Chapter II. Enter Mr. John Smith
 

It was on the first warm evening in early June that Miss Flora Blaisdell crossed the common and turned down the street that led to her brother James's home.

The common marked the center of Hillerton. Its spacious green lawns and elm-shaded walks were the pride of the town. There was a trellised band-stand for summer concerts, and a tiny pond that accommodated a few boats in summer and a limited number of skaters in winter. Perhaps, most important of all, the common divided the plebeian East Side from the more pretentious West. James Blaisdell lived on the West Side. His wife said that everybody did who was anybody. They had lately moved there, and were, indeed, barely settled.

Miss Blaisdell did dressmaking. Her home was a shabby little rented cottage on the East Side. She was a thin-faced little woman with an anxious frown and near-sighted, peering eyes that seemed always to be looking for wrinkles. She peered now at the houses as she passed slowly down the street. She had been only twice to her brother's new home, and she was not sure that she would recognize it, in spite of the fact that the street was still alight with the last rays of the setting sun. Suddenly across her worried face flashed a relieved smile.

"Well, if you ain't all here out on the piazza!" she exclaimed, turning, in at the walk leading up to one of the ornate little houses. "My, ain't this grand!"

"Oh, yes, it's grand, all right," nodded the tired-looking man in the big chair, removing his feet from the railing. He was in his shirt- sleeves, and was smoking a pipe. The droop of his thin mustache matched the droop of his thin shoulders--and both indefinably but unmistakably spelled disillusion and discouragement. "It's grand, but I think it's too grand--for us. However, daughter says the best is none too good--in Hillerton. Eh, Bess?"

Bessie, the pretty, sixteen-year-old daughter of the family, only shrugged her shoulders a little petulantly. It was Harriet, the wife, who spoke--a large, florid woman with a short upper lip, and a bewilderment of bepuffed light hair. She was already on her feet, pushing a chair toward her sister-in-law.

"Of course it isn't too grand, Jim, and you know it. There aren't any really nice houses in Hillerton except the Pennocks' and the old Gaylord place. There, sit here, Flora. You look tired."

"Thanks. I be--turrible tired. Warm, too, ain't it?" The little dressmaker began to fan herself with the hat she had taken off. "My, 'tis fur over here, ain't it? Not much like 'twas when you lived right 'round the corner from me! And I had to put on a hat and gloves, too. Someway, I thought I ought to--over here."

Condescendingly the bepuffed head threw an approving nod in her direction.

"Quite right, Flora. The East Side is different from the West Side, and no mistake. And what will do there won't do here at all, of course."

"How about father's shirt-sleeves?" It was a scornful gibe from Bessie in the hammock. "I don't notice any of the rest of the men around here sitting out like that."

"Bessie!" chided her mother wearily. "You know very well I'm not to blame for what your father wears. I've tried hard enough, I'm sure!"

"Well, well, Hattie," sighed the man, with a gesture of abandonment. "I supposed I still had the rights of a freeborn American citizen in my own home; but it seems I haven't." Resignedly he got to his feet and went into the house. When he returned a moment later he was wearing his coat.

Benny, perched precariously on the veranda railing, gave a sudden indignant snort. Benny was eight, the youngest of the family.

"Well, I don't think I like it here, anyhow," he chafed. "I'd rather go back an' live where we did. A feller can have some fun there. It hasn't been anything but 'Here, Benny, you mustn't do that over here, you mustn't do that over here!' ever since we came. I'm going home an' live with Aunt Flora. Say, can't I, Aunt Flo?"

"Bless the child! Of course you can," beamed his aunt. "But you won't want to, I'm sure. Why, Benny, I think it's perfectly lovely here."

"Pa don't."

"Indeed I do, Benny," corrected his father hastily. "It's very nice indeed here, of course. But I don't think we can afford it. We had to squeeze every penny before, and how we're going to meet this rent I don't know." He drew a profound sigh.

"You'll earn it, just being here--more business," asserted his wife firmly. "Anyhow, we've just got to be here, Jim! We owe it to ourselves and our family. Look at Fred to-night!"

