[Frontispiece: "He had a sudden flashing sense of being in a net that was softly tightening."]
STRANGE CASES OF
JOSEPHINE DASKAM BACON
"THE INHERITANCE," "THE MEMOIRS OF A BABY,"
"THE MADNESS OF PHILIP," ETC.
NEW YORK AND LONDON
D. APPLETON AND COMPANY
COPYRIGHT, 1913, BY
JOSEPHINE DASKAM BACON
Copyright, 1908, by Charles Scribner's Sons. Copyright, 1909, 1910, by Harper and Brothers. Copyright, 1911, 1913, by the Crowell Publishing Company. Copyright, 1911, by the Curtis Publishing Company.
Printed in the United States of America
M. A. T.
WHO WATCHED MANY OF
THESE STORIES IN THE MAKING
J. D. B.
THE KEY THE CHILDREN THE CRYSTAL THE GOSPEL THE GYPSY THE WARNING THE LEGACY THE MIRACLE THE UNBURIED THE ORACLES
The young doctor stamped vehemently up the marble steps, to warm his feet, and once in the warm, flower-scented halls, let a little shiver escape him. The butler was new—he was always new, the doctor thought—and actually didn't know him.
"Mrs. Allen is at bridge, sir, with a party: she asks to be excused," he began mechanically.
("That's good!" Stanchon felt tempted to say, "and I hope the girls are out, too!") As if in answer to this indiscretion, the new butler droned on:
"Miss Alida is at her riding-lesson and Miss Suzanne is—is engaged——"
("Now, what particular infernal idiocy is Suzanne at, I wonder?" Stanchon pondered, still smiling lightly at the butler and warming himself at every breath.)
"Mr. Edmund is—I think he could be found, sir," the voice went on.
("I don't doubt it," Stanchon agreed mentally, "at the side board, no doubt; a nice time of day for a lad of twenty to be hanging about the house!")
But all he said was:
"I am the doctor. I called to see Miss Mary."
"Oh!" Even this new butler assumed a look of burdened intelligence; he leaned toward the visitor, "Oh, yes, sir—Miss Mary. I understood that it wouldn't be possible for Miss Mary to see anybody, sir, but I suppose, the doctor——"
"Certainly," said Stanchon curtly. "Please send word to her nurse that I am here."
"Yes, sir," but the man hesitated, even as he took the hat held out to him, "yes, sir, but—but ... it isn't Dr. Jarvyse, is it, sir?"
A slow, dark red spread over Stanchon's forehead.
("So they've sent for Jarvyse—well, I might have known. Nice, tactful crowd, aren't they!")
He scowled slightly and set his jaw.
"No, I'm Dr. Stanchon," he said. "Dr. Jarvyse is coming later, I suppose. Kindly let Miss Jessop know that I am here, will you? I haven't much time."
The man sped swiftly down the hall, after depositing his hatless charge in a blue satin reception-room, and Stanchon stared, unseeing, at the old Chinese panels and ivory figures that dotted its walls and tables. The strong odour of freesias and paper-narcissus hung heavy in the room; the roar of the great, dirty, cold city was utterly shut away and a scented silence, costly and blue and drowsy, held everything.
Presently the nurse stood before him, smiling, and he saw that her usual modish house dress was changed for the regulation white duck and peaked cap of her profession.
"What's all this?" he asked, and she shrugged her broad shoulders.
"She told me to put it on to-day. 'You're really a nurse, you know, Miss Jessop,' she said, 'and if I require one, it might as well be known.' Of course, I had it here, so I got it right out. Poor Miss Mary!"
"I see they've sent for Jarvyse?"
She nodded uncomfortably.
"Then it's all over but the shouting, I suppose?" Again she shrugged. The fatalism of her training spoke in that shrug, and the necessity for taking everything as it comes—since everything is bound to come!
"H'm..." he meditated deeply, and all the youth went out of his face, suddenly: he might have been forty-five or fifty. At such times the nurses and the other doctors always watched him eagerly; it was supposed that it was then that those uncanny intuitions came to him, that almost clairvoyant penetration of the diseased minds that were his chosen study.
"How is she?" he asked abruptly.
"Oh, very much the same, doctor. I can't see much difference."
"But you see a little?"
She moved uncomfortably.
"I don't say that ... it's nothing she says or does—but—sometimes I think she's a little more—a little less..."
"A little less normal?"
She rested, relieved.
"Yes, just that."
Across the broad halls came a wave of sudden sound: movement of drapery, faint clashes of metallic substances and glass, broken feminine cries and light, breathy laughter. A difference in the air became noticeable, new perfumes floated in to the little blue room, perfumes and the odour of expensive, warm fur.
—"You don't mean to say that you discard from a strong suit—always?"
"My dear, I had nothing but that queen—nothing!"
—"And that's why, as Elwell says...."
—"And so he absolutely refuses to play with women!"
Evidently a door had been opened, somewhere. The next moment brought a new whiff of cold, fresh air and the sound of a motor, then silence again, sudden and profound, from the street-side. A deep, almost dramatic voice silenced the confused babble.
"My dear, I'm frightfully sorry, but I simply could not manage to get here before! Why weren't any of you at the lecture? Moyen Age house-furniture and decoration—terribly interesting. It's a shame to miss a thing like that. Is my table all made up? Never mind, I can cut in any time. Yes, Mrs. Allen, I know, but really, you ought not to neglect the intellectual side, entirely, you know!"
The door closed instantly, and again they stood alone in the heavy silence. It was as if a curtain had been lifted swiftly on some bustling, high-lighted scene and dropped as swiftly. Only a strong, heady scent floated in on them, troubling, suggestive, complicated.
"What is that?" Stanchon asked, sniffing.
"Oh, one of those new Russian perfumes," the nurse said. "I hate them."
"Russian?" he looked puzzled.
"Don't you know it's a Russian season?" she instructed him. "Dancers and music and hats—those high fur ones—and perfumes? And all that Byzantine embroidery? You must have noticed!"
"Oh!" He considered thoughtfully. "I had noticed the perfumes. But I didn't know why it was.... Well, am I to see Miss Mary?"
"I don't know why not, doctor," she said. "She always likes to see you. And I suppose you'll consult with Dr. Jarvyse, won't you?"
"I suppose so," he agreed, "though, of course, nobody's asked me. Is she going out, this weather?"
"No: I wish she would. She says it tires her too much. It's a pity she hates the South so."
They walked to the tiny tapestried lift, beyond the curve of the great stairs, and she pressed the ivory button that sent them up. At the fourth floor the car settled lightly and they stepped out.
"She's not speaking much," the nurse warned him, "but of course she may, for you. Very gloomy, for two days, she's been."
She knocked lightly at a door and entered without waiting. The room was very light, with bowls of cut flowers everywhere and a pair of green love-birds billing eternally on a brass standard: they chirped softly now and then. A miniature grand piano filled one corner, and the light fell richly on the tooled leather of low book-cases, and slipped into reflected pools of violet, green and blood-red on the polished floor. A great tiger skin stretched in front of a massive, claw-legged davenport, and in the corner of it, away from the cheerful, crackling fire, a black-haired woman sat, tense and silent, her eyes fixed in a brooding stare. She was all in delicate, cunningly mingled tints of mauve, violet and lavender; near her neck tiny diamond points winked; magnificent emeralds edged with diamonds lay like green stains on her long white hands. In her dark immobility, among the rich, clear objects scattered so artfully about the sun-lighted chamber, she had a marvellous effect of being the chief figure in some modern French artist's impressionistic "interior." She gave a distinct sense of having been bathed and dried, scented and curled, dressed—and abandoned there, between the love-birds and the polished piano: a large gold frame about the room would have supplied the one note lacking.
"Well, Miss Mary, and how goes it?" Dr. Stanchon said, sitting beside her and taking her hand easily, since she failed to notice his own outstretched.
She lifted her eyes slightly to his, moved her lips, then sighed a little and dropped her lids. She might have been a young-looking woman of forty, or a girl of twenty-five who had been long ill or distressed.
"Come, now, Miss Mary, I hear you've given me up—wasn't I high priced enough for you? Because I can always accommodate, you know, in that direction," Stanchon went on persuasively.
Again she raised her eyes, swallowed, appeared to overcome an almost unconquerable lethargy of spirit, and spoke.
"It's no use, doctor, all that. I've given up. It's all one to me, now. Don't bother about me."
Stanchon looked genuinely concerned. He had worked hard over this case, and it cut his pride to have the great specialist, with his monotonous inflexible system, summoned against his express wish. That meant they were all tired, disgusted, sick of the whole business. They were determined to be rid of her.
"I wish you wouldn't look at it that way, Miss Mary," he said gently. "I don't believe you need give up—if you'll only make an effort. But it's fatal to give 'way: I've always told you that."
"Yes. You always told me that. You were always open and fair," she said wearily, "but now you see it is fatal, for I have given 'way. Please go," she added nervously. "I feel more like crying. Ask him to go, Miss Jessop..."
