Miss Theodosia's Heartstrings
ANNIE HAMILTON DONNELL
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY
WILLIAM VAN DRESSER
To MY HUSBAND
WHO COULD WRITE SO MUCH
BETTER A BOOK AND
DEDICATE IT TO
Slowly her delicate fingers undid the ravages of Stefana's patient endeavors.
"We've all got beautiful names, except poor Elly"
"If you are thinking of putting me anywhere, put me into a story like that"
Evangeline established a stage of action outside the window
Miss Theodosia's Heartstrings
The last utterance was Miss Theodosia Baxter's. She was a woman of few words at all times where few sufficed. One sufficed now. The child on her front porch, with a still childlier child on the small area of her knees, was not a creature of few words, but now extreme surprise limited speech. She was stricken with brevity,—stricken is the word—to match Miss Theodosia's.
Downward, upward, each gazed into the other's surprised face. The childlier child, jouncing pleasantly back and forth, viewed them both impartially.
It was the child who regarded the situation, after a moment of mental adjustment, as humorous. She giggled softly.
"Mercy gracious! How you surprised me' 'n' Elly Precious, an' me 'n' Elly Precious surprised you! I don't know which was the whichest! We came over to be shady just once more. We didn't s'pose you would come home till to-morrow, did we, Elly Precious?"
"I came last night," Miss Theodosia replied with crispness. She stood in her doorway, apparently waiting for something which—apparently—was not to happen. The child and Elly Precious sat on in seeming calm.
"Yes'm. Of course if you hadn't come, you wouldn't be standin' there lookin' at Elly Precious—isn't he a darlin' dear? Wouldn't you like to look at his toes?"
It was Miss Theodosia Baxter's turn to say "Mercy gracious!" but she did not say it aloud. It was her turn, too, to see a bit of humor in the situation on her front porch.
"Not—just now," she said rather hastily. She could not remember ever to have seen a baby's toes. "I've no doubt they are—are excellent toes." The word did not satisfy her, but the suitable adjective was not at hand.
"Mercy gracious! That's a funny way to talk about toes! Elly Precious's are pink as anything—an' six—yes'm! I've made consid'able money out of his toes. Yes," with rising pride at the sight of Miss Theodosia's surprise, "'leven cents, so far. I only charged Lelia Fling a cent for two looks, because Lelia's baby's dead. I've got three cents out o' her; she says five of Elly Precious's remind her of her baby's toes. Isn't it funny you can't make boys pay to look at babies' toes, even when they's such a lot? Only just girls. Stefana says it's because girls are ungrown-up mothers. Mercy gracious! speakin' of Stefana an' mothers, reminds me—"
The shrill little voice stopped with a suddenness that made the woman in the door fear for Elly Precious; it seemed that he must be jolted from his narrow perch.
Miss Theodosia had wandered up and down the world for three years in be search of something to interest her, only to come home and find it here upon the upper step of her own front porch. She stepped from the doorway and sat down in one of the wicker rockers. She had plenty of time to be interested; there was really no haste for unpacking and settling back into her little country rut.
"What about 'Stefana and mothers'?" she prodded gently. A cloud had settled on the child's vivid little face and threatened to overshade the childlier child, as well. "I suppose 'Stefana' is a Spanish person, isn't she?" The name had a definitely foreign sound.
"Oh, no'm—just a United States. We're all United States. Mother named her; we've all got beautiful names, except poor Elly. Mother hated to call him Elihu, but there was Grandfather gettin' older an' older all the time, an' she dassen't wait till the next one. She put it off an' off with the other boys, Carruthers an' Gilpatrick—he's dead. She just couldn't name any of 'em Elihu, till Grandfather scared her, gettin' so old. She was afraid there wouldn't be time, an' there wasn't any to spare. Grandfather's dead now—she's thankful enough she didn't wait any longer. He was so pleased. He said be could depart this life easier, leavin' an Elihu Flagg behind him. An', anyway, Mother says Elly can call himself his middle name, if he'd ruther, when he's twenty-one—his middle name's Launcelot."
Elihu Launcelot, at this juncture, toppled over against the little flat breast of his nurse, asleep—or in a swoon; Miss Theodosia had her fears. There seemed sufficient swooning cause.
"Stefana," she prompted again, her interest advancing at a rapid pace, "and mothers—"
"Stefana's our oldest. She's goin' to run us while Mother's away. She's got a job before her! All I can do is 'tend Elly Precious—we're all boys, but us. But, of course, runnin' the family isn't the real trouble—not what made Mother cry."
Miss Theodosia sat forward in her chair.
"What made Mother cry?" she asked. The child shifted her heavy burden the better to turn her head. She regarded the beautiful white lady gloomily.
"You," she stated briefly.
This time Miss Theodosia said it aloud and with a surprising ease, as if of long custom—"Mercy gracious!"
"Oh, I didn't mean you're to blame; you can't help Aunt Sarah tumblin' down the cellar stairs an' Mother not bein' able to do you up."
"Yes'm—white-wash you. Mother was sure you'd let her, an' we were goin' to send Carruthers to a deaf 'n' dumb school after you'd wore white clo'es enough. He isn't dumb, but he's deaf. He can't hear Elly Precious laugh—only yell. Mother heard that you always wore white dresses an' she most hugged herself—she hugged us. She said you'd prob'ly find out what a good white-washer she was an' let her white-wash you. But, now, Aunt Sarah's went an' fell down cellar."
"Whitewash—whitewash?" queried Miss Theodosia.
"Yes'm, you didn't think Mother was a washwoman, did you? Of course she could, but it doesn't pay's well. She only whitewashes—white clo'es, you know, dresses an' shirtwaists. She says it's her talent that the Lord's gave her, an' she's goin' to make it gain ten talents for Carruthers. But Aunt Sarah—"
"Never mind Aunt Sarah. Unless—do you mean your mother has had to go away from home?"
"Yes'm, to see to Aunt Sarah. They were twins when they were babies. Mother cried, because she said of course you'd have to be done up while she was gone, an' so she'd lost you. She said you'd been her bacon light ever since she heard you was comin' home an' wore so many white clo'es."
The garrulous little voice might have run on indefinitely but for the abrupt appearance, here, of a slender girl in an all-enwrapping gingham apron. She came hurrying up Miss Theodosia's front walk.
"Well, Evangeline Flagg, I hope you're blushing crimson scarlet red—helping yourself to folks's doorsteps that's got back from Europe! I hope—" but the newcomer got no further, for, quite suddenly, she found herself blushing crimson scarlet red, in the grip of a disconcerting thought.
"I suppose it's just as bad to help yourself to doorsteps when folks aren't here as when they are," she said slowly, "but you mustn't blame Mother. She'd never've allowed Evangeline and Elly, if we'd had a single sol-i-ta-ry tree. Or been on the shady side. Or had a porch. Elly's been pindly, and Mother felt obliged to save his life. It's been terribly hot. Here, Evangeline Flagg, you give Elly here, an' you run home an' keep the soup-kettle from burning on. Don't you wait until it smells! I've got an errand to do here."
The child, Evangeline, relinquished her burden and turned slowly away. But she halted at the foot of the steps.
"This is Stefana," she introduced politely. "Stefana, you ain't goin' to? You look 'xactly as if you was. Mercy gracious!"
"Yes," Stefana returned gravely, "I am. Now, you go. Remember the soup!"
Miss Theodosia's interested gaze left the retreating little figure and came back to Stefana and Elly Precious. She was pleasantly aware of her own immaculate daintiness in her crisp white dress. Only Theodosia Baxter would have dreamed of arraying herself in white to unpack and settle. Her friends declared she made a fetich of her white raiment; it was a well-known fact among them that she was extremely "fussy" about its laundering.
"One, two, three," counted the slender girl, over the baby's bald little head, "only three tucks, an' the lace not terribly full on the edges. I'm thankful there aren't any ruffles, but, there, I suppose there are on some o' the others, aren't there? I'll have to manage the ruffles. I mean, if—oh, I mean, won't you please let me do you up? Just till Aunt Sarah's bone knits—so to save you for Mother? I'll try so hard! If I don't, Charlotte Lovell will—she's the only other one. She's a beautiful washer and ironer, but none of her children are deaf, and she hasn't any, anyway. I didn't dare to come over and ask you, but I kept thinking of poor Mother and how she's been 'lotting on earning all that money. There, I've asked you—please don't answer till I've counted ten. When we were little, Mother always said for us to; it was safer. One, two, three—" she counted rapidly, then swung about facing Miss Theodosia. "You can say 'no,' now," she said, with a difficult little smile.
Miss Theodosia had been, in a way, counting ten herself. She had had time to remember her very strict injunctions to those to whom she entrusted her beloved white gowns—to pull out the lace with careful fingers, not to iron it; to iron embroidered portions over many thicknesses of flannel, and never, never, never on the right side; to starch the dresses just enough and not too much. All these thoughts flashed through her mind while Stefana counted ten. But it was without accompaniment of injunctions that Miss Theodosia answered on that wistful little stroke of ten. In her soul she felt the futility of injunctions.
"Yes," answered Miss Theodosia.
Stefana whirled, at the risk of Elihu Launcelot.
"Oh—oh, what? You mean I can do you up, honest? Starch you, and iron you, too—of course, I could wash you. Oh, if I could drop Elly Precious I'd get right up and dance!"
"Give Elly Precious to me, and go ahead, my dear," said the White Lady with a smile.
But Stefana shook her head. She was covertly studying the white dress once more. It was very white—she could detect no promising spots or creases, and she drew a sigh even in the midst of her rejoicing. If a person only sat on porches, in chairs, how often did white dresses need doing up? Miss Theodosia interpreted the sigh and look.
"Oh, I've three of them rolled up in my trunk; aren't three enough to begin on? And shirtwaists—I'm sure I don't know how many of those. I'll go and get them now."
