Eleanor Hallowell Abbott
With Illustrations by
The Century Co.
Copyright, 1910, by
THE CENTURY CO.
* * * * *
MY SILENT PARTNER
* * * * *
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
The so-called delicious, intangible joke Frontispiece
"Good enough!" he chuckled
Every girl like Cornelia had to go South sometime between November and March
An elderly dame
A much-freckled messenger-boy appeared dragging an exceedingly obstreperous fox-terrier
"Well I'll be hanged," growled Stanton, "if I'm going to be strung by any boy!"
Some poor old worn-out story-writer
"Maybe she is—'colored,'" he volunteered at last
"Oh! Don't I look—gorgeous!" she stammered
"What?" cried Stanton, plunging forward in his chair
Cornelia's mother answered this time
He unbuckled the straps of his suitcase and turned the cover backward on the floor
"Are you a good boy?" she asked
"It's only Carl," he said
* * * * *
The morning was as dark and cold as city snow could make it—a dingy whirl at the window; a smoky gust through the fireplace; a shadow black as a bear's cave under the table. Nothing in all the cavernous room, loomed really warm or familiar except a glass of stale water, and a vapid, half-eaten grape-fruit.
Packed into his pudgy pillows like a fragile piece of china instead of a human being Carl Stanton lay and cursed the brutal Northern winter.
Between his sturdy, restive shoulders the rheumatism snarled and clawed like some utterly frenzied animal trying to gnaw-gnaw-gnaw its way out. Along the tortured hollow of his back a red-hot plaster fumed and mulled and sucked at the pain like a hideously poisoned fang trying to gnaw-gnaw-gnaw its way in. Worse than this; every four or five minutes an agony as miserably comic as a crashing blow on one's crazy bone went jarring and shuddering through his whole abnormally vibrant system.
In Stanton's swollen fingers Cornelia's large, crisp letter rustled not softly like a lady's skirts but bleakly as an ice-storm in December woods.
Cornelia's whole angular handwriting, in fact, was not at all unlike a thicket of twigs stripped from root to branch of every possible softening leaf.
"DEAR CARL" crackled the letter, "In spite of your unpleasant tantrum yesterday, because I would not kiss you good-by in the presence of my mother, I am good-natured enough you see to write you a good-by letter after all. But I certainly will not promise to write you daily, so kindly do not tease me any more about it. In the first place, you understand that I greatly dislike letter-writing. In the second place you know Jacksonville quite as well as I do, so there is no use whatsoever in wasting either my time or yours in purely geographical descriptions. And in the third place, you ought to be bright enough to comprehend by this time just what I think about 'love-letters' anyway. I have told you once that I love you, and that ought to be enough. People like myself do not change. I may not talk quite as much as other people, but when I once say a thing I mean it! You will never have cause, I assure you, to worry about my fidelity.
"I will honestly try to write you every Sunday these next six weeks, but I am not willing to literally promise even that. Mother indeed thinks that we ought not to write very much at all until our engagement is formally announced.
"Trusting that your rheumatism is very much better this morning, I am
"P. S. Apropos of your sentimental passion for letters, I enclose a ridiculous circular which was handed to me yesterday at the Woman's Exchange. You had better investigate it. It seems to be rather your kind."
As the letter fluttered out of his hand Stanton closed his eyes with a twitch of physical suffering. Then he picked up the letter again and scrutinized it very carefully from the severe silver monogram to the huge gothic signature, but he could not find one single thing that he was looking for;—not a nourishing paragraph; not a stimulating sentence; not even so much as one small sweet-flavored word that was worth filching out of the prosy text to tuck away in the pockets of his mind for his memory to munch on in its hungry hours. Now everybody who knows anything at all knows perfectly well that even a business letter does not deserve the paper which it is written on unless it contains at least one significant phrase that is worth waking up in the night to remember and think about. And as to the Lover who does not write significant phrases—Heaven help the young mate who finds himself thus mismated to so spiritually commonplace a nature! Baffled, perplexed, strangely uneasy, Stanton lay and studied the barren page before him. Then suddenly his poor heart puckered up like a persimmon with the ghastly, grim shock which a man experiences when he realizes for the first time that the woman whom he loves is not shy, but—stingy.
With snow and gloom and pain and loneliness the rest of the day dragged by. Hour after hour, helpless, hopeless, utterly impotent as though Time itself were bleeding to death, the minutes bubbled and dripped from the old wooden clock. By noon the room was as murky as dish-water, and Stanton lay and fretted in the messy, sudsy snow-light like a forgotten knife or spoon until the janitor wandered casually in about three o'clock and wrung a piercing little wisp of flame out of the electric-light bulb over the sick man's head, and raised him clumsily out of his soggy pillows and fed him indolently with a sad, thin soup. Worst of all, four times in the dreadful interim between breakfast and supper the postman's thrilly footsteps soared up the long metallic stairway like an ecstatically towering high-note, only to flat off discordantly at Stanton's door without even so much as a one-cent advertisement issuing from the letter-slide.—And there would be thirty or forty more days just like this the doctor had assured him; and Cornelia had said that—perhaps, if she felt like it—she would write—six—times.
Then Night came down like the feathery soot of a smoky lamp, and smutted first the bedquilt, then the hearth-rug, then the window-seat, and then at last the great, stormy, faraway outside world. But sleep did not come. Oh, no! Nothing new came at all except that particularly wretched, itching type of insomnia which seems to rip away from one's body the whole kind, protecting skin and expose all the raw, ticklish fretwork of nerves to the mercy of a gritty blanket or a wrinkled sheet. Pain came too, in its most brutally high night-tide; and sweat, like the smother of furs in summer; and thirst like the scrape of hot sand-paper; and chill like the clammy horror of raw fish. Then, just as the mawkish cold, gray dawn came nosing over the house-tops, and the poor fellow's mind had reached the point where the slam of a window or the ripping creak of a floorboard would have shattered his brittle nerves into a thousand cursing tortures—then that teasing, tantalizing little friend of all rheumatic invalids—the Morning Nap—came swooping down upon him like a sponge and wiped out of his face every single bit of the sharp, precious evidence of pain which he had been accumulating so laboriously all night long to present to the Doctor as an incontestable argument in favor of an opiate.
Whiter than his rumpled bed, but freshened and brightened and deceptively free from pain, he woke at last to find the pleasant yellow sunshine mottling his dingy carpet like a tortoise-shell cat. Instinctively with his first yawny return to consciousness he reached back under his pillow for Cornelia's letter.
Out of the stiff envelope fluttered instead the tiny circular to which Cornelia had referred so scathingly.
It was a dainty bit of gray Japanese tissue with the crimson-inked text glowing gaily across it. Something in the whole color scheme and the riotously quirky typography suggested at once the audaciously original work of some young art student who was fairly splashing her way along the road to financial independence, if not to fame. And this is what the little circular said, flushing redder and redder and redder with each ingenuous statement:
THE SERIAL-LETTER COMPANY.
Comfort and entertainment Furnished for Invalids, Travelers, and all Lonely People.
Reliable as your Daily Paper. Fanciful as your Favorite Story Magazine. Personal as a Message from your Best Friend. Offering all the Satisfaction of receiving Letters with no Possible Obligation or even Opportunity of Answering Them.
Letters from a Japanese Fairy. (Especially acceptable Bi-weekly. to a Sick Child. Fragrant with Incense and Sandal Wood. Vivid with purple and orange and scarlet. Lavishly interspersed with the most adorable Japanese toys that you ever saw in your life.)
Letters from a little Son. (Very sturdy. Very Weekly. spunky. Slightly profane.)
Letters from a Little Daughter. (Quaint. Old-Fashioned. Weekly. Daintily Dreamy. Mostly about Dolls.)
Letters from a Banda-Sea Pirate. (Luxuriantly tropical. Monthly. Salter than the Sea. Sharper than Coral. Unmitigatedly murderous. Altogether blood-curdling.)
Letters from a Gray-Plush Squirrel. (Sure to please Nature Irregular. Lovers of Either Sex. Pungent with wood-lore. Prowly. Scampery. Deliciously wild. Apt to be just a little bit messy perhaps with roots and leaves and nuts.)
Letters from Your Favorite (Biographically consistent. Historical Character. Historically reasonable. Fortnightly. Most vivaciously human. Really unique.)
Love Letters. (Three grades: Shy. Daily. Medium. Very Intense.)
In ordering letters kindly state approximate age, prevalent tastes,—and in case of invalidism, the presumable severity of illness. For price list, etc., refer to opposite page. Address all communications to Serial Letter Co. Box, etc., etc.
As Stanton finished reading the last solemn business detail he crumpled up the circular into a little gray wad, and pressed his blond head back into the pillows and grinned and grinned.
"Good enough!" he chuckled. "If Cornelia won't write to me there seem to be lots of other congenial souls who will—cannibals and rodents and kiddies. All the same—" he ruminated suddenly: "All the same I'll wager that there's an awfully decent little brain working away behind all that red ink and nonsense."
Still grinning he conjured up the vision of some grim-faced spinster-subscriber in a desolate country town starting out at last for the first time in her life, with real, cheery self-importance, rain or shine, to join the laughing, jostling, deliriously human Saturday night crowd at the village post-office—herself the only person whose expected letter never failed to come! From Squirrel or Pirate or Hopping Hottentot—what did it matter to her? Just the envelope alone was worth the price of the subscription. How the pink-cheeked high school girls elbowed each other to get a peep at the post-mark! How the—. Better still, perhaps some hopelessly unpopular man in a dingy city office would go running up the last steps just a little, wee bit faster—say the second and fourth Mondays in the month—because of even a bought, made-up letter from Mary Queen of Scots that he knew absolutely without slip or blunder would be waiting there for him on his dusty, ink-stained desk among all the litter of bills and invoices concerning—shoe leather. Whether 'Mary Queen of Scots' prattled pertly of ancient English politics, or whimpered piteously about dull-colored modern fashions—what did it matter so long as the letter came, and smelled of faded fleur-de-lis—or of Darnley's tobacco smoke? Altogether pleased by the vividness of both these pictures Stanton turned quite amiably to his breakfast and gulped down a lukewarm bowl of milk without half his usual complaint.
