UNDER THE COUNTRY SKY
By GRACE S. RICHMOND
"Red Pepper Burns," "Mrs. Red Pepper," "The Twenty-Fourth of June," "The Second Violin," Etc.
With Frontispiece in Colors By FRANCES ROGERS
A. L. BURT COMPANY Publishers New York
Published by Arrangements with DOUBLEDAY, PAGE AND COMPANY
COPYRIGHT, 1916, BY DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, INCLUDING THAT OF TRANSLATION INTO FOREIGN LANGUAGES, INCLUDING THE SCANDINAVIAN
COPYRIGHT, 1915, 1916, BY THE CURTIS PUBLISHING COMPANY
I. Heart Burnings 3 II. Something Really Happens 15 III. A Semi-Annual Occurrence 31 IV. A Literary Light 39 V. Shabbiness 50 VI. When Royalty Comes 60 VII. Snowballs 71 VIII. Soapsuds 84 IX. A Reasonable Proposition 96 X. Stuart Objects 105 XI. Borrowed Plumes 119 XII. Early Morning 135 XIII. A Copyist 143 XIV. Out of the Blue 153 XV. "Great Luck!" 164 XVI. A Little Trunk 176 XVII. Reaction 187 XVIII. "Steady On!" 199 XIX. Revelations 212 XX. Five Minutes 228 XXI. Messages 236 XXII. Toasts 248 XXIII. Why Not? 259 XXIV. Magic Gold 270 XXV. Great Music 283 XXVI. Salt Water 295 XXVII. "Cakes and Ices" 310 XXVIII. A Tanned Hercules 323 XXIX. Milestones 332 XXX. Questions and Answers 342
She did not want to hate the girls; indeed, since she loved them all, it would go particularly hard with her if she had to hate them; love turned to hate is such a virulent product! But, certainly, she had never found it so hard to be patient with them.
They were all five her college classmates, of only last year's class, and it was dear and kind of them to drive out here into the country to see her, coming in Phyllis Porter's great family limousine, the prettiest, jolliest little "crowd" imaginable. They had been thoughtful enough to warn her that they were coming, too, so that she could set the old manse living-room in its pleasantest order, build a crackling apple-wood fire in the fireplace, and get out her best thin china and silver with which to serve afternoon tea—she made it chocolate, with vivid recollection of their tastes; and added deliciously substantial though delicate sandwiches, with plenty of the fruitiest and nuttiest kinds of little cakes. She had donned the one real afternoon frock she possessed, a clever make-over out of nothing in particular. Altogether, when she greeted her guests, as they ran, fur-clad and silk-stockinged after the manner of their kind, into her welcoming arms, she had seemed to them absolutely the old Georgiana.
They had brought her a wonderful box of red roses—and Phyllis had caught her kissing one of the great, silky buds as she put it with the rest in a bowl. "I don't believe she's seen a hothouse rose since she left college," thought Phyllis, with a stab of pity at her tender heart. But for the first hour of their stay Georgiana had been her gay and brilliant self, flinging quips and jests broadcast, asking impertinent questions, making saucy comments, quite as of old. It was only when Dot Manning, toward the end of the visit, began a sober tale of the misfortunes which had come thronging into the life of one of their classmates, that Georgiana's face, sobering into sympathetic gravity, betrayed to her companions a curious change which had come upon it since they saw it last.
Meanwhile, in answer to her questioning, they had told her all about themselves. Phyllis Porter and Celia Winters were having a glorious season in society. Theo Crossman was deep in settlement work—"crazy over it" was, of course, the phrase. Dot Manning was going abroad next week for a year of travel in all sorts of beguiling, out-of-the-way places. As for Madge Sylvester, who was getting ready to be married after Easter, the first of the class, she sat mostly in a dreamy, smiling silence, looking into the fire while the others talked.
No, Georgiana did not want to hate the girls, but before their stay was over she found herself coming dangerously near it—temporarily, at least. They were dears, of course, but they were so content with themselves and so pitiful of her. Not, of course, that they meant to let her see this, but it showed in spite of them. They wanted to know what she did with herself, whether there were any young people, and any good times going on—Georgiana led them to the window, just at this point, and pointed out to them a vigorous young man striding by in ulster and soft hat, who looked up and waved as he passed, showing one of those fine and manly young faces, glowing with health and hopefulness, which always challenge interest from girlhood.
"Oh, have you many like that?" Celia had asked, and when Georgiana had owned that James Stuart was the only one precisely "like that," Dot had inquired if Mr. Stuart belonged to Georgiana, and, being answered in the negative, shook her head and sighed: "One swallow may make a summer, Jan, but I doubt it!"
Theodora Crossman, the settlement worker, inquired particularly whether Georgiana were doing anything worth while, using that pregnant modern phrase which has been decidedly overworked, yet which hardly can be spared from the present-day vocabulary.
"Worth while!" cried Georgiana, flashing into flame in an instant in the way they knew so well. "Worth while—yes! You haven't seen my father, have you, ever? It's a pity this happens to be one of his bad, spine-achey days, for he'd be a good and sufficient answer to that question. Father Davy is one of the Lord's own saints on earth, and he possesses a magnificent sense of humour, which not all saints do, you know. To love him is a liberal education, and to take care of him is better 'worth while' than to have any number of fingers in other people's pies."
"Of course, dear," Theo had answered soothingly. "We know there's nothing in the world so well worth while as looking after one's father and mother. Your mother died long ago, didn't she, dear? And your father would be dreadfully lonely without you. At the same time, it doesn't seem as if he could absorb all your energies. You remember the splendid things Professor Nichols used to say about the duty of the college girl, after college, particularly in a small town? I suppose you have no foreigners here, but I thought perhaps you might find quite a wonderful field for your endeavour in stimulating the women of the place into clubs for study and work. It's——"
A curious exclamation from her hostess caused Miss Crossman to pause. In fact, they all stared wonderingly at Georgiana. She stood upon the hearthrug, her colour, usually ready to glow in her dusky face, now receding suggestively, her dark eyes sparkling dangerously. "The only trouble with that sort of thing," she answered with suspicious quietness, "or rather the two troubles with it are these: In the first place, the women have pretty nearly a club apiece already, which suits them much better than anything I could 'stimulate' them to; and, in the second place, I have 'quite a wonderful field for my endeavour,' as you call it, Theo—did you crib that phrase?—in the upper regions of my own home. I—in fact, I may be said to belong to the I. W. W.; I'm one of the industrial workers of the world!"
"Jan, you haven't gone into anything crazy——" Dot was beginning, when Georgiana, obeying an impulse, walked away from her hearthrug toward the door, beckoning her guests to follow.
"Come on," she invited. "Since you have so poor an opinion of the possibilities for serious labour in a world of woe offered by my residence in a small country village, you may come and see for yourselves."
They came after her, with a rustle and flutter of frocks and a patter of smartly shod feet, up the old spindle-railed staircase, through a chilly and unfurnished upper hall, and up a still chillier narrow second staircase, into an attic region which could hardly be properly characterized as chilly, for the reason that the atmosphere there was frankly freezing.
As near as possible to the gable window stood a monster structure the nature of which the beholders did not instantly recognize. Phyllis was the first to cry out: "A loom! It must be a very old one, too. Oh, how fascinating! What do you make, Jan—fabrics?"
"Rugs," explained Georgiana, pulling at a pile upon the floor. "Such rugs as these. Good looking? Yes, dear classmates?"
"Stunning!" cried Madge Sylvester, with a smothered shiver at the penetrating cold of the place.
"Simply wonderful!" "Too clever for anything!" and, "Oh, Jan, do you make them to sell?" "Can I buy this one?" "I'm wild over this dull blue and Indian red!" came tumbling from the mouths of the eager girls, as in the fading light from the attic window they examined the hand-woven rugs. There was sincerity in their voices; Georgiana had known there would be; she was sure of the art and skill plainly to be found in her product.
"I'm afraid not, Phyl. These are all orders, and I'm weeks behind. They go to certain exclusive city shops, and I have all I can do."
"You must have struck a gold mine. I'm so glad!" congratulated warm-hearted Phyllis.
"Well, not exactly. It's rather slow work, when you do housework, too," acknowledged Georgiana. "However, it does very well; it keeps us in firewood—and oysters—for the winter."
She instantly regretted this speech, for it led, presently, as she might have known it would, to delicately worded expressions of hope that she would in the future give her friends the pleasure of purchasing her wares.
Down by the fireplace again Georgiana turned upon them in her old jesting way, which yet had in it, as they all felt, a quality which was new. "Stop it, girls. No, I'll not sell one of you a rug of any size, shape, or colour. I'm far behind, as I told you. But—I'll send Madge a gorgeous one for a wedding present, if she'll tell me her preferences, and I'll do the same for each of you, when you meet your fates. Now stop talking about it. I only showed you to demonstrate that this is a busy world for me as well as for you, and that I'm very content in it. Dot, don't you want just one more of these fruitkins? By the way, since you like them so much, I'll give you the recipe. I made it up—wasn't it clever of me?"
"You're much the cleverest of us all, anyway," murmured Dot meekly, nibbling at the delicious morsel, while her hostess rapidly wrote out a little formula and gave it to her with a smile.
