Chapter X. What Does It Matter?
 

The days immediately following the receipt of three remarkable letters by the Blaisdell family were nerve-racking for all concerned. Held by Mrs. Jane's insistence that they weren't sure yet that the thing was true, the family steadfastly refused to give out any definite information. Even the eager Harriet yielded to Jane on this point, acknowledging that it would be mortifying, of course, if they should talk, and nothing came of it.

Their enigmatic answers to questions, and their expressive shrugs and smiles, however, were almost as exciting as the rumors themselves; and the Blaisdells became at once a veritable storm center of surmises and gossip--a state of affairs not at all unpleasing to some of them, Mrs. Harriet in particular.

Miss Maggie Duff, however, was not so well pleased. To Mr. Smith, one day, she freed her mind--and Miss Maggie so seldom freed her mind that Mr. Smith was not a little surprised.

"I wish," she began, "I do wish that if that Chicago lawyer is coming, he'd come, and get done with it! Certainly the present state of affairs is almost unbearable."

"It does make it all the harder for you, to have it drag along like this, doesn't it?" murmured Mr. Smith uneasily.

"For--me?"

"That you are not included in the bequest, I mean."

She gave an impatient gesture.

"I didn't mean that. I wasn't thinking of myself. Besides, as I've told you before, there is no earthly reason why I should have been included. It's the delay, I mean, for the Blaisdells--for the whole town, for that matter. This eternal 'Did you know?' and 'They say' is getting on my nerves!"

"Why, Miss Maggie, I didn't suppose you had any nerves," bantered the man.

She threw him an expressive glance.

"Haven't I!" she retorted. Then again she gave the impatient gesture. "But even the gossip and the questioning aren't the worst. It's the family themselves. Between Hattie's pulling one way and Jane the other, I feel like a bone between two quarrelsome puppies. Hattie is already house-hunting, on the sly, and she's bought Bessie an expensive watch and a string of gold beads. Jane, on the other hand, insists that Mr. Fulton will come back and claim the money, so she's running her house now on the principle that she's lost a hundred thousand dollars, and so must economize in every possible way. You can imagine it!"

"I don't have to--imagine it," murmured the man.

Miss Maggie laughed.

"I forgot. Of course you don't. You do live there, don't you? But that isn't all. Flora, poor soul, went into a restaurant the other day and ordered roast turkey, and now she's worrying for fear the money won't come and justify her extravagance. Mellicent, with implicit faith that the hundred thousand is coming wants to wear her best frocks every day. And, as if she were not already quite excited enough, young Pennock has very obviously begun to sit up and take notice."

"You don't mean he is trying to come back--so soon!" disbelieved Mr. Smith.

"Well, he's evidently caught the glitter of the gold from afar," smiled Miss Maggie. "At all events, he's taking notice."

"And--Miss Mellicent?" There was a note of anxiety in Mr. Smith's voice.

"Doesn't see him, apparently. But she comes and tells me his every last move (and he's making quite a number of them just now!), so I think she does see--a little."

"The young rascal! But she doesn't--care?"

"I think not--really. She's just excited now, as any young girl would be; and I'm afraid she's taking a little wicked pleasure in--not seeing him."

"Humph! I can imagine it," chuckled Mr. Smith.

"But it's all bad--this delay," chafed Miss Maggie again. "Don't you see? It's neither one thing nor another. That's why I do wish that lawyer would come, if he's coming."

"I reckon he'll be here before long," murmured Mr. Smith, with an elaborately casual air. "But--I wish you were coming in on the deal." His kindly eyes were gazing straight into her face now.

She shook her head.

"I'm a Duff, not a Blaisdell--except when they want--" She bit her lip. A confused red suffused her face. "I mean, I'm not a Blaisdell at all," she finished hastily.

"Humph! That's exactly it!" Mr. Smith was sitting energetically erect. "You're not a Blaisdell--except when they want something of you!"

"Oh please, I didn't mean to say--I didn't say--that," cried Miss Maggie, in very genuine distress.

"No, I know you didn't, but I did," flared the man. "Miss Maggie, it's a downright shame--the way they impose on you sometimes."

"Nonsense! I like to have them--I mean, I like to do what I can for them," she corrected hastily, laughing in spite of herself.

"You like to get all tired out, I suppose."

"I get rested--afterward."

"And it doesn't matter, anyway, of course," he gibed.

"Not a bit," she smiled.

"Yes, I suspected that." Mr. Smith was still sitting erect, still speaking with grim terseness. "But let me tell you right here and now that I don't approve of that doctrine of yours."

"'Doctrine'?"

"That 'It-doesn't-matter' doctrine of yours. I tell you it's very pernicious--very! I don't approve of it at all."

There was a moment's silence.

