Chapter XIX. Still Other Flies
 

It was when his duties of secretaryship to Miss Flora had dwindled to almost infinitesimal proportions that Mr. Smith wished suddenly that he were serving Miss Maggie in that capacity, so concerned was he over a letter that had come to Miss Maggie in that morning's mail.

He himself had taken it from the letter-carrier's hand and had placed it on Miss Maggie's little desk. Casually, as he did so, he had noticed that it bore a name he recognized as that of a Boston law firm; but he had given it no further thought until later, when, as he sat at his work in the living-room, he had heard Miss Maggie give a low cry and had looked up to find her staring at the letter in her hand, her face going from red to white and back to red again.

"Why, Miss Maggie, what is it?" he cried, springing to his feet.

As she turned toward him he saw that her eyes were full of tears.

"Why, it--it's a letter telling me---" She stopped abruptly, her eyes on his face.

"Yes, yes, tell me," he begged. "Why, you are--crying, dear!" Mr. Smith, plainly quite unaware of the caressing word he had used, came nearer, his face aglow with sympathy, his eyes very tender.

The red surged once more over Miss Maggie's face. She drew back a little, though manifestly with embarrassment, not displeasure.

"It's--nothing, really it's nothing," she stammered. "It's just a letter that--that surprised me."

"But it made you cry!"

"Oh, well, I--I cry easily sometimes." With hands that shook visibly, she folded the letter and tucked it into its envelope. Then with a carelessness that was a little too elaborate, she tossed it into her open desk. Very plainly, whatever she had meant to do in the first place, she did not now intend to disclose to Mr. Smith the contents of that letter.

"Miss Maggie, please tell me--was it bad news?"

"Bad? Why, of course not!" She laughed gayly.

Mr. Smith thought he detected a break very like a sob in the laugh.

"But maybe I could--help you," he pleaded.

She shook her head.

"You couldn't--indeed, you couldn't!"

"Miss Maggie, was it--money matters?"

He had his answer in the telltale color that flamed instantly into her face--but her lips said:--

"It was--nothing--I mean, it was nothing that need concern you." She hurried away then to the kitchen, and Mr. Smith was left alone to fume up and down the room and frown savagely at the offending envelope tiptilted against the ink bottle in Miss Maggie's desk, just as Miss Maggie's carefully careless hand had thrown it.

Miss Maggie had several more letters from the Boston law firm, and Mr. Smith knew it--though he never heard Miss Maggie cry out at any of the other ones. That they affected her deeply, however, he was certain. Her very evident efforts to lead him to think that they were of no consequence would convince him of their real importance to her if nothing else had done so. He watched her, therefore, covertly, fearfully, longing to help her, but not daring to offer his services.

That the affair had something to do with money matters he was sure. That she would not deny this naturally strengthened him in this belief. He came in time, therefore, to formulate his own opinion: she had lost money--perhaps a good deal (for her), and she was too proud to let him or any one else know it.

He watched then all the more carefully to see if he could detect any new economies or new deprivations in her daily living. Then, because he could not discover any such, he worried all the more: if she had lost that money, she ought to economize, certainly. Could she be so foolish as to carry her desire for secrecy to so absurd a length as to live just exactly as before when she really could not afford it?

It was at about this time that Mr. Smith requested to have hot water brought to his room morning and night, for which service he insisted, in spite of Miss Maggie's remonstrances, on paying three dollars a week extra.

There came a strange man to call one day. He was a member of the Boston law firm. Mr. Smith found out that much, but no more. Miss Maggie was almost hysterical after his visit. She talked very fast and laughed a good deal at supper that night; yet her eyes were full of tears nearly all the time, as Mr. Smith did not fail to perceive.

"And I suppose she thinks she's hiding it from me--that her heart is breaking!" muttered Mr. Smith savagely to himself, as he watched Miss Maggie's nervous efforts to avoid meeting his eyes. "I vow I'll have it out of her. I'll have it out--to-morrow!"

Mr. Smith did not "have it out" with Miss Maggie the following day, however. Something entirely outside of himself sent his thoughts into a new channel.

He was alone in the Duff living-room, and was idling over his work, at his table in the corner, when Mrs. Hattie Blaisdell opened the door and hurried in, wringing her hands. Her face was red and swollen from tears.

