By Dana Gatlin
TO VIOLA ROSEBORO'
I THE FLAME DIVINE
II "YOUR TRUE FRIEND, MELISSA M"
III LIKE A SINGING BIRD
IV MISSY TACKLES ROMANCE
V IN THE MANNER OF THE DUCHESS
VI INFLUENCING ARTHUR
VII BUSINESS OF BLUSHING
VIII A HAPPY DOWNFALL
IX DOBSON SAVES THE DAY
X MISSY CANS THE COSMOS
CHAPTER I. THE FLAME DIVINE
Melissa came home from Sunday-school with a feeling she had never had before. To be sure she was frequently discovering, these days, feelings she had never had before. That was the marvellous reward of having grown to be so old; she was ten, now, an advanced age—almost grown up! She could look back, across the eons which separated her from seven-years-old, and dimly re-vision, as a stranger, the little girl who cried her first day in the Primary Grade. How absurd seemed that bashful, timid, ignorant little silly! She knew nothing at all. She still thought there was a Santa Claus!—would you believe that? And, even at eight, she had lingering fancies of fairies dancing on the flower-beds by moonlight, and talking in some mysterious language with the flowers!
Now she was much wiser. She knew that fairies lived only in books and pictures; that flowers could not actually converse. Well... she almost knew. Sometimes, when she was all alone—out in the summerhouse on a drowsy afternoon, or in the glimmering twilight when that one very bright and knowing star peered in at her, solitary, on the side porch, or when, later, the moonshine stole through the window and onto her pillow, so thick and white she could almost feel it with her fingers—at such times vague fancies would get tangled up with the facts of reality, and disturb her new, assured sense of wisdom. Suddenly she'd find herself all mixed up, confused as to what actually was and wasn't.
But she never worried long over that. Life was too complex to permit much time for worry over anything; too full and compelling in every minute of the long, long hours which yet seemed not long enough to hold the new experiences and emotions which ceaselessly flooded in upon her.
The emotion she felt this Sunday was utterly new. It was not contentment nor enjoyment merely, nor just happiness. For, in the morning as mother dressed her in her embroidered white "best" dress, and as she walked through the June sunshine to the Presbyterian church, trying to remember not to skip, she had been quite happy. And she had still felt happy during the Sunday-school lesson, while Miss Simpson explained how our Lord multiplied the loaves and fishes so as to feed the multitude. How wonderful it must have been to be alive when our Lord walked and talked among men!
Her feeling of peaceful contentment intensified a little when they all stood up to sing,
"Let me be a little sunbeam for Jesus—" and she seemed, then, to feel a subtle sort of glow, as from an actual sunbeam, warming her whole being.
But the marvellous new feeling did not definitely begin till after Sunday-school was over, when she was helping Miss Simpson collect the song-books. Not the big, thick hymn-books used for the church service, but smaller ones, with pasteboard backs and different tunes. Melissa would have preferred the Sunday-school to use the big, cloth-covered hymnals. Somehow they looked more religious; just as their tunes, with slow, long-drawn cadences, somehow sounded more religious than the Sunday-school's cheerful tunes. Why this should be so Melissa didn't know; there were many things she didn't yet understand about religion. But she asked no questions; experience had taught her that the most serious questions may be strangely turned into food for laughter by grown-ups.
It was when she carried the song-books into the choir-room to stack them on some chairs, that she noticed the choir had come in and was beginning to practise a real hymn. She loitered. It was an especially religious hymn, very slow and mournful. They sang:
"A-a—sle-e-e-ep in Je-e-e—sus—Ble-e-es—ed sle-e-e-ep—From which none e-e-ev—er Wake to we-e-e-ep—"
The choir did not observe Melissa; did not suspect that state of deliciousness which, starting from the skin, slowly crept into her very soul. She stood there, very unobtrusive, drinking in the sadly sweet sounds. Up on the stained-glass window the sunlight filtered through blue-and-red-and-golden angels, sending shafts of heavenly colour across the floor; and the fibres of her soul, enmeshed in music, seemed to stretch out to mingle with that heavenly colour. It was hard to separate herself from that sound and colour which was not herself. Tears came to her eyes; she couldn't tell why, for she wasn't sad. Oh, if she could stand there listening forever!—could feel like this forever!
The choir was practising for a funeral that afternoon, but Melissa didn't know that. She had never attended a funeral. She didn't even know it was a funeral song. She only knew that when, at last, they stopped singing and filed out of the choir-room, she could hardly bear to have them go. She wished she might follow them, might tuck herself away in the auditorium somewhere and stay for the church service. But her mother didn't allow her to do that. Mother insisted that church service and Sunday-school, combined, were too much for a little girl, and would give her headaches.
So there was nothing for Missy to do but go home. The sun shone just as brightly as on her hither journey but now she had no impulse to skip. She walked along sedately, in rhythm to inner, long-drawn cadences. The cadences permeated her—were herself. She was sad, yet pleasantly, thrillingly so. It was divine. When she reached home, she went into the empty front-parlour and hunted out the big, cloth-covered hymnal that was there. She found "Asleep in Jesus" and played it over and over on the piano. The bass was a trifle difficult, but that didn't matter. Then she found other hymns which were in accord with her mood: "Abide with Me"; "Nearer My God to Thee"; "One Sweetly Solemn Thought." The last was sublimely beautiful; it almost stole her favour away from "Asleep in Jesus." Not quite, though.
She was re-playing her first favourite when the folks all came in from church. There were father and mother, grandpa and grandma Merriam who lived in the south part of town, Aunt Nettie, and Cousin Pete Merriam. Cousin Pete's mother was dead and his father out in California on a long business trip, so he was spending that summer in Cherryvale with his grandparents.
Melissa admired Cousin Pete very much, for he was big and handsome and wore more stylish-looking clothes than did most of the young men in Cherryvale. Also, he was very old—nineteen, and a sophomore at the State University. Very old. Naturally he was much wiser than Missy, for all her acquired wisdom. She stood in awe of him. He had a way of asking her absurd, foolish questions about things that everybody knew; and when, to be polite, she had to answer him seriously in his own foolish vein, he would laugh at her! So, though she admired him, she always had an impulse to run away from him. She would have liked, now, in this heavenly, religious mood, to run away lest he might ask her embarrassing questions about it. But, before she had the chance, grandpa said:
"Why Missy, playing hymns? You'll be church organist before we know it!"
"'Asleep in Jesus' is my favourite, I think," commented grandma. "It's the one I'd like sung over me at the last. Play it again, dear."
But Pete had picked up a sheet of music from the top of the piano.
"Let's have this, Missy." He turned to his grandmother. "Ought to hear her do this rag—I've been teaching her double-bass."
Missy shrank back as he placed the rag-time on the music-rest.
"Oh, I'd rather not—to-day."
Pete smiled down at her—his amiable but condescending smile.
"What's the matter with to-day?" he asked.
Missy blushed again.
"Oh, I don't know—I just don't feel that way, I guess."
"Don't feel that way?" repeated Pete. "You're temperamental, are you? How do you feel, Missy?"
Missy feared she was letting herself in for embarrassment; but this was a holy subject. So she made herself answer:
"I guess I feel religious."
Pete shouted. "She feels religious! That's a good one! She guesses she—"
"Peter, you should be ashamed of yourself!" reproved his grandmother.
"She's a scream!" he insisted. "Religious! That kid!"
"Well," defended Missy, timid and puzzled, but wounded to unwonted bravery, "isn't it proper to feel like that on the Sabbath?"
Pete shouted again.
"Peter—stop that! You should be ashamed of yourself!" It was his grandfather this time. Grandpa moved over to the piano and removed the rag-time from off the hymnal, pausing to pat Missy on the head.
But Peter was not the age to be easily squelched.
"What does it feel like, Missy—the religious feeling?"
Missy, her eyes bright behind their blur, didn't answer. Indeed, she could not have defined that sweetly sad glow, now so cruelly crushed, even had she wanted to.
Missy didn't enjoy her dinner as much as she usually did the midday Sunday feasts when grandpa and grandma came to eat with them. She felt embarrassed and shy. Of course she had to answer when asked why she wasn't eating her drumstick, and whether the green apples in grandma's orchard had given her an "upset," and other direct questions; but when she could, she kept silent. She was glad Pete didn't talk to her much. Yet, now and then, she caught his eyes upon her in a look of sardonic enquiry, and quickly averted her own.
Her unhappiness lasted till the visitors had departed. Then, after aimlessly wandering about, she took her Holy Bible out to the summerhouse. She was contemplating a surprise for grandpa and grandma. Next week mother and Aunt Nettie were going over to Aunt Anna's in Junction City for a few days; during their absence Missy was to stay with her grandparents. And to surprise them, she was learning by heart a whole Psalm.
She planned to spring it upon them the first night at family prayers. At grandma's they had prayers every night before going to bed. First grandpa read a long chapter out of the Holy Bible, then they all knelt down, grandpa beside his big Morris chair, grandma beside her little willow rocker, and whoever else was present beside whatever chair he'd been sitting in. Grandpa prayed a long prayer; grandma a shorter one; then, if any of the grandchildren were there, they must say a verse by heart. Missy's first verse had been, "Jesus wept." But she was just a tiny thing then. When she grew bigger, she repeated, "Suffer the little children to come unto Me." Later she accomplished the more showy, "In My Father's house are many mansions; I go there to prepare a place for you."