"Oh, yes, where is Fred?" queried Miss Flora.

"He's over to Gussie Pennock's, playing tennis," interposed Bessie, with a pout. "The mean old thing wouldn't ask me!"

"But you ain't old enough, my dear," soothed her aunt. "Wait; your turn will come by and by."

"Yes, that's exactly it," triumphed the mother. "Her turn will come-- if we live here. Do you suppose Fred would have got an invitation to Gussie Pennock's if we'd still been living on the East Side? Not much he would! Why, Mr. Pennock's worth fifty thousand, if he's worth a dollar! They are some of our very first people."

"But, Hattie, money isn't everything, dear," remonstrated her husband gently. "We had friends, and good friends, before."

"Yes; but you wait and see what kind of friends we have now!"

"But we can't keep up with such people, dear, on our income; and--"

"Ma, here's a man. I guess he wants--somebody." It was a husky whisper from Benny.

James Blaisdell stopped abruptly. Bessie Blaisdell and the little dressmaker cocked their heads interestedly. Mrs. Blaisdell rose to her feet and advanced toward the steps to meet the man coming up the walk.

He was a tall, rather slender man, with a close-cropped, sandy beard, and an air of diffidence and apology. As he took off his hat and came nearer, it was seen that his eyes were blue and friendly, and that his hair was reddish-brown, and rather scanty on top of his head.

"I am looking for Mr. Blaisdell--Mr. James Blaisdell," he murmured hesitatingly.

Something in the stranger's deferential manner sent a warm glow of importance to the woman's heart. Mrs. Blaisdell was suddenly reminded that she was Mrs. James D. Blaisdell of the West Side.

"I am Mrs. Blaisdell," she replied a bit pompously. "What can we do for you, my good man?" She swelled again, half unconsciously. She had never called a person "my good man" before. She rather liked the experience.

The man on the steps coughed slightly behind his hand--a sudden spasmodic little cough. Then very gravely he reached into his pocket and produced a letter.

"From Mr. Robert Chalmers--a note to your husband," he bowed, presenting the letter.

A look of gratified surprise came into the woman's face.

"Mr. Robert Chalmers, of the First National? Jim!" She turned to her husband joyously. "Here's a note from Mr. Chalmers. Quick--read it!"

Her husband, already on his feet, whisked the sheet of paper from the unsealed envelope, and adjusted his glasses. A moment later he held out a cordial hand to the stranger.

"Ah, Mr. Smith, I'm glad to see you. I'm glad to see any friend of Bob Chalmers'. Come up and sit down. My wife and children, and my sister, Miss Blaisdell. Mr. Smith, ladies--Mr. John Smith." (Glancing at the open note in his hand.) "He is sent to us by Mr. Chalmers, of the First National."

"Yes, thank you. Mr. Chalmers was so kind." Still with that deference so delightfully heart-warming, the newcomer bowed low to the ladies, and made his way to the offered chair. "I will explain at once my business," he said then. "I am a genealogist."

"What's that?" It was an eager question from Benny on the veranda railing. "Pa isn't anything, but ma's a Congregationalist."

"Hush, child!" protested a duet of feminine voices softly; but the stranger, apparently ignoring the interruption, continued speaking.

"I am gathering material for a book on the Blaisdell family."

"The Blaisdell family!" repeated Mr. James Blaisdell, with cordial interest.

"Yes," bowed the other. "It is my purpose to remain some time in your town. I am told there are valuable records here, and an old burying- ground of particular interest in this connection. The neighboring towns, too, have much Blaisdell data, I understand. As I said, I am intending to make this place my headquarters, and I am looking for an attractive boarding-place. Mr. Chalmers was good enough to refer me to you."

"To us--for a boarding-place!" There was an unmistakable frown on Mrs. James D. Blaisdell's countenance as she said the words. "Well, I'm sure I don't see why he should. We don't keep boarders!"