"Where's Maggie? I want Maggie! Isn't Maggie here?" she implored.

Mr. Smith sprang to his feet and hastened toward her.

"Why, Mrs. Blaisdell, what is it? No, she isn't here. I'm so sorry! Can't I do--anything?"

"Oh, I don't know--I don't know," moaned the woman, flinging herself into a chair. "There can't anybody do anything, I s'pose; but I've got to have somebody. I can't stay there in that house--I can't--I can't-- I can't!"

"No, no, of course not. And you shan't," soothed the man. "And she'll be here soon, I'm sure--Miss Maggie will. But just let me help you off with your things," he urged, somewhat awkwardly trying to unfasten her heavy wraps. "You'll be so warm here."

"Yes, I know, I know." Impatiently she jerked off the rich fur coat and tossed it into his arms; then she dropped into the chair again and fell to wringing her hands. "Oh, what shall I do, what shall I do?"

"But what is it?" stammered Mr. Smith helplessly. "Can't I do-- something? Can't I send for--for your husband?"

At the mention of her husband, Mrs. Blaisdell fell to weeping afresh.

"No, no! He's gone--to Fred, you know."

"To--Fred?"

"Yes, yes, that's what's the matter. Oh, Fred, Fred, my boy!"

"Fred! Oh, Mrs. Blaisdell, I'm so sorry! But what--is it?"

The woman dropped her hands from her face and looked up wildly, half defiantly.

"Mr. Smith, you know Fred. You liked him, didn't you? He isn't bad and wicked, is he? And they can't shut him up if--if we pay it back--all of it that he took? They won't take my boy--to prison?"

"To prison--Fred!"

At the look of horror on Mr. Smith's face, she began to wring her hands again.

"You don't know, of course. I'll have to tell you--I'll have to," she moaned.

"But, my dear woman,--not unless you want to."

"I do want to--I do want to! I've got to talk--to somebody. It's this way." With a visible effort she calmed herself a little and forced herself to talk more coherently. "We got a letter from Fred. It came this morning. He wanted, some money--quick. He wanted seven hundred dollars and forty-two cents. He said he'd got to have it--if he didn't, he'd go and kill himself. He said he'd spent all of his allowance, every cent, and that's what made him take it--this other money, in the first place."

"You mean--money that didn't belong to him?" Mr. Smith's voice was a little stern.

"Yes; but you mustn't blame him, you mustn't blame him, Mr. Smith. He said he owed it. It was a--a debt of honor. Those were his very words."

"Oh! A debt of honor, was it?" Mr. Smith's lips came together grimly.

"Yes; and--Oh, Maggie, Maggie, what shall I do? What shall I do?" she broke off wildly, leaping to her feet as Miss Maggie pushed open the door and hurried in.

"Yes, I know. Don't worry. We'll find something to do." Miss Maggie, white-faced, but with a cheery smile, was throwing off her heavy coat and her hat. A moment later she came over and took Mrs. Hattie's trembling hands in both her own. "Now, first, tell me all about it, dear."

"You know, then?"

"Only a little," answered Miss Maggie, gently pushing the other back into her chair. "I met Frank. Jim telephoned him something, just before he left. But I want the whole story. Now, what is it?"

"I was just telling Mr. Smith." She began to wring her hands again, but Miss Maggie caught and held them firmly. "You see, Fred, he was treasurer of some club, or society, or something; and--and he--he needed some money to--to pay a man, and he took that--the money that belonged to the club, you know, and he thought he could pay it back, little by little. But something happened--I don't know what--a new treasurer, or something: anyhow, it was going to be found out--that he'd taken it. It was going to be found out to-morrow, and so he wrote the letter to his father. And Jim's gone. But he looked so--oh, I never saw him look so white and terrible. And I'm so afraid--of what he'll do--to Fred. My boy--my boy!"

"Is Jim going to give him the money?" asked Miss Maggie.

"Yes, oh, yes. Jim drew it out of the bank. Fred said he must have cash. And he's going to give it to him. Oh, they can't shut him up-- they can't send him to prison now, can they?"

"Hush, dear! No, they won't send him to prison. If Jim has gone with the money, Fred will pay it back and nobody will know it. But, Hattie, Fred did it, just the same."

"I--I know it."

