THE WORKS OF KATHLEEN NORRIS
POOR, DEAR MARGARET KIRBY AND OTHER STORIES
This book is Jim's,—this page shall bear Its witness to my love for him. Best of small brothers anywhere, Who would not do as much for Jim?
POOR, DEAR MARGARET KIRBY BRIDGING THE YEARS THE TIDE-MARSH WHAT HAPPENED TO ALANNA THE FRIENDSHIP OF ALANNA "S IS FOR SHIFTLESS SUSANNA" THE LAST CAROLAN MAKING ALLOWANCES FOR MAMMA THE MEASURE OF MARGARET COPPERED MISS MIX, KIDNAPPER SHANDON WATERS GAYLEY THE TROUBADOUR DR. BATES AND MISS SALLY THE GAY DECEIVER THE RAINBOW'S END ROSEMARY'S STEPMOTHER AUSTIN'S GIRL RISING WATER
POOR, DEAR MARGARET KIRBY
"You and I have been married nearly seven years," Margaret Kirby reflected bitterly, "and I suppose we are as near hating each other as two civilized people ever were!"
She did not say it aloud. The Kirbys had long ago given up any discussion of their attitude to each other. But as the thought came into her mind she eyed her husband—lounging moodily in her motor-car, as they swept home through the winter twilight—with hopeless, mutinous irritation.
What was the matter, she wondered, with John and Margaret Kirby—young, handsome, rich, and popular? What had been wrong with their marriage, that brilliantly heralded and widely advertised event? Whose fault was it that they two could not seem to understand each other, could not seem to live out their lives together in honorable and dignified companionship, as generations of their forebears had done?
"Perhaps everyone's marriage is more or less like ours," Margaret mused miserably. "Perhaps there's no such thing as a happy marriage."
Almost all the women that she knew admitted unhappiness of one sort or another, and discussed their domestic troubles freely. Margaret had never sunk to that; it would not even have been a relief to a nature as self-sufficient and as cold as hers. But for years she had felt that her marriage tie was an irksome and distasteful bond, and only that afternoon she had been stung by the bitter fact that the state of affairs between her husband and herself was no secret from their world. A certain audacious newspaper had boldly hinted that there would soon be a sensational separation in the Kirby household, whose beautiful mistress would undoubtedly follow her first unhappy marital experience with another—and, it was to be hoped, a more fortunate—marriage.
Margaret had laughed when the article was shown her, with the easy flippancy that is the stock in trade of her type of society woman; but the arrow had reached her very soul, nevertheless.
So it had come to that, had it? She and John had failed! They were to be dragged through the publicity, the humiliations, that precede the sundering of what God has joined together. They had drifted, as so many hundreds and thousands of men and women drift, from the warm, glorious companionship of the honeymoon, to quarrels, to truces, to discussion, to a recognition of their utter difference in point of view, and to this final independent, cool adjustment, that left their lives as utterly separated as if they had never met.
Yet she had done only what all the women she knew had done, Margaret reminded herself in self-justification. She had done it a little more brilliantly, perhaps; she had spent more money, worn handsomer jewels and gowns; she had succeeded in idling away her life in that utter leisure that was the ideal of them all, whether they were quite able to achieve it or not. Some women had to order their dinners, had occasionally to go about in hired vehicles, had to consider the cost of hats and gowns; but Margaret, the envied, had her own carriage and motor-car, her capable housekeeper, her yearly trip to Paris for uncounted frocks and hats.
All the women she knew were useless, boasting rather of what they did not have to do than of what they did, and Margaret was more successfully useless than the others. But wasn't that the lot of a woman who is rich, and marries a richer man? Wasn't it what married life should be?
"I don't know what makes me nervous to-night," Margaret said to herself finally, settling back comfortably in her furs. "Perhaps I only imagine John is going to make one of his favorite scenes when we get home. Probably he hasn't seen the article at all. I don't care, anyway! If it SHOULD come to a divorce, why, we know plenty of people who are happier that way. Thank Heaven, there isn't a child to complicate things!"
Five feet away from her, as the motor-car waited before crossing the park entrance, a tall man and a laughing girl were standing, waiting to cross the street.
"But aren't we too late for gallery seats?" Margaret heard the girl say, evidently deep in an important choice.
"Oh, no!" the man assured her eagerly.
"Then I choose the fifty-cent dinner and 'Hoffman' by all means," she decided joyously.
Margaret looked after them, a sudden pain at her heart. She did not know what the pain was. She thought she was pitying that young husband and wife; but her thoughts went back to them as she entered her own warm, luxurious rooms a few moments later.
"Fifty-cent dinner!" she murmured. "It must be awful!"
To her surprise, her husband followed her into her room, without knocking, and paid no attention to the very cold stare with which she greeted him.
"Sit down a minute, Margaret, will you?" he said, "and let your woman go. I want to speak to you."
Angry to feel herself a little at loss, Margaret nodded to the maid, and said in a carefully controlled tone:
"I am dining at the Kelseys', John. Perhaps some other time—"
Her husband, a thin, tall man, prematurely gray, was pacing the floor nervously, his hands plunged deep in his coat pockets. He cleared his throat several times before he spoke. His voice was sharp, and his words were delivered quickly:
"It's come to this, Margaret—I'm very sorry to have to tell you, but things have finally reached the point where it's—it's got to come out! Bannister and I have been nursing it along; we've done all that we could. I went down to Washington and saw Peterson, but it's no use! We turn it all over—the whole thing—to the creditors to-morrow!" His voice rose suddenly; it was shocking to see the control suddenly fail. "I tell you it's all up, Margaret! It's the end of me! I won't face it!"
He dropped into a chair, but suddenly sprang up again, and began to walk about the room.
"Now, you can do just what you think wise," he resumed presently, in the advisory, quiet tones he usually used to her. "You can always have the income of your Park Avenue house; your Aunt Paul will be glad enough to go abroad with you, and there are personal things—the house silver and the books—that you can claim. I've lain awake nights planning—" His voice shook again, but he gained his calm after a moment. "I want to ask you not to work yourself up over it," he added.
There was a silence. Margaret regarded him in stony fury. She was deadly white.
"Do you mean that Throckmorton, Kirby, & Son have—has failed?" she asked. "Do you mean that my money—the money that my father left me—is GONE? Does Mr. Bannister say so? Why—why has it never occurred to you to warn me?"
"I did warn you. I did try to tell you, in July—why, all the world knew how things were going!"
If, on the last word, there crept into his voice the plea that even a strong man makes to his women for sympathy, for solace, Margaret's eyes killed it. John, turning to go, gave her what consolation he could.
"Margaret, I can only say I'm sorry. I tried—Bannister knows how I tried to hold my own. But I was pretty young when your father died, and there was no one to help me learn. I'm glad it doesn't mean actual suffering for you. Some day, perhaps, we'll get some of it back. God knows I hope so. I've not meant much to you. Your marriage has cost you pretty dear. But I'm going to do the only thing I can for you."
Silence followed. Margaret presently roused herself.
"I suppose this can be kept from the papers? We needn't be discussed and pointed at in the streets?" she asked heavily, her face a mask of distaste.
"That's impossible," said John, briefly.
"To some people nothing is impossible," Margaret said.
Her husband turned again without a word, and left her. Afterward she remembered the sick misery in his eyes, the whiteness of his face.
What did she do then? She didn't know. Did she go at once to the dressing-table? Did she ring for Louise, or was she alone as she slowly got herself into a loose wrapper and unpinned her hair?
How long was it before she heard that horrible cry in the hall? What was it—that, or the voices and the flying footsteps, that brought her, shaken and gasping, to her feet?
She never knew. She only knew that she was in John's dressing-room, and that the servants were clustered, a sobbing, terrified group, in the doorway. John's head, heavy, with shut eyes, was on her shoulder; John's limp body was in her arms. They were telling her that this was the bottle he had emptied, and that he was dead.
It was a miracle that they had got her husband to the hospital alive, the doctors told Margaret, late that night. His life could be only a question of moments. It was extraordinary that he should live through the night, they told her the next morning; but it could not last more than a few hours now. It was impossible for John Kirby to live, they said; but John Kirby lived.
He lived, to struggle through agonies undreamed of, back to days of new pain. There were days and weeks and months when he lay, merely breathing, now lightly, now just a shade more deeply.
There came a day when great doctors gathered about him to exult that he undoubtedly, indisputably winced when the hypodermic needle hurt him. There was a great day, in late summer, when he muttered something. Then came relapses, discouragements, the bitter retracing of steps.
On Christmas Day he opened his eyes, and said to the grave, thin woman who sat with her hand in his:
He slipped off again too quickly to know that she had broken into tears and fallen on her knees beside him.
After a while he sat up, and was read to, and finally wept because the nurses told him that some day he would want to get up and walk about again. His wife came every day, and he clung to her like a child. Sometimes, watching her, a troubled thought would darken his eyes; but on a day when they first spoke of the terrible past, she smiled at him the motherly smile that he was beginning so to love, and told him that all business affairs could wait. And he believed her.
One glorious spring afternoon, when the park looked deliriously fresh and green from the hospital windows, John received permission to extend his little daily walk beyond the narrow garden. With an invalid's impatience, he bemoaned the fact that his wife would not be there that day to accompany him on his first trip into the world.
His nurse laughed at him.
"Don't you think you're well enough to go and make a little call on Mrs. Kirby?" she suggested brightly. "She's only two blocks away, you know. She's right here on Madison Avenue. Keep in the sunlight and walk slowly, and be sure to come back before it's cold, or I'll send the police after you."
Thus warned, John started off, delighted at the independence that he was gaining day after day. He walked the two short blocks with the care that only convalescents know; a little confused by the gay, jarring street noises, the wide light and air about him.
He found the address, but somehow the big, gloomy double house didn't look like Margaret. There was a Mrs. Kirby there, the maid assured him, however, and John sat down in a hopelessly ugly drawing-room to wait for her. Instead, there came in a cheerful little woman who introduced herself as Mrs. Kippam. She was of the chattering, confidential type so often found in her position.
"Now, you wanted Mrs. Kirby, didn't you?" she said regretfully. "She's out. I'm the housekeeper here, and I thought if it was just a question of rooms, maybe I'd do as well?"