In the hall she stopped at the mirror, jibing at the image confronting her. "You've done it this time, Theodosia Baxter! When you can't bear a wrinkle! But, there, don't look so scared—daughters inherit their mothers' talents, plenty of times. And you need only try it once, of course."
After Stefana had gone away, doubly laden with clothes and bulky baby, Miss Theodosia remained on her porch. She found herself leaning over and parting her porch-vines, to get a glimpse of the little house next door. She had always loathed that little house with its barefaced poverties and uglinesses, and it had been a great relief to her to have it stand vacant in past years. She had left it vacant when she started upon her last globe-trotting. Now here it was teeming with life, and here she was aiding and abetting it! What new manner of Theodosia Baxter was this?
"You'd better get up and globe-trot again, Woman, and not unpack," she uttered, with a lone woman's habit of talking to herself. "You were never made to live in a house like other people—to sit on porches and rock. And certainly, Theodosia Baxter, you were never made to live next to that little dry-goods box. It will turn you gray, poor thing." She felt a gentle pity for herself, then gentle wrath seized her. Why had she come home, anyway? Already she was lonely and restless. Why—could anybody tell her why—had she weakly yielded to two small girls? Her dear-beloved white dresses! And she could not go back on her promise—not on a Baxter promise! There was, indeed, the release of going away again, back to her globe-trotting—
"I might write to Cornelia Dunlap," Miss Theodosia thought. "Maybe she is sorry she came home, too."
Cornelia Dunlap had been her recent comrade of the road. They had traveled to many far places together. What would Cornelia say to that little conference of three—and a baby—on the front porch?
"My dear," wrote Miss Theodosia, "you will think I have been swapped in my cradle since I left you! 'That is no fellow tramp of mine,' you will say, 'That woman being victimized by children in knee-high dresses! Theodosia Baxter nothing!'"—for Cornelia Dunlap in moments of surprise resorted sometimes to slang, which she claimed was a sturdy vehicle of speech. "You will set down your teacup hard," wrote on Miss Theodosia,—"I know you are drinking tea!—when I tell you the little story of the Whitewashing of Theodosia Baxter. But shall I tell it? Why expose Theodosia Baxter's weaknesses when hitherto she has posed as strong? Soberly, Cornelia, I am as much surprised at myself as you will be (oh, I shall tell it!). Do you remember your Mother Goose? The little astonished old lady who took a nap beside the road and woke to find her petticoats cut off at her knees? 'Oh, lawk-a-daisy me, can this be I!' cried she. I'm not sure those were just her words, but they will do. Oh, lawk-a-daisy me, can this be Theodosia Baxter! The Astonished Little Old Lady, if I remember my Mother Goose, resorted to the simple expedient of going home and letting her little dog decide if she were she. But I have no little dog.
"They were so earnest to whitewash me, Cornelia! The whole scheme was such a plucky little one and Baxters, from the dawn of creation, have admired pluck. The lively, chatterbox-one was 'Evangeline' and the quiet one who should have been an Evangeline was what the other one ought to have been,—a 'Stefana,' suggestive of flashing, dark eyes under a lace mantilla, with ways to match the eyes. So does fate play her little jokes. The baby—but what do I know of babies or you know of babies? He had six toes and I might have seen them for nothing; so do we miss our opportunities. He was named for his grandfather just in time, but the name, my dear, the name! Elihu. Are you listening? Elihu! But they offered him the assuaging 'sop' of 'Launcelot' for a middle name, and what could a baby do? Babies are the little scapegoats of mistaken loyalties."
Miss Theodosia was having a good time. Her sober mood had passed. She wrote on enjoyingly, describing the whole little episode to Cornelia Dunlap. The freshening of it in her memory was pleasant. Again she felt the tug of those eager little pleadings. She kept remembering other things about little Elihu Launcelot besides his name and his toes. She remembered how gravely he had looked at her, how tiny and soft his hands were.
"That little box of a house next to mine, Cornelia,—I told you about it. Well, it's as full now as it has been empty, and a little fuller. Dear knows how many it holds! But it's sociable seeing the smoke come out of the chimney; it's friendly."
She had not thought of it as sociable and friendly before. The thought seemed just to have come to her. She was quite cheerful-minded when she finished her letter to Cornelia Dunlap and neatly folded it. If she had but known, she was sorry for Cornelia who was not next door to a friendly little box.
She made tea and sipped it, made golden toast and opened a foreign-looking box of some sort of jelly. While she ate slowly, she slowly made plans. No, she would not have a stay-all-the-time maid—yes, she would move her things into the room facing the next-door house. Until she got tired of watching the sociable thread of smoke, anyway.
It had not occurred yet to Theodosia Baxter that she had not said a word to Cornelia Dunlap about going on their travels again. When it did occur, she suddenly laughed out aloud, but softly.
"I forgot what I began that letter for! I never mentioned going away again! And now—I'm glad. Who wants to go off? 'East, west, hame's best.' Even a hame next door to a little dry-goods box."
Of course there was the promise to let those funny kiddies whitewash her—
"It's a Baxter promise; don't try to get out of it, Theodosia Baxter," she said.
The next noon she saw her dresses dangling from the neighboring clothesline. They were not successfully dangled; Miss Theodosia liked to see them hung with symmetry, all alike in a seemly row. The shirtwaists dangled also in unseemly attitudes. One hung by a single sleeve. But that was not all—a certain faint suggestion of something worse than lack of symmetry persisted in Miss Theodosia's mind. They had been especially travel-stained, soiled; they had still an air of soil and travel-stain. They didn't look clean!
Miss Theodosia groaned. "It may be blueing streaks," she said, but there was little comfort in blueing streaks. She got her opera glasses and peered through them at her beloved dresses. Brought up at close range, they were certainly blue-streaked, and there was plain lack of the snowy whiteness her stern washing-creed demanded.
At intervals, small figures issued from the house and circled about the clotheslines, inspecting their contents critically. Miss Theodosia saw one of them—it was the child of her doorstep—lay questionable hold (it must be questionable!) upon a delicate garment and examine a portion of it excitedly. She saw the child dart back to the house and again issue forth, dragging the slender young washerwoman. Together they examined. Miss Theodosia caught up her glasses and brought the little pair into the near field of her vision; she saw both anxious young faces. The face of Stefana was strained and careworn.
Miss Theodosia was thirty-six years old, and all of the years had been comfortable, carefree ones. In the natural order of her pleasantly migratory, luxurious life, she had rarely come into close contact with careworn or strained faces; this contact through the small, clear lenses seemed startlingly close. Stefana's lean and anxious face, the child's baby-bent little back, like the back of an old woman—it was at these Miss Theodosia looked through her pearl glasses. She forgot to look at the garment the children examined so troubledly. Suddenly, Miss Theodosia Baxter—traveler, fortune-favored one—found herself as anxious for the success of Stefana's stout little project as the two young people within her field of view, but, suddenly and unaccountably, from a new motive. The slim, worn-looking little creature,—and that tinier, tired little creature—must not fail! The stout project should succeed!
Stefana carried the disputed garment back into the house and rewashed it; it was dripping wet when she again dangled it beside the others. Several times during the afternoon this process was repeated, until, at nightfall, the entire wash dripped, rewashed and soggy. Miss Theodosia nodded her head approvingly; she had her reasons for being glad that the wash was to remain out overnight.
It was a starless, moonless night—a night to prowl successfully about clotheslines.
Miss Theodosia prowled. The little dry-goods box full of children was a small, vague blur, a little darker than the darkness. The children slept the profound sleep of childhood and childhood's unbelonging toil. Sleep was smoothing Stefana's roughened little nerves with gentle hand and fortifying her courage for yet more strenuous toils to come. Evangeline's weary little arm—and tongue—were resting.
Miss Theodosia prowled softly, to avoid disturbing the little box-house. She had the guilty conscience of the prowler that sent her heart into her mouth at the crackling of a twig under her feet. She found herself listening, holding her breath in a small panic. No sound of wakened sleepers, but there must be no more twigs.
"I must add a postscript to Cornelia Dunlap's letter," she thought. "This would make a thrilling wind-up! Cornelia would say, 'Lawk-a-daisy me, it can't be Theodosia Baxter!' She wouldn't need any little dog."
Safe in her own house once more, Miss Theodosia breathed a sigh of relief. Saved! But there was another trip yet to be made to that region behind the vague little blur of a box. It was too soon to be relieved.
"What I've done once I can do twice," boasted Miss Theodosia, undaunted, though at the approach of her second prowling expedition, her courage waned unexpectedly. "I mean if I have a cup of tea—strong," she weakly appended to her boast. It would take her longer out there the second time. She really needed tea.
Miss Theodosia retired at eleven, tired but contented. She even smiled at her sodden fingers—when had Miss Theodosia Baxter's fingers been sodden before!
The next morning, the child and the childlier child appeared at her porch, where she rocked contentedly.
"She's ironin' 'em!—Stefana's ironin' 'em! No, I can't sit down; she said not to. She's ironed one dress three times. It's funny how irons stick, isn't it? No, not funny—mercy gracious! You oughter see Stefana's cheeks, an' she's burnt both thumbs—I'm keepin' Elly Precious out o' the way, an' she's forbid Carruthers comin' in a step. She'll get 'em ironed, Stefana will. You can't discourage Stefana! Last night I kind of thought you could, but the clo'es whitened out beautiful in the night. Stefana said it was the night air. There wasn't a single streak left this mornin'. We're goin' to keep your money in Mother's weddin' sugar-bowl, an' when she comes back, we're goin' to ask her if she don't want some sugar!"
All day Stefana toiled and retoiled. It was night when she sent one of the children to Miss Theodosia with her day's work. The one who came was Carruthers, chatty and deaf. Miss Theodosia did not have to do any talking.
