THE MADIGANS BY MIRIAM MICHELSON
AUTHOR OF "IN THE BISHOP'S CARRIAGE"
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY ORSON LOWELL
NEW YORK THE CENTURY CO. 1904
Copyright, 1904, by The Century Co.
Published October, 1904
The DeVinne Press
Cecilia the Pharisee 3
A Pagan and a Puritan 39
A Merry, Merry Zingara 79
The Shut-Ups 115
The Ancestry of Irene 147
The Last Straw 189
A Ready Letter-Writer 219
"The Martyrdom of Man" 265
Kate: A Pretense 297
Old Mother Gibson 331
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
PAGE A Few of Irene's "Fathers" Frontispiece
"That settles Number 10," said Sissy, grimly 7
Left the room with such uncompromising hauteur ... that her aunt again exploded 13
"Please, Mr. Garvan," she said 17
Some of the Madigans 23
The Rest of the Madigans 29
Seizing Sissy in his arms, he bore her off to bed 35
"Play it, then, you mean thing," she cried, ... "if it's going to do you any good!" 47
"Go and shake hands properly, like a little gentleman," bullied Mrs. Pemberton 53
Of the design and construction of which he was quite vain 63
The Belle of the Afternoon 71
She was pronounced a "regular little love" by the Misses Bryne-Stivers 91
"I don't see how you're going to dance in them" 95
"But is she very sick?" 101
She glanced up the incline of the see-saw to the height whence Irene looked down 153
"I want you—come!" the Indian princess announced 163
They had coasted only half a block 169
"Oh, you needn't glare at me!" exclaimed Bep 183
A train meant domesticity and dignity to Sissy. In Split it bred and fostered a spirit of coquetry 223
Stamping ... in a frenzy 229
Madigan banged the door behind him as he fled 237
"Here would I rest," she chanted 253
She walked a step or two with him 261
CECILIA THE PHARISEE
I, Cecilia Morgan Madigan, being of sound mind and in purfect bodily health, and residing in Virginia City, Nevada, do hereby on this first day of April solemnly promise:
1. That I will be Number 1 this next month at school.
2. That I will be pachient with Papa, and try to stand him.
3. That I will set Bep—yes, and Fom too, even if she is Irene's partner—a good example.
4. That I will not once this next month pinch Aunt Anne's sensative plant—no matter what she does to me.
5. That I will dust the back legs of the piano even when Mrs. Pemberton isn't expected.
6. That I will help Kate controll her temper, and not mock and aggravate her when she sulks.
7. That I will be a little mother to Frank and teach her to grow up and be a creddit to the famly.
8. That I will not steal candy out of Kate's pocket—without first begging her very hard to give me some.
9. That I will practice The Gazelle fathfully every solatary day. And give up reading on the sly while I play 5-finger exercises.
10. That I will try to bear with Irene. That I will do all I can not to fight with her—but she is a selfish devvil who is always in the wrong.
And all this I solemnly promise myself without being coersed in any way, of my own free will, without let or hidrance, because I want to be good.
Cecilia Morgan Madigan (called Sissy), Aged 11 last birthday.
P.S. And I feel sure I can do it all, God helping me, except Number 10—which is the hardest.
* * * * *
Sissy, who had been sitting writing only half dressed, folded the paper reverently, put it to her lips for lack of a seal, and then buttoned it firmly inside her corset waist.
She felt so virtuous already that the carrying out of her intentions seemed really supererogatory. When she went to Irene to have her button her dress in the back, she had such a sensation of holiness, such a consciousness of a forbearing, pure, and gentle spirit, that her sister's malicious pretense of ignoring her presence appeared to her nothing less than sacrilege.
"Ain't you going to button me, Split?" she demanded, indignant that her enemy, whom she was going to treat with Christ-like charity, should successfully try her temper before the ink was dry on her own promise to keep the peace.
"Ask me pretty," grinned Split, whose nickname honored a gymnastic feat which no other Madigan, however athletic, could accomplish half so successfully as the second. "Say 'please.'"
"I won't do anything of the sort. You know you've got to do it, and you've no right to expect me to say 'please' every time. You don't do it yourself, you hateful thing!"
"Why don't you cry?"
"Because I won't for you—because you can't make me—because—"
"Because you are crying in spite of yourself! Because anybody can make you cry, cry-baby!"
Sissy's hands flew up to her breast. It was a recognized gesture with her, a physical holding of herself together in the last minute that preceded her temperamental flying to pieces.
Split retreated cautiously, clearing the deck herself for action.
But no first gun was fired in that engagement. A crackling of the document hidden over the spot where she thought her heart was came like a warning note to Sissy. She struggled against it a moment; then her hands fell. Meekly she turned her back upon her tormentor, and in a voice of such exquisite holiness as to be almost unearthly, she said:
"Split dear, will you please button me?"
A look of outraged astonishment at the unheard-of endearment came over Irene's face. The Madigans regarded demonstrative affection as pure affectation at its best; at its worst it was little short of indecent.
"'Split dear?'" mocked Irene as soon as she recovered. "Yes, dear. Turn around, dear. Stand straight, dear. Wait a minute, dear—"
Sissy stood in silence, biting her tongue that she might not speak. She was so occupied with the desire to keep Number 10 of her compact with herself that she did not notice how long it was before Irene really began to button her waist. She did note, though, that she began at the bottom, a proceeding Split fancied merely because it drove her junior nearly frantic. She buttoned with maddening slowness up to the middle, when she capriciously left this point and recommenced at the top.
Mentally Sissy followed the operation. It was almost complete when through the little gap purposely left open Split deftly introduced a providentially flattened piece of ice from the window-sill, giving her victim a little shake that sent the ice slipping smoothly down her squirming body, but escaping before Sissy could turn and rend her.
"That settles Number 10," said Sissy, grimly, to herself, while she danced with discomfort. "I'll kill her if I get a chance—that's what I'll do. I'll get even, or my name's not Sis Madigan."
She hurried back into her room, which the twins shared, and stood in damp martyrdom while Bessie's butter-fingers crept with miserable slowness up and down. She suffered so from Bessie's ineptness that, despite the requirements of Number 3 of her code, she tore herself violently from her and turned her back imploringly to Florence. But Fom was a partizan of Split's, and it was against all the ethics of Madigan warfare to aid and comfort the enemy. When Sissy, chastened, returned to Bep's ministrations, the blonde one of the twins was so hurt and offended by the implication of awkwardness—a point upon which she was as vulnerable as she was sensitive—that Sissy slapped them both before she went at last for relief to Aunt Anne.
This was fatal, as she knew it would be.
"I shall tell your father about Irene," her aunt said, looking up from the coffee she was sipping as she lay in bed reading a French book. "But it's just as well, for I told you yesterday that that dress was too dirty to wear another day. Change it now—"
"Oh, Aunt Anne, it's late already—"
"You'll change that dress, Sissy, or you won't go to school."
"I won't! It's too late. I'll be late. That means one credit off, and this month I'm going—" A remembrance of her lofty intentions came suddenly to Sissy. All the world seemed bent on compelling her to forswear herself.
"Cecilia!" commanded Miss Madigan.
"You've disturbed my reading enough this morning. If you say another word I'll—"
"Oh, Aunt Anne—"
"Go over to the wall, Cecilia, and stand with your back to me for five minutes."
With a fiendish light in her eye—a light of such desperate satisfaction as betokened one gladly driven to commit the unforgivable Sissy moved toward the sensitive-plant in the window.
"Not there! That poor plant seems to suffer sympathetically with your badness. Stand over by the bureau."
Sissy obeyed. Her rage at being made ridiculous, her sense of outrage that a perfectionist like herself should suffer punishment, added to her knowledge of the flight of time on school mornings, strangled her into dumbness. But she clasped the paper in her breast as a drowning man might a spar from the wreck. At least Number 4 was intact. She had been mercifully spared the fracture of this one of her self-made commandments.
She was standing with her nose pressed firmly against the green wall-paper, her back laid open as by a surgical operation, and a towel, which her aunt had forced into the aperture for drying purposes, dangling down behind, when Kate, passing the door on her way to breakfast, glanced in.
Her sputtering, quickly stifled screech of laughter sent Sissy spinning about as a bull does when the banderilla is planted in his quivering flesh. She looked at the doorway; it was empty, but she heard scurrying footsteps without. Kate was on her way to tell the others.
She looked at Aunt Anne. That severe lady had dropped her book and, seized by the contagion, was shaking with silent laughter.
Not a word did Sissy say. Her expression of disgust,—disgust that a grown-up should be so silly as to see something funny in absolutely nothing; disgust that her aunt should so weaken the effect of her own discipline,—reinforced by the green smudge on her nose, rubbed off the wall-paper, finished Miss Madigan. The lady no longer attempted to conceal the disgraceful fact that she was laughing. She gave an audible gurgle, and began to wipe the tears of enjoyment from her eyes.
In that moment the iron entered into Sissy Madigan's soul. She turned again to the wall, and taking a pin which had fastened the bow of ribbon at her throat, she pricked slowly but relentlessly in the loose wall-paper this legend:
After which she felt relieved, and, the five minutes being up, left the room with such uncompromising hauteur, still splashed with green on the nose, still split open down the back, with the towel's fringe dangling in dignity behind, that her aunt again exploded.