It was almost noon before his troubles commenced again. Then like a raging hot tide, the pain began in the soft, fleshy soles of his feet and mounted up inch by inch through the calves of his legs, through his aching thighs, through his tortured back, through his cringing neck, till the whole reeking misery seemed to foam and froth in his brain in an utter frenzy of furious resentment. Again the day dragged by with maddening monotony and loneliness. Again the clock mocked him, and the postman shirked him, and the janitor forgot him. Again the big, black night came crowding down and stung him and smothered him into a countless number of new torments.
Again the treacherous Morning Nap wiped out all traces of the pain and left the doctor still mercilessly obdurate on the subject of an opiate.
And Cornelia did not write.
Not till the fifth day did a brief little Southern note arrive informing him of the ordinary vital truths concerning a comfortable journey, and expressing a chaste hope that he would not forget her. Not even surprise, not even curiosity, tempted Stanton to wade twice through the fashionable, angular handwriting. Dully impersonal, bleak as the shadow of a brown leaf across a block of gray granite, plainly—unforgivably—written with ink and ink only, the stupid, loveless page slipped through his fingers to the floor.
After the long waiting and the fretful impatience of the past few days there were only two plausible ways in which to treat such a letter. One way was with anger. One way was with amusement. With conscientious effort Stanton finally summoned a real smile to his lips.
Stretching out perilously from his snug bed he gathered the waste-basket into his arms and commenced to dig in it like a sportive terrier. After a messy minute or two he successfully excavated the crumpled little gray tissue circular and smoothed it out carefully on his humped-up knees. The expression in his eyes all the time was quite a curious mixture of mischief and malice and rheumatism.
"After all" he reasoned, out of one corner of his mouth, "After all, perhaps I have misjudged Cornelia. Maybe it's only that she really doesn't know just what a love-letter OUGHT to be like."
Then with a slobbering fountain-pen and a few exclamations he proceeded to write out a rather large check and a very small note.
"TO THE SERIAL-LETTER CO." he addressed himself brazenly. "For the enclosed check—which you will notice doubles the amount of your advertised price—kindly enter my name for a six weeks' special 'edition de luxe' subscription to one of your love-letter serials. (Any old ardor that comes most convenient) Approximate age of victim: 32. Business status: rubber broker. Prevalent tastes: To be able to sit up and eat and drink and smoke and go to the office the way other fellows do. Nature of illness: The meanest kind of rheumatism. Kindly deliver said letters as early and often as possible!
"Very truly yours, etc."
Sorrowfully then for a moment he studied the depleted balance in his check-book. "Of course" he argued, not unguiltily, "Of course that check was just the amount that I was planning to spend on a turquoise-studded belt for Cornelia's birthday; but if Cornelia's brains really need more adorning than does her body—if this special investment, in fact, will mean more to both of us in the long run than a dozen turquoise belts—."
Big and bland and blond and beautiful, Cornelia's physical personality loomed up suddenly in his memory—so big, in fact, so bland, so blond, so splendidly beautiful, that he realized abruptly with a strange little tucked feeling in his heart that the question of Cornelia's "brains" had never yet occurred to him. Pushing the thought impatiently aside he sank back luxuriantly again into his pillows, and grinned without any perceptible effort at all as he planned adroitly how he would paste the Serial Love Letters one by one into the gaudiest looking scrap-book that he could find and present it to Cornelia on her birthday as a text-book for the "newly engaged" girl. And he hoped and prayed with all his heart that every individual letter would be printed with crimson ink on a violet-scented page and would fairly reek from date to signature with all the joyous, ecstatic silliness that graces either an old-fashioned novel or a modern breach-of-promise suit.
So, quite worn out at last with all this unwonted excitement, he drowsed off to sleep for as long as ten minutes and dreamed that he was a—bigamist.
The next day and the next night were stale and mean and musty with a drizzling winter rain. But the following morning crashed inconsiderately into the world's limp face like a snowball spiked with icicles. Gasping for breath and crunching for foothold the sidewalk people breasted the gritty cold. Puckered with chills and goose-flesh, the fireside people huddled and sneezed around their respective hearths. Shivering like the ague between his cotton-flannel blankets, Stanton's courage fairly raced the mercury in its downward course. By noon his teeth were chattering like a mouthful of cracked ice. By night the sob in his thirsty throat was like a lump of salt and snow. But nothing outdoors or in, from morning till night, was half as wretchedly cold and clammy as the rapidly congealing hot-water bottle that slopped and gurgled between his aching shoulders.
It was just after supper when a messenger boy blurted in from the frigid hall with a great gust of cold and a long pasteboard box and a letter.
Frowning with perplexity Stanton's clumsy fingers finally dislodged from the box a big, soft blanket-wrapper with an astonishingly strange, blurry pattern of green and red against a somber background of rusty black. With increasing amazement he picked up the accompanying letter and scanned it hastily.
"Dear Lad," the letter began quite intimately. But it was not signed "Cornelia". It was signed "Molly"!
Turning nervously back to the box's wrapping-paper Stanton read once more the perfectly plain, perfectly unmistakable name and address,—his own, repeated in absolute duplicate on the envelope. Quicker than his mental comprehension mere physical embarrassment began to flush across his cheek-bones. Then suddenly the whole truth dawned on him: The first installment of his Serial-Love-Letter had arrived.
"But I thought—thought it would be type-written," he stammered miserably to himself. "I thought it would be a—be a—hectographed kind of a thing. Why, hang it all, it's a real letter! And when I doubled my check and called for a special edition de luxe—I wasn't sitting up on my hind legs begging for real presents!"
But "Dear Lad" persisted the pleasant, round, almost childish handwriting:
"I could have cried yesterday when I got your letter telling me how sick you were. Yes!—But crying wouldn't 'comfy' you any, would it? So just to send you right-off-quick something to prove that I'm thinking of you, here's a great, rollicking woolly wrapper to keep you snug and warm this very night. I wonder if it would interest you any at all to know that it is made out of a most larksome Outlaw up on my grandfather's sweet-meadowed farm,—a really, truly Black Sheep that I've raised all my own sweaters and mittens on for the past five years. Only it takes two whole seasons to raise a blanket-wrapper, so please be awfully much delighted with it. And oh, Mr. Sick Boy, when you look at the funny, blurry colors, couldn't you just please pretend that the tinge of green is the flavor of pleasant pastures, and that the streak of red is the Cardinal Flower that blazed along the edge of the noisy brook?
"Goodby till to-morrow,
With a face so altogether crowded with astonishment that there was no room left in it for pain, Stanton's lame fingers reached out inquisitively and patted the warm, woolly fabric.
"Nice old Lamb—y" he acknowledged judicially.
Then suddenly around the corners of his under lip a little balky smile began to flicker.
"Of course I'll save the letter for Cornelia," he protested, "but no one could really expect me to paste such a scrumptious blanket-wrapper into a scrap-book."
Laboriously wriggling his thinness and his coldness into the black sheep's luxuriant, irresponsible fleece, a bulging side-pocket in the wrapper bruised his hip. Reaching down very temperishly to the pocket he drew forth a small lace-trimmed handkerchief knotted pudgily across a brimming handful of fir-balsam needles. Like a scorching hot August breeze the magic, woodsy fragrance crinkled through his nostrils.
"These people certainly know how to play the game all right," he reasoned whimsically, noting even the consistent little letter "M" embroidered in one corner of the handkerchief.
Then, because he was really very sick and really very tired, he snuggled down into the new blessed warmth and turned his gaunt cheek to the pillow and cupped his hand for sleep like a drowsy child with its nose and mouth burrowed eagerly down into the expectant draught. But the cup did not fill.—Yet scented deep in his curved, empty, balsam-scented fingers lurked—somehow—somewhere—the dregs of a wonderful dream: Boyhood, with the hot, sweet flutter of summer woods, and the pillowing warmth of the soft, sunbaked earth, and the crackle of a twig, and the call of a bird, and the drone of a bee, and the great blue, blue mystery of the sky glinting down through a green-latticed canopy overhead.
For the first time in a whole, cruel tortuous week he actually smiled his way into his morning nap.
When he woke again both the sun and the Doctor were staring pleasantly into his face.
"You look better!" said the Doctor. "And more than that you don't look half so 'cussed cross'."
"Sure," grinned Stanton, with all the deceptive, undauntable optimism of the Just-Awakened.
"Nevertheless," continued the Doctor more soberly, "there ought to be somebody a trifle more interested in you than the janitor to look after your food and your medicine and all that. I'm going to send you a nurse."
"Oh, no!" gasped Stanton. "I don't need one! And frankly—I can't afford one." Shy as a girl, his eyes eluded the doctor's frank stare. "You see," he explained diffidently; "you see, I'm just engaged to be married—and though business is fairly good and all that—my being away from the office six or eight weeks is going to cut like the deuce into my commissions—and roses cost such a horrid price last Fall—and there seems to be a game law on diamonds this year; they practically fine you for buying them, and—"
The Doctor's face brightened irrelevantly. "Is she a Boston young lady?" he queried.
"Oh, yes," beamed Stanton.
"Good!" said the Doctor. "Then of course she can keep some sort of an eye on you. I'd like to see her. I'd like to talk with her—give her just a few general directions as it were."
