THE WISHING MOON
Author of "The Goddess Girl"
Illustrated by Everett Shinn
Garden City New York Doubleday, Page & Company 1916
Copyright, 1916, by Louise Dutton
All rights reserved, including that of translation into foreign languages, including the Scandinavian
Copyright, 1916, The Metropolitan Magazine Company
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"'Oh, Judith, won't you speak to me?'" Frontispiece (See page 239)
"'I know what this means,' she asserted" 128
"'Shut your eyes'" 166
"'Judith, you don't hate me? Say it—say it'" 180
THE WISHING MOON
The Wishing Moon
A little girl sat on the worn front doorsteps of the Randall house. She sat very still and straight, with her short, white skirts fluffed daintily out on both sides, her hands tightly clasped over her thin knees, and her long, silk-stockinged legs cuddled tight together. She was bare-headed, and her short, soft hair showed silvery blonde in the fading light. Her hair was bobbed. For one miserable month it had been the only bobbed head in Green River. Her big, gray-green eyes had a fugitive, dancing light in them. The little girl had beautiful eyes.
The little girl was Miss Judith Devereux Randall. She was eleven years old, and she felt happier to-night than she remembered feeling in all the eleven years of her life.
The Randalls' lawn was hedged with a fringe of lilac and syringa bushes, with one great, spreading horse-chestnut tree at the corner. The house did not stand far back from the street. The little girl could see a generous section of Main Street sloping past, dark already under shadowing trees. The street was empty. It was half-past six, and supper-time in Green River, but the Randalls did not have supper, they dined at night, like the Everards. To-night mother and father were dining with the Everards, and the little girl had plans of her own.
Father was dressed, and waiting, shut in the library. Mother was dressing in her big corner room upstairs, with all the electric lights lighted. The little girl could see them, if she turned her head, but mother was very far away, in spite of that, for her door was locked, and you could not go in. You could not watch her brush her long, wonderful hair, or help her into her evening gown. Mother's evening gown was black this summer, with shiny spangles—a fairy gown. Mother had to be alone while she dressed, because she was going to the Everards'.
There were two Everards, the Colonel, who was old because his hair was white, and his wife, who wore even more beautiful clothes than mother. She had heard her father say that the Colonel had made the town, and she had heard Norah, the cook, say that he owned the town. She had an idea that these two things were not quite the same, though they sounded alike, for father was fond of the Colonel, and Norah was not. At any rate, he was president of the bank—father and Norah agreed about that—and he lived in a house at the edge of the town, in what used to be a part of Larribees' woods. Father used to go Mayflowering there, but now nobody could.
The house was ugly, with things sticking out all over it, towers and balconies and cupolas, and it was the little girl's twin. She was born the year the Everards settled in Green River.
"And you're marked with it," Norah said, in one of their serious talks, when Mollie, the second girl, was out, and the two had the kitchen to themselves. Norah was peeling apples for a pie, and allowing her unlimited ginger-snaps, straight from the jar. "Marked with it, Miss Judy."
"That house, and what goes on in it."
"What does go on?"
"You'll know soon enough."
"I'm not marked with it. I've got a birthmark, but it's a strawberry, on my left side, like the princesses have in the fairy tales."
"You are a kind of a princess, Miss Judy."
"Is that a bad thing to be, Nana?"
"It's a lonesome thing."
"My strawberry's fading. Mother says it will go away."
"It won't go away. What we're born to be, we will be, Miss Judy——. Bless your heart, you're crying, with the big eyes of you. What for, dear?"
"I don't know. I don't want to be a princess. I don't want to be lonesome. I hate the Everards."
"Well, there's many to say that now, and there'll be more to say it soon." Norah muttered this darkly, into her yellow bowl of apples, but Judith heard: "Here, eat this apple, child. You musn't hate anybody."
"I do. I hate the Everards."
Queer things came into your head to say when you were talking with Norah, who had an aunt with the second sight, and told beautiful fairy tales herself, and even believed in fairies; Judith did not. The Everards gave Judith and no other little girl in town presents at Christmas, and invited Judith and no other little girl to lunch. They had a great deal to do with her trouble, her serious trouble, which she would not discuss even with Norah. But she did not really hate the Everards—certainly not to-night. She was too happy.
Judith was going out to hang May-baskets.
So was every other little girl in town who wanted to, and it was a wonderful thing to be doing to-night. It was really May night, by the weather as well as the calendar—the kind of night that Norah's fairies meant should come on the first of May: warm, with a tiny chill creeping into the air as the dark came, a pleasant, shivery chill, as if there might really be fairies or ghosts about. It was still and clear. One star, that had just come up above the horse-chestnut tree, looked very small and bright and close, as if it had climbed up into the sky out of the dark, clustering leaves of the tree.
This was the star that Judith usually wished on, but she could wish on the moon to-night; Norah had told her so; wish once instead of three nights running, and get her wish whether she thought of the red fox's tail or not. The new moon of May was a wishing moon.
A wishing moon! The small white figure on the steps cuddled itself into a smaller heap. Judith sighed happily and closed her eyes. She was going with the others. She had her wish already.
It was Judith's great trouble that she was not like other little girls. Until she was six Judith had a vague idea that she was the only child in the world. Then she tried to make friends with two small, dirty girls over the back fence, and found out that there were other children, but she must not play with them. One day Norah found her crying in the nursery because she could not think what to play, and soon after Willard Nash, the fat little boy next door, came to dinner and into her life, and after that, Eddie and Natalie Ward, from the white house up the street, and Lorena Drew, from over the river. Still other children came to her parties, so many that she could not remember their names. Then Judith's trouble began. She was not like them.
She did not look like them; her clothes were not made by a seamstress, but came from city shops, and had shorter skirts, and stuck out in different places. She could not do what they did; Mollie called for her at nine at evening parties, and she usually had to go to bed half an hour after dinner, before it was dark. She had to do things that they did not do: make grown-up calls with her mother and wear gloves, and take lessons in fancy dancing instead of going to dancing school.
But she had gone to school now for almost a year, a private school in the big billiard-room at the Larribees', but a real school, with other children in it. They did not make fun of her clothes, or the way she pronounced her words, very often now. She belonged to a secret society with Rena and Natalie. She had spent one night with Natalie, though she had to come home before breakfast. The other children did not know she was different, but Judith knew.
Unexpected things might be required of her at a moment's notice: to be excused from school and pass cakes at a tea at the Everards'; to leave a picnic before the potatoes were roasted, because Mollie had appeared, inexorable; unaccountable things, but she was to be safe to-night. May night was not such a wonderful night for any little girl as it was for Judith.
The lights were on in Nashs' parlour, and not turned off in the dining-room, which meant that the rest of the family were not through supper, but Willard was. Presently she heard three loud, unmelodious whistles, his private signal, and a stocky figure pushed itself through a gap in the hedge which looked, and was, too small for it, and Judith rubbed her eyes and sat up—it crossed the lawn to her.
"Good morning, Merry Sunshine," said Willard, ironically.
"I wasn't asleep."
"I heard you coming."
"You did not."
"I did so."
These formalities over, she made room for him eagerly on the steps. Willard looked fatter to Judith after a meal, probably because she knew how much he ate. His clean collar looked much too clean and white in the dark, and he was evidently in a teasing mood, but such as he was, he was her best friend, and she needed him.
"Willard, guess what I'm going to do?"
"I don't know, kid." Willard's tone implied unmistakably that he did not want to know.
Judith's voice thrilled. Willard stared at her. Her eyes looked wider than usual, and very bright. She was smiling a strange little smile, and a rare dimple, which he really believed she had made with a slate pencil, showed in her cheek. The light in her face was something new to him, something he did not understand, and therefore being of masculine mind, wished to remove.
"You're going to miss it to-night for one thing, kid," he stated deliberately.
"Oh, am I?" Judith dimpled and glowed.
"We're going to stay out until ten. Vivie's not going." Willard's big sister had chaperoned the expedition the year before. Now it was to go out unrestrained into the night.
Willard searched his brain for more overwhelming details.
"We've got a dark lantern."
"I got it. It's father's. He won't miss it. It's hidden in the Drews' barn. We're going to meet at the Drews, to fool them. They'll be watching the Wards'."
Judith drew an awed, ecstatic breath. He was touching now on the chief peril and charm of the expedition. Hanging May-baskets, conferring an elaborately-made gift upon a formal acquaintance, was not the object of it—nothing so philanthropic; it was the escape after you had hung them. You went out for adventure, to ring the bell and get away, to brave the dangers of the night in small, intimate companies. And the chief danger, which you fled from through the dark, was the paddies.
