I do things, they haf to be, I guess. When they don't like it I don't say much for a while, then I just——" She paused, waiting for her imagination to supply a sequel to the drama just sketched. "Well, I guess they kind of find out they better step around pretty lively," she concluded darkly. "They don't bother around too much!"
"I suppose not," said Noble, his vacancy and credulity continuing to dovetail perfectly.
"You bet not!" the exuberant Florence thought proper to suggest as a preferable expression. And then she had an inspiration to enliven his dreamy interest in her conversation. "Grandpa, he's the one I kind of run most of all of 'em. He's about fifty or sixty, and so he hasn't got too much sense. What I mean, he hasn't got too much sense left, you know. So I haf to sort of take holt every now and then." She lowered her voice a little, some faint whisper of discretion reaching her inward ear. "Aunt Julia can't do a thing with him. I guess that's maybe the reason she kind of depen's on me so much; or anyway somep'n like that. You know, f'r instance, I had to help talk grandpa into lettin' her send to New York for her things. Aunt Julia gets all her things in New York."
Undeniably, Mr. Dill's interest flickered up. "Things?" he repeated inquiringly. "Her things?"
"Yes. Everything she wears, you know."
"What I was goin' to tell you," Florence continued, "you know grandpa just about hates everybody. Anyhow, he'd like to have some peace and quiet once in a while in his own house, he says, instead of all this moil and turmoil, and because the doctor said all the matter with her was she eats too much candy, and they keep sendin' more all the time—and there's somep'n the trouble with grandpa: it makes him sick to smell violets: he had it ever since he was a little boy, and he can't help it; and he hates animals, and they keep sendin' her Airedales and Persian kittens, and then there was that alligator came from Florida and upset Kitty Silver terribly—and so, you see, grandpa just hates the whole everlasting business."
Mr. Dill nodded and spoke with conviction: "He's absolutely right; absolutely!"
"Well, some ways he is," said Florence; and she added confidentially: "The trouble is, he seems to think you're about as bad as any of 'em."
"Well!" Florence exclaimed, with upward gestures both of eye and of hand, to signify what she left untold of Mr. Atwater's orations upon his favourite subject: Noble Dill. "It's torrable!" she added.
Noble breathed heavily, but a thought struggled in him and a brightening appeared upon him. "You mean——" he began. "Do you mean it's terrible for your Aunt Julia? Do you mean his injustice about me makes her feel terribly?"
"No," said Florence. "No: I mean the way he goes on about everybody. But Aunt Julia's kind of used to it. And anyhow you needn't worry about him 'long as I'm on your side. He won't do anything much to you if I say not to. Hardly anything at all." And then, with almost a tenderness, as she marked the visibly insufficient reassurance of her companion, she said handsomely: "He won't say a word. I'll tell him not to."
Noble was dazed; no novelty, for he had been dazed almost continually during the past seven months, since a night when dancing with Julia, whom he had known all his life, he "noticed for the first time what she looked like." (This was his mother's description.) Somewhere, he vaguely recalled, he had read of the extraordinary influence possessed by certain angelic kinds of children; he knew, too, what favourite grandchildren can do with grandfathers. The effect upon him was altogether base; he immediately sought by flattery to increase and retain Florence's kindness. "I always thought you seemed to know more than most girls of your age," he began.
It was a great afternoon for Florence. From time to time she glanced over her shoulder at the switching skirt, and increased its radius of action, though this probably required more exercise, compared to the extent of ground covered, than any lady member of a walking-party had ever before taken, merely as a pedestrian. Meanwhile, she chattered on, but found time to listen to the pleasant things said to her by her companion; and though most of these were, in truth, rather vague, she was won to him more than he knew. Henceforth she was to be his champion indeed, sometimes with greater energy than he would need.
... The two were left alone together by Julia's gate when the walk (as short as Julia dared to make it) was over.
"Well," Florence said, "I've had quite a nice time. I hope you enjoyed yourself nicely, too, Mr. Dill." Then her eye rose to the overhanging branch of a shade-tree near them. "Would you like to see me chin myself?" she asked, stepping beneath the branch. "I bet I could skin-the-cat on that limb! Would you like to see me do it?"
"I would so!" the flatterer enthused.
