A TALE OF YOUTH AND
SUMMER TIME AND
THE BAXTER FAMILY
By Booth Tarkington
I. WILLIAM II. THE UNKNOWN III. THE PAINFUL AGE IV. GENESIS AND CLEMATIS V. SORROWS WITHIN A BOILER VI. TRUCULENCE VII. MR. BAXTER'S EVENING CLOTHES VIII. JANE IX. LITTLE SISTERS HAVE BIG EARS X. MR. PARCHER AND LOVE XI. BEGINNING A TRUE FRIENDSHIP XII. PROGRESS OF THE SYMPTOMS XIII. AT HOME TO HIS FRIENDS XIV. TIME DOES FLY XV. ROMANCE OF STATISTICS XVI. THE SHOWER XVII. JANE'S THEORY XVIII. THE BIG, FAT LUMMOX XIX. "I DUNNO WHY IT IS" XX. SYDNEY CARTON XXI. MY LITTLE SWEETHEARTS XXII. FORESHADOWINGS XXIII. FATHERS FORGET XXIV. CLOTHES MAKE THE MAN XXV. YOUTH AND MR. PARCHER XXVI. MISS BOKE XXVII. MAROONED XXVIII. RANNIE KIRSTED XXIX. ''DON'T FORGET!'' XXX. THE BRIDE-TO-BE
William Sylvanus Baxter paused for a moment of thought in front of the drug-store at the corner of Washington Street and Central Avenue. He had an internal question to settle before he entered the store: he wished to allow the young man at the soda-fountain no excuse for saying, "Well, make up your mind what it's goin' to be, can't you?" Rudeness of this kind, especially in the presence of girls and women, was hard to bear, and though William Sylvanus Baxter had borne it upon occasion, he had reached an age when he found it intolerable. Therefore, to avoid offering opportunity for anything of the kind, he decided upon chocolate and strawberry, mixed, before approaching the fountain. Once there, however, and a large glass of these flavors and diluted ice-cream proving merely provocative, he said, languidly—an affectation, for he could have disposed of half a dozen with gusto: "Well, now I'm here, I might as well go one more. Fill 'er up again. Same."
Emerging to the street, penniless, he bent a fascinated and dramatic gaze upon his reflection in the drug-store window, and then, as he turned his back upon the alluring image, his expression altered to one of lofty and uncondescending amusement. That was his glance at the passing public. From the heights, he seemed to bestow upon the world a mysterious derision—for William Sylvanus Baxter was seventeen long years of age, and had learned to present the appearance of one who possesses inside information about life and knows all strangers and most acquaintances to be of inferior caste, costume, and intelligence.
He lingered upon the corner awhile, not pressed for time. Indeed, he found many hours of these summer months heavy upon his hands, for he had no important occupation, unless some intermittent dalliance with a work on geometry (anticipatory of the distant autumn) might be thought important, which is doubtful, since he usually went to sleep on the shady side porch at his home, with the book in his hand. So, having nothing to call him elsewhere, he lounged before the drug-store in the early afternoon sunshine, watching the passing to and fro of the lower orders and bourgeoisie of the middle-sized midland city which claimed him (so to speak) for a native son.
Apparently quite unembarrassed by his presence, they went about their business, and the only people who looked at him with any attention were pedestrians of color. It is true that when the gaze of these fell upon him it was instantly arrested, for no colored person could have passed him without a little pang of pleasure and of longing. Indeed, the tropical violence of William Sylvanus Baxter's tie and the strange brilliancy of his hat might have made it positively unsafe for him to walk at night through the negro quarter of the town. And though no man could have sworn to the color of that hat, whether it was blue or green, yet its color was a saner thing than its shape, which was blurred, tortured, and raffish; it might have been the miniature model of a volcano that had blown off its cone and misbehaved disastrously on its lower slopes as well. He had the air of wearing it as a matter of course and with careless ease, but that was only an air—it was the apple of his eye.
For the rest, his costume was neutral, subordinate, and even a little neglected in the matter of a detail or two: one pointed flap of his soft collar was held down by a button, but the other showed a frayed thread where the button once had been; his low patent-leather shoes were of a luster not solicitously cherished, and there could be no doubt that he needed to get his hair cut, while something might have been done, too, about the individualized hirsute prophecies which had made independent appearances, here and there, upon his chin. He examined these from time to time by the sense of touch, passing his hand across his face and allowing his finger-tips a slight tapping motion wherever they detected a prophecy.
Thus he fell into a pleasant musing and seemed to forget the crowded street.
He was roused by the bluff greeting of an acquaintance not dissimilar to himself in age, manner, and apparel.
"H'lo, Silly Bill!" said this person, William Sylvanus Baxter. "What's the news?"
William showed no enthusiasm; on the contrary, a frown of annoyance appeared upon his brow. The nickname "Silly Bill"—long ago compounded by merry child-comrades from "William" and "Sylvanus"—was not to his taste, especially in public, where he preferred to be addressed simply and manfully as "Baxter." Any direct expression of resentment, however, was difficult, since it was plain that Johnnie Watson intended no offense whatever and but spoke out of custom.
"Don't know any," William replied, coldly.
"Dull times, ain't it?" said Mr. Watson, a little depressed by his friend's manner. "I heard May Parcher was comin' back to town yesterday, though."
"Well, let her!" returned William, still severe.
"They said she was goin' to bring a girl to visit her," Johnnie began in a confidential tone. "They said she was a reg'lar ringdinger and—"
"Well, what if she is?" the discouraging Mr. Baxter interrupted. "Makes little difference to ME, I guess!"
"Oh no, it don't. YOU don't take any interest in girls! OH no!"
"No, I do not!" was the emphatic and heartless retort. "I never saw one in my life I'd care whether she lived or died!"
"Honest?" asked Johnnie, struck by the conviction with which this speech was uttered. "Honest, is that so?"
"Yes, 'honest'!" William replied, sharply. "They could ALL die, I wouldn't notice!"
Johnnie Watson was profoundly impressed. "Why, I didn't know you felt that way about 'em, Silly Bill. I always thought you were kind of—"
"Well, I do feel that way about 'em!" said William Sylvanus Baxter, and, outraged by the repetition of the offensive nickname, he began to move away. "You can tell 'em so for me, if you want to!" he added over his shoulder. And he walked haughtily up the street, leaving Mr. Watson to ponder upon this case of misogyny, never until that moment suspected.
It was beyond the power of his mind to grasp the fact that William Sylvanus Baxter's cruel words about "girls" had been uttered because William was annoyed at being called "Silly Bill" in a public place, and had not known how to object otherwise than by showing contempt for any topic of conversation proposed by the offender. This latter, being of a disposition to accept statements as facts, was warmly interested, instead of being hurt, and decided that here was something worth talking about, especially with representatives of the class so sweepingly excluded from the sympathies of Silly Bill.
William, meanwhile, made his way toward the "residence section" of the town, and presently—with the passage of time found himself eased of his annoyance. He walked in his own manner, using his shoulders to emphasize an effect of carelessness which he wished to produce upon observers. For his consciousness of observers was abnormal, since he had it whether any one was looking at him or not, and it reached a crucial stage whenever he perceived persons of his own age, but of opposite sex, approaching.
A person of this description was encountered upon the sidewalk within a hundred yards of his own home, and William Sylvanus Baxter saw her while yet she was afar off. The quiet and shady thoroughfare was empty of all human life, at the time, save for those two; and she was upon the same side of the street that he was; thus it became inevitable that they should meet, face to face, for the first time in their lives. He had perceived, even in the distance, that she was unknown to him, a stranger, because he knew all the girls in this part of the town who dressed as famously in the mode as that! And then, as the distance between them lessened, he saw that she was ravishingly pretty; far, far prettier, indeed, than any girl he knew. At least it seemed so, for it is, unfortunately, much easier for strangers to be beautiful. Aside from this advantage of mystery, the approaching vision was piquant and graceful enough to have reminded a much older boy of a spotless white kitten, for, in spite of a charmingly managed demureness, there was precisely that kind of playfulness somewhere expressed about her. Just now it was most definite in the look she bent upon the light and fluffy burden which she carried nestled in the inner curve of her right arm: a tiny dog with hair like cotton and a pink ribbon round his neck—an animal sated with indulgence and idiotically unaware of his privilege. He was half asleep!
William did not see the dog, or it is the plain, anatomical truth that when he saw how pretty the girl was, his heart—his physical heart—began to do things the like of which, experienced by an elderly person, would have brought the doctor in haste. In addition, his complexion altered—he broke out in fiery patches. He suffered from breathlessness and from pressure on the diaphragm.
Afterward, he could not have named the color of the little parasol she carried in her left hand, and yet, as it drew nearer and nearer, a rosy haze suffused the neighborhood, and the whole world began to turn an exquisite pink. Beneath this gentle glow, with eyes downcast in thought, she apparently took no note of William, even when she and William had come within a few yards of each other. Yet he knew that she would look up and that their eyes must meet—a thing for which he endeavored to prepare himself by a strange weaving motion of his neck against the friction of his collar—for thus, instinctively, he strove to obtain greater ease and some decent appearance of manly indifference. He felt that his efforts were a failure; that his agitation was ruinous and must be perceptible at a distance of miles, not feet. And then, in the instant of panic that befell, when her dark-lashed eyelids slowly lifted, he had a flash of inspiration.
He opened his mouth somewhat, and as her eyes met his, full and startlingly, he placed three fingers across the orifice, and also offered a slight vocal proof that she had surprised him in the midst of a yawn.
"Oh, hum!" he said.
For the fraction of a second, the deep blue spark in her eyes glowed brighter—gentle arrows of turquoise shot him through and through—and then her glance withdrew from the ineffable collision. Her small, white-shod feet continued to bear her onward, away from him, while his own dimmed shoes peregrinated in the opposite direction—William necessarily, yet with excruciating reluctance, accompanying them. But just at the moment when he and the lovely creature were side by side, and her head turned from him, she spoke that is, she murmured, but he caught the words.
"You Flopit, wake up!" she said, in the tone of a mother talking baby-talk. "SO indifferink!"
William's feet and his breath halted spasmodically. For an instant he thought she had spoken to him, and then for the first time he perceived the fluffy head of the dog bobbing languidly over her arm, with the motion of her walking, and he comprehended that Flopit, and not William Sylvanus Baxter, was the gentleman addressed. But—but had she MEANT him?
