The Pleasant Street Partnership
BOOKS BY MARY F. LEONARD.
* * * * *
THE SPECTACLE MAN. A STORY OF THE MISSING BRIDGE. 266 pages. Cloth. $1.00.
MR. PAT'S LITTLE GIRL. A STORY OF THE ARDEN FORESTERS. 322 pages. Cloth. $1.50.
THE PLEASANT STREET PARTNERSHIP. A NEIGHBORHOOD STORY. 269 pages. Cloth.
The Pleasant Street Partnership
A Neighborhood Story
* * * * *
By Mary F. Leonard
Illustrated by Frank T. Merrill
W. A. WILDE COMPANY BOSTON CHICAGO
Copyright, July, 1903. BY W. A. WILDE COMPANY. All rights reserved.
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THE PLEASANT STREET PARTNERSHIP.
I. A WAVE OF IMPROVEMENT 11
II. WHAT SHALL WE CALL IT? 21
III. AN ALIEN 24
IV. MISS WILBUR 35
V. THE SHOP 42
VI. IN THE EYES OF THE NEIGHBORHOOD 50
VII. A SPOOL OF TWIST 60
VIII. A MATTER OF LOYALTY 72
IX. IN THE SHOP 82
X. ALEXINA 90
XI. THE LAST STRAW 98
XII. THE DISCOVERY 107
XIII. AFTERWARD 115
XIV. MRS. MILLARD DEPARTS 121
XV. GIANT DESPAIR 129
XVI. CHARLOTTE 138
XVII. AN EVENING CALL 146
XVIII. THE ADVENTURES OF A BIRTHDAY CAKE 156
XIX. TEA AND TALK 166
XX. MERRY HEARTS 175
XXI. THE RICH MISS CARPENTER 185
XXII. VALENTINES 192
XXIII. NEIGHBORS 203
XXIV. WAYLAND 215
XXV. THE PRICE OF A BOND 222
XXVI. NORAH'S ARK 229
XXVII. AN ANNIVERSARY 236
XXVIII. WHAT IT MEANT 248
XXIX. A LETTER 253
XXX. CHANGES 262
PAGE "A small boy . . . stood surveying them with great composure" Frontispiece 17
"Securely entrenched behind the lace curtain, she levelled her glass" 61
"She sank into a chair" 109
"James Mandeville's taste was exacting" 194
The Pleasant Street Partnership
A Neighborhood Story
A WAVE OF IMPROVEMENT
Pleasant Street was regarded by the Terrace as merely an avenue of approach to its own exclusive precincts. That Pleasant Street came to an end at the Terrace seemed to imply that nothing was to be gained by going farther; and if you desired a quiet, substantial neighborhood,—none of your showy modern houses on meagre lots, but spacious dwellings, standing well apart from each other on high ground,—you found it here.
It could not be denied that the Terrace was rather far down town. Around it the busy city was closing in, with its blocks of commonplace houses, its schools and sanitariums, its noisy car lines, until it seemed but a question of a few years when it would be engulfed in a wave of mediocrity. Fashion had long ago turned her face in another direction, and yet in a way the Terrace held its own. It could boast of some wealth, and more distinguished grandfathers were to be heard of within its small area than in the length and breadth of Dean Avenue.
Its residents felt for each other that friendliness born of long association. Some of the best people of the town had built their homes here between thirty and forty years ago, and a comparison of directories would have shown a surprising proportion of the old names still represented.
Perhaps no one thing contributes more to a sense of dignity than long residence in one house, and it was natural enough that the Terrace should shrug its shoulders at the row of toy dwellings that sprang up almost magically on Pleasant Street. That this thoroughfare, so long given over to side yards and vacant lots, was showing a disposition to improve, was a matter of no concern to the Terrace until unexpectedly its own territory was invaded.
On the northeast corner of the Terrace and Pleasant Street there had long stood a cottage. In the midst of a large lot, with fine shade-trees around it and a beautifully kept lawn, it had never seemed out of place among its more pretentious neighbors; but now upon the death of its owner the property was divided into three lots and offered for sale. What this might mean was at first hardly realized, until one day men were discovered to be at work on the corner, digging a foundation.
Upon inquiry it developed that a drug store was to be built. The neighborhood did not like this, but felt on the whole it might have been worse,—this conclusion, as Wayland Leigh pointed out later on, being founded on the mistaken hypothesis that all drug stores are pretty much alike.
It happened that the druggist had for a brother a young and aspiring architect, who conceived the idea of putting up a building in keeping with a residence district. The result was a sloping-roofed structure whose shingled second story projected over the first, which was of concrete. It might have been a rural station, or post-office, or a seaside cottage, but a drug store it did not remotely suggest.
The store opened on Pleasant Street; to reach the private entrance you must go in from the Terrace, where there was a square of lawn and a maple tree, relic of better days.
The worst of it was its utter incongruousness, the best—so Alexina Russell said—that it invariably made you smile, and anything in this weary world that caused a smile was not wholly bad. Miss Sarah Leigh pretended to admire it, and declared she wanted to meet the architect. Of all things she liked originality. Mrs. Millard heard her disdainfully. Any departure from tradition was objectionable in her eyes, and she was deficient in a sense of humor. Judge Russell complained that now St. Mark's had taken to high-church customs, and the Terrace was degenerating, it was time for him to be put away in Spring Hill Cemetery.
Pretty Madelaine, his granddaughter, looked longingly toward Dean Avenue, being divided between a desire for its new splendors and a complacent consciousness that it was something of a distinction in these days to live in the house where your father was born. Alexina, her sister, treated this with scorn. She loved the shabby old house for other reasons.
In spite of the original intentions of the builder, fate decreed that this much-talked-of place was not to be a drug store after all, and early in the summer, before it was finished, it was advertised for rent.
The plastering stage was beginning when the agent in charge one day appeared conducting a young woman over the premises. If the agent's manner revealed some slight curiosity concerning her, it was not to be wondered at, for it was more than probable he had never before seen so charming a person in the guise of a possible shopkeeper.
Her bearing was dignified and businesslike, and if a smile hovered about her lips as they explored the odd little house, it did not go beyond the bounds of a polite interest. At length she seated herself on an empty nail keg in the shop, and became absorbed in thought. The agent leaned against the door frame and waited.
"I shall want a few changes made if I lease it," she announced suddenly, after some minutes of silence.
The agent started as her eyes met his. "Oh, certainly," he replied, as if ready to agree without hearing what they were. On second thought he added that the architect was at that moment coming up the street, and the best plan, perhaps, would be to submit her wishes to him.
To this she graciously assented, and he left her. When he was gone, the young woman's dignity relaxed. She smiled broadly; she even laughed. "How ever did it happen!" she exclaimed.
She produced a tape-line and made measurements, then she stood with the tip of her tongue touching her upper lip. "I do wish Marion could see it," she said. "She will never believe what a fascinatingly funny place it is."
She was surveying the neighborhood from the front door when the agent returned, accompanied by the architect.
She wanted very little, she announced reassuringly; a fireplace in the shop was the chief thing.
The agent suggested that it would be far more expensive to heat the room with an open grate than with an anthracite base burner. Whereupon she explained that an open fire was part of her stock in trade, and it would be impossible to carry on her line of business without one.
The agent ventured to inquire what her line was, and she answered with a twinkle in her eye, "Notions."
The architect was doubtful about the fireplace, but not unwilling to discuss it, and they grew so friendly over the matter that the agent retired to the door and stared gloomily up the street.
From the fireplace the discussion turned to other things. As a possible tenant, the young lady consulted the architect about the best color for the walls, so adroitly insinuating her own ideas as to the proper stain for the woodwork that they seemed his own.
While they talked, a small boy in a gingham apron, with a sailor hat on the back of his curly head and a gray flannel donkey under his arm, wandered in and stood surveying them with great composure.
"Who's going to live here?" he presently asked, his brown eyes upon the lady.
She met his gaze with a smile that drew him a step nearer, but caused no break in his seriousness. "I am thinking of it," she said, adding, with a twinkle of mischief in her eyes, "if they will let me have a fireplace in this room. Shouldn't you want a fireplace if you were going to live here?"
He nodded, "'Cause if you didn't, Santa Claus couldn't come."
The lady turned gravely to the architect. "That is a consideration which had not occurred to me, but it is an important one. I shall not take it without the fireplace." Her manner said there was no need for further discussion.
"What is your name?" she asked the small boy.
He shook his head.
"Do you mean you haven't any?"
Another more vigorous shake.
"Perhaps you have forgotten it?"
"No, I haven't."
"Why not tell, then? I am always willing to tell mine."
"What is it?" he inquired with great promptness.
"But I don't think it is fair to ask me when you won't tell yours."
"You said you would."
The lady laughed. "Very well, I am Miss Pennington."
The small boy pondered this for a moment, then announced with much distinctness, "My name is James Mandeville Norton."
"Well, James, I am glad to meet you. I see you are a fair-minded person. Do you live in this neighborhood?"
James Mandeville pointed in the direction of the row of toy houses on Pleasant Street, and said he lived over there.
"Then if they give me a fireplace, you and I will be neighbors."
They were standing in the door, just outside which, on the sidewalk, was a velocipede. This James Mandeville now mounted with gravity. He did not express a hope that she might come to live near him, but there was friendliness in the tone in which he said good-by as he rode away.
"Good-by Infinitesimal James," replied the lady.
"My name's James Mandeville," he called back.
In the course of a day or two the matter of the fireplace was adjusted and the lease signed. Norah Pennington was the tenant's name, and her references all the most timorous landlord could ask.
On the afternoon of the day on which the transaction was closed Miss Pennington might have been seen walking along the Terrace, gazing about with interested eyes.
"What dear old houses," she said to herself. "I am sure Marion will like it here. This might be Doubting Castle, and there is Palace Beautiful, a little out of repair."
She stood for a moment on the corner in the full blaze of the summer sun. The happy courage of youth seemed to radiate from her. There was a vitality, a sparkle in her glance, in the waves of her sunny hair, in her smile, as with a slight gesture that embraced the Terrace, and Pleasant Street, too, she said half aloud, "Good-by till September."
