Chapter XVII. An Ambassador of Cupid's
 

Christmas again brought all the young people home for the holidays. It brought, also, a Christmas party at James Blaisdell's home. It was a very different party, however, from the housewarming of a year before.

To begin with, the attendance was much smaller; Mrs. Hattie had been very exclusive in her invitations this time. She had not invited "everybody who ever went anywhere." There were champagne, and cigarettes for the ladies, too.

As before, Mr. Smith and Miss Maggie went together. Miss Maggie, who had not attended any social gathering since Father Duff died, yielded to Mr. Smith's urgings and said that she would go to this. But Miss Maggie wished afterward that she had not gone--there were so many, many features about that party that Miss Maggie did not like.

She did not like the champagne nor the cigarettes. She did not like Bessie's showy, low-cut dress, nor her supercilious airs. She did not like the look in Fred's eyes, nor the way he drank the champagne. She did not like Jane's maneuvers to bring Mellicent and Hibbard Gaylord into each other's company--nor the way Mr. Smith maneuvered to get Mellicent for himself.

Of all these, except the very last, Miss Maggie talked with Mr. Smith on the way home--yet it was the very last that was uppermost in her mind, except perhaps, Fred. She did speak of Fred; but because that, too, was so much to her, she waited until the last before she spoke of it.

"You saw Fred, of course," she began then.

"Yes." Short as the word was, it carried a volume of meaning to Miss Maggie's fearful ears. She turned to him quickly.

"Mr. Smith, it--it isn't true, is it?"

"I'm afraid it is."

"You saw him--drinking, then?"

"Yes. I saw some, and I heard--more. It's just as I feared. He's got in with Gaylord and the rest of his set at college, and they're a bad lot--drinking, gambling--no good."

"But Fred wouldn't--gamble, Mr. Smith! Oh, Fred wouldn't do that. And he's so ambitious to get ahead! Surely he'd know he couldn't get anywhere in his studies, if--if he drank and gambled!"

"It would seem so."

"Did you see his father? I saw him only a minute at the first, and he didn't look well a bit, to me."

"Yes, I saw him. I found him in his den just as I did last year. He didn't look well to me, either."

"Did he say anything about--Fred?"

"Not a word--and that's what worries me the most. Last year he talked a lot about him, and was so proud and happy in his coming success. This time he never mentioned him; but he looked--bad."

"What did he talk about?"

"Oh, books, business:--nothing in particular. And he wasn't interested in what he did say. He was very different from last year."

"Yes, I know. He is different," sighed Maggie. "He's talked with me quite a lot about--about the way they're living. He doesn't like--so much fuss and show and society."

Mr. Smith frowned.

"But I thought--Mrs. Hattie would get over all that by this time, after the newness of the money was worn off."

"I hoped she would. But--she doesn't. It's worse, if anything," sighed Miss Maggie, as they ascended the steps at her own door.

Mr. Smith frowned again.

"And Miss Bessie--" he began disapprovingly, then stopped. "Now, Miss Mellicent--" he resumed, in a very different voice.

But Miss Maggie was not apparently listening. With a rather loud rattling of the doorknob she was pushing open the door.

"Why, how hot it is! Did I leave that damper open?" she cried, hurrying into the living-room.

And Mr. Smith, hurrying after, evidently forgot to finish his sentence.

Miss Maggie did not attend any more of the merrymakings of that holiday week. But Mr. Smith did. It seemed to Miss Maggie, indeed, that Mr. Smith was away nearly every minute of that long week--and it was a long week to Miss Maggie. Even the Martin girls were away many of the evenings. Miss Maggie told herself that that was why the house seemed so lonesome.

But though Miss Maggie did not participate in the gay doings, she heard of them. She heard of them on all sides, except from Mr. Smith-- and on all sides she heard of the devotion of Mr. Smith to Miss Mellicent. She concluded that this was the reason why Mr. Smith himself was so silent.