His breath returning, though not yet operating in its usual manner, he stood gazing after her, while the glamorous parasol passed down the shady street, catching splashes of sunshine through the branches of the maple-trees; and the cottony head of the tiny dog continued to be visible, bobbing rhythmically over a filmy sleeve. Had she meant that William was indifferent? Was it William that she really addressed?
He took two steps to follow her, but a suffocating shyness stopped him abruptly and, in a horror lest she should glance round and detect him in the act, he turned and strode fiercely to the gate of his own home before he dared to look again. And when he did look, affecting great casualness in the action, she was gone, evidently having turned the corner. Yet the street did not seem quite empty; there was still something warm and fragrant about it, and a rosy glamor lingered in the air. William rested an elbow upon the gate-post, and with his chin reposing in his hand gazed long in the direction in which the unknown had vanished. And his soul was tremulous, for she had done her work but too well.
"'Indifferink'!" he murmured, thrilling at his own exceedingly indifferent imitation of her voice. "Indifferink!" that was just what he would have her think—that he was a cold, indifferent man. It was what he wished all girls to think. And "sarcastic"! He had been envious one day when May Parcher said that Joe Bullitt was "awfully sarcastic." William had spent the ensuing hour in an object-lesson intended to make Miss Parcher see that William Sylvanus Baxter was twice as sarcastic as Joe Bullitt ever thought of being, but this great effort had been unsuccessful, because William, failed to understand that Miss Parcher had only been sending a sort of message to Mr. Bullitt. It was a device not unique among her sex; her hope was that William would repeat her remark in such a manner that Joe Bullitt would hear it and call to inquire what she meant.
"'SO indifferink'!" murmured William, leaning dreamily upon the gate-post. "Indifferink!" He tried to get the exact cooing quality of the unknown's voice. "Indifferink!" And, repeating the honeyed word, so entrancingly distorted, he fell into a kind of stupor; vague, beautiful pictures rising before him, the one least blurred being of himself, on horseback, sweeping between Flopit and a racing automobile. And then, having restored the little animal to its mistress, William sat carelessly in the saddle (he had the Guardsman's seat) while the perfectly trained steed wheeled about, forelegs in the air, preparing to go. "But shall I not see you again, to thank you more properly?" she cried, pleading. "Some other day—perhaps," he answered.
And left her in a cloud of dust.
THE PAINFUL AGE
Thus a shrill voice, to his ears hideously different from that other, interrupted and dispersed his visions. Little Jane, his ten-year-old sister, stood upon the front porch, the door open behind her, and in her hand she held a large slab of bread-and-butter covered with apple sauce and powdered sugar. Evidence that she had sampled this compound was upon her cheeks, and to her brother she was a repulsive sight.
"Will-ee!" she shrilled. "Look! GOOD!" And to emphasize the adjective she indelicately patted the region of her body in which she believed her stomach to be located. "There's a slice for you on the dining-room table," she informed him, joyously.
Outraged, he entered the house without a word to her, and, proceeding to the dining-room, laid hands upon the slice she had mentioned, but declined to eat it in Jane's company. He was in an exalted mood, and though in no condition of mind or body would he refuse food of almost any kind, Jane was an intrusion he could not suffer at this time.
He carried the refection to his own room and, locking the door, sat down to eat, while, even as he ate, the spell that was upon him deepened in intensity.
"Oh, eyes!" he whispered, softly, in that cool privacy and shelter from the world. "Oh, eyes of blue!"
The mirror of a dressing-table sent him the reflection of his own eyes, which also were blue; and he gazed upon them and upon the rest of his image the while he ate his bread-and-butter and apple sauce and sugar. Thus, watching himself eat, he continued to stare dreamily at the mirror until the bread-and-butter and apple sauce and sugar had disappeared, whereupon he rose and approached the dressing-table to study himself at greater advantage.
He assumed as repulsive an expression as he could command, at the same time making the kingly gesture of one who repels unwelcome attentions; and it is beyond doubt that he was thus acting a little scene of indifference. Other symbolic dramas followed, though an invisible observer might have been puzzled for a key to some of them. One, however, would have proved easily intelligible: his expression having altered to a look of pity and contrition, he turned from the mirror, and, walking slowly to a chair across the room, used his right hand in a peculiar manner, seeming to stroke the air at a point about ten inches above the back of the chair. "There, there, little girl," he said in a low, gentle voice. "I didn't know you cared!"
Then, with a rather abrupt dismissal of this theme, he returned to the mirror and, after a questioning scrutiny, nodded solemnly, forming with his lips the words, "The real thing—the real thing at last!" He meant that, after many imitations had imposed upon him, Love—the real thing—had come to him in the end. And as he turned away he murmured, "And even her name—unknown!"
This evidently was a thought that continued to occupy him, for he walked up and down the room, frowning; but suddenly his brow cleared and his eye lit with purpose. Seating himself at a small writing-table by the window, he proceeded to express his personality—though with considerable labor—in something which he did not doubt to be a poem.
Three-quarters of an hour having sufficed for its completion, including "rewriting and polish," he solemnly signed it, and then read it several times in a state of hushed astonishment. He had never dreamed that he could do anything like this.
MILADY I do not know her name Though it would be the same Where roses bloom at twilight And the lark takes his flight It would be the same anywhere Where music sounds in air I was never introduced to the lady So I could not call her Lass or Sadie So I will call her Milady By the sands of the sea She always will be Just M'lady to me. —WILLIAM SYLVANUS BAXTER, Esq., July 14
It is impossible to say how many times he might have read the poem over, always with increasing amazement at his new-found powers, had he not been interrupted by the odious voice of Jane.
To William, in his high and lonely mood, this piercing summons brought an actual shudder, and the very thought of Jane (with tokens of apple sauce and sugar still upon her cheek, probably) seemed a kind of sacrilege. He fiercely swore his favorite oath, acquired from the hero of a work of fiction he admired, "Ye gods!" and concealed his poem in the drawer of the writing-table, for Jane's footsteps were approaching his door.
"Will—ee! Mamma wants you." She tried the handle of the door.
"G'way!" he said.
"Will—ee!" Jane hammered upon the door with her fist. "Will—ee!"
"What you want?" he shouted.
Jane explained, certain pauses indicating that her attention was partially diverted to another slice of bread-and-butter and apple sauce and sugar. "Will—ee, mamma wants you—wants you to go help Genesis bring some wash-tubs home and a tin clo'es-boiler—from the second-hand man's store."
Jane repeated the outrageous message, adding, "She wants you to hurry—and I got some more bread-and-butter and apple sauce and sugar for comin' to tell you."
William left no doubt in Jane's mind about his attitude in reference to the whole matter. His refusal was direct and infuriated, but, in the midst of a multitude of plain statements which he was making, there was a decisive tapping upon the door at a point higher than Jane could reach, and his mother's voice interrupted:
"Hush, Willie! Open the door, please."
He obeyed furiously, and Mrs. Baxter walked in with a deprecating air, while Jane followed, so profoundly interested that, until almost the close of the interview, she held her bread-and-butter and apple sauce and sugar at a sort of way-station on its journey to her mouth.
"That's a nice thing to ask me to do!" stormed the unfortunate William. "Ye gods! Do you think Joe Bullitt's mother would dare to—"
"Wait, dearie!" Mrs. Baxter begged, pacifically. "I just want to explain—"
"'Explain'! Ye gods!"
"Now, now, just a minute, Willie!" she said. "What I wanted to explain was why it's necessary for you to go with Genesis for the—"
"Never!" he shouted. "Never! You expect me to walk through the public streets with that awful-lookin' old nigger—"
"Genesis isn't old," she managed to interpolate. "He—"
But her frantic son disregarded her. "Second-hand wash-tubs!" he vociferated. "And tin clothes-boilers! THAT'S what you want your SON to carry through the public streets in broad daylight! Ye gods!"
"Well, there isn't anybody else," she said. "Please don't rave so, Willie, and say 'Ye gods' so much; it really isn't nice. I'm sure nobody 'll notice you—"
"'Nobody'!" His voice cracked in anguish. "Oh no! Nobody except the whole town! WHY, when there's anything disgusting has to be done in this family—why do I always have to be the one? Why can't Genesis bring the second-hand wash-tubs without ME? Why can't the second-hand store deliver 'em? Why can't—"
"That's what I want to tell you," she interposed, hurriedly, and as the youth lifted his arms on high in a gesture of ultimate despair, and then threw himself miserably into a chair, she obtained the floor. "The second-hand store doesn't deliver things," she said. "I bought them at an auction, and it's going out of business, and they have to be taken away before half past four this afternoon. Genesis can't bring them in the wheelbarrow, because, he says, the wheel is broken, and he says he can't possibly carry two tubs and a wash-boiler himself; and he can't make two trips because it's a mile and a half, and I don't like to ask him, anyway; and it would take too long, because he has to get back and finish cutting the grass before your papa gets home this evening. Papa said he HAD to! Now, I don't like to ask you, but it really isn't much. You and Genesis can just slip up there and—"
"Slip!" moaned William. "'Just SLIP up there'! Ye gods!"
"Genesis is waiting on the back porch," she said. "Really it isn't worth your making all this fuss about."
"Oh no!" he returned, with plaintive satire. "It's nothing! Nothing at all!"
"Why, I shouldn't mind it," she said; briskly, "if I had the time. In fact, I'll have to, if you won't."
"Ye gods!" He clasped his head in his hands, crushed, for he knew that the curse was upon him and he must go. "Ye gods!"
And then, as he stamped to the door, his tragic eye fell upon Jane, and he emitted a final cry of pain:
"Can't you EVER wash your face?" he shouted.
GENESIS AND CLEMATIS
Genesis and his dog were waiting just outside the kitchen door, and of all the world these two creatures were probably the last in whose company William Sylvanus Baxter desired to make a public appearance. Genesis was an out-of-doors man and seldom made much of a toilet; his overalls in particular betraying at important points a lack of the anxiety he should have felt, since only Genesis himself, instead of a supplementary fabric, was directly underneath them. And the aged, grayish, sleeveless and neckless garment which sheltered him from waist to collar-bone could not have been mistaken for a jersey, even though what there was of it was dimly of a jerseyesque character. Upon the feet of Genesis were things which careful study would have revealed to be patent-leather dancing-pumps, long dead and several times buried; and upon his head, pressing down his markedly criminal ears, was a once-derby hat of a brown not far from Genesis's own color, though decidedly without his gloss. A large ring of strange metals with the stone missing, adorned a finger of his right hand, and from a corner of his mouth projected an unlighted and spreading cigar stub which had the appearance of belonging to its present owner merely by right of salvage.
