IN APPLE-BLOSSOM TIME
A Fairy-Tale to Date
CLARA LOUISE BURNHAM
Boston and New York Houghton Mifflin Company The Riverside Press Cambridge Copyright, 1919, by Clara Louise Burnham All Rights Reserved
I. The Princess
II. The Ogre
III. The Prince
IV. The Good Fairy
V. The New Help
VI. The Dwarf
VII. A Midnight Message
VIII. The Meadow
IX. The Bird of Prey
X. The Palace
XI. Mother and Son
XII. The Transformation
XIII. The Goddess
XIV. The Mermaid Shop
XV. The Clouds Disperse
XVI. Apple Blossoms
Drawn by B. Morgan Dennis
Lifted the Girl in after it
Tingling with the Increasing Desire to knock down his Host and catch this Girl up in his Arms
"Geraldine Melody belongs to me. Her father gave her to me"
In the Order of their Appearance
The Good Fairy Mehitable Upton
The Princess Geraldine Melody
The Ogre Rufus Carder
The Dwarf Pete
The Slave Mrs. Carder
The Prince Benjamin Barry
The Grouch Charlotte Whipp
The Queen Mrs. Barry
IN APPLE-BLOSSOM TIME
Miss Mehitable Upton had come to the city to buy a stock of goods for the summer trade. She had a little shop at the fashionable resort of Keefeport as well as one in the village of Keefe, and June was approaching. It would soon be time to move.
Miss Upton's extreme portliness had caused her hours of laborious selection to fatigue her greatly. Her face was scarlet as she entered a popular restaurant to seek rest and refreshment. She trudged with all the celerity possible toward the only empty table, her face expressing wearied eagerness to reach that desirable haven before any one else espied it.
Scarcely had she eased herself down into the complaining chair, however, before a reason for the unpopularity of this table appeared. A steady draught blew across it strong enough to wave the ribbons on her hat.
"This won't do at all," muttered Miss Mehitable. "I'm all of a sweat."
She looked about among the busy hungry horde, and her eye alighted on a table at which a young girl sat alone.
"Bet she'll hate to see me comin', but here goes," she added, slipping the straps of her bag up on her arm and grasping the sides of the table with both hands.
Ben Barry was wont to say: "When Mehit is about to rise and flee, it's a case of Yo heave ho, my hearties. All hands to the ropes." But then it was notorious that Ben's bump of reverence was an intaglio.
Miss Upton got to her feet and started on her trip, her eyes expressing renewed anxiety.
A lantern-faced, round-shouldered man, whose ill-fitting clothes, low collar several sizes too large, and undecided manner suggested that he was a visitor from the rural districts, happened to be starting for the young girl's table at the same moment.
Miss Upton perceived his intention.
"Let him set in the draught," she thought. "He don't look as if he'd ever been het up in his life."
With astonishing swiftness her balloon-like form took on an extra sprint. The man became aware of her object and they arrived at the coveted haven nearly simultaneously.
Miss Mehitable's umbrella decided the victory. She deftly moved it to where a hurdle would have intervened for her rival in their foot-race, and the preoccupied girl at the table looked up somewhat startled as a red face atop a portly figure met her brown eyes in triumph. The girl glanced at the defeated competitor and took in the situation. The man scowled at Mehitable's umbrella planted victoriously beside its owner and his thin lips expressed his impatience most unbecomingly. Then he caught sight of the vacant table and started for that with the haste which, like many predecessors, he was to find unnecessary.
"I'm sorry to disturb you," said Miss Upton, still excited from her Marathon, "but you'd have had him if you hadn't had me."
The girl was a sore-hearted maiden, and the geniality and good-humor in the jolly face opposite had the effect of a cheery fire in a gloomy and desolate room.
"I would much rather have you," she replied. "I couldn't have sat opposite that Adam's apple."
Miss Mehitable laughed. "He wasn't pretty, was he?" she replied; "and wasn't he mad, though?"
Then she became aware that if the disappointed man had not been prepossessing, her present companion was so. A quantity of golden hair, a fine pink-and-white skin, with dark eyebrows, eyes, and lashes, were generous gifts of Nature; and the curves of the grave little mouth were very charming. The girl's plain dark suit and simple hat, and above all her shrinking, cast-down demeanor made her appear careless, even unaware of these advantages, and Miss Mehitable noticed this at once.
"Hasn't the child got a looking-glass?" she thought; and even as she thought it and took the menu she observed a tear gather on the dark lashes opposite.
As the girl wiped it away quickly, she glanced up and saw the look of kindly concern in her neighbor's face.
"I'd rather you would be the one to see me cry, too," she said. "I can't help it," she added desperately. "They just keep coming and coming no matter what I do, and I must eat."
"Well, now, I'm real sorry." Miss Upton's hearty sincerity was a sort of consolation. After she had given her luncheon order she spoke again to her vis-a-vis who was valiantly swallowing.
"Do your folks live here in town?" she asked in the tone one uses toward a grieving child.
"Oh, if I had folks!" returned the other. "Do people who have folks ever cry?"
"Why, you poor child," said Miss Mehitable. For the girl caught her lower lip under her teeth and for a minute it seemed that she was not going to be able to weather the crisis of her emotion: but her self-control was equal to the emergency and she bit down the battling sob. Miss Mehitable saw the struggle and refrained from speaking for a few minutes. Her luncheon arrived and she broke open a roll. She continued to send covert glances at the young girl who industriously buttered small pieces of bread and put them into her unwilling mouth, and drank from a glass of milk.
When Miss Upton thought it was safe to address her again, she spoke: "Who have you got to take care of you, then?" she asked.
"Nobody," was the reply, but the girl spoke steadily now. Apparently she had summoned the calm of desperation.
"Why, that don't seem possible," returned Miss Mehitable, and her voice and manner were full of such sympathetic interest that the forlorn one responded again; this time with a long look of gratitude that seemed to sink right down through Miss Upton's solicitous eyes into her good heart.
"You're a kind woman. If there are any girls in your family they know where to go for comfort. I'm sure of that."
"There ain't any girls in my family. I'm almost without folks myself; but then, I'm old and tough. I work for my livin'. I keep a little store."
"That is what I wanted to do—work for my living," said the girl. "I've tried my best." Again for a space she caught her lip under her teeth. "First I tried the stores; then I even tried service. I went into a family as a waitress. I"—she gave a determined swallow—"I suppose there must be some good men in the world, but I haven't found any."
Miss Upton's small eyes gave their widest stare and into them came understanding and indignation.
"I'm discouraged"—said the girl, and a hard tone came into her low voice—"discouraged enough to end it all."
"Now—now—don't you talk that way," stammered Miss Mehitable. "I s'pose it's because you're so pretty."
"Yes," returned the girl disdainfully. "I despise my looks."
"Now, see here, child," exclaimed Miss Upton, prolonging her troubled stare, "perhaps Providence helped me nearly trip up that slab-sided gawk. Perhaps I set down here for a purpose. Desperate folks cling to straws. I'm the huskiest straw you ever saw, and I might be able to give you some advice. At least I've got an old head and you've got a young one, bless your poor little heart. Why don't we go somewheres where we can talk when we're through eating?"
"You're very good to take an interest," replied the girl.
"I'm as poor as Job's turkey," went on Miss Upton, "and I haven't got much to give you but advice."
The girl leaned across the table. "Yes, you have," she said, her soft dark eyes expressive. "Kindness. Generosity. A warm heart."
"Well, then, you come with me some place where we can talk; but," with sudden cheerfulness, "let's have some ice-cream first. Don't you love it? I ought to run a mile from the sight of it; and these fried potatoes I've just been eatin' too. I've no business to look at 'em; but when I come to town I just kick over the traces. I forget there is such a thing as Graham bread and I just have one good time."
She laughed and the young girl regarded her wistfully.
"It's a pity you haven't any daughters," she said.
"I haven't even any husband," was the cheerful response, "and I never shall have now, so why should I worry over my waistline? Queen Victoria had one the same size and everybody respected her. Now I'm goin' to order the ice-cream. That's my treat as a proof that you and I are friends. My name is Upton. What's yours, my dear?"
"First or last?"
"Last. Geraldine Melody."
"It's a nawful pretty name," declared Miss Upton impressively. "There ain't any discord in melody. Now you take courage. Which'll you have? Chocolate or strawberry?"
It proved that Miss Upton's new acquaintance had an appointment later at a hotel near by, so thither they repaired when the ice-cream was finished.
"Now tell me all about it," said Miss Mehitable encouragingly, when they had found the vacant corner of a reception-room and sat down side by side.
"I feel like holding on to you and not letting you go," said the girl, looking about apprehensively.
"Are you afraid of the folks you're goin' to meet here? Is it another job you're lookin' for? I can tell you right now," added Miss Mehitable firmly, "that I'm goin' to stay and see what they look like if I lose every train out to Keefe."
"You are so good," said the girl wistfully. "Are you always so kind to strangers?"
"When they're a hundred times too pretty and as young as you are I am," returned Miss Upton promptly; "but this is my first experience. What sort of position are you tryin' for now?"
"I don't know what to call it," replied Geraldine, with another apprehensive look toward the door. "General utility, I hope." She looked back at her companion. "When my father died, it left me alone in the world; for my stepmother is the sort that lives in the fairy tales; not the loving kind who are in real life. I know a girl who has the dearest stepmother. I was fourteen years old when my father married again. My mother had been dead for three years. I was an only child and had always lived at home, but my stepmother didn't want me. She persuaded my father to send me away to school. I think Daddy never had any happiness after he married her. He had always been very extravagant and easy-going. While my precious mother lived she helped him and guided him, and although I was only a little girl I always believed he married again because he was greatly embarrassed for money. This woman appeared to have plenty and she was so in love with him! If you had seen him, I think you would have said he was a hundred times too handsome. Well, from what I could see at vacation time she was never sufficiently in love with him to let him have her money; and I am sure the last years of his life were wretched and full of hard places because of his financial ill-success. Poor father." The girl's voice failed and she waited, looking down at the gloved hands in her lap. "I had been at home from school only a few months when he died," she went on. "My stepmother endured me and that was all. She is a quite young woman, very fond of gayety, and she made me feel that I was very much in her way no matter how hard I tried to keep out of it."
"I'll bet you were," put in Miss Upton sotto voce.
"As soon as my dear father was gone she threw off all disguise to her impatience. She put on very becoming mourning and said she wanted to travel. She said my father had left nothing, but that I was young and could easily get a position. She broke up the home, found a cheap room for me to lodge, gave me a little money and went away." Again Geraldine's voice broke and she stopped.
