Chapter XVIII. Just a Matter of Begging
 

True to his promise, Mr. Smith "tried" Mr. Frank Blaisdell on "the ancestor business" very soon. Laboriously he got out his tabulated dates and names and carefully he traced for him several lines of descent from remote ancestors. Painstakingly he pointed out a "Submit," who had no history but the bare fact of her marriage to one Thomas Blaisdell, and a "Thankful Marsh," who had eluded his every attempt to supply her with parents. He let it be understood how important these missing links were, and he tried to inspire his possible pupil with a frenzied desire to go out and dig them up. He showed some of the interesting letters he had received from various Blaisdells far and near, and he spread before him the genealogical page of his latest "Transcript," and explained how one might there stumble upon the very missing link he was looking for.

But Mr. Frank Blaisdell was openly bored. He said he didn't care how many children his great-grandfather had, nor what they died of; and as for Mrs. Submit and Miss Thankful, the ladies might bury themselves in the "Transcript," or hide behind that wall of dates and names till doomsday, for all he cared. He shouldn't disturb 'em. He never did like figures, he said, except figures that represented something worth while, like a day's sales or a year's profits.

And speaking of grocery stores, had Mr. Smith ever seen a store run down as his old one had since he sold out? For that matter, something must have got into all the grocery stores; for a poorer lot of goods than those delivered every day at his home he never saw. It was a disgrace to the trade.

He said a good deal more about his grocery store--hut nothing whatever more about his Blaisdell ancestors; so Mr. Smith felt justified in considering his efforts to interest Mr. Frank Blaisdell in the ancestor business a failure. Certainly he never tried it again.

It was in February that a certain metropolitan reporter, short for feature articles, ran up to Hillerton and contributed to his paper, the following Sunday, a write-up on "The Blaisdells One Year After," enlarging on the fine new homes, the motor cars, and the luxurious living of the three families. And it was three days after this article was printed that Miss Flora appeared at Miss Maggie's, breathless with excitement.

"Just see what I've got in the mail this morning!" she cried to Miss Maggie, and to Mr. Smith, who had opened the door for her.

With trembling fingers she took from her bag a letter, and a small picture evidently cut from a newspaper.

"There, see," she panted, holding them out. "It's a man in Boston, and these are his children. There are seven of them. He wrote me a beautiful letter. He said he knew I must have a real kind heart, and he's in terrible trouble. He said he saw in the paper about the wonderful legacy I'd had. and he told his wife he was going to write to me, to see if I wouldn't help them--if only a little, it would aid them that much."

"He wants money, then?" Miss Maggie had taken the letter and the picture rather gingerly in her hands. Mr. Smith had gone over to the stove suddenly--to turn a damper, apparently, though a close observer might have noticed that he turned it back to its former position almost at once.

"Yes," palpitated Miss Flora. "He's sick, and he lost his position, and his wife's sick, and two of the children, and one of 'em's lame, and another's blind. Oh, it was such a pitiful story, Maggie! Why, some days they haven't had enough to eat--and just look at me, with all my chickens and turkeys and more pudding every day than I can stuff down!"

"Did he give you any references?"

"References! What do you mean? He didn't ask me to hire him for anything."

"No, no, dear, but I mean--did he give you any references, to show that he was--was worthy and all right," explained Miss Maggie patiently.

"Of course he didn't! Why, he didn't need to. He told me himself how things were with him," rebuked Miss Flora indignantly. "It's all in the letter there. Read for yourself."

"But he really ought to have given you some reference, dear, if he asked you for money."

"Well, I don't want any reference. I believe him. I'd be ashamed to doubt a man like that! And you would, after you read that letter, and look into those blessed children's faces. Besides, he never thought of such a thing--I know he didn't. Why, he says right in the letter there that he never asked for help before, and he was so ashamed that he had to now."

Mr. Smith made a sudden odd little noise in his throat. Perhaps he got choked. At all events, he was seized with a fit of coughing just then.

Miss Maggie turned over the letter in her hand.

"Where does he tell you to send the money?"

"It's right there--Box four hundred and something; and I got a money order, just as he said."

"You got one! Do you mean that you've already sent this money?" cried Miss Maggie.

