The Measure of Margaret Coppered by Kathleen Thompson Norris
Duncan Coppered felt that his father's second marriage was a great mistake. He never said so; that would not have been Duncan's way. But he had a little manner of discreetly compressing his lips, when, the second Mrs. Coppered was mentioned, eying his irreproachable boots, and raising his handsome brows, that was felt to be significant. People who knew and admired Duncan--and to know him was to admire him--realized that he would never give more definite indications of filial disapproval than these. His exquisite sense of what was due his father's wife from him would not permit it. But all the more did the silent sympathy of his friends go out to him.
To Harriet Culver he said the one thing that these friends, comparing notes, considered indicative of his real feeling. Harriet, who met him on the Common one cold afternoon, reproached him, during the course of a slow ride, for his non-appearance at various dinners and teas.
"Well, I've been rather bowled over, don't you know? I've been getting my bearings," said Duncan, simply.
"Of course you have!" said Harriet, with an expectant thrill.
"I'd gotten to count on monopolizing the governor," pursued Duncan, presently, with a rueful smile. "I shall feel no end in the way for a while, I'm afraid, Of course, I didn't think Dad would always keep"-his serious eyes met Harriet's--"always keep my mother's place empty; but this came rather suddenly, just the same."
"Had your father written you?" said Harriet, confused between fear of saying the wrong thing and dread of a long silence.
"Oh, yes!" Duncan attempted an indifferent tone. "He had written me in August about meeting Miss Charteris and her little brother in Rome, you know, and how much he liked her. Her brother was an invalid, and died shortly after; and then Dad met her again in Paris, quite alone, and they were married immediately."
He fell silent. Presently Harriet said daringly: "She's--clever; she's gifted, isn't she?"
"I think you were very bold to say that, dear!" said Mrs. Van Winkle, when Harriet repeated this conversation, some hours later, in the family circle.
"Oh, Aunt Minnie, I had to--to see what he'd say."
"And what did he say?" asked Harriet's mother,
"He looked at me gravely, you know, until I was ashamed of myself," the girl confessed, "and then he said: 'Why, Hat, you must know that Mrs. Coppered was a professional actress?'"
"And a very obscure little actress, at that," finished Mrs. Culver, nodding.
"Pacific Coast stock companies or something like that," said Harriet. "Well, and then, after a minute, he said, so sadly, 'That's what hurts, although I hate myself for letting it make a difference.'"
"Duncan said that?" Mrs. Van Winkle was incredulous.
"Poor boy! With one aunt Mrs. Vincent-Hunter and the other an English duchess! The Coppereds have always been among Boston's best families. It's terrible," said Mrs. Culver.
"Well, I think it is," the girl agreed warmly. "Judge Clyde Potter's grandson, and brought up with the very nicest people, and sensitive as he is--I think it's just too bad it should be Duncan!"
"There's no doubt she was an actress, I suppose, Emily?"
"Well," said Harriet's mother, "it's not denied." She shrugged eloquently.
"Shall you call, mother?"
"Oh, I shall have to once, I suppose. The Coppereds, you know. Every one will call on her for Carey's sake," said Mrs. Culver, sighing.
Every one duly called on Mrs. Carey Coppered, when she returned to Boston; and although she made her mourning an excuse for declining all formal engagements, she sent out cards for an "at home" on a Friday in January. She was a thin, graceful woman, with the blue- black Irish eyes that are set in with a sooty finger, and an unexpectedly rich, deep voice. Her quiet, almost diffident manner was obviously accentuated just now by her recent sorrow; but this did not conceal from her husband's friends the fact that the second Mrs. Coppered was not of their world. Everything charming she might be, but to the manner born she was not. They would not meet her on her own ground, she could not meet them on theirs. In her own home she listened like a puzzled, silenced child to the gay chatter that went on about her.
