By Meredith Nicholson
OTHERWISE PHYLLIS. With frontispiece in color.
THE PROVINCIAL AMERICAN AND OTHER PAPERS.
A HOOSIER CHRONICLE. With illustrations.
THE SIEGE OF THE SEVEN SUITORS. With illustrations.
HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY BOSTON AND NEW YORK
BOSTON AND NEW YORK HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY The Riverside Press Cambridge 1913
COPYRIGHT, 1913, BY MEREDITH NICHOLSON
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Published September 1913
ALBERT B. ANDERSON
A CITIZEN OF THE HOOSIER COMMONWEALTH WHOSE ATTAINMENTS AS LAWYER AND JUDGE HAVE ADDED TO THE FAME OF MONTGOMERY THIS BOOK IS INSCRIBED WITH SINCERE REGARD AND ADMIRATION
I. THE KIRKWOODS BREAK CAMP 1
II. THE MONTGOMERYS OF MONTGOMERY 14
III. 98 BUCKEYE LANE 34
IV. A TRANSACTION IN APPLES 51
V. THE OTHERWISENESS OF PHYLLIS 65
VI. THE SMOKING-OUT OF AMZI 78
VII. GHOSTS SEE THE LIGHT AGAIN 91
VIII. LISTENING HILL 104
IX. ON AN ORCHARD SLOPE 113
X. PHIL'S PARTY 123
XI. BROTHERS 144
XII. NAN BARTLETT'S DECISION 158
XIII. THE BEST INTERESTS OF MONTGOMERY 168
XIV. TURKEY RUN 182
XV. LOIS 201
XVI. MERRY CHRISTMAS 217
XVII. PHIL'S PERPLEXITIES 241
XVIII. AMZI IS FLABBERGASTED 259
XIX. PHIL MOVES TO AMZI'S 272
XX. BACK TO STOP SEVEN 281
XXI. PHIL'S FISTS 292
XXII. MR. WATERMAN'S GREAT OPPORTUNITY 308
XXIII. PLEASANT TIMES IN MAIN STREET 321
XXIV. THE FORSAKEN GARDEN 336
XXV. PHIL ENCOUNTERS THE SHERIFF 355
XXVI. A CALL IN BUCKEYE LANE 373
XXVII. AMZI'S PERFIDY 385
THE KIRKWOODS BREAK CAMP
"Stuff's all packed, Phil, and on the wagon. Camera safe on top and your suit-case tied to the tail-gate. Shall we march?"
"Not crazy about it, daddy. Why not linger another week? We can unlimber in a jiffy."
"It's a tempting proposition, old lady, but I haven't the nerve." Kirkwood dropped an armful of brush on the smouldering camp-fire and stood back as it crackled and flamed. There came suddenly a low whining in the trees and a gust of wind caught the sparks from the blazing twigs and flung them heavenward. He threw up his arm and turned his hand to feel the wind. "The weather's at the changing point; there's rain in that!"
"Well, we haven't been soaked for some time," replied Phil. "We've been awfully respectable."
"Respectable," laughed her father. "We don't know what the word means! We're unmitigated vagabonds, you and I, Phil. If I didn't know that you like this sort of thing as well as I do, I shouldn't let you come. But your aunts are on my trail."
"Oh, one's aunts! Oh, one's three aunts!" murmured Phil.
"Not so lightly to be scorned! When I was in town yesterday your Aunt Kate held me up for a scolding in the post-office. I'd no sooner climbed up to my den than your Aunt Josie dropped in to ask what I had done with you; and while I was waiting for you to buy shoes at Fisher's your Aunt Fanny strolled by and gave me another overhauling. It's a question whether they don't bring legal process to take you away from me. What's a father more or less among three anxious aunts! As near as I can make out, Aunt Fanny's anxiety is chiefly for your complexion. She says you look like an Indian. And she implied that I am one."
"One of her subtle compliments. I've always thought Indians were nice."
It was clear that this father and daughter were on the best of terms, and that admiration was of the essence of their relationship. Phil stooped, picked up a pebble and flung it with the unconscious grace of a boy far down the creek. Her Aunt Fanny's solicitude for her complexion was or was not warranted; it depended on one's standard in such matters. Phil was apparently not alarmed about the state of her complexion.
"Suppose we wait for the moon," Kirkwood suggested. "It will be with us in an hour, and we can loaf along and still reach town by eleven. Only a little while ago we had to get you to bed by eight, and it used to bother me a lot about your duds; but we've outgrown that trouble. I guess—"
He paused abruptly and began to whistle softly to himself. Phil was familiar with this trick of her father's. She knew the processes of his mind and the range of his memories well enough to supply the conclusion of such sentences as the one that had resolved itself into a doleful whistle. As he was an excellent amateur musician, the lugubrious tone of his whistling was the subject of many jokes between them.
The walls of a miniature canon rose on either side of the creek, and the light of the wind-blown camp-fire flitted across the face of the shelving rock, or scampered up to the edge of the overhanging cliff, where it flashed fitfully against the sky. The creek splashed and foamed through its rough, boulder-filled channel, knowing that soon it would be free of the dark defile and moving with dignity between shores of corn toward the Wabash. The cliffs that enclosed Turkey Run represented some wild whim of the giant ice plow as it had redivided and marked this quarter of the world. The two tents in which the Kirkwoods had lodged for a month had been pitched in a grassy cleft of the more accessible shore, but these and other paraphernalia of the camp were now packed for transportation in a one-horse wagon. As a fiercer assault of the wind shook the vale, the horse whinnied and pawed impatiently.
"Cheer up, Billo! We're going soon!" called Phil.
Kirkwood stood by the fire, staring silently into the flames. Phil, having reassured Billo, drew a little away from her father. In earlier times when moods of abstraction fell upon him, she had sought to rouse him; but latterly she had learned the wisdom and kindness of silence. She knew that this annual autumnal gypsying held for him the keenest delight and, in another and baffling phase, a poignancy on which, as she had grown to womanhood, it had seemed impious to allow her imagination to play. She watched him now with the pity that was woven into her love for him: his tall figure and the slightly stooped shoulders; the round felt hat that crowned his thick, close-cut hair, the dejection that seemed expressed in so many trifles at such moments,—as in his manner of dropping his hands loosely into the pockets of his corduroy coat, and standing immovable. Without taking his eyes from the fire he sat down presently on a log and she saw him fumbling for his pipe and tobacco. He bent to thrust a chip into the fire with the deliberation that marked his movements in these moods. Now and then he took the pipe from his mouth, and she knew the look that had come into his gray eyes, though she saw only the profile of his bearded face as the firelight limned it.
Now, as at other such times, on summer evenings in the little garden at home, or on winter nights before the fire in their sitting-room, she felt that he should be left to himself; that his spirit traversed realms beyond boundaries she might not cross; and that in a little while his reverie would end and he would rise and fling up his long arms and ask whether it was breakfast-time or time to go to bed.
Phil Kirkwood was eighteen, a slim, brown, graceful creature, with a habit of carrying her chin a little high; a young person who seemed to be enjoying flights into the realm of reverie at times, and then, before you were aware of it, was off, away out of sight and difficult to catch with hand or eye. As a child this abruptness had been amusing; now that she was eighteen her aunts had begun to be distressed by it. Her critics were driven to wild things for comparisons. She was as quick as a swallow; and yet a conscientious ornithologist would have likened her in her moments of contemplation to the thrush for demureness. And a robin hopping across a meadow, alert in all his mysterious senses, was not more alive than Phil in action. Her middle-aged aunts said she was impudent, but this did not mean impudent speech; it was Phil's silences that annoyed her aunts and sometimes embarrassed or dismayed other people. Her brown eye could be very steady and wholly respectful when, at the same time, there was a suspicious twitching of her thread-of-scarlet lips. The aunts were often outraged by her conduct. Individually and collectively they had endeavored to correct her grievous faults, and she had received their instructions meekly. But what could one do with a mild brown eye that met the gaze of aunts so steadily and submissively, while her lips betrayed quite other emotions!
Phil's clothes were another source of distress. She hated hats and in open weather rejected them altogether. A tam-o'-shanter was to her liking, and a boy's cap was even better. The uniform of the basketball team at high school suited her perfectly; and yet her unreasonable aunts had made a frightful row when she wore it as a street garb. She gave this up, partly to mollify the aunts, but rather more to save her father from the annoyance of their complaints. She clung, however, to her sweater,—on which a large "M" advertised her alma mater most indecorously,—and in spite of the aunts' vigilance she occasionally appeared at Center Church in tan shoes; which was not what one had a right to expect of a great-granddaughter of Amzi I, whose benevolent countenance, framed for adoration in the Sunday-School room, spoke for the conservative traditions of the town honored with his name.
