Chapter X. And Nettie Colebrook Speaks Hers
 

Mrs. Colebrook had been a member of the Burton household a day less than two weeks when she confronted her brother in the studio with this terse statement:

"Daniel, either Susan or I leave this house tomorrow morning. You can choose between us."

"Nonsense, Nettie, don't be a fool," frowned the man. "You know very well that we need both you and Susan. Susan's a trial, I'll admit, in a good many ways; but I'll wager you'd find it more of a trial to get along without her, and try to do her work and yours, too."

"Nobody thought of getting along without somebody," returned Mrs. Colebrook, with some dignity. "I merely am asking you to dismiss Susan and hire somebody else--that is, of course, if you wish me to stay. Change maids, that's all."

The man made an impatient gesture.

"All, indeed! Very simple, the way you put it. But--see here, Nettie, this thing you ask is utterly out of the question. You don't understand matters at all."

"You mean that you don't intend to dismiss Susan?"

"Yes, if you will have it put that way--just that."

"Very well. Since that is your decision I shall have to govern myself accordingly, of course. I will see you in the morning to say good- bye." And she turned coldly away.

"What do you mean by that?"

"Why, that I am going home, of course--since you think more of having that impossible, outrageously impertinent servant girl here than you do me." Mrs. Colebrook was nearing the door how.

"Shucks! You know better than that! Come, come, if you're having any trouble with Susan, settle it with the girl herself, won't you? Don't come to me with it. You know how I dislike anything like this."

At the door Mrs. Colebrook turned back suddenly with aggressive determination.

"Yes, I do know. You dislike anything that's disagreeable. You always have, from the time when you used to run upstairs to the attic and let us make all the explanations to pa and ma when something got lost or broken. But, see here, Daniel Burton, you've got to pay attention to this. It's your son, and your house, and your maid. And you shall listen to me."

"Well, well, all right, go ahead," sighed the man despairingly, throwing himself back in his chair. "What is the trouble? What is it that Susan does that annoys you so?"

"What does she do? What doesn't she do?" retorted Mrs. Colebrook, dropping herself wearily into a chair facing her brother. "In the first place, she's the most wretchedly impertinent creature I ever dreamed of. It's always 'Keith' instead of 'Master Keith,' and I expect every day it'll be 'Daniel' and 'Nettie' for you and me. She shows no sort of respect or deference in her manner or language, and-- well, what are you looking like that for?" she interrupted herself aggrievedly.

"I was only thinking--or rather I was trying to think of Susan--and deference," murmured the man dryly.

"Yes, that's exactly it," Mrs. Colebrook reproved him severely. "You're laughing. You've always laughed, I suspect, at her outrageous behavior, and that's why she's so impossible in every way. Why, Daniel Burton, I've actually heard her refuse--refuse to serve you with something to eat that you'd ordered."

"Oh, well, well, what if she has? Very likely there was something we had to eat up instead, to keep it from spoiling. Susan is very economical, Nettie."

"I dare say--at times, when it suits her to be so, especially if she can assert her authority over you. Why, Daniel, she's a perfect tyrant to you, and you know it. She not only tells you what to eat, but what to wear, and when to wear it--your socks, your underclothes. Why, Daniel, she actually bosses you!"

"Yes, yes; well, never mind," shrugged the man, a bit irritably. "We're talking about how she annoys you, not me, remember."

"Well, don't you suppose it annoys me to see my own brother so completely under the sway of this serving-maid? And such a maid! Daniel, will you tell me where she gets those long words of hers that she mixes up so absurdly?"

Daniel Burton laughed.

"Susan lived with Professor Hinkley for ten years before she came to me. The Hinkleys never used words of one or two syllables when they could find one of five or six that would do just as well. Susan loves long words."

"So I should judge. And those ridiculous rhymes of hers--did she learn those, also, from Professor Hinkley?" queried Mrs. Colebrook. "And as for that atrocious dinner-call of hers, it's a disgrace to any family --a positive disgrace!"

"Well, well, why don't you stop her doing it, then?" demanded Daniel Burton, still more irritably. "Go to her, not me. Tell her not to."

"I have."

The tone of her voice was so fraught with meaning that the man looked up sharply.

"Well?"

"She said she wouldn't do it--when she worked for me."

Daniel Burton gave a sudden chuckle.

"I can imagine just how she'd say that," he murmured appreciatively.