Miss Maggie was shocked and distressed. She was also very much puzzled. She had supposed that Mr. Smith understood that Mellicent and young Gray cared for each other, and she had thought that Mr. Smith even approved of the affair between them. Now to push himself on the scene in this absurd fashion and try "to cut everybody out," as it was vulgarly termed--she never would have believed it of Mr. Smith in the world. And she was disappointed, too. She liked Mr. Smith very much. She had considered him to be a man of good sense and good judgment. And had he not himself said, not so long ago, that he believed lovers should be of the same age, tastes, and habits? And yet, here now he was--

And there could be no mistake about it. Everybody was saying the same thing. The Martin girls brought it home as current gossip. Jane was highly exercised over it, and even Harriet had exclaimed over the "shameful flirtation Mellicent was carrying on with that man old enough to be her father!" No, there was no mistake. Besides, did she not see with her own eyes that Mr. Smith was gone every day and evening, and that, when he was at home at meal-time, he was silent and preoccupied, and not like himself at all?

And it was such a pity--she had thought so much of Mr. Smith! It really made her feel quite ill.

And Miss Maggie looked ill on the last evening of that holiday week when, at nine o'clock, Mr. Smith found her sitting idle-handed before the stove in the living-room.

"Why, Miss Maggie, what's the matter with you?" cried the man, in very evident concern. "You don't look like yourself to-night!"

Miss Maggie pulled herself up hastily.

"Nonsense! I--I'm perfectly well. I'm just--tired, I guess. You're home early, Mr. Smith." In spite of herself Miss Maggie's voice carried a tinge of something not quite pleasant.

Mr. Smith, however, did not appear to notice it.

"Yes, I'm home early for once, thank Heaven!" he half groaned, as he dropped himself into a chair.

"It has been a strenuous week for you, hasn't it?" Again the tinge of something not quite pleasant in Miss Maggie's voice.

"Yes, but it's been worth it."

"Of course!"

Mr. Smith turned deliberately and looked at Miss Maggie. There was a vague questioning in his eyes. Obtaining, apparently, however, no satisfactory answer from Miss Maggie's placid countenance, he turned away and began speaking again.

"Well, anyway, I've accomplished what I set out to do."

"You-you've already accomplished it?" faltered Miss Maggie. She was gazing at him now with startled, half-frightened eyes.

"Yes. Why, Miss Maggie, what's the matter? What makes you look so--so queer?"

"Queer? Nonsense! Why, nothing--nothing at all," laughed Miss Maggie nervously, but very gayly. "I may have been a little--surprised, for a moment; but I'm very glad--very."

"Glad?"

"Why, yes, for--for you. Isn't one always glad when--when a love affair is--is all settled?"

"Oh, then you suspected it." Mr. Smith smiled pleasantly, but without embarrassment. "It doesn't matter, of course, only--well, I had hoped it wasn't too conspicuous."

"Oh, but you couldn't expect to hide a thing like that, Mr. Smith," retorted Miss Maggie, with what was very evidently intended for an arch smile. "I heard it everywhere--everywhere."

"The mischief you did!" frowned Mr. Smith, looking slightly annoyed. "Well, I suppose I couldn't expect to keep a thing like that entirely in the dark. Still, I don't believe the parties themselves--quite understood. Of course, Pennock and Gaylord knew that they were kept effectually away, but I don't believe they realized just how systematically it was done. Of course, Gray understood from the first."

"Poor Mr. Gray! I--I can't help being sorry for him."

"Sorry for him!"

"Certainly; and I should think you might give him a little sympathy," rejoined Miss Maggie spiritedly. "You know how much he cared for Mellicent."

Mr. Smith sat suddenly erect in his chair.

"Cared for her! Sympathy! Why, what in the world are you talking about? Wasn't I doing the best I could for them all the time? Of course, it kept him away from her, too, just as it did Pennock and Gaylord; but he understood. Besides, he had her part of the time. I let him in whenever it was possible."

"Let him in!" Miss Maggie was sitting erect now. "Whatever in the world are you talking about? Do you mean to say you were doing this for Mr. Gray, all the time?"