She did not know much about them. She would not show her ignorance by asking questions. But there were little boys with whom a state of war existed. They chased you, even fought with you, made a systematic attempt to steal your May-baskets. They were mixed up in her mind with gnomes and pirates. She was deliciously afraid of them. She hardly thought they had human faces. She understood that they were most of them Irish, and that it was somehow a disgrace for them to be Irish, though her own Norah was Irish and proud of it.
"Sure!" said Willard. "Irish boys. Paddies from Paddy Lane. Ed got a black eye last year. We'll get back at them. It will be some evening." Judith did not look jealous or wistful yet. "The whole crowd's going."
"Yes, I know," thrilled Judith. "Oh, Willard——"
"Oh, Willard," he mimicked. Judith pronounced all the letters in his name, which was not the popular method. "Oh, Willard, what do you think I heard Viv say to the Gaynor girl about you?"
"Don't know. Willard, won't the paddies see the dark lantern?"
"Viv said you were as pretty as a doll, but just as stiff and stuck-up," pronounced Willard sternly. "And your father's only the cashier of the bank, and just because the Everards have taken your mother up is no reason for her to put on airs and get a second girl and get into debt——"
He broke off, discouraged. Judith did not appear to hear him. After the masculine habit, as he could not control the situation, he rose to leave.
"Well, so long, kid. I've got to go to the post-office."
Even the mention of this desirable rendezvous, which was denied to her because Mollie always brought home the evening mail in a black silk bag, did not dim the dancing light in Judith's eyes. She put a hand on his sleeve.
"Willard, don't you wish I was going to-night?"
"What for, to fight the paddies, or carry the dark lantern?"
"I could fight," said Judith, with a little quiver in her voice, as if she could.
"Fight? You couldn't even run away. They'd"—Willard hissed it mysteriously—"they'd get you."
"No, they wouldn't, because"—something had happened to her eyes, so that they did not look tantalizing—"you'd take care of me, Willard," she announced surprisingly, "wouldn't you?"
"Forget it," murmured Willard, flattered.
"Well—I am. Father made mother let me. I'm going with you."
The words she had been trying to say were out at last in a hushed voice, because her heart was beating hard, but they sounded beautiful to her, like a kind of song. Perhaps Willard heard it, too. He really was her best friend, and he did not look so fat, after all, in the twilight. She waited breathlessly.
Judith nodded. She could not speak.
"Well!" Willard's feelings were mixed, his face was not fashioned to express a conflict of emotions, and words failed him, too. "You're a queer kid. Why didn't you tell me before?"
"Aren't you glad, Willard?"
"You'll get sleepy."
"Aren't you glad?"
"Sure I'm glad. But you can't run, and you are a cry-baby."
These were known facts, not insults, but now Judith's eyes had stopped dancing.
"Judy, are you mad with me?"
"You're the queerest kid." Up the street, he caught sight of a member of a simpler sex than Judith's. "There's Ed coming out of the gate. I've got to see him about something. See you later. Don't be mad. So long!"
The house was astir behind Judith. Father was opening and shutting doors, and hunting for things. Norah was helping mother into her wraps and scolding. Somebody was telephoning. Mother's carriage was late.
But it was turning into the yard now, a big, black hack from the Inn, with a white horse. Judith liked white horses best. The front door opened, and her father, very tall and blond, with his shirt-front showing white, and her mother, with something shiny in her black hair, swept out.
"Look who's here," said her father, and picked her up with his hands under her elbows. "Going to paint the town red to-night, son?"
"Red?" breathed Judith. How strong father was, and how beautiful mother was. She smelled of the perfume in the smallest bottle on the toilet-table. How kind they both were. "Red?"
"Harry, you see she doesn't care a thing about going. She'd be better off in bed. Careful, baby! Your hair is catching on my sequins. Put her down, Harry. You'll spoil the shape of her shoulders some day."
"Don't you want to go, son?"
"I—" Judith choked, "I——"
"Well, she's not crazy about it, is she?"
"Then do send her to bed."
"No, you can't break your promise to a child, Minna."
"Prig," said mother sweetly, as if a prig were a pleasant thing to be. "All right, let her go, then. Oh, Harry, look at that horse. They've sent us the knock-kneed old white corpse again."
Mother hurried him into the carriage, and it clattered out of the yard. They did not look back. They were always in a hurry, and rather cross when they went to the Everards. For once she was glad to see them go, such a dreadful crisis had come and passed. How could father think she did not want to go, father who used to hang May-baskets himself? Norah was calling her, but she did not answer. Norah was cross to-night. She did not know how happy Judith was.
Nobody knew, but now Judith did not want to tell. She did not want sympathy. She was not lonely. This secret was too important to tell. And, before her eyes, a lovely and comforting thing was happening, silently and suddenly, as lovely things do happen. Quite still on the steps, a white little figure, alone in a preoccupied world, but calm in spite of it, Judith looked and looked.
Above the horse-chestnut tree, so filmy and faint that the star looked brighter than ever, so pale that it was not akin to the stars or the flickering lights in the street, but to the dark beyond, where adventures were, so friendly and sweet that it could make the wish in your heart come true, whether you were clever enough to wish it out loud or not, hung the wishing moon.
A small, silent procession was edging its way along Church Street, darkly silhouetted against a faintly starred sky. It was a long hour later now, and looked later still on Church Street. There were few lights left in the string of houses near the white church, at the lower end of the street, and here, at the upper end, there were no lights but the one street lamp near the railroad bridge that arched black overhead, and there were few houses. The street did not look like a street at all, but a country road, and a muddy one.
The narrow board sidewalk creaked, so the procession avoided it, and stuck to the muddy side of the road.
The procession looked mysterious enough, even if you were walking at the tail of it and carrying a heavy market basket; if you had to smell the lantern, swung just in front of you, but did not have the fun of carrying it; if a shaker cloak, hooded and picturesque, in the procession, hampered your activities; if you had questions to ask, and nobody answered you.
One by one, they came into sight, in the wavering light of the street lamp, and melted into the dark under the bridge; Ed, in his white sweater, captaining them, and keenly aware of it; Rena and Natalie, with the larger market basket between them; Willard, bulky in two sweaters, and tenderly shielding his lantern with a third, and Judith. Her face showed pale with excitement against the scarlet of her hood. One hand plucked vainly at Willard's sleeve; he stalked on, and would not turn. Only these five, but they had consulted and organized and reorganized for half an hour in the Drews' barn before they started, and had hung only three May-baskets yet. However, the adventure was under way now.
"Willard, now it's my turn to carry the lantern."
"Judy, you can't."
"It might explode." The feeble flame gave one dispirited upward spurt at this encouragement, causing excitement in front.
"Ed, make him put it out."
"Rena and Nat, you keep still. Judy's not scared, are you Judy?"
"No! Oh, no!"
"The lantern's a sick looking sight, and he can carry it if he wants to, but we don't need it."
"I like that. You tried to get me to let you carry it, Ed."
"Don't talk so much."
"Who started the talk?"
"Well, who's running this, anyway—you, Willard Nash?"
"There's a dog in that house."
"But that dog's only a cocker spaniel. He can't hurt you."
Sh! Somebody was always saying that. It was part of the ceremony, which had been the same all three times. The procession was halting opposite the Nealy house. A whispered quarrel started every time they approached a house, and was hushed halfway through and not taken up again. The quarrel and the hush were part of the ceremony, too.
The Nealy house was small and harmless looking, and entirely dark, but they did not allow that to make them reckless. They stood looking warily across the dark street.
"But there's nobody there. Maggie Nealy's out, too, to-night, and her mother——"
"Sh!" Willard put a hand over Judith's mouth. It smelled of kerosene, and she struggled, but did not make a noise. Just at this dramatic moment the Nealy's dog barked.
Judith could hear her heart beat and feel her damp feet getting really wet and cold.
"Now," Ed whispered, close to her ear and uncomfortably loud, and she fumbled in her basket. Willard jiggled the lantern dizzily over her shoulder, tissue paper tore under her fingers, and bonbons rattled. Hanging May-baskets was certainly hard on the May-baskets, and they were so pretty; pale coloured, like flowers.
"I can't find the right one. The marks are all falling off. The candy's falling out."
"We can't stand here all night. Here——"
"Willard, take your hands out. Not that one——"
"Willard and Judy stop fighting. That one will do. I'm going."
