Chapter III. The Small Boy at the Keyhole
 

At the top of the stairs Benny tried to open the door, but as it did not give at his pressure, he knocked lustily, and called "Aunt Jane, Aunt Jane!"

"Isn't this the bell?" hazarded Mr. Smith, his finger almost on a small push-button near him.

"Yep, but it don't go now. Uncle Frank wanted it fixed, but Aunt Jane said no; knockin' was just as good, an' 'twas lots cheaper, 'cause 'twould save mendin', and didn't use any 'lectricity. But Uncle Frank says---"

The door opened abruptly, and Benny interrupted himself to give eager greeting.

"Hullo, Aunt Jane! I've brought you somebody. He's Mr. Smith. An' you'll be glad. You see if yer ain't!"

In the dim hallway Mr. Smith saw a tall, angular woman with graying dark hair and high cheek bones. Her eyes were keen and just now somewhat sternly inquiring, as they were bent upon himself.

Perceiving that Benny considered his mission as master of ceremonies at an end, Mr. Smith hastened to explain.

"I came from your husband's brother, madam. He--er--sent me. He thought perhaps you had a room that I could have."

"A room?" Her eyes grew still more coldly disapproving.

"Yes, and board. He thought--that is, they thought that perhaps--you would be so kind."

"Oh, a boarder! You mean for pay, of course?"

"Most certainly!"

"Oh!" She softened visibly, and stepped back. "Well, I don't know. I never have--but that isn't saying I couldn't, of course. Come in. We can talk it over. That doesn't cost anything. Come in; this way, please." As she finished speaking she stepped to the low-burning gas jet and turned it carefully to give a little more light down the narrow hallway.

"Thank you," murmured Mr. Smith, stepping across the threshold.

Benny had already reached the door at the end of the hall. The woman began to tug at her apron strings.

"I hope you'll excuse my gingham apron, Mr.--er--Smith. Wasn't that the name?"

"Yes." The man bowed with a smile.

"I thought that was what Benny said. Well, as I was saying, I hope you'll excuse this apron." Her fingers were fumbling with the knot at the back. "I take it off, mostly, when the bell rings, evenings or afternoons; but I heard Benny, and I didn't suppose 't was anybody but him. There, that's better!" With a jerk she switched off the dark blue apron, hung it over her arm, and smoothed down the spotless white apron which had been beneath the blue. The next instant she hurried after Benny with a warning cry. "Careful, child, careful! Oh, Benny, you're always in such a hurry!"

Benny, with a cheery "Come on!" had already banged open the door before him, and was reaching for the gas burner.

A moment later the feeble spark above had become a flaring sputter of flame.

"There, child, what did I tell you?" With a frown Mrs. Blaisdell reduced the flaring light to a moderate flame, and motioned Mr. Smith to a chair. Before she seated herself, however, she went back into the hall to lower the gas there.

During her momentary absence the man, Smith, looked about him, and as he looked he pulled at his collar. He felt suddenly a choking, suffocating sensation. He still had the curious feeling of trying to catch his breath when the woman came back and took the chair facing him. In a moment he knew why he felt so suffocated--it was because that nowhere could he see an object that was not wholly or partially covered with some other object, or that was not serving as a cover itself.

The floor bore innumerable small rugs, one before each chair, each door, and the fireplace. The chairs themselves, and the sofa, were covered with gray linen slips, which, in turn, were protected by numerous squares of lace and worsted of generous size. The green silk spread on the piano was nearly hidden beneath a linen cover, and the table showed a succession of layers of silk, worsted, and linen, topped by crocheted mats, on which rested several books with paper- enveloped covers. The chandelier, mirror, and picture frames gleamed dully from behind the mesh of pink mosquito netting. Even through the doorway into the hall might be seen the long, red-bordered white linen path that carried protection to the carpet beneath.

"I don't like gas myself." (With a start the man pulled himself together to listen to what the woman was saying.) "I think it's a foolish extravagance, when kerosene is so good and so cheap; but my husband will have it, and Mellicent, too, in spite of anything I say-- Mellicent's my daughter. I tell 'em if we were rich, it would be different, of course. But this is neither here nor there, nor what you came to talk about! Now just what is it that you want, sir?"

"I want to board here, if I may."

"How long?"

