Saturday's Child by Kathleen Thompson Norris
Part One. Poverty
It was late in July that Georgianna Lancaster startled and shocked the whole boarding-house out of its mid-summer calm. Susan, chronically affected by a wish that "something would happen," had been somewhat sobered by the fact that in poor Virginia's case something had happened. Suddenly Virginia's sight, accepted for years by them all as "bad," was very bad indeed. The great eye- doctor was angry that it had not been attended to before. "But it wasn't like this before!" Virginia protested patiently. She was always very patient after that, so brave indeed that the terrible thing that was coming swiftly and inevitably down upon her seemed quite impossible for the others to credit. But sometimes Susan heard her voice and Mrs. Lancaster's voice rising and falling for long, long talks in the night. "I don't believe it!" said Susan boldly, finding this attitude the most tenable in regard to Virginia's blindness.
Georgie's news, if startling, was not all bad. "Perhaps it'll raise the hoodoo from all of us old maids!" said Susan, inelegantly, to Mr. Oliver. "O'Connor doesn't look as if he had sense enough to raise anything, even the rent!" answered Billy cheerfully.
Susan heard the first of it on a windy, gritty Saturday afternoon, when she was glad to get indoors, and to take off the hat that had been wrenching her hair about. She came running upstairs to find Virginia lying limp upon the big bed, and Mary Lou, red-eyed and pale, sitting in the rocking-chair.
"Come in, dear, and shut it," said Mary Lou, sighing. "Sit down, Sue."
"What is it?" said Susan uneasily.
"Oh, Sue---!" began Virginia, and burst into tears.
"Now, now, darling!" Mary Lou patted her sister's hand.
"Auntie--" Susan asked, turning pale.
"No, Ma's all right," Mary Lou reassured her, "and there's nothing really wrong, Sue. But Georgie--Georgie, dear, she's married to Joe O'Connor! Isn't it dreadful?"
"But Ma's going to have it annulled," said Virginia instantly.
"Married!" Susan gasped. "You mean engaged!"
"No, dear, married," Mary Lou repeated, in a sad, musical voice. "They were married on Monday night--"
"Tell me!" commanded Susan, her eyes flashing with pleasurable excitement.
"We don't know much, Sue dear. Georgie's been acting rather odd and she began to cry after breakfast this morning, and Ma got it out of her. I thought Ma would faint, and Georgie just screamed. I kept calling out to Ma to be calm--" Susan could imagine the scene. "So then Ma took Georgie upstairs, and Jinny and I worked around, and came up here and made up this room. And just before lunch Ma came up, and--she looked chalk-white, didn't she, Jinny?"
"She looked-well, as white as this spread," agreed Virginia.
"Well, but what accounts for it!" gasped Susan. "Is Georgie crazy! Joe O'Connor! That snip! And hasn't he an awful old mother, or someone, who said that she'd never let him come home again if he married?"
"Listen, Sue!--You haven't heard half. It seems that they've been engaged for two months--"
"Yes. And on Monday night Joe showed Georgie that he'd gotten the license, and they got thinking how long it would be before they could be married, what with his mother, and no prospects and all, and they simply walked into St. Peter's and were married!"
"Well, he'll have to leave his mother, that's all!" said Susan.
"Oh, my dear, that's just what they quarreled about! He won't."
"No, if you please! And you can imagine how furious that made Georgie! And when Ma told us that, she simply set her lips,--you know Ma! And then she said that she was going to see Father Birch with Georgie this afternoon, to have it annulled at once."
"Without saying a word to Joe!"
"Oh, they went first to Joe's. Oh, no, Joe is perfectly willing. It was, as Ma says, a mistake from beginning to end."
"But how can it be annulled, Mary Lou?" Susan asked.
"Well, I don't understand exactly," Mary Lou answered coloring. "I think it's because they didn't go on any honeymoon--they didn't set up housekeeping, you know, or something like that!"
"Oh," said Susan, hastily, coloring too. "But wouldn't you know that if any one of us did get married, it would be annulled!" she said disgustedly. The others both began to laugh.
Still, it was all very exciting. When Georgie and her mother got home at dinner-time, the bride was pale and red-eyed, excited, breathing hard. She barely touched her dinner. Susan could not keep her eyes from the familiar hand, with its unfamiliar ring.
"I am very much surprised and disappointed in Father Birch," said Mrs. Lancaster, in a family conference in the dining-room just after dinner. "He seems to feel that the marriage may hold, which of course is too preposterous! If Joe O'Connor has so little appreciation--!"
"Ma!" said Georgie wearily, pleadingly.
"Well, I won't, my dear." Mrs. Lancaster interrupted herself with a visible effort. "And if I am disappointed in Joe," she presently resumed majestically. "I am doubly disappointed in Georgie. My baby- -that I always trusted--!"
Young Mrs. O'Connor began silently, bitterly, to cry. Susan went to sit beside her, and put a comforting arm about her.
"I have looked forward to my girls' wedding days," said Mrs. Lancaster, "with such feelings of joy! How could I anticipate that my own daughter, secretly, could contract a marriage with a man whose mother--" Her tone, low at first, rose so suddenly and so passionately that she was unable to control it. The veins about her forehead swelled.
"Ma!" said Mary Lou, "you only lower yourself to her level!"
"Do you mean that she won't let him bring Georgie there?" asked Susan.
"Whether she would or not," Mrs. Lancaster answered, with admirable loftiness, "she will not have a chance to insult my daughter. Joe, I pity!" she added majestically. "He fell deeply and passionately in love--"
"With Loretta," supplied Susan, innocently.
"He never cared for Loretta!" her aunt said positively. "No. With Georgie. And, not being a gentleman, we could hardly expect him to act like one! But we'll say no more about it. It will all be over in a few days, and then we'll try to forget it!"