They were soon off after that, for the early winter twilight was upon them, and the lights in the waiting car outside suddenly came on with a suggestive completeness. Georgiana assisted her guests into luxurious coats and capes made of or lined with chinchilla, with otter, with sable; handed gloves and muffs; and listened to all manner of affectionate parting speeches, every one of which contained pressing invitations for visits, short or long. Each girl made promises of future calls, and professed herself eager to come and stay with Georgiana at any time. Then the whole group went away on a little warm breeze of good-fellowship and human kindness.
"They are dears," admitted Georgiana, as she waved her arm at the departing car; "but, oh!—oh! I can't stand having them sorry for me! The old manse is shabby, and every girl of them knew how many times this frock has been made over—I saw Celia recognize it even through its dye. No wonder, when it's been at every college tea she ever gave. But I won't—I won't—be pitied!"
The door opened, and a slender figure in an old-fashioned dressing-gown came slowly into the firelit room.
Georgiana turned quickly. "Father Davy! Do you feel better? If I'd known it, I'd have brought you in to meet the girls. They would have enjoyed you so."
"I'm not quite up to meeting the girls perhaps, daughter, but decidedly better and correspondingly cheerful. Have you had a good time?"
He placed himself as carefully as possible upon the couch by the fire, and his daughter tucked him up in an old plaid shawl which had lain folded upon it. She dropped upon the hearthrug and sat looking into the fire, while her father regarded the picture she made in the dyed frock, now a soft Indian red, a hue which pleased his eye and brought out all her gypsy colouring.
The head upon the couch pillow was topped with a soft mass of curly gray hair, the face below was thin and pale, but the eyes which rested upon the girl were the clearest, youngest blue-gray eyes that ever spoke mutely of the spirit's triumph over the body. One had but to glance at David Warne to understand that here was a man who was no less a man because he had to spend many hours of every day upon his tortured back. It was three years since he had been forced to lay aside the care of the village-and-country parish of which he had been minister, but he had given up not a whit of his interest in his fellowmen, and now that he could seldom go to them he had taught them to come to him, so that the old manse was almost as much a centre of the village's interest and affection as it had been when its master went freely in and out. A new manse had been built nearer the church, for the new man, and the old house left to Mr. Warne's undisputed possession—proof positive of his place in the hearts of the community.
"A good time?" murmured Georgiana, in answer to the question. "No, a hateful, envious, black-browed time, disguised as much as might be under a frivolous manner. The girls were lovely—and I was a perfect fiend!"
Mr. Warne did not seem in the least disconcerted by this startling statement. "The sounds I heard did not strike me as indicating the presence of any fiend," he suggested.
"Probably not. I managed to avoid giving in to the temptation to snatch Phyl's sumptuous chinchilla coat, Madge's perfectly adorable hat, Theo's bronze shoes, Dot's embroidered silk handbag, and Bess's hand-wrought collar and cuffs."
"It was a matter of clothes, then? How much heart-burning men escape!" mused Mr. Warne. "Now, I can never recall hearing any man, young or old, express a longing to denude other men of their apparel."
Georgiana shot him a look. "No, men merely envy other men their acres, their horses, their motors—and their books. Own up, now, Father Davy, have you never coveted any man's library?"
The blue-gray eyes sent her back a humorous glance. "Now you have me," he owned. "But tell me, daughter—it was not only their clothes which stirred the fiend within you? Confess!"
She looked round at him. "I don't need to," she said. "You know the whole of it—what I want for you and me—what they have—life! And lots of it. You need it just as badly as I do—you, a suffering saint at fifty-five when other men are playing golf! And I—simply bursting with longing to take you and go somewhere—anywhere with you—and see things—and do things—and live things! And we as poor as poverty, after all you've done for the Lord. Oh, I——"
She brought her strong young fist down on the nearly threadbare rug with a thump that reddened the fine flesh, and thumped again and yet again, while her father lay and silently watched her, with a look in his eyes less of pain than of utter comprehension. He said not a word, while she bit her lip and stared again into the fire, clenching the fist that had spoken for her bitterly aching heart. After a time the tense fingers relaxed, and she held up the hand and looked at it.
"I'm a brute!" she said presently. "An abominable little brute. How do you stand me? How do you endure me, Father Davy! I just bind the load on your poor back and pull the knots tight, every time I let myself break out like this. If you were any minister-father but yourself, you'd either preach or pray at me. How can you keep from it?"
He smiled. "I never liked to be preached or prayed at myself, dear," he said. "I have not forgotten. And the Lord Himself doesn't expect a young caged lioness to act like a caged canary. He doesn't want it to. And some day—He will let it out of the cage!"
She shook her head, and got up. She kissed the gray curls and patted the thin cheek, said cheerfully: "I'm going to get your supper now," and went away out of the room.
In the square old kitchen she flung open an outer door and stood staring up at the starry winter sky.
"Oh, if anything, anything, anything would happen!" she breathed, stretching out both arms toward the snowy shrubbery-broken expanse behind the house which in summer was her garden. "If something would just keep this evening from being like all the other evenings! I can't sit and read aloud—to-night. I can't—I can't! And the only interesting thing on earth that can happen is that Jimps Stuart may come over—and he probably won't, because he was over last evening and the evening before that, and he knows he can't be allowed to come all the time. He——"
It was at this point that the old brass knocker on the front door sounded—and something happened.
SOMETHING REALLY HAPPENS
It might have been any of the village people, as Georgiana expected it would be when she closed the kitchen door with a bang and went reluctantly to answer the knock. Since it was almost suppertime it was probably Mrs. Shear, who seldom made a call at any other hour, knowing she would as surely be asked to stay as it was sure that David Warne's heart would respond to the wanness and unhappiness always written on Mrs. Shear's homely middle-aged face. As she went to the door, Georgiana felt an intensely wicked desire to hit Mrs. Shear a blow with her own capable fist, which should send her backward into the snow. Georgiana did not believe that the lady was as unhappy as she looked. It seemed to be a day for expression by the use of fists!
But when the door was opened and the light from the bracket lamp in the manse hall shone out on the figure standing upon the porch, all desire to hit anything more with her fist vanished from the girl's heart. For with the first look into the face of the man outside her instant wish was to have him come in—and stay. Somebody so evidently from the great world which seemed so far away from the old village manse—somebody who looked as if he could bring with him into this dull life of theirs all manner of interest—it was small wonder that in her present mood the girl should feel like this. And it must by no means be supposed that Georgiana was in the habit of experiencing this sort of wish every time she set eyes upon a personable man. Personable men had been many in her acquaintance during the four years of her college life, and more than one of them had followed her back to the old manse to urge his claim upon her attention.
"Is the Reverend Mr. Warne at home?" asked the stranger in a low and pleasant voice. "I have a letter of introduction to him."
"Please come in," answered Georgiana, and led him straight into the living-room and her father's presence. Then, though consumed with curiosity, she retired—as far as the door of the dining-room, where she remained, ready to listen in a most reprehensible manner to the conversation which should follow.
There was an exchange of greetings, then evidently Mr. Warne was reading the letter of introduction. Presently he spoke:
"This is quite sufficient," he said, "to make you welcome under this roof. My old friend Davidson has my affection and confidence always. Please tell me what I can do for you, Mr. Jefferson."
"I should like," replied the stranger's voice, "to have a room with you, and possibly board, if that might be. If not, perhaps I could find that elsewhere; but if I might at least have the room I should be very glad. I am hard at work upon a book, and I have come away from my home and other work to find a place where I can live quietly, write steadily, and be outdoors every day for long walks in the country. Doctor Davidson suggested this place, and thought you might take me in—for an indefinite period of time, possibly some months."
"That sounds very pleasant to me," Georgiana heard her father reply. "We have never had a boarder, my daughter and I, but, if she has no objection, I should enjoy having such a man as you look to be, in the house. Your letter, you see, is not your only introduction. You carry with you in your face a passport to other men's favour."
"That is good of you," answered Mr. Jefferson—and Georgiana liked the frank tone of his voice. It was an educated voice, it spoke for itself of the personality behind it.
"I will go and talk with my daughter," she heard her father say, after the two men had had some little conversation concerning a book or two lying on the table by Mr. Warne's couch.
Georgiana fled into the kitchen, where her father found her. When he appeared, closing the door behind him, she was ready for him before he spoke.
"If he were the angel Gabriel or old Pluto himself I'd welcome him," she said under her breath, her eyes dancing. "To have somebody in the house for you to talk with besides your everlasting old parishioners—why, it would be worth a world of trouble! And it won't be any trouble at all. Go tell him your daughter reluctantly consents."
"You heard, then?" queried Mr. Warne, a quizzical smile on his gentle lips.
"Of course I heard! I was listening hard! I was all ears—regular donkey ears. He's a godsend. His board will pay for sirloin instead of round. We'll have roast duck on Sunday—twice a winter. He can have the big front room; I'll have it ready by to-morrow night."
"Come in and arrange details," urged Mr. Warne.
Georgiana stayed behind a minute to compose her face and manner, then went in, the demurest of young housewives. Not for nothing had been her years of college life, which had made, when occasion demanded, a quietly poised woman out of a girl who had been, according to village standards, a somewhat hoydenish young person.
As she faced the stranger in the full light of the fire-and-lamp-lit room, she saw in detail that of which she had had a swift earlier impression. Mr. Jefferson was a man in, she thought, the early thirties, with a strongly modelled, shaven face, keen brown eyes behind eyeglasses, a mouth which could be grave one moment and humorous the next, and the air of a man who was accustomed to think for himself and expect others to do so. He was well built though not tall, well dressed though not dapper, and he looked less like a writer of books than a participant in action of some kind or other. His dark hair showed a thread or two of gray at the temples, but this suggestion of age did not seem at all to age him.