Her voice grew peevish and uncontrolled, and he bowed slightly and left her. It was too bad, but there was nothing to do. Once or twice in his brilliant career he had felt that same heavy hopelessness, realized, to his disgust, that the patient's dull misery was creeping over him, too, and that he had no power to help.
"Oh, well, you can't win out all the time," he said to himself philosophically, "and it isn't as if she wouldn't have every comfort. Old Jarvyse looks after them well: I'll say that for him."
The new butler met him as the lift reached the drawing-room floor.
"Mr. Edmund would like to see you a moment, sir," he murmured. "He's—he's in the dining-room, doctor."
Stanchon turned abruptly and plunged into the great, dim leather-hung apartment. He always felt as if he were entering into some vast cave under the sea, when he crossed the threshold of this room, and the peculiar odour of the leather always caught at his breath and choked him for a moment. Edmund looked sulkier and more futile than usual, even, and the cigarette that dropped from his trimmed and polished hand had a positively insolent angle.
"Oh! How do!" he said discontentedly. "Been upstairs, I hear?"
"Yes," Stanchon answered briefly.
"Well, ... how about it?"
"I'm sorry to say your aunt is a little worse to-day; it may be, probably is, nothing but a passing phase——"
"Ah, go on!" Edmund burst out. "Phase, nothing! She's as dippy as they make 'em, Stanchon, and I'm through with it!"
The older man looked his disgust, but Edmund scowled and went on.
"After day before yesterday afternoon, I told Suzanne I'd come to the end of my rope, and I meant it. I suppose you heard about it?"
"Oh, Miss Jessop knows. Upsetting a whole luncheon, and one the girls had worked over, too, I can tell you! Why, they had three reporters on their knees to hear about that luncheon!"
"Really?" Stanchon inquired politely.
"Yes. But Alida wouldn't let mother say a word. And that was all right, too. And then what does Aunt Mary do but say she's coming? And mother weakened and said we'd have to let her, because either she is all right or she isn't, and according to you, we're not to admit she isn't—yet. So she comes, and what does she do but insult two of the biggest swells there, right to their face! And when Suzanne tried to carry it off, she just turns stubborn and never opens her mouth again. Queered the whole thing. Broke the women all up. Suzanne says, never again! And I'm with her. I had Jarvyse called in and he's going to make his final decision today. Of course, if he wants to consult, we'll be glad——"
"Dr. Jarvyse and I will settle all that, thanks," Stanchon interrupted coldly. "I regret that your sisters should have been annoyed, but as I explained to your mother, inconveniences of this sort would be bound to occur, and the only question was——"
"The only question is," Edmund blustered, "are we to be queered in New York for good by a woman who ought to have been shut up long ago! It's up to me, now, as the man of the house, and I say, no."
He dabbed his cigarette viciously into a wet ring on the silver tray beside him and filled a tiny glass from a decanter; his hand shook.
Stanchon's mounting wrath subsided. The boy became pathetic to him; behind his dapper morning clothes, his intricate studs and fobs and rings, his reedy self-confidence, the physician saw the faint, grisly shadow of a sickly middle-age, a warped and wasted maturity.
"I'm sorry for you all," he said kindly. "Don't think I don't appreciate the strain ... your mother has tried her best, I'm sure. And—and go slow on those cigarettes, Allen, why don't you? They won't help that cough, you know. And you told me you'd cut out the Scotch."
"Oh, that's all right," Edmund assured him. "I was seasoned in the cradle, doc! Remember the old man's cigars?"
Stanchon put on his gloves.
"Your father was a very strong man," he said quietly, "and a hard worker. And I've already reminded you that he didn't inhale. And for more years than you've lived, Allen, he worked out of doors. I don't want to nag at you, but just give it a thought now and then. And let me know if I can do anything for you, ever. My regards to your sisters."
As he paused at the curb, a short man in heavy motoring furs stumbled out of a luxurious landaulet and would have gone down on the treacherous pavement without Stanchon's quick arm.
"All right, doctor, all right," he smiled, as he braced himself for the little man's weight. "Glad I was here. I've just left Mary—she's getting a little unmanageable, I hear."
"Yes, yes," the little man panted, "she'll do better out of the family. Yes, yes. They often do, you know. Position's perfectly anomalous here, you know—constant friction."
"I see," said Stanchon. "Let me walk up to the door with you—I've practiced on the steps, once today. You make it ..."
"Oh, clear paranoia," Jarvyse finished the sentence promptly. "They go right along, you know. Perfectly typical. Good days—yes. Of course. Everybody encouraged. Come to a ladies' luncheon—fat in the fire directly. No keeping servants, you know. All that sort of thing. Ever show you my card-catalogue of women between thirty-eight and thirty-nine? No? Ask me some day."
The younger man pressed the electric button and turned the bronze knob of the outer door, wrought and decorated like some great public tomb.
"Thanks, I'd be interested," he said.
"You knew the brother, didn't you?" Jarvyse went on, breathing easier in the warmth of the vestibule. "Nothing out of the way there?"
"Absolutely not. He had the constitution of a bull. But I fear he's not handed it on to his son."
"Ugh, no! Nasty little cub. Those families don't last. Daughters always stronger. I give him fifteen ... eighteen years," the alienist said placidly.
The inner door opened and Stanchon turned to go.
"Come up and see the patient," Jarvyse suggested, over his shoulder, one glove already off. "Pleased to have you, and so would she, of course. You'll find her much happier."
* * * * *
But Miss Mary was not happier. Freed of the contemptuous brusquerie of Edmund, the thinly-veiled dislike of the girls, the conscience-stricken attempts of her sister-in-law, she had felt for a time the relief of a strain abandoned, the comfort of a definite position. They had come to see her, too, and their timid overtures of interest, their obvious surprise at the ease with which this great change had been effected, their frank amazement at the luxury and silken routine in which they found her, had almost established relations long since fallen out of use. But the novelty had faded, the visits grew fewer and shorter, the very telephone messages languished; and as she sat brooding alone, in the few unoccupied half-hours that the omniscient System left her, a slow, sure conviction dropped like an acid on the clouded surface of her mind: she was alone. She was no longer a part of life as it was ordinarily lived. She and the others who shared that rich, tended seclusion were apart from the usages and responsibilities of the World that was counterfeited there. They were unreal. Through all the exercise and repose, the baths and manipulations, the music and the silences, the courtesies and the deprecations, the flowers and the birds that brought an artificial summer within the thick walls, one idea clanged like a bell through her weary mind: This is not real.
To Dr. Stanchon, who came in the intervals allowed by his work, she seemed sadly changed. It was not that her face looked heavier and more fretfully lined; not that her voice grew more monotonous; not that she seemed sunk in the selfish stupor that her type of suffering invariably produces. He had seen all this in others and seen it change for a better state. No; in Miss Mary the settled pessimism of a deep conviction had an almost uncanny power of communicating itself to those about her.
"She's in bad, that one," one of the gardeners said to him, on a windy March day when he had hunted for her over half-a-dozen guarded acres, and found her sitting in one of her heavy silences under a sunny ledge of rock.
"She's quiet and easy, but she's one of the worst of 'em, in my opinion."
And when she turned to him a moment later and said quietly: "Tell me, once for all, Dr. Stanchon, do you consider me insane?" his voice expressed all the simple sincerity of his eyes.
"Miss Mary, I tell you the truth—I don't know."
"But you know they'll never let me out?"
He braced himself. "How can they, Miss Mary, when you won't promise——"
"Why should I promise anything, if I'm not insane? Would you promise never to state your opinion in your own house?"
He shrugged his shoulders helplessly.
"You see!" he said gently.
Beyond them the gardener struggled with a refractory horse that refused to draw his load of brush and dead leaves. She stared at the group dully: six months ago she would have flinched at the great clambering hoofs and the man's danger.
"And even if I did give up and promise everything, do you believe I'd get out, doctor?"
"I see no reason——"
"You don't need to lie to me," she interrupted. "When I signed that paper, they fooled me: it was for good. It said six months—but it was for good."
He felt a great sympathy for her. It was hard, very hard. And yet, what they had been through with her!
"If only you hadn't refused to travel," he began.
"But I agreed to—I agreed to, last month," she cried, "even though I'm never well travelling, I agreed to—and what happened? Dr. Jarvyse said it wouldn't be best for me! And you did nothing..."
"How could I, Miss Mary?" he urged. "You know the only reason I see you so often is that I acquiesce and don't interfere. The moment I thought it would do any good——"
"You mean you're not sure, yourself!" she said keenly.
"You know I'm your friend," he said simply.
Her whole face changed. An almost disconcerting brightness flashed over it. Through all the heaviness and fatigue and despair that had yellowed her skin, dulled her eyes, and taken, it seemed, the very sheen from her black hair, her lost girlhood flared a moment. With the inconstant emotion of a child she smiled at him.
"I know you are," she murmured confidingly, "and I'll tell you something, because you are."
"What is it, Miss Mary?" he said, but he sighed as he said it.
"Do you see how I'm dressed?" she half whispered. He looked, uncomprehending, at the long light ulster she wore.