WHAT SHALL WE CALL IT?
"And now what shall we call it?" Norah asked.
"Call it?" echoed Marion.
They sat on the rocks beside a mountain stream that filled the air with its delicious murmur.
"Certainly, everything has to have a name. Shall it be Carpenter and Pennington, Dry-goods?"
Marion removed the dark glasses she wore, turning a pair of serious eyes upon her companion. "How absurd," she said.
"No," insisted Norah, taking the glasses and adjusting them on her own nose, "not at all. It is businesslike. Can't you see it?—a large black sign with gilt letters."
"Give me my glasses, and don't be silly. It is not to be a dry-goods' store in the first place, and above all things let us be original. If such signs are customary, ours must be different."
"Here speaks wisdom. Here the instinct of the born advertiser betrays itself. Let us think." Norah buried her face in her hands.
Marion watched her with a half smile, then as an expression of weariness stole into her face she restored the glasses and sighed, as with her elbow supported on a ledge of rock she rested her chin in her palm and looked down on the swift running water. She was extremely slender, and it was easy to guess she was also tall, and that, seen at her best, she was a person of grace and elegance rather than beauty.
"I have it," Norah cried presently. "The Pleasant Street Shop."
"Or The Neighborhood Shop," Marion suggested.
"No, let us have Pleasant Street in it. It seems a good omen that the street is called Pleasant."
Marion smiled. "Have you told Dr. Baird?" she asked.
"Yes. He said I should be a novelist, and confine my wild-goose schemes to paper."
"The Notions of Norah would be a taking title," laughed Marion, the weariness gone from her face.
"But as I told him, 'Deeds, not Dreams,' is my motto, and I'll show him if it is a wild-goose scheme. I am convinced that deep down in his heart he was interested; and although he made no promises, I believe we may count on him."
With the swiftness of a small tornado, Charlotte descended the long, straight stairway only to sink in a heap on the broad step at the bottom. "Oh, dear!" she said, her chin in her hand, "Oh, dear!"
A ray of sunlight falling through the side-lights of the door with their pattern of fleur-de-lis on a crimson ground, cast a rosy stain on the neutral-tinted carpet and brought to notice a few atoms of dust on one of the rosewood chairs that stood to attention on either side of the tall hat-rack. The wall against which they were ranged was done in varnished paper to represent oak panelling, and on it hung one or two steel engravings.
"If only something were crooked!" Charlotte sighed.
Now at Aunt Cora's nothing was straight. Etchings and water colors fought for the honors of the walls, and chased each other up the side of the stairway. Tables and shelves were crowded with trifles, costly and otherwise, the chairs were deep and cushiony, except now and then a gilt toy which was distinctly for show; the divans were smothered with gay pillows. In contrast this house in Kenton Terrace seemed unbearably stiff and prim.
Why had not Uncle Landor allowed her to stay with him instead of sending her so far away? Perhaps, after all, he had not wanted her. Nobody wanted her—dreadful thought!—unless it were Aunt Cora; and Charlotte knew in her heart Uncle Landor was wise in deciding she was not to travel about with Aunt Cora any more.
Since she had been taken away, a child of seven, her memories of this southern town had grown vague, and it seemed strange to hear Uncle Landor refer to it as her home. He also said it was the sort of a background she needed for the next few years, until she should be ready for college. After that he promised, if she still wished it, she might come and keep house for him.
But it would be so long. How could she stand it? If only she might have gone to boarding-school. Why had Aunt Caroline and Aunt Virginia agreed to her coming? They did not like her. Nothing she did pleased them. Charlotte looked about for a refuge where she might fling herself down and cry her heart out. She rose and stole on tiptoe into the drawing-room.
Here the same absolute order prevailed. She felt sure the carved chairs and sofas, with their covering of satin brocade, had occupied these same positions ever since they first appeared on the scene when Aunt Caroline made her debut, more than thirty years ago. Fancy Aunt Caroline having a party! Aunt Virginia had described it to her, but it sounded unreal. Thirty years ago was too far in the past. Charlotte's own mother had been a little girl then.
The buhl cabinet near the window, the inlaid chess table in the corner beside the white marble mantel, even the folds of the handsome lace curtains, seemed petrified into their present positions. For thirty years the mantle mirror had been reflecting the Dresden clock and candelabra, and the crystal pendants of the chandelier; the face and figure that confronted Charlotte in the pier glass was, however, something new and alien.
It was a brown face with blue eyes that danced with mischief or flashed with anger, or grew soft with entreaty beneath their black lashes, as occasion might demand. Her hair, too, was brown, and shadowed her face in a wavy mass held most objectionable by her aunts. That a girl barely fourteen should have decided views on the subject of dress, and insist upon wearing what she called a pompadour and having her belts extremely pointed in front, was surprising to Aunt Virginia, shocking to Aunt Caroline.
As she stood facing her own image, the sound of sweeping skirts on the stairway sent her flying behind the half-open door.
"What has become of Charlotte?" she heard Aunt Virginia ask.
"I am sure I don't know," responded Aunt Caroline.
"And what is more, you don't care," added Charlotte, under her breath.
When the door had closed behind them, she ran to the window and watched as they went down the walk and entered the waiting carriage. Two very charming ladies, an unprejudiced observer might have pronounced them. A little precise in their elegance, perhaps, but pleasant to look upon, especially Aunt Caroline, from head to foot a shimmer of silver gray. Aunt Caroline was Mrs. Millard, the widow of an army officer, and Charlotte had expected to like her best; but after all, Aunt Virginia, who was only Miss Wilbur, had proved the least objectionable.
She was not so handsome, but seemed kinder; and when she laughed, Charlotte always felt a little thrill of sympathy. When Aunt Caroline laughed, it was in a reserved, controlled manner. Charlotte had arrived at the conclusion that Aunt Virginia stood in awe of her sister; and this might have been a bond of union if it had been possible to become really acquainted, but Aunt Virginia held aloof. It was almost as if she were afraid of Charlotte, too. Still there was something rather nice about her. Charlotte hardly realized how often she returned to this opinion.
When they had driven away, she went to the library,—a less formidable apartment than the drawing-room,—and making herself comfortable in an arm-chair by the window, began to consider what she should say to Cousin Francis, for she had decided that pouring out her soul in a letter would, after all, be more satisfactory than tears.
She looked out across the garden to where, on the other side of Pleasant Street, stood the little corner shop with its gray-green shingles, its upper windows all aglow in the afternoon sunshine. Before it stood a furniture van, and Charlotte idly watched the unloading.
She had made up her mind that life here was going to be hopelessly dull. She swung her foot listlessly, and, forgetting her letter, thought of Aunt Cora's home in a gay little suburb where something was always going on,—teas, dinners, receptions, where, although in the background, she had had her share of the excitement.
At the Landors', where she sometimes spent several weeks while Aunt Cora, worn by her strenuous social life, went down to Atlantic City to recuperate, it was much quieter. And still she loved to be there. The elder Mr. Landor was a busy lawyer, his son Francis a literary person, and they lived in a tall, brown stone house in the old part of Philadelphia, among any number of others exactly like it. It was a man's house, overflowing with books and pictures, and yet showing the lack of a woman's presence. Charlotte was very fond of her guardian and his son, who petted and made much of her on the occasions of her visits. She was conscious, however, that Uncle Landor was not quite satisfied with her. He had a way of looking at her long and steadily through his glasses, as if he were studying her.
Cousin Frank, perhaps because he had no responsibility in the matter, treated her as a comrade in a way that was flattering. She was, of course, an ardent admirer of his stories and verses, and upon one or two rare occasions had been made blissfully happy by being allowed to listen to one fresh from the typewriter. But most interesting of all had been a discovery made on her last visit in the spring. Between the leaves of a manuscript she had been allowed to read she found some verses beginning:—
"I love her whether she love me or no, Just as I love the roses where they blow In fragrant crimson there beyond the wall."
There was something more about roses being sweet although out of reach, and teaching a lesson to his heart; but before she had quite grasped the idea, Francis took the paper away from her with an exclamation of impatience.
"Why should Francis have minded, unless those verses meant something personal?" Charlotte wondered. As she thought it over, she recalled some remarks of Aunt Cora's about a little water-color portrait of a child in Uncle Landor's study.
"Who is this?" Mrs. Brent asked one day, pausing before it.
"That is old Peter Carpenter's granddaughter May, when she was ten years old. He had two portraits done of her, and liking the other better, gave this to me not long before he died."
Aunt Cora said, "Ah!" and studied it with interest. "So this is the Miss Carpenter, is it? I presume Francis has a more recent likeness."
"I do not know that he has. We see very little of May in these days. She is a great lady." Uncle Landor spoke as one who dismisses a subject.
Then one rainy afternoon Mrs. Wellington, the Landors' housekeeper, entertained Charlotte with stories of this same young lady who, it turned out, lived just across the street in a house distinguished from the rest of the block by a garden at one side. According to Mrs. Wellington she was beautiful and rich, and if one more touch were needed to make her an irreproachable heroine, the long illness from which she was then beginning to recover supplied it. Watching at the window, Charlotte had the pleasure of seeing her carried out for a drive once or twice, but she never had a glimpse of her face.
Putting two and two together, she became quite sure that this Miss Carpenter was the rose which was out of reach; but though she was on the point of it several times, she never quite dared to question Cousin Francis about her.
Charlotte had woven a charming romance with these slender threads, being at the romantic age when real life is seen beneath the lime-light of fairyland. Was it any wonder things seemed dull here in Kenton Terrace?
These entertaining memories being for the time exhausted, her thoughts turned to the grievance that had sent her downstairs with such vehemence,—a thrilling, fascinating story taken from her at the most critically exciting point.
"I cannot allow you to read novels when you are going to school," Aunt Caroline had said; adding, "and this book is not at all the sort of thing for a little girl."
At the recollection Charlotte put her hand to her hair. Little girl, indeed! When people wished to be disagreeable, they reminded you that you were a little girl.
"I have always read what I pleased," she insisted, relinquishing the book unwillingly.