Poor Georgie, it was but a sorry romance! Joe telephoned, Joe called, Father Birch came, the affair hung fire. Georgie was neither married nor free. Dr. O'Connor would not desert his mother, his mother refused to accept Georgie. Georgie cried day and night, merely asseverating that she hated Joe, and loved Ma, and she wished people would let her alone.
These were not very cheerful days in the boarding-house. Billy Oliver was worried and depressed, very unlike himself. He had been recently promoted to the post of foreman, was beginning to be a power among the men who associated with him and, as his natural instinct for leadership asserted itself, he found himself attracting some attention from the authorities themselves. He was questioned about the men, about their attitude toward this regulation or that superintendent. It was hinted that the spreading of heresies among the laborers was to be promptly discouraged. The men were not to be invited to express themselves as to hours, pay and the advantages of unifying. In other words, Mr. William Oliver, unless he became a little less interested and less active in the wrongs and rights of his fellow-men in the iron-works, might be surprised by a request to carry himself and his public sentiments elsewhere.
Susan, in her turn, was a little disturbed by the rumor that Front Office was soon to be abolished; begun for a whim, it might easily be ended for another whim. For herself she did not very much care; a certain confidence in the future was characteristic of her, but she found herself wondering what would become of the other girls, Miss Sherman and Miss Murray and Miss Cottle.
She felt far more deeply the pain that Peter's attitude gave her, a pain that gnawed at her heart day and night. He was home from Honolulu now, and had sent her several curious gifts from Hawaii, but, except for distant glimpses in the office, she had not seen him.
One evening, just before dinner, as she was dressing and thinking sadly of the weeks, the months, that had passed since their last happy evening together, Lydia Lord came suddenly into the room. The little governess looked white and sick, and shared her distress with Susan in a few brief sentences. Here was Mrs. Lawrence's check in her hand, and here Mrs. Lawrence's note to say that her services, as governess to Chrissy and Donald and little Hazel, would be no longer required. The blow was almost too great to be realized.
"But I brought it on myself, Sue, yes I did!" said Lydia, with dry lips. She sat, a shapeless, shabby figure, on the side of the bed, and pressed a veined hand tightly against her knobby temples, "I brought it on myself. I want to tell you about it. I haven't given Mary even a hint! Chrissy has been ill, her throat--they've had a nurse, but she liked me to sit with her now and then. So I was sitting there awhile this morning, and Mrs. Lawrence's sister, Miss Bacon, came in, and she happened to ask me--oh, if only she hadn't!- -if I knew that they meant to let Yates operate on Chrissy's throat. She said she thought it was a great pity. Oh, if only I'd held my tongue, fool, fool, fool that I was!" Miss Lydia took down her hand, and regarded Susan with hot, dry eyes. "But, before I thought," she pursued distressedly, "I said yes, I thought so too,--I don't know just what words I used, but no more than that! Chrissy asked her aunt if it would hurt, and she said, 'No, no, dear!' and I began reading. And now, here's this note from Mrs. Lawrence saying that she cannot overlook the fact that her conduct was criticized and discussed before Christina--! And after five years, Sue! Here, read it!"
"Beast!" Susan scowled at the monogrammed sheet, and the dashing hand. Miss Lydia clutched her wrist with a hot hand.
"What shall I do, Sue?" she asked, in agony.
"Well, I'd simply--" Susan began boldly enough. But a look at the pathetic, gray-haired figure on the bed stopped her short. She came, with the glory of her bright hair hanging loose about her face, to sit beside Lydia. "Really, I don't know, dear," she said gently. "What do you think?"
"Sue, I don't know!" And, to Susan's horror, poor Lydia twisted about, rested her arm on the foot of the bed, and began to cry.
"Oh, these rich!" raged Susan, attacking her hair with angry sweeps of the brush. "Do you wonder they think that the earth was made for them and Heaven too! They have everything! They can dash you off a note that takes away your whole income, they can saunter in late to church on Easter Sunday and rustle into their big empty pews, when the rest of us have been standing in the aisles for half an hour; they can call in a doctor for a cut finger, when Mary has to fight perfect agonies before she dares afford it--Don't mind me," she broke off, penitently, "but let's think what's to be done. You couldn't take the public school examinations, could you, Miss Lydia? it would be so glorious to simply let Mrs. Lawrence slide!"
"I always meant to do that some day," said Lydia, wiping her eyes and gulping, "but it would take time. And meanwhile--And there are Mary's doctor's bills, and the interest on our Piedmont lot--" For the Lord sisters, for patient years, had been paying interest, and an occasional installment, on a barren little tract of land nine blocks away from the Piedmont trolley.
"You could borrow--" began Susan.
But Lydia was more practical. She dried her eyes, straightened her hair and collar, and came, with her own quiet dignity, to the discussion of possibilities. She was convinced that Mrs. Lawrence had written in haste, and was already regretting it.
"No, she's too proud ever to send for me," she assured Susan, when the girl suggested their simply biding their time, "but I know that by taking me back at once she would save herself any amount of annoyance and time. So I'd better go and see her to-night, for by to-morrow she might have committed herself to a change."
"But you hate to go, don't you?" Susan asked, watching her keenly.
"Ah, well, it's unpleasant of course," Lydia said simply. "She may be unwilling to accept my apology. She may not even see me. One feels so--so humiliated, Sue."
"In that case, I'm going along to buck you up," said Susan, cheerfully.
In spite of Lydia's protests, go she did. They walked to the Lawrence home in a night so dark that Susan blinked when they finally entered the magnificent, lighted hallway.
The butler obviously disapproved of them. He did not quite attempt to shut the door on them, but Susan felt that they intruded.
"Mrs. Lawrence is at dinner, Miss Lord," he reminded Lydia, gravely.
"Yes, I know, but this is rather--important, Hughes," said Lydia, clearing her throat nervously.