Phil had no sense of style; her aunts were agreed on this. Her hair-ribbons rarely matched her stockings; and the stockings on agile legs like Phil's, that were constantly dancing in the eyes of all Montgomery, should, by all the canons of order and decency, present holeless surfaces to captious critics. That they frequently did not was a shame, a reproach, a disgrace, but no fault, we may be sure, of the anxious aunts. Manifestly Phil had no immediate intention of growing up. The idea of being a young lady did not interest her. In June of this particular year she had been graduated from the Montgomery High School, in a white dress and (noteworthy achievement of the combined aunts!) impeccable white shoes and stockings. Pink ribbons (pink being the class color) had enhanced the decorative effect of the gown and a pink bow had given a becoming touch of grace to her head. Phil's hair—brown in shadow and gold in sunlight—was washed by Montgomery's house-to-house hairdresser whenever Aunt Fanny could corner Phil for the purpose.
Phil's general effect was of brownness. Midwinter never saw the passing of the tan from her cheek; her vigorous young fists were always brown; when permitted a choice she chose brown clothes: she was a brown girl.
* * * * *
Speaking of Phil's graduation, it should be mentioned that she had contributed a ten-minute oration to the commencement exercises, its subject being "The Dogs of Main Street." This was not conceded a place on the programme without a struggle. The topic was frivolous and without precedent; moreover, it was unliterary—a heinous offense, difficult of condonation. To admit the dogs of Main Street to a high-school commencement, an affair of pomp and ceremony held in Hastings's Theater, was not less than shocking. It had seemed so to the principal, but he knew Phil; and knowing Phil he laughed when the English teacher protested that it would compromise her professional dignity to allow a student to discuss the vagrant canines of Main Street in a commencement essay. She had expected Phil to prepare a thesis on "What the Poets Have Meant to Me," and for this "The Dogs of Main Street" was no proper substitute. The superintendent of schools, scanning the programme before it went to the printer, shuddered; but it was not for naught that Phil's "people" were of Montgomery's elect.
Phil was, in fact, a Montgomery. Her great-grandfather, Amzi Montgomery, observing the unpopulous Hoosier landscape with a shrewd eye, had, in the year of grace 1829, opened a general store on the exact spot now occupied by Montgomery's Bank, and the proper authorities a few years later called the name of the place Montgomery, which it remains to this day. This explains why the superintendent of schools overlooked the temerity of Amzi's great-granddaughter in electing the Main Street fauna as the subject of her commencement address rather than her indebtedness to the poets, though it may not be illuminative as to the holes in Phil's stockings. But on this point we shall be enlightened later.
Phil raised her head. There had come a lull in the whisper of the weather spirit in the sycamores, and she was aware of a sound that was not the noise of the creek among the boulders. It was a strain of music not of nature's making and Phil's healthy young curiosity was instantly aroused by it. Her father maintained his lonely vigil by the fire, quite oblivious of her and of all things. She caught another strain, and then began climbing the cliff.
The ascent was difficult, but she drew herself up swiftly, catching at bushes, seeking with accustomed feet the secure limestone ledges that promised safety, pausing to listen when bits of loosened stone fell behind her. Finally, catching the protruding roots of a great sycamore whose shadow had guided her, she gained the top. The moon, invisible in the vale, now greeted her as it rose superbly above a dark woodland across a wide stretch of intervening field. But there were nearer lights than those of star and moon, and their presence afforded her a thrill of surprise.
Clearer now came the strains of music. Here was a combination of phenomena that informed the familiar region with strangeness. The music came from a barn, and she remembered that barn well as a huge, gloomy affair on the Holton farm. Satisfied of this, Phil turned, half-unconsciously, and glanced up at the sycamore. That hoary old landmark defined a boundary, and a boundary which, on various accounts, it was incumbent upon the great-granddaughter of Amzi Montgomery I to observe. A dividing fence ran from the sycamore, straight toward the moon. It was a "stake-and-rider" fence, and the notches on the Holton side of it were filled with wild raspberry, elderberry, and weeds; but on the Montgomery side these interstices were free of such tangle. The fact that lights and music advertised the Holton farm to the eye and ear seemed to Phil a matter worthy of her attention. The corn was in the shock on the Montgomery side; the adjacent Holton field had lain fallow that year. The shocks of corn suggested to Phil's imagination the tents of an unsentineled host or an abandoned camp; but she walked fearlessly toward the lights and music, bent upon investigation. The moon would not for some time creep high enough to light the valley and disturb her father's vigil by the camp-fire: there need be no haste, for even if he missed her he would not be alarmed.
The old Holton house and its outbuildings lay near the fence and Phil calculated that without leaving her ancestral acres she would be able to determine exactly the nature and extent of this unprecedented revelry in the Holton barn. She approached as near as possible and rested her arms on the rough top rail of the fence. There were doors on both sides of the lumbering old structure, and her tramp across the cornfield was rewarded by a comprehensive view of the scene within. The music ceased and she heard voices—gay, happy voices—greeting some late-comers whose automobile had just "chug-chugged" into the barnyard. She saw, beyond the brilliantly lighted interior, the motors and carriages that had conveyed the company to the dance; and she caught a glimpse of the farmhouse itself, where doubtless refreshments were even now in readiness. Phil was far enough away to be safe from observation and yet near enough to identify many of the dancers. They were chiefly young people she had known all her life, and the strangers were presumably friends of the Holtons from Indianapolis and elsewhere.
The strains of a familiar waltz caused a quick reassembling of the dancers. The music tingled in Phil's blood. She kept time with head and hands, and then, swinging round, began dancing, humming the air as her figure swayed and bent to its cadences. By some whim the nearest corn-shock became the center of her attention. Round and round it she moved, with a child's abandon; and now that the moon's full glory lay upon the fields, her shadow danced mockingly with her. Fauns and nymphs tripped thus to wild music in the enchanted long ago when the world was young. Hers was the lightest, the most fantastic of irresponsible shadows. It was not the mere reflection of her body, but a prefigurement of her buoyant spirit, that had escaped from her control and tauntingly eluded capture. Her mind had never known a morbid moment; she had never feared the dark, without or within. And this was her private affair—a joke between her and the moon and the earth. It was for the moment all hers—earth and heaven, the mystery of the stars, the slumbering power of a beneficent land that only yesterday had vouchsafed its kindly fruits in reward of man's labor.
After a breathless interval a two-step followed, and Phil danced again, seizing a corn-stalk and holding it above her head with both hands like a wand. When the music ended she poised on tiptoe and flung the stalk far from her toward the barn as though it were a javelin. Then as she took a step toward the fence she was aware that some one had been watching her. It was, indeed, a nice question whether the flying stalk had not grazed the ear of a man who stood on Holton soil, his arms resting on the rail just as hers had been ten minutes earlier, and near the same spot.
"'Lo!" gasped Phil breathlessly.
They surveyed each other calmly in the moonlight. The young man beyond the fence straightened and removed his hat. He had been watching her antics round the corn-shock and Phil resented it.
"What were you doing that for?" she demanded indignantly, her hands in her sweater pockets.
"Doing what, for instance?"
"Watching me. It wasn't fair."
"Oh, I liked your dancing; that was all."
An "Oh" let fall with certain intonations is a serious impediment to conversation. The young gentleman seemed unable at this crucial instant to think of a fitting reply. Finding himself unequal to a response in her own key he merely said:—
"I'm sorry. I really didn't mean to. I came over here to sit on the fence and watch the party."
"Watch it! Why don't you go in and dance?"
He glanced down as though to suggest that if Phil were to scrutinize his raiment she might very readily understand why, instead of being among the dancers, he contented himself with watching them from a convenient fence corner. He carried a crumpled coat on his arm; the collar of his flannel shirt was turned up round his throat. His hat was of battered felt with a rent in the creased crown.
"My brother and sister are giving the party. I'm not in it."
"I suppose your invitation got lost in the mail," suggested Phil, this being a form of explanation frequently proffered by local humorists for their failure to appear at Montgomery functions.
"Nothing like that! I didn't expect to be here to-day. In fact, I've been off trying to borrow a team of horses; one of mine went lame. I've just brought them home, and I'm wondering how long I've got to wait before the rumpus is over and those folks get out of there and give the horses a chance. It's going to rain before morning."
Phil had heard the same prognostication from her father, and it was in the young man's favor that he was wise in weather lore. The musicians had begun to play a popular barn dance, and the two spectators watched the dancers catch step to it. Then Phil, having by this time drawn a trifle closer to the fence and been reassured by her observations of the clean-shaven face of the young man, became personal.
"Are you Charlie Holton?"
"No; Fred. Charlie's my brother."
"And your sister's name is Ethel."
"O. K. I'm trying to figure you out. If you weren't so tall I'd guess you were Phyllis Kirkwood."
"That's all of my name," replied Phil. "I remember you now, but you must have been away a long time. I hadn't heard that anybody was living over there."
"The family haven't been here much since I was a kid. They have moved out their things. What's left is mine."
Mr. Frederick Holton turned and extended the hand that held his hat with a comprehensive gesture. There was a tinge of irony in his tone that Phil did not miss. "What's left here—house, barn, and land—belongs to me. The town house has been sold and Charlie and Ethel have come out here to say good-bye to the farm."
This time Phil's "Oh" connoted mild surprise, polite interest, and faint curiosity.
The wind rustled the leaves among the corn-shocks. The moon gazed benevolently upon the barn, tolerant of the impertinence of man-made light and a gayety that was wholly inconsonant with her previous knowledge of this particular bit of landscape.