The fact that she had irretrievably lost one credit through tardiness set Sissy's lips in a tight line of determination to guard jealously every one of the ninety-and-nine left to her.
At recess she remained at her desk studying her geography with an intensity of purpose that made her rivals' hearts quake. She sat at the teacher's desk—lifted to this almost regal eminence by his fondness for her petulant ways as well as because of that quality of leadership which made Sissy her fellows' spokeswoman. Hers was the privilege of using the master's pencils, sharpened to a fineness that made neatness a dissipation instead of a task. It was she, of course, who originated the decorative style of arithmetic-paper much in vogue, on which each example was penned off in an inclosure fenced by alternating vertical and horizontal double hyphens.
But a queer, conscientious sense of the responsibilities of power and place modified Sissy's rapturous delight in her position, so that she kept it despite a fiercely jealous class-spirit developed by a strict credit-system, by the emulative temper which the rarefied atmosphere of the little mining town fostered, and by a young master just out of college who looked upon his teaching as a temporary adventure, much as a Japanese gentleman regards domestic service.
It was in her capacity of class representative that the master had consulted Sissy upon the limits to be observed in the forthcoming public oral examination in geography. And she had enlightened him as to what would be considered quite "fair." This treaty, into which she entered with the seriousness of an ambassador to an unfriendly power arranging a settlement of a disputed question, had a character so sacred in her eyes that its violation by the master in the course of the afternoon came upon her like a blow.
"Cecilia Madigan," asked the master, "what is the highest mountain in the world?"
Sissy rose. The imposing array of visitors in school faded out of her horizon. All she could see was the eyes of her schoolmates turned in accusatory horror upon her. They suspected her of betraying them; of using her elevated position to hand down untrustworthy information.
"Please, Mr. Garvan," she said in tones more of sorrow than of anger, skilfully showing her knowledge of the answer while denying his right to it, "that question isn't on the map of Africa."
A flush of annoyance mounted to the young master's forehead. Out of the corner of her eye Sissy saw the preliminary twitch of the corners of his lips that served the class for a danger-signal.
"What is the highest mountain, Cecilia?" he repeated sternly.
Sissy stood a moment looking at him. All that she might not say—her contempt for pledge-breakers, her shocked hero-worship now forever a thing of the past, her outraged school-girl's affection—she shot straight at the master from her angry eyes.
Then she sat down.
"I don't know," she said.
He looked up from his book, incredulous. Ten credits out of one hundred gone at one fell swoop—ten of Sissy Madigan's credits, for which she fought so gallantly and which she cherished so jealously when she once had them in her possession.
"I—don't—know," repeated Sissy, disdainfully.
The master passed the question. But as he put it to the next girl, Sissy put another question, with her eyes, to the same girl.
"Are you a scab?" her steady gaze challenged. "Are you going to benefit by what a mate suffers for principle's sake? Are you a coward who doesn't dare to stand up for your class? And—do you know what you'll get from me if you are?"
"I—don't—know," faltered the girl.
A glory of triumph shot over Sissy's face. It leaped like a sunrise from peak to peak in a mountain-range of obstinacy. "I don't know"—"I don't know"—"I don't know"—the shibboleth of the strikers' cause went down the line. The master was shamed in public by the banner pupils of his school. He writhed, but he put the question steadily to every girl till he came to Irene, last in the line.
"What is the highest mountain in the world?" he asked, perfunctorily now.
But, to his amazement, she rose, and, looking out of the window up to the mountain to the skirts of which the town clung, she answered:
Sissy's savage joy followed so quickly upon her horror at her own sister's defection that the closing of school left her in a trembling storm of emotions. In the dressing-room, where the girls were putting on their hats, she marched up to Irene, followed by her wrathful adherents and feeling like an avenging Brutus.
"You're a sneak, Split Madigan! You're a coward, and—and a stupid coward. You don't know enough to betray your class and get the benefit of it, but you'd rather be mean than get credits, anyway. Nobody can count on you. Changeable Silk, that's what you are—changing color all the time, never standing firm! I hate you! Changeable Silk! Changeable Silk!"
"Changeable Silk! Changeable Silk!" chanted her following.
The little dressing-room rang with the cry of the mob, so filled with significance by the tone in which it was uttered that Irene paled and shrank.
But only for a moment. The Madigans never lacked courage long. That fierce internecine strife waged by the clan in the old house high on the side of the hill made a Madigan quick and resolute.
"Stupid yourself, Sissy! My answer made him madder than your not answering."
Sissy looked at her searchingly. "But—did you—" she wavered.
"Of course I did! Who's the stupid now? Do you s'pose I didn't know it was—"
"What?—what?" Sissy repeated as her sister hesitated.
Irene turned up her nose insultingly. "I don't—know," she mocked, and beat a successful retreat.
* * * * *
Francis Madigan dined in a long room, the only man at a table with seven women ranging in years from four to forty-four. The accumulation of girls in his family was so wanton an outrage upon his desires that he rather rejoiced in the completeness of the infliction as an undeniable grievance.
He needed a grievance as a shield against which others' grievances might be shattered. And in default of a more tangible one, he cited his heavily be-daughtered house. It was at dinner-time that he always seemed to realize the extent of his disaster. As he took his place at the head, his wrathful eye swept from Frances in her high chair, up along the line, past the twins, through Cecilia, Irene, and Kate, till it lighted upon Miss Madigan's good-humored, placid face. His sister's placidity was an ever-present offense to the father of the Madigans,—the most irascible of unsuccessful men,—and the snort with which he finished the inspection and took up the carving-knife had become a classic in Madigan annals long before Sissy brought down the house at the age of eight by imitating it one evening in his absence.
But to-night a most painful and ostentatious respect marked Sissy's manner to her parent. She stood markedly,—while the others scrambled into their chairs and Wong, the Chinese servant, sped about placing everything on the table at once,—waiting for her father to be seated.
She was still waiting politely when his eye lighted upon her. "Sit down, Cecilia!" he roared; "what d' ye want, gaping there?"
Sissy sat down. So holy was she that she did not resent (openly) the low, delighted giggle Irene gave. She began to be politely attentive to Dusie, her father's pet canary, though she loathed the spoiled little thing that hopped about the table helping itself.
Madigan had a way of telling himself, in his rare moments of introspection, that the tenderness he might have lavished upon a son he spent upon the male offspring of more fortunate genera than man. The big Newfoundland and the great cat came to meals regularly. They shared Madigan's affection with the birds (whose cage, big as a dog's house, he had himself nailed up against the side of the wall), that broke into a maddening din of song, excited by the rival clatter of young Madigans dining.
Protected by this shrill symphony from the sound of his daughters' voices, Madigan fed his dog, his cat, and his favorite canary, and with his head upon one hand, in token of his abiding disgust with the human, daughterful world, ate quickly with the other.
This pose was the signal that freed the feminine Madigan tongue. Usually they all broke into conversation at once; but on this evening there seemed to be some agreement which held them mute till Irene spoke.
"I am glad to see you be so patient with papa, Sissy," she said gently.
His third daughter glanced apprehensively at Madigan. But her father had retired within his shell, and nothing but a cataclysm could reach him there.
"Why—" she said, puzzled, "why—I—"
"Promise me that you'll try to stand him," urged Split, joyously.
"And that you'll help me control my temper, and not mock and aggravate me when I sulk," chanted Kate.
Sissy dropped her knife and fork, and her hands flew to her bosom, not in wrath, but in terror. The crackling testament was gone!
"Try to bear with me, won't you, Sis, even if I am a devil?" grinned Split.
"And set us a good example, Sissy," piped the twins.
"Be a yittle muvver to Fwank," lisped the baby, prompted by a big sister.
"And don't steal candy out of my pocket, will you, Cecilia Morgan?" begged her oldest sister.
Sissy sprang into the air, as though lifted bodily by the taunts of these ungrateful beneficiaries of her good intentions.
"Sit down, you ox!" came in thundering tones from the head of the table.
When one was called an ox among the Madigans the culprit invariably subsided, however the epithet might tend to make her sisters rejoice. But Sissy had borne too much in that one day—always keeping in mind the perfect sanctity with which she had begun it.
With an inarticulate explanation that was at once a sob, a complaint, and a trembling defiance, she pushed back her chair and fled to her room. Here she sobbed in peace and plenty; sobbed till tears became a luxury to be produced by a conscious effort of the will. It had always been a grief to Sissy that she could never cry enough. Split, now, could weep vocally and by the hour, but all too soon for Sissy the wells of her own sorrow ran dry.
Yet tears had ever a chastening effect upon the third of the Madigans. In due time she rose, washed her face, and combed back her hair and braided it in a tight plait that stuck out at an aggressive angle on the side; unaided she could never get it to depend properly from the middle. This heightened the feeling of utter peacefulness, of remorse washed clean, besides putting her upon such a spiritual elevation as enabled her to meet her world with composure, though bitter experience told her how long a joke lasted among the Madigans.
She fell upon her knees at last beside her bed. No Madigan of this generation had been taught to pray, an aggressive skepticism—the tangent of excessive youthful religiosity—having made the girls' father an outspoken foe to religious exercise. But to Sissy's emotional, self-conscious soul the necessity for worded prayer came quick now and imperative.
"O Lord," she pleaded aloud, "help me to keep 'em all—even Number 10—in spite of Split and the devil. Help—"
She heard the door open behind her.
With a bound she was in bed, fully dressed as she was; and pulling the covers tight up to her neck, she waited, to all intents and purposes fast asleep.
