[Transcriber's Note: Hyphenation standardized. Archaic and variable spelling was preserved as printed. Missing quotation marks were added to standardize usage. Otherwise, the editor's punctuation style was preserved. Text in italics is enclosed by underscores (italics).]
THE BELOVED WOMAN
BY KATHLEEN NORRIS
AUTHOR OF "Harriet and the Piper," etc.
A. L. BURT COMPANY
Publishers New York
Published by arrangement with Doubleday, Page & Company Printed in U. S. A.
COPYRIGHT, 1921, BY KATHLEEN NORRIS
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, INCLUDING THAT OF TRANSLATION INTO FOREIGN LANGUAGES, INCLUDING THE SCANDINAVIAN
COPYRIGHT 1920, 1921, BY THE PICTORIAL REVIEW COMPANY
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES AT THE COUNTRY LIFE PRESS, GARDEN CITY, N. Y.
TO MARY O'SULLIVAN SUTRO
For gifts beyond all counting and esteeming, For kindness than which Heaven's self is not kinder, For the old days of tears, and smiles, and dreaming, This in acknowledgment, and in reminder.
For forty-eight hours the snow-storm had been raging unabated over New York. After a wild and windy Thursday night the world had awakened to a mysterious whirl of white on Friday morning, and to a dark, strange day of steady snowing. Now, on Saturday, dirty snow was banked and heaped in great blocks everywhere, and still the clean, new flakes fluttered and twirled softly down, powdering and feathering every little ledge and sill, blanketing areas in spotless white, capping and hooding every unsightly hydrant and rubbish-can with exquisite and lavish beauty. Shovels had clinked on icy sidewalks all the first day, and even during the night the sound of shouting and scraping had not ceased for a moment, and their more and more obvious helplessness in the teeth of the storm awakened at last in the snow-shovellers, and in the men and women who gasped and stumbled along the choked thoroughfares, a sort of heady exhilaration in the emergency, a tendency to be proud of the storm, and of its effect upon their humdrum lives. They laughed and shouted as they battled with it, and as Nature's great barrier of snow threw down the little barriers of convention and shyness. Men held out their hands to slipping and stumbling women, caught them by their shoulders, panted to them that this was a storm, all right, this was the worst yet! Girls, staggering in through the revolving glass doors of the big department stores, must stand laughing helplessly for a few seconds in the gush of reviving warmth, while they beat their wet gloves together, regaining breath and self-possession, and straightened outraged millinery.
Traffic was congested, deserted trucks and motor-cars lined the side streets, the subways were jammed, the surface cars helpless. Here and there long lines of the omnibuses stood blocked in snow, and the press frantically heralded impending shortages of milk and coal, reiterating pessimistically: "No relief in sight."
But late in Saturday morning there was a sudden lull. The snow stopped, the wind fell, and the pure, cold air was motionless and sweet. The city emerged exhausted from its temporary blanketing, and from the buried benches of Bowling Green to the virgin sweep of pure white beyond Van Cortlandt Park, began its usual January fight with the snow.
A handsome, rosy old lady, wrapped regally in furs, and with a maid picking her way cautiously beside her, was one of the first to take advantage of the sudden change in the weather. Mrs. Melrose had been held captive for almost two days, first by Thursday's inclement winds, and then by the blizzard. Her motor-car was useless, and although at sixty she was an extremely youthful and vigorous woman, her daughters and granddaughter had threatened to use force rather than let her risk the danger of an expedition on foot, at least while the storm continued.
But now the wind was gone, and by the time Mrs. Melrose had been properly shod, and coated, and hatted, there was even a dull glimmer toward the southeast that indicated the location of the long-lost sun. The old lady looked her approval at Fifth Avenue, with all its crudities veiled and softened by the snowfall, and as she climbed into an omnibus expressed herself firmly to Regina.
"You mark my words, the sun will be out before we come home!"
Regina, punching the two dimes carefully into the jolting receiver, made only a respectful murmur for answer. She was, like many a maid, a snob where her mistress was concerned, and she did not like to have Mrs. Melrose ride in public omnibuses. For Regina herself it did not matter, but Mrs. Melrose was one of the city's prominent and wealthy women, and Regina could not remember that she had ever sunk to the use of a public conveyance before to-day. The maid was glad when they descended at a street in the East Sixties. They would probably be sent home, she reflected, in Mrs. Liggett's car. For Regina noticed that private cars were beginning to grind and slip over the snow again.
Old Mrs. Melrose was going to see her daughter Alice, who was Mrs. Christopher Liggett, because Alice was an invalid. It had been only a few years after Alice's most felicitous marriage, a dozen years ago, when an accident had laid the lovely and brilliant woman upon the bed of helplessness that she might never leave again. There was no real reason why the spine should continue useless, the great specialists said, there was a hope—even a probability—that as Alice grew rested and strong, after the serious accident, she might find herself walking again. But Alice had been a prisoner for ten years now, and the mother and sister who idolized her feared that she would never again be the old dancing Alice and feared that she knew it. What Christopher Liggett feared they did not know. He insisted that Alice's illness was but temporary, and was tireless in his energetic pursuit of treatment for his wife. Everything must be hoped, and everything must be tried, and Alice's mother knew that one of the real crosses of her daughter's life was sorrowful pity for Chris's optimistic delusions.
The young Liggetts had sold the old house of Christopher's father, an immense brownstone mansion a few squares away, and lived in a modern, flat-faced gray-stone house that rose five stories from the beautifully arranged basement entrance. There were stone benches at the entrance, and a great iron grill, and two potted trees, and the small square windows were leaded, and showed blossoming plants inside. The three long windows above gave upon a little-used formal drawing-room, with a Gothic fireplace of white stone at one end, and a dim jumble of rich colours and polished surfaces between that and the big piano at the other. The room at the back, on this floor, was an equally large and formal dining-room, gleaming with carved mahogany and fretted plate, used only on the rare occasions of a dinner-party.
But on the floor above the gracious mistress of the house had her domain, and here there was enough beauty and colour to make the whole house live. The front room, cool all summer because it faced north, and warm all winter, because of the great open fireplace that augmented the furnace heat, was Alice's sitting-room; comfortable, beautiful, and exquisitely ordered. None of the usual clutter of the invalid was there. The fireplace was of plain creamy tiling, the rugs dull-toned upon a dark, polished floor. There were only two canvases on the dove-gray walls, and the six or seven photographs that were arranged together on the top of one of the low, plain, built-in bookcases, were framed alike. There were no meaningless vases, no jars or trays or plaques or ornaments in Alice's room. Her flowers she liked to see in shining glass bowls; her flat-topped desk was severely bare.
But the cretonne that dressed her big comfortable chairs and her couch was bright with roses and parrots and hollyhocks, and the same cretonne, with plain net undercurtaining, hung at her four front windows. The room was big enough to accommodate besides, even with an air of space and simplicity, the little grand piano that Christopher played for her almost every night. A great Persian tortoise-shell cat was at home here, and sometimes Alice had her magnificent parrot besides, hanging himself upside down on his gaily-painted stand, and veiling the beady, sharp eye with which he watched her. The indulgent extravagance of her mother had bound all the books that Alice loved in the same tone of stony-blue vellum, the countless cushions with which the aching back was so skillfully packed were of the same dull tone, and it pleased the persons who loved her to amuse the prisoner sometimes with a ring in which her favourite note was repeated, or a chain of old lapis-lazuli that made Alice's appreciative blue eyes more blue.
Back of Alice's room was a den in which Christopher could conduct much of his personal business, and beyond that was the luxurious bathroom, a modern miracle of enamel tiling and shining glass. Across the sun-flooded back of the house were Alice's little bedroom, nunlike in its rigid austerity, her nurse's room adjoining, and a square sun-room, giving glimpses of roofs and trim back-gardens, full of flowers, with a little fountain and goldfish, a floor of dull pink tiling, and plants in great jars of Chinese enamel. Christopher had planned this delightful addition to Alice's domain only a few years ago, and, with that knowledge of her secret heart that only Christopher could claim, had let her share the pleasure of designing and arranging it. It stretched out across the west side of the spacious backyard, almost touching the branches of the great plane tree, and when, after the painful move to her mother's house, and the necessary absence during the building of it, Alice had been brought back to this new evidence of their love and goodness, she had buried her face against Christopher's shoulder, and told him that she didn't think people with all the world to wander in had ever had anything lovelier than this!
One of the paintings that Alice might look at idly, in the silence of the winter noon, was of a daisied meadow, stretching between walls of heavy summer woodland to the roof of a half-buried farmhouse in the valley below. The other picture was of the very mother who was coming toward Alice now, in the jolting omnibus. But it was a younger mother, and a younger Alice, that had been captured by the painter's genius. It was a stout, imperious, magnificently gowned woman, of not much more than thirty, in whose spreading silk lap a fair little girl was sitting. This little earnest-eyed child was Alice at seven. The splendid, dark-eyed, proud-looking boy of about fourteen, who stood beside the mother, was Teddy, her only son, dead now for many years, and perhaps mercifully dead. The fourth and last person pictured was the elder daughter, Annie, who had been about nine years old then, Alice remembered. Annie and Alice had been unusually alike, even for sisters, but even then Annie's fair, aristocratic type of blonde prettiness had been definite where Alice's was vague, and Annie's expression had been just a trifle haughty and discontented where Alice's was always grave and sweet. Annie had almost been a beauty, she was extremely and conspicuously good-looking even now, when as Mrs. Hendrick von Behrens, wife of a son of an old and wealthy Knickerbocker family, she was supreme in the very holy of holies of the city's social life.
Mrs. Melrose came unannounced upon her daughter to-day, and Alice's colourless warm cheek flushed with happiness under her mother's fresh, cold kiss.
"Mummy—you darling! But how did you get here? Miss Slater says that the streets are absolutely impassable!"
"I came in the 'bus, dear," Mrs. Melrose said, very much pleased with herself. "How warm and comfy you are in here, darling. But what did I interrupt?"