Fred Holton did not amplify his last statement, so Phil's "Oh," in so far as it expressed curiosity as to the disposition of the Holton territory and Mr. Frederick Holton's relation to it, seemed destined to no immediate satisfaction.
"I must skip," remarked Phil; though she did not, in fact, skip at once.
"Staying over at your grandfather's?" The young man's arm pointed toward the north and the venerable farmhouse long occupied by tenants of the Montgomerys.
Old Amzi had acquired much land in his day and his grandson, Amzi III, clung to most of it. But this little availed Phil, as we shall see. Still it was conceivable and pardonable that Fred Holton should assume that Phil was domiciled upon soil to which she had presumably certain inalienable rights.
"No; I've been camping and my father's waiting for me down there in Turkey Run. We've been here a month."
"It must be good fun, camping that way."
"Oh, rather! But it's tough—the going home afterwards."
"I hate towns myself. I expect to have some fun out here."
"I heard this farm had been sold," remarked Phil leadingly.
"Well, I suppose it amounts to that. They were dividing up father's estate, and I drew it."
"Well, it's not so much to look at," remarked Phil, as though the appraisement of farm property were quite in the line of her occupations. "I've been across your pasture a number of times on my way to Uncle Amzi's for milk, but I didn't know any one was living here. One can hardly mention your farm in terms of grandeur or splendor."
Fred Holton laughed, a cheerful, pleasant laugh. Phil had not thought of it before, but she decided now that she liked him. His voice was agreeable, and she noted his slight drawl. Phil's father, who was born in the Berkshires, said all Hoosiers drawled. As a matter of fact, Phil, who was indubitably a Hoosier, did not, save in a whimsical fashion of her own, to give a humorous turn to the large words with which she sometimes embellished her conversation. Her father said that her freedom from the drawl was no fault of the Montgomery High School, but attributable to his own vigilance.
Phil knew that it was unseemly to be talking across a fence to a strange young man, particularly when her father was doubtless waiting for her to return for the homeward journey; and she knew that she was guilty of a grievous offense in talking to a Holton in any circumstances. Still the situation appealed to her imagination. There hung the moon, patron goddess of such encounters, and here were fields of mystery.
"They say it's no good, do they? They're right. I know all about it, so you don't need to be sorry for me."
Sensitiveness spoke here; obviously others had made the mistake, of which she would not be guilty, of sympathizing with him in his possession of these unprofitable acres. Phil had no intention of being sorry for him. She rather liked him for not wanting her sympathy, though to be sure there was no reason why he should have expected it.
"You've been living in Indianapolis?"
"The folks have. Father died, you know, nearly two years ago. I was in Mexico, and now I'm back to stay."
"I suppose you learned farming in Mexico?" Phil pursued.
"Well, hardly! Mining; no silver; quit."
"Oh," said Phil, and filed his telegram for reference.
They watched the dance for a few minutes.
Phil started guiltily as Holton turned his head toward the creek, listening. Her father was sounding the immelodious fish-horn which he called their signal corps. He must have become alarmed by her long absence or he would not have resorted to it, and she recalled with shame that it had been buried in a soap-box with minor cooking-utensils at the bottom of the wagon, and could not have been resurrected without trouble.
"Good-bye!" She ran swiftly across the field toward the creek. The horn, sounding at intervals in long raucous blasts, roused Phil to her best speed. She ran boy fashion with her head down, elbows at her sides. Fred Holton watched her until she disappeared.
He made a detour of the barn, followed a lane that led to the town road, and waited, in the shadow of a great walnut at the edge of a pasture. He was soon rewarded by the sound of wheels coming up from the creek, and in a moment the one-horse wagon bearing Phil and her father passed slowly. He heard their voices distinctly; Kirkwood was chaffing Phil for her prolonged absence. Their good comradeship was evident in their laughter, subdued to the mood of the still, white night. Fred Holton was busy reconstructing all his previous knowledge of the Kirkwoods, and he knew a good deal about them, now that he thought of it.
At the crest of Listening Hill,—so called from the fact that in old times farm-boys had listened there for wandering cows,—the wagon lingered for a moment—an act of mercy to the horse—and the figures of father and daughter were mistily outlined against the sky. Then they resumed their journey and Fred slowly crossed the fields toward the barn.
THE MONTGOMERYS OF MONTGOMERY
A stout, spectacled gentleman of fifty or thereabouts appeared at intervals, every business day of the year, on the steps of Montgomery's Bank, at the corner of Main and Franklin Streets. As he stood on this pedestal, wearing, winter and summer, a blue-and-white seersucker office coat tightly buttoned about his pudgy form, and frequently with an ancient straw hat perched on the side of his head, it was fair to assume that he was in some way connected with the institution from whose doors he emerged. This was, indeed, the fact, and any intelligent child could have enlightened a stranger as to the name of the stout gentleman indicated. He was one of the first citizens of the community, if wealth, probity, and long residence may be said to count for anything. And his name, which it were absurd longer to conceal, was Amzi Montgomery, or, to particularize, Amzi Montgomery III. As both his father and his grandfather who had borne the same name slept peacefully in Greenlawn, it is unnecessary to continue in this narrative the numerical designation of this living Amzi who braved the worst of weathers to inspect the moving incidents of Main Street as a relief from the strain and stress of the business of a private banker.
When, every hour or so, Mr. Montgomery, exposing a pink bald head to the elements, glanced up and down the street, usually with a cigar planted resolutely in the corner of his mouth, it was commonly believed that he saw everything that was happening, not only in Main Street, but in all the shops and in the rival banking-houses distributed along that thoroughfare. After surveying the immediate scene,—having, for example, noted the customers waiting at the counter of the First National Bank, diagonally opposite,—something almost invariably impelled his glance upward to the sign of a painless dentist, immediately above the First National,—a propinquity which had caused a wag (one of the Montgomery's customers) to express the hope that the dentist was more painless than the bank in his extractions.
There was a clothing store directly opposite Amzi's bank, and his wandering eye could not have failed to observe the lettering on the windows of the office above it, which, in badly scratched gilt, published the name of Thomas Kirkwood, Attorney at Law, to the litigiously inclined. Still higher on the third and final story of the building hung a photographer's sign in a dilapidated condition, and though a studio skylight spoke further of photography, almost every one knew that the artist had departed years ago, and that Tom Kirkwood had never found another tenant for those upper rooms.
At two o'clock on the afternoon of the day following the return of Phil Kirkwood and her father from their camp on Sugar Creek, as Mr. Montgomery appeared upon the steps of the bank and gazed with his usual unconcern up and down Main Street, his spectacles pointed finally (or so it seemed) to the photographer's studio over the way. Although a slight mist was falling and umbrellas bobbed inanely in the fashion of umbrellas, Amzi in his seersucker coat was apparently oblivious of the weather's inclemency. One of the windows of the abandoned photograph gallery was open, and suddenly, without the slightest warning, the head of Miss Phyllis Kirkwood bent over the cornice and she waved her hand with unmistakable friendliness. It was then that Mr. Montgomery, as though replying to a signal, detached his left hand from its pocket, made a gesture as graceful as a man of his figure is capable of, and then, allaying suspicion by passing the hand across his bald head, he looked quickly toward the court-house tower and immediately withdrew to continue his active supervision of the four clerks who sufficed for his bank's business.
As depositors were now bringing to the receiving teller's window their day's offerings, Mr. Montgomery took his stand at the paying teller's window,—a part of his usual routine,—to relieve the pressure incident to the closing hour, one teller at other times being quite equal to the demands of both departments. Mr. Montgomery's manner of paying a check was in itself individual. He laid his cigar on the edge of the counter, passed the time of day with a slightly asthmatic voice, drew the check toward him with the tips of his fingers, read it, cocked an eye at the indorsement, and counted out the money with a bored air. If silver entered into the transaction, he usually rang the last coin absently on the glass surface of the counter.
In other times the sign on the window had proclaimed "Montgomery & Holton, Bankers"; and the deletion of the second name from the copartnership was due to an incident that must be set down succinctly before we proceed further. Amzi II had left a family of five children, of whom Phil Kirkwood's three aunts have already been mentioned. The only one of the Montgomery girls, as they were locally designated, who had made a marriage at all in keeping with the family dignity, had been Lois.
Lois, every one said, was the handsomest, the most interesting of the Montgomerys, and she had captured at eighteen the heart of Tom Kirkwood, who had come out of the East to assume the chair of jurisprudence in Madison College, which, as every one knows, is an institution inseparably associated with the fame of Montgomery as a community of enlightenment. Tom Kirkwood was a graduate of Williams College, with a Berlin Ph.D., and he had, moreover, a modest patrimony which, after his marriage to Lois Montgomery, he had invested in the block in Main Street opposite the Montgomery Bank. The year following the marriage he had, in keeping with an early resolution, resigned his professorship and begun the practice of law. He seemed to have escaped the embarrassments and prejudices that attend any practical undertakings by men who have borne the title of professor, and whether his connection with the Montgomery family saved him from such disqualification it was nevertheless true that he entered upon the law brilliantly. Two or three successes in important cases had launched him upon this second career auspiciously.
