AUTHOR OF "May Iverson—Her Book" "Tales of the Cloister" "Tales of Destiny" Etc. Etc.
... "The state of man, Like to a little kingdom, suffers then The nature of an insurrection."
I. VARICK'S LADY O' DREAMS II. THE EXORCISM OF LILY BELL III. HER LAST DAY IV. THE SIMPLE LIFE OF GENEVIEVE MAUD V. HIS BOY VI. THE COMMUNITY'S SUNBEAM VII. IN MEMORY OF HANNAH'S LAUGH VIII. THE QUEST OF AUNT NANCY IX. THE HENRY SMITHS' HONEYMOON X. THE CASE OF KATRINA XI. BART HARRINGTON, GENIUS
VARICK'S LADY O' DREAMS
Varick laid down the book with which he had beguiled an hour of the night, turned off the electric light in the shaded globe that hung above his head, pulled the sheets a little nearer his chin, reversed his pillow that he might rest his cheek more gratefully on the cooler linen, stretched, yawned, and composed himself to slumber with an absolutely untroubled conscience.
He was an eminently practical and almost rudely healthy young man, with an unreflecting belief in the existence of things he had seen, and considerable doubt concerning those which he had not seen. In his heart he regarded sentiment as the expression of a flabby nature in a feeble body. Once or twice he had casually redressing-case, with its array of silver toilet articles, the solid front of his chiffonnier, the carved arms of his favorite lounging-chair, even the etchings and prints on the walls. Suddenly, as he looked at these familiar objects, a light haze fell over them, giving him for an instant the impression that a gauze curtain had been dropped between them and his eyes. They slowly melted away, and in their place he saw the streets of a tiny village in some foreign country which he did not know. A moment later, in what seemed at the time a perfectly natural transition from his bed in an Adirondack club-house, he was walking up the streets of the little town, in correct tourist attire, looking in vain for a familiar landmark, and with a strange sinking of the heart. How he got there, or why he was there, was equally incomprehensible to him. It was high noon of a warm summer day, and the red roofs of the old buildings seemed to glow in the heat. Before him, at the end of the street down which he was walking, was a public square where marketing was going on in the open. It was crowded with men and women in picturesque peasant costumes he did not recognize, though he had travelled a great deal. As he drew nearer he heard them speaking, but discovered that their tongue was as unknown to him as their garb. He knew French, German, and Italian well; he had, in addition, a smattering of Spanish, and was familiar with the accents of Slavic tongues. But this babel that met his ears was something new. Taken in connection with the rest of the experience, the discovery sent a cold chill down the spinal column of Mr. Lawrence Varick. For the first time in his debonair life he was afraid, and admitted it inwardly, with a sudden whitening of the lips.
"It's so infernally queer," he told himself, uneasily. "If I could remember how I got here, or if I knew anything about the place—"
"Have you classified them?" asked a voice at his elbow. It was feminine, contralto, and exquisitely modulated. The words were English, but spoken with a slight foreign accent. With a leap of the heart Varick turned and looked at the speaker.
She was young, he saw at once—twenty-two, twenty-three, possibly twenty-four. He inclined to the last theory as he observed her perfect poise and self-possession. She was exquisitely dressed; he realized that despite the dimness of masculine perception on such points, and, much more clearly, saw that she was beautiful. She was small, and the eyes she raised to his were large and deeply brown, with long black lashes that matched in color the wavy hair under her coquettish hat. As he stared at her, with surprise, relief, and admiration struggling in his boyishly handsome face, she smiled, and in that instant the phlegmatic young man experienced a new sensation. His own white teeth flashed as he smiled back at her. Then he remembered that it was necessary to reply to her question.
"I—I—beg your pardon," he stammered, "a—a thousand times. But to tell you the truth, I'm—I'm horribly confused this morning. I—I don't seem, somehow, to place myself yet. And I can't understand what these people say. So, when you spoke English it was such a relief—"
He stopped suddenly and turned a rich crimson. It had occurred to him that this incoherent statement was not quite the one to win interest and admiration from a strange and exceedingly attractive woman. What would she think of him? Perhaps that he was intoxicated, or insane. Varick's imagination, never lively, distinguished itself during the next few seconds by the stirring possibilities it presented to his mind. He grew redder, which was very unfortunate, and shuffled miserably from one foot to the other, until he noticed that she was looking at him with a glance that was entirely dignified yet very friendly. It had an oddly sympathetic quality in it as well. His spirits rose a trifle.
"You must think me an awful duffer," he murmured, contritely. "I'm not always like this, I assure you."
"I know," she assented. "I understand. Walk on with me. Possibly I may be able to help you."
He bowed assent and the two walked toward the crowded square.
"You're awfully good," he said, feeling reassured, yet still boyish and embarrassed. "I don't want to be a nuisance, but if you'll just put me right, somehow—start me on a path that will lead me home—"
The entire idiocy of this struck him. He stopped again, then burst into his contagious, youthful laughter, in which she instantly joined. The mellow contralto and the clear tenor formed a soft and pleasant duet, but Varick noticed that not a head in the crowd around them turned their way, nor did an eye of all the peasant throng give them a glance. He spoke of this to his companion as they continued their walk.
"The most surprising thing to me in all this—unusualness," he said, "is the cool manner in which these beggars ignore us. You know how such people gape, usually; but not a soul among all these people seems to know we're here."
She looked at him with a gentle amusement and sympathy in her brown eyes.
"That is not surprising," she said, quietly. "For, you know, we are not here—really."
Varick stopped for the second time and stared at her, with a repetition of that new and annoying sinking in the region of his heart. Her words were certainly disconcerting, but she herself was delightfully human and most reassuringly natural. She had walked on, and he tried to fall into her mood as he overtook her.
"Where are we, then?" he asked, with a short and not especially mirthful laugh.
Her smooth brow wrinkled for a moment.
"I do not know," she said, frankly. "That is, I do not know this place, where we think we are, though I have been here before, and the experience does not frighten me now. But I know where we really are. You are asleep somewhere in America, and I—but oh, my dear, my dear, you're going to wake!"
The clock that was somewhere struck three. Varick, sitting up in his bed with eyes staring into the darkness, saw again his familiar room, the dim light, the silver, the dressing-case, the pictures. He sprang to the door opening into the hall, and tried it. It was bolted, as he had left it. So was the other door leading into his sitting-room. The darkness around him still seemed full of the refrain of the words he had just heard—where?
"Oh, my dear, my dear, you're going to wake!" And her eyes—her smile—
Varick got into bed again, in a somewhat dazed condition, with a tremor running through it. Very slowly he straightened himself out, very slowly he pulled up the bedclothes. Then he swore solemnly into the obscurity of the room.
"Well, of—all—the—dreams!" he commented, helplessly.
As the months passed, after Varick got back to town and into the whirl of city life, he recalled his dream, frequently at first, then more rarely, and finally not at all. It was almost a year later when, one night, lying half awake, he saw again the fine, transparent, screen- like veil enshroud the objects in his bedroom. It was winter, and a great log was burning in the large fireplace. He had tried to choke the flames with ashes before he went to bed, but the wood had blazed up again and he had lain quiet, awaiting slumber and blinking indifferently at the light. His bedroom overlooked Fifth Avenue. There was a large club-house just opposite his house, and cabs and carriages still came and went. Varick heard the slam of carriage doors, the click of horses' hoofs on the wet asphalt, and congratulated himself on the common-sense which had inspired him to go to bed at eleven instead of joining the festive throng across the street. He had dutifully spent the morning in his father's offices, and then, with a warming sense of virtue, had run out of town for a late luncheon and a trial of hunters. To-night he was pleasantly tired, but not drowsy. When the curtain fell before his surroundings, and he saw them melting imperceptibly into others quite foreign to them, he at once recalled the similar experience of the year before. With a little quickening of his steady heart-beats, he awaited developments.
Yes, here was the old town, with its red roofs, its quaint architecture, its crowded, narrow, picturesque streets. But this time they seemed almost deserted, and the whole effect of the place was bleak and dreary. The leaves had dropped from the trees, the flowers had faded, the vines that covered the cottage walls were brown and bare. He was pleasantly conscious of the warmth of a sable-lined coat he had brought from Russia two years before. He thrust his gloved hands deep into its capacious pockets and walked on, his eyes turning to right and left as he went. At intervals he saw a bulky masculine figure, queerly dressed, turn a corner or enter a house. Once or twice one came his way and passed him, but no one looked at him or spoke. For a moment Varick was tempted to knock at one of the inhospitably closed doors and ask for information and directions, but something—he did not know what—restrained him.
When she appeared it was as suddenly as she had come before, with no warning, no approach. She was at his elbow—a bewitching thing of furs and feminine beauty, French millinery and cordiality. She held out her small hand with a fine camaraderie.
"Is it not nice?" she asked at once. "I was afraid I should arrive first and have to wait alone. I would not have liked that."
He held her hand close, looking down at her from his great height, his gray eyes shining into hers.
"Then you knew—you were coming?" he asked, slowly.
"Not until the moment before I came. But when I saw the curtain fall— "
"You saw that, too? A thin, gauzy thing, like a transparency?"
