THE MELTING OF MOLLY
MARIA THOMPSON DAVIESS
Author of Miss Selina Lue, The Road to Providence, Rose of Old Harpeth, etc., etc.
Illustrated by R. M. Crosby
Indianapolis The Bobbs-Merrill Company Publishers
MOLLY CARTER AND I DEDICATE THIS BOOK TO OUR GOOD FRIEND CAROL KING JENNEY
LEAVES FROM THE BOOK OF MOLLY
Leaf First THE BACHELOR'S-BUTTONS
Leaf Second A LOVE-LETTER, LOADED
Leaf Third MONUMENT OR TROUSSEAU?
Leaf Fourth SCATTERED JAM
Leaf Fifth BLUE ABSINTHE
Leaf Sixth THE RESURRECTION RAZOO
Leaf Seventh DASHED!
Leaf Eighth MELTED
Yes, I truly think that in all the world there is nothing so dead as a young widow's deceased husband, and God ought to give His wisest man-angel special charge concerning looking after her and the devil at the same time. They both need it! I don't know how all this is going to end and I wish my mind wasn't in a kind of tingle. However, I'll do the best I can and not hold myself at all responsible for myself, and then who will there be to blame?
There are a great many kinds of good-feeling in this world, from radiant joy down to perfect bliss, but this spring I have got an attack of just old-fashioned happiness that looks as if it might become chronic.
I am so happy that I planted my garden all crooked, my eyes upon the clouds with the birds sailing against them, and when I became conscious I found wicked flaunting poppies sprouted right up against the sweet modest clover-pinks, while the whole paper of bachelor's-buttons was sowed over everything—which I immediately began to dig right up again, blushing furiously to myself over the trowel, and glad that I had caught myself before they grew up to laugh in my face. However, I got that laugh anyway, and I might just as well have left them, for Billy ran to the gate and called Doctor John to come in and make Molly stop digging up his buttons. Billy claims everything in this garden, and he thought they would grow up into the kind of buttons you pop out of a gun.
"So you're digging up the bachelor-pops, Mrs. Molly?" the doctor asked as he leaned over the gate. I went right on digging without looking up at him. I couldn't look up because I was blushing still worse. Sometimes I hate that man, and if he wasn't Billy's father I wouldn't neighbor with him as I do. But somebody has to look after Billy.
I believe it will be a real relief to write down how I feel about him in his old book and I shall do it whenever I can't stand him any longer, and if he gave the horrid, red leather thing to me to make me miserable, he can't do it; not this spring! I wish I dared burn it up and forget about it, but I don't! This record on the first page is enough to reduce me—to tears, and I wonder why it doesn't.
I weigh one hundred and sixty pounds, down in black and white, and it is a tragedy! I don't believe that man at the grocery store is so very reliable in his weights, though he had a very pleasant smile while he was weighing me. Still I had better get some scales of my own, smiles are so deceptive.
I am five feet three inches tall or short, whichever way one looks at me. I thought I was taller, but I suppose I will have to believe my own yardstick.
But as to my waist measure, I positively refuse to write that down, even if I have promised Doctor John a dozen times over to do it, while I only really left him to suppose I would. It is bad enough to know that your belt has to be reduced to twenty-three inches without putting down how much it measures now in figures to insult yourself with. No, I intend to have this for my happy spring.
Yes, I suppose it would have been lots better for my happiness if I had kept quiet about it all, but at the time I thought I had to advise with him over the matter. Now I'm sorry I did. That is one thing about being a widow, you are accustomed to advising with a man, whether you want to or not, and you can't get over the habit right away. Poor Mr. Carter hasn't been dead much over a year and I must be missing him most awfully, though just lately I can't remember not to forget about him a great deal of the time. Now if he had been here—horrors!
Still, that letter was enough to upset anybody, and no wonder I ran right across my garden, through Billy's hedge-hole and over into Doctor John's office to tell him about it; but I ought not to have been agitated enough to let him take the letter right out of my hand and read it.
"So after ten years Al Bennett is coming back to pop his bachelor's-buttons at you, Mrs. Molly?" he said in the deep drawling voice he always uses when he makes fun of Billy and me and which never fails to make us both mad. I didn't look at him directly, but I felt his hand shake with the letter in it.
"Not ten, only eight! He went when I was seventeen," I answered with dignity, wishing I dared be snappy at him; though I never am.
"And after eight years he wants to come back and find you squeezed into a twenty-inch-waist, blue muslin rag you wore at parting? No wonder Al didn't succeed at bank clerking, but had to make his hit at diplomacy and the high arts. Some hit at that to be legationed at Saint James! He's such a big gun that it is a pity he had to return to his native heath and find even such a slight disappointment as a one-yard waist measure around his—his—"
"Oh it's not, it's not that much." I fairly gasped and I couldn't help the tears coming into my eyes. I have never said much about it, but nobody knows how it hurts me to be all this fat! Just writing it down in a book mortifies me dreadfully. It's been coming on worse and worse every year since I married. Poor Mr. Carter had a very good appetite and I don't know why I should have felt that I had to eat so much every day to keep him company; I wasn't always so considerate of him. Then he didn't want me to dance any more because married women oughtn't, or ride horseback either—no amusement left but himself and weekly prayer-meetings, and—and—I just couldn't help the tears coming and dripping as I thought about it all and that awful waist measure in inches.
"Stop crying this minute, Molly," said Doctor John suddenly in the deep voice he uses to Billy and me when we are really sick or stump-toed. "You know I was only teasing you and I won't stand for—"
But I sobbed some more. I like him when his eyes come out from under his bushy brows and are all tender and full of sorry for us.
"I can't help it," I gulped in my sleeve. "I did used to like Alfred Bennett. My heart almost broke when he went away. I used to be beautiful and slim, and now I feel as if my own fat ghost has come to haunt me all my life. I am so ashamed! If a woman can't cry over her own dead beauty, what can she cry over?" By this time I was really crying.
Then what happened to me was that Doctor John took me by the shoulders and gave me one good shake and then made me look him right in the eyes through the tears and all.
"You foolish child," he said in the deepest voice I almost ever heard him use. "You are just a lovely, round, luscious peach, but if you will be happier to have Al Bennett come and find you as slim as a string-bean I can show you how to do it. Will you do just as I tell you?"
"Yes, I will," I sniffed in a comforted voice. What woman wouldn't be comforted by being called a "luscious peach". I looked out between my fingers to see what more he was going to say, but he had turned to a shelf and taken down two books.
"Now," he said in his most businesslike voice, as cool as a bucket of water fresh from the spring, "it is no trouble at all to take off your surplus avoirdupois at the rate of two and a half pounds a week if you follow these directions. As I take it you are about twenty-five pounds over your normal weight. It will take over two months to reduce you and we will allow an extra month for further beautifying, so that when Mr. Bennett arrives he will find the lady of his adoration in proper trim to be adored. Yes, just be still until I copy these directions in this little, red leather blank-book for you, and every day I want you to keep an exact record of the conditions of which I make note. No, don't talk while I make out these diet lists! I wish you would go across the hall and see if you don't think we ought to get Bill a thinner set of night-drawers. It seems to me he must be too warm in the ones he is wearing."
When he speaks to me in that tone of voice I always do it. And I needed Billy badly at that very moment. I took him out of his little cot by Doctor John's big bed and sat down with him in my arms over by the window through which the early moon came streaming. Billy is so little, little not to have a mother to rock him all the times he needs it that I take every opportunity to give it to him I find—when he's unconscious and can't help himself. She died before she ever even saw him and I've always tried to do what I could to make it up to him.
Poor Mr. Carter said when Billy cut his teeth that a neighbor's baby can be worse than twins of your own. He didn't like children and the baby's crying disturbed him, so many a night I walked Billy out in the garden until daylight, while Mr. Carter and Doctor John both slept. Always his little, warm, wilty body has comforted me for the emptiness of not having a baby of my own. And he's very congenial, too, for he's slim and flowery, pink and dimply, and as mannish as his father, in funny little flashes.
"Git a stick to punch it, Molly," he was murmuring in his sleep. Then I heard the doctor call me and I had to kiss him, put him back in his bed, and go across the hall.
Doctor John was standing by the table with this horrid small book in his hand and his mouth was set in a straight line and his eyes were deep back under their brows. I hate him that way, too, and I would like to get up so close to him that he couldn't hit me or have a door locked between us. It's strange how the thought of taking a beating from a man can make a woman's heart jump. Mine jumped so it was hard to look as meek as I felt best under the circumstances; but I looked it out from under my lashes cautiously.