Amzi II was still living at the time of the marriage, and as he valued his own position in the community and wished his family to maintain its traditions, he had subdivided a large tract of woodland in which his father's house stood, and bestowed an acre lot upon each of his daughters. His son had declined a similar offer, having elected early in life the bachelor state in which we have found him. As Lois had been the first to marry, her house was planted nearest to the gray old brick in which she had been reared.
If the gods favored the Montgomerys, they seemed no less to smile with a peculiar indulgence upon the Kirkwoods. People who had said that Lois was a trifle strong-willed and given to frivolity were convinced that her marriage had done much to sober her. In the second year thereafter Phyllis was born, a further assurance that Lois was thoroughly established among the staid matrons of her native town. Then in the fifth year of her marriage, rumors—almost the first scandalous gossip that had ever passed current in those quiet streets—began to be heard. It did not seem possible that in a community whose morals were nurtured in Center Church, a town where everybody was "good," where no respectable man ever entered a saloon and divorce was a word not to be spoken before children,—that here, a daughter of the house of Montgomery was causing anxiety among those jealous of her good name. A few of Kirkwood's friends—and he had many—may have known the inner history of the cloud that darkened his house; but the end came with a blinding flash that left him dazed and dumb.
The town was so knit together, so like a big family, that Lois Montgomery's escapade was a tragedy at every hearth-side. It was immeasurably shocking that a young woman married to a reputable man, and with a child still toddling after her, should have done this grievous thing. To say that she had always been flighty, and that it was what might have been expected of a woman as headstrong as she had been as a girl, was no mollification of the blow to the local conscience, acutely sensitive in all that pertained to the honor and sanctity of the marriage tie. And Jack Holton! That she should have thrown away a man like Tom Kirkwood, a gentleman and a scholar, for a rogue like Holton, added to the blackness of her sin. The Holtons had been second only to the Montgomerys in dignity. The conjunction of the names on the old sign over the bank at Main and Franklin Streets had expressed not only unquestioned financial stability, but a social worth likewise unassailable. Jack Holton, like Amzi Montgomery, had inherited an interest in the banking-house of Montgomery & Holton. To be sure his brother William had been the active representative of the second generation of Holtons, and Jack had never really settled down to anything after he returned from the Eastern college to which he had been sent; but these were things that had not been considered until after he decamped with Lois Kirkwood. Many declared after the event that they had "always known" that Jack was a bad lot. Those who sought to account for Lois Kirkwood's infatuation remembered suddenly that he and Lois had been boy and girl sweethearts and that she had once been engaged to marry him. It was explained that his temperament and hers were harmonious, and that Kirkwood, for all his fine abilities, was a sober-minded fellow, without Holton's zest for the world's gayety. Any further details—the countless trifles with which for half a dozen years the gossips of Montgomery regaled themselves—are not for this writing.
Many years had passed—or, to be explicit, exactly sixteen. One of the first results of the incident had been the immediate elimination of the Holton half of the firm name by which the bank had long been known. Jack's brother William organized the First National Bank, toward which Mr. Amzi Montgomery's spectacles pointed several times daily, as already noted. Samuel, the oldest son of the first Holton, tried a variety of occupations before he was elected Secretary of State. He never fully severed his ties with Montgomery, retaining a house in town and the farm on Sugar Creek. After retiring from office, he became a venturesome speculator, capitalizing his wide political acquaintance in the sale of shares in all manner of mining and plantation companies, and dying suddenly, had left his estate in a sad clutter.
In due course of time it became known that Lois Kirkwood had divorced her husband at long range, from a Western state where such matters were at the time transacted expeditiously, and a formal announcement of her marriage to Holton subsequently appeared in the Montgomery "Evening Star."
The day after his wife's departure Kirkwood left his home and did not enter it again. It was said by romanticists among the local gossips that he had touched nothing, leaving it exactly as it had been, and that he always carried the key in his pocket as a reminder of his sorrow. Phil was passed back and forth among her aunts, seriatim, until she went to live with her father, in a rented house far from the original roof-tree.
Even in practicing the most rigid economy of space some reference must be made to the attitude of Lois Kirkwood's sisters toward her as a sinning woman. Their amazement had yielded at once to righteous indignation. It was enough that she had sinned against Heaven; but that she should have brought shame upon them all and placed half the continent between herself and the scene and consequences of her iniquity, leaving her family to shoulder all its responsibilities, was too monstrous for expression. They were Montgomerys of Montgomery; it seemed incredible that the town itself could ever recover from the shock of her egregious transgression. They vied with each other in manifestations of sympathy for Kirkwood, whose nobility under suffering was so admirable; and they lavished upon Phil (it had been like Lois, they discovered, to label her with the preposterous name of Phyllis!) an affection which became in time a trial to the child's soul.
Their fury gained ardor from the fact that their brother Amzi had never, after he had blinked at them all when they visited him in his private room at the bank the morning after the elopement, mentioned to any living soul the passing of this youngest sister. It had been an occasion to rouse an older brother and the head of his house to some dramatic pronouncement. He should have taken a stand, they said, though just what stand one should take, when one's sister has run off with another man and left a wholly admirable husband and a winsome baby daughter behind, may not, perhaps, have been wholly clear to the minds of the remaining impeccable sisters. They demanded he should confiscate her share of their father's estate as punishment; this should now be Phil's; they wanted this understood and they took care that their friends should know that they had made this demand of Amzi. But a gentleman of philosophic habit and temper, who serenely views the world from his bank's doorstep, need hardly be expected to break his natural reticence to thunder at an erring sister, or even to gladden the gallery (imaginably the whole town that bears his name) by transfers of property, of which he was the lawful trustee, to that lady's abandoned heir.
Lois had caused all eyes to focus upon the Montgomerys with a new intentness. Before her escapade they had been accepted as a matter of course; now that she had demonstrated that the Montgomerys were subject to the temptations that beset all mankind, every one became curious as to the further definition of the family weaknesses. The community may be said to have awaited the marriages of the three remaining Montgomery girls in much the same spirit that a family physician awaits the appearance of measles in a child that has been exposed to that malady. And Montgomery was not wholly disappointed.
Kate, who like Lois, was a trifle temperamental, had fallen before the charms of one Lawrence Hastings. The manner of Hastings's advent in Montgomery is perhaps worthy of a few words, inasmuch as he came to stay. Hastings was an actor, who visited Montgomery one winter as a member of a company that had trustfully ventured into the provinces with a Shakespearean repertoire. Montgomery was favored in the hope that, being a college town, it would rally to the call of the serious drama. Unfortunately the college was otherwise engaged at the moment with a drama of more contemporaneous interest and authorship. An unusually severe January added to the eager and nipping air upon which the curtain rises in "Hamlet," and proved too much for the well-meaning players. Hastings (so ran tradition) had gallantly bestowed such money as he had upon the ladies of the company to facilitate their flight to New York. His father, a successful manufacturer of codfish packing-boxes at Newburyport, telegraphed money for the prodigal's return with the stipulation that he should forswear the inky cloak and abase himself in the box factory.
At this point Kate Montgomery, in charge of an entertainment for the benefit of Center Church, invited Hastings (thus providentially flung upon the Hoosier coasts) to give a reading in the church parlors. Almost coincidently the opera house at Montgomery needed a manager, and Hastings accepted the position. The Avon Dramatic Club rose and flourished that winter under Hastings's magic wand. It is not every town of fifteen thousand that suddenly enrolls a Hamlet among her citizens, and as the creator and chief spirit of the dramatic club, Hastings's social acceptance was immediate and complete. In other times the town would have been wary of an actor; but had not Hastings given his services free of charge for the benefit of Center Church, and was he not a gentleman, the son of a wealthy manufacturer, and had he not declined money offered by telegraph that he might cling stubbornly to his art? Kate Montgomery talked a good deal about his art, which he would not relinquish for the boxing of codfish. After Hastings had given a lecture on "Macbeth" (with readings from the play) in the chapel of Madison College, his respectability was established. There was no reason whatever why Kate Montgomery should not marry him; and she did, at the end of his first year in town. He thereupon assumed the theater lease and what had been the old "Grand Opera House" became under his ownership "Hastings's Theater," or "The Hastings."
Fanny Montgomery had contented herself with the hand of a young man named Fosdick who had been summoned to town to organize a commercial club. In two years he added several industries to Montgomery's scant list, and wheedled a new passenger station out of one of the lordly railroads that had long held the town in scorn. Two of the industries failed, the new station was cited as an awful example by the Professor of Fine Arts at the college, and yet Paul Fosdick made himself essential to Montgomery. The commercial club's bimonthly dinners gave the solid citizens an excuse for leaving home six nights a year, and in a community where meetings of whist clubs and church boards constituted the only justification for carrying a latch-key this new freedom established him at once as a friend of mankind. Fosdick was wholly presentable, and while his contributions to the industrial glory of Montgomery lacked elements of permanence, he had, so the "Evening Star" solemnly averred, "done much to rouse our citizens from their lethargy and blaze the starward trail." After he married Fanny, Fosdick opened an office adjoining the Commercial Club rooms and his stationery bore the legend "Investment Securities." Judge Walters, in appointing a receiver for a corporation which Fosdick had organized for the manufacture and sale of paving-brick, inadvertently spoke of the promoter's occupation as that of a "dealer in insecurities"; but this playfulness on the court's part did not shake confidence in Fosdick. He was a popular fellow, and the success of those Commercial Club dinners was not to be discounted by the cynical flings of a judge who was rich enough to be comfortably indifferent to criticism.