Duncan stood with his father, at his stepmother's side, on her afternoon at home, prompting her when names or faces confused her, treating her with a little air of gracious intimacy eminently becoming and charming under the circumstances. His tact stood between her and more than one blunder, and it was to be noticed that she relied upon him even more than upon his father. Carey Coppered, indeed, hitherto staid and serious, was quite transformed by his joy and pride in her, and would not have seen a thousand blunders on her part. The consensus of opinion, among his friends, was that Carey was "really a little absurd, don't you know?" and that Mrs. Carey was "quite deliciously odd," and that Duncan was "too wonderful-- poor, dear boy!"
Mrs. Coppered would have agreed that her stepson was wonderful, but with quite a literal meaning. She found him a real cause for wonder- -this poised, handsome, crippled boy of nineteen, with his tailor, and his tutor, and his groom, and the heavy social responsibilities that bored him so heartily. With the honesty of a naturally brilliant mind cultivated by hard experience, and much solitary reading, she was quite ready to admit that her marriage had placed her in a new and confusing environment; she wanted only to adapt herself, to learn the strange laws by which it was controlled. And she would naturally have turned quite simply to Duncan for help.
But Duncan very gently, very coldly, repelled her. He was representative of his generation. Things were not learned by the best people; they were instinctively known. The girls that Duncan knew--the very children in their nurseries--never hesitated over the wording of a note of thanks, never innocently omitted the tipping of a servant, never asked their maid's advice as to suitable frocks and gloves for certain occasions. All these things, and a thousand more, his stepmother did, to his cold embarrassment and annoyance.
The result was unfortunate in two ways. Mrs. Coppered shrank under the unexpressed disapproval into more than her native timidity, rightly thinking his attitude represented that of all her new world; and Carey, who worshipped his young wife, perceived at last that Duncan was not championing his stepmother, and for the first time in his life showed a genuine displeasure with his son.
This was exquisitely painful to Margaret Coppered. She knew what father and son had been to each other before her coming; she knew, far better than Carey, that the boy's adoration of his father was the one vital passion of his life. Mrs. Ayers, the housekeeper, sometimes made her heartsick with innocent revelations.
"From the day his mother died, Mrs. Coppered, my dear, when poor little Master Duncan wasn't but three weeks old, I don't believe he and his father were separated an hour when they could be together! Mr. Coppered would take that little owl-faced baby downstairs with him when he came in before dinner, and 'way into the night they'd be in the library together, the baby laughing and crowing, or asleep on a pillow on the sofa. Why, the boy wasn't four when he let the nurse go, and carried the child off for a month's fishing in Canada! And when we first knew that the hip was bad, Mr. Coppered gave up his business and for five years in Europe he never let Master Duncan out of his sight. The games and the books--I should say the child had a million lead soldiers! The first thing in the morning it'd be, 'Is Dad awake, Paul?' and he running into the room; and at noon, coming back from his ride, 'Is Dad home?' Wonderful to him his father's always been."
"That's why I'm afraid he'll never like me," Margaret was quite simple enough to say wistfully, in response. "He never laughs out or chatters, as Mr. Coppered says he used to do."
And after such a conversation she would be especially considerate of Duncan--find some excuse for going upstairs when she heard the click of his crutch in the hall, so that he might find his father alone in the library, or excuse herself from a theatre trip so that they might be together.
"Oh, I'm so glad the Poindexters want us!" she said one night, over her letters.
"Why?" said Carey, amused by her ardor. "We can't go."
"I know it. But they're such nice people, Carey. Duncan will be so pleased to have them want me!"
Her husband laughed out suddenly, but a frown followed the laugh.
"You're very patient with the boy, Margaret. I--well, I've not been very patient lately, I'm afraid. He manages to exasperate me so, with these grandiose airs, that he doesn't seem the same boy at all!"
Mrs. Coppered came over to take the arm of his chair and put her white fingers on the little furrow between his eyes.
"It breaks my heart when you hurt him, Carey! He broods over it so. And, after all, he's only doing what they all--all the people he knows would do!"
"I thought better things of him," said his father.
"If you go to Yucatan in February, Carey," Margaret said, "he and I'll be here alone, and then we'll get on much smoother, you'll see."
"I don't know," he said. "I hate to go this year; I hate to leave you."