"You poor child," said Miss Upton; "to try as you have and find all your efforts failures!"
"My stepmother has some relatives who live on a farm," went on the girl. "Before my father died we three had one talk which it always sickens me to remember. My stepmother was saying that it was high time I went out into the world and did something for my own support. My father perhaps knew that he was very ill; but we did not. His death came suddenly. That day while my stepmother talked he walked the floor casting troubled looks at me and I knew she was hurting him. 'Everybody should be where she can be of some use,' said my stepmother. 'I think the Carder farm would be a fine place for Geraldine, and after all Rufus Carder has done for you I should think you'd be glad to send her out there.'
"I shall never forget the light that came into Daddy's eyes as he stopped and turned on her. 'What Rufus Carder has done for me is what the icy sidewalk does for the man who trips,' he answered. My stepmother shrugged her shoulders. 'That was your own weakness, then,' she said. 'I think a more appropriate simile for Rufus would be the bridge that carried you over!' Her voice was so cold and contemptuous! Daddy came to me and there was despair in his face. He put his hand on my shoulder while she went on talking: 'Many times since the day that Rufus saw Geraldine in the park,' she said, 'he has told me they would be glad to have her come out to the farm and live with them. I think you ought to send her. She isn't needed here and they really do need somebody.' The desperate look in my father's face wrung my heart. He did not look at my stepmother nor answer her; but just gazed into my eyes and said over and over softly, 'Forgive me, Gerrie. Forgive me.' I took his hands in mine and told him I had nothing to forgive." The young girl choked.
When she could go on she spoke again: "A couple of days after that he died. My stepmother was angry because he left no life insurance, and she talked to me again about going to work, and again brought up the subject of the Carder farm. She tried to flatter me by talking of her cousin's admiration of me the day he saw me in the park. I told her I could not bear to go to people who had not been kind to my father, and she replied that what Daddy had said that day must have been caused by his illness, for Rufus Carder had befriended him times without number."
The girl lifted her appealing eyes to Miss Upton's face as she continued: "Of course I knew that my dear father had been weak and I couldn't contradict her; so after trying and failing, trying and failing many times, as I've told you, I came to feel that the farm might be the right place for me after all. Work is the only thing I'm not afraid of now. It must be a forlorn place if they need help and can't get it. I think they said he and his mother live alone, but I shan't care how forlorn it is if only Mrs. Carder is like—like—you, for instance!" The girl laid her hand impulsively on her companion's knee.
At that moment a man appeared in the wide doorway to the reception-room and looked about uncertainly. Instantly Miss Upton recognized the long, weather-beaten face, the straggling hair, the half-open mouth, and the revealing collar of her restaurant rival.
She gave her companion a mirthful nudge.
"He's right on my trail, you see," she whispered. "Adam's apple and all."
Geraldine glanced up and the stranger's roving gaze fell straight upon hers. He came toward her.
"Miss Melody?" he said in a rasping voice.
She rose as if impelled by some inner spring, her light disdain swallowed in dread.
"This is Mr. Carder, then," she returned.
"You've guessed right the very first time," responded the man with an air of relief. "I recognize you now, but you look some different from the only other time I ever saw you."
"This is Miss Upton, Mr. Carder, a lady who has befriended me very kindly while I have been waiting for you."
"Yes, and who prevented me from havin' lunch with you," responded the stranger, eying Miss Upton jocosely; but as if he could not spare time from the near survey of Geraldine his eyes again swept over her hair and crimsoning cheeks. "I thought I felt some strong drawin' toward that particular table," he added. "Well, we'll make up for it in the future you can bet. That your bag here? We'd better be runnin' along. Time, tide, and business don't wait for any man. Good-bye, Miss Upton, I'll forgive you for takin' my place, considerin' you've been good to this little girl."
Miss Mehitable's face was as solemn as lies in the power of round faces to be. At close quarters one observed a cast in Mr. Carder's right eye. She disapproved his assured proprietary air and she disapproved him the more that she could see repulsion in the young girl's suddenly pale countenance. She had time for only one strong pressure of a little hand before Geraldine was whisked away and she was left standing there stunned by the suddenness of it all.
"I never asked where it was!" she ejaculated suddenly. "I've lost the child!" People began to look at her and she continued mentally: "The critter looked as if he wanted to eat her up, the poor little lamb. Unless the mother's something different from the son she'll be driven to desperation. No knowin' what she'll do." Miss Upton clasped her plump hands together in great trouble of spirit. "I believe I said Keefe more'n once. Perhaps she'll have sense enough to write to me. Why didn't I just tell that old rawbones that her plans was changed and she was goin' with me. Oh, I am a fool! I don't know what I'd have done with her; but some way would have opened. Let's see. Where am I!" Miss Upton delved distractedly into the large bag that hung on her arm. "Where's my list? Am I through or not?" She seemed to herself to have lived long since her wearied entrance into that restaurant.
In her uneventful life this brief experience took deep hold on her imagination. As she rode out to Keefe on the train that afternoon she constructed the scenes of the story in her mind.
The weak, handsome, despairing father begging his child's forgiveness. The dismantling of the home. The placing of Geraldine in a cheap lodging while her father's widow shed all responsibility of her and set forth in new raiment for green fields and pastures new.
The shabby and carelessly put on suit in which Geraldine had appeared this morning told a tale. The girl had said she despised her looks. Her appearance had borne out the declaration. The lovely hair had been brushed tightly back; the old hat would have been unbecoming if it could: all seemed to testify that if the girl could have had her way not an element of attractiveness would have been observable in her. Miss Upton waxed indignant as she went on to picture the probable scenes which had frightened and disgusted the child into such an abnormal frame of mind. The memory of Rufus Carder's gaze, as his oblique eye had feasted upon his guest, brought the blood to Miss Mehitable's face.
"I'll find out where she is if I have to employ a detective," she thought, setting her lips. "Now there's no use in bein' a fool," she muttered after a little more apprehensive thought. "I shall get daffy if I go on thinkin' about it. I'll do my accounts and see if I can take my mind off it."
* * * * *
Meanwhile Geraldine with her escort was also on a moving train. A creeping train it seemed to her. Rufus Carder was trying to make himself agreeable. She strove with herself to give him credit for that. She had not lived to be a nineteen-year-old school girl without meeting attractive young men. Her stepmother had always kept her in the background at times when it was impossible to eliminate her altogether, quite, as Geraldine had said, like the stepmother of a fairy tale; but there had been holidays with school friends and an occasional admirer; although these cases had been rare because Geraldine, always kept on short allowance as to money and clothes, avoided as much as possible social affairs outside the school.
She tried now to find amusement instead of mental paralysis in the proximity of her present escort, contrasting him with some men she had known; but recent bitter experiences made his probably well-intentioned familiarities sorely trying. There was a lump in his cheek. Geraldine hoped it arose from an afflicted tooth, but she strongly suspected tobacco. Oh, if he would but sit a little farther away from her!
"So you've renounced the city, the world, the flesh, and the devil," said Rufus when the conductor had left them, and he settled down in an attitude that brought his shoulder in contact with Geraldine's.
She drew closer to the window and kept her eyes ahead. "He is as old as Father," she thought. "He means to be kind."
"There is not much chance for those at school," she replied. "School is about all I know."
"Well, you don't need to know anything else," returned Rufus protectingly. "I'll bet Juliet kept you out of sight." He laughed, and his companion turning saw that he had been bereft of a front tooth.
"I didn't see very much of my stepmother," she answered in the same stiff manner.
"I'll bet you didn't," declared Rufus, "not when she saw you first." Again he laughed, convinced that his companion must enjoy the implication.
"I mean that I have been away from home at school for several years," said the girl coldly.
"Oh, I know where you have been, and why, and when, and just how long, and all about it." The tone of this was quiet, but there was something disquieting to Geraldine in his manner. "Perhaps you didn't know," he added after a pause filled by the crescendos and diminuendos of the speeding train, "that your father and I were pretty thick." At this the girl's head turned and her eyes raised to his questioningly. "Yes," he added, receiving the look, appreciative of the curves of the long lashes and lovely lips, "I don't believe anybody knew Dick Melody better than I did."
"Do you mean," asked the girl, "that you were fond of my father?"
Charming as her self-forgetful, earnest look was, her companion seemed unable to sustain it. He gave a short laugh and turned his head away.
"My wife attended to that part of it," he replied.
A flash of relief passed over Geraldine's face. "Your wife," she repeated. "I—I hadn't heard—I didn't know—I thought the Mrs. Carder they mentioned was your mother."
"She is. My wife died nearly a year ago, but she had the nerve to think your father was handsomer than me." The speaker looked back at his companion with a cheerful grin. "She said Dick Melody'd ought to be set up on a pedestal somewheres to be admired. I don't know as bein' good-lookin' gets a man anywhere. What good did those eyes ever do him!"
Geraldine sank closer to her window. The despair in those eyes, as her father begged for her forgiveness, rose before her. Never had she felt so utterly alone; so utterly friendless.
"Yes, I say leave the looks to the womenfolks," pursued Rufus Carder, feasting his gaze on the girl's profile. "When Juliet set out to get Dick, I warned her, but it wasn't any use. She had to have him, and she knew pretty well how to look out for herself. I guess she never lost anything by the deal."
"Would you mind not talking about them?" said Geraldine stiffly.
"Please yourself and you'll please me as to what we talk about," returned Rufus cheerfully. "Shouldn't wonder if you were pretty sore at Juliet. Look out for number one was her motto all right." A glance at the shrinking girl showed the host that her eyes were closed. "Tired, ain't you?" he added.
"Dead tired," she answered. And as she continued to keep her eyes closed he contented himself by watching the lashes resting on her pale cheeks.
"Ketch a little nap if you can, that's right," he said. She kept silence.
She did not know how long the blessed relief from his voice had lasted when he announced their arrival.
"Be it ever so humble," he remarked, "There's no place like home."
To have him get out of the seat and leave her free of the touch of his garments was a blessing, and she rose to follow mechanically. The eternal hope that dies so hard in the human breast was suggesting that his mother might be not impossible; and at any rate a farm was wide. She would never be imprisoned in a car seat with him again.
"There now, my lady," he said triumphantly when they were on the platform. "I suppose you thought you were comin' to Rubeville. That don't look so hay-seedy? Eh?"
He pointed to a dusty automobile whose driver, a boy of eighteen or twenty, with a torn hat, eyed her with dull curiosity.
"I suppose you expected a one-hoss shay. No, indeedy. You've come to all the comforts of home, little girl." His airy geniality of tone changed. "What you starin' at, you coot? Come along here, Pete."