"A year--two years, perhaps, if we are mutually satisfied."

"What do you do for a living?"

Smith coughed suddenly. Before he could catch his breath to answer Benny had jumped into the breach.

"He sounds something like a Congregationalist, only he ain't that, Aunt Jane, and he ain't after money for missionaries, either."

Jane Blaisdell smiled at Benny indulgently. Then she sighed and shook her head.

"You know, Benny, very well, that nothing would suit Aunt Jane better than to give money to all the missionaries in the world, if she only had it to give!" She sighed again as she turned to Mr. Smith. "You're working for some church, then, I take it."

Mr. Smith gave a quick gesture of dissent.

"I am a genealogist, madam, in a small way. I am collecting data for a book on the Blaisdell family."

"Oh!" Mrs. Blaisdell frowned slightly. The look of cold disapproval came back to her eyes. "But who pays you? We couldn't take the book, I'm sure. We couldn't afford it."

"That would not be necessary, madam, I assure you," murmured Mr. Smith gravely.

"But how do you get money to live on? I mean, how am I to know that I'll get my pay?" she persisted. "Excuse me, but that kind of business doesn't sound very good-paying; and, you see, I don't know you. And in these days--" An expressive pause finished her sentence.

Mr. Smith smiled.

"Quite right, madam. You are wise to be cautious. I had a letter of introduction to your brother from Mr. Robert Chalmers. I think he will vouch for me. Will that do?"

"Oh, that's all right, then. But that isn't saying how much you'll pay. Now, I think--"

There came a sharp knock at the outer door. The eager Benny jumped to his feet, but his aunt shook her head and went to the door herself. There was a murmur of voices, then a young man entered the hall and sat down in the chair near the hatrack. When Mrs. Blaisdell returned her eyes were very bright. Her cheeks showed two little red spots. She carried herself with manifest importance.

"If you'll just excuse me a minute," she apologized to Mr. Smith, as she swept by him and opened a door across the room, nearly closing it behind her.

Distinctly then, from beyond the imperfectly closed door, came to the ears of Benny and Mr. Smith these words, in Mrs. Blaisdell's most excited accents:--"Mellicent, it's Carl Pennock. He wants you to go auto-riding with him down to the Lake with Katie Moore and that crowd."

"Mother!" breathed an ecstatic voice.

What followed Mr. Smith did not hear, for a nearer, yet more excited, voice demanded attention.

"Gee! Carl Pennock!" whispered Benny hoarsely. "Whew! Won't my sister Bess be mad? She thinks Carl Pennock's the cutest thing going. All the girls do!"

With a warning "Sh-h!" and an expressive glance toward the hall, Mr. Smith tried to stop further revelations; but Benny was not to be silenced.

"They're rich--awful rich--the Pennocks are," he confided still more huskily. "An' there's a girl--Gussie. She's gone on Fred. He's my brother, ye know. He's seventeen; an' Bess is mad 'cause she isn't seventeen, too, so she can go an' play tennis same as Fred does. She'll be madder 'n ever now, if Mell goes auto-riding with Carl, an'- -"

"Sh-h!" So imperative were Mr. Smith's voice and gesture this time that Benny fell back subdued.

At once then became distinctly audible again the voices from the other room. Mr. Smith, forced to hear in spite of himself, had the air of one who finds he has abandoned the frying pan for the fire.

"No, dear, it's quite out of the question," came from beyond the door, in Mrs. Blaisdell's voice. "I can't let you wear your pink. You will wear the blue or stay at home. Just as you choose."

"But, mother, dear, it's all out of date," wailed a young girl's voice.

"I can't help that. It's perfectly whole and neat, and you must save the pink for best."

"But I'm always saving things for best, mother, and I never wear my best. I never wear a thing when it's in style! By the time you let me wear the pink I shan't want to wear it. Sleeves'll be small then--you see if they aren't--I shall be wearing big ones. I want to wear big ones now, when other girls do. Please, mother!"

"Mellicent, why will you tease me like this, when you know it will do no good?--when you know I can't let you do it? Don't you think I want you to be as well-dressed as anybody, if we could afford it? Come, I'm waiting. You must wear the blue or stay at home. What shall I tell him?"