"You didn't interrupt anything," Alice said, quickly. "Chris telephoned, and he's bringing Henrici—the Frenchman who wrote that play I loved so—to tea. Isn't that fun? I'm so excited—and I think Chris was such a duck to get hold of him. I was translating it, you know, and Bowditch, who was here for dinner last night, told me he'd place it, if I finished it. And now I can talk it over with Henrici himself—thanks to Chris! Chris met my man at the club, and told him about me, and he said he would be charmed. So I telephoned several persons, and I tried to get hold of Annie——"
"Annie has a lunch—and a board meeting at the hospital at four," Annie's mother remembered, "and Leslie is at a girls' luncheon somewhere. Annie had breakfast with me, and was rushing off afterward. She's quite wonderfully faithful about those things."
"Well, but you'll stay for lunch and tea, too, Mummy?" Alice pleaded. She was lying back in her pillows, feasting her eyes upon her mother's face with that peculiarly tense devotion that was part of her nature. Rarely did a day pass without their meeting, and no detail touching Annie's life, Annie's boys or husband, was too small to interest Alice. She was especially interested, too, in Leslie, the eighteen-year-old daughter that her brother Theodore had left to his mother's care; in fact, between the mother and daughters, the one granddaughter and two little grandsons, and the two sons-in-law of the Melrose family, a deep bond existed, a bond of pride as well as affection. It was one of their favourite boasts that to the Melroses the unity and honour of the family was the first consideration in the world.
But to-day Mrs. Melrose could not stay. At one o'clock she left Alice to be put into her prettiest robe by the devoted Miss Slater, saw with satisfaction that preparations for tea were noiselessly under way, called Regina, odorous of tea and mutton chops, from the pantry, and went out into the quiet cold of the winter noon.
The old Melrose house was a substantial, roomy, brownstone building in Madison Avenue, inconspicuous perhaps among several notoriously handsome homes, but irreproachably dignified none the less. A few blocks below it the commercial current of East Thirty-fourth Street ebbed and flowed; a few blocks north the great facade of the Grand Central Station shut off the street completely. Third Avenue, behind it, swarmed and rattled alarmingly close, and Broadway flared its impudent signs only five minutes' walk in the other direction, but here, in a little oasis of quiet street, two score of old families serenely held their place against the rising tide, and among them the Melroses confidently felt themselves valued and significant.
Mrs. Melrose mounted her steps with the householder's secret complacency. They were scrupulously brushed of the last trace of snow, and the heavy door at the top swung noiselessly open to admit her. She suddenly realized that she was very tired, that her fur coat was heavy, and her back ached. She swept straight to the dark old curving stairway, and mounted slowly.
"Joseph," she said over her shoulder, "send luncheon upstairs, please. And when Miss Leslie comes in, tell her I should like to see her, if it isn't too late. Anybody coming to-night?"
"Mr. von Behrens telephoned that he and Mr. Liggett might come in for a moment, on his way to the banquet at the Waldorf, Madam. But that was all."
"I may have dinner upstairs, too, if Leslie is going anywhere," Mrs. Melrose said to herself, mounting slowly. And it seemed to her fatigue very restful to find her big room warm and orderly, her coal fire burning behind the old-fashioned steel rods, all the homely, comfortable treasures of her busy years awaiting her. She sank into a chair, and Regina flew noiselessly about with slippers and a loose silk robe. Presently a maid was serving smoking-hot bouillon, and Mrs. Melrose felt herself relaxed and soothed; it was good to be home.
Yet there was trace of uneasiness, of something almost like apprehension, in the look that wandered thoughtfully about the overcrowded room. Presently she reached a plump, well-groomed hand toward the bell. But when Regina came to stand expectantly near her, Mrs. Melrose roused herself from a profound abstraction to assure her that she had not rung—it must have been a mistake.
"Miss Leslie hasn't come in?"
"Not yet, Madam, Miss Melrose is at Miss Higgins's luncheon."
"Yes; but it was an early luncheon," the grandmother said, discontentedly. "She was playing squash, or tennis, or something! Regina——"
But Mrs. Melrose was musing again.
"Regina, I am expecting a caller at four o'clock, a Mrs. Sheridan. Please see that she is shown up at once. I want to see her here. And please——"
A pause. Regina waited.
"That's all!" her mistress announced, suddenly.
Alone again, the old lady stirred her tea, ruminated for a few moments with narrowed eyes fixed on space, recalled herself to her surroundings, and finished her cup.
Her room was large, filled with chairs and tables, lamps and cushions, silver trays and lacquer boxes, vases and jars and bowls, gift books and current magazines. There was not an unbroken inch of surface anywhere, the walls were closely set with pictures of all sorts. Along the old-fashioned mantel, a scalloped, narrow shelf of marble, was a crowding line of photographs in silver frames, and there were other framed photographs all about the room. There were the young mothers of the late eighties, seated to best display their bustles and their French twists, with heavy-headed infants in their tightly cased arms, and there were children's pictures, babes in shells, in swings, or leaning on gates. There were three Annies: one in ringlets, plaid silk, and tasselled boots, at eight; one magnificent in drawing-room plumes; and a recent one, a cloudy study of the severely superb mother, with a sleek-headed, wide-collared boy on each side of her. There was a photograph of the son Theodore, handsome, sullen, dressed in the fashion of the opening century, and there was more than one of Theodore's daughter, the last of the Melroses. Leslie had been a wide-eyed, sturdy little girl who carried a perpetually surprised, even a babyish expression into her teens, but her last pictures showed the debutante, the piquant and charming eighteen-year-old, whose knowingly tipped hat and high fur collar left only a glimpse of pretty and pouting face between.
Leslie came in upon her grandmother at about three o'clock. She was genuinely tired, after an athletic morning at the club, a luncheon amid a group of chattering intimates, and a walk with the young man whose attentions to her were thrilling not only her grandmother and aunts, but the cool-blooded little Leslie herself. Acton Liggett was Christopher's only brother, only relative indeed, and promised already to be as great a favourite as the irresistible Chris himself. Both were rich, both fine-looking, straightforward, honourable men, proud of their own integrity, their long-established family, and their old firm. Acton was pleasantly at home in the Melrose, Liggett, and Von Behrens houses, the very maids loved him, and his quiet singling out of Leslie for his devotion had satisfied everyone's sense of what was fitting and delightful. Pretty Leslie, back from a summer's idling with Aunt Annie and the little boys, in California and Hawaii, had found Acton's admiration waiting for her, with all the other joys of her debutante winter.
And even the critical Aunt Annie had to admit that the little minx was managing the whole matter with consummate skill. Leslie was not in the least self-conscious with Acton; she turned to him with all the artless confidence of a little sister. She asked him about her dancing partners, and about her gowns, and she discussed with him all the various bits of small gossip that concerned their own friends.
"Should I have said that, Acton?" she would ask, trustfully. "Shall I be Marion's bridesmaid? Would you?—after I refused Linda Fox, you know. I don't like to dance with Louis Davis, after what you told me; what shall I do when he comes up to me?"
Acton was twenty-five, seven years her senior. He advised her earnestly, over many a confidential cup of tea. And just lately, the grandmother noticed exultantly, hardly a day passed that did not find the young couple together.
"How did Acton happen to meet you, lovey?" she asked to-day, apropos of the walk.
"Why, he telephoned Vesta Higgins's, and asked me how I was going to get home. I said, walk. There was no use trying motor-cars, anyway, for they were slipping and bumping terribly! He said he was in the neighbourhood, and he came up. Granny——"
She paused, and her grandmother was conscious of a quickened heart-beat. The thoughtful almost tremulous tone was not like giddy little Leslie.
"Granny," the girl repeated, presently, "how old was my mother when she got married?"
"About twenty-two," the old woman said.
"And how old was Aunt Annie when she did?"
"Annie's about thirty-seven," her mother considered. "She was about twenty-five. But why, dear?"
"Nothing," said Leslie, and fell silent.
She was still in the silk blouse and short homespun skirt that she had worn at the athletic club luncheon, but she had thrown aside her loose woolly coat, and the narrow furs that were no softer than her own fair skin. Flung back into a deep chair, and relaxed after her vigorous day, she looked peculiarly childish and charming, her grandmother thought. She was like both her aunts, with Annie's fair, almost ashen hair and Alice's full, pretty mouth. But she was more squarely built than either, and a hint of a tip, at the end of her nose, gave her an expression at once infantile and astonished. When Leslie opened her blue eyes widely, and stared at anything, she looked like an amazed baby, and the effect of her round eyes and tilted nose was augmented by her very fair skin, and by just a sixteenth of an inch shortness in her upper lip. Of course she knew all this. Her acquaintance with her own good and bad points had begun in school days, and while through her grandmother's care her teeth were being straightened, and her eyes and throat subjected to mild forms of surgery, her Aunt Annie had seen to it that her masses of fair hair had been burnished and groomed, her hands scraped and polished into beauty, and finally that her weight was watched with scrupulous care. Nature had perhaps intended Leslie to be plump and ruddy, but modern fashion had decreed otherwise, and, with half the girls of her own age and set, Leslie took saccharine in her tea, rarely touched sweets or fried food, and had the supreme satisfaction of knowing that she was actually too slim and too willowy for her height, and interestingly colourless into the bargain.
Could Acton possibly have said anything definite to start this unusual train of thought, the grandmother speculated. With Leslie so felicitously married, she would have felt ready for her nunc dimittis. She watched Leslie expectantly. But the girl was apparently dreaming, and was staring absently at the tip of one sturdy oxford above which a stretch of thick white woollen stocking was visible almost to her knee.
"How can they fall in love with them, dressed like Welsh peasants!" the grandmother said to herself, in mild disapproval. And aloud she said: "Ah, don't, lovey!"
For Leslie had taken out a small gold case, and was regarding it thoughtfully.
"My first to-day, on my honour!" Leslie said, as she lazily lighted a sweet-scented cigarette. It never occurred to her to pay any attention to her grandmother's protest, for Grandmother had been regularly protesting against everything Leslie had done since her adored and despotic childhood. She had fainted when Leslie had dived off the dock at Newport, and had wept when Leslie had galloped through the big iron gates on her own roan stallion; she had called in Christopher, as Leslie's guardian, when Leslie, at fifteen, had calmly climbed into one of the big cars, and driven it seven miles, alone and unadvised, and totally without instruction or experience. Leslie knew that this half-scandalized and wholly-admiring opposition was one of her grandmother's secret satisfactions, and she combatted it only mechanically.