He relapsed into silence for a moment, as he unconsciously adapted his stride to hers, and they walked on together as naturally as if it were an every-day occurrence.
"What do you make of it all?" he at length asked.
She shrugged her shoulders with a little foreign gesture which seemed to him, even then, very characteristic.
"I do not know. It frightened me—a little—at first. Now it does not, for it always ends and I awake—at home."
"Where is that?"
"I may not tell you," she said, slowly. "I do not quite know why, but I may not. Possibly you may know some time. You, I think, are an American."
He stared hard at her, his smooth face taking on a strangely solemn expression.
"You mean to say," he persisted, "that this is all a dream—that you and I, instead of being here, are really asleep somewhere, on different continents?"
"We are asleep," she said, "on different continents, as you say. Whether we are dreaming or whether our two souls are taking a little excursion through space—oh, who shall say? Who can question the wonderful things which happen in this most wonderful world? I have ceased to question, but I have also ceased to fear."
He made no reply. Somewhere, in the back of his head, lay fear—a very definite, paralyzing fear—that something was wrong with him or with her or with them both. Instead of being in the neutral border-land of dreams, had he not perhaps passed the tragic line dividing the normal mind from the insane? She seemed to read his thoughts, and her manner became more gentle, almost tender.
"Is it so very dreadful?" she asked, softly. "We are together, you know, my friend. Would it not be worse to wander about alone?"
With a great effort he pulled himself together.
"Infinitely," he said, with gratifying conviction. "And you're—you're a trump, you know. I'm ashamed of acting like such a boor. If you'll bear with me I'll try from now on to be more like a man and less like a fretful ghost."
She clapped her hands.
"Capital!" she cried. "I knew you would—what is the word?—oh yes— adapt yourself. And it is only for a little while. You will wake very soon. But you ought to enjoy it while it lasts. There are many amusing things about it all."
Varick reflected grimly that it was the "amusing things" which occasioned his perturbation, but he kept his reflection to himself and smiled down at her sunnily.
"For example," she continued, "as we really do not exist here, and as we are not visible to these people, we cannot do anything that will affect them in any way or attract their attention. Look at that!"
They were passing a small house whose front door, opening on the street, stood ajar. Within they could see a stout woman standing at a tub and washing busily, and a little girl pouring hot water from a quaint kettle into a large pan full of soiled blue dishes. The pan stood near the edge of a wooden table, and the little girl was perched on a stool just high enough to bring her on a level with her work.
"You are, I am sure, a fine athlete," murmured the woman. "Or else your looks belie you," she added, with a roguish upward glance. "Yet with all your strength you cannot push that pan of dishes off the table."
Without a word, Varick passed through the doorway, strode into the house and up to the table. She followed him closely. He attempted to seize the pan in his powerful hands—and, to his horror, discovered that they held nothing. The pan remained on the table and the child was now unconcernedly washing the blue dishes, humming a little folk- song as she worked. As if to add to the irony of the situation, the small laborer quietly lifted the pan and moved it to a position she thought more convenient. This was the last touch. With a stifled murmur of intense exasperation, Varick put forth all his strength in a supreme effort. The pan fell, the water and broken blue dishes covering the floor. He sprang back and stood aghast, gazing at the havoc he had wrought.
"Oh, dear! oh, dear!" murmured the voice at his side. "I never dreamed you could do it, or I would not have suggested it. Oh, oh, the poor little darling!"
For the stout woman at the tub had hastily dropped her work, crossed the room, and was soundly chastising the unhappy infant who she supposed was responsible for the mischief. Varick caught her arm.
"Oh, I say," he cried, "this won't do at all! She didn't do it; it was all my fault. I'll pay for the things. Here—here—"
He fumbled in his pockets as he spoke and pulled out several gold pieces. But the fat arm of the old woman offered no resistance to his grasp, and the gold pieces did not exist for her. It was evident that she saw neither him nor them, nor the woman with him. With an unsparing hand she spanked the child, whose voice rose in shrill lamentations. Varick and his companion in guilt crept out of the room with a sense of great helplessness upon them, and he breathed a long breath of relief at finding himself—in bed, with a cold February sun shining in through his windows, and the faithful Parker at his side with the quieting announcement that his bath was ready.
One of Varick's boon companions in camp and hunting excursions was a distinguished New York specialist in nervous diseases. A day or two later Varick found it convenient to drop into this man's office and, quite casually, tell him the story of his dreams, giving it various light touches that he fondly imagined concealed the anxiety that lay beneath the recital. "Recurrent dreams," he then learned, were a very common human experience and not deserving of much attention.
"Don't think about it," said his friend. "Of course, if you worry over it, you'll be dreaming it all the time. Send this 'personally conducted tour' to me if you don't like it. I don't mind meeting pretty women who are 'dreams,' whether in the flesh or out of it."
As time went on and the dream did not return, Varick decided that he would not mind, either. He thought of her a great deal; he even longed for her. Eventually he deliberately tried to induce the dream by going to bed early, putting himself in the proper mental attitude, as he conceived it, and staring wide-eyed into his dimly lighted room. But only once in eighteen months was he even partly successful. Then he saw the haze, saw the familiar streets, saw her far, far ahead of him, and hurrying onward, saw her turn a sharp corner, caught one backward look from her dear brown eyes as she vanished—and awoke! He gave much thought to that look in the months which followed. He was a modest youth, singularly unconscious of his own charms; but the eloquent glance had conveyed to him a sense of longing—of more than longing.
Quite an interval elapsed before she came again. There was, first of all, the inevitable filmy effect, but, in the vision that succeeded it, instead of finding himself in the little town, he was in the depths of a great old forest, and in horrible agony. Some accident had occurred—he did not know what. He only knew that he was shot, suffering, dying! He groaned, and even as he writhed in a spasm of pain he saw her sitting on the sward beside him. He turned glazed eyes on her. Her brown ones looked back into his with a great love and pity in their depths.
"Oh, my dear," she whispered, "I know it seems terribly hard to you. And because you think you suffer, it is almost as hard for you as if you did. But you are not really hurt, you know. You are not suffering. It is all in the dream. You are sound asleep, far, far away."
He forced a sardonic laugh from his stiff throat.
"Not this time," he managed to articulate. "Whatever the others may have been, this is no dream. This is the real thing—and death!"
She smoothed the hair back from his damp brow with a beautiful, caressing touch. He felt her fingers tremble.
"No," she said. "It is a dream, and almost over."
"Then will you stay with me," he gasped, "to the end?"
"Yes," she promised. "Try to bear it just a moment longer. Courage, dear heart! for already you are waking—you are waking—you—are— awake!"
He was, and it was daylight, and around him were the familiar objects of his own room. He wiped his forehead, which was cold and wet. He felt utterly exhausted.
"Stay with me to the end!"
If she only would! If he could find her—find her in this warm, human world, away from that ghastly border-land where they two met. For in that hour he knew he loved—what? A woman or a ghost? A creature of this world or a fantasy of the night? Wherever she was, whatever she was, he loved her and he wanted her. And in that hour of his agony her eyes had told that she loved and wanted him.
It was eight months before they met again. Varick's friends thought him changed, and quite possibly he was. The insouciant boy of twenty- eight had become a man, a sympathetic, serious, thoughtful man, still given to sports and outdoor life, but more than all devoted to a search which had taken him to no end of out-of-the-way European towns. He was sleeping in one of these one night (not the one, alas!—he had not found that) when the veil, now so warmly welcome, fell for the fourth time.
He was in an exquisite Italian garden, a place all perfume and May breezes and flooding sunshine and overarching blue sky. As he entered it he saw her coming to meet him, and he went forward to greet her with his pulses bounding and a light in his eyes which no eyes but hers had ever seen there. Even in that supreme moment the wonderfully real atmosphere of it all impressed him. He heard a dry twig crack under his foot as he walked, and he recognized the different perfumes of the flowers around him—the heavy sweetness of a few belated orange blossoms, the delicate breath of the oleander, the reminiscent perfume of the rose. Then their hands met and their eyes, and each drew a long breath, and neither spoke for a moment. When Varick found words they were very commonplace.
"Oh, my love, my love!" he said. And she, listening to them with sudden tears in her brown eyes, seemed to find in them the utmost eloquence of the human tongue.
"It has been so long, so long!" he gasped. "I began to think I was never to see you again."
They drifted side by side along a winding, rose-hedged path, past an old sun-dial, past a triumphant peacock strutting before his mild little mate, past a fountain whose spray flung out to them a welcome. She led the way with the accustomed step of one who knew and loved the place. They came to a marble seat, half hidden by a tangle of vines and scarlet blossoms, and sheltered by overhanging oleander branches; there she sat down and moved her skirts aside that he might sit close to her. Her brown eyes, raised now to his hungry gray ones, looked at him with the softened brilliance he had sometimes seen in those of a happy child.
"Should you have missed me," she asked, softly, "if you had never seen me again? Should you have been sorry?"
He drew a long breath.
"I love you," he said. "Whatever you are, wherever you come from, whatever all this means, I love you. I don't understand anything else, but I know that. It's the one sure thing, the one real thing, in all this tangle."