But this would be her first whole Psalm. She pictured every one's delighted and admiring surprise. After much deliberation she had decided upon the Psalm in which David sings his song of faith, "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want."
How beautiful it was! So deep and so hard to understand, yet, somehow, all the more beautiful for that. She murmured aloud, "I will fear no evil—for Thou art with me—Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me"; and wondered what the rod and staff really were.
But best of all she liked the last verse:
"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."
To dwell in the house of the Lord forever!—How wonderful! What was the house of the Lord?... Missy leaned back in the summerhouse seat, and gazed dreamily out at the silver-white clouds drifting lazily across the sky; in the side-yard her nasturtium bed glowed up from the slick green grass like a mass of flame; a breeze stirred the flame to gentle motion and touched the ramblers on the summerhouse, shaking out delicious scents; distantly from the backyard came the tranquil, drowsy sounds of unseen chickens. Missy listened to the chickens; regarded sky and flowers and green—colours so lovely as to almost hurt you—and sniffed the fragrant air... All this must be the house of the Lord! Here, surely goodness and mercy would follow her all the days of her life.
Thus, slowly, the marvellous new feeling stole back and took possession of her. She could no longer bear just sitting there quiet, just feeling. She craved some sort of expression. So she rose and moved slowly over the slick green grass, pausing by the blazing nasturtium bed to pick a few vivid blossoms. These she pinned to her dress; then went very leisurely on to the house-to the parlour—to the piano—to "Asleep in Jesus."
She played it "with expression." Her soul now seemed to be flowing out through her fingers and to the keyboard; the music came not from the keyboard, really, but from her soul. Rapture!
But presently her mood was rudely interrupted by mother's voice at the door.
"Missy, Aunt Nettie's lying down with a headache. I'm afraid the piano disturbs her."
"All right, mother."
Lingeringly Missy closed the hymnal. She couldn't forbear a little sigh. Perhaps mother noted the sigh. Anyway, she came close and said:
"I'm sorry, dear. I think it's nice the way you've learned to play hymns."
Missy glanced up; and for a moment forgetting that grown-ups don't always understand, she breathed:
"Oh, mother, it's HEAVENLY! You can't imagine—"
She remembered just in time, and stopped short. But mother didn't embarrass her by asking her to explain something that couldn't be explained in words. She only laid her hand, for a second, on the sleek brown head. The marvellous feeling endured through the afternoon, and through supper, and through the evening—clear up to the time Missy undressed and said her prayers. Some special sweetness seemed to have crept into saying prayers; our Lord Jesus seemed very personal and very close as she whispered to Him a postlude:
"I will fear no evil, for Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I'll dwell in Thy house forever, O Lord—Amen."
For a time she lay open-eyed in her little white bed. A flood of moonlight came through the window to her pillow. She felt that it was a shining benediction from our Lord Himself. And indeed it may have been. Gradually her eyes closed. She smiled as she slept.
The grace of God continued to be there when she awoke. It seemed an unusual morning. The sun was brighter than on ordinary mornings; the birds outside were twittering more loudly; even the lawnmower which black Jeff was already rolling over the grass had assumed a peculiarly agreeable clatter. And though, at breakfast, father grumbled at his eggs being overdone, and though mother complained that the laundress hadn't come, and though Aunt Nettie's head was still aching, all these things, somehow, seemed trivial and of no importance.
Missy could scarcely wait to get her dusting and other little "chores" done, so that she might go to the piano.
However, she hadn't got half-way through "One Sweetly Solemn Thought" before her mother appeared.
"Missy! what in the world do you mean? I've told you often enough you must finish your practising before strumming at other things."
But Missy said nothing in defence. She only hung her head. Her mother went on:
"Now, I don't want to speak to you again about this. Get right to your exercises—I hope I won't have to hide that hymn-book!"
Mother's voice was stern. The laundress's defection and other domestic worries may have had something to do with it. But Missy couldn't consider that; she was too crushed. In stricken silence she attacked the "exercises."
Not once during that day had she a chance to let out, through music, any of her surcharged devotionalism. Mother kept piling on her one errand after another. Mother was in an unwonted flurry; for the next day was the one she and Aunt Nettie were going to Junction City and there were, as she put it, "a hundred and one things to do."
Through all those tribulations Missy reminded herself of "Thy rod and Thy staff." She didn't yet know just what these aids to comfort were; but the Psalmist had said of them, "they shall comfort me." And, somehow, she did find comfort. That is what Faith does.
And that night, after she had said her prayers and got into bed, once more the grace of God rode in on the moonlight to rest upon her pillow.
But the next afternoon, when she had to kiss mother good-bye, a great tide of loneliness rushed over Missy, and all but engulfed her. She had always known she loved mother tremendously, but till that moment she had forgotten how very much. She had to concentrate hard upon "Thy rod and Thy staff" before she was able to blink back her tears. And mother, noticing the act, commented on her little daughter's bravery, and blinked back some tears of her own.
In the excitement of packing up to go to grandma's house, Missy to a degree forgot her grief. She loved to go to grandma's house. She liked everything about that house: the tall lilac hedge that separated the yard from the Curriers' yard next door; the orchard out in back where grew the apples which sometimes gave her an "upset"; the garden where grandpa spent hours and hours "cultivating" his vegetables; and grandma's own particular garden, which was given over to tall gaudy hollyhocks, and prim rows of verbena, snap-dragon, phlox, spicy pinks, heliotrope, and other flowers such as all grandmothers ought to have.
And she liked the house itself, with its many unusual and delightful appurtenances: no piano—an organ in the parlour, the treadles of which you must remember to keep pumping, or the music would wheeze and stop; the "what-not" in the corner, its shelves filled with fascinating curios—shells of all kinds, especially a big conch shell which, held close to the ear, still sang a song of the sea; the marble-topped centre-table, and on it the interesting "album" of family photographs, and the mysterious contrivance which made so lifelike the double "views" you placed in the holder; and the lamp with its shade dripping crystal bangles, like huge raindrops off an umbrella; and the crocheted "tidies" on all the rocking-chairs, and the carpet-covered footstools sitting demurely round on the floor, and the fringed lambrequin on the mantel, and the enormous fan of peacock feathers spreading out on the wall—oh, yes, grandma's was a fascinating place!
Then besides, of course, she adored grandpa and grandma. They were charming and unlike other people, and very, very good. Grandpa was slow-moving, and tall and broad—even taller and broader than father; and he must be terribly wise because he was Justice-of-the-Peace, and because he didn't talk much. Other children thought him a person to be feared somewhat, but Missy liked to tuck her hand in his enormous one and talk to him about strange, mysterious things.
Grandma wasn't nearly so big—indeed she wasn't much taller than Missy herself; and she was proud of her activity—her "spryness," she called it. She boasted of her ability to stoop over and, without bending her knees, to lay both palms flat on the floor. Even Missy's mother couldn't do that, and sometimes she seemed to grow a little tired of being reminded of it. Grandma liked to talk as much as grandpa liked to keep silent; and always, to the running accompaniment of her tongue, she kept her hands busied, whether "puttering about" in her house or flower-garden, or crocheting "tidies," or knitting little mittens, or creating the multi-coloured paper-flowers which helped make her house so alluring.
That night for supper they had beefsteak and hot biscuits and custard pie; and grandma let her eat these delicacies which were forbidden at home. She even let her drink coffee! Not that Missy cared especially for coffee—it had a bitter taste; but drinking it made her feel grown-up. She always felt more grown-up at grandma's than at home. She was "company," and they showed her a consideration one never receives at home.
After supper Cousin Pete went out somewhere, and the other three had a long, pleasant evening. Another agreeable feature about staying at grandma's was that they didn't make such a point of her going to bed early. The three of them sat out on the porch till the night came stealing up; it covered the street and the yard with darkness, crawled into the tree tops and the rose-bushes and the lilac-hedge. It hid all the familiar objects of daytime, except the street-lamp at the corner and certain windows of the neighbours' houses, which now showed square and yellow. Of the people on the porch next door, and of those passing in the street, only the voices remained; and, sometimes, a glowing point of red which was a cigar.
Presently the moon crept up from behind the Jones's house, peeping stealthily, as if to make sure that all was right in Cherryvale. And then everything became visible again, but in a magically beautiful way; it was now like a picture from a fairy-tale. Indeed, this was the hour when your belief in fairies was most apt to return to you.
The locusts began to sing. They sang loudly. And grandma kept up her chatter. But within Missy everything seemed to become very quiet. Suddenly she felt sad, a peculiar, serene kind of sadness. It grew from the inside out—now and then almost escaping in a sigh. Because it couldn't quite escape, it hurt; she envied the locusts who were letting their sadness escape in that reiterant, tranquil song.
She was glad when, at last, grandpa said:
"How'd you like to go in and play me a tune, Missy?"