"Why, of course! Whom else should I do it for? You didn't suppose it was for Pennock or Gaylord, did you? Nor for--" He stopped short and stared at Miss Maggie in growing amazement and dismay. "You didn't-- you didn't think--I was doing that--for myself?"

"Well, of course, I--I--" Miss Maggie was laughing and blushing painfully, but there was a new light in her eyes. "Well, anyway, everybody said you were!" she defended herself stoutly.

"Oh, good Heavens!" Mr. Smith leaped to his feet and thrust his hands into his pockets, as he took a nervous turn about the room. "For myself, indeed! as if, in my position, I'd--How perfectly absurd!" He wheeled and faced her irritably. "And you believed that? Why, I'm not a marrying man. I don't like--I never saw the woman yet that I--" With his eyes on Miss Maggie's flushed, half-averted face, he stopped again abruptly. "Well, I'll be--" Even under his breath he did not finish his sentence; but, with a new, quite different expression on his face, he resumed his nervous pacing of the room, throwing now and then a quick glance at Miss Maggie's still averted face.

"It was absurd, of course, wasn't it?" Miss Maggie stirred and spoke lightly, with the obvious intention of putting matters back into usual conditions again. "But, come, tell me, just what did you do, and how? I'm so interested--indeed, I am!"

"Eh? What?" Mr. Smith spoke as if he was thinking of something else entirely. "Oh--that." Mr. Smith sat down, but he did not go on speaking at once. His eyes frowningly regarded the stove.

"You said--you kept Pennock and Gaylord away," Miss Maggie hopefully reminded him.

"Er--yes. Oh, I--it was really very simple--I just monopolized Mellicent myself, when I couldn't let Donald have her. That's all. I saw very soon that she couldn't cope with her mother alone. And Gaylord--well, I've no use for that young gentleman."

"But you like--Donald?"

"Very much. I've been looking him up for some time. He's all right."

"I'm glad."

"Yes." Mr. Smith spoke abstractedly, without enthusiasm. Plainly Mr. Smith was still thinking of something else.

Miss Maggie asked other questions--Miss Maggie was manifestly interested--and Mr. Smith answered them, but still without enthusiasm. Very soon he said good-night and went to his own room.

For some days after this, Mr. Smith did not appear at all like himself. He seemed abstracted and puzzled. Miss Maggie, who still felt self-conscious and embarrassed over her misconception of his attentions to Mellicent, was more talkative than usual in her nervous attempt to appear perfectly natural. The fact that she often found his eyes fixed thoughtfully upon her, and felt them following her as she moved about the room, did not tend to make her more at ease. At such times she talked faster than ever--usually, if possible, about some member of the Blaisdell family: Miss Maggie had learned that Mr. Smith was always interested in any bit of news about the Blaisdells.

It was on such an occasion that she told him about Miss Flora and the new house.

"I don't know, really, what I am going to do with her," she said. "I wonder if perhaps you could help me."

"Help you?--about Miss Flora?"

"Yes. Can you think of any way to make her contented?"

"Contented! Why, I thought--Don't tell me she isn't happy!" There was a curious note of almost despair in Mr. Smith's voice. "Hasn't she a new house, and everything nice to go with it?"

Miss Maggie laughed. Then she sighed.

"Oh, yes--and that's what's the trouble. They're too nice. She feels smothered and oppressed--as if she were visiting somewhere, and not at home. She's actually afraid of her maid. You see, Miss Flora has always lived very simply. She isn't used to maids--and the maid knows it, which, if you ever employed maids, you would know is a terrible state of affairs."

"Oh, but she--she'll get used to that, in time." "Perhaps," conceded Miss Maggie, "but I doubt it. Some women would, but not Miss Flora. She is too inherently simple in her tastes. 'Why, it's as bad as always living in a hotel!' she wailed to me last night. 'You know on my trip I was so afraid always I'd do something that wasn't quite right, before those awful waiters in the dining-rooms, and I was anticipating so much getting home where I could act natural--and here I've got one in my own house!'"

Mr. Smith frowned, but he laughed, too.

"Poor Miss Flora! But why doesn't she dismiss the lady?"