Without a word she put her hand in his. He could feel distinctly its cool, soft, exquisite texture. With an exclamation of delight he drew her toward him, but she held herself away, the expression of her beautiful face softening the effect of the recoil.
"Not yet, dear," she said, gently. "We must be very careful. You do not understand. If you do anything abrupt or sudden you will wake—and then we shall be parted again, who knows for how long!"
There were tears in her eyes as she spoke. Seeing them, he buried his face in his hands and groaned, while the sense of his utter helplessness rolled over him like a flood.
"God!" he broke out, with sudden fierceness. "What devil's trick is this? It's not a dream. It can't be a dream. Here we are, two human beings in a human world—I'll swear it. Smell that oleander. Listen to that bird sing. Hear the trickle of that fountain. And yet you tell me that we are asleep!"
She laid her head in the curve of her arm, resting on the ivy-covered back of the low seat. Bending over her, he saw that her cheeks were wet. The sight made him desperate.
"Don't!" he cried, hoarsely. "Don't do that! Tell me what is expected of me. Whatever it is, no matter how hard it is, or how long it takes, I'll do it."
She did not reply, but she made a quick little gesture with the hand nearest him. It signified hopelessness, almost despair. Darkness began to fall, and an early moon hung pale in the heavens. Somewhere in the thick bushes near them a nightingale began to sing. To Varick's excited fancy there was a heart-breaking pathos in the soft notes. They seemed to have been together, he and she, for a long time—for hours. He bent his head till it touched hers.
"But you love me?" he asked. She moved a little and wiped her eyes with an absurdly tiny, lace-edged square of linen. One corner, he noticed, bore an embroidered coronet.
"Yes," she said, very quietly, "I love you."
Her tone as she spoke expressed such entire hopelessness that the full sense of her words did not at once come to him. When it did, slowly, sweetly, she was speaking again.
"But oh, dearest, dearest!" she broke out, "why do we love? To what can love lead us—two poor shadows in a dream world, in which alone we can meet?"
He was silent. There seemed, somehow, nothing that he could say, though later he thought of many words with which he might have filled that throbbing silence. The dusk deepened around them. Off in the thicket the nightingale still warbled passionately, and now the stars began to come out over their heads, pale as yet against the warm blue of the heavens. Varick, sitting stiffly on the old marble bench, became conscious of an odd dizziness, and set his teeth with a sudden determination to show no evidence of it. She had risen and was moving about among the rose-bushes just behind them. Almost before he missed her she had returned, holding in her hand a beautiful salmon-hued rose, with a flame-colored, crumply heart. He had never before seen one like it. As she held it near him it exhaled an exquisitely reminiscent perfume—a perfume which seemed to breathe of old joys, old memories, and loves of long ago.
"Is it not beautiful?" she said. "It is called the Toinnette. Take it, dear, and keep it—for memory." Then, as he took it from her, her eyes widened in a sudden anguish of dread and comprehension.
"Oh, you're leaving me!" she said. "You're waking. Dearest, dearest, stay with me!"
The words and the look that accompanied them galvanized him into sudden action. He sprang to his feet, caught her in his arms, held her there, crushed her there, kissing her eyes, her hair, her exquisitely soft mouth.
"I will not leave you!" he raved. "I swear I won't! I defy the devil that's back of this! I swear—" But she, too, was speaking now, and her words came to his ears as from a long, long distance, sobbingly, with a catch in the breath, but distinct.
"Alas!" she cried, "you have ruined everything! You have ruined everything! You will never see me again. Dearest, dearest—"
He awoke. His heart was thumping to suffocation, and he lay exhausted on his pillow. It was a dark morning, and a cold rain beat dismally against the window-panes. Gone were the Dream Woman, the Italian garden, the song of the nightingale, the perfume of flowers. How definite that perfume had been! He could smell it yet, all around him. It was like—what was it like? He became suddenly conscious of an unusual sensation in his hand, lying on the bedspread. He glanced at it and then sat up with a sudden jerk that almost threw him off his balance. In his upturned palm was a rose—a salmon-colored rose, slightly crushed, but fresh and fragrant, with a flame-colored, crumply heart. Varick stared at it, shut his eyes, opened them, and stared again. It was still there, and, with the discovery that it was, Varick became conscious of a prickling of the scalp, a chill along the spine. His brown face whitened.
"Well, by all the gods!" he gasped. "How did that thing get here?"
No one ever told him. Possibly no one could except the Dream Woman, and her he never saw again; so the mystery was unfathomable. He put the rose between the leaves of the Bible his mother had given him when he went to college, and which he had not opened since until that morning; and the rose became dry and faded as the years passed, quite as any other rose would have done.
Varick paid a second and quite casual visit to his medical friend, who scoffed at him rudely and urged him to go on a long hunting trip. He went, and was singularly successful, and came back with considerable big game and a rich, brown complexion. When the doctor asked him whether he still awoke from his innocent slumbers to find his little hands full of pretty flowers, Varick swore naturally and healthfully, turned very red, and playfully thumped the medical man between the shoulders with a force that sent that gentleman's eye-glasses off his nose. But, notwithstanding all these reassuring incidents, Varick has never married; and he remains deeply interested as to the source of that rose. He would be very grateful to any one who could tell him where the thing came from. The nearest he ever came to this was when a man who knew a good deal about flowers once inspected the faded rose, at Varick's request, and listened to the description of how it looked when fresh.
"Why, yes," he said, "I know that variety. It grows in Italy, but I don't think it's known here. They call it the Toinnette!"
THE EXORCISM OF LILY BELL
It is quite possible that not even Raymond Mortimer Prescott himself could have told definitely the day or the hour when Lily Bell first came into his life; and as Raymond Mortimer Prescott was not only the sole person privileged to enjoy Miss Bell's society, but was also the sole person who had been permitted to gaze upon her charms at all, it would seem that inquiries directed elsewhere were destined to prove fruitless. Raymond himself, moreover, was not communicative; he had the reserve of an only child whose early efforts at conversation had been discouraged by parents selfishly absorbed in "grown-up" interests, and whose home was too remote from other country homes to attract playmates.
His mother was a nervous invalid, and almost in infancy Raymond had grasped the fact that his absence seemed to be of more definite benefit to her than any other remedy for neurasthenia. His father was a busy man, absent from home for weeks at a time, and bearing this exile with a jovial cheerfulness which did not always characterize his moods when he deigned to join the family circle. Occasionally the elder Prescott experienced a twinge of conscience when he looked at his son, ten years of age now, the possessor of a superbly healthy body and presumably of the social aspirations of growing Americans. In such moments of illumination the father reflected uneasily that "the little beggar must have a beastly lonesome time of it"; then, surveying the little beggar's choice company of pets, gazing upon the dam he had built with his own busy hands, inspecting approvingly his prowess in the swimming-hole and with his fish-rods, even noting, in his conscientious appraisal of his heir's assets, the self-assertive quality of the freckles on his nose and the sunburn on the whole of his visage, this perfunctory American parent easily decided that nothing need be changed for another year or two. It was impossible even for a scrupulous conscience to make a youthful martyr of Raymond Mortimer. Not the most rabid New England brand could compass that, and certainly Raymond Mortimer Prescott, Sr., had no such possession. The housekeeper, Miss Greene, a former trained nurse who had charge of the boy in infancy, looked after his clothes and his meals. Notwithstanding his steadfast elusiveness, she had also succeeded in making him master of extremely elementary knowledge of letters and figures. Beyond this he was arrogantly ignorant, even to the point of being ignorant of his ignorance. He had his dogs, his rods and tackle, his tool-house, unlimited fresh air, sunshine, and perfect health; in addition he had Lily Bell.
How long he may have enjoyed the pleasure of this young person's company unobserved by his elders is a matter of surmise; it may well have been a long time, for family curiosity never concerned itself with Raymond Mortimer unless he was annoyingly obtrusive or disobedient. But the first domestic records of her arrival, kept naturally enough by Miss Greene, whose lonely spinster heart was the boy's domestic refuge, went back to a day in June when he was five. He was in his nursery and she in an adjoining room, the communicating door of which was open. She had heard him in the nursery talking to himself, as she supposed, for a long time. At last his voice took on a note of childish irritation, and she distinctly heard his words.
"But it won't be right that way," he was saying, earnestly. "Don't you see it won't be right that way? There won't be nothing to hold up the top."
There was a long silence, in the midst of which Miss Greene stole cautiously to the nursery door and looked in. The boy was on his knees on the floor, an ambitious structure of blocks before him, which he had evidently drawn back to contemplate. His eyes were turned from it, however, and his head was bent a little to the left. He wore a look of great attention and annoyance. He seemed to be listening to a prolonged argument.
"All right," he said, at last. "I'll do it. But it ain't right, and you'll be sorry when you see it fall." He hurriedly rearranged the block structure, adding to the tremulously soaring tower on the left side. True to his prediction, it fell with a crash, destroying other parts of the edifice in its downfall. The boy turned on his unseen companion a face in which triumph and disgust were equally blended. "There, now!" he taunted; "didn't I tell you so, Lily Bell? But you never will b'lieve what I say—jes like girls!"