"There you are, Mrs. Molly," he said briskly as he handed me this book. "Get weighed and measured and sized-up generally in the morning and follow all the directions. Also make every record I have noted so that I can have the proper data to help you as you go along—or rather down. And if you will be faithful about it to me, or rather Al, I think we can be sure of buttoning that blue muslin dress without even the aid of the button-hook." His voice had the "if you can" note in it that always sets me off.
"Had we better get the kiddie some thinner night-rigging?" he hastened to ask as I was just about to explode. He knows the signs.
"Thank you, Doctor Moore! I hate the very ground you walk on and I'll attend to those night-clothes myself to-morrow," I answered, and I sailed out of that office and down the path toward my own house beyond his hedge. But I carried this book tight in my hand and I made up my mind that I would do it all if it killed me. I would show him I could be faithful—to whom I would decide later on. But I hadn't read far into this book when I committed myself to myself like that!
I don't know just how long I sat on the front steps all by myself bathed in a perfect flood of moonlight and loneliness. It was not a bit of comfort to hear Aunt Adeline snoring away in her room down the dark hall. It takes the greatest congeniality to make a person's snoring a pleasure to anybody and Aunt Adeline and I are not that way.
When poor Mr. Carter died, the next day she said: "Now, Mary, you are entirely too young to live all your long years of widowhood alone, and as I am in the same condition, I will rent my cottage and move right up the street into your house to protect and console you." And she did,—the moving and the protecting.
Mr. Henderson has been dead forty-two years. He only lived three months after he married Aunt Adeline and her crepe veil is over a yard long yet. Men are the dust under her feet, but she likes for Doctor John to come over and sit on the porch with us because she can consult with him about what Mr. Henderson really died of and talk with him about the sad state of poor Mr. Carter's liver for a year before he died. I just go on rocking Billy and singing hymns to him in such a way that I can't hear the conversation. Mr. Carter's liver got on my nerves alive, and dead it does worse. But it hurts when the doctor has to take the little sleep-boy out of my arms to carry him home; though I like it when he says under his breath, "Thank you, Molly."
And as I sat and thought how near he and I had been to each other in all our troubles, I excused myself for running to him with that letter and I acknowledged to myself that I had no right to get mad when he teased me, for he had been kind and interested about helping me get thin by the time Alfred came back to see me. I couldn't tell which I was blushing all to myself about, the "luscious peach" he had called me or the "lovely lily" Alfred had reminded me in his letter that I had been when he left me.
Why don't people realize that a seventeen-year-old girl's heart is a sensitive wind-flower that may be shattered by a breath? Mine shattered when Alfred went away to find something he could do to make a living, and Aunt Adeline gave the hard green stem to Mr. Carter when she married me to him. Poor Mr. Carter!
No, I wasn't twenty, and this town was full of women who were aunts and cousins and law-kin to me, and nobody did anything for me. They all said with a sigh of relief, "It will be such a nice safe thing for you, Molly." And they really didn't mean anything by tying up a gay, dancing, frolicking, prancing colt of a girl with a terribly ponderous bridle. But God didn't want to see me always trotting along slow and tired and not caring what happened to me, even pounds and pounds of plumpness, so he found use for Mr. Carter in some other place but this world, and I feel that He is going to see me through whatever happens. If some of the women in my missionary society knew how friendly I feel with God they would put me out for contempt of court.
No, the town didn't mean anything by chastening my spirit with Mr. Carter and they didn't consider him in the matter at all, poor man. Of that I feel sure. Hillsboro is like that. It settled itself here in a Tennessee valley a few hundreds of years ago and has been hatching and clucking over its own small affairs ever since. All the houses set back from the street with their wings spread out over their gardens, and mothers here go on hovering even to the third and fourth generation. Lots of times young, long-legged, frying-size boys scramble out of the nests and go off to college and decide to grow up where their crow will be heard by the world. Alfred was one of them.
And, too, occasionally some man comes along from the big world and marries a plump little broiler and takes her away with him, but mostly they stay and go to hovering life on a corner of the family estate. That's what I did.
I was a poor, little, lost chick with frivolous tendencies and they all clucked me over into this empty Carter nest which they considered well-feathered for me. It gave them all a sensation when they found out from the will just how well it was feathered. And it gave me one, too. All that money would make me nervous if Mr. Carter hadn't made Doctor John its guardian, though I sometimes feel that the responsibility of me makes him treat me as if he were my step-grandfather-in-law. But all in all, though stiff in its knees with aristocracy, Hillsboro is lovely and loving; and couldn't inquisitiveness be called just real affection with a kind of squint in its eye?
And there I sat on my front steps, being embraced in a perfume of everybody's lilacs and peachblow and sweet syringa and affectionate interest and moonlight, with a letter in my hand from the man whose two photographs and many letters I had kept locked up in the garret for years. Is it any wonder I tingled when he told me that he had never come back because he couldn't have me and that now the minute he landed in America he was going to lay his heart at my feet? I added his honors to his prostrate heart myself and my own beat at the prospect. All the eight years faded away and I was again back in the old garden down at Aunt Adeline's cottage saying good-by, folded up in his arms. That's the way my memory put the scene to me, but the word "folded" made me remember that blue muslin dress again. I had promised to keep it and wear it for him when he came back—and I couldn't forget that the blue belt was just twenty-three inches and mine is—no, I won't write it. I had got that dress out of the old trunk not ten minutes after I had read the letter and measured it.
No, nobody would blame me for running right across the garden to Doctor John with such a real trouble as that! All of a sudden I hugged the letter and the little book up close to my breast and laughed until the tears ran down my cheeks.
Then before I went into the house I assembled my garden and had family prayers with my flowers. I do that because they are all the family I've got, and God knows that all His budding things need encouragement, whether it is a widow or a snowball-bush. He'll give it to us!
And I'm praying again as I sit here and watch for the doctor's light to go out. I hate to go to sleep and leave it burning, for he sits up so late and he is so gaunt and thin and tired-looking most times. That's what the last prayer is about, almost always,—sleep for him and no night call!
A LOVE-LETTER, LOADED
The very worst page in this red—red devil—I'm glad I've written it at last—of a book is the fifth. It says:
"Breakfast—one slice of dry toast, one egg, fruit and a tablespoonful of baked cereal, small cup of coffee, no sugar, no cream." And me with two Jersey cows full of the richest cream in Hillsboro, Harpeth Valley, out in my pasture!
"Dinner, one small lean chop, slice of toast, spinach, green beans and lettuce salad. No dessert or sweet." The blue-grass in my yard is full of fat little fryers and I wish I were a sheep if I have to eat lettuce and spinach for grass. At least I'd have more than one chop inside me then.
"Supper—slice of toast and an apple." Why the apple? Why supper at all?
Oh, I'm hungry, hungry until I cry in my sleep when I dream about a muffin! I thought at first that getting out of bed before my eyes are fairly open and turning myself into a circus actor by doing every kind of overhand, foot, arm and leg contortion that the mind of cruel man could invent to torture a human being with, would kill me before I had been at it a week, but when I read on page sixteen that as soon as all that horror was over I must jump right into the tub of cold water, I kicked, metaphorically speaking. And I've been kicking ever since, literally to keep from freezing.
But as cruel a death as freezing is, it doesn't compare to the tortures of being melted. Judy administers it to me and her faithful heart is so wrung with compassion that she perspires almost as much as I do. She wrings a linen sheet out in a caldron of boiling water and shrouds me in it for the agony—and then more and more blanket windings envelop me until I am like the mummy of some Egyptian giantess. I have ice on the back of my neck and my forehead, and murder for the whole world in my heart. Once I got so discouraged at the idea of having all this hades in this life that I mingled tears with the beads of perspiration that rolled down my cheeks, and she snatched me out of those steaming grave-clothes in less time than it takes to tell it, soused me in a tub of cold water, fed me a chicken wing and a hot biscuit and the information that I was "good-looking enough for anybody to eat up alive without all this foolishness," all in a very few seconds. Now I have to beg her to help me and I heard her tell her nephew, who does the gardening, that she felt like an undertaker with such goings-on. At any rate, if it all kills me it won't be my fault if anybody has to lie in saying that I was "beautiful in death".
But now that more than a month has passed, I really don't mind it so much. I feel so good and strong and prancy all the time that I can't keep from bubbling. I have to smile at myself.
Then another thing that helps is Billy and his ball. I never could really play with him before, but now I can't help it. But an awful thing happened about that yesterday. We were in the garden playing over by the lilac bushes and Billy always beats me because when he runs to base he throws himself down and slides along on the grass on his little stomach as he sees the real players do over at the ball grounds. Then all of a sudden, before I knew it, I just did the same thing, and we slid to the flower pot we use as a base together, each on his own stomach. And what did Billy do but begin right there on the grass the kind of a tussle we always have in the big rocking-chair on the porch! Over and over we rolled, Billy chuckling and squealing while I laughed myself all out of breath. I'm glad I always would wear delicious petticoats, for there, looking right over my front fence, I discovered Judge Benton Wade. I wish I could write down how I felt, for I never had that sensation before and I don't believe I'll ever have it again.