The boy moved the car toward the spot where they waited with their bags.
Rufus put these in at the front and himself entered the tonneau with his guest. His conversation as they sped along the country road consisted mainly of pointing out to her the cottages or fields owned by himself. The information fell on deaf ears. The roughness of her host's tone to the boy added one more item against him and lessened her hope that the woman responsible for his existence could be a better specimen.
"I'm free," thought Geraldine over and over. "I don't need to stay here." Of course the proprietary implication in every word the man said arose simply from the conceit of a boor. She would be patient and self-controlled. It might be possible still that she should find this a haven where she could live her own life in her leisure hours, few though they might be.
It was with a weary curiosity that she viewed the weather-beaten house toward which they finally advanced. In front of it stood an elm-tree whose lower branches swept the roof of the porch.
"That's got to come down, that tree," said Rufus meditatively.
His companion turned on him. "You would cut down that splendid tree?"
He regarded her suddenly vital expression admiringly.
"Why not, little one?" he asked. "It's makin' the house damp and injurin' property. Property, you understand. Property. If I'd indulged in sentiment do you s'pose I'd be owner of all the land I've been showin' you?" He smiled, the semi-toothless smile, and met her horrified upturned eyes with an affectionate gaze. "However, what you say goes, little girl. You look as if you were goin' to recite—'Woodman, spare that tree.' Consider the tree spared for the present."
The automobile drew up at the house and in high good-humor the master jumped out and removed Geraldine's bag to the steps of the narrow piazza. A woman's face could be seen appearing and disappearing at the window, and Pete, the driver, looked with furtive curiosity at the guest as she stepped to the porch without touching the host's outstretched hand.
Rufus threw open the door. "Where are you, Ma?" he shouted, and a thin, wrinkled old woman came into the corridor nervously wiping her hands on her apron.
Geraldine looked at her eagerly.
"Well, you have to take us as you find us, little girl," remarked Rufus, scowling at his parent. "Ma hasn't even taken off her apron to welcome you."
At this Mrs. Carder fumbled at her apron strings, but Geraldine advanced to her and put out her hand.
"I like aprons," she said; and the old woman took the hand for a loose, brief shake.
"I'm very glad to see you, Miss Melody," she said timidly. "I'm glad it has been a pretty day."
"Show her her room, Ma, and then perhaps she'd like some tea. City folks, you know, must have their tea."
Geraldine followed her hostess with alacrity as she went up the narrow stairway; glad there was an upstairs; and a room of her own, and a woman to speak to.
She was ushered into a barely furnished chamber; a bowl and pitcher on the small wash-stand seemed to indicate that modern improvements had not penetrated to the Carder farm.
"I s'pose you'll find country livin' a great change for you," said Mrs. Carder, pulling up the window shade. Geraldine wondered how in this beautiful state could have been found such a treeless tract of land. She remembered the threatened fate of the elm. Perhaps there had been other destruction. "My son never seemed to take any interest in puttin' in water here."
The girl met the wrinkled face. The apprehension in the old eyes under Carder's scowl had given place to curiosity.
"I have come to help you," said Geraldine, "I must get used to fewer conveniences."
"It's nice of you to say that," said the old woman, "Rufus don't want you to work much, though."
"But of course I shall," returned the girl quickly. "I'm much better able to work than you are."
"Oh, I've got a wet sink this year," said Mrs. Carder. "I told Rufus I just had to have it. I was gettin' too old to haul water."
"I should think so!" exclaimed Geraldine indignantly. "Mr. Carder is well off. He shouldn't allow you to work any more the rest of your life."
Mrs. Carder smiled and shook her head, revealing her own need of dentistry. "I'm stronger than I look. I s'pose if I was taken out of harness I might be like one o' these horses that drops down when the shafts don't hold him up any longer."
Geraldine regarded her compassionately. "I've heard—my stepmother told me it was very hard for you to get help out here. I suppose it is lonely for maids."
The old woman regarded her strangely, and her withered lips compressed.
"I don't mind loneliness," went on Geraldine eagerly. She had thrown her hat on the bed and the gold of her hair shone in the mean little room. "I love to be alone. I long to be."
"That ain't natural," observed Mrs. Carder, regarding her earnest, self-forgetful loveliness. "Rufus told me you was a beauty," she went on reflectively. "Your father was the handsomest man I ever saw."
"You knew him, then," said Geraldine eagerly.
"He was out here a number o' times. Rufus seemed to be his favorite man o' business, as you might say."
"Oh, Mrs. Carder, tell me all you can about his visits here." The girl's heart began to beat faster and she drew the clean, dried-up old woman down upon the edge of the bed beside her. Why should her father choose this dreadful place, this impossible man as a refuge? It could only have been as a last resort for him, just as it now was for her.
"I was always away at school after his marriage," she went on. "I saw so little of him."
Mrs. Carder looked uneasy.
"I saw nothin' of him except at a meal sometimes. He and my son was always shut up in Rufus's office."
"Did he seem—seem unhappy, Mrs. Carder?"
"Well—yes. He was a sort of an absent-minded man. Perhaps that was his way. Really, I don't know a thing about their business, Miss Melody." The addition was made in sudden panic because the girl had grasped both the wrinkled hands and was gazing searchingly into the old woman's face as if she would wring information out of her.
"You wouldn't tell me if you did," said Geraldine in a low voice. "You are afraid of your son. I saw it in your eyes downstairs. Had my father reason to be afraid of him? Tell me that. That is what I want to know."
"Your father is dead. What difference does it make?" asked the old woman, looking from side to side as if for a means of escape from the strong young hands and eyes.
"Yes, poor Daddy. Well, I have come to help you, Mrs. Carder." The speaker released the wrinkled hands and the old woman rose in relief. "I have come to work for you, not for your son, and I am not going to be afraid of him."
The mother shook her head.
"We all work for him, my dear. He holds the purse-strings."
Geraldine seemed to see him holding the actual bag and leering at her over it with his odious, oblique eye and smile.
"And let me give you a word of advice," continued the old woman, lowering her voice and looking toward the door. "Don't make him mad. It's terrible when he's angry." She winked and lowered her voice to a whisper. "He's crazy about you and he's the biggest man in the county." The old woman nodded and snapped her eyes knowingly. "You've got a home here for life if you don't make him mad. For life. I'll go down and make the tea. You come down pretty soon."
She disappeared, leaving Geraldine standing in the middle of the room. She looked about her at the cheap, meager furniture, the small mirror that distorted her face, the bare outlook from the window.
"For life!" she repeated to herself. "For life!"
Miss Upton's accounts were still in a muddle when she reached Keefe. Try as she might her unruly thoughts would wander back to the golden hair and dark, wistful eyes of that forlorn girl.
"I was such a fool to lose her!" she kept saying to herself. "Such a fool."
Arrived at her station she left the car, encumbered by her bulging bag and the umbrella which had performed a nobler deed to-day than keeping off the rain.
"I don't know, though," soliloquized Miss Mehitable. "If I hadn't had my umbrella I couldn't have stopped him and he'd have sat with her and I shouldn't be havin' a span-tod now."
From the car in front of her she saw descend a young man with a bag. He was long-legged, lean and broad-shouldered, and Miss Upton, who had known him all his life, estimated him temperately as a mixture of Adonis, Apollo, and Hercules. He caught sight of his friend now and a merry look came into his eyes. Miss Mehitable's mental perturbation and physical weariness had given her plump face a troubled cast, accented by the fact that her hat was slightly askew. The young man hurried forward and was in time to ease his portly friend down the last step of her car.
"Howdy, Miss Mehit?" he said. "You look as if the great city hadn't treated you well."
"Ben Barry, was you on this train?" she asked dismally.
"I was. My word, you're careful of your complexion! An umbrella with such a sky as this!"
"You don't know what that umbrella has meant to me to-day," returned Miss Upton with no abatement of the portentous in her tone. "Let me have my bag, Ben. The top don't shut very good and you might drop something out."
"You must let me take you home," he said. "You don't look fit to walk. You have certainly had a big day. Anything left in the shops? The Upton Emporium must be going to surprise the natives."
As he talked, the young man led his friend along the platform to where a handsome motor waited among the dusty line of vehicles. "Gee, I'm off for a vacation and I'm beginning to appreciate Keefe, Miss Upton. The air is great out here."
"That's nice for your mother," observed Miss Mehitable wearily.
They both greeted the chauffeur, who wore a plain livery. Miss Upton sank back among the cushions. "It's awful good of you to take me home, Ben. I'm just beat out."
"Miss Upton's celebrated notions, I suppose," returned the young fellow as the car started. "They get harder to select every year, perhaps."
"I've come home with just one notion this time," returned his companion with sudden fierceness. "It is that I'm a fool."
"Now, Mehit, don't tell me you've fallen a prey in the gay metropolis and lost a lot of money."
"That's nothin' to what has happened. I'm poor and I don't know what I'd do if I lost money, but, Ben Barry, it's much worse than that."
"Look here, you're scaring me. I'm timid."
"If I'd seen you on the train I could have told you all about it; but there isn't time now." In fact the motor was rapidly traversing the short distance up the main street and was now approaching a shop on the elm-shaded trolley track which bore across its front a sign reading: "Upton's Notions and Fancy Goods."
Before Miss Mehitable disembarked, and this was a matter of some moments, she turned wistfully to her companion.
"Ben, do you think your mother ever gets lonely?"
"I've never seen any sign of it. Why? What were you thinking of—that I ought to give up the law school and come home and turn market-gardener? I sometimes think I'd like it."
Miss Upton continued to study his clean-cut face wistfully.
"Don't she need a secretary, or a sort of a—a sort of a companion?"
"Why? Have you had about as much of Bright-Eyes as you can stand? Do you want to make a present of her to some undeserving person?"
Miss Upton shook her head. "No, indeed, it ain't poor Charlotte I'm thinkin' of, Ben," again speaking impressively. "Can you spare time to come over and see me a little while to-morrow afternoon? I know your mother always has a lot of young folks in for tea for you Sundays."
"She won't to-morrow. I told her I wanted to lie in the grass under the apple-blossoms and compose sonnets; but your feelings will do just as well."
"I must tell somebody, and you know Charlotte isn't sympathetic."
"No, except perhaps with a porcupine. You might try her with one of those. Tether it in the back yard, and when she is in specially good form turn her out there and let them sport together.—Easy now, Mehit—easy." For Miss Upton's escort had jumped out and she was essaying to leave the car.
"If I ever knew which foot to put first," she said desperately, withdrawing the left and reaching down gingerly with her right.