A flush deeper than any mere love-embarrassment spread suddenly over Stanton's face.
"She isn't here," he acknowledged with barely analyzable mortification. "She's just gone south."
"Just gone south?" repeated the Doctor. "You don't mean—since you've been sick?"
Stanton nodded with a rather wobbly grin, and the Doctor changed the subject abruptly, and busied himself quickly with the least bad-tasting medicine that he could concoct.
Then left alone once more with a short breakfast and a long morning, Stanton sank back gradually into a depression infinitely deeper than his pillows, in which he seemed to realize with bitter contrition that in some strange, unintentional manner his purely innocent, matter-of-fact statement that Cornelia "had just gone south" had assumed the gigantic disloyalty of a public proclamation that the lady of his choice was not quite up to the accepted standard of feminine intelligence or affections, though to save his life he could not recall any single glum word or gloomy gesture that could possibly have conveyed any such erroneous impression to the Doctor.
"Why Cornelia had to go South," he reasoned conscientiously. "Every girl like Cornelia had to go South sometime between November and March. How could any mere man even hope to keep rare, choice, exquisite creatures like that cooped up in a slushy, snowy New England city—when all the bright, gorgeous, rose-blooming South was waiting for them with open arms? 'Open arms'! Apparently it was only 'climates' that were allowed any such privileges with girls like Cornelia. Yet, after all, wasn't it just exactly that very quality of serene, dignified aloofness that had attracted him first to Cornelia among the score of freer-mannered girls of his acquaintance?"
Glumly reverting to his morning paper, he began to read and reread with dogged persistence each item of politics and foreign news—each gibbering advertisement.
At noon the postman dropped some kind of a message through the slit in the door, but the plainly discernible green one-cent stamp forbade any possible hope that it was a letter from the South. At four o'clock again someone thrust an offensive pink gas bill through the letter-slide. At six o'clock Stanton stubbornly shut his eyes up perfectly tight and muffled his ears in the pillow so that he would not even know whether the postman came or not. The only thing that finally roused him to plain, grown-up sense again was the joggle of the janitor's foot kicking mercilessly against the bed.
"Here's your supper," growled the janitor.
On the bare tin tray, tucked in between the cup of gruel and the slice of toast loomed an envelope—a real, rather fat-looking envelope. Instantly from Stanton's mind vanished every conceivable sad thought concerning Cornelia. With his heart thumping like the heart of any love-sick school girl, he reached out and grabbed what he supposed was Cornelia's letter.
But it was post-marked, "Boston"; and the handwriting was quite plainly the handwriting of The Serial-Letter Co.
Muttering an exclamation that was not altogether pretty he threw the letter as far as he could throw it out into the middle of the floor, and turning back to his supper began to crunch his toast furiously like a dragon crunching bones.
At nine o'clock he was still awake. At ten o'clock he was still awake. At eleven o'clock he was still awake. At twelve o'clock he was still awake.... At one o'clock he was almost crazy. By quarter past one, as though fairly hypnotized, his eyes began to rivet themselves on the little bright spot in the rug where the "serial-letter" lay gleaming whitely in a beam of electric light from the street. Finally, in one supreme, childish impulse of petulant curiosity, he scrambled shiveringly out of his blankets with many "O—h's" and "O-u-c-h-'s," recaptured the letter, and took it growlingly back to his warm bed.
Worn out quite as much with the grinding monotony of his rheumatic pains as with their actual acuteness, the new discomfort of straining his eyes under the feeble rays of his night-light seemed almost a pleasant diversion.
The envelope was certainly fat. As he ripped it open, three or four folded papers like sleeping-powders, all duly numbered, "1 A. M.," "2 A. M.," "3 A. M.," "4 A. M." fell out of it. With increasing inquisitiveness he drew forth the letter itself.
"Dear Honey," said the letter quite boldly. Absurd as it was, the phrase crinkled Stanton's heart just the merest trifle.
"There are so many things about your sickness that worry me. Yes there are! I worry about your pain. I worry about the horrid food that you're probably getting. I worry about the coldness of your room. But most of anything in the world I worry about your sleeplessness. Of course you don't sleep! That's the trouble with rheumatism. It's such an old Night-Nagger. Now do you know what I'm going to do to you? I'm going to evolve myself into a sort of a Rheumatic Nights Entertainment—for the sole and explicit purpose of trying to while away some of your long, dark hours. Because if you've simply got to stay awake all night long and think—you might just as well be thinking about ME, Carl Stanton. What? Do you dare smile and suggest for a moment that just because of the Absence between us I cannot make myself vivid to you? Ho! Silly boy! Don't you know that the plainest sort of black ink throbs more than some blood—and the touch of the softest hand is a harsh caress compared to the touch of a reasonably shrewd pen? Here—now, I say—this very moment: Lift this letter of mine to your face, and swear—if you're honestly able to—that you can't smell the rose in my hair! A cinnamon rose, would you say—a yellow, flat-faced cinnamon rose? Not quite so lusciously fragrant as those in your grandmother's July garden? A trifle paler? Perceptibly cooler? Something forced into blossom, perhaps, behind brittle glass, under barren winter moonshine? And yet—A-h-h! Hear me laugh! You didn't really mean to let yourself lift the page and smell it, did you? But what did I tell you?
"I mustn't waste too much time, though, on this nonsense. What I really wanted to say to you was: Here are four—not 'sleeping potions', but waking potions—just four silly little bits of news for you to think about at one o'clock, and two, and three—and four, if you happen to be so miserable to-night as to be awake even then.
"With my love,
Whimsically, Stanton rummaged around in the creases of the bed-spread and extricated the little folded paper marked, "No. 1 o'clock." The news in it was utterly brief.
"My hair is red," was all that it announced.
With a sniff of amusement Stanton collapsed again into his pillows. For almost an hour then he lay considering solemnly whether a red-headed girl could possibly be pretty. By two o'clock he had finally visualized quite a striking, Juno-esque type of beauty with a figure about the regal height of Cornelia's, and blue eyes perhaps just a trifle hazier and more mischievous.
But the little folded paper marked, "No. 2 o'clock," announced destructively: "My eyes are brown. And I am very little."
With an absurdly resolute intention to "play the game" every bit as genuinely as Miss Serial-Letter Co. was playing it, Stanton refrained quite heroically from opening the third dose of news until at least two big, resonant city clocks had insisted that the hour was ripe. By that time the grin in his face was almost bright enough of itself to illuminate any ordinary page.
"I am lame," confided the third message somewhat depressingly. Then snugglingly in parenthesis like the tickle of lips against his ear whispered the one phrase: "My picture is in the fourth paper,—if you should happen still to be awake at four o'clock."
Where now was Stanton's boasted sense of honor concerning the ethics of playing the game according to directions? "Wait a whole hour to see what Molly looked like? Well he guessed not!" Fumbling frantically under his pillow and across the medicine stand he began to search for the missing "No. 4 o'clock." Quite out of breath, at last he discovered it lying on the floor a whole arm's length away from the bed. Only with a really acute stab of pain did he finally succeed in reaching it. Then with fingers fairly trembling with effort, he opened forth and disclosed a tiny snap-shot photograph of a grim-jawed, scrawny-necked, much be-spectacled elderly dame with a huge gray pompadour.
"Stung!" said Stanton.
Rheumatism or anger, or something, buzzed in his heart like a bee the rest of the night.
Fortunately in the very first mail the next morning a postal-card came from Cornelia—such a pretty postal-card too, with a bright-colored picture of an inordinately "riggy" looking ostrich staring over a neat wire fence at an eager group of unmistakably Northern tourists. Underneath the picture was written in Cornelia's own precious hand the heart-thrilling information:
"We went to see the Ostrich Farm yesterday. It was really very interesting. C."
For quite a long time Stanton lay and considered the matter judicially from every possible point of view. "It would have been rather pleasant," he mused "to know who 'we' were." Almost childishly his face cuddled into the pillow. "She might at least have told me the name of the ostrich!" he smiled grimly.
Thus quite utterly denied any nourishing Cornelia-flavored food for his thoughts, his hungry mind reverted very naturally to the tantalizing, evasive, sweetly spicy fragrance of the 'Molly' episode—before the really dreadful photograph of the unhappy spinster-lady had burst upon his blinking vision.
Scowlingly he picked up the picture and stared and stared at it. Certainly it was grim. But even from its grimness emanated the same faint, mysterious odor of cinnamon roses that lurked in the accompanying letter. "There's some dreadful mistake somewhere," he insisted. Then suddenly he began to laugh, and reaching out once more for pen and paper, inscribed his second letter and his first complaint to the Serial-Letter Co.
"To the Serial-Letter Co.," he wrote sternly, with many ferocious tremors of dignity and rheumatism.
"Kindly allow me to call attention to the fact that in my recent order of the 18th inst., the specifications distinctly stated 'love-letters', and not any correspondence whatsoever,—no matter how exhilarating from either a 'Gray-Plush Squirrel' or a 'Banda Sea Pirate' as evidenced by enclosed photograph which I am hereby returning. Please refund money at once or forward me without delay a consistent photograph of a 'special edition de luxe' girl.
"Very truly yours."
The letter was mailed by the janitor long before noon. Even as late as eleven o'clock that night Stanton was still hopefully expecting an answer. Nor was he altogether disappointed. Just before midnight a messenger boy appeared with a fair-sized manilla envelope, quite stiff and important looking.
"Oh, please, Sir," said the enclosed letter, "Oh, please, Sir, we cannot refund your subscription money because—we have spent it. But if you will only be patient, we feel quite certain that you will be altogether satisfied in the long run with the material offered you. As for the photograph recently forwarded to you, kindly accept our apologies for a very clumsy mistake made here in the office. Do any of these other types suit you better? Kindly mark selection and return all pictures at your earliest convenience."