"You little fool!" said Madigan, with a hint of laughter in his heavy voice and laying a not ungentle hand on her blazing cheeks. "D' ye think I care if you want to kneel and kotow like other idiots? If you're that kind—and I suppose you are, being a woman—pray and be—blessed!"
It was the nearest thing to a paternal benediction that had ever come to Sissy, but she was too wary a small actress to be moved by it out of her role. Nor did her father wait to note the effect of his words. His heavy step passed on and out of her room into his own, and the door slammed between them.
In a moment Sissy was up; in another moment she had torn off her clothes, blown out her candle, and jumped back into bed. She was almost asleep when the twins came in, but she feigned the deepest of slumbers when Bessie pushed a crackling piece of paper under her pillow, though her fingers closed greedily about it as soon as the room was quiet again.
She knew what it was—her precious compact with herself, that loyal little Bep had recaptured from the enemy. She lay there, lulled by its presence; and slowly, slowly she was dropping off into real slumber when a sharply agonizing thought, an inescapable mental pin-prick, roused her. It was Number 9. She had not touched the piano during the whole of that strenuous day.
She withdrew her fingers reproachfully from the insistent reminder of virtuous intention, and resolutely she turned her back on it and tried to pretend herself to sleep. But every broken section of her treaty had a voice, and above them all clamored the call of Number 9 that it was not yet too late.
When Sissy rose wearily at last and draped the Mexican quilt about her, the house was quiet. All youthful Madigans were abed, and the older ones were in secure seclusion.
It was a small Saint Cecilia, with a short, stiff braid standing out from one side of her head, and utterly without musical enthusiasm, that sat down in the darkness at the old square piano. "La Gazelle" was out of the question, for she had no lamp and she did not yet know the trills and runs of her new "piece" by heart. But the five-finger exercises and the scales that it had been her custom to run over slightingly while she read from a paper novel by the Duchess open in front of her music—this much of an atonement was still within her power.
With her bare foot on the soft pedal, that none might hear her, Sissy played. It was dark and very quiet; the hush-hush of the throbbing mines filled the night and stilled it. At times her heart stood still for fear that she might be discovered; at other times the longing for a sensational uncovering of her belated and extraordinary goodness seized her, and her naked foot slipped from the cold pedal only to be hurriedly replaced before the jangle of the keys could escape.
How long she practised, and whether she redeemed herself and Number 9, Sissy never knew, for she fell asleep at last over the keys and was waked by a hoarse scream and a wild cry of "De debbil! De debbil!"
It was Wong, the Chinaman, who had but one name for all things supernatural. Coming home from Chinatown, he was passing the glass door near which the piano stood when he saw the slender figure in its trailing white drapery bowed over the keys.
Sissy looked up, sleep still bewildering her, and yet awake enough to be fearful of consequences. She tore open the door and sped after the Chinaman to enlighten him, but her pursuit only confirmed Wong's conception of that mission of malice which is devil's work on earth. A terrified howl burst from him. There was only one being on earth of whom he stood in greater awe than the thing he fancied he was fleeing from; that one, logically, must be greater than It. Taking his very life in his hand, he doubled, darted past the shivering Thing, flew on through the open door, and made straight for the master's room.
For Sissy there was nothing to do but to follow.
"I wanted to be good," she wailed, unnerved, when Aunt Anne had her by the shoulder and was catechizing her in the presence of a nightgowned multitude of excited Madigans.
But succor came from an unexpected quarter. "Let the child alone, Anne," growled Madigan, adjusting the segment of the leg of woolen underwear which he wore for a nightcap; and seizing Sissy in his arms, he bore her off to bed.
"Papa's pet! Papa's baby!" mouthed Irene, under her breath, as she danced tauntingly along behind his back.
And Sissy, outraged in all the dignity of her eleven years at being carried like a child, but unspeakably happy in her father's favor, looked over his shoulder with a sheepish, smiling, sleepy face, murmuring, "Sour grapes, Split, sour grapes!"
Afterward, encouraged by the darkness and the strangeness of being laid in bed from her father's arms, Sissy held him a moment by her side.
"When men make promises on paper that they can't keep, father," she whispered, "what do they do?"
"Oh, go to sleep, child! They become bankrupt, I suppose."
"And—and what becomes of the paper?"
"What do you know or care about such things? Will you go to sleep to-night?"
"If you had any bankrupt's paper," she pleaded, catching hold of his hand as he turned to leave her, "what would you do with it—please, father!"
"Why, tear it up, you goose."
With a jump, Sissy was bolt upright in bed and holding up a fluttering, much-folded sheet, an almost incredulous joy in her eager voice.
"Take mine and pretend I was bankrupt—please—oh, please!"
To Madigan all children, his own particularly, were such unaccountable beings that a vagary more or less could not more hopelessly perplex his misunderstanding of them. With a "Tut! tut!" of impatience, he took the paper from her and tore it twice across.
A long sigh of relief came from Sissy as the bits fluttered to the floor. "You're such a nice father!" she murmured happily, and fell asleep, a blissful bankrupt instead of a Pharisee.
A PAGAN AND A PURITAN
The morning was warm and young; Mount Davidson's side was golden with sunflowers. On the long front piazza Mr. Madigan's canaries, in their mammoth cage, were like to burst their throats for joy in the promise of summer. Irene, every lithe muscle a-play, was hanging by her knees on the swinging-bar, her tawny hair sweeping the woodshed floor as she swung.
"Split, I say!"
The tone was commanding—such a tone as Sissy dared assume only on Saturday mornings, when her elder sister's necessities delivered Irene the Oppressor into her hands.
In the very exhilaration of effort—the use of her muscles was joy to her—Split paused to wish that the house might fall on Sissy; that she might suddenly become dumb; that the key to the piano might be lost—anything that would avert her own impending doom.
But none of these things happened; they never did happen, no matter how passionately the second of the Madigans longed for them on the last day of the week.
"Split—you know very well you hear me," the voice cried, coming nearer.
Split burst into song. She was a merry, merry Zingara, she declared in sweet, strong cadence, with a boisterous chorus of tra-la-las that rivaled the canaries'; and the louder she sang, the faster she swung, so that she was really half deaf and wholly giddy when she felt Sissy's hand on her ankle.
"Oh, is that you, Sissy?" she asked, sweetly surprised, peering out from under her bushy mane.
"Yes, it's me, Sissy!" Cecilia's small, round face was stern. "And you've heard me from the very first, and if you want any—"
"Shall I show you how to skin the cat, Sis?" Irene interrupted hastily, pulling herself up with a jerk.
But Sissy was fat and had none of her sister's wiry agility. She declined; her mind was attuned to other issues just then, and her soul was a-quiver with malicious, anticipatory glee; for this was the day of Split's music lesson, and her teacher was none other than Sissy herself.
"So, if you want it," the younger sister's voice rose threateningly, "you've got to come now."
"Let's leave it till the afternoon." Split's voice came from somewhere in the midst of her evolutions.
"Will you come?" demanded Sissy peremptorily. "Once!"
How could Split answer? Her mouth was tight shut; she was pulling herself up inch by inch, slowly, slowly, till her chin should rest upon the bar.
"Will you come? Twice!"
Split's face was purple, and there was an agonized prayer for delay in her eyes.
"Will you come? Third—and la-ast—" Sissy prolonged the note quaveringly. It was not her intention to provoke her victim beyond endurance. These lessons, which gave her the whip-hand over the doughty and invincible Split, were far too precious to her.
"And la-ast," she repeated inexorably.
With a thud Irene dropped to the floor. Leaving all her light-heartedness behind in the dusk of the shed, where the trapeze still swung, she followed, a sullen captive; while Cecilia, gloating like the despot she was, led the way.
"We'll begin with the piece," said Split, eagerly, seating herself before the piano.
"No; scales and exercises first," declared Sissy, firmly. "Sit farther back, Split, and keep your wrist up."
Split moved the stool a millionth of an inch. Why, oh, why had she quarreled with Professor Trask? If some one had only told her that her own rebellion would mean the substitution of Cecilia for herself as his pupil, and another opportunity for that apt young perfectionist to outrank her senior!
With a rattling verve, and a dime on each wrist, which Professor Cecilia had placed there to effect a divorce between finger and arm movement, Irene attacked her scales and exercises. She loathed five-finger exercises. So did the talented but lazy Sissy, who knew well from experience what torture would most try her victim's soul. Split merely wanted to play well, to outplay Cecilia, to be independent of her and play her own accompaniments.
"Lift your fingers, Split. You must raise your wrist," came in an easy tone of command. "Repeat that, please. Again. There goes the dime again! If you'd keep your wrist steady, it wouldn't fall off. No; you're playing altogether too fast. Slowly! slow-ly! Bad fingering! bad fingering! Wretched! Wait, I'll mark it for you."
With her nicely pointed long pencil, Sissy, a martinet for technic, assumed all the airs of her own professor and prepared to explain the obvious.
"No, you don't!" Irene's hand shot out from the keys to the sheet-music, scattering the dimes; her wide-spread fingers covered the spot Sissy contemplated adorning with prettily made figures.
"Don't what?" asked Sissy.
"Oh, Miss Innocence! Don't be so affected, that's what! Don't put on so many airs! Don't pretend you know it all, Sis Madigan!"