There was a pause, then there came an inarticulate word and a choking half-sob. The next moment the door opened and Mrs. Blaisdell appeared. The pink spots in her cheeks had deepened. She shut the door firmly, then hurried through the room to the hall beyond. Another minute and she was back in her chair.

"There," she smiled pleasantly. "I'm ready now to talk business, Mr. Smith."

And she talked business. She stated plainly what she expected to do for her boarder, and what she expected her boarder would do for her. She enlarged upon the advantages and minimized the discomforts, with the aid of a word now and then from the eager and interested Benny.

Mr. Smith, on his part, had little to say. That that little was most satisfactory, however, was very evident; for Mrs. Blaisdell was soon quite glowing with pride and pleasure, Mr. Smith was not glowing. He was plainly ill at ease, and, at times, slightly abstracted. His eyes frequently sought the door which Mrs. Blaisdell had closed so firmly a short time before. They were still turned in that direction when suddenly the door opened and a young girl appeared.

She was a slim little girl with long-lashed, starlike eyes and a wild- rose flush in her cheeks. Beneath her trim hat her light brown hair waved softly over her ears, glinting into gold where the light struck it. She looked excited and pleased, yet not quite happy. She wore a blue dress, plainly made.

"Don't stay late. Be in before ten, dear," cautioned Mrs. Blaisdell. "And Mellicent, just a minute, dear. This is Mr. Smith. You might as well meet him now. He's coming here to live--to board, you know. My daughter, Mr. Smith."

Mr. Smith, already on his feet, bowed and murmured a conventional something. From the starlike eyes he received a fleeting glance that made him suddenly conscious of his fifty years and the bald spot on the top of his head. Then the girl was gone, and her mother was speaking again.

"She's going auto-riding--Mellicent is--with a young man, Carl Pennock--one of the nicest in town. There are four others in the party. They're going down to the Lake for cake and ice cream, and they're all nice young people, else I shouldn't let her go, of course. She's eighteen, for all she's so small. She favors my mother in looks, but she's got the Blaisdell nose, though. Oh, and 'twas the Blaisdells you said you were writing a book about, wasn't it? You don't mean our Blaisdells, right here in Hillerton?"

"I mean all Blaisdells, wherever I find them," smiled Mr. Smith.

"Dear me! What, us? You mean we'll be in the book?" Now that the matter of board had been satisfactorily settled, Mrs. Blaisdell apparently dared to show some interest in the book.

"Certainly."

"You don't say! My, how pleased Hattie'll be--my sister-in-law, Jim's wife. She just loves to see her name in print--parties, and club banquets, and where she pours, you know. But maybe you don't take women, too."

"Oh, yes, if they are Blaisdells, or have married Blaisdells."

"Oh! That's where we'd come in, then, isn't it? Mellicent and I? And Frank, my husband, he'll like it, too,--if you tell about the grocery store. And of course you would, if you told about him. You'd have to-- 'cause that's all there is to tell. He thinks that's about all there is in the world, anyway,--that grocery store. And 'tis a good store, if I do say it. And there's his sister, Flora; and Maggie--But, there! Poor Maggie! She won't be in it, will she, after all? She isn't a Blaisdell, and she didn't marry one. Now that's too bad!"

"Ho! She won't mind." Benny spoke with conviction. "She'll just laugh and say it doesn't matter; and then Grandpa Duff'll ask for his drops or his glasses, or something, and she'll forget all about it. She won't care."

"Yes, I know; but--Poor Maggie! Always just her luck." Mrs. Blaisdell sighed and looked thoughtful. "But Maggie knows a lot about the Blaisdells," she added, brightening; "so she could tell you lots of things--about when they were little, and all that."

"Yes. But--that isn't--er--" Mr. Smith hesitated doubtfully, and Mrs. Blaisdell jumped into the pause.

"And, really, for that matter, she knows about us now, too, better than 'most anybody else. Hattie's always sending for her, and Flora, too, if they're sick, or anything. Poor Maggie! Sometimes I think they actually impose upon her. And she's such a good soul, too! I declare, I never see her but I wish I could do something for her. But, of course, with my means--But, there! Here I am, running on as usual. Frank says I never do know when to stop, when I get started on something; and of course you didn't come here to talk about poor Maggie. Now I'll go back to business. When is it you want to start in- -to board, I mean?"