"There's some mistake," said John; and he was still weak enough to feel himself choke at the disappointment. "I want Mrs. John Kirby—a very beautiful Mrs. Kirby, who is quite prominent in—"
"Oh, yes, indeed!" said Mrs. Kippam, lowering her voice and growing confidential. "That's the same one. Her husband failed, and all but killed himself, you know—you've read about it in the papers? She sold everything she had, you know, to help out the firm, and then she came here—"
"Bought out an interest in this?" said John, very quietly, in his winning voice.
"Well, she just came here as a regular guest at first," said Mrs. Kippam, with a cautious glance at the door. "I was running it then; but I'd got into awful debt, and my little boy was sick, and I got to telling her my worries. Well, she was looking for something to do—a companion or private secretary position—but she didn't find it, and she had so many good ideas about this house, and helped me out so, just talking things over, that finally I asked her if she wouldn't be my partner. And she was glad to; she was just about worried to death by that time."
"I thought Mrs. Kirby had property—investments in her own name?" John said.
"Oh, she did, but she put everything right back into the firm," said Mrs. Kippam. "Lots of her old friends went back on her for doing it," the little woman went on, in a burst of loyal anger. "However," she added, very much enjoying her listener's close attention, "I declare my luck seemed to change the day she took hold! First thing was that her friends, and a lot that weren't her friends, came here out of curiosity, and that advertised the place. Then she slaves day and night, goes right into the kitchen herself and watches things; and she has such a way with the help—she knows how to manage them. And the result is that we've got the house packed for next winter, and we'll have as many as thirty people here all summer long. I feel like another person," the tears suddenly brimmed her weak, kind eyes, and she fumbled with her handkerchief. "You'll think I'm crazy running on this way!" said little Mrs. Kippam, "but everything has gone so good. My Lesty is much better, and as things are now I can get him into the country next year; and I feel like I owed it all to Margaret Kirby!"
John tried to speak, but the room was wheeling about him. As he raised his trembling hand to his eyes, a shadow fell across the doorway, and Margaret came in. Tired, shabby, laden with bundles, she stood blinking at him a moment; and then, with a sudden cry of tenderness and pity, she was on her knees by his side.
"Margaret! Margaret!" he whispered. "What have you done?"
She did not answer, but gathered him close in her strong arms, and they kissed each other with wet eyes.
A few weeks later John came to the boarding-house, nervous, discouraged, still weak. Despite Margaret's bravery, they both felt the position a strained and uncomfortable one. As day after day proved his utter unfitness for a fresh business start in the cruel, jarring competition of the big city, John's spirits nagged pitifully. He hated the boarding-house.
"It's only the bridge that takes us over the river," his wife reminded him.
But when a little factory in a little town, half a day's journey away, offered John a manager's position, at a salary that made them both smile, she let him accept it without a murmur.
Her courage lasted until he was on the train, travelling toward the new town and the new position. But as she walked back to her own business, a sort of nausea seized her. The big, heroic fight was over; John's life was saved, and the debt reduced to a reasonable burden. But the deadly monotony was ahead, the drudgery of days and days of hateful labor, the struggle—for what? When could they ever take their place again in the world that they knew? Who could ever work up again from debts like these? Would John always be the weak, helpless convalescent, or would he go back to the old type, the bored, silent man of clubs and business?
Margaret turned a grimy corner, and was joined by one of her boarders, a cheerful little army wife.
"Well, we'll miss Mr. Kirby, I'm sure," said little Mrs. Camp, as they mounted the steps. "And by the way, Mrs. Kirby, you won't mind if I ask if we mayn't just now and then have some of the new towels on our floor—will you? We never get anything but the old, thin towels. Of course, it's Alma's fault; but I think every one ought to take a turn at the new towels as well as the old, don't you?"
"I'll speak to Alma," said Margaret, turning her key.
A lonely, busy autumn fellowed, and a winter of hard and thankless work.
"I feel like a plumber's wife," smiled Margaret to Mrs. Kippam, when in November John wrote her of a "raise."
But when he came down for two days at Christmastime, she noticed that he was brown, cheerful, and amazingly strong. They were as shy as lovers on this little holiday, Margaret finding that her old maternal, half-patronizing attitude toward her husband did not fit the case at all, and John almost as much at a loss.
In April she went up to Applebridge, and they spent a whole day roaming about in the fresh spring fields together.
"It's really a delicious little place," she confided to Mrs. Kippam when she returned. "The sort of place where kiddies carry their lunches to school, and their mothers put up preserves, and everybody has a surrey and an old horse. John's quite a big man up there."
After the April visit came a long break, for John went to Chicago in the July fortnight they had planned to spend together; and when he at last came to New York for another Christmas, Margaret was in bed with a bad throat, and could only whisper her questions. So another winter struggled by, and another spring, and when summer came Margaret found that it was almost impossible to break away from her increasing responsibilities.
But on a fragrant, soft October day she found herself getting off the early train in the little station; and as a big man waved his hat to her, and they turned to walk down the road together, they smiled into each other's eyes like two children.
"Were you surprised at the letter?" said John.
"Not so much surprised as glad," said Margaret, coloring like a girl.
They presently turned off the main road, and entered a certain gate. Beyond the gate was an old, overgrown garden, and beyond that a house—a broad, shabby house; and beyond that again an orchard, and barns and outhouses.
John took a key from his pocket, and they opened the front door. Roses, looking in the back door, across a bare, wide stretch of hall, smiled at them. The sunlight fell everywhere in clear squares on the bare floors. It brightened the big kitchen, and glinted in the pantry, still faintly redolent of apples stored on shelves. It crept into the attic, and touched the scored casement where years ago a dozen children had recorded their heights and ages.
Margaret and John came out on the porch again, and she turned to him with brimming eyes. It suddenly swept over her, with a thankfulness too deep for realization, that this would be her world. She would sit on this wide porch, waiting for him in the summer afternoons; she would go about from room to room on the happy, commonplace journeys of house-keeping; would keep the fire blazing against John's return. And in the years to come perhaps there would be other voices about the old house; there would be little shining heads to keep the sunlight always there.
"Well, Margaret, do you like it?" said John, his arm about her, his face radiant with pride and happiness.
"Like it!" said Margaret. "Why, it's home!"
So the Kirbys disappeared from the world. Sometimes a newcomer at Margaret's club would ask about the great portrait that hung over the library fireplace—the portrait of a cold-eyed woman with beautiful pearls about her beautiful throat. Then the history of poor, dear Margaret Kirby would be reviewed—its triumphs, its glories, Margaret's brilliant marriage, her beauty, her wit. These only led to the final tragic scenes that had ended it all.
"And now she is grubbing away dear knows where!" her biographer would say carelessly. "Absolutely, they might as well be buried!"
But about seven years after the Kirbys' disappearance, it happened that four of Margaret's old intimates—the T. Illington Frarys and the Josiah Dunnings—were taking a little motor trip in the Dunnings' big car, through the northern part of the State. Just outside the little village of Applebridge, something mysterious and annoying happened to the car, which stopped short, and after some discussion it was decided that the ladies should wait therein, while the men walked back in search of help.
Mrs. Dunning and Mrs. Frary, settling themselves comfortably in the tonneau for a long wait, puzzled themselves a little over the name of Applebridge.
"I can just remember hearing of it," said Mrs. Dunning, sleepily, "but when or where or how I don't know."
They opened their books. A brilliant May afternoon throbbed, hummed, sparkled all about them. The big wheels of the motor were deep in grass and blossoms. On either side of the road, fields were gay with bees and butterflies. Larks looped the blackberry-vines with quick flights; mustard-tops showed their pale gold under the apple-blossoms.
Here and there a white cloud drifted in the deep, clear blue of the sky. There had been rains a day or two before, and in the fragrant air still hung a little chill, a haunting suggestion of wet earth and refreshed blossoms. Somewhere near, but out of sight, a flooded creek was tumbling noisily over its shallows.
Suddenly the Sunday stillness was broken by voices. The two women in the motor looked at each other, listening. They heard a woman's voice, singing; then a small boyish voice, then a man's voice. The speakers, whoever they were, apparently settled down in the meadow, not more than a dozen yards away, for a breathing space. A tangle of vines and bushes screened them from the motor-car.
"Mother, are me and Billy going to turn the freezer?" said a child's voice, and a man asked:
"Tired, old lady?"
"No, not at all. It's been a delicious walk," said the woman. The two sitting in the motor gasped. "Yes, yes, yes, lovey," the woman's voice went on, "you and Bill may turn, if Mary doesn't mind. Be careful of my fern, Jack!" And then, in German: "Aren't they lovely in all the grass and flowers, John?"
"Margaret!" breathed Mrs. Frary. "Poor, dear Margaret Kirby!"
"I hope they don't go by this way," whispered Mrs. Dunning, after an astounded second. "One's been so rude—don't you know—forgetting her!"
"She probably won't know us," Mrs. Frary whispered back, adjusting her veil in a stealthy way.
Mrs. Frary was right. The Kirbys presently passed with only a cursory glance at the swathed occupants of the motor-car. They were laughing like a lot of children as they scrambled through the hedge. John—a big, broad John, as strong and brisk as a boy—carried a tiny barefoot girl on his shoulder. Margaret, her beauty more startling than ever under the sweep of a gypsy hat; her splendid figure a little broader, but still magnificent under the cotton gown; her arms full of flowers and ferns, was escorted by two more children, sturdy little boys, who doubled and redoubled on their tracks like puppies. The tiny barefoot girl, in her father's arms, was only a tangle of blue gingham and drifting strands of silky hair; but the boys were splendidly alert little lads, and their high voices loitered in the air after the radiant, chattering little caravan had quite disappeared.
"Well!" said Mrs. Dunning, then.
"Poor, dear Margaret Kirby!" was on Mrs. Frary's lips; but she didn't say it.
She and Mrs. Dunning stared at each other a long minute, utterly at a loss. Then they reopened their books.
BRIDGING THE YEARS
The rain had stopped; and after long days of downpour, there seemed at last to be a definite change. Anne Warriner, standing at one of the dining-room windows, with the tiny Virginia in her arms, could find a decided brightening in the western sky. Roofs—the roofs that made a steep sky-line above the hills of old San Francisco—glinted in the light. The glimpse of the bay that had not yet been lost between the walls of fast-encroaching new buildings, was no longer dull, and beaten level by the rain, but showed cold, and ruffled, and steely-blue; there was even a whitecap or two dancing on the crests out toward Alcatraz. A rising wind made the ivy twinkle cheerfully against the old-fashioned brick wall that bounded the Warriners' backyard.
