Chapter XVI. The Fly in the Ointment
 

In August Father Duff died. Miss Flora came home at once. James Blaisdell was already in town. Hattie was at the mountains. She wrote that she could not think of coming down for the funeral, but she ordered an expensive wreath. Frank and Jane were in the Far West, and could not possibly have arrived in time, anyway. None of the young people came.

Mr. Smith helped in every way that he could help, and Miss Maggie told him that he was a great comfort, and that she did not know what she would have done without him. Miss Flora and Mr. James Blaisdell helped, too, in every way possible, and at last the first hard sad days were over, and the household had settled back into something like normal conditions again.

Miss Maggie had more time now, and she went often to drive or for motor rides with Mr. Smith. Together they explored cemeteries for miles around; and although Miss Maggie worried sometimes because they found so little Blaisdell data, Mr. Smith did not seem to mind it at all.

In September Miss Flora moved into an attractive house on the West Side, bought some new furniture, and installed a maid in the kitchen-- all under Miss Maggie's kindly supervision. In September, too, Frank and Jane Blaisdell came home, and the young people began to prepare for the coming school year.

Mr. Smith met Mrs. Hattie one day, coming out of Miss Maggie's gate. She smiled and greeted him cordially, but she looked so palpably upset over something that he exclaimed to Miss Maggie, as soon he entered the house: "What was it? Is anything the matter with Mrs. James Blaisdell?"

Miss Maggie smiled--but she frowned, too.

"No, oh, no--except that Hattie has discovered that a hundred thousand dollars isn't a million."

"What do you mean by that?"

"Oh, where she's been this summer she's measured up, of course, with people a great deal richer than she. And she doesn't like it. Here in Hillerton her hundred--and two-hundred-dollar dresses looked very grand to her, but she's discovered that there are women who pay five hundred and a thousand, and even more. She feels very cheap and poverty-stricken now, therefore, in her two-hundred-dollar gowns. Poor Hattie! If she only would stop trying to live like somebody else!"

"But I thought--I thought this money was making them happy," stammered Mr. Smith.

"It was--until she realized that somebody else had more," sighed Miss Maggie, with a shake of her head.

"Oh, well, she'll get over that."

"Perhaps."

"At any rate, it's brought her husband some comfort."

"Y-yes, it has; but--"

"What do you mean by that?" he demanded, when she did not finish her sentence.

"I was wondering--if it would bring him any more."

"They haven't lost it?"

"Oh, no, but they've spent a lot--and Hattie is beginning again her old talk that she must have more money in order to live 'even decent.' It sounds very familiar to me, and to Jim, I suspect, poor fellow. I saw him the other night, and from what he said, and what she says, I can see pretty well how things are going. She's trying to get some of her rich friends to give Jim a better position, where he'll earn more. She doesn't understand, either, why Jim can't go into the stock market and make millions, as some men do. I'm afraid she isn't always-- patient. She says there are Fred and Elizabeth and Benjamin to educate, and that she's just got to have more money to tide them over till the rest of the legacy comes."

"The rest of the legacy!" exploded Mr. Smith. "Good Heavens, does that woman think that--" Mr. Smith stopped with the air of one pulling himself back from an abyss.

Miss Maggie laughed.

"I don't wonder you exclaim. It is funny--the way she takes that for granted, isn't it? Still, there are grounds for it, of course."

"Oh, are there? Do you think-she'll get more, then?" demanded Mr. Smith, almost savagely.

Miss Maggie laughed again.

"I don't know what to think. To my mind the whole thing was rather extraordinary, anyway, that he should have given them anything--utter strangers as they were. Still, as Hattie says, as long as he has recognized their existence, why, he may again of course. Still, on the other hand, he may have very reasonably argued that, having willed them a hundred thousand apiece, that was quite enough, and he'd give the rest somewhere else."

"Humph! Maybe," grunted Mr. Smith.

"And he may come back alive from South America"

"He may."