"Underneath, I'm in black," she said softly, "a whole suit. I have a little bag packed right under this rock, and I have ninety dollars in my bag, here." She tapped her waist, where a small shopping bag dangled. "And I have an umbrella. I always sit near this gate."
"Why do you do such things, dear Miss Mary?" he said sadly. "It does you no good—please try to believe me!"
"I never did, until I had the dream," she answered calmly. "This is the third night I've had it. I dreamed I was near some gate, and I looked down, and right before me on the path I saw a key—a great, brown key! So I started to pick it up, and then I realised that I wasn't prepared, that I had no money, and that I'd just be caught and brought back. Then I woke. But I dreamed it over again the next night, so I packed the bag and got it out here under this steamer-rug, and asked for some money to buy presents when that embroidery woman came from Lakewood. And I got it, of course, and bought some. She said she was coming again. So I got more. Last night I dreamed it again, and it looked like this gate, in the dream. That's three times. Suzanne has those dreams, you know—she's like me, Suzanne—and they always happen. So perhaps mine will. I tell you, because you're my friend. And you would never have put me here."
Stanchon bit his lip. A sudden disgust of everything seized him.
"No, I wouldn't have put you here—once," he said slowly, then rose abruptly.
"Hi, there, hold him! hold him, you fool!" he shouted. "Sit on his head!"
The gardener's horse, beyond all control, now, was rolling furiously, neighing and snapping. The man clung to the reins, keeping his distance, but as the animal gained his feet with a lurch, his finger slipped and he, too, rolled over and over down the little slope to the gravelled path. Stanchon was after the horse before the attendant had picked himself up and was calling him angrily.
"Don't be alarmed, miss," the man panted. "The doctor and I can settle him!" and staggering to his feet made off to the rescue. As he ran, something clinked and rattled about his boots, and a bunch of keys lay quiet on the gravel.
Miss Mary rose instantly, walked to them and put her foot over them, but the man was several yards away and Stanchon and the horse were struggling towards the wagon. Miss Mary stooped down and lifted the keys; all had metal tags and the one in her hand read, East Gate, by shrubbery. She stepped to the ledge, drew out a fair sized black hand-bag, tucked her umbrella under her arm and looked about her. The nearest gate, set in dense shrubbery, lay in a direct line with the ledge, and as she slipped behind it the two men and the horse were wiped out of her vision. With her usual quiet, long step she reached the gate, fitted the key, turned it and opened the gate. She closed it behind her, considered a moment, then tossed the keys back among the thick, glossy rhododendrons.
"Just as I dreamed," she muttered, "but where is the carriage?"
She stood on the edge of a road she had never seen, a quarter of a mile from the great wrought-iron entrance that had closed behind her half a year ago, and looked vaguely about her, at the mercy of Fate. And Fate, that quaint old lady who holds you and me and Miss Mary in the hollow of her hand, smiled and gave a tiny pat and a push to the shiny little electric run-about of Miss Winifred Jarvyse, a handsome young Diana, who had never seen the inside of the great walled estate next her father's private grounds, so that she waved her hand cordially, stopped out of pure good feeling for the absent-minded stranger in the beautiful coat, and asked if she could drop her at the station!
"Why, yes, thank you," said Miss Mary, still vaguely.
"It's going to rain and I've no cover on," said Winifred. "It's a pity about your coat."
"I can turn it," said Miss Mary, and standing up for a moment she slipped the sleeves of the ulster, shook herself slightly and sat down a totally different woman. So that when (such was the perfection of the System) a quick call to the ticket office set the agent searching twenty minutes later for a tall woman in a light tan coat, alone, without luggage, he replied very truly that no such person had entered his station. Only a friend of Miss Jarvyse had come to the 2:15, a lady in a dark plaid ulster with bag and umbrella, in Miss Jarvyse's car.
"I hope you found your friends—er—doing well?" said Miss Jarvyse delicately.
"Thank you, they were very well," said Miss Mary gravely. And she took the 2:15 for New York.
Nothing further than the immediate moment was in her mind. To her thought, long confused and fleeting, the dreamlike character of this sudden change seemed natural and simple. She had no plan of campaign, no route of escape, no future. Her mind, relaxed from the quick decision that had cleared its mists in the moment of action, began to dull and settle and fall into its old rut of mechanical despair, when suddenly the voices of two women in the seat behind her grew louder and rose above the jar of the train.
"And so she decided to get it over while he was in the hospital. She thought the dye would have to wear off gradually, but there's a place on West Twenty-eighth Street—near Sixth Avenue, I think—where a French woman guarantees to remove any dye, perfectly harmlessly, in two hours. So she had it done, and he was delighted. My dear, she was fifty, and the grey hair really was more becoming to her. Everybody thinks so. But nobody knew her—I never saw such a change, at first. If you know anybody who wants it done, just send them there. Some French name."
And just as Miss Mary was drifting off to that dull world of grievances in which she dwelt habitually, a new idea, as strong and definite as that which took her through the gate caught and held her, and she wrote in a little leather book in her bag, "28th St. west, near Sixth." Some primitive instinct of caution directed her to a street car in preference to a hansom or taxi-cab, and she found the French woman's small, musty establishment with an ease that surprised her. Her coat, obviously "imported," the elegance of her bag and umbrella, the air of custom with which she submitted to others' ministrations, brought her quick service, and in less than the guaranteed two hours she left Madame, whose very considerable fee she paid with gloved hands, thus, through sheer inadvertence, concealing the one trace of her identity—her massive and beautiful rings. For no one of Dr. Jarvyse's detectives could be expected to look at an iron-grey woman in black, when searching for a black-haired woman in blue plaid. And none of them, not the great Jarvyse, nor her maid even, knew that Miss Mary had dyed her hair for ten years!
As she stood by a little optician's, on one of the great avenues, later, gazing fascinated at her strange reflection in a large glass there, terrified at her daring, doubtful if her freedom could endure, two errand-girls, peering in with her in the imitative New York fashion, held her with an idle sentence.
"Did you know Miss Mahoney with those glasses? I nearly fell over when I seen her, honest! She was awful cross—the boss himself cut her dead!"
"Say, what do you think of that now?"
"An' they're only window-glass, too! She told one o' the fitters. She can stare at the ladies better she says, when they try to beat her down."
They moved on, but Miss Mary entered the shop.
"Can I get a pair of eye-glasses made of window-glass?" she asked him simply.
"Certainly, madam," and one would have supposed that leaders of fashion generally were wearing these articles, so swiftly and unsmilingly did he produce them and adjust them to her strong, dark eyes.
"Wonderful how they change a person, though," he admitted. "You wouldn't believe it."
The price seemed very small to Miss Mary, whose last purchase in that line had been a tortoise-shell lorgnette for her sister-in-law.
She had eaten very lightly at luncheon, for food was tasteless to her, of late, and she had been so followed, tended and directed in all the operations of life that she actually failed to recognise her sensations as those of hunger. But her unwonted exertions, the strain on her flagging brain, the stimulus of this unprecedented day, all combined to flush her cheek feverishly and she felt strangely weak. For the first time it flashed over her cleared faculties that she must go somewhere and at once. New York was too dangerous for her; she must leave it.
A very panic of terror seized her and she half expected to hear Dr. Jarvyse's soft voice at her shoulder. She started from the shop like one pursued, and hurried foolishly on and on in an ecstasy of flight. The streets were now dark, and Miss Mary, who had begun life in New York with her own private hansom, felt singularly out of place in the jostling crowd.
She stopped at the foot of an elevated railway station, and more because she was pushed up the steps by the hurrying mass of humanity that scurried like ants up and down, than for any other reason, climbed wearily up. As she sat pressed against a dirty man with a bundle, a sudden inconsequent thought struck her, and she removed her gloves in a leisurely way, took off her rings, dropped them into a roll of chamois-skin in the large bag, added to them a diamond cross and pendant from the lace at her neck and put on her gloves again. The dirty man stared at her.
Then she lifted her eyes to a large sign above the car-windows and the sign read:
Avoid the biting March winds. You will find quiet, an even temperature and perfect seclusion among the pines at restful Lakewood. Take the ferry at 23d St.
So that when the guard announced Twenty-third Street, Miss Mary got up, went down the stairs, tumbled with surprising facility upon a cross-town car and made for the ferry. And the dirty man went down the stairs with her.
Fate put Miss Mary on just the right boat for a Lakewood Special, and hunger cleared her mind to the extent of throwing her card-case over the rail on the way across. Her umbrella and ulster she had left behind on the elevated train, not being accustomed to carry such things, and they were found by a thrifty old lady in the second-hand-clothing line, who annexed them silently and forever. So that when she arrived at the Lakewood Station and fell among the cabbies and hotel touts she was the perfect type of the no-longer-young spinster, unaccompanied, awkward and light of luggage, presumably light of purse. The cabbies left her therefore, unchallenged, to a lad as shy and awkward as herself, who mumbled something about quiet, reasonable rooms, and received her yielded bag with a surprise as great as her own.