But he went, nevertheless, for the annual visit to his rubber plantation; and Margaret and Duncan were left alone in the big house for six weeks. Duncan took especial pains to be considerate of his stepmother in his father's absence, and showed her that he felt her comfort to be his first care. He came and went like a polite, unresponsive shadow, spending silent evenings with her in the library, or acting as an irreproachable and unapproachable escort when escort was needed. Margaret, watching him, began to despair of ever gaining his friendship.
Late one wintry afternoon the boy came in from a concert, and was passing the open door of his step-mother's room when she called him. He found her standing by one of the big windows, a very girlish figure in her trim walking-suit and long furs. The face she turned to him, under her wide hat, was rosy from contact with the nipping spring air.
"Duncan," she said, "I've had such a nice invitation from Mrs. Gregory."
Duncan's face brightened.
"Mrs. Jim?" said he.
"No, indeed!" exulted Margaret, gayly. "Mrs. Clement."
"Oh, I say!" said Duncan, smiling too. For if young Mrs. Jim Gregory's friendship was good, old Mrs. Clement's was much better. For the first time, he sat down informally in Margaret's room and laid aside his crutch.
"She's going to take General and Mrs. Wetherbee up to Snowhill for three or four days," pursued Margaret, "and the Jim Gregorys and Mr. Fred Gregory and me. Won't your father be pleased? Now, Duncan, what clothes do I need?"
"Oh, the best you've got," said Duncan, instantly interested; and, until it was time to dress for dinner, the two were deep in absorbed consultation.
Duncan was whistling as he went upstairs to dress, and his stepmother was apparently in high spirits. But twenty minutes later, when he found her in the library, there was a complete change. Her eyes were worried, her whole manner distressed, and her voice sharp. She looked up from a telegram as he came in.
"I've just had a wire from an old friend in New York," said she, "and I want you to telephone the answer for me, will you, Duncan? I've not a moment to spare. I shall have to leave for New York at the earliest possible minute. After you've telephoned the wire, will you find out about the trains from South Station? And get my ticket and reservation, will you? Or send Paul for them--whatever's quickest."
Duncan hardly recognized her. Her hesitation was gone, her diffidence gone. She did not even look at him as she spoke; his scowl passed entirely unnoticed. He stood coldly disapproving.
"I don't really see how you can go," he began. "Mrs. Gregory--"
"Yes, I know!" she agreed hastily. "I telephoned. She hadn't come in yet, so I had to make it a message--simply that Mrs. Coppered couldn't manage it tomorrow. She'll be very angry, of course. Duncan, would it save any time to have Paul take this right to the telegraph station--"
"Surely," Duncan interrupted in turn, "you're not going to rush off--"
"Oh, surely--surely--surely--I am!" she answered, fretted by his tone. "Don't tease me, dear boy! I've quite enough to worry over! I- -I"--she pushed her hair childishly off her face--"I wish devoutly that your father was here. He always knows in a second what's to be done! But--but fly with this telegram, won't you?" she broke off suddenly.
Duncan went. The performance of his errand was not reassuring. The telegram was directed to Philip Penrose, at the Colonial Theatre, and read:
Will be with you this evening. Depend on me. Heartsick at news. Margaret.
When he went upstairs again, he rapped at his stepmother's door. Hatted, and with a fur coat over her arm, she opened it.
"Are you taking Fanny?" said Duncan, icily. Fanny, the maid, middle- aged, loyal, could be trusted with the honor of the Coppereds.
"Heavens, no!" said Mrs. Coppered, vigorously.
"Then I hope you will not object to my escort," said the boy, flushing.
If he meant it for reproach, it missed its mark. Mrs. Coppered's surprised look became doubtful, finally changed to relief.
"Why, that's very sweet of you, Duncan," she said graciously, "especially as I can't tell you what I'm going for, my dear, for it may not occur. But I think, of all people in the world, you're the one to go with me!"
Duncan eyed her severely.
"At the same time," he said, "I can't for one moment pretend--"
"Exactly; so that it's all the nicer of you to volunteer to come along!" she said briskly. "You'll have to hurry, Duncan. And ask Paul to come up for my trunk, will you? We leave the house in half an hour!"
