Miss Gibbie Gault
by Kate Langley Bosher Author of "Mary Cary," etc.
With Frontispiece By Harriet Roosevelt Richards
To My Husband
Chap. I. The Guild of Gossips II. The Views of Miss Gibbie III. Apple-Blossom Land IV. The Council Chamber V. In Which Mary Cary Speaks VI. Midnight VII. Peggy VIII. Peggy's Party IX. John Maxwell and Mary Cary X. The Forgotten Engagement XI. A Day of Entertainment XII. The Bargain XIII. A Grateful Convalescent XIV. A Morning Talk XV. Buzzie XVI. Men and Husbands XVII. In Which Mary Cary is Puzzled XVIII. Pictures in the Fire XIX. The Testimony Party XX. A Sudden Change XXI. The Release XXII. The News XXIII. The Guild Again XXIV. The Piece of Paper XXV. The Conclusion of a Matter XXVI. The Surrender XXVII. A Tie That Binds
MISS GIBBIE GAULT
THE GUILD OF GOSSIPS
The Needlework Guild, which met every Thursday at eleven o'clock, on this particular Thursday was meeting with Mrs. Tate. It was the last meeting before adjournment for the summer, and though Mrs. Pryor, the president, had personally requested a large attendance, the attendance was small. In consequence, Mrs. Pryor was displeased.
"Mercy, but it's warm in here," said Mrs. Tate, going to a window and opening wide its shutters. "I had no idea it would be as hot as this to-day, though you can nearly always look for heat in May." She slapped her hands together in an attempt to kill a fly that was following her, then stood a moment at the window looking up and down the street.
"Wish to goodness I could have one of those electric fans like Miss Gibbie Gault's got," she went on, coming back to her seat and wiping her face with Mrs. Webb's handkerchief, which happened to be closest to her; "but wishing and getting are not on speaking terms in our house. Have any of you seen Miss Gibbie's new hat?"
"I have." Mrs. Moon took up the large braidbound palm-leaf fan lying on the chair next to her and began to use it in leisurely, rhythmic strokes. "She has five others exactly like it. She says she would have ordered ten, but when a person has passed the sixty-fifth birthday the chances are against ten being used, and six years ahead are sufficient provision for hats. Five of them are put away in camphor."
"Imagine ordering hats for years ahead just to save trouble! I'm thankful to have one for immediate use." Mrs. Corbin put down the work on which she had not been sewing and folded her arms. "Miss Gibbie may be queer, but there's a lot of sense in deciding on a certain style and sticking to it. Fashions come and fashions go, but never is she bothered. Just think of the peace of mind sacrificed to clothes!"
"Who but Miss Gibbie would wear the same kind year after year, year after year?" said Mrs. Pryor, who alone was industriously sewing. "But that's Gibbie Gault. From the time she was born she has snapped her fingers at other people, and, if it's possible to do a thing differently from the way others do it, she will do it that way or—"
"Make them do it. I never will forget the day she marched Beth's boys through the streets and locked them up in her house." Mrs. Tate pointed her needle, which had been unthreaded all the morning, at Mrs. Moon. "Funniest thing I ever saw. Remember it, Beth?"
"Remember? I should think I did." Mrs. Moon smiled quietly. "I have long seen the funny side, but it took me long to see it. Nobody but Miss Gibbie would have done it."
"Please tell me about it, Mrs. Moon," said Mrs. Burnham, who was still something of a stranger in Yorkburg. "Every now and then I hear references to Miss Gibbie Gault's graveyard, and to the way she once got ahead of your boys, and I've often wanted to ask about it. Is there really a graveyard at Tree Hill, and is the gate bricked up so that no one can get in?"
"It certainly is." Mrs. Moon laughed. There isn't very much to tell. Everybody knows about the old Bloodgood graveyard at Tree Hill in which Miss Gibbie's parents and grandparents and great-grandparents are buried. Her mother was a Bloodgood; and everybody knows, also, that since the Yankee soldier, who died during the war at Judge Gault's house, was buried there the gate has been bricked up and nobody has ever been inside but Miss Gibbie and Jackson who cuts the grass."
"But how does she get in?" Mrs. Burnham's voice was puzzled inquiry. "If there's no gate, how—
"She climbs up a ladder on the outside of the wall, which is eight feet high and two feet thick, and down another which is inside," interrupted Mrs. Tate, to whom the question had not been asked. "I wish to goodness I had been there the day she nabbed your boys, Beth. I don't wonder they were scared."
"They were certainly scared." Mrs. Moon wiped her lips and smiled reminiscently. "My boys followed her one day, Mrs. Burnham, and the result was one of the most ridiculous sights ever seen in Yorkburg.
"After finishing what she had to do that day, Miss Gibbie climbed up the ladder she keeps inside and started to get on the one outside, and there was none to get on. The boys had taken her ladder and hidden it, and they themselves were hiding behind an oak-tree some little distance off.
"At first they doubled up with laughter when they saw Miss Gibbie straddling the top of the wall, unable to get down either way; but suddenly, Richard said, she balanced herself on the top of the wall and sat there with her feet hanging over as if going to spend the day, and then in a flash she was down on the ground.
"Half a minute later she had each of them by the arm. Dick said his feet were dead feet, he couldn't budge. Neither could Frederick. The sudden jump had paralyzed them.
"'Moon boys!' she said—'Moon boys! Fine fun, wasn't it? Well, let's go home and have some more fun,' and down the hill she marched them and on into town. All the length of King Street they went, then into St. Mary's Road, then Fitzhugh Street, and back into King, and finally into her home in Pelham Place.
"All the time nothing had been said. Everybody who had seen them had stopped and stared, and some of the boys had started to follow, but Miss Gibbie had nodded her head backward, and a nod was enough. When they got in the house she took them up-stairs to a big bedroom and told them to sit down and cool off; then she locked the door and left them.
"Five hours later the door was opened and dinner was brought in. It was a good dinner, and the boys ate it, every bit of it, and, feeling better, were beginning to look around for means of escape, when in walked Miss Gibbie with two white things in her hand.
"'Didn't we have lots of fun this morning?' she said. 'Awful lot of fun to see a lady play Humpty-Dumpty. Pity nobody else could see. When people look funny everybody ought to see.' And Frederick said, as she didn't seem mad a bit, he thought she was going to tell them to run on home, when she turned to the dining-room servant, who had come in with her, and flung out two big old-fashioned nightgowns of her own. 'Here, Hampton, help these boys take off their hot clothes and put on something cool,' she said, and she made Hampton undress them and put on her gowns, and then sent them flying home."
Miss Matoaca Brockenborough threw back her head and laughed heartily. "I can see them now, as they came running down the street. They were trying to hold their white robes up in front, but behind they were trailing in the dust, and following them were boys and dogs and goats and girls, and I stood still, like all the other grown people, to see what was the matter. I laughed till I cried. Frederick stumbled at every other step, and Dick got his feet so tangled that he fell flat twice. If old Admiral Bloodgood's ghost had been chasing them, they couldn't have run faster. Nobody but Miss Gibbie would have dressed them up that way."
"And nobody but Miss Gibbie would have come back at me as she did when I told her how uneasy I had been by the boys' absence at dinner," said Mrs. Moon, who had moved nearer the window. "It was twelve years ago, but I have never forgotten what she said or the way she said it. I can see her now." Mrs. Moon sat upright. "'My dear Madam,' she said, 'my dear Madam, you will have cause not only for uneasiness, but for shame and sorrow, if you don't let your boys understand early in life that disrespect to ladies means disaster later on.'"
"That's true; but a lot of true things aren't nice to have on your mind. Don't you all think it's awful hot in here? I do," and again Mrs. Tate got up and walked across the room, this time throwing wide the shutters and letting in a glare of sunshine. "If I'd known it was going to be as warm as this I would have made some lemonade. There goes Mary Cary!" and, looking up, the ladies saw her smile and nod and shake her fan at some one who was passing.
"Is she riding?" asked Mrs. Webb, threading the needle held closely to her eyes—"or walking?"
"Riding, and without a piece of hat. That little Peggy McDougal is with her, holding a green parasol over both."
"Mary Cary will ruin that child," said Mrs. Pryor. "She is constantly taking her about and giving her things. But Mary, of course, does as she pleases. She always has and always will."
"She pleases a lot of people besides herself, and I always did say if you could do that you certainly ought to, for there are so few that can. But I don't think Mary gives herself a thought. Did you all know the night-school teacher is going to leave?" and Mrs. Tate put down her fan long enough to again wipe her face with Mrs. Webb's handkerchief. "Mary is so sorry about it, but, of course, she can't help it."
"I believe she can help it." Mrs. Pryor looked around the room as if for confirmation. "Everybody knows the reason he's going. I believe any girl can keep a man from falling in love with her if she wants to. The trouble with Mary is she doesn't want to. There are my girls. You don't catch them encouraging attentions they don't want."
Mrs. Moon's foot pressed Mrs. Corbin's. Miss Matoaca Brockenborough's elbow nudged Mrs. Tazewell, but no one spoke, and Mrs. Pryor went on: "But Mary Cary has been a law unto herself from childhood, and, now she is back in Yorkburg, she thinks she can keep it up, can live her life independently of others, can do her own way, come and go as she pleases, and not be criticized. Yorkburg isn't used to having a young woman livein a house alone, except for a white servant whom nobody knows anything about."
"She's got three servants," chimed Mrs. Tate. "Ephraim and Kezia both live with her."
"I wasn't speaking of colored servants." Again Mrs. Pryor waved her fan as if for silence. "Besides, they have their quarters outside, and both are old. Out West people may do the things she is doing, but in Virginia we are different. We—"
"Oh, we're nothing of the kind, Lizzie," and Mrs. Webb laid her sewing in her lap. "Yorkburg is like all the rest of the world, as we would know if we went about more. The trouble is, we think we are the world."
"I don't see why Mary Cary shouldn't live in the way she wants to," said Mrs. Corbin. "We live to suit ourselves, and why shouldn't she? Heaven knows she's done enough for Yorkburg since she came back. I think she was mighty good to come and live in a quiet little town like this, when she could live almost anywhere she wants. And think of the money she spends here!"
"That is just it! Where does all that money come from? Only yesterday she chartered the /General Maury/ to take the orphan children on an all-day picnic to Wayne Beach on the fourteenth of this month, and all at her expense. It takes money to do things of this kind. She says she is not rich. Where does the money come from?"