"Have one, Grandma?"
"Have one—you wild girl you! I'd like to know what a nice young man thinks when a refined girl offers him——"
"All the nice young men are smoking themselves, like chimneys!"
"Ah, but that's a very different thing. No, my dear, no man, whether he smokes himself or not, likes to have a sweet, womanly girl descend——"
"Darling, didn't you ever do anything that my revered great-grandmother Murison disapproved of?" Leslie teased, dropping on her knees before her grandmother, and resting her arms on her lap.
"Smoke——! My mother would have fainted," said Mrs. Melrose. "And don't blow that nasty-smelling stuff in my face!"
But she could not resist the pleasure that the lovely young face, so near her own, gave her, and she patted it with her soft, wrinkled hand. Suddenly Leslie jumped up eagerly, listening to the sound of voices in the hall.
"There's Aunt Annie—oh, goody! I wanted to ask her——"
But it was Regina who opened the door, showing in two callers. The first was a splendid-looking woman of perhaps forty-five, with a rosy, cheerful face, and wide, shrewd gray eyes shining under a somewhat shabby mourning veil. With her was a pretty girl of eighteen, or perhaps a little more.
Leslie glanced astonished at her grandmother. It was extremely unusual to have callers shown in in this unceremonious fashion, even if she had been rather unprepossessed by these particular callers. The younger woman's clothing, indeed, if plain, was smart and simple; her severe tailor-made had a collar of beaver fur to relieve its dark blue, and her little hat of blue beaver felt was trimmed only by a band of the same fur. She had attractive dark-blue eyes and a flashing smile.
But her companion's comfortable dowdiness, her black cotton gloves, her squarely built figure, and worn shoes, all awakened a certain contempt in the granddaughter of the house, and caused Leslie shrewdly to surmise that these humble strangers were pensioners of her grandmother, the older one probably an old servant.
"Kate Sheridan!" Old Mrs. Melrose had gotten to her feet, and had put her arm about the visitor. "Well, my dear, my dear, I've not seen you these——What is it? Don't tell me how many years it is! And which daughter is this?"
"This is my niece, Norma," the older woman said, in a delightful rich voice that was full of easy confidence and friendliness. "This is Mrs. Melrose, Norma, darling, that was such a good friend to me and mine years ago!"
"No warmer friend than you were to me, Kate," the old lady said, quickly, still keeping an arm about the sturdy figure. "This is my granddaughter, Theodore's little girl," Mrs. Melrose added, catching Leslie with her free hand.
Leslie was not more of a snob than is natural to a girl of her age and upbringing, but she could not but give Mrs. Sheridan a pretty cool glance. Grandmother's old friends were all very well——
But Mrs. Sheridan was studying her with affectionate freedom.
"And isn't she Miss Alice's image! But she's like you all—she's like Mr. Theodore, too, especially through the eyes!"
And she turned back to her hostess, interested, animated, and as oblivious to Leslie's hostile look as if the girl were her own picture on the wall.
"And you and my Norma must know each other," she said, presently, watching the girls as they shook hands, with a world of love and solicitude in her eyes.
"Sit down, both you two," Mrs. Melrose said. Leslie glanced at the strapped watch at her wrist.
"Grandmother, I really——" she began.
"No, you don't really!" her grandmother smiled. "Talk to Miss Sheridan while I talk"—she turned smiling to her old friend—"to Kate! Tell me, how are you all, Kate? And where are you all—you were in Detroit?"
"We've been in New York more than two years now, and why I haven't been to see you before, perhaps you can tell me, for I can't!" Kate Sheridan said. "But my boy is a great big fellow now; Wolf's twenty-four, and Rose is twenty-one, and this one," she nodded toward Norma, who was exchanging comments on the great storm with Leslie, "this one is nearly nineteen! And you see they're all working: Wolf's doing wonderfully with a firm of machine manufacturers, in Newark, and Rose has been with one real estate firm since we came. And Norma here works in a bookstore, up the Avenue a bit, Biretta's."
"Why, I go in there nearly every week!" the old lady said.
"She told me the other night that she had been selling some books to Mr. Christopher Liggett, and that's Miss Alice's husband, I hear," said Mrs. Sheridan. "She's in what they call the Old Book Room," she added, lowering her voice. "She's wonderful about books, reads them, and knows them as if they were children—they think the world of her in there! And I keep house for the three of them, and what with this and that—I never have any time!"
"But you have someone to help you, Kate?" the old lady asked, with her amused and affectionate eyes on the other's wholesome face.
"Why would I?" demanded Mrs. Sheridan, roundly. "The girls are a great help——"
"She always assumes a terrific brogue the minute you ask her why we don't have someone in to help her," Norma contributed, with a sort of shy and loving audacity. "She'll tell you in a minute that faith, she and her sister used to run barefoot over the primroses, and they blooming beyond anything the Lord ever created, and the spring on them——"
Leslie Melrose laughed out suddenly, in delighted appreciation, and the tension between the two girls was over. They had not quite known how to talk to each other; Norma naturally assuming that Leslie looked down upon a seller of books, and anxious to show her that she was unconscious of either envy or inferiority, and Leslie at a loss because her usual social chatter was as foreign here as a strange tongue would be. But no type is quicker to grasp upon amusement, and to appreciate the amuser, than Leslie's, unable to amuse itself, and skilled in seeking for entertainment. She was too shy to ask Norma to imitate her aunt again, but her stiffness relaxed, and she asked Norma if it was not great "fun" to sell things—especially at Christmas, for instance. Norma asked in turn if Mr. Liggett was not Leslie's uncle, and said that she had sold him hundreds of beautiful books for his wife, and had even had a note from Leslie's Aunt Alice, thanking her for some little courtesy.
"But isn't that funny!" Leslie said, with her childish widening of the eyes. "That you should know Chris!"
"Well, now," said Mrs. Sheridan's voice, cutting across both conversations, "where can these girls go for about fifteen minutes? I'll tell you my little bit of business, Mrs. Melrose, and then Norma and I will go along. It won't take me fifteen minutes, for there's nothing to decide to-day," the girls heard her add, comfortably, as they went into the hall.
"Leslie!" her grandmother called after her. "If you must change, dear—but wait a minute, is that Aunt Annie out there?"
"No, Grandma, just ourselves. What were you going to say?"
"I was going to say, lovey, that you could ask Miss Sheridan to wait in the library; her aunt tells me she is fond of books." Mrs. Melrose did not quite like to commit Leslie to entertaining the strange girl for perhaps half an hour. She was pleasantly reassured by Leslie's answering voice:
"We'll have tea in my room, Grandma. Marion and Doris may come in!"
"That's right, have a good time!" her grandmother answered. And then settling back comfortably, she added with her kind, fussy superiority, "Well, Kate, I've wondered where you were hiding yourself all this time! Let's have the business. But first I want to say that I appreciate your turning to me. If it's money—I've got it. If it's something else, Chris Liggett is one of the cleverest men in New York, and we'll consult him."
"It's not money, thank God!" Mrs. Sheridan said, in her forthright voice. "Lord knows where it all comes from, these days, but the children always have plenty," she added, glad of a diversion. "They bought themselves a car two years ago, and if it isn't a Victrola this week, it's a thermos bottle, or a pair of white buckskin shoes! Rose told me she paid eight dollars for her corsets. 'Eight dollars for what,' I said, 'a dozen?' But then I've the two houses in Brooklyn, you know——"
"You still have those?"
"I have, indeed. And even the baby—we call Norma the baby—is earning good money now."
"She has your name, Kate—Sheridan. Had your husband a brother?"
Kate Sheridan's face grew a trifle pale. She glanced at the door to see that it was shut, and at the one to the adjoining room to make sure that it was closed also. Then she turned to Mrs. Melrose, and it was an anxious glance she directed at the older woman.
"Well, now, there's no hurry about this," she began, "and you may say that it's all nonsense, and send me packing—and God knows I hope you will! But it just began to get on my mind—and I've never been a great one to worry! I'll begin at the beginning——"
Marion Duer and Doris Alexander duly arrived for tea with Leslie, and Norma was introduced. They all sat in Leslie's room, and laughed as they reached for crumpets, and marvelled at the storm. Norma found them rather younger than their years, and shyly anxious to be gracious. On her part she realized with some surprise that they were not really unapproachable, and that Leslie was genuinely anxious to take her to tea with Aunt Alice some day, and have them "talk books and things." The barriers between such girls as this one and herself, Norma was honest enough to admit, were largely of her own imagining. They were neither so contemptibly helpless nor so scornfully clever as she had fancied them; they were just laughing girls, absorbed in thoughts of gowns and admirers and good times, like her cousin Rose and herself.
There had been perhaps one chance in one hundred that she and Leslie Melrose might at once become friends, but by fortunate accident that chance had favoured them. Leslie's spontaneous laugh in Mrs. Melrose's room, her casual mention of tea, her appreciative little phrases as she introduced to Marion and Doris the young lady who picked out books for Aunt Alice, had all helped to crush out the vaguely hostile impulse Norma Sheridan had toward rich little members of a society she only knew by hearsay. Norma had found herself sitting on Leslie's big velvet couch laughing and chatting quite naturally, and where Norma chatted naturally the day was won. She could be all friendliness, and all sparkle and fun, and presently Leslie was listening to her in actual fascination.
The butler announced a motor-car, a maid came up; Doris and Marion had to go. Leslie and Norma went into Leslie's dressing-room, and Leslie's maid went obsequiously to and fro, and the girls talked almost intimately as they washed their hands and brushed their hair. Neither cared that the time was passing.
But the time was passing none the less. Five o'clock came with a pale and uncertain sunset, and a cold twilight began to settle over the snowy city. Leslie and Norma came back to the fire, and were standing there, a trifle uncertainly, but still talking hard and fast, when there was an interruption.
They looked at each other, paling. What was that?