Mrs. Coppered advised her stepson to supply himself with magazines on the train.
"For I shall have to read," she said, "and perhaps you won't be able to sleep."
And read she did, with hardly a look or a word for him. She turned and re-turned the pages of a little paper-covered book, moving her lips and knitting her brows over it as she read.
Duncan, miserably apprehensive that they would meet some acquaintance and have to give an explanation of their mad journey, satisfied himself that there was no such immediate danger, and, assuming a forbidding expression, sat erect in his seat. But he finally fell into an uneasy sleep, not rousing himself until the train drew into the Forty-second Street station late in the evening. His stepmother had made a rough pillow of his overcoat and put it between his shoulder and the window-frame; but he did not comment upon it as he slipped it on and followed her through the roaring, chilly station to a taxicab.
"The Colonial Theatre, as fast as you can!" said she, as they jumped in. She was obviously nervous, biting her lips and humming under her breath as she watched the brilliantly lighted streets they threaded so slowly. Almost before it stopped she was out of the cab, at the entrance of a Broadway theatre. Duncan, alert and suspicious, read the name "Colonial" in flaming letters, and learned from a larger sign that Miss Eleanor Forsythe and an all-star cast were appearing therein in a revival of Reade's "Masks and Faces."
In the foyer Mrs. Coppered asked authoritatively for the manager. It was after ten o'clock, the curtain had risen on the last act, and a general opinion prevailed that Mr. Wyatt had gone home. But Mrs. Coppered's distinguished air, her magnificent furs, her beauty, all had their effect, and presently Duncan followed her into the hot, untidy little office where the manager was to be found.
He was a pleasant, weary-looking man, who wheeled about from his desk as they came in, and signed the page to place chairs.
"Mr. Wyatt," said Mrs. Coppered, with her pleasantest smile, "can you give us five minutes?"
"I can give you as many as you like, madam," said the manager, patiently, but with a most unpromising air.
"Only five!" she reassured him, as they sat down. Then, with an absolutely businesslike air, she continued: "Mr. Wyatt, you have Mr. and Mrs. Penrose in your company, I think, both very old friends of mine. She's playing Mabel Vane,--Mary Archer is the name she uses,-- and he's Triplet. Isn't that so?"
The manager nodded, eying her curiously.
"Mr. Wyatt, you've heard of their trouble, of course? The accident this morning to their little boy?"
"Ah, yes--yes," said Wyatt. "Of course. Hurt by a fall, poor little fellow. Very serious. Yes, poor things! Did you want to see--"
"You know that one of your big surgeons here--I've forgotten the name!--is to operate on little Phil tomorrow?" asked Mrs. Coppered.
"So Penrose said," assented the manager, slowly, watching her as if a little surprised at her insistence.
"Mr. Wyatt." said Mrs. Coppered,--and Duncan noticed that she had turned a little pale,--"Mrs. Penrose wired me news of all this only a few hours ago. She is half frantic at the idea that she must go on tomorrow afternoon and evening; yet the understudy is ill, and she felt it was too short notice to ask you to make a change now. But it occurred to me to come to see you about it. I want to ask you a favor. I want you to let me play Mrs. Penrose's part tomorrow afternoon and tomorrow night. I've played Mabel Vane a hundred times; it's a part I know very well," she went on quickly. "I--I am not in the least afraid that I can't take it. And then she can be with the little boy through the operation and afterward--he's only five, you know, at the unreasonable age when all children want their mothers! Can't that be arranged, Mr. Wyatt?"
Duncan, holding a horrified breath, fixed his eyes, as he did, on the manager's face. He was relieved at the inflexible smile he saw there.
"My dear lady," said Wyatt, kindly, "that is--absolutely--out of the question! Anything in reason I will be delighted to do for Penrose and Miss Archer--but you must surely realize that I can't do that!"
"But wait!" said Mrs. Coppered, eagerly, not at all discouraged. "Don't say no yet! I am an actress, Mr. Wyatt, or was one. I know the part thoroughly. And the circumstances--the circumstances are unusual, aren't they?"
While she was speaking the manager was steadily shaking his head.