"No?" Miss Maggie said then, demurely. "Oh, well--it doesn't matter-- if you don't."

He caught the twinkle in her eyes and threw up his Hands despairingly.

"You are incorrigible!"

With a sudden businesslike air of determination Miss Maggie faced him.

"Just what is the matter with that doctrine, please, and what do you mean?" she smiled.

"I mean that things do matter, and that we merely shut our eyes to the real facts in the case when we say that they don't. War, death, sin, evil--the world is full of them, and they do matter."

"They do matter, indeed." Miss Maggie was speaking very gravely now. "They matter--woefully. I never say 'It doesn't matter' to war, or death, or sin, or evil. But there are other things--"

"But the other things matter, too," interrupted the man irritably. "Right here and now it matters that you don't share in the money; it matters that you slave half your time for a father who doesn't anywhere near appreciate you; it matters that you slave the rest of the time for every Tom and Dick and Harry and Jane and Mehitable in Hillerton that has run a sliver under a thumb, either literally or metaphorically. It matters that--"

But Miss Maggie was laughing merrily. "Oh, Mr. Smith, Mr. Smith, you don't know what you are saying!"

"I do, too. It's you who don't know what you are saying!"

"But, pray, what would you have me say?" she smiled.

"I'd have you say it does matter, and I'd have you insist on having your rights, every time."

"And what if I had?" she retaliated sharply. "My rights, indeed!"

The man fell back, so sudden and so astounding was the change that had come to the woman opposite him. She was leaning forward in her chair, her lips trembling, her eyes a smouldering flame.

"What if I had insisted on my rights, all the way up?" she quivered. "Would I have come home that first time from college? Would I have stepped into Mother Blaisdell's shoes and kept the house? Would I have swept and baked and washed and ironed, day in and day out, to make a home for father and for Jim and Frank and Flora? Would I have come back again and again, when my beloved books were calling, calling, always calling? Would I have seen other girls love and marry and go to homes of their own, while I--Oh, what am I saying, what am I saying?" she choked, covering her eyes with the back of her hand, and turning her face away. "Please, if you can, forget what I said. Indeed, I never--broke out like that--before. I am so--ashamed!"

"Ashamed! Well, you needn't be." Mr. Smith, on his feet, was trying to work off his agitation by tramping up and down the small room.

"But I am ashamed," moaned Miss Maggie, her face still averted. "And I can't think why I should have been so--so wild. It was just something that you said--about my rights, I think. You see--all my life I've just had to learn to say 'It doesn't matter,' when there were so many things I wanted to do, and couldn't. And--don't you see?--I found out, after a while, that it didn't really matter, half so much--college and my own little wants and wishes as that I should do--what I had to do, willingly and pleasantly at home."

"But, good Heavens, how could you keep from tearing 'round and throwing things?"

"I couldn't--all the time. I--I smashed a bowl once, and two cups." She laughed shamefacedly, and met his eyes now. "But I soon found-- that it didn't make me or anybody else--any happier, and that it didn't help things at all. So I tried--to do the other way. And now, please, please say you'll forget all this--what I've been saying. Indeed, Mr. Smith I am very much ashamed."

"Forget it!" Mr. Smith turned on his heel and marched up and down the room again. "Confound that man!"

"What man?"

"Mr. Stanley G. Fulton, if you must know, for not giving you any of that money."

"Money, money, money!" Miss Maggie threw out both her hands with a gesture of repulsion. "If I've heard that word once, I've heard it a hundred times in the last week. Sometimes I wish I might never hear it again."

"You don't want to be deaf, do you? Well, you'd have to be, to escape hearing that word."

"I suppose so. But--" again she threw out her hands.

"You don't mean--" Mr. Smith was regarding her with curious interest. "Don't you want--money, really?"

She hesitated; then she sighed.

"Oh, yes, of course. We all want money. We have to have money, too; but I don't think it's--everything in the world, by any means."

"You don't think it brings happiness, then?"

"Sometimes. Sometimes not."

"Most of--er--us would be willing to take the risk."

"Most of us would."

"Now, in the case of the Blaisdells here--don't you think this money is going to bring happiness to them?"

There was no answer. Miss Maggie seemed to be thinking.

"Miss Maggie," exclaimed Mr. Smith, with a concern all out of proportion to his supposed interest in the matter, "you don't mean to say you don't think this money is going to bring them happiness!"

Miss Maggie laughed a little.

"Oh, no! This money'll bring them happiness all right, of course,-- particularly to some of them. But I was just wondering; if you don't know how to spend five dollars so as to get the most out of it, how will you spend five hundred, or five hundred thousand--and get the most out of that?"

"What do you mean?"

But Miss Maggie shook her head.

"Nothing. I was just thinking," she said.