"Stefana says there's some smooches, but the worst ones come under your arms an' where they's puckers. The wrinkles Stefana hopes you'll excuse—they'll air 'out, she expects. She was comin' over an' explain, herself, but she's gone to bed. Evangeline's gone, too, to keep the baby quiet. Stefana says you needn't pay as much's you expected to, 'count o' the smooches an' wrink—"
"I always pay the same price for my dresses," Miss Theodosia said, forgetful of the boy's affliction. She put the money into the hard little palm of Carruthers and watched him scamper home with it. Miss Theodosia looked happy. She felt pleasant little tweaks at her heartstrings as if small grimy hands were ringing them, playing a tender little tune. Scorched, blundering young hands—Stefana's. The little tune rang plaintive in her ears. She had a vision of Stefana toiling over the ironing of her dresses and going to bed exhausted, when the toil was over. Miss Theodosia's eyes followed Carruther's retreating little figure till it reached the House of Little Children and disappeared from view. What had she, Theodosia Baxter, to do with houses of little children? Since when had they possessed attractions for her—held her tender, brooding gaze? What was she doing here now, gazing? Theodosia Baxter!
Stefana had folded the dresses painstakingly in separate newspaper bundles and stacked them on Carruther's outstretched arms. They were stacked now on Miss Theodosia's porch. She picked them up and turned with them into the house.
"I'll unfold them," she thought, "and shake them out. I must tell her to send them home without folding next time—or I can go and get them myself."
Unpinning Stefana's many pins, she lifted out one of the dresses. It creaked starchily under her hands; it opened out before Miss Theodosia's horrified vision. She uttered a groan.
Where, now, was that tender little heart-string tune?
Miss Theodosia saw pink. Near-anger surged up within her at this ruinous, this piteous result of Stefana's toil. The result dangled creaksomely from her hands, revealing new wrinkles and smooches and leprous patches of starch at every motion. What was in this bundle would be in the rest—there was no hope.
In Theodosia Baxter's little girlhood, she had played there were two "'Dosies," a good one and a bad one. The Good 'Dosie was often away from home, but was sometimes apt to appear at unexpected moments, to the embarrassment of the Bad 'Dosie. Stamp her foot as she would, Bad 'Dosie could not always drive the unwelcome intruder away.
"I don't like her!" the small sinner had once been heard to say. "She—she p'eaches at me!"
The Good 'Dosie was preaching now.
"Wait! Count ten!" she preached. "Don't get any angrier, or you'll see red instead of pink. Think of that poor child's burned thumbs—think of her having to take to her bed when she got through—"
"I don't wonder!" snapped Bad 'Dosie.
"Wait—wait! Aren't you going to be good? Do you remember what you used to do, to help out? Well?"
Miss Theodosia dropped the starchy mass on top of the other newspaper bundles and rather suddenly sat down in a chair. She saw a little child, preached to and penitent, on her knees, with folded hands, saying "Now I lame me down to sleep."
It was very still in the room. Miss Theodosia's eyes closed and opened again. It was as if she had said "Now I lame me." A little smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. She no longer saw even pink.
She got up briskly and began turning back her cuffs. First, she would build the kitchen fire; it must roar and snap, with all the work it had to do to-night. She would heat a lot of water, for only boiling water could take out Stefana's awful starch. While the water was heating, she would eat her supper.
"A good, big supper, it will have to be," smiled this gentled Miss Theodosia. "I've got to get up my strength! No tea-and-toast-and-jam supper to-night." She heated her gridiron smoking hot and broiled a bit of steak. She tossed together little feathery biscuit and made coffee, fragrant and strong. Momently, Miss Theodosia's strength "got up." She moved about the kitchen briskly—when had she launched out upon a night's work like this? Adventure!—call it adventure.
Work to Miss Theodosia had always meant something that other people did,—the Stefanas and their mothers and brothers and fathers. What she herself did, a gentle, dilatory playing at work, hardly merited the name. A bit of dusting, tea-and-toasting, making her own bed, cooking for sheer love of cooking, what did they count in Miss Theodosia's summing up of tasks?
Always there had been some one to do her heavy things. She had put her washings out and taken her dinners in; three times a week she was swept and scrubbed and made immaculate.
But to-night—to-night was different. This was to be no playing at work. Miss Theodosia rose to the occasion gallantly—indeed, exultantly. Thrills of enthusiasm ran up, ran down her spine. She prepared for a night of it.
The dresses immersed in steaming hot water and her supper eaten, she stretched drying-lines, with considerable difficulty, from corner to corner of her kitchen, prepared an ironing-board, and got out long-idle irons. At eight o'clock she stopped for breath. Stefana's starch still resisted all inducements to part with Miss Theodosia's dresses; more hot water was required. After another steamy bath, they were cooled and wrung and draped over the crisscross clotheslines in the hot kitchen. Then Miss Theodosia temporarily retired from the field of battle.
Theodosia Baxter had come back from her travelings to this small ancestral town with a mildly disturbing taste in her mouth. "Settling down" at thirty-six was not at all to her mind; she would not settle down!
"If I catch you doing it, Theodosia Baxter!" she said. "If I catch you growing old! The minute you feel it coming on, you pack up and start for Rome! Or Paris! Or Turkistan! Start for Anywhere! Keep going!"
But, already, did she feel it coming on even before all her trunks were unpacked? She was a little frightened at certain signs. Now, when she sat down heavily—why did she sit down heavily? If some one had called upon her for scores of little services, so that she must hop up again, immediately—little piping voices: "Mother, where's my cap?" "Mother, make Johnnie stop plaguing me!" "Mother, come quick!" If a big John had come home to her, demanding her time or sympathy or service—
"No little Johns—no big one!" She sighed. "Is that the matter with you, Theodosia Baxter? Well, for Heaven's sake, don't tell anybody! Keep a bold front."
She dozed a little in her rocker while she waited. Her plaintive reveries took the shape of a sober little dream wherein one Theodosia Baxter tottered on a cane and another walked briskly and youngly among Johns. Both Theodosias were thirty-six.
"Mercy!" she exclaimed, waking up. "Where's my cane? I must go and iron Stefana's dresses!" She felt oddly refreshed. Queer dream to refresh one! She found herself thinking kindly of Stefana.
"I hope she's sound asleep, and a pitying little girl angel with a nurse's cap under her halo will slip down and cure her thumbs before she wakes up."
The irons she had set to heating were much too hot. Should she run out-of-doors while one of them cooled, and lie in wait to catch the little nurse-angel on the wing or perhaps darting thrillingly down to Stefana on a shooting star, breaking all speed limits! This was a night for adventure. The wild ride of a becapped and haloed little celestial in goggles would be an adventure! Miss Theodosia laughed out girlishly, not at all a tottery laugh on a cane, and the pleasant sound broke the midnight stillness.
The dresses were dry enough to roll into tight bundles. One she essayed to iron as it was. She began as soon as the iron was cool enough.
Miss Theodosia toiled—adventured—through the long hours into the short. It was unaccustomed toiling, and, like Stefana, she burned her thumbs. She had judgment and the skill that age kindly lends, in her favor, and slowly her delicate fingers undid the ravages of Stefana's patient endeavors and brought beauteous perfection out of apparent ruin. But the process was wearying and long. It would have been but half the labor to have begun at the beginning instead of at Stefana's poor little end.
At midnight, Miss Theodosia made herself cups of tea and sipped them thirstily. A wrist, both thumbs, and her testing forefinger smarted; she was tired and disheveled. But the spirit of adventure refused to die.
The fire burned red-hot and the irons must cool again. Miss Theodosia slipped out this time into the soft darkness.
"Let us hope Aunt Sarah will 'knit fast,'" she was thinking, with whimsical eyes. "But if she doesn't—Theodosia Baxter, dear, if Aunt Sarah is a slow knitter, you are in for it! I've no idea of letting you off. Baxters that begin, end."
It was dim starshine out-of-doors. Miss Theodosia was too late to see the nurse-angel riding on her star, her little cap and halo awry with the downhill glide through space. She was too late to see her go into the dark little House of Children—but she saw her come out. Distinctly, a misty little blur of white against the velvet background. Miss Theodosia started a very little—did she need pinching to wake her?
For the space of a clock-tick the little celestial appeared to hesitate, as though waiting for her star-steed to come within her hail. Then, floatingly, not walking, it seemed to Miss Theodosia, the mist of blurry white drew nearer. It came near to Miss Theodosia, and it was not the nurse-angel in cap and shining halo. It was Stefana!
The child was in her nightgown. One look into her wide, unseeing eyes was enough; Stefana was asleep. In a chattering little voice she was talking to herself. It was like a soft wail of sound.
"I must get them back! Quick, before she sees; I must iron them over. Perhaps if I starched them again—another coat of starch might hide the smooches. She mustn't see the smooches! If Mother should lose the chance—oh, I must get 'em back and starch 'em another coat! Mother mustn't lose her! My thumbs ache so!"
Was she coming straight toward the door? No, a fortunate whiff of breeze seemed to blow her aside like a little seed-puff, and she went drifting by. She was apparently searching anxiously.
"I must find them! Quick, before she sees! Oh, there are the smooches. I see some of the smooches! But I can't find the rest of them—"
Miss Theodosia sprang forward in the direction of the pathetic little figure, but almost as quickly caught herself up. Sleepwalkers were not to be awakened suddenly. What then was to be done?
"I must get her back to bed without letting her wake," thought Miss Theodosia. A plan suggested itself. She caught of her large apron, rolled it into a bulky mass, and swiftly followed the small nightgowned figure. Her steps made no sound over the grass. It was but the work of an instant to lay the roll of apron in Stefana's arms. Instantly, at the feel of starched cloth in her hands, the tense little face relaxed.
"I've got 'em back!" Stefana muttered, and, as if from the relief of it, the troubled sleep seemed to calm and quiet down into deep oblivion to all troubles. To Miss Theodosia's dismay Stefana slid quietly to the ground and dreamlessly slept. Here, indeed, was adventure! Even at twelve years and Stefana small, the child was too heavy to carry home.