"I cannot understand Mrs. Brent's allowing it; but however that may have been, while you are with us your Aunt Virginia and I will exercise some supervision over what you read."
Questions about the owner of the novel followed, and here was another grievance. It had been lent to Charlotte by one of her schoolmates, a girl with fluffy yellow hair and many rings, whom after a week's acquaintance,—to use her own phrase,—she simply adored. Her name was Lucile Lyle—in itself adorable—and the intimacy with her had resulted in Charlotte becoming Carlotta.
"Lyle?" Aunt Virginia repeated questioningly.
"Don't you remember Maggie McKay, Virginia? This is her daughter," was Aunt Caroline's reply. To Charlotte she said, "To-morrow I shall give you this book to return, and while of course I wish you to be polite, I do not wish you to be intimate with this girl."
"I don't care what she says, I shall read it, and be as intimate as I please with Lucile," Charlotte told herself; which goes to show that Mr. Landor was right when he felt she needed different training.
And now having nothing else to do, she wandered to the piano, and finding an old music book, turned its pages, playing snatches of "Monastery Bells" and "Listen to the Mocking-bird." She was putting a good deal of feeling into "I'm a Pilgrim, and I'm a Stranger," when a sound behind caused her to start.
"You have a pretty touch, my dear," said Aunt Virginia. "We have been out to Marat's greenhouse, and I have brought you some roses." She laid them on the piano as she spoke, and slipped away before Charlotte could make any response.
Was it a peace offering?
Miss Wilbur was perplexed to the point of annoyance, a state of mind most unusual with her.
She was by nature a serene person, quite content with her easy, uneventful life. The outside world she faced with a timid reserve which had not diminished with years and indulgence, finding her life in her family circle and the round of small cares, her flowers and her embroidery. She disliked responsibility, and except in what she considered matters of principle was inclined to distrust her own judgment. She was full of family loyalty, and had been satisfied to look on from her place in the background, while her more clever and ambitious sisters and brothers one by one passed from the home into the world.
Naturally enough she had not married. She had not cared to, and had never given any one the opportunity to combat this indifference. Most people liked her, but she had few intimate friends, having apparently no desire to be singled out in any way, and yet she was warmly affectionate. In truth Miss Virginia was an elusive sort of person, sometimes allowing a glimpse of herself in all her unselfish sweetness, and then, presto! her reserve had taken alarm, the vision was gone.
She was conventional, made so by her environment; yet her failings, many of them, so her sister Caroline declared, were those of an untrained child. She was careless,—as Charlotte had noticed, she sometimes forgot the fastenings of her skirt; when she wrote, she invariably inked her fingers; and she was constantly losing or breaking her glasses. She treated these matters lightly herself, but tried to conceal them from her sister.
In their girlhood this sister, a few years older than she, had been the object of her deepest devotion. Caroline was beautiful and clever, and to question her opinions never entered Miss Virginia's mind. It puzzled and hurt her loyal heart that she could not quite get back to the old attitude when Caroline returned to her home a widow. She submitted when Caroline assumed command of the household; but after their father's death relieved her of the position of devoted nurse, Miss Virginia found life a little empty; and what made it the harder was that she no longer felt herself altogether in sympathy with her sister's opinions and methods.
Her aspirations had never gone beyond making home pleasant for somebody, and now even this was taken from her. The things that most absorbed Mrs. Millard were of little interest to her; she began to feel useless and unhappy. She was a failure. Life had somehow slipped by unawares. She felt old at forty-eight.
Above everything she disliked change, and the sale of the corner lot and the building of the shop caused her many a pang. In the midst of all this disquietude Mr. Landor's letter arrived.
"I have most agreeable recollections of your home," he wrote, "and I realize I am asking a good deal of you, for our little niece is a somewhat tumultuous person. She has suffered from both over indulgence and neglect. She needs a different atmosphere, and much in the way of training that her old guardian cannot give her, so he ventures for Helen's sake to ask if you will take charge of her daughter for a few years."
This half sister, twelve years younger than herself, had come and gone like some happy dream in Miss Virginia's life. She had grown up under the care of her grandmother, almost a stranger in her father's house, to which she returned in her gay young girlhood, and for the one time in her experience Miss Wilbur had been swept into a whirl of gayety as Helen's chaperon. Her charge had married early, and after a few years went abroad with her husband and little girl in search of health she was never to find.
The thought of Helen's child aroused memories both bright and sorrowful, but at least here was an opportunity to be useful again. It would be pleasant to have a child in the house, Miss Virginia thought, studying the photograph of Charlotte at seven, bright-eyed and demure.
The tall, well-grown girl had been a surprise to her aunts. Her assured manner and pronounced style of dress were not exactly what one desired in a girl of fourteen. At sight of her Miss Virginia had been seized with a fit of shyness; in consequence the reins had been taken by Mrs. Millard, who was not shy and was, besides, a born manager.
Miss Virginia felt a sympathy for Charlotte, even while disapproving of her; she felt her sister to be too peremptory. In the matter of the novel it would have been better to allow Charlotte to finish it, with the understanding that it was to be the last. What could be more aggravating than to have to give up a story with only two-thirds of it read? It was an interesting story, too. Miss Virginia herself sat up till midnight to finish it. Some time perhaps she would tell Charlotte the end. Then she reminded herself that this would never do.
It was no use talking to Caroline, and yet Mr. Landor had asked her to take charge of Charlotte, and Caroline had no right to assume command. Miss Virginia wished they had not agreed to take the child.
She paced back and forth on the front porch one afternoon, thinking of all this and of the peaceful days of the past, feeling that dulness was better than problems like these. Across Pleasant Street was the little shop already showing signs of habitation. As she stood idly with her hand on the rail, a boy came up the walk and handed her what at first glance she thought was a note, but it proved on investigation to be an announcement.
THE PLEASANT STREET SHOP WILL OPEN WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER SECOND
Dainty Turnovers Pretty Draperies Ribbons Bright Chintzes Baskets Pottery Needles and Pins and Other Small Matters A Specialty.
"How absurd!" thought Miss Virginia. "A shop of this sort in the Terrace!"
"Have you heard about the new shop, Miss Virginia?" called Alexina Russell from the gate.
Miss Wilbur held up the card. "I am just reading the announcement. Who can be starting it? and isn't it too bad?" As she spoke, she descended the steps and joined the young girl.
"It is the funniest little place I ever saw," answered Alex. "I suppose it is not nice to have shops springing up in the neighborhood, but—sometimes I wish I were going to keep a shop."
"My dear! I trust you will never have to do that."
"Haven't you ever felt that you would like to be doing something?—to be in things—part of the real working world?" Alexina spoke with fervor.
"I never wanted to keep a shop, I am sure," answered Miss Wilbur.
James Mandeville did not forget the pretty young lady who said she was coming to be his neighbor if they would give her a fireplace. He had kept an eye on the shop all summer, and he knew there was a fireplace.
He saw plasterers, carpenters, and painters come and go as he rode back and forth on his velocipede at a rate of speed altogether out of proportion to the effort put forth by his plump legs, bare and brown above his socks. From beneath the brim of his old sailor hat he looked on with solemn intentness. He was on excellent terms with the workmen, and often carried home a whole armful of treasures—odd-shaped pieces of wood, curly shavings, and bits of tile.
At length all was done; the square of lawn on the Terrace side was sodded, and from the street in front of the shop all the debris was carried away. Surely, she would come now!
Some rainy days followed, and when the weather permitted James Mandeville and his velocipede to be abroad again, the place showed unmistakable signs of occupancy. There were muslin curtains in the upstairs windows, and, peeping in through the glass door of the shop, he saw packing-boxes. At another time a woman stood on the curbstone buying vegetables from a wagon, but she was far removed from the lady of his dreams. His heart fell.
The door of the shop stood open the next time he passed. James Mandeville halted, letting one foot slip along the pavement as a brake. Under his left arm, pressed close to his linen blouse, was a tin horn. At this moment a lady came to the door and looked out. She was not the lady of the fireplace,—a glance told him that,—yet she was quite different from the one who bought vegetables. She was tall and dark, and wore unbecoming smoked glasses. She took no notice of him, but turned and went back into the shop. James Mandeville dismounted and followed.
The packing-cases had been removed, and the sunshine that streamed in above the sheet tacked across the lower part of the west window lighted up a scene of cheerful disorder, pervading which was a pleasant odor of newness. With her back toward him, the lady began to measure off lengths of some green fabric, standing before a long table.
He waited, but still she took no notice. Should he go away? He summoned all his courage and gave voice to the question that was asking itself in his own mind: "Where is she?"
The lady turned in surprise and looked down upon him. If he could have expressed his feelings, he would have said she was a haughty person. But as she looked at him her manner changed, and she smiled as she asked, "What is it? I don't understand."
James Mandeville struggled to reply, but words were hard to find. As he stood silent a voice behind him cried, "Why, if it isn't Infinitesimal James!" and there she was, with her shining hair and laughing eyes. He laughed, too, for very relief.
"There's a fireplace," he announced, going to meet her. "I saw them make it."
"So you knew I would come back, didn't you? Yes, it is a very nice fireplace, and will be all ready for a visit from Santa Claus," she replied, shaking hands. Then quite unexpectedly she picked him up and set him on the table among the waves of green stuff. "Now you look like Triton," she said.
James Mandeville held fast to his horn and eyed his captor doubtfully, as if he had a mind to escape.
"Do you remember my name? I am Miss Norah, and I want to introduce you to my partner, who is almost as nice as I am. She is Miss Marion."
The other young lady smiled. "Do you believe in blowing your own horn, as Miss Norah does?" she asked.
James Mandeville looked at his horn, and then at the speaker; but as he did not understand, he made no reply.
"She asks foolish questions, doesn't she?" said Miss Norah. "As you are the first neighbor to call on us, you shall not be required to answer. You may help me trim the show window, if you like."
James Mandeville wriggled out from among the green waves. "What are you going to keep in your store?" he asked.
The reply was disappointing. "Why don't you keep candy?" was the next question.
"Because Miss Marion would give it all away, and we shouldn't be able to make a living."