Mrs. Pryor tapped the table on which her hands had rested and looked around with an answer-that-now-if-you-can air, and several started to answer. Mrs. Burnham's voice was clearest, however, and as she spoke those in front turned to hear her.
"We don't know where it comes from," she said, courageously, though her face flushed, "and I am not sure that it is required of us to know. If Miss Cary prefers not to discuss her money matters, we have no right to inquire into them. I have not been here very long, and I don't know Yorkburg as well as the people who were born here, but if more of us took interest in the things she—"
"In Yorkburg, Mrs. Burnham, women are not supposed to take interest in what are conceded to be the affairs of men."
Mrs. Pryor was withering in her disapproval, and this time Mrs. Corbin touched Miss Matoaca's foot. "I suppose you allude to the streets of Yorkburg, the schools, and library—and some other things. All these Western and Northern ideas which Mary Cary has brought back are very distasteful to the Virginians of historic ancestry. We have gotten on very well for many centuries without women meddling in men's matters. I have good authority for what I say. It is unscriptural. St. Paul says, let the women keep silent and learn of their husbands at home!"
The door behind Mrs. Pryor's back had opened while she was talking, and Miss Gibbie Gault, listening with her hand on the knob, tilted her chin and screwed up her left eye so tightly that it seemed but a little round hole, and at sight of it some of the ladies brightened visibly, while others fidgeted in nervous apprehension of what might come.
Miss Gibbie came farther in the room, laid her bag and turkey-wing fan on the table over which Mrs. Pryor was presiding, and, without a good-morning to the others, took her seat and began the pulling-off of her white cotton gloves.
"What's all this nonsense about St. Paul and women, Lizzie?" she began, laying the gloves by the bag and taking up the fan. "I heard that last remark, but Mr. Pryor didn't. Do you ever tell Mr. Pryor about St. Paul's opinions? I hope, some of these eternal times, I am going to know St. Paul. His epistles don't speak of a wife, but I've always imagined he had one, and of the kind who didn't agree with you, Lizzie, that women should keep silent and learn of their husbands at home— like you learn of yours."
The white ribbon strings which tied Miss Gibbie's broad-brimmed white straw hat under her chin were unfastened and thrown back over her shoulders, the sprig muslin skirt was spread out carefully, and the turkey-wing fan lifted from her lap, but for a moment Mrs. Pryor did not speak.
Her face, not given to flushing, had colored at Miss Gibbie's words. She pressed her lips firmly together and looked around the room as if asking for Christian forbearance for so irreverent a speech as had just been heard; then she rose.
"I do not care to discuss St. Paul. When a woman sits in judgment upon one of the disciples of the Lord—"
"Don't get your Biblical history mixed, Lizzie. St. Paul was not one of the twelve. He was an apostle, a writer of epistles. I admire him, but, from his assertions concerning women, he must have had some in his family who gave him trouble. Whenever you hear a man in public insisting on keeping women in their place, keeping them down and under, not letting them do this or letting them do that, you may be certain he is a managed man. But if you won't discuss St. Paul with a sinner such as I, we willgo back to the person you were discussing, and I will discuss her with Christians such as you. Who was it? If it wasn't Mary Cary I will give ten dollars to your heathen fund." She looked around the room and then at Mrs. Webb. "Was it Mary Cary, Virginia?"
Mrs. Webb, biting a strand of cotton held at arm's-length from the spool, nodded, then threaded her needle.
"Yes, we were talking about her work here in Yorkburg, and Mrs. Pryor was telling us she had engaged the /General Maury/ to take the orphan children to Wayne Beach on the fourteenth, and—"
"Lizzie wanted to know where the money was coming from? For a Christian woman, Lizzie, your curiosity in money matters is unrighteous. If money is honestly come by, what business is it of ours how it is spent?"
"Why doesn't she tell how it is come by?" Mrs. Pryor's voice was high and sharp. "Mary Cary has been back in Yorkburg seven months—"
"Seven months and two weeks," corrected Mrs. Tate, pointing her unthreaded needle at Mrs. Pryor.
"She was a penniless orphan until thirteen"—the interruption was ignored—"and, so far as we've heard, she has never had a fortune left her, and yet after nine years' absence she comes back, has a beautiful home, a horse, and a runabout, keeps three servants, gives to everything, spends freely, and never tells how she gets the money."
"And that's something good people will never forgive, will they, Lizzie?"
Miss Gibbie Gault leaned forward and tapped the table on which Mrs. Pryor's hands were resting with the tip of the turkey-wing fan. "Though one feeds the hungry and clothes the naked, brings cleanliness out of dirt, and gladness where was dulness, makes flowers grow where were weeds, it profiteth nothing—if one's business is not told. Be honest, Lizzie. Isn't that so?"
Mrs. Moon glanced anxiously at the clock on the mantel just under the portrait of Mrs. Tate's great-grandfather, and hurriedly folded her work. She never came to a meeting of the Needlework Guild if she thought it likely Miss Gibbie would be there. But Miss Gibbie was even less regular than Miss Honoria Brockenborough, and her attendance to-day was evidently for a purpose. By herself Miss Gibbie was an Occasion, a visit to her was an experience that gave color and life to the dullest of days, and she did not deny her enjoyment of Miss Gibbie's comments on people and things. But Mrs. Pryor and Miss Gibbie together made an atmosphere too electrical for her peace-loving nature, and she was wondering if it were possible to get away when the door opened and Mrs. Tate's maid put her head inside.
"Mis' Pryor," she said, and her eyes seemed all whites, "somebody at the telephone say for you to come on home' that Mr. Pryor done took sick on the street and they've brung him in. Miss Lizzie Bettie say to come on quick."
Every woman turned in her seat. From some came exclamations of frightened sympathy. From others a movement to rise, as if the summons had come to them, but Mrs. Pryor waved them back.
"I don't think it is anything serious," she said, bluntly. "I can't even go to a meeting in peace. Lizzie Bettie is so excitable. Mr. Pryor has been having attacks of indigestion for months. He ate sausage this morning for breakfast. He knows he can't eat sausage."
THE VIEWS OF MISS GIBBIE
Miss Gibbie's carriage was at the gate, and before the others know what to say she conducted Mrs. Pryor out of the room, put her in the carriage herself, and gave the order to Jackson to drive her home. "Tell Maria to telephone me here in half an hour how William is," she called, "and if you need me let me know," then went back into the house where all were talking at once.
"Do you reckon he is really ill, Miss Gibbie?" inquired Mrs. Webb, and "he's so uncomplaining they might not know he was ill," said Mrs. Moon, while Mrs. Tazewell, full of sympathy, thought they ought to adjourn and go see if there was not something they could do.
"Which of those questions do you want me to answer first?" Miss Gibbie, taking Mrs. Pryor's chair, waved the turkey-wing fan back and forth, but with fingers not so firm as they had been before the message came, and as she spoke the room became quiet again.
"Do I hope William Pryor is seriously ill?" she began, her keen gray eyes dim with something rarely seen in them. "Do I hope William is going to die? I do. For thirty-nine years he has been the husband of Lizzie Pryor, and he has earned his reward. I don't believe in a golden-harp heaven. Not being musical, William and I wouldn't know what to do with a harp. I believe in a heaven where we get away from some people and get back to others, and God knows I hope William will have a little respite before Lizzie joins him.
"I don't know Mr. Pryor very well," said Mrs. Brent, who had moved closer to the table in the general uprising due to Mrs. Pryor's departure, "but I've always felt sorry for him somehow. He had such a patient, frightened face, and was so polite."
"That was what ruined him." Miss Gibbie's voice was steady again. "Many wives are ruined by over-politeness. They take advantage of it, and make their husbands spend their lives in an eternal effort to please. That's what poor William was forever attempting to do, and never succeeding. He was Apology in the flesh. No matter what he did in the morning he had to explain it at night."
"He had to," broke in Mrs. Tate, who still held her needle between finger and thumb. "If he didn't, Mrs. Pryor breathed so through her nose you couldn't say in the house with her. I was there once when she wanted to go to her sister's in Washington to get new dresses for Maria and Anna Belle and Sue, and Mr. Pryor had ventured to say he didn't have the money. You ought to have seen her! She hardly spoke to me, and Louisa told me afterward they didn't see her teeth for a week, she kept her lips down on them so tight. Poor Mr. Pryor, I saw him a day or two afterward on his way home to dinner, and he looked like he would rather go to—"
"Hell. Speak out. I would, had I been he." Miss Gibbie blew her nose, put the handkerchief back in the bag hanging from her belt, took out her spectacles and laid them on the table. "Any kind of woman can be endured better than a sulking woman. She's worse than a nagger, and home is a place of perdition with that kind in it. But in a sense William deserved what he got. He let her marry him."
"Oh, she didn't ask him!" Mrs. Burnham was from the North, and her voice was astonished interrogation. "Surely she didn't ask him!"
"No. She made him ask her. Made him feel so sorry for her, cried over herself and her loneliness so persistently that William, being a man, walked in. Six weeks later they were married."
"I wonder if it was really true the way they say she used to do," and Mrs. Tate, whose needle was now lost, was again fanning vigorously.
"What way?" Miss Gibbie turned so quickly toward her that Mrs. Tate jumped.
"Why, I heard when she was first married that if she couldn't have just what she wanted, or if Mr. Pryor did anything she didn't like, she would lie flat down on her back and kick her heels on the floor so loud you could hear it all over the house. I don't believe it was true."
"You don't? Well, it was, with this difference. When she wanted a thing for herself, she lay on her back and kicked. When she wanted it for the children, she lay on her stomach and cried. Either way she got what she wanted."
The turkey-wing fan waved back and forth, then Miss Gibbie got up. "This is dirty work we are doing. I prefer to make my remarks to people's faces so they can remark back. And this isn't what I came to this meeting for. I know the talk that has been going around lately about Mary Cary. Lizzie Pryor has led it, and I came here this morning to tell her so. The people in Yorkburg are like all other people. They pat the fat shoulder, and shake the full hand, and eat of the bounty, and then, when some jealous-minded, squint-eyed Christian, so-called, starts questions and speculations, everybody repeats them and some try to answer."
"But why are you talking to us like this, Miss Gibbie? We are Mary's friends and oughtn't to be taken to task for what we haven't done and don't approve of," said Mrs. Corbin. "We—"
"Then if you are Mary's friends you will tell other people what I am telling you. You will cut short all this twaddle about her great wealth and Western ways and numberless beaux. It's the last that sticks so in Puss Jenkins's throat. Puss never had a beau herself, and she can't get reconciled to Mary's many."