"I don't dare to wake her," Miss Theodosia cried aloud, but softly, as if in fear of doing so.
"You needn't—hush! I'll carry her for you."
The voice seemed to materialize out of the gloom into something big and high and unexpectedly close at hand that rightly should have startled Miss Theodosia but failed to do so. Afterward, in the house again, among her irons, she was startled.
"I was going by and saw her—you can tell a sleepwalker by the way one walks. Glides. Now, when I lift her, gently support her head—that's it. Forward, march!"
"This way," Miss Theodosia directed in a whisper, though he was already moving this way. Shadow Man that he was, he stepped earthily, with thuds of his feet on the grass. Miss Theodosia's footsteps were soft echoes. So they came to the little House of Flaggs.
"There's a light in that inside room, and I can see a bed. I'll lay her down, and you can go in afterward—and—er—smooth her out."
"Yes—yes, I'll wait out here," whispered Miss Theodosia with a curious solemnity in her face. Rome, nor Paris, nor Anywhere had offered adventure like this—not like this. Miss Theodosia had an odd feeling that this, too, was a dream—and a John. Would they all wake up together?
"Sound as a nut—never knew what hit her! But she wants straightening. New work for me; I'm not used to putting kiddies to bed."
"Oh, I'm not either!" breathed Miss Theodosia, "but I might straighten one. I don't suppose you—you kissed her thumbs? Of course not!" She laughed softly. "But I shall."
Now it was the Shadow Man's turn to laugh with a funny, explosive little effect as though he were not used to muffling his laughs,—as if this playing Shadow Man were a new role.
"Why thumbs?" he whispered. "Why not lips, say, or eyes? I thought women kissed kiddies' eyes. Hope I haven't made a mistake—" as if he had some secret desire for women to kiss the eyes of little children. "If you don't mind kissing 'em when you go in there—"
"I shall kiss her thumbs," Miss Theodosia said firmly. "They were burned at the stake for me. I know how burned thumbs feel."
But the Shadow Man stubbornly persisted.
"I'll tell you what," he said. "I'll go back now and kiss her thumbs, if you'll kiss her eyes when you go in; as—er—a favor. 'Stoop over the little sleeper,' you know, and 'press your mother's lips to the closed blue orbs.'" He seemed to be quoting something.
"But I haven't any mother's lips," sighed Miss Theodosia, "only the kind for thumbs—just thumbs. I'm sorry," she added humbly. Curiously she experienced no surprise at this intimate turn of a conversation with a Shadow Man at midnight.
"That's all right—that's all right," the Shadow Man assured her. "Only thought I'd feel a little better to prove it was done that way. Hadn't any business mixing up with women's lips and kiddies' orbs, anyway! Serves me right." And now it was his turn to be humble. "Good night," and he was gone.
It was into a tiny bedroom off the kitchen, where a needle of light from a turned-down lamp barely pricked the darkness, that Miss Theodosia found her way. She had a dim picture of littering little clothes about the room and on the flat pillows of the bed the round, flushed face of Evangeline. In a clothes basket beside the bed she dimly saw a little mound that might be Elly Precious—it was Elly Precious! The little mound stirred with a curious, nestling sound, and instantly Stefana stirred also and crooned. Even in her sleep she was the little Mother. Miss Theodosia felt her own throat tighten and fill.
Stefana still clasped the bundle of apron in her arms, and Miss Theodosia did not dare try to take it away from her. She merely arranged it a little more comfortably and smoothed Stefana out. Queer!—as if at some other time, in some passed-by existence, she had smoothed out a child. She seemed to know how. Suddenly she stooped and kissed, not Stefana's thumbs but her eyes.
"The starch!" murmured Stefana as Miss Theodosia turned away. "Some'dy get it!" The deep sleep had broken a little, and through the break trickled a thread of Stefana's troubles. Then, again, silence and peace. No sound from bed or clothes basket on the floor.
Outside, in the faint starlight, Miss Theodosia drew a long breath. She softly laughed. Curious how much like a sob a little laugh can be! Oh, starlit night of adventuring! What next? Miss Theodosia's mantle of gentle melancholy slid from her shoulders; she no longer felt apprehensions of growing old. Continually she saw Evangeline's rosy face on that flat pillow, and the little mound of Elly Precious. She remembered how tiny the house had looked from the inside, and how many little littering clothes she had seen. The appealing quality of empty little clothes! In Miss Theodosia's inside room of her soul, something stirred behind the locked door.
The irons had cooled too much, and the fire was low. Miss Theodosia went to work again. As she worked, she talked to herself sociably.
"Adventures thicken! Stars, and angels in caps, and children that walk in their little sleeps! And little heaps in clothes baskets, that are babies! And—Theodosia Baxter—a Man! Out of a clear, inky sky! Why weren't you scared? How do you know—you never even saw his face—maybe he was a thief, and a marauder, and a thug!"
Granted, if thieves and marauders and those awful things, thugs, carry little loads or sleep as tenderly as women—and never wake them; if they are polite and say good night—. What kind of marauding and—and thugging is that?
"What will Stefana think when she finds my apron in bed with her!" suddenly laughed Miss Theodosia, breaking the spell. "Funny Stefana! she goes to my heart, she and her starch—when they're asleep!"
But, awake, Stefana's starch went to Miss Theodosia's back and aching bones. It was three o'clock when she was ready to go to bed. Over chairs and the couch in her sitting-room, lay the three redeemed white dresses, soft again and very smoochless and smooth. Miss Theodosia stood and admired. She was full of pride and weariness. At last, at thirty-six, she had done real work; she loved the feel of it in her tired bones. She loved her night of adventuring. Life—she loved that. So she went to bed at three, when the birds were beginning to get up. If her throat—calm and grown-up throat—had not persistently tightened, she would have gone to sleep laughing at the remembrance of it all. All the funny night. Why wasn't it funny? Why couldn't she laugh? She sat up in bed.
On the morning after her adventurous night, as Miss Theodosia lingered luxuriously over her late breakfast, came bursting in Evangeline Flagg. A gray-checked something waved from her hand like a flag of truce. Evangeline always burst into things—houses, and rooms, and excited little speech.
"Here it is!—that is, if it's yours. Stefana says to ask. 'Tain't ours. Mercy gracious, no! We don't take our aperns to bed. Stefana never heard of such a thing. Neither o' us never. In bed—right straight in bed! An' Stefana hugging it up like everything! She says to ask you if it's yours because it ain't ours, nor anybody else's, an' it's got to be somebody's apern, and once I thought I saw a gray 'n' white one hanging through your window—I mean on a nail, but, mercy gracious, what was it doing in bed with me an' Stefana!"
Even Evangeline's breath had limitations. She stopped as headlong as she had begun. She unwound the large, voluminous-skirted apron from her grasp and extended it.
"Here 'tis, if it's yours," she gasped, spent. She was gazing at it with a species of awe; it was an "apern" of mystery, not a human apern. "An' if 't isn't, take it—Stefana said not to dare to bring it back. We—we're sort of afraid of it, honest. Though, of course, Stefana says it must 've blew in the window"—the tide of speech was coming in once more—"an'—an' sort of landed on the bed, an' Stefana kind of grabbed it in her sleep, thinking it was Elly Precious. But, mercy gracious!"
"Sit down," Miss Theodosia said, smiling. "Doesn't it tire you to talk as fast as that?"
"Some," admitted Evangeline, "but I don't mind. What I mind is ghosts—aperns an' the kind with—with legs." She dropped her voice. "I saw one las' night."
"Mercy gracious!" Miss Theodosia breathed.
Evangeline nodded solemnly. "Out the window. I woke up feelin' one, an' I saw it goin' across the grass. White. Slinky."
"Oh, not—slinky!" protested Miss Theodosia, suddenly championing the ghost-with-legs.
"Slinky," firmly. "I guess I'd a-screeched right out if I hadn't remembered the baby. Elly Precious is terrible hard to put to sleep second time. You aren't much acquainted with babies, are you?"
Again—so soon! Miss Theodosia's humility returned.
"We're acquainted, over to our house! Mother says babies are great edge—edge—"
"That's it! Mercy gracious, then I should think Mother'd be graduated!"
After Evangeline's departure, Miss Theodosia set down her coffee cup and gave herself up to laughter. The room rang with the pleasant sound of it.
"Will you l-listen to yourself, Theodosia Baxter!" she cried at length, out of breath. "You actually sound happy!"
In the afternoon, a bevy of Miss Theodosia's old friends called on her as she sat on her front porch. They had intended, they said, to wait till the proper time, according to etiquette, for calls upon returned travelers.
"But we wanted to see you so much, after all this time," one of them said. "We decided we couldn't wait to be proper. Besides, it would be such a risk. While we waited, you'd run off again. It was really our only way. Ladies, will you see how lovely and white she looks! Perfectly spotless!" The speaker sighed. Her own dress was dark and spot-colored. "I don't see how you do it! I tell Andrew I'd rather dress in white than in velvet—I love it! But, there, I couldn't get a minute to wear the dresses; it would take all my days to do 'em up. Of course, with you it's different. I don't suppose you ever toiled over an ironing-board a day in your life."
Miss Theodosia gravely shook her head. "No," she said, curious little twinkling lines deepening round her eyes, "I never did—a day—in my life."
"That's what I thought! That's what I told Andrew. 'Theodosia Baxter don't know what work is,' I told him. It's easy enough for some women to wear lovely white things. Simplest thing in the world!"
Miss Theodosia's cryptic little smile lingered on her lips and in the clear windows of her eyes, as she gazed past the voluble wife of Andrew, through her vines, at the little House of Children next door. She imagined she heard Stefana singing, high up and sweet, over her work. Wait!—that was not a singing sound!
A single shriek shot above the clear humming noise that might be Stefana. Then another—a third!
"Some one is hurt!" cried Miss Theodosia, and she kilted her smooth white skirts and ran.