Amzi Montgomery being, as hinted, a person of philosophic temperament, had interposed no manner of objection to the several marriages of his sisters until Josephine, the oldest, and the last to marry, tendered him a brother-in-law in the person of Alexander Waterman. Josephine was the least attractive of the sisters, and also, it was said, the meekest, the kindest, and the most amiable. An early unhappy affair with a young minister was a part of the local tradition, and she had been cited as a broken-hearted woman until she married Waterman. Waterman was a lawyer who had been seized early in life with a mania for running for Congress. The district had long been Republican, but with singular obstinacy Waterman insisted on being a Democrat. His party being hopelessly in the minority he was graciously permitted to have such nominations as he liked, with the result that he had been defeated for nearly every office within the gift of a proud people. He was a fair jury lawyer, and an orator of considerable repute among those susceptible to the blandishments of the florid school.
Amzi's resentment of Josephine's choice was said to be due to a grilling the banker had received at Waterman's hands on the witness stand. Once while standing on the steps of his bank for a survey of the visible universe, Amzi was rewarded with an excellent view of the liveliest runaway that had thrilled Main Street in years. Several persons were hurt, and one of the victims had sued the grocer whose wagon had done the mischief.
Waterman was the plaintiff's attorney, and Amzi Montgomery was, of course, an important though reluctant witness. The banker loathed litigation in all its forms and in his own affairs studiously avoided it. It enraged him to find one of his idiosyncrasies advertised by the fact that he had observed the violent collision of a grocer's wagon with a fellow-citizen. His anger was augmented by the patronizing manner in which Waterman compelled him to contribute to the record of the case admissions touching his habits of life, which, though perfectly lawful and decorous, became ridiculous when uttered on oath in a law court. Every one knew that Mr. Montgomery stood on the bank steps at intervals to take the air, but no one had ever dreamed that he would be obliged to discuss or explain the habit.
The "Evening Star" printed all of his testimony that it dared; but as the cross-examination had been conducted before a crowded courtroom the neat give and take between lawyer and witness had not lacked thorough reporting. For several weeks thereafter Amzi did not appear on the bank steps; nor did he revert to his old habit until satisfied that groups of idlers were not lying in wait. After Josephine introduced Waterman to the family circle Amzi seemed generously to overlook the offense. He was as cordial toward him as toward either of the other brothers-in-law, with the exception of Kirkwood, though of course Kirkwood, strictly speaking, no longer continued in that relationship.
These details aside, it is possible to return to the bank, and await the result of that furtive gesture with which Mr. Amzi Montgomery responded to Phil Kirkwood's signal from the window of the photograph gallery. By half-past four the clerks had concluded their day's work; the routine letters to Chicago, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis correspondents had been sealed and dispatched, and the vault locked by Mr. Montgomery's own hand. Thereupon he retired to the back room, unlocked the Franklin Street door and beguiled himself with the "Evening Star." Shortly before five o'clock he heard light steps outside followed by a tap and Phil opened and closed the door.
She pronounced the a long, after a fashion she had adopted in childhood and refused to relinquish. Amzi was "A-mee" to Phil. She glanced into the bank room, seized his newspaper, crunched it into a football, and kicked it over the tellers' cages into the front window. Then she pressed her uncle down into his chair, grasped his face in her hands, and held him while she kissed him on the nose, the left eye, and the right cheek, choosing the spot in every instance with provoking deliberation as she held his wriggling head. He lost his cigar and his spectacles were knocked awry, but he did not appear to be distressed. Phil set his spectacles straight, struck a match for a fresh cigar, and seated herself on the table.
"I'm back, Amy. How did you know we'd be home to-day?"
"Dreamed it," said Amzi, apparently relieved that her assaults upon his peace and dignity were ended.
"I'd been watching for you half an hour before you came out on the steps. I'd about given you up."
"So? You were pretty late getting home last night. Your father ought to be ashamed of himself."
Amzi glared at Phil. His curiously large blue eyes could, at will, express ferocity, and the red and purple in his face deepened as he shut his jaws tight. She was not, however, in the least disturbed, not even when he pushed back his chair to escape her swinging legs, and pointed his finger at her threateningly.
"I wanted to see you," he gasped.
"So I inferred," Phil remarked, bending forward and compressing her lips as though making a careful calculation, then touching the point of his nose.
Amzi rubbed the outraged nose with the back of his hand, wheezed hoarsely (the effect of the rain upon his asthma), and cleared his throat.
"You'll come down from your high horse in a minute. I've got something to tell you that will sober you up a bit."
Phil raised her hands and with brown nimble fingers found and readjusted the pin that affixed a shabby felt hat to her hair. Then she folded her arms and looked at the tips of her shoes.
"The suspense is killing me. I who am about to die salute you!"
Amzi frowned at her levity. His frown caused a disturbance throughout his vast tracts of baldness.
"You'll change your tune in a minute, my young commodore. Have you seen your aunts?"
"No; but it's not their fault! Aunt Josie called; the others telephoned for dates. I saw Aunt Josie first, which explains why we didn't meet. I knew something was up."
"Something is up. They got me over to Josie's last night to ask me to help. It's a big programme. And I wanted to warn you in advance. You've got to stop all your capers; no more camps on Sugar Creek, no more tomboy foolishness; no more general nonsense. You've got to be a civilized woman, and conduct yourself according to the rules in such cases made and provided."
"Oh, is that it? And they got you to tell me, did they? How sweet of them!" observed Phil. "I might have guessed it from the look of Aunt Josie's back as she went out the gate."
"Her back? Thunder! How did you see her back?"
"From the roof, Amy, if you must know. If you had three aunts who had turned up every few minutes all your natural life to tell you what not to do, you'd run for the roof, too, every time you heard the gate click. And that last cook they put in the house was just a spy for them. But she didn't spy long! I've bounced her!"
Amzi blinked and coughed, and feigned even greater ferocity.
"That's it! That's the kind of thing you've got to stop doing! You're always bouncing the hired girls your aunts put in the house to take care of you and you've got to quit; you've got to learn how to manage a servant; you've got"—and he drew himself up to charge his words with all possible dignity—"you've got to be a lady."
"You insinuate, Amy, that I'm not one, just natural born?"
"I don't mean any such thing," he blurted. "You know mighty well what I mean—this skylarking, this galloping around town on your pony. You've got to behave yourself; you've got to pay attention to what your aunts tell you. You've got to listen to me!"
"Look me in the eye, you old fraud! I'll bet every one of 'em has called you up to tell you to see me and give me a lecturing. They're a jolly lot of cowards, that's all. And I came over here thinking you wanted to be nice and cheerful like you always used to be. All by your dear old lonesome you'd never think of talking to me like this; I've a good notion to muss you up!"
The thought of being mussed was clearly disturbing. He rose hastily and retreated to the barred window, with the table between them.
"Oh, you're guilty! I always know when they've been putting you up to something. Come along now and sit down like a good old uncle and tell me what new idea has struck those foolish females. Sit down right there in your little chair, Amy; I'll let you off from that mussing if you tell the truth."
"You see, Phil," he began earnestly, "you've grown up. You're not a kid any more to chase cats and dogs through the court-house square, and flip on the interurbans, but a grown woman, and you've got to begin acting like one. And you've got to begin right now. Just look at your shoes; look at that hat! What kind of clothes is that sailor boy's suit you're wearing? You've got to dress like a decent white girl that's had some bringing-up, and you've got to—you've got—" Amzi coughed as though afraid of the intended conclusion of his sentence. Phil's eyes were bent upon him with disconcerting gravity. He hoped that Phil would interrupt with one of her usual impertinences; but with the suspicion of laughter in her eyes she waited, so that he perforce blurted it out. "You've got to go into society; that's what's the matter!"
Phil moved her head slightly to one side, and her lips parted. A faraway look came into her eyes for an instant only. Amzi was watching her keenly. He was taken aback by her abrupt change of manner; her sudden sobriety baffled him. Something very sweet and wistful came into her face; something that he had not seen there before, and he was touched by it.
"I suppose I must change my ways, Uncle Amy. I do act like a wild zebra,—I know that. But I'm sorry. Of course it's silly for a girl who's nearly nineteen to be as skittish as I am. And they tell me I'm a bad example to my cousins and the whole town. It's tough to be a bad example. What's this they're going to do to me?"
"Oh, you've got to be brought out; you've got to have a party; they want me to have it in my house."
"All right," said Phil tamely. She seemed, indeed, to be thinking of something else. Her manner continued to puzzle him; he was even troubled by it. He relighted his cigar and watched the smoke of the extinguished match after he had tossed it into the little grate.