"Oh, she did have one." Mrs. Moon spoke for the first time since Mrs. Pryor left. "Don't you remember Mr. Thoroughgood?"
"He never courted her. He told me so himself. He thought over it and prayed over it, and at last decided he'd do it, but he never did. He bought her a box of candy for which he paid sixty cents—told me that, too—and went to the house prepared to speak the word. I remember the night very well. He tiptoed up the front steps and stood on the porch where he could hear voices in the parlor. Puss and her mother were talking, and 'Mercy on me,' he said, 'I never had such a narrow escape in all my life. She was scolding her mother, quarreling with her, lecturing her for something. I tell you I tiptoed down in a hurry.'"
Miss Gibbie made the mincing steps of Mr. Thoroughgood and so mimicked his thin, piping voice that all laughed, then she nodded at Mrs. Moon—"I got the candy.
"But to go back to Mary. She has heard some of the things said about her, and so have I. Mrs. Deford told her Yorkburg did not need to be washed and ironed, and Lizzie Bettie Pryor wrote her a note informing her Southern people had no sympathy with Northern ideas, and if she wished to keep her old friends in Yorkburg she should be more careful in making new acquaintances. Now this is what I want understood. She is my friend. If any one wishes to ask questions about her, come to me. For statements made against her I will go to them. She has no mother. I have no child. As long as I am here and she is here, we are to be reckoned with together. This is what I came here to say. You can repeat it. I will see that Lizzie Pryor and her daughters hear it, and Mrs. Deford and Puss Jenkins and Mr. Benny Brickhouse—"
The door opened noisily and again the maid-servant's head was thrust in. "Mis' Tate," she said, excitedly, "somebody done phone from Mis' Pryor's and say Mr. Pryor done gone and died. She say please somebody come on down there quick, that Mis' Pryor is just carryin' on awful."
The ladies sprang to their feet with shocked and frightened faces, but it was Miss Gibbie who spoke.
"Poor William!" she said. "Poor William! Lizzie knew he could never eat sausage, and she had it this morning for breakfast!"
Several days had passed since gentle William Pryor had at last found rest. Yorkburg recovering from its shock, took up once more the placid movement of its life.
Mary Cary opened her shutters and with hands on the window-sill leaned out and took a deep breath, then she laughed and nodded her head. "Good-morning sun," she said, "good-morning birds, good-morning everything!" Her eyes swept the scene before her, adsorbed greedily its every detail, then rested on the orchard to the right.
"Oh, you beautiful apple blossoms! You beautiful, beautiful apple blossoms!" She threw them a kiss. "And to think you are mine—mine!"
In her voice was a quivering little catch, and presently she dropped on her knees by the open window and rested her arms on the sill. Again her eyes swept sky and field, now glancing at the lawn of velvet green, now at the upturned earth on the left, the or hard on the right, the thread of water in the distance winding lazily in and out at the foot of low hills, and now at the sun, well up from the soft dawning of another day, and suddenly she stretched out her arms.
"God," she said, "God, I am so glad—so glad!"
For some minutes she knelt, her chin in the palms of her hands, her gaze wandering down the road to the little town less than a mile away, and presently she laughed again as if at some dear memory. It was so good to be among the old loved things, the straggling streets and shabby houses, the buttercups and dandelions, and the friends of other days. It was good, and out loud she said again: "I am so glad."
"Your bath, mein Fraulein."
She got up; the soft gown falling from bare shoulders stirred in the light breeze. She pulled the ribbons from the long braids of hair, and coiled them round her head, but she did not leave the window.
"All right, I'll be there in a minute." Then: "Hedwig?"
"Yes, mein Fraulein."
"Do you think I could have the day to myself? I have something important to do, and I can't do it if constantly interrupted. If any one comes, could you keep me from knowing it?"
"I think so, mein Fraulein."
The shadow of a smile hovered a moment on Hedwig's lips. "Does that mean all and everybody, or—"
"Everybody! Of course not Miss Gibbie, but everybody else. I shall not be at home, you see. I will be down in the orchard, and if Miss Gibbie comes bring her there, but never, never let any one else come there, Hedwig."
"I understand, mein Fraulein."
The door was closed quietly, and the girl now standing in front of her mirror looked into it first with unseeing eyes, then suddenly with critical ones.
"You must look you best to-night, Mary Cary. You don't want to go to that meeting. You don't like to do a lot of things you've got to do if you're to be a brave lady, but Martha knows nothing is accomplished by wanting only, and Martha is going to make you talk to those men to-night." She leaned closer to the mirror. "I wonder how you happened to have light eyes when you like dark ones so much better, and brown hair when black is so much prettier? You should be thankful you don't have to use curlers, and that you have plenty of color, but every now and then I wish you were a raging beauty, so men would do what you want."
Her brow ridged in fine upright folds as if thinking, then she turned, nodding her head in decision. "I will ear that white embroidered mull to-night. It is so soft and sweet and silly, and men like things like that."
Some hours later, household duties having been attended to, fresh flowers cut and the stable visited, the little vine-draped shelter made of saplings, stripped of branch but not of bark, and canvas-covered on the top, was the point of destination; but first she stood on the front porch and looked up and down the sandy road which could be well seen from the hilltop. No sign of life upon it, she turned and went through the hall to the back porch and down the steps to the orchard, in one hand writing-materials, in the other pieces of stale bread for the birds; and as she walked she hummed a gay little tune to whose rhythm she unconsciously kept step.
Many of the trees were old and bent and twisted in fantastic shapes— some were small and partly dead, but most were fit for some festival of the gods; and as she went in and out among them, her feet making but slight impression on the moist springy soil, grass-grown and sprinkled with petals, pink and white, she stopped now and then and touched first one and then the other, for a swift moment laid her cheek on the rough bark as if to send a message to its heart.
From the shelter she drew out a rug, spread it close to her best-loved tree, then sitting upon it leaned against the trunk, feet crossed and hands clasped loosely behind her head. The chirp of sparrows and twitter of small birds, the clear song of robin and the cat-bird's call fell after a while unheeding on her ears, and the drowsy hum of insects was lost in the dreaming that possessed her. From the garden of old-fashioned flowers some distance off the soft breeze flung fragrance faint and undefined, and for a while she was a child again—the child who used to run away in the springtime and hide in the orchard, that she might say her prayers before a shrine of unknown name.
Presently she sat upright and opened her portfolio. "And now to think it is mine, Aunt Katherine, mine!" she began. "At last everything is ready, everything is finished, and I am in my own home. I am still full of wonder and unbelief, still not understanding how Tree Hill is my property. The quaint old house is not degraded by its changes, and already I love its every room, its every outlook; and if you and Uncle Parke and the children do not soon come I shall be of all creatures the most disappointed and indignant. I want you to see the beautiful things Miss Gibbie has done. Of course, Yorkburg doesn't understand; doesn't know why I am back, and why I am living alone save for the servants; and some don't approve. That the once charity child who lived at the asylum should now own Tree Hill is something of a trial, and that it could happen without their knowledge or consent is grievous unto them. But they have been so good to me, all the old friends; are glad, they say, to have me back, and I am so happy to be back. There have been changes, but not many. The mills and factories have brought new people, some of the old ones have died, the little ones grown up, several have married and gone away to live, but it is the same sunshiny little place, and I love it. In the months spent with Miss Gibbie, waiting for Tree Hill to be made ready to live in, there was the restless feeling that belongs to temporary arrangement, but now I am home; here to live and work, and the only shadow is that the big and little Aldens are not here, too. And what a relief to Miss Gibbie to be once more by herself! I couldn't keep people away, and I was constantly afraid she would take a broom and sweep them out. How she does hate to have people in her house unless she sends for them! Man may not have been meant to live alone, but Miss Gibbie was—"
The rustle of skirts made her look up, and quickly she was on her feet, her arms around her visitor's waist, cheek pressed close to cheek.
"Oh, dear, I am so glad you've come. I was going—"
"To choke me, crush me, knock me down and sit on me, were you? Well, you're to do nothing of the kind. And it's too hot to embrace. Stand straight and let me look at you. How did you sleep last night?"
"I don't know. Wasn't awake long enough to find out. Oh, Miss Gibbie, if you were a little girl I'd play all around the green grass with you! Apple-Blossom Land is the place to play it in, and this is Apple-Blossom Land! And to think—to think that it is mine!"
"Why not? Why shouldn't what you want be yours? Heaven knows an old house on a hilltop, with some twisted trees on the side and cornfields at the back, isn't much to dance over; but things have in them what we get out of them, and if you will stop hugging me and get me something to sit on I will be obliged."
"Will the rug do?"
"Rug? How could I get up if I every got down? No. Get me a chair. What are you out here for, anyhow? Bugs and bees and birds may like such places, but being a mere human being I prefer indoors."
"Then we will go in. I came out here so as to be not at home if any one came up to see me."
"Hiding, are you? If you don't want to see people, why see them?" She waved her turkey-wing fan inquiringly. "Nonsense such as this will force you on the roof, if you'd say your prayers in private, and you're making a bad beginning. Have you got that list of the councilmen? I want to see it again."
Mary Cary picked up her writing-materials, crumbled the bread and threw it to the birds, and, with arm in Miss Gibbie's, turned toward the house.
"It's on the library table. I've seen every one of them. I'm sure it's going to be all right."
"You are? That's because you are yet young. Never be sure a man in politics is going to do what he says until he does it. When he makes you a promise, just ask him to kindly put his name to it. I'm like a darkey—I've more confidence in a piece of paper with some writing on it than in the spoken word. Men mean well, and they'll promise a woman heaven or hell to get rid of her, but you can't trust them. How about Mr. Chinn?"
"Hardest of all. He can't speak correctly, and has never been out of Yorkburg a week in his life. And yet he says we've got as good streets as we need, and he doesn't approve of all this education, anyhow."
"Naturally. People are generally opposed to things they know nothing about. Here, Hedwig, take my hat and bring me some iced tea—and next time your Fraulein hides in the orchard you can find her and not send me there."
Blowing somewhat from her walk, Miss Gibbie dropped in a chair in the hall, unfastened the strings of her broad-brimmed hat and handed it to Hedwig. Spreading out her ample skirts, she pulled off her white cotton gloves, opened the bag hanging from her waist, took from it a handkerchief of finest thread, and with it wiped her face. After a moment she glanced around. "A house knows when it is occupied. Sleeping here has given things a different air." She looked at the girl standing in front of her, hands clasped behind, and the turkey-wing fan stopped on its backward motion. "You are sure you will not be lonely? Sure you will not be afraid?"