The stranger, on his part, saw a rather more than commonly charming Georgiana, on account of the Indian-red silk frock.
"It's not fair to him," thought Georgiana, "to show him a landlady who looks so festive and fine. I can't afford to wear this often, even for his benefit." But to him she said: "I know it will give my father much pleasure to have some one in the house besides his daughter. And I am quite willing to have you at our table. I must warn you that we live very simply, as you must guess."
"I live very simply myself," Mr. Jefferson assured her. "There are few things I do not like. My one serious antipathy is Brussels sprouts," he added, smiling. "With that confession the coast is clear. And—you would not mind my smoking in my room?"
Georgiana glanced at her father with a suddenly mischievous expression. He was studying the prospective boarder with interested eyes.
"I think," confessed Mr. Warne, "that merely to catch a whiff now and then of a fragrance which is singularly pleasant to me, but which I am denied producing for myself, would add to the things that give me comfort. If you wouldn't mind smoking in the hall now and then, or, better yet, by my fireside, I should be grateful."
Mr. Jefferson nodded. "Thank you, sir. And now—when may I come? I have a room at the hotel, so don't let me in until you are quite ready."
"You may come to-morrow night for supper," promised Georgiana. "But you haven't seen the room." She rose.
"It will be in the upper right front?" hazarded Mr. Jefferson. "And it will have the customary furnishings and some means of heating?"
"I should prefer to have you see it," she insisted, and lighted a candle in an ancient pewter candlestick with an extinguisher at the side.
So the stranger, following her upstairs, surveyed his room and professed himself entirely satisfied. It looked bare enough to Georgiana as she showed it to him, but she told herself that there were possibilities in the matter of certain belongings of her own room which could be transferred to give an air of homelikeness to this.
"It is large, and I can have plenty of light and air," commented the prospective boarder. "If I might have some sort of good-sized table by that south window, for my work, I should consider myself provided for."
"You will find one when you come," promised the girl.
"Thank you. Now, I will take myself off at once. Then you may have a chance to discuss with your father the probabilities in favour of your not regretting your quick decision," he said as he descended the stairs.
"Father and I always make quick decisions," Georgiana remarked.
"Good! So do I. Do you hold to them as well?"
"Always. That's part of father's creed."
"That's very good; that speaks for itself. Well, I promise you I shall be busy enough not to bother this household overmuch. By the way"—he turned suddenly—"that table you spoke of putting in my room—if it is large, it must be heavy. Your father cannot help you lift it, and you should not lift it alone. Don't put it in place until I come—please?"
She smiled. "That's very thoughtful of you. But I am quite equal to moving it alone."
"Then let me help you now, won't you?" he offered.
She shook her head. "It's really not ready to be moved. Don't think of it again, please."
He bade them good-night and went away, with no lingering speeches on the road to the door. He had the air of a man accustomed to measure his time and to waste none of it. When he had gone Georgiana went back to her father. He looked up at her with a twinkle in his still boyish eyes.
"Well, daughter, it looks to me as if this had happened just in time to prevent a bad explosion from too high pressure of accumulated energy. You can now lower the position of the indicator on the steam gauge to the safety point by spending the whole day to-morrow in sweeping and dusting and baking. If there are any spare moments you can employ them in making over your clothes."
"Father Davy! Where did you get such a perfectly uncanny understanding?"
"From observation—purely from observation. And I myself confess to feeling considerably excited and elated. It is not every day that a gentleman of this sort knocks at the door of a village manse and asks to come in and write a book. If it had not been that my old friend Davidson is always bringing people together who need each other, I should think it the strangest thing in the world that this should happen. Davidson is the minister of a great New York church where this Mr. Jefferson attends; and Davidson has never forgotten me, though he took the high road and I the low so soon after he left the seminary. Well, it will give us a fresh interest, my dear, for as long as it lasts."
Georgiana thought it would. She was up betimes next morning, to begin the sweeping and dusting and general turning upside down of the long-unused upper front room. In the course of her window washing, her shoulders enveloped in an old red shawl, she was vigorously hailed from below.
"Ship ahoy! Your name, cargo, and destination?"
Without turning she called merrily back: "The Jefferson, with a cargo of books, bound for the public!"
"What's that? I don't get you."
"Never mind. I'm too busy to be spoken by every passing ship."
"I'll be up," called the voice, and footsteps sounded upon the porch. The front door banged, the same ringing male voice was heard shouting a "Good-morning, sir!" and the owner of the voice came leaping up the stairs and burst into the room without ceremony. He advanced till he was close to the open window, and nodded through the glass at the window-washer, who sat on the sill with her upper body outside.
He was a fine specimen of youth and brawn and energy, the young man whom Georgiana had pointed out to her friends as one of her resources when it came to the good times they were so anxious to know of. His name was James Stuart, and he was a near neighbour of the manse. He was a college graduate of three years' longer standing than Georgiana, and he, like her, had returned to the country home and his father's farm because his aging parents could not spare him, and he was the only son whose lack of other ties left him free to care for them. He and this girl had been schoolmates and long-time friends—with interesting intervals of enmity during the earlier years—and were now sworn comrades, though they still quarrelled at times. It looked, after a minute, as if this would be one of those times.
"I didn't just get you," complained James Stuart through the window.
"Wait till I come in. I can't tell all the neighbours."
Georgiana polished off her last pane, pushed up the window and slipped into the room, quite unnecessarily assisted by Stuart.
"I can't understand," began the young man, eying with approval her blooming face, frost-stung and smooth in texture as the petals of a rose, "why you're washing the windows of a room that's always shut up."
"Jimps, if you were Mrs. Perkins next door I'd understand your consuming curiosity. As it is——"
"Going to have company?"
She shook her head.
"Then—what in thunder——"
"We're going to have a boarder, if you must know." Georgiana began to attack the inside of the window.
"A boarder! What sort?"
"A very good sort. He's a literary person with a book to write."
"Suffering cats! Not the man at the hotel?"
"I believe he was to exist at the hotel—if he could—for twenty-four hours," admitted Georgiana.
"But that man," objected Mr. James Stuart, "is a—why, he's—he doesn't look like that sort at all."
"What sort, if you please?"
"The literary. He looks like a—well, I took him for a professional man of some kind."
Georgiana laughed derisively. "Jimps! Isn't authorship a profession?"
"Well, I mean, you know, he doesn't look like an ink-slinger; he looks like some sort of a doer. He hasn't that dreamy expression. He sees with both eyes at once. In other words, he seems to be all there."
"Your idea of literary men is a disgrace to your education, Jimps. Think of the author-soldiers and author-engineers—and author-Presidents of the United States," she ended triumphantly.
"It doesn't matter," admitted Stuart. "The thing that does is that he's coming here. I can't say that appeals to me. How in time did he come to apply?" Georgiana told him briefly. Stuart looked gloomy. "That's all right," he said, "as long as he confines himself to being company for your father. But if he takes to being company for you—lookout!"
"Absurd! He's years older than I, and he said he would be working very hard. I shall see nothing of him except at the table. Heavens! don't grudge us anything that promises to relieve the monotony of our lives even a little bit."
Stuart whistled. "Monotony, eh? In spite of all my visits? All right. But I'd be just as well pleased if he wore skirts. And mind you—your Uncle Jimps is coming over evenings just as often as and a little oftener than if you didn't have this literary light burning on your hearthstone. See?"
He went away, his thick fair hair, uncapped, shining in the morning sunlight, his arm waving a friendly farewell back at the window, where a white cloth flapped in reply.
"Dear old boy!" thought the young woman affectionately; "what should I do without him?"
That afternoon, just before the supper hour, the boarder's trunk arrived. It was borne upstairs by the village baggageman, complaining bitterly of its weight. It was an aristocratic-looking trunk, and it bore labels which indicated that it was a traveled trunk. Shortly afterward the boarder himself appeared and was allowed to betake himself at once to his room, from which he emerged at the call of the bell, and came promptly down. Meeting Mr. Warne limping slowly through the hall, he offered his arm, and in the dining-room placed his host in his chair with the gentle deference so welcome from a younger man to an older.
Georgiana, as she served one of the undeniably simple but toothsome meals for the cooking of which she was equipped by many years' apprenticeship, noted how bright grew Father Davy's face as the supper progressed, and how delightfully the newcomer talked—and listened—for if he was an interesting talker he proved to be a still more accomplished listener. When the supper was over Mr. Jefferson lingered a few minutes by the fire, then went up to his room, explaining that he must unpack his books and make ready for an early attack in the morning upon his work.
In her own room, that night, Georgiana lay awake for a long time. Just before she went to sleep she addressed herself sternly:
"My child, I shouldn't wonder if you've jumped out of the frying pan of monotony into the fire of unrest. It certainly means trouble for you when you can't get a perfect stranger's face out of your mind for an hour. Now, there's just one thing about it: you've always despised girls who let themselves leap into liking any man and are so upset by it that everybody sees it. This one is undoubtedly either married or engaged to be, and even if he's the freest old bachelor alive you are to behave as if he were the tightest tied. You are to go straight ahead with your work and to remember every minute that you are a poor minister's daughter with only a college training for an asset. He's very clearly a man of importance somewhere; he couldn't look like that and be anything else. He will never think twice of you. Whatever attention he gives you will be purely because he is a gentleman and he can't ignore his host's daughter—nonsense, his landlady—I might as well face it. He's a boarder and I'm his landlady. Gentlemen don't take much interest in landladies. So now, Georgiana Warne, landlady—keeper of a boarding-house, be sensible and go to sleep."