Miss Greene hurriedly withdrew, lifting to the ceiling eyes of awed surprise. For some reason which she was subsequently unable to explain, she asked the boy no questions; but she watched him more closely after this, and discovered that, however remote the date of Miss Bell's first appearance, she was now firmly established as a daily guest—an honored one whose influence, though mild, was almost boundless, and whose gentle behests were usually unhesitatingly obeyed. Occasionally, as in the instance of the blocks, Raymond Mortimer combated them; once or twice he disobeyed them. But on the second of these occasions he drooped mournfully through the day, bearing the look of one adrift in the universe; and the observant Miss Greene noted that the following day was a strenuous one, occupied with eager fulfilment of the unexpressed wishes of Lily Bell, who had evidently returned to his side. Again and again the child did things he most obviously would have preferred not to do. The housekeeper looked on with deep but silent interest until she heard him say, for perhaps the tenth time, "Well, I don't like it, but I will if you really want me to." Then she spoke, but so casually that the boy, absorbed in his play, felt nothing unusual in the question.
"Whom are you talking to, Raymond?" she asked, as she rounded the heel of the stocking she was knitting. He replied abstractedly, without raising his eyes from the work he was doing.
"To Lily Bell," he said.
Miss Greene knitted in silence for a moment. Then, "Where is she?" she asked.
"Why, she's here!" said the child. "Right beside me!"
Miss Greene hesitated and took the plunge. "I don't see her," she remarked, still casually.
This time the boy raised his head and looked at her. There was in his face the slight impatience of one who deals with an inferior understanding.
"'Course you don't," he said, carelessly. "You can't. No one can't see Lily Bell but 'cept me."
Miss Greene felt snubbed, but persevered.
"She doesn't seem to be playing very nicely to-day," she hazarded.
He gave her a worried look.
"She isn't," he conceded, "not very. 'Most always she's very, very nice, but she's kind of cross to-day. I guess p'r'aps," he speculated, frankly, "you're 'sturbing her by talking so much."
Miss Greene accepted the subtle hint and remained silent. From that time, however, Raymond Mortimer counted on her acceptance of Lily Bell as a recognized personality, and referred to her freely.
"Lily Bell wants us to go on a picnic to-morrow," he announced, one day when he was six. "She says let's go on the island under the willow an' have egg-san'wiches an' ginger-ale for lunch."
Miss Greene carried out the programme cheerfully, for the child made singularly few requests. Thomas, the gardener, was to row them over, and Miss Greene, a stout person who moved with difficulty, seated herself in the stem of the boat with a sigh of relief, and drew Raymond Mortimer down beside her. He wriggled out of her grasp and struggled to his feet, his stout legs apart, his brown eyes determined.
"You can't sit there, please, Miss Greene," he said, almost austerely. "Lily Bell wants to sit there with me. You can take the other seat."
For once the good-natured Miss Greene rebelled.
"I'll do no such thing," she announced, firmly, "flopping round and upsetting the boat and perhaps drowning us all. You and your Lily Bell can sit together in the middle and let me be."
An expression of hope flitted across the child's face. "Will that do, Lily Bell?" he asked, eagerly. The reply was evidently unfavorable, for his jaw fell and he flushed. "She says it won't," he announced, miserably. "I'm awful sorry, Miss Greene, but we'll have to 'sturb you."
If Miss Lily Bell had been in the habit of making such demands, the housekeeper would have continued to rebel. As it was, she had grave doubts of the wisdom of establishing such a dangerous precedent as compliance with the absurd request. But Raymond Mortimer's distress was so genuine, and the pleasure of the picnic so obviously rested on her surrender, that she made it, albeit slowly and with groans and dismal predictions. The boy's face beamed as he thanked her.
"I was so 'fraid Lily Bell would be cross," he confided to her, as he sat sedately on his half of the stern-seat. "But she's all right, an' we're going to have a lovely time."
That prediction was justified by events, for the occasion was a brilliant one, and Lily Bell's share in it so persistent and convincing that at times Miss Greene actually found herself sharing in the delusion of the little girl's presence. Her good-natured yielding in the matter of the seat, moreover, had evidently commended her to Miss Bell's good graces, and that young person brought out the choicest assortment of her best manners to do honor to the grown-up guest.
"Lily Bell wants you to have this seat, Miss Greene, 'cause it's in the shade an' has a nice back," said Raymond, delightedly, almost as soon as they had reached the island; and Miss Greene flopped into it with a sigh of content in the realization that Miss Bell did not intend to usurp all the choice spots, as her persistence earlier in the day might possibly have suggested to a suspicious mind. There, alternately reading and dozing, she incidentally listened to the flow of conversation poured forth by her small charge, varied only by occasional offerings to her, usually suggested by Miss Bell and ranging from the minnow he had succeeded in catching with a worm and a bent pin to the choicest tidbits of the luncheon. There were two glasses for the ginger-ale. Miss Greene had one and Lily Bell the other. Raymond Mortimer gallantly drank from the bottle.
"Why don't you use Lily Bell's glass?" was Miss Greene's very natural inquiry. It would seem, indeed, that two such congenial souls would have welcomed the closer union this suggestion invited, but Raymond Mortimer promptly dispelled that illusion.
"She doesn't want to," he responded, gloomily.
In other details, however, Miss Lily Bell was of an engaging sweetness and of a yielding disposition of the utmost correctness. Again and again Raymond Mortimer succeeded in convincing her, by the force and eloquence of his arguments, of the superiority of his ideas on fort building, fishing, and other occupations which filled the day. Miss Greene's heart yearned over the boy as he came to her during the mid- day heat and cuddled down comfortably by her side, heavy-eyed and tired after his exertions.
"Where's Lily Bell?" she asked, brushing his damp hair off his forehead and wondering whether she was also privileged to enjoy the unseen presence of the guest of honor.
"She's back there under the tree takin' a nap," murmured the boy, drowsily, indicating the exact spot with a grimy little hand. "She tol' me to come an' stay with you for a while."
Miss Greene smiled, deeply touched by this sweet mingling of coyness and thoughtfulness on the maiden's part.
"What does Lily Bell call you?" she asked, with interest. The boy snuggled down on the grass beside her and rested his head comfortably in her lap.
"She knows my name's Raymond Mortimer," he said, sleepily, "but she calls me 'Bill' for short." Then, more sleepily, "I asked her to," he added. In another moment his eyelids had dropped and he too was in the Land of Nod, whither Lily Bell had happily preceded him.
During the next four years Miss Greene was privileged to spend many days in the society of Miss Lily Bell, and the acquaintance between them ripened into a pleasant friendship. To her great satisfaction she found Miss Bell's name one to conjure with in those moments of friction which are unavoidable in the relations of old and young.
"I don't think Lily Bell would like that," she began to say, tentatively, when differences of opinion as to his conduct came up between Raymond and herself. "I think she likes a gentlemanly boy."
Unless her young charge was in a very obstinate mood the reminder usually prevailed, and it was of immense value in overcoming the early prejudice of the small boy against soap and water.
"Isn't Lily Bell clean?" she had inquired one day when he was eight and the necessity of the daily tubbing was again being emphasized to him.
Raymond conceded that she was.
"When she first comes she is," he added. "'Course she gets dirty when we play. Why, sometimes she gets awful dirty!"
The excellent and wise woman saw her opportunity, and promptly grasped it.
"Ah," she exclaimed, "that's the point. I want you to start out clean and to go to bed clean. If you'll promise me to take a tub before you dress in the morning, and another before you go to bed at night, I don't care how dirty you get in the mean time."
This happy compromise effected, she was moved to ask more particularly how Miss Lily Bell looked. She recalled now that she had never heard her described. Raymond Mortimer, she discovered, was no better than the rest of his sex when it came to a description of feminine features and apparel, but on two points his testimony was absolute. Lily Bell had curls and she wore pantalettes. The last word was not in his vocabulary, and it was some time before he succeeded in conveying the correct impression to Miss Greene's mind.
"Don't you remember the little girls in mamma's old Godey books?" he asked, at last, very anxiously, seeing that his early imperfect description had led to an apparent oscillation of Miss Greene's imagination between the paper ruffle of a lamb-chop and a frilly sunbonnet. "They have slippers an' 'lastic bands an' scallopy funnels coming down under their skirts. Well"—this with a long-drawn sigh of relief as she beamed into acquiescence—"that's how Lily Bell looks!"
Long before this the family had accepted Lily Bell as a part of the domestic circle, finding her a fairly trustworthy and convenient playmate for the boy. Not always, of course; for it was very inconvenient to leave a vacant seat beside Raymond Mortimer when they went driving, but this had to be done or Raymond stayed at home rather than desert his cherished Lily. It was long before his father forgot the noble rebuke administered by his son on one occasion when the elder Prescott, thoughtlessly ignoring the presence of Miss Bell, sought to terminate the argument by sitting down by the boy's side. The shrieks of that youth, usually so self-contained, rent the ambient air.