I have always thought that Judge Wade was really the most wonderful man in Hillsboro, not because he is a judge so young in life that there is only a white sprinkle in his lovely black hair that grows back off his head like Napoleon's and Charles Wesley's, but because of his smile, which you wait for so long that you glow all over when you get it. I have seen him do it once or twice at his mother when he seats her in their pew at church and once at little Mamie Johnson when she gave him a flower through their fence as he passed by one day last week, but I never thought I should have one all to myself. But there it was, a most beautiful one, long and slow and distinctly mine—at least I didn't think much of it was for Billie. I sat up and blushed as red all over as I do when I first hit that tub of cold water.
"I hope you'll forgive an intruder, Mrs. Carter, but how could a mortal resist a peep into the garden of the gods if he spied the queen and her faun at play?" he said in a voice as wonderful as the smile. By that time I had reefed in my ruffles around my feet and pushed in all my hairpins. Billy stood spread-legged as near in front of me as he could get and said in the rudest possible tone of voice:
"Get away from my Molly, man!"
I never was so mortified in all my life and I scrambled to my feet and came over to the fence to get between him and Billy.
"It's a lovely day, isn't it, Judge Wade?" I asked with the greatest interest, which I didn't really feel, in the weather; but what could I think of to say? A woman is apt to keep the image of a good many of the grand men she sees passing around her in queer niches in her brain, and when one steps out and speaks to her for the first time it is confusing. Of course I have known the judge and his mother all my life, for she is one of Aunt Adeline's best friends, but I had a feeling from the look in his eyes that that very minute was the first time he had ever seen me. It was lovely and I blushed some more as I put my hand up to my cheek so I wouldn't have to look right at him.
"About the loveliest day that ever happened in Hillsboro," he said, and there was still more of the delicious smile, "though I hadn't noticed it so especially until—"
But I never knew what he had intended to say, for Billy suddenly swelled up like a little turkey-cock and cut out with his switch at the judge.
"Git, man, git, and let my Molly alone!" he said, in a perfect thundertone of voice; but I almost laughed, for it had such a sound in it like Doctor John's at his most positive times with Billy and me.
"No, no, Billy, the judge is just looking over the fence at our flowers! Don't you want to give him a rose?" I hurried to say as the smile died out of Judge Wade's face and he looked at Billy intently.
"How like John Moore the youngster is," he said, and his voice was so cold to Billy that it hurt me, and I was afraid Billy would notice it. Coldness in people's voices always makes me feel just like ice-cream tastes. But Billy's answer was still more rude.
"You better go, man, before I bring my father to sic our dog on you," he exploded, and before I could stop him his thin little legs went trundling down the garden path toward home.
Then the judge and I both laughed. We couldn't help it. When two people laugh straight into each other's eyes something feels dangerous and you get closer together. The judge leaned farther over the fence and I went a little nearer before I knew it.
"You don't need to keep a personal dog, do you, Mrs. Carter?" he asked, with a twinkle that might have been a spark in his eyes, and just at that moment another awful thing happened. Aunt Adeline came out on the front porch and said in the most frozen tone of voice:
"Mary, I wish to speak to you in the house," and then walked back through the front door without even looking in Judge Wade's direction, though he had waved his hat with one of his mother's own smiles when he had seen her before I did. One of my most impossible habits is, when there is nothing else to do I laugh. I did it then and it saved the day, for we both laughed into each others eyes a second time, and before we realized it we were within whispering distance.
"No, I don't—don't—need any dog," I said softly, hardly glancing out from under my lashes because I was afraid to risk looking straight at him again so soon. I could fairly feel Aunt Adeline's eyes boring into my back.
"It would take the hydra-headed monster of—may I bring my mother to call on you and the—Mrs. Henderson?" he asked and poured the wonder smile all over me. Again I almost caught my breath.
"I do wish you would, Aunt Adeline is so fond of Mrs. Wade!" I said in a positive flutter that I hope he didn't see, but I am afraid he did, for he hesitated as if he wanted to say something to calm me, then bowed mercifully and went on down the street. He didn't put on the hat he had held in his hand all the while he stood by the fence until he had looked back and bowed again. Then I felt still more fluttered as I went into the house, but I received the third cold plunge of the day when I reached the front hall.
"Mary," said Aunt Adeline in a voice that sounded as if it had been buried and never resurrected, "if you are going to continue in such an unseemly course of conduct I hope you will remove your mourning, which is an empty mockery and an insult to my own widowhood."
"Yes, Aunt Adeline, I'll go take it off this very minute," I heard myself answer her airily to my own astonishment. I might have known that if I ever got one of those smiles it would go to my head! Without another word I sailed into my room and closed the door softly.
I wonder if God could have realized what a tender thing He was leaving exposed to life in the garden of the world after He had finished making a woman? Traditionally, we are created out of rose-leaves and star-dust and the harmony of the winds, but we need a steel-chain netting to fend us. Slowly I unbuttoned that black dress that symbolized the ending of six years of the blackness of a married life, from which I had been powerless to fend myself, and the rosy dimpling thing in snowy lingerie with tags of blue ribbon that stood in front of my mirror was as new-born as any other hour-old similar bundle of linen and lace in Hillsboro, Tennessee. Fortunately, an old, year-before-last, white lawn dress could be pulled from the top shelf of the closet in a hurry, and the Molly that came out of that room was ready for life—and a lot of it quick and fast.
And again, fortunately, Aunt Adeline had retired with a violent headache and black Judy was carrying her in a hot water-bottle with a broad grin on her face. Judy sees the world from the kitchen window and understands everything. She had laid a large thick letter on the hall table where I couldn't fail to see it.
I took possession of it and carried it to a bench in the garden that backs up against the purple sprayed lilacs and is flanked by two rows of tall purple and white iris that stand in line ready for a Virginia reel with a delicate row of the poet's narcissus across the broad path. I love my flowers. I love them swaying on their stems in the wind, and I like to snatch them and crush the life out of them against my breast and face. I have been to bed every night this spring with a bunch of cool violets against my cheek and I feel that I am going to flirt with my tall row of hollyhocks as soon as they are old enough to hold up their heads and take notice. They always remind me of very stately gentlemen and I have wondered if the fluffy little butter and eggs weren't shaking their ruffles at them.
A real love-letter ought to be like a cream puff with a drop of dynamite in it. Alfred's was that kind. I felt warm and happy down to my toes as I read it and I turned around so old Lilac Bush couldn't peep over my shoulder at what he said.
He wrote from Rome this time, where he had been sent on some sort of diplomatic mission to the Vatican, and his letter about the Ancient City on her seven hills was a prose-poem in itself. I was so interested that I read on and on and forgot it was almost toast-apple time.
Of course, anybody that is anybody would be interested in Father Tiber and the old Colosseum, but what made me forget the one slice of dry toast and the apple was the way he seemed to be connecting me up with all those wonderful old antiquities that had never even seen me. Because of me he had felt and written that poem descriptive of old Tiber, and the moonlight had lit up the Colosseum just because I was over here lighting up Hillsboro, Tennessee, with Mr. Carter dead. Of course that is not the way he put it all, but there is no place to really copy what he did say down into this imp book and, anyway, that is the sentiment he expressed, boiled down and sugared off.
That's just what I mean—love boiled down and sugared off is mighty apt to get an explosive flavor, and one had better be careful with that kind if one is timid; which I'm not. As I said, also, I am ready for a little taste of life, so I read on without fear. And, to be fair, Alfred had well boiled his own last paragraph. It snapped; and I jumped and gasped both. I almost thought I didn't quite like it and was going to read it over again to see, when there came a procession from over to Doctor John's and I laid the bombshell down on the bench.
First came the red setter that is always first with Doctor John, and then he came himself, leading Billy by the hand. It was Billy, but the most subdued Billy I ever saw, and I held out my arms and started for him.
"Wait a minute, please, Molly," said the doctor in the voice he always uses when he's punishing Billy and me. "Bill came to apologize to you for being rude to your—your guest. He told me all about it and I think he's sorry. Tell Mrs. Carter you are sorry, son." When that man speaks to me as if I were just any old body else, I hate him so it is a wonder I don't show it more than I do. But there was nothing to say and I looked at Billy and Billy looked at me.
Then suddenly he stretched out his little arms to me and the dimples winked at me from all over his darling face.