"She doesn't dare to. Besides, there's Hattie. She says Hattie is always telling her what is due her position, and that she must do this and do that. She's being invited out, too, to the Pennocks' and the Bensons'; and they're worse than the maid, she declares. She says she loves to 'run in' and see people, and she loves to go to places and spend the day with her sewing; but that these things where you go and stand up and eat off a jiggly plate, and see everybody, and not really see anybody, are a nuisance and an abomination."

"Well, she's about right there," chuckled Mr. Smith.

"Yes, I think she is," smiled Miss Maggie; "but that isn't telling me how to make her contented."

"Contented! Great Scott!" snapped Mr. Smith, with an irritability that was as sudden as it was apparently causeless. "I didn't suppose you had to tell any woman on this earth how to be contented--with a hundred thousand dollars!"

"It would seem so, wouldn't it?"

Something in Miss Maggie's voice sent Mr. Smith's eyes to her face in a keen glance of interrogation.

"You mean--you'd like the chance to prove it? That you wish you had that hundred thousand?"

"Oh, I didn't say--that," twinkled Miss Maggie mischievously, turning away.

It was that same afternoon that Mr. Smith met Mrs. Jane Blaisdell on the street.

"You're just the man I want to see," she accosted him eagerly.

"Then I'll turn and walk along with you, if I may," smiled Mr. Smith. "What can I do for you?"

"Well, I don't know as you can do anything," she sighed; "but somebody's got to do something. Could you--do you suppose you could interest my husband in this Blaisdell business of yours?"

Mr. Smith gave a start, looking curiously disconcerted.

"B-Blaisdell business?" he stammered. "Why, I--I thought he was--er-- interested in motoring and golf."

"Oh, he was, for a time; but it's too cold for those now, and he got sick of them, anyway, before it did come cold, just as he does of everything. Well, yesterday he asked a question--something about Father Blaisdell's mother; and that gave me the idea. Do you suppose you could get him interested in this ancestor business? Oh, I wish you could! It's so nice and quiet, and it can't cost much--not like golf clubs and caddies and gasoline, anyway. Do you think you could?"

"Why, I--I don't know, Mrs. Blaisdell," murmured Mr. Smith, still a little worriedly. "I--I could show him what I have found, of course."

"Well, I wish you would, then. Anyway, something's got to be done," she sighed. "He's nervous as a witch. He can't keep still a minute. And he isn't a bit well, either. He ate such a lot of rich food and all sorts of stuff on our trip that he got his stomach all out of order; and now he can't eat anything, hardly."

"Humph! Well, if his stomach's knocked out I pity him," nodded Mr. Smith. "I've been there."

"Oh, have you? Oh, yes, I remember. You did say so when you first came, didn't you? But, Mr. Smith please, if you know any of those health fads, don't tell them to my husband. Don't, I beg of you! He's tried dozens of them until I'm nearly wild, and I've lost two hired girls already. One day it'll be no water, and the next it'll be all he can drink; and one week he won't eat anything but vegetables, and the next he won't touch a thing but meat and--is it fruit that goes with meat or cereals? Well, never mind. Whatever it is, he's done it. And lately he's taken to inspecting every bit of meat and groceries that comes into the house. Why, he spends half his time in the kitchen, nosing 'round the cupboards and refrigerator; and, of course, no girl will stand that! That's why I'm hoping, oh, I am hoping that you can do something with him on that ancestor business. There, here is the Bensons', where I've got to stop--and thank you ever so much, Mr. Smith, if you will."

"All right, I'll try," promised Mr. Smith dubiously, as he lifted his hat. But he frowned, and he was still frowning when he met Miss Maggie at the Duff supper-table half an hour later.

"Well, I've found another one who wants me to tell to be contented, though afflicted with a hundred thousand dollars," he greeted her gloweringly.

"Is that so?" smiled Miss Maggie.

"Yes.--can't a hundred thousand dollars bring any one satisfaction?"

Miss Maggie laughed, then into her eyes came the mischievous twinkle that Mr. Smith had learned to watch for.

"Don't blame the poor money," she said then demurely. "Blame--the way it is spent!"