"Oh, I'd love to, grandpa!" Missy jumped up eagerly.
So grandpa lighted the parlour lamp, whose crystal bangles now looked like enormous diamonds; and a delicious time commenced. Grandpa got out his cloth-covered hymnal, and she played again those hymns which mingle so inexplicably with the feelings inside you. Not even her difficulties with the organ—such as forgetting occasionally to treadle, or having the keys pop up soundlessly from under her fingers—could mar that feeling. Especially when grandpa added his bass to the music, a deep bass so impressive as to make it improper to question its harmony, even in your own mind.
Grandma had come in and seated herself in her little willow rocker; she was rocking in time to the music, her eyes closed, and saying nothing—just listening to the two of them. And, playing those hymns, with grandpa singing and grandma listening, the new religious feeling grew and grew and grew in Missy till it seemed to flow out of her and fill the room. It flowed on out and filled the yard, the town, the world; and upward, upward, upward—she was one with the sky and moon and stars...
At last, in a little lull, grandpa said:
"Now, Missy, my song—you know."
Missy knew very well what grandpa's favourite was; it was one of the first pieces she had learned by heart. So she played for him "Silver Threads among the Gold."
"Thanks, baby," said grandpa when she had finished. There was a suspicious brightness in his eyes. And a suspicious brightness in grandma's, too. So, though she wasn't unhappy at all, she felt her own eyes grow moist. Grandpa and grandma weren't really unhappy, either. Why, when people are not really unhappy at all, do their eyes fill just of themselves?
And now was the moment of the great surprise at hand. Missy could scarcely wait. It must be admitted that, during the interminable time that grandpa was reading his chapter—it was even a longer chapter than usual to-night—and while grandma was reading her shorter one, Missy was not attending. She was repeating to herself the Twenty-third Psalm. And even when they all knelt, grandpa beside the big Morris chair and grandma beside the little willow rocker and Missy beside the "patent rocker" with the prettiest crocheted tidy—her thoughts were still in a divine channel exclusively her own.
But now, at last, came the time for that channel to be widened; she closed her eyes tighter, clasped her hands together, and began:
"The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want, He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters..."
How beautiful it was! Unconsciously her voice lifted—quavered—lowered—lifted again, with "expression." And she had the oddest complex sensation; she could, through her tightly closed eyes, vision herself kneeling there; while, at the same time, she could feel her spirit floating away, mingling with the air, melting into the night, fusing with all the divine mystery of heaven and earth. And her soul yearned for more mystery, for more divinity, with an inexpressible yearning.
Yet all the time she was conscious of the dramatic figure she made, and of how pleased and impressed her audience must be; in fact, as her voice "tremuloed" on that last sublime "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever," she unclosed one eye to note the effect.
Both the grey heads remained prayerfully bent; but at her "Amen" both of them lifted. And oh! what a reward was the expression in those two pairs of eyes!
Grandma came swiftly to her and kissed her, and exclaimed:
"Why, however did you learn all that long Psalm, dear? And you recited it so beautifully, too!—Not a single mistake! I never was prouder in my life!"
Grandpa didn't kiss her, but he kept saying over and over:
"Just think of that baby!—the dear little baby."
And Missy, despite her spiritual exaltation, couldn't help feeling tremendously pleased.
"It was a surprise—I thought you'd be surprised," she remarked with satisfaction.
Grandma excitedly began to ask all kinds of questions as to how Missy came to pick out that particular Psalm, and what difficulties she experienced in learning it all; but it was grandpa who, characteristically, enquired:
"And what does it mean to you, Missy?"
"Mean—?" she repeated.
"Yes. For instance, what does that last verse mean?"
"'Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life—?' That—?"
"Why, I think I see myself walking through some big, thick woods. It's springtime, and the trees are all green, and the grass slick and soft. And birds are singing, and the wind's singing in the leaves, too. And the sun's shining, and all the clouds have silver edges."
"Yes, dear," said grandpa.
"That's the house of the Lord," she explained.
"Yes, dear," said grandpa again. "What else?"
"Well, I'm skipping and jumping along, for I'm happy to be in the house of the Lord. And there are three little fairies, all dressed in silver and gold, and with paper-flowers in their hair, and long diamond bangles hanging like fringe on their skirts. They're following me, and they're skipping and jumping, too. They're the three fairies in the verse."
"The three fairies?" Grandpa seemed puzzled.
"Yes. It says 'Surely goodness and mercy,' you know."
"But that makes only two, doesn't it?" said grandpa, still puzzled.
Missy laughed at his stupidity.
"Why, no!—Three!" She counted them off on her fingers: "Surely—and Goodness—and Mercy. Don't you see?"
"Oh, yes, dear—I see now," said grandpa, very slowly. "I wasn't counting Surely."
Just then came a chuckle from the doorway. Missy hadn't seen Pete enter, else she would have been less free in revealing her real thoughts. What had he overheard?
Still laughing, Pete advanced into the room.
"So there's a fairy named 'Surely,' is there? What's the colour of her eyes, Missy?"
Missy shrank a little closer into the haven of grandpa's knees. And grandpa, in the severe voice that made the other children stand in awe of him, said:
"That will do, Peter!"
But Peter, unawed, went on:
"I know, grandpa—but she's such a funny little dingbat! And now, that she's turned pious—"
Grandpa interrupted him with a gesture of the hand.
"I said that'd do, Peter. If you'd find some time to attend prayers instead of cavorting round over town, it wouldn't hurt you any."
Then grandma, who, though she was fond of Missy, was fond of Pete also, joined in defensively:
"Pete hasn't been cavorting round over town, grandpa—he's just been over to the Curriers'."
At that Missy turned interested eyes upon her big cousin. He'd been calling on Polly Currier again! Polly Currier was one of the prettiest big girls in Cherryvale. Missy gazed at Pete, so handsome in his stylish-looking blue serge coat and sharply creased white ducks, debonairly twirling the bamboo walking-stick which the Cherryvale boys, half-enviously, twitted him about, and felt the wings of Romance whirring in the already complicated air. For this additional element of interest he furnished, she could almost forgive him his scoffing attitude toward her own most serious affairs.
But Pete, fortunately for his complacency, didn't suspect the reason for her concentrated though friendly gaze.
All in all, Missy felt quite at peace when she went upstairs. Grandma tucked her into bed—the big, extraordinarily soft feather-bed which was one of the outstanding features of grandma's fascinating house.
And there—wonder of wonders!—the moon, through grandma's window, found her out just as readily as though she'd been in her own little bed at home. Again it carried in the grace of God, to rest through the night on her pillow.
Next day was an extremely happy day. She had coffee for breakfast, and was permitted by Alma, the hired girl, to dry all the cups and saucers. Then she dusted the parlour, including all the bric-a-brac, which made dusting here an engrossing occupation. Later she helped grandpa hoe the cabbages, and afterward "puttered around" with grandma in the flower-garden. Then she and grandma listened, very quietly, through a crack in the nearly-closed door while grandpa conducted a hearing in the parlour. To tell the truth, Missy wasn't greatly interested in whether Mrs. Brenning's chickens had scratched up Mrs. Jones's tomato-vines, hut she pretended to be interested because grandma was.
And then, after the hearing was over, and the Justice-of-the-Peace had become just grandpa again, Missy went into the parlour and played hymns. Then came dinner, a splendid and heavy repast which constrained her to take a nap. After the nap she felt better, and sat out on the front porch to learn crocheting from grandma.
For a while Pete sat with them, and Polly Currier from next door came over, too. She looked awfully pretty all in white—white shirtwaist and white duck skirt and white canvas oxfords. Presently Pete suggested that Polly go into the parlour with him to look at some college snapshots. Missy wondered why he didn't bring them out to the porch where it was cooler, but she was too polite to ask.
They stayed in there a long time—what were they doing? For long spaces she couldn't even hear their voices. Grandma chattered away with her usual vivacity; presently she suggested that they leave off crocheting and work on paper-flowers a while. What a delight! Missy was just learning the intricacies of peonies, and adored to squeeze the rosy tissue-paper over the head of a hat-pin and observe the amazing result.
"Run up to my room, dear," said grandma. "You'll find the box on the closet shelf."
Missy knew the "paper-flower box." It was a big hat-box, appropriately covered with pink-posied paper—a quaintly beautiful box.
In the house, passing the parlour door, she tip-toed, scarcely knowing why. There was now utter silence in the parlour—why were they so still? Perhaps they had gone out somewhere. Without any definite plan, but still tip-toeing in the manner she and grandma had approached to overhear the law-suit, she moved toward the partly-closed door. Through the crevice they were out of vision, but she could hear a subdued murmur—they were in there after all! Missy, too interested to be really conscious of her act, strained her ears.
Polly Currier murmured:
"Why, what do you mean?—what are you doing?"
"What a question!—I'm trying to kiss you."
"Let me go!—you're mussing my dress! You can't kiss me—let me go!"
"Not till you let me kiss you!"
Polly Currier murmured:
"I suppose that's the way you talk to all the girls!—I know you college men!"