"I believe the storm is really over!" Anne said, thankfully, half aloud, "to-morrow will be fair!"
"Out to-morrow?" said Diego, hopefully. He was wedged in between his mother and the window-sill, and studying earth and sky as absorbedly as she.
"Out to-morrow, sweetheart," his mother promised. And she wondered if it was too late to take the babies out to-day.
But it was nearly four o'clock now; even the briefest airing was out of the question. By the time the baby was dressed, coated, and hooded, and little Diego buttoned into gaiters and reefer, and Anne herself had changed her house gown for street wear, and pinned on her hat and veil, and Helma, summoned from her ironing, had bumped Virginia's coach down the back porch steps, and around the wet garden path to the front door,—by the time all this was accomplished, the short winter daylight would be almost gone, she knew, and the crowded hour that began with the children's baths, and that ended their little day with bread-and-milky kisses to Daddy when he came in, and prayers, and cribs, would have arrived.
Anne sighed. She would have been glad to get out into the cool winter afternoon, herself, after a long, quiet day in the warm house. It was just the day and hour for a brisk walk, with one's hands plunged deep in the pockets of a heavy coat, and one's hat tied snugly against the wind. Twenty minutes of such walking, she thought longingly, would have shaken her out of the little indefinable mood of depression that had been hanging over her all day. She could have climbed the steep street on which the cottage faced, and caught the freshening ocean breeze full in her face at the corner; she could have looked down on the busy little thoroughfares of the Chinese quarter just below, and the swarming streets of the Italian colony beyond, and beyond that again to the bay, dotted now with the brown sails of returning fishing smacks, and crossed and recrossed by the white wakes of ferry-boats. For the Warriners' cottage clung to the hill just above the busy, picturesque foreign colonies, and the cheerful unceasing traffic of the piers. It was in a hopelessly unfashionable part of the city now; its old, dignified neighbors—French and Spanish houses of plaster and brick, with deep gardens where willow and pepper trees, and fuchsias, and great clumps of calla lilies had once flourished—were all gone, replaced by modern apartment houses. But it had been one of the city's show places fifty years before, when its separate parts had been brought whole "around the Horn" from some much older city, and when homesick pioneer wives and mothers had climbed the board-walk that led to its gate, just to see, and perhaps to cry over, the painted china door-knobs, the colored glass fan-light in the hall, the iron-railed balconies, and slender, carved balustrade that took their hungry hearts back to the decorous, dear old world they had left so far behind them.
Jimmy and Anne Warriner had stumbled upon the Jackson Street cottage five years ago, just before their marriage, and after an ecstatic, swift inspection of it, had raced like children to the agent, to crowd into his willing hand a deposit on the first month's rent. Anne had never kept house before, she had no eyes for obsolete plumbing, uneven floors, for the dark cellar sacred to cats and rubbish. She and Jim chattered rapturously of French windows, of brick garden walks, of how plain little net curtains and Anne's big brass bowl full of nasturtiums would look on the landing of the absurd little stairway that led from the square hall to two useless little chambers above.
"Jimski—this floor oiled, and the rug laid cross-wise! And old tapestry papers from Fredericks! And the spindle-chair and Fanny's clock in the hall!"
"And the davenport in the dining-room, Anne,—there's no room in here, and your tea-table at the fireplace, with your copper blazer on it!"
"Oh, Jim, we'll have a place people will talk about!" Anne would sigh happily, after one of these outbursts. And when they made their last inspection before really coming to take possession of the cottage, she came very close to him,—Anne was several inches shorter than her big husband-to-be, and when she got as close as this to Jim she had to tip her serious little face up quite far, which Jim found attractive,—and said, in a little, breathless voice:
"It's going to be like a home from the very start, isn't it, Jim? And aren't you glad, Jim, that we aren't doing EXACTLY what every one else does, that you and I, who ARE a little different, Jim, are going to KEEP a little different? I mean that you really did do unusual work at college, and you really are of a fine family, and I am a Pendeering, and have travelled a lot, and been through Vassar,—don't you know, Jim? You don't think it's conceited for us to think we aren't quite the usual type, just between ourselves? Do you?"
Jim implied wordlessly that he did not. And whatever Jim thought himself, he was quite sincere in saying that he believed Anne to be peerless among her kind.
So they came to Jackson Street, and Anne made it quite as quaint and charming as her dreams. For a year they could not find a flaw in it.
Then little enchanting James Junior came, nick-named Diego for convenience, who fitted so perfectly into the picture, with his checked gingham, and his mop of yellow hair. Anne gallantly went on with her little informal luncheons and dinners, but she had to apologize for an untrained maid now, and interrupt these festivities with flying visits to the crib in the big bedroom that opened out of the dining-room. And then, very soon after Diego, Virginia was born—surely the most radiant, laughing baby that ever brought her joyous little presence into any home anywhere. But with Virginia's coming, life grew very practical for Anne, very different from what it had been in her vague hopes and plans of years ago.
The cottage was no longer quite comfortable, to begin with. The garden, shadowed heavily by buildings on both sides, was undeniably damp, and the fascinating railing of the little balconies was undeniably mouldy. The bath-room, despite its delightful size, and the ivy that rapped outside its window, was not a modern bath-room. The backyard, once sacred to geraniums and grass, and odd pots of shrubs, was sunny for the children's playing, to be sure, but no longer picturesque after their sturdy little boots had trampled it down, and with lines of their little clothes intersecting it. Anne began to think seriously of the big apartments all about, hitherto regarded as enemies, but perhaps the solution, after all. The modern flats were delightfully airy, high up in the sun, their floors were hard-wood, their bath-rooms tiled, their kitchens all tempting enamel, and nickel plate, and shining new wood. One had gas to cook with, furnace heat, hall service, and the joy of the lift.
"What if we do have to endure a dining-room with red paper and black woodwork, Jim," she would say, "and have near-Tiffany shades and a hall two feet square? It would be so COMFORTABLE!"
But if Jim agreed,—"we'll have a look at some of them on Sunday," Anne would hesitate.
"They're so horribly commonplace; they're just what every one else has!" she would mourn.
Commonplace,—Anne said the word over to herself sometimes, in the long hours that she spent alone with the children. That was what her life had become. The inescapable daily routine left her no time for unnecessary prettiness. She met each day bravely, only to find herself beaten and exhausted every night. It was puzzling, it was sometimes a little depressing. Anne reflected that she had always been busy, she was indeed a little dynamo of energy, her college years and the years of travel had been crowded with interests and enterprises. But she had never been tired before; she had never felt, as she felt now, that she could fall asleep at the dinner table for sheer weariness, and that no trial was more difficult to bear than Jim's cheerful announcement that the Deanes might be in later for a call, or the Weavers wanted them to come over for a game of bridge.
And what did she accomplish, after all? she thought sometimes. What mark did her busy days leave upon her life? She dressed and undressed the children, she bathed, rocked, amused them; indeed, she was so adoring a mother that sometimes whole precious fractions of hours slipped by while she was watching them, laughing at them, catching the little unresponsive soft cheeks to hers for the kisses that interfered so seriously with their important little goings and comings. She sewed on buttons and made puddings for Jim, she went for aimless walks, pushing Jinny before her in the go-cart, and guiding the chattering Diego with her free hand. She paused long in the market, uncomfortably undecided between the expensive steak Jim liked so much, and the sausages that meant financial balm to her own harassed soul. She commenced letters to her mother that drifted about half-written until Jinny captured and destroyed them. She sewed up rents in cloth lions and elephants, and turned page after page of the children's cloth books. Same and eventless, the months went by,—it was March, and the last of the rains,—it was July, and she and Jim were taking the children off for long Sundays in Sausalito, or on the Piedmont hills,—it was October, with the usual letter from Mother about Thanksgiving,—it was Christmas-time again! The seasons raced through their familiar surprises, and were gone. Anne had a desperate sense of wanting to halt them; just to think, just to realize what life meant, and what she could do to make it nearer her dreams.
So the first five years of their marriage slipped by, but toward the end with a perceptible brightening of the prospect in every direction. Not in one day, nor in one week, did the change come; it was just that things went well for Jim at the office, that the children were daily growing less helpless and more enchanting, that Anne was beginning to take an interest in the theatre again, and was charming in a new suit and a really extravagant hat. The Warriners began to spend their Sunday afternoons with real estate agents in Berkeley—not this year, perhaps, but certainly next, they told each other, they could CONSIDER that lovely one, with the two baths, and such a view, or the smaller one, nearer the station, don't you remember, Jim? where there was a sleeping-porch, and the garden all laid out? They would bring the children up in the open air and sunshine, and find neighbors, and strike roots, in the lovely college town.
Then suddenly, there were hard times again. Anne's health became poor, she was fitful and depressed, quite unlike her usual sunshiny self. Sometimes Jim found her in tears,—"It's nothing, dearest! Only I'm so MISERABLE all the time!" Sometimes she—Anne, the hopeful!—was filled with forebodings for herself and the child that was to come. No unnecessary expense could be incurred now, with this fresh, inevitable expense approaching. Especial concessions must be made to Helma, should Helma really stay; the whole little household was like a ship that shortens sail, and makes all snug against a storm. As a further complication, business matters began to go badly for Jim. Salaries were cut, new rules made, and an unpopular manager installed at the office. Anne struggled bravely to hide her mental and physical discomfort from Jim. Jim, cut to the heart to have to add anything to her care just now, touched her with a thousand little tendernesses; a joke over the burned pudding, a little name she had not heard since honeymoon days, a hundred barefoot expeditions about the bedroom in the dark, when Jinny awoke crying in the night, or Diego could not sleep because he was so "firsty." Tender and intimate days these, but the strain of them told on both husband and wife.
Things were at this point on the particular dark afternoon that found Anne with the two children at the window. All three were still staring out into the early dusk when Helma came in from the kitchen with an armful of damp little garments:
"Ef aye sprad dese hare, dey be dray en no tayme?" suggested Helma.