But before she went to sleep her mind, in spite of her, had imaged for her again the interesting, clever-looking face of the stranger under the roof, with his clear, straightforward glance that seemed to see so much, his smile which disclosed splendid teeth, his strongly moulded chin. And she had owned, frankly, driven to the confession just to see if it wouldn't relieve her:
"It's just such a face as I've seen and liked—in crowds sometimes—but I never knew the owner of one. It's such a face as a woman would remember to her grave, if its owner had just belonged to her one—hour! Oh, dear God, I've prayed you to let something happen—anything! And now I'm—afraid!"
But, in the morning, when pulses beat strongly and courage is bright, Georgiana had another tone to take with herself. She faced her image in the glass, which looked straight back at her with unflinching dark eyes.
"I'm ashamed of you! To moon and croon like that! Now, brace up, Miss Warne, and be yourself. You've never lacked spirit; you're not going to lack it now. You're going to be strong and sane about this thing. You're going to be the sort of girl whose mind no man can guess at. You're going to weave rugs for your life, and enjoy Jimps Stuart as you always have, and there's not going to be a whimper out of you from this hour, no matter what happens—or doesn't happen. Do you hear? Well, then—attention! Head up, shoulders back, heart steady; forward, march!"
Two hours later, when, in the absence of the new inmate, Georgiana went into his room to put it in order for the day, she found it impossible not to note the character of his belongings. They were few and simple enough, but in every detail they betrayed a fastidious taste. And among the articles in ebony and leather which lay upon the linen cover of the old bureau stood one which held her fascinated attention. It was a framed photograph of a young and very lovely woman in evening dress, and the face which smiled over the perfect shoulder was looking straight out at her.
Georgiana stared back. "Who are you?" she whispered. "I might have known you would be here!"
"And who, please, are you?" the picture seemed to query lightly, smiling in return for the other's frown. "As for me, don't you see plainly? I belong to him. Else why should he have me here? You see I'm the only one he cared to bring. Doesn't that speak for itself?"
"Of course it does," agreed Georgiana; then stoutly: "And why should I care? Of course I don't care. To care would be—absurd!"
A SEMI-ANNUAL OCCURRENCE
"Father Davy, the 'Semi-Annual' has come!" Georgiana, tugging with both strong young arms, hauled the big express package into the living-room of the old manse, and shut the door with a bang. Breathing rapidly from her exertions, her cheeks warmly flushed, her dark eyes glowing, she stood over the package, looking at her father with a curious sort of smile not wholly compounded of joy and satisfaction.
"That is very good," said Father Davy in his pleasant voice; "and very opportune. It was but yesterday, it seems to me, that I heard daughter declaring that she was 'Oh, so shabby!'"
"Yes, yes—but what do you wager there is there?" questioned Georgiana. "I can tell you before I take the cover off. Three evening gowns, frivolous and impossible for a little town like this; one draggled lingerie frock, two evening coats, and possibly—just possibly—a last year's tailored suit, with a tear in the front of the skirt and not a scrap of goods to make a fold to cover it. Why, oh, why, do they never have any pieces?"
"The reason seems obvious enough," Mr. Warne suggested, as the girl stooped and began to wrestle with the cords which tied the big package. His glance fell musingly on the down-bent head with its masses of dark-brown hair, upon the white and shapely arms from which the sleeves were rolled back,—Georgiana had been busy in the kitchen when the expressman came,—upon the whole comely young figure in its blue-print morning dress. "They never have need of the pieces, I should judge," said he.
"But I have. Jeannette might think of me when she orders her clothes, not just when her maid is packing the box with a lot of castaways. Well, here's hoping there's just one thing I can use," and she lifted the cover of the box and looked within, it cannot be denied, with eager curiosity.
"There are always many things you can use," her father gently reminded her; "you, who are so ingenious."
"Here's the evening frock!" cried his daughter, lifting out the top garment and holding it up before them both. "Oh, what a dress to send a poor country cousin! Fluff and flimsy, trimmed with sparklers; cut frightfully low, no sleeves, and a draggly train. Doesn't it look suitable for me?" She flung it aside with a gesture of scorn. "Ah, here's something a shade better! A little dancing frock of rose-coloured chiffon—and her clumsy partner stepped on the hem of it. The maid in the dressing-room sewed it up for her to have her last dance in, and then she came home and threw it into the box for me. Well, I can get a gorgeous motor veil out of it—I who have so many drives in the cars of the rich!"
"The—the under part looks available to me," suggested Mr. Warne, striving to be of comfort.
Georgiana shrugged her blue-clad shoulders. "Oh, yes, if I could dress in slitted silk petticoats and you could wear them for dressing-gowns, we'd have plenty. Well, look at this! Here's a velvet—cerise! What a glorious, impossible colour! And here's the lingerie frock; that's not so bad; I really think it will stand a couple of launderings before it falls to pieces in my hands. And here's the evening coat—pale gray with fox trimmings—and she's fallen foul of some ink or something, and the cleaner couldn't get it all out. Father Davy, look!"
"It seems to me," said Mr. Warne in his gentle tones, which were yet not without more firmness than one might expect from so frail a person, "that I have heard somewhere a homely proverb to the effect that it is not quite in good taste to——"
"'Look a gift horse in the mouth,'" finished Georgiana. Her eyes were rebellious. "And there's another: 'Beggars mustn't be choosers.' Yes, I know. Only, semi-annually I certainly do experience a burning wish that my dear rich relations were persons with a trifle keener sense of discernment as to which of their old clothes would be most appreciated by their poor cousins. They must now and then, Father Davy, wear something sensible. They must have morning clothes and street clothes—adorable ones. Why do they send only the worldly clothes to the manse? And why—why do they never put in so much as one of Uncle Thomas's discarded cravats for the Little Minister himself?"
"Your Uncle Thomas and I may possibly have different tastes in the matter of neckwear," replied Mr. Warne with such gravity of manner but such a sparkle of humour in his blue-gray eyes that his daughter laughed in spite of herself. "Come, come, dear, is there nothing you can approve among all those rich materials? You might make me innumerable cravats, and I am such a fop I could wear a fresh one each day—to please you."
"Father Davy!" Georgiana sat back on her heels. She had slipped her bared arms into the armholes of the sleeveless white "fluff-and-flimsy" evening frock, and the "sparklers" of the low-cut bodice now framed her blue-print clad shoulders with an astonishing effect of incongruity. "I have a wonderful inspiration. Let's ask Jeannette out here for a visit—an object-lesson as to the state of life whereunto the country cousins have been called. She hasn't seen me in ten years, and all I remember of her is a fluffy, yellow-haired girl with a sniffly cold in her head. What do you say, Father Davy? Shall we ask her?"
Her father's gaze, quiet, comprehending, more than a little amused, met Georgiana's, audacious, defiant, mischievous, yet reasonable. The two looked at each other for a full minute.
"Do you think she would come?" Mr. Warne inquired doubtfully.
"Why shouldn't she come? She's had a gay winter so far, but not a happy one. She's no debutante any more, you know; she's an 'old girl' in her fifth season. That's what the society girls get by coming out at eighteen. Now I, who am only a year out of college and who never 'came out' in my life, am as keen at the game of being grown up as if I were just putting up my hair for the first time. Well, Jeannette's been keeping up the pace all winter, is thoroughly worn out and unhappy, and doesn't know what to do with herself. It's March—and Lent—the time of year when the society folks betake themselves to spring resorts to recover their shattered nerves. Don't you think she'd jump at the chance to come to the little country town and try what our air and our cookery would do for her?"
"You seem to know all about her in spite of not having seen or known her—except through these boxes of clothes—since she was a little girl."
"Ah, that's just it—through her boxes—that's how I know her!" Triumphantly Georgiana held up the cerise velvet gown. "Don't I know a girl who would wear that? Wild for excitement—that's why she chose the colour. But she didn't get the fun she expected; he didn't like it—or somebody said she looked too pale in it—and she fired it at me before she had done more than take the freshness off. I can wear it—see here!"
She got to her feet, untied the little black silk tie which held the low-rolling collar of her working dress at the throat, unfastened a row of hooks, and let the blue print slip to her feet. Over the glory of her white shoulders and gleaming arms she flung the cerise velvet—gorgeous, glowing, wonderful colour, as trying to the ordinary complexion as colour can well be. But as the gown fell into place, and Georgiana, backing up to her father, was fastened somewhat tentatively into it, it would have been plain to any beholder that if the rich girl could not wear the queenly, daring robe the poor girl could—as she had said.
She swept up and down the room, her head held high. She played the part of a lady of fashion and held an imaginary reception, carrying on a stream of "society" talk with a manner which made the pale man on the couch laugh like a boy. Holding a dialogue with a hypothetical male guest, she led him out into the hall, still within sight of Mr. Warne's couch, and was in the midst of a scene as inspiredly clever as anything she had ever done at college, where she had been the pride of a dramatic club whose fame had waxed greater than that of any similar organization for many years, when the front door of the house suddenly opened, and a gust of chilly March air rushed in with the person entering.