Pete murmured, a whole world of reproach in one word:
They became silent—a long silence. Missy stood petrified behind the door; her breathing ceased but her heart beat quickly. Here was Romance—not the made-up kind of Romance you surreptitiously read in mother's magazines, but real Romance! And she—Missy—knew them both! And they were just the other side of the door!
Too thrilled to reflect upon the nature of her deed, scarcely conscious of herself as a being at all, Missy craned her neck and peered around the door. They were sitting close together on the divan. Pete's arm was about Polly Currier's shoulder. And he was kissing her! Curious, that! Hadn't she just heard Polly tell him that he couldn't?... Oh, beautiful!
She started noiselessly to withdraw, but her foot struck the conch shell which served as a door-stop. At the noise two startled pairs of eyes were upon her immediately; and Pete, leaping up, advanced upon her with a fierce whisper:
"You little spy-eye!—What're you up to? You little spy-eye!"
A swift wave of shame engulfed Missy.
"Oh, I'm sorry!" she cried in a stricken voice. "I didn't mean to, Pete—I—"
He interrupted her, still in that fierce whisper:
"Stop yelling, can't you! No, I suppose you 'didn't mean to'—Right behind the door!" His eyes withered her.
"Truly, I didn't, Pete." Her own voice, now, had sunk to a whisper. "Cross my heart I didn't!"
But he still glared.
"You ought to be ashamed of yourself—always sneaking round! You ought to be ashamed of yourself!"
"Oh, I am, Pete," she quavered, though, in fact, she wasn't sure in just what lay the shamefulness of her deed; till he'd spoken she had felt nothing but Romance in the air.
"Well, you ought to be," Pete reiterated. He hesitated a second, then went on:
"You aren't going to blab it all around, are you?"
"Oh, no!" breathed Missy, horrified at such a suggestion. "Well, see that you don't! I'll give you some candy to-morrow."
"Yes—candy," came Polly's voice faintly from the divan.
Then, as the subject seemed to be exhausted, Missy crept away, permeated with the sense of her sin.
It was horrible! To have sinned just when she'd found the wonderful new feeling. Just when she'd resolved to be good always, that she might dwell in the house of the Lord forever. She hadn't intended to sin; but she must have been unusually iniquitous. Pete's face had told her that. It was particularly horrible because sin had stolen upon her so suddenly. Does sin always take you unawares, that way? A new and black fear settled heavily over her.
When she finally returned to the porch with the paper-flowers box, she was embarrassed by grandma's asking what had kept her so long. It would have been easy to make up an excuse, but this new sense of sin restrained her from lying. So she mumbled unintelligibly, till grandma interrupted:
"Do you feel sick, Missy?" she asked anxiously.
"Are you sure? You ate so much at dinner. Maybe you didn't take a long enough nap."
"I'm not sleepy, grandma."
But grandma insisted on feeling her forehead—her hands. They were hot.
"I think I'd better put you to bed for a little while," said grandma. "You're feverish. And if you're not better by night, you mustn't go to the meeting."
Missy's heart sank, weighted with a new fear. It would be an unbearable calamity to miss going to the meeting. For, that night, a series of "revivals" were to start at the Methodist Church; and, though father was a Presbyterian (to oblige mother), grandpa and grandma were Methodists and would go every night; and so long as mother was away, she could go to meeting with them. In the fervour of the new religious feeling she craved sanctified surroundings.
So, though she didn't feel at all sick and though she wanted desperately to make paper-flowers, she docilely let herself be put to bed. Anyway, perhaps it was just a penance sent to her by our Lord, to make atonement for her sin.
By supper-time grandma agreed that she seemed well enough to go. Throughout the meal Pete, who was wearing an aloof and serious manner, refrained from looking at her, and she strived to keep her own anxious gaze away from him. He wasn't going to the meeting with the other three.
Just as the lingering June twilight was beginning to darken—the most peaceful hour of the day—Missy walked off sedately between her grandparents. She was wearing her white "best dress." It seemed appropriate that your best clothes should be always involved in the matter of church going; that the spiritual beatification within should be reflected by the garments without.
The Methodist church in Cherryvale prided itself that it was not "new-fangled." It was not nearly so pretentious in appearance as was the Presbyterian church. Missy, in her heart, preferred stained-glass windows and their glorious reflections, as an asset to religion; but at night services you were not apt to note that deficiency.
She sat well up front with her grandparents, as befitted their position as pillars of the church, and from this vantage had a good view of the proceedings. She could see every one in the choir, seated up there behind the organ on the side platform. Polly Currier was in the choir; she wasn't a Methodist, but she had a flute-like soprano voice, and the Methodists—whom all the town knew had "poor singing"—had overstepped the boundaries of sectarianism for this revival. Polly looked like an angel in pink lawn and rose-wreathed leghorn hat; she couldn't know that Missy gazed upon her with secret adoration as a creature of Romance—one who had been kissed! Missy continued to gaze at Polly during the preliminary songs—tunes rather disappointing, not so beautiful as Missy's own favourite hymns—till the preacher appeared.
The Reverend Poole—"Brother" Poole as grandpa called him, though he wasn't a relation—was a very tall, thin man with a blonde, rather vacuous face; but at exhortation and prayer he "had the gift." For so good a man, he had a remarkably poor opinion of the virtues of his fellow-men. Missy couldn't understand half his fiery eloquence; but she felt his inspiration; and she gathered that most of the congregation must be sinners. Knowing herself to be a sinner, she wasn't so much surprised at that.
Finally Brother Poole, with quavering voice, urged all sinners to come forward and kneel at the feet of Jesus, and pray to be "washed in the blood of the lamb." Thus would their sins be forgiven them, and their souls be born anew. Missy's soul quivered and stretched up to be born anew. So, with several other sinners—including grandpa and grandma whom she had never before suspected of sin—she unhesitatingly walked forward. She invoked the grace of God; her head, her body, her feet seemed very light and remote as she walked; she seemed, rather, to float; her feet scarcely touched the red-ingrain aisle "runner"—she was nearly all spirit. She knelt before the altar between grandpa and grandma, one hand tight-clasped in grandpa's.
Despite her exaltation, she was conscious of material things. For instance she noted that Mrs. Brenning was on the other side of grandma, and wondered whether she were atoning for the sins of her chickens against Mrs. Jones's tomato-vines; she noticed, too, that Mrs. Brenning's hat had become askew, which gave her a queer, unsuitable, rakish look. Yet Missy didn't feel like laughing. She felt like closing her eyes and waiting to be born anew. But, before closing her eyes, she sent a swift glance up at the choir platform. Polly Currier was still up there, looking very placid as she sang with the rest of the choir. They were singing a rollicking tune. She listened—
"Pull for the shore, sailor! Pull for the shore! Leave the poor old strangled wretch, and pull for the shore!"
Who was the old strangled wretch? A sinner, doubtless. Ah, the world was full of sin. She looked again at Polly. Polly's placidity was reassuring; evidently she was not a sinner. But it was time to close her eyes. However, before doing so, she sent a swift upward glance toward the preacher. He had a look on his face as though an electric light had been turned on just inside. He was praying fervently for God's grace upon "these Thy repentant creatures." Missy shut her eyes, repented violently, and awaited the miracle. What would happen? How would it feel, when her soul was born anew? Surely it must be time. She waited and waited, while her limbs grew numb and her soul continued to quiver and stretch up. But in vain; she somehow didn't feel the grace of God nearly as much as last Sunday when the Presbyterian choir was singing "Asleep in Jesus," while the sun shone divinely through the stained-glass window.
She felt cheated and very sad when, at last, the preacher bade the repentant ones stand up again. Evidently she hadn't repented hard enough. Very soberly she walked back to the pew and took her place between grandpa and grandma. They looked rather sober, too; she wondered if they, also, had had trouble with their souls.
Then Brother Poole bade the repentant sinners to "stand up and testify." One or two of the older sinners, who had repented before, rose first to show how this was done. And then some of the younger ones, after being urged, followed example. Sobbing, they testified as to their depth of sin and their sense of forgiveness, while Brother Poole intermittently cut in with staccato exclamations such as "Praise the Lord!" and "My Redeemer Liveth!"
Missy was eager to see whether grandpa and grandma would stand up and testify. When neither of them did so, she didn't know whether she was more disappointed or relieved. Perhaps their silence denoted that their souls had been born anew quite easily. Or again—! She sighed; her soul, at all events, had proved a failure.
She was silent on the way home. Grandpa and grandma held her two hands clasped in theirs and over her head talked quietly. She was too dejected to pay much attention to what they were saying; caught only scattered, meaningless phrases: "Of course that kind of frenzy is sincere but—" "Simple young things—" "No more idea of sin or real repentance—"
But Missy was engrossed with her own dismal thoughts. The blood of the Lamb had passed her by.
And that night, for the first time in three nights, the grace of God didn't flow in on the flood of moonlight through her window. She tossed on her unhallowed pillow in troubled dreams. Once she cried out in sleep, and grandma came hurrying in with a candle. Grandma sat down beside her—what was this she was saying about "green-apple pie"? Missy wished to ask her about it—green-apple pie—green-apple pie—Before she knew it she was off to sleep again.