There was utter silence in the old house. Leslie, with a frightened look at Norma, ran to the hall door. As she opened it Mrs. Sheridan opened the door of her grandmother's room opposite, and called, quite loudly:
"It's nothing, dear! Get hold of your grandmother's maid—somebody! She feels a little—but she's quite all right!"
Leslie and Norma ran across the hall, and into Mrs. Melrose's room. By this time Regina had come flying in, and two of the younger maids, and Joseph had run upstairs. Leslie had only one glimpse of her grandmother, leaning against Regina's arm, and drinking from a glass of water that shook in the maid's hands. Then Mrs. Sheridan guided both herself and Norma firmly into the hall, and reassured them cheerfully:
"The room was very hot, dear, and your grandmother said that she had gotten tired, walking in the wind. She's quite all right—you can go in immediately. No; she didn't faint—she just had a moment of dizziness, and called out."
Regina came out, too evidently convinced that she had to deal with a murderess, and coldly asked that Mrs. Sheridan would please step back for a minute. Mrs. Sheridan immediately complied, but it was hardly more than a minute when she joined the girls again.
"She wants to see you, dear," she said to Leslie, whose first frightened tears had dried from bewilderment and curiosity, "and we must hurry on. Come, Norma, we'll say good-night!"
"Good-night, Miss Melrose," Norma said.
"Good-night," Leslie answered, hesitating over the name. Her wide babyish smile, the more appealing because of her wet lashes, made a sudden impression upon Norma's heart. Leslie hung childishly on the upstairs balustrade, in the dim wide upper hall, and watched them go. "I—I almost called you Norma!" she confessed, mischievously.
"I wish you had!" Norma called up from below. She was in great spirits as they went out into the deepening cold blue of the street, and almost persuaded her aunt to take the omnibus up the Avenue. But Mrs. Sheridan protested rather absent-mindedly against this extravagance. They were close to the subway and that was quicker.
Norma could not talk in the packed and swaying train, and when they emerged at Sixty-fifth Street they had only one slippery, cold, dark block to walk. But when they had reached the flat, and snapped on lights everywhere, and cast off outer garments, aproned and busy, in the kitchen, she burst out:
"What on earth was the matter with that old lady, Aunt Kate?"
"Oh, I suppose they all eat too much, and sleep too much, and pamper themselves as if they were babies," her aunt returned, composedly, "and so it doesn't take much to upset 'em!"
"Oh, come now!" the girl said, stopping with arrested knife. "That wasn't what made her let out a yell like that!"
Mrs. Sheridan, kneeling at the oven of the gas stove, laughed uneasily.
"Oh, you could hear that, could you?"
"Hear it! They heard it in Yonkers."
"Well," Mrs. Sheridan said, "she has always been high-strung, that one. I remember years ago she'd be going into crying and raving fits. She's got very deep affections, Mrs. Melrose, and when she gets thinking of Theodore, and of Alice's accident, and this and that, she'll go right off the handle. She had been crying, poor soul, and suddenly she began this moaning and rocking. I told her I'd call someone if she didn't stop, for she'd go from bad to worse, with me."
"But why with you, Aunt Kate? Do you know her so well?"
"Do I know them?" Mrs. Sheridan dug an opener into a can of corn with a vigorous hand. "I know them all!"
"But how was that?" Norma persisted, now dropping her peeled potatoes into dancing hot water.
"I've told you five thousand times, but you and Rose would likely have one of your giggling fits on, and not a word would you remember!" her aunt said. "I've told you that years ago, when your Uncle Tom died, and I was left with two babies, and not much money, a friend of mine, a milliner she was, told me that she knew a lady that wanted someone to help manage her affairs—household affairs. Well, I'd often helped your Uncle Tom with his books, and my mother was with me, to look out for the children——"
"Where was I, Aunt Kate?"
"You! Wolf wasn't but three, and Rose a year old—where would you be?"
"I was minus two years," Norma said, sententiously. "I was part of the cosmic all——"
"You be very careful how you talk about such things until you're a married woman!" her aunt said. "Salt those potatoes, darling. Norma, can you remember what I did with the corn that Rose liked so?"
Norma was attentive.
"You beat it up with eggs, and it came out a sort of puff," she recalled. "I know—you put a little cornstarch in, to give it body! Listen, Aunt Kate, how long did you stay with Mrs. Melrose?"
"Well, first I just watched her help for her, and paid the bills, and went to market. And then I got gradually managing more and more; I'd go to pay her interest, or deposit money, or talk to tenants; I liked it and she liked me. And then she talked me into going to France with her, but I cried all the way for my children, and I was glad enough to come home again! She and Miss Annie spent some time over there, but I came back. Miss Alice was in school, and Theodore—dear knows where he was—into some mischief somewhere! But I'd saved money, and she'd given me the Brooklyn houses, and I took a boarder or two, and that was the last I ever worked for any one but my own!"
"Well, that's a nice girl, that Leslie," Norma said, "if her father was wild!"
"Her mother was a good girl," Kate said, "I knew her. But the old lady was proud, Baby—God save any one of us from pride like that! You'd never know it, to see her now, but she was very proud. Theodore's wife was a good girl, but she was Miss Annie's maid, and what Mrs. Melrose never could forgive was that when she ordered the girl out of the house, she showed her her wedding certificate. She was Mrs. Theodore Melrose, fast enough—though his mother never would see her or acknowledge her in any way."
"They must think the Lord has made a special arrangement for them—people like that!" Norma commented, turning a lovely flushed face from the pan where she was dexterously crisping bacon. "What business is it of hers if her son marries a working girl? That gives me a feeling akin to pain—just because she happens to have a lot of money! What does Miss Leslie Melrose think of that?"
"I don't know what she thinks—she loves her grandmother, I suppose. Mrs. Melrose took her in when she was only a tiny girl, and she's been the apple of her eye ever since. Theodore and his wife were divorced, and when Leslie was about four or five he came back to his mother to die—poor fellow! It was a terrible sorrow to the old lady—she'd had her share, one way and another! My goodness, Norma," Mrs. Sheridan interrupted herself to say, in half-reproachful appreciation, "I wish you'd always help me like this, my dear! You can be as useful as ten girls, when you've a mind to! And then perhaps to-morrow you'll be as contrary——!"
"Oh, Aunt Kate, aren't you ashamed! When I ironed all your dish-towels last night, when you were setting bread, and I made the popovers Sunday!" Norma kissed her aunt, brushed a dab of cornstarch from the older woman's firm cheek, and performed a sort of erratic dance about the protestant and solid figure. "I'm a poor working girl," she said, "and I get dragged out with my long, hard day!"
"Well, God knows that's true, too," her aunt said, with a sudden look of compunction; "you may make a joke of it, but it's no life for a girl. My dear," she added, seriously, holding Norma with a firm arm, and looking into her eyes, "I hope I did no harm by what I did to-day! I did it for the best, whatever comes of it."
"You mean stirring up the whole thing?" Norma asked, frowning a little in curiosity and bewilderment. "Going to see her?"
"That—yes." Mrs. Sheridan rubbed her forehead with her hand, a fashion she had when puzzled or troubled, and suddenly resumed, with a great rattling of pans and hissing of water, her operations at the sink. "Well, nothing may come of it—we'll see!" she added, briskly. Norma, who was watching her expectantly, sighed disappointedly; the subject was too evidently closed. But a second later she was happily distracted by the slamming of the front door; Wolf and Rose Sheridan had come in together, and dinner was immediately served.
Norma recounted, with her own spirited embellishments, her adventures of the afternoon as the meal progressed. She had had "fun" getting to the office in the first place, a man had helped her, and they had both skidded into another man, and bing!—they had all gone down on the ice together. And then at the shop nobody had come in, and the lights had been lighted, and the clerks had all gathered together and talked. Then Aunt Kate had come in to have lunch, and to have Norma go with her to the gas company's office about the disputed charge, and they had decided to make, at last, that long-planned call on the Melroses. There followed a description of the big house and the spoiled, pretty girl, and the impressive yet friendly old lady.
"And Aunt Kate—I'm sorry to say!—talked her into a nervous convulsion. You did, Aunt Kate—the poor old lady gave one piercing yell——"
"You awful girl, there'll be a judgment on you for your impudence!" her aunt said, fondly. But Rose looked solicitously at her mother, and said:
"Mother looks as if she had had a nervous convulsion, too. You look terribly tired, Mother!"
"Well, I had a little business to discuss with Mrs. Melrose," Mrs. Sheridan said, "and I'm no hand for business!"
"You know it!" Wolf Sheridan concurred, with his ready laugh. "Why didn't you send me?"
"It was her business, lovey," his mother said, mildly, over her second heartening cup of strong black tea.
The Sheridan apartment was, in exterior at least, exactly like one hundred thousand others that line the side streets of New York. It faced the familiar grimy street, fringed on the great arteries each side by cigarette stands and saloons, and it was entered by the usual flight of stained and shabby steps, its doorway showing a set of some dozen letter-boxes, and looking down upon a basement entrance frequently embellished with ash-cans and milk-bottles, and, just at present, with banks of soiled and sooty snow. The Sheridans climbed three long flights inside, to their own rooms, but as this gained them a glimpse of river, and a sense in summer of airiness and height, to say nothing of pleasant nearness to the roof, they rarely complained of the stairs—in fact, rarely thought of them at all.
With the opening of their own door, however, all likeness to their neighbours ceased. Even in a class where home ties and home comforts are far more common than is generally suspected, Kate Sheridan was exceptional, and her young persons fortunate among their kind. Her training had been, she used to tell them, "old country" training, but it was not only in fresh linen and hot, good food that their advantage lay. It was in the great heart that held family love a divine gift, that had stood between them and life's cold realities for some twenty courageous years. Kate idolized her own two children and her foster-child with a passion that is the purest and the strongest in the world. In possessing them, she thought herself the most blessed of women. To keep a roof over their heads, to watch them progress triumphantly through long division and measles and skates, to see milk glasses emptied and plates scraped, to realize that Wolf was as strong morally as he was physically, and that all her teachers called Rose an angel, to spoil and adore the beautiful, mischievous, and amusing "Baby"; this made a life full to the brim, for Kate, of pride and happiness. Kate had never had a servant, or a fur coat; for long intervals she had not had a night's unbroken rest; and there had been times, when Wolf's fractured arm necessitated a doctor's bill, or when coal for the little Detroit house had made a disproportionate hole in her bank account, in which even the thrifty Kate had known biting financial worry.
