Saturday's Child by Kathleen Thompson Norris
Part Three. Service
The next day, in a whirling rainstorm, well protected by a trim raincoat, overshoes, and a close-fitting little hat about which spirals of bright hair clung in a halo, Susan crossed the ferry and climbed up the long stairs that rise through the very heart of Sausalito. The sky was gray, the bay beaten level by the rain, and the wet gardens that Susan passed were dreary and bare. Twisting oak trees gave vistas of wind-whipped vines, and of the dark and angry water; the steps she mounted ran a shallow stream.
The Carrolls' garden was neglected and desolate, chrysanthemum stalks lay across the wet flagging of the path, and wind screamed about the house. Susan's first knock was lost in a general creaking and banging, but a second brought Betsey, grave and tired-looking, to the door.
"Oh, hello. Sue," said Betsey apathetically. "Don't go in there, it's so cold," she said, leading her caller past the closed door of the sitting-room. "This hall is so dark that we ought to keep a light here," added Betsey fretfully, as they stumbled along. "Come out into the dining-room, Sue, or into the kitchen. I was trying to get a fire started. But Jim never brings up enough wood! He'll talk about it, and talk about it, but when you want it I notice it's never there!"
Everywhere were dust and disorder and evidences of neglect. Susan hardly recognized the dining-room; it was unaired, yet chilly; a tall, milk-stained glass, and some crumbs on the green cloth, showed where little Betsey had had a lonely luncheon; there were paper bags on the sideboard and a litter of newspapers on a chair. Nothing suggested the old, exquisite order.
The kitchen was even more desolate, as it had been more inviting before. There were ashes sifting out of the stove, rings of soot and grease on the table-top, more soot, and the prints of muddy boots on the floor. Milk had soured in the bottles, odds and ends of food were everywhere, Betsey's book was open on the table, propped against the streaked and stained coffee-pot.
"Your mother's ill?" asked Susan. She could think of no other explanation.
"Doesn't this kitchen look awful?" said Betsey, resuming operations with books and newspapers at the range. "No, Mother's all right. I'm going to take her up some tea. Don't you touch those things, Sue. Don't you bother!"
"Has she been in bed?" demanded Susan.
"No, she gets up every day now," Betsey said impatiently. "But she won't come downstairs!"
"Won't! But why not!" gasped Susan.
"She--" Betsey glanced cautiously toward the hall door. "She hasn't come down at all," she said, softly. "Not--since!"
"What does Anna say?" Susan asked aghast.
"Anna comes home every Saturday, and she and Phil talk to Mother," the little sister said, "but so far it's not done any good! I go up two or three times a day, but she won't talk to me.--Sue, ought this have more paper?"
The clumsy, roughened little hands, the sad, patient little voice and the substitution of this weary little woman for the once-radiant and noisy Betsey sent a pang to Susan's heart.
"Well, you poor little old darling, you!" she burst out, pitifully. "Do you mean that you've been facing this for a month? Betsey--it's too dreadful--you dear little old heroic scrap!"
"Oh, I'm all right!" said Betsey, beginning to tremble. She placed a piece or two of kindling, fumbled for a match, and turned abruptly and went to a window, catching her apron to her eyes. "I'm all right--don't mind me!" sobbed Betsey. "But sometimes I think I'll go crazy! Mother doesn't love me any more, and everybody cried all Thanksgiving Day, and I loved Jo more than they think I did--they think I'm too young to care--but I just can't bear it!"
"Well, you poor little darling!" Susan was crying herself, but she put her arms about Betsey, and felt the little thing cling to her, as they cried together.
"And now, let me tackle this!" said Susan, when the worst of the storm was over a few moments later. She started the fire briskly, and tied an apron over her gown, to attack the disorder of the table. Betsey, breathing hard, but visibly cheered, ran to and fro on eager errands, fell upon the sink with a vigorous mop.
Susan presently carried a tea-tray upstairs, and knocked on Mrs. Carroll's door. "Come in," said the rich, familiar voice, and Susan entered the dim, chilly, orderly room, her heart beyond any words daunted and dismayed. Mrs. Carroll, gaunt and white, wrapped in a dark wrapper, and idly rocking in mid-afternoon, was a sight to strike terror to a stouter heart than Susan's.
"Oh, Susan?" said she. She said no more. Susan knew that she was unwelcome.
"Betsey seems to have her hands full," said Susan gallantly, "so I brought up your tea."