It was the next morning while she was still lying in bed, that Missy made the Great Resolve. That hour is one when big Ideas—all kinds of unusual thoughts—are very apt to come. When you're not yet entirely awake; not taken up with trivial, everyday things. Your mind, then, has full swing.
Lying there in grandma's soft feather bed, Missy wasn't yet distracted by daytime affairs. She dreamily regarded the patch of blue sky showing through the window, and bits of fleecy cloud, and flying specks of far-away birds. How wonderful to be a bird and live up in the beautiful sky! When she died and became an angel, she could live up there! But was she sure she'd become an angel? That reflection gradually brought her thoughts to the events of the preceding night.
Though she could recall those events distinctly, Missy now saw them in a different kind of way. Now she was able to look at the evening as a whole, with herself merely a part of the whole. She regarded that sort of detached object which was herself. That detached Missy had gone to the meeting, and failed to find grace. Others had gone and found grace. Even though they had acted no differently from Missy. Like her they sang tunes; listened to the preacher; bowed the head; went forward and knelt at the feet of Jesus; repented; went back to the pews; stood up and testified—
Suddenly Missy gave a little sound, and stirred. She puckered her brows in intense concentration. Perhaps—perhaps that was why!
And then she made the Great Resolve.
Soon after breakfast, Pete appeared with a bag of candy.
"I don't deserve it," said Missy humbly.
"You bet you don't!" acquiesced Pete.
So even he recognized her state of sin! Her Great Resolve intensified.
That morning, for the first time in her life at grandma's house, Missy shirked her "chores." She found paper and pencil, took a small Holy Bible, and stole back to the tool-house where grandpa kept his garden things and grandma her washtubs. For that which she now was to do, Missy would have preferred the more beautiful summerhouse at home; but grandma had no summerhouse, and this offered the only sure seclusion.
She stayed out there a long time, seated on an upturned washtub; read the Holy Bible for awhile; then became absorbed in the ecstasies of composition. So engrossed was she that she didn't at first hear grandma calling her.
Grandma was impatiently waiting on the back porch.
"What in the world are you doing out there?" she demanded.
Loath to lie, now, Missy made a compromise with her conscience.
"I was reading the Holy Bible, grandma."
Grandma's expression softened; and all she said was:
"Well, dinner's waiting, now."
Grandpa was staying down town and Pete was over at the Curriers', so there were only grandma and Missy at the table. Missy tried to attend to grandma's chatter and make the right answers in the right places. But her mind kept wandering; and once grandma caught her whispering.
"What is the matter with you, Missy? What are you whispering about?"
Guiltily Missy clapped her hand to her mouth.
"Oh! was I whispering?"
"I guess it was just a piece I'm learning."
"I—I—it's going to be a surprise."
"Oh, another surprise? Well, that'll be nice," said grandma.
Missy longed acutely to be alone. It was upsetting to have to carry on a conversation. That often throws you off of what's absorbing your thoughts.
So she was glad when, after dinner, grandma said:
"I think you'd better take a little nap, dear. You don't seem quite like yourself—perhaps you'd best not attempt the meeting to-night."
That last was a bomb-shell; but Missy decided not to worry about such a possible catastrophe till the time should come. She found a chance to slip out to the tool-house and rescue the Holy Bible and the sheet of paper, the latter now so scratched out and interlined as to be unintelligible to anyone save an author.
When at last she was alone in her room, she jumped out of bed—religion, it seems, sometimes makes deception a necessity.
For a time she worked on the paper, bending close over it, cheeks flushed, eyes shining, whispering as she scratched.
At supper, Missy was glad to learn that Pete had planned to attend the meeting that evening. "Revivals" were not exactly in Pete's line; but as long as Polly Currier had to be there, he'd decided he might as well go to see her home. Moreover, he'd persuaded several others of "the crowd" to go along and make a sort of party of it.
And Missy's strained ears caught no ominous suggestion as to her own staying at home.
Later, walking sedately to the church between her grandparents, Missy felt her heart beating so hard she feared they might hear it. Once inside the church, she drew a long breath. Oh, if only she didn't have so long to wait! How could she wait?
Polly Currier was again seated on the choir platform, to night an angel in lavender mull. She had a bunch of pansies at her belt—pansies out of grandma's garden. Pete must have given them to her! She now and then smiled back toward the back pew where Pete and "the crowd" were sitting.
To Missy's delight Polly sang a solo. It was "One Sweetly Solemn Thought"—oh, rapture! Polly's high soprano floated up clear and piercing-sweet. It was so beautiful that it hurt. Missy shut her eyes. She could almost see angels in misty white and floating golden hair. Something quivered inside her; once more on the wings of music was the religious feeling stealing back to her.
The solo was finished, but Missy kept her eyes closed whenever she thought no one was looking. She was anxious to hold the religious feeling till her soul could be entirely born anew. And she had quite a long time to wait. That made her task difficult and complicated; for it's not easy at the same time to retain an emotional state and to rehearse a piece you're afraid of forgetting.
But the service gradually wore through. Now they were at the "come forward and sit at the feet of Jesus." To-night grandpa and grandma didn't do that; they merely knelt in the pew with bowed heads. So Missy also knelt with bowed head. She was by this time in a state difficult to describe; a quivering jumble of excitement, eagerness, timidity, fear, hope, and exaltation...
And now at last, was come the time!
Brother Poole, again wearing the look on his face as of an electric light turned on within, exhorted the repentant ones to "stand up and testify."
Missy couldn't bear to wait for someone else to begin. She jumped hastily to her feet. Grandma tried to pull her down. Missy frowned slightly—why was grandma tugging at her skirt? Tugging aways she extended her arms with palms flat together and thumbs extended—one of Brother Poole's most effective gestures—and began:
"My soul rejoiceth because I have seen the light. Yea, it burns in my soul and my soul is restoreth. I will fear no evil even if it is born again. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. I have been a sinner but—"
Why was grandma pulling at her skirt? Missy twitched away and, raising her voice to a higher key, went on:
"I said I've been a sinner, but I've repented my sins and want to lead a blameless life. I repent my sins—O Lord, please forgive me for being a spy-eye when Cousin Pete kissed Polly Currier, and guide me to lead a blameless life. Amen."
She sat down.
A great and heavenly stillness came and wrapped itself about her, a soft and velvety stillness; to shut out gasp or murmur or stifled titter.
The miracle had happened! It was as if an inner light had been switched on; a warm white light which tingled through to every fibre of her being. Surely this was the flame divine! It was her soul being born anew...
CHAPTER II. "Your True Friend, Melissa M."
Missy knew, the moment she opened her eyes, that golden June morning, that it was going to be a happy day. Missy, with Poppylinda purring beside her, found this mysterious, irradiant feeling flowing out of her heart almost as tangible as a third live being in her quaint little room. It seemed a sort of left-over, still vaguely attached, from the wonderful dream she had just been having. Trying to recall the dream, she shut her eyes again; Missy's one regret, in connection with her magical dreams, was that the sparkling essence of them was apt to become dim when she awoke. But now, when she opened her eyes, the suffusion still lingered.
For a long, quiet, blissful moment, she lay smiling at the spot where the sunlight, streaming level through the lace-curtained window, fell on the rose-flowered chintz of the valances. Missy liked those colours very much; then her eyes followed the beam of light to where it spun a prism of fairy colours on the mirror above the high-boy, and she liked that ecstatically. She liked, too, by merely turning her head on the pillow, to glimpse, through the parting of the curtains, the ocean of blue sky with its flying cloud ships, so strange; and to hear the morning song of the birds and the happy hum of insects, the music seeming almost to filter through the lace curtains in a frescoed pattern which glided, alive, along the golden roadway of sunshine. She even liked the monotonous metallic rattle which betold that old Jeff was already at work with the lawn-mower.
All this in a silent moment crammed to the full with vibrant ecstasy; then Missy remembered, specifically, the Wedding drawing every day nearer, and the new Pink Dress, and the glory to be hers when she should strew flowers from a huge leghorn hat, and her rapture brimmed over. Physically and spiritually unable to keep still another second, she suddenly sat up.
"Oh, Poppylinda!" she whispered. "I'm so happy—so happy!"
Everyone knows—that is, everyone who knows kittens—that kittens, like babies, listen with their eyes. To Missy's whispered confidence, Poppylinda, without stirring, opened her lids and blinked her yellow eyes.
"Aren't you happy, too? Say you're happy, Poppy, darling!"
Poppy was stirred to such depths that mere eye-blinking could not express her emotion. She opened her mouth, so as to expose completely her tiny red tongue, and then, without lingual endeavour, began to hum a gentle, crooning rumble down somewhere near her stomach. Yes; Poppy was happy.
The spirit of thanksgiving glamorously enwrapped these two all the time Missy was dressing. Like the efficient big girl of twelve that she was, Missy drew her own bath and, later, braided her own hair neatly. As she tied the ribbons on those braids, now crossed in a "coronet" over her head, she gave the ghost of a sigh. This morning she didn't want to wear her every-day bows; but dutifully she tied them on, a big brown cabbage above each ear. When she had scrambled into her checked gingham "sailor suit," all spick and span, Missy stood eying herself in the mirror for a wistful moment, wishing her tight braids might metamorphose into lovely, hanging curls like Kitty Allen's. They come often to a "strange child"—these moments of vague longing to overhear one's self termed a "pretty child"—especially on the eve of an important occasion.