"Afraid! I'm not just Mary Cary, I'm Martha Cary also. Martha has never been afraid, and Mary has never been lonely in her life. And I love it so, my little Harmony House! Oh, Miss Gibbie, you have been so good, so precious good!" The strong young arms reached down, and on her warm breast she drew the anxious face of the older woman, kissed it swiftly, then pushed her back against the cushions. "If only you would let me tell how good you've been!"
"If only you would behave yourself and get me some tea I would think more of you. There are many things I might forgive, but never the telling of my private affairs. Where is that list of City Fathers? Here, get me another chair. One feels like a kitty puss on a feather-bed in a thing of this kind. I prefer to sit like a human being."
With an effort she extricated herself from the depths of the big chintz-covered chair and took a tall straight one near the table on which Hedwig was placing iced tea and sandwiches, and as she reached for the tea with her right hand, she held out her left for the paper Mary Cary was bringing to her.
She glanced down its length, and for some moments drank her tea in silence save for an occasional grunt which was half sniff, half snort; then as she put down her glass and took up a sandwich she waved the paper in good-natured derision.
"And that's what governs us—that!
"Oh, august body of assembled men, The gods in thee have come to earth again!"
She bit into the sandwich and again skimmed the paper. "These are the individuals who make our local laws and do with our taxes what they will. Listen:
"'1. Josiah Chinn, Undertaker.' Deals with the dead. An eye single to the grave.
"'2. Franklin Semph, Machine Agent.' Travels. Sleeps home two nights in the week. Drinks.
"'3. Richard Moon, President Woolen Mills.' In council as matter of conscience. Only attends when Mary Cary makes him.
"'4. Jefferson Mowry. Chewer and spitter.' Livery business. Reads less than he writes—never writes.
"'5. Jacob Walstein, born Pawnbroker, now Banker.' Rich and rising.
"'6. Williamson Brent, General Merchandise.' Votes as he's told by the last person who tells. Putty man.
"'7. Blacker Ash, Secretary and Treasurer of Yorkburg Shoe Factory.' Sensible and good worker. Bachelor. Does as Miss Cary tells him.
"'8. John Armitage. Soap-box politician.' Clerk in Mr. Blick's grocery store. Salary eight dollars per week. When it's ten he will marry; told me so.
"'9. Robertson Grey, Lawyer.' Well born and lazy.
"'10. Patrick Milligan.' Whiskey business and good talker. Slippery."
She crumpled the paper and threw it at the girl standing in front of her. "There," she said, "there's the list of your Yorkburg Fathers. I hope Hedwig will fumigate you when you get home to-night."
"She will if necessary." The crumpled paper was smoothed and folded carefully. "But I don't believe it will be. I've taken tea with most of their families."
"You've taken /what?/" Miss Gibbie bounced half-way out of her chair.
"Tea." Mary Cary's head nodded affirmatively. "That's what I said, tea—I mean supper. I invited myself to some of the places, but some of the people invited me themselves. I'm afraid I did hint a little. But we had a good time, and I've got my little piece of paper—see!"
She held a note-book toward Miss Gibbie, but the latter waved it back. "Do you mean you sat down at the table and ate with them?"
"That's what I did. It would have been better could they have sat down at my table and eaten with me, for then I could have selected the things to eat, and food makes such a difference in a man's feelings. But there isn't such a great difference in people when you know them through and through, and I had a lovely time taking supper with them. I really did. I told you about the Milligans. Don't you remember I was sick the next day?"
Miss Gibbie shook her head. "Never told me. Glad you were sick."
"Not sick enough to hurt, or to keep me from the Mowrys the next night. The Mowrys didn't have but four kinds of bread and three kinds of cake and two kinds of meats and some other things, but you couldn't see a piece of Mrs. Milligan's table-cloth as big as a salt-cellar, it was so full of food. I took some of everything on the table. Mr. Milligan kept handing me things from his end and Mrs. Milligan from her end, and the little Milligans from the sides, and we laughed so much and I tried so hard to eat I got really excited about it, and of course I was sick the next day. But it didn't matter. We had a beautiful time, and I learned things I never knew before."
She dropped on her knees by the older woman and crossed her arms on her lap. "When I was a little girl, Miss Gibbie, and lived here in the asylum, I used to wish I was a fairy or a witch or a wizard, or something that could make great changes, could turn things round and upside down; could put poor people where were rich, put sad ones where were happy, put the lowly where were the high, and see what they would do. And in the years I have been away, almost ten years, I have been thinking and watching and wondering if half the trouble in the world is not from misunderstanding, from not knowing each other better. And how can we know if each stays in his own little world, never touches the other's life?" She laughed, nodding her head. "I wouldn't discuss Flaubert with Mr. Milligan or Greek Art with Mr. Chinn, but they can tell me a good deal about Yorkburg's needs; and, after all, a person's heart is more important than his head. We are educating people at a terrible rate, but what are we going to do about it if we're not friends when we're through? Of course you can't see my way. You hate dirty people to come near you, but how get them clean if we keep from them?"
Miss Gibbie took up her fan and used it as if already the atmosphere were affected, then she tapped the face in front of her. "I used to be young once and dreamed dreams, but I dreamed them in my own house. I might understand how you could eat with any sort of sinner—I've eaten with all sorts—but with people who put their knives in their mouths and don't clean their finger-nails!"
She lay back in her chair, chin up and eyebrows lifted, and Mary Cary, getting on her feet, laughed, then leaned over and kissed her.
"To-morrow night I am going to the McDougals'. Susie McDougal's beau, Mr. John Armitage, the soap-box politician, is to be there. You don't mind, do you?"
Miss Gibbie's mouth, eyes, and nose all screwed together, and the turkey-wing fan was held at arm's-length. "He uses hair-oil. Yes, I mind, but I remember I was not to interfere."
THE COUNCIL CHAMBER
Miss Gibbie would not stay to dinner. "I am fond of you, my dear," she said, tying the ribbon strings loosely under her chin, "but I might not be if I had to talk to you after a full meal. And that's the trouble—you make me talk too much. If you prefer this middle-class custom of a mid-day dinner, follow it, but don't ask me to join you."
Mary Cary laughed. "I don't think it's middle-class. I think it's nice; it's Southern." Miss Gibbie's broad-brimmed hat was straightened, the crumpled ribbons smoothed, the plump cheeks kissed. "And if I didn't have dinner at two o'clock I couldn't have supper at seven. Thin ham and beaten biscuits and salads and iced tea and summer things like that are much nicer then meats and vegetables and desserts on warm nights. I'm not stylish. I'm just Mary Cary, who loves old-fashioned ways and things."
"Old-fashioned /ways/ and /things!/" Miss Gibbie's hands went up. "To-morrow all Yorkburg will be calling you a young woman of shocking ideas, one who actually knows something about business, about the town's financial condition and the things it needs and should have. You will be served at breakfast, dinner, and supper; held up as an example of the pernicious effects of higher education followed by foreign travel. To-night you are going to do what has never been done here before, and who is going to imagine you love old-fashioned ways and things? A woman has never crossed the threshold of Yorkburg's Council Chamber—"
"A good many are going to cross it to-night."
Miss Gibbie, who had started to the door, turned. "You mean a good many have promised. A very different thing. Women are cowards when it comes to a change of custom. They like their little cages. They would rather stay in and look on than come out and help. Don't expect too much of them. They have so long thought as men told them God intended them to think that it will take time for them to realize the Almighty may not object to their inquiring if they're thinking right or not. Good-bye, child. If any fireworks go off, keep your head and send up a few yourself. Heavens, if I were young!"
As she drove off, Mary Cary waved to her, then turned and stood a moment in the wide, cool hall, looking first in the library on the right, the dining-room on the left, at the broad, winding staircase in front, and through the open door at the end to the orchard, which in the distance could be glimpsed, and her hands clasped as if to press closely the happiness that filled her.
It was hers, all hers. The dream of her starved little heart, when, as a child, she had lived in the Yorkburg Orphan Asylum, had come true. She had a home of her own.
"And I didn't have to take a husband to get it," she said, nodding her head. "That's such a satisfaction."
She dropped in the big chintz-covered chair and, with elbows on its arms and finger-tips pressed to cheeks, surveyed critically the size and shape and furnishings of the rooms, then sighed in happy content.
"It's such a pity so many people still think a home /must/ have a man in it. If a man belongs to you and is nice he might make the home nicer, but"—she shook her head—"Mrs. McDougal says there are times when a husband is a great trial. I haven't any brothers or a father, and I don't want to risk a trial yet. The reason most homes need men is because men mean money, I suppose. You can't sneeze without needing money. And yet"—she looked around—"everything in this house didn't cost as much as the rug Mrs. Maxwell has on her drawing-room floor. I don't wonder John loathes his house. You can't really see the price-tags on the things in it, but you're certain you could find them if you had the chance to look. I wonder where John's letter is?" She got up and went into the library, turned over papers and magazines on desk and tables, then rang for Hedwig.
"The mail?" she said. "Where did you put the letters this morning?"
Hedwig shook her head. "There no letters were this morning, mein Fraulein. Not one at all."
"That's queer! All right." Hedwig was waved away. "I wonder if anything is the matter? Of course there isn't—only—there haven't been three Mondays since I left here that John's letter didn't come on the early mail." She straightened a rose that was falling out of a jar and stood off to watch the effect. "Nobody but John would write every week, when I don't write once in four—don't even read his letters for days after they come, sometimes. But I like to know they're here. I believe"—she clasped her hands behind her head—"I believe I wish I had let him come down to-night. No, I don't. But why didn't he write? He ought to have known—" She turned away. "It would serve me right if he never wrote again."
By seven o'clock she was on her way to the monthly meeting of the town council, which meeting was always held on the second Monday evening in the month, and as she started off she waved to Hedwig, standing in the door.
"Telephone Miss Gibbie not to sit up for me," she called back. "I'm going to stay all night with her, but it may be late before I get there. Don't forget!" And again the hand was waved; and as she drove down the dusty road, Ephraim beside her, the uncertainty of the morning faded and her spirits rose at the prospect of the experience awaiting.
"You see," she thought to herself, "I've had the advantage of being poor and not expecting things to go just as I want them, so it takes a great deal to discourage me. When you're dealing with human nature it's the unexpected you must expect. 'Human nature are a rascal,' Mrs. McDougal says, and Mrs. McDougal's observations come terribly near being true." She laughed and whistled softly, but at Ephraim's discreet cough stopped and turned toward him.