"You had better see her at the usual time to-morrow," suggested the butler, smoothly. Susan's face burned. She longed to snatch one of the iron Japanese swords that decorated the hall, and with it prove to Hughes that his insolence was appreciated. But more reasonable tactics must prevail.
"Will you say that I am here, Hughes?" Miss Lord asked quietly.
"Presently," he answered, impassively.
Susan followed him for a few steps across the hall, spoke to him in a low tone.
"Too bad to ask you to interrupt her, Mr. Hughes," said she, in her friendly little way, "but you know Miss Lord's sister has been having one of her bad times, and of course you understand--?" The blue eyes and the pitiful little smile conquered. Hughes became human.
"Certainly, Miss," he said hoarsely, "but Madam is going to the theater to-night, and it's no time to see her."
"I know," Susan interposed, sympathetically.
"However, ye may depend upon my taking the best moment," Hughes said, before disappearing, and when he came back a few moments later, he was almost gracious.
"Mrs. Lawrence says that if you wish to see her you'll kindly wait, Miss Lord. Step in here, will you, please? Will ye be seated, ladies? Miss Chrissy's been asking for you the whole evening, Miss Lord."
"Is that so?" Lydia asked, brightening. They waited, with fast- beating hearts, for what seemed a long time. The great entrance to the flower-filled embrasure that led to the dining-room was in full view from where they stood, and when Mrs. Lawrence, elegantly emacinated, wonderfully gowned and jeweled, suddenly came out into the tempered brilliance of the electric lights both girls went to meet her.
Susan's heart burned for Lydia, faltering out her explanation, in the hearing of the butler.
"This is hardly the time to discuss this, Miss Lord," Mrs. Lawrence said impatiently, "but I confess I am surprised that a woman who apparently valued her position in my house should jeopardize it by such an extraordinary indiscretion--"
Susan's heart sank. No hope here!
But at this moment some six or seven young people followed Mrs. Lawrence out of the dining-room and began hurriedly to assume their theater wraps, and Susan, with a leap of her heart, recognized among them Peter Coleman, Peter splendid in evening dress, with a light overcoat over his arm, and a silk hat in his hand. His face brightened when he saw her, he dropped his coat, and came quickly across the hall, hands outstretched.
"Henrietta! say that you remember your Percy!" he said joyously, and Susan, coloring prettily, said "Oh, hush!" as she gave him her hand. A rapid fire of questions followed, he was apparently unconscious of, or indifferent to, the curiously watching group.
"Well, you two seem to be great friends," Mrs. Lawrence said graciously, turning from her conversation with Miss Lord.
"This is our cue to sing 'For you was once My Wife,' Susan!" Peter suggested. Susan did not answer him. She exchanged an amused, indulgent look with Mrs. Lawrence. Perhaps the girl's quiet dignity rather surprised that lady, for she gave her a keen, appraising look before she asked, pleasantly:
"Aren't you going to introduce me to your old friend, Peter?"
"Not old friends," Susan corrected serenely, as they were introduced.
"But vurry, vurry de-ah," supplemented Peter, "aren't we?"
"I hope Mrs. Lawrence knows you well enough to know how foolish you are, Peter!" Susan said composedly.
And Mrs. Lawrence said brightly, "Indeed I do! For we are very old friends, aren't we, Peter?"
But the woman's eyes still showed a little puzzlement. The exact position of this girl, with her ready "Peter," her willingness to disclaim an old friendship, her pleasant unresponsiveness, was a little hard to determine. A lady, obviously, a possible beauty, and entirely unknown--
"Well, we must run," Mrs. Lawrence recalled herself to say suddenly. "But why won't you and Miss Lord run up to see Chrissy for a few moments, Miss Brown? The poor kiddy is frightfully dull. And you'll be here in the morning as usual, Miss Lord? That's good. Good- night!"
"You did that, Sue, you darling!" exulted Lydia, as they ran down the stone steps an hour later, and locked arms to walk briskly along the dark street. "Your knowing Mr. Coleman saved the day!" And, in the exuberance of her spirits, she took Susan into a brightly lighted little candy-store, and treated her to ice-cream. They carried some home in a dripping paper box for Mary, who was duly horrified, agitated and rejoiced over the history of the day.
Through Susan's mind, as she lay wakeful in bed that night, one scene after another flitted and faded. She saw Mrs. Lawrence, glittering and supercilious, saw Peter, glowing and gay, saw the butler, with his attempt to be rude, and the little daughter of the house, tossing about in the luxurious pillows of her big bed. She thought of Lydia Lord's worn gloves, fumbling in her purse for money, of Mary Lord, so gratefully eating melting ice-cream from a pink saucer, with a silver souvenir spoon!
Two different worlds, and she, Susan, torn between them! How far she was from Peter's world, she felt that she had never realized until to-night. How little gifts and pleasures signified from a man whose life was crowded with nothing else! How helpless she was, standing by while his life whirled him further and further away from the dull groove in which her own feet were set!
Yet Susan's evening had not been without its little cause for satisfaction. She had treated Peter coolly, with dignity, with reserve, and she had seen it not only spur him to a sudden eagerness to prove his claim to her friendship, but also have its effect upon his hostess. This was the clue, at last.
"If ever I have another chance," decided Susan, "he won't have such easy sailing! He will have to work for my friendship as if I were the heiress, and he a clerk in Front Office."
August was the happiest month Susan had ever known, September even better, and by October everybody at Mrs. Lancaster's boarding-house was confidently awaiting the news of Susan Brown's engagement to the rich Mr. Peter Coleman. Susan herself was fairly dazed with joy. She felt herself the most extraordinarily fortunate girl in the world.