Georgiana wheeled—to find herself confronting the amused gaze of her boarder, Mr. E. C. Jefferson, as read the address upon his mail.
Mr. Jefferson was by this time, after a month under the roof of the old manse, well established as a member of the household, though after the somewhat remote fashion to be expected of a man whose absorbing work filled most of his waking hours. He closed the door quickly as he caught sight of Georgiana in her masquerade, removed his hat, and bent his head before the cerise velvet.
Georgiana, blushing as vividly as if it were the first time mortal man had ever beheld her pretty shoulders, threw him a laughing look, murmured: "Dress parade in borrowed finery, Mr. Jefferson; don't let the blaze of colour put your eyes out!" and retreated toward the living-room where her father sat, much amused by the situation.
She was followed by her boarder's reply: "I find myself still happily retaining the use of my eyes, Miss Warne. You need not be too much in haste; it is very dull outside, I assure you."
He went on up the stairs, but she had caught his smile, momentarily illumining a face which was ordinarily rather grave. Georgiana closed the living-room door upon the sight of the lithe figure rapidly ascending the staircase without a glance behind. As she faced her father she assumed the expression of a merry child caught in mischief.
"Our new lodger has certainly come upon me in all sorts of situations, not to mention disguises," she remarked, "but this is the first time he has met me in the role of leading lady on the melodramatic stage. Please unhook me, Father Davy; the play is over, and it's time to get the pot-roast simmering. And what do you say to inviting lovely Jeannette Crofton to visit us? Would it be too hard on you?"
"Not at all, my dear. I should be glad to see your Uncle Thomas's daughter. Invite her, by all means. You have far too little young companionship; it will do you good to have a girl of your own age in the house."
"I wonder how we shall get on," mused Georgiana. "Anyhow she'll see what a market this is for evening frocks cut on her lines!"
A LITERARY LIGHT
Many hours afterward, the labours of the day over, Georgiana bent her dark head above an old-fashioned writing-desk in a corner of the living-room, and dashed off the contemplated letter to her almost unknown cousin. How the invitation would be received she had little idea, but since a letter of thanks was undeniably due in response to the "Semi-Annual" box, it was certainly a simple and natural matter enough to offer in return for it a possible pleasure and a certain benefit.
"I'll run straight down to the post-office and mail it," declared Georgiana, sealing and stamping her letter after having read it aloud to her father. "A run in this March wind will be good for me after baking and brewing all day."
"Do, daughter; and take a tumbler or two of jelly to Mrs. Ames, by the way. And pick a spray or two of the scarlet geranium to go with it." Mr. Warne spoke from the depths of an old armchair by the living-room fire, where, with a lamp at his elbow, he was not too deep in a speech of the elder Pitt on "Quartering Soldiers in Boston," to take thought for an invalid whom he considered far less fortunate than himself.
"I will—poor, disagreeable old lady. She doesn't admit that anything tastes as it should, but I observe our jelly is never long in disappearing."
Georgiana, now wearing in honour of the close of day a simple frock of dark-blue wool with a dash of scarlet at throat and wrists, donned a big military cape of blue, scarlet lined, and twisted about her neck a scarf of scarlet silk (dyed from a Semi-Annual petticoat!), which served less as a protection than as the finishing touch to her gay winter's night costume. She was likely to meet few people on her way, but there were always plenty of loungers in the small village post-office, and not even a college graduate could be altogether disdainful of the masculine admiration sure to be found there, though she might ignore it.
As she closed the house door, lifting her face to a cold, starlit sky from which the clouds of the day had broken away at sundown, another door a few rods down the quiet street banged loudly, and the sharp creak of rapid footsteps was immediately to be heard upon the frozen gravel. Georgiana smiled in the darkness at the coincidence of that banging door.
"Well met!" called a ringing voice. "Curious that I should break out of Mrs. Perkins's just as you came along!"
"Very curious, Jimps. How do you manage it? I stole out like a cat just to avoid such a possibility. I knew you were there."
"Did you, indeed?" inquired the owner of the voice, coming up and standing still to look at what he could see of the military-caped form. His own strongly built figure took up its position beside hers as if by right. His hand slipped lightly under her arm, and he turned her gently to face the direction in which he himself had set out. "That's like your impertinence. To pay you for it you shall come this way," he insisted. "It's only a step farther, it's not quite so hackneyed, and it will bring us out where we want to be. Look at the stars!"
"Carrying something under that cape? Give it to me, chum."
"It's only a bit of a basket, Jimps; never mind, you might spill it."
"You can't carry a bit of a basket when I'm around! Spill nothing! Hand it over."
"Terribly dictatorial to-night, aren't you?"
"Possibly. I've been bossing a lot of new hands to-day, who didn't know a pick from a gang-plough."
"But you've been outdoors every minute!" Her tone was envious.
"Every blessed minute. And you've been in, puttering over a lot of house jobs? See here, you need a run. Let's take the time to go up Harmon Hill and run down it—eh? There'll not be a soul to see."
She laughed doubtfully. "I'd love to, but—the jelly?"
"That's easy." He dropped her arm, turned aside to a clump of trees at the corner of an overgrown old place which they were passing, and deposited the little basket in the shadow. He came back and caught her arm again.
"Easy, now, up the hill. I wish the snow wasn't all gone, we'd have a farewell coast at the end of the season. But there'll undoubtedly be more. Honestly, now, George, hasn't the coasting and tramping helped you through this first winter?"
"Jimps, I don't know what I should have done without it—or you."
"Thanks; I think so myself. The first winter back in the little old town, after the years away at school and college—well—— Anyhow, I pride myself the partnership has worked pretty well. We've been about as good chums as you could ask, haven't we now?"
"About as good."
"All right." His tone had a decided ring of satisfaction in it, but he did not pursue the subject further. Instead he changed it abruptly: "How does the new boarder come on?"
"Very well. We really don't mind having him at all, he's so quiet, and Father enjoys his table talk."
"Father does, but daughter doesn't?"
"Oh, yes, I do—only he doesn't talk much to me. I sit and listen to their discussions—and jump up to wait on them so often that I sometimes lose the thread."
"The duffer! Why doesn't he get up and wait on you?"
Georgiana laughed. "Jimps, we're going to have another guest."
"Another man?" The question came quickly.
"Not at all. A girl—my cousin, Jeannette Crofton. At least I'm writing to ask her for the fortnight before Easter."
"Those rich Crofton relations of yours who hold their heads so high for no particular reason except that it helps them to forget their feet are on the earth?"
"James Stuart, what have I ever said of them to make you speak like that?"
"Never mind; go on. Is it the girl whose picture gets into the Sunday papers—entirely against her will, of course—as the daughter of Thomas Crofton? She's reported engaged, from time to time, and then the report is denied. She's——"
"I shall tell you no more about her," said Georgiana Warne, with her head held quite as high as if she belonged to that branch of the family to whom James Stuart had so irreverently alluded.
"All right. I'm not interested in her anyhow, and you'll want your breath for the run down. Come on, George; one more spurt and we're up.... All ready. Take hold of my hand. Come on!"
In the March starlight the two ran hand in hand down the long, steep Harmon Hill which led from the east into the little town. Stuart's grip was tight, or more than once Georgiana would have slipped on the rough iciness of the descent. But she did not falter at the rush of it, and she was not panting, only breathing quickly, when they came to a standstill upon the level.
"Good lungs, those of yours, George," commented Stuart, in the frank manner in which he might have said it to a younger brother. "You haven't played basket ball and rowed in your 'Varsity boat for nothing. Sure you're not letting up a bit on all that training, now that you're back, baking beans for boarders?"
"And sweeping their rooms, and carrying up wood for their fires, and——"
"What? Do you mean to say that literary light allows you to tote wood for him?" They were walking on rapidly now. "I'll be over in the morning and take up a pile that'll leave no room for him to put his feet. What's he thinking of?"
"Jimps, boy, how absurd you are! How should he know who puts the wood in his room? I don't go up with armfuls of it when he's there."
"If you did, he'd merely open the door for you and say: 'Thank you very much, my good girl.' I don't like this boarder business, I can tell you that. Do you let him smoke in his room?"
"Why not, you unreasonable mortal? He smokes a beautiful briarwood, and such delicious tobacco that I find myself sniffing the air when I go through the hall in the evening, hoping I may get a whiff."
"Does, eh? When I bring up the wood I'll smoke up your hall so you won't have to sniff the air to know you're enjoying the fragrance of Araby."
In this light and airy mood the pair went on their way, enjoying each other's company as might any boy and girl, though each had left the irresponsible years behind and had settled down to the sober work of manhood and womanhood. To Georgiana Warne, whose necessary presence at home, instead of out in the great world of activity where she longed to be, Stuart's society, as he had intimated, had been a strong support during this first year and a half since her return. The singularly similar circumstances which had shaped the plans of these two young people had been the means of inspiring much comprehending sympathy between them. An almost lifelong previous acquaintance had put them on a footing of brotherly and sisterly intimacy, now powerfully enhanced by the sense of need each felt for the other. It was small wonder that their fellow-townsmen were accustomed to couple their names as they would those of a pair long betrothed, and that, as the two came together into the village post-office, where as usual a group of citizens lounged and lingered on one pretext or another, the appearance of "Jim Stuart and Georgie Warne" should cause no comment whatever. To-night more than one idler noted, as often before, the fashion in which the two were outwardly suited to each other. Both were the possessors of the superb health which is such a desirable ally to true vigour of mind, and since both were understood to be, in the village usage, "highly educated," their attraction for each other was considered a natural sequence—as it undoubtedly was.