"But Hattie isn't counting on either of these contingencies, and she is counting on the money," sighed Miss Maggie, sobering again. "And Jim,--poor Jim!--I'm afraid he's going to find it just as hard to keep caught up now--as he used to."

"Humph!" Mr. Smith frowned. He did not speak again. He stood looking out of the window, apparently in deep thought.

Miss Maggie, with another sigh, turned and went out into the kitchen.

The next day, on the street, Mr. Smith met Mellicent Blaisdell. She was with a tall, manly-looking, square-jawed young fellow whom Mr. Smith had never seen before. Mellicent smiled and blushed adorably. Then, to his surprise, she stopped him with a gesture.

"Mr. Smith, I know it's on the street, but I--I want Mr. Gray to meet you, and I want you to meet Mr. Gray. Mr. Smith is--is a very good friend of mine, Donald."

Mr. Smith greeted Donald Gray with a warm handshake and a keen glance into his face. The blush, the hesitation, the shy happiness in Mellicent's eyes had been unmistakable. Mr. Smith felt suddenly that Donald Gray was a man he very much wanted to know--a good deal about. He chatted affably for a minute. Then he went home and straight to Miss Maggie.

"Who's Donald Gray, please?" he demanded.

Miss Maggie laughed and threw up her hands.

"Oh, these children!"

"But who is he?"

"Well, to begin with, he's devoted to Mellicent."

"You don't have to tell me that. I've seen him--and Mellicent."

"Oh!" Miss Maggie smiled appreciatively.

"What I want to know is, who is he?"

"He's a young man whom Mellicent met this summer. He plays the violin, and Mellicent played his accompaniments in a church entertainment. That's where she met him first. He's the son of a minister near their camp, where the girls went to church. He's a fine fellow, I guess. He's hard hit--that's sure. He came to Hillerton at once, and has gone to work in Hammond's real estate office. So you see he's in earnest."

"I should say he was! I liked his appearance very much."

"Yes, I did--but her mother doesn't."

"What do you mean? She--objects?"

"Decidedly! She says he's worse than Carl Pennock--that he hasn't got any money, not any money."

'Money!" ejaculated Mr. Smith, in genuine amazement. "You don't mean that she's really letting money stand in the way if Mellicent cares for him? Why, it was only a year ago that she herself was bitterly censuring Mrs. Pennock for doing exactly the same thing in the case of young Pennock and Mellicent."

"I know," nodded Miss Maggie. "But--she seems to have forgotten that."

"Shoe's on the other foot this time."

"It seems to be."

"Hm-m!" muttered Mr. Smith.

"I don't think Jane has done much yet, by way Of opposition. You see they've only reached home, and she's just found out about it. But she told me she shouldn't let it go on, not for a moment. She has other plans for Mellicent."

"Shall I be--meddling in what isn't my business, if I ask what they are?" queried Mr. Smith diffidently. "You know I am very much interested in--Miss Mellicent."

"Not a bit. I'm glad to have you. Perhaps you can suggest--a way out for us," sighed Miss Maggie. "The case is just this: Jane wants Mellicent to marry Hibbard Gaylord."

"Shucks! I've seen young Gray only once, but I'd give more for his little finger than I would for a cartload of Gaylords!" flung out Mr. Smith.

"So would I," approved Miss Maggie. "But Jane--well, Jane feels otherwise. To begin with, she's very much flattered at Gaylord's attentions to Mellicent--the more so because he's left Bessie--I beg her pardon, 'Elizabeth"--for her."

"Then Miss Elizabeth is in it, too?"

"Very much in it. That's one of the reasons why Hattie is so anxious for more money. She wants clothes and jewels for Bessie so she can keep pace with the Gaylords. You see there's a wheel within a wheel here."

"I should say there was!"

"As near as I can judge, young Gaylord is Bessie's devoted slave-- until Mellicent arrives; then he has eyes only for her, which piques Bessie and her mother not a little. They were together more or less all summer and I think Hattie thought the match was as good as made. Now, once in Hillerton, back he flies to Mellicent."