"To-morrow, if I may." With some alacrity Mr. Smith got to his feet. "And now we must be going--Benny and I. I'm at the Holland House. With your permission, then, Mrs. Blaisdell, I'll send up my trunks to- morrow morning. And now good-night--and thank you."

"Why--but, Mr. Smith!" The woman, too, came to her feet, but her face was surprised. "Why, you haven't even seen your room yet! How do you know you'll like it?"

"Eh? What? Oh!" Mr. Smith laughed. There was a quizzical lift to his eyebrows. "So I haven't, have I? And people usually do, don't they? Well--er--perhaps I will just take a look at--the room, though I'm not worrying any, I assure you. I've no doubt it will be quite right, quite right," he finished, as he followed Mrs. Blaisdell to a door halfway down the narrow hall.

Five minutes later, once more on the street, he was walking home with Benny. It was Benny who broke the long silence that had immediately fallen between them.

"Say, Mr. Smith, I'll bet ye you'll never be rich!"

Mr. Smith turned with a visible start.

"Eh? What? I'll never be--What do you mean, boy?"

Benny giggled cheerfully.

"'Cause you paid Aunt Jane what she asked the very first time. Why, Aunt Jane never expects ter get what she asks, pa says. She sells him groceries in the store, sometimes, when Uncle Frank's away, ye know. Pa says what she asks first is for practice--just ter get her hand in; an' she expects ter get beat down. But you paid it, right off the bat. Didn't ye see how tickled Aunt Jane was, after she'd got over bein' surprised?"

"Why--er--really, Benny," murmured Mr. Smith.

But Benny had yet more to say.

"Oh, yes, sir, you could have saved a lot every week, if ye hadn't bit so quick. An' that's why I say you won't ever get rich. Savin' 's what does it, ye know--gets folks rich. Aunt Jane says so. She says a penny saved 's good as two earned, an' better than four spent."

"Well, really, indeed!" Mr. Smith laughed lightly. "That does look as if there wasn't much chance for me, doesn't it?"

"Yes, sir." Benny spoke soberly, and with evident sympathy. He spoke again, after a moment, but Mr. Smith did not seem to hear at once. Mr. Smith was, indeed, not a little abstracted all the way to Benny's home, though his good-night was very cheerful at parting. Benny would have been surprised, indeed, had he known that Mr. Smith was thinking, not about his foolishly extravagant agreement for board, but about a pair of starry eyes with wistful lights in them, and a blue dress, plainly made.

In the hotel that night, Mr. John Smith wrote the following letter to Edward D. Norton, Esq., Chicago:

MY DEAR NED,--Well, I'm here. I've been here exactly six hours, and already I'm in possession of not a little Blaisdell data for my--er-- book. I've seen Mr. and Mrs. James, their daughter, Bessie, and their son, Benny. Benny, by the way, is a gushing geyser of current Blaisdell data which, I foresee, I shall find interesting, but embarrassing, perhaps, at times. I've also seen Miss Flora, and Mrs. Jane Blaisdell and her daughter, Mellicent.

There's a "Poor Maggie" whom I haven't seen. But she isn't a Blaisdell. She's a Duff, daughter of the man who married Rufus Blaisdell's widow, some thirty years or more ago. As I said, I haven't seen her yet, but she, too, according to Mrs. Frank Blaisdell, must be a gushing geyser of Blaisdell data, so I probably soon shall see her. Why she's "poor" I don't know.

As for the Blaisdell data already in my possession--I've no comment to make. Really, Ned, to tell the truth, I'm not sure I'm going to relish this job, after all. In spite of a perfectly clear conscience, and the virtuous realization that I'm here to bring nothing worse than a hundred thousand dollars apiece with the possible addition of a few millions on their devoted heads--in spite of all this, I yet have an uncomfortable feeling that I'm a small boy listening at the keyhole.

However, I'm committed to the thing now, so I'll stuff it out, I suppose,--though I'm not sure, after all, that I wouldn't chuck the whole thing if it wasn't that I wanted to see how Mellicent will enjoy her pink dresses. How many pink dresses will a hundred thousand dollars buy, anyway,--I mean pretty pink dresses, all fixed up with frills and furbelows?

As ever yours,

STAN--er--JOHN SMITH.