"Oh, yes! Spread them here by all means; then you can get a good start with your ironing to-morrow!" Anne agreed, rousing herself from her revery. "Put them all around the fire. And I MUST straighten this room!" she said, half to herself; "it's getting on to five!"
Followed by the stumbling children, she went briskly about the room, reducing it to order with a practised hand. Toys were piled in a large basket, scraps tossed into the fire, sewing materials gathered together and put out of sight, the rugs laid smoothly, the window-shades drawn. Anne "brushed up" the floor, pushed chairs against the wall, put a shovelful of coals on the fire, and finally took her rocker at the hearth, and sat with Virginia in her arms, and Diego beside her, while two silver bowls of bread and milk were finished to the last drop.
"There!" said she, pleasantly warmed by these exertions, "now for nighties! And Daddy can come as soon as he likes."
But Virginia was fretful and sleepy now, and did not want to be put down. So Diego manfully departed kitchenward with the empty bowls, and Anne, baby, rocker, and all, hitched her way across the room to the old chest of drawers by the hall door, and managed to secure the small sleeping garments with the little daughter still in her arms. She had hitched her way back to the fireplace again, and was very busy with buttons and strings, when Helma, appearing in the doorway, announced a visitor.
"Who?" said Anne, puzzled. "Did the bell ring? I didn't hear it. What is it?"
"Jantl'man," said Helma.
"A gentleman?" Anne, very much at a loss, got up, and carrying Jinny, and followed by the barefoot Diego, went to the door. She had a reassuring and instant impression that it was a very fine—even a magnificent—old man, who was standing in the twilight of the little hall. Anne had never seen him before, but there was no question in her heart as to his reception, even at this first glance.
"How do you do?" she said, a little fluttered, but cordial, too. "Will you come in here by the fire? The sitting-room is so cold."
"Thank you," said her caller, easily, with a little inclination of his head that seemed to acknowledge her hospitality. He put his hat, a shining, silk hat, upon the hall table, and followed her into the dining-room. Anne found, when she turned to give him the big chair, that he had pulled off his big gloves, too, and that Diego had put a confident, small hand into his.
He sat down comfortably, a big, square-built man, with rosy color, hair that was already silvered, and a fast-silvering mustache, and keen, kind eyes as blue as Virginia's. In the expression of these eyes, and in the lines about his fine mouth, was that suggestion of simple friendliness and sympathy that no man, woman, or child can long resist. Anne found herself already deciding that she LIKED this man. She went on with Jinny's small toilet, even while she wondered about her caller, and while she decided that Jim should have an overcoat of exactly this big, generous cut, and of exactly this delightful, warm-looking rough cloth, some day.
"Perhaps this is a bad hour to disturb these little people?" said the caller, smiling, but with something in his manner and in his rather deliberate and well-chosen speech, of the dignity and courtesy of an older generation.
"Oh, no, indeed!" Anne assured him. "I'm going right on with them, you see!"
Jinny, deliciously drowsy, gave the stranger a slow yet approving smile, from the safety of Anne's arms. Diego went to lay a small hand upon the gentleman's knee.
"This is my shoe," said Diego, frankly exhibiting a worn specimen, "and Baby has shoes, too, blue ones. And Baby cried in the night when the mirror fell down, didn't she, mother? And she broke her bowl, and bited on the pieces, and blood came down on her bib—"
"All our tragedies!" laughed Anne.
"Didn't that hurt her mouth?" said the caller, interestedly, lifting Diego into the curve of his arm.
Diego rested his golden mop comfortably against the big shoulder.
"It hurt her teef," he said dreamily, and subsided.
As if it were quite natural that the child should be there, the gentleman eyed Anne over the little head.
"I've not told you my name, madam," said he. "I am Charles Rideout. Not that that conveys anything to you, I suppose—?"
"But it does, as it happens!" Anne said, surprised and pleased. "Jim—my husband, is with the Rogers-Wiley Company, and I think they do a good deal of cement work for Rideout & Company."
"Surely," assented the man, "and your husband's name is—?"
"Warriner,—James Warriner," Anne supplied.
"Ah—? I don't place him," Mr. Rideout said thoughtfully. "There are so many. Well, Mrs. Warriner," he turned his smiling, bright eyes to her again, from the fire, "I am intruding on you this afternoon for a reason that I hope you will find easy to forgive in an old man. I must tell you first that my wife and I used to live in this house, a good many years ago. We moved away from it—let me see—we left this house something like twenty-six or—eight years ago. But we've talked a hundred times of coming back here some day, and having a little look about 'little Ten-Twelve,' as we always used to call it. I see your number's changed. But"—his gesture was almost apologetic—"we are busy people. Mrs. Rideout likes to live in the country a great part of the time; this neighborhood is inaccessible now—time goes by, and, in short, we haven't ever come back. But this was home to us for a good many years." He was speaking in a lower voice now, his eyes on the fire. "Yes, ma'am. Yes, ma'am," he said gently, "I brought Rose here a bride—thirty-three years ago."
"Well, but fancy!" said Anne, her face radiant, "just as we did! No wonder we said the house looked as if people had been happy in it!"
"There was a Frenchwoman here then," said Mr. Rideout, thoughtfully, "a queer woman! She played fast and loose until I didn't know whether we'd ever really get the place or not. This neighborhood was full of just such houses then, although I remember Rose used to make great capital out of the fact that ours was the only brick one among them. This house came around the Horn from Philadelphia, as a matter of fact, and"—his eyes, twinkling with indulgent amusement, met Anne's,—"and you know that before a lady has got a baby to boast of, she's going to do a little boasting about her new house!"
Anne laughed. "Perhaps she boasted about her husband, too," she said, "as I do, when Jimmy isn't anywhere around."
She liked the tender look, that had in it just a touch of pleased embarrassment with which he shook his head.
"Well, well, perhaps she did. Perhaps she did. She was very merry; pleased with everything; to this day my wife always sees the cheerful side of things first. A great gift, that. She danced about this house as if it were another toy, and she a little girl. We thought it a very, very lovely little home." His eyes travelled about the low walls. "I got to thinking of it to-day, wondered if it were still standing. I stood at your gate a little while,—the path is the same, and the steps, and some of the old trees,—a japonica, I remember, and the lemon verbenas. Finally, I found myself ringing your bell."
"I'm so glad you did!" Anne said. "There are lots of old trees and shrubs in the backyard, too, that you and your wife might remember. We think it is the dearest little house in the world, except that now we are rather anxious to get the children out of the city."
"Yes, yes," he agreed with interest, "much better for them somewhere across the bay. I remember that finally we moved into the country—Alameda. The boy was a baby, then, and the two little girls very small. It was quite a move! Quite a move! We got one load started, and then had to wait and wait here—it was raining, too!—for the men to come for the other load. My wife's sister had gone ahead with the girls, but I remember Rose and I and the baby waiting and waiting,—with the baby's little coat and cap on top of a box, ready to be put on. Finally, I got Rose a carriage, to go to the ferry,—quite a luxury in those days!" he interrupted himself, with a smile.
"And did the children love it,—the country?" said Anne, wistfully.
"Made them over!" said he, nodding reflectively. "Yes. I remember that the day after we moved was a Sunday, and we had quite a patch of lawn over there that I thought needed cutting. I shall never forget those little girls tumbling about in the cut grass, and Rose watching from the steps, with the baby in her lap. It made us all over." His voice fell again, and he stared smilingly into the fire.
"The children were born here, then?" said Anne.
"The little girls, yes. And the oldest boy. Afterward there was another boy, and a little girl—" he paused. "A little girl whom we lost," he finished gravely.
"Both these babies were born here," Anne said, after a moment. Her caller looked from one child to the other with an expression of interest and understanding that no childless man can ever wear.
"Our Rose was born here, our first girl," he said. "Sometimes a foggy morning even now will bring that morning back to me. My wife was very ill, and I remember creeping out of her room, when she had gone to sleep, and hearing the fog-horns outside,—it was early morning. We had an old woman taking care of her,—no trained nurses in those days!—and she was sitting here by this fireplace, with the tiny girl in her lap. Do you know—" his smile met Anne's—"do you know, I was so tired, and we had been so frightened for Rose, and it seemed to me that I had been up and moving about through unfamiliar things for so many, many hours, that I had almost forgotten the baby! I remember that it came to me with a shock that Rose was safe, and asleep, and that morning had come, and breakfast was ready, and here was the baby, the same baby we had been so placidly expecting and planning for, and that, in short, it was all right, and all over!"
"Oh, I KNOW!" Anne laid an impulsive hand for a second on his, and the eyes of the young wife, and of the man who had been a young father thirty years before, met in wonderful understanding. "That's—that's the way it is," said Anne, a little lamely, with a swift thought for another foggy morning, when the familiar horn, the waking noises of the city, had fallen strangely on her own senses, after the terror and triumph of the night. Neither spoke for a moment. Diego's voice broke cheerily into the pause.
"I can undress myself," he announced, with modest complacence.
"Can you?" said Charles Rideout. "How about buttons?"
"I can't do buttons," Diego qualified firmly.
"Well, I think—I can—remember—how to unbutton—a boy!" said the man, with his pleasant deliberation, as he began on the button that was always catching itself on Diego's hair. Diego cheerfully extended little arms and legs in turn for the disrobing process. Presently a small heap of garments lay on the floor, and the children were quite delicious in baggy blue flannels. All the four were laughing and absorbed, when James Senior came in a few minutes later, and found them.
"Jim," said his wife, eagerly, rising to greet him, and to bring him, cold and ruddy, to the fireplace, "this is Mr. Rideout, dear!"
"How do you do, sir?" said Jim, stretching out his hand, and with a smile on his tired, keen, young face. "Don't get up. I see that my boy is making himself at home."
"Yes, sir; we've been having a great time getting undressed," said the visitor.
"Jim," Anne went on radiantly, "Mr. Rideout and HIS wife lived here years ago, when THEY were just married, and their children were born here too!"
"No—is that so!" Jim was as much pleased and surprised as Anne, as he settled himself with Virginia's web of silky hair against his shoulder. "Built it, perhaps, Mr. Rideout?"