"I have no doubt you could play the part," said he, "but I can't upset my whole company by substituting now. Tomorrow is going to be a big night. The house is completely sold out to the Masons--their convention week, you know. As it happens, there couldn't be a more inconvenient time. No, I can't consider it!"
Mrs. Coppered smiled at him. She had a very winning smile.
"It would mean a rehearsal; I suppose that would be inconvenient, to begin with," she said.
"Exactly," said Wyatt. "Friday night. I can't ask my people to rehearse to-morrow."
"But suppose you put it to them and they were all willing?" pursued the lady.
"My dear lady, I tell you it's absolutely--" He made a goaded gesture. Then, making fierce little dashes and dots on his blotter with his pencil, and eying each one ferociously as he made it, he added irritably, but in a quieter tone: "You're an actress, eh? Where'd you get your experience?"
"With various stock companies on the Pacific Coast," she answered readily. "My name was Margaret Charteris. I don't suppose you ever heard it?"
"As it happens, I have," he returned, surprised into interest. "You knew Joe Pitcher, of course. He spoke of you. I remember the name very well."
"Professor Pitcher!" she exclaimed radiantly. "Of course I knew him- -dear old man! Where is he--still there?"
"Still there," he assented absently. "You married, I think?"
"I am Mrs. Coppered now--Mrs. Carey Coppered," she said. The man gave her a suddenly awakened glance.
"Surely," he said thoughtfully. They looked steadily at each other, and Duncan saw the color come into Margaret's face. There was a little silence.
Then the manager flung down his pencil, wheeled about in his chair, and rubbed his hands briskly together.
"Well!" he said. "And you think you can take Miss Archer's place, Mrs. Coppered?"
"If you will let me."
"Why," he said,--and Duncan would not have believed that the somewhat heavy face could wear a look so pleasant,--"you are doing so much, Mrs. Coppered, in stepping into the gap this way, that I'll do my share if I can! Perhaps I can't arrange it, but we can try. I'll call a rehearsal and speak to Miss Forsythe to-night. If you know the part, it's just possible that by going over it now we can get out of a rehearsal tomorrow. She wants to be with the little boy, eh?" he added musingly. "Yes, I suppose it might make a big difference, his not being terrified by strangers." And then, turning toward Margaret, he said warmly and a little awkwardly: "This is a remarkably kind thing for you to do, Mrs. Coppered."
"Oh, I would do more than that for Mary Penrose," said she, with a little difficulty. "She knows it. She wired me as a mad last hope today, and we came as fast as we could, Mr. Coppered and I." And she introduced Duncan very simply: "My stepson, Mr. Wyatt."
Duncan, fuming, could be silent no longer.
"I hope my--Mrs. Coppered is not serious in offering to do this," said he, very white, and in a slightly shaking voice. "I assure you that my father--that every one!--would think it a most extraordinary thing to do!"
Mrs. Coppered laid her hand lightly on his arm.
"Yes, I know, Duncan!" said she, quickly, soothingly. "I know how you feel! But--"
Duncan slightly repudiated the touch.
"I can't think how you can consider it!" he said passionately, but in a low voice. "A thing like this always gets out! You know--you know how your having been on the stage is regarded by our friends! It is simply insane--"
He had said a little more than he meant, in his high feeling, and Margaret's face had grown white.
"I asked you only for your escort, Duncan," she said gently, but with blazing eyes. There was open hostility in the look they exchanged.
"I can't see what good my escort does," said the boy, childishly, "when you won't listen to what you know is true!"
"Nevertheless, I still want it," she answered evenly. And after a moment Duncan, true to his training, and already a little ashamed of his ineffectual outburst,--for to waste a display of emotion was, in his code, a lamentable breach of etiquette,--shrugged his shoulders.
"Still want to stay with it?" said Mr. Wyatt, giving her a shrewd, friendly look.
"Certainly," she said promptly; but she was breathing fast.