Miss Mary was by now almost light-headed from hunger and excitement. At the slightest pressure she would have told her story to the first interested stranger, and thus ended her adventure, most surely. But Fate led her to the door of one too full of trouble to heed Miss Mary's. To Mrs. Meeker she was a lodger certainly, a boarder possibly—in any event, a source of income. So long had she been waiting for Miss Mary that she fairly snatched her bag from her and pushed her up the faded, decent stairs into the faded, decent bedroom with the cracked china toilet-set. Any one, any one would have been welcome to Mrs. Meeker, and Miss Mary's quiet elegance and handsome travelling-bag were far beyond her hopes.
"A real lady," she whispered to her nephew. "Ask if she'd like a little something on a tray, Georgie. I could poach that egg, and there's tea. I won't say anything about a week in advance. She looks tired to death."
Miss Mary's famishing senses cried out loudly at sight of the meagre tray, and as the egg and tea passed her lips a strange, eager sensation was hers, a delicious, gratified climax of emotion: Miss Mary was glad she was alive! She savoured each morsel of the pitiful meal; she could have wished it doubled; the cheap tea filled her nostrils with a balmy odour; she was hungry.
And hardly had the food satisfied her when her eyelids fell, her head dropped forward. Approaching oblivion drugged her ere it reached her and she dozed in her chair. But some instinct forced her to her feet as the landlady appeared, and fumbling in her bag for her card-case and pocketbook, she held herself awake.
"I'd like to pay," she murmured, "and then I'll—I'll go to bed. Will you send some one, please?"
She meant some one to undress her, but Mrs. Meeker did not know this.
"It's—it's twelve a week, with board," she said, her eyes lighting at the yellow bills in her lodger's hand, "and—oh, dear, yes, two weeks is ample, Miss—Miss——"
"My cards are lost," said Miss Mary fretfully. "I can't think where I left them. The man or somebody will know. Ask——"
She started to say, "Ask the doctor," for her memory was swallowed, nearly, by sleepiness, and a curious woman would have had her secret in a twinkle. But Mrs. Meeker was too thankful to be curious.
"Miss Mary," said the other, yawning, and the landlady repeated, "Yes, Miss Merry. Can't I help you, you being so tired and all?"
"And she stuck out her feet for her shoes, just like a baby," she confided to Georgie, later. "She went off before I got her undressed, really; her folks ought to 've sent some one with her, worn out as she was! You go 'round the first thing in the morning and tell the agent I've got a fine boarder, and more expected. I feel real encouraged."
And all that night and all the next day Miss Mary slept dreamlessly, for the first time in years without a drug to help her.
It did not seem unusual that Mrs. Meeker should have unpacked her few things and laid them in the drawer of the battered bureau: some one always unpacked her things. And when, strangely weak and relaxed, she lay for three days more and ate dutifully from the tray, dozing between whiles, nobody questioned her.
On the fourth day she woke into a grey, despondent world again. The old angry, purposeless tears beset her and she felt that terrible dumbness settling over her. She had long ceased to fight it, now; she only wondered what Mrs. Meeker would do with her. But she never knew what Mrs. Meeker would have done, for when the tired, drudging little woman brought her breakfast tray she held it in dingily gloved hands; she was dressed for a journey.
"My brother's down with a stroke," she said abruptly, "Georgie's father, and wants to see me. I'll have to nurse him, prob'ly, and I s'pose his sending means he's friendly again. It may just be I won't need to come back, and I'm glad, of course, for I'm worth my keep to him any day, and he'd ought to have took Georgie long ago. I'll soon know, and I'll write you, and what I wanted to ask was, would you be willin' to wait till I find out? It might be only temp'ry, and then I'd be sorry to lose a boarder. Will you stay till you hear, anyway?"
Miss Mary nodded dumbly. She could not speak and she was ashamed that she could not; she had never been ashamed before.
"That's good," said Mrs. Meeker quickly, "and the lady next door'll give you meals. I'll settle with her—Mrs. Palmer. Her board's good, and I'll only charge you five for the room. That makes a month you've paid for. D'you see?"
Again, Miss Mary nodded.
"Then I'll get right off. It's Philadelphia I'm going to, and I'll write you as soon's I know. But I count on you to stay."
"Yes, I'll stay."
Miss Mary forced the words harshly and it seemed that they would tear her lips, so hard they came. But they came, and they sufficed for Mrs. Meeker, who went out of her solitary lodger's life as quickly as she had come into it, for Miss Mary never saw her again.
On that day she dressed herself slowly, and with a certain clumsiness, took her little shopping bag and bought, with economy and taste, a very fair outfit of simple clothing for the seventy dollars she had gained on the strength of the peddler of embroideries; she passed the peddler's very shop on her way. Underwear, a black dress, rubber overshoes and a plain umbrella—nothing was forgotten.
"When my money is all gone, I will begin to sell the jewelry," she thought, for she knew that she could live comfortably for the rest of her life on less than the value of the emeralds and diamonds. She did her shopping in a public victoria and brought the parcels home in it: it was her only extravagance that day.
As she got out at the door of the little faded house and paid the driver, it occurred to her that she had left it unlocked during her absence, and in her remorse over this and the bustle of going to the strange dining-room for luncheon, whither she was summoned by a slatternly waitress, she forgot completely that on this day she had sworn to stay alone in her room, to conceal from strangers her malady of melancholy dumbness.
"But I'm not that way—I'm not!" she whispered to herself in amazement, "why, I talked to the clerks all the morning!" And so she had, and none of the dozen at Mrs. Palmer's table that noon remarked anything further than that Miss Merry seemed a quiet, shy sort of person with a tendency to vagueness and little idea of passing the butter dish.
She sorted and arranged her purchases all the afternoon; the little roll of chamois-skin she kept carefully in the wrist-bag which never left her arm.
At dinner Mrs. Palmer took her aside and with the touch on her arm Miss Mary's blood turned to water. "She knows about me!" she thought and nearly fell to the ground from weakness.
"I'm sorry I startled you," said Mrs. Palmer, "Mrs. Meeker said you weren't any too strong, I remember. I only wanted to say that I've sent three more roomers over to your house—she'll be only too glad, I know. You don't mind, Miss Merry?"
"No. I don't mind," she answered, and her heart gave a great pump of relief.
"It'll be more comfortable at night, too," said Mrs. Palmer. "That makes the four rooms full, now, and I'll see that your room gets done up every day with the others. I presume we'll hear from her soon."
The next day she approached Miss Mary with an open letter in her hand.
"Mrs. Meeker's to live with her brother, now, he's paralysed," she announced. "She's sent me a check for the rent and you've paid twenty-four dollars, I see. I'm going over to pack up her stuff and she'll sell me the rest reasonable enough. I'm going to take her house, too. There's a new roomer comes to-day—I think I'll put him in her old room. Or if you," with a shrewd glance at Miss Mary, "wanted to economise at all. I'd rent you hers for four dollars and give this gentleman yours. And I'm usually paid in advance, so if you could make it convenient——"
"I'll attend to it," said Miss Mary, "but I'll keep the room, I think. I don't like change."
She went up to her room, and Dr. Jarvyse would have been amazed at the easy quickness of her gait. She had it all planned, now—the diamonds should go first, and then she would buy some fruit and a plant for her room. She liked her room very much; she did as she pleased in it and no one spied on her or suggested ways of passing the time. Was it some faint memory of her room as a girl, before her brother made his great fortune, that found this dull, half-worn chamber so home-like and soothing? Every afternoon she dusted it, as the chambermaid suggested most ladies expected to, and once she had turned the mattress and made the bed, when the girl felt ill. It gave her a sense of competence and executive ability.
Now she went to the little chamois skin roll, unpicked the tight knots carefully, opened it—and dropped on her knees. The roll was empty. On the compartment where the diamond cross had fitted, stretched a soiled, streaked thumb mark; mechanically she sniffed it—it smelled of tar. The dirty fellow with the bundle who had followed her down the elevated steps had smelled of tar, too, had Miss Mary remembered it.
Well, it was over. She never had a moment's doubt. She had no means, she could not starve, nobody would keep her, and she must go back to Dr. Jarvyse. She groaned in anguish as she looked about her dear, safe room and thought of the horrible luxury of that guarded prison, the birds and the flowers and cruel kindness of those strangers who knew every corner of her bureau, every word of her letters. Still, it must be. The Allens would never take her back, and after this, she would be watched as never before. It must be.
She met Mrs. Palmer on the threshold of what she had begun to call her home. Mrs. Palmer looked worried and spoke sharply to the untidy cleaning-woman behind her.
"Now, I do hope I can trust you," she said, "for I can't stay here to watch. Three new gentlemen for meals, and I have no table for them! And this whole house to be cleaned! And not a girl to be hired in the town! I wish I had another room—I could rent it this afternoon."
"You can have mine," said Miss Mary quietly. "I have no money and I must go."
Mrs. Palmer looked shrewdly at her.
"What made you think you had, before?" she said.
"I had some valuable jewelry—I expected to sell it. It must have been stolen before I got here. I have nothing here to pay with, but I can send it back to you from New York."
"Folks rich?" asked Mrs. Palmer.
Miss Mary nodded carelessly. That people should be rich was nothing to her, and the practiced landlady saw this in a twinkling: no protestations could have proved so much.