"Molly, Molly," he said with a perfect rapture of chuckles in his voice, "now you look just as pretty as you do when you go to bed; all whity all over. You can kiss my kiss-spot a hundred times while I bear-hug you for that nice not-black dress," and before any stern person could have stopped us I was on my knees on the grass kissing my fill from the "kiss-spot" on the back of his neck, while he hugged all the starch out of the summer-before-last.
And Doctor John sat down on the bench quick and laughed out loud one of the very few times I ever heard him do it. He was looking down at us, but I didn't laugh up into his eyes. I was afraid. I felt it was safer to go on kissing the kiss-spot for the present, anyway.
"Bill," he said, with his voice dancing, "that's the most effective apology I ever heard. You were sorry to some point."
Then suddenly Billy stiffened right in my arms and looked me straight in the face and said in the doctor's own brisk tones, even with his cupid mouth set in the same straight line:
"I say I'm sorry, Molly, but damn that man and I'll git him yet!"
What could we say? What could we do? We didn't try. I busied myself in tying the string on Billy's blouse that had come untied in the bear-hug and the doctor suddenly discovered the letter on the bench. I saw him see it without looking in his direction at all.
"And how many pounds are we nearer the string-bean state of existence, Mrs. Molly?" he asked me before I had finished tying the blouse, in the nicest voice in the world, fairly crackling with friendship and good humor and hateful things like that. Why I should have wanted him to huff over that letter is more than I can say. But I did; and he didn't.
"Over twenty, and most of the time I am so hungry I could eat Aunt Adeline. I dream about Billy, fried with cream gravy," I answered, as I kissed again the back of the head that was beginning to nod down against my breast. Long shadows lay across the garden and the white-headed old snow-ball was signaling out of the dusk to a Dorothy Perkins down the walk in a scandalous way. At best, spring is just the world's match-making old chaperon and ought to be watched. I still sat on the grass and I began to cuddle Billy's bare knees in the skirt of my dress so the chigres couldn't get at them.
"But, Mrs. Molly, isn't it worth it all?" asked the doctor as he bent over toward us and looked down with something wonderful and kind in his eyes that seemed to rest on us like a benediction. "You have been just as plucky as a girl can be and in only a little over two months you have grown as lightfooted and hearty as a boy. I think nothing could be lovelier than you are right now, but you can get off those other few pounds if you want to. You know, don't you, that I have known how hard some of it was and I haven't been able to eat as much as I usually do thinking how hungry you are? But isn't it all worth it? I think it is. Alfred Bennett is a very great man and it is right that he should have a very lovely wife to go out into the world with him. And as lovely as you are I think it is wonderful of you to make all this sacrifice to be still lovelier for him. I am glad I can help you and it has taught me something to see how—how faithful a woman can be across years—and then in this smaller thing! Now give me Bill and you get your apple and toast. Don't forget to take your letter in out of the dew." I sat perfectly still and held Billy tighter in my arms as I looked up at his father, and then after I had thought as long as I could stand it, I spoke right out at him as mad as hops and I don't to this minute know why.
"Nobody in the world ever doubted that a woman could be faithful if she had anything to be faithful to," I said as I let him take Billy out of my arms at last. "Faithfulness is what a woman flowers, only it takes a man to pick his posy." With which I marched into the house and left him standing with Billy in his arms, I hope dumfounded. I didn't look back to see. I always leave that man's presence so mad I can never look back at him. And wouldn't it make any woman rage to have a man pick out another man for her to be faithful to when she hadn't made any decision about it her own self?
I wonder just how old Judge Wade is? I believe I will make up with Aunt Adeline enough before I go to bed to find out why he has never married.
MONUMENT OR TROUSSEAU?
Men are very strange people. They are like those horrible sums in algebra that you think about and worry about and cry about and try to get help from other women about, and then, all of a sudden, X works itself out into perfectly good sense. Not that I thought much about Mr. Carter, poor man! When he wasn't right around I felt it best to forget him as much as I could, but it seems hard for other women to let you forget either your husband or theirs.
I know now that I really never got any older than the poor, foolish, eighteen-years' child that Aunt Adeline married off "safe", all the time I was the "refuge" sort of wife. I would sit and listen while the other wives talked over the men in utter bewilderment and most times terror, then I would force myself to a little more forgetting and poor Mr. Carter must have suffered the consequences. But all that was a mild sort of exasperation to what a widow has to go through with in the matter of—of, well I think hazing is about the best name to give it.
"Molly Carter," said Mrs. Johnson just day before yesterday, after the white-dress, Judge-Wade episode that Aunt Adeline had gone to all the friends up and down the street to be consoled about, "if you haven't got sense enough to appreciate your present blissful condition somebody ought to operate on your mind."
I was tempted to say, "Why not my heart?" I was glad she didn't know how good that heart did feel under my tucker when the boy brought that basket of fish from Judge Wade's fishing trip Saturday. I have firmly determined not to blush any more at the thought of that gorgeous man—at least outwardly.
"Don't you think it is very—very lonely to be a widow, Mrs. Johnson?" I asked timidly to see what she would say about Mr. Johnson, who is really lovely, I think. He gives me the gentlest understanding smile when he meets me on the street of late weeks.
"Lonely, lonely, Molly? You talk about the married state exactly like an old maid. Don't do it—it's foolish, and you will get the lone notion really fastened in your mind and let some fool man find out that is how you feel. Then it will be all over with you. I have only one regret, and it is that if I ever should be a widow Mr. Johnson wouldn't be here to see how quickly I turned into an old maid, by the grace of God." Mrs. Johnson sews by assassinating the cloth with the needle, and as she talked she was mending the sleeve of one of Mr. Johnson's shirts.
"I think an old maid is just a woman who has never been in love with a man who loves her. Lots of them have been married for years," I said, just as innocently as the soft face of a pan of cream, and went on darning one of Billy's socks.
"Well, be that as it may, they are the blessed members of the women tribe," she answered, looking at me sharply. "Now I have often told Mr. Johnson—" but here we were interrupted in what might have been the rehearsal of a glorious scrap by the appearance of Aunt Bettie Pollard, and with her came a long, tall, lovely vision of a woman in the most wonderful close clingy dress and hat that you wanted to eat on sight. I hated her instantly with the most intense adoration that made me want to lie down at her feet, and also made me feel like I had gained all the more than twenty pounds that I have slaved off me and doubled them on again. I would have liked to lead her that minute into Doctor John's office and just to have looked at him and said one word—"string-bean!" Aunt Betty introduced her as Miss Chester from Washington.
"Oh, my dear Mrs. Carter, how glad I am to meet you!" she said as she towered over me in a willowy way, and her voice was lovely and cool almost to slimness. "I am the bearer of so many gracious messages that I am anxious to deliver them safely to you. Not six weeks ago I left Alfred Bennett in Paris and really—really his greetings to you almost amounted to steamer luggage. He came down to Cherbourg to see me off, and almost the last thing he said to me was, 'Now, don't fail to see Mrs. Carter as soon as you get to Hillsboro; and the more you see of her the more you'll enjoy your visit to Mrs. Pollard.' Isn't he the most delightful of men?" She asked me the question, but she had the most wonderful way of seeming to be talking to everybody at one time, so Mrs. Johnson got in the first answer.
"Delightful, nothing! But Al Bennett is a man of sense not to marry any of the string of women I suppose he's got following him!" she said. Miss Chester looked at her in a mild kind of wonder, but she went on murdering Mr. Johnson's shirt-sleeve with the needle without noticing the glance at all.
"Well, well, honey, I don't know about that," said Aunt Bettie as she fanned and rocked her great, big, darling, fat self in the strong rocker I always kept in the breezy angle of the porch for her. "Al is not old enough to have proved himself entirely, and from what I hear—" she paused with the big hearty smile that she always wears when she begins to tease or match-make, and she does them both most of her time.
But at whom do you suppose she looked? Not me! Miss Chester! That was cold tub number two for that day, and I didn't react as quickly as I might, but when I did I was in the proper glow all over. When I revived and saw the lovely pale blush on her face I felt like a cabbage-rose beside a tea-bud. I was glad Aunt Adeline came out on the porch just then so I could go in and tell Judy to bring out the iced tea and cakes. When I came from the kitchen I stepped into my room and took out one of Alfred's letters from the desk drawer and opened it at random, as you do the Bible when you want to decide things, and put my finger down on a line with my eyes shut This was what it was:
"—and all these years I have walked the world, blindfolded to its loveliness with the blackness that came to me when I found that you—"
I didn't read any more, but shoved it back in a hurry and went on out on the porch, comforted in a way, but feeling some more in sympathy with Mrs Johnson than I had before Aunt Bettie and her guest from Washington had interrupted our algebraic demonstration on the man subject. You can't always be sure of the right answer to X in any proposition of life; that is, a woman can't!