Before the messenger boy's astonished interest Stanton spread out on the bed all around him a dozen soft sepia-colored photographs of a dozen different girls. Stately in satin, or simple in gingham, or deliciously hoydenish in fishing-clothes, they challenged his surprised attention. Blonde, brunette, tall, short, posing with wistful tenderness in the flickering glow of an open fire, or smiling frankly out of a purely conventional vignette—they one and all defied him to choose between them.
"Oh! Oh!" laughed Stanton to himself. "Am I to try and separate her picture from eleven pictures of her friends! So that's the game, is it? Well, I guess not! Does she think I'm going to risk choosing a tom-boy girl if the gentle little creature with the pansies is really herself? Or suppose she truly is the enchanting little tom-boy, would she probably write me any more nice funny letters if I solemnly selected her sentimental, moony-looking friend at the heavily draped window?"
Craftily he returned all the pictures unmarked to the envelope, and changing the address hurried the messenger boy off to remail it. Just this little note, hastily scribbled in pencil went with the envelope:
"DEAR SERIAL-LETTER CO.:
"The pictures are not altogether satisfactory. It isn't a 'type' that I am looking for, but a definite likeness of 'Molly' herself. Kindly rectify the mistake without further delay! or REFUND THE MONEY."
Almost all the rest of the night he amused himself chuckling to think how the terrible threat about refunding the money would confuse and conquer the extravagant little Art Student.
But it was his own hands that did the nervous trembling when he opened the big express package that arrived the next evening, just as his tiresome porridge supper was finished.
"Ah, Sweetheart—" said the dainty note tucked inside the package—"Ah, Sweetheart, the little god of love be praised for one true lover—Yourself! So it is a picture of me that you want? The real me! The truly me! No mere pink and white likeness? No actual proof even of 'seared and yellow age'? No curly-haired, coquettish attractiveness that the shampoo-lady and the photograph-man trapped me into for that one single second? No deceptive profile of the best side of my face—and I, perhaps, blind in the other eye? Not even a fair, honest, every-day portrait of my father's and mother's composite features—but a picture of myself! Hooray for you! A picture, then, not of my physiognomy, but of my personality. Very well, sir. Here is the portrait—true to the life—in this great, clumsy, conglomerate package of articles that represent—perhaps—not even so much the prosy, literal things that I am, as the much more illuminating and significant things that I would like to be. It's what we would 'like to be' that really tells most about us, isn't it, Carl Stanton? The brown that I have to wear talks loudly enough, for instance, about the color of my complexion, but the forbidden pink that I most crave whispers infinitely more intimately concerning the color of my spirit. And as to my Face—am I really obliged to have a face? Oh, no—o! 'Songs without words' are surely the only songs in the world that are packed to the last lilting note with utterly limitless meanings. So in these 'letters without faces' I cast myself quite serenely upon the mercy of your imagination.
"What's that you say? That I've simply got to have a face? Oh, darn!—well, do your worst. Conjure up for me then, here and now, any sort of features whatsoever that please your fancy. Only, Man of Mine, just remember this in your imaginings: Gift me with Beauty if you like, or gift me with Brains, but do not make the crude masculine mistake of gifting me with both. Thought furrows faces you know, and after Adolescence only Inanity retains its heavenly smoothness. Beauty even at its worst is a gorgeously perfect, flower-sprinkled lawn over which the most ordinary, every-day errands of life cannot cross without scarring. And brains at their best are only a ploughed field teeming always and forever with the worries of incalculable harvests. Make me a little pretty, if you like, and a little wise, but not too much of either, if you value the verities of your Vision. There! I say: do your worst! Make me that face, and that face only, that you need the most in all this big, lonesome world: food for your heart, or fragrance for your nostrils. Only, one face or another—I insist upon having red hair!
With his lower lip twisted oddly under the bite of his strong white teeth, Stanton began to unwrap the various packages that comprised the large bundle. If it was a "portrait" it certainly represented a puzzle-picture.
First there was a small, flat-footed scarlet slipper with a fluffy gold toe to it. Definitely feminine. Definitely small. So much for that! Then there was a sling-shot, ferociously stubby, and rather confusingly boyish. After that, round and flat and tantalizing as an empty plate, the phonograph disc of a totally unfamiliar song—"The Sea Gull's Cry": a clue surely to neither age nor sex, but indicative possibly of musical preference or mere individual temperament. After that, a tiny geographical globe, with Kipling's phrase—
"For to admire an' for to see, For to be'old this world so wide— It never done no good to me, But I can't drop it if I tried!"—
written slantingly in very black ink across both hemispheres. Then an empty purse—with a hole in it; a silver-embroidered gauntlet such as horsemen wear on the Mexican frontier; a white table-doily partly embroidered with silky blue forget-me-nots—the threaded needle still jabbed in the work—and the small thimble, Stanton could have sworn, still warm from the snuggle of somebody's finger. Last of all, a fat and formidable edition of Robert Browning's poems; a tiny black domino-mask, such as masqueraders wear, and a shimmering gilt picture frame inclosing a pert yet not irreverent handmade adaptation of a certain portion of St. Paul's epistle to the Corinthians:
"Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels and have not a Sense of Humor, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling symbol. And though I have the gift of Prophecy—and all knowledge—so that I could remove Mountains, and have not a Sense of Humor, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my Goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not a Sense of Humor it profiteth me nothing.
"A sense of Humor suffereth long, and is kind. A Sense of Humor envieth not. A Sense of Humor vaunteth not itself—is not puffed up. Doth not behave itself Unseemly, seeketh not its own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil—Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. A Sense of Humor never faileth. But whether there be unpleasant prophecies they shall fail, whether there be scolding tongues they shall cease, whether there be unfortunate knowledge it shall vanish away. When I was a fault-finding child I spake as a fault-finding child, I understood as a fault-finding child,—but when I became a woman I put away fault-finding things.
"And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three. But the greatest of these is a sense of humor!"
With a little chuckle of amusement not altogether devoid of a very definite consciousness of being teased, Stanton spread all the articles out on the bed-spread before him and tried to piece them together like the fragments of any other jig-saw puzzle. Was the young lady as intellectual as the Robert Browning poems suggested, or did she mean simply to imply that she wished she were? And did the tom-boyish sling-shot fit by any possible chance with the dainty, feminine scrap of domestic embroidery? And was the empty purse supposed to be especially significant of an inordinate fondness for phonograph music—or what?
Pondering, puzzling, fretting, fussing, he dozed off to sleep at last before he even knew that it was almost morning. And when he finally woke again he found the Doctor laughing at him because he lay holding a scarlet slipper in his hand.
The next night, very, very late, in a furious riot of wind and snow and sleet, a clerk from the drug-store just around the corner appeared with a perfectly huge hot-water bottle fairly sizzling and bubbling with warmth and relief for aching rheumatic backs.
"Well, where in thunder—?" groaned Stanton out of his cold and pain and misery.
"Search me!" said the drug clerk. "The order and the money for it came in the last mail this evening. 'Kindly deliver largest-sized hot-water bottle, boiling hot, to Mr. Carl Stanton,... 11.30 to-night.'"
"OO-w!" gasped Stanton. "O-u-c-h! G-e-e!" then, "Oh, I wish I could purr!" as he settled cautiously back at last to toast his pains against the blessed, scorching heat. "Most girls," he reasoned with surprising interest, "would have sent ice cold violets shrouded in tissue paper. Now, how does this special girl know—Oh, Ouch! O-u-c-h! O-u-c-h—i—t—y!" he crooned himself to sleep.
The next night just at supper-time a much-freckled messenger-boy appeared dragging an exceedingly obstreperous fox-terrier on the end of a dangerously frayed leash. Planting himself firmly on the rug in the middle of the room, with the faintest gleam of saucy pink tongue showing between his teeth, the little beast sat and defied the entire situation. Nothing apparently but the correspondence concerning the situation was actually transferable from the freckled messenger boy to Stanton himself.
"Oh, dear Lad," said the tiny note, "I forgot to tell you my real name, didn't I!—Well, my last name and the dog's first name are just the same. Funny, isn't it? (You'll find it in the back of almost any dictionary.)
"P. S. Just turn the puppy out in the morning and he'll go home all right of his own accord."
With his own pink tongue showing just a trifle between his teeth, Stanton lay for a moment and watched the dog on the rug. Cocking his small, keen, white head from one tippy angle to another, the little terrier returned the stare with an expression that was altogether and unmistakably mirthful. "Oh, it's a jolly little beggar, isn't it?" said Stanton. "Come here, sir!" Only a suddenly pointed ear acknowledged the summons. The dog himself did not budge. "Come here, I say!" Stanton repeated with harsh peremptoriness. Palpably the little dog winked at him. Then in succession the little dog dodged adroitly a knife, a spoon, a copy of Browning's poems, and several other sizable articles from the table close to Stanton's elbow. Nothing but the dictionary seemed too big to throw. Finally with a grin that could not be disguised even from the dog, Stanton began to rummage with eye and hand through the intricate back pages of the dictionary.
"You silly little fool," he said. "Won't you mind unless you are spoken to by name?"