"Would you?" he asked, turning to that lady with earnest eyes. Clearly, she might be worth cultivating.
She laughed and left the room for a moment, returning with something in her hand wrapped in silver paper. "Do you like chocolate?" she inquired; adding, "I don't know how it would be if I kept it; but as I don't keep it, of course I give it away."
This had a puzzling sound. James Mandeville almost forgot to say thank you. He decided to go, feeling he could better enjoy the chocolate alone. He edged toward the door.
"Good-by," called Miss Norah. "Come again."
"All right," said James Mandeville, and disappeared from the scene.
After his departure all was quiet in the shop for a time, except for the occasional sound of Norah's hammer as she worked in the window. Marion was putting things away in the cases which stood against the wall. It was she who first spoke.
"I wonder if we shall have any customers?"
"That is reflection upon my skill as a decorator. Do you think the public can resist the display which is about to dawn upon it on the morrow?" was Norah's reply.
Marion left her work and sat on the window ledge. Norah wore a blue dress and a large white apron, and as she stood to drive a tack, the sunshine sparkled in her hair. She looked the incarnation of cheerful industry.
"I do not know that I altogether believe in show windows," Marion said, smiling up at her friend.
"Of course not. It is all of a piece with your haughty reserve. Let me remind you that after we have made a success and have a name we can retire into our shell and become the sought rather than the seeker, but at present it is needful to catch the public eye. You have imbibed your ideas from the rich Miss Carpenter, but we have our living to make." She drove her tack with emphasis, then sat down on the floor of the window. "I am not sure I shall not always like this way best," she continued. "Think, if there were no show windows at Christmas! Marion, think of Christmas!"
"Isn't it a little early? There is a good deal to be done between now and then." Marion spoke calmly.
Norah tossed a ball of twine at her. "I see it will be by the hardest work if I get any fun out of life. But to resume my train of thought which you interrupted—"
"I beg your pardon, you interrupted yourself."
"Did I? Well, to resume, at any rate: my idea is that it will be much nicer to keep a shop which will attract both great and small, so to speak. To make a specialty always of nice, simple things."
"Flannelette?" suggested Marion.
"Why not? It is a useful fabric."
"I foresee if we enter into a discussion of this momentous question your window will not be finished, and I own to some curiosity as to how you mean to attract the great, for instance."
Marion returned to her baskets, and there was silence again for a time.
"Your idea of the bookcases was a happy one," she said presently, standing back to view her work. "These baskets have the air of a collection of curios behind the glass."
"A charming touch of color against our olive walls. Confess, did you ever have such a good time in your life?"
"My enthusiasm is sprouting vigorously."
"And the fun is only just beginning. But do come here—quick, Marion! I want you to see Giant Despair."
A tall, heavily built old man was passing along Pleasant Street, his brows drawn together in a tremendous frown. He swung a stout walking-stick in his right hand, as if he would have been pleased to lay it over somebody's shoulders. At the corner he paused and looked back at the shop.
"Did you see? He shook his fist!" cried Norah.
"Have we an enemy?" asked Marion.
IN THE EYES OF THE NEIGHBORHOOD
Its isolation in the heart of the city had something to do, no doubt, with certain village-like customs that prevailed in the Terrace. The neighbors ran in upon one another with their needlework for a social afternoon. If Alexina or Madelaine Russell were going to a party, there was sure to be an audience of two or three waiting to see them after they were dressed. When the Leigh's cook, Aunt Minty, made jumbles, a plateful always found its way over the back fence to Miss Virginia Wilbur; and when the Wilburs had something particularly nice for dessert, some neighbor had a share of it. Judge Russell and Mr. Goodman played chess together and talked of old times, and on the whole friendliness prevailed, with only an occasional neighborly tiff, when perhaps some one was heard to wish that Caroline Millard would mind her own business. There were other occasions when Mrs. Millard's executive ability proved helpful and was warmly appreciated.
The strenuous life had not as yet invaded the Terrace. Mrs. Millard, to be sure, belonged to the Woman's Club, and presided at various board meetings, but she was the exception.
The Terrace had its problems. We know Miss Virginia's; but Alexina, not suspecting it, watching her in church on Sundays, wished she herself were middle-aged and had all her troublesome questions answered, for at forty-eight one must have solved life's problems, Alex thought.
Madelaine only wanted money to gratify her taste for pretty things. Given plenty of money, and life would be a simple matter. And so it seemed to Miss Sarah Leigh, always cheery, yet always burdened with the doubt where next month's bread and butter were to come from, and with the regret that her nephew, Wayland, must work instead of going to college.
Old Mr. Goodman had the money, and his great tomb of a house was full of valuable things, but his problem was hardest of all; for having to a sad degree lost his faith in men and things, he found no use for it. Judge Russell sighed for the good old days; but it was a gentle sigh, and soon forgotten in the companionship of his beloved books.
If from one point of view the neighborhood characteristic was sociability, its attitude toward the outsider was another matter. A new resident must undergo a term of probation before being in any sense accepted. Charlotte Creston, as the Wilburs' niece, was received and freely discussed. She was only a child, and for that reason something of a novelty in the Terrace, since the Russells and Wayland Leigh had grown up.
Toward the shop, which divided with Charlotte the distinction of latest comer, the feeling was decidedly antagonistic. It was as if that monster Business had suddenly reached out from his own domain, blocks away, and laid his hand upon their peaceful territory.
Something like a council of war took place in the Wilburs' drawing-room several evenings before the opening. Charlotte, supposed to be studying in the library, became an interested listener, shielded from view by the half-drawn hangings.
Alexina Russell was the first comer. Charlotte had not yet made up her mind about Alex, she was so different at different times. She might have been almost as pretty as Madelaine, if she had fluffed her hair and dressed a little less plainly. Sometimes she was full of animation, again, as this evening, she appeared abstracted and silent.
After Miss Sarah Leigh and her aunt arrived there was no more silence; it had no charms for either of these ladies. Charlotte had at first felt something like contempt for a person so odd as Miss Sarah, who wore skirts short enough to display to advantage her serviceable shoes, and poked her head out when she walked. But if Miss Sarah had no pretensions to beauty or style, her face was pleasant, her eyes really fine, and her smile full of kindly humor. Charlotte learned from Aunt Virginia that Miss Sarah had an unusual number of distinguished ancestors, which went to show how little appearance can be relied on in such matters.
Mrs. Leigh suggested a bit of pretty old china of a pattern grown rare. Her eyes were bright, there was a hint of pink in her cheeks, and the silvery puffs beneath her lace cap had the exactness born of long years of training in the way they should go. When she walked, it was with a lightness wonderful in a woman of seventy-eight.
Before the Leighs were fairly seated one or two others dropped in, until it seemed quite like a called meeting of the neighborhood. Aunt Caroline was in the chair which, on this occasion, happened to be placed where the rosy glow from a shaded lamp fell becomingly on her soft gray draperies. Aunt Virginia fluttered about, constantly interrupting conversation with footstools or sofa cushions, or irrelevant remarks.
"Miss Virginia is always wondering if one more cushion or some other chair would not make you a little more comfortable," said Alex, as that lady appeared after her sixth excursion to the hall, this time with a light shawl for Mrs. Leigh's rheumatic shoulder.
"Do come and sit down, Virginia," laughed Miss Sarah; "you have no repose of manner."
"It is very fortunate that so many of us happen to be together this evening," began Mrs. Millard, "for I think we should decide upon our course in regard to the shop." Her white hand, veiled in a fall of lace, made a slight motion in the direction of the corner.
"Don't you want some chocolate candy?" asked Miss Virginia, in an audible aside to Miss Sarah. "Charlotte and I made some this afternoon."
"When we have decided the fate of the shop," the lady whispered back.
"Seriously," continued Mrs. Millard, turning toward her sister with a slight frown, "should we not take some action?"
"You are right, Caroline. In my day shops kept to their own territory," Mrs. Leigh responded. "I remember the colonel used to say—but there! I promised Sarah I wouldn't tell any stories this evening. She says I bore people."
"Why, Aunt Sally! you are telling the biggest kind of a one this minute," cried her niece.
A good-natured warfare waged continually between these two. Mrs. Leigh, who was in reality the most petted and indulged of old ladies, pretending to live in constant fear of Miss Sarah.
"But what can we do?" Alexina was heard asking, as the skirmishers finally retired, Mrs. Leigh having the last word. "We can't exactly blame these persons, whoever they may be, for coming here. They could not know we did not want them."
"I saw some one standing in the door of the shop this morning who looked like a lady," Miss Virginia remarked.
"How do you define a lady, Virginia?" her sister asked with some severity.
"Why, Caroline, I am not a dictionary; I wish you wouldn't ask me to define things," replied Miss Virginia, with a little laugh. Then with the manner of one who regretted this flippancy she added, "I think I understand the word as you do."
"It seems to me we are too often content with a surface meaning," Mrs. Millard continued.
"That is true," agreed Alex. "Now, there is no reason in the world why these shopkeepers may not be ladies."
Mrs. Millard looked at her doubtfully. "Still," she interposed, "ladies do not as a usual thing keep shops."
"No; they sweep and scrub and cook, and pretend they don't,—that is the difference," put in Miss Sarah, crossing her knees and bending forward with the air of one who had found a congenial theme. "I am a paper-hanger, a painter, and a maid-of-all-work; and this is what it usually means to be a lady when you are poor."
"Teaching has always seemed to me a most suitable occupation for a woman," suggested Mrs. Millard.
"The day has passed, Caroline, when just anybody can teach."
"I don't know any girl who had a better education or was more studious than you, Sarah," spoke up her aunt.
"And when Brother Willie died I didn't know how to write a check or make the discount on a gas bill."
"I feel as you do, Miss Sarah. It is dreadful to be so ignorant as women are of the simplest things," exclaimed Alexina.
"Still, I think it is more comfortable not to have to know about them, don't you?" Miss Virginia asked timidly.
"What are you people talking about?" The question came from the doorway, where Madelaine stood, a vision of such airiness, daintiness, and ethereal charm that nothing else seemed worth a thought. Behind her towered Wayland Leigh.