And, furthermore, I didn't like that next hour much, just as a sample of life, for instance. Aunt Bettie had got her joining-together humor well started, and right there before my face she made a present of every nice man in Hillsboro to that lovely, distinguished, strange girl who could have slipped through a bucket hoop if she had tried hard. I had to sit there, listen to the presentations, watch her drink two tall delicious glasses of tea full of sugar and consume without fear three of Judy's puffy cakes, while I crumbled mine in secret over the banisters and set half the glass of tea out of sight behind the wistaria vine.
It was bad enough to hear Aunt Bettie just offer her Tom, who, if he is her own son, is my favorite cousin, but I believe the worst minute I almost ever faced was when she began on the judge, for I could see from Aunt Adeline's shoulder beyond Miss Chester how she was enjoying that, and she added another distinguished ancestor to his pedigree every time Aunt Bettie paused for breath. I couldn't say a word about the fish and Aunt Adeline wouldn't! I almost loved Mrs. Johnson when she bit off a thread viciously and said, "Humph," as she rose to start the tea-party home.
That night I did so many exercises that at last I sank exhausted in a chair in front of my mirror and put my head down on my arms and cried the real tears you cry when nobody is looking. I felt terribly old and ugly and dowdy and—widowed. It couldn't have been jealousy, for I just love that girl. I want most awfully to hug her very slimness and it was more what she might think of poor dumpy me than what any man in Hillsboro, Tennessee, or Paris, France, could possibly feel on the subject that hurt so hard. But then, looking back on it, I am afraid that jealousy sheds feathers every night so you won't know him in the morning, for something made me sit up suddenly with a spark in my eyes and reach out to the desk for my pencil and check-book. It took me more than an hour to figure it all up, but I went to bed a happier, though in prospects a poorer woman.
It is strange how spending a man's money makes you feel more congenial with him and as I sat in the cars on my way to the city early the next morning I felt nearer to Mr. Carter than I almost ever did, alive or dead. After this I shall always appreciate and admire him for the way he made money, since, for the first time in my life, I fully realized what it could buy. And I bought things!
First I went to see Madam Courtier for corsets. I had heard about her and I knew it meant a fortune. But that didn't matter! She came in and looked at me for about five minutes without saying a word and then she ran her hands down and down over me until I could feel the flesh just crawling off of me. It was delicious!
Then she and two girls in puffs and rats came in and did things to a corset they laced on me that I can't even write down, for I didn't understand the process, but when I looked in that long glass I almost dropped on the floor. I wasn't tight and I wasn't stiff and I looked—I'm too modest to write how lovely I really looked to myself. I was spellbound with delight.
Next I signed the check for three of those wonders with my head so in the clouds I didn't know what I was doing, but I came to with a jolt when the prettiest girl began to get me into that black taffeta bag I had worn down to the city. I must have shrunk the whole remaining pounds I had felt obliged to lose for Alfred and Ruth Chester from the horror I felt when I looked at myself. The girl was really sympathetic and said with a smile that was true kindness: "Shall I call a taxi for madam and have it take her to Klein's? They have wonderful gowns by Rene all ready to be fitted at short notice. Really, madam's figure is such that it commands a perfect costume now." Men do business well, but when women enter the field they are geniuses at money extracting. I felt myself already clothed perfectly when that girl said my figure "commanded" a proper dress. Of course, Klein pays Madam Courtier a commission for the customers she passes right on to him. The one for me must have looked to her like a real estate transaction.
I spent three days at the great Klein store, only going to the hotel to sleep and most of the time I forgot to eat. Madam Rene must have been Madam Courtier's twin sister in youth, and Madam Telliers in the hat department was the triplet to them both. When women have genius it breaks out all over them like measles and they never recover from it; those women had the confluent kind. But I know that old Rene really liked me, for when I blushed and asked her if they had a good beauty doctor in the store she held up her hands and shuddered.
"Never, Madam, never pour vous. Ravissant, charmant—it is to fool. Nevair! Jamais, jamais de la vie!" I had to calm her down and she kissed my hand when we parted.
I thought Klein was going to do the same thing or worse when I signed the check which would be good for a house and lot and motor-car for him, but he didn't. Only he got even with me by saying: "And I am delighted that the trousseau is perfectly satisfactory to you, Mrs. Carter."
That was an awful shock and I hope I didn't show it as I murmured: "Perfectly, thank you."
The word "trousseau" can be spoken in a woman's presence for many years with no effect, but it is an awful shock when she first really hears it. I felt funny all afternoon as I packed those trunks for the five o'clock train.
Yes, the word "trousseau" ought to have a definite surname after it always and that's why my loyalty dragged poor Mr. Carter out into the light of my conscience. The thinking of him had a strange effect on me. I had laid out the dream in dark gray-blue rajah, tailored almost beyond endurance, to wear home on the train and had thrown the old black taffeta bag across the chair to give to the hotel maid, but the decision of the session between conscience and loyalty made me pack the precious blue wonder and put on once more the black rags of remembrance in a kind of panic of respect.
I would lots rather have bought poor Mr. Carter the monument I have been planning for months to keep up conversation with Aunt Adeline, than wear that dress again. I felt conscience reprove me once more with loyalty looking on in disapproval as I buttoned the old thing up for the last time, because I really ought to have stayed over a day to buy that monument, but—to tell the truth I wanted to see Billy so desperately that his "sleep-place" above my heart hurt as if it might have prickly heat break out at any minute.
So I hurried and stuffed the gray-blue darling in the top tray, lapped old black taffeta around my waist and belted it in with a black belt off a new green linen I had made for morning walks, down to the drug store on the public square, I suppose. That is about the only morning dissipation in Hillsboro that I can think of, and it all depends on whom you meet, how much of a dissipation it is.
The next thing that happens after you have done a noble deed is, you either regard it as a reward of virtue or as a punishment for having been foolish. I felt both ways when Judge Wade came down the car aisle, looking so much grander than any other man in sight that I don't see how they stand him ever. At that minute the noble black-taffeta deed felt foolish, but at the next minute I thanked my lucky stars for it.
It is nice to watch for a person to catch sight of you if you feel sure how they are going to take it and somehow in this case I felt sure. I was not disappointed, for his smile broke his face up into a joy-laugh. Off came his hat instantly so I could catch a glimpse of the fascinating frost over his temples, and with a positive sigh of rapture he subsided into the seat beside me. I turned with an echo smile all over me when suddenly his face became grave and considerate, and he looked at me as all the men in Hillsboro have been doing ever since poor Mr. Carter's funeral.
"Mrs. Carter," he said very kindly, in a voice that pitched me out of the car window and left me a mile behind on the track, all by myself, "I wish I had known of your sad errand to town so I could have offered you some assistance in your selection. You know we have just had our lot in the cemetery finally arranged and I found the dealers in memorial stones very confusing in their ideas and designs. Mrs. Henderson just told my mother of your absence from home last night, and I could only come down to the city for the day on important business or I would have arranged to see you. I hope you found something that satisfied you."
What's a woman going to say when she has a tombstone thrown in her face like that? I didn't say anything, but what I thought about Aunt Adeline filled in a dreadful pause.
Perfectly dumb and quiet I sat for an awful space of time and wondered just what I was going to do. Could a woman lie a monument into her suit case? It was beyond me at that speaking and the Molly that is ready for life quick, didn't want to. I shut my eyes, counted three to myself as I do when I go over into the cold tub, and told him all about it. We both got a satisfactory reaction and I never enjoyed myself so much as that before.
I understand now why Judge Wade has had so many women martyr themselves over him and live unhappily ever afterward, as everybody says Henrietta Mason is doing. He's a very inspiring man and he fairly bristles with fascinations. Some men are what you call taking and they take you if they want you, while others are drawing and after you are drawn to them they will consider the question of taking you. The judge is like that.
In the meantime it tingles me up to a very great degree to have a man use his eyes on me as it is the privilege of only womankind to do, and I feel that it will be good for his judgeship for me to let him "draw" me at least a little way. I may get hurt, but I shall at least have an interesting time of it. I started right then and got results, for he stopped under the old lilac bush that leans over my side gate and kissed my hand. Old Lilac shook a laugh of perfume all over us and I believe signaled the event at the top of his bough to the white clump on the other side of the garden. I'm glad Aunt Adeline isn't in the flower fraternity or sorority. Suppose she had seen or heard!
And it didn't take many minutes for me to slip into old summer-before-last—also for the last time inside of those buttons—and run through the garden, my heart singing, "Billy, Billy," in a perfect rapture of tune. I ran past the office door and found him in his cot almost asleep and we had a bear reunion in the rocker by the window that made us both breathless.