"Let me have the bag and the umbrella," suggested her companion. "Now, then, one light spring. Steady!" For clutching both the young man's hands she made him quiver to the shock as she fell against him.
"I'm clumsy when I'm tired, Ben," she explained. "I'm so much obliged to you, and you will come over to-morrow afternoon?"
"To hear about the umbrella? Yes, indeed! Look at its fine open countenance. You can see at once that it has performed some great deed to-day." He shook the capacious fluttering folds and handed it to its owner.
"Thank you so much, Ben, and give my love to your mother."
The young fellow jumped into the car and sped away and Miss Upton plodded slowly up to her door whose bell pealed sharply as it was pulled open by an unseen hand, and a colorless, sour-visaged woman appeared in the entrance. Her hay-colored hair was strained back and wound in a tight, small knot, her forehead wore a chronic scowl, and her one-sided mouth had a vinegary expression.
"Think you're smart, don't you?" was her greeting; "comin' home in a grand automobile with the biggest ketch in the village."
"Yes, wasn't I lucky?" responded Miss Upton nasally. "I hope the kettle's on, Charlotte. I'm beat out."
"Well, what did you stay so long for? That's what you always do—stay till the last dog's hung and wear yourself out." The speaker snatched the bag and umbrella and Miss Mehitable followed her into the house, through the shop, and into the little living-room at the back where an open fire burned in the Franklin stove and the tea-table was neatly set for two.
Miss Upton regarded the platter of sliced meat, the amber preserve, and napkin-enfolded biscuit listlessly.
"How nice you always make a table look," she said.
"Well, set right down and give me your hat and jacket. Drink some tea before you talk any more. I should think you'd have some sense by this time."
Scolding away, Charlotte poured the tea and Miss Mehitable drank it in silence. Her companion's monotonous grumbling was like the ticking of the clock so far as any effect it had upon her. The autumn before, this woman's drunken husband, Whipp by name, had passed out of her life. She was penniless, not strong, and friendless as much by reason of her sharp tongue as by her poor circumstances. Miss Upton hired her one day a week for cleaning and once upon a time fell ill herself, when this unpromising person developed such a kindly touch in nursing and so much common sense in tending the little shop, that Miss Mehitable, seeing what a godsend it would be to the poor creature, asked her to stay on; since which time, though no gratitude had ever been expressed in words, Mrs. Whipp had taken upon herself the ruling of the small establishment and its mistress with all the vigor possible. Miss Upton had told her to bring with her anything she valued and the widow had twisted her thin, one-sided mouth: "There ain't a thing in that shanty I don't wish was burned except Pearl," she said. "I'll bring her if you'll let me. She's a Malty cat."
"Oh, bring her along," Miss Mehitable had replied. "I suppose I won't really sense that I'm an old maid until there's a cat in the house."
So Pearl came, and to-night she sat blinking at the leaping flame in the open stove while the two women ate their supper in the long spring evening.
"I brought some things home in my bag," said Miss Upton, "but most o' them are comin' out Monday."
"Put in a good day, did you?" asked Charlotte, who, now that her mind was relieved of rebukes, was ready to listen to the tales she always expected when Miss Mehitable returned from her trips.
"Yes, I think I did pretty well," was the answer.
But the widow regarded her friend with dissatisfaction. This dispirited manner was very different from the effervescence which usually bubbled over in anecdote.
"Well, next time don't stay till you're worn to a frazzle," she said.
"I missed the train, Charlotte. That was what happened."
"Well, didn't Mr. Barry have anything to say comin' out on the train?" asked Mrs. Whipp, determined to get some of her usual proxy satisfaction from Miss Upton's outing.
"I never saw him till we got to Keefe. Oh, Charlotte, if I'd ever met a boy like him when I was young I wouldn't be keepin' a store now with another woman and a cat."
"H'm, you're better off as you are. Ben Barry's young yet. He'll be in plenty of mischief before he's forty. His mother was in the shop to-day. With all her money it's queer she never married again."
"Oh, she's just wrapped up in her flowers and chickens," remarked Miss Mehitable.
"Well," returned Charlotte, "seems to me if I had a big house and grounds like that, I'd want somebody around besides servants."
Miss Mehitable lifted her eyes from her meat and potato and gazed at her companion.
"Queer you should say that," she returned. "I was speakin' of that very thing to Ben to-day. I should really think his mother would like somebody; somebody young and—and pleasant, you know."
"Well," returned Charlotte, breaking open a biscuit, "I suppose havin' got rid of her husband she thinks she'll let well enough alone. She's the happiest-lookin' woman in town. Why not? She's got the most money and no man to bother her."
"Why, Charlotte Whipp, you don't know what you're sayin'. Ben's father was a fine man. For years after he died Mrs. Barry couldn't hardly smile. Yes"—Miss Upton's thoughtful manner returned—"Ben's away so much I should think she'd like to have somebody, say a nice young girl with her. Of course, to folks with motors Keefe ain't much more'n a suburb to the city now, and Mrs. Barry, with her three months in town and three months to the port and six months here, has a full, pleasant life, and I s'pose that fine son fills it. Wasn't she fortunate to get him out o' the war safe? You'd ought to 'a' seen him in his Naval Aviation uniform, Charlotte. He looked like a prince; but he could 'a' bitten a board nail because he never got to go across the water. I s'pose his mother's average patriotic, but I guess she thanked Heaven he couldn't go. She didn't dare say anything like that before him, though. It was a terrible disappointment. Oh, Charlotte"—Miss Upton bent a wistful smile on her table-mate—"I can't help thinkin' what a wonderful home the Barry house would be for some needy girl—a lady, you know."
"H'm!" Charlotte's twisted mouth contracted further as she gave a dry little sniff. "She'd probably fall in love with Ben, and he wouldn't give a snap for her, so she'd be miserable anyway."
Miss Mehitable shook her head. "If all your probablys came true, Charlotte, what a world this would be."
"What a world it is!" retorted the other. "Have some more tea"—then as Miss Mehitable demurred—"Yes, have some. It'll do you good and maybe brighten up your wits so's you can remember somethin' that's happened to you to-day."
Miss Upton cudgeled her brain for the small occurrences of her shopping and managed to recall a few items; but she was not in her usual form and Charlotte received her offerings with scornful sniffs and silence.
Miss Upton's dreams that night were troubled and the sermon next morning fell on deaf ears. Ben and his mother were both in the Barry pew near the memorial window to his father. She could not resist the drawing which made her head turn periodically to make certain that Ben was really there. Miss Mehitable respected men in general, especially in time of trouble, and in this case the legal mind attracted her. Ben was going to be a lawyer even if he wasn't one yet. The Barrys had money and influence, they were always friendly to her, and while she could not impart poor little Geraldine's story to Mrs. Barry direct without appearing to beg, it might reach and interest her via Ben.
When the last hymn had been sung and the benediction pronounced, Miss Upton watched with jealous eyes the various interruptions to the Barrys' progress down the aisle. Everybody liked to have a word with them. All the girls were willing to make it easy to be asked to the hospitable house for Sunday tea. Miss Mehitable glowered at the bolder and more aggressive of these as she moved along a side aisle.
When mother and son finally reached the sunlit out-of-doors they found Miss Upton waiting beside the steps.
"Why, if here isn't the fair Mehit," remarked Ben as they approached, and his mother smiled and shook her regal head and Miss Upton's hand simultaneously.
"I don't understand why you allow Ben to be so disrespectful," she said.
"Law, Mrs. Barry," replied Miss Upton, "you must know that women don't care anything about bein' respected. What they want is to be liked; and Ben's a good friend o' mine."
"Sure thing," remarked the young fellow, something in Miss Mehitable's eyes reminding him of her portentous yesterday and his promise. "Oh, I forgot to tell you, mother, Miss Upton is going home to dinner with us to-day."
"No, no, I'm not, Ben," put in Miss Mehitable hastily. "I couldn't leave Charlotte alone for Sunday dinner; but"—she looked at Mrs. Barry—"I do want to see Ben about something and he promised me a little time this afternoon."
"Mehit got into trouble yesterday," Ben explained to his mother. "Somebody tried to rob her of her notions and she beaned him with her umbrella. She's scared to death and she wants to consult the law." The speaker delivered a blow on his chest.
"I know you hate to spare him the little time he's home, Mrs. Barry," said Miss Upton apologetically; "but I'll keep him only a short time and—and I couldn't hardly sleep last night, though it ain't any o' my business, really."
"It's a good business if you're in it, I know that," said Mrs. Barry kindly, "and I'll lend you Ben with pleasure if he can do you any good!"
"Then when will you be over, Ben?" asked Miss Mehitable anxiously. "I'd like to know just when to expect you."
"You don't tr-r-ust me, that's what's the matter," he returned. "Will you promise to muzzle Merry Sunshine?"
"I—I think perhaps Charlotte will go out to walk," returned Miss Upton, somewhat troubled herself to know how to insure privacy in her restricted domain. "She does, sometimes, Sundays."
"How does it affect the Keefe springtime to have her walk out in it?" inquired Ben solicitously.
"I'll tell you, Ben," said his mother, sympathetic with the anxiety in Miss Mehitable's face, "bring Miss Upton over to see our apple-blossoms, and you can have your talk at our house."
Relief overspread Miss Upton's round countenance.
"Certainly. I'll call for you at three," said Ben, "Blackstone under my arm. If Merry Sunshine attacks me it will be a trusty weapon. Hop into the car, Mehit, and we'll run you home."
Mrs. Barry laughed. "The sermon doesn't seem to have done him any good this morning, Miss Upton. We shall be glad to take you home."
The Good Fairy
So again Mrs. Whipp saw her friend and employer descend from the Barry car.
She didn't open the door for her this time, but sat, rocking, in the shop with Pearl in her lap, and sniffed at her as she entered.
"You and your fine friends," she scoffed. "Pretty soon you won't demean yourself to use the trolley at all."
"If you had only been willing to come to church, Charlotte, they'd have brought you home, too," said Miss Mehitable, hoping she was telling the truth.
"'The Sabbath was made for man,'" snapped Mrs. Whipp, "not man for the Sabbath, to go and hear that man talk through his nose!"
"Now, Charlotte, I refused to go home to dinner with them just so's you and I could have our meal together; so don't you make me sorry."
Mrs. Whipp had started up at once alertly on her friend's entrance, spilling Pearl, and was already removing Miss Mehitable's jacket and hat with deft fingers and receiving the silk gloves she pulled off.
"H'm, I don't believe they'll eat any better things than we're goin' to have. How can I go to church and have us a good hot dinner?"