The mail procured, the letter posted, and the small basket delivered to a querulously grateful old woman, the young people set out for home. They had somehow fallen into a more serious mood, and, walking more slowly than before, discussed soberly enough certain problems of Stuart's connected with the commercial side of market gardening. He spoke precisely as he would have spoken to a man, with the possible difference that he made his explanations of business conditions a trifle fuller than he might have done to any man. But his confidence in his friend's ability to grasp the situation was shown by the way in which, ending his statement of the case, he asked her advice.
"Now, given just this crisis, what would you do, George?" he said.
She considered in silence for some paces. Then she asked a question or two more, put with a clearness which showed that she understood precisely the points to be taken into consideration. He answered concisely, and she then, after a minute's further communion with herself, suggested what seemed to her a feasible course.
Stuart demurred, thought it over, argued the thing for a little with her, and came round to her point of view. He threw back his head with a relieved laugh. "I admit it—it's a mighty good suggestion; it may be the way out. Anyhow, it's well worth trying. George, you're a peach! There isn't one girl in a hundred who would have listened with intelligence enough to make her opinion worth a picayune."
"I'm not a girl, Jimps. I don't want to be a girl—at twenty-four. I can't; I haven't time."
"That's a safe enough statement," replied James Stuart, looking down at the dark head beside him under the March starlight, "as long as you continue to act enough like a normal girl to run down the hills with me after dark. Well, here we are, worse luck! I suppose you're not going to ask me in?" There was a touch of appeal in the lightly spoken question.
"Not to-night, Jimps; I'm sorry. Father Davy overdid to-day, in spite of all my efforts, and I must see him to bed early and read him to sleep."
"After he's gone the literary light won't come down and smoke his spices-of-Araby mixture by your fire, instead of his own, while you entertain him, will he?"
Her low laugh rang out. "You ridiculous person, what a vivid imagination you have! Every evening at about this time the literary light goes off for a long tramp by himself, and often doesn't come back till all our lights are out, except the one we leave burning for him. He is absolutely absorbed in his work. We really see nothing at all of him except at the table."
"Just the same, the time will come," predicted James Stuart. "Some night he'll take his regular place at your fireside, as he does at your table. I know your father's soft heart. Yours may not be quite so vulnerable, but if the boarder should happen to look low in his mind after a telegram from anywhere, or should get his precious feet wet——"
"Jimps, go home and be sensible. When Jeannette comes—if she does come, which I doubt more and more—you may be asked over quite a number of times during her visit."
"I presume so. And that's the time you'll have Jefferson down, and you'll pair off with him, while I do my prettiest not to look like an awkward countryman before the lady who has her picture in the Sunday papers."
"Good-night, James Stuart—good-night."
"Good-night, Georgiana—dear," Stuart responded cheerfully. But the last word was under his breath.
"I positively didn't know how shabby the house was till I'd read Jeannette's letter of acceptance!"
She did not say it to her father—not Georgiana Warne. She said it not to James Stuart, nor to Mr. E. C. Jefferson. Being Georgiana, she said it to no one but her slightly daunted self. She was standing in the hall as she spoke, the wide, plain hall which ran straight through the middle of the wide, plain house, with its square rooms on either side and its winding, old-fashioned staircase at the back. Of the house itself, Georgiana was not in the least ashamed. She knew that it possessed a certain charm of aspect, from the fanlight over the entrance door to the big quaint kitchen with its uneven floor dark with time. It was when one came to details that the charm sordidly vanished—at least to the critical vision of the young housewife. Like the worn white paint upon its exterior, the walls and floors within called loudly for a restoring hand. As for the furnishings, Georgiana looked about her with an appraising eye which took in all their dinginess. The old rugs and carpets were so nearly threadbare; the furniture was so worn; the very muslin curtains at the windows, though white as hands could make them, had been so many times repaired that even artful draping could not wholly conceal their deficiencies.
In other ways the household's lack of means made itself plainly apparent to the daughter of the house, as she went from room to room. The linen press, for instance—how pitifully low its piles of sheets and towels had grown! Hardly a sheet but had a patch upon it, hardly a towel but had been cut down and rehemmed, that it might last as long as possible. There was, to be sure, one small tier of towels, handed down from Georgiana's grandmother and carefully preserved against much using, of which any mistress of a linen press might be proud. There were also two pairs of fine hand-made linen sheets with borders exquisitely drawn; two pairs of pillow cases to match, and a quite wonderful old bedspread of knitted lace.
"I can keep washing out the best towels for her," Georgiana reflected resignedly as she counted her resources.
In the china cupboard there was left quite a stock of rare old plates and dishes which could be used as occasion demanded. The blue-and-white crockery which must serve a part of the time was pretty meagre, the supply of antique silver good as far as it went; it did not go very far.
But—"After all," said Georgiana to herself determinedly, "we can give her good things to eat, and served as attractively as need be—why should I mind about the rest? Father in his armchair is a benediction to any meal, and Mr. Jefferson can talk as few guests can who sit at the Crofton table, I'll wager. I'll not be apologetic, even in my mind, no matter how much I feel like it. I've asked her and she's coming. She wouldn't be coming if she wasn't in a way willing to take what she finds. We'll have a good time out of it."
Whereupon she betook herself to the room which was to be given to her cousin, and fell to work with a will, for this was the last thing to be done before the arrival of the guest.
When it was in order she looked about it, not ill content. It would be an exacting guest, surely, who could not be comfortable here—and there are many guest-rooms of elaborate appointments where guests are not wholly comfortable. This room was large and square and airy, with its four windows facing east and south, and the view from the eastern ones was far-reaching, with a glimpse of blue mountain ranges in the distance. If the matting upon the floor had been many times turned and refitted, its worn places were now all cunningly hidden and it was as fresh as the newly scrubbed paint on the woodwork. There was a luxuriously cushioned, high-backed chair—would Jeannette, by any possibility, recognize the blue silk of those cushion covers? Georgiana wondered. Jeannette, who never wore a frock long enough really to become familiar with its pattern, would only know that the cushions were soft to her comfort-accustomed body. The woven rag rugs of blue and white upon the floor were of Georgiana's own making. An ancient desk, which had belonged to Mr. Warne's mother, was carefully fitted with all the small articles one could desire in reason, taken from Georgiana's cherished college equipment. The washstand in the corner, behind a home-made screen of clever design, was furnished with two beautiful old blue-and-white ewers—the pride of Georgiana's heart, for they had come over from England with her great grandmother; and the rack was hung as full with towels as fastidious bather could desire. There were two or three interesting old prints upon the walls. Altogether, with its small bedroom fireplace laid ready for a fire, and a blue denim-covered woodbox filled to overflowing with more wood——
She had forgotten to fill the woodbox, as yet. It was nearly time to dress for Jeannette's coming. Georgiana ran hurriedly downstairs and through the kitchen, warm and fragrant with the baking of the day in preparation for the coming supper, and in that pleasant order which the kitchen of the good housewife shows at four in the afternoon. In the woodshed beyond she gathered a great armful of wood, not to bother with the basket, which would not hold so much—and hurried back again, making toward the front stairs this time, because the back stairs were narrow and steep, and one could not rush up them at great speed with one's arms full of wood.
"Wait a minute, please, Miss Warne!"
The front door of the house shut with a bang, and hasty footsteps caught up with Georgiana at the foot of the stairs, just as one big stick tumbled loose from her hold and went crashing down behind her.
"Oh, never mind," she panted. The load was much heavier than she had realized, but she had not meant to be caught upon the front stairs with it—not even if it had been James Stuart who came to her rescue.
It was not Stuart, but evidently one quite of Stuart's mind, for Georgiana now found her arms unburdened of their heavy incumbrance without further parley, and herself put where she belonged by this cool command:
"Never carry a load like this when you have a man in the house."
"But—but we haven't!" objected Georgiana, her voice a trifle breathless. She followed Mr. Jefferson, as he strode up the stairs with the wood. She opened the door of the guest-room and lifted the cover of the woodbox.
"Haven't?" he questioned, dumping the wood into the box, and then stooping to rearrange it. "Would you object to telling me what you consider me, then?"
It was on the tip of her tongue to tell him that he was supposed to be a literary light, but she restrained the too-familiar speech.
"You are, of course, a boarder—a 'paying guest,' as we should say, if we were some people," she observed with gravity. "You are expected to complain of whatever service you receive, not to offer any under any circumstances."
"I see. Were you intending to fill this box?"
He stood upright, and his glance wandered from the box in question around the pleasant room in its fresh and expectant order. But it came discreetly back to Georgiana's face.
"Not at all," she denied. "There's quite enough there for to-night."
He nodded, and went toward the door. "The woodshed is, I suppose, beyond the kitchen, after the fashion of woodsheds, and the kitchen is beyond the dining-room?"
"Please don't bother!"
Of course it was useless to protest—and she followed him down the stairs, through dining-room and kitchen to the woodshed. As he passed through the kitchen he stopped and stood still in the middle of it.