"And--Mellicent?"

Miss Maggie's eyes became gravely troubled.

"I don't understand Mellicent. I think--no, I know she cares for young Gray; but--well, I might as well admit it, she is ready any time to flirt outrageously with Hibbard Gaylord, or--or with anybody else, for that matter. I saw her flirting with you at the party last Christmas!" Miss Maggie's face showed a sudden pink blush.

Mr. Smith gave a hearty laugh.

"Don't you worry, Miss Maggie. If she'll flirt with young Gaylord and others, it's all right. There's safety in numbers, you know."

"But I don't like to have her flirt at all, Mr. Smith."

"It isn't flirting. It's just her bottled-up childhood and youth bubbling over. She can't help bubbling, she's been repressed so long. She'll come out all right, and she won't come out hand in hand with Hibbard Gaylord. You see if she does."

Miss Maggie shook her head and sighed.

You don't know Jane. Jane will never give up. She'll be quiet, but she'll be firm. With one hand she'll keep Gray away, and with the other she'll push Gaylord forward. Even Mellicent herself won't know how it's done. But it'll be done, and I tremble for the consequences."

"Hm-m!" Mr. Smith's eyes had lost their twinkle now. To himself he muttered: "I wonder if maybe--I hadn't better take a hand in this thing myself."

"You said--I didn't understand what you said," murmured Miss Maggie doubtfully.

"Nothing--nothing, Miss Maggie," replied the man. Then, with business- like alertness, he lifted his chin. "How long do you say this has been going on?"

"Why, especially since they all came home two weeks ago. Jane knew nothing of Donald Gray till then."

"Where does Carl Pennock come in?"

Miss Maggie gave a gesture of despair.

"Oh, he comes in anywhere that he can find a chance; though, to do her justice, Mellicent doesn't give him--many chances."

"What does her father say to all this? How does he like young Gray?"

Miss Maggie gave another gesture of despair.

"He says nothing--or, rather, he laughs, and says: 'Oh, well, it will come out all right in time. Young folks will be young folks!'"

"But does he like Gray? He knows him, of course."

"Oh, yes, he likes him. He's taken him to ride in his car once, to my knowledge."

"His car! Then Mr. Frank Blaisdell has--a car?"

"Oh, yes, he's just been learning to run it. Jane says he's crazy over it, and that he's teasing her to go all the time. She says he wants to be on the move somewhere every minute. He's taken up golf, too. Did you know that?"

"Well, no, I--didn't."

"Oh yes, he's joined the Hillerton Country Club, and he goes up to the links every morning for practice."

"I can't imagine it--Frank Blaisdell spending his mornings playing golf!"

"You forget," smiled Miss Maggie. "Frank Blaisdell is a retired business man. He has begun to take some pleasure in life now."

"Humph!" muttered Mr. Smith, as he turned to go into his own room.

Mr. Smith called on the Frank Blaisdells that evening. Mr. Blaisdell took him out to the garage (very lately a barn), and showed him the shining new car. He also showed him his lavish supply of golf clubs, and told him what a "bully time" he was having these days. He told him, too, all about his Western trip, and said there was nothing like travel to broaden a man's outlook. He said a great deal about how glad he was to get out of the old grind behind the counter--but in the next breath he asked Mr. Smith if he had ever seen a store run down as his had done since he left it. Donovan didn't know any more than a cat how such a store should be run, he said.

When they came back from the garage they found callers in the living- room. Carl Pennock and Hibbard Gaylord were chatting with Mellicent. Almost at once the doorbell rang, too, and Donald Gray came in with his violin and a roll of music. Mellicent's mother came in also. She greeted all the young men pleasantly, and asked Carl Pennock to tell Mr. Smith all about his fishing trip. Then she sat down by young Gray and asked him many questions about his music. She was so interested in violins, she said.