There was dead silence now, and Ed, clutching the wreck of a sizable crepe-paper creation to the bosom of his white sweater, doubled into a crouching, boy scout attitude, crossed the road, and approached the house. Nothing but his own commendable caution delayed his approach. The small dog's dreams within were untroubled now. There were no signs of life.
He reached the front door, deposited the May-basket with a force that further demolished it, and took to his heels. After another breathless wait the procession formed behind him and trailed after him up the road, hilly here, so that the market basket grew heavier.
"Some evening," Willard murmured to himself, not the rest of the world, but he sounded amiable.
"There wasn't anybody in that house. Ed knew it."
"There might have been. They might have come home."
"But they didn't ... Willard, is this all there is to it?"
"Hanging May-baskets. Throwing them down that way. I thought maybe they really hung them, on the doorknob—I thought——"
"Silly! Ed's going cross lots, and up the wood road to Larribees'. Good work. That will throw them off the track."
"Throw who off the track?"
"You scared? Want to go home?"
"Oh, no! But who? There's nobody chasing us. Nobody."
"No. We've got them fooled. It's some evening."
"Willard, where are the paddies?"
That was the question Judith had been wanting to ask more and more, for an hour, but it came in a choked voice, and nobody heard. They were plunging into a rough and stubbly wood lot, and hushing each other excitedly. Twigs caught at Judith's skirt, and it was hard to see your way, with the moon, small and high above the trees in Larribee's woods, only making the trees look darker. The wood road was little used and overgrown.
"If they get us in here!"
"They won't, Willard." Judith's voice trembled.
"I am not."
"Here, buck up. We're coming out right here, back of the carriage house. If Ed catches you crying he'll send you home."
But Ed had his mind upon higher things. "You girls stay here with the baskets. Don't move. Willard, you go right and I'll go left, and we'll meet at the carriage-house steps, if the coast is clear."
"If they get us——"
If! The boys crunched out of hearing on the gravel, awesome silence set in, and Rena and Natalie whispered; Judith was not to be awed. Four May-baskets hung, and nobody objecting; dark cross-streets chosen instead of Main Street and no danger pursuing them there. If there was no danger in the whole town, why should there be in one little strip of woods, though it was dark and strange, and full of whispering noises? Judith had clung to Willard's hand in terror, turning into the cross-streets, and nothing came of it. She was not to be fooled any longer. There was no danger.
Not that she wanted to be chased. She did not know what she wanted. But she had come out into the dark to find something that was not there. She had been happier on the doorsteps thinking about it. This, then, was hanging May-baskets—all there was to it. But it was pleasant here in the dark, pleasanter than walking through mud, and quarrelling. Now Rena and Nat were quarrelling again.
"Get back there! Ed said not to move."
"They've been gone too long. Something's the matter."
"There they come. I hear them. Get back!"
They were coming, but something else was happening. Willard's three whistles sounded, then Ed's voice, and a noise of scuffling on the gravel—and a new boy's voice.
Rena and Natalie, upsetting their basket as they started, and not noticing it, pushed through the trees and ran. Judith stood still and listened. She did not know the voice. It was shrill and clear. She could hear the words it said above the others' voices, all clamouring, now, at once. She held her breath and listened. She could not move.
"I don't want your damn May-baskets."
"Liar! Get back of him, Rena. Come on, Nat."
"You'll get hurt. Let me go."
The magic word fell unheeded. The boy was laughing, and the laugh filled her ears, a splendid laugh, fearless and clear.
"I don't want your damn May-baskets."
This time there was no answer. Judith, tearing at the hooks of her cape, and throwing it off as she ran, broke through the circling trees. Then she stopped and looked.
Rena stood high on the carriage-house steps and held the lantern. It wavered and swung in her hand, and threw a flickering circle of light round the group by the steps.
The sprawled shadows at their feet seemed to have an undue number of arms and legs, and the children were a struggling, uncertain mass of motion, hard to make out, like the shadows, but they were only four: Willard, grunting and groaning; Natalie attacking spasmodically in the rear, and the strange little boy, the enemy. He was the heart of the struggling group, and Judith looked only at him. She could do nothing but look, for Judith had never seen a little boy like this.
They were three against one, and the one was a match for them. He was slender and strong, holding his ground and making no noise. He was coatless and ragged shirted, and one sleeve of his shirt was torn, so that you could see how thin his shoulder was. He held his head high, and smiled as he fought. A shock of blond hair was tossed high above his forehead. He had a thin, white face, and dark jewels of flashing eyes. As she stood and looked, they met Judith's eyes, and Judith knew that she had never seen a boy like this, because there was no boy like this—no little boy so wild and strange and free, so ragged and brave. If he could come out of the dark, it was full of unguessable things, splendid and strange and new. Judith's heart beat hard, a hot feeling swept over her, and a queer mist came before her eyes. A wonderful boy; a fairy boy! What would they do to him? What did they do to paddies? There was no little boy like this in the world.
"Judy!" The others had seen her and were calling her. "Come on. Help get him down."
"He chased Willard round here."
"He led the gang last year."
"It's Neil Donovan."
"Get him down!"
Judith did not answer then. Her cheeks flamed red, and her eyes looked as big and dark as the stranger's, and her small hands clenched tight. It was only a minute that she stood so. The three were close to him, hiding him. She saw his face again, above Willard's pushing shoulder, and then—she could not see it.
"Judy, what's the matter? Come on!"
And Judith came. She plunged straight into the struggling group, and hammered at it indiscriminately with two small fists. She caught at a waving coat sleeve, and pulled it—Willard's, and it tore in her hands. She spotted Eds white sweater, and beat at it fiercely, with all her strength.
"That's me, Judy. Cut it out!"
"Then let him go. Three to one is no fair. Let him go!" They did not hear her, or care which side she was on, or take the trouble to drive her away. Judith drew back and stood and looked at them, breathless and glowing and undefeated, for one long minute.
"Boy," she called then, softly, as if he could hear when the others could not, "wait! It's all right, boy. It's all right."
Then she charged up the steps at Rena. Judy, the most demure and faithful of allies, confronted Rena, amazingly but unmistakably changed to a foe; Judy, with her immaculate and enviable frock smirched and torn, and her sleek hair wildly tossed, her cheeks darkly flushed, and her eyes strange and shining; a Judy to be reckoned with and admired and feared—a new Judy.
"What's the matter? Are you crazy? What do you want?"
"Make them let him go. They've got to let him go."
"He's a paddy—Neil Donovan—a paddy."
"They've got to let him go.... Give that to me."
"What for? Judy, don't hurt me. Judy!"
Judith wasted no more words. She caught Rena's wrist, twisted it, and snatched the lantern out of her hand. She held it high above her head, and shook it recklessly.
"Don't, Judy! Don't!" The flame sputtered crazily. Judy still shook the lantern, dancing out of reach, and laughing. "Nat—everybody—stop Judy. She's making the lantern explode. Oh, Ed!"
Natalie heard, and then the others. They looked up at her, all of them. Rena and Natalie screamed. Willard started toward her. "Put it down, kid," he was calling.
"I'll put it down.... Now boy."
There he was, with Ed's arm gripping his shoulders. He did not give any sign that he knew she was trying to help him, or that he wanted help. He was not afraid of the lantern, like the others. His black eyes were laughing at all of them—laughing at Judith, too. He was looking straight at Judith.
"Now, boy," she called, "now run!" and she gripped the lantern tight, swung it high, and dashed it to the ground.
It fell at the foot of the steps with a crash of breaking glass. The light sputtered out. The air was full of the smell of spilled kerosene. In the faint radiance that was not moonlight, but a glimmering reflection of it, more confusing than darkness, dim figures struggled and shrill voices were lifted.
"Get him. Hold him."
"Get the lantern."
"Hold him, Ed."
"Get him, Rena."
Judith laughed, and out of the dark he had come from, the dark of May-night, lit by a wishing moon, that grants your secret wish for better or for worse, irrevocably, a far-away laugh answered Judith's. The boy was gone.
Miss Judith Devereux Randall was getting into her first evening gown.
The Green River High School football team was giving its annual September concert and ball in Odd Fellows' Hall to-night. The occasion was as important to the school as a coming-out party. The new junior class, just graduated from seclusion upstairs to the big assembly room where the seniors were, made its first public appearance in society there. Judith was a junior now.
Her first dance, and her first evening gown; it was a memorable scene, fit to immortalize with the first love-letter and the first proposal, in a series of pictures of great moments in a girl's life—chosen by some masculine illustrator, touchingly confident that he knows what the great moments of a girl's life are. Judith seemed to be taking this moment too calmly for one.