"Then we might go and talk things over," he said; and a moment later they were crossing the theatre to the stage door. The final curtain had fallen only a moment before, but the lights were up, the orchestra halfway through a swift waltz, and the audience, buttoning coats and struggling with gloves, was pouring up the aisles. Duncan, through all his anger and apprehension, felt a little thrill of superiority over these departing playgoers as he and his stepmother were admitted behind the scenes. He was young, and the imagined romance of green-rooms and footlights appealed to him.
The company, suddenly summoned, appeared in various stages of street and stage attire. Peg, a handsome young woman with brilliant color and golden hair, still wore her brocaded gown and patches, and wore, in addition, a slightly affronted look at this unprecedented proceeding. The other members of the cast, yawning, slightly curious, were grouped about in the great draughty space between the wings that it cost Duncan some little effort to realize was the stage.
From this group, as Margaret followed the stage manager into the circle of light, a little woman suddenly detached herself, and, running across the stage and breaking into sobs as she ran, she was in Margaret's arms in a second.
"Oh, Meg, Meg, Meg!" she cried, laughing and crying at the same time. "I knew you'd come! I knew you'd manage it somehow! I've been praying so--I've been watching the clock! Oh, Meg," she went on pitifully, fumbling blindly for a handkerchief, "he's been suffering so, and I had to leave him! They thought he was asleep, but when I tried to loosen his little hand he woke up!"
"Mary--Mary!" said Mrs. Coppered, soothingly, patting the bowed shoulder. No one else moved; a breathless attention held the group. "Of course I came," she went on, with a little triumphant laugh, "and I think everything's all right!"
"Yes, I know," said Mrs. Penrose, with a convulsive effort at self- control. She caught Margaret's soft big muff, and drew it across her eyes. "I'm ru-ru-ruining your fur, Margaret!" she said, laughing through tears, "but--but seeing you this way, and realizing that I could go--go--go to him now--"
"Mary, you must not cry this way," said Mrs. Coppered, seriously. "You don't want little Phil to see you with red eyes, do you? Mr. Wyatt and I have been talking it over," she went on, "but it remains to be seen, dear, if all the members of the company are willing to go to the trouble." Her apologetic look went around the listening circle. "It inconveniences every one, you know, and it would mean a rehearsal tonight--this minute, in fact, when every one's tired and cold." Her voice was soothing, very low. But the gentle tones carried their message to every one there. The mortal cleverness of such an appeal struck Duncan sharply, as an onlooker.
The warm-hearted star, Eleanor Forsythe, whose photographs Duncan had seen hundreds of times, was the first to respond with a half- indignant protest that she wasn't too tired and cold to do that much for the dear kiddy, and other volunteers rapidly followed suit. Ten minutes later the still tearful little mother was actually in a cab whirling through the dark streets toward the hospital where the child lay, and a rehearsal was in full swing upon the stage of the Colonial. Only the few actors actually necessary to the scenes in which Mabel figures need have remained; but a general spirit of sympathetic generosity kept almost the entire cast. Mr. Penrose, as Triplet, had the brunt of the dialogue to carry; and he and Margaret, who had quite unaffectedly laid aside her furs and entered seriously into the work of the evening, remained after all the others had lingered away, one by one.
Duncan watched from one of the stage boxes, his vague, romantic ideas of life behind the footlights rather dashed before the three hours of hard work were over. This was not very thrilling; this had no especial romantic charm. The draughts, the dust, the wide, icy space of the stage, the droning voices, the crisp interruptions, the stupid "business," endlessly repeated, all seemed equally disenchanting. The stagehands had set the stage for the next day's opening curtain, and had long ago departed. Duncan was cold, tired, headachy. He began to realize the edge of a sharp appetite, too; he and Margaret had barely touched their dinner, back at home those ages ago.
He could have forgiven her, he told himself, bitterly, if this plunge into her old life had had some little glory in it. If, for instance, Mrs. Gregory had asked her to play Lady Macbeth or Lady Teazle in amateur theatricals at home, why one could excuse her for yielding to the old lure. But this, this secondary part, these commonplace, friendly actors, this tiring night experience, this eager deference on her part to every one, this pitiful anxiety to please, where she should, as Mrs. Carey Coppered, have been proudly commanding and dictatorial--it was all exasperating and disappointing to the last degree; it was, he told himself, savagely, only what one might have expected!