Again that dread shriek! Over her shoulder, as she ran, Miss Theodosia gave directions to her startled callers.
"Telephone for a doctor—any doctor. In the side hall—on a table!" But could any doctor save the life of that terrible shriek? If it came once more—It came! Miss Theodosia involuntarily closed her eyes to shut out a sight of horror.
She opened them hurriedly at the soft collision of herself with Evangeline.
"Who is it? Is it the baby? I've sent for the doctor." Half-remembered, half-read first aids crowded her mind confusedly. Warm water and mustard—that was for hemorrhage—no, no—poison! But did you apply it inside or out? What was that about laying the patient up hill—feet higher—or was it feet lower—down hill?
"Take me there, quick! We must do what we can till the doct—oh, the poor baby!"
"Mercy gracious goodness! Elly Precious is eatin' bread an' molasses. He's only et one slice, an' most o' that's on his outside. They aint' an'thing worse'n molasses the matter with El—"
"There! Oh, there!" As another mournful cry split the air.—"Oh, that! What is it? Who is it?"
"Mercy gra—why, that's Carruthers bein' a steam whistle. Did he scare you? He does do it pretty loud when he's gettin' up steam; you see, he don't know how loud he does it, because he's deaf o' hearin'. We can't bear to lower him, but we only let him be a steam whistle for a treat—when he's 'specially good—Mother said to. Stefana found him washin' his face 'free greatest' this mornin', so she let him—.Quick, shut your ears! He's goin' off again!"
'But, this time, Miss Theodosia heard, unalarmed. To her own surprise, she listened almost enjoyingly. To be able to make a noise like that! The sheer vitality and youth of it compelled admiration.
"If I could do that—" began Miss Theodosia's thought, then broke off hastily as the mental vision of herself in the act of bein' a steam whistle appeared to her.
"You do it this way," explained Evangeline, inserting a forefinger in each corner of her mouth and preparing to steam-whistle.
"No, no, I don't do it any way!" Miss Theodosia protested smilingly. "Do you think—do you think, perhaps, he has been sufficiently rewarded for washing his own face, now? Because, you see, I have callers on my porch."
"Mercy gracious—I see 'em! I'll go right an' stop Carruthers! That's what Stefana said—that we'd ought to remember you wasn't in Europe now."
"I think I could hear steam whistles there!" Miss Theodosia smiled. But Evangeline's sober mind continued its line of thought.
"Stefana says if you'll hang somethin' red out when you're asleep, or got callers, or anythin', then she'll make us play funeral."
"Oh, no—not that!" No red flag of warning could justify playing funeral.
"Well, Hold-Your-Breath, then. We can't make much noise holding our breaths! Stefana's the champion Hold-Your-Breath-er. You take an awful long breath—this way—" But, already, Miss Theodosia was on her way home. She found her callers moving agitatedly about. "Central asked what doctor, and for the life of me I couldn't remember a living doctor's name in this town. 'Anybody,' I told her. 'Tell him to come quick; somebody must be dying over to the little Flagg place."
Miss Theodosia lifted a hand to stem the tide of Mrs. Andrew's words.
"He's stopped dying—listen! It's all quiet now; it was only play. I'll head Central off. Excuse me a minute—I mean, another minute!"
But Central had done her work well—beyond heading-off. Already an automobile was speeding up the road; behind it clattered a hurriedly-driven buggy. Miss Theodosia saw them both stopping at the little Flagg place. She smiled. She was not needed over there to make any explanations or apologies—Evangeline was there!
She sat on her porch after the visitors had gone, thinking strange Miss Theodosia thoughts. A man, coming up her front path and lifting a soft felt hat, interrupted the strangest thought of all.
"I beg your pardon. Is this where somebody needs help? I was told—"
Miss Theodosia laughed outright.
"I do need help. Were you ever a steam whistle? You put two fingers in your mouth, one in each corner—I was trying to get up my courage to do it!"
The felt hat rolled down the steps, the stranger needing both his hands.
"Ye-s. I never saw a steam whistle, you know. That was what I was wishing."
"Heard one? Because I can give a demonstration."
"Don't!" Miss Theodosia shut her ears.
"I heard one—demonstration. I thought some one was dying, at least."
"Oh, that was the 'help wanted!' I see. My services are not required, then; it was a false alarm."
Miss Theodosia was on her feet, remembering her manners. "It was a true enough alarm; won't you sit down? I think my nerves need a doctor."
"Did I call myself a doctor? I am a reformed doctor, madam. It is some years since I got out. But I thought, in a very urgent case—fits, you know, or something like that—Thank you, I won't sit down. My work calls me."
Miss Theodosia inclined her head politely, but curiosity seized her. How curious she was getting about many things!
"I wish I knew—" she began.
"What work 'calls' reformed doctors. After they are—out."
The stranger's big, unharnessed laugh was almost startling to Miss Theodosia. Why? She had never heard just such a big, unharnessed laugh before. She had heard a big harnessed laugh—when? Before she could answer her own thought, or the stranger could answer her spoken query, a hurry of small feet sounded. Only Evangeline's feet could break speed limits like that.
"Oh, Miss Theodosia—oh, I don't want to int'rupt, but just soon's he's gone—"
"He's gone," sighed Miss Theodosia, as the child came up. "You mustn't interrupt again, that way, unless it's a very urgent case—fits or something." In spite of proper vexation, she smiled. "Who was that man, Evangeline, that just went away?"
"Oh, I don't know—I wasn't acquainted with his back; that's every speck o' him I saw. Oh! oh! oh!"
"Evangeline Flagg, what is the matter now?"
"'D you ever do up a man, Miss Theodosia? Stiff—awful stiff? Stefana says it's bad enough to do women up. She's havin' a dreadful time! We can't get the stiffness out; I been helpin'. It stands up alone!" Suddenly, without warning, Evangeline went off into a series of shrill shrieks.
"Stop me! Stop me! Don't l-let Stefana hear me! Don't l-let me laugh!"
This was an urgent case—fits or something, surely! Miss Theodosia's eyes sought the horizon for a reformed doctor. In lack of one, she shook Evangeline.
"Stop at once! Make yourself stop; count ten!"
"One! Two-o! Th-ree!" shrieked Evangeline, through to ten. Ten separate shrieks. Then, abruptly, she ceased.
"Mercy gracious, I've stopped! I hope Stefana wasn't listenin'. But she wasn't; she was cryin'. I left her cryin'. If you could come over—. Honest, we can't do a thing! We thought you'd probably did up men."
Miss Theodosia never had. Not so—awful a thing as that!
"It stands up alone, with both arms out! I don't dass to go back. I shall laugh if I do, an' if I laugh, Stefana'll cry. She don't think it's f-funny." The shrieks showed signs of returning, and Miss Theodosia again had recourse to stern measures.
"Count ten!" she demanded, as she shook.
They went back together to the mysterious something that stood alone with both arms out. It was in that pose as they approached it. Miss Theodosia thought it was f—funny; an awful desire to shriek like Evangeline took possession of her. She counted ten in inward haste.
"I can't do anything with it!" wailed poor Stefana. "And Elly Precious gets into it, and makes it walk! He's in it now."
"It's walkin'!" shrieked Evangeline, as the portentously stiff shirt staggered a little to one side. Stefana, filled with enthusiasm and generosity of soul, had starched not the bosom alone but the entire shirt. She had done it thoroughly. The result was alarming. It was a terrible shirt!
"Tell me what to do—somebody tell me!" entreated the little laundress. "I've unstarched it, and unstarched it, and seems as if it got stiffer."
"Boiling water," breathed Miss Theodosia, too spent with her struggles not to laugh, to admit of further speech.
"Wait! Don't anybody dass to pour boilin' water on till I get Elly Precious out! Come to Evangeline this minute, darlin' dear—no, they shan't boil him!"
Elly Precious emerged, crowing. The deaf-but-not-dumb little Flagg appeared, to swell the number around the Terrible Shirt. Stefana dried her tears. Miss Theodosia had the sense of being looked up to—relied upon. She rose to the occasion buoyantly. As unused as Stefana to men's bosoms, she yet stepped into the breach. Unused to issuing orders, she issued them.
"Evangeline, you and Carruthers see to the baby. Stefana, come with me. Bring—it."
They went back to the big house, she with that new and intoxicating sense of importance, and Stefana with the Terrible Shirt.
"Whose is it—that?" she asked, indicating the creaking white garment. "What were you doing with it?"
"Starching it," mumbled poor Stefana. "It took most a package. He said he liked his stiff. 'Put in plenty o' starch,' he said to Mother, and she always did. So I did. I thought if he said—"
"If who said?" It took a long time to establish the identity of the Terrible Shirt.
"If he did, the man it belongs to."
"The man that writes things."
"We don't know exactly. Evangeline thinks tracts. She says his room was all full o' half sheets o' paper—lying all over everywhere. She saw 'Good Lord' on one. Perhaps it's sermons. Mother always sent Evangeline home with his wash; I never went. He is a very nice man—oh, that's why I feel so bad about his shirt! I wouldn't care if he was an—an infidel!"
"Bless your heart!"
Miss Theodosia turned suddenly and embraced Stefana and the shirt. "Don't worry any more," she said; "you and I will work wonders with that Tract Man's shirt! Stefana, put the kettle on and we'll go to it! There's nothing two determined people can't do, once they've put their minds on it."
Together they labored, and the impossible happened. Theodosia Baxter did up a man! She—and Stefana—succeeded in getting the starch out of the surrounding area and into the bosom of the Terrible Shirt. They got much starch in. Inspiration appeared to come to Miss Theodosia. Even the really awful task of ironing that bosom till it glittered and shone in unwrinkled board-like expanse was at length accomplished. Miss Theodosia was justly proud of herself—and of Stefana; she insisted upon including Stefana in her triumphs.
"Eureka!" she exulted. "Call Evangeline, Stefana, and Elly Precious, and Carruthers! Call in a Chinaman, if you like, and tell him to look at that! Ask him to beat it!"