"I oughtn't to do it, ought I, Ephraim? It isn't nice. I am afraid I forget sometimes I am really and truly grown up."
"I reckon you does." Ephraim touched his hat. "You's right smart of a child yet in some things, 'count of yo' young heart, I reckon. I ain't never seen nobody who could see the sunny side like you kin, but it ain't all sunny, Miss Mary, this worl' ain't, and there's a lot of pesky people in it." He coughed again. "Sometimes folks seem to forgit you is your grandpa's grandchild. Yo' grandpa was the high-steppinist gentleman I ever seen in my life, but since you been goin' down among them mill folks and factory folks and takin' an intrus' in 'em, lookin' into how things is, some of them King Street people seem to think, scusin' of my sayin' it, that maybe it's yo' father's blood what's comin' out in you."
Mary Cary laughed. "I hope it is. My father was a very sensible gentleman, and didn't ask others what he must or must not do. But his people in England would be more shocked than—" She stopped and her lips twisted in a queer little smile. "Put me down here, Ephraim. I am going first to Mrs. Corbin's."
Twenty minutes later she and Mrs. Corbin walked up the stops of the side entrance of the town hall into the room where all public meetings were held, and where all business connected with the town's interest was transacted. As they reached the top the hum of many voices greeted them. The narrow passageway was half filled with men. Some were standing, hands in pockets; some, balancing themselves on the railing, with feet twisted around its spokes, held their hands loosely clasped in front, while others leaned against the wall, scribbled over with pencil-marks and finger-prints of varying sizes, and ahead, through the open door, could be seen both men and women.
As they came nearer, those on the railing jumped down; those leaning against the wall straightened, and those in front made way, while hats came off and spitting ceased.
"Good-evening," she said. "We are going to have a mice meeting, aren't we?" She held out her hand. "How do you do, Mr. Jernigan. Is Jamie better to-night?"
"Yes, ma'am; thank you, ma'am. He's right sharp better to-night. He's pleased as Punch over those drawings things you sent him. Been at 'em all day."
"That's good." She reached the door, them turned, taking off her long, light coat which covered the white dress. "Aren't you men coming in?"
"Yes'm—that is, those of us what can." It was Mr. Flournoy, foreman of the woolen mills, who spoke. "There ain't much room in there left and they say some more ladies is coming, so we thought we might as well stay out as come out. We can hear all right."
"I'm sorry. The women ought not to take the men's places. Can't you—"
"Oh, that's all right." Mr. Jernigan waved his hat toward her. "We done our work before we come here. Ain't a man in the council what don't know how we stand, and what we won't do for them is a plenty if they don't tote square. You just go on in, Miss Cary—you and Mrs. Corbin."
As they entered the room there was much uprising and many seats were offered, but with a nod here and there they made their way toward a window near which Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Moon were sitting and took two chairs which had been kept for them. To the left were Mrs. Brent and Mrs. Burnham, to the right Miss Mittie Muncaster and Mrs. Dunn, while behind was Miss Amelia Taylor, president of the Mother's Club, with Miss Victor Redway, the new kindergarten teacher from Kentucky. A dozen other women, scattered in groups here and there, were whispering as if at a home funeral, and along the walls men, ranged in rows, hats in hands, chewed with something of nervous uncertainty as to the wisdom of the innovation which they were about to witness. In a large chair on a small platform Mr. Chinn, president of the council, sat in solemn silence, gavel in hand, waiting for the hour to strike, and for once in its history all ten of the city fathers were on time and in place.
"You may not mind this, Mary, but I do," said Mrs. Moon half under her breath. "I'm not used to these new-fashioned ways of doing things. I feel like I haven't got on all my clothes. I came because you told me I ought to, and of course women should take interest in things of this sort, but I don't like it. I—"
"Then you were dear to come." And Mary gave the soft, pretty hands a squeeze. "I don't like it either, but neither do I like Yorkburg's not having a high school. Don't look so uneasy. Nobody is going to bite. Have you seen Mr. Milligan? A frog couldn't look more like a frog. He'll pop presently, he's so pleased about something. There—they're going to begin."
She leaned back in her chair, and as Mr. Chinn rose in his seat and rapped on the table the crowd in the passage pressed closer to the door. All who could came inside, but no longer was there standing- room, and the air that might have come through the open windows was kept back by the men who had climbed up in them and were swinging their feet below.
The gavel again sounded. "The meeting will come to order!"
Mr. Chinn, in his long frock-coat and white string tie, stood a moment surveying with mournful eye the crowded room, and in his voice as he repeated "The meeting will come to order!" was the assurance that all flesh is as grass, and though in a field it may flourish it will finally be cut down.
But not yet could the meeting come to order. As Mr. Simson, the clerk, stood up and began to call the roll there was the shuffle of many feet in the hall and the men near the door parted to make way for late but determined arrivals.
"Mrs. McDougal and every blessed member of her family!"
Under her breath Mary Cary laughed, then beckoned, and in pressed Mrs. McDougal and made her way toward the platform, undismayed by the gazing, smiling crowd. Behind were her five boys and four girls, and behind them Mr. McDougal, but in the shelter of Mr. Blick's broad back Mr. McDougal stopped and was seen no more.
But Mrs. McDougal was seen. Ushering the children ahead, she placed them one by one on the edge of the platform, at the feet of Mr. Chinn, all but Susie, who with flaming face had sought refuge on half of Mary Cary's chair, then she waved to Mr. Simson, the clerk.
"Please hold on a minute, Mr. Simson," she called. "I'm awful sorry we're late, but them five voters to be was hard to get fixed in time. They know what they're here for and I don't want 'em to miss a word. Sit still there, Jeff!" She jabbed the latter, who was wriggling, back in his place and took from Billy the cap he was nervously chewing, then seating herself between the younger set of twins she again waved her hand.
"Now you can go on."
Thus permitted, Mr. Simson began the reading of the minutes of the last meeting in quick staccato sentences, and as he took his seat Mr. Chinn again sounded the gavel and in an attitude of resignation asked of there were corrections.
None being suggested, the minutes were approved. The regular business of the meeting forthwith began, and the atmosphere, which had been a little tense, relaxed. As if to show his ease and familiarity with an unusual situation, Mr. Mowry cut off a large piece of tobacco, crossed his hands behind his head, and lifted his right leg on the top of the small oak desk which was supposed to contain pen and paper for personal use, but which had thus far served only as a footstool; and as he did so he winked at young Armitage, whose face was a fiery flame, and whose hands, wet with perspiration, were twisting in nervous knots a handkerchief of highly colored border.
Little by little routine matters were disposed of, and, finally, there being no further excuse for delay, the call for new business was made and Mr. Milligan arose. With fingers in the armholes of his vest, with shoulders back and chest expanded, he bowed with smiling eyes to the platform, to the crowded room, to the ladies at his right, and as he bowed there was stir and rustle and the straining forward of necks and heads.
"Mr. President"—his heels were lifted from the floor and he balanced himself on tiptoe—"Mr. President, members of the Yorkburg Council, fellow-citizens, and ladies"—again he bowed profoundly—"a distinguished honor has been bestowed upon me to-night, and as long as life shall last I will look back upon this occasion as the proudest moment of my life. We have met to-night not only to do our plain duty as citizens of a noble town, but to look with far-seeing eyes into that great future which stretches endlessly and forever on, and which can be made as beautiful as—er, as—er the New Jerusalem or—er, or—er Richmond or New York. We must show the watching world that we citizens of old Yorkburg"—his right hand made a wide inclusive sweep—"we citizens are awake, are up and looking around. We are no longer dead poor. Money is nine-tenths of much in life, but the other tenth is a busting big part. It's made of sense and hustle, and it's up to us to prove it! We've been excusin' of ourselves by saying poverty has paralyzed us, and we couldn't do this and we couldn't do that, because we didn't have the cash. Well, I'm here to say it ain't so. What we've been lackin' ain't so much the money as the spirit, and it's took a woman to make us find it out."
Back from the windows came a clapping of hands, from the doors a stamping of feet, and in the enforced pause Mr. Milligan wiped his shining face and swallowed hastily from the glass of water on the table.
"In my poor way, members of the Yorkburg Council," he began again— this time fingers interlaced and resting on his breast—"in my poor way I am here to present this lady to you. She don't need to be introduced to man, woman, or child in this community. She used to live here, and when she went away something left Yorkburg that everybody wished would come back. 'Twas a sort of sunshine. We didn't think she'd ever find the way back. There was a heap to make her forget, but she didn't forget. Love found the way, and she's back. Since she left she's seen a lot of life. She's been around the world, in the big cities and the little cities, and she's kept her eyes open and her mind open and her heart open, and there's much she could tell about what's wrong with us, but that ain't her way. She is here to-night to bring some matters to your attention which I hope you will consider with intelligence and appreciation, and just here I'd like to say that even if I didn't know what they were I would say in advance, 'You could put my vote down for 'em, Mr. Clerk.' I ain't saying all women have business sense. They ain't got it, but when they have, it's the far-seeingest sense on earth, and there ain't a star in the heavens a man can't climb to when a woman of that kind gives him a lift!"
Again a shuffle of feet, but Mr. Chinn's gavel came down heavily. He turned in his chair and looked first at Mr. Milligan and then at the clock.
"Oh, I know I'm talking too long, but, being started, it's hard to stop," and Mr. Milligan wiped his perspiring face and nodded good-naturedly at solemn Mr. Chinn. "I'm through, but I know I voice the sentiments of every member of this honorable body when I say it is highly honored by the presence here to-night of lovely woman! What would life be without her? As babies, she borns us; as boys, she bosses us; as men, she owns us; at death, she buries us, and she alone puts flowers on man's grave! Man was made to do her bidding, Mr. President, and if he's smart he'll do it quick. Members of the council, ladies, and gentlemen, I have the honor of presenting to you Miss Mary Cary, the granddaughter of a once chief justice of England and of Mayor Alden, a distinguished citizen of Virginia."
IN WHICH MARY CARY SPEAKS
The flourish of Mr. Milligan's hand as Mary Cary rose and came toward the platform was not to be resisted by Mrs. McDougal, who was clapping vehemently. She gave the hand a resounding smack.
"Fine words, Mr. Milligan, fine words! But a dead Irishman would make a good speech if you'd touch his tongue. You're an orationer, you are. Set down, quick! Miss Cary is going to speak."