"Betts needn't have bothered herself at all," said Mrs. Carroll. Susan felt as if she were in a bad dream, but she sat down and resolutely plunged into the news of Georgie and Virginia and Mary Lou. Mrs. Carroll listened attentively, and asked a few nervous questions; Susan suspected them asked merely in a desperate effort to forestall the pause that might mean the mention of Josephine's name.
"And what are your own plans, Sue?" she presently asked.
"Well, New York presently, I think," Susan said. "But I'm with Georgie now,--unless," she added prettily, "you'll let me stay here for a day or two?"
Instant alarm darkened the sick eyes.
"Oh, no, dear!" Mrs. Carroll said quickly. "You're a sweet child to think of it, but we mustn't impose on you. No, indeed! This little visit is all we must ask now, when you are so upset and busy--"
"I have nothing at all to do," Susan said eagerly. But the older woman interrupted her with all the cunning of a sick brain.
"No, dear. Not now! Later perhaps, later we should all love it. But we're better left to ourselves now, Sue! Anna shall write you--"
Susan presently left the room, sorely puzzled. But, once in the hall, she came quickly to a decision. Phil's door was open, his bed unaired, an odor of stale cigarette smoke still in the air. In Betsey's room the windows were wide open, the curtains streaming in wet air, everything in disorder. Susan found a little old brown gingham dress of Anna's, and put it on, hung up her hat, brushed back her hair. A sudden singing seized her heart as she went downstairs. Serving these people whom she loved filled her with joy. In the dining-room Betsey looked up from her book. Her face brightened.
"Oh, Sue--you're going to stay overnight!"
"I'll stay as long as you need me," said Susan, kissing her.
She did not need Betsey's ecstatic welcome; the road was clear and straight before her now. Preparing the little dinner was a triumph; reducing the kitchen to something like its old order, she found absorbing and exhilarating. "We'll bake to-morrow--we'll clean that thoroughly to-morrow--we'll make out a list of necessities to- morrow," said Susan.
She insisted upon Philip's changing his wet shoes for slippers when the boys came home at six o'clock; she gave little Jim a sisterly kiss.
"Gosh, this is something like!" said Jim simply, eyes upon the hot dinner and the orderly kitchen. "This house has been about the rottenest place ever, for I don't know how long!"
Philip did not say anything, but Susan did not misread the look in his tired eyes. After dinner they kept him a place by the fire while he went up to see his mother. When he came down twenty minutes later he seemed troubled.
"Mother says that we're imposing on you, Sue," he said. "She made me promise to make you go home tomorrow. She says you've had enough to bear!"
Betsey sat up with a rueful exclamation, and Jimmy grunted a disconsolate "Gosh!" but Susan only smiled.
"That's only part of her--trouble, Phil," she said, reassuringly. And presently she serenely led them all upstairs. "We've got to make those beds, Betts," said Susan.
"Mother may hear us," said Betsey, fearfully.
"I hope she will!" Susan said. But, if she did, no sound came from the mother's room. After awhile Susan noticed that her door, which had been ajar, was shut tight.
She lay awake late that night, Betts' tear-stained but serene little face close to her shoulder, Betts' hand still tight in hers. The wind shook the casements, and the unwearied storm screamed about the house. Susan thought of the woman in the next room, wondered if she was lying awake, too, alone with sick and sorrowful memories?
She herself fell asleep full of healthy planning for to-morrow's meals and house-cleaning, too tired and content for dreams.
Anna came quietly home on the next Saturday evening, to find the little group just ready to gather about the dinner-table. A fire glowed in the grate, the kitchen beyond was warm and clean and delightfully odorous. She said very little then, took her share, with obvious effort at first, in their talk, sat behind Betsey's chair when the four presently were coaxed by Jim into a game of "Hearts," and advised her little sister how to avoid the black queen.
But later, just before they went upstairs, when they were all grouped about the last of the fire, she laid her hands on Susan's shoulders, and stood Susan off, to look at her fairly.
"No words for it, Sue," said Anna steadily.
"Ah, don't, Nance--" Susan began. But in another instant they were in each other's arms, and crying, and much later that evening, after a long talk, Betsey confided to Susan that it was the first time Anna had cried.
"She told me that when she got home, and saw the way that you have changed things," confided Betsey, "she began to think for the first time that we might--might get through this, you know!"
Wonderful days for Susan followed, with every hour brimming full of working and planning. She was the first one up in the morning, the last one in bed at night, hers was the voice that made the last decision, and hers the hands for which the most critical of the household tasks were reserved. Always conscious of the vacant place in their circle, and always aware of the presence of that brooding and silent figure upstairs, she was nevertheless so happy sometimes as to think herself a hypocrite and heartless. But long afterward Susan knew that the sense of dramatic fitness and abiding satisfaction is always the reward of untiring and loving service.