"Father, father!" he howled, literally dancing up and down in his anguish, "you're sitting on Lily Bell!" Then, at the height of the uproar, he stopped short, an expression of overwhelming relief covering his face. "Oh no, you ain't, either," he cried, ecstatically. "She jumped out. But she won't go now, so neither will I"; and he promptly joined his imaginary playmate in the road. Pausing there, he gave his abashed parent a glance of indescribable reproach and a helpful hint on etiquette.
"Don't you know," he asked, stonily, "that gentlemen don't never sit on ladies?" Striding gloomily back to the house, presumably close by the side of the outraged maiden, he left his convulsed parent to survive as best he could the deprivation of their presence. This Mr. Prescott did with reluctance. He was beginning to find the society of his son and Lily Bell both interesting and exhilarating. He showed, in fact, a surprising understanding of and sympathy with "the love- affair," as he called it. "The poor little beggar had to have something," he said, indulgently, "and an imaginary play-mate is as safe as anything I know." Therefore he referred to Miss Bell respectfully in conversation with his son, and, save on the tragic occasion just chronicled, treated her with distinguished consideration.
His wife's acceptance of the situation was less felicitous. Mrs. Prescott, whose utter lack of a sense of humor had long saddened her domestic circle, suddenly felt the birth of one now that was even more saddening, and the cause of it was Lily Bell. She referred to that young person wholly without respect, and was convulsed by foolish laughter when her son soberly replied. The boy resented this attitude —first sullenly, then fiercely.
"She acts as if there wasn't really any Lily Bell," he confided to his father, in a moment of such emotion. "I don't think that's nice or p'lite, an' it hurts Lily Bell's feelings."
"That's bad," said the father, soberly. "We mustn't have that. I'll speak to your mother."
He did subsequently, and to such good effect that the expression of Mrs. Prescott's amusement was temporarily checked. But Raymond Mortimer's confidence was temporarily blighted, and he kept his little friend and his mother as far apart as possible. Rarely after that did Lily Bell seek the invalid's room with the boy, though she frequently accompanied him to his father's library when that gentleman was home and, presumably, listened with awe to their inspiring conversation. Mr. Prescott had begun to talk to his boy "as man to man," as he once put it, and the phrase had so delighted the boy, now ten, that his father freely gave him the innocent gratification of listening to it often. Moreover, it helped in certain conversations where questions of morals came up. As the small son of an irate father, Raymond Mortimer might not have been much impressed by the parental theory that watermelons must not be stolen from the patches of their only neighbor, a crusty old bachelor. As a man of the world, however, listening to the views of one wiser and more experienced, he was made to see that helping one's self to the melons of another is really not the sort of thing a decent chap can do. Lily Bell, too, held the elder man's opinion.
"She says she doesn't like it, either," the boy confided to his father with an admiring sigh. "She never would go with me, you know. My!"— this with a heavier sigh—"I'm 'fraid if I do all the things you an' Lily Bell want me to I'll be awful good!"
His father sought to reassure him on this point, but he himself was beginning to cherish a lurking fear of a different character. Was longer continuance of this dream companionship really wise? So far, if it had influenced the boy at all, it had been for good. But he was growing older; he was almost eleven. Was it not time that this imaginary child friend should be eliminated in favor of—of what? The father's mind came up against the question and recoiled, blankly. Not exercise, not outdoor pursuits, not pets, for Raymond Mortimer had all these and more. His little girl friend had not made him a milksop. He was an active, energetic, live, healthy-minded boy, with all a boy's normal interests. When he built kennels for his dogs and made hutches for his rabbits, Lily Bell stood by, it is true, but her friendly supervision but added to the vigor and excellence of his work. Indeed, Lily, despite her pantalettes, seemed to have a sporty vein in her. Still, the father reflected uneasily, it could lead to no good—this continued abnormal development of the imagination. For Lily Bell was as real to the boy at ten as she had been at six.
What could be done? With what entering wedge could one begin to dislodge this persistent presence? If one sent the boy away, Lily Bell, of course, would go, too. If one brought—if—one—brought—
Mr. Prescott jumped to his feet and slapped his knee with enthusiasm. He had solved his problem, and the solution was exceedingly simple. What, indeed, but another little girl! A real little girl, a flesh- and-blood little girl, a jolly, active little girl, who, as Mr. Prescott inelegantly put it to himself, "would make Lily Bell, with her ringlets and her pantalettes, look like thirty cents." Surely in the circle of their friends and relatives there must be a little girl who could be borrowed and introduced—oh, casually and with infinite tact!—into their menage for a few months. Mr. Prescott, well pleased with himself, winked a Machiavellian wink and sought his wife, ostensibly to consult her, but in reality to inform her that he had made up his mind, and that it would be her happy privilege to attend to the trivial details of carrying out his plan.
In exactly three weeks Margaret Hamilton Perry was established in the Prescott homestead for a visit of indefinite length, and in precisely three hours after her arrival Margaret Hamilton had annexed the Prescott homestead and its inmates and all the things appertaining thereto and made them her own. She was the most eager and adorable of small, fat girls—alive from the crown of her curly head to the soles of her sensible little spring-heeled shoes. As Mr. Prescott subsequently remarked in a moment of extreme self-appreciation, if she had been made to order she couldn't have filled the bill better. Born and bred in the city, the country was to her a mine of unexplored delights. The shyness of Raymond Mortimer, suddenly confronted by this new personality and the immediate need of entertaining it, gave way before the enthusiasm of the little girl over his pets, his favorite haunts, the works of his hands—everything in which he had a share. Clinging to his hand in a rapturous panic as they visited the animals, she expatiated on the privileges of those happy beings who lived always amid such delights.
"I wish I didn't ever have to go away again," she ended, wistfully.
"I wish you didn't, either," said Raymond, gallantly, and then was shocked at himself. Was this loyalty to Lily Bell? The reflection gave a tinge of coldness to his next utterance. When Margaret Hamilton, cheered by the tribute, asked, confidently, "May I play with you lots and help you to make things?" the boy's response lagged.
"Yes," he said, finally, "if Lily Bell will let you."
"Who's Lily Bell?"
"She—why, she's the girl I play with! Everybody knows Lily Bell!"
Some of the brightness was gone from the eager face.
"Will she like me?" she asked, at last.
"I don't know—I guess—p'r'aps so."
"Will I like her?"
"I don't know. You can't see her, you know."
"Can't see her? Why can't I see her? Doesn't she come here, ever?"
"Oh yes, she's here all the time, but—" The boy squirmed. For the first time in his short life he was—was he—ashamed of Lily Bell? No; not that. Never that! He held his small head high, and his lips set; but he was a boy, after all, and his voice, to cover the embarrassment, took on a tone of lofty superiority.
"Nobody ever does see her but me," he asserted. "They'd like to, but they don't."
"Why don't they?"
Verily, this was a persistent child. The boy was in for complete surrender, and he made it.
"She ain't a little girl like you," he explained, briefly. "She doesn't have any home, and I don't know where she comes from—heaven, maybe," he hazarded, desperately, as a sort of "When in doubt, play trumps." "But she comes, an' no one but me sees her, an' we play."
"Huh!" This without enthusiasm from Margaret Hamilton Perry. She eyed him remotely for a moment. Then, with an effort at understanding, she spoke again.
"I shouldn't think that would be very much fun," she said, candidly. "Just pretendin' there's a little girl when there ain't! I should think it would be lots nicer—" She hesitated, a sense of delicacy restraining her from making the point she so obviously had in mind.
"Anyhow," she added, handsomely, "I'll like her an' play with her if you do."
Raymond Mortimer was relieved but doubtful. Memories of the extreme contrariness of Lily Bell on occasion overcame him.
"If she'll let you," he repeated, doggedly.
Margaret Hamilton stared at him and her eyes grew big.
"Won't you let me, if she doesn't?" she gasped. "Why—why—" The situation overcame her. The big, brown eyes filled suddenly. A small gingham back rippling with fat sobs was presented to Raymond Mortimer. In him was born immediately man's antipathy to woman's tears.
"Oh, say," he begged, "don't cry; please don't." He approached the gingham back and touched it tentatively. "She will let you play with us," he urged. And then, moved to entire recklessness as the sobs continued, "I'll make her!" he promised. The gingham back stopped heaving; a wet face was turned toward him, and a rainbow arched their little heaven as Margaret Hamilton smiled. Her first triumph was complete.
It is to be regretted that Lily Bell did not at once lend herself to the fulfilment of this agreeable understanding. True, she appeared daily, as of yore, and Margaret Hamilton was permitted to enter her presence and join her games, but the exactions of Lily Bell became hourly more annoying. It was evident that Raymond Mortimer felt them as such, for his anguished blushes testified to the fact when he repeated them to the victim.
"She wants you to go away off and sit down, so's you can't hear what we're saying," he said to Margaret Hamilton one day. "I don't think it's very p'lite of her, but she says you must."
This brief criticism of Lily Bell, the first the boy had ever uttered, cheered the little girl in her exile. "Never mind," she said. "I don't care—much. I know it isn't your fault." For by this time she, too, was under the influence of the spell of convincing reality which Raymond Mortimer succeeded in throwing over his imaginary friend.