Gray waxed eloquent, and seemed wonderfully pleased--for about five minutes; then Mr. Smith saw that his glance was shifting more and more frequently and more and more unhappily to Mellicent and Hibbard Gaylord, talking tennis across the room.

Mr. Smith apparently lost interest in young Pennock's fish story then. At all events, another minute found him eagerly echoing Mrs. Blaisdell's interest in violins--but with this difference: violins in the abstract with her became A violin in the concrete with him; and he must hear it at once.

Mrs. Jane herself could not have told exactly how it was done, but she knew that two minutes later young Gray and Mellicent were at the piano, he, shining-eyed and happy, drawing a tentative bow across the strings: she, no less shining-eyed and happy, giving him "A" on the piano.

Mr. Smith enjoyed the music very much--so much that he begged for another selection and yet another. Mr. Smith did not appear to realize that Messrs. Pennock and Gaylord were passing through sham interest and frank boredom to disgusted silence. Equally oblivious was he of Mrs. Jane's efforts to substitute some other form of entertainment for the violin-playing. He shook hands very heartily, however, with Pennock and Gaylord when they took their somewhat haughty departure, a little later, and, strange to say, his interest in the music seemed to go with their going; for at once then he turned to Mr. and Mrs. Frank Blaisdell with a very animated account of some Blaisdell data he had found only the week before.

He did not appear to notice that the music of the piano had become nothing but soft fitful snatches with a great deal of low talk and laughter between. He seemed interested only that Mr. Blaisdell, and especially Mrs. Blaisdell, should know the intimate history of one Ephraim Blaisdell, born in 1720, and his ten children and forty-nine grandchildren. He talked of various investments then, and of the weather. He talked of the Blaisdells' trip, and of the cost of railroad fares and hotel life. He talked--indeed, Mrs. Jane told her husband after he left that Mr. Smith had talked of everything under the sun, and that she nearly had a fit because she could not get one minute to herself to break in upon Mellicent and that horrid Gray fellow at the piano. She had not supposed Mr. Smith could talk like that. She had never remembered he was such a talker!

The young people had a tennis match on the school tennis court the next day. Mr. Smith told Miss Maggie that he thought he would drop around there. He said he liked very much to watch tennis games.

Miss Maggie said yes, that she liked to watch tennis games, too. If this was just a wee bit of a hint, it quite failed of its purpose, for Mr. Smith did not offer to take her with him. He changed the subject, indeed, so abruptly, that Miss Maggie bit her lip and flushed a little, throwing a swift glance into his apparently serene countenance.

Miss Maggie herself, in the afternoon, with an errand for an excuse, walked slowly by the tennis court. She saw Mr. Smith at once--but he did not seem at all interested in the playing. He had his back to the court, in fact. He was talking very animatedly with Mellicent Blaisdell. He was still talking with her--though on the opposite side of the court--when Miss Maggie went by again on her way home.

Miss Maggie frowned and said something just under her breath about "that child--flirting as usual!" Then she went on, walking very fast, and without another glance toward the tennis ground. But a little farther on Miss Maggie's step lagged perceptibly, and her head lost its proud poise. Miss Maggie, for a reason she could not have explained herself, was feeling suddenly old, and weary, and very much alone.

To the image in the mirror as she took off her hat a few minutes later in her own hall, she said scornfully:

"Well, why shouldn't you feel old? You are old. You are old!" Miss Maggie had a habit of talking to herself in the mirror--but never before had she said anything like this to herself.

An hour later Mr. Smith came home to supper.

"Well, how did the game go?" queried Miss Maggie, without looking up from the stocking she was mending.

"Game? Go? Oh! Why, I don't remember who did win finally," he answered. Nor did it apparently occur to him that for one who was so greatly interested in tennis, he was curiously uninformed.

It did occur to Miss Maggie, however.