"There isn't any in this town," responded literal Stefana. "That's why Mother did bosoms. She'd a good deal rather not've."
"But I love to do bosoms!" sang Miss Theodosia. "I never felt so worth while in my life before—an artist in starch, Stefana!"
"Well, you've done beautifully—I never did see!" the grateful Stefana cried. "But I'm afraid it's kind of gone to your head. I think you better lie down."
"Send for the Reformed Doctor! Stefana, what are you doing with my beautiful bosom?"
"I won't muss it. I'm just going to take it home and sew the buttons on. There's two off. Mother always sewed 'em on; he pays two cents extra for repairs."
Miss Theodosia's fair face flushed. "You don't stir a step with it! I have buttons and a spool of thread—what I do, I finish doing! Give it to me."
For the first time, Miss Theodosia handled a man's garment intimately. It lay stiffly across her lap. She sewed on the two buttons; she mended a tiny "hog-tear." Life had taken on new interests—bosoms and buttons. She thrilled—when had she ever thrilled before? Ironing her own dresses had been a poor, tame business. She would be sorry to part with this shirt!
And then Evangeline came.
"Mercy gracious, doesn't it look elegant! I came over because he's come for his shirt. He says he's goin' to begin a new story, an' he always has to have a clean shirt on. An' his hair cut—he's got it cut. I guess that bosom'll match his hair all right! It's perfectly lovely!"
"What did you do with Elly Precious, Evangeline Flagg!" demanded Stefana.
"That's it—that's why I got to hurry back. He's keepin' Elly Precious for me, an' he don't know what to do with babies. He says all his are paper ones—paper babies! He gave Elly Precious his knife, an' opened the blades to amuse him! He said he guessed Elly Precious wouldn't hurt 'em!" Evangeline's face registered great scorn. "If you'll give it to me, I'll carry it to him," she concluded, holding out her hand for the shirt. But Miss Theodosia sewed calmly on. She had found a second tear larger than the first. It would be better to strengthen it with a little piece underneath. She would find a white scrap in her bag of pieces.
"It is not ready yet. He can wait. But you must not wait, Evangeline. Elly Precious may be playing with his pistol, if he carries one."
"He don't. He ain't a pistol-man, but, mercy gracious, how you scare me! You comin' too, Stefana?"
"Yes, Stefana can go now. She is all through," which was Miss Theodosia's kind inclusion of Stefana. That, again, was curiously new to Miss Theodosia. Psychological changes were taking place—or were they just plain tugs on Miss Theodosia's heartstrings?
She sat and sewed.
"Patching—I'm patching!" she laughed to herself. "And here I've been hiring my own mending done! Theodosia Baxter, see what you are doing; you are patching a shirt for a man! No, I'm not, either! I'm doing it for Stefana—what are you talking about?"
Some one came up her steps and knocked on her open door. But she was too engrossed to hear. The patch underneath had slipped a little askew. She ripped out some of the stitches and began again. She caught herself humming as she worked.
"Please may I have my shirt?" a voice asked meekly. "That story is promised for next month. It's the twenty-eighth, now."
Evangeline's Tract Man stood in the doorway, soft felt hat in hand, twinkles in his eyes. Evangeline's Tract Man was the Reformed Doctor! If Miss Theodosia had been eighteen instead of thirty-six she would not have blushed more beautifully, but she continued to patch. She was caught in the act; no help for it now. But she would finish—that— patch.
"So it's you! So that's the work Reformed Doctors do!"
"Madam, yes. When stories appeal to them more than pills and tonics, they reform and write stories. They have to!" he cried, suddenly in earnest, "When one is life, and the other death—"
"Oh, if it was death to them—your patients," she murmured. Then, ashamed of her own flippancy: "Of course, I didn't mean anything as silly as that! I meant—I meant, please sit down while I finish this patch. There, in that easy-chair. There are magazines on the table."
There was one magazine with his own name in the list of contents. He opened it at that page and gazed down upon it quite soberly.
"My name is John Bradford," he said, as if reading. Miss Theodosia started a little, but it was not as he thought, in his innocent vanity. Miss Theodosia got no farther than the first part of the name—so he was a John! She glanced quickly at the doorway, measuring him in her mind as he had stood against the lintel. He had reached a long way up—a long man. The Shadow Man had been a long shadow. Something told her—
"Did you ever carry a child in your arms and lay her on a bed? In the middle of the night? Did you do it last night? Are you the same man?"
"I am the same man I was last night," he answered gravely. "I was John Bradford then, too. Didn't I carry her all right? What was the matter?" Suddenly he leaned forward in the chair. "Did you kiss her thumbs?" he demanded.
"I kissed her eyes."
They were silent for a little, while Miss Theodosia set small, nervous stitches in John Bradford's shirt, and John Bradford twiddled the edges of the magazine. He stole glances, now and then, at this strange woman with whom he seemed to have come so oddly into contact. He could make a story of her dark hair, straight shoulders, beautiful hands. He could not get a good view of her full face. Bending over a bed, kissing a little sleeper's eyes—he could work her in that way. If he knew her a little better—
"I knew they did it!"
"Women—kissed that way. You have proved it now."
"I'm not women. I'm just one woman, and I never did it in my life before."
"Well, you liked doing it, didn't you? I could put you in, liking it."
The shirt slid to the floor, and Miss Theodosia gave her visitor a full view of her face.
"Are you making 'copy' of me? Because if you are thinking of putting me anywhere, put me into a story like that. I'd like it. I mean, with little children in a bed—and one in a clothes basket! Say I tucked them in—Yes, I liked kissing Stefana's eyes. I should love to have another chance. It's nothing to be ashamed of, is it, to like little children?"
"I like 'em. I always have."
"Well, I always haven't. Only very lately—it's queer. When I came home here and found all those children next door—mercy gracious!"
They both laughed. Laughing together is a great acquaintancer. Miss Thedosia suddenly thought of something and laughed a little more.
"My name is Theodosia Baxter," she said. They rose and shook hands gravely. They were decently introduced. The beautiful shiny bosom of the shirt lay between them like a white mirror and Miss Theodosia caught the man's glance on it.
"Is it anything to be ashamed of—doing up a shirt?" she demanded.
"Not doing it up like that! That's a work of art!"
"A work of heart—I did it for Stefana. I've got quite fond of it now, and shall hate to part with it. It's a friend."
"A bosom friend," he parried. Again they laughed and grew more acquainted. Miss Theodosia made tea in her dainty Sevres cups. The faintest flecks of pink made her face youthful. Miss Theodosia was a good-looking woman always, but, animated, her face was really lovely. John Bradford was better used to paper women, like paper babies, but his taste recognized flesh-and-blood attractiveness. He had always been a lonely man—until now.
"I'm having a beautiful time," he sighed. "Is it anything to be ashamed of, to have a beautiful time?"
"Or two cups of tea? Please! This is my company tea—warranted good to write stories on!"
"Oh—stories. Are there such things? Did I ever write one? Have I got to write another?"
"It's the twenty-eighth," Miss Theodosia reminded demurely. "But you will need another cup of tea. How long does it take?"
"To drink another cup?"
"To write another story. Tell me about it. Perhaps I could do it. You take a blotter and a pen and plenty of half-sheets of paper—'tracts,' Evangeline calls them! Then you write 'Good Lord!' That is what Evangeline says you wrote on a tract! She said maybe it was a sermon."
"Oh—Evangeline! And speaking of angels—"
"Mercy gracious! You're here—both o' you! An' somebody's gone an' spilled a drop of somethin' on that beautiful bosom!"
"A tear-drop, Evangeline, because she wouldn't give it to me."
"Tea drop!" sniffed Evangeline. "Guess I know! After all Stefana's work! Miss Theodosia, can Elly Precious eat your grass? He's out there now. He don't really eat it; he just kind of pretends. Mother says Elly Precious ought to be put out to pasture. We haven't got any grass to speak of, over to our house."
"Don't speak of it! Of course he can eat mine, if you think it is edible. Ask the Reformed Doctor."
"Him a doctor? Mercy gracious—honest? Then he knows if Elly Precious'd ought to eat grass—not really eat, you know."
"Just graze a little—let him graze." The Reformed Doctor rose to his feet and held out his hand to Miss Theodosia. "I'll go out and see how he does it. It's lucky Evangeline came in, or I might not have known enough to go at all. I've had a beautiful time. I'll put you in with the bedful of kiddies."
"And the clothes basket?"
"And the clothes basket."
"You haven't got your shirt—mercy gracious! I thought that's what you came after," reminded Evangeline.
"Was it?" the Reformed Doctor said. "Give it to me, Evangeline."
"Not naked! Without wrappin' up! I never did see!"
"It's such a good-looking shirt—well, then, wrap it up, wrap it up. I've got a newspaper in my pocket. Put that round it, Evangeline." He turned again to his hostess. "It will be a good story if I put—the clothes basket—in it. They won't send it back. Good-by."
He was off to inspect Elly Precious' grazing-ground. Evangeline, at the window where she had gone to make sure her darlin' dear was safe, presented to Miss Theodosia a square, bony little back that was curiously like that of a dwarfed old woman.
The trail of innocent Elly Precious was over that stoopy little figure. Miss Theodosia looked with softened eyes. Then a smile grew in them, wrinkling their corners whimsically. She was noticing something else besides the little old-lady back. Evangeline's braids toed in! Tight and flaxen, they stood out in rounded curves, converging suddenly to the bit of faded ribbon that tied them together. There was something suspicious looking about that ribbon—"Stefana starched it!" smiled Miss Theodosia's thought.
The small figure whirled face about.
"There, he can see to him awhile." Evangeline was always cheerfully oblivious to any confusion of ideas arising from her use of personal pronouns. "I'm tired. Children are a great care," said Evangeline. She seated herself in an easy chair and dangled thin legs.