"No. No, it was eight or ten years old, then. I used to pass it, walking to the office. We had a little office down on Meig's pier then. As a matter of fact, my wife never saw it until I brought her home to it. She was the only child of a widow, very formal Southern people, and we weren't engaged very long. So my brother and I furnished the house; used—" his eyes twinkled—"used to buy our pictures in a lump. We decided we needed about four to each room, and we'd go to a dealer's, and pick out a dozen of 'em, and ask him to make us a price!"
"Just like men!" said the woman.
"I suppose so. I know that some of those pictures disappeared after Rose had been here a while! And we had linen curtains—"
"Not linen!" protested Anne.
"Very—pretty—little—ruffled—curtains they were," he affirmed seriously. "Linen, with blue bands, in this bedroom, and red bands upstairs. And things—things—" he made a vague gesture—"things on the dressing-tables and bed to match 'em! I remember that on our wedding day, when I brought Rose home, we had a little maid here, and dinner was all ready, but no, Rose must run up and down stairs looking at everything in her little wedding dress—" Suddenly came another pause. The room was dark now, but for the firelight. Little Jinny was asleep in her father's arms, Diego blinking manfully. Neither husband nor wife, whose hands had found each other, cared to break the silence. But after a while Anne said:
"What WAS her wedding dress?"
Instantly roused, the guest raised bright, pleased eyes.
"The ladies' question, Warriner," said he. "It was silk, my dear, her first silk gown. Yellowish, or brownish, it was. And she had one of those little ruffled capes the ladies used to wear. And a little bonnet—"
"A bonnet she had trimmed herself. I remember watching her, when we were engaged, making that trimming. You don't see it any more, but that year all the girls were making it. They made little bunches of grapes out of dried peas covered with chamois skin—"
"Oh, not really!" ejaculated Anne.
"Indeed, they did. Then they covered their bonnets with them, and with leaves cut out of the chamois skin. They were charming, too. My wife wore that bonnet a long time. She trimmed it over and over." He sighed, but there was a shade of longing as well as pity in his eyes. "We were young," he said thoughtfully; "I was but twenty-five; we had our hard times. The babies came pretty fast. Rose wasn't very strong. I worked too hard, got broken down a little, and expenses went right on, you know—"
"You bet I know!" Jim said, with his pleasant laugh, and a glance for Anne.
"Well," said Charles Rideout, looking keenly from one to the other, "thank God for it, you young people! It never comes back! The days when you shoulder your troubles cheerfully together,—they come to their end! And they are"—he shook his head—"they are very wonderful to look back to! I remember a certain day," he went on reminiscently, "when we had paid the last of the doctor's bills, and Rose met me down town for a little celebration. We had had five or six years of pretty hard sailing then. We bought her new gloves that day, I remember, and—shoes, I think it was, and I got a hat, and a book I'd been wanting. We went to a little French restaurant to dinner, with all our bundles. And that, that, my dear,—" he said, smiling at Anne,—"seemed to be the turning point. We got into the country next year, picked out a little house. And then, the rest of it all followed; we had two maids, a surrey, I was put into the superintendent's place—" a sweep of the fine hand dismissed the details. "No man and wife, who do what we did," said he, gravely, "who live modestly, and work hard, and love each other and their children, can FAIL. That's one of the blessed things of life."
Jim cleared his throat, but did not speak. Anne was frankly unable to speak.
"And now I mustn't keep these children out of bed any longer," said the older man. "This has been a—a lovely afternoon for me. I wish Mrs. Rideout had been with me." He stood up. "Shall I give you this little fellow, Mrs. Warriner?"
"We'll put the babies down," said Jim, rising, too, "and then, perhaps, you'd like to look about the house, Mr. Rideout?"
"But I know how a lady feels about having her house inspected—" hesitated the caller, with his bright, fatherly look for Anne.
"Oh, please do!" she urged them.
So the gas was lighted, and they all went into the bedroom, where Anne tucked the children into their cribs. She stayed there while the others went on their tour of inspection, patting her son's small, warm body in the darkness, and listening with a smile to the visitor's cheerful comments in kitchen and hallway, and Jim's answering laugh.
When she came blinking out into the lighted dining-room, the men were upstairs, and Helma, to Anne's astonishment, was showing in another caller,—and another Charles Rideout, as Anne's puzzled glance at the card in her hand, assured her. This was a tall young man, a little dishevelled, in a big storm coat, and with dark rings about his eyes.
"I beg your pardon, madam," said he, abruptly, "but was my father, Mr. Charles Rideout, here this afternoon?"
"Why, he's upstairs with my husband now!" Anne said, strangely disquieted by the young man's manner.
"Thank God!" said the newcomer, briefly. And he wiped his forehead with his handkerchief, and drew a deep short breath.
"He—I must apologize to you for breaking in upon you this way," said young Rideout, "but he came out in the car this afternoon, and we didn't know where he had gone. He made the chauffeur wait at the corner at the bottom of the hill, and the fool man waited an hour before it occurred to him to telephone me at the house. I came at once."
"He's been here all that time," Anne said. "He's all right. Your mother and father used to live here, you know, years ago. In this same house."
"Yes, I know we did. I think I was born here," said Charles Rideout, Junior. "I had a sort of feeling that he had come here, as soon as Bates telephoned. Dear old dad! He and mother have told us about this place a hundred times! They were talking about it for a couple of hours a few nights ago." He looked about the room as his father had done. "They were very happy here. There—" he smiled a little bashfully at Anne—"there never was a pair of lovers like mother and dad!" he said. Then he cleared his throat. "Did my father tell you—?" he began, and stopped.
"No," Anne said, troubled. He had told them a great deal, but not—she felt sure—not this, whatever it was.
"That's why we worried about him," said his son, his honest, distressed eyes meeting hers. "You see—you see—we're in trouble at the house—my mother—my mother left us, last night—"
"Dead?" whispered Anne.
"She's been ill a good while," said the young man, "but we thought—She's been so ill before! A day or two ago the rest of us knew it, and we wired for my married sister, but we couldn't get dad to realize it. He never left her, and he's not been eating, and he'd tell all the doctors what serious sicknesses she'd gotten over before—" And with a suddenly shaking lip and filling eyes, he turned his back on Anne, and went to the window.
"Ah!" said Anne, pitifully. And for a full moment there was silence.
Then Charles Rideout, the younger, came back to her, pushing his handkerchief into his coat pocket; and with a restored self-control.
"Too bad to bother you with our troubles," he said, with a little smile like his father's. "To us, of course, it seems like the end of the world, but I am sorry to distress YOU! Dad just doesn't seem to grasp it, he hasn't been excited, you know, but he doesn't seem to understand. I don't know that any of us do!" he finished simply.
"Here they are!" Anne said warningly, as the two other men came down the stairs.
"Hello, Dad!" said young Rideout, easily and cheerfully, "I came to bring you home!"
"This is MY boy, Mrs. Warriner," said his father; "you see he's turned the tables, and is looking after me! I'm glad you came, Charley. I've been telling your good husband, Mrs. Warriner," he said, in a lower tone, "that we—that I—"
"Yes, I know!" Anne said, with her ready tenderness, and a little gasp like a child's.
"So you will realize what impulse brought me here to-day," the older man went on; "I was talking to my wife of this house only a day or two ago." His voice had become almost inaudible, and the three young people knew he had forgotten them. "Only a day or two ago," he repeated musingly. And then, to his son, he added wistfully, "I don't seem to get it through my head, my boy. For a while to-day, I forgot—I forgot. The heart—" he said, with his little old-world touch of dignity—"the heart does not learn things as quickly as the mind, Mrs. Warriner."
Anne had found something wistful and appealing in his smile before, now it seemed to her heartbreaking. She nodded, without speaking.
"Dear old Dad," said Charles Rideout, affectionately. "You are tired out. You've been doing too much, sir, you want sleep and rest."
"Surely—surely," said his father, a little heavily. Father and son shook hands with Jim and Anne, and the older man said gravely, "God bless you both!" as he and his son went down the wet path, in the shaft of light from the hall door. At the gate the boy put his arm tenderly about his father's shoulders.
"Oh, Anne, Anne," said her husband as she clung to him when the door was shut, "I couldn't live one day without YOU, my dearest! But don't—don't cry. Don't let it make you blue,—he HAD his happiness, you know,—he has his children left!"
Anne tightened her arms about his neck.
"I am crying a little for sorrow, Jim, dearest!" she sobbed, burying her face in his shoulder. "But I believe it is mostly—mostly for joy and gratitude, Jim!"
"What are you going to wear to-night in case you CAN go, Mary Bell?" said Ellen Brewster in her lowest tones.
"Come upstairs and I'll show you," said Mary Bell Barber, glancing, as they tiptoed out of the room, toward the kitchen's sunny big west window, where the invalid mother lay in uneasy slumber.
"My new white looks grand," said Ellen on the stairs. "I made it empire."
Mary Bell said nothing. She opened the door of her spacious bare bedroom, where tree shadows lay like a pattern on the faded carpet, and the sinking sun found worn places in the clean white curtains. On the bed lay a little ruffled pink gown, a petticoat foamy with lace, white stockings, and white slippers. Mary Bell caught up the gown and held the shoulders against her own, regarding the older girl meanwhile with innocent, exultant eyes. Ellen was impressed.
"Well, for pity's sake—if you haven't done wonders with that dress!" she ejaculated admiringly. "What on earth did you do to it?"
"Well—first I thought it was too far gone," confessed Mary Bell, laying it down tenderly, "and I wished I hadn't been in such a hurry to get my new hat. But I ripped it all up and washed it, and I took these little roses off my year-before-last hat, and got a new pattern,—and I tell you I WORKED! Wait until you see it on! I just finished pressing it this afternoon."
"Oh, say—I hope you can go now, after all this!" said Ellen, earnestly.
The other girl's face clouded.
"I'll never get over it if I don't!" she said. "It seems to me I never wanted to go anywhere so much in all my life! But some one's got to stay with mama."
"I'd go crazy,—not KNOWING!" said Ellen. "Who are you going to ask?"
"There it is!" said Mary Bell. "Until yesterday I thought, of course, Gran'ma Scott would come. Then Mary died, and she went up to Dayne. So I went over and asked Bernie; her baby isn't but three weeks old, you know, and I thought she might bring it over here. Mama would love to have it! But late last night Tom came over, and he said Bernie was so crazy to go, they were going to take the baby along!"
"You poor thing!" said the sympathetic listener.