She and Betsey read together, walked through the rain to market, and came back glowing and tired, to dry their shoes and coats at the kitchen fire. They cooked and swept and dusted, tried the furniture in new positions, sent Jimmy to the White House for a special new pattern, and experimented with house-dresses. Susan heard the first real laughter in months ring out at the dinner-table, when she and Betsey described their experiences with a crab, who had revived while being carried home in their market-basket. Jimmy, silent, rough-headed and sweet, followed Susan about like an affectionate terrier, and there was another laugh when Jimmy, finishing a bowl in which cake had been mixed, remarked fervently, "Gosh, why do you waste time cooking it?"
In the evening they played euchre, or hearts, or parchesi; Susan and Philip struggled with chess; there were talks about the fire, and they all straggled upstairs at ten o'clock. Anna, appreciative and affectionate and brave, came home for almost every Saturday night, and these were special occasions. Susan and Betsey wasted their best efforts upon the dinner, and filled the vases with flowers and ferns, and Philip brought home candy and the new magazines. It was Anna who could talk longest with the isolated mother, and Susan and she went over every word, afterwards, eager to find a ray of hope.
"I told her about to-day," Anna said one Saturday night, brushing her long hair, "and about Billy's walking with us to the ridge. Now, when you go in tomorrow, Betsey, I wish you'd begin about Christmas. Just say, 'Mother, do you realize that Christmas is a week from to- morrow?' and then, if you can, just go right on boldly and say, 'Mother, you won't spoil it for us all by not coming downstairs?'"
Betsey looked extremely nervous at this suggestion, and Susan slowly shook her head. She knew how hopeless the plan was. She and Betsey realized even better than the absent Anna how rooted was Mrs. Carroll's unhappy state. Now and then, on a clear day, the mother would be heard going softly downstairs for a few moments in the garden; now and then at the sound of luncheon preparations downstairs she would come out to call down, "No lunch for me, thank you, girls!" Otherwise they never saw her except sitting idle, black-clad, in her rocking-chair.
But Christmas was very close now, and must somehow be endured.
"When are you boys going to Mill Valley for greens?" asked Susan, on the Saturday before the holiday.
"Would you?" Philip asked slowly. But immediately he added, "How about to-morrow, Jimsky?"
"Gee, yes!" said Jim eagerly. "We'll trim up the house like always, won't we, Betts?"
"Just like always," Betts answered.
Susan and Betsey fussed with mince-meat and frosted cookies; Susan accomplished remarkably good, if rather fragile, pumpkin pies. The four decorated the down-stairs rooms with ropes of fragrant green. The expressman came and came and came again; Jimmy returned twice a day laden from the Post Office; everyone remembered the Carrolls this year.
Anna and Philip and Billy came home together, at midday, on Christmas Eve. Betsey took immediate charge of the packages they brought; she would not let so much as a postal card be read too soon. Billy had spent many a Christmas Eve with the Carrolls; he at once began to run errands and carry up logs as a matter of course.
A conference was held over the turkey, lying limp in the center of the kitchen table. The six eyed him respectfully.
"Oughtn't this be firm?" asked Anna, fingering a flexible breast- bone.
"No-o--" But Susan was not very sure. "Do you know how to stuff them, Anna?"
"Look in the books," suggested Philip.
"We did," Betsey said, "but they give chestnut and mushroom and sweet potato--I don't know how Mother does it!"
"You put crumbs in a chopping bowl," began Susan, uncertainly, "at least, that's the way Mary Lou did--"
"Why crumbs in a chopping bowl, crumbs are chopped already?" William observed sensibly.
"Well--" Susan turned suddenly to Betsey, "Why don't you trot up and ask, Betts?" she suggested.
"Oh, Sue!" Betsey's healthy color faded. "I can't!" She turned appealing eyes to Anna. Anna was looking at her thoughtfully.
"I think that would be a good thing to do," said Anna slowly. "Just put your head in the door and say, 'Mother, how do you stuff a turkey?'"
"But--but--" Betsey began. She got down from the table and went slowly on her errand. The others did not speak while they waited for her return.
"Hot water, and butter, and herbs, and half an onion chopped fine!" announced Betts returning.
"Did she--did she seem to think it was odd, Betts?"