And Genesis's dog, scratching himself at his master's feet, was the true complement of Genesis, for although he was a youngish dog, and had not long been the property of Genesis, he was a dog that would have been recognized anywhere in the world as a colored person's dog. He was not a special breed of dog—though there was something rather houndlike about him—he was just a dog. His expression was grateful but anxious, and he was unusually bald upon the bosom, but otherwise whitish and brownish, with a gaunt, haunting face and no power to look anybody in the eye.
He rose apprehensively as the fuming William came out of the kitchen, but he was prepared to follow his master faithfully, and when William and Genesis reached the street the dog was discovered at their heels, whereupon William came to a decisive halt.
"Send that dog back," he said, resolutely. "I'm not going through the streets with a dog like that, anyhow!"
Genesis chuckled. "He ain' goin' back," he said. "'Ain' nobody kin make 'at dog go back. I 'ain' had him mo'n two weeks, but I don' b'lieve Pres'dent United States kin make 'at dog go back! I show you." And, wheeling suddenly, he made ferocious gestures, shouting. "G'on back, dog!"
The dog turned, ran back a few paces, halted, and then began to follow again, whereupon Genesis pretended to hurl stones at him; but the animal only repeated his manoeuver—and he repeated it once more when William aided Genesis by using actual missiles, which were dodged with almost careless adeptness.
"I'll show him!" said William, hotly. "I'll show him he can't follow ME!" He charged upon the dog, shouting fiercely, and this seemed to do the work, for the hunted animal, abandoning his partial flights, turned a tucked-under tail, ran all the way back to the alley, and disappeared from sight. "There!" said William. "I guess that 'll show him!"
"I ain' bettin' on it!" said Genesis, as they went on. "He nev' did stop foll'in' me yet. I reckon he the foll'indest dog in the worl'! Name Clem."
"Well, he can't follow ME!" said the surging William, in whose mind's eye lingered the vision of an exquisite doglet, with pink-ribboned throat and a cottony head bobbing gently over a filmy sleeve. "He doesn't come within a mile of ME, no matter what his name is!"
"Name Clem fer short," said Genesis, amiably. "I trade in a mandoline fer him what had her neck kind o' busted off on one side. I couldn' play her nohow, an' I found her, anyways. Yes-suh, I trade in 'at mandoline fer him 'cause always did like to have me a good dog—but I d'in' have me no name fer him; an' this here Blooie Bowers, what I trade in the mandoline to, he say HE d'in have no name fer him. Say nev' did know if WAS a name fer him 'tall. So I'z spen' the evenin' at 'at lady's house, Fanny, what used to be cook fer Miz Johnson, nex' do' you' maw's; an' I ast Fanny what am I go'n' a do about it, an' Fanny say, 'Call him Clematis,' she say. ''At's a nice name!' she say. 'Clematis.' So 'at's name I name him, Clematis. Call him Clem fer short, but Clematis his real name. He'll come, whichever one you call him, Clem or Clematis. Make no diff'ence to him, long's he git his vittles. Clem or Clematis, HE ain' carin'!"
William's ear was deaf to this account of the naming of Clematis; he walked haughtily, but as rapidly as possible, trying to keep a little in advance of his talkative companion, who had never received the training as a servitor which should have taught him his proper distance from the Young Master. William's suffering eyes were fixed upon remoteness; and his lips moved, now and then, like a martyr's, pronouncing inaudibly a sacred word. "Milady! Oh, Milady!"
Thus they had covered some three blocks of their journey—the too-democratic Genesis chatting companionably and William burning with mortification—when the former broke into loud laughter.
"What I tell you?" he cried, pointing ahead. "Look ayonnuh! NO, suh, Pres'dent United States hisse'f ain' go tell 'at dog stay home!"
And there, at the corner before them, waited Clematis, roguishly lying in a mud-puddle in the gutter. He had run through alleys parallel to their course—and in the face of such demoniac cunning the wretched William despaired of evading his society. Indeed, there was nothing to do but to give up, and so the trio proceeded, with William unable to decide which contaminated him more, Genesis or the loyal Clematis. To his way of thinking, he was part of a dreadful pageant, and he winced pitiably whenever the eye of a respectable passer-by fell upon him. Everybody seemed to stare—nay, to leer! And he felt that the whole world would know his shame by nightfall.
Nobody, he reflected, seeing him in such company, could believe that he belonged to "one of the oldest and best families in town." Nobody would understand that he was not walking with Genesis for the pleasure of his companionship—until they got the tubs and the wash-boiler, when his social condition must be thought even more degraded. And nobody, he was shudderingly positive, could see that Clematis was not his dog (Clematis kept himself humbly a little in the rear, but how was any observer to know that he belonged to Genesis and not to William?)
And how frightful that THIS should befall him on such a day, the very day that his soul had been split asunder by the turquoise shafts of Milady's eyes and he had learned to know the Real Thing at last!
"Milady! Oh, Milady!"
For in the elder teens adolescence may be completed, but not by experience, and these years know their own tragedies. It is the time of life when one finds it unendurable not to seem perfect in all outward matters: in worldly position, in the equipments of wealth, in family, and in the grace, elegance, and dignity of all appearances in public. And yet the youth is continually betrayed by the child still intermittently insistent within him, and by the child which undiplomatic people too often assume him to be. Thus with William's attire: he could ill have borne any suggestion that it was not of the mode, but taking care of it was a different matter. Also, when it came to his appetite, he could and would eat anything at any time, but something younger than his years led him—often in semi-secrecy—to candy-stores and soda-water fountains and ice-cream parlors; he still relished green apples and knew cravings for other dangerous inedibles. But these survivals were far from painful to him; what injured his sensibilities was the disposition on the part of people especially his parents, and frequently his aunts and uncles—to regard him as a little boy. Briefly, the deference his soul demanded in its own right, not from strangers only, but from his family, was about that which is supposed to be shown a Grand Duke visiting his Estates. Therefore William suffered often.
But the full ignominy of the task his own mother had set him this afternoon was not realized until he and Genesis set forth upon the return journey from the second-hand shop, bearing the two wash-tubs, a clothes-wringer (which Mrs. Baxter had forgotten to mention), and the tin boiler—and followed by the lowly Clematis.
SORROWS WITHIN A BOILER
There was something really pageant-like about the little excursion now, and the glittering clothes-boiler, borne on high, sent flashing lights far down the street. The wash-tubs were old-fashioned, of wood; they refused to fit one within the other; so William, with his right hand, and Genesis, with his left, carried one of the tubs between them; Genesis carried the heavy wringer with his right hand, and he had fastened the other tub upon his back by means of a bit of rope which passed over his shoulder; thus the tin boiler, being a lighter burden, fell to William.
The cover would not stay in place, but continually fell off when he essayed to carry the boiler by one of its handles, and he made shift to manage the accursed thing in various ways—the only one proving physically endurable being, unfortunately, the most grotesque. He was forced to carry the cover in his left hand and to place his head partially within the boiler itself, and to support it—tilted obliquely to rest upon his shoulders—as a kind of monstrous tin cowl or helmet. This had the advantage of somewhat concealing his face, though when he leaned his head back, in order to obtain clearer vision of what was before him, the boiler slid off and fell to the pavement with a noise that nearly caused a runaway, and brought the hot-cheeked William much derisory attention from a passing street-car. However, he presently caught the knack of keeping it in position, and it fell no more.
Seen from the rear, William was unrecognizable—but interesting. He appeared to be a walking clothes-boiler, armed with a shield and connected, by means of a wash-tub, with a negro of informal ideas concerning dress. In fact, the group was whimsical, and three young people who turned in behind it, out of a cross-street, indulged immediately in fits of inadequately suppressed laughter, though neither Miss May Parcher nor Mr. Johnnie Watson even remotely suspected that the legs beneath the clothes-boiler belonged to an acquaintance. And as for the third of this little party, Miss Parcher's visitor, those peregrinating legs suggested nothing familiar to her.
"Oh, see the fun-ee laundrymans!" she cried, addressing a cottony doglet's head that bobbed gently up and down over her supporting arm. "Sweetest Flopit must see, too! Flopit, look at the fun-ee laundrymans!"
"'Sh!" murmured Miss Parcher, choking. "He might hear you."
He might, indeed, since they were not five yards behind him and the dulcet voice was clear and free. Within the shadowy interior of the clothes-boiler were features stricken with sudden, utter horror. "FLOPIT!"
The attention of Genesis was attracted by a convulsive tugging of the tub which he supported in common with William; it seemed passionately to urge greater speed. A hissing issued from the boiler, and Genesis caught the words, huskily whispered:
"Walk faster! You got to walk faster."
The tub between them tugged forward with a pathos of appeal wasted upon the easy-going Genesis.
"I got plenty time cut 'at grass befo' you' pa gits home," he said, reassuringly. "Thishere rope what I got my extry tub slung to is 'mos' wo' plum thew my hide."
Having uttered this protest, he continued to ambulate at the same pace, though somewhat assisted by the forward pull of the connecting tub, an easance of burden which he found pleasant; and no supplementary message came from the clothes-boiler, for the reason that it was incapable of further speech. And so the two groups maintained for a time their relative positions, about fifteen feet apart.
The amusement of the second group having abated through satiety, the minds of its components turned to other topics. "Now Flopit must have his darlin' 'ickle run," said Flopit's mistress, setting the doglet upon the ground. "That's why sweetest Flopit and I and all of us came for a walk, instead of sitting on the nice, cool porch-kins. SEE the sweetie toddle! Isn't he adorable, May? ISN'T he adorable, Mr. Watson?"
Mr. Watson put a useless sin upon his soul, since all he needed to say was a mere "Yes." He fluently avowed himself to have become insane over the beauty of Flopit.
Flopit, placed upon the ground, looked like something that had dropped from a Christmas tree, and he automatically made use of fuzzy legs, somewhat longer than a caterpillar's, to patter after his mistress. He was neither enterprising nor inquisitive; he kept close to the rim of her skirt, which was as high as he could see, and he wished to be taken up and carried again. He was in a half-stupor; it was his desire to remain in that condition, and his propulsion was almost wholly subconscious, though surprisingly rapid, considering his dimensions.