Presently, when Duncan was numb in every limb, Margaret began to button herself into her outer wraps, and, escorted by Penrose, they went to supper. Duncan hesitated at the door of the cafe.
"This is an awful place, isn't it?" he objected. "You can't be going in here!"
"One must eat, Duncan!" Mrs. Coppered said blithely, leading the way. "And all the nice places are closed at this hour!" Duncan sullenly followed; but, in the flood of reminiscences upon which she and Penrose instantly embarked, his voice was not missed. Mollified in spite of himself by delicious food and strong coffee, he watched them, the man's face bright through its fatigue, his stepmother glowing and brilliant.
"I'll see this through for Dad's sake," said Duncan, grimly, to himself; "but, when he finds out about it, she'll have to admit I kicked the whole time!"
At four o'clock they reached the Penroses' hotel, where rooms were secured for Duncan and Margaret. The boy, dropping with sleep, heard her cheerfully ask at the desk to be called at seven o'clock.
"I've a cloak to buy," she explained, in answer to his glance of protest, "and a hairdresser to see, and a hat to find--they may be difficult to get, too! And I must run out and have just a glimpse of little Phil, and get to the theatre by noon; there's just a little more going over that second act to do! But don't you get up."
"I would prefer to," said Duncan, with dignity, taking his key.
But he did not wake until afternoon, when the thin winter sunlight was falling in a dazzling oblong on the floor of his room; and even then he felt a little tired and stiff. He reached for his watch-- almost one o'clock! Duncan's heart stood still. Had she overslept?
He sat up a little dazed, and, doing so, saw a note on the little table by his bed. It was from Margaret, and ran:
If you don't wake by one they're to call you, for I want you to see Mabel's entrance. I've managed my hat and cloak, and seen the child- -he's quiet and not in pain, thank God. Have your breakfast, and then come to the box-office; I'll leave a seat for you there. Or come behind and see me, if you will, for I am terribly nervous and would like it. So glad you're getting your sleep. Margaret.
P.S. Don't worry about the nerves; I always am nervous.
Duncan looked at the note for three silent minutes, sitting on the edge of his bed.
"I'm sorry. She--she wanted me. I wish I'd waked!" he said slowly, aloud.
And ten minutes later, during a hurried dressing, he read the note again, and said, aloud again:
"'Have breakfast'! I wonder if she had hers?"
He entered the theatre so late, for all his hurry, that the first act was over and the second well begun, and was barely in his seat before the now familiar opening words of Mabel Vane's part fell clearly on the silence of the darkened house.
For a moment Duncan thought, with a great pang of relief, that some one else was filling his stepmother's place; but he recognized her in another minute, in spite of rouge and powder and the piquant dress she wore. His heart stirred with something like pride. She was beautiful in her flowered hat and the caped coat that showed a foam of lacy frills at the throat; and she was sure of herself, he realized in a moment, and of her audience. She made a fresh and appealing figure of the plucky little country bride, and the old lines fell with delicious naturalness from her lips.
Duncan's heart hardly beat until the fall of the curtain; tears came to his eyes; and when Margaret shared the applause of the house with the gracious Peg, he found himself shaking with a violent nervous reaction.
He was still deeply stirred when he went behind the scenes after the play. His stepmother presently came up from her dressing-room, dressed in street clothes and anxious to hurry to the hospital and have news of the little boy.
Duncan called a taxicab, for which she thanked him absently and with worried eyes; and presently, with her and with the child's father, he found himself speeding toward the hospital. It was a silent trip. Margaret kept her ungloved fingers upon Penrose's hand, and said only a cheerful word of encouragement now and then.
Duncan waited in the cab, when they went into the big building. She was gone almost half an hour. Darkness came, and a sharp rain began to fall.
He was half drowsy when she suddenly ran down the long steps and jumped in beside him. Her face was radiant, in spite of the signs of tears about her eyes.