"No, she just answered--like she would have before. She was lying down, and she said 'I'm glad you're going to have a turkey---'"
"What!" said Anna, turning white.
"Yes, she did! She said 'You're all good, brave children!'"
"Oh, Betts, she didn't!"
"Honest she did, Phil--" Betsey said aggrievedly, and Anna kissed her between laughter and tears.
"But this is quite the best yet!" Susan said, contentedly, as she ransacked the breadbox for crumbs.
Just at dinner-time came a great crate of violets. "Jo's favorites, from Stewart!" said Anna softly, filling bowls with them. And, as if the thought of Josephine had suggested it, she added to Philip in a low tone:
"Listen, Phil, are we going to sing to-night?"
For from babyhood, on the eve of the feast, the Carrolls had gathered at the piano for the Christmas songs, before they looked at their gifts.
"What do you think?" Philip returned, troubled.
"Oh, I couldn't---" Betts began, choking.
Jimmy gave them all a disgusted and astonished look.
"Gee, why not?" he demanded. "Jo used to love it!"
"How about it, Sue?" Philip asked. Susan stopped short in her work, her hands full of violets, and pondered.
"I think we ought to," she said at last.
"I do, too!" Billy supported her unexpectedly. "Jo'd be the first to say so. And if we don't this Christmas, we never will again!"
"Your mother taught you to," Susan said, earnestly, "and she didn't stop it when your father died. We'll have other breaks in the circle some day, but we'll want to go right on doing it, and teaching our own children to do it!"
"Yes, you're right," said Anna, "that settles it."
Nothing more was said on the subject; the girls busied themselves with the dinner dishes. Phil and Billy drew the nails from the waiting Christmas boxes. Jim cracked nuts for the Christmas dinner. It was after nine o'clock when the kitchen was in order, the breakfast table set, and the sitting-room made ready for the evening's excitement. Then Susan went to the old square piano and opened it, and Phil, in absolute silence, found her the music she wanted among the long-unused sheets of music on the piano.
"If we are going to do this," said Philip then, "we mustn't break down!"
"Nope," said Betts, at whom the remark seemed to be directed, with a gulp. Susan, whose hands were very cold, struck the opening chords, and a moment later the young voices rose together, through the silent house.
"Adeste, fideles, Laeti triumphantes, Venite, venite in Bethlehem...."
Josephine had always sung the little solo. Susan felt it coming, and she and Betts took it together, joined on the second phrase by Anna's rich, deep contralto. They were all too conscious of their mother's overhearing to think of themselves at all. Presently the voices became more natural. It was just the Carroll children singing their Christmas hymns, as they had sung them all their lives. One of their number was gone now; sorrow had stamped all the young faces with new lines, but the little circle was drawn all the closer for that. Phil's arm was tight about the little brother's shoulder, Betts and Anna were clinging to each other.
And as Susan reached the triumphant "Gloria--gloria!" a thrill shook her from head to foot. She had not heard a footstep, above the singing, but she knew whose fingers were gripping her shoulder, she knew whose sweet unsteady voice was added to the younger voices.
She went on to the next song without daring to turn around;--this was the little old nursery favorite,
"Oh, happy night, that brings the morn To shine above the child new-born! Oh, happy star! whose radiance sweet Guided the wise men's eager feet...."
and after that came "Noel,"--surely never sung before, Susan thought, as they sang it then! The piano stood away from the wall, and Susan could look across it to the big, homelike, comfortable room, sweet with violets now, lighted by lamp and firelight, the table cleared of its usual books and games, and heaped high with packages. Josephine's picture watched them from the mantel; "wherever she is," thought Susan, "she knows that we are here together singing!"
"Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices! Oh, night divine, oh night, when Christ was born!"
The glorious triumphant melody rose like a great rising tide of faith and of communion; Susan forgot where she was, forgot that there are pain and loss in the world, and, finishing, turned about on the piano bench with glowing cheeks and shining eyes.
"Gee, Moth', I never heard you coming down!" said Jim delightedly, as the last notes died away and the gap, his seniors had all been dreading, was bridged.
"I heard you," Betts said, radiant and clinging to her mother.
Mrs. Carroll was very white, and they could see her tremble.
"Surely, you're going to open your presents to-night, Nance?"
"Not if you'd rather we shouldn't, Mother!"