The dress lay ready on the bed, fluffy and light and sheer, a white dream of a dress, with two unopened florist's boxes beside it, but there was no picturesque disarray of excited toilet-making in her big, brightly lighted room, and no dream-promoting candlelight. And there were no pennants or football trophies disfiguring the daintily flowered wall paper, and no pictures or programs in the mirror of the dainty dressing-table; there was no other young girl's room in town where they were prohibited, but there was no other room so charming as Judith's, all blue-flowered chintz and bird's-eye maple and white fur rugs, and whiter covers and curtains.
Judith was the most charming and immaculate thing in the room, as she stood before the cheval-glass, bare armed and slim and straight in beruffled, beribboned white, pinning the soft, pale braids tight around her small, high-poised head. Quite the most charming thing, and Norah, fingering the dress on the bed disapprovingly, and giving her keen, sidelong glances, was aware of it, but did not believe in compliments, even to the creature she loved best in the world.
Her mouth was set and her brown eyes were bright with the effort of repressing them. Judith, seeing her face in the glass, turned suddenly and slipped her arms round the formidable old creature's neck, and laughed at her.
"Don't you think I'm perfectly beautiful?" she demanded. "If you really love me, why not tell me so?"
"Your colour's good." Judith pressed a delicately flushed cheek to Norah's, and attempted a butterfly kiss, which she evaded grimly. "Good enough—healthy and natural."
"Oh, no. I made it. Oh, with hot water and then cold, I mean. Nana, don't begin about rouge. Don't be silly. That red stuff in the box on mother's dresser is only nail paste, truly."
"Who sent the flowers?"
"Look and see."
"Much you care, if you'll let me look."
"Do you want me to care?"
"Much you care about the flowers or the party."
Judith had caught up the alluring dress without a second glance, and slipped it expertly over her head, and was jerking capably at the fastenings.
"With the spoiled airs of you, and Willard Nash sending to Wells for flowers, when his father clerked in a drygoods store at his age——"
"Oh, carnations are cheap—or he wouldn't get them."
"These aren't cheap, then."
The smaller box was full of white violets.
"Give them to me. No, you can't see the card. You don't deserve to. You're too cross, and besides you wouldn't like it. Do my two top hooks. Now, am I perfectly beautiful?"
Under her capable hands a pretty miracle had been going on, common enough, but always new. Ruffle above ruffle, the soft, shapeless mass of white had shaken itself into its proper lines and contours, lightly, like a bird's plumage settling itself, and with it the change that comes when a woman with the inborn, unteachable trick of wearing clothes puts on a perfect gown, had come to her slight girl's figure. It looked softer, rounder, and more lightly poised. Her throat looked whiter above the encircling folds of white. Her shy half smile was sweeter. The white violets, caught to her high girdle, were sweeter, too.
Norah surrendered, her voice husky and reluctant.
"You're too good for them."
"For the G. H. S. dance? For Willard?" Judith pretended great humility: "Nana!"
"There's others you're more than too good for. Others——"
"Come here." Norah put two heavy hands on her shoulders and regarded her grimly. It was the kind of look that Judith used to associate with second sight, and dread. It was quite formidable still. But Judith met it steadily, with something mature and assured about her look that had nothing to do with the softness and sweetness of her in her fluffy draperies, something that had no place in the heart of a child; something that Norah saw.
"Too good for them, and you know it," pronounced Norah. "You know it too well. You know too many things. A heart of gold you've got, but your head will rule your heart."
"Nonsense." Norah permitted herself to be kissed, still looking forbidding, but holding Judith tight.
"Little white lamb, may you find what's good enough for you," she conceded, unexpectedly, "and may you know it when you find it."
"You're an old dear, and you're good enough for me."
Downstairs there was a more critical audience to face. Judith saw it in the library door, and stood still on the stair landing, looking down. She held her head high, and coloured faintly. She looked very slender and white against the dark woodwork of the hall. The Randall house had been renovated the year before—becoming ten years older in the process, early Colonial instead of a comfortable mixture of late Colonial and mid-Victorian. The hall was particularly Colonial, and a becoming background for Judith, but the dark-haired lady in the door had no more faith in compliments than Norah, and there was a worried wrinkle in her low forehead to-night, as if her mind were on other things.
"Will I do, mother?"
"It's a good little gown, but there's something wrong with the neck line. You're really going then?"
"I thought I would."
"Be back by half-past ten. We're going to have some cards here. The Colonel likes you to pass things."
"I thought father's head ached."
"He's sleeping it off."
"I—wanted him to see how I looked."
"I can't see why you go."
"I thought I would. I'll go outside now, and wait for Willard."
Judith closed the early Colonial door softly behind her, and settled down on the steps. She arranged her coat, not the one her mother lent her for state occasions, but a white polo coat of her own, with due regard for her ruffles and her violets. The violets were from Colonel Everard. Norah, with her tiresome prejudice against the Everards, and mother, who thought and talked so much about them that she was almost tiresome, too, were both wrong about this party. She did want to go.
The church clock was striking nine. There was nothing deep toned or solemn about the chime; it was rather tinny, but she liked it. It sounded wide awake, as if things were going to happen. Nine, and the party was under way. The concert was almost over. The concert was only for chaperones and girls who were afraid of not getting their dance orders filled. The truly elect arrived just in time to dance. Some of them were passing the house already. Judith saw girls with light-coloured gowns showing under dark coats, and swathing veils that preserved elaborate coiffures. Bits of conversation, monosyllabic and formal, to fit the clothes, drifted across the lawn to her.
She had not been allowed to help decorate the hall, but she had driven with Willard to Nashes' Corners for goldenrod, and when they carried it in, big, glowing bundles of it, she had seen fascinating things: Japanese lanterns, cheesecloth in yellow and white, the school colours, still in the piece, and full of unguessable possibilities, and a rough board table, the foundation of the elaborately decorated counter where Rena and other girls would serve the fruit punch. All the time she dressed she had been listening for the music of Dugan's orchestra, and caught only tantalizing strains of tunes that she could not identify. There was a sameness about the repertoire. Most of the tunes sounded unduly sentimental and resigned. But now they were playing their star number, a dramatic piece of program music called "A Day on the Battlefield."
The day began with bird notes and bugle calls, but was soon enlivened by cavalry charges and cannonades. The drum, and an occasional blank cartridge, very telling in effect, were producing them now. Judith listened eagerly.
She needed friends of her own age for the next two years, but she must not identify herself with them too closely, because she would have wider social opportunities by and by; that was what her mother said, and she did not contest it; by and by, but this party was to-night.
Willard was coming for her now, half an hour ahead of time, as usual. He crossed the lawn, and sat heavily down on the steps.
"Hello. Don't talk," said Judith.
Willard was silent only long enough to turn this remark over in his mind, and decide that she could not mean it, but that was five minutes, for all his mental processes were slow. Down in the hall the last of the heroes was dying, and Dugan's orchestra rendered Taps sepulchrally. Judith drew a long breath of shivering content.
"Cold?" inquired Willard.
"You're looking great to-night."
"In the dark? In an old polo coat?"
"You always look great."
Judith was aware of an ominous stir beside her, and changed her position.
"When you know I won't let you hold my hand, what makes you try?"
"If I didn't try, how would I know?" said Willard neatly.
"Oh, if you don't know without trying," Judith sighed. The cannonade in the hall was over, and the night was empty without it.
"They took in thirteen dollars and fifty-two cents selling tickets for to-night." Willard, checked upon sentimental subjects, proceeded to facts. He had so many at command that he could not be checked.
"The team. They divide it. Only this year they've got to let the sub-team in on it, the faculty made them, and they're sore. And there's a sub on the reception committee."
"I don't care."
"You ought to. A sub, and a roughneck. The sub-team is a bunch of roughnecks, but he's the worst. On the reception committee! But they'll take it out of him."
"Who? The reception committee?"
"No, the girls. They won't dance with him. He won't get a decent name on his card. Roughneck, keeping Ed off the team. He's an Irish boy."
"An Irish boy?" Something, vague as an unforgotten dream that comes back at night, though you are too busy to recall it in waking hours, urged Judith to protest. "So is the senior president Irish."
"No, the vice-president." There was a wide distinction between the two offices. "Besides"—this was a wider distinction—"Murph lives at the Falls."
Living at the Falls, the little settlement at the head of the river, and lunching at noon, in the empty schoolhouse, out of tin boxes, with a forlorn assembly of half a dozen or so, was a handicap that few could live down.