"But you don't get on well, I s'pose," she suggested.
"No. We don't get on well," Miss Mary repeated dully.
"I guess it's often so," said the other. Her placid acceptance of these facts was very comforting to Miss Mary. She did not realise how different she herself was from the vague, scared woman of a week ago; nor how her quiet, well-dressed taciturnity impressed Mrs. Palmer.
"You find this agrees with you here, don't you?" the landlady asked, tapping her teeth with a key, thoughtfully.
"Oh, yes, I like it here. I would have liked to stay."
"Well, Miss Merry, how'd you like to stay and help me?" said the landlady. "To tell the truth, I've bit off more than I can chew, as they say. I never had such a run of boarders, and it's all the girl can do to look after the other house. What keeps my people is the cooking, you see, and that I do mostly myself. I'm not fit to talk to the ladies and gentlemen, with my hair all stringy, and smelling of cooking. I know it well enough. I had some thought of asking Mrs. Meeker to go in with me and look after this house and take the head of the table, and keep the books. But you could do it, if you wanted, and you'd look more—more—not that Mrs. Meeker wasn't a lady, of course, but—well, some people look the part better than others."
Miss Mary's brain whirled. The head of the table! The books! It was impossible. Why, the woman didn't realise that she was talking to a—a—Patient, then! (They were never called anything but Patients at Dr. Jarvyse's.)
"I—I'm afraid I haven't the experience," she began tremulously. "I—sometimes my head—I can't always talk to people——"
"Oh, you talk enough," Mrs. Palmer interrupted, kindly. "That's just what it is: some talk too much. Mr. Swartout (that's the literary gentleman in brown—the one with the grey moustache) said you were so quiet and dignified. You know you sat at the end, today, for breakfast, and he said to me it would be pleasant if you kept that place. That's what put it into my head, really. And I guess you've had experience enough. Miss Jenny, that went with you through the store when you bought those clothes (I know her, you see) said she'd never seen seventy dollars used with more judgment nor made to go further. I noticed what she said." She nodded shrewdly, as one who knew the world.
"Well, I don't want to urge, but will you or won't you? I'd give board and lodging and, say, twenty-five a month, till I could do better. The Palmer House has just got to the point where there'll have to be a change, or it'll get second-class."
"Very well, I will try," said Miss Mary huskily, and in a moment she was alone, for Mrs. Palmer was half across the side-yard.
"Just boss that woman, then, and see if she can get the house clean by evening," she called over her shoulder. "I leave her to you, Miss Merry, and it's a weight off me, I can tell you!"
If Miss Mary had paused to think, she would have collapsed into tears and sent for the doctor, but she could not stop, for the cleaning-woman addressed her briskly.
"I suppose everything better come right out and get a good beating?" she said, shouldering her mop; and Miss Mary controlled her quivering lips, pressed her hands to her head, which must not, could not fail her now, and agreed.
Late in the afternoon Mrs. Palmer dashed over, her hair flying, her dress untidy.
"Well, how'd you get along?" she began, but paused in the doorway of the fresh, aired house, taking in, at one eagle glance, the white curtains behind shining panes, the polished woodwork, the re-arranged furniture.
"I guess that cleaning-woman met her match," she announced dryly. "You must be nearly dead, Miss Merry! And all ready for dinner, too! I've had a clean table cloth put on, and what do you think that Delia said? 'I'll just rub out me apron an' press it off,' she said, 'for if she's to head the table, I can see she'll be particular!'"
Nothing could have kept Miss Mary up but the fact that her own room was yet uncleaned. The lust of soap and water had entered into her, and she ate and answered and passed the butter dish like one in a dream, looking forward with the last of her strength to sleeping in an immaculate chamber. And at half-past one in the morning, she did so. The warm bath in the painted tin tub was a luxury she had never imagined; as the sheets received her tired body, aching in every joint, she tasted for the one moment before sleep blotted out consciousness the ecstasy of earned rest after steady, worried toil, and it was very sweet. Privilege of the clumsiest hod-carrier, it was utterly new to Miss Mary, and she in her innocence, thought it due to delight at the prospect of board and lodging and, say, twenty-five dollars a month!
She did not know that she had hummed, unconsciously, during the afternoon, a song of her early girlhood; nor that the blood, long stagnant, that had raced through every vein as she stooped and beat and lifted and cleansed, was driving the crawling vapours from that mysterious grey tissue in her skull that had so long plagued and confused her.
Nor did she know that the flowers on the table, the fresh chintz covers for the worn lodging-house furniture, so recklessly provided by her, the quick neatness of an apotheosised Delia and the gentle, reserved welcome of the new housekeeper herself, were lifting the commonplace boarding-house to a higher and still higher level. She only knew that she worked harder and harder and never wept nor shuddered nor looked out of black apathy into a cruel tantalizing world, whose inhabitants had evil thoughts of her and wished and worked her ill.
"It's just as I always say," Mrs. Palmer observed, one afternoon in May, as, resting in frank gingham and enveloping apron, she permitted herself the luxury of a cup of tea in Miss Mary's own room. "What's bred in the bones comes out in the blood. I had a gift for cooking since I was ten, and there's little I'll thank a French chef to tell me, Miss Merry. But I can't impress the boarders. I never could. And I can't get the work out of servant-girls without screaming at 'em—never could. And look at you! Every man of 'em—that we wanted—coming up two dollars a week, like gentlemen. And all for the privilege of having this house bachelor. I thought they would. And every man Jack of 'em booked for November first again. I tell you what, Miss Merry, we'll paint both houses this fall, and I wouldn't wonder, what with this spring being so backward and the season so long, if we could paint and paper inside, right through, would you?"
"No," said the housekeeper, rocking gently, luxuriating in the half-hour rest after a hard day on her feet with one servant gone. "No, I wouldn't. That would be nice. I have something saved. You can take that."
"Look at you!" cried Mrs. Palmer. "Saving on thirty a month! We'll pretty near go halves, Miss Merry, from next November. What's bred in the bone, as I said—you were born for the business!"
And the sister of Hiram Z. Allen, late Captain of Finance, blushed with pleasure.
* * * * *
It was in March of the next year, as she sat at her neat desk in the little room they had made into an office when they created a sun parlour out of the side verandah, that Delia, responsible head of three maids now, ushered a gentleman in to her.
"The doctor, Miss Merry, that came yesterday about the rooms for his patient in the cottage," said Delia softly. "I can't seem to get the name, ma'am."
"Very well," said Miss Mary and rose, plumper by eight or ten pounds than she had been, dignified in black broadcloth, only enough of reserve and weighing of her words about her to mark her off slightly from the most of her sex and business.
"Miss Merry? I am Dr. Stanchon, I have been recommended most strongly——"
She swayed before him, then sank into her chair, grasping the arms. He looked courteously alarmed, stared, stared again, then snatched her hand.
"It's not—it can't be—why, Miss Mary!" She gasped and trembled. The year dropped off from her like a loosened cloak.
"Oh, Dr. Stanchon, don't, don't tell him!" she moaned.
"Him? him?" he repeated. "Why, Miss Mary, were you here all the time? And your hair—you were ill?"
"It used to be coloured—you never knew," she murmured. "I mean Dr.—Dr. Jarvyse."
"But you are the one Swartout described to me—the one he's in love with? Miss Mary, it was wrong of you—I looked for months. It was cruel. And when they found the emeralds and the cross——"
"Did they find them?"
"Why, certainly—the stones were all listed, you know. Didn't you read it in the papers?"
"I never see them," she said quietly. She had gathered herself together for what must be the struggle of her life.
"Will you tell him? I can't go back. I'd die first!" she cried.
"But why should you go back?" he asked in amazement. "Surely you'll let them know? They gave up hope long ago. You needn't go back to them, if you're happy here, of course, and indeed, I wouldn't, Miss Mary——"
"I don't mean go back there," she interrupted gently, "I mean to the—to—Dr.——"
"You know, of course, what's the matter," she said quietly, "but nobody here does. They think I'm—I'm like anybody else. I don't mind any more, since I've been so busy. I haven't had time to worry over it. But still, I know it.—And so I told Mr. Swartout it would be impossible. It wouldn't be right."
Stanchon seized both of her hands.
"For heaven's sake, Miss Mary, what do you think's the matter with you?" he cried, his voice breaking in spite of himself.
"Isn't it so?" she queried wistfully. "Do you really mean it?—But who cured me, then?"
"If you are the wonderful person I've been hearing about all this time from Swartout," Stanchon said, trying to speak lightly, his grey eyes firm on her anxious brown ones, "I should say that working for your living did it, Miss Mary!"
And it may be he was right: as a diagnostician he has been widely commended.
It all came over me, as you might say, when I began to tell the new housemaid about the work. Not that I hadn't known before, of course, what a queer sort of life was led in that house; it was hard enough the first months, goodness knows. But then, a body can get used to anything. And there was no harm in it—I'll swear that to my dying day! Although a lie's a lie, any way you put it, and if all I've told—but I'll let you judge for yourself.