But thoughts of that important occasion speedily chased away consciousness of self. And downstairs in the cheerful dining room, with the family all gathered round the table, Missy, her cheeks glowing pink and her big grey eyes ashine, found it difficult to eat her oatmeal, for very rapture. In the bay window, the geraniums on the sill nodded their great, biossomy heads at her knowingly. Beyond, the big maple was stirring its leaves, silver side up, like music in the breeze. Away across the yard, somewhere, Jeff was making those busy, restful sounds with the lawn-mower. These alluring things, and others stretching out to vast mental distances, quite deadened, for Missy, the family's talk close at hand.
"When I ran over to the Greenleaf's to borrow the sugar," Aunt Nettie was saying, "May White was there, and she and Helen hurried out of the dining room when they saw me. I'm sure they'd been crying, and—"
"S-sh!" warned Mrs. Merriam, with a glance toward Missy. Then, in a louder tone: "Eat your cereal, Missy. Why are you letting it get cold?"
Missy brought her eyes back from space with an answering smile. "I was thinking," she explained.
"What of, Missy?" This, encouragingly, from father.
"Oh, my dream, last night."
"What did you dream about?"
"Oh—mountains," replied Missy, somewhat vaguely.
"For the land's sake!" exclaimed Aunt Nettie. "What ever put such a thing into her head? She never saw a mountain in her life!" Grown-ups have a disconcerting way of speaking of children, even when present, in the third person. But Aunt Nettie finally turned to Missy with a direct (and dreaded): "What did they look like, Missy?"
"Oh—mountains," returned Missy, still vague.
At a sign from mother, the others did not press her further. When she had finished her breakfast, Missy approached her mother, and the latter, reading the question in her eyes, asked:
"Well, what is it, Missy?"
"I feel—like pink to-day," faltered Missy, half-embarrassed.
But her mother did not ask for explanation. She only pondered a moment.
"You know," reminded the supplicant, "I have to try on the Pink Dress this morning."
"Very well, then," granted mother. "But only the second-best ones."
Missy's face brightened and she made for the door.
Before she got altogether out of earshot, Aunt Nettie began: "I don't know that it's wise to humour her in her notions. 'Feel like pink!'—what in the world does she mean by that?"
Missy was glad the question had not been put to her; for, to have saved her life, she couldn't have answered it intelligibly. She was out of hearing too soon to catch her mother's answer:
"She's just worked up over the wedding, and being a flower-girl and all."
"Well, I don't believe," stated Aunt Nettie with the assurance that spinsters are wont to show in discussing such matters, "that it's good for children to let them work themselves up that way. She'll be as much upset as the bridegroom if Helen does back out."
"Oh, I don't think old Mrs. Greenleaf would ever let her break it off, now" said Mrs. Merriam, stooping to pick up the papers which her husband had left strewn over the floor.
"She's hard as rocks," agreed Aunt Nettie.
"Though," Mrs. Merriam went on, "when it's a question of her daughter's happiness—"
"A little unhappiness would serve Helen Green leaf right," commented the other tartly. "She's spoiled to death and a flirt. I think it was a lucky day for young Doc Alison when she jilted him."
"She's just young and vain," championed Mrs. Merriam, carefully folding the papers and laying them in the rack. "Any pretty girl in Helen's position couldn't help being spoiled. And you must admit nothing's ever turned her head—Europe, or her visits to Cleveland, or anything."
"The Cleveland man is handsome," said Aunt Nettie irrelevantly—the Cleveland man was the bridegroom-elect.
"Yes, in a stylish, sporty kind of way. But I don't know—" She hesitated a moment, then concluded: "Missy doesn't like him."
At that Aunt Nettie laughed with genuine mirth. "What on earth do you think a child would know about it?" she ridiculed.
Meanwhile the child, whose departure had thus loosed free speech, was leagues distant from the gossip and the unrest which was its source. Her pink hair bows, even the second-best ones, lifted her to a state which made it much pleasanter to idle in her window, sniffing at the honey-suckle, than to hurry down to the piano. She longed to make up something which, like a tune of water rippling over pink pebbles, was running through her head. But faithfully, at last, she toiled through her hour, and then was called on to mind the Baby.
This last duty was a real pleasure. For she could wheel the perambulator off to the summerhouse, in a secluded, sweet-smelling corner of the yard, and there recite poetry aloud. To reinforce those verses she knew by heart, she carried along the big Anthology which, in its old-blue binding, contrasted so satisfyingly with the mahogany table in the sitting-room. The first thing she read was "Before the Beginning of Years" from "Atalanta in Calydon;" Missy especially adored Swinburne—so liltingly incomprehensible.
The performance, as ever, was highly successful all around. Baby really enjoyed it and Poppylinda as well, both of them blinking in placid appreciation. And as for Missy, the liquid sound of the metres rolling off her own lips, the phrases so beautiful and so "deep," seemed to lift a choking something right up into her throat until she could have wept with the sweet pain of it. She did, as a matter of fact, happy tears, about which her two auditors asked no embarrassing question. Baby merely gurgled, and Poppylinda essayed to climb the declaimer's skirts.
"Sit down, sad Soul!" Missy's mood could no longer even attempt to mate with prose. She turned through the pages of the Anthology until she came to another favourite:
So faithful in love, and so dauntless in war, There never was knight like young Lochinvar.
This she read through, with a fine, swinging rhythm. "I think that last stanza's perfectly exquisite—don't you?" Missy enquired of her mute audience. And she repeated it, as unctuously as though she were the poet herself. Then, quite naturally, this romance recalled to her the romance next door, so deliciously absorbing her waking and dreaming hours—the romance of her own Miss Princess. Miss Princess—Missy's more formal adaptation of Young Doc's soubriquet for Helen Greenleaf in the days of his romance—was the most beautiful heroine imaginable. And the Wedding was next week, and Missy was to walk first of all the six flower-girls, and the Pink Dress was all but done, and the Pink Stockings—silk!—were upstairs in the third drawer of the high-boy! Oh, it was a golden world, radiant with joy. Of course—it's only earth, after all, and not heaven—she'd rather the bridegroom was going to be young Doc. But Miss Princess had arranged it this other way—her bridegroom had come out of the East. And the Wedding was almost here!... There never was morning so fair, nor grass so vivid and shiny, nor air so soft. Above her head the cherry-buds were swelling, almost ready to burst. From the open windows of the house, down the street, sounds from a patient piano, flattered by distance, betokened that Kitty Allen was struggling with "Perpetual Motion"; Missy, who had finished her struggles with that abomination-to-beginners a month previously felt her sense of beatitude deepen.
Presently into this Elysium floated her mother's voice, summoning her to the house. Rounding the corner of the back walk with the perambulator, she collided with the grocer-boy. He was a nice-mannered boy, picking up the Anthology and Baby's doll from the ground, and handing them to her with a charming smile. Besides, he had very bright, sparkling eyes. Missy fancied he must be some lost Prince, and inwardly resolved to make up, as soon as alone, a story to this effect.
In the house, mother told her it was time to go to Miss Martin's to try on the Pink Dress.
Down the street, she encountered Mr. Hackett, the rich bridegroom come out of the East, a striking figure, on that quiet street, in the natty white flannels suggesting Cleveland, Atlantic City, and other foreign places.
"Well, if here isn't Sappho!" he greeted her gaily. Missy blushed. Not for worlds had she suspected he was hearing her, that unlucky morning in the grape-arbour, when she recited her latest Poem to Miss Princess. Now she smiled perfunctorily, and started to pass him.
But Mr. Hackett, swinging his stick, stood with his feet wide apart and looked down at her.
"How's the priestess of song, this fine morning?" he persisted.
"All-right," stammered Missy.
He laughed, as if actually enjoying her confusion. Missy observed that his eyes were red-rimmed, and his face a pasty white. She wondered whether he was sick; but he jauntily waved his stick at her and went on his way.
Missy, a trifle subdued, continued hers.
But oh, it is a wonderful world! You never know what any moment may bring you. Adventures fairy-sent surprises, await you at the most unexpected turns, spring at you from around the first corner.
It was around the very first corner, in truth, that Missy met young Doc Alison, buzzing leisurely along in his Ford.
"Hello, Missy," he greeted. "Like a lift?"
Missy would. Young Doc jumped out, and, in a deferential manner she admired very much, assisted her into the little car as though she were a grown-up and lovely young lady. Young Doc was a nice man. She knew him well. He had felt her pulse, looked at her tongue, sent her Valentines, taken her riding, and shown her many other little courtesies for as far back as she could remember. Then, too, she greatly admired his looks. He was tall and lean and wiry. His face was given to quick flashes of smiling; and his eyes could be dreamy or luminous. He resembled, Missy now decided—and marvelled she hadn't noticed it before—that other young man, Lochinvar, "so faithful in love and so dauntless in war."