"May I look for a minute?" he asked. "It takes me back to my boyhood. My mother used just such a kitchen as this. I thought it the best room in the house."
His lips took on a smile as he looked. Georgiana, with her own hands, had scoured every inch of that kitchen, had made to shine brilliantly every utensil which had in it possibilities of shining. It was impossible not to feel a housewifely pride in the appearance of the place, and to exult in the spicy odours which told of the morning's bakings.
Mr. Jefferson, going on into the woodshed and returning with a well-balanced load of wood which put Georgiana's late attempt to the blush, assured her that he felt personally competent to attend to the woodbox without further aid from her, and marched away as if he were quite accustomed to such tasks.
It may be here stated that next day, when in his absence she looked into his room to see if the woodbox there were quite empty, she found it quite full, though she could not possibly remember when he had discovered the opportunity to do the deed without her knowledge. And from this time forth, during the remainder of his stay, she was obliged to resign herself to the fact that the "man in the house," though he might be a boarder, would permit no interference with this self-assumed task.
Jeannette had written that she would arrive on a certain Thursday afternoon between four and five, being conveyed by motor from the large city, sixty miles away, which was her home. Georgiana, therefore, with memories of college days again strong upon her, made ready to serve afternoon tea beside the living-room fire.
"Be prepared to have this function every day while the guest is here, Father Davy," said she. "Jeannette's undoubtedly accustomed to it and would miss it more than she could miss any other one thing. But she's to have only the plainest of thin bread and butter with it, since our six-o'clock village supper comes so soon after. We mustn't pamper her, must we?"
Mr. Warne, in his armchair by the fireside, ready to welcome the guest, looked up at his daughter with bright eyes. "Pampering," said he, "is the atmosphere of this house. Jeannette cannot escape it. I am pampered beyond belief every day of my life. At this very moment my eyes are feasting upon the sight of my child in what must be an absolutely new old dress!"
A peculiar expression crossed Georgiana's face as she glanced down at the soft gray-blue of the afternoon frock she had donned for the occasion.
"I'm wondering if she will recognize it," she murmured. "It was one of the white evening gowns in that last 'Semi-Annual.' I coloured it myself—as usual. It really came out pretty well, but it gives me a queer, conscious feeling to be wearing it when I meet her. Do you suppose she'll know it, Father Davy?"
"And if she does?" The tone was that of a tender irony.
"I suppose I'm an idiot to care! I don't care—but I do!" Georgiana flung a look at the slim man in the big chair, which said that she was confident of his understanding her, no matter what she said.
"No false pride, daughter," he warned her. "You can tell the big man from the little one by the character of the things he is willing to accept. There was never any stigma attached to wearing the discarded garments of another, provided they were come by honestly. And when one has coloured them, into the bargain—and looks like the 'Portrait of a Lady' in them——"
"Father Davy, you're the most comforting creature!" And Georgiana dropped a kiss upon the top of the head which rested against the back of the worn old armchair.
If she had not been watching from the window she would not have known when the Crofton car drew up at the door, so quietly did the great, shining motor roll down the macadamized road which ran through the main street of the little town. She was out and down the manse path in hospitable alacrity, yet not without the dignity of which she was mistress.
So this was the guest whom she had ventured to ask down to the hospitality of the shabby old village manse! If she had been a princess, Miss Jeannette Crofton could not more thoroughly have looked the part. Georgiana had known many rich men's daughters at college and had found close friends among them, but no one of them had ever suggested such a background of luxury as did this slim and graceful girl, as she set her pretty foot upon the old box-bordered gravel path. She was rather small of stature, her fair-haired beauty was of a strikingly attractive type, and every detail of her attire and belongings breathed of wealth and fashion. Georgiana felt herself instantly a buxom milkmaid beside her.
WHEN ROYALTY COMES
"It was so good of you to ask me," said Jeannette in a voice of much sweetness, as she put out her hand to her cousin. Then she turned to the man in livery who stood at attention by the door of the car. "You may take this coat back with you, Dennis," she said; and she let him remove from her shoulders the long, fur-lined cloak she had worn for the March drive. He gathered together her belongings, as she walked up the path with Georgiana, and he afterward went back for a long motor trunk which had been brought upon the back of the car. Besides this was a larger receptacle of black leather which he brought and deposited in the hall.
"Dennis can take all these to my room for me," said Jeannette, with more appreciation of the situation than Georgiana had expected. Dennis did not look altogether pleased with this task, but he performed it and was rewarded by a smile from his young mistress, which promised to soothe his injured dignity at some future time.
Mr. Warne, rising slowly from the armchair as Jeannette was brought into his presence, looked keenly into the face of his sister's daughter. Her fine clothing was nothing to him; he could not have told what she wore; but he was interested in learning what she might be, herself. It was something of a test for any stranger, the meeting of that clear look of his, kindly though it was sure to be. With all his appearance of frailty and exhaustion, one felt instinctively that whatever had happened to the body, the mind was intact and resolute with energy, the judgment swift and accurate.
As they all took tea together Georgiana could feel their guest striving to adjust herself to her entertainers. Her manner was very charming, though a little languid, a little weary, as if she were tired with her long drive—and with other things besides. But there was that about her which proclaimed her unmistakably the gentlewoman, and this was good to know. She got on well with her newly discovered uncle, and he with her. Indeed, the simplicity and straight-forwardness of Father Davy's manner with every one, his keen observation, his ready imagination, would have put him instantly on an equal footing with the most exalted of his fellow-creatures. It could do no less with his niece, no matter how new to her his type of man might be, nor how new to him the fashion of her speech and smile.
This was a pleasant beginning. But if Georgiana, before her guest arrived, had thought the old house shabby, she felt it now to be positively shambling. She struggled mightily against this attitude of mind, knowing that it was unworthy of her, but, as she led this wonderful, winsome creature, whom she knew to be accustomed only to the softnesses of life, up over the worn stair carpeting to the room she had prepared for her, she was wondering how she herself had ever conceived the preposterous idea of inviting her cousin to visit her; the task of making this daughter of luxury comfortable, even for a fortnight, seemed suddenly so impossible.
"Oh, how very attractive!" exclaimed Jeannette, as she was taken into the room over which Georgiana had spent so much thought. "I shall love it here!"
That was to be her attitude, thought Georgiana. Being exceedingly well-bred, the guest was prepared to like everything that was done for her. Though this was precisely what was to be expected and desired, Georgiana found herself already irritated by it—most unreasonably, it must be admitted.
"I'm a jealous goose!" said she sternly to herself, and fell to helping her cousin. There was something appealing about the girl's helplessness, because she evidently tried hard not to show it. As the two lifted the garments from the carefully packed trunk trays it was Georgiana who found the right places for them in clothespress and bureau drawers. She had seldom seen, never handled, such exquisite apparel, from the piles of sheer, convent-embroidered linen to the frocks and wraps and negliges which went into retirement on the padded hangers she had provided. She realized, too, that elaborate as seemed to her the array of clothing Jeannette had thought it necessary to bring for her visit, it was probable that the girl herself had felt that she was having packed only the simplest of her wardrobe and the least that a civilized being could do with.
It was when Jeannette herself spread forth upon the little dressing-table—cleverly contrived out of an old washstand, a long and narrow mirror, and some odds and ends of muslin and lace—the articles she was accustomed to use every day of her life, but which might have been matched only in the homes of princes, that the young hostess found it hardest to control the pang of envy which smote her. Such silver, such crystal, such genuine ivory—and such sheer beauty of design and finish! Yet Jeannette was almost awkward in her disposal of the imposing array, saying with a laugh that she really couldn't remember how the things went at home, but that it didn't matter in the least.
She set about removing her traveling clothes as if she never had been waited upon in her life. It was only when she failed to discover how she was put together that Georgiana had to come to the rescue.
"It's dreadfully stupid of me," protested Jeannette, her delicate cheeks flushing, "but I simply can't find that absurd hook."
It was then that Georgiana frankly took the situation by its horns and did away with all embarrassment.
"You must let me help you, Jean," she said, finishing the unhooking with ease, "whenever you need it. I shall love to do it, for you might have rather a bad time trying to do everything for yourself. There you are—and please call me when you are ready to be fastened into your other frock. I'm just around the corner, and there's nobody else at home now."
Before supper was served, Georgiana prepared her cousin to meet "the boarder." Not on any account would she have let his presence be accounted for on the score of his being a guest in the house; not even would she call him a "paying guest."
"Mr. Jefferson came to us through a letter from a friend. He said he wanted a quiet place to work in, away from all interruptions by friends or claims of any sort. He is writing a book, and we see as little of him as if he were not in the house—except at the table. I think you will like him. It's so long since we have had a man in the house we're not yet used to it, but on the whole it's rather comforting."
"How interesting—to have a book being written in the house! Is it fact or fiction, do you know?"
"I don't imagine it's fiction. He has piles of reference books, and a great deal of mail, and—somehow—he doesn't look as if he wrote fiction."
Yet, as Mr. Jefferson came into the dining-room that night, Georgiana found herself wondering why she should think he did not look as if he would write fiction—not foolish fiction, certainly, but sensible fiction, made possible by keen observation and set off by a capacity for quiet—possibly even biting—humour. He looked at least as if he might write essays, thoughtful, clever essays, full of searching analyses of his fellow human creatures, of their oddities, their hopes, their aspirations, their sins, and their virtues. Or—was he, after all, writing on scientific matters—facts, pure and simple; inferences, deductions, conclusions from facts? She wondered, more than she had yet done, as to the nature of his work.