As I say, it was when I began to break Margaret in, that it all came over me, and I looked about me, in a way of speaking, for how I should put it to her. She'd been house-parlor-maid in a big establishment in the country and knew what was expected of her well enough, and I saw from the first she'd fit in nicely with us; a steady, quiet girl, like the best of the Scotch, looking to save her wages, and get to be housekeeper herself, some day, perhaps.
But when Hodges brought the tray with the porringers on it and the silver mug, for me to see, and said, "I suppose this young lady'll take these up, Miss Umbleby?" and when Margaret looked surprised and said, "I didn't know there were children in the family—am I supposed to wait on them, too?"—then, as I say, it all came over me, and for the first time in five years I really saw where I stood, like.
I stared at Hodges and then at the girl, and the tray nearly went down amongst us.
"Do you mean to say you haven't told her, Sarah?" says Hodges (and that was the first time that ever he called me by my given name).
"She's told me nothing," Margaret answers rather short, "and if it's invalid children or feeble-minded, I take it most unkind, Miss Umbleby, for I've never cared for that sort of thing, and could have had my twenty-five dollars a month this long time, if I'd wanted to go out as nurse."
"Take the tray up this time, yourself, Mr. Hodges, please," I said, "and I'll have a little talk with Margaret," and I sat down and smoothed my black silk skirt (I always wore black silk of an afternoon) nervously enough, I'll be bound.
The five years rolled away like yesterday—as they do now—as they do now——
I saw myself, in my mind's eye, new to the place, and inclined to feel strange, as I always did when I made a change, though I was twenty-five and no chicken, but rather more settled than most, having had my troubles early and got over them. I'd just left my place—chambermaid and seamstress—in a big city house, and though it was September, I was looking out for the country, for I was mortal tired of the noise and late hours and excitement that I saw ahead of me. It was parties and balls every night and me sitting up to undress the young ladies, for they kept no maid, like so many rich Americans, and yet some one must do for them. There was no housekeeper either, and the mistress was not very strong and we had to use our own responsibility more than I liked—for I wasn't paid for that, do you see, and that's what they forget in this country.
"I think I've got you suited at last, Sarah," the head of the office had said to me, "a nice, quiet place in the country, good pay and light work, but everything as it should be, you understand. Four in help besides the housekeeper and only one in family. Church within a mile and every other Sunday for yourself."
That was just what I wanted, and I packed my box thankfully and left New York for good, I hoped, and I got my wish, for I've never seen the inside of it since.
A middle-aged coachman in good, quiet country livery, met me at the little station, and though he was a still-mouthed fellow and rather reserved, I made out quite a little idea of the place on the way. The mistress, Mrs. Childress, was a young widow, deep in her mourning, so there was no company. The housekeeper was her old nurse, who had brought her up. John, who drove me, was coachman-gardener, and the cook was his wife—both Catholics. Everything went on very quiet and regular and it was hoped that the new upstairs maid wouldn't be one for excitement and gaiety. The inside man had been valet to Mr. Childress and was much trusted and liked by the family. I could see that old John was a bit jealous in that direction.
We drove in through a black iron gate with cut stone posts and old black iron lanterns on top, and the moment we were inside the gates I began to take a fancy to the place. It wasn't kept up like the places at home, but it was neat enough to show that things were taken thought for, and the beds of asters and dahlias and marigolds as we got near the house seemed so home-like and bright to me, I could have cried for comfort. Childerstone was the name of the place; it was carved on a big boulder by the side of the entrance, and just as we drove up to the door John stopped to pick some dahlias for the house (being only me in the wagon) and I took my first good look at my home for twenty years afterward.
There was something about it that went to my heart. It was built of grey cut stone in good-sized blocks, square, with two windows each side the hall door. To some it might have seemed cold-looking, but not to me, for one side was all over ivy, and the thickness of the walls and the deep sills looked solid and comfortable after those nasty brown-stone things all glued to each other in the city. It looked old and respectable and settled, like, and the sun, just at going down, struck the windows like fire and the clean panes shone. There was that yellow light over everything and that stillness, with now and then a leaf or so dropping quietly down, that makes the fall of the year so pleasant, to my mind.
The house stood in beeches and the trunks of them were grey like the house and the leaves all light lemon-coloured, like the sky, and that's the way I always think of Childerstone—grey and yellow and clean and still. Just a few rooks (you call them crows here), went over the house, and except for their cry as they flew, there wasn't a sound about the place. I can see how others might have found it sad, but it never seemed so to me.
John set me down at the servants' entrance and there, before ever I'd got properly into the hall, the strangeness began. The cook in her check apron was kneeling on the floor in front of the big French range with the tears streaming down her face, working over her rosary beads and gabbling to drive you crazy. Over her stood a youngish but severe-appearing man in a white linen coat like a ship's steward, trying to get her up.
"Come, Katey," he was saying, "come, woman, up with you and help—she'll do no harm, the poor soul! Look after her, now, and I'll send for the doctor and see to madam—it's only a fit, most like!"
Then he saw me and ran forward to give a hand to my box.
"You're the chambermaid, Miss, I'm sure," he said. "I'm sorry to say you'll find us a bit upset. The housekeeper's down with a stroke of some sort and the madam's none too strong herself. Are you much of a hand to look after the sick?"
"I'm not so clumsy as some," I said. "Let me see her," and so we left the cook to her prayers and he carried my box to my room.
I got into a print dress and apron and went to the housekeeper's room. She was an elderly person and it looked to me as if she was in her last sickness. She didn't know any one and so I was as good as another, and I had her tidy and comfortable in bed by the time the doctor came. He said she would need watching through the night and left some medicine, but I could see he had little hope for her. I made up a bed in the room and all that night she chattered and muttered and took me for different ones, according as her fever went and came. Towards morning she got quiet, and as I thought, sensible again.
"Are you a nurse?" she says to me.
"Yes, Mrs. Shipman, be still and rest," I told her, to soothe her.
"I'm glad the children are sent away," she went on, after a bit. "'Twould break their mother's heart if they got the fever. Are the toys packed?"
"Yes, yes," I answered, "all packed and sent."
"Be sure there's enough frocks for Master Robertson," she begged me. "He's so hard on them and his aunties are so particular. And my baby must have her woolly rabbit at night or her darling heart will be just broken!"
"The rabbit is packed," I said, "and I saw to the frocks myself."
There's but one way with the sick when they're like that, and that's to humour them, you see. So she slept and I got a little nap for myself. I was glad the children were away by next morning, for she was worse, the cook lost her head, and managed to break the range so that the water-back leaked and John and Hodges were mopping and mending all day. The madam herself had a bad turn and the doctor (a New York doctor for madam, you may be sure!) brought out a handsome, dark woman, the trained hospital nurse, with him. Madam wasn't allowed to know how bad her old nurse was.
So it turned out that I'd been a week in the house without ever seeing my mistress. The nurse and I would meet on the stairs and chat a little, evenings, and once I took a turn in the grounds with her. She was a sensible sort of girl, not a bit above herself, as our English nursing-sisters are, sometimes, but very businesslike, as they say, and a good, brisk way with her. She saw a lot more than she spoke of, Miss Jessop did, I'll warrant!
"It's a good thing the children are sent away," I said. "They always add to the bother when there's sickness."
"Why, are there children?" says she. "Oh, yes, a boy and a girl," I answered, "poor old Mrs. Shipman is forever talking about them. She thinks she's their nurse, it seems, as she was their mother's."
"I wish they were here, then," says she, "for I don't like the looks of my patient at all. She doesn't speak seven words a day, and there's really little or nothing the matter with her, that I can see. She's nervous and she's low and she wants cheering, that's all. I wonder the doctor doesn't see it."
That night, after both patients were settled, she came up to my room and took a glance at the old lady, who was going fast.
"Mrs. Childress will soon have to know about this," she said and then, suddenly, "Are you sure about the children, Sarah?"
"Sure about them?" I repeated after her. "In what way, Miss Jessop?"
"That there are any," says she.
"Why, of course," I answered, "Mrs. Shipman talks of nothing else. They're with their aunty, in New Jersey, somewhere. It's a good thing there are some, for from what she says when she's rambling, the house and all the property would go out of the family otherwise. It's been five generations in the Childress family, but the nearest now is a cousin who married a Jew, and the family hate her for it. But Master Robertson makes it all safe, Mrs. Shipman says."
"That's a queer thing," said she. "I took in a dear little picture of the boy and girl this afternoon, to cheer her up a bit, and told her to try to think they were the real ones, who'd soon be with her, for that matter, and so happy to see their dear mamma, and she went white as a sheet and fainted in my arms. Of course, I didn't refer to it again. She's quiet now, holding the picture, but I feared they were dead and you hadn't known."
"Oh, no," said I. "I'm sure not," and then I remembered that I'd been told there was but one in family. However, that's often said when there's a nurse to take care of small children (though it's not quite fair, perhaps), and I was certain of the children, anyway, for there were toys all about Mrs. Shipman's room and some seed-cookies and "animal-crackers," as they call those odd little biscuits, in a tin on her mantel.