"Why, Split! Do you s'pose I want to put the fingering down?"
"You do; but you sha'n't!" exclaimed Split, savagely.
"All I want to do is to help you," said Sissy, with well-bred forbearance.
"Well, don't show off, then."
Split withdrew her hand, and the lesson proceeded.
"I'll play your piece for you first, Split, to show you how it ought to go." Sissy rose, her calico rustling, to change the professorial chair for the stool of the demonstrator.
But Split sat like a rock.
"Professor Trask always does, Split."
There was an abused note in Sissy's voice that deceived her sister. In the perennial game of "bluff" these two played, each was alert to detect a weakness in the other; and Irene thought she had found one now. Ignoring her professor, she placed "In Sweet Dreams" on the rack before her, and gaily and loudly, and very badly, began to play.
Sissy rose majestically. Her correct ear was outraged, her small mouth was shut tight. Without a word she resigned her post and made for the door. She had quite reached it before Split capitulated.
"Play it, then, you mean thing," she cried, flouncing off the stool, "if it's going to do you any good!"
Sissy hardened. She had a way of becoming adamant on rare occasions that really struck terror to Split's facile soul, which resented a grudge promptly and as promptly forgot all about it.
"I don't care to play it," said Sissy, loftily.
"Well—I want you to—now."
"But I don't want to."
"Ain't you going to give me my lesson, then?" demanded Split, hoarsely. "I thought you were so anxious to help me!"
Sissy was mute. Hers was a strong position, she felt.
"D' ye expect me to get down on my knees?" Irene's wrathful voice rose, and her unstable temper rocked threateningly. A Madigan would willingly have been flayed alive rather than apologize in so many words.
"I don't expect anything at all," remarked Sissy, coldly.
"Well, you'd better expect, for"—with a swift motion that cut off her sister's retreat and put her own back to the door—"you'll play that piece before you go out of this room."
Without a word Sissy plumped down on the floor. Unconcernedly she pulled her jackstones out of her pocket, and soon their regular click-clock and the deft thump of her small, fat fist was all that was heard in the room.
It always seemed to Split that the last occasion of a disagreement between herself and the sister nearest to her in years, and furthest from her in temperament, was the most intolerable. Never in her life, she thought, had she so longed to murder Sissy as at this minute. She—Split—had no time to waste besieging the impregnable fortress of Sissy's mulishness, when the hardening process had really set in. There never was time enough on Saturdays to do half what one planned, and to-day was the day of Crosby Pemberton's party, besides.
And still Split remained at the door, and still Sissy played jackstones. Twice there were skirmishes between besieger and besieged—once when Split crept upon Sissy and, with a quick thrust of her slim, straight leg, disarranged an elaborate scheme for "putting horses in the stable," and once when there was a strategic sortie from Sissy, which failed to catch the enemy napping.
It was Split who finally yielded, as, with rage in her heart, she had known from the very beginning would be the case. But no Madigan ever laid down her arms and surrendered formally.
Split threw open the door with a bang. "Go out, then, miss! go out!" she commanded.
Calmly and skilfully Sissy finished the "devil on a stump," the last of those ornamental additions the complexities of which appeal to experts in the game; then she gathered up her beloved jackstones and got to her feet. But dignity forbade that she should leave the room just when her foe had ordered her to go. So she ignored the invitation, and going to the piano, sat down in an ostentatiously correct position, requiring many adjustments and readjustments, and began to play "The Gazelle."
She played prettily, did this young person, who seemed to Split specially designed to infuriate her. And to-day she played "with expression," soft-pedaling and lingering upon certain passages in a way which the Madigans considered shameless.
"Oh, the affected thing! Just listen to her! How she does put on!" sneered Split to the world at large.
Sissy's lips opened, then closed tightly. She had almost answered, for no Madigan may be accused of sentimentality and live unavenged. Only a moment, though, was she at a loss. Then calmly, prettily, she glided into Split's own particular "piece." She knew this would draw blood. And it did.
"You sha'n't play it now! You sha'n't!" Split cried, her ungovernable temper aroused. She dashed impetuously for the piano and tore the sheet of music from the rack.
It was the thing for which she had suffered so many lessons; for which she had sat feeling like a mean-spirited imbecile with Sissy's impertinent finger under her wrist, while all outdoors was calling to her; for which she had forborne often and often during the week, only to be more thoroughly bullied on Saturdays. Yet she tore it across and recklessly trampled it underfoot. Then with her hands over her ears, lest she hear the imperturbable and maddeningly excellent Sissy play "In Sweet Dreams" without the notes, Split fled.
Sissy played on till the very last bar; she had an idea that Split might be ambushed out in the hall. But when she got to the end and heard no sound from there, she decided that the enemy was indeed vanquished, and she rose to close the piano. As she did so she got a view of an elegantly stout and very upright lady coming up the front steps, with a fair, pale boy by her side.
With an agility commendable in one so round, Sissy dropped beneath the piano, and, whipping off her apron, proceeded to wipe the dust from the back legs of the instrument with it. This done, she rammed the apron up between the wall and the piano, and was seated, breathless, but with a bit of very dirty white embroidery in her hands, when the lady entered.
"Ah, Cecilia, busy as usual," she said in an important, throaty voice.
"Yes, Mrs. Pemberton," said Sissy, softly.
"You see, Crosby, that even a child may make use of spare moments. Why don't you say how-d'-ye-do to Cecilia? Where're your manners?" demanded the lady.
"Yes, 'm. How-do, Sissy?" asked the boy, uncomfortably. He was a very prim child, immaculately dressed, his smooth hair plastered neatly down over his forehead; and he sat bolt upright on the edge of his chair, for he knew well his mother's views about lounging.
"Go and shake hands properly, like a little gentleman," bullied Mrs. Pemberton.
With a sickly smile Crosby walked over to Sissy and grasped her hand. He let it go with an "Ouch!" that made Mrs. Pemberton turn majestically and glare at him.
"I'm so sorry I stuck you, Crosby," said Sissy, softly, smoothing out her embroidery. "I forgot there was a needle in my work."
Crosby looked at her; he knew just how sorry she was.
"The thing to say, Crosby," thundered his mama, "is, 'Not at all, not at all, Cecilia!'"
"Not at all—not at all, Cecilia," squeaked the boy, his thin voice like a faint echo of his mother's heavy contralto.
Sissy yearned to beat him; she always did. That she did not invariably yield to her desire to express her resentment of so awfully mothered a person, was due solely to a sentiment of chivalry: he was so weak and so devoted to herself, and it took some courage to be devoted to Sissy.
"I'm ashamed of my son!" thundered Mrs. Pemberton.
Yes, Sissy knew that formula. She had heard the announcement first one memorable day at school when she led a revolt against the master—a revolt which only the girls of her clique were expected to indorse. But Crosby, either because he was so accustomed to playing with girls that he considered himself one of them, or because of that dogged devotion which even so stern a puritan as Sissy could not sufficiently discourage, had taken the cue from her lips. He, too, had failed publicly and vicariously, in the very presence of his lion-hearted, bull-voiced mother, and sat a white-faced criminal awaiting execution, when Mrs. Pemberton, rising in her voluminous black silk skirts, like an outraged and peppery hen, stood a moment speechless with wrath, and then broke forth with her denunciation before the whole school, visitors and all. "Mr. Garvan," she had exclaimed in a deep voice all a-tremble, "I am ashamed of my son!" and sailed majestically from the room. Crosby's action had really touched Sissy at the time, though, like the diplomat she was, she had promptly disowned it.
But to-day Mrs. Pemberton's shame did not too much affect her offspring, who sat, not quite so upright now, squeezing the blood from the finger that Sissy's needle had pricked.
"Let me look at your embroidery, Cecilia," said the lady, patronizingly.
Sissy rose and brought it to her. Before Crosby she tried not to show it, but this little Madigan was really suffering in her perfect soul: she embroidered so badly, and knew it so well.
"H'm!" Mrs. Pemberton drew off her glove. "Make your stitches even, and keep your work clean—like this—like this—see?"
Sissy saw. Under the firm, big, white hand the strawberry leaves and blossoms sprang up and flourished. Mrs. Pemberton loved to embroider; her voice was almost gentle when she painted on linen with her needle, and then only did she forget to bully her boy.
"Perhaps you will play for us, Cecilia, if I do a bit of your work for you?"
Sissy knew it was coming. Mrs. Pemberton always asked her to play, and playing for company was pure show-off from a Madigan point of view. Split would hear and taunt her with it later, she knew. But though she scorned the servile and downtrodden Crosby, Sissy, no more than he, dared disobey that grenadier, his mother. She took her seat at the piano, opened a Beethoven that Mrs. Pemberton had given her the last Christmas, under the impression that she was fostering a taste for the classical, and, with a revengeful little hand that couldn't reach the octaves, she began to murder the "Funeral March."
Just as the performer let her hands fall upon the last somber chord (her puritanical soul enjoying the double dissipation of pretending to herself while she afflicted others), she lifted her eyes to the mirror over the piano and saw Irene out in the hall. In the mirror their eyes met, and the mockery in Irene's was unmistakable as Sissy rose, agitated, caught in the very act of showing off, convicted of being affected.
"Very pretty; very pretty, indeed!" said Mrs. Pemberton, absent-mindedly. "Now play another little waltz."
"Aunt Anne says, Mrs. Pemberton," put in Irene, entering, "will you come to her room?"