"But, Hattie, we could," interposed her husband eagerly. "There's that big front room that we don't need a bit. And it would help a lot if--" At the wrathful warning in his wife's eyes he fell back silenced.

"I said that we didn't keep boarders," reiterated the lady distinctly. "Furthermore, we do need the room ourselves."

"Yes, yes, of course; I understand," broke in Mr. Smith, as if in hasty conciliation. "I think Mr. Chalmers meant that perhaps one of you"--he glanced uncertainly at the anxious-eyed little woman at his left--"might--er--accommodate me. Perhaps you, now--" He turned his eyes full upon Miss Flora Blaisdell, and waited.

The little dressmaker blushed painfully.

"Me? Oh, mercy, no! Why, I live all alone--that is, I mean, I couldn't, you know," she stammered confusedly. "I dressmake, and I don't get any sort of meals--not fit for a man, I mean. Just women's things--tea, toast, and riz biscuit. I'm so fond of riz biscuit! But, of course, you--" She came to an expressive pause.

"Oh, I could stand the biscuit, so long as they're not health biscuit," laughed Mr. Smith genially. "You see, I've been living on those and hot water quite long enough as it is."

"Oh, ain't your health good, sir?" The little dressmaker's face wore the deepest concern.

"Well, it's better than it was, thank you. I think I can promise to be a good boarder, all right."

"Why don't you go to a hotel?" Mrs. James D. Blaisdell still spoke with a slightly injured air.

Mr. Smith lifted a deprecatory hand.

"Oh, indeed, that would not do at all--for my purpose," he murmured. "I wish to be very quiet. I fear I should find it quite disturbing-- the noise and confusion of a public place like that. Besides, for my work, it seemed eminently fitting, as well as remarkably convenient, if I could make my home with one of the Blaisdell family."

With a sudden exclamation the little dressmaker sat erect.

"Say, Harriet, how funny we never thought! He's just the one for poor Maggie! Why not send him there?"

"Poor Maggie?" It was the mild voice of Mr. Smith.

"Our sister--yes. She lives--"

"Your sister!" Into Mr. Smith's face had come a look of startled surprise--a look almost of terror. "But there weren't but three--that is, I thought--I understood from Mr. Chalmers that there were but three Blaisdells, two brothers, and one sister--you, yourself."

"Oh, poor Maggie ain't a Blaisdell," explained the little dressmaker, with a smile. "She's just Maggie Duff, father Duff's daughter by his first wife, you know. He married our mother years ago, when we children were little, so we were brought up with Maggie, and always called her sister; though, of course, she really ain't any relation to us at all."

"Oh, I see. Yes, to be sure. Of course!" Mr. Smith seemed oddly thoughtful. He appeared to be settling something in his mind. "She isn't a Blaisdell, then."

"No, but she's so near like one, and she's a splendid cook, and---"

"Well, I shan't send him to Maggie," cut in Mrs. James D. Blaisdell with emphasis. "Poor Maggie's got quite enough on her hands, as it is, with that father of hers. Besides, she isn't a Blaisdell at all."

"And she couldn't come and cook and take care of us near so much, either, could she," plunged in Benny, "if she took this man ter feed?"

"That will do, Benny," admonished his mother, with nettled dignity. "You forget that children should be seen and not heard."

"Yes'm. But, please, can't I be heard just a minute for this? Why don't ye send the man ter Uncle Frank an' Aunt Jane? Maybe they'd take him."

"The very thing!" cried Miss Flora Blaisdell. "I wouldn't wonder a mite if they did."

"Yes, I was thinking of them," nodded her sister-in-law. "And they're always glad of a little help,--especially Jane."

"Anybody should be," observed Mr. James Blaisdell quietly.

Only the heightened color in his wife's cheeks showed that she had heard--and understood.

"Here, Benny," she directed, "go and show the gentleman where Uncle Frank lives."

"All right!" With a spring the boy leaped to the lawn and pranced to the sidewalk, dancing there on his toes. "I'll show ye, Mr. Smith."

The gentleman addressed rose to his feet.