"What did you bring me, Molly?" he finally kissed under my right ear.
"A real base-ball and bat, lover, and an engine with five cars, a rake and a spade and a hoe, two blow-guns that pop a new way and something that squirts water and some other things. Will that be enough?" I hugged him up anxiously, for sometimes he is hard to please and I might not have got the very thing he wanted.
"Thank you, Molly, all them things is what I want, but you oughter brung more'n that for three days not being here with me." Did any woman ever have a more lovely lover than that? I don't know how long I should have rocked him in the twilight if Doctor John's voice hadn't come across the hall in command.
"Put him down now, Mrs. Molly, and come and say other how-do-you-does," he called softly.
It was a funny glad-to-see-him I felt as I came into the office where he was standing over by the window looking out at my garden in its twilight glow. I think it is wrong for a woman to let her imagination kiss a man on the back of his neck even if she has known for some time that there is a little drake-tail lock of hair there just like his own son's. I gave him my hand and a good deal more of a smile and a blush than I intended.
He very far from kissed the hand; he held it just long enough to turn me around into the light and give me one long looking-over from head to feet.
"Just where does that corset press you worst?" he asked in the tone of voice he uses to say "poke out your tongue." So much of my Tennessee shooting-blood rose to my face that it is a wonder it didn't drip; but I was cold enough to have hit at forty paces if I had had a shooting-iron in my hand. As it was the coldness was the only missile that I had, but I used it to some effect.
"I am making a call on a friend, Doctor Moore, and not a consultation visit to my physician," I said, looking into his face as though I had never seen him before.
"I beg your pardon, Molly," he exclaimed and his face was redder than mine and then it went white with mortification. I couldn't stand that.
"Don't do that way!" I exclaimed, and before I knew it I had taken hold of his hand and had it in both of mine. "I know I look as if I was shrunk or laced, but I'm not! I was going to tell you all about it and show it to you. I'm really inches bigger in the right place and just—just 'controlled', the woman called it, in the wrong place. Please feel me and see," and I offered myself to him for examination in the most regardless way. He's not at all like other people.
The blood came back into his face and he laughed as he gave me a little shake that pushed me away from him. "Don't you ever scare me like that again, child, or it might be serious," he said in the Billy-and-me tone of voice that I like some, only—
"I never will," I said in a hurry; "I want you to ask me anything in the world you want to and I'll always do it."
"Well, let me take you home through the garden then—and, yes, I believe I'll stay to break a muffin with Mrs. Henderson. Don't you want to tell me what a little girl like you did in a big city and—and read me part of that London letter I saw the postman give Judy this afternoon?"
Again I ask myself the question why his friendliness to Alfred Bennett's letters always makes me so instantly cross.
Sleep is one of the most delightful and undervalued amusements known to the human race. I have never had enough yet and every second of time that I'm not busy with something interesting I curl up on the bed and go dream hunting—only I sleep too hard to do much catching. But this torture book found that out on me and stopped it the very first thing on page three. The command is to sleep as little as possible to keep the nerves in a good condition,—"eight hours at the most and seven would be better." What earthly good would a seven-hour nap do me? I want ten hours to sleep and twelve if I get a good tired start. To see me stagger out of my perfectly nice bed at six o'clock every morning now would wring the sternest heart with compassion and admiration at my faithfulness—to whom?
Yes, it was the day after poor Mr. Carter's funeral that Aunt Adeline moved up here into my house and settled herself in the big south room across the hall from mine. Her furniture weighs a ton each piece, and Aunt Adeline is not light herself in disposition. The next morning when I went in to breakfast she sat in the "vacant chair" in a way that made me see that she was obviously trying to fill the vacancy. I am sorry she worried herself about that. Anyway, it made me take a resolve. After breakfast I went into the kitchen to speak to Judy.
"Judy," I said, looking past her head, "my health is not very good and you can bring my breakfast to me in bed after this." Poor Mr. Carter always wanted breakfast on the stroke of seven, and me at the same time, though he rarely got me. Judy has two dead husbands and she likes a ginger-colored barber down-town. Also her mother is our washerwoman and influenced by Aunt Adeline. Judy understands everything I say to her. After I had closed the door I heard a laugh that sounded like a war-whoop, and I smiled to myself. But that was before my martyrdom to this book had begun. I get up now!
But the day after I came from the city I lay in bed just as long as I wanted to and ignored the thought of the exercises and deep breathing and the icy unsympathetic tub. I couldn't even take very much interest in the lonely egg on the lonely slice of dry toast. I was thinking about things.
Hillsboro is a very peculiar little speck on the universe; even more peculiar than being like a hen. It is one of the oldest towns in Tennessee and the moss on it is so thick that it can't be scratched off except in spots. But it has a lot of racehorse and distillery money in it and when it gets poked up by anything unusual it takes a gulp of its own alcoholic atmosphere and runs away on its own track at a two-five gait, shedding moss as it goes. It hasn't had a real joy-race for a long time and I felt that it needed it. I rolled over and laughed into my pillow.
The subject of the conduct of widows is a serious one. Of all the things old Tradition is most set about it is that, and what was decided to be the proper thing a million years ago this town still dictates shall be done, and spends a good deal of its time seeing its directions carried out. For a year after the funeral they forget about the poor bereaved and when they do remember her they speak to and of her in the same tones of voice they used at the obsequies. Then sooner or later some neighbor is sure to see some man walk home from church with her or hear some old bachelor's voice on her front porch. Mr. Cain took Mrs. Caruther's little Jessie up in his buggy and helped her out at her mother's gate just before last Christmas, and if the poor widow hadn't acted quick the town would have noticed them to death before he proposed to her. They were married the day after New Year's and she lost lots of good friends because she didn't give them more time to talk about it.
I don't intend to run any risk of losing my friends that way and I want them to have all the good time they can get out of it. I'm going to serve out mint-juleps of excitement until the dear old place is running as it did when it was a two-year-old. Why get mad when people are interested in you? It's a compliment after all and just gives them more to think about. I remembered the two trunks across the hall and hugged my knees up under by chin with pleasure at the thought of the town-talk they contained.
Then just as I had got the first plan well-going and was deciding whether to wear the mauve meteor or the white chiffon with the rosebud embroidery as a first julep for my friends, a sweetness came in through my window that took my breath away and I lay still with my hand over my heart and listened. It was Billy singing right under my window, and I've never heard him do it before in all his five years. It was the dearest old-fashioned tune ever written and Billy sang the words as distinctly as if he had been a boy chorister doing a difficult recitative. My heart beat so it shook the lace on my breast like a breeze from heaven as he took the high note and then let it go on the last few words.
"If you love me, Molly, darling, Let your answer be a kiss!"
A confused recollection of having heard the words and tune sung by my mother when I was at the rocking age myself brought the tears to my eyes as I flew to the window and parted the curtains. If you heard a little boy-angel singing at your casement wouldn't you expect a cherubim face upturned with heaven-lights all over it? Billy's face was upturned as he heard me draw the shade, but it was streaked like a wild Indian's with decorations of brown mud and he held a long slimy fish-worm on the end of a stick while he wiped his other grimy hand down the front of his linen blouse.
"Say, Molly, look at the snake I brunged you!" he exclaimed as he came close under the sill, which is not high from the ground. "If you put your face down to the mud and sing something to 'em they'll come outen they holes. A doodle-bug comed, too, but I couldn't ketch 'em both. Lift me up and I can put him in the water-glass on your table." He held up one muddy paddie to me and promptly I lifted him up into my arms. From the embrace in which he and the worm and I indulged my lace and dimity came out much the worse.
"That was a lovely song you sang about 'Molly, darling', Billy," I said. "Where did you hear it?"
"That's a good bug-song, Molly, and I bet I can git a lizard with it, too, if I sing it right low." He began to squirm out of my arms toward the table and the glass.
"Who taught it to you, sugar-sweet?" I persisted as I poured water in on the squirming worm under his direction.
"Nobody taught it to me. Doc sings it to me when Tilly, nurse, nor you ain't there to put me to bed. He don't know no good songs like Roll, Jordan, Roll, or Hot Times or Twinkle. I go to sleep quick 'cause he makes me feel tired with his slow tune what's only good for bugs. Git a hair-pin for me to poke him with, Molly, quick!"
I found the hair-pin and I don't know why my hand trembled as I handed it to Billy. As soon as he got it he climbed out the window, glass, bug and all, and I saw him and the red setter go down the garden walk together in pursuit of the desired lizard, I suppose. I closed the blinds and drew the curtains again and flung myself on my pillow. Something warm and sweet seemed to be sweeping over me in great waves and I felt young and close up to some sort of big world-good. It was delicious and I don't know how long I would have stayed there just feeling it if Judy hadn't brought in my letter.