Mrs. Pemberton rose, her deft hands still calling forth the perfection of fruit from the stubborn linen soil upon which Sissy could make nothing grow, and sailed across the hall. Crosby immediately jumped from his chair.
"I say, Sissy," he cried, "I know an awful swell way to cut paper-doll dresses."
Sissy looked at him. For all her sins (and in a hidden corner of her heart that she rarely looked into, she knew herself for the hypocrite she was, despite all her self-righteous pretense) this girl-boy's devotion was her punishment. She did not envy Split her successes; in fact, she often disapproved the methods by which they were attained. Her pride would permit her neither to make such conquests, nor to enjoy them when they were made; but she cursed her fate that Crosby Pemberton had fallen to her share. For the love of a really bad boy Sissy felt she could have sacrificed much—for a fellow quite out of the pale, a bold, wicked pirate of a boy who would say "Darn," and even smoke a cigarette; a daredevil, whose people could do nothing with him; a fellow with a swagger and a droop to his eyelid and something deliciously sinister in his lean, firm jaw and saucy black eye—a boy like Jack Cody, for instance, for whom a whole world of short-skirted femininity divided itself naturally into two classes: just girls—and Split Madigan. But that a forthright, practical, severe person like herself should be made ridiculous by Crosby's worship, and that Split, her arch-enemy, should be there to hear her adorer make his sexless declaration, was too much! Even a Madigan could not bear up under it. When Sissy looked from "Miss Crosby" (as the very girls who played with him called him) to Split, there were tears of rage trembling in her eyes.
But, with a generosity suspiciously unlike her, Split ignored the signal of distress. "What time this afternoon will the party begin, Crosby?" she asked.
"Oh, two o'clock. But you'll come early, won't you—Sissy?"
Sissy did not answer. She was waiting to see what Split's next move would be.
"I don't know that I can go," said Split, gently. "I haven't any gloves—unless—won't you ask father for some, Sissy?"
There was a prompt refusal upon Sissy's lips, but she did not utter it; the Pembertons' visit had given the enemy too much material with which to regale her fellow-Madigans at the dinner-table in the evening. Sissy looked questioningly into Split's eyes, and silently the bargain was struck: to so much refraining from ridicule in public on the part of one, a certain indebtedness which the other might discharge by facing Francis Madigan with a demand for money. It was hard, but Sissy shut her teeth and got to her feet.
"Can I come with you, Sissy?" asked Crosby, following her to the door. "If you'll let me have your tissue-paper and the scissors, I'll show—"
Sissy's hands flew to her breast. "I wish—I wish you'd never speak to me again!" she exclaimed, and Crosby dodged as though he were apprehensive that she might beat him.
"It's so kind of you to go the very minute I ask," giggled Split, gleefully.
But Sissy shut the door behind her on Crosby's woeful face and Split's radiantly happy one, and went to her fate.
* * * * *
Francis Madigan's room was his castle. It was his castle and his workshop and his boudoir, his kitchen, his library, and his pantry in one. The laxness of the family housekeeping had led him to distrust all hands and heads but his own. Everything that he wanted, or that he might want in the near future, he kept under his eyes, within reach of his hands, where none might borrow or lose or destroy. In order to provide for the needs which grew and changed daily, he fitted up rude shelf above shelf, till the corners of the room were transformed into rough bric-a-brac stands. Mr. Madigan had the unsuccessful man's pride in trifling successes in amateur carpentering, in husbandry of any sort unrelated to the real issues of his life; and every tool he needed for the exercise of his skill he kept under lock and key. He believed in, he trusted no Madigan. He had been known to lend his penknife to Sissy, but that was when she was ailing long ago. He laid in supplies as though he had inside information of a famine near at hand; and his pipes and his great cans of tobacco were piled up with his cards and his books on the table where he played solitaire all day and read half the night. The sweets he liked occasionally, and the day's provision of fruit (for he ate fruit only and at this time looked upon a vegetarian as a coarse creature who belonged to a dead era), were packed in a small home-made pantry of the design and construction of which he was quite vain. His bed swathed in sheets; his blankets sewed securely together, as though he feared they might escape; a device all his own of great wooden wedges raising the lower end of the mattress so that his feet were on a level with his pillowed head; the chest of little drawers which his daughters called "father's hobby," nailed high on the wall and filled with all sorts of odds and ends, the detritus and possible repair-material of years of housekeeping—all this Sissy took in with the unseeing eyes one has for the familiar.
She did not expect her father's room to be like any one else's; neither did she look for an easy and successful termination to her quest. Sometimes she got what she asked for, but she asked for little. And to-day Francis Madigan had been tinkering at the old house, hammering here and patching there, a process that specially tried his temper, being a threatening indication of change, which he resented by declaring that "everything goes to the devil."
"Father," began Sissy, carefully, as she met his inquiring eye, "do you approve of dancing?"
He looked up from his cards. "What nonsense are you talking now?"
"Because Irene and I have a good chance to practise it—dancing—this afternoon."
"Well—practise," he growled.
"Shall we? All right. It's Crosby's party, you know. He's thirteen to-day. It's his party. His mother's giving it for him at Cooper's Hall. And there'll be dancing and—"
"Yes," agreed Sissy, sweetly. "But we'll go if you say so. I won't need any dress, and—" she hurried on as he raised his head belligerently, "neither will Irene. Isn't that lucky? My brown will do, though the over-skirt does jump up when I dance and show the red sham underneath; but—"
"What are you bothering me about, then?" he demanded indignantly, throwing down his cards.
"Gloves," she said gently. Then quickly, before he could speak, "That's all. They don't cost very much. Or, I'll tell you,"—her voice grew suddenly most cheerful, as though she had made a discovery that must delight him,—"we can wear mitts. I don't mind—and neither will Split. Just a pair of blue lace ones for her and pink for me, or—or—" her voice wavered, but she was ready to pay the price, "just blue ones for Split, father."
He put his hand in his pocket. "Why not just pink ones for Sissy?" he asked almost good-naturedly.
Sissy shook her head, but the red rushed to her cheeks. She had won!
"Are you sure you need them?" he asked cautiously in the very act of bestowal.
"Sure! Sure!" she cried, throwing her arms gratefully about his neck before she danced to the door.
"But you're going, too?" he called after her. "All right, then. Make Irene behave. She's an ox—that girl."
An ox, of course, interpreted variously according to Madigan's mood and the correlating circumstances, signified this time an indiscreet, pleasure-mad child. Sissy understood, and she blushed for her sister. In fact, she was always blushing for her sister. She considered it to be her duty formally and officially to disavow her senior. So reprehensible did she feel Split's conduct to be that some one must blush for it; and as blushing was not Split's forte, Sissy did it for her.
And she really did it very well, with an assumption of chagrin that could not fail to call attention subtly to the contrast between the sisters. When Split failed in her lessons with a completeness, a sensational ostentation that was shocking to Sissy, that Number 1 scholar blushed gently, and, discreetly lowering her head, became absorbed in her work. After school, when Split was being kept in and disciplined (a process which never failed effectually to discipline the hardy individual who attempted it), when she wept and stormed and raged and threw caution to the winds as only tempestuous Split could, then was Sissy's attitude a marvel of disapproving rectitude. She had a great deal of dignity, had Sissy, and the picture of holiness that she presented as, with her books on her arm, she walked past the desk where the sobbing sinner's head lay with tumbled curls and bloated face, came as near as anything could to quench the passion of tears in which Split's tempers culminated. On such occasions the infuriated Split was wont, for just a moment, to conquer the half-hysterical sobs that threatened to choke her as well as inundate the world, and make a face at Saint Cecilia as she passed holily by. But Cecilia was a Madigan always, as well as a saint temporarily, and her eyes were turned prudently away just then, as though she were already studiously pondering to-morrow's lesson.
But Sissy blushed her most perfect disapproval when she played chaperon to her elder sister. It was a position for which she felt herself peculiarly fitted, even without the semi-official commission she held—a position which so conscientious a person could not regard in the light of a sinecure.
As she danced only the more sedate dances, because of that obtrusive tendency of the red sham to her skirt, Sissy was able to chaperon her senior all the more effectively at Crosby Pemberton's party. Irene danced like a thing whose vocation is motion. She was a twig in a rain-storm, a butterfly seeking sweets, a humming-bird whose wing beat the air with a very rhapsody of rhythm. She was on the floor with the first note Professor Trask struck, and she danced down the side of the little hall, when the waltz was over and all the other couples had seated themselves, as though the meter of the music had bewitched her feet and they might nevermore walk soberly.
"Split—don't!" It was the shocked voice of her young chaperon.
"Sissy—don't!" mocked the mutinous Split.
Even after she took the seat beside Sissy, her heels were lifted and the toes of her slippers were beating time. She sat there chattering to a group of boys buzzing about her, upon whom her high spirits had the effect that dance-music had upon herself.
"You're the prettiest girl I've seen since I left the city, Irene," patronizingly whispered the boy lately from San Francisco, whose metropolitan elegances had dazzled the eyes of the mountain maidens.
"I wonder how many girls Will Morrow's said that to this afternoon!" came like a sarcastic douche from Sissy, who conceived it to be a chaperon's duty to take the conceit out of citified chaps.
Young Morrow turned to find a small woman in brown eying him disdainfully.
"Well—well, I never said it to you, anyway," he retorted gallantly.