"The team calls him Murphy. I don't know why. They're crazy about him. He lives a half mile north of the Falls. Walking five miles a day to learn Latin! He's a fool and a roughneck, but he can play ball. Yesterday on Brown's field——"
Willard started happily upon technicalities of football formations. Judith stopped listening. He could talk on unaided, pausing only for an occasional yes or no.
Brown's field! It was a tree-fringed stretch of level grass set high at the edge of the woods, on the other side of the river, with glimpses of the river showing through the trees far below. Here, on long autumn afternoons, sparkling and cool, but golden at the heart, ending gloriously in red, sudden sunsets, football practice went on every day; shifting here and there, mysteriously, over the field, the arbitrary evolutions that were football, the shuffling, and shouting, and panting silence; on rugs and sweaters under the trees, an audience of girls, shivering delightfully, or holding some hero's sweater, too proud to be cold.
Judith had seen all this through Willard's eyes, or from a passing carriage, but now she would go herself, go perhaps every day. Her mother would let her. She would not understand, but she would let her, just as she had to-night. Judith could be part of the close-knit life of the school in the last two years there—the years that counted. The party was a test and her mother had met it favourably. That was why she was glad to go, as nearly as she understood. She did not know quite what she wanted of the party, only how very much she wanted to go.
Willard was asking a question insistently: "Didn't he do pretty work?"
"Why, the fellow I'm telling you about—the roughneck."
"Roughneck," said Judith dreamily. The word had a fine, strong sound. Willard was holding her hand again, and she felt too comfortable and content to stop him.
The orchestra down the street was playing the number that usually ended its programs, a medley of plantation melodies. They were never such a strain on the resources of a hard-working but only five-piece orchestra as the ambitious, martial selections, and here, heard across the dark, they were beautiful: plaintive and thrillingly sweet. "Old Kentucky Home," was the sweetest of all, lonely and sad as youth, and insistent as youth, claiming its own against an alien world.
"Oh, Willard!" breathed Judith. Then, in quite another tone, "Oh, Willard!"
Encouraged by her silence, he was reaching for her other hand, and slipping an arm round her waist.
"You feel so soft," objected Judith frankly, getting up. "I do hope I'll never fall in love with a fat man. Come on, let's go!"
She waited for him politely on the sidewalk, and permitted her arm to be duly grasped. Willard, sulky and silent, but preserving appearances, piloted her dutifully down the street. Willard's silences were rare, and Judith usually made the most of them, but she did not permit this one to last. She did not want any one, even Willard, to be unhappy to-night.
"Don't take such long steps, or I can't keep up with you. You're so tall."
"Do you want to be late?"
"Oh, no! Are we?"
"But there's only one couple behind us, and the music's stopped."
"It takes half an hour to get the chairs moved out."
"Is the first dance a grand march and circle?"
"No, that's gone out. They have contras instead, but the first is a waltz."
"Willard, mother said I mustn't dance contras, but I shall—with you."
"Don't you want me to?"
"Willard, are you cross with me?"
"No." They were in front of the Odd Fellows' Building now. The door was open. The pair behind them crowded past and clattered hurriedly up the bare, polished stairs. The orchestra could be heard tuning industriously above. They were almost late, but Willard drew her into a corner of the entrance hall, and pressed her hand ardently.
"Judy, I couldn't be cross with you."
"Don't be too sure!" Judith laughed, and ran upstairs ahead of him.
"There's the ladies' dressing-room. I'll get the dance orders and meet you outside."
There was a whispering, giggling crowd in the dressing-room, mostly seniors, girls she did not know, but they seemed to know her, and she was conscious of curious looks at her hair and dress. It was the simplest dress in the room, and her mother would not have approved of the other dresses, but Judith did. There was something festive about the bright colours, too bright most of them: sharp pinks, and cold, hard blues. There was a yellow dress on a brunette, who was cheapened by the crude colour, and a scarlet dress too bright for any one to wear successfully on a big, pretty blond girl, who almost could. Judith smelled three distinct kinds of cheap talcum powder, and preferred them all to her own unscented French variety. She had a moment of sudden loneliness. Was she so glad to be here, after all?
It was only a moment. The tuning of instruments outside broke off, and the first bars of a waltz droned invitingly out: "If you really love me," the song that had been in her ears all the evening, a flimsy ballad of the year, hauntingly sweet, as only such short-lived songs can be. Moving to the tune of it, Judith crowded with the other girls out of the dressing-room.
The hall was transformed. It was not the room she had dreamed of, a great room, dimly lit, peopled with low-talking dancers, circling through the dimness. The place looked smaller decorated, and the decorations themselves seemed to have shrunk since she saw them. The lanterns had been hung only where nails were already driven, and under the supervision of the janitor, who would not permit them to be lighted. The cheesecloth was conspicuous nowhere except around the little stage, which it draped in tight, mathematically measured festoons. Beneath, under the misleading legend, "G. H. S.," painted in yellow on a suspended football, Dugan's orchestra performed its duties faithfully, with handkerchiefs guarding wilted collars.
The goldenrod, tortured and wired into a screen to hide the footlights, was drooping away already and showing the supporting wires. The benches were stacked against the wall, all but an ill-omened row designed for wall-flowers, and the floor was cleared and waxed. But little patches of wax that were not rubbed in lurked for unwary feet, and there were clouds of dust in the air. In one corner of the hall most of the prominent guests of the evening were attempting to obtain dance orders at once, or to push their way back with them to the young ladies they were escorting.
These ladies, and other ladies without escorts, were crowding each other against the stacked benches and maneuvering for positions where their dance orders would fill promptly. The atmosphere was one of strife and stress. But Judith found no fault with it. She was not aware of it.
In a corner near the stage, by the closed door of the refreshment-room, a boy was standing alone. He was tearing up his dance order. It was empty, and he was making no further attempts to fill it. He tore it quite unostentatiously so that no young lady disposed to be amused by his defeat could see anything worth staring at in his performance, and he was forgotten in his corner. But Judith stared.
She had remembered him tall, but he was only a little taller than herself. His black suit was shiny, and a size too small for him, but it was carefully brushed, and he wore it with an air. His hair was darker than she remembered, a pale, soft brown. It was too long, and it curled at the temples. He stood squarely, facing the room, as if he did not care what anybody did to him, but there was a look about his mouth as if he cared. He raised his eyes. They were darker than she remembered, darker and stranger than any eyes in the world. They looked hurt, but there was a laugh in them, too, and across the hall they were looking straight at Judith.
"Here you are. I've got myself down for all your contras. Just in time."
Willard, mopping his brow, slipping on a patch of wax, and saving himself with a skating motion, brought up triumphantly beside her, waving two dance orders. Judith pushed them away, and said something—she hardly knew what.
"What, Judy? What's that? You're engaged for this? You can't dance it with me?"
"No. No, I can't."
Judith slipped past him, and started across the floor. The music was louder now, as if you were really meant to dance, and dance with the person you wanted to most. The floor was filling now with dancers stepping forward awkwardly, but turning into different creatures when they danced, caught by the light, sure swing of the music, whirling and gliding. The words sang themselves to Judith, the silly, beautiful words:
Please don't keep me waiting. Won't you let me know That you really love me? Tell—me—so.
A girl in red was dancing in a quick, darting sort of way, in and out, among the others, and her dress was beautiful, too, like a flower. The boy in the corner was watching it. He did not see Judith come.
"I thought you couldn't be real. When I never saw you again I thought I had dreamed you."
Judith said it softly and breathlessly, and he did not hear. She put her hand on his arm, and he turned and looked at her.
"Don't you remember me?" Judith was too happy to be hurt even by this. The light, sweet music called to her. "Don't you remember? Never mind! Come and dance with me."
Willard stood still and stared after Judith for one bewildered minute; that was as long as he could stand still. Odd Fellows' Hall had ceased to afford standing-room.
The floor was filling and more than filling with determined young persons who were there to dance, and looked as if they had never had any aim but to dance. The enthralled silence, which was more general than conversation, advertised it. Even acknowledged belles, like the girl in red, coquetted incidentally, with significant but brief confidences and briefer upward glances. There was an alarming concentration, intent as youth itself, to be read in their unsmiling faces and eager eyes.
They danced quite wonderfully, most of them, as only country-bred young people can, with free-limbed young bodies, more used to adventuring in the open air than to dancing, but attuned to the rhythm of the dance by right of their youth. The old-fashioned waltz, that our grandmothers lost their hearts to the time of, still prevailed in Green River; not the jerkier performance that was already opening the way for the one-step and the dance craze in larger centres, but the old waltz, with the first beat of each measure heavily emphasized—a slow swinging, beautiful dance, and they danced it with all their hearts.