Other matters also prospered. Alfred Lancaster had obtained a position in the Mission, and seemed mysteriously inclined to hold it, and to conquer his besetting weakness. And Georgie's affair was at a peaceful standstill. Georgie had her old place in the house, was changed in nothing tangible, and, if she cried a good deal, and went about less than before, she was not actively unhappy. Dr. O'Connor came once a week to see her, an uncomfortable event, during which Georgie's mother was with difficulty restrained from going up to the parlor to tell Joe what she thought of a man who put his mother before his wife. Virginia was bravely enduring the horrors of approaching darkness. Susan reproached herself for her old impatience with Jinny's saintliness; there was no question of her cousin's courage and faith during this test. Mary Lou was agitatedly preparing for a visit to the stricken Eastmans, in Nevada, deciding one day that Ma could, and the next that Ma couldn't, spare her for the trip.
Susan walked in a golden cloud. No need to hunt through Peter's letters, to weigh his words,--she had the man himself now unequivocally in the attitude of lover.
Or if, in all honesty, she knew him to be a little less than that, at least he was placing himself in that light, before their little world. In that world theatre-trips, candy and flowers have their definite significance, the mere frequency with which they were seen together committed him, surely, to something! They paid dinner-calls together, they went together to week-end visits to Emily Saunders, at least two evenings out of every week were spent together. At any moment he might turn to her with the little, little phrase that would settle this uncertainty once and for all! Indeed it occurred to Susan sometimes that he might think it already settled, without words. At least once a day she flushed, half-delighted, half- distressed,--under teasing questions on the subject from the office force, or from the boarders at home; all her world, apparently, knew.
One day, in her bureau drawer, she found the little card that had accompanied his first Christmas gift, nearly two years before. Why did a keen pain stir her heart, as she stood idly twisting it in her fingers? Had not the promise of that happy day been a thousand times fulfilled?
But the bright, enchanting hope that card had brought had been so sickeningly deferred! Two years!--she was twenty-three now.
Mrs. Lancaster, opening the bedroom door a few minutes later, found Susan in tears, kneeling by the bed.
"Why, lovey! lovey!" Her aunt patted the bowed head. "What is it, dear?"
"Nothing!" gulped Susan, sitting back on her heels, and drying her eyes.
"Not a quarrel with Peter?"
"Oh, auntie, no!"
"Well," her aunt sighed comfortably, "of course it's an emotional time, dear! Leaving the home nest--" Mrs. Lancaster eyed her keenly, but Susan did not speak. "Remember, Auntie is to know the first of all!" she said playfully. Adding, after a moment's somber thought, "If Georgie had told Mama, things would be very different now!"
"Poor Georgie!" Susan smiled, and still kneeling, leaned on her aunt's knees, as Mrs. Lancaster sat back in the rocking chair.
"Poor Georgie indeed!" said her mother vexedly. "It's more serious than you think, dear. Joe was here last night. It seems that he's going to that doctor's convention, at Del Monte a week from next Saturday, and he was talking to Georgie about her going, too."
Susan was thunderstruck.
"But, Auntie, aren't they going to be divorced?"
Mrs. Lancaster rubbed her nose violently.
"They are if I have anything to say!" she said, angrily. "But, of course, Georgie has gotten herself into this thing, and now Mama isn't going to get any help in trying to get her out! Joe was extremely rude and inconsiderate about it, and got the poor child crying--!"
"But, Auntie, she certainly doesn't want to go!"
"Certainly she doesn't. And to come home to that dreadful woman, his mother? Use your senses, Susan!"
"Why don't you forbid Joe O'Connor the house, Auntie?"
"Because I don't want any little whipper-snapper of a medical graduate from the Mission to dare to think he can come here, in my own home, and threaten me with a lawsuit, for alienating his wife's affections!" Mrs. Lancaster said forcibly. "I never in my life heard such impudence!"
"Is he mad!" exclaimed Susan, in a low, horrified tone.
"Well, I honestly think he is!" Mrs. Lancaster, gratified by this show of indignation, softened. "But I didn't mean to distress you with this, dear," said she. "It will all work out, somehow. We mustn't have any scandal in the family just now, whatever happens, for your sake!"
Pursuant to her new-formed resolutions, Susan was maintaining what dignity she could in her friendship with Peter nowadays. And when, in November, Peter stopped her on the "deck" one day to ask her, "How about Sunday, Sue? I have a date, but I think I can get out of it?" she disgusted him by answering briskly, "Not for me, Peter. I'm positively engaged for Sunday."
"Oh, no, you're not!" he assured her, firmly.
"Oh, truly I am!" Susan nodded a good-by, and went humming into the office, and that night made William Oliver promise to take her to the Carrolls' in Sausalito for the holiday.
So on a hazy, soft November morning they found themselves on the cable-car that in those days slipped down the steep streets of Nob Hill, through the odorous, filthy gaiety of the Chinese quarter, through the warehouse district, and out across the great crescent of the water-front. Billy, well-brushed and clean-shaven, looked his best to-day, and Susan, in a wide, dashing hat, with fresh linen at wrists and collar, enjoyed the innocent tribute of many a passing glance from the ceaseless current of men crossing and recrossing the ferry place.
"If they try to keep us for dinner, we'll bashfully remain," said Billy, openly enchanted by the prospect of a day with his adored Josephine.
But first they were to have a late second breakfast at Sardi's, the little ramshackle Sausalito restaurant, whose tables, visible through green arches, hung almost directly over the water. It was a cheap meal, oily and fried, but Susan was quite happy, hanging over the rail to watch the shining surface of the water that was so near. The reflection of the sun shifted in a ceaselessly moving bright pattern on the white-washed ceiling, the wash of the outgoing steamer surged through the piles, and set to rocking all the nearby boats at anchor.
After luncheon, they climbed the long flights of steps that lead straight through the village, which hangs on the cliff like a cluster of sea-birds' nests. The gardens were bare and brown now, the trees sober and shabby.