"Good reason why. You knew I wouldn't believe you," Sissy declared, floundering in her anger.
"Neither would anybody else."
"Why? Because you said it? Didn't know you had such a reputation." Sissy was recovering. "Never mind, Split," she added, heavily sarcastic and assuming a comforting air that maddened Irene, who desired nothing more than to impress her new suitor with the elegant gentility of her manner, her family's, and all that was hers. "Just to have a boy from the city even pretend to think you're good-looking is worth living for. Boys know so much—in the city!" she concluded witheringly.
Mr. Morrow from San Francisco looked bewildered. He had merely paid what he considered a very dashing compliment to one girl, when lo! the other overwhelmed him with her contempt. He turned for consolation to Irene.
"I'll show you how they dance the two-step in the city," he said, holding out his hand as the music began again.
But he had reckoned without that stern censor of sisterly manners, Cecilia Madigan; that loyal Comstocker who resented the implication of her town's inferiority, quite independent of the fact that the insult was not addressed to her but to one who, apparently, welcomed it.
"I think I'll go home now, Split," she remarked carelessly, rising.
A sudden blight fell upon the belle of the afternoon. When Sissy went, go she must, too; this was the sole rule of conduct Francis Madigan had devised for the guidance of his most headstrong daughter.
"Oh, Sissy—not till after supper!" she pleaded piteously.
"I—I've got some studying to do for the examination Monday," explained the exemplary member of Mr. Garvan's class and society at large.
"Just wait till this one dance is over!" Coaxing was not Split Madigan's forte; she was accustomed to demand.
But it was just that one dance that Sissy, the pure and patriotic, could not countenance.
A quick flash of fury lighted Irene's eye. To be bossed publicly and before Mr. Will Morrow of San Francisco! In her heart she swore to be avenged; yet she dropped Mr. Morrow's hand and shook her head to all his pleadings, as she followed her ruthless tyrant across the floor to the little dressing-room.
But as the sisters emerged from the dressing-room door, Crosby Pemberton and his cousin Fred stopped them.
"You're not going home, Split?" begged Fred. "I've been looking everywhere for you. Oh, come and dance just this one with me!"
"Sissy's going," said Split, the lilting of the music stirring her pulses and lifting her feet, despite the unmusical rage she was in, "and I've got to go, too."
"Won't you stay—won't you wait just for this one, Sissy?" begged Fred.
"Why—certainly," acquiesced the gentle Sissy.
Split gasped with amazement. But she wasted no time, throwing off her jacket with a quick twist of her wrist. Later she might fathom the tortuosities of her tyrant's mind. All she knew now was that she might dance. With whom was a small matter to Split Madigan.
Sissy watched her dance away, delight and malice in her eye. She was watching till Mr. Morrow from the city should behold her revenge. But Crosby did not know this, and he had plans of his own.
"Come and play a game over in the corner, just till this dance's over, won't you, Sissy?"
"What kind of a game?" she demanded, following him mechanically.
"Oh, a new game. It's lots of fun. I'll show you."
Sissy consented. She could play a game—and she knew she was clever at all games—without fear of betrayal from that red sham which she had been fiercely sitting upon half the afternoon.
Before long, her emulative spirit got her so interested in this particular game that she forgot not only the sham skirt but the sham pretense upon which she had bullied Irene. And she played so well that there was only one forfeit against her name, though Crosby, who had named himself treasurer, held half the bangle bracelets and pins and handkerchiefs of the little circle as evidence of dereliction in others.
He called her name first, as he stood with her little turquoise ring in his hand and an odd light in his eye that might have enlightened her; but she was looking toward the door, where the young gentleman from San Francisco, in a Byronic pose, was staring gloomily at Irene dancing with a rival, and so joying in the dance that she had forgotten all about him.
"Open your mouth and shut your eyes, And I'll give you something to make you wise,"
chanted Crosby, holding out the ring and beckoning to her.
Closing her eyes upon the spectacle of Mr. Morrow's suffering, Sissy opened a mouth about which the malicious smile still lingered.
Crosby hesitated a moment. He was very much afraid of her, but as she stood, docile and innocent, before him, with her eyes shut and her tiny red mouth open, he could not fancy consequences nearly so well as he could picture the thing his wish painted.
In a moment he had realized it, and Sissy, overwhelmed by astonishment, dumb and impotent with the audacity of the unexpected, felt his arms close about her and his greedy lips upon hers.
Oh, the rage and shame of the proper Sissy! Her mouth fell shut and her eyes flew open. And then, if she could, she would have closed them forever; for, before her in the sudden silence, towering above the triumphant and unrepentant Crosby, stood Mrs. Pemberton, a portentous figure of shocked matronly disapproval. And she promptly placed the blame where mothers of sons have placed it since the first similar impropriety was discovered.
"Cecilia!" she cried in that velvety bass that echoed through the room—"Cecilia Madigan, you—teaching my son a vulgar kissing game—you, the good one! Oh, you deceitful little thing!"
A MERRY, MERRY ZINGARA
It had been Crosby Pemberton's custom to climb the steps that led to Madigan's every Wednesday afternoon at four, with his music neatly done up in a roll, on his way to play duets with Sissy.
On the Wednesday that followed his birthday party—the mere mention of which, after the lapse of four days, was enough to send Sissy into hysterics—that young lady was seated in the parlor, ready for her guest. She was ready for him in all the senses a Madigan knew how to infuse into that frame of mind. She intended to make him as miserable as she herself had been ever since that disgraceful episode in which she had so innocently played the victim's part. She would show the betrayer of trust no mercy—none. She would accept no apology. She would trample upon his excuses and tear them limb from limb. She would show him her scorn and detestation and make him feel how everlastingly unforgivable his offense was; then she would send him forth forever from the house, and dare him to so much as speak to her at school.
She pictured him going down the stairs for the last time, utterly wretched, broken, despised, condemned. And in order to make the picture more real, she glanced out of the window. Suddenly her hands flew in terror to her breast, and all her plans for vengeance were left hanging in mid-air; for it was not Crosby's trim little figure that was climbing the steps, but the stately solidity of Mrs. Pemberton herself.
In her extremity, Sissy did not even stop to look at the back legs of the piano; she sped across the room and made a flying leap through the low west window. Mrs. Pemberton, glancing in through the open door as she rang the bell, got a glimpse of two plump disappearing legs, but when she and Miss Madigan entered, there was no trace of Sissy except her jackstones. They stumbled over these, lying scattered on the floor, where she had been sitting waiting for Crosby and concocting schemes of punishment.
"I come to explain—" said Mrs. Pemberton, stiffly and a bit out of breath, seating herself with a rigidity of backbone that would have justified Sissy's bestowal upon her of the nickname Mrs. Ramrod, if she could have seen it. But Sissy, lying attentive beneath the open window, could not see; she could only hear. "I am here to tell you, Miss Madigan, why Crosby did not come to-day to play duets."
"Dear me! didn't he come?" asked Miss Madigan, absently. "He isn't sick, is he? Irene complains of headache and backache, and she's so languid she let Sissy get the wish-bone—I call it the bone of contention—at dinner yesterday without a struggle. I'm half afraid she'll not be able to sing to-night at Professor Trask's concert; but perhaps it's only that she danced too much at Crosby's party. She al—"
"It's about that—about the party that I wanted to speak to you," interrupted Mrs. Pemberton, severely.
"Yes? Such a lovely party, the girls say! I'm sure, Mrs. Pemberton, it's just—"
"Did they tell you what—occurred?"
Miss Madigan blinked reflectively. Her acquaintance with the stately and wealthy Mrs. Warren Pemberton was her most prized social connection. What could have occurred?
"Why, of course, of course!" she laughed after a bit, pleasantly, still trying to remember what the girls had gossiped about. "Delightful, wasn't it?"
Mrs. Pemberton lifted her plumed head with a slow and terrible solemnity. "De-lightful, Miss Madigan, de-lightful!"
The smile vanished from Miss Madigan's face. "I hope, dear Mrs. Pemberton, that the girls did nothing that—that—They're such madcaps, and their father never will—"
Miss Madigan's distress touched her august visitor. "I trust this," she said significantly, "will be a lesson to Mr. Madigan."
"What—what will? If there's a lesson for Madigan, let him have it direct, Mrs. Pemberton."
Lying flat on her stomach beneath the window, Sissy heard her father's voice come clanging harshly on the lighter-timbred dialogue. Cautiously she raised herself on her elbow and let a single eye peer through the curtain at the group within. There, with his paint-pot in his hand, his brush and his pipe in the other, his unique nightcap rakishly on one side and drawn over his white head to protect it from the paint, Madigan stood in his overalls and heavy shirt—his Michelangelo costume, Kate had called it. He had been regilding an old mirror in his room, and having some gilt left at the bottom of his can, he was going about the house in search of tarnished articles of virtue.
"Oh, Francis!" exclaimed his sister.
"Why, how do you do, Mr. Madigan?" said Mrs. Pemberton, bravely, putting out her hand. "I did not know you were within hearing."
"Or you wouldn't have offered the lesson? Well, give it to me, now that I am here. No, I won't shake hands; mine are all sticky with gilt." He rested his elbow on his hip and stood at ease.
A savage delight at this outrage upon gentility in Mrs. Ramrod's very presence possessed that red republican Sissy. She giggled within herself, Madigan's attitude, his streaked and gilded face, his confident voice, showed such delightful indifference to the effect his unconventional attire must have upon this Priestess of Form.