But the children never knew it. They knew only her law of service and love. They must love each other, whatever happened. There was no quarrelling at meals at Kate's house. Rose must of course oblige her brother, sew on the button, or take his book to the library; Wolf must always protect the girls, and consider them. Wolf firmly believed his sister and cousin to be the sweetest girls in the world; Rose and Norma regarded Wolf as perfection in human form. They rarely met without embraces, never without brightening eyes and light hearts.
That this attitude toward each other was only the result of the healthy bodies and honest souls that Kate had given them they would hardly have believed. That her resolute training had literally forced them to love and depend upon themselves in a world where brothers and sisters as habitually teased and annoyed each other, would have struck them as fantastic. Perhaps Kate herself hardly knew the power of her own will upon them. Her commands in their babyhood had not been couched in the language of modern child-analysts, nor had she given, or been able to give, any particular reason for her law. But the instinct by which she drew Wolf's attention to his sister's goodness, or noted Wolf's cleverness for Rose's benefit, was better than any reason. She summed the situation up simply for the few friends she had, with the phrase:
"They're all crazy about each other, every one of them!"
Kate's parlour would have caused Annie von Behrens actual faintness. But it was a delightful place to Rose and Wolf and their friends. The cushioned divan on Sunday nights customarily held a row of them, the upright ebony piano sifted popular music impartially upon the taboret, the patent rocker, and the Rover rug. They laughed, gossiped, munched candy, and experimented in love-making quite as happily as did Leslie and her own intimates. They streamed out into the streets, and sauntered along under the lights to the moving pictures, or on hot summer nights they perched like tiers of birds on the steps, and the world and youth seemed sweet to them. In Kate's dining-room, finished in black wood and red paper, they made Welsh rarebits and fudge, and in Kate's spotless kitchen odours of toast and coffee rose at unseemly hours.
Lately, Rose and Norma had been talking of changes. Rose was employed in an office whose severe and beautiful interior decoration had cost thousands of dollars, and Norma's Old Book Room was a study in dull carved woods, Oriental rugs, dull bronzes, and flawless glass. The girls began to feel that a plain cartridge paper and net curtains might well replace the parlour's florid green scrolling and Nottingham lace. But they did not worry about it; it served as a topic to amuse their leisure hours. The subject was generally routed by a shrewd allusion, from Norma or Wolf, to the sort of parlour people would like if they got married, married to someone who was doing very well in the shoe business, for example.
These allusions deepened the colour in Rose's happy face; she had been "going" for some three months with an attractive young man who exactly met these specifications—not her first admirer, not noticeable for any especial quality, yet Rose and Norma, and Kate, too, felt in their souls that Rose's hour had come. Young Harry Redding was a big, broad, rather inarticulate fellow, whose humble calling was not the more attractive to the average young woman because he supported his mother by it. But he suited Rose, more, he seemed wonderful to Rose, and because her dreams had always been humble and self-sacrificing, Harry was a thousand times more than she had dreamed. She felt herself the luckiest girl in the world.
Kate sat at the head of her table, and Wolf at the foot. Rose, a gentle, quiet copy of her handsome mother, was nearest the kitchen door, to which she made constant flying trips. Norma was opposite Rose, and by falling back heavily could tip her entire chair against the sideboard, from which she extracted forks or salt or candy, as the case might be. The telephone was in the dining-room, Wolf's especial responsibility, and Mrs. Sheridan herself occasionally left the table for calls to the front door or the dumb-waiter.
To-night, after supper, the girls flew through their share of clearing-up. It never weighed very heavily upon them; they usually began the process of piling and scraping dishes before they left the table, Rose whisking the tablecloth into its drawer as Norma bumped through the swinging door with the last dishes, and Kate halfway through the washing even then. Chattering and busy, they hustled the hot plates onto their shelves, rattled the hot plated ware into its basket, clanked saucepans, and splashed water. Not fifteen minutes after the serving of the dessert the last signs of the meal had been obliterated, and Kate was guilty of what the girls called "making excuses" to linger in the kitchen. She was mixing cereal, storing cold potatoes and cut bread, soaking dish-towels. But these things did not belong to the duties of Norma and Rose, and the younger girl could flash with a free conscience to the little room she shared with Rose. Wolf had called out for a companion, they were going to take a walk and see what the blizzard had done!
Norma washed her face, the velvety skin emerging with its bloom untouched, the lips crimson, the blue eyes blazing. She pressed a great wave of silky dark hair across her white forehead, and put the fur-trimmed hat at a dashing angle. The lace blouse, the pearl beads, her fur-collared coat again, and Norma was ready to dance out beside Wolf as if fatigue and labours did not exist.
"Where's Rose?" he said, as they went downstairs.
"Oh, Wolf—Saturday night! Harry's coming, of course!" Norma slipped her little hand, in its shabby glove, through his big arm. "She and Aunt Kate were gossiping!"
"Suits me!" Wolf said, contentedly. He held her firmly on the slippery lumps of packed snow. The sidewalks were almost impassable, yet hundreds of other happy persons were stumbling and scrambling over them in the mild winter darkness. Stars were out; and whether Norma was blinking up at them, or staring into lighted windows of candy stores and fruit markets, her own eyes danced and twinkled. The elevated trains thundered above their heads, and the subway roared under their feet; great advertising signs, with thousands of coloured lights, fanned up and down in a haze of pink and blue; the air was full of voices, laughing and shouting, and the screaming of coasting children.
"I have my pearls on," Norma told her companion. They stopped for some molasses peppermints, and their pungent odour mingled for Norma in the impression of this happy hour. "Wolf, how do they do that?" the girl asked, watching an electric sign on which a maid mopped a dirty floor with some prepared cleaner, leaving the floor clean after her mop. Wolf, interested, explained, and Norma listened. They stopped at a drug store, and studied a picture that subtly altered from Roosevelt's face to Lincoln's, and thence to Wilson's face, and Wolf explained that, too. Norma knew that he understood everything of that nature, but she liked to impress him, too, and did so far more often than she realized, with her book-lore. When Norma spoke lightly of a full calf edition de luxe of the Sonnets from the Portuguese, she might almost have been speaking in that language for all she conveyed to Wolf, but he watched the animated face proudly just the same. Rose had always been good and steady and thoughtful, but Wolf knew that Norma was clever, taking his big-brotherly patronage with admiring awe, but daring where he hesitated, and boldly at home where he was ill at ease. When she said that when she got married she wanted Dedham china, and just a plain, glass bowl for goldfish, Wolf nodded, but he would have nodded just as placidly if she had wanted a Turkish corner and bead portieres. And to-night when she asserted that she wouldn't be Leslie Melrose for anything in the world, Wolf asked in simple wonderment why she should be.
"Imagine, a maid came to take those big girls home, Wolf! They can speak French," Norma confided. Wolf did not look for coherence from her, and took the two statements on their face value. "Now, I know I'm not pretty," she continued, following, as was usual with her, some obscure line of thought, "but I'm prettier than Doris Alexander, and she had her picture in the paper!"
"Who broke it to you that you're not pretty?" Wolf asked.
"Well, I know I'm not!" Norma jumped along at his side for a few minutes, eyeing him expectantly, but Wolf's mind was honestly busy with this assertion, and he did not speak. Wasn't she pretty? Girls had funny standards. "You know," she resumed, "you'd hate a girl like Leslie Melrose, Wolf!"
"Oh, you'd loathe her. But I'll tell you who you would like," Norma added, in a sudden burst. "You'd love Mr. Liggett!"
"Why should I?" Wolf asked, in some surprise.
"Oh, because he's nice—he's very good-looking, and he has such a pleasant voice, as if he knew everything, but wasn't a bit conceited!" Norma said. "And he picks out books for his wife, and when I try to tell him something about them, he always knows lots more. You know, in a pleasant, careless sort of way, not a bit as if he was showing off. And I'll tell you what he did. Miss Drake was showing him a pottery bowl one day, and she dropped it, and she told me he sort of caught at it with his hand, and he said to Mr. Biretta, 'I've very stupidly broken this—just put it on my bill, will you?' Of course," Norma added, vivaciously, "old B. G. immediately said that it was nothing at all, but you know what Miss Drake would have caught, if she'd broken it!"
Perhaps Wolf did, but he was thinking at the moment that the family baby was very cunning, with her bright eyes and indignant mouth. He stopped her before a vaudeville house, in a flare of bright light.
"Want to go in?"
"Oh, Wolf! Would Aunt Kate care? Oh, Wolf, let's!"
There was absolute ecstasy in her eyes as they went through the enchanted doorway and up the rising empty foyer toward the house. It was nine o'clock; the performance was fairly under way. Norma rustled into a seat beside her companion without moving her eyes from the coloured comedian on the stage; she could remove hat and gloves and jacket without losing an instant of him.
When the lights went up Wolf approved the dark hair and the pearls, and bent toward her to hear the unending confidences. Norma thought she had never seen anything better, and even Wolf admitted that it was a good show. They finished the peppermints, and were very happy.
They had seen the big film, and so could cut the last third of the programme, and reach home at ten o'clock. There was no comment from Aunt Kate, who was yawning over the evening paper in the dining-room. Rose and Harry were murmuring in the dimly lighted parlour. Wolf, who was of the slow-thinking, intense type that discovers a new world every time it reads a new book, was halfway through a shabby library copy of "War and Peace," and went off to his room with the second volume under his arm. Norma went to her room, too, but she sat dreaming before the mirror, thinking of that Melrose house, and of Leslie's friendliness, until Rose came in at eleven o'clock.
At almost this same moment Norma's self was the subject of a rather unusual talk between Christopher Liggett and his wife.
Christopher had come softly into his house, at about half-past ten, to find Alice awake, still on the big couch before her fire. Her little bedroom beyond was softly lighted, the white bed turned down, and the religious books she always read before going to sleep laid in place by Miss Slater. But Alice had no light except her fire and two or three candles in old sconces.