When the steps stopped, they followed a road that ran like a shelf above the bay and waterfront far below, and that gave a wonderful aspect of the wide sweep of hills and sky beyond, all steeped in the thin, clear autumn haze. Billy pushed open a high gate that had scraped the path beyond in a deep circular groove, and they were in a fine, old-fashioned garden, filled with trees. Willow and pepper and eucalyptus towered over the smaller growth of orange and lemon- verbena trees; there were acacia and mock-orange and standard roses, and hollyhock stalks, bare and dry. Only the cosmos bushes, tall and wavering, were in bloom, with a few chrysanthemums and late asters, the air was colder here than it had been out under the bright November sun, and the path under the trees was green and slippery.
On a rise of ground stood the plain, comfortable old house, with a white curtain blowing here and there at an open window and its front door set hospitably ajar. But not a soul was in sight.
Billy and Susan were at home here, however, and went through the hallway to open a back door that gave on the kitchen. It was an immaculate kitchen, with a fire glowing sleepily behind the shining iron grating of the stove, and sunshine lying on the well-scrubbed floor. A tall woman was busy with plants in the bright window.
"Well, you nice child!" she exclaimed, her face brightening as Susan came into her arms for her motherly kiss. "I was just thinking about you! We've been hearing things about you, Sue, and wondering--and wondering--! And Billy, too! The girls will be delighted!"
This was the mother of the five Carrolls, a mother to whom it was easy to trace some of their beauty, and some of their courage. In the twelve long years of her widowhood, from a useless, idle, untrained member of a society to which all three adjectives apply, this woman had grown to be the broad and brave and smiling creature who was now studying Susan's face with the insatiable motherliness that even her household's constant claims failed to exhaust. Manager and cook and houseworker, seamstress and confidante to her restless, growing brood, still there was a certain pure radiance that was never quite missing from her smile, and Susan felt a mad impulse to- day to have a long comforting cry on the broad shoulder. She thoroughly loved Mrs. Carroll, even if she thought the older woman's interest in soups and darning and the filling of lamps a masterly affectation, and pitied her for the bitter fate that had robbed her of home and husband, wealth and position, at the very time when her children needed these things the most.
They two went into the sitting-room now, while Billy raced after the young people who had taken their luncheon, it appeared, and were walking over the hills to a favorite spot known as "Gioli's" beach.
Susan liked this room, low-ceiled and wide, which ran the length of the house. It seemed particularly pleasant to-day, with the uncertain sunlight falling through the well-darned, snowy window- curtains, the circle of friendly, shabby chairs, the worn old carpet, scrupulously brushed, the reading-table with a green-shaded lamp, and the old square piano loaded with music. The room was in Sunday order to-day, books, shabby with much handling, were ranged neatly on their shelves, not a fallen leaf lay under the bowl of late roses on the piano.
Susan had had many a happy hour in this room, for if the Carrolls were poor to the point of absurdity, their mother had made a sort of science of poverty, and concentrated her splendid mind on the questions of meals, clothes, and the amusements of their home evenings. That it had been a hard fight, was still a hard fight, Susan knew. Philip, the handsome first-born, had the tendencies and temptations natural to his six-and-twenty years; Anna, her mother's especial companion, was taking a hard course of nursing in a city hospital; Josephine, the family beauty, at twenty, was soberly undertaking a course in architecture, in addition to her daily work in the offices of Huxley and Huxley; even little Betsey was busy, and Jimmy still in school; so that the brunt of the planning, of the actual labor, indeed, fell upon their mother. But she had carried a so much heavier burden, that these days seemed bright and easeful to Mrs. Carroll, and the face she turned to Susan now was absolutely unclouded.
"What's all the news, Sue? Auntie's well, and Mary Lou? And what do they say now of Jinny? Don't tell me about Georgie until the girls are here! And what's this I hear of your throwing down Phil completely, and setting up a new young man?"
"Please'm, you never said I wasn'ter," Susan laughed.
"No, indeed I never did! You couldn't do a more sensible thing!"
"Oh, Aunt Jo!" The title was only by courtesy. "I thought you felt that every woman ought to have a profession!"
"A means of livelihood, my dear, not a profession necessarily! Yes, to be used in case she didn't marry, or when anything went wrong if she did," the older woman amended briskly. "But, Sue, marriage first for all girls! I won't say," she went on thoughtfully, "that any marriage is better than none at all, but I could almost say that I thought that! That is, given the average start, I think a sensible woman has nine chances out of ten of making a marriage successful, whereas there never was a really complete life rounded out by a single woman."
"My young man has what you'll consider one serious fault," said Susan, dimpling.
"Dear, dear! And what's that?"
"Peter Coleman, yes, of course he is!" Mrs. Carroll frowned thoughtfully. "Well, that isn't necessarily bad, Susan!"
"Aunt Josephine," Susan said, really shaken out of her nonsense by the serious tone, "do you honestly think it's a drawback? Wouldn't you honestly rather have Jo, say, marry a rich man than a poor man, other things being equal?"
"Honestly no, Sue," said Mrs. Carroll.
"But if the rich man was just as good and brave and honest and true as the poor one?" persisted the girl.
"But he couldn't be, Sue, he never is. The fibers of his moral and mental nature are too soft. He's had no hardening. No," Mrs. Carroll shook her head. "No, I've been rich, and I've been poor. If a man earns his money honestly himself, he grows old during the process, and he may or may not be a strong and good man. But if he merely inherits it, he is pretty sure not to be one."
"But aren't there some exceptions?" asked Susan. Mrs. Carroll laughed at her tone.
"There are exceptions to everything! And I really believe Peter Coleman is one," she conceded smilingly. "Hark!" for feet were running down the path outside.
"There you are, Sue!" said Anna Carroll, putting a glowing face in the sitting-room door. "I came back for you! The others said they would go slowly, and we can catch them if we hurry!"
She came in, a brilliant, handsome young creature, in rough, well- worn walking attire, and a gipsyish hat. Talking steadily, as they always did when together, she and Susan went upstairs, and Susan was loaned a short skirt, and a cap that made her prettier than ever.