"Aaron—Abidel—Abel—Abiathar—" he began to read out with petulant curiosity, "Baldwin—Barachias—Bruno (Oh, hang!) Cadwallader—Caesar—Caleb (What nonsense!) Ephraim—Erasmus (How could a girl be named anything like that!) Gabriel—Gerard—Gershom (Imagine whistling a dog to the name of Gershom!) Hannibal—Hezekiah—Hosea (Oh, Hell!)" Stolidly with unheedful, drooping ears the little fox-terrier resumed his seat on the rug. "Ichabod—Jabez—Joab," Stanton's voice persisted, experimentally. By nine o'clock, in all possible variations of accent and intonation, he had quite completely exhausted the alphabetical list as far as "K." and the little dog was blinking himself to sleep on the far side of the room. Something about the dog's nodding contentment started Stanton's mouth to yawning and for almost an hour he lay in the lovely, restful consciousness of being at least half asleep. But at ten o'clock he roused up sharply and resumed the task at hand, which seemed suddenly to have assumed really vital importance. "Laban—Lorenzo—Marcellus," he began again in a loud, clear, compelling voice. "Meredith—" (Did the little dog stir? Did he sit up?) "Meredith? Meredith?" The little dog barked. Something in Stanton's brain flashed. "It is 'Merry' for the dog?" he quizzed. "Here, MERRY!" In another instant the little creature had leaped upon the foot of his bed, and was talking away at a great rate with all sorts of ecstatic grunts and growls. Stanton's hand went out almost shyly to the dog's head. "So it's 'Molly Meredith'," he mused. But after all there was no reason to be shy about it. It was the dog's head he was stroking.
Tied to the little dog's collar when he went home the next morning was a tiny, inconspicuous tag that said "That was easy! The pup's name—and yours—is 'Meredith.' Funny name for a dog but nice for a girl."
The Serial-Letter Co.'s answers were always prompt, even though perplexing.
"DEAR LAD," came this special answer. "You are quite right about the dog. And I compliment you heartily on your shrewdness. But I must confess,—even though it makes you very angry with me, that I have deceived you absolutely concerning my own name. Will you forgive me utterly if I hereby promise never to deceive you again? Why what could I possibly, possibly do with a great solemn name like 'Meredith'? My truly name, Sir, my really, truly, honest-injun name is 'Molly Make-Believe'. Don't you know the funny little old song about 'Molly Make-Believe'? Oh, surely you do:
"'Molly, Molly Make-Believe, Keep to your play if you would not grieve! For Molly-Mine here's a hint for you, Things that are true are apt to be blue!'
"Now you remember it, don't you? Then there's something about
"'Molly, Molly Make-a-Smile, Wear it, swear it all the while. Long as your lips are framed for a joke, Who can prove that your heart is broke?'
"Don't you love that 'is broke'! Then there's the last verse—my favorite:
"'Molly, Molly Make-a-Beau, Make him of mist or make him of snow, Long as your DREAM stays fine and fair, Molly, Molly what do you care!'"
"Well, I'll wager that her name is 'Meredith' just the same," vowed Stanton, "and she's probably madder than scat to think that I hit it right."
Whether the daily overtures from the Serial-Letter Co. proved to be dogs or love-letters or hot-water bottles or funny old songs, it was reasonably evident that something unique was practically guaranteed to happen every single, individual night of the six weeks' subscription contract. Like a youngster's joyous dream of chronic Christmas Eves, this realization alone was enough to put an absurdly delicious thrill of expectancy into any invalid's otherwise prosy thoughts.
Yet the next bit of attention from the Serial-Letter Co. did not please Stanton one half as much as it embarrassed him.
Wandering socially into the room from his own apartments below, a young lawyer friend of Stanton's had only just seated himself on the foot of Stanton's bed when an expressman also arrived with two large pasteboard hat-boxes which he straightway dumped on the bed between the two men with the laconic message that he would call for them again in the morning.
"Heaven preserve me!" gasped Stanton. "What is this?"
Fearsomely out of the smaller of the two boxes he lifted with much rustling snarl of tissue paper a woman's brown fur-hat,—very soft, very fluffy, inordinately jaunty with a blush-pink rose nestling deep in the fur. Out of the other box, twice as large, twice as rustly, flaunted a green velvet cavalier's hat, with a green ostrich feather as long as a man's arm drooping languidly off the brim.
"Holy Cat!" said Stanton.
Pinned to the green hat's crown was a tiny note. The handwriting at least was pleasantly familiar by this time.
"Oh, I say!" cried the lawyer delightedly.
With a desperately painful effort at nonchalance, Stanton shoved his right fist into the brown hat and his left fist into the green one, and raised them quizzically from the bed.
"Darned—good-looking—hats," he stammered.
"Oh, I say!" repeated the lawyer with accumulative delight.
Crimson to the tip of his ears, Stanton rolled his eyes frantically towards the little note.
"She sent 'em up just to show 'em to me," he quoted wildly. "Just 'cause I'm laid up so and can't get out on the streets to see the styles for myself.—And I've got to choose between them for her!" he ejaculated. "She says she can't decide alone which one to keep!"
"Bully for her!" cried the lawyer, surprisingly, slapping his knee. "The cunning little girl!"
Speechless with astonishment, Stanton lay and watched his visitor, then "Well, which one would you choose?" he asked with unmistakable relief.
The lawyer took the hats and scanned them carefully. "Let—me—see" he considered. "Her hair is so blond—"
"No, it's red!" snapped Stanton.
With perfect courtesy the lawyer swallowed his mistake. "Oh, excuse me," he said. "I forgot. But with her height—"
"She hasn't any height," groaned Stanton. "I tell you she's little."
"Choose to suit yourself," said the lawyer coolly. He himself had admired Cornelia from afar off.
The next night, to Stanton's mixed feelings of relief and disappointment the "surprise" seemed to consist in the fact that nothing happened at all. Fully until midnight the sense of relief comforted him utterly. But some time after midnight, his hungry mind, like a house-pet robbed of an accustomed meal, began to wake and fret and stalk around ferociously through all the long, empty, aching, early morning hours, searching for something novel to think about.
By supper-time the next evening he was in an irritable mood that made him fairly clutch the special delivery letter out of the postman's hand. It was rather a thin, tantalizing little letter, too. All it said was,
"To-night, Dearest, until one o'clock, in a cabbage-colored gown all shimmery with green and blue and September frost-lights, I'm going to sit up by my white birch-wood fire and read aloud to you. Yes! Honest-Injun! And out of Browning, too. Did you notice your copy was marked? What shall I read to you? Shall it be
"'If I could have that little head of hers Painted upon a background of pale gold.'
'Shall I sonnet-sing you about myself? Do I live in a house you would like to see?'
'I am a Painter who cannot paint, ——No end to all I cannot do. Yet do one thing at least I can, Love a man, or hate a man!'
'Escape me? Never, Beloved! While I am I, and you are you!'
"Oh, Honey! Won't it be fun? Just you and I, perhaps, in all this Big City, sitting up and thinking about each other. Can you smell the white birch smoke in this letter?"
Almost unconsciously Stanton raised the page to his face. Unmistakably, up from the paper rose the strong, vivid scent—of a briar-wood pipe.
"Well I'll be hanged," growled Stanton, "if I'm going to be strung by any boy!" Out of all proportion the incident irritated him.
But when, the next evening, a perfectly tremendous bunch of yellow jonquils arrived with a penciled line suggesting, "If you'll put these solid gold posies in your window to-morrow morning at eight o'clock, so I'll surely know just which window is yours, I'll look up—when I go past," Stanton most peremptorily ordered the janitor to display the bouquet as ornately as possible along the narrow window-sill of the biggest window that faced the street. Then all through the night he lay dozing and waking intermittently, with a lovely, scared feeling in the pit of his stomach that something really rather exciting was about to happen. By surely half-past seven he rose laboriously from his bed, huddled himself into his black-sheep wrapper and settled himself down as warmly as could be expected, close to the draughty edge of the window.
"Little and lame and red-haired and brown-eyed," he kept repeating to himself.
Old people and young people, cab-drivers and jaunty young girls, and fat blue policeman, looked up, one and all with quick-brightening faces at the really gorgeous Spring-like flame of jonquils, but in a whole chilly, wearisome hour the only red-haired person that passed was an Irish setter puppy, and the only lame person was a wooden-legged beggar.
Cold and disgusted as he was, Stanton could not altogether help laughing at his own discomfiture.
"Why—hang that little girl! She ought to be s-p-a-n-k-e-d," he chuckled as he climbed back into his tiresome bed.
Then as though to reward his ultimate good-nature the very next mail brought him a letter from Cornelia, and rather a remarkable letter too, as in addition to the usual impersonal comments on the weather and the tennis and the annual orange crop, there was actually one whole, individual, intimate sentence that distinguished the letter as having been intended solely for him rather than for Cornelia's dressmaker or her coachman's invalid daughter, or her own youngest brother. This was the sentence:
"Really, Carl, you don't know how glad I am that in spite of all your foolish objections, I kept to my original purpose of not announcing my engagement until after my Southern trip. You've no idea what a big difference it makes in a girl's good time at a great hotel like this."
This sentence surely gave Stanton a good deal of food for his day's thoughts, but the mental indigestion that ensued was not altogether pleasant.
Not until evening did his mood brighten again. Then—
"Lad of Mine," whispered Molly's gentler letter. "Lad of Mine, how blond your hair is!—Even across the chin-tickling tops of those yellow jonquils this morning, I almost laughed to see the blond, blond shine of you.—Some day I'm going to stroke that hair." (Yes!)
"P. S. The Little Dog came home all right."
With a gasp of dismay Stanton sat up abruptly in bed and tried to revisualize every single, individual pedestrian who had passed his window in the vicinity of eight o'clock that morning. "She evidently isn't lame at all," he argued, "or little, or red-haired, or anything. Probably her name isn't Molly, and presumably it isn't even 'Meredith.' But at least she did go by: And is my hair so very blond?" he asked himself suddenly. Against all intention his mouth began to prance a little at the corners.