"If you drank tea—I'll make you a cup of cocoa, Evangeline."
"Oh, mercy gracious, no! I'm not as tired as cocoa. Jus' sit-'n'-a'-chair tired. You know how it feels—no, you don't either. I forgot. I guess you are pretty lucky. No, I don't guess so either!" Evangeline suddenly straightened on the edge of the big chair and eyed Miss Theodosia sternly, as though that innocent soul had been the one guilty of disloyalty to darlin' dears.
"Children are a great comfort," declaimed Evangeline with emphasis. She might have been the mother of six comforts. Tenderness crept into her eyes, and her freckles seemed to fade out, and even the small blunt nose of her take on middle-agedness and motherliness. '"Specially when you undress 'em. They're so darlin' an' soft! You ever undressed one—a reg'lar baby one? Of course not one o' your own when you never had any, but I thought p'raps you might've undressed a grandbaby or somethin'—"
Miss Theodosia shook a humbled head.
"No," she murmured, "I never undressed even a grandbaby." And curiously she failed either to smile at the child's little notion or to wince at the advanced age it implied for her. She looked across the room from her big chair to Evangeline's with rather a wistful look. She was envying Evangeline.
"I'm sorry," the child said gently, a little embarrassed by the unexpected solemnity of the moment. To relieve it, she had recourse to a sudden funny memory of her own undressings of Elly Precious. She broke hurriedly into laughter.
"I have to have an extra pig for my baby!" she shrilled. "Takes six instead o' five! You know where it ends, 'This little pig said: "Quee! Quee! Quee! can't get over the barn-door sill"?' Mercy gracious, you don't know the little pigs, I s'pose—" More embarrassment. Even Evangeline was losing presence of mind.
"Oh, yes!" Miss Theodosia brightened perceptibly. "I know the one that went to market and the one that stayed at home—all five of them I know."
"But you don't know Elly Precious's extra little pig!" crowed the reassured Evangeline. "Just us know that one. I made him up. When you have six toes,—I mean when Elly Precious has,—you have to have six pigs. After the one that can't get over the barn-door sill, I say: 'This little pig said—' wait, I'll say the last two together so you'll see they rhyme beautifully. Reg'lar poetry.
"'This little pig said, "Quee! Quee! Quee! can't get over the barn-door sill.'"
"'This little pig said, "He! He! He! when you tickle, I can't keep still!'"
"Elly Precious wiggles it when I tickle! We laugh like everything. I think it is pretty good poetry," added Evangeline modestly.
"It is beautiful poetry. I never could have begun to make up such a lovely, ticklish little pig!"
Evangeline leaned back again in the soft cushiony embrace of the great chair and actually achieved a moment of silence. The talkative clock on Miss Theodosia's mantel filled in the space. Then once more Evangeline:
"But I shall never have any."
"Children. Not any. I've decided I'll rest. They're such a care. But of course I can run in an' undress Stefana's an' Elly Precious's—mercy gracious, Elly Precious's!"
It required too great a mental effort to visualize them. Elly Precious's children were funny! Evangeline giggled softly. "Then I'll be a gran'mother, won't I! I've always wanted to be a gran'mother an' say what I did when I was a child an' how I always minded." A fresh giggle. "'I never had to be told to twice, my dears,' I'll say to Elly Precious's children! They'll all be my dears. I'll help bring 'em up. Isn't it queer," broke forth Evangeline suddenly, "how when you get to be old you never were bad when you were young? The badnesses have kind of—kind of faded out. I bet there were badnesses!"
And Miss Theodosia found herself nodding decisively. She, too, bet there were.
A hilarious little crow suddenly sounded from without the window; it was accompanied by a deep man-sound of mirth. Miss Theodosia and Evangeline smiled across at each other indulgently.
"Elly Precious is havin' a good time. That's his good-time noise. Oh, I think he's a nice person, don't you?"
"Nice? I love him!" cried Miss Theodosia warmly. Her face that was still the face of a girl was tenderly flushed. "I love every inch of him, Evangeline."
"Merry gra—that's a lot of lovin'! I guess you are ahead o' me!"
"Evangeline Flagg, aren't you ashamed! When he is the dearest, cunningest—"
"Not—not cunnin'est. But he's got beautiful whiskers. I mean if he didn't shave 'em off. When he came, he had 'em on. You can't love his whiskers when you never saw—"
Miss Theodosia held up a limp hand to stem this terrible tide of words.
"Oh, stop! wait, Evangeline!" she begged. "Who are you talking about?"
Why stop for grammatic rules at a time like this?
"Why, he—him. I said I liked him, an' you said you lov—"
"I have been talking about Elly Precious, naturally," Miss Theodosia returned stiffly. "You are very careless with your pronouns, Evangeline," she added with an effect of severity. Her cheeks that persisted still in being a girl's cheeks had grown a warm, becoming pink. In pink Miss Theodosia was lovely.
"Don't you think you'd better relieve Elly Precious' caretaker by this time? He may not enjoy being left in charge quite so long."
"Not enjoy! Come an' see him not enjoy!" sang Evangeline from the window. She was flattening her nose against the pane and bubbling with sympathetic glee. Miss Theodosia went over and stood beside her.
Out there the two of them were frolicking together—two joyous children. It was the good old game of Peek-a-boo, but seemed a new, surprising game to Miss Theodosia. The big playmate on the grass spread a handkerchief over the little playmate's face, and with a shriek of joy the little playmate did the rest. Then the big child's turn—turn and turn about. Deep voice and thin, sweet tinkle of baby voice joined in a curiously harmonious chorus that rang through the window pane into the two pairs of listening ears.
It was a new light in which to see—a new sound in which to hear John Bradford. Miss Theodosia had a guilty consciousness of being an eavesdropper, yet she kept on eavesdropping. At a particular climax in the little play, she laughed aloud softly. Evangeline wriggled with enjoyment. Her fingers drummed applause on the glass, and the big player glanced quickly up and saw the two lookers-on. He did not hesitate in the play, did not stop the next little gleeful peek. Miss Theodosia loved it in him for not stopping. They were not ashamed—Elly Precious and John Bradford.
In the next few days Miss Theodosia unpacked the rest of her trunks and put the things away neatly in permanent places. She sang as she did it. Life seemed a singing thing to Miss Theodosia who had been a lonely woman—until now. Now she could look out of her window and see the little House of Flaggs. Any minute Evangeline might burst in. The steam whistle might blow. The Shadow Reformed-Doctor Man might come for another cup of tea. Anything might happen.
Something did happen, but it was not a singing thing. Evangeline did burst in. It was some days later than the Day of the Shirt. Miss Theodosia sat comfortably sipping her afternoon tea. Two dainty cups were before her.
"Mercy gracious—mercy, mercy, mercy gracious! This is the worst! This is worse than Aunt Sarah! An' to think it's Elly Precious, my darlin' dear! An' to think I never had—! An' to think I did it myself!"
Even to Evangeline, words failed to express this worst of all things. She dropped, a little leaden thing of despair, into Miss Theodosia's great chair and rocked herself in anguish.
"What is it, dear?" Miss Theodosia cried anxiously. The little word of endearment slipped out unconsciously, though she was not used to "dears." But she was not used to this, either—this rocking in anguish of a little child in her great chair.
"Can't you stop crying and tell me?" Evangeline not able to talk! Miss Theodosia was actually alarmed. If speech did not return quickly—but speech returned.
"Oh, mercy gracious me!" Evangeline sobbed, rocking harder, "to think I went an' set him right down in the middle of 'em—right slap in the middle! An' he didn't want to be set down. Elly Precious despises the Benjamin baby. He knows he's a girl, an' girl-babies don't count. But I set him down—oh, mercy gracious me, I went an' set him down, slap!"
Sobs and words collided and inextricably mixed. In the dark Miss Theodosia waited; she saw no light as yet.
"If I could only have 'em—if I only had've, anyway! Then I could take care of my darlin' dear. But Elly Precious's is the only measles we ever had in the family."
Ah, light! Miss Theodosia blinked in the sudden inflow of it. Evangeline's released tongue leaped ahead.
"How'd I know the Benjamin baby had 'em when she only just sneezed? Oh, I suppose she sneezed 'em all around, an' I set Elly Precious down in 'em! Right in a nest o' measles!"
"What was Elly Precious doing there? I don't remember any Benjamins."
"No'm—oh, no'm. They're very recent. It's that house with the baby-pen in the front yard to keep their baby in. I set Elly Precious down in it, too, one day."
Evangeline shuddered. "While I was gettin' Stefana's starch at the store; I asked if I could, till I got back."
Miss Theodosia's face put on sternness. "What was the mother of the Benjamin baby thinking of, to let you?" she demanded.
"Oh, I don't know—I don't know! That's a very speckled baby, anyway, an' perhaps she didn't know measles from speckles. He didn't bloom out reg'lar built till next day—I mean she didn't—oh, I don't mean the mother didn't—"
"I know, dear; I know what you mean," soothed Miss Theodosia gently.
"Yes'm, that's what I mean. Next day they found out for sure."
"But have you found out 'for sure'? How do you know Elly Precious has the measles? Has he—bloomed out? Perhaps his are speck—"
"Elly Precious!" rose Evangeline's voice of indignation. "He's the unspeckledest baby you ever saw! I guess—I guess you never saw Elly Precious!"
Stefana appeared suddenly in the doorway,—a blanched and frightened Stefana. But she was determinedly calm.
"He's fell asleep, and Carruthers is watching him through the door. I told him not to go any nearer'n that. I came over to ask if I'd better send word to Mother. He said to ask you."
"Carruthers?" Miss Theodosia was a little bewildered.
"The Tract Man. He's the one that—that discovered Elly Precious's measles when we found he was broken out—I mean Elly Precious broken out—"
"Yes, yes, I know. He is a doctor—I mean—" Miss Theodosia caught herself up firmly. One at least must steer a clear course.