"May we join the party and help decide the burning question?" he asked. "Don't get up, Miss Virginia; we'll find chairs."
"I know it is the shop," said Madelaine, floating across the room to an ottoman beside Mrs. Millard. Madelaine, too, had an instinct for the effective, and nothing could have made a more charming picture. "Grandpa and Mr. Goodman were at it a few minutes ago. Mr Goodman talks about an injunction."
"We began with the shop, but we seem to have switched off on to education," said Mrs. Leigh. "One never heard such talk when I was young. Then we had plenty of servants, and there was always some man to attend to business. After the war I asked our old Malinda one day how she liked freedom. 'Well, Miss Sally,' she said, 'I likes it, and I don't like it. I tell you what, Miss Sally, freedom's monstrous industrious.' That is what I think about these times,—'they's monstrous industrious.' Goodness, I have gone and told a story!"
"I shall have to take you home before you transgress again," said her niece, rising.
"Don't go. We haven't decided what we must do," urged Miss Virginia.
"What do you think, Mrs. Millard?" asked Madelaine, with an upward glance, and flattering emphasis.
Mrs. Millard caressed the hand that lay on her lap as she replied, "My own feeling is that we should refuse our patronage—not that they are likely to have anything we'd care to buy—and use our influence against it."
"Well, I for one shan't make any promises; if I need a spool of thread and can save a walk, I shall go over there to get it," Miss Sarah announced positively.
"You might add that your patronage is not likely of itself to save the shop from bankruptcy," put in her nephew.
Everybody seemed to be going. Charlotte tucked her history under her arm and ran upstairs. As she went to the window to draw the curtain a bright light shone from the shop across the street.
"I wonder if you'll be sorry you came here?" said Charlotte to herself.
A SPOOL OF TWIST
The shop windows on the opening day proved most alluring to Miss Virginia. There were two,—one overlooking the square of lawn on the Terrace, the other, Pleasant Street. Between them, placed across the corner, was the door.
The Terrace window was full of plants, while on the Pleasant Street side there was a tempting display of color. Miss Virginia hunted up her distance glasses, which she seldom used, in order the better to view it; but she failed to make out anything in particular. Her ardor might have suggested an archaeologist over a cuneiform inscription, as she tried to decide whether a certain patch of blue and white was a pillow or a table-cover.
Charlotte openly stopped to view the window on her way home from school, and Miss Virginia, observing it, privately questioned her.
"You ought to go over and look in, Aunt Virginia," she said. "There are the prettiest baskets you ever saw."
Miss Virginia adored baskets.
"And there is the dearest sofa pillow."
She had decided on a pillow for Caroline's birthday.
"And, Aunt Virginia, there are the cunningest little collars with cuffs to match," Charlotte continued with mischievous eyes.
Miss Virginia grew impatient. It was out of all reason that such desirable things should be brought almost to her door and yet be beyond her reach.
"It wouldn't be giving them much encouragement just to look in the window," observed Charlotte. "I'll tell you," she cried the next minute, "opera glasses!"
"My dear, look at my neighbors through an opera glass?"
"But they want to be looked at," insisted Charlotte, with unanswerable logic.
Miss Virginia allowed herself to be persuaded, and, securely entrenched behind the lace curtain, she levelled her glass. As is ever the case with one who dallies with temptation, the result was an increased desire to have that pillow in her hands.
Standing absorbed in contemplation, she suddenly, without intending it, turned her gaze upon one of the upper windows; and as she did so the muslin draperies parted and a pair of merry eyes belonging to a pretty face looked straight into hers.
"I beg your pardon," cried Miss Virginia, dropping her glass and sinking into a chair, "I shall be ashamed of this to my dying day," she groaned, while Charlotte went off into fits of laughter.
It was some time before she could be brought to realize she had not been seen. "Not that that makes it much better," she added contritely. "And, Charlotte, don't mention it to your Aunt Caroline. I think my ideas of propriety are as strict as hers, but I do not succeed so well in living up to them. I fear I am, as she says, childish."
"I shall not say anything about it, and I am sure I think you are very nice, Aunt Virginia," answered Charlotte, still laughing.
The suspicion that Charlotte liked her better than she did Caroline was a secret pleasure to Miss Virginia, and she flushed prettily as she said, "Thank you, dear; I am far from what I should be."
Charlotte went to take her music lesson; Mrs. Millard was attending a club meeting; the house was very quiet as Miss Virginia sat down to her embroidery. While she worked, the face so vividly imprinted on her memory in that moment's view continued to rise before her. She began to feel something like sympathy for its owner. She had not supposed it would be such an attractive shop. What possible harm could there be in going over just to look? She might even go in and explain to the proprietor that she had made a mistake in coming into the neighborhood. It would be a kindness. She could use a spool of buttonhole twist as an excuse. She really needed it.
Then she saw the foolishness of all this and tried to think of something else. She worked another scallop, and concluded to go for a walk.
When she stepped out of the gate, she turned her back upon the shop and walked in the opposite direction, but a quarter of an hour later she might have been seen approaching it by way of Pleasant Street.
It was a beautiful October day; there was a suggestion of autumn in the maples, but the air was soft as spring. As she stood before the door her heart beat guiltily; her own home across the way wore an oddly unfamiliar look.
Being a shop one was, of course, expected to open the door and walk in. Miss Virginia did so, and for a bewildered moment felt she had made a mistake, for there was nothing in the room she entered that seemed to bear any relation to a shop.
In the window, where the ferns and palms were, three persons sat, two young women and a small boy in socks. One of the three rose and came to meet her. The identity of the face with the one she had seen through the opera glass so recently, added to her confusion.
"Can I show you something?"
Miss Virginia gazed at the speaker despairingly. "I have forgotten what I came for," she stammered.
It might have been an everyday occurrence to have customers who had forgotten what they wanted, for anything the manner of the young woman showed. She smiled indeed, but sympathetically, saying she often forgot things herself; and, pushing forward a willow chair, added, "Won't you sit down and let me show you some of our things?"
Not seeing her way clear to escape, Miss Virginia accepted the chair. There were other chairs of the same variety, some of them supplied with cushions; around the olive-tinted walls were low cases which might hold books or anything; there was a table with a lamp and magazines upon it, and in the corner fireplace a low fire flickered. The most businesslike piece of furniture was the long table upon which the young woman was laying out a bewitching assortment of collars and cuffs of a daintiness that went to the heart. Miss Virginia forgot her embarrassment in her pleasure at the array of pretty things.
The small boy crossed the room, and depositing a gray flannel donkey on the table leaned upon Miss Virginia's chair. He was a pretty child, and she smiled at him as he lifted his serious brown eyes.
"Jack likes to see what you are doing, but you mustn't sell him by mistake, Miss Norah," he said.
"Is this your little boy?" she asked.
"No, James Mandeville is a neighbor and very good friend of ours. Aren't you, Infinitesimal James?"
He nodded emphatically, and continued to look on with interest while Norah hung soft-tinted fabrics over a convenient rack, and brought out baskets of all colors and shapes.
It was clearly James Mandeville's fault that Miss Wilbur was unable to preserve that distant manner which was the only proper attitude toward this objectionable shop. When he laid his plump hand on hers and looked up at her in silent good fellowship, she felt a thrill of pleasure. Could any one refuse a child's offer of friendship? Not Miss Virginia, certainly. She bent and touched his cheek with her lips. James Mandeville, moved to further demonstration, brought the donkey and laid him on her lap.
"Don't show me anything more," she said, patting the donkey. "Everything is beautiful. I really didn't come expecting to buy, but I must have one of these collars." She laid a bit of embroidery against her sleeve and looked down at it thoughtfully.
The sunlight fell slantingly across the room, gleaming in James Mandeville's short curls and emphasizing all the cosiness and pleasantness of her surroundings. The spirit of friendliness grew strong in Miss Virginia. She felt in no haste to leave.
While Norah searched for something in one of the cases, Miss Wilbur peeped around the chair back at the occupant of the window who was employing herself with knitting. She was not—so Miss Virginia thought—as attractive as her associate, although she could not be called ordinary. Meanwhile James Mandeville investigated her shopping bag with absorbed interest.
The opening of the shop door interrupted her thoughts, and before she had time to push aside the draperies which, disposed upon the rack, intervened between her and the door, she heard a cool, clear voice announce, "I wish a spool of twist—black if you please."
Miss Virginia gazed wildly toward the door at the other end of the room, her first impression being that Caroline had come in search of her. The next moment she realized with surprise and amusement that her sister had come altogether on her own account and had asked for the very same thing she herself had thought of purchasing. Miss Virginia braced herself for the inevitable encounter, and when Miss Norah returned, thanked her for her kindness in showing so many of her wares, and selected one from the collars before her. The while she heard her sister's voice.
"Do you consider this a good locality for a shop?" Mrs. Millard asked. "It seems to me quite otherwise, and I think it the only proper course to tell you that the neighborhood strongly objects to such an intrusion."
Miss Virginia felt her face grow hot.
"Isn't it a little late to tell us this?" The tall young woman who had put down her knitting to serve the newcomer seemed not a whit abashed at Mrs. Millard's manner. If anything, she was the more queenly of the two, and might have been bestowing a favor as she handed back the change.
Norah's sunny face intervened, "We are very sorry if you don't want us," she said, "for we shall have to stay for the present. We think we are quite as nice as a drug store, and perhaps we shall be able to convince you of it before long."
Could Caroline hold out against such winning address? What she might have said or done was never known, for James Mandeville, desiring to see what was going on, and attempting to crawl under the rack with its burden of fabrics, precipitated it upon himself and was lost in the ruins, while Miss Virginia was revealed in all her ignominy, with a flannel donkey in her lap, to the eyes of her relative.
"Virginia! I am astonished!"
Miss Wilbur rose to the occasion. "So am I, Caroline. I, too, came to get a spool of twist." There is good authority for the assertion that one may smile and be a villain, but hitherto such depths of perfidy had been unsuspected in Miss Virginia.
The united efforts of the shopkeepers were required to disentangle James Mandeville and quiet his cries of alarm. In the struggle Miss Wilbur's bag suffered a complete upturn, and her small change was scattered to the four corners of the room.