"Oh, but I want you to!" Her voice had the dull, heavy quality of a voice used in sleep, and her eyes clung to Anna's almost with terror. No one dared speak of the miracle; Susan spoke with nervousness, but Anna bustled about cheerfully, getting her established in her big chair by the fire. Billy and Phil returned from the cellar, gasping and bent under armfuls of logs. The fire flamed up, and Jimmy, with a bashful and deprecatory "Gosh!" attacked the string of the uppermost bundle.
So many packages, so beautifully tied! Such varied and wonderful gifts? Susan's big box from Virginia City was not for her alone, and from the other packages at least a dozen came to her. Betts, a wonderful embroidered kimono slipped on over her house dress, looked like a lovely, fantastic picture; and Susan must button her big, woolly field-coat up to her chin and down to her knees. "For once you thought of a dandy present, Billy!" said she. This must be shown to Mother; that must be shown to Mother; Mother must try on her black silk, fringed, embroidered Chinese shawl.
"Jimmy, dear, no more candy to-night!" said Mother, in just the old voice, and Susan's heart had barely time for a leap of joy when she added:
"Oh, Anna, dear, that is lovely. You must tell Dr. and Mrs. Jordan that is exactly what you've been wanting!"
"And what are your plans for to-morrow, girls?" she asked, just before they all went up-stairs, late in the evening.
"Sue and I to early ..." Anna said, "then we get back to get breakfast by nine, and all the others to ten o'clock."
"Well, will you girls call me? I'll go with you, and then before the others get home we can have everything done and the turkey in."
"Yes, Mother," was all that Anna said, but later she and Susan were almost ready to agree with Betts' last remark that night, delivered from bed:
"I bet to-morrow's going to be the happiest Christmas we ever had!"
This was the beginning of happier days, for Mrs. Carroll visibly struggled to overcome her sorrow now, and Susan and Betsey tried their best to help her. The three took long walks, in the wet wintry weather, their hats twisting about on their heads, their skirts ballooning in the gale. By the middle of March Spring was tucking little patches of grass and buttercups in all the sheltered corners, the sunshine gained in warmth, the twilights lengthened. Fruit blossoms scented the air, and great rain-pools, in the roadways, gave back a clear blue sky.
The girls dragged Mrs. Carroll with them to the woods, to find the first creamy blossoms of the trillium, and scented branches of wild lilac. One Sunday they packed a lunch basket, and walked, boys and girls and mother, up to the old cemetery, high in the hills. Three miles of railroad track, twinkling in the sun, and a mile of country road, brought them to the old sunken gate. Then among the grassy paths, under the oaks, it was easy to find the little stone that bore Josephine's name.
It was an April day, but far more like June. There was a wonderful silence in the air that set in crystal the liquid notes of the lark, and carried for miles the softened click of cowbells, far up on the ridges. Sunshine flooded buttercups and poppies on the grassy slopes, and where there was shade, under the oaks, "Mission bells" and scarlet columbine and cream and lavender iris were massed together. Everywhere were dazzling reaches of light, the bay far below shone blue as a turquoise, the marshes were threaded with silver ribbons, the sky was high and cloudless. Trains went by, with glorious rushes and puffs of rising, snowy smoke; even here they could hear the faint clang of the bell. A little flock of sheep had come up from the valley, and the soft little noises of cropping seemed only to underscore the silence.
Mrs. Carroll walked home between Anna and Phil; Susan and Billy and the younger two engaged in spirited conversation on ahead.
"Mother said 'Happiness comes back to us, doesn't it, Nance!'" Anna reported that night. "She said, 'We have never been happier than we have to-day!'"
"Never been so happy," Susan said sturdily. "When has Philip ever been such an unmitigated comfort, or Betts so thoughtful and good?"
"Well, we might have had that, and Jo too," Anna said wistfully.
"Yes, but one doesn't, Anna. That's just it!"
Susan had long before this again become a woman of business. When she first spoke of leaving the Carrolls, a violent protest had broken out from the younger members of the family. This might have been ignored, but there was no refusing the sick entreaty of their mother's eyes; Susan knew that she was still needed, and was content to delay her going indefinitely.
"It seems unfair to you, Sue," Anna protested. But Susan, standing at the window, and looking down at the early spring flood of blossoms and leaves in the garden, dissented a little sadly.
"No, it's not, Nance," she said. "I only wish I could stay here forever. I never want to go out into the world, and meet people again--"
Susan finished with a retrospective shudder.
"I think coming to you when I did saved my reason," she said presently, "and I'm in no hurry to go again. No, it would be different, Nance, if I had a regular trade or profession. But I haven't and, even if I go to New York, I don't want to go until after hot weather. Twenty-six," Susan went on, gravely, "and just beginning! Suppose somebody had cared enough to teach me something ten years ago!"