"Why, yes, of course. I stopped at the office on the way down here."

"And you sent--a money order?"

"Yes. He said he would rather have that than a check."

"I don't doubt it! You don't seem to have--delayed any."

"Of course I didn't delay! Why, Maggie, he said he had to have it at once. He was going to be turned out--turned out into the streets! Think of those seven little children in the streets! Wait, indeed! Why, Maggie, what can you be thinking of?"

"I'm thinking you've been the easy victim of a professional beggar, Flora," retorted Miss Maggie, with some spirit, handing back the letter and the picture.

"Why, Maggie, I never knew you to be so--so unkind," charged Miss Flora, her eyes tearful. "He can't be a professional beggar. He said he wasn't--that he never begged before in his life."

Miss Maggie, with a despairing gesture, averted her face.

Miss Flora turned to Mr. Smith.

"Mr. Smith, you--you don't think so, do you?" she pleaded.

Mr. Smith grew very red--perhaps because he had to stop to cough again.

"Well, Miss Flora, I--I'm sorry, but I'm afraid I shall have to agree with Miss Maggie here, to some extent."

"But you didn't read the letter. You don't know how beautifully he talked."

"You told me; and you say yourself that he gave you only a post-office box for an address. So you see you couldn't look him up very well."

"I don't need to!" Miss Flora threw back her head a little haughtily. "And I'm glad I don't doubt my fellow men and women as you and Maggie Duff do! If either of you knew what you're talking about, I wouldn't say anything. But you don't. You can't know anything about this man, and you didn't ever get letters like this, either of you, of course. But, anyhow, I don't care if he ain't worthy. I wouldn't let those children suffer; and I--I'm glad I sent it. I never in my life was so happy as I was on the way here from the post-office this morning."

Without waiting for a reply, she turned away majestically; but at the door she paused and looked back at Miss Maggie.

"And let me tell you that, however good or bad this particular man may be, it's given me an idea, anyway," she choked. The haughtiness was all gone now "I know now why it hasn't seemed right to be so happy. It's because there are so many other folks in the world that aren't happy. Why, my chicken and turkey would choke me now if I didn't give some of it to--to all these others. And I'm going to--I'm going to!" she reiterated, as she fled from the room.

As the door shut crisply, Miss Maggie turned and looked at Mr. Smith. But Mr. Smith had crossed again to the stove and was fussing with the damper. Miss Maggie, after a moment's hesitation, turned and went out into the kitchen, without speaking.

Mr. Smith and Miss Maggie saw very little of Miss Flora after this for some time. But they heard a good deal about her. They heard of her generous gifts to families all over town.

A turkey was sent to every house on Mill Street, without exception, and so much candy given to the children that half of them were made ill, much to the distress of Miss Flora, who, it was said, promptly sent a physician to undo her work. The Dow family, hard-working and thrifty, and the Nolans, notorious for their laziness and shiftlessness, each received a hundred dollars outright. The Whalens, always with both hands metaphorically outstretched for alms, were loud in their praises of Miss Flora's great kindness of heart; but the Davises (Mrs. Jane Blaisdell's impecunious relatives) had very visible difficulty in making Miss Flora understand that gifts bestowed as she bestowed them were more welcome unmade.

Every day, from one quarter or another, came stories like these to the ears of Miss Maggie and Mr. Smith. But Miss Flora was seen very seldom. Then one day, about a month later, she appeared as before at the Duff cottage, breathless and agitated; only this time, plainly, she had been crying.

"Why, Flora, what in the world is the matter?" cried Miss Maggie, as she hurried her visitor into a comfortable chair and began to unfasten her wraps.

"I'll tell you in a minute. I came on purpose to tell you. But I want Mr. Smith, too. Oh, he ain't here, is he?" she lamented, with a disappointed glance toward the vacant chair by the table in the corner. "I thought maybe he could help me, some way. I won't go to Frank, or Jim. They've--they've said so many things. Oh, I did so hope Mr. Smith was here!"

"He is here, dear. He's in his room. He just came in. I'll call him," comforted Miss Maggie, taking off Miss Flora's veil and hat and smoothing back her hair. "But you don't want him to find you crying like this, Flora. What is it, dear?"