The next day Mr. Smith left the house soon after breakfast, and, contrary to his usual custom, did not mention where he was going. Miss Maggie was surprised and displeased. More especially was she displeased because she was displeased. As if it mattered to her where he went, she told herself scornfully.

The next day and the next it was much the same. On the third day she saw Jane.

"Where's Mr. Smith?" demanded Jane, without preamble, glancing at the vacant chair by the table in the corner.

Miss Maggie, to her disgust, could feel the color burning in her cheeks; but she managed to smile as if amused.

"I don't know, I'm sure. I'm not Mr. Smith's keeper, Jane."

"Well, if you were I should ask you to keep him away from Mellicent," retorted Mrs. Jane tartly.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean he's been hanging around Mellicent almost every day for a week."

Miss Maggie flushed painfully.

"Nonsense, Jane! He's more than twice her age. Mr. Smith is fifty if he's a day."

"I'm not saying he isn't," sniffed Jane, her nose uptilted. "But I do say, 'No fool like an old fool'!"

"Nonsense!" scorned Miss Maggie again. "Mr. Smith has always been fond of Mellicent, and--and interested in her. But I don't believe he cares for her--that way."

Then why does he come to see her and take her auto-riding, and hang around her every minute he gets a chance?" snapped Jane. "I know how he acts at the house, and I hear he scarcely left her side at the tennis match the other day."

"Yes, I--" Miss Maggie did not finish her sentence. A slow change came to her countenance. The flush receded, leaving her face a bit white.

"I wonder if the man really thinks he stands any chance," spluttered Jane, ignoring Miss Maggie's unfinished sentence. "Why, he's worse than that Donald Gray. He not only hasn't got the money, but he's old, as well."

"Yes, we're all--getting old, Jane." Miss Maggie tossed the words off lightly, and smiled as she uttered them. But after Mrs. Jane had gone, she went to the little mirror above the mantel and gazed at herself long and fixedly.

"Well, what if he does? It's nothing to you, Maggie Duff!" she muttered under her breath. Then resolutely she turned away, picked up her work, and fell to sewing very fast.

Two days later Mellicent went back to school. Bessie went, too. Fred and Benny had already gone. To Miss Maggie things seemed to settle back into their old ways again then. With Mr. Smith she took drives and motor-rides, enjoying the crisp October air and the dancing sunlight on the reds and browns and yellows of the autumnal foliage. True, she used to wonder sometimes if the end always justified the means--it seemed an expensive business to hire an automobile to take them fifty miles and back, and all to verify a single date. And she could not help noticing that Mr. Smith appeared to have many dates that needed verifying--dates that were located in very diverse parts of the surrounding country. Miss Maggie also could not help noticing that Mr. Smith was getting very little new material for his Blaisdell book these days, though he still worked industriously over the old, retabulating, and recopying. She knew this, because she helped him do it--though she was careful to let him know that she recognized the names and dates as old acquaintances.

To tell the truth, Miss Maggie did not like to admit, even to herself, that Mr. Smith must be nearing the end of his task. She did not like to think of the house--after Mr. Smith should have gone. She told herself that he was just the sort of homey boarder that she liked, and she wished she might keep him indefinitely.

She thought so all the more when the long evenings of November brought a new pleasure; Mr. Smith fell into the way of bringing home books to read aloud; and she enjoyed that very much. They had long talks, too, over the books they read. In one there was an old man who fell in love with a young girl, and married her. Miss Maggie, as certain parts of this story were read, held her breath, and stole furtive glances into Mr. Smith's face. When it was finished she contrived to question with careful casualness, as to his opinion of such a marriage.

Mr. Smith's answer was prompt and unequivocal. He said he did not believe that such a marriage should take place, nor did he believe that in real life, it would result in happiness. Marriage should be between persons of similar age, tastes, and habits, he said very decidedly. And Miss Maggie blushed and said yes, yes, indeed! And that night, when Miss Maggie gazed at herself in the glass, she looked so happy--that she appeared to be almost as young as Mellicent herself!