"My goo'ness!" exclaimed Genesis, glancing back over his shoulder. "'At li'l' thing ack like he think he go'n a GIT somewheres!" And then, in answer to a frantic pull upon the tub, "Look like you mighty strong t'day," he said. "I cain' go no fastuh!" He glanced back again, chuckling. "'At li'l' bird do well not mix up nothin' 'ith ole man Clematis!"
Clematis, it happened, was just coming into view, having been detained round the corner by his curiosity concerning a set of Louis XVI. furniture which some house-movers were unpacking upon the sidewalk. A curl of excelsior, in fact, had attached itself to his nether lip, and he was pausing to remove it—when his roving eye fell upon Flopit. Clematis immediately decided to let the excelsior remain where it was, lest he miss something really important.
He approached with glowing eagerness at a gallop.
Then, having almost reached his goal, he checked himself with surprising abruptness and walked obliquely beside Flopit, but upon a parallel course, his manner agitated and his brow furrowed with perplexity. Flopit was about the size of Clematis's head, and although Clematis was certain that Flopit was something alive, he could not decide what.
Flopit paid not the slightest attention to Clematis. The self-importance of dogs, like that of the minds of men, is in directly inverse ratio to their size; and if the self-importance of Flopit could have been taken out of him and given to an elephant, that elephant would have been insufferable.
Flopit continued to pay no attention to Clematis.
All at once, a roguish and irresponsible mood seized upon Clematis; he laid his nose upon the ground, deliberating a bit of gaiety, and then, with a little rush, set a large, rude paw upon the sensitive face of Flopit and capsized him. Flopit uttered a bitter complaint in an asthmatic voice.
"Oh, nassy dray bid Horror!" cried his mistress, turning quickly at this sound and waving a pink parasol at Clematis. "Shoo! DIRTY dog! Go 'way!" And she was able somehow to connect him with the wash-tub and boiler, for she added, "Nassy laundrymans to have bad doggies!"
Mr. Watson rushed upon Clematis with angry bellowings and imaginary missiles. "You disgusting brute!" he roared. "How DARE you?"
Apparently much alarmed, Clematis lowered his ears, tucked his tail underneath him, and fled to the rear, not halting once or looking back until he disappeared round the corner whence he had come. "There!" said Mr. Watson. "I guess HE won't bother us again very soon!"
It must be admitted that Milady was one of those people who do not mind being overheard, no matter what they say. "Lucky for us," she said, "we had a nice dray bid MANS to protect us, wasn't it, Flopit?" And she thought it necessary to repeat something she had already made sufficiently emphatic.
"I expect I gave that big mongrel the fright of his life," said Mr. Watson, with complacency. "He'll probably run a mile!"
The shoulders of Genesis shook as he was towed along by the convulsive tub. He knew from previous evidence that Clematis possessed both a high quality and a large quantity of persistence, and it was his hilarious opinion that the dog had not gone far. As a matter of fact, the head of Clematis was at this moment cautiously extended from behind the fence-post at the corner whither he had fled. Viewing with growing assurance the scene before him, he permitted himself to emerge wholly, and sat down, with his head tilted to one side in thought. Almost at the next corner the clothes-boiler with legs, and the wash-tubs, and Genesis were marching on; and just behind them went three figures not so familiar to Clematis, and connected in his mind with a vague, mild apprehension. But all backs were safely toward him, and behind them pattered that small live thing which had so profoundly interested him.
He rose and came on apace, silently.
When he reached the side of Flopit, some eight or nine seconds later, Clematis found himself even more fascinated and perplexed than during their former interview, though again Flopit seemed utterly to disregard him. Clematis was not at all sure that Flopit WAS a dog, but he felt that it was his business to find out. Heaven knows, so far, Clematis had not a particle of animosity in his heart, but he considered it his duty to himself—in case Flopit turned out not to be a dog—to learn just what he was. The thing might be edible.
Therefore, again pacing obliquely beside Flopit (while the human beings ahead went on, unconscious of the approaching climax behind them) Clematis sought to detect, by senses keener than sight, some evidence of Flopit's standing in the zoological kingdom; and, sniffing at the top of Flopit's head—though Clematis was uncertain about its indeed being a head—he found himself baffled and mentally much disturbed.
Flopit did not smell like a dog; he smelled of violets.
Clematis frowned and sneezed as the infinitesimal particles of sachet powder settled in the lining of his nose. He became serious, and was conscious of a growing feeling of dislike; he began to be upset over the whole matter. But his conscience compelled him to persist in his attempt to solve the mystery; and also he remembered that one should be courteous, no matter what some other thing chooses to be. Hence he sought to place his nose in contact with Flopit's, for he had perceived on the front of the mysterious stranger a buttony something which might possibly be a nose.
Flopit evaded the contact. He felt that he had endured about enough from this Apache, and that it was nearly time to destroy him. Having no experience of battle, save with bedroom slippers and lace handkerchiefs, Flopit had little doubt of his powers as a warrior. Betrayed by his majestic self-importance, he had not the remotest idea that he was small. Usually he saw the world from a window, or from the seat of an automobile, or over his mistress's arm. He looked down on all dogs, thought them ruffianly, despised them; and it is the miraculous truth that not only was he unaware that he was small, but he did not even know that he was a dog, himself. He did not think about himself in that way.
From these various ignorances of his sprang his astonishing, his incredible, valor. Clematis, with head lowered close to Flopit's, perceived something peering at him from beneath the tangled curtain of cottony, violet-scented stuff which seemed to be the upper part of Flopit's face. It was Flopit's eye, a red-rimmed eye and sore—and so demoniacally malignant that Clematis, indescribably startled, would have withdrawn his own countenance at once—but it was too late. With a fearful oath Flopit sprang upward and annexed himself to the under lip of the horrified Clematis.
Horror gave place to indignation instantly; and as Miss Parcher and her guest turned, screaming, Clematis's self-command went all to pieces.
Miss Parcher became faint and leaned against the hedge along which they had been passing, but her visitor continued to scream, while Mr. Watson endeavored to kick Clematis without ruining Flopit—a difficult matter.
Flopit was baresark from the first, and the mystery is where he learned the dog-cursing that he did. In spite of the David-and-Goliath difference in size it would be less than justice to deny that a very fair dog-fight took place. It was so animated, in truth, that the one expert in such matters who was present found himself warmly interested. Genesis relieved himself of the burden of the wash-tub upon his back, dropped the handle of that other in which he had a half-interest, and watched the combat; his mouth, like his eyes, wide open in simple pleasure.
He was not destined to enjoy the spectacle to the uttermost; a furious young person struck him a frantic, though harmless, blow with a pink parasol.
"You stop them!" she screamed. "You make that horrible dog stop, or I'll have you arrested!"
Genesis rushed forward.
"You CLEM!" he shouted.
And instantly Clematis was but a whitish and brownish streak along the hedge. He ran like a dog in a moving picture when they speed the film, and he shot from sight, once more, round the corner, while Flopit, still cursing, was seized and squeezed in his mistress's embrace.
But she was not satisfied. "Where's that laundryman with the tin thing on his head?" she demanded. "He ought to be arrested for having such a dog. It's HIS dog, isn't it? Where is he?"
Genesis turned and looked round about the horizon, mystified. William Sylvanus Baxter and the clothes-boiler had disappeared from sight.
"If he owns that dog," asserted the still furious owner of Flopit, "I WILL have him arrested. Where is he? Where is that laundryman?"
"Why, he," Genesis began slowly, "HE ain' no laundrym—" He came to an uncertain pause. If she chose to assume, with quick feminine intuition, that the dog was William's and that William was a laundryman, it was not Genesis's place to enlighten her. "'Tic'larly," he reflected, "since she talk so free about gittin' people 'rested!" He became aware that William had squirmed through the hedge and now lay prostrate on the other side of it, but this, likewise, was something within neither his duty nor his inclination to reveal.
"Thishere laundryman," said Genesis, resuming—"thishere laundryman what own the dog, I reckon he mus' hopped on 'at street-car what went by."
"Well, he OUGHT to be arrested!" she said, and, pressing her cheek to Flopit's, she changed her tone. "Izzum's ickle heart a-beatin' so floppity! Um's own mumsy make ums all right, um's p'eshus Flopit!"
Then with the consoling Miss Parcher's arm about her, and Mr. Watson even more dazzled with love than when he had first met her, some three hours past, she made her way between the tubs, and passed on down the street. Not till the three (and Flopit) were out of sight did William come forth from the hedge.
"Hi yah!" exclaimed Genesis. "'At lady go'n a 'rest ev'y man what own a dog, 'f she had her way!"
But William spoke no word.
In silence, then, they resumed their burdens and their journey. Clematis was waiting for them at the corner ahead.
MR. BAXTER'S EVENING CLOTHES
That evening, at about half-past seven o'clock, dinner being over and Mr. and Mrs. Baxter (parents of William) seated in the library, Mrs. Baxter said:
"I think it's about time for you to go and dress for your Emerson Club meeting, papa, if you intend to go."
"Do I have to dress?" Mr. Baxter asked, plaintively.
"I think nearly all the men do, don't they?" she insisted.
"But I'm getting old enough not to have to, don't you think, mamma?" he urged, appealingly. "When a man's my age—"
"Nonsense!" she said. "Your figure is exactly like William's. It's the figure that really shows age first, and yours hasn't begun to." And she added, briskly, "Go along like a good boy and get it ever!"
Mr. Baxter rose submissively and went upstairs to do as he was bid. But, after fifteen or twenty minutes, during which his footsteps had been audible in various parts of the house, he called down over the banisters:
"I can't find 'em."
"Can't find what?"
"My evening clothes. They aren't anywhere in the house."
"Where did you put them the last time you wore them?" she called.
"I don't know. I haven't had 'em on since last spring."
"All right; I'll come," she said, putting her sewing upon the table and rising. "Men never can find anything," she observed, additionally, as she ascended the stairs. "Especially their own things!"
On this occasion, however, as she was obliged to admit a little later, women were not more efficacious than the duller sex. Search high, search low, no trace of Mr. Baxter's evening clothes were to be found. "Perhaps William could find them," said Mrs. Baxter, a final confession of helplessness.