However, we were soon to learn something that made me, at least, all the more curious. The doctor came that morning and told Miss Jessop that her services would be no longer required, after he had seen her patient.
"Mrs. Childress is perfectly recovered," he said, "and she has unfortunately conceived a grudge against you, my dear girl. I need you, anyway, in town. Poor old Shipman can't last the night now, and I want all that business disposed of very quietly. I have decided not to tell Mrs. Childress until it is all over and the funeral done with. She is in a very morbid state, and as I knew her husband well I have taken this step on my own responsibility. Hodges seems perfectly able to run things, and to tell the truth, it would do your mistress far more good to attend to that herself," he said, turning to me.
"It would be a good thing for the poor woman to have some one about her, Dr. Stanchon," the nurse put in quietly. "If there were children in the house, now——"
"Children!" he cried, pulling himself up and staring at her. "Did you speak to her about them? Then that accounts for it! I should have warned you."
"Then they did die?" she asked him. "That's what I thought."
"I'm afraid not," he said, shaking his head with a queer sort of sad little smile. "I forgot you were strange here. Why, Miss Jessop, didn't you know that——"
"Excuse me, sir, but there's no sign of your mare about—did you tie her?" says Hodges, coming in in a great hurry, and the doctor swore and ran off and I never heard the end of the sentence.
Well, I'm running on too long with these little odds and ends, as I'm sure Margaret felt when I started telling her all about it. The truth is I dreaded then, just as I dread now, to get at the real story and look our conduct straight in the face. But I'll get on more quickly now.
Old Mrs. Shipman died very quiet in her sleep and madam wasn't told, which I didn't half like. The doctor was called out of those parts to attend on his father, very suddenly, and Hodges managed the funeral and all. It was plain to see he was a very trusty, silent fellow, devoted to the family. I took as much off him as I could, and I was dusting the drawing-room the day of the funeral, when I happened to pick up a photograph in a silver frame of the same little fellow in the picture the nurse had shown me—a dear little boy in short kilts.
"That's Master Robertson, isn't it?" I said, very carelessly, not looking at him—I will own I was curious. He gave a start.
"Yes—yes, certainly, that's Master Robertson—if you choose to put it that way," he said, and I saw him put his hand up to his eyes and his mouth twitched and he left the room.
I didn't question him again, naturally; he was a hard man to cross and very haughty, was William Hodges, and no one in the house but respected him.
That day I saw Mrs. Childress for the first time. She was a sweet, pretty thing, about my own age, but younger looking, fair, with grey eyes. She was in heavy crepe and her face all fallen and saddened like, with grief and hopelessness—I felt for her from the moment I saw her. And all the more that I'd made up my mind what her trouble was: I thought that the children were idiots, maybe, or feeble-minded, anyhow, and so the property would go to the Jew in the end and that his family were hating her for it! Folly, of course, but women will have fancies, and that seemed to fit in with all I'd heard.
She'd been told that Shipman was away with some light, infectious fever, and she took it very mildly, and said there was no need to get any one in her place, at present.
"Hodges will attend to everything," she said, in her pretty, tired way; "not that there's much to do—for one poor woman."
"Things may mend, ma'am, and you'll feel more like having some friends about you, most likely, later on," I said, to cheer her a bit.
She shook her head sadly.
"No, no, Sarah—if I can't have my own about me, I'll have no others," she said, and I thought I saw what she meant and said no more.
That night the doctor and the legal gentleman that looked after the family affairs were with us and my mistress kept them for dinner. I helped Hodges with the serving and was in the butler's pantry after Mrs. Childress had left them with their coffee and cigars, and as Hodges had left the door ajar I couldn't help catching a bit of the talk now and then.
"The worst of it is this trouble about the children," said the doctor. "She will grieve herself into a decline, I'm afraid."
"I suppose there's no hope?" said the other gentleman.
"No hope?" the doctor burst out. "Why, man, Robertson's been dead six months!"
"To be sure—I'd forgotten it was so long. Well, well, it's too bad, too bad," and Hodges came back and closed the door.
I must say I was thoroughly put out with the doctor. Why should he have told me a lie? And it was mostly from that that I deliberately disobeyed him that night, for I knew from the way he had spoken to the nurse that he didn't wish the children mentioned. But I couldn't help it, for when I came to her room to see if I could help her, she was sitting in her black bedroom gown with her long hair in two braids, crying over the children's picture. "Hush, hush, ma'am," I said, kneeling by her and soothing her head, "if they were here, you may be sure they wouldn't wish it."
"Who? Who?" she answers me, quite wild, but not angry at all. I saw this and spoke it out boldly, for it was plain that she liked me.
"Your children, ma'am," I said, softly but very firm, "and you should control yourself and be cheerful and act as if they were here—as if it had pleased God to let you have them and not Himself!"
Such a look as she gave me! But soon she seemed to melt, like, and put out her arm over my shoulders.
"What a beautiful way to put it, Sarah!" says she, in a dreamy kind of way. "Do you really think God has them—somewhere?"
"Why, of course, ma'am," said I, shocked in good earnest. "Who else?"
"Then you think I might love them, just as if—just as if——" here she began to sob.
"Why, Mrs. Childress," I said, "where is your belief? That's all that's left to mothers. I know, for I've lost two, and their father to blame for it, which you need never say," I told her.
She patted my shoulder very kindly. "But oh, Sarah, if only they were here!" she cried, "really, really here!"
"I know, I know," I said, "it's very hard. But try to think it, ma'am—it helped me for weeks. Think they're in the room next you, here, and you'll sleep better for it."
"Shall I?" she whispered, gripping my hand hard. "I believe I would—how well you understand me, Sarah! And will you help me to believe it?"
I saw she was feverish and I knew what it means to get one good refreshing night without crying, and so I said, "Of course I will, ma'am; see, I'll open the door into the next room and you can fancy them in their cribs, and I'll sleep in there as if it was to look after them, like."
Well, she was naught but a child herself, the poor dear, and she let me get her into bed like a lamb and put her cheek into her hand and went off like a baby. It almost scared me, to see how easy she was to manage, if one did but get hold of the right way. She looked brighter in the morning and as Hodges had told me that Shipman used to do for her, I went in and dressed her—not that I was ever a lady's maid, mind you, but I've always been one to turn my hand easily to anything I had a mind to, and I was growing very fond of my poor lady—and then, I was a little proud, I'll own, of being able to do more for her than her own medical man, who couldn't trust a sensible woman with the truth!
She clung to me all the morning, and after my work was done, I persuaded her to come out for the air. The doctor had ordered it long ago, but she was obstinate, and would scarcely go at all. That day, however, she took a good stroll with me and it brought a bit of colour into her cheeks. Just as we turned toward the house she sat down on a big rock to rest herself, and I saw her lip quiver and her eyes begin to fill. I followed her look and there was a child's swing, hung from two ropes to a low bough. It must have been rotted with the rains, for it looked very old and the board seat was cracked and worn. All around—it hung in a sort of little glade—were small piles of stones and bits of oddments that only children get together, like the little magpies they are.
There's no use to expect any one but a mother or one who's had the constant care of little ones to understand the tears that come to your eyes at a sight like that. What they leave behind is worse than what they take with them; their curls and their fat legs and the kisses they gave you are all shut into the grave, but what they used to play with stays there and mourns them with you.
I saw a wild look come into her eyes, and I determined to quiet her at any cost.
"There, there, ma'am," I said quickly, "'tis only their playthings. Supposing they were there, now, and enjoying them! You go in and take your nap, as the doctor ordered, and leave me behind..."
She saw what I meant in a twinkling and the colour jumped into her face again. She turned and hurried in and just as she went out of sight she looked over her shoulder, timid like, and waved her hand—only a bit of a wave, but I saw it.
Under a big stone in front of me, for that part of the grounds was left wild, like a little grove, I saw a rusty tin biscuit box, and as I opened it, curiously, to pass the time, I found it full of little tin platters and cups. Hardly thinking what I did, I arranged them as if laid out for tea, on a flat stone, and left them there. When I went to awaken her for lunch, I started, for some more of those platters were on the table by her bed and a white woolly rabbit and a picture book! She blushed, but I took no notice, and after her luncheon I spied her going quickly back to the little grove.
"Madam's taking a turn for the better, surely," Hodges said to me that afternoon. "She's eating like a Christian now. What have you done to her, Miss Umbleby?" (I went as "Miss" for it's much easier to get a place so.)
"Mr. Hodges," I said, facing him squarely, "the doctors don't know everything. You know as well as I that it's out of nature not to mention children, where they're missed every hour of the day and every day of the month. It's easing the heart that's wanted—not smothering it."
"What d'you mean?" he says, staring at me.
"I mean toys and such like," I answered him, very firm, "and talk of them that's not here to use them, and even pretending that they are, if that will bring peace of mind, Mr. Hodges."
He rubbed his clean shaven chin with his hand.
"Well, well!" he said at last. "Well, well, well! You're a good girl, Miss Umbleby, and a kind one, that's certain. I never thought o' such a thing. Maybe it's all right, though. But who could understand a woman, anyway?"
"That's not much to understand," said I, shortly, and left him staring at me.