"Your aunt thought you would marry, and you will marry, Sue!" Anna said, coming to put her arm about her, and lay her cheek against Susan's.
"Ah, well!" Susan said presently with a sigh, "I suppose that if I had a sixteen-year-old daughter this minute I'd tell her that Mother wanted her to be a happy girl at home; she'd be married one of these days, and find enough to do!"
But it was only a few days after this talk that one Orville Billings, the dyspeptic and middle-aged owner and editor of the "Sausalito Weekly Democrat" offered her a position upon his editorial staff, at a salary of eight dollars a week. Susan promptly accepted, calmly confident that she could do the work, and quite justified in her confidence. For six mornings a week she sat in the dingy little office on the water-front, reading proof and answering telephone calls, re-writing contributions and clipping exchanges. In the afternoons she was free to attend weddings, club-meetings or funerals, or she might balance books or send out bills, word advertisements, compose notices of birth and death, or even brew Mr. Billings a comforting cup of soup or cocoa over the gas-jet. Susan usually began the day by sweeping out the office. Sometimes Betsey brought down her lunch and they picnicked together. There was always a free afternoon or two in the week.
On the whole, it was a good position, and Susan enjoyed her work, enjoyed her leisure, enormously enjoyed the taste of life.
"For years I had a good home, and a good position, and good friends and was unhappy," she said to Billy. "Now I've got exactly the same things and I'm so happy I can scarcely sleep at night. Happiness is merely a habit."
"No, no," he protested, "the Carrolls are the most extraordinary people in the world, Sue. And then, anyway, you're different--you've learned."
"Well, I've learned this," she said, "There's a great deal more happiness, everywhere, than one imagines. Every baby brings whole tons of it, and roast chickens and apple-pies and new lamps and husbands coming home at night are making people happy all the time! People are celebrating birthdays and moving into bigger houses, and having their married daughters home for visits, right straight along. But when you pass a dark lower flat on a dirty street, somehow it doesn't occur to you that the people who live in it are saving up for a home in the Western Addition!"
"Well, Sue, unhappiness is bad enough, when there's a reason for it," William said, "but when you've taken your philanthropy course, I wish you'd come out and demonstrate to the women at the Works that the only thing that keeps them from being happy and prosperous is not having the sense to know that they are!"
"I? What could I ever teach anyone!" laughed Susan Brown.
Yet she was changing and learning, as she presently had reason to see. It was on a hot Saturday in July that Susan, leaving the office at two o'clock, met the lovely Mrs. John Furlong on the shore road. Even more gracious and charming than she had been as Isabel Wallace, the young matron quite took possession of Susan. Where had Susan been hiding--and how wonderfully well she was looking--and why hadn't she come to see Isabel's new house?
"Be a darling!" said Mrs. Furlong, "and come along home with me now! Jack is going to bring Sherwin Perry home to dinner with him, and I truly, truly need a girl! Run up and change your dress if you want to, while I'm making my call, and meet me on the four o'clock train!"
Susan hesitated, filled with unreasoning dread of a plunge back into the old atmosphere, but in the end she did go up to change her dress,--rejoicing that the new blue linen was finished, and did join Isabel at the train, filled with an absurd regret at having to miss a week-end at home, and Anna.
Isabel, very lovely in a remarkable gown and hat, chatted cheerfully all the way home, and led the guest to quite the smartest of the motor-cars that were waiting at the San Rafael station. Susan was amazed--a little saddened--to find that the beautiful gowns and beautiful women and lovely homes had lost their appeal; to find herself analyzing even Isabel's happy chatter with a dispassionate, quiet unbelief.
The new home proved to be very lovely; a harmonious mixture of all the sorts of doors and windows, porches and roofs that the young owners fancied. Isabel, trailing her frothy laces across the cool deep hallway, had some pretty, matronly questions to ask of her butler, before she could feel free for her guest. Had Mrs. Wallace telephoned--had the man fixed the mirror in Mr. Furlong's bathroom-- had the wine come?
"I have no housekeeper," said Isabel, as they went upstairs, "and I sha'n't have one. I think I owe it to myself, and to the maids, Sue, to take that responsibility entirely!" Susan recognized the unchanged sweetness and dutifulness that had marked the old Isabel, who could with perfect simplicity and reason seem to make a virtue of whatever she did.
They went into the sitting-room adjoining the young mistress' bedroom, an airy exquisite apartment all colonial white and gay flowered hangings, with French windows, near which the girls settled themselves for tea.