"Mr. President, gentlemen of the council." The clear, fresh voice carried to the far corners of the room and upon the latter fell vibrating silence. "Yorkburg's fiscal year ending in June in the next few weeks, the annual budget for the coming twelve months will be fixed by you. Before this budget is made up I am going to ask you to act upon three propositions. Last year the total revenue of the town was $16,907.23, and your expenditures something under one thousand dollars less than your income. Out of your sinking-fund you retired a large proportion of your outstanding bonds, with the result that your indebtedness is now sufficiently small to justify your increasing it. I am here to-night to ask you to issue, during the next three months, fifty thousand dollars' worth of city bonds, interest on which is to be 3 per cent., payable semi-annually. If you will agree to do this promptly, Bartlett, Cramp & Company, of New York, will take the entire amount at once. At the expiration of twenty years these bonds are to be retired."
"In the name of glory!"
The words, half smothered, sounded even to the platform, and Mary Cary, catching them, laughed and nodded toward the source from which they came.
"Is there anything you wish to say, Mr. Billisoly, before I go on?"
The latter rose to his feet, put his hand to his mouth, coughed, and looked at Mr. Chinn.
"Yes'm, there is. Fifty thousand dollars is a powerful lot of money to borrow at one clip, and—"
"Three per cent. interest is powerful little money to pay for its use," she answered, smiling. "But that isn't all I am here to say. If you don't mind and will let me get through it will save time, and then questions can be asked and answered. Last year the rate of interest on all taxable property was one dollar and twenty-five cents per one hundred dollars. This year, Mr. Councilmen, if you really love Yorkburg, you will raise it to one dollar and thirty-five cents.
"Oh, I know," She laughed and lifted her hand as if to stop the unspoken protest of certain stirrings. "I know the name of taxes isn't truly pleasant to any one. But I have with me a list of taxpayers who agree to the increase asked for, and if you would like to see it, there is no objection to your doing so."
She opened her bag and took from it a roll of paper, and as she unwound it she threw one end to Mr. Ash, the chairman of the finance committee.
"This," she said, "is a list of the people who love their town enough to put their hands in their pockets to prove it. A truly trying test!" She held up her end of the paper. "There," she said, "there is the list."
Instinctively many leaned forward to see the paper which for reasons of her own she had made in one long, narrow ribbon, and as they did so she laughed again and nodded to the men at the desks. "The will of your constituents.
"And now"—she stepped back—"there is one thing more. Yorkburg has a friend who is greatly interested in its welfare. This friend believes the time has come when the town should take stock of itself, should look itself in the face and see just what sort of a town it is, and what it may be. As a friend of this friend of Yorkburg I am authorized to say that if this issue of fifty thousand dollars' worth of bonds be made promptly, the like amount of fifty thousand dollars will be at once deposited by Bartlett, Cramp & Company to the credit of your finance committee, said amount to be used for the relaying out of the town, the proper paving of streets, the planting of shade-trees, and the cleaning up of dirty places."
For a moment there was palpitating silence. No one moved. Eyes were fixed on her as if ears had not heard aright. The heads of some leaned forward, the bodies of others leaned back, then the clearing of throats and the shuffling of feet broke the pause that followed the statement which had just been heard, and back toward the door Mr. Benny Brickhouse arose.
"If he ain't the spittin' image of an orange with two peanuts underneath and one peanut on top, I never seen one," said Mrs. McDougal in a voice none too low, "and the top peanut ain't got a thing in it. Just listen at his cambric-needle squeak!"
"Mr. President." The thin, piping tones caused many to look around. "Mr. President, never before in its history has the council of Yorkburg heard from its platform such astounding propositions as have been made before it to-night. The young lady who has made them is doubtless actuated by high and lofty motives, but it is not to be expected that she should know what she is doing. It is out of her sphere, sir, the sphere in which God put woman and meant her to stay—"
"Please, sir, Mr. Chinn, may I ask Mr. Brickhouse if God Almighty told him He put woman in a sphere, or if a man told him?" and Mrs. McDougal, on her feet, held up her hand as a child in a classroom who asks to speak.
Mr. Chinn's gavel came down heavily and squelched the titter which threatened to be something more. "Mr. Brickhouse has the floor, Mrs. McDougal."
"And likely to keep it, sir. But go on, Mr. Brickhouse, go on! I thought maybe you'd just heard from the Lord. Beg your pardon, sir."
She sat down, waving her hand toward the round little man, speechless with amazement, then turned in a half whisper to the girl at her side.
"Let him talk, Miss Cary. Nothing shows the kind of fool you are as quick as your tongue. Balaam's Brickhouse won't hurt you."
"Mr. President"—the interruption was ignored, and only the trembling of the fine, thin voice gave evidence of anger—Mr. President, Yorkburg is no pauper, and does not need the gift which has been offered it to-night, provided it will acknowledge it needs to be cleaned up. Yorkburg is a very clean place. Its streets were good enough for our fathers, and I, for one, protest against the supplanting of the trees they planted by the planting of more! We don't want more! And who is the person who offers this gift? Why is his name withheld? Is he ashamed of it, or is there a string tied to it which we don't see yet? What does the party want of us in return for this sum of money, gotten we know not how? It may be tarnished, sir, it any be tarnished!" His pudgy little hands smote the air with something of vehemence; then remembering that excitement was inelegant he wiped them carefully with his handkerchief, clasped them righteously together, and laid them on his stomach.
"And I would like to ask why this honorable body is called on to pass a measure which will plunge this old and distinguished town in such enormous indebtedness?" he began again, after a pause which he thought impressive. "Why should fifty thousand dollars' worth of bonds be issued? For what purpose will the money be used? Why should this great increase in taxes by made? What is to be done with the money drained from our people, who are not worshippers of Mammon and who set not their hearts on mere material things? I beg this honorable body not to be led astray. It will be a sad day for this city of a precious past—"
He stopped. Mary Cary's eyes, which in the beginning of his speech had been bent on a letter held in her hand lest the laughter in them be seen, were raised, and she was now looking at him with a steadiness which was disconcerting, and the words died upon his lips.
"Are you through, Mr. Brickhouse?"
He sat down, wiping his moist face limply. "Yes, I am through."
This time Mary Cary, who had been standing below the platform, stepped upon it, and the letter she had been holding was laid upon the table.
"I am very much obliged to Mr. Brickhouse for asking the questions he has asked," she began. "Except the name of the person giving this money to Yorkburg there is no one of them that will not be answered readily, as they should be rightly. Whether we are entitled to peculiarities, or not, all of us possess them, and one of this friend of Yorkburg's is that the gift and the giver should not be associated together; therefore, the name of this friend will not be known. Another characteristic of this same person is that before a place can be properly beautiful it should be made sound and solid and healthy. The foundation must come first, and the foundation of any town which would have a future is to know Yorkburg is badly laid out. It isn't laid out at all, and many of its streets start and end as they please. An elemental need of Yorkburg is that it should be laid out anew, and by a competent civil engineer who knows what he is about. This engineer will be provided when you agree to use his services. Mr. Brickhouse says we have a precious past. That is true, but a precious past doesn't make good walking, and, not being dead, our feet have some rights. There is no string tied to this gift of fifty thousand dollars save the restriction that the money be expended for the purposes mentioned.
"You see"—she turned to the councilmen in front and nodded to them— "when the matters brought before you to-night were mentioned to Mr. Brickhouse he was not interested, and did not care to put his name to the list of taxpayers who are willing to increase their taxes in order that Yorkburg may get a new bonnet and gloves and good stout shoes for its feet. He thinks they are not needed, and instead of expenditure, economy should be your keynote." She shook her head. "There are times when too much economy is as ruinous as too great expenditure. Some women die from it every year.
"But before coming here to-night I did try to understand what I was about." She tucked a curl which had slipped from under her hat back in place. "I learned from your mayor that the town is financially able to do what it is asked to do. We need two new school-buildings—one for primary and grammar grades, one for a high-school. The increase of taxes is needed to pay the interest on the new bonds, needed for many more things than it will supply."
For a half moment she looked around the room, then again turned to the men immediately in front, and her hands made a swift, appealing gesture.
"Gentlemen, you have done so splendidly. For so long there was so little to do with. For many years the struggle for life and honor gave your fathers no time for thought of other things, but they held their heads up through it all, and you—you are your fathers' sons! In the years I have been away I never saw anything beautiful or useful or splendid, never saw good streets, schools, libraries, churches, parks, playgrounds, galleries, museums, baths, kindergartens, never saw a good idea in operation, or anything that made life nicer and better that I didn't wish Yorkburg had it. I was always wishing it could be the cleanest, prettiest, happiest of all places on this earth to live in, and when I came back and saw what you had done, saw there was good water, good sewerage, good lights, a few good streets, I was as proud and pleased as if—as if I'd been your mother!"
She joined in the laugh that followed, then shook her head. "But, gentlemen, people who don't do anything keep at it. A big idea means big things, and if everybody pulls together we can do lots for Yorkburg. And you don't really love what you don't work for, don't deny yourself a little bit for, don't take some risk with. Some say there's risk in marriage, but people get married. They want to. We can do anything for Yorkburg we want to if we just want hard enough. Everybody agrees that we need a high-school and a new grammar school. We've needed them for years, and there were few people who pay taxes who didn't sign this petition readily. Nearly everybody wants children to have a chance."
"Did the biggest taxpayer in Yorkburg sign it?" It was Mr. Billisoly who asked the question.
"Who is that?"
"Mr. John Maxwell, owner of the Yorkburg shoe factory, ice factory, electric-light plant; owner of more than any one man in town, if he don't live here."
Mary Cary took up her end of the paper and examined it. "His name is the first on the list. Next is Mr. Moon, then Mr. Walstein, Mr. Ash, Mr. Wilson, Mr.—"
"Is Miss Gibbie Gault's name there?"
"Wonder!" Mr. Billisoly blew his nose and turned to the man at his side. "Looks like she's got it all there. If she could land Miss Gibbie the rest were easy."
"Tell me she and Miss Cary are great friends. They say the old lady is as smart as the devil and he'd be much more apt to get out of her way than she out of his if they met. Listen, there goes Sunny Chinn. Ain't he a cheerful thing to look at?"
The latter had risen, and again the table was struck by the gavel, which through the evening his hand had not relinquished. "Are there any further remarks to be made? If not—"
"Yes, sir." Mr. Ranlet, owner and proprietor of the Yorkburg bakery, rose from his seat. "I'd like to ask something about this firm of Bartlett, Cramp & Company, who is willing to buy bonds that only pay 3 per cent. How does Miss Cary know that?"