"I must beg your pardon, Mr. Madigan," said that lady, in her most official tone, "for using the expression I did. The matter I wished to bring to Miss Madigan's attention—and to yours, now that you are here—concerns one of your daughters. I should have come to tell you of it before, as was my duty, as I would wish any mother to do for me were it my daughter; but I have been busy helping the Misses Bryne-Stivers and Professor Trask with this concert for to-night. This must be my apology for the delay. For speaking—for telling you what I have to tell, no mother could apologize."
"H'm!" Madigan cleared his throat threateningly, and out in the sage-brush Sissy shook with apprehension. She knew that preliminary bugle-call to battle.
"I assure you, my dear Mrs. Pemberton, we can have only the kindest feelings for any one who will take an interest in those motherless—"
"Let Mrs. Pemberton go on, Anne," interrupted Madigan, harshly. "Just what is it, ma'am? Out with it."
Mrs. Pemberton rose, rustling her heavy silks.
"Merely, Mr. Madigan, that with my own eyes I saw your daughter take part in a vulgar kissing game—the only occurrence of any kind that marred the perfect propriety of my son's birthday party."
There was a long silence inside. Sissy, without, her heart beating so loud that she was afraid it might drown all other sounds, heard, despite it, Aunt Anne's gasp of horror, the tinkle of the jet on Mrs. Pemberton's heavy gown, the squeaking of her father's paint-spotted slippers as he shifted his weight.
Finally it came. "That ox!" exclaimed Madigan, in a rage.
Mrs. Pemberton moved in majesty toward the door. "My son," she said slowly, "chivalrously tries to take the blame from her and insists that he proposed the game himself. But I know Crosby to be incapable of such a thing."
"H'm! Yes. So do I," assented Madigan.
Miss Madigan turned to her brother, and in a voice that suggested long years of martyrdom, said: "You will send her to the convent now, Francis? You positively must now. I really admire you for the way you have discharged a most unpleasant duty, Mrs. Pemberton. For years I've insisted that Irene must—"
"Irene? Yes, if it had been Irene, one could expect it," remarked Mrs. Pemberton, funereally.
"But it wasn't—it couldn't be—"
"It was Cecilia." Mrs. Pemberton's grief-stricken tones conveyed all the disappointment she felt.
Cecilia, on her quaking knees, now peering through the window, saw a quick change come over her father's dread countenance. It smoothed, it wrinkled, it twitched, and his shoulders began to shake silently.
"No! Sissy?" he exclaimed, with an appreciative chuckle, which made that young perfectionist outside feel seasick, as though the hillside had swelled up beneath her. "And who was the boy, might I ask?"
"It was"—Mrs. Pemberton paused to mark both her shocked surprise at Mr. Madigan's reception of the news, as well as the further enormity involved in its completion—"my son Crosby."
"No! Ha! ha! ha!" Madigan's rare laugh rang out.
Mechanically Sissy turned down her thumb to mark the number of times she had heard it, since Split and she had made a wager on it. Inwardly, though, she was nauseated by the thought that she was being laughed at. As nearly destitute as a Madigan could be of humor, she would so much rather have been flayed alive, she thought in the depths of her puritanical soul, than suffer ridicule.
"Crosby—eh?" Madigan was recovering. "Congratulate him for me. I didn't know the little milksop had it in him. You ought to thank Sissy, ma'am, for proving that he is not really stuffed with sawdust. Where is she, anyway?"
Lying flat, her blushing face buried in the sage-brush, was Sissy at that moment, while Mrs. Ramrod rustled out of the room, precisely as she had done the day Crosby failed in the public oral examination in geography, Miss Madigan hurrying placatingly after.
But outside Sissy wept and would not be comforted. Her purist's pride was wounded; her prudish maiden's modesty was outraged—that her own father should believe it of her! And she must not open the subject or try to alter his opinion, for fear of the ridicule which seared her very soul!
* * * * *
A taste for the ethereally symbolic had not strongly manifested itself in Virginia City, yet under Professor Trask's direction "The Cantata of the Flowers" had been in active rehearsal for weeks. The professor relied upon the school-children for chorus material, and upon the Madigans to fill those lieutenancies without which the spectacular features of his production must be a failure—this last as a matter of course. For there were many Madigans, and those of them that were not leaders by instinct had developed leadership through force of environment, a natural desire to bully others being not the least important by-product of being bullied. Besides, the reputation they had of being talented the professor knew to be almost as efficacious in lending children self-confidence as talent itself.
Kate, therefore, who could not sing a note, but who was grace embodied, led a chorus of Poppies, whose red tissue-paper garments creaked and rustled as they swayed, waving their star-tipped wands and chanting "Breathe we now our charmed fragrance."
Florence and Bessie, whom the curse of being twins linked like galley-slaves, were Heather-bells in a childish chorus which piped forth the information "We are the Heather-bells: list to our song," but which was almost ruined by their common desire to get away from each other and lead in two different directions.
Quite self-possessed (even if she was very much off key), Sissy, who was the best "speaker" in her class, warbled her part of a sanctimonious little duet in which Heliotrope and Mignonette voiced the sentiment—
"'Tis not in beauty alone we may find Purity, goodness, and wisdom combined"
Even small Frances, most self-conscious of Madigans, in a costume so inadequate that Bep's doll would have been scandalized at the idea of wearing it, posed and attitudinized as a Dewdrop. She was pronounced a "regular little love" by the Misses Bryne-Stivers, whom the Madigans had nicknamed the Misses Blind-Staggers—a resentful play upon their hyphenated name, as well as a delicate reference to their blue goggles that might have served as blinkers.
For Irene, though, as the unquestioned possessor of a voice, a solo had been interpolated. She was to repeat, for the first time on the professional stage, that renowned success in "The Zingara" which school exhibitions had made famous.
Just before the time came for Split to sing, Sissy was hovering about the prima donna in the dressing-room. As Miss Heliotrope she wore the dark-purple gown which Aunt Anne had made over from her own wardrobe. (Being Comstock-born, Sissy knew no flower intimately, and could easily be imposed upon as to their habits and colors.) Above it her round little dark face looked almost sallow, in spite of the excited red that flamed in her cheeks.
The atmosphere of a theater was like wine to the Madigans. The smell of escaping gas in the dark was, in itself, enough to transport them by association of ideas out of the workaday world; and emotion due to a dramatic situation was the one evidence of sensibility they permitted themselves.
Yet Sissy, who was tying the ribbons on Split's tambourine, looked in vain for a reflection of that fever of delight which possessed herself. Split was cross. She was languid. She was dull. She did not seem to enjoy even the pair of slippers she was pulling on. They had been given to Sissy by Henrietta Blind-Staggers, and their newness and beauty had tempted the poor Zingara. But if Sissy had not felt that the family fortunes were at stake, as she always did in the matter of a public appearance, she would never have made so generous an offer of her cherished property.
"But they seem awful tight, Split," she suggested.
"They're nothing of the sort," snapped Split, wincing as she rose to her feet.
"I don't see how you're going to dance in them."
"Will you just leave that to me, Miss Cecilia Morgan Madigan, and mind your own business?"
Deeply offended, Sissy withdrew. No one called her Cecilia Morgan Madigan who did not want to wound her to the soul and remind her of an incident it were more generous to forget. She went out to the wings and stood there looking upon the stage and Professor Trask, who, as the Recluse, was gowned in mysterious flowing black, while he chanted "Here would I rest" in a hollow bass. But Sissy was worried. Not even being behind the scenes could still her apprehensions about Split. She longed to confide in some fellow-Madigan, but Kate was on the other side of the stage, and to all her winks and beckonings turned an uninterested back. Then, all at once, sooner than she expected, the Recluse departed, the scenes shifted; there, alone on the stage, looking white in the glare of the footlights, was a bedizened, big-eyed, panting little Zingara, and the syncopated prelude began.
Sissy's fingers thrummed it sympathetically upon her knee, but Trask, who was playing the accompaniment behind the scenes, had put an unfamiliar accent upon the notes. Out on the stage the Zingara was beating her tambourine sadly out of time and was longing, with a panicky fear, for the familiar touch of Sissy's hand upon the piano.
The notes came like a warning signal. The Zingara's throat was parched, her feet ached excruciatingly merely from carrying her weight—how, oh, how was she going to dance?
The last note prolonged itself into a summons. The Zingara's eye, turning from the faces that danced before her, sent appealing glances to the wings, where Sissy yearned toward her, all rivalry drowned in a mothering anxiety for her success.
"'I'm a—mer-ry, meh-hi-ri-y—Zin-ga-ra!'" wailed Split, trying to get her breath. "'From a—gold-e-en—clime I come!'"
Sissy's hands flew to her breast, then with a wild gesture up over her ears, and she fled back to the dressing-room. Split the redoubtable, Split the invincible, the impudent, ready, pugnacious Split had stage-fright! The world rocked beneath Sissy's feet. Time stopped, and all the world stood agape witnessing a Madigan's failure! It seemed to the third of them that she could never bear to lift her head again and meet a Comstocker's eye and see there that shameful record against the family. But she scrambled quickly to her feet when Irene came running in, "The Zingara" all unsung.