"Sunday dinner should be cold mainly," returned Miss Upton calmly. "Mine always was till you came. Of course you're such a splendid cook, Charlotte, it's kind of a temptation to you to spoil me and feed me up, yet you know I ought not to eat much."
"Oh, pshaw," returned Mrs. Whipp. "More folks die from the lack o' good things than from eatin' 'em."
"You'll have to look out," said Miss Mehitable warningly, following her friend's lead to the sunny living-room where the table was spread. "It's a sayin' that good cooks are always cross. The better you cook the more you must watch to have your temper as sweet as your sauces."
"Ho! Vinegar's just as important as oil," retorted the other. "You're so smooth to everybody it's a good thing I came to live with you and keep you from bein' imposed upon."
Miss Mehitable laughed. "You think together we make a pretty good salad, do you?" she returned.
When dinner was on the table and they were both seated, Miss Upton spoke again:
"I wonder how you're goin' to like it to the port?" she said.
"Awful rheumatic, I sh'd think 'twould be," returned Mrs. Whipp.
"Pretty soon we'll have to be goin'," said Miss Upton. "I usually lock everything up here tight as a drum for three months. I was talkin' to a man in town yesterday that thought it was a joke that folks in Keefe just went a few miles to their seashore cottages. He was from Chicago where you have to go a thousand miles to get anywhere. I told him I couldn't see anything funny about it. Keefe was a village and Keefeport was a resort; but he kept on laughin' and said it was like lockin' the door of one home and goin' across the street to another, then back again in the fall. I told him I was full as satisfied as I would be to have to make my way through Indians and buffaloes to get anywhere as you have to in those wild Western cities. He claimed that it was perfectly civilized around Chicago now; but of course he'd say that."
"H'm," returned Mrs. Whipp, non-committally.
"Now I was thinkin', Charlotte, that there ain't a reason in the world why you should go to the port if you don't want to. You can stay right here and look after the house. I shall move the shop goods just as I always do to my little port place."
"You don't get along there alone, do you?" asked Charlotte hastily.
"No; one o' the schoolgirls is always glad to live with me in vacation and work for her board. I had Nellie McIntyre last summer."
"Oh, of course, if you'd rather have Nellie."
"I wouldn't," said Miss Upton calmly; "but she don't have rheumatism nor mind the dampness. She thinks it's a great chance to be to the shore and swim every day, and she's happy as a bird from mornin' till night. If she ain't to go this year, I must let the child know, for I expect she's lottin' on it."
The silence that followed this was broken only by the purring of Pearl who had established herself upon a broad beam of sunshine which lay across the ingrain carpet. Miss Mehitable was recklessly extravagant of carpets in Mrs. Whipp's opinion. She would not allow the shutting-out of the sunlight.
Miss Upton drank her tea busily now to conceal her desire to smile. Some of Ben Barry's comments upon her companion returned to her irresistibly; for she easily followed Charlotte's present mental processes.
Mrs. Whipp was in a most uncomfortable corner and her friend had driven her into it with such bland kindness that it made the situation doubly difficult. There was nothing Charlotte could resent in being offered a summer of ease in the Keefe cottage; but to be confronted with the alternatives of renouncing all right to complain of fog and storm, or else to part from Miss Mehitable and allow her to run her own life and notions for the whole summer, was a dilemma which drove her also to drinking a great deal of tea, and leaving the floor to Pearl for some minutes.
Miss Upton did not help her out, but, regaining control of her risibles, continued to eat and drink placidly, allowing her companion to cerebrate.
Well she knew that now was the time to defend herself from a summer of grumbling as continuous as the swish of waves on the shore; and well she knew also her companion's verbally unexpressed but intense devotion to herself which made any prospect of their separation a panic. So she waited and Pearl purred.
One Mr. Lugubrious Blue flits through the drawings of a certain famous cartoonist. Mr. Blue's mission is to take the joy out of life and Charlotte Whipp was his blood kin. The tip of her long nose was as chilly as his and her gloom was similarly chronic. Miss Upton was determined that she would not be the first to break in upon Pearl's solo.
Finally Charlotte spoke:
"Do the Barrys have a house to the port?"
"Yes, a real cottage. The rest of us have shelters, but you can't call 'em houses."
Mrs. Whipp looked up apprehensively. "Do you mean they let in the rain?"
"Sometimes in storms," returned Miss Upton cheerfully, "but we run around with pans and catch it."
Mrs. Whipp viewed her bread and butter gloomily, the down-drawn corner of her one-sided mouth unusually depressed.
Miss Mehitable felt a wild desire to laugh. She wished she could keep Ben Barry out of her mind during this important interview. Her kind heart administered a little comfort.
"You see, there isn't any lath and plaster to the cottage, but it's good and tight except in very bad weather," she said.
"It's a wonder you don't get rheumatics yourself," vouchsafed Charlotte.
"Nobody thinks of such a thing in that beautiful sun-soaked place," returned Miss Upton.
"Sun-stroke did you say?" asked Mrs. Whipp, looking up quickly.
"No." Miss Mehitable indulged in one frank laugh. "Sun-soaked."
"Sounds more like water-logged to me from your description," said the other sourly, returning to her dinner. "I don't see why you go there."
"For two reasons. First, because I love it better than any place on earth, and second, because it's good business. I do a better business there than I do here. You think it over, Charlotte, because I ought to let Nellie know."
"Well, you can let Nellie know that I'm goin'," replied Mrs. Whipp crossly. "What sense is there in your takin' a girl to the port to go in swimmin' while you work?"
"Nellie was a very good little helper," declared Miss Mehitable, again taking refuge in her teacup. When she set it down she continued: "If you think, Charlotte, that you can make up your mind to take the bitter with the sweet, the rain and the sun, the fog and the wind, why, come along; but it don't do a bit o' good to argue with Neptune. He'll stick his fork right through you if you do."
Mrs. Whipp stared, but Miss Upton's eyes were twinkling so she suspected this was just one of her jokes.
"I never was one to shirk," she declared curtly.
"Then I can tell Nellie you want to go?"
That word "want" made Charlotte writhe and was probably accountable for the extra acidity of her reply:
"Yes, unless you're tongue-tied," she returned.
When dinner was over and the dishes washed and put away (Miss Upton's Sunday suit being enveloped in a huge gingham apron during the performance), Miss Mehitable watched solicitously to see if Charlotte manifested any symptoms of going out for a constitutional. She asked herself, with a good deal of severity, why she should dread to inform Mrs. Whipp of her own plan for the afternoon.
"I guess I'm free, white, and twenty-one," thought Miss Upton. But all the same she continued to cast furtive glances at Mrs. Whipp, who showed every sign of relapsing into a rocking-chair with Pearl in her lap.
"It's a real pleasant day, Charlotte," she said. "Ain't you goin' to walk?"
Mrs. Whipp yawned. "Dunno as I am."
"I've got to go out again," pursued Miss Mehitable intrepidly, but she felt the dull gaze that at once turned and fixed upon her. "I've got to see Ben Barry about some business that came up in the city yesterday."
"I knew you had something on your mind last night," returned Mrs. Whipp, triumphantly. "I notice you wouldn't tell me."
"You ain't a lawyer, Charlotte Whipp."
"Neither is that young whipper-snapper," rejoined the widow, "but then of course he's a Barry."
"You do try my patience dreadfully, Charlotte," declared Miss Mehitable, her plump cheeks scarlet. "If you didn't know when you came here that Mrs. Barry is one o' the best friends I've got in the world, I'll tell you so now. You needn't be throwin' 'em up to me just because they've got money. I'm goin' there whenever they ask me, and this afternoon's one o' the times."
She felt like a child who works its elbows to throw off some hampering annoyance. How her companion managed to hold her under the spell of domination which seemed merely a heavy weight of silent disapproval, she did not understand. It always meant jealousy, Miss Mehitable knew that, and usually her peace-loving, sunny nature pacified and coaxed the offended one, but occasionally she stood her ground. She knew that presently the Barry car would again draw up before her gate and she felt she must forestall Charlotte's sneers.
"How soon you goin'?" inquired the latter mildly.
"At three o'clock," returned Miss Upton bravely.
"Let me fix your collar," said Charlotte, rising; "your apron rumpled it all up."
"Why can't I remember to bully her oftener?" thought Miss Mehitable. "It always does her good just like medicine."
Promptly at three Ben Barry jumped out of his car before Miss Upton's Emporium, and Mrs. Whipp dodged behind the window-curtain and watched them drive away.
"I saw that cute Lottie looking after us," said Ben.
"Poor thing, I kind o' hate to leave her on a Sunday," said Miss Upton, sighing.
"'The better the day, the better the deed,'" remarked her companion. "You've got me all het up about you and your umbrella. What's my part? To keep you out of the lock-up? Whom did you 'sault 'n' batter? When are you going to tell me?"
"You see that's one thing that's the matter with Charlotte," said Miss Mehitable. "She does hate to think I'm keepin' anything from her and she felt it in the air."
"Do you believe she'll visit you in prison? I'll address the jury myself. I maintain that one punishment's enough. You at least deserve a holiday. Say, Mehit, me dear, I've a big surprise for you, too. You know I told you I warned mother to have no guests this afternoon."
"Yes, you said you wanted to write poetry—Ben"—the speaker suddenly grasped the driver's coat-sleeve—"I never thought of it till this minute, but, Ben Barry"—Miss Upton's voice expressed acute dismay—"are you in love?"
"Why, does it mean so much to you, little one?" responded Ben sentimentally.
"You wouldn't take near as much interest, not near as much if you've got a girl on your mind."
"One? Dozens, Mehit. I'm only human, dear."
"If it's dozens, it's all right," returned Miss Upton, relieved. "There's always room for one more in that case, but what is your surprise, then, Ben?"
"I didn't want to be alone to write poetry. I wanted to gloat, undisturbed. My dandy mother is giving me something I've been aching to have."
Miss Upton's face brightened. "Yes, I know. Something's being built way back o' your house. Folks are wonderin' what it is. It looks like some queer kind of a stable. What in the world can you want, Ben! You've got the cars and a motor-cycle, and a saddle-horse."
"Well"—confidentially—"don't tell, Mehit, but I wanted a zebra. Horses are too commonplace."
"But they can't be tamed, zebras can't," returned Miss Upton, much disturbed. "I've read about 'em. You'll be killed. I shall—"
"I must have a zebra and a striped riding-suit to be happy. While you're wearing the stripes in jail I'll come and ride up and down outside your barred window and cheer you up."
"I don't believe it's a zebra," declared Miss Mehitable; "but if it is I shall tell your mother you cannot have it, Ben Barry."