"I have a letter to that effect." She opened her bag and took from it a letter. "This," she said, holding it up, "is the letter which states that they will make this purchase for a customer, provided it can be done promptly. Mr. Moon, Mr. Walstein, any one doing business in New York can tell you the character and reputation of this company."
"I suppose the name of the customer is not mentioned?"
"Yes. It is a Mr. Black, of Brooklyn."
"The same one who has been buying property around here lately?"
"The same one. I understand he is thinking of coming here to live."
"Must have plenty of money. Not many people jump at 3-per-cent. town bonds."
"Then we ought to jump quick lest he change his mind."
"I move the matter be referred to the finance committee." It was Mr. Mowry who spoke, and instantly Mr. Ash, who had said nothing so far, was on his feet.
"Mr. President, such reference would be a waste of time. As chairman of the finance committee I have called the latter together and talked with them concerning this proposition of an issue of bonds which I knew would be brought before you to-night. We agreed to recommend it heartily, and I move that the question be put at once."
The motion, made and carried quickly, was greeted with deafening applause by the visitors sitting, standing, or balanced in the window- seats, and then some one moved for an executive session, and slowly the crowd began to stir and go out.
"It's going to be all right, Mary." Mr. Moon patted the latter's hands encouragingly. "We are going to increase the taxes, accept the money, and build the schools, and if you will please take Mrs. Moon home I will be obliged. Her face has been like a beet all the evening. Oh, how do you do, Mrs. McDougal?" and he shook kindly the rough red hand held out toward him.
"And I'm glad to see you, Mr. Moon. I tell you this has been a night, ain't it? I've had a fine time, though I'd had a finer if an edjucatid tongue was in my mouth, and I could have mentioned some of the things I know of as Yorkburg needs. What we goin' home for, being you ain't through, they say? I hope you will tell those men who are to act on something that if they don't act right they'll never get a vote from my boys when they turn twenty-one. I ain't sayin' I understood all what Miss Cary said to-night about bonds and things, but I'd follow her in the dark, and ain't anybody such a fool as not to know what fifty thousand dollars could do for a place or a person. Of course, being just a woman—and men think women is just canary birds or dray horses—I don't have no say in things like this, but I've borned five sayers, and I'm goin' to keep my eye on 'em to see what they do when they get a chance. Yes, sir, there's to be a knowin' why if she don't get what she wants. In the four factories there's two hundred and ninety-three voters, John Armitage says, and they're solid to a man for Miss Cary. Just tell 'em that for me, will you? Good-night. Come on, children! I wonder where McDougal is? A dead chicken's got more spirit in company than he has! Good-night, Miss Cary, and don't forget we're expectin' of you to tea to-morrow night. Peggy ain't slept for a week thinkin' about it."
At the door a group of men stood talking. "Regular hunks, weren't they?" said Mr. Jernigan, taking his pipe out of his pocket and knocking the bowl against the palm of his hand. "And she didn't waste words in throwing them out, either. Fifty thousand dollars in bonds asked for as cool as snow, and looking like a blush-rose when she did it. Fifty thousand dollars, too, handed out for a gift like 'twas an every-day thing for Yorkburg to get it. She said she had a surprise for us. 'Twas a cracker-jack. Wish one of that kind would knock me in the head! Taxes increased from $1.25 to $1.35! George, it does you good to hear the stuff called for like that. Them that's got it ought to pay for having!"
"But she believes in everybody paying. Don't you remember the day she come down to the mills at lunch-time and told us we oughtn't to ask for a reading-room where books from the library up on King Street could be got without our goin' for 'em, unless we were willin' to help pay for the keep of the room? Don't you remember? I do." And Mr. Flournoy took the match held out by Mr. Jernigan and passed it on to the man standing next.
"Yes, I remember. She made us all chip in. Right, too. It costs forty dollars a month to run that room, and we don't pay but twenty. Don't know where the other twenty comes from, but she does, and that goes in mill-town."
"She's got a clear head, Miss Cary has. And the reason I like to hear her talk is I can hook on to what she says." Mr. Flournoy walked over to the window and measured the distance to a given spot below with his lips. "No beatin' round to keep you from knowin' what she means. What kind of slush was that Bailly Ass Brickhouse tryin' to get off, anyhow? Any of you catch on?
"Didn't listen. Heard his junk before. He says he traces himself back to Adam in this town, but if he ever give it as much as a ginger-cake it's been kept a secret. Here comes Miss Cary now."
Mr. Jernigan took off his hat, and on his finger twirled it round and round. "My wife's been sick in bed ten weeks come Friday," he said, presently, "and there ain't been a one of 'em Miss Cary hasn't been to bring her some outdoor thing, as well as other kinds. Mollie says when she comes in the room, spring things come with her."
He stood aside, then took the hand held out as she came toward him.
"Didn't we have a grand meeting?" she said, nodding lightly to first one and then the other. "I believe it's going to be all right, and you can tell your wives their children will go to a high-school yet. I'm so glad all you men came. Thank you very much—"
"You didn't need us." The man standing next to the steps laughed. "The work was done before to-night. You had your ducks in a row all right."
"And not a single one quacked wrong! Didn't they do beautifully? Thank everybody for coming. Good-night." And in the darkness they could hear her laughing with Mrs. Moon and Mrs. Corbin as they went together down the street.
A few minutes later in Miss Gibbie's library she was dancing that lady of full figure round and round the room, and not for some seconds would she stop.
"Oh, Miss Gibbie, if you'd just been there! Not a sign of fight from any one, and as to fireworks, there wasn't a pop-cracker! Mr. Benny Brickhouse orated, of course, and Mrs. McDougal was irrepressible, but without them it would have been solemn—/solemn!/ I tried not talk too much. Men don't like it; they like women to listen to them, but to-night they—"
"Like sheep before their shearer, were dumb—as I'll be dead if you don't sit sown. Sit down!"
"I can't." And Miss Gibbie was waltzed around once more. "I don't understand, but it's going to be all right. Men are certainly funny. For weeks every member of the council has pooh-hooded me, thought my audaciousness was outrageousness, shook their heads and waved me out, and didn't begin to listen seriously until a week ago. To-night they were little lambs!"
"If you'll stop butting round like a goat and go to bed I'll hear about these lambkins to-morrow. I sat up to tell you good-night, not to hear you talk. It's nearly twelve o'clock. Of course they came round! Wind-watchers, all of them! That 3 per cent. got them. I told you if you made it 4 it wouldn't go through."
"Some one wanted to know who Mr. Black was, and Mr. Billisoly asked if your name was on the taxpayers' petition. It's like a play with the principal character left out. Suppose—"
"Suppose nothing! Go to bed and go to sleep! Your eyes are as big as saucers, blue saucers at that. I don't want to hear another word," and with a kiss as quick as the look that swept the flushed face was scrutinizing, Miss Gibbie waved her to the door.
"But aren't you coming? It's nearly twelve o'clock!"
"And why do I live alone save to do as I please? No, I'm not coming. Go to bed!"
At the door, hand on knob, Mary Cary turned. "How did Mr. Milligan know about my English grandfather? Who told him he was a chief justice?"
"I did. And for good reasons. I don't tell my reasons. Go to bed!"
"When did you tell him?"
"This morning after I left you. /Are/ you going to bed?"
"I don't see what you told him for. I don't like my grandfathers. I can't imagine—"
"There are many things you can't imagine, and more you don't understand. /Go to bed!/"
In her room Mary Cary stood before the tall, old-fashioned bureau, with its small swinging glass, and brushed her hair mechanically and with thoughts afar off; then putting down her brush laid it on a letter she had not seen before.
"Why, it's John's!" she said. "I wonder how it got here?" She held it up, then put it back again. "It must have come on the last mail and Hedwig brought it in. Silly!"
She braided her hair slowly, tied on its ribbons, then knelt by the big tester bed to say her prayers. Her face rested sideways on the open palms of her hands, crossed one on the other, and her eyes closed sleepily.
"I'm too tired to read it to-night, and to-morrow I will be too busy. But I'm glad it's here. In case of trouble—or anything, John is such— a sure help."
The heat was oppressive. Miss Gibbie turned off all lights save the one on the candle-stand by the high mahogany bed, with its valance of white pique, drew the large wing chair close to the open window and sat down in it. Over her gown she had put on a mandarin coat bought somewhere in China, and on her feet were the slippers embroidered for her by a Japanese girl she had sent to a hospital in Nagasaki.
The moon, coming out of its hiding place, for a moment poised clear and cool in a trough of gray banked by curling clouds of black, sent a thread of pale light upon the golden dragons on the coat, flashed on the slippers, and was lost in the darkness under which it darted. Miss Gibbie, watching, nodded toward it, and tapped the stool on which her feet rested with the tip of her toes.
"The moon is like one's self," she said. "Go where you will you can't get rid of it. Spooky thing, a moon. One big eye. Don't like it!"
She lay back in her chair and rested her hands on its arms. From the garden below the night wind brought soft fragrance of lilacs and crepe-myrtle, of bleeding-heart and wall-flower, of cow-slips and candy-tuft, and as they blew in and out, like the touch of unseen hands, they stirred old memories—made that which was dead, alive again.
"You're a fool, Gibbie Gault—a fool! You are too old to care as you care; too old to take up what you've turned your back on all these years. You are too old—too old!"
Suddenly she sat up. "Too old, am I? I'll see about that! The tail end of anything isn't its valuable part, and of a life it's usually useless, but it is all I have left, and I'll be jammed if I don't do something with it. And were I a man I wouldn't say I'll be jammed. Men have so many advantages over women!"
Again she leaned back in her chair and tapped its arms with her long, slender fingers. "I wonder how long I have to live. One—five—ten years? What puppets we humans are—what puppets! Born without permission, dying when it is neither pleasant nor convenient, we are made to march or crawl through life on the edge of a precipice from which at any moment we may be knocked over. And we're told we should believe the experience is a privilege!" Both hands were lifted. "A privilege! Mary thinks it is, thinks parts of it very pleasant, but Mary never was a field in which she didn't find a four-leaf clover, and I never saw one in which I did. 'Look for it,' she tells me." She shook her head. "It isn't that. The pitiful part of life is when one cares so little for what life gives!"
The tips of her fingers were brought together, then opened and shut mechanically. "And once I cared so much! Who doesn't care when they are young and wonderful things are ahead? Who doesn't care? And now to be caring again after the long, long, useless years! To be caring again!"