She became thoughtful, remembering that she was now a lady who took walks with grown gentlemen. "I can, but I won't," she said. "I used to do lots of things like that. I used to whenever I felt like it. I could chin myself four times and Herbert only three. I was lots better than Herbert when I used to do all kinds of things like that."
She laughed as in a musing retrospect of times gone by. "I guess I used to be a pretty queer kind of a girl in those days," she said. "Well—I s'pose we ought to say good-bye for the present, so to speak, Mr. Dill."
"I'm afraid so."
"Well——" She stood looking at him expectantly, but he said nothing more. "Well, good-bye for the present, Mr. Dill," she said again, and, turning, walked away with dignity. But a moment later she forgot all about her skirt and scampered.
Mrs. Dill, Noble's mother, talked of organizing a Young Men's Mothers' Club against Julia, nevertheless she acknowledged that in one solitary way Noble was being improved by the experience. His two previous attacks of love (one at twelve, and the other at eighteen) had been incomparably lighter, and the changes in him, noted at home, merely a slight general irritability and a lack of domestic punctuality due to too much punctuality elsewhere. But, when his Julia Atwater trouble came, the very first symptom he manifested was a strange new effort to become beautiful; his mother even discovered that he sometimes worked with pumice stone upon the cigarette stains on his fingers.
The most curious thing about his condition was that for a long time he took it for granted that his family did not know what was the matter with him; and this shows as nothing else could the meekness and tact of the Dills; for, excluding bad cooks and the dangerously insane, the persons most disturbing to the serenity of households are young lovers. But the world has had to accommodate itself to them because young lovers cannot possibly accommodate themselves to the world. For the young lover there is no general life of the species; for him the universe is a delicate blush under a single bonnet. He has but an irritated perception of every vital thing in nature except the vital thing under this bonnet; all else is trivial intrusion. But whatever does concern the centrifugal bonnet, whatever concerns it in the remotest—ah, then he springs to life! So Noble Dill sat through a Sunday dinner at home, seemingly drugged to a torpor, while the family talk went on about him; but when his father, in the course of some remarks upon politics, happened to mention the name of the county-treasurer, Charles J. Patterson, Noble's startled attention to the conversation was so conspicuous as to be disconcerting. Mrs. Dill signalled with her head that comment should be omitted, and Mr. Dill became, for the moment, one factor in a fairly clear example of telepathic communication, for it is impossible to believe that his wife's almost imperceptible gesture was what caused him to remember that Charles J. Patterson was Julia Atwater's uncle.
That name, Charles J. Patterson, coming thus upon Noble's ear, was like an unexpected shrine on the wayside where plods the fanatic pilgrim; and yet Mr. Patterson was the most casual of Julia's uncles-by-marriage: he neither had nor desired any effect upon her destiny. To Noble he seemed a being ineffably privileged and fateful, and something of the same quality invested the wooden gateposts in front of Julia's house; invested everything that had to do with her. What he felt about her father, that august old danger, himself, was not only the uncalled-for affection inevitable toward Julia's next of kin, but also a kind of horror due to the irresponsible and awful power possessed by a sacred girl's parent. Florence's offer of protection had not entirely reassured the young lover, and, in sum, Noble loved Mr. Atwater, but often, in his reveries, when he had rescued him from drowning or being burned to death, he preferred to picture the peculiar old man's injuries as ultimately fatal.
For the other Atwaters his feeling held less of apprehension, more of tenderness; and whenever he saw one of them he became deferential and a little short of breath. Thus, on a sunny afternoon, having been home to lunch after his morning labour downtown, he paused in passing young Herbert's place of residence and timidly began a conversation with this glamoured nephew. It happened that during the course of the morning Herbert had chosen a life career for himself; he had decided to become a scientific specialist, an entomologist; and he was now on his knees studying the manners and customs of the bug inhabitants of the lawn before the house, employing for his purpose a large magnifying lens, or "reading glass." (His discovery of this implement in the attic, coincidentally with his reading a recent "Sunday Supplement" article on bugs, had led to his sudden choice of a vocation.)
"Did somebody—ah, have any of the family lost anything, Herbert?" Noble asked in a gentle voice, speaking across the fence.
Herbert did not look up, nor did he relax the scientific frown upon his brow. "No," he said. "They always are losin' things, espesh'ly Aunt Julia, when she comes over here, or anywheres else; but I wouldn't waste my time lookin' for any old earrings or such. I got more important things to do on my hands."