Mrs. Millard stood apart looking on in disdain at the confusion, when again the shop door opened, this time to admit Miss Sarah Leigh who advanced and addressed her, fumbling in her pocket-book meanwhile and not lifting her eyes. "I want a spool of twist," she said, producing a sample of blue silk. "Why, Caroline Wilbur!" and she stared in amazement.
Norah who had set James Mandeville, still weeping, out of harm's way on the table, met Miss Sarah's bewildered gaze with a frank smile, as if she appreciated the joke.
"Do you call this a shop?" Miss Sarah demanded; adding, "Well, if there isn't Virginia! Are Judge Russell and Mr. Goodman hiding somewhere? Is this a conspiracy?"
"I'll explain later," said Mrs. Millard, with dignity. "Virginia, are you ready?"
As they crossed Pleasant Street together, Miss Sarah was disposed to make merry at Mrs. Millard's expense, but that lady's haughtiness was extreme. There was nothing funny in her actions. She had gone to the shop with a purpose, thinking it only the part of fairness to tell them frankly they were not wanted in the neighborhood.
"That is what I thought of doing," said Miss Virginia. But who can blame her sister for looking incredulous.
"Well, I'm going again," said Miss Sarah, pausing at the gate. "It is an interesting place."
Miss Virginia agreed with her, and yet she was beginning to feel a little doubtful about her own behavior this afternoon. She feared she had not been quite dignified.
"Sarah Leigh was never a person of very strong convictions," her sister remarked, as they waited at the door.
"Why, I don't know, Caroline,—perhaps they are just different."
"Really, I don't understand you, Virginia," was Mrs. Millard's response, nor did she manifest any desire for enlightenment.
Miss Virginia felt that her conduct that afternoon was embraced in her sister's remark, and that it would be quite hopeless to try to explain.
A MATTER OF LOYALTY
Mrs. Millard's irritation was not long in bearing fruit. On the hall table lay a card, and pausing on her way upstairs she examined it through her jewelled lorgnette. Charlotte, halfway down, leaned over the rail and watched her, admiring the sweep of her gown, the perfection of the gloved hand that held the card.
One might object to Aunt Caroline's methods and rebel against her mandates, and yet not be blind to the exquisite perfection of her appearance and belongings. Charlotte had privately borrowed one of Aunt Virginia's skirts, and practised before the cheval glass, but the flowing lines that so much pleased her she found unattainable.
"Miss Lucile Lyle," Mrs. Millard read aloud.
"It is for me, Aunt Caroline," said Charlotte, from above. "I have been walking with Miss Alex and missed her."
"Which is rather fortunate than otherwise; for," Mrs. Millard tapped the card with her glass, "I desire you not to make a friend of this young lady."
Charlotte sat down on the step. "Does that mean I am to be rude to her?"
"Certainly not. There are ways of letting people know you do not care for their society without being rude."
"I don't see how you can do it without being unpleasant," argued Charlotte; "and I like Lucile."
"That last fact has nothing to do with it. It is important at your age to form proper friendships. This I do not consider desirable, and I expect you to be guided by me."
"What am I to do?" Charlotte persisted.
"I see no occasion to do anything."
"She will think it rude if I do not go to see her."
"What she thinks is of little moment. You can say your aunt does not care to have you make visits while you are occupied with your studies."
"But she knows I have been to see the Mays."
"Well, really, Charlotte, I cannot argue the question further. I simply expect to be obeyed in the matter." With this final utterance Mrs. Millard swept past her.
Charlotte had come in from her walk in good spirits. She felt it an honor to be chosen as a companion by a grown young lady, and Miss Alex had been very entertaining as they walked about the park under the beech trees. In these days Charlotte's ideals were in an unstable state. On the one hand, she admired Lucile, longed to be Carlotta and the heroine of romantic adventures. On the other, she recognized a certain distinction in Alexina's severe style, and felt proud of her notice.
This afternoon Alex's influence had been in the ascendant. She had shown a flattering interest in all Charlotte told about her life at Aunt Cora's and the Landors'. She had read some of Cousin Frank's stories and poems and admired them, making Charlotte proud of being even distantly related to him.
"It must be splendid to do things," Alex said. "To feel that you have your own special work to do in the world."
"I should love to write stories or paint pictures," agreed Charlotte.
"Any sort of useful work,—work there was a demand for, and that I could do better, or at least as well as any one else, would satisfy me," said Alex.
Alexina had gone on to give Charlotte a great deal of good advice about making the most of her opportunities. She listened gravely to the story of the borrowed novel Aunt Caroline had taken away; and while she acknowledged it was trying, she pointed out that it was a foolish story, and not worth reading.
When Charlotte went on to describe Lucile, Alex did not seem impressed, only saying, "I wonder who the Lyles are; I never heard of them. Of course they may be nice people, but Lucile Lyle is such a silly name."
"I think it is beautiful," cried Charlotte, wondering what Miss Alex would think of Carlotta Creston.
"No," the young lady said, as if replying to her thought, "I prefer plain names. For instance, if you should turn out to be a brilliant beauty and all that, there is nothing inappropriate in your name, Charlotte Creston. You can glorify it; but if you are only an ordinary person, you are made absurd by a name you cannot live up to."
This was a new view to take of it. Charlotte wavered, and really Lucile's influence was a little on the wane when the encounter with Aunt Caroline gave it new life. At school next day Charlotte came again under her spell.
Lucile was undeniably pretty and almost as grown up in appearance as Miss Alex, though only fifteen. She was intensely romantic, her own personal experiences at this early age would have supplied several novels, and her manner toward Charlotte was caressing and flattering. Charlotte was one of the few who understood her, she said. They were kindred souls.
Lucile wrote verses which seemed to Charlotte quite as good as Cousin Frank's, and she could sing any number of love-songs charmingly. The girls would gather about the piano at recess and beg her to sing. The favorite was one beginning:—
"Teach, oh, teach me not to love thee! Turn those beauteous eyes away,"
and Lucile always bent a soulful gaze upon Charlotte when she sang it. Charlotte wondered if her eyes were beauteous.
"When are you coming to see me Carlotta?" Lucile asked one day.
They were walking home from school, and had paused on the corner where their ways divided.
"I don't know. They don't like me to go out alone," was the answer, given with a flushed face.
"But the cars bring you almost to our door. I shall be terribly hurt."
Charlotte looked gloomy. "I can't come if they won't let me. You don't know. They think I am six years old."
"You don't love me. I see it plainly." With a tragic gesture Lucile drew a ring from her finger and held it out. "Take it back," she said.
In the first ardor of their friendship they had exchanged rings, Charlotte feeling a little mortified at the time that Lucile's was so much handsomer than hers, and she had kept it carefully turned in to avoid comment. But after all it was not giving up the ring she minded. Lucile's apparent distress touched her affectionate heart.
"Don't say that!" she entreated, drawing back. "I do love you, and I will come to see you whether they let me or not." In the glow of her devotion she felt like a heroine in one of Lucile's favorite tales. It was a question of loyalty now. She had promised to be friends before Aunt Caroline issued her commands. So they parted with renewed vows, and Charlotte's assurance that she would come that very afternoon on her way from her music lesson, if she could escape unobserved.
Charlotte had very imperfectly learned the lesson of obedience to higher powers, and it was not difficult to convince herself that she was justified. It did seem a little underhand, this was all that troubled her.
Aunt Virginia, who was going down town in the carriage, offered to take her to her lesson; adding, "You can find your way back, I suppose."
"I should think so, after so many times," Charlotte answered, feeling guilty.
Aunt Virginia was particularly agreeable and funny that afternoon. Charlotte was really becoming very fond of her. She was a merry companion; she liked foolish things, such as soda-water and candy, and was even willing to stop and watch a circus parade.
"If it is cool when you leave, be sure to put your jacket on," was her parting injunction.
"And if it rains, I'll put up my umbrella," Charlotte called after her, saucily. At the same time she felt ashamed of what she had planned to do. If it had not been for the memory of Lucile's reproaches, she would have given it up.
It must have been the thought of Aunt Virginia that kept the call from being the pleasure she had expected. Lucile was very glad to see her, and took her over the large, showy house, which seemed exactly suited to the large blond woman with a complexion of pinkish lavender, whom she introduced as her mother. Mrs. Lyle wore a costume of black and white, in broad stripes, and a wonderful, black plumed hat, which brought to mind Aunt Cora's poster room.
She was most gracious, complimenting Charlotte's eyes, and asking if she did not find the Terrace dreadfully far down town. She also asked about the Russells; said Alexina was odd and Madelaine a beauty, and that it was a great pity the judge had not known how to keep his money,—all of which seemed strange to Charlotte, when she remembered Alex's question, "Who are the Lyles?"
Lucile seemed proud of the house and told the cost of a good many things. She wanted to know why Charlotte's aunts did not sell their house in the Terrace and build out on the Avenue.
"I don't believe they want to," Charlotte answered; "and I think the Terrace is very nice," she added, feeling Lucile was rather too complacent.
"Why, they are beginning to put up stores there!" Lucile exclaimed.
Charlotte had herself freely criticised the Terrace, but this did not keep her from resenting Lucile's remarks, and she carried away with her a consciousness of the friction. As she walked home, she felt a vague dissatisfaction with life in general, and heartily wished she had not gone. She could not help seeing, just a little, why Aunt Caroline did not care for the Lyles.
Charlotte had a strong impulse to confess, and say she was sorry for what she had done; but the right moment did not come. Aunt Caroline was out that evening and Aunt Virginia in one of her shy, elusive moods. She got as far as "Aunt Virginia, I want to tell you,—I did something dreadful to-day—" when a visitor was announced. Her aunt looked relieved.
"Never mind, my dear; if you are sorry, I have no doubt it will be all right," she said, rising hastily. "Go to bed early."
How could you tell people things if they did not want to listen? At any rate she would not go to the Lyles' again, and she gave herself to her studies with a new earnestness born of repentance.