"And yet you expect me to sympathize with your umbrella—"
"Oh, how beautiful!" exclaimed Miss Upton suddenly; for now the tinted, pearly pink cloud of the Barrys' apple-orchard came in view.
The house was a brick structure with broad verandas, set back among well-kept lawns and drives, and its fine elm trees were noted. Mrs. Barry was reclining in a hammock-chair under one of them as the car drove in, and she rose and came to meet the guest. Miss Mehitable thought she looked like a queen as her erect, graceful figure moved across the lawn in the long silken cape that floated back and showed its violet lining.
"It's perfectly beautiful here to-day," she said as the hostess greeted her; "but, oh, Mrs. Barry, I suppose I'm a fool to ever believe Ben"—the speaker cast a glance around at her escort—"but you won't let him have a zebra, will you? They're the most dangerous animals. He says you're goin' to give him—"
"My dear Miss Upton," Mrs. Barry laughed, "I do need a scolding, I know. I've allowed myself to be talked into something crazy—crazy. It's much worse than a zebra, but you know what a big disappointment Ben had last year—flapping his wings and aching and longing to go across the sea while Uncle Sam obstinately refused to let him go over and end the War? All dressed up and no place to go! Poor Benny!" Mrs. Barry glanced at her son, laughing. "He did need some consolation prize, and anyway he persuaded me to let him have an aeroplane."
"Mrs.—Barry!" returned Miss Mehitable, and she gazed around at Ben with wide eyes.
"I'm such a bird, you see," he explained.
"Well," said the visitor after a pause, drawing her suspended breath, "I'm glad I can talk to you before you're killed."
"Oh, not so bad as that," said Mrs. Barry. "He is at home in the air, you know, and he assures me they will soon be quite common. Come up on the veranda, Miss Upton. I'm going to hide you and Ben in a corner where no one will disturb you."
"What a big place for you to live in all alone," observed Mehitable as they moved toward the house, and Ben drove the car to the garage.
"Yes, it is; but I'm so busy with my chickens and my bees I'm never lonely. I'm quite a farmer, Miss Upton. See how fine my orchard is this year? I tell Ben that so long as he doesn't light in my apple-trees we can be friends."
"I think you're awful venturesome, Mrs. Barry!"
That lady smiled as they moved up the steps to the veranda, the black and violet folds of her shimmering wrap blowing about her in lines of beauty that fascinated her companion.
"What else can the mother of a boy be?" she returned. "Ben has been training me in courage ever since he was born; apparently the prize-ring or the circus would have been his natural field of operations; so I have chained him down to the law and given him an aeroplane so he can work off his extra steam away from the publicity of earth."
At last the hostess withdrew, and Miss Upton found herself alone with her embryo lawyer in a sheltered corner of the porch where the vines were hastening to sprout their curtaining green, and a hammock, comfortable chairs, a table and books proclaimed the place an out-of-door sitting-room.
"Your mother is wonderful," she began when her companion had placed her satisfactorily and had stretched himself out in a listening attitude, his hands clasped behind his head and his eyes on hers.
What eyes they were, Miss Upton thought. Clear and light-brown, the color of water catching the light in a swift, sunny brook.
"She is a queen," he responded with conviction.
"A pity such a woman hasn't got a daughter," said Miss Mehitable tentatively.
"I'm going to give her one some day." A smile accompanied this.
"Is she picked out?"
Ben laughed at his companion's anxious tone. "You seem interested in my prospects. That's the second time you have seemed worried at the idea. No, she isn't picked out. I'm going to hunt for her in the stars. Why? Have you some one selected?"
"Law, no!" returned Miss Upton, flushing. "It is a—yes, it is a girl I've come to talk to you about, though." The visitor stammered and grew increasingly confused as she proceeded. "I thought—I didn't know—the girl needs somebody—yes, to—to look after her and I thought your mother bein'—bein' all alone and the house so big, she might have some use for a—young girl, you know, a kind of a helper; but Charlotte says the girl would fall in love with you and—and—" Miss Upton paused, drawing her handkerchief through and through her hands and looking anxiously at her companion who leaned his head back still farther and laughed aloud.
"Come, now, that's the most sensible speech that ever fell from Lottie's rosebud lips." He sat up and viewed his visitor, who, in spite of her crimson embarrassment, was gazing at him appealingly. "I don't believe, Mehit, my dear, that you've begun at the beginning, and you'll have to, you know, if you want legal advice."
"I never do, Ben; I am so stupid. I always do begin right in the middle, but now I'll go back. You know I went to the city yesterday."
"You and the umbrella."
"Yes, and I was mad at myself for luggin' it around all the mornin' when the weather turned out so pleasant and I had so many other things; but never mind"—the narrator tightened her lips impressively—"that umbrella was all right."
"Sure thing," put in Ben. "How could you have rescued the girl without it?"
Miss Upton's eyes widened. "How did you know I did?"
"The legal mind, you know, the legal mind."
"Oh, but I didn't rescue her near enough, not near enough," mourned Miss Mehitable. "I must go on. I got awful tired shoppin' and I went into a restaurant for lunch. I got set down to one table, but it was so draughty I moved to another where a young girl was sittin' alone. A man, a homely, long-necked critter made for that place too, but I got there first. I don't know whether I'm glad or sorry I did. Ben, she was the prettiest girl in this world."
Miss Upton paused to see if this solemn statement awakened an interest in her listener.
"Maybe," he replied placidly; "but then there are the stars, you know."
"She had lots of golden hair, and dark eyes and lashes, with kind o' long dark corners to 'em, and a sad little mouth the prettiest shape you ever saw. We got to talkin' and she told me about herself. It was like a story. She had a cruel stepmother who didn't want her around, so kept her away at school, and a handsome, extravagant father without enough backbone to stand up for her; and on top of everything he died suddenly. Her stepmother had money and she put this poor child in a cheap lodgin'-house tellin' her to find a job, and she herself went calmly off travelin'. This poor lamb tried one place after another, but her beauty always stood in her way. I'm ashamed to speak of such things to you, Ben, but I've got to, to make you understand. She said she wondered if there were any good men in this world. She was in despair."
Ben's eyes twinkled, but his lips were serious as he returned his friend's valiant gaze.
"Her name is Geraldine Melody. Did you ever hear such a pretty name?" Miss Upton scrutinized her listener's face for some stir of interest.
"I never did. Your girl was a very complete story-teller. You blessed soul! and you've had all these thrills over that!" Ben leaned forward and took his companion's hand affectionately. "I didn't believe even you would fall for drug-store hair, darkened eyes, and that chestnut story. What did the fair Geraldine touch you for?"
Miss Upton returned his compassionate gaze with surprise and indignation. "She didn't touch me. What do you mean? Why shouldn't she if she wanted to? I tell you her eyes and her story were all the truth, Ben Barry. I ain't a fool."
"No, dear, no. Of course. But how much did you give her?"
"Give her what?"
"I didn't give her any, poor lamb." Into Miss Mehitable's indignant eyes came a wild look. "I wonder if I'd ought to have. I wonder if it would have helped any."
Ben gave a low laugh. "I'll bet she had the disappointment of her young life: to tell you that yarn, and tell it so convincingly, and yet dear old Mehit never rose to the bait!"
Miss Upton glared at him and pulled her hand away. He leaned back and resumed his former easy attitude. "When are you going to reach the umbrella?" he asked.
"I've passed it," snapped Miss Mehitable, angry and baffled. "I kept that long-necked, gawky man off with it, pretty near tripped him up so's I could get to the table with that poor child."
Ben shook his head slowly. "To think of it! That good old umbrella after a well-spent life to get you into a trap like that. All the same"—he looked admiringly at his companion—"there's no hay-seed in your hair. The dam-sell—pardon, Mehit, it's all right to say damsel, isn't it?—didn't think best to press things quite far enough to get into your pocket-book. You call it a rescue. Why do you? Geraldine might have got something out of the gawk."
Miss Upton's head swung from side to side on her short neck as she gazed at her friend for a space in defiant silence. His smile irritated her beyond words.
"Look here, Ben Barry," she said at last; "young folks think old folks are fools. Old folks know young folks are. Now I want to find that girl. I see you won't help me, but you can tell me where to get a detective."
Ben raised his eyebrows. "Hey-doddy-doddy, is it as serious as that? Geraldine is some actress. It would be a good thing if you could let well enough alone; but I suspect you'll have to find her before you can settle down and give Lottie that attention to which she has been accustomed. I will help you. We won't need any detective. You shall meet me in town next Saturday. We'll go to that restaurant and others. Ten to one we'll find her."
"She's left the city," announced Miss Upton curtly.
"She told you so?" the amused question was very gentle.
"That cat of a stepmother had a relative on a farm, some place so God-forsaken they couldn't keep help, so the cat kindly told the girl she was desertin' that if other jobs failed she could go there. I've told you why the other jobs did fail, and it's the truth whether you believe it or not, and at the time I met her the poor child had given up hope and decided to take that last resort."
Ben bit his lip. "Back to the farm, Geraldine!"
Miss Upton's head again swung from side to side and again she glared at her companion.
"It would surprise you very much if we were to meet her in town next Saturday, wouldn't it?" he added.
"I'd be so glad I'd hug her beautiful little head off," returned Miss Mehitable fervently.
"Do that, dear, if you must. It would be better than bringing her out here to be a companion to mother." Miss Upton's eyes were so fiery that Ben smothered his laugh. "I'm nearly sure that Miss Melody wouldn't suit mother as a companion."
"I wouldn't allow her to come anywhere near you," returned Miss Upton hotly. "I s'pose you think she didn't go to the farm. Well, I saw her go myself with that very gawk I tripped up with my umbrella."
"Of course you did," laughed Ben; "and pretty mad he was doubtless when she told him she hadn't got a rise out of you. Those people usually work in pairs. We'll probably see him, too."
Miss Upton clutched the iron table in front of her and swung herself to her feet with superhuman celerity.
"Ben Barry, you're entirely too smart for the law!" she said. "You'll never stoop to try a case. You'll know everything beforehand. You're a kind of a mixture of a clairvoyant and a Sherlock Holmes, you are. If you'd seen as I did that beautiful, touchin' young face turn to stone when that raw-boned, cross-eyed thing looked at her so—so hungry-like, and took possession of her as though he was only goin' to wait till they got home to eat her up—and I let 'em go!" Miss Upton reverted to her chief woe. "I let 'em go without findin' out where, when in all the world that poor child had nobody but me, a country jake she met in a restaurant, to care whether that Carder picked her bones after he got her to his cave."