"He took the ether like a little soldier!" she said, as the motor- car slowly wheeled up the wet street. "Mary held his hand all the while. Everything went splendidly, and he came out of it at about four. Mary sang him off to sleep, sitting beside him, and she's still there--he hasn't stirred! Dr. Thorpe is more than well satisfied; he said the little fellow had nerves of iron! And the other doctor isn't even going to come in again! And Thorpe says it is largely because he could have his mother!"
But the exhilaration did not last. Presently she leaned her head back against the seat, and Duncan saw how marked was the pallor of her face, now that the rouge was gone. There was fatigue in the droop of her mouth, and in the deep lines etched under her eyes.
"It's after six, Duncan," she said, without opening her eyes, "so I can't sleep, as I hoped! We'll have to dine, and then go straight to the theatre!"
"You're tired," said the boy, abruptly. She opened her eyes at the tone, and forced a smile.
"No--or, yes, I am, a little. My head's been aching. I wish to-night was over." Suddenly she sighed. "It's been a strain, hasn't it?" she said. "I knew it would be, but I didn't realize how hard! I just wanted to do something for them, you know, and this was all I could think of. And I've been wishing your father had been here; I don't know what he will say. I don't stop to think--when it's the people I love--" she said artlessly. "I dread--" she began again, but left the sentence unfinished, after all, and looked out of the window. "I suspect you're tired, too!" she went on brightly, after a moment. "I shan't forget what a comfort it's been to have you with me through this queer experience, Duncan. I know what it has cost you, my dear."
"Comfort!" echoed Duncan. He tried to laugh, but the laugh broke itself off gruffly. He found himself catching her hand, putting his free arm boyishly about her shoulders. "I'm not fit to speak to you, Margaret!" he said huskily. "You're--you're the best woman I ever knew! I want you to know I'm sorry--sorry for it all--everything! And as for Dad, why, he'll think what I think--that you're the only person in the world who'd do all this for another woman's kid!"
Mrs. Coppered had tried to laugh, too, as she faced him. But the tears came too quickly. She put her wet face against his rough overcoat and for a moment gave herself up to the luxury of tears.
"Carey," said his wife, on a certain brilliant Sunday morning a month later, when he had been at home nearly a month. She put her head in at the library door. "Carey, will you do me a favor?"
He looked up to smile at her, in her gray gown and flowered hat, and she came in to take the seat opposite him at the broad table.
"I will. Where are you going?"
"Duncan and I are going to church, and you're to meet us at the Gregorys' for lunch," she reminded him.
"Yes'm. And what do you two kids want? What's the favor?"
"Oh!" She became serious. "You remember what I told you of our New York trip a month ago, Carey? The Penroses, you know?"
"Well, Carey, I've discovered that it has been worrying Duncan ever since you got home, because he thinks I'm keeping it from you."
"Thinks you haven't told me, eh?"
"Yes. Don't laugh that way, Carey! Yes. And he asked me in the sweetest little way, a day or two ago, if I wouldn't tell you all about it."
"What did you do--box his young ears?"
"No." Margaret's eyes laughed, but she shook her head reprovingly. "I thought it was so dear of him to feel that way, yet never give you even a hint, that I--"
"Well?" smiled her husband, as she paused.
"Well," hesitated Mrs. Coppered. And then in a little burst she added: "I said, 'Duncan, if you ask me to I will tell him!'"
"And what do you think you gain by that, Sapphira?" said Carey, much amused.
"Why, don't you see? Don't you see it means everything to him to have stood by me in this, and now to clear it all up between us! Don't you see that it makes him one of us, in a way? He's done his adored father a real service--"
"And his adored mother, too?"
His tone brought the happy tears to her eyes.
"And the favor?" he said presently.
"Oh! Well, you see, I'm supposed to be 'fessing up the whole horrible business, Carey, and in a day or two I want you to thank him, just in some general way,--you'll know how!--for looking out for me so well while you were away. Will you?"
"I will," he promised slowly.
"He's coming downstairs--so good-by!" said she. She came around the table to kiss him, and, suddenly smitten with a sense of youth and well-being and the glory of the spring morning, she added a little wistfully:
"I wonder what I've done to be so happy, Carey--I wonder what I've ever done to be so loved?"
"I wonder!" said Carey, smiling.