IN THE SHOP
The opposition of the neighborhood resulted in advertising the shop to some extent. Whoever saw the odd little place was certain to tell some one else; and this person and that, dropping in out of curiosity to look, remained to buy, if only a trifle.
The wares were novel and attractive, the prices reasonable, and the shopkeepers themselves afforded food for speculation. Like their wares, they were unusual,—considered as shopkeepers, that is. To all appearances ladies, their manner of speech betrayed they were not Southern; yet they did not single out the letter r as worthy of peculiar emphasis,—a thing the Terrace could not tolerate.
To those who often passed the shop, James Mandeville became a familiar figure; for from the first he elected to bestow upon its proprietors his unqualified friendship, and a day rarely went by without a visit from him. He quickly learned to adapt himself to the rule that he must not finger things, nor interrupt when customers were present. He usually brought some plaything with him,—most frequently the flannel donkey,—and amused himself quite happily, with an occasional appeal to the sympathy of his companions.
His new friends began to look forward each day to his coming and to the invariable piece of news with which he entered.
"Miss Norah, what do you think?" he exclaimed one morning. "The moon's awake and it's daytime!" and drawing her to the door he pointed out the misty phantom in the southwestern sky, with the air of a discoverer.
On another occasion, "Miss Norah, I can't stay very long to-day, 'cause my geranium is going to bloom."
It developed that James Mandeville's mother was ill in a sanitarium, his father absorbed in business, and his only guardian an old colored woman, known as Mammy Belle. Mammy Belle was of the type fast disappearing. She wore head handkerchiefs of bright colors, and her purple calicoes were stiff with starch and spotlessly neat. She possessed the peculiar dignity that accompanied a faithful, unquestioning acceptance of her station in life.
Mammy had sole charge of the Norton household, and no doubt it was a relief to her to know that her charge had found so safe an asylum; but on the occasion of her first visit the shopkeepers felt they were being weighed in the balance. Her manner was apologetic and reserved, as she stood, her hands folded on her white apron.
"'Tain't possible to keep dat chile at home," she explained. "Yes'm. I takes keer of him. Miss Maimie, she's in a hospital, an' dey ain't nobody to raise James Mandeville but his old mammy."
"I ain't comin', mammy," declared her charge, positively.
"Yes, you is comin', honey; don' you talk to mammy dat way. 'Tisn't pretty. Looks like it's mighty hard to raise you polite, James Mandeville."
Norah delighted to talk with her, and gathered from her conversation that her greatest pleasure, next to a funeral, was to take James Mandeville to white folks' church on Sunday afternoon, "to see dem chillen march and sing." To her enthusiasm was due the aspiration of her charge to be a choir boy, and he was often heard singing lustily versions of "Onward, Christian Soldiers," and "O Paradise," which were all his own.
"Dey's ladies, store or no store," Belle was overheard remarking to Susanna. "I knows quality; you can't fool Belle, no'm."
* * * * *
"I never in my life felt so rich," Marion said, rattling the money drawer.
It was Saturday evening at the end of their first week. All was in order in the shop, the long table pushed back, the small one with the lamp brought forward, the shades drawn, the door barred, and Norah now rested comfortably in one of the roomy chairs with a gay pillow behind her head.
"We have done very well, I think," she agreed.
"I perceive this is one subject upon which my enthusiasm is greater than yours. It must be because you have made money before." Marion still hung over the money drawer.
"I don't consider that we have made anything yet; but the difference between us is that I expected all along to do very well, while you were a doubting Thomas."
"As I always am." With surprising ease for one so tall, Marion slipped down on the rug at her friend's feet.
Norah caressed the dark head against her knee. "But you are improving, dearest," she said, "and I'm glad, indeed, if this first week has encouraged you." She laughed a little as she added, "I believe I am just a bit more anxious to prove to our friend Miss Carpenter that in lending us the capital for our venture she has not done a reckless and unwise thing."
"I know what you are going to say. She is not worrying about the money and could well afford to take the risk, but with you and me it is a matter of principle. We must succeed and justify her confidence. So we won't count our chickens too soon, but lay low, like Brer Rabbit, and say nothin'."
"At any rate I know what it is to have worked all the week, and to be tired and glad of Sunday. Norah, it is nonsense expecting people really to care for Sunday when they don't work."
"I hope you haven't tired yourself too much;" Norah bent forward till she could see the face on her knee. Her manner was oddly motherly; she seemed so much the younger and smaller of the two.
"Oh, no; and sometimes I have almost forgotten—"
"Go on forgetting, dear. I know you need not fear, if you will only think so."
"If I were only sure," Marion sighed. "And sometimes I am," she added.
"At least I am charmed with the neighborhood," Norah went on, "If the haughty lady across the street continues her opposition, our success is assured. Her name, I have discovered, is Millard, and that dear Miss Virginia is her sister, of course; and there is a bright-looking little girl who goes in and out, and seems to belong to them.
"And I forgot to tell you my adventure this morning. When I got off the car at Walnut Street, coming home, there was an old gentleman with some books just behind me. He had an armful, and as he stepped to the ground they slipped and fell in the dust. He was evidently lame and stiff with rheumatism, so I picked them up for him. He was a beautiful old man, with a most courtly manner; and he seemed to think as I had helped him, I was entitled to know about the books. We walked along together, and he explained they were some he had found at a second-hand store. One of them was a first edition of the 'Essays of Elia' which he thought a tremendous bargain; and it was, I'm sure.
"We fell to discussing books, and he seemed delighted to find I was not absolutely ignorant and ended by inviting me in to see his library. He lives in the house that needs paint so badly,—where you have noticed that beautiful Ginkgo tree."
"Did you accept his invitation?"
"No, I told him I had not time just then. He asked if I lived near; and, Marion, you should have seen his puzzled look when I said, 'On the corner of Pleasant Street.' 'You are visiting?—the Wilburs, perhaps.' he said. 'No,' I answered, 'I am one of the proprietors of the shop.' He was terribly shocked and disappointed, I could see. I had really made an impression. He grew a little distant, but was still charming, thanking me again for my kindness; however, he said no more about the library."
"It is funny—" began Marion, but she did not finish her sentence, and they sat in silence for a while. Presently Marion took possession of the hand that was touching her hair so lightly, and laid her cheek against it. Not many people, she thought, had such a friend. One who had been everything in a time of need, who had given her new hope and courage in an hour of darkness. She felt herself unworthy, because she did not believe she could ever be such a help to any one.
"Do you remember, when you were a child, Norah, how sometimes when you had found some delightful game that stirred your imagination, you would go to sleep at night with the most blissful sense of waking up to go on with it in the morning? I have had much the same feeling lately."
"Then I am satisfied about you. 'As little children' is the key to the best things of life, I firmly believe. Let's read a bit of 'The Golden Age' before we go to bed," said Norah.
Alexina Russell longed to be of use in the world. It fretted her to live as they did, pensioners on her grandfather, whose fortune had sadly dwindled of late years. Her mother's income was barely sufficient to clothe the three of them, and Alex felt she ought to be earning her own living. That her grandfather made them more than welcome, and besides had an old-fashioned horror of a woman going out into the world as a worker, did not alter her conviction.
She did not feel competent to teach. Delicate as a child, she had gone to school intermittently, and the best of her somewhat scrappy education had been gained in her grandfather's library; but she found it difficult to combat the prejudice of the whole family against any other method of supporting herself. Alex loved the old house,—the outside of which time and coal-dust had turned a uniform dingy gray,—and sometimes wondered how she could ever stand it to live anywhere else. There is a point where dinginess becomes picturesque; and the vines, undisturbed by repairs, were doing their best to hide all deficiencies. The grounds were ample for a city; and the tall Ginkgo tree which reached out its fern-like branches protectingly toward the timeworn mansion was only one of many other fine trees and shrubs. Inside, the lofty rooms and handsome furnishings of many years ago, some fine old portraits, and many valuable books and prints gave it a distinction not to be achieved by many modern houses.
Pretty Mrs. Russell, almost as dainty and girlish as her youngest daughter, shed tears over Alex's oddity; and Alex, who sincerely loved and admired her mother, felt her burden all the greater because she was a disappointment. She had submitted for one winter to be taken to receptions and teas, and to have a dinner given in her honor, in the newspaper accounts of which the rare old Russell silver figured effectively, and on the whole she had enjoyed it. But a season of it was enough; her practical mind rebelled against the expense and uselessness of such a life. She adopted the plainest style of dress, declined invitations, and privately studied shorthand.
In the bottom of her heart Madelaine thought it just as well. Plain things became Alex, and it was nobody's fault but her own if she preferred the background. And Alex was not in the least jealous of her sister's popularity. She had something of the responsible feelings of a father or brother toward her mother and Madelaine.
Alex's refuge was the library and the companionship of her grandfather, who often told her she took life too seriously.
"You are young yet. Be happy, and things will work out of themselves."
But Alexina did not share his gentle optimism. It seemed to her at once the charm and weakness of her grandfather's character. She was impatient; she wanted to know what was the right path for her to take, not to waste years in finding it.
Mrs. Russell sometimes laughingly declared that Alex's most intimate friends were Miss Virginia Wilbur and Miss Sarah Leigh, and it was true she often sought their society. Miss Wilbur had made pets of the Russell children from their babyhood, and they were both fond of her. There were times when Alex found her placid absorption in everyday matters rather soothing, at others Miss Sarah suited her mood better.
Miss Sarah had all manner of troubles and worries, but she did not box them up and label them "Personal"; instead, she offered them to her friends dressed up in whimsical fashion for their entertainment, until it was difficult to consider them seriously. Old Mrs. Leigh was heard to say she did not know what Sarah would find to laugh about if she ever became prosperous.
Alexina found shorthand depressing, and after spending an hour or more over it one afternoon she gave it up in despair and went over to see Miss Sarah. As she entered the sitting room Mrs. Millard stood talking to Mrs. Leigh.
"I suppose the next thing we'll be going to the Poor House," the old lady was remarking cheerfully, for she was not far behind her niece in the ability to extract pleasure from adversity. "Sarah says the Cement Company has passed their dividend again. I know that means we don't get any money."