In and out among them, two slender, quick-turning figures were making an intricate way. The girl danced delicately and surely, a faint, half smile parting her lips, her small, smooth head erect, the silvery gold hair that crowned it shimmering and pale in the uncompromising light of the newly installed electric chandeliers, her eyes intent on the boy.
His performance was not expert, but it had a charm all its own. He put a great deal of strength into it, and made it evident that he possessed still more; strength enough to master the art of dancing once and for all, by the sheer force of it, if he cared to exert it, and a laughing light in his eyes, as if dancing was not important enough for that, and nothing else was.
An ambitious pair, experimenting with the dip waltz, just introduced that year, and pausing on the most awkward spots in the crowded floor, blocked his path, and he swung heavily out of their way just in time, squaring his chin and holding his head a shade higher. The girl in red was whirled toward him in double-quick time, and he dodged, miscalculated his distance, but met the shock of her squarely, whisking Judith out of her way.
"Good try, Murph," her partner called.
Willard regarded the encounter disapprovingly from the door of the gentlemen's dressing-room, to which he had edged his way. His was not an expressive countenance, and that was a protection to him just now. He was bewildered and deeply hurt, but he merely looked fat and slightly puzzled, as usual.
"Judy turn you down?" inquired his friend Mr. Ward, also watching from the dressing-room door, with the few other gentlemen who were without partners for this dance. It was the most important dance of the evening, for you danced it with the lady of your choice, or with nobody. It cemented new intimacies or foreshadowed the breaking of old; settled anew the continually agitated question of "who was going with who."
"Judy turn you down?" said Mr. Ward, but he meant it as a pleasantry. Mr. Willard Nash was not often turned down, even at this early age. He was too eligible.
"Rena turn you down, Ed?"
"Yes." Mr. Ward became suddenly confidential, and lowered his voice. "Mad. She wanted me to get her a shinguard to mount tintypes on—tintypes of the team."
"Buy it or steal it?" inquired Willard sarcastically.
"I offered to buy it," his friend confessed, "buy her a new pair, but she wants one that's been used."
"You spoil Rena. You can't spoil a girl." They laughed wisely. "It don't pay."
"Mad with Judy?"
"Well—no," said Willard magnanimously. He thought quite rapidly, as his brain, not overworked at other times, could do in emergencies. "My feet hurt. Pumps slip at the heel. I've been stuffing them out. Judy came with me, but I had to be excused for this dance."
"Good thing for him."
"For Murph—for Neil Donovan. They'll all dance with him if she does; though Judy don't know that. She's not stuck on herself, and never will be. I didn't know she knew Murph."
"Well, you know it now," said Willard shortly, his man-of-the-world composure failing him. Judith was circling nearer now, slender and desirable. He hesitated between an angry glare and a forgiving smile, but she did not look to see which he chose. She whirled quickly by.
"Smooth little dancer, and she's no snob. Judy's all right," said Ed. "Watch Murph! He's catching on—never danced till last night. Some of the fellows taught him. He never danced with a girl before."
"If my feet hurt," remarked Mr. Nash irrelevantly, and without the close attention from his friend which this important announcement called for, "I may not dance at all to-night."
Willard stopped abruptly. "What do you know about that"; a voice was saying, in the rear of the dressing-room; he stiffly refrained from turning to see whose, "Judith is dancing the first dance with Neil Donovan!"
Judith was dancing the first dance with Neil Donovan. It was social history already, accepted as such, and not further discussed, even by Willard. But many epoch-making events are not even so much discussed, they look so simple on the face of them. We cross a room, and change the course of our lives by crossing it, and few people even observe that we have crossed the room.
If Judith had affected the course of her life materially by crossing the room to the strange boy, she did not seem to be thinking of it just now. She was not thinking at all. She was only dancing, following her partner's erratic course quite faithfully, and quite intent on doing so; feeling every beat of the music, and showing it, pink-cheeked and sparkling eyed, and pleasantly excited, but nothing more.
The wistful and dreamy look was gone from her eyes, and her half-formed desire for something to happen this evening, something that had never happened before, was gone from her, too. She felt content with whatever was going to happen, and deeply interested in it, and particularly interested in dancing.
They had danced almost in silence, rather a grim silence at first, but now that the boy could let the music carry him with it, and was beginning to trust it, too, the silence was comfortable. But the few words he managed to say were worth listening to and answering, not to be dreamed through and ignored, like Willard's. His voice was not as she remembered it, and that was interesting, too, deeply significant, though she could not have said why. Everything seemed unaccountably interesting to-night.
"I thought it was louder," she said, "or higher—or something."
It was quite husky and low, and he pronounced a word here and there with a brogue like Norah's, only pleasanter, with a kind of singing sound. It was never the word you expected. You had to watch for it. She could hear it now.
"Won't you please tell me who you are?"
"I know who you are, and I know where you live."
"Where do I?"
"At the Falls, and I know when you moved there—five years ago, or six."
"Six. How do you know?"
"Oh, I know."
As you grew older, and learned to call more boys and girls in the school by name, and more of the clerks in the shops, you discovered new people in the town where you thought you knew everybody, and it made the town infinitely large. But this boy had not been so near her, or she would have seen him. He could not have been in school with her. He must have worked on a farm and studied by himself with the grammar-school teacher at the Falls, and taken special examinations to enter the Junior class this year, as Willard said that some boy at the Falls was doing. He must be that boy or Judith would surely have seen him.
She nodded her head wisely. "I know."
"You know a lot." In his soft brogue this sounded like the most complimentary thing that could be said.
"But you don't remember me." This had troubled her at first. Now it seemed like the most delicious of jokes, and they laughed at it together.
"That was the first thing you said to me."
"Isn't it queer"—Judith's eyes widened and darkened as if it were something more than queer, something far worse—"so queer! I can't think what the first thing was that you said to me."
They confronted this problem in silence, staring at each other with wide-open eyes. Though they were circling smoothly at last, carried on by the slow, sweet music, so that they hardly seemed to be moving at all, and though he did not really move his head, the boy's eyes seemed to Judith to be coming nearer to hers, nearer all the time. They were beautiful eyes, deep brown, and very clear. His brown hair grew in a squarish line across his forehead, and waved softly at the temples. It looked as if he had brushed it hard there to brush the curl out, but it was curliest there.
"You've got the brownest eyes," said Judith.
"You've got the biggest eyes. Won't you tell me your name?"
Judith did not answer. She looked away from the disconcerting brown eyes and down at her hand, against his shoulder, her own little hand, with the careful manicure and the dull polish that was all her mother permitted; bare of rings, though Norah had given her a beautiful garnet ring for Christmas. How shiny his coat-sleeve was, and her hand looked unfamiliar to her—not like her own at all. She pressed tighter against his shoulder to steady herself.
The music was growing quicker and louder, working up gradually but surely into a breathless crescendo that meant the end of the dance. It whirled them dizzily about. The sleepy spell of the dance broke in this final crash of noise, and as it broke a sudden panic caught Judith.
What had she been saying to this boy? She had never talked like this to a boy before. And why was she dancing with him? She ought to be dancing with Willard—Willard, waiting there in the dressing-room door with her dance order in his hand, with the patient and puzzled look in his eyes, with brick-red colour in his cheeks from the affront she had subjected him to. What would Willard think of her? What would her mother think? And who was this boy? Just what the children had called him in taunting screams, on that long-ago May night, and she would have liked to scream it now—a paddy.
Instead, she lifted her head, no longer afraid of the boy's brown eyes, and said it, as cruelly as she could, in her soft and clear little voice:
"Paddy," she said; "a paddy from Paddy Lane."
She looked defiantly into his eyes, but they did not grow angry. They only grew very soft and kind, and they laughed at her. She wanted to look away from the laughter in them, but she could not look away from the kindness. Now she was not angry with him any more, but glad she was dancing with him. She knew she never wanted to stop dancing.
"Paddy?" He thought she had said it to remind him of that May night; he was remembering it now. "Are you that little girl?"
"The little girl who broke the lantern?"
"Yes," said Judith proudly.
"And had such long black legs, and went scuttling across the lawn, and screaming out to me—that funny little girl?"
"But I did break the lantern," said Judith.
All the bravest stories that she had made up in the dark to put herself to sleep with at night, all the perilous adventures of land and sea, camp fire or pirate ship, began with the breaking of that lantern, and the boy she rescued had been her companion upon them, her brushwood boy, her own boy. She had found him at last, and he was laughing—laughing at her.