"I was nearly crazy!" said Mary Bell, crimping a pink ruffle with careful finger-tips. "I was working on this when he came, and after he'd gone I crumpled it all up and cried all over it! Well, I guess I didn't sleep much, and finally, I got up early, and wrote a letter to Aunt Matty, in Sacramento, and I ran over to Dinwoodie's with it this morning, and asked Lew if he was going up there to-day. He said he was, and he took the note for Aunt Mat. I told her about the dance, and that every one was going, and asked her to come back with Lew. He said he'd see her first thing!"
"Oh, she will!" said Ellen, confidently. "But, say, Mary Bell, why don't you walk over to the hotel with me now and ask Johnnie if she'll stay if your aunt doesn't come? I don't believe she and Walt are going."
"They mightn't want to leave the hotel on account of drummers on the night train," said Mary Bell, dubiously. "And that's the very time mama gets most scared. She's always afraid there are boes on the train."
"Boes!" said Ellen, scornfully, "what could a bo do!"
"Well, I WILL go over and talk to Johnnie," said Mary Bell, with sudden hope. "I'm going to get all ready except my dress, in case Aunt Mat comes," she confided eagerly, when she had kissed the drowsy mother, and they were on their way.
"Say, did you know that Jim Carr is going to-night with Carrie Parmalee?" said Ellen, significantly, as the girls crossed the clean, bare dooryard, under the blossoming locust trees.
Mary Bell's heart grew cold,—sank. She had hoped, if she DID go, that some chance might make her escort no other than Jim Carr.
"It'll make me sick if she gets him," said Ellen, frankly. Although engaged herself, she felt an unabated interest in the love-affairs about her.
"Is he going to drive her over?" asked Mary Bell, clearing her throat.
"No, thank the Lord for that!" said Ellen, piously. "No. It's all Mrs. Parmalee's doing, anyway! His horse is lame, and I guess she thought it was a good chance! He'll drive over there with Gus and mama and papa and Sadie and Mar'gret; and I guess he'll get enough of 'em, too!"
Mary Bell breathed again. He hadn't asked Carrie, anyway. And if she, Mary Bell, really went to the dance, and the pink frock looked well, and Jim Carr saw all the other boys crowding about her for dances—
The rosy dream brought them to the steps of the American Palace Hotel, for Deaneville was only a village, and a brisk walker might have circled it in twenty minutes. The hideous brown hotel, with its long porches, was the largest building in the place, except for hay barns, and fruit storehouses. Three or four saloons, a "social hall," the "general store," and the smithy, formed the main street, and diverging from it scattered the wide shady lanes that led to old homesteads and orchards.
"Johnnie," Walt Larabee's little black-eyed manager and wife, and the most beloved of Deaneville matrons, was in the bare, odorous hallway. She was clad in faded blue denim overalls, and a floating transparent kimono of some cheap stuff. Her coal-black hair was rigidly puffed and pinned, and ornamented with two coquettish red roses, and her thin cheeks were rouged.
"Well, say—don't you girls think you're the whole thing!" said the lady, blithely. "Not for a minute! Walt and me are going to this dance, too!"
She waved toward them one of the slippers she was cleaning.
"Walt said somethin' about it yes'day," continued Mrs. Larabee, with relish, "but I said no; no twelve-mile drive for me, with a young baby! But some folks we know came down on the morning train—you girls have heard me speak of Ed and Lizzie Purdy?"
"Oh, yes!" said Mary Bell, sick with one more disappointment.
"Well," pursued Johnnie, "they had dinner here, and come t' talk it over, Lizzie was wild to go, and Ed got Walt all worked up, and nothing would do but we must get out our old carryall, and take their Thelma and my Maxine along! Well, LAUGH—we were like a lot of kids! I'm crazy to dance just once in Pitcher's barn. We're going up early, and have our supper up there."
"We're going to do that, too," said Ellen, with pleasant anticipation. "Ma and I always help set tables, and so on! It's lots of fun!"
Mary Bell's face grew sober as she listened. It WOULD be fun to be one of the gay party in the big barn, in the twilight, and to have her share of the unpacking and arranging, and the excitement of arriving wagons and groups. The great supper of cold chicken and boiled eggs and fruit and pickles, the fifty varieties of cake, would be spread downstairs; and upstairs the musicians would be tuning their instruments as early as seven o'clock, and the eager boys and girls trying their steps, and changing cards. And then there would be feasting and laughing and talking, and, above all, dancing until dawn!
"Beg pardon, Johnnie?" she stammered.
"Well, looks like some one round here is in love, or something!" said Johnnie, freshly. "I never had it that bad, did you, Ellen? Ellen's been telling me how you're fixed, Mary Bell," she went on with deep concern, "and I was suggestin' that you run over to the general store, and ask Mis' Rowe—or I should say, Mis' Bates," she corrected herself with a grin, and the girls laughed—"if she won't sleep at your house tonight. Chess'll tend store. It'll be something fierce if you don't go, Mary Bell, so you run along and ask the bride!" laughed Johnnie.
"I believe I would," approved Ellen, and the girls accordingly crossed the grassy, uneven street to the store.
An immense gray-haired woman was in the doorway.
"Well, is it ribbon or stockings, or what?" said she, smiling. "The place has gone crazy! There ain't going to be a soul here but me to-night."
Mary Bell was silent. Ellen spoke.
"Chess ain't going, is he?" she asked.
The old woman shook with laughter.
"Chess ain't nothing but a regular kid," she said. "He was dying to go, but he knew I couldn't, and he never said a word. Finally, my boy Tom and his wife, and Len and Josie and the children, they all drove by on their way to Pitcher's; and Len—he's a good deal older'n Chess, you know—he says to me, 'You'd oughter leave Chess come along with the rest of us, ma; jest because he's married ain't no reason he's forgot how to dance!' Well, I burst right out laughing, and I says, 'Why didn't he say he wanted to go?' and Chess run upstairs for his other suit, and off they all went!"
There was nothing for it, then, but to wait for Lew Dinwoodie and the news from Aunt Mat.
Mary Bell walked slowly back through the fragrant lanes, passed now and then by a surrey loaded with joyous passengers already bound for Pitcher's barn. She was at her own gate, when a voice calling her whisked her about as if by magic.
"Hello, Mary Bell!" said Jim Carr, joining her. But she looked so pretty in her blue cotton dress, with the yellow level of a field of mustard-tops behind her, and beyond that the windbreak of gold-tipped eucalyptus trees, that he went on almost confusedly, "You—you look terribly pretty in that dress! Is that what you're going to wear?"
"This!" laughed Mary Bell. And she raised her dancing eyes, to grow a little confused in her turn. Nature, obedient to whose law blossoms were whitening the fruit trees, wheat pricking through the damp earth, robins mating in the orchards, had laid the first thread of her great bond upon these two. They smiled silently at each other.
"I'm not even sure I'm going!" said Mary Bell, ruefully.
The sudden look of concern in his face went straight to her heart. Jim Carr really cared, then, that she couldn't go! Big, clever, kindly Jim Carr, who was superintendent at the power-house, and a comparative newcomer in Deaneville, was an important personage.
"Not going!" said Jim, blankly. "Oh, say—why not!"
Mary Bell explained. But Jim was encouraging.
"Why, of course your aunt will come!" he assured her sturdily. "She'll know what it means to you. You'll go up with the Dickeys, won't you? I'm going up early, with the Parmalees, but I'll look out for you! I've got to hunt up my kid brother now; he's got to sleep at Montgomery's to-night. I don't want him alone at the hotel, if Johnnie isn't there. If you happen to see him, will you tell him?"
"All right," said Mary Bell. And her spirits were sufficiently braced by his encouragement to enable her to call cheerfully after him, "See you later, Jim!"
"See you later!" he shouted back, and Mary Bell went back to the kitchen with a lightened heart. Aunt Mat wouldn't—COULDN'T—fail her!
She carried a carefully prepared tray in to her mother at five o'clock, and sat beside her while the invalid slowly finished her milk-toast and tea, and the cookies and jelly Mary Bell was famous for. The girl chatted cheerfully.
"You don't feel very badly about the dance, do you, deary?" said Mrs. Barber, as the gentle young hands settled her comfortably for the night.
"Not a speck!" answered Mary Bell, bravely, as she kissed her.
"Bernie and Johnnie going—married women!" said the old lady, sleepily. "I never heard such nonsense! Don't you go out of call, will you, dear?"
Mary Bell was eating her own supper, ten minutes later, when the train whistled, and she ran, breathless, to the road, to meet Lew Dinwoodie.
"What did Aunt Matty say, Lew?" called Mary Bell, peering behind him into the closed surrey, for a glimpse of the old lady.
The man stared at her with a falling jaw.
"Well, I guess I owe you one for this, Mary Bell!" he stammered. "I'll eat my shirt if I thought of your note again!"
It was too much. Mary Bell began to dislodge little particles of dried mud carefully from the wheel, her eyes swimming, her breast rising.
"Right in her part of town, too!" pursued the contrite messenger; "but, as I say—"
Mary Bell did not hear him. After a while he was gone, and she was sitting on the steps, hopeless, dispirited, tired. She sombrely watched the departing surreys and phaetons. "I could have gone with them—or with them!" she would think, when there was an empty seat.
The Parmalees went by; two carriage loads. Jim Carr was in the phaeton with Carrie at his side. All the others were in the surrey.
"I'm keeping 'em where I can have an eye on 'em!" Mrs. Parmalee called out, pointing to the phaeton.
Everybody waved, and Mary Bell waved back. But when they were gone, she dropped her head on her arms.
Dusk came; the village was very still. A train thundered by, and Potter's windmill creaked and splashed,—creaked and splashed. A cow-bell clanked in the lane, and Mary Bell looked up to see the Dickeys' cow dawdle by, her nose sniffing idly at the clover, her downy great bag leaving a trail of foam on the fresh grass. From up the road came the faint approaching rattle of wheels.
The girl looked toward the sound curiously. Who drove so recklessly? She noticed a bank of low clouds in the east, and felt a puff of cool air on her cheek.
"It feels like rain!" she said, watching the wagon as it came near. "That's Henderson's mare, and that's their wooden-legged hired man! Why, what is it?"
The last words were cried aloud, for the galloping old horse and driver were at the gate now, and eyes less sharp than Mary Bell's would have detected something wrong.