"She does things Ray wouldn't do," she once confided to Miss Greene. "I mean," hastily, as she suddenly realized her own words—"I mean she makes him think—he thinks she thinks—Oh, I don't know how to 'splain it to you!" And Margaret Hamilton hastily abandoned so complicated a problem. In reality she was meeting it with a wisdom far beyond her years. The boy was in the grip of an obsession. Margaret Hamilton would have been sadly puzzled by the words, but in her wise little head lay the idea they convey.
"He thinks she really is here, an' he thinks he's got to be nice to her because they're such ve-ry old fren's," she told herself. "But she isn't very nice lately, an' she makes him cross, so maybe by-an'-by he'll get tired an' make her act better; or maybe—"
But that last "maybe" was too daring to have a place even in the very furthest back part of a little girl's mind.
She lent herself with easy good-nature to Lily Bell's exactions. She had no fondness for that young person, and she let it be seen that she had none, but she was courteous, as to a fellow-guest.
"Pooh! I don't mind," was her usual comment on Miss Bell's behests; and this cheerful acceptance threw into strong relief the dark shadows of Lily Bell's perversity. Once or twice she proposed a holiday.
"Couldn't we go off somewhere, just by ourselves, for a picnic," she hazarded, one morning—"an' not ask Lily Bell?"
It was a bold suggestion, but the conduct of Miss Bell had been especially reprehensible the day before, and even the dauntless spirit of Margaret Hamilton was sore with the strife.
"Wouldn't you like a—a rest, too?" she added, insinuatingly. Apparently the boy would, for without comment he made the preparations for the day, and soon he and the child were seated side by side in the boat in which the old gardener rowed them over to their beloved island.
It was a perfect day. Nothing was said about Lily Bell, and her presence threw no cloud on those hours of sunshine. Seated adoringly by the boy's side, Margaret Hamilton became initiated into the mysteries of bait and fishing, and the lad's respect for his companion increased visibly when he discovered that she could not only bait his hooks for him, but could string the fish, lay the festive board for luncheon, and set it forth. This was a playmate worth while. Raymond Mortimer, long a slave to the exactions of Lily Bell, for whom he had thanklessly fetched and carried, relaxed easily into the comfort of man's more congenial sphere, and permitted himself to be waited on by woman.
In such and other ways the month of August passed. Margaret Hamilton, like the happy-hearted child she was, sang through the summer days and knitted more closely around her the hearts of her companions.
With the almost uncanny wisdom characteristic of her, she refrained from discussing Lily Bell with the other members of the family. Possibly she took her cue from Raymond Mortimer, who himself spoke of her less and less as the weeks passed; but quite probably it was part of an instinct which forbids one to discuss the failings of one's friends. Lily Bell was to Margaret Hamilton a blot on the boy's scutcheon. She would not point it out even to him, actively as her practical little soul revolted against his self-deception. Once, however, in a rare moment of candor, she unbosomed herself to Mr. Prescott.
"I don't like her very well," she said, referring, of course, to Lily Bell. "She's so silly! I hate to pretend an' pretend an' do things we don't want to do when we could have such good times just by ourselves."
She buried her nose in his waistcoat as she spoke and sniffed rather dismally. It had been a trying day. Lily Bell had been much en evidence, and her presence had weighed perceptibly upon the spirits of the two children.
"Can't you get rid of her?" suggested the man, shamelessly. "A real meat little girl like you ought to do away with a dream kid—an imaginary girl—don't you think?"
Margaret Hamilton raised her head and looked long into the eyes that looked back at her. The man nodded solemnly.
"I'd try if I were you," he said. "I'd try mighty hard. You don't want her around. She's spoiling everything. Besides," he added, half to himself, "it's time the boy got over his nonsense."
Margaret Hamilton reflected, her small face brightening.
"Are you very, very sure it wouldn't be wicked?" she asked, hopefully.
"Yep. Perfectly sure. Go in and win!"
Greatly cheered by this official sanction, Margaret Hamilton the following day made her second suggestion of a day a deux.
"All by ourselves," she repeated, firmly. "An' not Lily Bell, 'cos she'd spoil it. An' you row me to the island. Don't let's take Thomas."
This was distinctly wrong. The children were not allowed to take the boat save under Thomas's careful eye; but, as has been pointed out, Margaret Hamilton had her faults. Raymond Mortimer struggled weakly in the gulf of temptation, then succumbed and went under.
"All right," he said, largely, "I will. We'll have lunch, too, and p'r'aps I'll build a fire."
"We'll play we're cave-dwellers," contributed Margaret Hamilton, whose invention always exceeded his own, and whose imagination had recently been stimulated by Miss Greene, who occasionally read aloud to the children. "You hunt an' get the food an' bring it home, an' I'll cook it. You be the big, brave man an' I'll be your—your mate," she concluded, quoting freely from the latest interesting volume to which she had lent an ear.
The picture appealed to Raymond Mortimer. With a manly stride he approached the boat, helped her in, loosened it from its moorings, and cast off. His brow dark with care, he loftily ordered her to steer, and spoke no more until they had safely made their landing.
Alone on their desert island, the two children faithfully carried out the programme of the day. With dry branches gathered by his mate the intrepid male soon made a fire, and retreating hurriedly to a point comfortably distant from it, they gazed upon their work. Fishing and the cleaning and cooking of their catch filled the morning; and if, indeed, the cleaning is something the mind would mercifully pass over, those chiefly concerned were satisfied and ate with prodigious appetite.
"It's awful funny," said Raymond Mortimer, comfortably, as they reposed under a tree after their repast, "but when Lily Bell an' I used to come here—"
He stopped and gazed apprehensively behind him, as if fearful that the unbidden guest was even now within hearing. Apparently reassured, he resumed: "When Lily Bell an' I used to come we 'most always went to sleep after awhile. I—we—got kind of tired talking, I guess. But when you an' I talk I don't get tired."
Margaret Hamilton flushed with delight, but an excess of maidenly modesty overcame her at the same moment.
"Why don't you?" she inquired, coyly.
"'Cos I like you better."
Margaret Hamilton gasped, sputtered, looked around her. Everything was in its place; there had been no submarine upheaval. The boy was there and he had said this thing, the full meaning of which burst suddenly upon her. Rising to her feet, she hurled herself upon him with the impetuosity of her intense nature.
"Do you really?" she gasped and gurgled. "Do you? Oh, do you? Oh, Ray, I'm so glad!"
And she kissed him!
Disengaging himself with dignity from the clinging embrace of the maiden, the outraged youth rose to his feet.
"Don't you ever do that again, Margaret Hamilton Perry," he said, slowly, and with awful sternness. "Don't you ever. Lily Bell never, never did such a thing!"
She retreated, but unabashed.
"It's 'cause I was so glad," she said, happily. "Real girls always do; they're like that. But I won't any more. You like me best, just the same, don't you?" she inquired, anxiously.
He came cautiously nearer.
"Yes, I do," he said, coldly, "but don't you try that any more, or I won't!"
Then they talked of cave-dwellers, and of the pleasant warmth of an open-air fire on an August day, and of marvellous things they would do during the coming weeks. And the absorption of their conversation was such that when the faithful Thomas, having rowed after them, stealthily approached and smote the boy upon the back, they yelled in startled unison.
That no rancor lingered in the mind of Raymond Mortimer toward the too-demonstrative Margaret Hamilton was proved by the careless remark he made to his father when, some days later, that gentleman uttered a jocund inquiry as to the health of Lily Bell.
His son stared at him for an instant, as one who seeks to recall the snows of yester-year.
"Oh," he said, at last, "I haven't seen her for a long time. She doesn't come round now."
Then, as his father grinned widely over these melancholy tidings, the son flushed crimson.
"Well, I don't care," he said, hotly. "It's all your fault. Didn't you tell me I had to 'muse Margaret? Didn't you? Well—I am. I ain't got time for two. An', anyhow," he concluded, with Adamitic instinct, "Lily Bell stopped coming herself!"
The exorcism of Lily Bell was complete. Unlike more substantial Lily Bells of larger growth, she had known how to make her disappearance coincide with a wish to that effect on the part of her gentleman friend.
HER LAST DAY
For some time—possibly an hour or more—she sat perfectly still, staring at a wavering line made on the floor by a stray sunbeam which had forced its way through the window of her hotel sitting-room. At first she looked unseeingly, with the dull, introspective gaze of the melancholic. Then she began to notice the thing, and to fear it, and to watch for outlines of a quivering human face, and to tremble a little. Surely there had been a face—she thought vaguely, and puckered her brow in an effort to remember. It was half an hour before she realized what it was, and the passing of fifteen minutes more had been ticked off by a clock on the table near her when she lifted her glance enough to follow the beam along the floor, up the wall, to the pane where it had entered. She rose suddenly. It was long since she had made a consciously voluntary movement, and she knew this. She drew a deep breath as she stood up, and almost on the instant she experienced a life-giving sensation of poise and freedom. The weight fell from her feet, the blackness in which she had lived for weeks unwrapped itself from around her like a departing fog, her lax muscles tightened. She groped her way to the window and stood there for a moment, resting her cheek against the cool pane and gazing up at the sky. Presently her eyes dropped to the level of a distant water-line, and she saw the river and the trees that fringed its distant bank, and the swiftly moving boats on its surface.