"Nothing's new with me," Susan said, in answer to Isabel's smiling inquiry. What could she say to hold the interest of this radiant young princess? Isabel accordingly gave her own news, some glimpses of her European wedding journey, some happy descriptions of wedding gifts. The Saunders were abroad, she told Susan, Ella and Emily and their mother with Kenneth, at a German cure. "And Mary Peacock--did you know her? is with them," said Isabel. "I think that's an engagement!"
"Doesn't that seem horrible? You know he's incurable--" Susan said, slowly stirring her cup. But she instantly perceived that the comment was not acceptable to young Mrs. Furlong. After all, thought Susan, Society is a very jealous institution, and Isabel was of its inner circle.
"Oh, I think that was all very much exaggerated!" Isabel said lightly, pleasantly. "At least, Sue," she added kindly, "you and I are not fair judges of it!" And after a moment's silence, for Susan kept a passing sensation of irritation admirably concealed, she added, "--But I didn't show you my pearls!"
A maid presently brought them, a perfect string, which Susan slipped through her fingers with real delight.
"Woman, they're the size of robins' eggs!" she said. Isabel was all sweet gaiety again. She touched the lovely chain tenderly, while she told of Jack's promise to give her her choice of pearls or a motor- car for her birthday, and of his giving her both! She presently called the maid again.
"Pauline, put these back, will you, please?" asked Isabel, smilingly. When the maid was gone she added, "I always trust the maids that way! They love to handle my pretty things,--and who can blame them?--and I let them whenever I can!"
They were still lingering over tea when Isabel heard her husband in the adjoining room, and went in, closing the door after her, to welcome him.
"He's all dirty from tennis," said the young wife, coming back and resuming her deep chair, with a smile, "and cross because I didn't go and pick him up at the courts!"
"Oh, that was my fault!" Susan exclaimed, remembering that Isabel could not always be right, unless innocent persons would sometimes agree to be wrong. Mrs. Furlong smiled composedly, a lovely vision in her loose lacy robe.
"Never mind, he'll get over it!" she said and, accompanying Susan to one of the handsome guest-rooms, she added confidentially, "My dear, when a man's first married, anything that keeps him from his wife makes him cross! It's no more your fault than mine!"
Sherwin Perry, the fourth at dinner, was a rosy, clean-shaven, stupid youth, who seemed absorbed in his food, and whose occasional violent laughter, provoked by his host's criticism of different tennis-players, turned his big ears red. John Furlong told Susan a great deal of his new yacht, rattling off technical terms with simple pride, and quoting at length one of the men at the ship- builders' yard.
"Gosh, he certainly is a marvelous fellow,--Haley is," said John, admiringly. "I wish you could hear him talk! He knows everything!"
Isabel was deeply absorbed in her new delightful responsibilities as mistress of the house.
"Excuse me just a moment, Susan----Jack, the stuff for the library curtains came, and I don't think it's the same," said Isabel or, "Jack, dear, I accepted for the Gregorys'," or "The Wilsons didn't get their card after all, Jack. Helen told Mama so!" All these matters were discussed at length between husband and wife, Susan occasionally agreeing or sympathizing. Lake Tahoe, where the Furlongs expected to go in a day or two, was also a good deal considered.
"We ought to sit out-of-doors this lovely night," said Isabel, after dinner. But conversation languished, and they began a game of bridge. This continued for perhaps an hour, then the men began bidding madly, and doubling and redoubling, and Isabel good- naturedly terminated the game, and carried her guest upstairs with her.
Here, in Susan's room, they had a talk, Isabel advisory and interested, Susan instinctively warding off sympathy and concern.
"Sue,--you won't be angry?" said Isabel, affectionately "but I do so hate to see you drifting, and want to have you as happy as I am! Is there somebody?"
"Not unless you count the proprietor of the 'Democrat,'" Susan laughed.
"It's no laughing matter, Sue---" Isabel began, seriously. But Susan, laying a quick hand upon her arm, said smilingly:
"Isabel! Isabel! What do you, of all women, know about the problems and the drawbacks of a life like mine?"
"Well, I do feel this, Sue," Isabel said, just a little ruffled, but smiling, too, "I've had money since I was born, I admit. But money has never made any real difference with me. I would have dressed more plainly, perhaps, as a working woman, but I would always have had everything dainty and fresh, and Father says that I really have a man's mind; that I would have climbed right to the top in any position! So don't talk as if I didn't know anything!"