The house was old, there was a hint of sagging here and there, in the worn floors, the bedrooms were plainly furnished, almost bare. In the atmosphere there lingered, despite the open windows, the faint undefinable odor common to old houses in which years of frugal and self-denying living have set their mark, an odor vaguely compounded of clean linen and old woodwork, hot soapsuds and ammonia. The children's old books were preserved in old walnut cases, nothing had been renewed, recarpeted, repapered for many years.
Still talking, the girls presently ran downstairs, and briskly followed the road that wound up, above the village, to the top of the hill. Anna chattered of the hospital, of the superintendent of nurses, who was a trial to all the young nurses, "all superintendents are tyrants, I think," said Anna, "and we just have to shut our teeth and bear it! But it's all so unnecessarily hard, and it's wrong, too, for nursing the sick is one thing, and being teased by an irritable woman like that is another! However," she concluded cheerfully, "I'll graduate some day, and forget her! And meantime, I don't want to worry mother, for Phil's just taken a real start, and Bett's doctor's bills are paid, and the landlord, by some miracle, has agreed to plaster the kitchen!"
They joined the others just below the top of the hill, and were presently fighting the stiff wind that blew straight across the ridge. Once over it, however, the wind dropped, the air was deliciously soft and fresh and their rapid walking made the day seem warm. There was no road; their straggling line followed the little shelving paths beaten out of the hillside by the cows.
Far below lay the ocean, only a tone deeper than the pale sky. The line of the Cliff House beach was opposite, a vessel under full sail was moving in through the Golden Gate. The hills fell sharply away to the beach, Gioli's ranch-house, down in the valley, was only one deeper brown note among all the browns. Here and there cows were grazing, cotton-tails whisked behind the tall, dried thistles.
The Carrolls loved this particular walk, and took it in all weathers. Sometimes they had a guest or two,--a stray friend of Philip's, or two or three of Anna's girl friends from the hospital. It did not matter, for there was no pairing off at the Carroll picnics. Oftener they were all alone, or, as to-day, with Susan and Billy, who were like members of the family.
To-day Billy, Jimmy and Betsey were racing ahead like frolicking puppies; up banks, down banks, shrieking, singing and shouting. Phil and Josephine walked together, they were inseparable chums, and Susan thought them a pretty study to-day; Josephine so demurely beautiful in her middy jacket and tam-o-shanter cap, and Philip so obviously proud of her.
She and Anna, their hands sunk in their coat-pockets, their hair loosening under the breezes, followed the others rather silently.
And swiftly, subtly, the healing influences of the hour crept into Susan's heart. What of these petty little hopes and joys and fears that fretted her like a cloud of midges day and night? How small they seemed in the wide silence of these brooding hills, with the sunlight lying warm on the murmuring ocean below, and the sweet kindly earth underfoot!
"I wish I could live out here, Nance, and never go near to people and things again!"
"Oh, don't you, Sue!"
There was a delay at the farmhouse for cream. The ranchers' damp dooryard had been churned into deep mud by the cows, strong odors, delicious to Susan, because they were associated with these happy days, drifted about, the dairy reeked of damp earth, wet wood, and scoured tinware. The cream, topping the pan like a circle of leather, was loosened by a small, sharp stick, and pushed, thick and lumpy, into the empty jam jar that Josephine neatly presented. A woman came to the ranch-house door with a grinning Portuguese greeting, the air from the kitchen behind her was close, and reeked of garlic and onions and other odors. Susan and Anna went in to look at the fat baby, a brown cherub whose silky black lashes curved back half an inch from his cheeks. There were half a dozen small children in the kitchen, cats, even a sickly chicken or two.
"Very different from the home life of our dear Queen!" said Susan, when they were out in the air again.
The road now ran between marshy places full of whispering reeds, occasional crazy fences must be crossed, occasional pools carefully skirted. And then they were really crossing the difficult strip of sandy dead grasses, and cocoanut shells, and long-dried seaweeds that had been tossed up by the sea in a long ridge on the beach, and were racing on the smooth sand, where the dangerous looking breakers were rolling so harmlessly. They shouted to each other now, above the roar of the water, as they gathered drift-wood for their fire, and when the blaze was well started, indulged in the fascinating pastime of running in long curves so near to the incoming level rush of the waves that they were all soon wet enough to feel that no further harm could be done by frankly wading in the shallows, posing for Philip's camera on half-submerged rocks, and chasing each other through a frantic game of beach tag. It was the prudent Josephine,-- for Anna was too dreamy and unpractical to bring her attention to detail,--who suggested a general drying of shoes, as they gathered about the fire for the lunch--toasted sandwiches, and roasted potatoes, and large wedges of apple-pie, and the tin mugs of delicious coffee that crowned all these feasts. Only sea-air accounted for the quantities in which the edibles disappeared; the pasteboard boxes and the basket were emptied to the last crumb, and the coffee-pot refilled and emptied again.
The meal was not long over, and the stiffened boots were being buttoned with the aid of bent hairpins, when the usual horrifying discovery of the time was made. Frantic hurrying ensued, the tin cups, dripping salt water, were strung on a cord, the cardboard boxes fed the last flicker of the fire, the coffee-pot was emptied into the waves.
And they were off again, climbing up--up--up the long rise of the hills. The way home always seemed twice the way out, but Susan found it a soothing, comforting experience to-day. The sun went behind a cloud; cows filed into the ranch gates for milking; a fine fog blew up from the sea.
"Wonderful day, Anna!" Susan said. The two were alone together again.
"These walks do make you over," Anna's bright face clouded a little as she turned to look down the long road they had come. "It's all so beautiful, Sue," she said, slowly, "and the spring is so beautiful, and books and music and fires are so beautiful. Why aren't they enough? Nobody can take those things away from us!"
"I know," Susan said briefly, comprehending.
"But we set our hearts on some silly thing not worth one of these fogs," Anna mused, "and nothing but that one thing seems to count!"