"I thank you, Mr. Blaisdell," he said, "and you, ladies. I shall hope to see you again soon. I am sure you can help me, if you will, in my work. I shall want to ask--some questions."

"Certainly, sir, certainly! We shall be glad to see you," promised his host. "Come any time, and ask all the questions you want to."

"And we shall be so interested," fluttered Miss Flora. "I've always wanted to know about father's folks. And are you a Blaisdell, too?"

There was the briefest of pauses. Mr. Smith coughed again twice behind his hand.

"Er--ah--oh, yes, I may say that I am. Through my mother I am descended from the original immigrant, Ebenezer Blaisdell."

"Immigrant!" exclaimed Miss Flora.

"An immigrant!" Mrs. James Blaisdell spoke the word as if her tongue were a pair of tongs that had picked up a noxious viper.

"Yes, but not exactly as we commonly regard the term nowadays," smiled Mr. Smith. "Mr. Ebenezer Blaisdell was a man of means and distinction. He was the founder of the family in this country. He came over in 1647."

"My, how interesting!" murmured the little dressmaker, as the visitor descended the steps.

"Good-night--good-night! And thank you again," bowed Mr. John Smith to the assembled group on the veranda. "And now, young man, I'm at your service," he smiled, as he joined Benny, still prancing on the sidewalk.

"Now he's what I call a real nice pleasant-spoken gentleman," avowed Miss Flora, when she thought speech was safe. "I do hope Jane'll take him."

"Oh, yes, he's well enough," condescended Mrs. Hattie Blaisdell, with a yawn.

"Hattie, why wouldn't you take him in?" reproached her husband. "Just think how the pay would help! And it wouldn't be a bit of work, hardly, for you. Certainly it would be a lot easier than the way we are doing."

The woman frowned impatiently.

"Jim, don't, please! Do you suppose I got over here on the West Side to open a boarding-house? I guess not--yet!"

"But what shall we do?"

"Oh, we'll get along somehow. Don't worry!"

"Perhaps if you'd worry a little more, I wouldn't worry so much," sighed the man deeply.

"Well, mercy me, I must be going," interposed the little dressmaker, springing to her feet with a nervous glance at her brother and his wife. "I'm forgetting it ain't so near as it used to be. Good-night!"

"Good-night, good-night! Come again," called the three on the veranda. Then the door closed behind them, as they entered the house.

Meanwhile, walking across the common, Benny was entertaining Mr. Smith.

"Yep, they'll take ye, I bet ye--Aunt Jane an' Uncle Frank will!"

"Well, that's good, I'm sure."

"Yep. An' it'll be easy, too. Why, Aunt Jane'll just tumble over herself ter get ye, if ye just mention first what yer'll pay. She'll begin ter reckon up right away then what she'll save. An' in a minute she'll say, 'Yes, I'll take ye.'"

"Indeed!"

The uncertainty in Mr. Smith's voice was palpable even to eight-year- old Benny.

"Oh, you don't need ter worry," he hastened to explain. "She won't starve ye; only she won't let ye waste anythin'. You'll have ter eat all the crusts to yer pie, and finish 'taters before you can get any puddin', an' all that, ye know. Ye see, she's great on savin'--Aunt Jane is. She says waste is a sinful extravagance before the Lord."

"Indeed!" Mr. Smith laughed outright this time. "But are you sure, my boy, that you ought to talk--just like this, about your aunt?"

Benny's eyes widened.

"Why, that's all right, Mr. Smith. Ev'rybody in town knows Aunt Jane. Why, Ma says folks say she'd save ter-day for ter-morrer, if she could. But she couldn't do that, could she? So that's just silly talk. But you wait till you see Aunt Jane."

"All right. I'll wait, Benny."

"Well, ye won't have ter wait long, Mr. Smith, 'cause here's her house. She lives over the groc'ry store, ter save rent, ye know. It's Uncle Frank's store. An' here we are," he finished, banging open a door and leading the way up a flight of ill-lighted stairs.