"And, Hattie, don't you see? Something will have to be done. Don't you see where all this is leading? Fred has been gambling, hasn't he?"

"I--I'm afraid so."

"And you know he drinks."

"Y-yes. But he isn't going to, any more. He said he wasn't. He wrote a beautiful letter. He said if his father would help him out of this scrape, he'd never get into another one, and he'd show him how much he appreciated it."

"Good! I'm glad to hear that," cried Miss Maggie. "He'll come out all right, yet."

"Of course he will!" Mr. Smith, over at the window, blew his nose vigorously. Mr. Smith had not sat down since Miss Maggie's entrance. He had crossed to the window, and had stood looking out--at nothing-- all through Mrs. Hattie's story.

"You do think he will, don't you?" choked Mrs. Hattie, turning from one to the other piteously. "He said he was ashamed of himself; that this thing had been an awful lesson to him, and he promised--oh, he promised lots of things, if Jim would only go up and help him out of this. He'd never, never have to again. But he will, I know he will, if that Gaylord fellow stays there. The whole thing was his fault--I know it was. I hate him! I hate the whole family!"

"Why, Hattie, I thought you liked them!"

"I don't. They're mean, stuck-up things, and they snub me awfully. Don't you suppose I know when I'm being snubbed? And that Gaylord girl--she's just as bad, and she's making my Bessie just like her. I got Bess into the same school with her, you know, and I was so proud and happy. But I'm not--any longer. Why, my Bess, my own daughter, actually looks down on us. She's ashamed of her own father and mother- -and she shows it. And it's that Gaylord girl that's done it, too, I believe. I thought I--I was training my daughter to be a lady--a real lady; but I never meant to train her to look down on--on her own mother!"

"I'm afraid Bessie--needs something of a lesson," commented Miss Maggie tersely. "But Bessie will be older, one of these days, Hattie, and then she'll--know more."

"But that's what I've been trying to teach her--'more,' something more all the time, Maggie," sighed Mrs. Hattie, wiping her eyes. "And I've tried to remember and call her Elizabeth, too.--but I can't. But, somehow, to-day, nothing seems of any use, any way. And even if she learns more and more, I don't see as it's going to do any good. I haven't got any friends now. I'm not fine enough yet, it seems, for Mrs. Gaylord and all that crowd. They don't want me among them, and they show it. And all my old friends are so envious and jealous since the money came that they don't want me, and they show it; so I don't feel comfortable anywhere."

"Never mind, dear, just stop trying to live as you think other folks want you to live, and live as you want to, for a while."

Mrs. Hattie smiled faintly, wiped her eyes again, and got to her feet.

"You talk just like Jim. He's always saying that."

"Well, just try it," smiled Miss Maggie, helping her visitor into the luxurious fur coat. "You've no idea how much more comfort you'll take."

"Would I?" Mrs. Hattie's eyes were wistful, but almost instantly they showed an alert gleam of anger.

"Well, anyhow, I'm not going to try to do what those Gaylords do any longer. And--and you're sure Fred won't have to go to prison?"

"I'm very sure," nodded Miss Maggie.

"All right, then. I can go home now with some comfort. You always make me feel better, Maggie, and you, too, Mr. Smith. I'm much obliged to you. Good-bye."

"Good-bye," said Mr. Smith.

"Good-bye," said Miss Maggie. "Now, go home and go to bed, and don't worry any more or you'll have one of your headaches."

As the door closed behind her visitor, Miss Maggie turned and sank into a chair. She looked worn and white, and utterly weary.

"I hope she won't meet Frank or Jane anywhere." She sighed profoundly.

"Why? What do you mean? Do you think they'd blame her--about this unfortunate affair of Fred's?"

Miss Maggie sighed again.

"I wasn't thinking of that. I was thinking of another matter. I just came from Frank's, and--"

"Yes?" Something in her face sent a questioning frown to Mr. Smith's own countenance.

"Do you remember hearing Flora say that Jane had bought a lot of the Benson gold-mine stock?"

"Yes."

"Well, Benson has failed; and they've just found out that that gold- mine stock is worth--about two cents on a dollar."

"Two cents! And how much--"

"About forty thousand dollars," said Miss Maggie wearily.

Mr. Smith sat down.

"Well, I'll be--"

He did not finish his sentence.