"Has your Aunt Julia lost an earring, Herbert?"
"Her? Well, she nearly always has lost somep'n or other, but that isn't bother'n' me any. I got better things to do with my time." Herbert spoke without interrupting his occupation or relaxing his forehead. "Nacher'l history is a little more important to the inhabitants of our universe than a lot o' worthless jew'lry, I guess," he continued; and his pride in discovering that he could say things like this was so great that his frown gave way temporarily to a look of pleased surprise, then came back again to express an importance much increased. He rose, approached the fence, and condescended to lean upon it. "I don't guess there's one person in a thousand," he said, "that knows what they ought to know about our inseck friends."
"No," Mr. Dill agreed readily. "I guess that's so. I guess you're right about that, Herbert. When did your Aunt Julia lose the earring, Herbert?"
"I d' know," said Herbert. "Now, you take my own father and mother: What do they know? Well, mighty little. They may have had to learn a little teeny bit about insecks when they were in school, but whatever little it was they went and forgot it proba'ly long before they were married. Well, that's no way. F'r instance, you take a pinchin' bug: What do you suppose my father and mother know about its position in the inseck world?"
"Well——" said Noble uneasily. "Well——" He coughed, and hastened to add: "But as I was saying, if she lost her earring somewhere in your yard, or——"
The scientific boy evidently did not follow this line of thought, for he interrupted: "Why, they wouldn't know a thing about it, and a pinchin' bug isn't one of the highest insecks at all. Ants are way up compared to most pinchin' bugs. Ants are way up anyway. Now, you take an ant——" He paused. "Well, everybody ought to know a lot more'n they do about ants. It takes time, and you got to study 'em the right way, and of course there's lots of people wouldn't know how to do it. I'm goin' to get a book I been readin' about. It's called 'The Ant.'"
For a moment Noble was confused; he followed his young friend's discourse but hazily, and Herbert pronounced the word "ant" precisely as he pronounced the word "aunt." The result was that Noble began to say something rather dreamy concerning the book just mentioned, but, realizing that he was being misunderstood, he changed his murmur into a cough, and inquired:
"When was she over here, Herbert?"
"Your Aunt Julia."
"Yesterday evening," said Herbert. "Now, f'r instance, you take a common lightning-bug——"
"Did she lose it, then?"
"I d' know," said Herbert. "You take the common lightning-bug or, as it's called in some countries, the firefly——"
He continued, quoting and misquoting the entomological authority of the recent "Sunday Supplement"; but his friend on the other side of the fence was inattentive to the lecture. Noble's mind was occupied with a wonder; he had realized, though dimly, that here was he, trying to make starry Julia the subject of a conversation with a person who had the dear privilege of being closely related to her—and preferred to talk about bugs.
Herbert talked at considerable length about lightning-bugs, but as his voice happened rather precociously to be already in a state of adolescent change, the sound was not soothing; yet Noble lingered. Nephews were queer, but this one was Julia's, and he finally mentioned her again, as incidental to lightning-bugs; whereupon the mere hearer of sounds became instantly a listener to words.
"Well, and then I says," Herbert continued;—"I says: 'It's phosphorus, Aunt Julia.' I guess there's hardly anybody in the world doesn't know more than Aunt Julia, except about dresses and parasols and every other useless thing under the sun. She says: 'My! I always thought it was sulphur!' Said nobody ever told her it wasn't sulphur! I asked her: I said: 'You mean to sit there and tell me you don't know the difference?' And she says: 'I don't care one way or the other,' she says. She said she just as soon a lightning-bug made his light with sulphur as with phosphorus; it didn't make any difference to her, she says, and they could go ahead and make their light any way they wanted, she wouldn't interfere! I had a whole hatful of 'em, and she told me not to take 'em into their house, because grandpa hates insecks as much as he does animals and violets, and she said they never owned a microscope or a magnifying-glass in their lives, and wouldn't let me hunt for one. All in the world she knows is how to sit on the front porch and say: 'Oh you don't mean that!' to somebody like Newland Sanders or that ole widower!"
"When?" Noble asked impulsively. "When did she say that?"
"Oh, I d' know," said Herbert. "I expect she proba'ly says it to somebody or other about every evening there is."
"Florence says so," Herbert informed him carelessly. "Florence goes over to grandpa's after dark and sits on the ground up against the porch and listens."