"Uncle Amy," said Phil, quite soberly, "I'm really serious now. I've been wondering a good deal about what's going to become of me."
"How's that, Phil?"
"Well, I'm not as silly as I act; and I've been wondering whether I oughtn't to try to do something?"
"What kind of something? Housekeeping—that sort of thing?"
"Yes; but more than that. I ought to go to work to earn money."
Amzi shrugged his shoulders.
"Thunder! you can't do that," he said with decision. "It wouldn't be proper for you to do that."
"I don't see why not. Other girls do."
"Girls do when they have to. You don't have to."
"I'm not so sure of that. We might as well be sensible if we're going to talk about it."
Amzi agreed to this with a nod and resettled himself in his chair.
"Daddy isn't making enough to take care of us, that's all. This afternoon I was over in his office cleaning up his desk,—you know he never does it himself, and even a harum-scarum like me can help it some,—and I saw a lot of things that scared me. Bills and things like that. And it would be hard to talk to daddy about it; I don't think I ever could. And you know he really could make a lot of money if he wanted to; I can tell that from the letters he gets. He doesn't answer his letters. Every month last year I used to straighten his desk, and some of last spring's bills are still there, and they haven't been paid. I know, of course, that that can't go on forever."
"You oughtn't to have to bother about that, Phil. It's none of your business."
"Yes," she replied, earnestly, "it is my business. And it's been troubling me for a long time. I can't talk to father about it; you can see how that would be; and he's such a dear—so fine and kind. I suppose there isn't anybody on earth as fine as daddy. And he breaks my heart, sometimes; goes about so quiet, as though he had gone into himself and shut the blinds, as they do in a house where somebody's dead. It seems just like that, Uncle Amy."
Amzi was uncomfortable. It was not to hear her speak of drawn blinds in houses of the dead that he had summoned Phil for this interview. His sisters had asked him to reason with her, as they had often appealed to him before in their well-meant but tactless efforts to correct her faults, but she had evinced an accession of reasonableness that made him uneasy. She had changed from the impulsive, exasperating young creature he knew into an anxious, depressed woman in a mackintosh, whom he did not know at all! He breathed hard for a few minutes, angry at his sisters for bringing this situation to pass. It was absurd to tame a girl of Phil's spirit. He had enjoyed, more than anything in his life, his confidential relations with Phil. It was more for the fun of the thing than because there was any cause for it that a certain amount of mystery was thrown about such interviews as this. There was no reason on earth why Phil shouldn't have entered by the front door in banking-hours, or visited him in her grandfather's house where he lived. But he liked the joke of it. He liked all their jokes, and entered zestfully into all manner of conspiracies with her, to the discomfiture of the aunts, to thwart their curbing of her liberties. He prided himself upon his complete self-control, and it was distinctly annoying to find that Phil's future, seen against a background plastered with her father's unpaid bills, caused a sudden hot anger to surge in his heart. Within the range of his ambitions and desires he did as he liked; and he had a hardened bachelor's fondness for having his way. He walked to the window and stared out at the street. It grew late and the rain was gathering volume as though preparing for a night of it.
A truck heavily loaded with boxes and crates of furniture moved slowly through Franklin Street toward the railway. Amzi was at once alert. He read much current history in the labels on passing freight, and often formed the basis for credits therefrom. Was it possible that one of the bank's customers was feloniously smuggling merchandise out of town to avoid writs of attachment? Such evils had been known. Phil jumped from the table and joined him at the window. She knew her Uncle Amzi's mental processes much better than he imagined; suspicion was writ large on his countenance.
"Humph!" she said. "That's only the stuff from the Samuel Holton house. Charlie and Ethel are moving to Indianapolis. That's some of the furniture they had in their town house here. I saw the crates in the yard this morning."
"I believe you're right, Phil; I believe you're right."
His eyes opened and shut several times quickly, as he assimilated this information. Then he recurred to Phil's affairs.
"Speaking of money, Phil, we'll have to do something about those unpaid bills. In a town like this everybody knows everybody's business—except yours and mine. We can't have your father's bills piling up; they've got to be paid. And this brings me to something I've meant to speak to you about for some time. In fact, I've just been waiting for a chance, but you're so confoundedly hard to catch. There's—a—some money—er—that is to say, Phil, as executor of your grandfather's estate, I hold some money, that—er—"
He coughed furiously, blew his nose, and made a fresh start.
"I'm going to open an account for you—your own money, understand!—and you can pay those bills yourself. We'll start with, say, five hundred dollars and you can depend on a hundred a month. It will be strictly—er—your money. Understand? You needn't say anything to your father about it. That's all of that."
He feigned sudden interest in the wet street, but Phil, whose eyes had not left him, tapped him lightly on the shoulder.
"Oh, no, you don't! You haven't a cent that belongs to me, and you know it, you splendid old fraud. And don't you try that game on me again or I'll stop speaking to you."
"Do you mean—" he began to bluster; "do you mean to say that I don't know my own business? Do you think I'm going to steal money from your grandfather's estate to give you? Why—"
"You weren't born to adorn the front row of successful liars, Amy. And even if you had a million or two lying round loose, you couldn't give me a cent of it; I wouldn't take it. It wouldn't be square to daddy; daddy's a gentleman, you know, and I couldn't do anything meaner than to take your money to pay his debts with. So there, you old dear, I've a good notion to muss you up, after all."
He again put the table between them, and stood puffing from the unwonted haste with which he had eluded her grasp. He had managed the matter badly, and as his hand, thrust into his coat pocket, touched a check he had written and placed there as a preliminary to this interview, a sheepish expression crossed his face.
"Well," he blurted, "I'd like to know what in thunder you're going to do! I tell you it's yours by right. I ought to have given it to you long ago."
"I'm skipping," said Phil, reaching down to button her raincoat. "We're going to Rose's for tea."
Amzi's emphasis implied that in tea lay the sole importance of Phil's announcement; and yet, subjected to even the most superficial analysis, Mr. Montgomery's sensations were not in the least attributable to the thought of tea. Tea in the sense intended by Phil was wholly commonplace,—a combination of cold meat, or perhaps of broiled chicken, with hot biscuits, and honey or jam, or maybe canned peaches with cream. Considered either as a beverage or as a meal, tea contained no thrill; and yet perhaps the thought of tea at Miss Rose Bartlett's aroused in Amzi Montgomery's breast certain emotions which were concealed by his explosive emphasis. Phil, turning up the collar of her mackintosh, reaffirmed the fact of tea.
"You never come to my house for just tea, but you go to Rose's. You're always going to Rose's for tea," boomed Amzi.
"Daddy likes to go," added Phil, moving toward the door.
"I suppose he does," remarked Amzi, a little absently.
"By-by, Amy. Thanks, just the same, anyhow."
Phil lingered, her hand on the knob.
"Come over yourself, after tea. There may be music. Daddy keeps his 'cello over there, you know."
It seemed that 'cello, like tea, was a word of deep significance. Amzi glared at Phil, who raised her head and laughed.
"Nonsense!" he ejaculated, though it was not clear just wherein the nonsense lay.
"Oh, your old flute is over there, too," said Phil, not without scorn.
Having launched this she laughed again and the door closed upon her with a bang. She hammered the glass with her knuckles to attract his attention, flung back her head as she laughed again, and vanished.
Amzi stared at the door's rain-splashed pane. The world was empty now that Phil had gone. He drew down the shabby green blind with a jerk and prepared to go home.
98 BUCKEYE LANE
The Bartlett sisters lived in Buckeye Lane, a thoroughfare that ran along the college campus. Most of the faculty dwelt there, and the Bartlett girls (every one said "the Bartlett girls" just as every one said "the Montgomery girls": it was established local usage) were daughters of a professor who had died long ago.
Rose was the housekeeper, and a very efficient one she was, too. In all business transactions, from the purchase of vegetables to the collection of the dividends on their small inheritance, Rose was the negotiator and active agent. She was, moreover, an excellent cook; her reputation in this department of domestic science was the highest. And as two women can hardly be expected to exist on something like four hundred dollars a year (the sum reluctantly yielded by their patrimony), Miss Rose commercialized her genius by baking cakes, cookies, jumbles, and pies, if demanded. In Montgomery, where only Mrs. William Holton had ever kept more than one servant (though Fanny Fosdick had attempted higher flights), Miss Rose was an ever-ready help in times of domestic adversity to distracted housekeepers who found the maintenance of even one servant attended with the gravest difficulties.
Miss Nan was an expert needlewoman, and, like her sister, augmented their income by the labor of her hands. Her contributions to the pot were, indeed, much larger than Rose's. The clients she served were chiefly women of fastidious taste in these matters who lived in surrounding cities. Her exhibitions of cross-stitching, hemstitching, and drawn-work were so admirable as to establish a broad field for her enterprises. Her designs were her own, and she served ladies who liked novel and exclusive patterns. These employments had proved in no wise detrimental to the social standing of the Bartlett girls. If Rose baked a cake for a wedding supper, this did not militate in the least against her eligibility as a guest of the occasion. And likewise Nan could unfold a napkin she had herself hemstitched for a consideration, without the slightest fear that any one would make invidious comments upon the fact.