But William was no more to be found than the missing apparel. William, in fact, after spending some time in the lower back hall, listening to the quest above, had just gone out through the kitchen door. And after some ensuing futile efforts, Mr. Baxter was forced to proceed to his club in the accoutrements of business.
He walked slowly, enjoying the full moon, which sailed up a river in the sky—the open space between the trees that lined the street—and as he passed the house of Mr. Parcher he noted the fine white shape of a masculine evening bosom gleaming in the moonlight on the porch. A dainty figure in white sat beside it, and there was another white figure present, though this one was so small that Mr. Baxter did not see it at all. It was the figure of a tiny doglet, and it reposed upon the black masculine knees that belonged to the evening bosom.
Mr. Baxter heard a dulcet voice.
"He IS indifferink, isn't he, sweetest Flopit? Seriously, though, Mr. Watson was telling me about you to-day. He says you're the most indifferent man he knows. He says you don't care two minutes whether a girl lives or dies. Isn't he a mean ole wicked sing, p'eshus Flopit!"
The reply was inaudible, and Mr. Baxter passed on, having recognized nothing of his own.
"These YOUNG fellows don't have any trouble finding their dress-suits, I guess," he murmured. "Not on a night like this!"
... Thus William, after a hard day, came to the gates of his romance, entering those portals of the moon in triumph. At one stroke his dashing raiment gave him high superiority over Johnnie Watson and other rivals who might loom. But if he had known to what undoing this great coup exposed him, it is probable that Mr. Baxter would have appeared at the Emerson Club, that night, in evening clothes.
William's period of peculiar sensitiveness dated from that evening, and Jane, in particular, caused him a great deal of anxiety. In fact, he began to feel that Jane was a mortification which his parents might have spared him, with no loss to themselves or to the world. Not having shown that consideration for anybody, they might at least have been less spinelessly indulgent of her. William's bitter conviction was that he had never seen a child so starved of discipline or so lost to etiquette as Jane.
For one thing, her passion for bread-and-butter, covered with apple sauce and powdered sugar, was getting to be a serious matter. Secretly, William was not yet so changed by love as to be wholly indifferent to this refection himself, but his consumption of it was private, whereas Jane had formed the habit of eating it in exposed places—such as the front yard or the sidewalk. At no hour of the day was it advisable for a relative to approach the neighborhood in fastidious company, unless prepared to acknowledge kinship with a spindly young person either eating bread-and-butter and apple sauce and powdered sugar, or all too visibly just having eaten bread-and-butter and apple sauce and powdered sugar. Moreover, there were times when Jane had worse things than apple sauce to answer for, as William made clear to his mother in an oration as hot as the July noon sun which looked down upon it.
Mrs. Baxter was pleasantly engaged with a sprinkling-can and some small flower-beds in the shady back yard, and Jane, having returned from various sidewalk excursions, stood close by as a spectator, her hands replenished with the favorite food and her chin rising and falling in gentle motions, little prophecies of the slight distensions which passed down her slender throat with slow, rhythmic regularity. Upon this calm scene came William, plunging round a corner of the house, furious yet plaintive.
"You've got to do something about that child!" he began. "I CAN not stand it!"
Jane looked at him dumbly, not ceasing, how ever, to eat; while Mrs. Baxter thoughtfully continued her sprinkling.
"You've been gone all morning, Willie," she said. "I thought your father mentioned at breakfast that he expected you to put in at least four hours a day on your mathematics and—"
"That's neither here nor there," William returned, vehemently. "I just want to say this: if you don't do something about Jane, I will! Just look at her! LOOK at her, I ask you! That's just the way she looked half an hour ago, out on the public sidewalk in front of the house, when I came by here with Miss PRATT! That was pleasant, wasn't it? To be walking with a lady on the public street and meet a member of my family looking like that! Oh, LOVELY!"
In the anguish of this recollection his voice cracked, and though his eyes were dry his gestures wept for him. Plainly, he was about to reach the most lamentable portion of his narrative. "And then she HOLLERED at me! She hollered, 'Oh, WILL—EE!'" Here he gave an imitation of Jane's voice, so damnatory that Jane ceased to eat for several moments and drew herself up with a kind of dignity. "She hollered, 'Oh, WILL—EE' at me!" he stormed. "Anybody would think I was about six years old! She hollered, 'Oh, Will—ee,' and she rubbed her stomach and slushed apple sauce all over her face, and she kept hollering, 'Will—ee!' with her mouth full. 'Will—ee, look! Good! Bread-and-butter and apple sauce and sugar! I bet you wish YOU had some, Will—ee!'"
"You did eat some, the other day," said Jane. "You ate a whole lot. You eat it every chance you get!"
"You hush up!" he shouted, and returned to his description of the outrage. "She kept FOLLOWING us! She followed us, hollering, 'WILL—EE!' till it's a wonder we didn't go deaf! And just look at her! I don't see how you can stand it to have her going around like that and people knowing it's your child! Why, she hasn't got enough ON!"
Mrs. Baxter laughed. "Oh, for this very hot weather, I really don't think people notice or care much about—"
"'Notice'!" he wailed. "I guess Miss PRATT noticed! Hot weather's no excuse for—for outright obesity!" (As Jane was thin, it is probable that William had mistaken the meaning of this word.) "Why, half o' what she HAS got on has come unfastened—especially that frightful thing hanging around her leg—and look at her back, I just beg you! I ask you to look at her back. You can see her spinal cord!"
"Column," Mrs. Baxter corrected. "Spinal column, Willie."
"What do I care which it is?" he fumed. "People aren't supposed to go around with it EXPOSED, whichever it is! And with apple sauce on their ears!"
"There is not!" Jane protested, and at the moment when she spoke she was right. Naturally, however, she lifted her hands to the accused ears, and the unfortunate result was to justify William's statement.
"LOOK!" he cried. "I just ask you to look! Think of it: that's the sight I have to meet when I'm out walking with Miss PRATT! She asked me who it was, and I wish you'd seen her face. She wanted to know who 'that curious child' was, and I'm glad you didn't hear the way she said it. 'Who IS that curious child?' she said, and I had to tell her it was my sister. I had to tell Miss PRATT it was my only SISTER!"
"Willie, who is Miss Pratt?" asked Mrs. Baxter, mildly. "I don't think I've ever heard of—"
Jane had returned to an admirable imperturbability, but she chose this moment to interrupt her mother, and her own eating, with remarks delivered in a tone void of emphasis or expression.
"Willie's mashed on her," she said, casually. "And she wears false side-curls. One almost came off."
At this unspeakable desecration William's face was that of a high priest stricken at the altar.
"She's visitin' Miss May Parcher," added the deadly Jane. "But the Parchers are awful tired of her. They wish she'd go home, but they don't like to tell her so."
One after another these insults from the canaille fell upon the ears of William. That slanders so atrocious could soil the universal air seemed unthinkable.
He became icily calm.
"NOW if you don't punish her," he said, deliberately, "it's because you have lost your sense of duty!"
Having uttered these terrible words, he turned upon his heel and marched toward the house. His mother called after him:
"Wait, Willie. Jane doesn't mean to hurt your feelings—"
"My feelings!" he cried, the iciness of his demeanor giving way under the strain of emotion. "You stand there and allow her to speak as she did of one of the—one of the—" For a moment William appeared to be at a loss, and the fact is that it always has been a difficult matter to describe THE bright, ineffable divinity of the world to one's mother, especially in the presence of an inimical third party of tender years. "One of the—" he said; "one of the—the noblest—one of the noblest—"
Again he paused.
"Oh, Jane didn't mean anything," said Mrs. Baxter. "And if you think Miss Pratt is so nice, I'll ask May Parcher to bring her to tea with us some day. If it's too hot, we'll have iced tea, and you can ask Johnnie Watson, if you like. Don't get so upset about things, Willie!"
"'Upset'!" he echoed, appealing to heaven against this word. "'Upset'!" And he entered the house in a manner most dramatic.
"What made you say that?" Mrs. Baxter asked, turning curiously to Jane when William had disappeared. "Where did you hear any such things?"
"I was there," Jane replied, gently eating on and on. William could come and William could go, but Jane's alimentary canal went on forever.
"You were where, Jane?"
"At the Parchers'."
"Oh, I see."
"Yesterday afternoon," said Jane, "when Miss Parcher had the Sunday-school class for lemonade and cookies."
"Did you hear Miss Parcher say—"
"No'm," said Jane. "I ate too many cookies, I guess, maybe. Anyways, Miss Parcher said I better lay down—"
"LIE down, Jane."
"Yes'm. On the sofa in the liberry, an' Mrs. Parcher an' Mr. Parcher came in there an' sat down, after while, an' it was kind of dark, an' they didn't hardly notice me, or I guess they thought I was asleep, maybe. Anyways, they didn't talk loud, but Mr. Parcher would sort of grunt an' ack cross. He said he just wished he knew when he was goin' to have a home again. Then Mrs. Parcher said May HAD to ask her Sunday-school class, but he said he never meant the Sunday-school class. He said since Miss Pratt came to visit, there wasn't anywhere he could go, because Willie Baxter an' Johnnie Watson an' Joe Bullitt an' all the other ones like that were there all the time, an' it made him just sick at the stummick, an' he did wish there was some way to find out when she was goin' home, because he couldn't stand much more talk about love. He said Willie an' Johnnie Watson an' Joe Bullitt an' Miss Pratt were always arguin' somep'm about love, an' he said Willie was the worst. Mamma, he said he didn't like the rest of it, but he said he guessed he could stand it if it wasn't for Willie. An' he said the reason they were all so in love of Miss Pratt was because she talks baby-talk, an' he said he couldn't stand much more baby-talk. Mamma, she has the loveliest little white dog, an' Mr. Parcher doesn't like it. He said he couldn't go anywhere around the place without steppin' on the dog or Willie Baxter. An' he said he couldn't sit on his own porch any more; he said he couldn't sit even in the liberry but he had to hear baby-talk goin' on SOMEwheres an' then either Willie Baxter or Joe Bullitt or somebody or another arguin' about love. Mamma, he said"—Jane became impressive—"he said, mamma, he said he didn't mind the Sunday-school class, but he couldn't stand those dam boys!"
"Jane!" Mrs. Baxter cried, "you MUSTN'T say such things!"