"I know," Susan said again. She thought of Peter Coleman.
"There's a doctor at the hospital," Anna said suddenly. "A German, Doctor Hoffman. Of course I'm only one of twenty girls to him, now. But I've often thought that if I had pretty gowns, and the sort of home,--you know what I mean, Sue! to which one could ask that type of really distinguished man---"
"Well, look at my case---" began Susan.
It was almost dark when the seven stormed the home kitchen, tired, chilly, happy, ravenous. Here they found Mrs. Carroll, ready to serve the big pot-roast and the squares of yellow cornbread, and to have Betsey and Billy burn their fingers trying to get baked sweet potatoes out of the oven. And here, straddling a kitchen chair, and noisily joyous as usual, was Peter Coleman. Susan knew in a happy instant that he had gone to find her at her aunt's, and had followed her here, and during the meal that followed, she was the maddest of all the mad crowd. After dinner they had Josephine's violin, and coaxed Betsey to recite, but more appreciated than either was Miss Brown's rendition of selections from German and Italian opera, and her impersonation of an inexperienced servant from Erin's green isle. Mrs. Carroll laughed until the tears ran down her cheeks, as indeed they all did.
The evening ended with songs about the old piano, "Loch Lomond," "Love's Old Sweet Song," and "Asthore." Then Susan and Peter and Billy must run for their hats and wraps.
"And Peter thinks there's money in my window-washer!" said Mrs. Carroll, when they were all loitering in the doorway, while Betts hunted for the new time-table.
"Mother's invention" was a standing joke with the young Carrolls, but their mother had a serene belief that some day something might be done with the little contrivance she had thought of some years ago, by which the largest of windows might be washed outside as easily as inside. "I believe I really thought of it by seeing poor maids washing fifth-story windows by sitting on the sill and tipping out!" she confessed one day to Susan. Now she had been deeply pleased by Peter's casual interest in it.
"Peter says that there's no reason---" she began.
"Oh, Mother!" Josephine laughed indulgently, as she stood with her arm about her mother's waist, and her bright cheek against her mother's shoulder, "you've not been taking Peter seriously!"
"Jo, when I ask you to take me seriously, it'll be time for you to get so fresh!" said Peter neatly.
"Your mother is the Lady Edison of the Pacific Coast, and don't you forget it! I'm going to talk to some men at the shop about this thing---"
"Say, if you do, I'll make some blue prints," Billy volunteered.
"You're on!" agreed Mr. Coleman.
"You wouldn't want to market this yourself, Mrs. Carroll?"
"Well--no, I don't think so. No, I'm sure I wouldn't! I'd rather sell it for a lump sum---"
"To be not less than three dollars," laughed Phil.
"Less than three hundred, you mean!" said the interested Peter.
"Three hundred!" Mrs. Carroll exclaimed. "Do you suppose so?"
"Why, I don't know--but I can find out"
The trio, running for their boat, left the little family rather excited, for the first time, over the window-cleaner.
"But, Peter, is there really something in it?" asked Susan, on the boat.
"Well,--there might be. Anyway, it seemed a good chance to give them a lift, don't you know?" he said, with his ingenuous blush. Susan loved him for the generous impulse. She had sometimes fancied him a little indifferent to the sufferings of the less fortunate, proof of the contrary warmed her to the very heart! She had been distressed one day to hear him gaily telling George Banks, the salesman who was coughing himself to death despite the frantic care of his wife, a story of a consumptive, and, on another occasion, when a shawled, shabby woman had come up to them in the street, with the whined story of five little hungry children, Susan had been shocked to hear Peter say, with his irrepressible gaiety, "Well, here! Here's five cents; that's a cent apiece! Now mind you don't waste it!"
She told herself to-night that these things proved no more than want of thought. There was nothing wrong with the heart that could plan so tactfully for Mrs. Carroll.
On the following Saturday Susan had the unexpected experience of shopping with Mrs. Lancaster and Georgie for the latter's trousseau. It was unlike any shopping that they had ever done before, inasmuch as the doctor's unclaimed bride had received from her lord the sum of three hundred dollars for the purpose. Georgie denied firmly that she was going to start with her husband for the convention at Del Monte that evening, but she went shopping nevertheless. Perhaps she could not really resist the lure of the shining heap of gold pieces. She became deeply excited and charmed over the buying of the pretty tailor-made, the silk house dresses, the hat and shoes and linen. Georgie began to play the bride, was prettily indignant with clerks, pouted at silks and velvets. Susan did not miss her cousin's bright blush when certain things, a linen suit, underlinen, a waist or two, were taken from the mass of things to be sent, and put into Georgie's suitcase.
"And you're to have a silk waist, Ma, I insist."
"Now, Baby love, this is your shopping. And, more than that, I really need a pair of good corsets before I try on waists!"
"Then you'll have both!" Mrs. Lancaster laughed helplessly as the bride carried her point.
At six o'clock the three met the doctor at the Vienna Bakery, for tea, and Georgie, quite lofty in her attitude when only her mother and cousin were to be impressed, seemed suddenly to lose her powers of speech. She answered the doctor's outline of his plans only by monosyllables. "Yes," "All right," "That's nice, Joe." Her face was burning red.
"But Ma--Ma and I--and Sue, too, don't you, Sue?" she stammered presently. "We think--and don't you think it would be as well, yourself, Joe, if I went back with Ma to-night---"
Susan, anxiously looking toward the doctor, at this, felt a little thrill run over her whole body at the sudden glimpse of the confident male she had in his reply,--or rather, lack of reply. For, after a vague, absent glance at Georgie, he took a time-table out of his pocket, and addressed his mother-in-law.
"We'll be back next Sunday, Mrs. Lancaster. But don't worry if you don't hear from Georgie that day, for we may be late, and Mother won't naturally want us to run off the moment we get home. But on Monday Georgie can go over, if she wants to. Perhaps I'll drive her over, if I can."