In the matter of the respective ages of the sisters no stranger was ever informed of the exact fact, although every one knew. Judge Walters had established an unchangeable age for both of them. They were, the judge said, twenty-nine; though as they were not twins, and as he had persisted in this fallacy for almost a decade, it is difficult to see how they could both be permanently twenty-nine.
Not all the time of these ladies was spent in cooking and needlework. Miss Rose was a musician, who played the organ at Center Church and was usually the sympathetic accompanist at all concerts given by local talent. And, as though not to be outdone, Miss Nan quietly exercised the pen conjointly with the needle. Several editors in New York were quite familiar with the neat backhand of a lady they had never seen who sent them from an unheard-of town in Indiana the drollest paragraphs, the most amusing dialogues, and the merriest of jingles. Now and then Nancy Bartlett's name was affixed to an amusing skit in which various Montgomery people found their foibles published to the world, though with a proper discretion, and so amiably that no one could take offense. With the perversity of such communities, many declared that Miss Rose was more talented than Miss Nan, and that she could have written much better things than her sister if she had chosen. But what could have been more ridiculous than any attempt to arouse rivalry between sisters who dwelt together so contentedly, and who were the busiest and happiest women in town!
The Bartlett girls were the best friends the college boys had. If one of these ladies undertook, in the absence of a manservant, to drive the mower across their fifty feet of lawn, some youngster invariably appeared to relieve her of this task. Or if wood or coal were observed lying upon the walk in front of the Bartlett gate, it was always a question whether the Sigma Chis or the Phi Gamma Deltas would see the fuel first and hasten to conceal anything so monstrous, so revolting to the soul of young Greeks, in the Bartlett cellar. Amid all their vocations and avocations, the Bartletts moved tranquilly in an atmosphere of luxurious leisure. They were never flustered; their employments were a kind of lark, it seemed, never to be referred to except in the most jocular fashion. When Rose had entrusted to the oven a wedding-cake or a pan of jumbles she would repair to the piano for a ten-minute indulgence in Chopin. Similarly indifferent to fate, Nan at intervals in the day drew a tablet and fountain-pen from her sewing-table and recorded some whimsicality which she had seemingly found embedded in the mesh of a shopping-bag she was embellishing. And when, in due course, a funny-looking, canary-colored envelope carried this fragment to the desk of some bored phlegmatic editor, he would, as like as not, grin and scribble an order to the cashier for two dollars (or some such munificent sum) and pin it to the stamped "return" canary envelope, which would presently reach Number 98 Buckeye Lane, Montgomery, Indiana.
Phil Kirkwood hardly remembered a time when Number 98 had not been a safe port in the multitudinous squalls that beset her youth. The Bartletts were wholly human, as witness their pantry and garret—veritable magazines of surprises! Miss Rose was a marvel at cutting out silhouettes; Miss Nan would, with the slightest provocation, play bear or horse, crawling over the floor with Phil perched on her back blowing a horn. It was no wonder that Phil's vagrant steps turned instinctively toward Number 98. In the beginning her father used to seek her there; and having by this means learned the way, it was the most natural thing in the world for father and daughter to visit the Bartletts together. A man whose wife divorces him is entitled to some social consolations, and if tea and jam at the house of two maiden ladies of irreproachable character satisfies him, the community should be satisfied also. The gossips had never been able to decide which of the Bartlett girls was likelier to assume the role of Phil's stepmother. There were those who favored Rose. As Kirkwood played the 'cello, Rose to some observers seemed more plausible by reason of her musical talent. Others believed that it would be Nan, as Nan was "literary" and Kirkwood was a scholar, suspected of "writing," though just what he wrote no one was able to say. It had been said thousands of times that Amzi Montgomery must eventually marry one of the Bartletts, but here, too, opinion was divided as to which one would probably be so favored. Amzi had fluted in the Schumann Quartette, devoted to chamber music, but his asthma had broken up the club, and he now rarely essayed the instrument. Still, Amzi loved his joke, and Nan was a joker. So it was clear that either Kirkwood or Montgomery might with propriety marry either Rose or Nan. Whenever a drought seemed imminent in local gossip, these oases bubbled.
Phil's aunts were not unaware of the high favor in which their niece held the Bartletts; nor had they failed to speculate upon the chances of Kirkwood's remarrying. They resented the idea, chiefly because such action would cause a revival of the old scandal involving their sister, which they were pardonably anxious to have forgotten. Then, too, it was their solemn duty to keep their hands on Phil, who was a Montgomery and entitled to their consideration and oversight, and if Kirkwood should remarry, Phil would be relinquished to the care of a stepmother, a grievous thought at all times.
On this rainy October evening, tea was dispatched in the gayest humor in the little Bartlett dining-room. Rose and Phil disappeared in the kitchen to "do" the dishes while Nan and Kirkwood communed in the book-lined living-room.
"You've had a talking with Phil," said Kirkwood.
"Yes; she came in this morning, when Rose was out and I said several things to her that I ought to have said long ago. It wasn't easy to say them. But it's time for her to sober down a little, though I wish in my heart she could go on forever just as she is. It doesn't seem possible that she's a woman, with a future to think about."
"Phil's future—" murmured Kirkwood pensively.
"Your future and hers are bound up together; there's no escaping that."
"I'm afraid that's so! There are a thousand things I know should be done for her, but I don't grasp them. I seem unable to get hold of anything these days."
He looked at his hands, as though wondering at their impotence. They were bronzed and rough from the camp, but his sensitive nature was expressed in them. The gray showed in his beard and hair. Where the short beard did not hide his cheeks they were tanned. His blue serge suit had been freshly pressed; a polka-dot scarf was neatly tied under the points of a white-wing collar. He suggested an artist who had just returned from a painting trip in the open—a town man who wasn't afraid of the sun. If an artist one might have assumed that he was none too prosperous; his white cuffs were perceptibly frayed. Nan Bartlett scrutinized him closely, and there came into her eyes the look of one about to say something, long withheld and difficult to say.
She was a small, fair woman, with a becoming roundness of figure. Her yellow hair, parted evenly in the middle, curled prettily on her forehead. A blue shirt-waist with a turnover collar and a ready-made skirt spoke for a severe taste in dress. A gold-wire bracelet on her left wrist and a stickpin in her four-in-hand tie were her only ornaments. She had a fashion of raising her arm and shaking the bracelet back from her hand. When she did this, it was to the accompaniment of a slight turning of the head to one side and a dreamy look came into her large blue eyes. It was a pretty, graceful trick. She did not hesitate now that her mind was made up, but spoke quickly and crisply.
"You don't work hard enough; you are not making your time count. It isn't fair to Phil; it isn't fair to yourself."
"That's true; I know it," he replied, meeting her eyes quickly.
"And now's the time for you to change; Phil needs you. Phil's going to need a lot of things—money, for example. And you've reached a time of life when it's now or never."
The bracelet flashed back under her cuff. She looked at her wrist wonderingly as if surprised that the trinket had disappeared; then she glanced at Kirkwood, casually, as though she were in the habit of saying such things to him, which was not, however, the fact.
He straightened himself and his hands clenched as though to do battle at her behest.
"Mine's a wasted life; for years everything has seemed futile. I'm glad you spoke to me. I need to be brought up short."
Nan nodded. This was not a debatable question; undeniably he did need to be brought up with a sharp turn. It was in her mind that perhaps she had said enough; but she wished to make sure of it.
"Nobody can touch you at your best; it's your best that you've got to put into the struggle. It mustn't be said of you that you neglect business, and even refuse cases; and they do say that of you."
"I've grown careless and indifferent," he confessed; "but it's time for me to wake up. I can't see Phil heading for the poorhouse and that's where we're going."
"No doubt of it!" she assented. "Phil's aunts complain of you, and say that if you won't care for her you ought to turn her over to them. That's funny, on one side, and on the other it isn't. There's a good deal to support their attitude. Phil's needs are those of a girl ready to meet the world, and she will need money. And I've noticed that money is a shy commodity; it doesn't just come rolling uphill to anybody's doorstep."
Kirkwood knew perfectly well the elusiveness of money; it seemed less so now from Nan's way of stating the fact. When one needed a dollar one should go and find it; this was clearly Miss Nan's philosophy, and in her own affairs he knew that she had demonstrated its efficacy.
He lowered his voice as though about to touch upon a matter even more confidential than any that had engaged their attention. It was evidently something wholly pleasant that he wished to speak of; his eye brightened and his face flushed slightly. The look he bent upon her was of unmistakable liking.
"'The Gray Knight of Picardy' is booming. I saw a stack of him at Crosby's to-day: half a dozen people have asked me if I read it. It was put out so late in the spring that it's astonishing how it's carried through the summer. Some of the papers are just reviewing it—and the more deliberate journals are praising it. And when we were speaking of money matters a bit ago, I clean forgot that I have a check from the publisher that I'm going to hand you now."
He drew from his pocket a draft which she took eagerly and glanced at.
It was for two thousand dollars, payable to Nancy Bartlett. Nan slipped it quickly into the drawer of her sewing-table. As she drew her hand away, he caught and held it an instant. Nan did not look at him as she quietly freed herself. She ignored the act, though her cheek flushed scarlet. She minimized the incident by shaking down her bracelet.