"I didn't, mamma. Mr. Parcher said it. He said he couldn't stand those da—"
"JANE! No matter what he said, you mustn't repeat—"
"But I'm not. I only said Mr. PARCHER said he couldn't stand those d—"
Mrs. Baxter cut the argument short by imprisoning Jane's mouth with a firm hand. Jane continued to swallow quietly until released. Then she said:
"But, mamma, how can I tell you what he said unless I say—"
"Hush!" Mrs. Baxter commanded. "You must never, never again use such a terrible and wicked word."
"I won't, mamma," Jane said, meekly. Then she brightened. "Oh, I know! I'll say 'word' instead. Won't that be all right?"
"I—I suppose so."
"Well, Mr. Parcher said he couldn't stand those word boys. That sounds all right, doesn't it, mamma?"
Mrs. Baxter hesitated, but she was inclined to hear as complete as possible a report of Mr. and Mrs. Parcher's conversation, since it seemed to concern William so nearly; and she well knew that Jane had her own way of telling things—or else they remained untold.
"I—I suppose so," Mrs. Baxter said, again.
"Well, they kind of talked along," Jane continued, much pleased;—"an' Mr. Parcher said when he was young he wasn't any such a—such a word fool as these young word fools were. He said in all his born days Willie Baxter was the wordest fool he ever saw!"
Willie Baxter's mother flushed a little. "That was very unjust and very wrong of Mr. Parcher," she said, primly.
"Oh no, mamma!" Jane protested. "Mrs. Parcher thought so, too."
"Did she, indeed!"
"Only she didn't say word or wordest or anything like that," Jane explained. "She said it was because Miss Pratt had coaxed him to be so in love of her, an' Mr. Parcher said he didn't care whose fault it was, Willie was a—a word calf an' so were all the rest of 'em, Mr. Parcher said. An' he said he couldn't stand it any more. Mr. Parcher said that a whole lot of times, mamma. He said he guess' pretty soon he'd haf to be in the lunatic asylum if Miss Pratt stayed a few more days with her word little dog an' her word Willie Baxter an' all the other word calfs. Mrs. Parcher said he oughtn't to say 'word,' mamma. She said, 'Hush, hush!' to him, mamma. He talked like this, mamma: he said, 'I'll be word if I stand it!' An' he kept gettin' crosser, an' he said, 'Word! Word! WORD! WOR—'"
"There!" Mrs. Baxter interrupted, sharply. "That will do, Jane! We'll talk about something else now, I think."
Jane looked hurt; she was taking great pleasure in this confidential interview, and gladly would have continued to quote the harried Mr. Parcher at great length. Still, she was not entirely uncontent: she must have had some perception that her performance merely as a notable bit of reportorial art—did not wholly lack style, even if her attire did. Yet, brilliant as Jane's work was, Mrs. Baxter felt no astonishment; several times ere this Jane had demonstrated a remarkable faculty for the retention of details concerning William. And running hand in hand with a really superb curiosity, this powerful memory was making Jane an even greater factor in William's life than he suspected.
During the glamors of early love, if there be a creature more deadly than the little brother of a budding woman, that creature is the little sister of a budding man. The little brother at least tells in the open all he knows, often at full power of his lungs, and even that may be avoided, since he is wax in the hands of bribery; but the little sister is more apt to save her knowledge for use upon a terrible occasion; and, no matter what bribes she may accept, she is certain to tell her mother everything. All in all, a young lover should arrange, if possible, to be the only child of elderly parents; otherwise his mother and sister are sure to know a great deal more about him than he knows that they know.
This was what made Jane's eyes so disturbing to William during lunch that day. She ate quietly and competently, but all the while he was conscious of her solemn and inscrutable gaze fixed upon him; and she spoke not once. She could not have rendered herself more annoying, especially as William was trying to treat her with silent scorn, for nothing is more irksome to the muscles of the face than silent scorn, when there is no means of showing it except by the expression. On the other hand, Jane's inscrutability gave her no discomfort whatever. In fact, inscrutability is about the most comfortable expression that a person can wear, though the truth is that just now Jane was not really inscrutable at all.
She was merely looking at William and thinking of Mr. Parcher.
LITTLE SISTERS HAVE BIG EARS
The confidential talk between mother and daughter at noon was not the last to take place that day. At nightfall—eight o'clock in this pleasant season—Jane was saying her prayers beside her bed, while her mother stood close by, waiting to put out the light.
"An' bless mamma and papa an'—" Jane murmured, coming to a pause. "An'—an' bless Willie," she added, with a little reluctance.
"Go on, dear," said her mother. "You haven't finished."
"I know it, mamma," Jane looked up to say. "I was just thinkin' a minute. I want to tell you about somep'm."
"Finish your prayers first, Jane."
Jane obeyed with a swiftness in which there was no intentional irreverence. Then she jumped into bed and began a fresh revelation.
"It's about papa's clo'es, mamma."
"What clothes of papa's? What do you mean, Jane?" asked Mrs. Baxter, puzzled.
"The ones you couldn't find. The ones you been lookin' for 'most every day."
"You mean papa's evening clothes?"
"Yes'm," said Jane. "Willie's got 'em on."
"Yes, he has!" Jane assured her with emphasis. "I bet you he's had 'em on every single evening since Miss Pratt came to visit the Parchers! Anyway, he's got 'em on now, 'cause I saw 'em."
Mrs. Baxter bit her lip and frowned. "Are you sure, Jane?"
"Yes'm. I saw him in 'em."
"Well, I was in my bare feet after I got undressed—before you came up-stairs—mamma, an' I was kind of walkin' around in the hall—"
"You shouldn't do that, Jane."
"No'm. An' I heard Willie say somep'm kind of to himself, or like deckamation. He was inside his room, but the door wasn't quite shut. He started out once, but he went back for somep'm an' forgot to, I guess. Anyway, I thought I better look an' see what was goin' on, mamma. So I just kind of peeked in—"
"But you shouldn't do that, dear," Mrs. Baxter said, musingly. "It isn't really quite honorable."
"No'm. Well, what you think he was doin'?" (Here Jane's voice betrayed excitement and so did her eyes.) "He was standin' up there in papa's clo'es before the lookin'-glass, an' first he'd lean his head over on one side, an' then he'd lean it over on the other side, an' then he'd bark, mamma."
"Yes'm!" said Jane. "He'd give a little, teeny BARK, mamma—kind of like a puppy, mamma."
"What?" cried Mrs. Baxter.
"Yes'm, he did!" Jane asserted. "He did it four or five times. First he'd lean his head way over on his shoulder like this—look, mamma!—an' then he'd lean it way over the other shoulder, an' every time he'd do it he'd bark. 'Berp-werp!' he'd say, mamma, just like that, only not loud at all. He said, 'Berp-werp! BERP-WERP-WERP!' You could tell he meant it for barkin', but it wasn't very good, mamma. What you think he meant, mamma?"
"Heaven knows!" murmured the astonished mother.
"An' then," Jane continued, "he quit barkin' all of a sudden, an' didn't lean his head over any more, an' commenced actin' kind of solemn, an' kind of whispered to himself. I think he was kind of pretendin' he was talkin' to Miss Pratt, or at a party, maybe. Anyways, he spoke out loud after while not just exactly LOUD, I mean, but anyway so's 't I could hear what he said. Mamma—he said, 'Oh, my baby-talk lady!' just like that, mamma. Listen, mamma, here's the way he said it: 'Oh, my baby-talk lady!'"
Jane's voice, in this impersonation, became sufficiently soft and tremulous to give Mrs. Baxter a fair idea of the tender yearning of the original. "'OH, MY BABY-TALK LADY!'" cooed the terrible Jane.
"Mercy!" Mrs. Baxter exclaimed. "Perhaps it's no wonder Mr. Parcher—" She broke off abruptly, then inquired, "What did he do next, Jane?"
"Next," said Jane, "he put the light out, an' I had to—well, I just waited kind of squeeged up against the wall, an' he never saw me. He went on out to the back stairs, an' went down the stairs tiptoe, mamma. You know what I think, mamma? I think he goes out that way an' through the kitchen on account of papa's clo'es."
Mrs. Baxter paused, with her hand upon the key of the shaded electric lamp. "I suppose so," she said. "I think perhaps—" For a moment or two she wrapped herself in thought. "Perhaps"—she repeated, musingly—"perhaps we'll keep this just a secret between you and me for a little while, Jane, and not say anything to papa about the clothes. I don't think it will hurt them, and I suppose Willie feels they give him a great advantage over the other boys—and papa uses them so very little, especially since he's grown a wee bit stouter. Yes, it will be our secret, Jane. We'll think it over till to-morrow."
Mrs. Baxter turned out the light, then came and kissed Jane in the dark. "Good night, dear."
"G' night, mamma." But as Mrs. Baxter reached the door Jane's voice was heard again.
"Yes?" Mrs. Baxter paused.
"Mamma," Jane said, slowly, "I think—I think Mr. Parcher is a very nice man. Mamma?"
"Mamma, what do you s'pose Willie barked at the lookin'-glass for?"
"That," said Mrs. Baxter, "is beyond me. Young people and children do the strangest things, Jane! And then, when they get to be middle-aged, they forget all those strange things they did, and they can't understand what the new young people—like you and Willie mean by the strange things THEY do."
"Yes'm. I bet I know what he was barkin' for, mamma."
"You know what I think? I think he was kind of practisin'. I think he was practisin' how to bark at Mr. Parcher."
"No, no!" Mrs. Baxter laughed. "Who ever could think of such a thing but you, Jane! You go to sleep and forget your nonsense!"
Nevertheless, Jane might almost have been gifted with clairvoyance, her preposterous idea came so close to the actual fact, for at that very moment William was barking. He was not barking directly at Mr. Parcher, it is true, but within a short distance of him and all too well within his hearing.