She was better. She knew all that this meant, how much and how little. For an interval, long or short, as it should happen to be, she was again a rational human being. She abruptly swerved around from the window and swept the room with her eyes, recognizing it as the one she was occupying before she "went under," as she put it to herself, and trying, from association with the familiar objects around her, to form some idea of the length of this attack.
At the beginning of her breakdown the intervals between intelligent consciousness and insanity had been long. She was herself, or was able to keep herself fairly in hand, the greater part of the time, and chaos, when it came, lasted only for a few days or weeks. Recently this condition had been reversed. She had lost knowledge of time, but she felt that centuries must have passed since those last flying, blessed hours when she knew herself at least for what she was. She grasped now at her returning reason, with a desperate, shuddering little moan, which she quickly stifled. Some one must be near, she remembered, on guard: her nurse, or a hotel maid if the nurse was taking one of her infrequent outings. Whoever was in charge of her must be in the next room, for the door was open between the two. The nurse would welcome her return, the patient reflected. It was her habit—a singularly pathetic habit, the nurse had found it—to refer always to her attacks as "absences," and to temporary recovery as "returns."
She moved toward the open door and then stopped, feeling suddenly that she was not yet ready to talk to any one, even the nurse, for whom she had a casually friendly feeling based on dependence and continued association. She wished to think—dear God, to be able to think again!—and there seemed so much thinking to be done and so little time in which to do it. Her heart dropped a beat as she realized that. On how much time could she safely count, she wondered. A week? A few days? It had never been less than a week, until the last episode. She turned from the thought of that with a sick shudder, but memory dragged it up and ruthlessly held it before her—the hour, the moment, the very place she was sitting when it occurred. She had been talking to a friend, who unconsciously said something that annoyed and excited her. She saw now that friend's face growing dim before her eyes—at first puzzled, then frightened, then writhing and twisting into hideous shapes, she thought, until in her horror she had struck at it. She must not think of that, she knew, as she set her teeth and pulled herself up short. She had a will of extraordinary strength, her physicians and nurses had conceded, and she resolved that it should serve her now. With grim determination she pieced together the patches of memory left to her. She had had three days then—three short days. She dared not count on even that much respite now, though she might possibly have it and more. But one day—surely Providence would let her have one day—one last day. Her friends and the specialists had begun to talk of asylums. She had heard whispers of them before she succumbed to this last attack; and though her memory of what occurred in it was mercifully vague, she dimly recalled struggles and the shrieks of some one in agony—her own shrieks, she knew now, though she had not known it then. It all meant that she was getting worse and more "difficult." It all meant chronic invalidism, constant care, eventual confinement.
Her brain was now abnormally clear, supernaturally active. It worked with an eager deference, as if striving to atone for the periods when it failed her. The little clock struck ten. It was early—she had a long day before her, a beautiful spring day; for she noticed now the tender green of the leaves and the youth of the grass. How interesting it would be, she reflected, idly, to go out into the free, busy world and mingle with human beings, and walk the city streets and come into touch with life and the living. She would go, she would spend the day that way; but, alas! the nurse would go, too—cool, kind, professional, alert, quietly watchful. If she could in any way elude her and go alone. ...
Her eyes narrowed and took on a look of cunning as she turned them sidewise toward the open door. As stealthily as a cat she crept to it and looked in. On a divan in the farthest corner the nurse lay stretched in a deep sleep, whose unpremeditatedness was shown by the book which lay on the floor, dropped, evidently, from her suddenly relaxed fingers. The patient retreated as noiselessly as she had advanced, and, going to a mantel-mirror in her sitting-room, turned on her reflection there a long and frightened look. She saw a woman of thirty-five, thin, pale, haggard, high-bred. Her hair had been arranged in accordance with the nurse's conception of comfort and economy of time, and though her gown was perfect in its fit and tailor-made severity, the lace at her neck and in the sleeves of her silk waist was not wholly fresh. Her lips curled as she looked. This was she, Alice Stansbury, the wreck of a woman who had once had health and beauty and wealth and position. The last two were in a degree left to her, but what difference did it make how she looked, she asked herself, harshly. Even as the thought came, however, she took off her waist and sewed clean lace cuffs on the sleeves, replacing the collar with a fresh one. Then she took down her hair and rearranged it, rapidly but with care. It was a simple matter to change her slippers for walking-boots, and to find her hat and coat and gloves in their old places. Miss Manuel, the nurse, was reliable, she told herself again as she put them on, feeling a moment's gratitude to the woman for trying to keep her "up," even during her "absences," to something approaching the standard a gentlewoman's birth and breeding demanded. Her money, or at least a large part of it, for she did not stop to count it, she found in the despatch-box where she had put it on their arrival in New York, and the key was with others on a ring in the private drawer of her writing-desk. Hurriedly she selected several large bills and put them into a silver purse, pressing it deep into the pocket of her walking-skirt with some vague fear that she might lose it. Then she replaced the box and locked the desk, dropping the key in her pocket. Her movements were extraordinarily swift and noiseless. In twenty minutes from the time she had looked in on the nurse she was ready for the street.
A second glance into the inner room showed her that Miss Manuel was still sleeping. She regarded her distrustfully for an instant, and on a sudden impulse sat down at her desk and wrote a message on a sheet of the hotel paper.
"I am going out for the day. I will return to-night. Do nothing, consult no one. I am quite able to take care of myself. Don't make a sensation for the newspapers! ALICE STANSBURY."
"That last sentence will quiet her," she reflected, with cool satisfaction, as she pinned the note to the side of the mirror. "She won't care to advertise far and wide that she has temporarily mislaid a patient!"
The most difficult thing of all remained to be done. The outer door of her own room was locked and the key was missing. To leave the apartment she must pass through the room where Miss Manuel lay asleep. She held her breath, but crossed in safety, though Miss Manuel stirred and murmured something, as if subconsciously warned of danger. Miss Stansbury closed the door noiselessly behind her and stood silent for a moment in the hall, glancing about her and planning the wisest method of getting away. She knew better than to enter any of the hotel elevators. While there was no certainty that she would be detained if she did, there had been a great deal of interest in her when she arrived at the hotel, and there was every chance that some employe might think it a wise precaution to ask her nurse a question or two after she departed. Then Miss Manuel would be hot upon her trail, and her day would be spoiled. She crept cautiously along the rear halls, keeping out of sight on each floor when the elevators were passing, and meeting only strangers and one preoccupied porter. Her rooms were on the fifth floor, but she descended the four flights of stairs in safety, and, going triumphantly out of the rear entrance of the hotel, found herself in the quiet street on which it opened. The great building was on a corner, and as she crossed its threshold she saw a trolley-car passing along the avenue at her right. On a quick impulse she signalled. When it stopped she entered and seated herself in a corner, surveying her fellow-passengers with seeming unconcern, though her breath came fast. She was safe; she was off! She decided to ride on until she made her plans and knew in more detail what should be done with this gift of the gods, a day that was all her own.
It had been a long time since she had been alone, she suddenly remembered. There had been outings, of course, and shopping expeditions and the like, but always Miss Manuel or one of her kind had been at her elbow—sometimes professionally cheerful, sometimes professionally grave, but at all times professionally watchful. The woman exulted fiercely in her new-found liberty. She had hours before her—free, glorious hours. She would use them, fill them, squander them in a prodigal spending, following every impulse, indulging every desire, for they were hers and they were her last. In the depths of her brain lay a resolution as silent, as deadly, as a coiled serpent waiting to strike. She would enter no asylums, she would endure no more "absences," she would have no more supervision, no more consultations, no more half-concealed fear of friends, no more pity from strangers. There was a way of escaping all this forever, and she knew it and would take it, though it led across the dim threshold over which she could never return.
The car hummed as it sped along. At a distance she saw an entrance to Central Park, and from the inside the branches of trees seemed to wave a salute to her in honor of her freedom. She signalled to the conductor and left the car, retracing her steps until she entered the Park. She was far up-town, near the northern end of it, and the paths, warm in the spring sunshine, were almost deserted. For a while she strolled idly about, her senses revelling in the freshness and beauty around her, in the green vistas that opened to right and left, and the soft breeze that fanned her face. Children, riding tricycles or rolling hoops, raced past her; and once, after she had walked almost an hour, a small boy of four slipped his hand into her gloved one and trotted beside her for a moment, to the open scandal of his nurse. She smiled down at him, pleased by the touch of his little fingers. When he left, as abruptly as he had joined her, and in response to a stentorian Irish summons from the rear, she felt a rather surprising degree of regret. The momentary contact had given her a pleasant sense of companionship; for the first time it came to her that it would be better to have a sharer of this day of days—no hireling, no scientific-eyed caretaker, but a little child or a friend, some one, any one, whom she liked and who liked her, and who, like the little boy, did not know the truth about her.