As soon as he could possibly summon the janitor, he despatched his third note to the Serial-Letter Co., but this one bore a distinctly sealed inner envelope, directed, "For Molly. Personal." And the message in it, though brief was utterly to the point. "Couldn't you please tell a fellow who you are?"
But by the conventional bed-time hour the next night he wished most heartily that he had not been so inquisitive, for the only entertainment that came to him at all was a jonquil-colored telegram warning him—
"Where the apple reddens do not pry, Lest we lose our Eden—you and I."
The couplet was quite unfamiliar to Stanton, but it rhymed sickeningly through his brain all night long like the consciousness of an over-drawn bank account.
It was the very next morning after this that all the Boston papers flaunted Cornelia's aristocratic young portrait on their front pages with the striking, large-type announcement that "One of Boston's Fairest Debutantes Makes a Daring Rescue in Florida waters. Hotel Cook Capsized from Row Boat Owes His Life to the Pluck and Endurance—etc., etc."
With a great sob in his throat and every pulse pounding, Stanton lay and read the infinite details of the really splendid story; a group of young girls dallying on the Pier; a shrill cry from the bay; the sudden panic-stricken helplessness of the spectators, and then with equal suddenness the plunge of a single, feminine figure into the water; the long hard swim; the furious struggle; the final victory. Stingingly, as though it had been fairly branded into his eyes, he saw the vision of Cornelia's heroic young face battling above the horrible, dragging-down depths of the bay. The bravery, the risk, the ghastly chances of a less fortunate ending, sent shiver after shiver through his already tortured senses. All the loving thoughts in his nature fairly leaped to do tribute to Cornelia. "Yes!" he reasoned, "Cornelia was made like that! No matter what the cost to herself—no matter what was the price—Cornelia would never, never fail to do her duty!" When he thought of the weary, lagging, riskful weeks that were still to ensue before he should actually see Cornelia again, he felt as though he should go utterly mad. The letter that he wrote to Cornelia that night was like a letter written in a man's own heart-blood. His hand trembled so that he could scarcely hold the pen.
Cornelia did not like the letter. She said so frankly. The letter did not seem to her quite "nice." "Certainly," she attested, "it was not exactly the sort of letter that one would like to show one's mother." Then, in a palpably conscientious effort to be kind as well as just, she began to prattle inkily again about the pleasant, warm, sunny weather. Her only comment on saving the drowning man was the mere phrase that she was very glad that she had learned to be a good swimmer. Never indeed since her absence had she spoken of missing Stanton. Not even now, after what was inevitably a heart-racking adventure, did she yield her lover one single iota of the information which he had a lover's right to claim. Had she been frightened, for instance—way down in the bottom of that serene heart of hers had she been frightened? In the ensuing desperate struggle for life had she struggled just one little tiny bit harder because Stanton was in that life? Now, in the dreadful, unstrung reaction of the adventure, did her whole nature waken and yearn and cry out for that one heart in all the world that belonged to her? Plainly, by her silence in the matter, she did not intend to share anything as intimate even as her fear of death with the man whom she claimed to love.
It was just this last touch of deliberate, selfish aloofness that startled Stanton's thoughts with the one persistent, brutally nagging question: After all, was a woman's undeniably glorious ability to save a drowning man the supreme, requisite of a happy marriage?
Day by day, night by night, hour by hour, minute by minute, the question began to dig into Stanton's brain, throwing much dust and confusion into brain-corners otherwise perfectly orderly and sweet and clean.
Week by week, grown suddenly and morbidly analytical, he watched for Cornelia's letters with increasingly passionate hopefulness, and met each fresh disappointment with increasingly passionate resentment. Except for the Serial-Letter Co.'s ingeniously varied attentions there was practically nothing to help him make either day or night bearable. More and more Cornelia's infrequent letters suggested exquisitely painted empty dishes offered to a starving person. More and more "Molly's" whimsical messages fed him and nourished him and joyously pleased him like some nonsensically fashioned candy-box that yet proved brimming full of real food for a real man. Fight as he would against it, he began to cherish a sense of furious annoyance that Cornelia's failure to provide for him had so thrust him out, as it were, to feed among strangers. With frowning perplexity and real worry he felt the tingling, vivid consciousness of Molly's personality begin to permeate and impregnate his whole nature. Yet when he tried to acknowledge and thereby cancel his personal sense of obligation to this "Molly" by writing an exceptionally civil note of appreciation to the Serial-Letter Co., the Serial-Letter Co. answered him tersely—
"Pray do not thank us for the jonquils,—blanket-wrapper, etc., etc. Surely they are merely presents from yourself to yourself. It is your money that bought them."
And when he had replied briefly, "Well, thank you for your brains, then!" the "company" had persisted with undue sharpness, "Don't thank us for our brains. Brains are our business."
It was one day just about the end of the fifth week that poor Stanton's long-accumulated, long-suppressed perplexity blew up noisily just like any other kind of steam.
It was the first day, too, throughout all his illness that he had made even the slightest pretext of being up and about. Slippered if not booted, blanket-wrappered if not coated, shaven at least, if not shorn, he had established himself fairly comfortably, late in the afternoon, at his big study-table close to the fire, where, in his low Morris chair, with his books and his papers and his lamp close at hand, he had started out once more to try and solve the absurd little problem that confronted him. Only an occasional twitch of pain in his shoulder-blade, or an intermittent shudder of nerves along his spine had interrupted in any possible way his almost frenzied absorption in his subject.
Here at the desk very soon after supper-time the Doctor had joined him, and with an unusual expression of leisure and friendliness had settled down lollingly on the other side of the fireplace with his great square-toed shoes nudging the bright, brassy edge of the fender, and his big meerschaum pipe puffing the whole bleak room most deliciously, tantalizingly full of forbidden tobacco smoke. It was a comfortable, warm place to chat. The talk had begun with politics, drifted a little way toward the architecture of several new city buildings, hovered a moment over the marriage of some mutual friend, and then languished utterly.
With a sudden narrowing-eyed shrewdness the Doctor turned and watched an unwonted flicker of worry on Stanton's forehead.
"What's bothering you, Stanton?" he asked, quickly. "Surely you're not worrying any more about your rheumatism?"
"No," said Stanton. "It—isn't—rheumatism."
For an instant the two men's eyes held each other, and then Stanton began to laugh a trifle uneasily.
"Doctor," he asked quite abruptly, "Doctor, do you believe that any possible conditions could exist—that would make it justifiable for a man to show a woman's love-letter to another man?"
"Why—y-e-s," said the Doctor cautiously, "I think so. There might be—circumstances—"
Still without any perceptible cause, Stanton laughed again, and reaching out, picked up a folded sheet of paper from the table and handed it to the Doctor.
"Read that, will you?" he asked. "And read it out loud."
With a slight protest of diffidence, the Doctor unfolded the paper, scanned the page for an instant, and began slowly.
"Carl of Mine.
"There's one thing I forgot to tell you. When you go to buy my engagement ring—I don't want any! No! I'd rather have two wedding-rings instead—two perfectly plain gold wedding-rings. And the ring for my passive left hand I want inscribed, 'To Be a Sweetness More Desired than Spring!' and the ring for my active right hand I want inscribed, 'His Soul to Keep!' Just that.
"And you needn't bother to write me that you don't understand, because you are not expected to understand. It is not Man's prerogative to understand. But you are perfectly welcome if you want, to call me crazy, because I am—utterly crazy on just one subject, and that's you. Why, Beloved, if—"
"Here!" cried Stanton suddenly reaching out and grabbing the letter. "Here! You needn't read any more!" His cheeks were crimson.
The Doctor's eyes focused sharply on his face. "That girl loves you," said the Doctor tersely. For a moment then the Doctor's lips puffed silently at his pipe, until at last with an almost bashful gesture, he cried out abruptly: "Stanton, somehow I feel as though I owed you an apology, or rather, owed your fiancee one. Somehow when you told me that day that your young lady had gone gadding off to Florida and—left you alone with your sickness, why I thought—well, most evidently I have misjudged her."
Stanton's throat gave a little gasp, then silenced again. He bit his lips furiously as though to hold back an exclamation. Then suddenly the whole perplexing truth burst forth from him.
"That isn't from my fiancee!" he cried out. "That's just a professional love-letter. I buy them by the dozen,—so much a week." Reaching back under his pillow he extricated another letter. "This is from my fiancee," he said. "Read it. Yes, do."
"Aloud?" gasped the Doctor.
Stanton nodded. His forehead was wet with sweat.
"The weather is still very warm. I am riding horseback almost every morning, however, and playing tennis almost every afternoon. There seem to be an exceptionally large number of interesting people here this winter. In regard to the list of names you sent me for the wedding, really, Carl, I do not see how I can possibly accommodate so many of your friends without seriously curtailing my own list. After all you must remember that it is the bride's day, not the groom's. And in regard to your question as to whether we expect to be home for Christmas and could I possibly arrange to spend Christmas Day with you—why, Carl, you are perfectly preposterous! Of course it is very kind of you to invite me and all that, but how could mother and I possibly come to your rooms when our engagement is not even announced? And besides there is going to be a very smart dance here Christmas Eve that I particularly wish to attend. And there are plenty of Christmases coming for you and me.
"P. S. Mother and I hope that your rheumatism is much better."
"That's the girl who loves me," said Stanton not unhumorously. Then suddenly all the muscles around his mouth tightened like the facial muscles of a man who is hammering something. "I mean it!" he insisted. "I mean it—absolutely. That's the—girl—who—loves—me!"
Silently the two men looked at each other for a second. Then they both burst out laughing.
"Oh, yes," said Stanton at last, "I know it's funny. That's just the trouble with it. It's altogether too funny."