MR. PARCHER AND LOVE
Mr. Parcher, that unhappy gentleman, having been driven indoors from his own porch, had attempted to read Plutarch's Lives in the library, but, owing to the adjacency of the porch and the summer necessity for open windows, his escape spared only his eyes and not his suffering ears. The house was small, being but half of a double one, with small rooms, and the "parlor," library, and dining-room all about equally exposed to the porch which ran along the side of the house. Mr. Parcher had no refuge except bed or the kitchen, and as he was troubled with chronic insomnia, and the cook had callers in the kitchen, his case was desperate. Most unfortunately, too, his reading-lamp, the only one in the house, was a fixture near a window, and just beyond that window sat Miss Pratt and William in sweet unconsciousness, while Miss Parcher entertained the overflow (consisting of Mr. Johnnie Watson) at the other end of the porch. Listening perforce to the conversation of the former couple though "conversation" is far from the expression later used by Mr. Parcher to describe what he heard—he found it impossible to sit still in his chair. He jerked and twitched with continually increasing restlessness; sometimes he gasped, and other times he moaned a little, and there were times when he muttered huskily.
"Oh, cute-ums!" came the silvery voice of Miss Pratt from the likewise silvery porch outside, underneath the summer moon. "Darlin' Flopit, look! Ickle boy Baxter goin' make imitations of darlin' Flopit again. See! Ickle boy Baxter puts head one side, then other side, just like darlin' Flopit. Then barks just like darlin' Flopit! Ladies and 'entlemen, imitations of darlin' Flopit by ickle boy Baxter."
"Berp-werp! Berp-werp!" came the voice of William Sylvanus Baxter.
And in the library Plutarch's Lives moved convulsively, while with writhing lips Mr. Parcher muttered to himself.
"More, more!" cried Miss Pratt, clapping her hands. "Do it again, ickle boy Baxter!"
"WORD!" muttered Mr. Parcher.
Miss Pratt's voice became surcharged with honeyed wonder. "How did he learn such marv'lous, MARV'LOUS imitations of darlin' Flopit? He ought to go on the big, big stage and be a really actor, oughtn't he, darlin' Flopit? He could make milyums and milyums of dollardies, couldn't he, darlin' Flopit?"
William's modest laugh disclaimed any great ambition for himself in this line. "Oh, I always could think up imitations of animals; things like that—but I hardly would care to—to adop' the stage for a career. Would—you?" (There was a thrill in his voice when he pronounced the ineffably significant word "you.")
Miss Pratt became intensely serious.
"It's my DREAM!" she said.
William, seated upon a stool at her feet, gazed up at the amber head, divinely splashed by the rain of moonlight. The fire with which she spoke stirred him as few things had ever stirred him. He knew she had just revealed a side of herself which she reserved for only the chosen few who were capable of understanding her, and he fell into a hushed rapture. It seemed to him that there was a sacredness about this moment, and he sought vaguely for something to say that would live up to it and not be out of keeping. Then, like an inspiration, there came into his head some words he had read that day and thought beautiful. He had found them beneath an illustration in a magazine, and he spoke them almost instinctively.
"It was wonderful of you to say that to me," he said. "I shall never forget it!"
"It's my DREAM!" Miss Pratt exclaimed, again, with the same enthusiasm. "It's my DREAM."
"You would make a glorious actress!" he said.
At that her mood changed. She laughed a laugh like a sweet little girl's laugh (not Jane's) and, setting her rocking-chair in motion, cuddled the fuzzy white doglet in her arms. "Ickle boy Baxter t'yin' flatterbox us, tunnin' Flopit! No'ty, no'ty flatterbox!"
"No, no!" William insisted, earnestly. "I mean it. But—but—"
"What do you think about actors and actresses making love to each other on the stage? Do you think they have to really feel it, or do they just pretend?"
"Well," said Miss Pratt, weightily, "sometimes one way, sometimes the other."
William's gravity became more and more profound. "Yes, but how can they pretend like that? Don't you think love is a sacred thing, Cousin Lola?"
Fictitious sisterships, brotherships, and cousinships are devices to push things along, well known to seventeen and even more advanced ages. On the wonderful evening of their first meeting William and Miss Pratt had cozily arranged to be called, respectively, "Ickle boy Baxter" and "Cousin Lola." (Thus they had broken down the tedious formalities of their first twenty minutes together.)
"Don't you think love is sacred?" he repeated in the deepest tone of which his vocal cords were capable.
"Ess," said Miss Pratt.
"I do!" William was emphatic. "I think love is the most sacred thing there is. I don't mean SOME kinds of love. I mean REAL love. You take some people, I don't believe they ever know what real love means. They TALK about it, maybe, but they don't understand it. Love is something nobody can understand unless they feel it and and if they don't understand it they don't feel it. Don't YOU think so?"
"Love," William continued, his voice lifting and thrilling to the great theme—"love is something nobody can ever have but one time in their lives, and if they don't have it then, why prob'ly they never will. Now, if a man REALLY loves a girl, why he'd do anything in the world she wanted him to. Don't YOU think so?"
"Ess, 'deedums!" said the silvery voice.
"But if he didn't, then he wouldn't," said William vehemently. "But when a man really loves a girl he will. Now, you take a man like that and he can generally do just about anything the girl he loves wants him to. Say, f'rinstance, she wants him to love her even more than he does already—or almost anything like that—and supposin' she asks him to. Well, he would go ahead and do it. If they really loved each other he would!"
He paused a moment, then in a lowered tone he said, "I think REAL love is sacred, don't you?"
"Don't you think love is the most sacred thing there is—that is, if it's REAL love?"
"I do," said William, warmly. "I—I'm glad you feel like that, because I think real love is the kind nobody could have but just once in their lives, but if it isn't REAL love, why—why most people never have it at all, because—" He paused, seeming to seek for the exact phrase which would express his meaning. "—Because the REAL love a man feels for a girl and a girl for a man, if they REALLY love each other, and, you look at a case like that, of course they would BOTH love each other, or it wouldn't be real love well, what I say is, if it's REAL love, well, it's—it's sacred, because I think that kind of love is always sacred. Don't you think love is sacred if it's the real thing?"
"Ess," said Miss Pratt. "Do Flopit again. Be Flopit!"
And within the library an agonized man writhed and muttered:
"WORD! WORD! WORD—"
This hoarse repetition had become almost continuous.
... But out on the porch, that little, jasmine-scented bower in Arcady where youth cried to youth and golden heads were haloed in the moonshine, there fell a silence. Not utter silence, for out there an ethereal music sounded constantly, unheard and forgotten by older ears. Time was when the sly playwrights used "incidental music" in their dramas; they knew that an audience would be moved so long as the music played; credulous while that crafty enchantment lasted. And when the galled Mr. Parcher wondered how those young people out on the porch could listen to each other and not die, it was because he did not hear and had forgotten the music that throbs in the veins of youth. Nevertheless, it may not be denied that despite his poor memory this man of fifty was deserving of a little sympathy.
It was William who broke the silence. "How—" he began, and his voice trembled a little. "How—how do you—how do you think of me when I'm not with you?"
"Think nice-cums," Miss Pratt responded. "Flopit an' me think nice-cums."
"No," said William; "I mean what name do you have for me when you're when you're thinking about me?"
Miss Pratt seemed to be puzzled, perhaps justifiably, and she made a cooing sound of interrogation.
"I mean like this," William explained. "F'rinstance, when you first came, I always thought of you as 'Milady'—when I wrote that poem, you know."
"But now I don't," he said. "Now I think of you by another name when I'm alone. It—it just sort of came to me. I was kind of just sitting around this afternoon, and I didn't know I was thinking about anything at all very much, and then all of a sudden I said it to myself out loud. It was about as strange a thing as I ever knew of. Don't YOU think so?"
"Ess. It uz dest WEIRD!" she answered. "What ARE dat pitty names?"
"I called you," said William, huskily and reverently, "I called you 'My Baby-Talk Lady.'"
They were startled by a crash from within the library; a heavy weight seemed to have fallen (or to have been hurled) a considerable distance. Stepping to the window, William beheld a large volume lying in a distorted attitude at the foot of the wall opposite to that in which the reading-lamp was a fixture. But of all human life the room was empty; for Mr. Parcher had given up, and was now hastening to his bed in the last faint hope of saving his reason.
His symptoms, however, all pointed to its having fled; and his wife, looking up from some computations in laundry charges, had but a vision of windmill gestures as he passed the door of her room. Then, not only for her, but for the inoffensive people who lived in the other half of the house, the closing of his own door took place in a really memorable manner.
William, gazing upon the fallen Plutarch, had just offered the explanation, "Somebody must 'a' thrown it at a bug or something, I guess," when the second explosion sent its reverberations through the house.
"My doodness!" Miss Pratt exclaimed, jumping up.
William laughed reassuringly, remaining calm. "It's only a door blew shut up-stairs," he said "Let's sit down again—just the way we were?"
Unfortunately for him, Mr. Joe Bullitt now made his appearance at the other end of the porch. Mr. Bullitt, though almost a year younger than either William or Johnnie Watson, was of a turbulent and masterful disposition. Moreover, in regard to Miss Pratt, his affections were in as ardent a state as those of his rivals, and he lacked Johnnie's meekness. He firmly declined to be shunted by Miss Parcher, who was trying to favor William's cause, according to a promise he had won of her by strong pleading. Regardless of her efforts, Mr. Bullitt descended upon William and his Baby-Talk-Lady, and received from the latter a honeyed greeting, somewhat to the former's astonishment and not at all to his pleasure.
"Oh, goody-cute!" cried Miss Pratt. "Here's big Bruvva Josie-Joe!" And she lifted her little dog close to Mr. Bullitt's face, guiding one of Flopit's paws with her fingers. "Stroke big Bruvva Josie-Joe's pint teeks, darlin' Flopit." (Josie-Joe's pink cheeks were indicated by the expression "pint teeks," evidently, for her accompanying action was to pass Flopit's paw lightly over those glowing surfaces.) "'At's nice!" she remarked. "Stroke him gently, p'eshus Flopit, an' nen we'll coax him to make pitty singin' for us, like us did yestiday."
She turned to William.
"COAX him to make pitty singin'? I LOVE his voice—I'm dest CRAZY over it. Isn't oo?"
William's passion for Mr. Bullitt's voice appeared to be under control. He laughed coldly, almost harshly. "Him sing?" he said. "Has he been tryin' to sing around HERE? I wonder the family didn't call for the police!"
It was to be seen that Mr. Bullitt did not relish the sally. "Well, they will," he retorted, "if you ever spring one o' your solos on 'em!" And turning to Miss Pratt, he laughed loudly and bitterly. "You ought to hear Silly Bill sing—some time when you don't mind goin' to bed sick for a couple o' days!"