When young Doc politely enquired whether she could steal enough time from her errand to turn about for a run up "The Boulevard," Missy acquiesced. She regretted she hadn't worn her shirred mull hat. But she decided not to worry about that. After all, her appearance, at the present moment, didn't so much matter. What did matter was the way she was going to look next Wednesday—and she excitedly began telling young Doc about her coming magnificence, "It's silk organdie," she said in a reverent tone, "and has garlands of rosebuds." She went on and told him of the big leghorn hat to be filled with flowers, of the Pink Stockings—best of all, silk!—waiting, in tissue-paper, in the high-boy drawer.
"Oh, I can hardly wait!" she concluded rapturously.
Young Doc, guiding the car around the street-sprinkling wagon, did not answer. Beyond the wagon, Mr. Hackett, whom the Ford had overtaken, was swinging along. Missy turned to young Doc with a slight grimace.
"'The poor craven bridegroom said never a word,'" she quoted.
Young Doc permitted himself to smile—not too much. "Why don't you like him, Missy?"
Missy shook her head, without other reply. It would have been difficult for her to express why she didn't like stylish Mr. Hackett.
"I wish," she said suddenly, "that you were going to be the bridegroom, Doc."
He smiled a wry smile at her. "Well, to tell the truth, I wish so, too, Missy."
"Well, she'll be coming back to visit us often, and maybe you can take us out riding again."
"Maybe—but after getting used to big imported cars, I'm afraid one doesn't care much for a Ford."
There was a note of cynicism, of pain, which, because she didn't know what it was, cut Missy to the heart. It is all very well, in Romance and Poems, to meet with unhappy, discarded lovers—they played an essential part in many of the best ballads in the Anthology; but when that romantic role falls, in real life, on the shoulders of a nice young Doc, the matter assumes a different complexion. Missy's own ecstasy over the Wedding suddenly loomed thoughtless, selfish, wicked. She longed timidly to reach over and pat that lean brown hand resting on the steering-wheel. Two sentences she formed in her mind, only to abandon them unspoken, when, to her relief, the need for delicate diplomacy was temporarily removed by the car's slowing to a stop before Miss Martin's gate.
Inside the little white cottage, however, in Miss Martin's sitting-room—so queer and fascinating with its "forms," its samples and "trimmings" pinned to the curtains, its alluring display of fashion magazines and "charts," and its eternal litter of varicoloured scraps over the floor—Missy's momentary dejection could but vanish. Finally, when in Miss Martin's artfully tilted cheval glass, she surveyed the pink vision which was herself, gone, for the time, was everything of sadness in the world. She turned her head this way and that, craning to get the effect from every angle-the bouffance of the skirt, the rosebuds wreathing the sides, the butterfly sash in the back. Adjured by Miss Martin to stand still, she stood vibrantly poised like a lily-stem waiting the breath of the wind; bade to "lift up your arms," she obeyed and visioned winged fairies alert for flight. Even when Miss Martin, carried away by her zeal in fitting, stuck a pin through the pink tissue clear into the warmer, softer pink beneath, Missy scarcely felt the prick.
But, at the midday dinner-table, that sympathetic uneasiness returned. Father, home from the office, was full of indignation over something "disgraceful" he had heard down town. Though the conversation was held tantalizingly above Missy's full comprehension, she could gather that the "disgrace" centred in the bachelor dinner which Mr. Hackett had given at the Commercial House the night before. Father evidently held no high opinion of the introduction of "rotten Cleveland performances" nor of the man who had introduced them.
"What 'rotten Cleveland performances'?" asked Missy with lively curiosity.
"Oh, just those late, indigestible suppers," cut in mother quickly. "Rich food at that hour just kills your stomach. Here, don't you want another strawberry tart, Missy?"
Missy didn't; but she affected a desire for it, and then a keen interest in its consumption. By this artifice, she hoped she might efface herself as a hindrance to continuation of the absorbing talk. But it is a trick of grown-ups to stop dead at the most thrilling points; though she consumed the last crumb of the tart, her ears gained no reward, until mother said:
"As soon as you've finished dinner, Missy, I wish you'd run over to Greenleafs' and ask to borrow Miss Helen's new kimono pattern."
Missy brightened. The sight of old Mrs. Greenleaf and Miss Princess, bustling gaily about, would lift this strange cloud gathering so ominously. She asked permission to carry along a bunch of sweet peas, and gathered the kind Miss Princess liked best—pinkish lavender blossoms, a delicious colour like the very fringe of a rainbow.
The Greenleafs' coloured maid let her in and showed her into the "den" back of the parlour. "I'll tell Mrs. Greenleaf," she said. "They're all busy upstairs."
Very busy they must have been, for Missy had restlessly dangled her feet for what seemed hours, before she heard voices approaching the parlour.
"Oh, I won't—I won't—" It was Miss Princess's voice, almost unrecognizably high and quavering.
"Now, just listen a minute, darling—" This unmistakably Mr. Hackett's languorous, curiously repellent monotone.
"Don't you touch me!"
Missy, stricken by the knowledge she was eavesdropping, peered about for a means of slipping out. But the only door, portiere-hung, was the one leading into the parlour. And now this concealed poor blundering Missy from the speakers while it allowed their talk to drift through.
That talk, stormy and utterly incomprehensible, filled the child with a growing sense of terror. Accusations, quick pleadings, angry retorts, attempts at explanation, all formed a dreadful muttering background out of which shot, like sharp streaks of lightning, occasional clearly-caught phrases: "Charlie White came home dead drunk, I tell you—" "—You know I'm mad about you, Helen, or I wouldn't—" "—Oh, don't you touch me!"
To Missy, trapped and shaking with panic, the storm seemed to have raged hours before she detected a third voice, old Mrs. Greenleaf's, which cut calm and controlled across the area of passion.
"You'd better go out a little while, Porter, and let me talk to her."
Then another interminable stretch of turmoil, this all the more terrifying because less violent.
"Oh, mother-I can't—" Anger, spent, had given way to broken sobbing.
"I understand how you feel, dear. But you'll—"
"I despise him!"
"I understand, dear. All girls get frightened and—"
"But it isn't that, mother. I don't love him. I can't go on. Won't you, this minute, tell him—tell everybody—?"
"Darling, don't you realize I can't?" Missy had never before heard old Mrs. Greenleaf's voice tremble.
"The invitation, and the trousseau, and the presents, and everything. Think of the scandal, dear. We couldn't. Don't you see, dear, we can't back out, now?"
"I almost wish—but don't you see—?"
"Oh, I can't stand it another hour!"
"You're excited, dear," soothingly. "You'd better go rest a while. I'll have a good talk with Porter. And you go upstairs and lie down. The Carrolls' dinner—"
"Oh, dinners, luncheons, clothes. I—"
The despairing sound of Miss Princess's cry, and the throbbing realization that these were calamities she must not overhear, stung Missy to renewed reconnoitering. Tiptoeing over to the window, she fumbled at the fastening of the screen, swung it outward, and, contemplating a jump to the sward below, thrust one foot over the sill.
"Hello, there! What are you up to?"
On the side porch, not twenty feet away, Mr. Hackett was regarding her with amazed and hostile eyes. Missy's heart thumped against her ribs. Her consternation was not lessened when, tossing away his cigarette with a vindictive gesture, he added: "Stay where you are!"
Missy slackened her hold and crouched back like a hunted criminal. And like a hunted criminal he condemned her, a moment later, to old Mrs. Greenleaf.
"That kid from next door has been snooping in here. I caught her trying to sneak out."
Missy faltered out her explanation.
"I know it wasn't your fault, dear," said old Mrs. Greenleaf kindly. "What was it you wanted?"
Her errand forgotten, Missy could only attempt a smile and dumbly extend the bouquet.
Old Mrs. Greenleaf took the flowers, then spoke over her shoulder: "I think Helen wants you upstairs, Porter." Missy had always thought she was like a Roman Matron; now it was upsetting to see the Roman Matron so upset.
"Miss Helen's got a terrible headache and is lying down," said old Mrs. Greenleaf, fussing over the flowers.
"Oh," said Missy, desperately tongue-tied and ill-at-ease.
For a long second it endured portentously still in the room and in the world without; then like a sharp thunder-clap out of a summer sky, a door slammed upstairs. There was a sound of someone running down the steps, and Missy glimpsed Mr. Hackett going out the front door, banging the screen after him.
At the last noise, old Mrs. Greenleaf's shoulders stiffened as if under a lash. But she turned quietly and said:
"Thank you so much for the flowers, Missy. I'll give them to her after a while, when she's better. And you can see her to-morrow."
It was the politest of dismissals. Missy, having remembered the pattern, hurriedly got it and ran home. She had seen a suspicion of tears in old Mrs. Greenleaf's eyes. It was as upsetting as though the bronze Winged Victory on the parlour mantel should begin to weep.
All that afternoon Missy sought solitude. She refused to play croquet with Kitty Allen when that beautiful and most envied friend appeared. When Kitty took herself home, offended, Missy went out to the remote summerhouse, relieved. She looked back, now, on her morning's careless happiness as an old man looks back on the heyday of his youth.