Presently she heard Jack's step, and ran off to her own room. But she was back again in a few moments. Jack had just come up to find some cigars, it appeared. Jack was such a goose!
"He's a dear," said Susan. Isabel agreed. "Jack was wonderful," she said. Had Susan noticed him with older people? And with babies----
"That's all we need, now," said the happy Isabel.
"Babies are darling," agreed Susan, feeling elderly and unmarried.
"Yes, and when you're married," Isabel said dreamily, "they seem so- -so sacred--but you'll see yourself, some day, I hope. Hark!"
And she was gone again, only to come back. It was as if Isabel gained fresh pleasure in her new estate by seeing it afresh through Susan's eyes. She had the longing of the bride to give her less- experienced friend just a glimpse of the new, delicious relationship.
Left alone at last, Susan settled herself luxuriously in bed, a heap of new books beside her, soft pillows under her head, a great light burning over her shoulder, and the fragrance of the summer night stealing in through the wide-opened windows. She gave a great sigh of relief, wondered, between desultory reading, at how early an hour she could decently excuse herself in the morning.
"I suppose that, if I fell heir to a million, I might build a house like this, and think that a string of pearls was worth buying," said Susan to herself, "but I don't believe I would!"
Isabel would not let her hurry away in the morning; it was too pleasant to have so gracious and interested a guest, so sympathetic a witness to her own happiness. She and Susan lounged through the long morning, Susan admired the breakfast service, admired the rugs, admired her host's character. Nothing really interested Isabel, despite her polite questions and assents, but Isabel's possessions, Isabel's husband, Isabel's genius for housekeeping and entertaining. The gentlemen appeared at noon, and the four went to the near-by hotel for luncheon, and here Susan saw Peter Coleman again, very handsome and gay, in white flannels, and very much inclined toward the old relationship with her. Peter begged them to spend the afternoon with him, trying the new motor-car, and Isabel was charmed to agree. Susan agreed too, after a hesitation she did not really understand in herself. What pleasanter prospect could anyone have?
While they were loitering over their luncheon, in the shaded, delightful coolness of the lunch-room, suddenly Dolly Ripley, over- dressed, gay and talkative as always, came up to their table.
She greeted the others negligently, but showed a certain enthusiasm for Susan.
"Hello, Isabel," said Dolly, "I saw you all come in--'he seen that a mother and child was there!'"
This last was the special phrase of the moment. Susan had heard it forty times within the past twenty-four hours, and was at no pains to reconcile it to this particular conversation.
"But you, you villain--where've you been?" pursued Dolly, to Susan, "why don't you come down and spend a week with me? Do you see anything of our dear friend Emily in these days?"
"Emily's abroad," said Susan, and Peter added:
"With Ella and Mary Peacock--'he seen that a mother and child was there!'"
"Oh, you devil!" said Dolly, laughing. "But honestly," she added gaily to Susan, "'how you could put up with Em Saunders as long as you did was a mystery to me! It's a lucky thing you're not like me, Susan van Dusen, people all tell me I'm more like a boy than a girl,--when I think a thing I'm going to say it or bust! Now, listen, you're coming down to me for a week---"
Susan left the invitation open, to Isabel's concern.
"Of course, as you say, you have a position, Sue," said Isabel, when they were spinning over the country roads, in Peter's car, "but, my dear, Dolly Ripley and Con Fox don't speak now,--Connie's going on the stage, they say!---"
"'A mother and child will be there', all right!" said John Furlong, leaning back from the front seat. Isabel laughed, but went on seriously,
"---and Dolly really wants someone to stay with her, Sue, and think what a splendid thing that would be!"
Susan answered absently. They had taken the Sausalito road, to get the cool air from the bay, and it flashed across her that if she could persuade them to drop her at the foot of the hill, she could be at home in five minutes,--back in the dear familiar garden, with Anna and Phil lazily debating the attractions of a walk and a row, and Betsey compounding weak, cold, too-sweet lemonade. Suddenly the only important thing in the world seemed to be her escape.
There they were, just as she had pictured them; Mrs. Carroll, gray- haired, dignified in her lacy light black, was in a deep chair on the lawn, reading aloud from the paper; Betsey, sitting at her feet, twisted and folded the silky ears of the setter; Anna was lying in a hammock, lazily watching her mother, and Billy Oliver had joined the boys, sprawling comfortably on the grass.
A chorus of welcome greeted Susan.
"Oh, Sue, you old duck!" said Betsey, "we've just been waiting for you to decide what we'd do!"