He had written from London, and it was many pages of wonderful things all flavored with me. He told me about Miss Chester and what good friends they were, and how much he hoped she would be in Hillsboro when he got here. He said that a great many of her dainty ways reminded him of his "own slip of a girl", especially the turn of her head like a "flower on its stem." At that I got right out of bed like a jack jumping out of a box and looked at myself in the mirror.
There is one exercise here on page twenty that I hate worst of all. You screw up your face tight until you look like a Christmas mask to get your neck muscles taut and then wobble your head around like a new-born baby until it swims. I did that one twenty extra times and all the others in proportion to make up for those two hours in bed. Hereafter I'll get up at the time directed on page three, or maybe earlier. It frightens me to think that I've got only a few weeks more to turn from a cabbage-rose into a lily. I won't let myself even think "luscious peach" and "string-bean." If I do, I get warm and happy all over and let up on myself. I try when I get hungry to think of myself in that blue muslin dress.
I haven't been really willing before to write down in this torture volume that I took that garment to the city with me and what Madam Rene did to it—made it over into the loveliest thing I ever saw, only I wouldn't let her alter the size one single inch. I'm honorable as all women are at peculiar times. I think she understood, but she seemed not to, and worked a miracle on it with ribbon and lace. I've put it away on the top shelf of a closet, for it is torment to look at it.
You can just take any old recipe for a party and mix up a debut for a girl, but it takes more time to concoct one for a widow, especially if it is for yourself. I spent all the rest of the day doing almost nothing and thinking until I felt lightheaded. Finally I had just about given up any idea of a blaze and had decided to leak out in general society as quietly as my clothes would let me, when a real conflagration was lighted inside me.
If Tom Pollard wasn't my own first cousin I would have loved him desperately, even if I am a week older than he. He was about the only oasis in my marriage mirage, though I don't think anybody would think of calling him at all green. He never stopped coming to see me occasionally, and Mr. Carter liked him. He was the first man to notice the white ruche I sewed in the neck of my old black taffeta four or five months ago and he let me see that he noticed it out of the corner of his eyes even right there in church, under Aunt Adeline's very elbow. He makes love unconsciously and he flirts with his own mother. As soon as I've made this widowhood hurdle—well, I'm going to spend a lot of time buying tobacco with him in his Hup runabout, which sounds as if it was named for himself.
And when that conflagration was lighted in me about my debut, Tom did it. I was sitting peaceably on my own front steps, dressed in the summer-before-last that Judy washes and irons every day while I'm deciding how to hand out the first sip of my trousseau to the neighbors, when Tom, in a dangerous blue-striped shirt, with a tie that melted into it in tone, blew over my hedge and landed at my side. He kissed the lace ruffle on my sleeve while I reproved him severely and settled down to enjoy him. But I didn't have such an awfully good time as I generally do with him. He was too full of another woman, and even a first cousin can be an exasperation in that condition.
"Now, Mrs. Molly, truly did you ever see such a peach as she is?" he demanded after I had expressed more than a dozen delighted opinions of Miss Chester. His use of the word "peach" riled me and before I stopped to think, I said: "She reminds me more of a string-bean."
"Now, Molly, don't be mean just because old Wade has got her out driving behind the grays after kissing your hand under the lilacs yesterday, which, praise be, nobody saw but little me! I'm not sore, why should you be? Aren't you happy with me?"
I withered him with a look, or rather tried to wither him, for Tom is no Mimosa bud.
"The way that girl has started in to wake up this little old town reminds me of the feeling you get under your belt seven minutes after you've sipped an absinthe frappe for the first time—you are liable for a good jag and don't know it," he continued enthusiastically. "Let's don't let the folks know that they are off until I get everybody in a full swing of buzz over my queen." I had never seen Tom so enthusiastic over a girl before and I didn't like it. But I decided not to let him know that, but to get to work putting out the Chester blaze in him and starting one on my own account.
"That's just what I'm thinking about, Tom," I said with a smile that was as sweet as I could make it, "and as she came with messages to me from one of my best old friends I think I ought to do something to make her have a good time. I was just planning a gorgeous dinner-party I want to have for her when you came so suddenly. Do you think we could arrange it for Tuesday evening?"
"Lord love us, Molly, don't knock the town down like that! Let 'em have more than a week to get used to this white rag of a dress you've been waving in their faces for the last few days. Go slow!"
"I've been going so slow for so many years that I've turned around and I'm going fast backward," I said with a blush that I couldn't help.
"Help! Let my kinship protect me!" exclaimed Tom in alarm, and he pretended to move an inch away from me.
"Yes," I said slowly and as I looked out of the corner of my eyes from under the lashes that Tom himself had once told me were "too long and black to be tidy," I saw that he was in a condition to get the full shock. "If anybody wakes up this town it will be I," I said as I flung down the gauntlet with a high head.
"Here, Molly, here are the keys of my office, and the spark-plug to the Hup; you can cut off a lock of my hair, and if Judy has got a cake I'll eat it out of your hands. Shall it be California or Nova Scotia? And I prefer my bride served in light gray tweed." Tom really is adorable and I let him snuggle up just one cousinly second, then we both laughed and began to plan what Tom was horrible enough to call the resurrection razoo. But I kept that delicious rose-embroidered treasure all to myself. I wanted him to meet it entirely unprepared.
I was glad we had both got over our excitement and were sitting decorously at several inches' distance apart when the judge drew the grays up to the gate and we both went down to the sidewalk to ask him and the lovely long lady to come in. They couldn't; but we stood and talked to them long enough for Mrs. Johnson to get a good look at us from across the street and I was afraid I would find Aunt Adeline in a faint when I went into the house.
Miss Chester was delightfully gracious about the dinner—I almost called it the debut dinner—and the expression on the judge's face when he accepted! I was glad she was sitting sidewise to him and couldn't see. Some women like to make other women unhappy, but I think it is best for you to keep them blissfully unconscious until you get what you want. Anyway, I like that girl all over and I can't see that her neck is so absolutely impossibly flowery. However, I think she might have been a little more considerate about discussing Alfred's London triumph over the Italian mission. As a punishment I let Tom put his arm around my waist as we stood watching them drive off and then was sorry for the left gray horse that shied and came in for a crack of the judge's irritated whip.
Then I refused to let Tom come inside the gate and he went down the street whistling, only when he got to the purple lilac he turned and kissed his hand to me. That, Mrs. Johnson just couldn't stand and she came across the street immediately and called me back to the gate.
"You are tempting Providence, Molly Carter," she exclaimed decidedly. "Don't you know Tom Pollard is nothing but a fly-up-the-creek? As a husband he'd chew the rope and run away like a puppy the first time your back was turned. Besides being your cousin, he's younger than you. What do you mean?"
"He's just a week younger, Mrs. Johnson, and I wouldn't tie him for worlds, even if I married him," I said meekly. Somehow I like Mrs. Johnson enough to be meek with her and it always brings her to a higher point of excitement.
"Tie, nonsense; marrying is roping in with ball and chain, to my mind. And a week between a man and a woman in their cradles gets to be fifteen years between them and their graves. I'm going to make you the subject of a silent prayer at the next missionary meeting, and I must go home now to see that Sally cooks up a few of Mr. Johnson's crotchets for supper." And she began to hurry away.
"I don't believe you'll be able to make it a 'silent' session about me, Mrs. Johnson," I called after her, and she laughed back from her own front gate. Marriage is the only worm in the bud of Mrs. Johnson's life, and her laugh has a snap to it even if it is not very sugary sweet.
When I told Judy about the dinner-party and asked her to get the yellow barber to come help her and her nephew wait on the table she grinned such a wide grin that I was afraid of being swallowed. She understood that Aunt Adeline wouldn't be interested in it until I had time to tell her all about it. Anyway, she will be going over to Springfield on a pilgrimage to see Mr. Henderson's sister next week. She doesn't know it yet; but I do.
After that I spent all the rest of the evening in planning my dinner-party and I had a most royal good time. I always have had lots of company, but mostly the spend-the-day kind with relatives, or more relatives to supper. That's what most entertaining in Hillsboro is like, but, as I say, once in a while the old slow pacer wakes up.
I'll never forget my first real dinner-party, as the flower girl for Caroline Evans' wedding, when she married the Chicago millionaire, from which Hillsboro has never yet recovered. I was sixteen, felt dreadfully naked without a tucker in my dress, and saw Alfred for the first time in evening clothes—his first. I can hardly stand thinking about how he looked even now. I haven't been to very many dinner-parties in my life, but from this time on I mean to indulge in them often. Candle-light, pretty women's shoulders, black coat sleeves, cut glass and flowers are good ingredients for a joy-drink, and why not?