Irene's face was white and her eyes glittered. Sissy did not dare meet them, for, to a Madigan, to put a shame in words or looks was to double and triple it. She did not dare to condole; she had no heart to accuse. So she bent down again, ostensibly to tie her shoe, in order to give the furious little Zingara time to recover and to begin to undress. She heard the tambourine's tingling clatter as it was cast to the floor. She looked anywhere but at her sister, but she heard buttons give and buttonholes rend, and bowed her head to the storm.
"I must say," she remarked in a scornfully careless tone when the silence became oppressive, "that Trask plays funny accompaniments." And she lifted her head, fancying herself rather clever in finding a scapegoat.
She ducked immediately, but not in time. One of her own slippers,—oh, the irony of things!—torn off and thrown by Split's impatient hand, struck her in the face.
Sissy's cheek flamed. "Did you do that on purpose, Split Madigan?"
Split Madigan had not done it on purpose, for the reason mainly that it had not occurred to her. But now that it was done, it was not in her present fury against all the world to disclaim intention to insult so small a part of it. Glad of an excuse to outrage some one, any one,—and, even then, preferably Sissy,—to make her sister share some of that hurt and sting and smart that burned within herself, she met Sissy's eye maliciously, triumphantly, significantly.
Sissy gasped. She took the slipper in her hand and made for her enemy. She intended, she believed, to ram her own best Sunday slipper down Split Madigan's throat! And she got quite close before she could have been made to believe that anything on earth or anywhere else could alter her intention. But a little thing did; merely the sound of voices outside the door and a swift, piteous change of expression in that defiant face opposite.
Sissy dropped the slipper and flew to the door. She had a glimpse—which she pretended not to have seen—of the Merry Zingara crumbling in a passion of regretful sobs to the floor. Then she was standing outside, her back to the closed door, a determined, fat little Horatius in purple, with two red cheeks,—one, indeed, redder than the other where the slipper had struck,—vowing to hold the bridge against all comers, so that Split might mourn in peace.
* * * * *
"But is she very sick?" came the eager question.
"Well—pretty sick," said the doctor, gravely.
"Not very?" Sissy's voice fell disappointedly. She opened the door for him and stood at the head of the steps as he prepared cautiously to descend.
"You don't want your sister to be dangerously ill, do you?" Dr. Murchison demanded sharply, turning upon her.
"N-no," said Sissy.
"Well, see that you don't squabble with her. Your aunt ought to have sent for me five days ago, instead of which she lets a sick, nervous, half-crazy child dance and sing on the stage. All poppycock!"
"Can I help you down the first step, doctor?" asked Sissy, gratefully.
She was so thankful for his words. No one—not even a Madigan, accustomed to be held strictly accountable—could be to blame for a failure if she had been ill at the time. The family was almost rehabilitated, it seemed to Sissy.
The doctor's dim old eyes looked curiously at her. "I believe you've got some deviltry in your head, Sissy. Now, you mind me and let your sister alone. There! I'm all right now. I can go all right the rest of the way when I'm once started down your infernal stairs. I ought to charge your father double rates for risking my old bones on them. Yes, it's all right now. It's only the first step that bothers me. It's always the first step that costs—eh, Sissy?"
She looked blankly up at him.
He bent down and patted her head. "See here," he said, "I'll bet you've got more sense than you want us to believe."
Sissy blushed. It was a tardy tribute, she felt, but as welcome as it was deserved.
"With a lot of common sense and a physique like yours, you ought to make a good nurse. Take care of your sister," he added almost appealingly, divided between his knowledge of how poor a nurse Miss Madigan was and how impossible it was to tell this to her niece. "She'll be cross and irritable and—even worse than usual," he said, with a grim smile that recognized the battle-ground upon which the Madigans spent their lives; and this recognition made him seem more human to them than any other adult. "But you just treat her like a teething baby. She's got a hard row to hoe, that poor, bad Split. She must sleep, and you understand her—Lord! Lord! the care these queer little devils need!" he muttered, shaking his shoulders as he went on down the steps, as though physically to throw off responsibility.
Sissy turned and went back into the house. It was a queer house, she thought. To her alert impressibility, the sickness and apprehension it inclosed were something tangible. She could taste the odors of the sick-room. She could feel the weight of the odd stillness that filled it. The sharpness of sound when it did come, the strangeness of suppressed excitement, the unfamiliar place with Split's quick figure missing, the loneliness of being without her, the boredom of lacking a playmate or a fighting-mate—it all affected Sissy as the prelude of a drama the end of which has something terrifyingly fascinating in it. It must be wonderful to die, thought Sissy, with a swift, satisfying vision of pretty young death—herself in white and the mysterious glamour of the silent sleep. Poor Sissy, who had never been ill!
Split, with shorn head and with wide-open eyes and hard, flushed cheeks, lay tossing on the big bed in the room off the parlor, which had seldom been used since Frances was born there. "Mother's bed" the Madigans always called it, and they crept into it when ailing, as though it still held something of the old curative magic for childish aches, though all but Kate had forgotten the mother's face as it was before she lay down there the last time. Split had a big hot silver dollar in one hand,—Francis Madigan's way of recognizing and sympathizing with a child's illness,—and in the other an undivided orange, evidence enough of an extraordinary occasion in the Madigan household. But she was not waking. She was not sleeping. She was not dreaming. She knew that Sissy had come in and had squatted on the floor with Bep and Fom, playing dolls, probably. Yet she felt that numb, gradual, terrifying enlargement of her fingertips, of her limbs, of her tongue, her body, her head, that she had been told again and again was mere fancy. With a self-control that was unlike her, an unnatural product of her unnatural state, she locked her jaws together that she might not scream this once. And in the eery stillness that followed the effort, which had made her ears buzz and her temples throb, she heard quite sanely Florence's denial of some charge her twin had brought against her.
"I didn't do any such thing," she whispered.
"You did," said Bep.
"Cross your heart to die?"
The scream burst from Irene then—not the cry of delirium, but a sharp, terrified, if inarticulate, call for help. If there was one thing Split did respect, it was that Reaper whose name she could never hear without a quick indrawn breath. Yet—in her heart—she knew that, though others might fall at the touch of that fearful scythe, she, Split Madigan, as fleet of limb as a coyote and as sound of heart as a young pine-cone, could never, never die; that the world could never be when her quick red blood should be quiet and her mountain-bred lungs should be stilled.
With a bound Sissy pushed the twins out of the door. She was at the bedside when Miss Madigan entered.
"Go outside, Sissy!" she commanded. "Can't you see you're exciting her? Isn't it hard enough for me to take care of her when she's so cross? She's not to be excited. She's to be kept quiet. There, there, Irene—it's only fancy, I tell you! Look at your fingers; they're thinner, littler than they ever were. Look at Sissy's; see how much bigger they are."
Irene lifted her fingers that had caught Sissy's. She looked from her own fevered hand to Sissy's dimpled one and was comforted. But her hold on her old enemy did not relax. She had something tangible now to reassure her; something that spoke to her in her own language. Her eyes closed, her tense little hand dropped wearily, but she held Sissy fast.
When she thought her patient was asleep, Miss Madigan tried to open her fingers, but, with something of her old waywardness, Irene resisted. And Sissy, with an old-fashioned nod of advice, motioned her aunt to let things be. She curled herself up on a corner of the bed, and—it being quite safe, no other Madigan being present but this unnatural one lying prone, half conscious, half dazed—she put her other hand over the one that held hers, and sat there quietly waiting.
The minutes came to seem like hours, but Sissy sat motionless and Miss Madigan left the room. Presently an eery humming came from Split's lips. Then, mechanically, Sissy's fingers picked out on the spread the simple little melody Split sang as in a dream.
"Play it," the sick girl whispered, pushing away the hand she had held.
Sissy jumped as though she had been discovered indulging in gross and inexcusable sentimentality. She looked down at Split with a puzzled, sheepish smile, wondering how long it had been since her sister had come into the real world out of that fantastic one where marvelous things might happen.
"Play it!" repeated Split, fretfully.
Sissy rose and walked softly into the front room. She fancied if she took a long time, yet appeared about to obey, Split would forget her desire and, left alone in the silence, would fall asleep. She opened the piano softly and pulled out the stool. Then leisurely she pretended to arrange the light and the piano-cover.
Split, quieted by her apparent compliance, lay back with a sigh of content. Her mind, whose very apprehension of the delirium had excluded other thoughts, dwelt now restfully upon the combination of easy mental effort and soothing melody her "piece" meant to her. Besides, she was ordering her junior about, using her illness as a club to beat down remonstrance. Split was really on the way to being herself again.
After a bit she found that she was almost dozing off, and waked with an indignant start to see Sissy stealing softly out of the room.
"Where are you going?" she demanded. "Why don't you play it when I tell you to?"
For an instant Sissy rebelled. Then she looked at the passionate little figure sitting tensely upright, at the white fever-circle about the dry lips, at the short hair and the unnaturally bright, angry eyes. She went back to the piano, sat down, and with her foot on the soft pedal, that Aunt Anne might not hear, she began to play.
The melody was simple and light, with a little break in its sweetness. Sissy's touch was childlike, but her impressionable temperament, quickened by the strangeness of that dark room behind her, overflowed into the melody her fingers brought out. The accompanying bass was rhythmic, and the nervous, fevered child found mental and physical occupation in letting the fingers of her left hand pick out its detail upon the pillow which she had lately thrown in a passion against the wall because it had been so hot and she so miserably uncomfortable.