Out of a book on the table beside him he drew the thin gray and crimson circular of The Serial-Letter Co. and handed it to the Doctor. Then after a moment's rummaging around on the floor beside him, he produced with some difficulty a long, pasteboard box fairly bulging with papers and things.
"These are the—communications from my make-believe girl," he confessed grinningly. "Oh, of course they're not all letters," he hurried to explain. "Here's a book on South America.—I'm a rubber broker, you know, and of course I've always been keen enough about the New England end of my job, but I've never thought anything so very special about the South American end of it. But that girl—that make-believe girl, I mean—insists that I ought to know all about South America, so she sent me this book; and it's corking reading, too—all about funny things like eating monkeys and parrots and toasted guinea-pigs—and sleeping outdoors in black jungle-nights under mosquito netting, mind you, as a protection against prowling panthers.—And here's a queer little newspaper cutting that she sent me one blizzardy Sunday telling all about some big violin maker who always went out into the forests himself and chose his violin woods from the north side of the trees. Casual little item. You don't think anything about it at the moment. It probably isn't true. And to save your soul you couldn't tell what kind of trees violins are made out of, anyway. But I'll wager that never again will you wake in the night to listen to the wind without thinking of the great storm-tossed, moaning, groaning, slow-toughening forest trees—learning to be violins!... And here's a funny little old silver porringer that she gave me, she says, to make my 'old gray gruel taste shinier.' And down at the bottom of the bowl—the ruthless little pirate—she's taken a knife or a pin or something and scratched the words, 'Excellent Child!'—But you know I never noticed that part of it at all till last week. You see I've only been eating down to the bottom of the bowl just about a week.—And here's a catalogue of a boy's school, four or five catalogues in fact that she sent me one evening and asked me if I please wouldn't look them over right away and help her decide where to send her little brother. Why, man, it took me almost all night! If you get the athletics you want in one school, then likelier than not you slip up on the manual training, and if they're going to schedule eight hours a week for Latin, why where in Creation—?"
Shrugging his shoulders as though to shrug aside absolutely any possible further responsibility concerning, "little brother," Stanton began to dig down deeper into the box. Then suddenly all the grin came back to his face.
"And here are some sample wall papers that she sent me for 'our house'," he confided, flushing. "What do you think of that bronze one there with the peacock feathers?—say, old man, think of a library—and a cannel coal fire—and a big mahogany desk—and a red-haired girl sitting against that paper! And this sun-shiny tint for a breakfast-room isn't half bad, is it?—Oh yes, and here are the time-tables, and all the pink and blue maps about Colorado and Arizona and the 'Painted Desert'. If we can 'afford it,' she writes, she 'wishes we could go to the Painted Desert on our wedding trip.'—But really, old man, you know it isn't such a frightfully expensive journey. Why if you leave New York on Wednesday—Oh, hang it all! What's the use of showing you any more of this nonsense?" he finished abruptly.
With brutal haste he started cramming everything back into place. "It is nothing but nonsense!" he acknowledged conscientiously; "nothing in the world except a boxful of make-believe thoughts from a make-believe girl. And here," he finished resolutely, "are my own fiancee's thoughts—concerning me."
Out of his blanket-wrapper pocket he produced and spread out before the Doctor's eyes five thin letters and a postal-card.
"Not exactly thoughts concerning you, even so, are they?" quizzed the Doctor.
Stanton began to grin again. "Well, thoughts concerning the weather, then—if that suits you any better."
Twice the Doctor swallowed audibly. Then, "But it's hardly fair—is it—to weigh a boxful of even the prettiest lies against five of even the slimmest real, true letters?" he asked drily.
"But they're not lies!" snapped Stanton. "Surely you don't call anything a lie unless not only the fact is false, but the fancy, also, is maliciously distorted! Now take this case right before us. Suppose there isn't any 'little brother' at all; suppose there isn't any 'Painted Desert', suppose there isn't any 'black sheep up on a grandfather's farm', suppose there isn't anything; suppose, I say, that every single, individual fact stated is false—what earthly difference does it make so long as the fancy still remains the truest, realest, dearest, funniest thing that ever happened to a fellow in his life?"
"Oh, ho!" said the Doctor. "So that's the trouble is it! It isn't just rheumatism that's keeping you thin and worried looking, eh? It's only that you find yourself suddenly in the embarrassing predicament of being engaged to one girl and—in love with another?"
"N—o!" cried Stanton frantically. "N—O! That's the mischief of it—the very mischief! I don't even know that the Serial-Letter Co. is a girl. Why it might be an old lady, rather whimsically inclined. Even the oldest lady, I presume, might very reasonably perfume her note-paper with cinnamon roses. It might even be a boy. One letter indeed smelt very strongly of being a boy—and mighty good tobacco, too! And great heavens! what have I got to prove that it isn't even an old man—some poor old worn out story-writer trying to ease out the ragged end of his years?"
"Have you told your fiancee about it?" asked the Doctor.
Stanton's jaw dropped. "Have I told my fiancee about it?" he mocked. "Why it was she who sent me the circular in the first place! But, 'tell her about it'? Why, man, in ten thousand years, and then some, how could I make any sane person understand?"
"You're beginning to make me understand," confessed the Doctor.
"Then you're no longer sane," scoffed Stanton. "The crazy magic of it has surely then taken possession of you too. Why how could I go to any sane person like Cornelia—and Cornelia is the most absolutely, hopelessly sane person you ever saw in your life—how could I go to anyone like that, and announce: 'Cornelia, if you find any perplexing change in me during your absence—and your unconscious neglect—it is only that I have fallen quite madly in love with a person'—would you call it a person?—who doesn't even exist. Therefore for the sake of this 'person who doesn't exist', I ask to be released."
"Oh! So you do ask to be released?" interrupted the Doctor.
"Why, no! Certainly not!" insisted Stanton. "Suppose the girl you love does hurt your feelings a little bit now and then, would any man go ahead and give up a real flesh-and-blood sweetheart for the sake of even the most wonderful paper-and-ink girl whom he was reading about in an unfinished serial story? Would he, I say—would he?"
"Y-e-s," said the Doctor soberly. "Y-e-s, I think he would, if what you call the 'paper-and-ink girl' suggested suddenly an entirely new, undreamed-of vista of emotional and spiritual satisfaction."
"But I tell you 'she's' probably a BOY!" persisted Stanton doggedly.
"Well, why don't you go ahead and find out?" quizzed the Doctor.
"Find out?" cried Stanton hotly. "Find out? I'd like to know how anybody is going to find out, when the only given address is a private post-office box, and as far as I know there's no sex to a post-office box. Find out? Why, man, that basket over there is full of my letters returned to me because I tried to 'find out'. The first time I asked, they answered me with just a teasing, snubbing telegram, but ever since then they've simply sent back my questions with a stern printed slip announcing, "Your letter of —— is hereby returned to you. Kindly allow us to call your attention to the fact that we are not running a correspondence bureau. Our circular distinctly states, etc."
"Sent you a printed slip?" cried the Doctor scoffingly. "The love-letter business must be thriving. Very evidently you are by no means the only importunate subscriber."
"Oh, Thunder!" growled Stanton. The idea seemed to be new to him and not altogether to his taste. Then suddenly his face began to brighten. "No, I'm lying," he said. "No, they haven't always sent me a printed slip. It was only yesterday that they sent me a rather real sort of letter. You see," he explained, "I got pretty mad at last and I wrote them frankly and told them that I didn't give a darn who 'Molly' was, but simply wanted to know what she was. I told them that it was just gratitude on my part, the most formal, impersonal sort of gratitude—a perfectly plausible desire to say 'thank you' to some one who had been awfully decent to me these past few weeks. I said right out that if 'she' was a boy, why we'd surely have to go fishing together in the spring, and if 'she' was an old man, the very least I could do would be to endow her with tobacco, and if 'she' was an old lady, why I'd simply be obliged to drop in now and then of a rainy evening and hold her knitting for her."
"And if 'she' were a girl?" probed the Doctor.
Stanton's mouth began to twitch. "Then Heaven help me!" he laughed.
"Well, what answer did you get?" persisted the Doctor. "What do you call a realish sort of letter?"
With palpable reluctance Stanton drew a gray envelope out of the cuff of his wrapper.
"I suppose you might as well see the whole business," he admitted consciously.
There was no special diffidence in the Doctor's manner this time. His clutch on the letter was distinctly inquisitive, and he read out the opening sentences with almost rhetorical effect.
"Oh, Carl dear, you silly boy, WHY do you persist in hectoring me so? Don't you understand that I've got only a certain amount of ingenuity anyway, and if you force me to use it all in trying to conceal my identity from you, how much shall I possibly have left to devise schemes for your amusement? Why do you persist, for instance, in wanting to see my face? Maybe I haven't got any face! Maybe I lost my face in a railroad accident. How do you suppose it would make me feel, then, to have you keep teasing and teasing.—Oh, Carl!
"Isn't it enough for me just to tell you once for all that there is an insuperable obstacle in the way of our ever meeting. Maybe I've got a husband who is cruel to me. Maybe, biggest obstacle of all, I've got a husband whom I am utterly devoted to. Maybe, instead of any of these things, I'm a poor, old wizened-up, Shut-In, tossing day and night on a very small bed of very big pain. Maybe worse than being sick I'm starving poor, and maybe, worse than being sick or poor, I am most horribly tired of myself. Of course if you are very young and very prancy and reasonably good-looking, and still are tired of yourself, you can almost always rest yourself by going on the stage where—with a little rouge and a different colored wig, and a new nose, and skirts instead of trousers, or trousers instead of skirts, and age instead of youth, and badness instead of goodness—you can give your ego a perfectly limitless number of happy holidays. But if you were oldish, I say, and pitifully 'shut in', just how would you go to work, I wonder, to rest your personality? How for instance could you take your biggest, grayest, oldest worry about your doctor's bill, and rouge it up into a radiant, young joke? And how, for instance, out of your lonely, dreary, middle-aged orphanhood are you going to find a way to short-skirt your rheumatic pains, and braid into two perfectly huge pink-bowed pigtails the hair that you haven't got, and caper round so ecstatically before the foot-lights that the old gentleman and lady in the front seat absolutely swear you to be the living image of their 'long lost Amy'? And how, if the farthest journey you ever will take again is the monotonous hand-journey from your pillow to your medicine bottle, then how, for instance, with map or tinsel or attar of roses, can you go to work to solve even just for your own satisfaction the romantic, shimmering secrets of—Morocco?