Symptoms of truculence at once became alarmingly pronounced on both sides. William was naturally incensed, and as for Mr. Bullitt, he had endured a great deal from William every evening since Miss Pratt's arrival. William's evening clothes were hard enough for both Mr. Watson and Mr. Bullitt to bear, without any additional insolence on the part of the wearer. Big Bruvva Josie-Joe took a step toward his enemy and breathed audibly.
"Let's ALL sing," the tactful Miss Pratt proposed, hastily. "Come on, May and Cousin Johnnie-Jump-Up," she called to Miss Parcher and Mr. Watson. "Singin'-school, dirls an' boys! Singin'-school! Ding, ding! Singin'-school bell's a-wingin'!"
The diversion was successful. Miss Parcher and Mr. Watson joined the other group with alacrity, and the five young people were presently seated close together upon the steps of the porch, sending their voices out upon the air and up to Mr. Parcher's window in the song they found loveliest that summer.
Miss Pratt carried the air. William also carried it part of the time and hunted for it the rest of the time, though never in silence. Miss Parcher "sang alto," Mr. Bullitt "sang bass," and Mr. Watson "sang tenor"—that is, he sang as high as possible, often making the top sound of a chord and always repeating the last phrase of each line before the others finished it. The melody was a little too sweet, possibly; while the singers thought so highly of the words that Mr. Parcher missed not one, especially as the vocal rivalry between Josie-Joe and Ickle Boy Baxter incited each of them to prevent Miss Pratt from hearing the other.
William sang loudest of all; Mr. Parcher had at no time any difficulty in recognizing his voice.
"Oh, I love my love in the morning And I love my love at night, I love my love in the dawning, And when the stars are bright. Some may love the sunshine, Others may love the dew. Some may love the raindrops, But I love only you-OO-oo! By the stars up above It is you I luh-HUV! Yes, I love own-LAY you!"
They sang it four times; then Mr. Bullitt sang his solo, "Tell her, O Golden Moon, how I Adore her," William following with "The violate loves the cowslip, but I love YEW," and after that they all sang, "Oh, I love my love in the morning," again.
All this while that they sang of love, Mr. Parcher was moving to and fro upon his bed, not more than eighteen feet in an oblique upward-slanting line from the heads of the serenaders. Long, long he tossed, listening to the young voices singing of love; long, long he thought of love, and many, many times he spoke of it aloud, though he was alone in the room. And in thus speaking of it, he would give utterance to phrases and words probably never before used in connection with love since the world began.
His thoughts, and, at intervals, his mutterings, continued to be active far into the night, long after the callers had gone, and though his household and the neighborhood were at rest, with never a katydid outside to rail at the waning moon. And by a coincidence not more singular than most coincidences, it happened that at just about the time he finally fell asleep, a young lady at no great distance from him awoke to find her self thinking of him.
BEGINNING A TRUE FRIENDSHIP
This was Miss Jane Baxter. She opened her eyes upon the new-born day, and her first thoughts were of Mr. Parcher. That is, he was already in her mind when she awoke, a circumstance to be accounted for on the ground that his conversation, during her quiet convalescence in his library, had so fascinated her that in all likelihood she had been dreaming of him. Then, too, Jane and Mr. Parcher had a bond in common, though Mr. Parcher did not know it. Not without result had William repeated Miss Pratt's inquiry in Jane's hearing: "Who IS that curious child?" Jane had preserved her sang-froid, but the words remained with her, for she was one of those who ponder and retain in silence.
She thought almost exclusively of Mr. Parcher until breakfast-time, and resumed her thinking of him at intervals during the morning. Then, in the afternoon, a series of quiet events not unconnected with William's passion caused her to think of Mr. Parcher more poignantly than ever; nor was her mind diverted to a different channel by another confidential conversation with her mother. Who can say, then, that it was not by design that she came face to face with Mr. Parcher on the public highway at about five o'clock that afternoon? Everything urges the belief that she deliberately set herself in his path.
Mr. Parcher was walking home from his office, and he walked slowly, gulping from time to time, as he thought of the inevitable evening before him. His was not a rugged constitution, and for the last fortnight or so he had feared that it was giving way altogether. Each evening he felt that he was growing weaker, and sometimes he thought piteously that he might go away for a while. He did not much care where, though what appealed to him most, curiously enough, was not the thought of the country, with the flowers and little birds; no, what allured him was the idea that perhaps he could find lodgment for a time in an Old People's Home, where the minimum age for inmates was about eighty.
Walking more and more slowly, as he approached the dwelling he had once thought of as home, he became aware of a little girl in a checkered dress approaching him at a gait varied by the indifferent behavior of a barrel-hoop which she was disciplining with a stick held in her right hand. When the hoop behaved well, she came ahead rapidly; when it affected to be intoxicated, which was most often its whim, she zigzagged with it, and gained little ground. But all the while, and without reference to what went on concerning the hoop, she slowly and continuously fed herself (with her left hand) small, solemnly relished bites of a slice of bread-and-butter covered with apple sauce and powdered sugar.
Mr. Parcher looked upon her, and he shivered slightly; for he knew her to be Willie Baxter's sister.
Unaware of the emotion she produced in him, Jane checked her hoop and halted.
"G'd afternoon, Mister Parcher," she said, gravely.
"Good afternoon," he returned, without much spirit.
Jane looked up at him trustfully and with a strange, unconscious fondness. "You goin' home now, Mr. Parcher?" she asked, turning to walk at his side. She had suspended the hoop over her left arm and transferred the bread-and-butter and apple sauce and sugar to her right, so that she could eat even more conveniently than before.
"I suppose so," he murmured.
"My brother Willie's been at your house all afternoon," she remarked.
He repeated, "I suppose so," but in a tone which combined the vocal tokens of misery and of hopeless animosity.
"He just went home," said Jane. "I was 'cross the street from your house, but I guess he didn't see me. He kept lookin' back at your house. Miss Pratt was on the porch."
"I suppose so." This time it was a moan.
Jane proceeded to give him some information. "My brother Willie isn't comin' back to your house to-night, but he doesn't know it yet."
"What!" exclaimed Mr. Parcher.
"Willie isn't goin' to spend any more evenings at your house at all," said Jane, thoughtfully. "He isn't, but he doesn't know it yet."
Mr. Parcher gazed fixedly at the wonderful child, and something like a ray of sunshine flickered over his seamed and harried face. "Are you SURE he isn't?" he said. "What makes you think so?"
"I know he isn't," said demure Jane. "It's on account of somep'm I told mamma."
And upon this a gentle glow began to radiate throughout Mr. Parcher. A new feeling budded within his bosom; he was warmly attracted to Jane. She was evidently a child to be cherished, and particularly to be encouraged in the line of conduct she seemed to have adopted. He wished the Bullitt and Watson families each had a little girl like this. Still, if what she said of William proved true, much had been gained and life might be tolerable, after all.
"He'll come in the afternoons, I guess," said Jane. "But you aren't home then, Mr. Parcher, except late like you were that day of the Sunday-school class. It was on account of what you said that day. I told mamma."
"Told your mamma what?"
"What you said."
Mr. Parcher's perplexity continued. "What about?"
"About Willie. YOU know!" Jane smiled fraternally.
"No, I don't."
"It was when I was layin' in the liberry, that day of the Sunday-school class," Jane told him. "You an' Mrs. Parcher was talkin' in there about Miss Pratt an' Willie an' everything."
"Good heavens!" Mr. Parcher, summoning his memory, had placed the occasion and Jane together. "Did you HEAR all that?"
"Yes." Jane nodded. "I told mamma all what you said."
"Well," said Jane, "I guess it's good I did, because look—that's the very reason mamma did somep'm so's he can't come any more except in daytime. I guess she thought Willie oughtn't to behave so's't you said so many things about him like that; so to-day she did somep'm, an' now he can't come any more to behave that loving way of Miss Pratt that you said you would be in the lunatic asylum if he didn't quit. But he hasn't found it out yet."
"Found what out, please?" asked Mr. Parcher, feeling more affection for Jane every moment.
"He hasn't found out he can't come back to your house to-night; an' he can't come back to-morrow night, nor day-after-to-morrow night, nor—"
"Is it because your mamma is going to tell him he can't?"
"No, Mr. Parcher. Mamma says he's too old—an' she said she didn't like to, anyway. She just DID somep'm."
"What? What did she do?"
"It's a secret," said Jane. "I could tell you the first part of it—up to where the secret begins, I expect."
"Do!" Mr. Parcher urged.
"Well, it's about somep'm Willie's been WEARIN'," Jane began, moving closer to him as they slowly walked onward. "I can't tell you what they were, because that's the secret—but he had 'em on him every evening when he came to see Miss Pratt, but they belong to papa, an' papa doesn't know a word about it. Well, one evening papa wanted to put 'em on, because he had a right to, Mr. Parcher, an' Willie didn't have any right to at all, but mamma couldn't find 'em; an' she rummidged an' rummidged 'most all next day an' pretty near every day since then an' never did find 'em, until don't you believe I saw Willie inside of 'em only last night! He was startin' over to your house to see Miss Pratt in 'em! So I told mamma, an' she said it 'd haf to be a secret, so that's why I can't tell you what they were. Well, an' then this afternoon, early, I was with her, an' she said, long as I had told her the secret in the first place, I could come in Willie's room with her, an' we both were already in there anyway, 'cause I was kind of thinkin' maybe she'd go in there to look for 'em, Mr. Parcher—"
"I see," he said, admiringly. "I see."
"Well, they were under Willie's window-seat, all folded up; an' mamma said she wondered what she better do, an' she was worried because she didn't like to have Willie behave so's you an' Mrs. Parcher thought that way about him. So she said the—the secret—what Willie wears, you know, but they're really papa's an' aren't Willie's any more'n they're MINE—well, she said the secret was gettin' a little teeny bit too tight for papa, but she guessed they—I mean the secret—she said she guessed it was already pretty loose for Willie; so she wrapped it up, an' I went with her, an' we took 'em to a tailor, an' she told him to make 'em bigger, for a surprise for papa, 'cause then they'll fit him again, Mr. Parcher. She said he must make 'em a whole lot bigger. She said he must let 'em way, WAY out! So I guess Willie would look too funny in 'em after they're fixed; an' anyway, Mr. Parcher, the secret won't be home from the tailor's for two weeks, an' maybe by that time Miss Pratt'll be gone."