Noble first looked startled then uneasily reminiscent. "I don't believe Florence ought to do that," he said gravely.
"I wouldn't do it!" Herbert was emphatic.
"That's right, Herbert. I'm glad you wouldn't."
"No, sir," the manly boy declared. "You wouldn't never catch me takin' my death o' cold sittin' on the damp grass in the night air just to listen to a lot o' tooty-tooty about 'I've named a star for you,' and all such. You wouldn't catch me——"
Noble partly concealed a sudden anguish. "Who?" he interrupted. "Who did she say that to?"
"She didn't. They say it to her, and she says? 'Oh, you don't mean that!' and of course then they haf to go on and say some more. Florence says——" He checked himself. "Oh, I forgot! I promised Florence I wouldn't tell anything about all this."
"It's safe," Noble assured him quickly. "I'm quite a friend of Florence's and it's absolutely safe with me. I won't speak of it to anybody, Herbert. Who was it told her he'd named a star for her?"
"It was the way some ole poem began. Newland Sanders wrote it. Florence found it under Aunt Julia's sofa-cushions and read it all through, but I wouldn't wade through all that tooty-tooty for a million dollars, and I told her to put it back before Aunt Julia noticed. Well, about every day he writes her a fresh one, and then in the evening he stays later than the rest, and reads 'em to her—and you ought to hear grandpa when he gets to talkin' about it!"
"He's perfectly right," said Noble. "Perfectly! What does he say when he talks about it, Herbert?"
"Oh, he says all this and that; and then he kind of mutters around, and you can't tell just what all the words are exactly, so't he can deny it if any o' the family accuses him of swearing or anything." And Herbert added casually: "He was kind of goin' on like that about you, night before last."
"About me! Why, what could he say about me?"
"Oh, all this and that."
"But what did he find to say?"
"Well, he heard her tellin' you how you oughtn't to smoke so many cigarettes and all about how it was killin' you, and you sayin' you guessed it wouldn't matter if you did die, and Aunt Julia sayin' 'Oh, you don't mean that,' and all this and such and so on, you know. He can hear anything on the porch pretty good from the lib'ary; and Florence told me about that, besides, because she was sittin' in the grass and all. She told Great-Uncle Joe and Aunt Hattie about it, too."
"My heavens!" Noble gasped, as for the first time he realized to what trumpeting publicity that seemingly hushed and moonlit bower, sacred to Julia, had been given over. He gulped, flushed, repeated "My heavens!" and then was able to add, with a feeble suggestion of lightness: "I suppose your grandfather understood it was just a sort of joke, didn't he?"
"No," said Herbert, and continued in a friendly way, for he was flattered by Noble's interest in his remarks, and began to feel a liking for him. "No. He said Aunt Julia only talked like that because she couldn't think of anything else to say, and it was wearin' him out. He said all the good it did was to make you smoke more to make her think how reckless you were; but the worst part of it was, he'd be the only one to suffer, because it blows all through the house and he's got to sit in it. He said he just could stand the smell of some cigarettes, but if you burned any more o' yours on his porch he was goin' to ask your father to raise your salary for collectin' real-estate rents, so't you'd feel able to buy some real tobacco. He——"
But the flushed listener felt that he had heard as much as he was called upon to bear; and he interrupted, in a voice almost out of control, to say that he must be "getting on downtown." His young friend, diverted from bugs, showed the greatest willingness to continue the narrative indefinitely, evidently being in possession of copious material; but Noble turned to depart. An afterthought detained him. "Where was it she lost her earring?"
"Your Aunt Julia."
"Why, I didn't say she lost any earring," Herbert returned. "I said she always was losin' 'em: I didn't say she did."
"Then you didn't mean——"
"No," said Herbert, "I haven't heard of her losin' anything at all, lately." Here he added: "Well, grandpa kept goin' on about you, and he told her——Well, so long!" And gazed after the departing Mr. Dill in some surprise at the abruptness of the latter's leave-taking. Then, wondering how the back of Noble's neck could have got itself so fiery sunburnt, Herbert returned to his researches in the grass.
* * * * *
The peaceful street, shady and fragrant with summer, was so quiet that the footfalls of the striding Noble were like an interruption of coughing in a silent church. As he seethed adown the warm sidewalk the soles of his shoes smote the pavement, for mentally he was walking not upon cement but upon Mr. Atwater.