"Carder, Rufus Carder. The one thing I have got is his hateful name. He lives 'way off on a farm somewheres, but knowin' his name, a detective ought to—"
Ben Barry leaned forward in his chair and his eyes ceased to twinkle.
"Rufus Carder? If it is the one I'm thinking of, he's one of the biggest reprobates in the country."
"That's him," returned Miss Upton with conviction. "At first I sized him up as just awkward and countrified; but the way he looked at the child and the way he spoke to her showed he wa'n't any weaklin'."
"I should say not. He's as clever as they make 'em and he has piles of money—other people's money. He can get out of the smallest loophole known to the law. He always manages to save his own skin while he takes the other fellow's. Rufus Carder." Ben frowned. "I wonder if it can be."
Miss Upton received his alert gaze and looked down on him in triumph.
"You're wakin' up, are you?" she said. "I guess I don't meet you in town next Saturday, do I? Oh, Ben"—casting her victory behind her—"do you mean to say you know where he lives?"
"I know some of the places."
"That farm"—eagerly—"do you know that?"
"Yes. Pretty nearly. I can find it."
"And you mean you will find it? You dear boy! And you'll take me with you, and we'll bring her back with us. I can make room for her at my house."
"Hold on, Mehitable. We're dealing with one of the biggest rascals on the top side of earth. If he wants to keep the girl it may not be simple to get her. At any rate, it's best for me to go alone first. You write a note to her and I'll take it and bring back news to you of the lay of the land."
Miss Upton gazed in speechless hope and gratitude at the young man as he rose and paced up and down the piazza in thought.
"Oh, Ben," she ejaculated, clasping her hands, "to think that I'm in time to get you to do this before you kill yourself in that aeroplane!"
"Nothing of the sort, my dear Mehit" he returned. "Remember that, unlike the zebra, they are tamable in captivity, you'll be soaring with me yet."
Miss Upton laughed in her relief. "If all they want is something heavier than air, I'm it," she returned.
The New Help
Geraldine, begging to be excused from supper on the night of her arrival, drank the glass of milk that Mrs. Carder gave her, and at an early hour laid an aching head on her pillow and slept fitfully through the night.
A heavy rain began to fall and continued in the morning. She still felt singularly numb toward the world and life in general. Her own room was bad enough, but outside it was the bare landscape, the desolate house, and its vulgar host.
Mrs. Carder, under orders from her son, presented herself early with a tray on which were coffee and toast, and the girl had more than a twinge of compunction at being waited on by the worn, wrinkled old woman.
"This is Sunday," she said. "I feel very tired. If you will let me stay here and be lazy until this afternoon, I should like it, but only on condition that you promise not to bring me anything more or take any trouble for me."
"Just as you say," responded the old woman; and she reported this request below stairs. Her son received it with a nod.
All the afternoon he hovered near the parlour with its horsehair furniture, and about four-thirty the young girl came downstairs. He greeted her effusively and she endeavored to pass him and go to the kitchen. The most lively sensation of which she was conscious now was compassion for the old woman who had brought up her breakfast.
"No, don't go out there," said Rufus decidedly. "Ma is giving the hands their supper. You'd only be in the way. Sit down and take it easy while you can."
The speaker established the reluctant guest in a slippery rocking-chair of ancient days. The atmosphere seemed to indicate that the room had awakened from a long sleep for her reception.
Rufus sat down near her. "We're a democratic bunch here," he said, eying his companion as if he could never drink in enough of her youth and beauty. "We usually eat all together, but distinguished company, you know," he smiled and winked at her while she listened to the clatter of knives and forks at the long table in the kitchen. "We'll have our supper when they get through."
"I should think the servants might relieve your mother of that work," said Geraldine.
"Servants! Hired girl, do you mean? Nice time we'd have tryin' to keep 'em here. Oh, Ma's pert as a cricket. She don't mind the work. That's real kindness, you know, to old folks," he continued. "All a mistake to put 'em on the shelf. They're lots happier doin' the work they're accustomed to."
"To-morrow I shall be helping her," said Geraldine mechanically, her whole soul shrinking from the gloating expression in her companion's face.
"Depends on how you do it," he responded protectingly. "I don't want those hands put in dishwater."
"I shall do whatever your mother will let me do," responded the girl quickly. "That is what I came for. I've come here to earn my living."
Rufus Carder laughed leniently, and leaning forward would have patted her hand, but she drew it away with a quick motion which warned him to proceed slowly. In her eyes was an indignant light.
"You can do about as you like with me, little girl," he said fondly. "If it's a dishwasher for Ma that you want, why, I'll have to get one, that's all."
"I heard that you have found it very difficult to get help out here."
"I always get whatever I go after," was the reply. And the guest had a fleeting consolation in the thought that she might make easier the lot of that wrinkled slave in the kitchen.
"You don't know yet all I can do for you," pursued Carder, and Geraldine writhed under the self-satisfied gaze which seemed to be taking stock of her person from head to foot; "nor what I intend to do," he added. "My wife was a plain sort of woman and I've been wrapped up in business. See that little buildin' down there side o' the road? That's my office. I can see everybody who comes in or goes out of the place and can keep my hand on everything that's doin' on the farm. I've held my nose pretty close to the grindstone and I've earned the right to let up a little. I know you find things very plain here, but I'm goin' to give you leave to do it all over. I intend you shall have just what you want, little girl."
Every time Rufus Carder used that expression, "little girl," a strange sensation of nausea crept again around Geraldine's heart. It was as if he actually caressed her with those big-jointed and not over-clean hands. She still remembered the pleading of his mother not to make him angry.
"Your mother should be your first thought," she said.
"Well, that's all right," he returned. "Of course she's gettin' along and I put water in the kitchen for her this year; but it's legitimate for young folks to begin where old folks leave off. If it wa'n't so, how would there be any improvement in the world? You and I'll make lots o' trips to town until you get this old house to lookin' just the way you want it. I'm sorry Dick Melody can't come out and see us here."
Tears sprang to the girl's eyes. Tears of grief and an infinite resentment that this coarse creature could so familiarly name her father.
Mrs. Carder here appeared to announce that their supper was ready, so no more was said until in the next room they found a small table set for two.
"Have you eaten your supper, Mrs. Carder?" Geraldine asked of the harassed and heated little woman who was hurrying back and forth loaded with dishes.
"Yes, much as I ever do," was the reply. "I get my meals on the fly." Then, meeting her son's lowering expression, she hastened to add, "I get all I want that way, you know. It's the way I like the best."
"It isn't the way you must do while I'm here," responded Geraldine firmly. "You're tired out. Come and sit down with your son and let me wait on you while you rest."
"Don't that sound daughterly?" remarked Rufus exultantly. "Perhaps I didn't know how to pick out the right girl. What?" His mother, relieved by his returned complacence, became voluble with reassurances; and Geraldine, seeing that Rufus's hand was approaching her arm, hastily slid into her chair and he took the opposite place.
"Didn't I tell you we'd make up for the lunch that great porpoise cheated us out of yesterday?" he said in high good-humor.
Geraldine's desolate heart yearned after the kind friend so soon lost.
"That'll do, Ma. I guess the grub's all on the table. Go chase yourself. Miss Melody'll pour my coffee."
"Don't wash any of the dishes, Mrs. Carder, please, until I get out there," said Geraldine.
The old woman disappeared with one last glance at her son whom Geraldine eyed with sudden steadiness.
He smiled at her with semi-toothless fondness.
"Give me my coffee, little girl. I'm famished. Isn't this jolly—just you and me?"
Geraldine poured the coffee and handed him the cup; then she spoke impressively.
"Mr. Carder, this is the last time this must happen. I refuse to sit down and make a waitress of your old mother. If you insist on showing her no consideration, I shall go away from here at once."
Her companion laughed, quietly, but with genuine amusement and admiration.
"By ginger," he said, "when you're mad, you're the handsomest thing above ground. Go away! That's a good one. Don't I tell you, you can do anything with me?" The speaker paused to drink his coffee noisily, keeping his eyes on the exquisite, stiff little mouth opposite him. "I know I ain't any dandy to look at. I've been too busy rollin' up the money that's goin' to make you go on velvet the rest o' your days: you're welcome to change all that, too. Yes, indeed. Never fear. When we do over the house we're goin' to do over yours truly, too. I'll do exactly as you say and you can turn me out a fashion plate that'll be hard to beat."
"I'm not interested in turning you out a fashion plate," returned Geraldine coldly. "I'm interested in making the lot of your mother easier, that is all."
Rufus regarded her thoughtfully and nodded. It penetrated his brain that he had been going too fast with this disdainful beauty. He rather admired her for her disdain; it added zest to the certainty of her capitulation.
"Have it your own way, little girl," he said leniently. "I know you're tired, still. You're not eatin'. Eat a good supper and to-night take another long sleep and to-morrow everything will look different."
Geraldine still regarded him with an unfaltering gaze. "We are strangers," she said. "I wish you not to call me 'little girl!'"
Rufus smiled at her admiringly. "It's hard for me to be formal with Dick Melody's girl," he said. "What shall I call you? My lady? That's all right, that's what you are. My lady. Another cup o' coffee please, my lady. It tastes extra good from your fair hands. We'll do away with this rocky tea-set, too. You're goin' to have eggshell China if you want it; and of course you do want it, you little princess."
His extreme air of proprietorship had several times during this interview convinced Geraldine that her host had been drinking. In spite of his odious frank admiration and the glimpses that he gave of some disquieting power, Geraldine scorned him too much to be afraid of him, and while she doubted increasingly that it would be possible for her to remain here, she determined to see what the morning would bring forth. The man's passion for acquisition, evidenced by his showmanship of his accumulations, might again absorb him after the first flush of her novelty wore off. She would enter into the work of the house, she would never again sit tete-a-tete with him, and he should find it impossible to see her alone. His mother had warned her that he was terrible when he was angry, and Geraldine suspected that the mother always felt the brunt of his wrath. She must be careful, therefore, not to make the lot of that mother harder while endeavoring to ease it.
As soon as she could, Geraldine escaped to the kitchen where she found Mrs. Carder at her wet sink.
"I asked you to wait for me, Mrs. Carder," she said.
The old woman looked up from her steaming pan, her countenance full of trouble.
"Now, Rufus don't want you to do anything like this, Miss Melody, and Pete's helpin' me, you see."
Geraldine turned and saw a boy who was carrying a heavy, steaming kettle from the stove to the sink, and she met his eyes fixed upon her. She recognized him at once as the driver of the motor in which she and her host had come from the station. As the chauffeur he had appeared like a boy of ordinary size, but now she saw that his arms were long and his legs short and bowed, and in height he would barely reach her shoulder.