She welcomed Christopher with a smile, and he sat down, in his somewhat rumpled evening dress, and smiled back at her in a rather weary fashion. He often told her that these rooms of hers were a sanctuary, that he tested the men and women he met daily in the world by her fine and lofty standard. It was part of his utter generosity to her that he talked to her as frankly as if he thought aloud, and it was Alice's pride and joy to know that this marriage of theirs, which had so sadly and suddenly become no marriage at all, was not as one-sided as the world might have suspected. Her clear, dispassionate viewpoint and her dignified companionship were not wifehood, but they were dear and valuable to him none the less, a part of his life that he would not have spared. And he could still admire her, too, not only for the exquisite clearness of her intellect, her French and Italian, her knowledge of countries and affairs, but physically—the clear, childish forehead that was as unwrinkled as Leslie's, the fair, beautifully brushed hair, the mouth with its chiselling of wisdom and of pain, and the transparent hand from which she shook back transparent laces. She was always proud, always fresh and fragrant, always free for him and for his problems, and it was proverbial in the circle of their intimates that Chris admired Alice with all his heart, and never felt himself anything but the privileged guardian of a treasure.
To-night he dropped into a chair before her fire, and she watched him for five or six restful minutes in silence.
"Stupid dinner?" she ventured.
"Rotten!" he answered, cheerfully. "I was late, but I got in to hear Hendrick's speech. The Vice-President was there, everyone else I knew. I cut away finally; I'm done up."
"I thought you picked up Hendrick on your way and went together," Mrs. Liggett said, sympathetically. "I'm sorry it was dull—I suppose men have to go to these political things!"
Chris was leaning forward, his locked hands dropped between his knees, and his eyes on the fire.
"Hendrick and I stopped at your mother's," he said, deliberately, "and she was so upset that I sent Hendrick on alone!"
Alice's eyes lighted apprehensively, but she spoke very quietly.
"What was it, Chris? Leslie getting saucy?"
"Oh, no, no! It was a complication of things, I imagine!" Christopher took out his cigarette-case, looked at its moire surface reflectively, and selected a smoke. "She was tired—she'd been out in the snow—Leslie had gone off with Annie to some debutante affair—I daresay she felt blue. Alice, do you remember a woman named Kate Sheridan?"
The question was sudden, and Alice blinked.
"Yes, I do," she answered, after a moment's thought, "she was a sort of maid or travelling companion of Mama's. We called her Mrs. Sheridan—she was quite a superior sort of person."
"What do you remember about her, dear?"
"Well—just that. She came when I was only a child—and then when Annie was ill in Paris she went abroad with Mama—and I remember that she came back, and she used to come see me at school, for Mama, and once she took me up to Grandma's, in Brookline. She was a widow, and she had a child—or two, maybe. Why, Chris?"
Her husband did not answer, and she repeated the question.
"Well," he said, at last, flinging the end of his cigarette into the fire, "she came to see your mother to-day."
Alice waited, a little at a loss. To her this had no particular significance.
"She had her niece with her, young girl about eighteen," Christopher said.
"Well—what of it?" Alice demanded, with a sort of superb indifference to anything such a woman might do.
He looked at her through his round eyeglasses, with the slight frown that many of life's problems brought to his handsome face. Then the glass fell, on its black ribbon, and he laughed.
"That's just what I don't get," he said, good-humouredly. "But I'll tell you exactly what occurred. What's-His-Name, your mother's butler——"
"Joseph. Joseph told me that at about four o'clock this Mrs. Sheridan came in. Your mother had told him that she was expecting the lady, and that he was to bring her upstairs. With her came this girl—I can't remember her name—but it was something Sheridan—Nora Sheridan, maybe. Leslie carried the girl off for tea, and the woman stayed with your mother.
"Well, at five—or later, this Mrs. Sheridan ran into the hall, and it seems—she's all right now!—it seems that your mother had fainted."
"Mama!" Alice said, anxiously, with an incredulous frown.
"Yes, but don't worry. She's absolutely all right now. Leslie," Christopher went back to his narrative, "Leslie cried, and I suppose there was a scene. Mrs. Sheridan and the girl went home—Leslie dressed and went out—and your mother immediately telephoned Lee——"
"Yes—she said so. Lee's up in Westchester with his daughter, she couldn't get him——"
"But, Chris, why did she want her lawyer?"
"That's just it—why? Well, then she telephoned here for me—I was on my way there, as it happened, and just before eight Hendrick and I went in. I could see she was altogether up stage, so I sent Von on and had it out with her."
"And what was her explanation, Chris?"
Christopher laughed again.
"I'll be darned," he said, thoughtfully, "if I can make head or tail of it! It would be funny if it wasn't that she's taking it so hard. She was in bed, and she had been crying—wouldn't eat any dinner——"
"But, Chris," Alice said, worriedly, "what do you make of it! What did she say?"
"Well, she clasped my hand, and she said that she had an opportunity to undo a great wrong—and that I must help her—and not ask any questions—she was just acting as you and I would have her act under the circumstances——"
"What circumstances?" Alice said, at an utter loss, as he paused.
"She didn't say," he smiled.
"Oh, come, now, Chris, she must have said more than that!"
"No, she didn't. She said that she must make it up to this girl, and she wished to see Lee about it immediately."
"To change her will!" Alice exclaimed.
"She didn't say so. Of course, it may be some sort of blackmail." Christopher looked whimsically at his wife. "As I remember my father-in-law," he said, "it seems to me improbable that out of the past could come this engaging young girl—very pretty, they said——"
"Father! Oh, nonsense!" Alice exclaimed, almost in relief at the absurdity. "No, but it might be some business—some claim against the firm," she suggested.
"Well, I thought of that. But there are one or two reasons why it doesn't seem the solution. I asked your mother if it was money, and she said no, said it positively and repeatedly. Then I asked her if she would like this Sheridan woman shut up, and she was quite indignant. Kate!—Kate was one of the most magnificent women God had ever made, and so on!"
"Well, I do remember Mrs. Sheridan as a lovely sort of person," Alice contributed. "Plain, you know, but quite wonderful for—well, goodness. It's funny—but then you know Mama is terribly excitable," she added, "she gets frightfully worked up over nothing, or almost nothing. It's quite possible that when Kate recalled old times to her she suddenly wished that she had done more for Kate—something like that. She'd think nothing of sending for Judge Lee on the spot. You remember her recalling us from our wedding-trip because she couldn't find the pearls? All the way from Lake Louise to hear that they had been lost!"
"I know," Christopher smiled. "She is—unique, ma belle mere. By George, I'll never forget our rushing into the house like maniacs, not knowing what had happened to Leslie or Acton, and having her fall sobbing into your arms, with the pearls in her hands!"
"Mama's wonderful," Alice laughed. "Chris, did you eat any dinner?"
"But I'm really not hungry, dear," he protested.
Alice, superbly incredulous, rang at once. Who was in the kitchen? Well, she was to be asked to send up a tray at once to Mr. Liggett. "Now that you asked me, the dinner had reached the point of ice-cream in a paper tub, as I sat down," he remembered. "You're a little miracle of healing to me, Alice. When I came in here I didn't know what we were up against, as a family. Your mother wished the girl pensioned——"
"Oh, Chris, not really?"
"I give you my word!" But he was enough his usual self to have taken his seat at the piano, now, and was looking at her across it, while his fingers fitted themselves lazily to chords and harmonics.
"I'll tell you something, if you'll promise to stop playing the instant your supper comes up!"
"Well, then—the new Puccini is there!" She nodded toward the music-shelves, and he turned to the new score with an eager exclamation. Fifteen minutes later she had to scold him to bring him to the fire again, and to the smoking little supper. While Alice sipped ginger ale, Christopher fell upon his meal, and they discussed the probable presentation of the opera, and its quality.
But an hour later, when she was in bed, and Christopher was going back to the piano for another half-hour of music, she caught his hand.
"Chris, you're not worried about this Sheridan matter?"
"Worried? No, dearest child, what is there to worry about? It isn't blackmail, apparently it's nothing but an overdose of imagination on your mother's part. If the girl really was promised something, or has—for example!—old stock, or if her father was an employee who did this or that or the other—Mrs. Sheridan's husband was employed by your father at the time of his death, by the way—why, it's easy enough to pay the claim, whatever it is! The girl seems to have made a nice impression—your mother tells me she's sold me books, but that doesn't mean much, I buy books everywhere! No, I don't think you'll ever hear of her again. But your mother will be here in a day or two; see what you can make of it all!"
"Oh, of course, it's nothing wrong!" Alice said, confidently.
And Christopher returned to his beloved piano, relieved in mind by his wife's counsel, refreshed in body by the impromptu supper, and ready for the music that soothed in him all the restless and unsatisfied fibres of his soul.
Annie, who signed herself "Anne Melrose von Behrens," was the real dictator in the various circles of the allied families, and had a fashion of finding herself supreme in larger circles, as well. Annie was thirty-seven or eight, tall, thin, ash-blonde, superb in manner and bearing. Nature had been generous to her, but she had done far more for herself than Nature had. Her matchless skin, her figure, her hands, her voice, were all the result of painstaking and intelligent care. Annie had been a headstrong, undisciplined girl twenty years ago. She had come back from a European visit, at twenty-three, with a vague if general reputation of being "a terror." But Annie was clever, and she had real charm. She spoke familiarly of European courts, had been presented even in inaccessible Vienna. She spoke languages, quoted poets, had great writers and painters for her friends, and rippled through songs that had been indisputably dedicated, in flowing foreign hands, to the beautiful Mademoiselle Melrose. Society bowed before Annie; she was the sensation of her winter, and the marriage she promptly made was the most brilliant in many winters.