Her spirits dropped as suddenly as they had risen, and she felt tired and disappointed. Almost unconsciously she dropped on a bench to rest, her eyes still following the figure of the child, now almost out of sight around a distant bend. The bench was off the path, and she had been too preoccupied when she sat down to notice that it had another occupant; but as the figure of her little friend vanished and she turned her eyes away with a sigh, she found herself looking into those of a man. He was very young, hardly more than a boy, and he occupied the far end of the seat, one arm thrown across the back of it, his knees crossed, and his body so turned that he faced her. The thing she saw in his eyes held her own fastened to them, at first in surprise, then in sudden comprehension. It was hunger. With a long look she took him in—the pinched pallor of his smooth, handsome young face, the feverish brightness of his gray eyes, the shabbiness of his well-made, well-fitting clothes, even the rent in the side of one of his patent- leather shoes. His linen was clean, and his cuffs were fastened with cheap black links; she reflected instinctively that he had pawned those whose place they obviously filled, and then her mind returned at once to her first discovery, that he was hungry. There was no mistaking it. She had never seen hunger in a face before, but she recognized it now. He had taken off his hat and dropped it on the bench beside him. His brown hair was short and wavy, and one lock on his left temple was white. He had been writing a note, or possibly an advertisement for work, with a stub of lead-pencil on a scrap of paper resting on his knee, and now he suddenly raised his eyes—either in an abstracted search for the right word or because her appearance had startled him.
Without hesitation she spoke to him.
"Pardon me," she said, impersonally. "May I ask you some questions?"
He looked at her, and the understanding of his situation revealed in her glance brought the blood to his face. He straightened himself, his lips parting for a reply, but she gave him no time to speak.
"I am a stranger here," she continued, "and New York is not always kind to strangers. You seem to be unhappy, too. I wonder if we cannot help each other."
He smiled with an unyouthful bitterness.
"I'm afraid I'm not much use—to myself or any one else," he answered, with hard deliberation. Then his face underwent a change as he looked at hers and read in it, inexperienced as he was, some of the tragic writing of Fate's inexorable hand. His voice showed his altered mood.
"Of course," he added, quickly, "if there's really anything I can do. I know the town well enough. Perhaps I can help you if you want to get anywhere. What is it you would like?"
Her face, under the sudden idea which came to her, could hardly be said to brighten, but it changed, becoming less of a mask, more human. She felt a thrill of unaccustomed interest, less in him than in the plan which he unconsciously suggested. Here at last was something to do. Here was a companion who did not know her. He was watching her closely now, and it came to him for the first time, with a sense of surprise, that this strange woman who had spoken to him was not old, and was even attractive.
"I think you can help me, if you will," she went on, quietly. "As I have said, I am a stranger in New York. I have never seen anything of it except the streets I passed through this morning between the Park and my hotel. But I've always wanted to see it, and to-day is my first and only opportunity, for I am going away to-night."
He surveyed her thoughtfully. The shadow had returned to his face, and it was plain that under his air of courteous interest stirred the self-despair she had surprised in her first look at him.
"Of course I can make out a sight-seer's list for you," he said, when she stopped, "and I will, with pleasure. I think you'd better drop into the Metropolitan Art Galleries while you're in the Park. I'll write the other places in their street order going down-town, so you won't waste time doubling on your tracks. Have you a bit of paper?"
He began to fumble in his own pockets as he spoke, but vaguely, as one who knows the search is vain. She shook her head.
"No," she told him, "and I don't want one. That isn't my idea at all— a list of places to look up all alone and a dismal round of dreary sight-seeing. What I would like"—she smiled almost demurely—"is a 'personally conducted' tour. Are you very busy?"
He flushed again and looked at her, this time with a veiled suspicion in his glance. She met it with such calm appreciation that it changed to one of surprised doubt. She knew perfectly what was passing in his mind, and it caused her no more concern than the puzzled silence of a child who has heard a new word. She went on as complacently as if he were the little boy who had walked beside her a few moments before.
"In Paris and London," she remarked, "one can engage a guide, a gentleman, for a day at a fixed price. Probably there are such guides here in New York, if I knew where they were to be found and had the time to look for them. You are much younger than I am. You might almost be my son! Moreover, you will not mind my saying that I fancied you were unemployed and possibly were looking for employment. You can hardly help seeing the definite connection in all this."
His eyes met hers for a moment and then dropped. He blushed boyishly.
"I see you're trying to help me," he murmured, apologetically.
She went on as if she had not heard him.
"Let me employ you for the day. I need amusement, interest, occupation—more than you can imagine. I am in the same mood, as far as desolation and discouragement go, that you are in. I must be about, seeing people and diverting my mind. We can each supply the other with one thing that we need. I have money. To earn a little of that professionally, by a humane service, should really appeal to you."
Something in her voice as she uttered the last words made him turn toward her again. As he looked, his young face softened. She waited in silence for what he would say.
He sat up and straightened his shoulders with a quick gesture.
"You are right," he said, "but I'm awfully afraid you'll get the worst of it. I'm not an ornamental escort for a lady, as you see." He looked at his broken shoe, and then at her. Her expression showed entire indifference to the point he had raised.
"We will consider it settled," she said. "You will take my purse and pay our joint expenses. I think," she went on, as she handed it to him, "we'll omit the Metropolitan. After miles of the Louvre and the Luxembourg and the Vatican, I don't seem to crave miles of that. Suppose we take a cab and drive round. I want to see the streets, and the crowds, and the different types of men and women, and the slums. I used to be interested in Settlement work, long ago."
"Pardon me," he said. "You have won your case. I will serve you to the best of my ability. But as a preliminary I insist on counting the money in this purse, and on your seeing that my accounts are all right."
"Do as you like about that," she replied, indifferently, but her glance rested on him with a glint of approval.
He deliberately counted the bills. "There are three hundred and forty dollars," he said, replacing them.
She nodded absently. She had sunk into a momentary reverie, from which he did not arouse her until she suddenly looked at her watch. "Why, it's after twelve!" she exclaimed, with more animation than she had yet shown. "We'll go to Delmonico's or Sherry's for luncheon, and make our programme while we're there."
He started, and leaned forward, fixing his eyes on her, but she did not meet them. She replaced her watch in her belt with a successful assumption of abstraction, but she was full of doubt as to how he would take this first proposition. The next instant the bench trembled under the force with which he had dropped back on it.
"God!" he cried, hoarsely, "it's all a put-up job to feed me because you suspect I'm hungry! No, you don't even suspect—you know I'm hungry!"
She put her hand on his arm, and the gesture silenced him.
"Be quiet," she said. "Suppose you are hungry? What of it? Is it a disgrace to be hungry? Men and women deliberately cultivate the condition! Come," she ended, as she rose abruptly, "keep to your bargain. We both need our luncheon."
He replaced the purse in the inside-pocket of his coat, and rose. They walked a few moments without a word. She noticed how well he carried himself and how muscular and athletic his figure appeared even in its shabby clothes. As they strolled toward the nearest exit she talked of the Park, and asked him a few matter-of-fact questions, to which he replied with growing animation. "I can't give you figures and statistics, I'm afraid," he added, smiling.
She shook her head. "It would be sad if you could," she said. "Give me anything but information. As for statistics, I've a constitutional distaste for them. Where can we find a cab?"
"We won't find a cab," he explained, with an authoritative independence which somehow appealed to her. "We'll take this trolley- car and ride to within a short walk of Delmonico's. After luncheon we'll find cabs at every turn."
He helped her into a car as he spoke, and paid their fare from her purse, flushing as he had to change a five-dollar note to do so. The simple act emphasized for him, as no words could have done, his peculiar relation to this strange woman, whom he had never seen until half an hour ago. Balancing the purse in his hand, he glanced at her, taking in almost unconsciously the tragic droop of her lips, the prematurely gray locks in her dark hair, and the unchanging gloom of her brown eyes.
"How do you know I won't drop off the car at some corner and abscond with this?" he asked, in a low voice.
She looked at him calmly.
"I think I know you will not. But if you did it would hurt me."
"Would it spoil your day?"
"Yes," she conceded, "it would spoil my day."
"Well," he announced, judiciously, "you shall not have to reproach me with anything of that kind. Your day shall be a success if I can make it so."
His manner was more than gentle. His mood was one of gratitude and pleasant expectation. He was getting to know her and was sorry for her—possibly because she trusted him and was sorry for him. She was not the companion he would have chosen for a day's outing, and it was doubtful if she would be any too cheerful; but he would serve her loyally, wherever this queer adventure led, and he was young enough to appreciate its possibilities. Inwardly she was amused by his little affectation of experience, of ripe age addressing youth, but it was so unconsciously done, so unconquerably youthful, that it added to the interest he had aroused in her. She liked, too, his freshness and boyish beauty, and his habit of asserting his sense of honor above everything. Above all things, she liked his ignorance of her. To him, she was merely a woman like other women; there was a satisfaction to her in that thought as deep as it was indescribable. The only other occupants of the car were a messenger-boy, lost to his surroundings in a paper-covered novel, and a commercial traveller whose brow was corrugated by mental strain over a notebook.