She closed her eyes and smiled a queer, twisted little smile. "It's got me!" she said. "Old or not, it's got me! and it's a poor life that it doesn't get! But who would have thought at your age, Gibbie Gault, you would let another life do with yours what it will? And that's what you are doing; you are letting Mary Cary do with you what she will! Well, suppose I am?" The keen gray eyes opened with a snap, and without warning stinging tears sprang in them. "Suppose I am? I've been a selfish old fool and shut out the only thing worth the having in life, and do you think now it's given me I am going to turn my back on it? In all this big world sheis the only person who really loves me—the only one I really love. And do you think?"—she nodded fiercely as if to some one before her, then crumpled in a sudden heap in her chair. "Oh, God, don't let her go out of my life! I'm an old woman and she's all I've got! All I've got!"
For some moments she lay still, then reached out for her handkerchief. "What a variety of fools one female can be! Sit up and behave yourself, Gibbie Gault! You came near making a bargain with the Lord then, and if there's one thing more than another that must be hard for Him to have patience with it's a person who tries to make a deal with Him. 'Prosper me and I'll pray you' is the prayer of many. 'Keep evil from me; hold death back; take care of me, and I'll build a new church, send out a missionary, give my tenth and over! Don't hurt me, and I'll be good!' Who doesn't pray like that some time or other in life? Well, you came near doing it yourself. Propitiation is an instinct, and money is all some have to offer as a bribe. To love mercy, to deal justly, and to walk humbly with one's Maker are terms too hard for most of us. Much easier to dope one's conscience with money. It's the only thing I've got, money is, and there have been times when I'd have given its every dollar for the thing it couldn't get. I came near mentioning it just now!"
She wiped her eyes resentingly, rubbed her cheeks none too gently, then opened her handkerchief and smoothed it into damp folds.
"Tears! Who would believe Gibbie Gault had a tear duct!" She shook her head. "Gibbie Gault has everything every other woman has, and if she chooses to hide a hungry heart under a sharp tongue whose business is it? People may talk about her as much as they please, but they sha'n't feel sorry for her!" She threw her handkerchief on the table. "What idiots we are to go masquerading through life! All playing a part—all! Pretending not to care when we do care. Pretending we do when we don't. What a shabby little sham most of this thing called life is! What a shabby little sham!"
She changed her position, recrossed her feet and folded her arms. "If Mary were here she would say I needed a pill. Perhaps I need two, but not the pink ones already prepared. Everybody has a pill that's hard to swallow. /My/ pill might go down easily with some, and over theirs I might not blink, but—Well, a pill is a pill; facts are facts, and old age is old age. The thing is to face what is, shake your fist at it if necessary, but never meet it, if disagreeable, half-way. I never meet anything half-way. But it's a cruel trick time plays on us, this making of body and brain a withered, wrinkled thing, whimpering for warmth and food and sleep, and babbling of the past. It's a cruel trick!"
Out on the still air the clock in St. John's church steeple struck twelve strokes with clear deliberation. From the hall below they were repeated, and from the mantel behind her the hour chimed softly. She closed her eyes. "Twelve o'clock! Time for ladies of my age to be in bed. Not going to bed! And my age hasn't yet reached the babbling-of-the-past stage. It will never reach that, Gibbie. Never!"
Was it a hundred or a thousand years ago that she used to sit on this same stool at her father's knees and recite Latin verbs to him, and as reward have him read her tales of breathless adventure and impossible happenings, all the more delicious because forbidden by her prosaic mother? She was seven when her mother died, but she barely remembered her, and had she lived they would hardly have been great friends. Her mother's pride was in pickles and preserves and brandy peaches; in parties where the table groaned, the servants also, and in the looking well after the ways of her household. But of a child's heart and imagination she knew little. She was a true woman, but a housekeeper had taken her place, and neither her father nor herself had been seriously affected by her death.
And what splendid comrades she and her father were after her mother left them! He would let no one teach her but himself, and how he loved to show her off to his friends, putting her on top of the dining-room table and making her recite in Latin bits from an ode of Horace, in French a fable of La Fontaine's, in English a sonnet of Shelley or extracts from Shakespeare's plays, and then letting her dance the heel-and-toe shuffle taught her secretly by the darkies on the place. What a selfish little pig she had been allowed to be! How selfish both of them had been! Their books a passion, travel their delight, most people but persons who bored or bothered, they had lived largely apart, come and gone as they chose, cared little for what others said or thought; and yet when the war came they were back, passionate defenders of their cause, and in their hearts hot hate for those who sought to crush it.
And then it was pride measured its lance with love, and won. The awakening of her womanhood and the mockery of life had come together, hand in hand, and henceforth she was another creature.
In her chair Miss Gibbie shivered. It was not the sudden gust of wind that caused the sudden chill, but the scent of the micrafella roses just under the window which the wind had brought; and her arms, interlocked, were pressed closer to her breast. "Gibbie Gault, what a fool you are!" she said, under her breath. "But how much bigger a fool you were nearly fifty years ago!"
Seventeen. Young, vivid, brilliant, beautiful. Yes, beautiful! Nothing is so beautiful as youth, and she had much more than youth. The gods had been good to her up to then, and then they taunted her, made spring in her heart love for one only—love that must be crushed and killed, for the man who alone could inspire it wore the hated blue, was there to fight against her people, and never must she marry him, she told herself. On a visit North she had met him, and it was a whim of fate that he should be captain of one of the companies taking possession of Yorkburg, with headquarters in the Roy house, next to her own. A whim of fate! Friend and foe they met daily, and battle was never waged more hotly than was theirs. On his part, determination that never yields. On hers, pride that never surrenders. And then one day there was a change of orders. His regiment was sent away and to battle. Lest the horror, the terror of it all undo her, she had bid him go, refused to promise in the years to come she would ever be his wife, and the look on his fine, brave face had followed her through life.
A month later he was brought back and by her order to her house. Fatally wounded, in delirium her name was ever on his lips, but in his eyes blankness. And on her knees by his bed she had twisted in an agony of prayer that for one moment, but one moment, light might come into them that she might pray for pardon ere he died. But no light came and he died, not knowing that for her love, too, was dead.
Again Miss Gibbie stirred, for again she seemed to see herself. This time she was by an open grave. White, rigid, erect, she watched with tearless eyes the lowering, not of a mere body in the ground, but the burying of all youth has the right to ask of life. Out of the future were gone for her the dreams of girlhood and a woman's hopes. The bareness and emptiness of coming years froze the blood in her heart, and when she turned away she lifted her head and bid life do its worst. Nothing could matter now.
Darker than the days of battle were the days of peace, and she made her father close the house and go away. For years they wandered where they would, but always were back for the month of June; and no one remembered that the twenty-first was the date of Colleen McMasters's death, or know that on that day his grave was visited, and there alone a woman yielded to the memories that ever filled her heart.
When her father died life in Yorkburg was impossible. With a tilt of her chin at its dulness, a wave of her hand at its narrowness, and eyes closed to its happy content, she had gone back to London and reopened the house which had become known for her sharp wit, her freedom of speech, and her disregard of persons who had for commendation but inherited position; and there for years had what she called headquarters, but never thought of or spoke of as home.
She pulled her chair closer to the window and, with elbows on its sill and chin on her crossed hands, looked out into the soft silence of the night.
"What a time for seeing clearly, seeing things just as they are, this midnight is, Gibbie Gault! In the darkness wasted time stares you in the face and facts refuse to turn their backs. And you thought once the waste was all the other way—thought you were wise to stand off and watch the little comedies and tragedies, the pitiful strivings for place and power, the sordid struggles for bread and meat, the stupid ones for cap and bells! The motives and masques, the small deceptions and the large hypocrisies of life interested you immensely, didn't they? Take the truth out and face it. You tell other people the truth—tell it to yourself. A selfish old pig, that's what you were, and thinking yourself clever all the while. Clever! And why? Because all your life you have been a student of history, of human happenings, and of man's behavior to his fellow-man, and particularly to woman, you thought you knew life, didn't you? You didn't! Because you were an evolutionist and recognized Nature's disregard of human values, the impartial manifestations of her laws, and the reckoning which their violation demands, you thought science must satisfy. Science doesn't satisfy. With ignorance and superstition, with life's cruelties and injustice, with human helplessness, you could quarrel well, but beyond the sending out of checks to serve as a soothing-syrup to your encumbrance of a conscience what did you ever do to give a lift to anything? Nothing! And the pity is there are many like you!
"'Cui-bono-itis.' That's what you had, Gibbie Gault—'cui-bono-itis.' Bad thing! Almost as hard on the people about you as the 'ego-itis' of to-day. Pity people can't die of their own diseases instead of killing other people with them. Great pity!"
The moon was gone. Only in faint lines of light was the blackness of the sky broken, and as she looked out over the trees in the garden below, and down the street, asleep and still, the scene changed, and no longer was she in Yorkburg, but in the little village of Chenonceaux, at the Inn of Le Bon Laboureur. Her friend, Miss Rawley, of Edinborough, was with her. They were taking their coffee outdoors at a table placed where they could best get the breeze and see the roses climbing over the lattice-work of the little hotel, with its pots of red geraniums in the windows. And in the door the young proprietor was smiling happily, for down the long, straight, tree-lined road an automobile which had just left the chateau was coming, and he had visions of what it would mean.
"I didn't." She nodded her head. "It's a way life has, this bringing of somebody across our path, this taking of somebody out of it, as incidentally as if we were flies. Well, that's what I used to think most of us were. Flies! Those who weren't flies were spiders. Some buzzed, some bit, and all in a net—all! And to think of the way I was taken by the shoulders and turned around! Made to see all I'd been doing was squinting at life with my nose turned up. Just that! Because I had seen the just man perish in his righteousness, and the wicked prosper in his wickedness, I thought, with my ancient friend, that time and chance happeneth to all, and people and pigs had much in common. What an old fool you were, Gibbie Gault! Take your pill! You saw life as you wanted to see it, and, giving nothing to it, got nothing out of it. Right!
"Queer what a kiss can do—just one!" She drew in her breath and felt it all again. The automobile had stopped. A party of Americans had gotten out and, slowly drinking her coffee, she watched them. A man and his wife, two children, a nurse, and a young girl, twenty, perhaps. Something about her, something of glow and vividness and warmth, held her, and a faint memory was stirred. A clear, fresh voice called to the chauffeur as she sprang out of the car and came close to the table near which she was sitting, and then she heard her name spoken in joyous surprise.