Annie proceeded to bear her sober, fine, dull, and devoted Hendrick two splendid sons, and thus riveted to herself his lasting devotion and trust. The old name was safe, the millions would descend duly to young Hendrick and Piet. The family had been rich, conspicuous, and respected in the city, since its sturdy Holstein cattle had browsed along the fields of lower Broadway, but under Annie's hands it began to shine. Annie's handsome motor-cars bore the family arms, her china had been made in the ancestral village, two miles from Rotterdam, and also carried the shield. Her city home, in Fifth Avenue, was so magnificent, so chastely restrained and sober, so sternly dignified, that it set the cue for half the other homes of the ultra-aristocratic set. Annie's servants had been in the Von Behrens family for years; there was nothing in the Avenue house, or the Newport summer home, that was not as handsome, as old, as solid, as carven, as richly dull, or as purely shining, as human ingenuity could contrive to have it. Collectors saved their choicest discoveries for Annie; and there was no painter in the new world who would not have been proud to have Annie place a canvas of his among her treasures from the old.
If family relics were worth preserving, what could be more remarkable than Annie's Washington letter, her Jefferson tray, her Gainsboroughs of the Murisons who had been the only Americans so honoured by the painter? Melrose and Von Behrens honours crowded each other—here was the thin old silver "shepherdess" cup awarded that Johanna von Behrens who had won a prize with her sheep, while Washington was yet a boy; and here the quaint tortoise-shell snuff-box that a great prince, homeless and unknown, had given the American family that took him in; and the silver buttons from Lafayette's waistcoat that the great Frenchman had presented Colonel Horace Murison of the "Continentals."
These things were not thrust at the visitor, nor indeed were they conspicuous among the thousand other priceless souvenirs that Annie had gathered about her.
"Rather nice, isn't it?" Annie would say, abstractedly, when some enthusiastic girl pored over the colonial letters or the old portraits. "See here, Margaret," she might add, casually, "do you see the inside of this little slipper, my dear? Read what's written there: 'In these slippers Deborah Murison danced with Governor Winthrop, on the night of her fifteenth birthday, July 1st, 1742.' Isn't that rather quaint?"
Annie could afford to be casual, to be abstracted. In her all the pride of the Melrose and Murison families was gathered; hers was an arrogance so sure of itself, a self-confidence so supreme, that the world questioned it no more than it questioned the heat of the sun. The old silver, the Copleys, and the colonial china, the Knickerbocker "court chests" with their great locks of Dutch silver, and the laces that had been shown at the Hague two hundred years before, were all confirmed, all reinforced, as it were, by the power and prosperity of to-day. It was no by-gone glory that made brilliant the lives of Hendrick and Anne Melrose von Behrens. Hendrick's cousins and uncles, magnificent persons of title, were prominent in Holland to-day, their names associated with that of royalty, and their gracious friendship extended to the American branch of the family whenever Hendrick chose to claim it. Old maps of New York bore the boundary lines of the Von Behrens farm; early histories of the city mingled the names of Melrose and Von Behrens among those of the men who had served the public need.
Wherever there was needed that tone that only names of prominence and wealth can bestow Annie's name was solicited. Wherever it appeared it gave the instant stamp of dignity and integrity. She had seen this goal dimly in the distance, when she stepped from her rather spoiled and wilful girlhood into this splendid wifehood, but even Annie was astonished at the rapidity with which it had come about. Mama, of course, had known all the right people, even if she had dropped all social ties after Papa's death. And Hendrick's name was an open sesame. But even so it was surprising, and it was gratifying.
In appearance Annie had no problem. If she was not a beauty she was near enough to being one. She was smart enough, and blonde enough, and splendidly dressed enough to be instantly identifiable, and that was all she desired. Financially, Annie had no problem. Her own inheritance and her husband's great wealth silenced all question there. The Murison pearls and the famous diamond tiara that her father had given her mother years ago had come to Annie, but they were eclipsed by the Von Behrens family jewels, and these were all hers, with the laces, and the ivories, and the brocades. Life could give nothing more to Annie, but not many women would have made so much of what Annie had. There was, far down and out of sight, a little streak of the adventuress in her, and she never stopped halfway.
A young wife, Annie had dutifully considered her nursery.
"Hendrick's is the elder line, of course, although it is the colonial one," Annie had said, superintending a princely layette. The child was a son, his father's image, and nobody who knew Annie was in the least surprised that fortune had fallen in with her plans. It was the magnificent Annie who was quoted as telling Madame Modiste to give her a fitter who would not talk; it was Annie who decided what should be done in recognizing the principals of the Jacqmain divorce, and that old Floyd Densmore's actress-wife should not be accepted. Annie's neat and quiet answer to a certain social acquaintance who remarked, in Annie's little gallery, "I have seen the original of that picture, in one of the European galleries," was still quoted by Annie's friends. "This is the original!" Annie had said quite simply and truthfully.
Leslie admired her aunt more than any one else in the world. Grandma was old-fashioned, and Aunt Alice insignificant, in Leslie's eyes, but stunning, arrogant, fearless Aunt Annie was the model upon which she would have based herself if she had known how. Annie's quick positiveness with her servants, her cool friendliness with big men, and clever men, her calm assurance as to which hats she liked, and which hats she didn't, her utter belief in everything that was of Melrose or von Behrens, and her calm contempt for everything that was not, were masterly in Leslie's eyes.
Annie might have been a strong royalist had she been born a few generations earlier. But in Annie's day the ideal of social service had been laid down by fashion, and she was consequently a tremendously independent and energetic person, with small time for languishing airs. She headed committees and boards, knew hundreds of working girls by name, kept a secretary and a stenographer, and mentioned topics at big dinners that would not have shocked either old Goodwife Melrose of Boston, or Vrouw von Behrens of Nieu Amsterdam, for neither had the faintest idea that such things, or their names, existed.
Withal, Annie was attractive, even her little affectations were impressive, and as she went about from luncheons to meetings, swept up to her model nursery to revel in her model boys, tossed aside regal furs and tore off princely rings the better to play with them, wrapped her beautiful figure in satins and jewels to descend to formal dinners, she was almost as much admired and envied and copied as she might fondly have hoped to be. She managed her life on modern lines of efficiency, planned ahead what she wished, tutored herself not to think of anything undesirable as being even in the range of possibility, trod lightly upon the sensitive souls of others, and asked no quarter herself, aimed high, and enjoyed her life and its countless successes to the full.
Of course there had been setbacks. Her brother Theodore, his most unfortunate marriage to a servant, his intemperance, the general scandal of his mother's violent detestation of his wife, all this was most unpleasant. But Louison, the wife, upon sufficient pressure, had brought her child to the Melroses, and had doubtfully disappeared, and Theodore had returned from his wanderings to live, silent and unobtrusive, in his mother's home, for several years, and to die with his daughter beside him, and be duly laid in the Melrose plot at Woodlawn. And Leslie—Leslie had repaid them all, for all of it.
Alice was another disappointment, or had been one, to Annie. For Alice, after having achieved a most unexpectedly satisfactory marriage, and having set up her household gods in the very shadow of her sister's brilliant example, as it were, had met with that most unfortunate accident. For a few years Annie had been utterly exasperated whenever she thought of it. For Christopher was really an extraordinary husband for Alice to hold, even in normal circumstances. He was so outrageously, frightfully, irresistibly popular with women everywhere, his wife must needs keep a very sharp, albeit loving, eye upon him. A sickly wife—a wife who was a burden and a reproach, that would be fatal to them all!
But Alice had showed unsuspected courage and pride in this hard trial. She had made herself beautiful, well-informed, tactful; she had made herself a magnet to her husband's friends, and his home the centre of a real social group. Annie respected her for it, and helped her by flashing into her rooms not less often than every alternate day, with gossip, with books, with hints that showed Alice just where her course in this or that matter must lie.
So Alice had come to be an actual asset, and now to her Aunt Annie's tremendous satisfaction, Leslie promised to add one more feather to the family cap by announcing her engagement to Acton Liggett. Annie smiled to herself whenever she thought of it. When this was consummated she would have nothing left but the selection of suitable wives for Hendrick Junior, now aged ten, and Piet, who was four years younger.
Two or three days after the ending of the big snow-storm, and the beginning of that domestic storm that was destined strangely to change some of the lives nearest her, Annie went in to have luncheon with her sister. It was a brilliant sunshiny winter day, with crossings swimming in melting snow and roofs steaming brightly into the clear air.
Annie went straight upstairs to Alice's room, with the usual apology for lateness. She kissed Alice lightly on the forehead, and while Freda was coming and going with their meal, they discussed the little boys, books, politics, and the difficulties of the city in the snow.
But when they were alone Annie asked immediately:
"What on earth is the matter with Mama, Alice?"
"You mean about——? Did she tell you?"
"No; she didn't have to. Leslie ran in yesterday afternoon, and told me that Mama has been in bed since Saturday! I telephoned Sunday morning, but Hendrick and I were taking the boys up to his uncle's house, in Westchester, and—as she didn't say one word about being ill—I didn't see her that day, nor yesterday, as it happened, for we didn't come down until noon. When Leslie came in, there were other people there for tea, and I didn't have a chance to speak to her alone. But I went over to Mama this morning, and she seems all broken up!"
"What did she tell you?" Alice asked, anxiously.
"Oh, my dear, you know Mama! She wept, and patted my hand, and said that it was sad to be the last of your own generation, and she hoped you and I would always have each other, and that she had always loved us, and tried to do her best for us——"
"Poor Mama! She gets so worked up!" she said.
"But what do you make of it?" demanded Annie. "She talked of this Kate Sheridan—I remember her perfectly, she came to Paris when I was so ill, years ago. Poor Mama cried, and said that she wished to do something for Kate. Now you know, Alice," Annie went on reasonably, "nobody is tying Mama's hands! If she wants to educate this young girl—this Norma person—to please Kate, or all her children for that matter, she doesn't have to go into hysterics, and send for Judge Lee. She said she didn't feel at all well, and she wanted to secure to Kate some money in her will I told her it was ridiculous—she never looked better in her life! I wish she could get over to see you, Alice; you always soothe her so. What on earth does Chris make of it?"
"Well, I'll tell you what we've done," Alice smiled. "Chris went to see her Sunday, and they had a long talk. He tells me that she was just as vague and unsatisfactory as ever, but calmer, and she finally admitted that all she really wanted to do was to befriend this niece of Kate Sheridan. Of course Chris and I think Mama has one of her funny notions about it, but if the child's mother had befriended Mama, for example, a thousand years ago, or if Mama had borrowed five dollars from Kate, and forgotten to return it, you know that would be enough to account for all this excitement."