"He was the coolest---!" Susan said, half-annoyed, half-admiring, to Mary Lou, late that night. The boarding-house had been pleasantly fluttered by the departure of the bride, Mrs. Lancaster, in spite of herself, had enjoyed the little distinction of being that personage's mother.
"Well, she'll be back again in a week!" Virginia, missing her sister, sighed.
"Back, yes," Mrs. Lancaster admitted, "but not quite the same, dear!" Georgie, whatever her husband, whatever the circumstances of her marriage, was nearer her mother than any of the others now. As a wife, she was admitted to the company of wives.
Susan spent the evening in innocently amorous dreams, over her game of patience. What a wonderful thing, if one loved a man, to fare forth into the world with him as his wife!----
"I have about as much chance with Joe Carroll as a dead rat," said Billy suddenly. He was busied with his draughting board and the little box of draughts-man's instruments that Susan always found fascinating, and had been scowling and puffing over his work.
"Why?" Susan asked, laughing outright. "Oh, she's so darn busy!" Billy said, and returned to his work.
Susan pondered it. She wished she were so "darned" busy that Peter Coleman might have to scheme and plan to see her.
"That's why men's love affairs are considered so comparatively unimportant, I suppose," she submitted presently. "Men are so busy!"
Billy paid no attention to the generality, and Susan pursued it no further.
But after awhile she interrupted him again, this time in rather an odd tone.
"Billy, I want to ask you something---"
"Ask away," said Billy, giving her one somewhat startled glance.
Susan did not speak immediately, and he did not hurry her. A few silent minutes passed before she laid a card carefully in place, studied it with her head on one side, and said casually, in rather a husky voice:
"Billy, if a man takes a girl everywhere, and gives her things, and seems to want to be with her all the time, he's in love with her, isn't he?"
Billy, apparently absorbed in what he was doing, cleared his throat before he answered carelessly:
"Well, it might depend, Sue. When a man in my position does it, a girl knows gosh darn well that if I spend my good hard money on her I mean business!"
"But--it mightn't be so--with a rich man?" hazarded Susan bravely.
"Why, I don't know, Sue." An embarrassed red had crept into William's cheeks. "Of course, if a fellow kissed her---"
"Oh, heavens!" cried Susan, scarlet in turn, "he never did anything like that!"
"Didn't, hey?" William looked blank.
"Oh, never!" Susan said, meeting his look bravely. "He's--he's too much of a gentleman, Bill!"
"Perhaps that's being a gentleman, and perhaps it's not," said Billy, scowling. "He--but he--he makes love to you, doesn't he?" The crude phrase was the best he could master in this delicate matter.
"I don't--I don't know!" said Susan, laughing, but with flaming cheeks. "That's it! He--he isn't sentimental. I don't believe he ever would be, it's not his nature. He doesn't take anything very seriously, you know. We talk all the time, but not about really serious things." It sounded a little lame. Susan halted.
"Of course, Coleman's a perfectly decent fellow---" Billy began, with brotherly uneasiness.
"Oh, absolutely!" Susan could laugh, in her perfect confidence. "He acts exactly as if I were his sister, or another boy. He never even- -put his arm about me," she explained, "and I--I don't know just what he does mean---"
"Sure," said Billy, thoughtfully.
"Of course, there's no reason why a man and a girl can't be good friends just as two men would," Susan said, more lightly, after a pause.
"Oh, yes there is! Don't you fool yourself!" Billy said, gloomily. "That's all rot!"
"Well, a girl can't stay moping in the house until a man comes along and says, 'If I take you to the theater it means I want to marry you!'" Susan declared with spirit. "I--I can't very well turn to Peter now and say, 'This ends everything, unless you are in earnest!'"
Her distress, her earnestness, her eagerness for his opinion, had carried her quite out of herself. She rested her face in her hands, and fixed her anxious eyes upon him.
"Well, here's the way I figure it out," Billy said, deliberately, drawing his pencil slowly along the edge of his T-square, and squinting at it absorbedly, "Coleman has a crush on you, all right, and he'd rather be with you than anyone else---"
Yes," nodded Susan. "I know that, because---"
"Well. But you see you're so fixed that you can't entertain him here, Sue, and you don't run in his crowd, so when he wants to see you he has to go out of his way to do it. So his rushing you doesn't mean as much as it otherwise would."
"I suppose that's true," Susan said, with a sinking heart.
"The chances are that he doesn't want to get married at all yet," pursued Billy, mercilessly, "and he thinks that if he gives you a good time, and doesn't--doesn't go any further, that he's playing fair."
"That's what I think," Susan said, fighting a sensation of sickness. Her heart was a cold weight, she hoped that she was not going to cry.
"But all the same, Sue," Billy resumed more briskly, "You can see that it wouldn't take much to bring an affair like that to a finish. Coleman's rich, he can marry if he pleases, and he wants what he wants---You couldn't just stop short, I suppose? You couldn't simply turn down all his invitations, and refuse everything?" he broke off to ask.
"Billy, how could I? Right in the next office!"
"Well, that's an advantage, in a way. It keeps the things in his mind. Either way, you're no worse off for stopping everything now, Sue. If he's in earnest, he'll not be put off by that, and if he's not, you save yourself from--from perhaps beginning to care."
Susan could have kissed the top of Billy's rumpled head for the tactful close. She had thrown her pride to the winds to-night, but she loved him for remembering it.
"But he would think that I cared!" she objected.
"Let him! That won't hurt you. Simply say that your aunt disapproves of your being so much with him, and stop short."
Billy went on working, and Susan shuffled her pack for a new game.
"Thank you, Bill," she said at last, gratefully. "I'm glad I told you."
"Oh, that's all right!" said William, gruffly.
There was a silence until Mary Lou came in, to rip up her old velvet hat, and speculate upon the clangers of a trip to Virginia City.