"Half of that is yours," she said. "I will deposit it to-morrow and give you my check. You ought to have made the contract in your own name, but I never thought they would take it—much less that it would sell, or I should have insisted in the beginning."
"Well, I had faith in your three quarters of the work; mine is the poorest part of it."
"Your half made it possible,—the form and the planning. I never could have done a long-sustained thing like that; I'm a paragrapher, that's all."
"You're a humorist of a high order," he said warmly. "It's the huge joke of the thing that is making people like it. Let me see, the publisher is advertising a quotation from some paper that has called it the funniest book in ten years."
"That's a stock phrase of the critics," said Nan; "they merely change the title of the book from year to year. But it's been fun doing a book that way and putting it out anonymously. Judge Walters spoke to me of it yesterday; said he had stayed up all night to finish it."
"It's going to take more ingenuity than I possess to hide the authorship; that's why I want you to carry the burden. The publisher says the public demand to know who Merlin Shepperd is. And three magazines want a short story by the author of 'The Gray Knight of Picardy.' I'll send you the letters. That enterprising Phil has an uncomfortable habit of running through my desk and I'm likely to forget to lock up these things. She thought I was working on a brief all last winter when I was doing my part of the 'Gray Knight.' But I turn the partnership over to you now—with all the assets and liabilities and the firm name and style. You are Merlin Shepperd and I am Kirkwood, attorney and counselor at law, over Bernstein's. You see," he added, smiling, "your lecture led right up to that. No more literary ventures for me!"
"Well, I'd forgotten the 'Gray Knight' for the moment; but in spite of him I believe you had better stick to the law."
"There's this, Nan," he said earnestly, looking at her with an intentness that caused her to move uneasily; "it would seem quite natural for a partnership like this to be extended further. This world would be a pretty bleak place without you. You know and understand that. And there is Phil; Phil needs you just as I do. I mean to start afresh at the law; I mean to make myself count. And I need you."
He rose and looked down at her. It was as though by this act he presented himself as a rehabilitated Thomas Kirkwood; a man ready to grapple with the world afresh for her sake. He bent over and touched lightly her hands clasped quietly upon her knee.
"Dear Nan: I love you, Nan," he said softly, and stepped back, waiting for her to speak.
She raised her head and their eyes met.
"Tom," she said, "you are the dearest of men; but that is not for you and me. It will never be for you and me. And please, Tom, because you are the finest of men, never speak of this again. You will promise, won't you?"
"No," he said, shaking his head slowly; "I will not promise. You have reasons and I think I know what they are. I want to talk to you soon, for this has been in my heart a long time. I meant to speak to you last spring. But now the need is greater. I not only need you, but Phil needs you."
She smiled at the mention of Phil.
"That's a poor argument. Phil really doesn't need any one but you. I should be afraid of spoiling dear, splendid Phil."
It was upon this that Rose and Phil came in from the kitchen. Rose was taller than her sister, a slender, handsome woman, with an air of distinction which dishwashing in no wise abated. She was one of those American women who wear an apron like a vestment—who, the vestis domestica flung aside, adorn the parlor as charmingly as they grace the kitchen.
Phil began to whistle a tune, which Rose tried to identify for her by striking the chords.
"What are you two talking about?" asked Phil, turning from the piano.
"Discussing the origin of the pyramids," replied Nan, rising. "You and Rose must have settled something in all the time you took to the dishes. It was a noisy session, too. You must have been playing drop the teacup."
Phil clasped her hands dramatically, reciting:—
"A moment then, She poised upon the dishpan's utmost verge The heirloom teapot old, with flowers bedight. And with a cry—"
She paused, feigning forgetfulness. Her father rose quickly and caught up the imaginary fragment:—
"And with a cry As when some greedy wight, on porridge keen, Gulps it, and bawleth loud to find it hot,— Screams for the cook and tuggeth at his sword—"
"Familiar," observed Rose dreamily from the piano. "Is it 'Pelleas and Etarre' or 'The Passing of Arthur'?"
"Nope. 'The Bold Buccaneer,' by the Honest Iceman of Mazoopa," answered Phil.
"And here he is now," said Nan as the front door boomed and rattled.
There was no bell at the Bartletts': but from the door hung a bass-drumstick, with which visitors were expected to thump. This had been a part of the equipment of a local band that had retired from business. In the dispersion of its instruments the drum had reached a second-hand store. Nan, with a keen eye for such chances, had bought and dismantled the drum, and used the frame as a stockade for fresh chirpers from her incubator. The drumstick seemed to have been predestined of all time to serve as a knocker.
"It's Amy. I told him to come," said Phil.
Her father's face fell almost imperceptibly. The company was complete as it was and much as he liked Amzi he resented his appearance at this hour. Rose went to the door.
"It may be Judge Walters. He's been trying to get over for some time to talk about that new book on hypnotism," said Nan.
It proved, however, to be Amzi. They heard him telling Rose in the entry that he was just passing and thought he would drop in.
"That will do for that, Amy," called Phil. "You told me you were coming."
"I told you nothing of the kind!" blustered Amzi.
"Then, sir, you didn't; you did not!"
Amzi glared at them all fiercely. His cherubic countenance was so benevolent, the kind eyes behind his spectacles so completely annulled his ferocity, that his assumed fierceness was absurd.
He addressed them all by their first names, and drew out a cigar. Kirkwood was smoking his pipe. Phil held a match for her uncle and placed a copper ash-tray on the table at his elbow. Rose continued her search for a piece of music, and Nan curled herself on the corner of a davenport that occupied one side of the room under the open bookshelves.
"This looks like a full session; first we've had for some time," remarked Amzi. "Been playing, Rose?"
"No; Phil's trying to remember a tune. Whistle it, Phil."
Phil whistled it, her eyes twinkling.
"Sounds like a dead march done in ragtime," suggested Nan, whose ear was said to be faulty.
"All the great masters will be done over pretty soon by the raggists," declared Phil.
"Spoken like the Philistine you are not, Phil," said Kirkwood. "What you were trying to whistle is the 'Lucia Sextette' upside down. Rose, let's have the 'Mozart Minuet' we used to play. We haven't had it for moons."
She played it, Phil turning the music. Then Kirkwood was reminded of the existence of his 'cello. Amzi watched him tuning it, noted the operation restlessly, and then rose demanding:—
"Nan, where's my flute? Seems to me I left it here the last time we played."
This was a joke. It had been in the house at least six years. Phil whistled a few bars from a current light opera, and pretended to be absorbed in an old etching of Beethoven that hung over the piano. She glanced covertly at her uncle, who knew perfectly well that Phil was laughing at him. Nan, meanwhile, produced the flute. It was in this fashion that the trio was usually organized.
"Bad night for asthma, but let's tackle some of the good old ones," said Amzi.
This, too, was part of a familiar formula, and Rose found the music. Soon Amzi's cheeks were puffing with the exertion of fluting the "Minuet," while Kirkwood bent to the 'cello. Nan and Phil became an attentive audience on the davenport, as often before. When Amzi dropped out (as he always did), Phil piped in with her whistle, and that, too, was the usual procedure. She whistled a fair imitation of the flute; she had a "good ear"; Rose said her "ear" was too good, and that this explained her impatience of systematic musical instruction. Amzi abused the weather and incidentally the flute; they essayed the Bach-Gounod "Ave Maria" and the "Traeumerei," with like failure on Amzi's part. Then Rose played, number after number, Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, without pause. It was clear that the woman loved her music; that it meant a very great deal to her. Its significance was in the fine lines of her face, beautifully grave, but lighting wonderfully through passages that spoke to her with special meaning. Her profile was toward Kirkwood. He had, indeed, taken a seat that gave him a particular view that he fancied and his eyes wandered from her hands to her lovely, high-bred face. No one spoke between the numbers, or until Rose, sitting quiet a moment at the end, while the last chord died away, found her own particular seat by the white wooden mantel.
"I guess those chaps knew their business," observed Amzi. "And I guess you know yours, Rose. I don't know that you ever brought out that nocturne quite so well before. Eh, Tom?"
Kirkwood agreed with him. Rose had surpassed herself, in the opinion of the lawyer. Both men found pleasure in paying tribute to her talents. Amzi turned to Nan, who nodded acquiescence. The banker really loved music, and slipped away several times every winter to Chicago, to hear concerts or the opera. On occasions he had taken Kirkwood and Phil and they had made a great lark of it.
"What's this rumor about the Sycamore Traction being in trouble?" asked Nan.
Amzi rubbed his head. He had not come to the Bartletts' to discuss business, and the topic was not, moreover, one that interested him at the moment.
"There are a lot of papers on your desk about that, daddy," Phil remarked. "But I suppose those are office secrets."
There was, indeed, a telegram from a New York lawyer asking why Kirkwood had not replied to a certain letter. He glanced at her quickly, apparently disturbed that the matter had been mentioned. Her father's inattention to the letter of the New York lawyer had, independently of Nan Bartlett's reference to the traction company, caused Phil to make certain resolutions touching both her father and herself.