"Yes, I know!" Annie admitted, with her favourite look of intolerant, yet indulgent, scorn.
"Well, it seems the girl is in Biretta's Bookshop, and Chris has often bought books of her. So to quiet Mama he promised that he would bring her out here to have tea with me some day soon. Mama was delighted, and I think she hopes that a friendship will come of it." Alice threw herself back into the pillows, and drew a great breath as if she were weary. "I only want to please Mama!" she finished.
"You're an angel," Annie said, absently. "I suppose I could get the truth out of Mama in five seconds," she mused. "It looks to me rather like blackmail!"
"No; she said not!" Alice contradicted, quickly.
"Well, it's all so silly," the elder sister said, impatiently. "And coming just now——" she added, significantly.
"Yes. I know!" Alice agreed, with a comprehending look. And in lowered tones they began to talk of Leslie's possible engagement.
Norma Sheridan saw the engagement announced in a morning paper two weeks later, and carried the picture of pretty Miss Melrose home, to entertain the dinner table. The news had been made known at a dinner given to forty young persons, in the home of the debutante's aunt, Mrs. Hendrick von Behrens. Miss Melrose, said the paper, was the daughter and heiress of the late Theodore Melrose, and made her home with her grandmother. Mr. Liggett was the brother of Christopher Liggett, whose marriage to Miss Alice Melrose was a social event some years ago. A number of dinners and dances were already planned in honour of the young pair.
Norma looked at the pictured face with a little stir of feelings so confused that she could not define them, at her heart. But she passed the paper to her aunt with no comment.
"You might send them two dozen kitchen towels, Mother," Wolf suggested, drily, and Rose laughed joyously. Her own engagement present from her mother had been this extremely practical one, and Rose loved to open her lower bureau drawer, and gloat over the incredible richness of possessing twenty-four smooth, red-striped, well-hemmed glass-towels, all her own. Norma had brought her two thick, dull gray Dedham bowls, with ducks waddling around them, and these were in the drawer, too, wrapped in tissue paper. And beside these were the length of lemon-coloured silk that Rose had had for a year, without making up, and six of her mother's fine sheets of Irish linen, and two glass candlesticks that Rose had won at a Five-hundred party. Altogether, Rose felt that she was making great strides toward home-making, especially as she and Harry must wait for months, perhaps a year. Norma had promised her two towels a month, until there were a whole dozen, and Wolf, prompted by the same generous little heart, told her not to give the gas-stove a thought, for she was to have the handsomest one that money could buy, with a stand-up oven and a water-heater, from her brother. Rose walked upon air.
But Norma was in a mood that she herself seemed unable to understand or to combat. She felt a constant inclination toward tears. She didn't hate the Melroses—no, they had been most friendly and kind. But—but it was a funny world in which one girl had everything, like Leslie, and another girl had no brighter prospect than to drudge away in a bookstore all her life, or to go out on Sundays with her cousin. Norma dreamed for hours of Leslie's life, the ease and warmth and beauty of it, and when Leslie was actually heralded as engaged the younger girl felt a pang of the first actual jealousy she had ever known. She imagined the beautiful drawing-room in which Acton Liggett—perhaps as fascinating a person as his brother!—would clasp pearls about Leslie's fair little throat; she imagined the shining dinner tables at which Leslie's modestly dropped blonde head would be stormed with compliments and congratulations.
And suddenly molasses peppermints and dish-washing became odious to her, and she almost disliked Rose for her pitiable ecstasies over china bowls and glass-towels. All the pleasant excitement of her call upon Mrs. Melrose, with Aunt Kate, died away. It had seemed the beginning of some vaguely dreamed-of progress toward a life of beauty and achievement, but it was two weeks ago now, and its glamour was fading.
True, Christopher Liggett had come into Biretta's bookstore, with Leslie, and he and Norma had talked together for a few minutes, and Leslie had extended her Aunt Alice's kind invitation for tea. But no day had been set for the tea, Norma reflected gloomily. Now, she supposed, the stir of Leslie's engagement would put all that out of Christopher's head.
Wolf was not particularly sympathetic with her, she mused, disconsolately. Wolf had been acting in an unprecedented manner of late. Rose's engagement seemed to have completely turned his head. He laughed at Norma, hardly heard her words when she spoke to him, and never moved his eyes from her when they were together. Norma could not look up from her book, or her plate, or from the study of a Broadway shop window, without encountering that same steady, unembarrassed, half-puzzled stare.
"What's the matter with you, Wolf?" she would ask, impatiently. But Wolf never told her.
As a matter of fact, he did not know. He was a silent, thoughtful fellow, old for his years in many ways, and in some still a boy. Norma and Rose had known only the more prosperous years of Kate's life, but Wolf remembered many a vigil with his mother, remembered her lonely struggles to make a living for him and for the girls. He himself was the type that inevitably prospers—industrious, good, intelligent, and painstaking, but as a young boy in the working world he had early seen the terrors in the lives of men about him: drink, dirt, unemployment and disease, debt and dishonour. Wolf was not quick of thought; he had little imagination, rather marvelling at other men's cleverness than displaying any of his own, and he had reached perhaps his twenty-second or twenty-third summer before he realized that these terrors did not menace him, that whatever changes he made in his work would be improvements, steps upward. For actual months after the move to New York Wolf had pondered it, in quiet gratitude and pleasure. Rent and bills could be paid, there might be theatre treats for the girls, and chicken for Sunday supper, and yet the savings account in the Broadway bank might grow steadily, too. Far from being a slave to his employer, Wolf began to realize that this rather simple person was afraid of him, afraid that young Sheridan and some of the other smart, ingenious, practically educated men in his employ might recognize too soon their own independence.
And when the second summer in New York came, and Wolf could negotiate the modest financial deal that gave him and the girls a second-hand motor-car to cruise about in on Sundays and holidays, when they could picnic up in beautiful Connecticut, or unpack the little fringed red napkins far down on the Long Island shore, life had begun to seem very pleasant to him. Debt and dirt and all the squalid horrors of what he had seen, and what he had read, had faded from his mind, and for awhile he had felt that his cup could hold no more.
But now, just lately, there was something else, and although the full significance of it had not yet actually dawned upon him, Wolf began to realize that a change was near. It was the most miraculous thing that had ever come to him, although it concerned only little Norma—only the little cousin who had been an actual member of his family for all these years.
He had heard his mother say a thousand times that she was pretty; he had laughed himself a thousand times at her quick wit. But he had never dreamed that it would make his heart come up into his throat and suffocate him whenever he thought of her, or that her lightest and simplest words, her most casual and unconscious glance, would burn in his heart for hours.
During his busy days Wolf found himself musing about this undefined and nebulous happiness that began to tremble, like a growing brightness behind clouds, through all his days and nights. Had there ever been a time, he wondered, when he had taken her for granted, helped her into her blessed little coat as coolly as he had Rose? Had it been this same Norma who scolded him about throwing his collars on the floor, and who had sent his coat to the cleaner with a ten-dollar bill in the pocket?
Wolf remembered summer days, and little Norma chattering beside him on the front seat, as the shabby motor-car fled through the hot, dry city toward shade and coolness. He remembered early Christmas Mass, and Norma and Rose kneeling between him and his mother, in the warm, fir-scented church. He remembered breakfast afterward, in a general sense of hunger and relaxation and well-being, and the girls exulting over their presents. And every time that straight-shouldered, childish figure came into his dream, that mop of cloudy dark hair and flashing laugh, the new delicious sense of some unknown felicity touched him, and he would glance about the busy factory self-consciously, as if his thoughts were written on his face for all the world to read.
Wolf had never had a sweetheart. It came to him with the blinding flash of all epoch-making discoveries that Norma was his girl—that he wanted Norma for his own, and that there was no barrier between them. And in the ecstasy of this new vision, which changed the whole face of his world, he was content to wait with no special impatience for the hour in which he should claim her. Of course Norma must like him—must love him, as he did her, unworthy as he felt himself of her, and wonderful as this new Norma seemed to be. Wolf, in his simple way, felt that this had been his destiny from the beginning.
That a glimpse of life as foreign and unnatural as the Melrose life might seriously disenchant Norma never occurred to him. Norma had always been fanciful, it was a part of her charm. Wolf, who worked in the great Forman shops, had felt it no particular distinction when by chance one day he had been called from his luncheon to look at the engine of young Stanley Forman's car. He had left his seat upon a pile of lumber, bolted the last of his pie, and leaned over the hood of the specially designed racer interested only in its peculiarities, and entirely indifferent to the respectful young owner, who was aware that he knew far less about it than this mechanic did. Sauntering back to his work in the autumn sunlight, Wolf had followed the youthful millionaire by not even a thought. If he had done so, it might have been a half-contemptuous decision that a man who knew so little of engines ought not to drive a racer.
So Norma's half-formed jealousies, desires, and dreams were a sealed book to him. But this very unreasonableness lent her an odd exotic charm in his eyes. She was to Wolf like a baby who wants the moon. The moon might be an awkward and useless possession, and the baby much better without it, still there is something winning and touching about the little imperious mouth and the little upstretched arms.
One night, when he had reached home earlier than either of the girls, Wolf was in the warm bright kitchen, alone with his mother. He was seated at the end of the scrubbed and bleached little table; Kate at the other end was neatly and dexterously packing a yellow bowl with bread pudding.
"Do you remember, years and years ago, Mother," Wolf said, chewing a raisin, thoughtfully, "that you told me that Norma isn't my real cousin?"
Kate's ruddy colour paled a little, and she looked anxious. Not Perseus, coming at last in sight of his Gorgon, had a heart more sick with fear than hers was at that instant.
"What put that into your head, dear?"
"Well, I don't know. But it's true, isn't it?"
Kate scattered chopped nuts from the bowl of her spoon.
"Yes, it's true," she said. "There's not a drop of the same blood in your veins, although I love her as I do you and Rose."