"Ah! You've got me now, you think? All decided in your mind that I am an aged invalid? I didn't say so. I just said 'maybe'. Likelier than not I've saved my climax for its proper place. How do you know,—for instance, that I'm not a—'Cullud Pusson'?—So many people are."
Without signature of any sort, the letter ended abruptly then and there, and as though to satisfy his sense of something left unfinished, the Doctor began at the beginning and read it all over again in a mumbling, husky whisper.
"Maybe she is—'colored'," he volunteered at last.
"Very likely," said Stanton perfectly cheerfully. "It's just those occasional humorous suggestions that keep me keyed so heroically up to the point where I'm actually infuriated if you even suggest that I might be getting really interested in this mysterious Miss Molly! You haven't said a single sentimental thing about her that I haven't scoffed at—now have you?"
"N—o," acknowledged the Doctor. "I can see that you've covered your retreat all right. Even if the author of these letters should turn out to be a one-legged veteran of the War of 1812, you still could say, 'I told you so'. But all the same, I'll wager that you'd gladly give a hundred dollars, cash down, if you could only go ahead and prove the little girl's actual existence."
Stanton's shoulders squared suddenly but his mouth retained at least a faint vestige of its original smile.
"You mistake the situation entirely," he said. "It's the little girl's non-existence that I am most anxious to prove."
Then utterly without reproach or interference, he reached over and grabbed a forbidden cigar from the Doctor's cigar case, and lighted it, and retreated as far as possible into the gray film of smoke.
It was minutes and minutes before either man spoke again. Then at last after much crossing and re-crossing of his knees the Doctor asked drawlingly, "And when is it that you and Cornelia are planning to be married?"
"Next April," said Stanton briefly.
"U—m—m," said the Doctor. After a few more minutes he said, "U—m—m," again.
The second "U—m—m" seemed to irritate Stanton unduly. "Is it your head that's spinning round?" he asked tersely. "You sound like a Dutch top!"
The Doctor raised his hands cautiously to his forehead. "Your story does make me feel a little bit giddy," he acknowledged. Then with sudden intensity, "Stanton, you're playing a dangerous game for an engaged man. Cut it out, I say!"
"Cut what out?" said Stanton stubbornly.
The Doctor pointed exasperatedly towards the big box of letters. "Cut those out," he said. "A sentimental correspondence with a girl who's—more interesting than your fiancee!"
"W-h-e-w!" growled Stanton, "I'll hardly stand for that statement."
"Well, then lie down for it," taunted the Doctor. "Keep right on being sick and worried and—." Peremptorily he reached out both hands towards the box. "Here!" he insisted. "Let's dump the whole mischievous nonsense into the fire and burn it up!"
With an "Ouch," of pain Stanton knocked the Doctor's hands away. "Burn up my letters?" he laughed. "Well, I guess not! I wouldn't even burn up the wall papers. I've had altogether too much fun out of them. And as for the books, the Browning, etc.—why hang it all, I've gotten awfully fond of those books!" Idly he picked up the South American volume and opened the fly-leaf for the Doctor to see. "Carl from his Molly," it said quite distinctly.
"Oh, yes," mumbled the Doctor. "It looks very pleasant. There's absolutely no denying that it looks very pleasant. And some day—out of an old trunk, or tucked down behind your library encyclopedias—your wife will discover the book and ask blandly, 'Who was Molly? I don't remember your ever saying anything about a "Molly".—Just someone you used to know?' And your answer will be innocent enough: 'No, dear, someone whom I never knew!' But how about the pucker along your spine, and the awfully foolish, grinny feeling around your cheek-bones? And on the street and in the cars and at the theaters you'll always and forever be looking and searching, and asking yourself, 'Is it by any chance possible that this girl sitting next to me now—?' And your wife will keep saying, with just a barely perceptible edge in her voice, 'Carl, do you know that red-haired girl whom we just passed? You stared at her so!' And you'll say, 'Oh, no! I was merely wondering if—' Oh yes, you'll always and forever be 'wondering if'. And mark my words, Stanton, people who go about the world with even the most innocent chronic question in their eyes, are pretty apt to run up against an unfortunately large number of wrong answers."
"But you take it all so horribly seriously," protested Stanton. "Why you rave and rant about it as though it was actually my affections that were involved!"
"Your affections?" cried the Doctor in great exasperation. "Your affections? Why, man, if it was only your affections, do you suppose I'd be wasting even so much as half a minute's worry on you? But it's your imagination that's involved. That's where the blooming mischief lies. Affection is all right. Affection is nothing but a nice, safe flame that feeds only on one special kind of fuel,—its own particular object. You've got an 'affection' for Cornelia, and wherever Cornelia fails to feed that affection it is mercifully ordained that the starved flame shall go out into cold gray ashes without making any further trouble whatsoever. But you've got an 'imagination' for this make-believe girl—heaven help you!—and an 'imagination' is a great, wild, seething, insatiate tongue of fire that, thwarted once and for all in its original desire to gorge itself with realities, will turn upon you body and soul, and lick up your crackling fancy like so much kindling wood—and sear your common sense, and scorch your young wife's happiness. Nothing but Cornelia herself will ever make you want—Cornelia. But the other girl, the unknown girl—why she's the face in the clouds, she's the voice in the sea; she's the glow of the sunset; she's the hush of the June twilight! Every summer breeze, every winter gale, will fan the embers! Every thumping, twittering, twanging pulse of an orchestra, every—. Oh, Stanton, I say, it isn't the ghost of the things that are dead that will ever come between you and Cornelia. There never yet was the ghost of any lost thing that couldn't be tamed into a purring household pet. But—the—ghost—of—a—thing—that—you've—never—yet—found? That, I tell you, is a very different matter!"
Pounding at his heart, and blazing in his cheeks, the insidious argument, the subtle justification, that had been teeming in Stanton's veins all the week, burst suddenly into speech.
"But I gave Cornelia the chance to be 'all the world' to me," he protested doggedly, "and she didn't seem to care a hang about it! Great Scott, man! Are you going to call a fellow unfaithful because he hikes off into a corner now and then and reads a bit of Browning, for instance, all to himself—or wanders out on the piazza some night all sole alone to stare at the stars that happen to bore his wife to extinction?"
"But you'll never be able to read Browning again 'all by yourself'," taunted the Doctor. "Whether you buy it fresh from the presses or borrow it stale and old from a public library, you'll never find another copy as long as you live that doesn't smell of cinnamon roses. And as to 'star-gazing' or any other weird thing that your wife doesn't care for—you'll never go out alone any more into dawns or darknesses without the very tingling conscious presence of a wonder whether the 'other girl' would have cared for it!"
"Oh, shucks!" said Stanton. Then, suddenly his forehead puckered up. "Of course I've got a worry," he acknowledged frankly. "Any fellow's got a worry who finds himself engaged to be married to a girl who isn't keen enough about it to want to be all the world to him. But I don't know that even the most worried fellow has any real cause to be scared, as long as the girl in question still remains the only flesh-and-blood girl on the face of the earth whom he wishes did like him well enough to want to be 'all the world' to him."
"The only 'flesh-and-blood' girl?" scoffed the Doctor. "Oh, you're all right, Stanton. I like you and all that. But I'm mighty glad just the same that it isn't my daughter whom you're going to marry, with all this 'Molly Make-Believe' nonsense lurking in the background. Cut it out, Stanton, I say. Cut it out!"
"Cut it out?" mused Stanton somewhat distrait. "Cut it out? What! Molly Make-Believe?"
Under the quick jerk of his knees the big box of letters and papers and things brimmed over in rustling froth across the whole surface of the table. Just for a second the muscles in his throat tightened a trifle. Then, suddenly he burst out laughing—wildly, uproariously, like an excited boy.
"Cut it out?" he cried. "But it's such a joke! Can't you see that it's nothing in the world except a perfectly delicious, perfectly intangible joke?"
"U—m—m," reiterated the Doctor.
In the very midst of his reiteration, there came a sharp rap at the door, and in answer to Stanton's cheerful permission to enter, the so-called "delicious, intangible joke" manifested itself abruptly in the person of a rather small feminine figure very heavily muffled up in a great black cloak, and a rose-colored veil that shrouded her nose and chin bluntly like the nose and chin of a face only half hewed out as yet from a block of pink granite.
"It's only Molly," explained an undeniably sweet little alto voice. "Am I interrupting you?"
Jumping to his feet, the Doctor stood staring wildly from Stanton's amazed face to the perfectly calm, perfectly accustomed air of poise that characterized every movement of the pink-shrouded visitor. The amazement in fact never wavered for a second from Stanton's blush-red visage, nor the supreme serenity from the lady's whole attitude. But across the Doctor's startled features a fearful, outraged consciousness of having been deceived, warred mightily with a consciousness of unutterable mirth.
Advancing toward the fireplace with a rather slow-footed, hesitating gait, the little visitor's attention focused suddenly on the cluttered table and she cried out with unmistakable delight. "Why, what are you people doing with all my letters and things?"