The dwarf had a long, solemn, tanned face and a furtive, sullen eye. Geraldine remembered Rufus Carder's rough tone as he had summoned him at the station. He was perhaps a wretched, lonely creature like herself. She met his look with a smile that, directed toward his master, would have sent Rufus into the seventh heaven of complacence.
"I have met Pete already," she said, kindly. "He drove us up from the station. I'm glad you are helping Mrs. Carder, Pete. She seems to have too much to do."
The boy did not reply, but he appeared unable to remove his eyes from Geraldine's kind look, and careless of where he was going he stumbled against the sink.
"Look out, Pete!" exclaimed his mistress. "What makes you so clumsy? You nearly scalded me. I guess he's tired, too." The old woman sighed. "Everybody picks on Pete. They all find something for him to do."
"Then run away now," said Geraldine, still warming the boy's dull eyes with her entrancing smile, "and let me take your place. I can dry dishes as fast as anybody can wash them."
The dwarf slowly backed away, and disappeared into the woodshed, keeping his gaze to the last on the sunny-haired loveliness which had invaded the ugliness of that low-ceiled kitchen.
Geraldine seized a dish-towel, and Mrs. Carder, her hands in the suds, cast a troubled glance around at her.
"Rufus won't like it," she declared timorously.
"Why should you say anything so foolish? What did I come out here for?"
The old woman looked around at her with a brief, strange look.
"You couldn't get help," went on Geraldine, "and so as I needed a home I came."
"Is that what they told you?"
"Yes. That is what my stepmother told me, and I see it is true. You seem to have no one here but men."
"Yes," replied Mrs. Carder. "It—it hasn't been a healthy place for girls." She cast a glance toward the door as she spoke in a lowered voice.
"Dreadfully lonely, you mean?" inquired Geraldine, unpleasantly affected by the other's timidity. "The woman has no spirit," she added mentally with some impatience.
Mrs. Carder looked full in her eyes for a silent space; then: "Rufus can do anything he wants to—anything," she whispered.
Geraldine, in the act of wiping a coarse, thick dinner-plate, met the other's gaze with a little frown.
"Don't give in to him, my dear," went on the sharp whisper. "You are too beautiful, too young. He's crazy about you, so you be firm. Don't give in to him. Insist on his marrying you!"
The thick dinner-plate fell to the floor with a crash.
"Marrying him!" ejaculated Geraldine.
"Sh! Sh! Oh, Miss Melody, hush!"
Geraldine began to shiver from head to foot. The lover-like words and actions of her host seemed rushing back to memory with all the other repulsive experiences of past weeks.
The kitchen door opened and the master appeared.
"Who's smashing the crockery?" he inquired.
"It's your awkward help," rejoined Geraldine, her teeth chattering as she stooped to pick up the plate.
"I knew you weren't fit for this kind of thing," he said tenderly, approaching, to the girl's horror. "Where's that confounded Pete?"
"I sent him away," said Geraldine, indignant with herself for trembling. "I wanted to do this; it is what I came for. The plate didn't break."
The man regarded her flushed face with a gaze that scorched her.
"Break everything in the old shack if you want to—that is, all but one thing!"
He stood for half a minute more while his mother scalded a new pan full of dishes.
"What is that poem," he went on—"What's that about, 'Thou shalt not wash dishes nor yet feed the swine'? Well, well, we'll see later."
Geraldine's heart was pounding too hard to allow her to speak. She seized another plate in her towel, his mother, her wrinkled lips pursed, kept her eyes on her dishpan, so with a pleased smile at his own apt quotation the master reluctantly removed his presence from the room.
"I'm very sorry for you, Mrs. Carder," said Geraldine breathlessly, meanwhile holding her plate firmly lest another crash bring back the owner, "but I can't stay here. I must go away to-morrow."
Her companion gave a fleeting glance around at the girl, and her withered lips relaxed in a smile as she shook her head.
"Oh, no, you won't, my dear."
At the unexpected reply Geraldine's heart thumped harder.
"I certainly shall, Mrs. Carder. I'm sorry not to stay and help you, but it's impossible."
"It will be impossible for you to go," was the colorless reply. "Nobody goes away from here till Rufus is ready they should; then they leave whether they have any place to go to or not. It's goin' to be different with you. I can see that. You needn't be scared by what I said, a minute ago. You are safe. You've got a home for life. I only hope you won't let him send me away." The old woman again turned around to Geraldine and her tired old eyes filled with tears.
"Nothing should be too good for you with all your son's money," rejoined Geraldine hotly.
Her panic-stricken thought was centered now on one idea. Escape. The night was closing in. The clouds had cleared away. The stretches of fields in all directions, the lack of neighbors, the horrors of the old woman's implications, all weighed on the girl like a crushing nightmare. The dishes at last put away, she bade the weary old woman good-night, and apprehensively looking from side to side stole to the stairway without encountering anyone and mounting to her dreary chamber she locked the door.
She hurried to the window and looked out.
A half-moon in the sky showed her that the distance down was too far to jump. She might sprain or break one of those ankles which must go fast and far to-night.
Packing her belongings back in her bag she sat down to wait. Gradually all sounds about the house ceased. Still she waited. The minutes seemed hours, but not until her watch pointed to midnight did she put on her hat and jacket and slip off her shoes.
Then going to the door she gradually turned the key. The process was remarkably noiseless. If only the hinges were as friendly. Very, very slowly she turned the knob and very, very slowly opened the door. Not a sound.
When the opening was wide enough to admit her body she was gliding through, when her stockinged foot struck something soft. She thought it was a dog lying across the threshold, and only by heroic effort she controlled the cry that sprang to her lips. The dark mass half rose, and by the faint moonlight she could see two long, suddenly out-flung arms. "Pete," she whispered, "Pete, you will let me pass!"
"I'm sorry, lady. He'd kill me. He'd tear me to pieces," came back the whisper.
"Please, Pete," desperately, "I'll do anything for you. Please, please!"
For answer the long arms pushed her back through the open door. Another door opened and Rufus Carder's nasal voice sounded. "You there, Pete?"
A sonorous snore was the only answer. For a minute that other door remained open, but the rhythmical snoring continued, and at last the latch was heard to close.
Geraldine again cautiously opened her door a crack.
"Pete," she whispered.
The dwarf snored.
"Please talk to me, Pete. I'm sure you are a kind boy." The pleading whisper received no answer beyond the heavy breathing.
"I want to ask your advice. I want you to tell me what I can do. I'm sure you don't love your master."
A sort of snort interrupted the snoring which then went on rhythmically as before.
Geraldine closed her door noiselessly. She sat down white and unnerved. She was a prisoner, then. For a time her mind was in such a whirl that she was unable to form a plan.
She put her hand to her head.
"I must try to sleep if I can in this hideous place. Then to-morrow I may be able to think."
Locking the door, she drew the bureau against it; then she undressed and fell into bed. Her youth and exhaustion did the rest. She slept until morning.
"You, Pete," said his master, approaching the pump where the boy was performing his morning ablutions, "what was the noise I heard in Miss Melody's room last night?"
"Well, you'd better know. I'll skin you alive if anything happens to her."
"How—how could I help it if she jumps out the winder?"
Carder smiled. "You're thinkin' of somebody else. She went to the hospital. If Miss Melody hurts herself, we'll keep her here. She won't do that, though, and I hold you accountable for anything else she does. Night and day, remember. You've got to know where she is all the time. You understand?"
The dwarf grunted and combed his thick, tousled hair with his fingers.
"Watch yourself now. You'll pay if anything goes wrong. What was that noise I heard? Out with it!"
The dwarf grunted his reply. "She moved the furniture ag'in' the door, I guess."
"Oh, that was it."
Rufus laughed and turned toward the house.
The hired men had had their breakfast and gone to the fields and the drudge in the kitchen was prepared for the arrival of her son and his guest.
Geraldine came downstairs fresh from sleep and such a cold bath as was obtainable from the contents of a crockery pitcher. Rufus's eyes glittered as he beheld her.
"Well, my little—I mean my lady, you look wonderful. I guess there was some sleep in the little old bed after all; but you shall have down to sleep on if you want it."
Geraldine regarded him.
"I don't see how you expected I could sleep when you let a dog lie outside my door, a dog with the nightmare, I should judge, snoring and snorting. Be sure he is not there to-night. He frightened me."
"Too bad, too bad," returned Rufus; "but you see you slept, or you couldn't look like a fresh rosebud as you do this morning; and you'll get used to good old Sport. He's a splendid watchdog."
Geraldine turned to her hostess.
"I don't know what your hours are, Mrs. Carder—whether five, or six, or seven is over-sleeping, but I'm ashamed not to have been down here to help you get breakfast. It shan't happen again."
"Don't fret about that," said Rufus, "Sleep as long as you want to, little girl. It's good for your complexion."
Geraldine flatly refused to sit down to breakfast unless Mrs. Carder was also at the table, so the old woman wiped her hands on her apron and took her place between her son and the beautiful girl, and Geraldine jumped up and fetched and carried when anything was needed.
Rufus watched this proceeding discontentedly. "We've got to start in new, Ma," he said. "The Princess Geraldine and me are goin' to do this house over, and we'll get some help, too—help that knows how; the stylish kind, you know. Geraldine thinks the time has come for you to hold your hands the rest o' your days."
"Just as you say, Rufus," returned his mother meekly, nibbling away at the bacon on her plate and feeling vastly uncomfortable.
"What she says goes; eh, Ma?"
"Just as you say, Rufus," repeated the mother.
A light was glowing in Geraldine's eyes. It was day. She was young and strong. The world was wide. She laughed at her fears of the night. The right moment to escape would present itself. Rufus would have to go to the city, and even if he refused to leave without her, once in town she could easily give him the slip. Perhaps that was going to prove the best solution after all.
"Your trunk came last night," he said, when at last the three rose from the breakfast-table. "You can show Pete where you want it put."
Geraldine tried not to betray the eagerness with which she received this permission.
The dwarf's strong arms carried her modest trunk up the stairs as easily as if it had been a hatbox. She feared Carder might follow them, but he did not.
"Pete," she said, low and excitedly, as soon as they reached her room and he had deposited his burden, "you will help me! I know you are going to be the one to help me get away from here."
The dwarf shook his head. "Then I'd be killed," he answered, but he gazed at her admiringly. "I've got the marks of his whip on me now."
"Why do you stay?" asked Geraldine indignantly.
"He says nobody else would give me work. I'm too ugly. He says I'd starve."
"That isn't so!" exclaimed the girl. "I will help you." The consciousness of the futility of the promise swept over her even as she made it. Who was she to give help to another!