But when I got to planning about the gorgeous food I wanted to give them all, I got into what I feel came near being a serious trouble. It was writing down the recipe for the nesselrode pudding they make in my family that undid me. Suddenly hunger rose up from nowhere and gripped me by the throat, gnawed me all over like a bone, then shook me until I was limp and unresisting. I must have astralized myself down to the pantry, for when I became conscious I found myself in company with a loaf of bread, a plate of butter and a huge jar of jam.
I sat down by the long table by the window and slowly prepared to enjoy myself. I cut off four slices and buttered them to an equal thickness and then more slowly put a long silver spoon into the jam. I even paused to admire in Judy's mirror over the table the effect of the cascade of lace that fell across my arm and lost itself in the blue shimmer of old Rene's masterpiece of a negligee, then deep down I buried the spoon in the purple sweetness. I had just lifted it high in the air when out of the lilac-scented dark of the garden came a laugh.
"Why, Molly, Molly, Molly!" drawled that miserable man-doctor as he came and leaned on the sill right close to my elbow. The spoon crashed on the table and I turned and crashed into words.
"You are cruel, cruel, John Moore, and I hate you worse than I ever did before, if that is possible. I'm hungry, hungry to death, and now you've spoiled it all! Go away before I wet this nice crisp bread and jam with tears into a mush I'll have to eat with a spoon. You don't know what it is to want something sweet so bad you are willing to steal it—from yourself!" I fairly blazed my eyes down into his and moved as far away from him as the table would let me.
"Don't I, Molly?" he asked softly, after looking straight in my eyes for a long minute that made me drop my head until the blue bow I had tied on the end of my long plait almost got into the scattered jam. Even at such a moment as that I felt how glad old Rene would have been to have given such a nice man as the doctor a treat like that blue silk chef-d'oeuvre of hers. I was glad myself.
"Don't I, Peaches?" he asked again in a still softer voice. Again I had that sensation of being against something warm and great and good like your own mother's breast and I don't know how I controlled it enough not to—to—
"Well, have some jam then," I managed to say with a little laugh as I turned away and picked up the silver spoon.
"Thank you, I will, all of it and the bread and butter, too," he answered, in that detestable friendly tone of voice as he drew himself up and sat in the window. "Hustle, Peaches, if you are going to feed me, for I'm ravenous. It took Sam Benson's wife the longest time to have the shortest baby I ever experienced and I haven't had any supper. You have; so I don't mind taking it all away from you."
"Supper," I sniffed as I spread the jam on those lovely, lovely slices of bread and thick butter that I had fixed for my own self. "That apple-toast combination tires me so now that I forget it if I can." As I handed him the first slice of drippy lusciousness I turned my head away. He thought it was from the expression of that jam, but it was from his eyes.
"Slice up the whole loaf, Peaches, and let's get on a jam jag! Come with me just this once and forget—forget—" He didn't finish his sentence and I'm glad. We neither of us said anything more as I fed him that whole loaf. I found that the bite I took off of each piece I had ready for him when he finished with the one he had in hand satisfied me as nothing I had ever eaten in all my life before had done, while at the same time my nibbles soothed his conscience about robbing me.
His teeth are big and strong and white and his jaws work like machinery. He is the strongest man I ever saw, and his gauntness is all muscle. What is that glow a woman gets from feeding a hungry man whom she likes with her own hands; and why should I want to be certain that he kissed the lace on my sleeve as it brushed his face when I reached across him to catch an inquisitive rose that I saw peeping in the window at us?
"The juice of a lemon in two glasses of cold water, to be drunk immediately on wakening!" Page eleven! I've handed myself that lemon every morning now until I am sensitive with myself about it. If there was ever anybody "on the water wagon" it's I, and I have to sit on the front seat from dawn to dusk to get in the gallon of water I'm supposed to consume in that time. Sometime I'm going to get mixed up and try to drink my bath if I don't look out. I dreamed night before last that I was taking a bath in a glass of ice-cream soda-water and trying to hide from Doctor John behind the dab of ice-cream that seemed inadequate for food or protection. I haven't had even one glass for two months and I woke up in a cold perspiration of embarrassment and raging hunger.
I don't know what I'm going to do about this book and I've got myself into trouble about writing things besides records in it. He looked at me this morning as coolly as if I was just anybody and said:
"I would like to see that record now, Mrs. Molly. It seems to me you are about as slim as you want to be. How did you tip the scales last time you weighed, and have you noticed any trouble at all with your heart?"
"I weigh one hundred and thirty-four pounds and I've got to melt and freeze and starve off that four," I answered, ignoring the heart question and also the question of producing this book. Wonder what he would do if I gave it to him to read just as it is?
"How about the heart?" he persisted, and I may have imagined the smile in his eyes for his mouth was purely professional. Anyway, I lowered my lashes down on to my cheeks and answered experimentally:
"Sometimes it hurts." Then a cyclone happened to me.
"Come here to me a minute!" he said quickly and he turned me around and put his head down between my shoulders and held me so tight against his ear that I could hardly breathe.
"Expand your chest three times and breathe as deep as you can," he ordered from against my back buttons. I expanded and breathed—pretty quickly at that.
"Now hold your breath as long as you can," he commanded, and it fitted my mood exactly to do so.
"Can't find anything," he said at last, letting me go and looking carefully at my face. His eyes were all anxiety; and I liked it. "When does it hurt you and how?" he asked anxiously.
"Moonlight nights and lonesomely," I answered before I could stop myself, and what happened then was worse than any cyclone. He got white for a minute and just looked at me as if I was a bug stuck on a pin, then gave a short little laugh and turned to the table.
"I didn't understand you were joking," he said quietly.
That maddened me and I would have done anything to make him think I was not the foolish thing he evidently had classified me as being. I snatched at my mind and shook out a mixture of truth and lies that fooled even myself and gave them to him, looking straight in his face. I would have cracked all the ten commandments to save myself from his contempt.
"I'm not joking," I said jerkily; "I am lonesome. And worse than being lonesome, I'm scared. I ought to have stayed just the quiet relict of Mr. Carter and gone on to church meetings with Aunt Adeline and let myself be fat and respectable; but I haven't got the character. You thought I went to town to buy a monument, and I didn't; I bought enough clothes for two brides, and now I'm scared to wear 'em, and I don't know what you'll think when you see my bank-book. Everybody is talking about me and that dinner-party Tuesday night, and Aunt Adeline says she can't live in a house of mourning so desecrated any longer; she's going back to the cottage. Aunt Bettie Pollard says that if I want to get married I ought to do it to Mr. Wilson Graves because of the seven children and then everybody would be so relieved that they are taken care of that they would forget that Mr. Carter hasn't been dead quite one year yet. Mrs. Johnson says I ought to be declared a minor and put as a ward to you. I can't help Judge Wade's sending me flowers and Tom's sitting on my front steps night and day. I'm not strong enough to carry him away and murder him. I am perfectly miserable and I'm—"
"Now that'll do, Molly, just hush for a half-minute and let me talk to you," said Doctor John as he took my hand in his and drew me near him. "No wonder your heart hurts if it has got all that load of trouble on it and well just get a little of that 'scare' off. You put yourself in my hands and you are to do just as I tell you, and I say—forget it! Come with me while I make a call. It is a long drive and I'm—I'm lonesome sometimes myself."
I saw the worst was over and I breathed freely again, but I had talked so much truth in that fiction that I felt just as I said I did, which is a slightly unnatural feeling for a woman. There was nothing for it but to go with him, and I wanted to most awfully.
To my dying day I'll never forget that little house, way out on the Cane Run Pike, he took me to in his shabby little car. Just two tiny rooms, but they were clean and quiet and a girl with the sweetest face I ever saw lay in the bed with her eyes bright with pride and a tiny, tiny little bundle close beside her. The young farmer was red with embarrassment and anxiety.
"She's all right to-day, but she worries because she don't think I can tend to the baby right," he said; and he did look helpless. "Her mother had to go home for two days, but is coming to-morrow. I dasn't undress and wash the youngster myself. It won't hurt him to stay bundled up until granny comes, will it, Doc?"
"Not a bit," answered Doctor John in his big comforting voice.
But I looked at the girl and I understood her. She wanted that baby clean and fresh even if it was just five days old, and I felt all of a sudden terribly capable. I picked up the bundle and went into the other room with it where a kettle was boiling on the stove and a large bucket by the door. I found things by just a glance from her, and the hour I spent with that small baby was one of the most delicious of all my life. I never was left entirely to myself with one before and I did all I wanted to this one, guided by instinct and desire. He slept right through and was the darlingest thing I ever saw when I laid him back on the bed by her. I never looked in Doctor John's direction once, though I felt him all the time.