She came in late in the afternoon with the rabbit under her arm and there was Mr. Hodges in the drawing-room laying out the tea—we always had everything done as if the master was there, and guests, for the matter of that; she insisted on it. He knew his place as well as any man, but his eye fell on the rabbit and he looked very queer and nearly dropped a cup. She saw it and began to tremble and go white, and it came over me then that now or never was the time to clinch matters or she'd nearly die from shame and I couldn't soothe her any more.
"Perhaps Hodges had better go out and bring in the rest of the toys, ma'am," I says, very careless, not looking at her. "It's coming on for rain. And he can take an umbrella ... shall he?"
She stiffened up and gave a sort of nod to him.
"Yes, Hodges, go," she said, half in a whisper, and he bit his lip, and swallowed hard and said, "Very good, madam," and went.
Well, after that, you can see how it would be, can't you? One thing led to another, and one time when she was not well for a few days and rather low, I actually got the two little cribs down from the garret and ran up some white draperies for them. She'd hardly let me leave her, and indeed there was not so much work that I couldn't manage very well. She gave all her orders through me and I was well pleased to do for her and let Mr. Hodges manage things, which he did better than poor old Shipman, I'll be bound. By the time we told her about Shipman's death, she took it very easy—indeed, I think, she'd have minded nothing by that time, she had grown so calm and almost healthy.
Mr. Hodges would never catch my eye and I never talked private any more with him, but that was the only sign he didn't approve, and he never spoke for about a month, but joined in with me by little and little and never said a word but to shrug his shoulders when I ordered up a tray with porringers on it for the nursery (she had a bad cold and got restless and grieving). I left her in the nursery with the tray and went out to him, for I saw he wished to speak to me at last.
"Dr. Stanchon would think well of this, if he was here. Is that your idea, Miss Umbleby?" he said to me, very dry. (The doctor had never come back, but gone to be head of a big asylum out in the west.)
"I'm sure I don't know, Mr. Hodges," I answered. "I think any doctor couldn't but be glad to see her gaining every day, and when she feels up to it and guests begin to come again, she'll get willing to see them and forget the loss of the poor little things."
"The loss of what?" says he, frowning at me.
"Why, the children," I answered.
"Master Robertson, of course, and Miss Winifred," I said, quite vexed with his obstinacy. (I had asked her once if the baby was named after her and she nodded and went away quickly.)
"See here, my girl," says he, "there's no good keeping this up for my benefit. I'm not going into a decline, you know. I know as well as you do that she couldn't lose what she never had!"
"Never had!" I gasped. "She never had any children?"
"Of course not," he said, steadying me, for my knees got weak all of a sudden. "That's what's made all the trouble—that's what's so unfortunate! D'you mean to say you didn't know?"
I sank right down on the stairs. "But the pictures!" I burst out.
"If you mean that picture of Mr. Robertson Childress when he was a little lad and the other one of him and his sister that died when a baby, and chose to fancy they was hers," says he, pointing upstairs, "it's no fault of mine, Miss Umbleby."
And no more it was. What with poor old Shipman's ramblings and the doctor's words that I had twisted into what they never meant, I had got myself into a fine pickle.
"But what shall I do, Mr. Hodges?" I said, stupid-like, with the surprise and the shock of it. "It'd kill her, if I stopped now."
"That's for you to decide," said he, in his reserved, cold way, "I have my silver to do."
Well, I did decide. I lay awake all night at it, and maybe I did wrong, but I hadn't the heart to see the red go out of her cheek and the little shy smile off her pretty mouth. It hurt no one, and the mischief was done, anyway—there'd be no heir to Childerstone, now. For five generations it had been the same—a son and a daughter to every pair, and the old place about as dear to each son, as I made out, as ever his wife or child could be. General Washington had stopped the night there, and some great French general that helped the Americans had come there for making plans to attack the British, and Colonel Robertson Childress that then was had helped him. They had plenty of English kin and some in the Southern States, but no friends near them, on account of my mistress's husband having to live in Switzerland for his health and his father dying young (as he did) so that his mother couldn't bear the old place. But as soon as Mr. Robertson was told he was cured and could live where he liked, he made for Childerstone and brought his bride there—a stranger from an American family in Switzerland—and lived but three months. If anybody was ever alone, it was that poor lady, I'm sure. There was no big house like theirs anywhere about—no county families, as you might say—and those that had called from the village she wouldn't see, in her mourning. And yet out of that house she would not go, because he had loved it so; it was pitiful.
There's no good argle-bargling over it, as my mother used to say, I'd do the same again! For I began it with the best of motives, and as innocent as a babe, myself, of the real truth, you see.
I can shut my eyes, now, and it all comes back to me as it was in the old garden, of autumn afternoons—I always think of Childerstone in the autumn, somehow. There was an old box hedge there, trimmed into balls and squares, and beds laid out in patterns, with asters and marigolds and those little rusty chrysanthemums that stand the early frosts so well. A wind-break of great evergreens all along two sides kept it warm and close, and from the south and west the sun streamed in onto the stone dial that the Childress of General Washington's time had had brought over from home. It was set for Surrey, Hodges told me once, and no manner of use, consequently, but very settled and home-like to see, if you understand me. In the middle was an old stone basin, all mottled and chipped, and the water ran out from a lion's mouth in some kind of brown metal, and trickled down its mane and jaws and splashed away. We cleaned it out, she and I, one day, pretending we had help, and Hodges went to town and got us some gold fish for it. They looked very handsome there. Old John kept the turf clipped and clean and routed out some rustic seats for us—all grey they were and tottery, but he strengthened them, and I smartened them up with yellow chintz cushions I found in the garret—and I myself brought out two tiny arm-chairs, painted wood, from the loft in the coach house. We'd sit there all the afternoon in September, talking a little, me mending and my mistress embroidering on some little frocks I cut out for her. We talked about the children, of course. They got to be as real to me as to her, almost. Of course at first it was all what they would have been (for she was no fool, Mrs. Childress, though you may be thinking so) but by little and little it got to be what they were. It couldn't be helped.
Hodges would bring her tea out there and she'd eat heartily, for she never was much of a one for a late dinner, me sewing all the time, for I always knew my place, though I believe in her kind heart she'd have been willing for me to eat with her, bless her! Then she'd look at me so wistful-like, and say, "I'll leave you now, Sarah—eat your tea and don't keep out too late. Good-bye—good-bye..." Ah, dear me!
I'd sit and think, with the leaves dropping quiet and yellow around me and the water dripping from the lion's mouth and sometimes I'd close my eyes and—I'll swear I could hear them playing quietly beyond me! They were never noisy children. I'll say now something I never mentioned, even to her, and I'd say it if my life hung by it. More than once I've left the metal tea-set shut in the biscuit box and found it spread out of mornings. My mistress slept in the room next me with the door open, and am I to think that William Hodges, or Katey, crippled with rheumatism, or that lazy old John came down and set them out? I've taken a hasty run down to that garden (we called it the children's garden, after a while) because she took an idea, and seen the swing just dying down, and not a breath stirring. That's the plain gospel of it. And I've lain in my bed, just off the two cribs, and held my breath at what I felt and heard. She knew it, too. But never heard so much as I, and often cried for it. I never knew why that should be, nor Hodges, either.
There was one rainy day I went up in the garret and pulled the old rocking-horse out and dusted it and put it out in the middle and set the doors open and went away. It was directly over our heads as we sat sewing, and—ah, well, it's many years ago now, a many and a many, and it's no good raking over too much what's past and gone, I know. And as Hodges said, afterward, the rain on the roof was loud and steady....
I don't know why I should have thought of the rocking-horse, and she not that was always thinking and planning for them. Hodges said it was because I had had children. But I could never have afforded them any such toy as that. Still, perhaps he was right. It was odd his saying that (he knew the facts about me, of course, by that time) being such a dry man, with no fancy about him, you might say, and disliking the whole subject, as he always did, but so it was. Men will often come out with something like that, and quite astonish one.
He never made a hint of objection when I was made housekeeper, and that was like him, too, though I was, to say so, put over him. But he knew my respect for him, black silk afternoons or no black silk, and how we all leaned on him, really.
And then Margaret came, as I said, and it was all to tell, and a fine mess I made of it and William Hodges that settled it, after all.
For Margaret wanted to pack her box directly and get off, and said she'd never heard of such doings and had no liking for people that weren't right.
"Not right?" says Hodges, "not right? Don't you make any such mistake, my girl. Madam attends to all her law business and is at church regularly, and if she's not for much company—why, all the easier for us. Her cheques are as sensible as any one's, I don't care who the man is, and a lady has a right to her fancies. I've lived with very high families at home, and if I'm suited, you may depend upon it the place is a good one. Go or stop, as you like, but don't set up above your elders, young woman."
So she thought it over and the end of it all was that she was with us till the last. And gave me many a black hour, too, poor child, meaning no harm, but she admired Hodges, it was plain, and being younger than I and far handsomer in a dark, Scotch way, it went hard with me, for he made no sign, and I was proud and wouldn't have showed my feelings for my life twice over.