"Yes, yes, I know, but I'm not crying--I mean, I won't any more. And I'll tell you just as soon as you get Mr. Smith. It's only that I've been--so silly, I suppose. Please get Mr. Smith."

"All right, dear."

Miss Maggie, still with the disturbed frown between her eyebrows, summoned Mr. Smith. Then together they sat down to hear Miss Flora's story.

"It all started, of course, from--from that day I brought the letter here--from that man in Boston with seven children, you know."

"Yes, I remember," encouraged Miss Maggie.

"Well, I--I did quite a lot of things after that. I was so glad and happy to discover I could do things for folks. It seemed to--to take away the wickedness of my having so much, you know; and so I gave food and money, oh, lots of places here in town--everywhere, 'most, that I could find that anybody needed it."

"Yes, I know. We heard of the many kind things you did, dear." Miss Maggie had the air of one trying to soothe a grieved child.

"But they didn't turn out to be kind--all of 'em," quavered Miss Flora. "Some of 'em went wrong. I don't know why. I tried to do 'em all right!"

"Of course you did!"

"I know; but 'tain't those I came to talk about. It's the others--the letters."

"Letters?"

"Yes. I got 'em--lots of 'em--after the first one--the one you saw. First I got one, then another and another, till lately I've been getting 'em every day, 'most, and some days two or three at a time."

"And they all wanted--money, I suppose," observed Mr. Smith, "for their sick wives and children, I suppose."

"Oh, not for children always--though it was them a good deal. But it was for different things--and such a lot of them! I never knew there could be so many kinds of such things. And I was real pleased, at first,--that I could help, you know, in so many places."

"Then you always sent it--the money?" asked Mr. Smith.

"Oh, yes. Why, I just had to, the way they wrote; I wanted to, too. They wrote lovely letters, and real interesting ones, too. One man wanted a warm coat for his little girl, and he told me all about what hard times they'd had. Another wanted a brace for his poor little crippled boy, and he told me things. Why, I never s'posed folks could have such awful things, and live! One woman just wanted to borrow twenty dollars while she was so sick. She didn't ask me to give it to her. She wasn't a beggar. Don't you suppose I'd send her that money? Of course I would! And there was a poor blind man--he wanted money to buy a Bible in raised letters; and of course I wouldn't refuse that! Some didn't beg; they just wanted to sell things. I bought a diamond ring to help put a boy through school, and a ruby pin of a man who needed the money for bread for his children. And there was--oh, there was lots of 'em--too many to tell."

"And all from Boston, I presume," murmured Mr. Smith.

"Oh, no,--why, yes, they were, too, most of 'em, when you come to think of it. But how did you know?"

"Oh, I--guessed it. But go on. You haven't finished."

"No, I haven't finished," moaned Miss Flora, almost crying again. "And now comes the worst of it. As I said, at first I liked it--all these letters--and I was so glad to help. But they're coming so fast now I don't know what to do with 'em. And I never saw such a lot of things as they want--pensions and mortgages, and pianos, and educations, and wedding dresses, and clothes to be buried in, and--and there were so many, and--and so queer, some of 'em, that I began to be afraid maybe they weren't quite honest, all of 'em, and of course I can't send to such a lot as there are now, anyway, and I was getting so worried. Besides, I got another one of those awful proposals from those dreadful men that want to marry me. As if I didn't know that was for my money! Then to-day, this morning, I--I got the worst of all." From her bag she took an envelope and drew out a small picture of several children, cut apparently from a newspaper. "Look at that. Did you ever see that before?" she demanded.

Miss Maggie scrutinized the picture.

"Why, no,--yes, it's the one you brought us a month ago, isn't it?"

Miss Flora's eyes flashed angrily.

"Indeed, it ain't! The one I showed you before is in my bureau drawer at home. But I got it out this morning, when this one came, and compared them; and they're just exactly alike--exactly!"

"Oh, he wrote again, then,--wants more money, I suppose," frowned Miss Maggie.