"Daniel Burton, are you actually going to abet that girl in her wretched impertinence?" demanded Mrs. Colebrook angrily. "I tell you I will not stand it! Something has got to be done. Why, she even tries to interfere with the way I take care of your son--presumes to give me counsel and advice on the subject, if you please. Dares to criticize me--me! Daniel Burton, I tell you I will not stand it. You must give that woman her walking papers. Why, Daniel, I shall begin to think she has hypnotized you--that you're actually afraid of her!"

Was it the scorn in her voice? Or was it that Daniel Burton's endurance had snapped at this last straw? Whatever it was, the man leaped to his feet, threw back his shoulders, and thrust his hands into his pockets.

"Nettie, look here. Once for all let us settle this matter. I tell you I cannot dismiss Susan; and I mean what I say when I use the words 'can not.' I literally can not. To begin with, she's the kindest- hearted creature in the world, and she's been devotion itself all these years since--since Keith and I have been alone. But even if I could set that aside, there's something else I can't overlook. I--I owe Susan considerable money."

"You owe her--money?"

"Yes, her wages. She has not had them for some time. I must owe her something like fifty or sixty dollars. You see, we--we have had some very unusual and very heavy expenses, and I have overdrawn my annuity --borrowed on it. Susan knew this and insisted on my letting her wages go on, for the present. More than that, she has refused a better position with higher wages--I know that. The pictures I had hoped to sell--"He stopped, tried to go on, failed obviously to control his voice; then turned away with a gesture more eloquent than any words could have been.

Mrs. Colebrook stared, frowned, and bit her lip. Nervously she tapped her foot on the floor as she watched with annoyed eyes her brother tramping up and down, up and down, the long, narrow room. Then suddenly her face cleared.

"Oh, well, that's easily remedied, after all." She sprang to her feet and hurried from the room. Almost immediately she was back--a roll of bills in her hand. "There, I thought I had enough money to do it," she announced briskly as she came in. "Now, Daniel, I'll pay Susan her back wages."

"Indeed you will not!" The man wheeled sharply, an angry red staining his cheeks.

"Oh, but Daniel, don't you see?--that'll simplify everything. She'll be working for me, then, and I--"

"But I tell you I won't have--" interrupted the man, then stopped short. Susan herself stood in the doorway.

"I guess likely you was talkin' so loud you didn't hear me call you to dinner," she was saying. "I've called you two times already. If you want anything fit to eat you'd better come quick. It ain't gettin' any fitter, waitin'."

"Susan!" Before Susan could turn away, Mrs. Colebrook detained her peremptorily." Mr. Burton tells me that he owes you for past wages. Now--"

"Nettie!" warned the man sharply.

But with a blithe "Nonsense, Daniel, let me manage this!" Mrs. Colebrook turned again to Susan. The man, not unlike the little Daniel of long ago who fled to the attic, shrugged his shoulders with a gesture of utter irresponsibility, turned his back and walked to the farther side of the room.

"Susan," began Mrs. Colebrook again, still blithely, but with just a shade of haughtiness, "my brother tells me your wages are past due; that he owes you at least fifty dollars. Now I'm going to pay them for him, Susan. In fact, I'm going to pay you sixty dollars, so as to be sure to cover it. Will that be quite satisfactory?"

Susan stared frankly.

"You mean me--take money from you, ma'am,--to pay my back wages?" she asked.

"Yes."

"But--" Susan paused and threw a quick glance toward the broad back of the man at the end of the room. Then she turned resolutely to Mrs. Colebrook, her chin a little higher than usual. "Oh, no, thank you. I ain't needin' the money, Mis' Colebrook, an' I'd ruther wait for Mr. Burton, anyway," she finished cheerfully, as she turned to go.

"Nonsense, Susan, of course you need the money. Everybody can make use of a little money, I guess. Surely, there's something you want."

With her hand almost on the doorknob Susan suddenly whisked about, her face alight.

"Oh, yes, yes, I forgot, Mis' Colebrook," she cried eagerly. "There is somethin' I want; an' I'll take it, please, an' thank you kindly."

"There, that's better," nodded Mrs. Colebrook. "And I've got it right here, so you see you don't have to wait, even a minute," she smiled, holding out the roll of bills.

Still with the eager light on her face, Susan reached for the money.

"Thank you, oh, thank you! An' it will go quite a ways, won't it?--for Keith, I mean. The--" But with sudden sharpness Mrs. Colebrook interrupted her.