"Dear me!" exclaimed Mrs. Millard; "why, Sarah, what are you living on?"
The person addressed looked up from her sewing with a grim smile. "I don't know—Caroline. We—are just living—on."
"I don't see how you can smile," said Mrs. Millard, with reproachful emphasis. She was never guilty of making light of affliction.
"Well, there are funny things about being poor, Caroline; but I suppose it takes a poor person to appreciate them." Then observing Alex in the door, Miss Sarah added, "Come in and cheer us up, Alex."
"I am ashamed to say I came to be cheered," Alex said, after Mrs. Millard had rustled away.
"Well, misery loves company, so just come to the kitchen with me while I stir up a spice cake for Wayland, and we'll swap woes and have a good time. I let Anne go to see her sister this afternoon."
When the materials had been collected and Alex assigned her share of the task, Miss Sarah continued: "I have two things to tell you. First, I have made up my mind to take boarders. I was trembling in my shoes all the while Caroline was here, for fear Aunt Sally would tell her. She will think it a disgrace to the neighborhood; I'll be ranked with the shop, but I must do something. We can't sell the house, and it would break Aunt Sally's heart if we could, for it is all she has."
"I don't think it will hurt the neighborhood, and I hope you will succeed. I'm sure I should love to board with you."
"Would you really, Alex? Doesn't the house strike you as very forlorn? I'll tell you what I am going to do," and Miss Sarah launched forth into an account of how she meant to cut the hall carpet in two and turn it around so the worn part would come under the stairs. "But dear me!" she interrupted herself to say, "how absurd to bother you with all this. It is your turn to say something."
"I like to hear it. I am interested, and my worries are the same old ones. I do want to learn how to do something to support myself, and stenography is so—abominably dull. I am angry with myself for finding it so." Alex rested her chin in her hand, and looked at Miss Sarah disconsolately across the table.
"I do not believe you were meant for that sort of thing," Miss Sarah said stoutly. "Of course I can't tell you what you were made for; but I know what I'd like to do, and that is, keep a shop such as the one on the corner."
"What would Mrs. Millard say to that?" Alex asked, laughing.
"She can't say much since she was caught there herself. You needn't tell me curiosity had not something to do with it. But I am forgetting the other thing I had to tell you. I have made trouble in the Wilbur household."
"What do you mean? How?"
"I was never more provoked with myself. The other day I happened to be out on Dean Avenue, and whom should I see going into the Lyles' but Charlotte Creston. You know that big, showy house near the park. What possessed me to mention it, I don't know, but I did, one evening when Caroline and Virginia were here. I knew in a minute something was wrong. I have an idea Charlotte went without permission."
"Who are the Lyles?" asked Alex.
"Mrs. Lyle was at the glove counter at Mason's years ago; she was then Maggie McKay, and a vain, pretentious thing. She married a plumber with a romantic name, and her rise has been rapid. Now, if you and I could only be plumbers!"
"I remember Charlotte mentioned a Lucile Lyle, and seemed rather fascinated, but I did not think she would be so silly as to go there against her aunt's wishes. I am afraid she is headstrong."
"She is the sort of a child to be goaded to distraction by Caroline. I wish I had held my tongue. I can see Virginia is dreadfully upset about something."
"I think I'll go over and talk to Charlotte," Alex said, as Miss Sarah shut the oven door on the spice cake. Alexina had had dreams of influencing Charlotte, and she felt a little annoyed that what she had said on the subject of this foolish friendship had made such a slight impression.
"Now don't you go and make matters worse, Alex," cautioned Miss Sarah. "I have no doubt Caroline has harped on the matter till the child is desperate. I feel terribly guilty."
"I am disappointed in her, and I mean to tell her so," Alex replied firmly.
THE LAST STRAW
Charlotte was closing the piano after an hour's practice when Alexina walked in. A week had passed since the discovery of her disobedience,—a week of increasing unhappiness. The blow had fallen unexpectedly. One day at dinner she had been conscious of something amiss. A remark of her own met with no response; Aunt Caroline looked haughty, Aunt Virginia despondent. Charlotte had not, however, guessed the cause until she was summoned into the library and the question put to her by Mrs. Millard, "Did you go to the Lyles' in defiance of my express wishes, Charlotte?"
"Yes or no, if you please."
"Yes," Charlotte answered, "but—"
"I want no explanations. There can be none."
"But, Aunt Caroline, you don't understand—"
"You are the one who seems not to understand," again Mrs. Millard interrupted. "You have deliberately disobeyed. I see you are not to be trusted. Hereafter, whenever you go out, you shall be provided with an attendant. The carriage will take you to and from school, your Aunt Virginia or I will accompany you to your music lesson when possible; at other times Martha will go."
"Aunt Caroline, you might let me speak. I tried to tell Aunt Virginia—I had promised Lucile—I had to go; but I am dreadfully sorry, and—"
"Charlotte, I will not have any words on the subject. You have deliberately disobeyed. Nothing you can say alters that." Mrs. Millard swept from the room, almost running down Miss Virginia, who hovered about the door.
"She did try to tell, Caroline," Charlotte heard her say.
"Nonsense, what difference can that make?" was the reply.
Not to be allowed one word in self-defence was hard. Charlotte locked herself in her room and shed bitter tears of anger and mortification. That she was sorry and had tried to confess seemed to her to be very much to her credit, and Aunt Caroline was unreasonable as well as cruel. She refused to go down to supper, saying her head ached; and it would have been in harmony with her state of mind if she had been compelled to go without any, but it was sent up to her without comment.
The worst was to come, however. To a high-spirited girl, used to the greatest freedom, the constant surveillance was unbearable. She was not locked up, but in all other respects she felt herself a captive.
She was certain Aunt Virginia was sorry for her,—in an aloof and timid fashion she showed her friendliness; but Charlotte longed for some one to whom she could pour out all her unhappiness; and for this Aunt Virginia allowed her no opportunity.
How long was it to last? Aunt Caroline gave no word. As the days passed, Charlotte began to wear a sullen, dogged look. The sight of Alexina brought a thrill of hope. Surely, Miss Alex would listen to her, and be sorry.
"Charlotte, what is this I hear about you?" Alexina demanded, seating herself on the piano-stool.
"Oh, Miss Alex, I am so unhappy." Charlotte, who was kneeling to put away some music in the cabinet, sank in a forlorn little heap at her feet. "She won't let me go anywhere by myself,—not even to school; and she wouldn't listen when I said I was sorry." Charlotte's tone was guarded, but none the less appealing.
But Alex hardened her heart. "I suppose it is because you were disobedient. I must say I am disappointed in you, for it seems to me you were deceitful as well as disobedient."
Charlotte sat up. Her last hope of a confidante was gone. "You have no right to say that. I had to go: I had promised. I was willing to be punished, but she has no right to treat me like a baby. I wish I had never come."
"Probably your aunts wish so too," Alex observed coolly. "You are not reasonable, Charlotte. You have acted like a silly child and made yourself talked about, and you are just worrying Miss Virginia to death. But don't look at me in that way. I am sorry for you, and if you will be patient and accept your punishment, it will come out all right." Alex laid her hand on Charlotte's shoulder, but the girl twitched it away. Rising, she stood stony and silent. Alex's condemnation was the last straw.
As she went drearily up the stairway, Charlotte's thoughts turned with a great longing to her guardian and the quiet house in Philadelphia. He did perhaps care a little for her. He had sent her here because he thought it best, but it had turned out a terrible mistake. She would write to-night and tell him so. Tell him how impossible it was to endure it any longer, and implore him to send her to boarding-school.
But would he understand? It was so difficult to write things. If only she could be with him and Cousin Francis for half an hour and tell them her story, she was sure she could make them see the matter as she did. And now a daring thought entered her mind. Why not go to them? Naturally self-reliant, the thought of the long journey by herself did not terrify her. In the little silver purse (Aunt Cora's parting gift) were two gold pieces,—more than enough to buy a ticket to Philadelphia.
Charlotte's misery grew less at the picture her imagination drew of her aunts' consternation when her flight should be discovered. Probably there would be more talk; but little would she care, safe with Uncle Landor.
Carried away by the excitement of the idea, she found a daily paper and sat down in the dainty room prepared for her with so much loving care by Aunt Virginia not three months ago, to study the time-table and lay her plans.
There was a through train at half-past eight at night which would exactly suit. She could steal away after supper. It was the evening for Aunt Caroline's Antiquarian Society, and Aunt Virginia could be easily eluded.
In stories people who ran away usually left notes. Charlotte considered this, and decided she would write one to Aunt Virginia. It took a long while and a great deal of note-paper was wasted before it was done, and her enthusiasm had cooled a little as she folded it.
She carried a flushed face and an abstracted manner to the supper table, but her aunts were evidently too much interested in some matter they were discussing to notice her. If she had been less absorbed, her curiosity would have been aroused by the guarded manner in which they talked.
"It is a case where duty seems to call one in opposite directions," said Mrs. Millard, studying the handle of her spoon with an air of profound seriousness that provoked one of those occasionally profane suggestions from her sister.
"You'll have to toss up a penny," remarked Miss Virginia.
The thought of Aunt Caroline tossing a penny caused Charlotte a moment's diversion, and a faint smile curled about her lips as Aunt Virginia promptly took it all back.
"I realize, of course, Caroline, that it is hard to decide; but, really, I think you can't refuse Georgiana."
"I shall take the matter under careful consideration till to-morrow," replied Mrs. Millard.
Before they left the table Miss Sarah Leigh looked in to ask Virginia about a Mount Mellick stitch. Thus fortune seemed to favor Charlotte's plans.
"Are you going to study, dear?" Aunt Virginia asked.
Charlotte flushed at the kind tone, "I am going upstairs, Aunt Virginia," she answered. "I am tired."
If Aunt Virginia's kindness weakened her resolve to run away, an encounter with Aunt Caroline in the upper hall made it strong again.
While the servants were at supper and Miss Virginia occupied with the embroidery lesson, and just as Mrs. Millard left the house by the front door, a slight figure in a long gray coat with a blue veil over her face slipped down the back stairs, bag in hand, and out of the side door.