"What IS it?" she cried again, at the gate. The man pulled up sharply.
"Say, ain't there a man here, nowhere?" he demanded abruptly. "I've been banging at every house along the way; ain't there a soul in the place?"
"Dance!" explained Mary Bell. "The Ladies' Improvement Society in Pitcher's new barn. Why! what is it? Mrs. Henderson sick?"
"No, ma'am!" said the old fellow, "but things is pretty serious down there!" He jerked his hand over his shoulder. "There's some little fellers,—four or five of 'em!—seems they took a boat to-day, to go ducking, and they're lost in the tide-marsh! My God—an' I never thought of the dance!" He gave a despairing glance at the quiet street. "I come here to get twenty men—or thirty—for the search!" he said heavily. "I don't know what to do, now!"
Mary Bell had turned very white.
"There isn't a soul here, Stumpy!" she said, terrified eyes on his face. "There isn't a man in town! What CAN we do!—Say!" she cried suddenly, springing to the seat, "drive me over to Mrs. Rowe's; she's married to Chess Bates, you know, at the store. Go on, Stumpy! What boys are they?"
"I know the Turner boys and the Dickey boy is three of 'em," said the old man, "and Henderson's own boy, Davy—poor leetle feller!—and Buddy Hopper, and the Adams boy. They had a couple of guns, and they was all in this boat of Hopper's, poking round the marsh, and it began to look like rain, and got dark. Well, she was shipping a little water, and Hopper and Adams wanted to tie her to the edge and walk up over the marsh, but the other fellers wanted to go on round the point. So Adams and Hopper left 'em, and come over the marsh, and walked to the point, but she wasn't there. Well, they waited and hallooed, but bimeby they got scared, and come flying up to Henderson's, and Henderson and me—there ain't another man there to-night!—we run down to the marsh, and yelled, but us two couldn't do nothing! Tide's due at eleven, and it's going to rain, so I left him, and come in for some men. Henderson's just about crazy! They lost a boy in that tide-marsh a while back."
"It's too awful,—it's just murder to let 'em go there!" said Mary Bell, heart-sick. For no dragon of old ever claimed his prey more regularly than did the terrible pools and quicksands of the great marsh.
Mrs. Bates was practical. Her old face blanched, but she began to plan instantly.
"Don't cry, Mary Bell!" said she; "this thing is in God's hands. He can save the poor little fellers jest as easy with a one-legged man as he could with a hundred hands. You drive over to the depot, Stumpy, and tell the operator to plug away at Barville until he gets some one to take a message to Pitcher's barn. It'll be a good three hours before they even git this far," she continued doubtfully, as the old man eagerly rattled away, "and then they've got to get down to Henderson's; but it may be an all-night search! Now, lemme see who else we can git. Deefy, over to the saloon, wouldn't be no good. But there's Adams's Chinee boy, he's a good strong feller; you stop for him, and git Gran'pa Barry, too; he's home to-night!"
"Look here, Mrs. Bates," said Mary Bell, "shall I go?"
The old woman speculatively measured the girl's superb figure, her glowing strength, her eager, resolute face. Mary Bell was like a spirited horse, wild to be given her head.
"You're worth three men," said the storekeeper.
"Got light boots?"
"Yes," said the girl, thrilled and quivering.
"You run git 'em!" said Mrs. Bates, "and git your good lantern. I'll be gitting another lantern, and some whiskey. Poor little fellers! I hope to God they're all sneakin' home—afraid of a lickin'!—this very minute. And Mary Bell, you tell your mother I'll close up, and come and sit with her!"
It was a sorry search-party, after all, that presently rattled out of town in the old wagon. On the back seat sat the impassive and good-natured Chinese boy, and a Swedish cook discovered at the last moment in the railroad camp and pressed into service. On the front seat Mary Bell was wedged in between the driver and Grandpa Barry, a thin, sinewy old man, stupid from sleep. Mary Bell never forgot the silent drive. The evening was turning chilly, low clouds scudded across the sky, little gusts of wind, heavy with rain, blew about them. The fall of the horse's feet on the road and the rattle of harness and wheels were the only sounds to break the brooding stillness that preceded the storm. After a while the road ran level with the marshes, and they got the rank salt breeze full in their faces; and in the last light they could see the glitter of dark water creeping under the rushes. The first flying drops of rain fell.
"And right over the ridge," said Mary Bell to herself, "they are dancing!"
A fire had been built at the edge of the marsh, and three figures ran out from it as they came up: two boys and a heavy middle-aged man. It was for Mary Bell to tell Henderson that it would be hours before he could look for other help than this oddly assorted wagonful. The man's disappointment was pitiful.
"My God—my God!" he said heavily, as the situation dawned on him, "an' I counted on fifty! Well, 'tain't your fault, Mary Bell!"
They all climbed out, and faced the trackless darkening stretch of pools and hummocks, the treacherous, uncertain ground beneath a tangle of coarse grass. Even with fifty men it would have been an ugly search.
The marsh, like all the marshes thereabout, was intersected at irregular intervals by decrepit lines of fence-railing, running down from solid ground to the water's edge, half a mile away. These divisions were necessary for various reasons. In duck season the hunters who came up from San Francisco used them both as guides and as property lines, each club shooting over only a given number of sections. Between seasons the farmers kept them in repair, as a control for the cattle that strayed into the marsh in dry weather. The distance between these shaky barriers was some two or three hundred feet. At their far extremity, the posts were submerged in the restless black water of the bay.
Mary Bell caught Henderson's arm as he stood baffled and silent.
"Mr. Henderson!" she said eagerly, "don't you give in! While we're waiting for the others we can try for the boys along the fences! There's no danger, that way! We can go way down into the marsh, holding on,—and keep calling!"
"That's what I say!" shrilled old Barry, fired by her tone.
The Chinese boy had already taken hold of a rail, and was warily following it across the uneven ground.
"They've BEEN there three hours, now!" groaned Henderson; but even as he spoke he beckoned to the two little boys. Mary Bell recognized the two survivors.
"You keep those flames so high, rain or no rain," Henderson charged them, "that we can see 'em from anywheres!"
A moment later the searchers plunged into the marsh, facing bravely away from lights and voices and solid earth.
Stumbling and slipping, Mary Bell followed the fence. The rain slapped her face, and her rubber boots dragged in the shallow water. But she thought only of five little boys losing hope and courage somewhere in this confusing waste, and her constant shouting was full of reassurance.
"Nobody would be scared with this fence to hang on to!" she assured herself, "no matter how fast the tide came in!" She rested a moment on the rail, glancing back at the distant fire, now only a dull glow, low against the sky.
Frequently the rail was broken, and dipped treacherously for a few feet; once it was lacking entirely, and for an awful ten feet she must bridge the darkness without its help. She stood still, turning her guttering lantern on waving grasses and sinister pools. "They are all dancing now!" she said aloud, wonderingly, when she had reached the opposite rail, with a fast-beating heart. After an endless period of plunging and shouting, she was at the water's very edge.
There was light enough to see the ruffled, cruel surface of the river, where its sluggish forces swept into the bay. Idly bumping the grasses was something that brought Mary Bell's heart into her throat. Then she cried out in relief, for it was not the thing she feared, but the little deserted boat, right side up.
"That means they left her!" said Mary Bell, trembling with nervous terror. She shouted again in the darkness, before turning for the homeward trip. It seemed very long. Once she thought she must be going aimlessly back and forth on the same bit of rail, but a moment more brought her to the missing rail again, and she knew she had been right. Blown by the wind, struck by the now flying rain, deafened by the gurgling water and the rising storm, she fought her way back to the fire again. The others were all there, and with them three cramped and chilled little boys, crying fright and relief, and clinging to the nearest adult shoulder. The Chinese boy and Grandpa Barry had found them, standing on a hummock that was still clear of the rising tide, and shouting with all their weary strength.
"Oh, thank God!" said Mary Bell, her heart rising with sudden hope.
"We'll get the others, now, please God!" said Henderson, quietly. "We were working too far over. You said they were all right when you left them, Lesty?" he said to one of the shivering little lads.
"Ye-es, sir!" chattered Lesty, eagerly, shaking with nervousness. "They was both all right! Davy wanted to git Billy over to the fence, so if the tide come up!"—terror swept him again. "Oh, Mr. Henderson, git 'em—git 'em! Don't leave 'em drowned out there!" he sobbed frantically, clutching the big man with bony, wet little hands.
"I'm going to try, Lesty!"
Henderson turned back to the marsh, and Mary Bell went too.
"Billy who?" said Mary Bell; but her heart told her, before Henderson said it, that the answer would be, "Jim Carr's kid brother!"
"Are you good for this?" said Henderson, when the four fittest had reached that part of the marsh where the boys had been found.
She met his look courageously, his lantern showing her wet, brave young face, crossed by dripping strands of hair.
"Sure!" she said.
"Well, God bless you!" he said; "God—bless—you! You take this fence, I'll go over to that 'n."
The rushing, noisy darkness again. The horrible wind, the slipping, the plunging again. Again the slow, slow progress; driven and whipped now by the thought that at this very instant—or this one—the boys might be giving out, relaxing hold, abandoning hope, and slipping numb and unconscious into the rising, chuckling water.
Mary Bell did not think of the dance now. But she thought of rest; of rest in the warm safety of her own home. She thought of the sunny dooryard, the delicious security of the big kitchen; of her mother, so placid and so infinitely dear, on her couch; of the serene comings and goings of neighbors and friends. How wonderful it all seemed! Lights, laughter, peace,—just to be back among them again, and to rest!
And she was going away from it all, into the blackness. Her lantern glimmered,—went out. Mary Bell's cramped fingers let it fall. Her heart pounded with fear of the inky dark.
She clung to the fence with both arms, panting, resting. And while she hung there, through rain and wind, across darkness and space, she heard a voice, a gallant, sturdy little voice, desperately calling,—
Like an electric current, strength surged through Mary Bell.
"O God! You've saved 'em, you've got 'em safe!" she sobbed, plunging frantically forward. And she shouted, "All right—all right, darling! Hang on, boys! Just HANG ON! Hal-lo, there! Billy! Davy! Here I am!"