"I think Mr. Jefferson is delightful," said Jeannette cordially, beside the living-room fire, when supper was over, and the boarder, after lingering in the living-room doorway for a minute, but declining on the score of work Mr. Warne's invitation to enter, had gone his way upstairs. On this first night Georgiana had let the disordered dining table wait, and had accompanied the others to the fireside as if she had a dozen servants to attend to her household affairs. "After this, she won't notice so much," she had argued with herself. "I don't want to have her offering to help. I don't mean to do a thing differently on her account, but I can't help—well, shying at the dishes the very first minute after supper!"
"A man of fine intellect," Father Davy responded to his niece's observation, "and accustomed to think worthy thoughts. One can see that at once. It is a real pleasure to have him here. It is good for us, too. Georgiana and I were growing narrow before he came. He has broadened us; we get his point of view on subjects that we thought had been disposed of for all time—and find them not disposed of at all."
Before the moment arrived when, in Georgiana's mind, the waiting work in the kitchen must be done without further postponement, the front door was besieged by James Stuart. A basket of late winter apples in hand, he came in, looking the image of vigorous youth, his well-set-up figure showing its best in the irreproachable clothes he always wore when his day's work was over, his manner, as usual, that of the friend of the house. He had not received Georgiana's permission to come in upon this first evening of Miss Crofton's visit, but he had taken his welcome for granted and was not disappointed in receiving it. It was impossible not to be glad to see his smiling face, for his good looks were backed by a capacity for adapting himself to whatever company he might find himself in, though it should be of the most distinguished.
Presenting Stuart to her cousin, it occurred to Georgiana to wonder as to the impression each must make upon the other. Jeannette was wearing a frock of a peculiar shade of blue which the firelight and lamplight, instead of dulling, seemed to make almost to glow. It was the sort of apparently simple attire which is the product of high art, and in it, sitting just where all lights seemed to play together upon hair and cheek and perfect throat, the visitor was, as Georgiana owned to herself, certainly worth looking at.
She left them together presently and went off to the kitchen. Here she covered from view with a big pinafore her own undeniably attractive figure and fell upon her task, proceeding to dispatch it with all the speed compatible with quiet. She had cleared the table, and, having arranged her dishes in orderly piles, was just filling her dishpan with the steaming water which made suds as it fell upon the soap, when a familiar footstep was heard upon the bare kitchen floor.
Georgiana looked over her shoulder, words of reproof upon her lips: "Well—having come without an invitation, the least you can do is to stay where you belong and entertain the guest."
"There's a characteristic welcome for you!" The intruder seemed in no wise daunted by his reception, but picked up a dish towel and stood at ease, waiting the placing of the first tumbler in the rinsing pan. "And where should I belong, if not standing by a chum in distress?"
"I'm not in distress, if you please."
"Don't mind washing dishes while the guest sits by the fire?"
"Not a bit—more than usual," Georgiana amended honestly.
"Why don't you pile 'em up and let 'em wait till morning?"
"I shouldn't sleep for thinking of them."
"My word, but you're a hustler! I don't know whether I can keep up."
"Don't try. Go back to the other room, please, Jimps. You can be of real use there."
"Well, I like that!"
As he wiped away assiduously, Stuart surveyed his companion's face in profile. It belied the dictatorial words, for Georgiana was smiling. Her cheeks were of a splendid colour, her dark hair drooped over the prettiest white forehead in the world, and the whole outline of her face was distracting. Here was a lamplight effect which rivalled the one in the living-room, though it was thrown from a common kitchen lamp, unshaded, and fell upon a figure in a red-and-white checked apron. Georgiana glanced at her self-appointed assistant and encountered the flash of an eye which told her that, however Stuart objected to her words, he liked the look of what he saw.
"Isn't Jeannette a beauty?" she inquired hastily, and plunged her hands into her pan with such energy that she sent a splash of hot, soapy water upon Stuart's cheek. He surreptitiously wiped it off with a corner of his dish towel.
"She sure is," he assented cordially. "I wasn't prepared for quite such a looker. She doesn't seem to have brought with her that proud and haughty expression she had in the Sunday papers."
"She's a dear, and not in the least proud and haughty. I'm going to enjoy her visit, I know. If I can only make her enjoy it!"
"I'll be glad to help," Stuart offered. "This isn't a very promising time of year for the country, but if you think she'd like any of the good times we can give her here, I'll get them up."
"Our sort of good times is just what I do want to give her. She's had enough of her own kind and needs the diversion. What would you get up, for instance?"
"I'll take overnight to think it out, but I can promise you it'll be an outdoor affair. Would she be up to any kind of a tramp, do you think?"
"Oh, no, Jimps! Not yet, at any rate."
"All right. I'll harness up my best team and carry her most of the way. We must have another man, I suppose. Shall we ask the literary light, just for a lark? It would give tone to the company to have him along, eh?"
"He probably wouldn't go."
"Don't you fool yourself. A fellow who covers as many miles a day as he does will jump at it, no matter how important his next chapter is. Do you know, I'll have to admit I rather like him since I tramped a couple of miles in his company the other day. There are a lot of interesting ideas in his head, and I got him to give me the benefit of a few of them. Drew him out, you know. Though to be strictly honest"—with a laugh—"when I thought it over afterward I wasn't exactly sure that he hadn't drawn me out rather more than I drew him. Anyhow, the interest seemed to be mutual, and that flattered me a bit. It's perfectly evident that he's a great student of affairs."
They finished the work at a gallop. Georgiana slipped off her pinafore, and Stuart, who had insisted on waiting for her, hung it upon its accustomed nail.
"Do you suppose pretty cousin ever wore one?" he queried.
Mr. E. C. Jefferson laid down his pen, ran his hand through his heavy brown hair, rumpling it still more than it had been rumpled before—which is saying considerable—and stretched his legs under the table upon which he had been writing steadily since half-past one o'clock. He heaved a mighty breath, stretched his arms to match his legs, looked round at his windows, which faced the west, and so had kept him supplied with strong light longer than windows on any other side of the house would have done, and took out his watch.
Nearly half-past four. Time, and more than time, for his late afternoon tramp. He set the piles of sheets before him in order, sheathed his pen and put it in his pocket, and rose from his place, the light of achievement in his eye, but crampiness and fatigue in all his limbs.
As he approached his windows to ascertain what kind of weather was to be found outside, he became aware of sounds which would indicate that some event of activity and hilarity was going on below. He realized now that he had been hearing these sounds—quite without hearing them, after the fashion of the absorbed workman—for the last half-hour. Looking out, he beheld an interesting affair in full swing.
At each end of the side yard the heavy snow which a late March storm had brought overnight had been shovelled and manipulated into the semblance of a fort such as lads are wont to make. Between these two entrenchments a battle was raging. But it was no lads who held the places of the combatants. Instead, as he looked, Mr. Jefferson saw rising warily from behind the fort nearest him, a girlish figure in a scarlet blanket suit, its dark head half shielded by a scarlet toboggan cap very much awry. A mittened hand flung a snowball with strength and precision straight into the opposite fort, and the assailant immediately dodged down behind the embankment.
From the opposing stronghold then cautiously appeared a head snugly bound in a blue scarf, from which locks of fair hair escaped at divers points. A second snowball, accompanied by a loose flutter of snow, wended its way uncertainly through the air, and fell a foot short of the fort behind which crouched the scarlet figure. The figure immediately rose and fired an answering volley. Peals of laughter and gay shouts rang through the air.
At this very moment a third person ran into the yard from the street, calling: "For shame, George! I'm going to take sides with the enemy, and we'll have you out in no time!"
Jefferson saw this third figure, in sweater and cap, dash across the open, narrowly escaping a vigorous shower of missiles from the near fort, and disappear behind the farther one.
The battle was now on in earnest. Let Scarlet Toboggan fire as fast and as furiously as she might, a merciless bombardment of her protecting walls had begun. The girl in the blue scarf—and priceless furs—had sunk laughing upon the floor of her refuge, while her new ally, bringing to bear the full strength and skill of his sex, battered at the entrenchments across the yard, and began to make havoc thereon.
Georgiana was a brave foe, but though she fought with surprising endurance she was beginning to be seriously worsted, several feet of her snow rampart having been shot away, when a voice behind her cried out a command, and an arm, more sinewy than hers, sent a hard shot whizzing past her head into the opposite fort with that directness of aim and effectiveness of delivery which only the male arm can accomplish.
"Duck down and make snowballs while I fire!" the voice ordered, and Georgiana, breathless but still undaunted, obeyed.
"Keep behind me, and pile the balls at the right," directed Jefferson. His voice was eager as a boy's. He also had pulled on sweater and cap, and as he and James Stuart faced each other across the twenty yards which separated them, they might have been a couple of school-fellows wrestling for supremacy.
"Keep 'em coming—faster—faster!" Stuart urged Jeannette, the lust of battle upon him. "Stop laughing and work! George is a"—he stooped to make a ball for himself—"fiend at making 'em; you've got to learn! Keep 'em coming."
The wet snow was precisely in the right state for quick packing, and Georgiana was indeed an expert at the business. Jefferson found her hard, round balls splendid missiles, and he used them with all the energy of an arm which welcomed the change from the labours of the past hours to those of the present.