"He was goin' past," Evangeline put in, "an' I asked him, if he uster be a doctor, wouldn't he please to be one now an' 'xamine Elly Precious's spots."
"Measles," Stefana said briefly and hopelessly. "Shall we send for Mother, or what'll we do? Aunt Sarah isn't knitting."
"Aunt Sarah—" began poor Miss Theodosia. Would she ever get used to little Flaggs? Evangeline broke in gloomily with explanation.
"No'm, not knittin', Mother wrote Stefana. Kind of—of unravelin' instead. An' Mother's caught it."
Miss Theodosia turned appealing eyes to Stefana.
"Her knee's bad, too. Maybe it's just rheumatism, but she borrows Aunt Sarah's crutches when they're empty. I don't see how she'd get home—"
"Don't send for her!" Miss Theodosia directed. Some inner voice seemed to say it through her lips. The same dictate from within prompted the rest.
"Bring the baby over here. Bring all his nightgowns. I'll take care of him. It won't do for all you children to come down. Does the Reform—does the doctor think you can have caught them already? I don't believe it! Not till the disease is further advanced."
"That's what he said—not till." Stefana hurried in eagerly. "He didn't believe it."
"The Benjamin baby wasn't further advanced," doubted Evangeline discouragingly.
"Never you mind the Benjamin baby! You bring your baby over here at once with his nightgowns! I believe we're in time. I'll be reading up my medicine book. You can tell the doctor to come here instead of to your house. Don't any of you dare to kiss Elly Precious good-by!"
Miss Theodosia was moving briskly about the room, doing strange things,—pulling down shades and drawing together draperies.
"Mustn't have too much light, though maybe that is later on, too. I'm sure there is something about being careful of the eyes. Evangeline, wait! Let Stefana go. I don't trust you; you might kiss him."
"Yes'm, I might," sighed poor little Evangeline. "He's my darlin' dear." A terrible separation yawned before her like a bottomless pit of desolation. How was she to live Elly Preciousless?
"Can't I come over an'—an' hold him when he isn't—when he isn't sneezing?" she suddenly sobbed forth. Miss Theodosia was too engrossed to be sympathetic. There were many things to think of.
"Come over?—I should say not! You can't do anything but look through the window, and I shall ask the doctor if that's safe. Now listen—dear," again the "dear" slipped through her lips unconsciously. "Listen! When you see Stefana coming, you go out the back door! I wish I'd told her to bring him in the clothes basket instead of in her arms—"
"I'll tell her to! Through the window. I'll tell her to bring him by the handles," and Evangeline hurried away excitedly.
An hour later Miss Theodosia, in a voluminous white apron and a hastily invented white cap, had formally assumed her astonishing new role. Under the cap Miss Theodosia's cheeks were prettily pink. It was becoming to her to be Elly Precious' nurse. But the queer feeling of it! An hour ago Theodosia Baxter, in a big house, alone; now this becapped and pink-cheeked Theodosia in a house with a baby! It was an exciting change; what else might it become? She was a little afraid of Elly Precious.
"Not now, while he is asleep, but when he wakes—" she thought. What would she do with Elly Precious when he waked?
Of course, she had sent for the Reformed Doctor, and equally, of course, she would do precisely what he told her to do. But how would it feel? So far, it felt queer.
"I'll wait and see," she concluded with philosophy. At six the doctor came. It was significant how he had left his role of authorship at home and came physicianly, brisk and competent.
"Measles haven't changed, anyway, in ten years," he said as he removed his coat. Long ago, as a doctor, John Bradford had had his idiosyncrasies, and one of them had been to work in his shirt sleeves. The laying aside of his coat now had, if Miss Theodosia had but known, bridged over the ten years.
"Am I quarantined?" demanded the nurse.
"You are," promptly replied the doctor.
Silence while the tiny patient was carefully examined, with so delicate a touch that he slept on.
"For how long?" then.
"Oh—weeks. Two, perhaps. Perhaps three. He is beginning to be feverish in earnest now. You got him over here just in time. May I have a glass of water?"
Miss Theodosia went away to get it on shaking legs. She almost staggered. The plot was getting thick!
"If you think his mother ought to be sent for—I'm afraid I'm in a blue funk!" She had returned and was splashing the water over the edge of the glass as she held it out. He laughed reassuringly. His face, turned sidewise up at her, was as reviving as cool water upon a faint. Miss Theodosia "came to."
"I've got over it. Go ahead—tell me precisely what you want done. Write it down somewhere. I can read writing! And I can't forget it. Of course I can rock him?"
He did not answer at once, and she misinterpreted his silence.
"I shall rock him," she said with firmness. "Written down or not written down." And again he laughed, with the same curiously explosive little effect as when she had first heard him do it as a Shadow Man.
It was long after he left before Elly Precious woke. With remarkable presence of mind, Miss Theodosia had darkened the room to make the difference between herself and Evangeline or Stefana as inconspicuous as possible. It helped. Elly Precious, even busy with his measles, might have vigorously refused this strange new ministering. But in the darkness he accepted it with a measure of resignation. He appeared to be looking inward at his own poor little pains instead of outward or upward at Miss Theodosia. She wisely refrained from speech during those first critical moments.
Ten-year-old arms may not be as steady for cradling as thirty-six-year olds. Miss Theodosia's were steady and soft. The baby nestled into them and she rocked him.
She was rocking a baby! She was glad to be alone in the dark. The sensation rather overwhelmed her. Then Elly Precious flung up little hot hands and touched her face, and the sensation was no longer a new one. Surely she had felt it before. Was it in another incarnation that she had rocked a little child? The small, hot hands tugged at her heartstrings—they must have tugged, just so, at that ancient rocking. It was a beautiful tune, but not a new tune that the small hands played. No, no—not new!
Miss Theodosia began to croon softly, no longer afraid of sound. And Elly Precious snuggled deeper.
Shut in together—she and he and the measles—they grew accustomed to each other. After the first, the days went rather fast, with Evangeline's help through the window and under the door. Evangeline helped from the first. Miss Theodosia found little letters emerging through the tight crack under her outside door. The first one she read smilingly:
"He likes jiggy tunes best—please sing him jiggy tunes."
So she sang them to Elly Precious and found he liked them best; Evangeline knew. This method of helping promised to be valuable.
One day there were two little letters under the door.
"When he crys, he'll stop if you distrack him. Like this—boo—or make a cow-noise or a horse-noise, but it doesn't always work. Sometimes he keaps right on and then its no use to distrack him. Try tickleing unless tickleing is bad for measles."
This was a long note. Miss Theodosia did not smile this time because of the new sensitiveness in the region of her heart. When she read the second note, she held it a long time in her hand while something wet blistered it in spots.
"Please don't be mad if I worry a little for fear Elly Precious will throw off his cloes. He's a dreadfull throw-offer, so we pin his sides to the cloesbasket but maybe you don't sleep him in a cloesbasket. I couldent sleep last night.
"P.S. With safety pins."
Sometimes they were cheerful little letters that peeped under the tight crack. Evangeline wrote the news to Elly Precious. That Stefana's washes came easier now and Carruthers was good all the time, only they never let him be steam whistles, of course. That they all missed Elly Precious and hoped that they'd be short measles and, mercy gracious, yes, they loved him, and Aunt Sarah was knitting again.
As the baby began to convalesce (they were short measles) and could sit up on Miss Theodosia's lap in front of the window, Evangeline's most important assistance began. For Elly Precious had very restless occasions and even Miss Theodosia's new skill failed always to "distrack" him.
Evangeline established a stage of action outside the biggest-paned, lowest-silled window, where vision was least obscured from within. On that stage she danced wild, long dances, varying with each performance. It was amazing how she varied them—sometimes bending and bowing tirelessly, sometimes evolving remarkable skirt dances from legs and toes and whirling petticoats. She grimaced unweariedly as long as Elly Precious would laugh at her faces. When he tired of those, she impersonated a cow—a horse—and made cow-noises and horse-noises at the top of her voice, to carry to Elly Precious.
Day after day she came, and they watched her from the big-paned window—the baby and Miss Theodosia. It was a great help to the measles.
"I never saw such a child!" Miss Theodosia said to the Reformed Doctor. "She never gets tired of doing it."
"Never was but one Evangeline—but she gets tired all right. Needn't tell me!"
"Then it's—love," Miss Theodosia said gently.
"It is," nodded he.
They had proceeded far in their acquaintance. Elly Precious had been so tiny a thing between them, as they ministered to him! It was not to be wondered at that they had drawn closer. After his professional "call," John Bradford fell into the way of lingering till she brought him tea.
"Talk about women loving tea!" she gibed gayly.
"Talk about it being the men that want three lumps!"
"That is queer, isn't it? We're the wrong way about; I like mine sweet and you don't want any sugar. We're the exceptions that prove the rule. If you'll hold Elly Precious a minute, I'll fill your cup."
"That will make three."
"'And I'll do it again, if you like—and again if you like!'" she quoted.
"Are you making stories now?" she asked him that day.
And he nodded gravely, "One—a love-story."
"Tell me about it! We want to hear it, don't we, Elly Precious? We love love-stories."
"Not yet. Not till it is a little farther along." He set the third cup down untasted. His face, as Miss Theodosia looked smilingly at it across the baby's head, had grown grave. She wondered simply. Miss Theodosia was not making a love-story.
"Will you tell us about it when it's farther along? About the heroine and how she likes being in a love-story? Mercy gracious, it must be exciting!"
"If I can find out how she likes it," was his enigmatic answer. "She may not work out as I want her to. Heroines are women, you know."
"Well, of all things! If you can't make your heroine behave, I don't see who can!"
"I don't," he said slowly. "But I shall do my best."
Another day, she had something to show him, and she made a little mystery of it at first. She and Elly Precious knew! It was something sweet—it could be worn, but you seldom looked at it. It was soft and hard, too. You could—kiss it! When it was empty you wanted to kiss it, and when it was full you had to!