"Sure you did. As if I couldn't have broken away from a bunch of fool kids, without being doped with the smell of kerosene, and yelled at by another fool kid. Sure you broke the lantern. How mad I was."
"You didn't remember." It was not a joke any longer now, but a tragedy, and Judith felt overwhelmed by it, alone in the world. "You forgot, and I—remembered."
The brown eyes and the gray met in one last long look and when the brown eyes saw the hurt in Judith's, the laughter died out of them. Again they seemed to be growing nearer and nearer to hers, but this time Judith was not afraid, she was glad.
"If you didn't save my life then, you did to-night." It came in a husky burst of confidence, straight from his shy boy's heart, very rare and very precious. Judith caught her breath.
"Oh, did I? Did I?"
"Yes. This crowd here had me mad—crazy mad. I was going home. I was going to get off the team. I wasn't going to school next week, and I've worked my hands off to get there. Maybe you remembered and I forgot, but—I won't forget again. You were that little girl." It was not a slight to the little girl she used to be, but a tribute to the girl she was; that was what looked out of his brown eyes at Judith, and sang through the brogue in his voice.
"You were that little girl—you!"
"Yes," breathed Judith; "yes!"
They whirled faster and faster. This was really the end of the dance, and this dance could never come again. Judith held tight to his shiny shoulder, breathless, hurrying to part with her secret and strip herself bare of mystery generously in a breath. All sorts of barriers might come between them, she might put them there herself, and she was quite aware of it, but not yet, not until the music stopped.
"My name's Judith—Judith Randall. Call me Judy."
Colonel Everard sat at the head of his dinner table. A little dinner for twelve was well under way at the Birches. Mrs. Everard was confined to her tower suite to-night with one of the sudden headaches which unkind critics held were likely to come when the Colonel entertained. Randolph Sebastian, his secretary, had superintended the arrangements for the dinner.
Pink roses, rather too many of them, were massed on the big, round table. Rather too much polished silver was to be seen on it; the most ornate candlesticks in the Everard collection, and a too complete array of small, scattered objects, each with a possible but not an essential function, littering a cloth already complicated by elaborate inserts of lace. But the brilliantly lighted, over-decorated table was effective enough in the big, darkly wainscoted room, a little island of light and colour.
The room was characterless, but finely and generously proportioned, and not so blatantly new as the rest of the colonel's house still looked. Against the dark walls the pale-coloured gowns around the table were charming. Indeed, most of the gowns were designed for this setting.
For there were no outsiders among the Colonel's guests to-night. Sometimes there were distinguished outsiders, politicians and other big men, diverted from triumphant tours through larger centres by the Colonel's influence, and by his courtesy exhibited to Green River after they had dined, or bigger men still, whose comings and goings the public press was not permitted to chronicle. Sometimes, too, there were outsiders on probation, the outer fringe of Green River society, admitted to formal functions, and hoping in vain to penetrate to intimate ones; ladies flustered and flattered, gentlemen sulky but flattered, conscious that each appearance here might be their last, and trying to seem indifferent to the fact.
But this was the Colonel's inner circle, gathered by telephone at twenty-four hours' notice, as they so often were. No course that the chef had contributed to the rather too elaborate menu was new to them. The Pol Roger which the big English butler was just starting on his second round was of the vintage year usually to be found on the Colonel's wine list, and on most intelligently supervised wine lists. A dinner for twelve, like plenty of little dinners elsewhere, no more correct and no less, but it had this to distinguish it; it was being served in Green River.
Served complete from hors-d'oeuvres to liqueurs, in a New England town where high tea had been the fashion not ten years ago, and church suppers were still important occasions—where you were rich on five thousand a year, and there were not a dozen capitalists secure of so much, where a second maid was an object of pride, and there was no butler except the Colonel's. And he had imported this butler and his chef and his wines, but not his guests; they were quite as impressive, quite able to appreciate his hospitality, if not to return it in kind, and they were all but one native products of Green River.
The youngest guest was eating mushrooms sous cloche in contented silence at the Colonel's left. The scene was not new to her. She could not remember her first party here; she was probably the only person in Green River who could pass over that momentous occasion so lightly. She had grown up as the only child in the inner circle. She had been privileged to excuse herself, when the formal succession of courses at some holiday function was too much for her, and read fairy tales on a cushion by the library fire, out of the fat, purple edition de luxe of the "Arabian Nights" that was always waiting for her there. Though her white ruffled skirts had grown long now, and her silvery gold braids were pinned up, and she was allowed to fill an empty place at the Colonel's table whenever he asked her, if not quite on his regular dinner list yet, Judith was not much changed from that wide-eyed child, and to-night her eyes looked sleepy and soft, as if she had serious thoughts of the cushion by the fire and the fairy book still.
The scene was not new, but it kept a fascination for her, like a transformation scene in a pantomime. Mr. J. Cleveland Kent, the manager of the shoe factory, who had taken her in to dinner, had been leaning out of a factory window in his shirt-sleeves, his black hair tumbled, and badly in need of a shave, when she passed on her way home from school. He looked mysterious and interesting in a dinner coat, like her idea of an Italian nobleman.
When Judith knocked at the kitchen door to deliver a note, Mrs. Theodore Burr, in a pink cooking apron, corsetless, and with her beautiful yellow hair in patent curlers, had been blackening the kitchen stove, and quarrelling with the furnace man about an overcharge of fifty cents on his monthly bill. The Burrs had no maid. Theodore Burr had been assisting Judge Saxon ever since he passed his bar examinations, but he was not admitted to partnership yet. This was beginning to make gossip, for he worked hard. He had broken his dinner engagement to-night, as he often did, to stay at home and work. Randolph Sebastian, the secretary, with the queer, hybrid foreign name, and thin face and ingratiating brown eyes, had his place at the table.
Mrs. Burr, stately and slender now in jetted black, the lowest cut gown in the room, her yellow hair fluffing and flaring into an unbelievable number of well-filled-out puffs, was chattering to the Colonel in a low voice, so that Judith could not understand, and breaking into French at intervals—Green River High School French, but she spoke it with an air, narrowing her blue-gray eyes after an alluring fashion she had and laughing her full-toned laugh. She was a full-blown, emphatic creature, though she had been married only three years, and was Lil Gaynor still to half the town.
Auburn-haired little Mrs. Kent had been lying down all the afternoon, as her disapproving domestic had informed any one who inquired at the door in a shrill voice that did not promote repose. She was very piquant and enticing now, with her bright, slanting hazel eyes, and a contagious laugh, but her dinner partner, Judith's father, was tired and hard to amuse. He looked very boyish when he was tired; his blue eyes looked large and pathetic.
The other two young women and Judith's mother, whose dark, low-browed Madonna beauty was gracious and fresh to-night, set off by her clear-blue gown, with a gardenia caught in her sheer, white scarf, deserved the Honourable Joseph Grant's flowery name for them, the Three Graces.
Before the Colonel's time and Judith's the Honourable Joe had been the most important man in Green River, and in evening things, and after a properly concocted cocktail he still looked it, florid and portly and well set-up, with a big voice that could still sound hearty though it rang rather empty and hollow sometimes. He looked ten years younger than his old friend, Judge Saxon. The Judge's coat was getting shiny at the seams, and—this appeared even more unfortunate to Judith—he was in the habit of pointing out that it was shiny, and without embarrassment. Mrs. Saxon's pearl-gray satin was of excellent quality, but of last year's cut, and the modest neck was filled in with the net guimpe which she affected at informal dinners. The Saxons were not quite in the picture, but they were always very kind to Judith.
And if they were not in the picture, Mrs. Joseph Grant, certainly not the youngest woman in the room, though she was not the oldest, occupied the centre of it.
She was like the picture of the beautiful princess on the hill of glass, in a book of Judith's, and besides, she had once been a real debutante, of the kind that Judith liked to read about in novels, before the Honourable Joe brought her from Boston to Green River. Judith liked to look at her better than any one here except Colonel Everard.
"Cosmopolitan—ten years ahead of Wells, or any town in your state; real give and take in the table talk; really pretty women; the same little group of people rubbing wits against each other day after day and getting them sharpened instead of dulled by it; a concentrated, pocket edition of a social life, but complete—nothing provincial about it," a very distinguished outsider had said after his last week-end with the Colonel.
But he was fresh from a visit to the state capital, the most provincial city in the state when the legislature was not in session; also he had a known weakness for pretty women. Green River did not admire the Colonel's circle so unreservedly, but Green River was jealous. Whatever you thought of it, it was made of fixed and unpromising material, and making it was no mean achievement, and the man at the head of the table looked capable of it, and of bigger things.