"Susan, how many times have I told you to speak of my nephew as 'Master Keith'? Furthermore, I shall have to remind you once more that you are trying to interfere altogether too much in his care. In fact, Susan, I may as well speak plainly. For some time past you have failed to give satisfaction. You are paid in full now, I believe, with some to spare, perhaps. You may work the week out. After that we shall no longer require your services."

The man at the end of the room wheeled sharply and half started to come forward. Then, with his habitual helpless gesture, he turned back to his old position.

Susan, her face eloquent with amazed unbelief, turned from one to the other.

"You mean--you don't mean--Mis' Colebrook, be you tryin' to--dismissal me?"

Mrs. Colebrook flushed and bit her lip.

"I am dismissing you--yes."

Once more Susan, in dazed unbelief, looked from one to the other. Her eyes dwelt longest on the figure of the man at the end of the room.

"Mr. Burton, do you want me to go?" she asked at last.

The man turned irritably, with a shrug, and a swift outflinging of his hands.

"Of course, I don't want you to go, Susan. But what can I do? I have no money to pay you, as you know very well. I have no right to keep you--of course--I should advise you to go." And he turned away again.

Susan's face cleared.

"Pooh! Oh, that's all right then," she answered pleasantly. "Mis' Colebrook, I'm sorry to be troublin' you, but I shall have to give back that 'ere notice. I ain't goin'."

Once again Mrs. Colebrook flushed and bit her lip.

"That will do, Susan. You forget. You're not working for Mr. Burton now. You're working for me."

"For you?"

"Certainly. Didn't I just pay you your wages for some weeks past?"

Susan's tight clutch on the roll of bills loosened so abruptly that the money fell to the floor. But at once Susan stooped and picked it up. The next moment she had crossed the room and thrust the money into Mrs. Colebrook's astonished fingers.

"I don't want your money, Mis' Colebrook--not on them terms, even for Keith. I know I hain't earned any the other way, yet, but I hain't tried all the magazines. There's more--lots more." Her voice faltered, and almost broke. "I'll do it yet some way, you see if I don't. But I won't take this. Why, Mis' Colebrook, do you think I'd leave now, with that poor boy blind, an' his father so wrought up he don't have even his extraordinary common sense about his flannels an' socks an' what to eat, an' no money to pay the bills with, either? An' him bein' pestered the life out of him with them intermittent, dunnin' grocers an' milkmen? Well, I guess not! You couldn't hire me to go, Mis' Colebrook."

"Daniel, are you going to stand there and permit me to be talked to like this?" appealed Mrs. Colebrook.

"What can I do?" (Was there a ghost of a twinkle in Daniel Burton's eyes as he turned with a shrug and a lift of his eyebrows?) "If you haven't the money to hire her--" But Mrs. Colebrook, with an indignant toss of her head, had left the room.

"Mr. Burton!" Before the man could speak Susan had the floor again. "Can't you do somethin', sir? Can't you?"

"Do something, Susan?" frowned the man.

"Yes, with your sister," urged Susan. "I don't mean because she's so haughty an' impious. I can stand that. It's about Keith I'm talkin' about. Mr. Burton, Keith won't never get well, never, so's he can have that operator on his eyes, unless he takes some exercise an' gets his strength back. The nurse an' the doctor--they both said he wouldn't."

"Yes, yes, I know, Susan," fumed the man impatiently, beginning to pace up and down the room. "And that's just what we're trying to do-- get his strength back."

"But he ain't--he won't--he can't," choked Susan feverishly. "Mr. Burton, I know you don't want to talk about it, but you've got to. I'm all Keith's got to look out for him." The father of Keith gave an inarticulate gasp, but Susan plunged on unheeding. "An' he'll never get well if he ain't let to get up an' stand an' walk an' eat an' sit down himself. But Mis' Colebrook won't let him. She won't let him do anything. She keeps sayin', 'Don't do it, oh, don't do it,' all the time,--when she ought to say, 'Do it, do it, do it!' Mr. Burton, cryin' an' wringin' your hands an' moanin', 'Oh, Keithie, darling!' won't make a boy grow red blood an' make you feel so fine you want to knock a man down! Mr. Burton, I want you to tell that woman to let me take care of that boy for jest one week--one week, an' her not to come near him with her snivelin' an'--"

But Daniel Burton, with two hands upflung, and a head that ducked as if before an oncoming blow, had rushed from the room. For the second time that day Daniel Burton had fled--to the attic.