"No, he didn't. It ain't the same man. This man's name is Haley, and that one was Fay. But Mr. Haley says this is a picture of his children, and he says that the little girl in the corner is Katy, and she's deaf and dumb; but Mr. Fay said her name was Rosie, and that she was lame. And all the others--their names ain't the same, either, and there ain't any of 'em blind. And, of course, I know now that--that one of those men is lying to me. Why, they cut them out of the same newspaper; they've got the same reading on the back! And I--I don't know what to believe now. And there are all those letters at home that I haven't answered yet; and they keep coming--why, I just dread to see the postman turn down our street. And one man--he wrote twice. I didn't like his first letter and didn't answer it; and now he says if I don't send him the money he'll tell everybody everywhere what a stingy t-tight-wad I am. And another man said he'd come and take it if I didn't send it; and you know how afraid of burglars I am! Oh what shall I do, what shall I do?" she begged piteously.

Mr. Smith said a sharp word behind his teeth.

"Do?" he cried then wrathfully. "First, don't you worry another bit, Miss Flora. Second, just hand those letters over to me--every one of them. I'll attend to 'em!"

"To you?" gasped Miss Flora. "But--how can you?"

"Oh, I'll be your secretary. Most rich people have to have secretaries, you know."

"But how'll you know how to answer my letters?" demanded Miss Flora dubiously. "Have you ever been--a secretary?"

"N-no, not exactly a secretary. But--I've had some experience with similar letters," observed Mr. Smith dryly.

Miss Flora drew a long sigh.

"Oh, dear! I wish you could. Do you think you can? I hoped maybe you could help me some way, but I never thought of that--your answering 'em, I mean. I supposed everybody had to answer their own letters. How'll you know what I want to say?"

Mr. Smith laughed a little.

"I shan't be answering what you want to say--but what I want to say. In this case, Miss Flora, I exceed the prerogatives of the ordinary secretary just a bit, you see. But you can count on one thing--I shan't be spending any money for you."

"You won't send them anything, then?"

"Not a red cent."

Miss Flora looked distressed.

"But, Mr. Smith, I want to send some of 'em something! I want to be kind and charitable."

"Of course you do, dear," spoke up Miss Maggie. "But you aren't being either kind or charitable to foster rascally fakes like that," pointing to the picture in Miss Flora's lap.

"Are they all fakes, then?"

"I'd stake my life on most of 'em," declared Mr. Smith. "They have all the earmarks of fakes, all right."

Miss Flora stirred restlessly.

"But I was having a beautiful time giving until these horrid letters began to come."

"Flora, do you give because you like the sensation of giving, and of receiving thanks, or because you really want to help somebody?" asked Miss Maggie, a bit wearily.

"Why, Maggie Duff, I want to help people, of course," almost wept Miss Flora.

Well, then, suppose you try and give so it will help them, then," said Miss Maggie. "One of the most risky things in the world, to my way of thinking, is a present of--cash. Don't you think so, Mr. Smith?"

"Er--ah--w-what? Y-yes, of course," stammered Mr. Smith, growing suddenly, for some unapparent reason, very much confused. "Yes--yes, I do." As Mr. Smith finished speaking, he threw an oddly nervous glance into Miss Maggie's face.

But Miss Maggie had turned back to Miss Flora.

"There, dear," she admonished her, "now, you do just as Mr. Smith says. Just hand over your letters to him for a while, and forget all about them. He'll tell you how he answers them, of course. But you won't have to worry about them any more. Besides they'll soon stop coming,--won't they, Mr. Smith?"

"I think they will. They'll dwindle to a few scattering ones, anyway,- -after I've handled them for a while."

"Well, I should like that," sighed Miss Flora. "But--can't I give anything anywhere?" she besought plaintively.

"Of course you can!" cried Miss Maggie. "But I would investigate a little, first, dear. Wouldn't you, Mr. Smith? Don't you believe in investigation?"

Once again, before he answered, Mr. Smith threw a swiftly questioning glance into Miss Maggie's face.

"Yes, oh, yes; I believe in--investigation," he said then. "And now, Miss Flora," he added briskly, as Miss Flora reached for her wraps, "with your kind permission I'll walk home with you and have a look at- -my new job of secretarying."