Heavy with sympathy, non-comprehension and fear, she brooded over these dark, mysterious hints about the handsome Cleveland man; over young Doc's blighted love; over Miss Princess's wanting to "back out"; over old Mrs. Greenleaf's strange, dominant "pride."
Why did Miss Princess want to "back out"?—Miss Princess with her beautiful coppery hair, and eager parted lips, and eyes of mysterious purple (Missy lingered on the reflection "eyes of mysterious purple" long enough to foreshadow a future poem including that line). Was it because she still loved Doc? If so, why didn't it turn out all right, since Doc loved her, too? Surely that would be better, since there seemed to be something wrong with Mr. Hackett—even though everybody did talk about what a wonderful match he was. Then they talked about invitations and things as though old Mrs. Greenleaf thought those things counted for more than the bridegroom. Old Mrs. Greenleaf, Missy was sure, loved Miss Princess better than anything else in the world: then how could she, even if she was "proud," twist things so foolishly?
She had brought with her the blue-bound Anthology and a writing-pad and pencil. First she read a little—"Lochinvar" it was she opened to. Then she meditated. Poor Young Doc! The whole unhappy situation was like poetry. (So much in life she was finding, these days, like poetry.) This would make a very sad, but effective poem: the faithful, unhappy lover, the lovely, unhappy bride, the mother keeping them asunder who, though stern, was herself unhappy, and the craven bridegroom who—she hoped it, anyway!—was unhappy also.
In all this unhappiness, though she didn't suspect it, Missy revelled—a peculiar kind of melancholy tuned to the golden day. She detected a subtle restlessness in the shimmering leaves about her; the scent of the June roses caught at something elusively sad in her. Without knowing why, her eyes filled with tears.
She drew the writing-pad to her; conjured the vision of nice Doc and of Miss Princess, and, immersed in a sea of feeling, sought for words and rhyme:
O, young Doctor Al is the pride of the West, Than big flashy autos his Ford is the best; Ah! courtly that lover and faithful and true. And fair, wondrous fair, the maiden was, too. But O—dire the day! when from Cleveland afar—
A long pause here: "car," "scar," "jar,"—all tried and discarded. Finally sense, rhyme and meter were attuned:
—afar, A dastard she met, their sweet idyl to mar.
He won her away with his glitter and plume And citified ways, while the lover did fume. O, fair dawned the Wedding Day, pink in the East, And folk from all quarters did come for the feast; Gay banners from turrets—
The poet, head bent, absorbed in creation, did not hear.
"Missy! Where are you? Me-lis-sa!"
This time the voice cleaved into the mood of inspiration. With a sigh Missy put the pad and pencil in the Anthology, laid the whole on the bench, and obediently went to mind the Baby. But, as she wheeled the perambulator up and down the front walk, her mind liltingly repeated the words she had written, and she stepped along in time to the rhythm. It was a fine rhythm. And, as soon as she was relieved from duty, she rushed back to the temporary shrine of the Muse. The words, now, flowed much more easily than at the beginning—one of the first lessons learned by all creative artists.
Gay banners from turrets streamed out in the air And all Maple, Avenue turned out for the pair. Ah! beauteous was she, that white-satin young bride, But sorrow had reddened her deep purple eyes. Each clatter of hoofs from the courtyard below Did summon the blood swift to ebb and then flow; For the gem on her finger, the flower in her hair, Bound not her sad heart to that Cleveland man there.
Ah! who is this riding so fast through Main Street? The gallant young lover—
Again, reiterant and increasingly imperative, summons from the house slashed across her mood. Can't one's family ever appreciate the yearning for solitude? However, even amid the talkative circle round the supper-table, Missy felt uplifted and strangely remote.
"Why aren't you eating your supper, Missy? Just look at that wasted good meat!"
"Meat," though a good rhyme for "street," would not work well. "Neat"—"fleet"—Ah! "Fleet!"
Immediately after supper, followed by the inquisitive Poppylinda, Missy took her poem out to the comparative solitude of the back porch steps. It was very sweet and still out there, the sun sinking blood-red over the cherry trees. With no difficulty at all, she went on, inspired:
The gallant young Doctor in his motor so fleet! So flashing his eye and so stately his form That the bride's sinking heart with delight did grow warm. But the poor craven bridegroom said never a word; And the parent so proud did champ in her woe.
The knight snatched her swiftly into the Ford, And she smiled as he steered adown the Boulevard; Then away they did race until soon lost to view, And all knew 'twas best for these lovers so true. For where, tell me where, would have gone that bride's bliss? Who flouts at true love all true happiness must miss!
What matters the vain things of Earth, soon or late, If the heart of a loved one in anguish doth break?
When she came to the triumphant close, among the fragrant cherry blooms the birds were twittering their lullabies. She went in to say her own good night, the Poem, much erased and interlined, tucked in the front of her blouse together with ineffable sensations. But she was not, for all that, beyond a certain concern for material details. "Mother, may I do my hair up in kid-curlers?" she asked.
"Why, this is only Wednesday." Mother's tone connoted the fact that "waves," rippling artificially either side of Missy's "part" down to her two braids, achieved a decorative effect reserved for Sundays and special events. Then quickly, perhaps because she hadn't been altogether unaware of this last visitation of the Heavenly Muse, she added: "Well, I don't care. Do it up, if you want to."
Then, moved by some motive of her own, she followed Missy upstairs to do it up herself. These occasions of personal service were rare, these days, since Missy had grown big and efficient, and were therefore deeply cherished. But to-night Missy almost regretted her mother's unexpected ministration; for the paper in her blouse crackled at unwary gestures, and if mother should protract her stay throughout the undressing period, there might come an awkward call for explanations.
And mother, innocently, added one more element to her entangled burden of distress.
"We'll do it up all over your head, for the Wedding," she said, gently brushing the full length of the fine, silvery-brown strands. "And let it hang in loose curls."
At the conjectured vision, Missy's eyes began to sparkle.
"And I think a ribbon band the colour of your dress would be pretty," mother went on, parting off a section and wrapping it round a "curler." A sudden remembrance clutched at Missy's ecstatic reply; the shine faded from her eyes. But mother, engrossed, didn't observe; more deeply she sank her unintentional barb. "No," she mused aloud, "a garland of little rosebuds would be better, I believe-tiny delicate little buds, tied with a pink bow."
At that, the prospective flower-girl, to have saved her life, could not have repressed the sigh which rose like a tidal wave from her overcharged heart. Mother caught the sigh, and looked at her anxiously. "Don't you think it would look pretty?" she asked.
Missy nodded mutely. So complex were her emotions that, fearing for self-control, she was glad, just then, that the Baby cried.
As soon as mother had kissed her good night and left her, she pulled out the paper rustling importantly within her blouse, and laid it in the celluloid "treasure box" which sat on the high-boy. Then soberly she finished the operation on her hair, and undressed herself.
Before getting into bed, after her regular prayer was said, she stayed awhile on her knees and put the whole of her seething dilemma before God. "Dear God," she said, "you know how unhappy Miss Princess is and young Doc, too. Please make them both happy, God. And please help me not feel sorry about the Pink Dress. For I just can't help feeling sorry. Please help us all, dear God, and I'll be such a good girl, God."
Perhaps it is the biggest gift in the world, to be able to pray. And, by prayer, is not meant the saying over of a formal code, but the simple, direct speaking with God. It is so simple in the doing, so marvellous in its reaction, that the strange thing is that it is not more generally practiced. But there is where the gift comes in: a supreme essence of spirit which must, if the prayer is to achieve its end, be first possessed-a thing possessed by all children not yet quite rid of the glamour of immortality and by some, older, who contrive to hold enough glamour to be as children throughout life. Some call this thing Faith, but there are other names just as good; and the essence lives on forever.
These reflections are not Missy's. She knelt there, without consciousness of any motive or analysis. She only knew she was telling it all to God. And presently, in her heart, in whispers fainter than the stir of the slumbering leaves outside, she heard His answer. God had heard; she knew it by the peace He laid upon her tumultuous heart.
Steeped in faith, she fell asleep. But not a dreamless sleep. Missy always dreamed, these nights: wonderful dreams—magical, splendid, sometimes vaguely terrifying, often remotely tied up with some event of the day, but always wonderful. And the last dream she dreamed, this eventful night, was marvellous indeed. For it was a replica of the one she had dreamed the night before.
It was an omen of divine portent. No one could have doubted it. Missy, waking from its subtle glamour to the full sunlight streaming across her pillow, hugged Poppylinda, crooned over her and, though preparing to sacrifice that golden something whose prospect had gilded her life, sang her way through the duties of her toilet.
That accomplished, she lifted out her Poem, and wrote at the bottom: "Your true friend, MELISSA M."
Then she tucked the two sheets in her blouse, and scrambled downstairs to be chided again for not eating her breakfast.
After the last spoonful, obligatory and arduous, had been disposed of, she loitered near the hall telephone until there was a clear field, then called Young Doc's number. What a relief to find he had not yet gone out! Could he stop by her house, pretty soon? Why, what was the matter—Doc's voice was alarmed—someone sick?