Down in pools, up again, laughing, crying, shouting, Mary Bell reached them at last, felt the heavenly grasp of hard little hands reaching for hers in the dark, brushed her face against Billy Carr's wet little cheek, and flung her arm about Davy Henderson's square shoulders. They had been shouting and calling for two long hours, not ten feet from the fence.
Incoherent, laughing and crying, they clung together. Davy was alert and brave, but the smaller boy was heavy with sleep.
"Gee, it's good you came!" said Davy, simply, over and over.
"You've got your boots on!" she shouted, close to his ear; "they're too heavy! We've got a long pull back, Davy,—I think we ought to go stocking feet!"
"Shall we take off our coats, too?" he said sensibly.
They did so, little Billy stumbling as Mary Bell loosened his hands from the fence. They braced the little fellow as well as they could, and by shouted encouragement roused him to something like wakefulness.
"Is Jim coming?" he shouted.
Mary Bell assented wildly. "Start, Davy!" she urged. "We'll keep him between us. Right along the fence! What is it?" For he had stopped.
"The other fellers?" he said pitifully.
She told him that they were safe, safe at the fire, and she could hear him break down and begin to cry with the first real hope that the worst was over.
"We're going to get out of this, ain't we?" he said over and over. And over and over Mary Bell encouraged him.
"Just one more good spurt, Davy! We'll see the fire any minute now!"
In wind and darkness and roaring water, they struggled along. The tide was coming in fast. It was up to Mary Bell's knees; she was almost carrying Billy.
"What is it, Davy?" she shouted, as he stopped again.
"Miss Mary Bell, aren't we going toward the river!" he shouted back.
The sickness of utter despair weakened the girl's knees. But for a moment only. Then she drew the elder boy back, and made him pass her. Neither one spoke.
"Remember, they may come to meet us!" she would say, when Davy rested spent and breathless on the rail. The water was pushing about her waist, and was about his armpits now; to step carelessly into a pool would be fatal. Billy she was managing to keep above water by letting him step along the middle rail, when there was a middle rail. They made long rests, clinging close together.
"They ain't ever coming!" sobbed Davy, hopelessly. "I can't go no farther!"
Mary Bell managed, by leaning forward, to give him a wet slap, full in the face. The blow roused the little fellow, and he bravely stumbled ahead again.
"That's a darling, Davy!" she shouted. A second later something floating struck her elbow; a boy's rubber boot. It was perhaps the most dreadful moment of the long fight, when she realized that they were only where they had started from.
Later she heard herself urging Davy to take just ten steps more,—just another ten. "Just think, five minutes more and we're safe, Davy!" some one said. Later, she heard her own voice saying, "Well, if you can't, then hang on the fence! DON'T let go the fence!" Then there was silence. Long after, Mary Bell began to cry, and said softly, "God, God, you know I could do this if I weren't carrying Billy." After that it was all a troubled dream.
She dreamed that Davy suddenly said, "I can see the fire!" and that, as she did not stir, he cried it again, this time not so near. She dreamed that the sound of splashing boots and shouting came down across the dark water, and that lights smote her eyelids with sharp pain. An overwhelming dread of effort swept over her. She did not want to move her aching body, to raise her heavy head. Somebody's arm braced her shoulders; she toppled against it.
She dreamed that Jim Carr's voice said, "Take the kid, Sing! He's all right!" and that Jim Carr lifted her up, and shouted out, "She's almost gone!"
Then some one was carrying her across rough ground, across smooth ground, to where there was a fire, and blankets, and voices—voices—voices.
"It makes me choke!" That was Mary Bell Barber, whispering to Jim Carr. But she could not open her eyes.
"But drink it, dearest! Swallow it!" he pleaded.
"You were too late, Jim, we couldn't hold on!" she whispered pitifully. And then, as the warmth and the stimulant had their effect, she did open her eyes; and the fire, the ring of faces, the black sky, and the moon breaking through, all slipped into place.
"Did you come for us, Jim?" she murmured, too tired to wonder why the big fellow should cry as he put his face against hers.
"I came for you, dear! I came back to sit with you on the steps. I didn't want to dance without my girl, and that's why I'm here. My brave little girl!"
Mary Bell leaned against his shoulder contentedly.
"That's right; you rest!" said Jim. "We're all going home now, and we'll have you tucked away in bed in no time. Mrs. Bates is all ready for you!"
"Jim," whispered Mary Bell.
"Darling?"—he put his mouth close to the white lips.
"Jim, will you remind Aunty Bates to hang up my party dress real carefully? In all the fuss some one's sure to muss it!" said Mary Bell.
WHAT HAPPENED TO ALANNA
A capped and aproned maid, with a martyred expression, had twice sounded the dinner-bell in the stately halls of Costello, before any member of the family saw fit to respond to it.
Then they all came at once, with a sudden pounding of young feet on the stairs, an uproar of young voices, and much banging of doors. Jim and Danny, twins of fourteen, to whom their mother was wont proudly to allude as "the top o' the line," violently left their own sanctum on the fourth floor, and coasted down such banisters as lay between that and the dining-room. Teresa, an angel-faced twelve-year-old in a blue frock, shut 'The Wide, Wide World' with a sigh, and climbed down from the window-seat in the hall.
Teresa's pious mother, in moments of exultation, loved to compare and commend her offspring to such of the saints and martyrs as their youthful virtues suggested. And Teresa at twelve had, as it were, graduated from the little saints, Agnes and Rose and Cecilia, and was now compared, in her mother's secret heart, to the gracious Queen of all the Saints. "As she was when a little girl," Mrs. Costello would add, to herself, to excuse any undue boldness in the thought.
And indeed, Teresa, as she was to-night, her blue eyes still clouded with Ellen Montgomery's sorrows, her curls tumbled about her hot cheeks, would have made a pretty foil in a picture of old Saint Anne.
But this story is about Alanna of the black eyes, the eight years, the large irregular mouth, the large irregular freckles.
Alanna was outrunning lazy little Leo—her senior, but not her match at anything—on their way to the dining-room. She was rendering desperate the two smaller boys, Frank X., Jr., and John Henry Newman Costello, who staggered hopelessly in her wake. They were all hungry, clean, and good-natured, and Alanna's voice led the other voices, even as her feet, in twinkling patent leather, led their feet.
Following the children came their mother, fastening the rich silk and lace at her wrists as she came. Her handsome kindly face and her big shapely hands were still moist and glowing from soap and warm water, and the shining rings of black hair at her temples were moist, too.
"This is all my doin', Dad," said she, comfortably, as she and her flock entered the dining-room. "Put the soup on, Alma. I'm the one that was goin' to be prompt at dinner, too!" she added, with a superintending glance for all the children, as she tied on little John's napkin.
F.X. Costello, Senior, undertaker by profession, and mayor by an immense majority, was already at the head of the table.
"Late, eh, Mommie?" said he, good-naturedly. He threw his newspaper on the floor, cast a householder's critical glance at the lights and the fire, and pushed his neatly placed knives and forks to right and left carelessly with both his fat hands.
The room was brilliantly lighted and warm. A great fire roared in the old-fashioned black marble grate, and electric lights blazed everywhere. Everything in the room, and in the house, was costly, comfortable, incongruous, and hideous. The Costellos were very rich, and had been very poor; and certain people were fond of telling of the queer, ridiculous things they did, in trying to spend their money. But they were very happy, and thought their immense, ugly house was the finest in the city, or in the world.
"Well, an' what's the news on the Rialter?" said the head of the house now, busy with his soup.
"You'll have the laugh on me, Dad," his wife assured him, placidly. "After all my sayin' that nothing'd take me to Father Crowley's meetin'!"
"Oh, that was it?" said the mayor. "What's he goin' to have,—a concert?"
"—AND a fair too!" supplemented Mrs. Costello. There was an interval devoted on her part to various bibs and trays, and a low aside to the waitress. Then she went on: "As you know, I went, meanin' to beg off. On account of baby bein' so little, and Leo's cough, and the paperers bein' upstairs,—and all! I thought I'd just make a donation, and let it go at that. But the ladies all kind of hung back—there was very few there—and I got talkin'—"
"Well,'tis but our dooty, after all," said the mayor, nodding approval.
"That's all, Frank. Well! So finally Mrs. Kiljohn took the coffee, and the Lemmon girls took the grab-bag. The Guild will look out for the concert, and I took one fancy-work booth, and of course the Children of Mary'll have the other, just like they always do."
"Oh, was Grace there?" Teresa was eager to know.
"Grace was, darlin'."
"And we're to have the fancy-work! You'll help us, won't you, mother? Goody—I'm in that!" exulted Teresa.
"I'm in that, too!" echoed Alanna, quickly.
"A lot you are, you baby!" said Leo, unkindly.
"You're not a Child of Mary, Alanna," Teresa said promptly and uneasily.
"Well—WELL—I can help!" protested Alanna, putting up her lip. Can't I, mother? "CAN'T I, mother?"
"You can help ME, dovey," said her mother, absently. "I'm not goin' to work as I did for Saint Patrick's Bazaar, Dad, and I said so! Mrs. O'Connell and Mrs. King said they'd do all the work, if I'd just be the nominal head. Mary Murray will do us some pillers—leather—with Gibsons and Indians on them. And I'll have Lizzie Bayne up here for a month, makin' me aprons and little Jappy wrappers, and so on."
She paused over the cutlets and the chicken pie, which she had been helping with an amazing attention to personal preference. The young Costellos chafed at the delay, but their mother's fine eyes saw them not.
"Kelley & Moffat ought to let me have materials at half price," she reflected aloud. "My bill's two or three hundred a month!"
"You always say that you're not going to do a thing, and then get in and make more than any other booth!" said Dan, proudly.
"Oh, not this year, I won't," his mother assured him. But in her heart she knew she would.
"Aren't you glad it's fancy-work?" said Teresa. "It doesn't get all sloppy and mussy like ice-cream, does it, mother?"
"Gee, don't you love fairs!" burst out Leo, rapturously.
"Sliding up and down the floor before the dance begins, Dan, to work in the wax?" suggested Jimmy, in pleasant anticipation. "We go every day and every night, don't we, mother?"
"Ask your father," said Mrs. Costello, discreetly.
But the Mayor's attention just then was taken by Alanna, who had left her chair to go and whisper in his ear.
"Why, here's Alanna's heart broken!" said he, cheerfully, encircling her little figure with a big arm.