The Colonel was a big man and a public character, and as with many bigger men, you could divide the facts of his life into two classes: what everybody knew and what nobody knew. If the known facts were not the most dramatic ones, they were dramatic enough. He was sixty now. At fifteen he had been a student in a small theological seminary, working for his board on his uncle's farm, and engaged to the teacher of the district school, who helped him with his Greek at night. He gave up the ministry for the law, used his law practice as a stepping-stone into state politics, climbed gradually into national politics, built up a fortune somehow—these were the days of big graft—married for money and got an assured position in Washington society thrown in, and soon after his marriage chose Green River as a basis of operations, spending a winter month in Washington which later lengthened to three, ostensibly for the sake of his wife's health. The title of Colonel came from serving on the Governor's staff in an uneventful year. He had held no very important office, but his importance to his party in state and national politics was not to be measured by that.
White haired, slightly built, managing with perfectly apparent tricks of carriage and dress to look taller than he was, he was the effective figure in this rather unusually good-looking group of people. Just now he was lighting a fresh cigarette for Mrs. Burr so gracefully that even Judge Saxon must enjoy watching, so Judith thought, though there was a tradition that he did not like women to smoke. Shocking the Judge was one of their favourite games here. It was only a game. Of course they could never shock anybody. They were quite harmless people, too grown up to be very interesting, but almost always kind, and always gay.
The Colonel's profile was really beautiful through the curling, bluish smoke, and Judith liked his quick, flashing smile. He turned now and smiled at Judith. Her own smile was charming, a faint, half smile, that never knew whether to turn into a real smile or to go away and not come again, but was always just on the point of deciding.
"Is our debutante bored?"
"Oh, no; I was just thinking. No."
"She's blushing. Look at her."
"Yes, look at a real one. Do you good, Lil," agreed the Judge, and Mrs. Burr rubbed a pink cheek with her table napkin, exhibited it daintily, and laughed.
"Rose-white youth! But she doth protest too much." The Honourable Joe was fond of quotations, and often tried to make his remarks sound like them, when he could not recall appropriate ones, raising a solemn fat finger to emphasize them: "The thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts."
"Wrong, wrong thoughts," supplied Randolph Sebastian, so gravely that the Honourable Joe accepted the amendment, and looked worried, as only the thought of losing his grip on Bartlett's "Familiar Quotations" could worry him at the end of a perfect meal.
"Wrong thought?" he repeated, in a puzzled voice.
"Thinking's barred here. What's the penalty, Judge?"
"You aren't likely to get it inflicted on you, so I won't tell you, Lil."
"No, I don't think; I act," Mrs. Burr admitted cheerfully. She always became a shade more cheerful just when you expected her to lose her temper.
"How true that is," observed Mr. Sebastian gently.
"Didn't you play auction with me last night? We're out just——"
"Don't tell me. I can't think in anything beyond three figures. Ted's doing higher mathematics over it. That's why he's home, really. I'll play with you again to-night, for your sins."
"For my sins!" He made melancholy eyes, as if he were really confessing them. Mr. Sebastian always pretended a deep devotion to Mrs. Burr. Judith thought it was one of the silliest of their games.
"But what was Judy thinking about?" demanded Mrs. Grant, in the sweet, indifferent voice that always made itself heard.
"She met a fairy prince at the ball last night. They are still to be met—at balls."
"You'd meet one anywhere he made a date, wouldn't you, Edith Kent?" said the Judge rudely. "Give Miss Judy a penny for her thoughts, if you want them, Everard. You've got to pay sometimes, you know—even you."
"Don't commercialize her too young," said Mr. Sebastian smoothly. "Though, on the whole—can you commercialize them too young?"
"Judith, what were you thinking about?" the Colonel interrupted, rather quickly, turning every one's eyes upon her at once, as he could with a word.
Judith met them confidently—amused, curious eyes, but all friendly and gay. They talked a great deal of nonsense here, but it did not irritate her, as it did her friend Judge Saxon, though she was not always amused, and could not always understand. They never tried to shock her. She was sorry for the Judge. He was not at home with these gay and good-natured people, and it was so easy to be.
She tipped her head backward in deliberate imitation of Edith Kent, whom she admired, half closed her eyes, like Lillian Burr, whom she admired still more, gazed up at the Colonel, and said, in her clear little voice:
"I was thinking about you."
"That's the answer," said Mr. Kent, and rewarded it with a lump of sugar dipped in his apricot brandy.
"For an ingenue?" said Mrs. Burr, very sweetly indeed.
"'She's getting older every day,'" hummed Mrs. Kent, in her charming, throaty contralto.
But Judge Saxon pushed back his chair and rose abruptly.
"I've had dinner enough," he said, "and so have you, Miss Judy."
"We all have, Hugh," said the Colonel quickly, and rose, too, and slipped an intimate hand through his arm. "Run along, children! Hugh, about that Brady matter——"
Judge Saxon submitted sulkily, but was laughing companionably with the Colonel by the time they all reached the library.
Judith never admired the Colonel more than when he was managing Judge Saxon in a sulky mood. And she never admired the Colonel and his friends more than she did in the lazy intimate hour here before the cards began.
The room was long and high, and too narrow; unfriendly, as only a room that is both badly proportioned and unusually large can be, but you forgot this in the softening glow of candles and rose-shaded lights. You forgot, too, that you were an exile from your own generation, among elders who bored you, though you were subtly flattered to be among them. Safe on a high window-bench in the most remote window, entirely your own, since the architect had not designed it to be sat on, and nobody else took the trouble to climb up, it was so much pleasanter to watch these people than to talk to them; they had such pretty clothes, and wore them so well, and made such effective, changing pictures of themselves in the big room.
Sometimes they amused themselves with the parlour tricks that they had so many of, and sometimes they drifted in and out in groups of two and three, to more intimate parts of the house: the smoking-room, or Mrs. Everard's suite, if she was well, or out through the French windows, across the broad, glassed-in veranda that ran the length of the room and darkened it unpleasantly by day, into the Colonel's rose garden. It was warm enough for that to-night, and a yellow, September moon showed invitingly through the windows. Mrs. Grant, who liked to be alone, as Judith could quite understand, since she had to listen to the Honourable Joe's big voice so much of the time, was slipping out through a window now, taking the coat that Mr. Sebastian brought her, but refusing to let him go with her.
He went to the piano, ran his thin, flexible brown fingers over the keys, struck into a Spanish serenade, and sang a verse of it in his brilliant but tricky tenor, with his languishing eyes upon Mrs. Burr.
"Ranny, do you want to tell the whole world of our love? You terrify me," she said, and took refuge on one arm of the Colonel's chair. Judith's mother, protesting that she needed a chaperon, promptly took possession of the other arm, disposing her blue, trailing skirts demurely, and looking more Madonna-like than ever through the cloudy smoke of a belated cigarette. The others made themselves equally comfortable, all but Judge Saxon, who had ceased to advertise the fact that he was not.
"Smile at me," Mrs. Kent begged, hovering over his chair; "I'm going to sing by and by, and I need it. Do smile! If you don't, I'm going to kiss you, Judge."
"Go as far as you like, but be sure how far you like to go, Edith," said the Judge quietly. She flushed, and turned away abruptly, playing with a pile of songs.
"I'm looking for a lullaby. Our youngest seems to need it."
"Not in your line, are they?" said Sebastian, and began to improvise one, while Judith, in her corner, closed her eyes contentedly. Whether there was any truth or not in the report that he had been playing a ramshackle piano in an East Side restaurant in New York when the Colonel picked him up, Sebastian could do charming things with quite simple little tunes, if you did not inquire into problems of harmony and counterpoint too closely. He was doing them now, weaving odds and ends of familiar tunes, rather scapegrace and thin, into a lovely, reassuring whole, that made you feel rested and safe. Judith, making herself comfortable against a stiff and unwieldy Arts and Crafts sort of cushion, as long experience had taught her to, listened, smiling.
She had no idea what a unique position she was occupying there. Judge Saxon grumbled and scolded, but he was part of the group in the room. He had grown into it, and belonged to them, as he might have belonged to an uncongenial family. The Colonel's distinguished guests saw them only on their best behaviour. Their local critics never penetrated here at all. Judith was the only outsider who did, and she had besides the irrevocable right of youth to pronounce judgment upon those who have prepared the world for it to occupy. She was their only licensed critic. What did she think of them? Her blond head drooped sleepily. She did not look disposed to say.