Chapter IV. In Search of Some Dates
 

Very promptly the next morning Mr. John Smith and his two trunks appeared at the door of his new boarding-place. Mrs. Jane Blaisdell welcomed him cordially. She wore a high-necked, long-sleeved gingham apron this time, which she neither removed nor apologized for--unless her cheerful "You see, mornings you'll find me in working trim, Mr. Smith," might be taken as an apology.

Mellicent, her slender young self enveloped in a similar apron, was dusting his room as he entered it. She nodded absently, with a casual "Good-morning, Mr. Smith," as she continued at her work. Even the placing of the two big trunks, which the shuffling men brought in, won from her only a listless glance or two. Then, without speaking again, she left the room, as her mother entered it.

"There!" Mrs. Blaisdell looked about her complacently. "With this couch-bed with its red cover and cushions, and all the dressing things moved to the little room in there, it looks like a real sitting-room in here, doesn't it?"

"It certainly does, Mrs. Blaisdell."

'And you had 'em take the trunks in there, too. That's good," she nodded, crossing to the door of the small dressing-room beyond. "I thought you would. Well, I hope you'll be real happy with us, Mr. Smith, and I guess you will. And you needn't be a mite afraid of hurting anything. I've covered everything with mats and tidies and spreads."

"Yes, I see." A keen listener would have noticed an odd something in Mr. Smith's voice; but Mrs. Blaisdell apparently noticed nothing.

"Yes, I always do--to save wearing and soiling, you know. Of course, if we had money to buy new all the time, it would be different. But we haven't. And that's what I tell Mellicent when she complains of so many things to dust and brush. Now make yourself right at home, Mr. Smith. Dinner's at twelve o'clock, and supper is at six--except in the winter. We have it earlier then, so's we can go to bed earlier. Saves gas, you know. But it's at six now. I do like the long days, don't you? Well, I'll be off now, and let you unpack. As I said before, make yourself perfectly at home, perfectly at home."

Left alone, Mr. Smith drew a long breath and looked about him. It was a pleasant room, in spite of its cluttered appearance. There was an old-fashioned desk for his papers, and the chairs looked roomy and comfortable. The little dressing-room carried many conveniences, and the windows of both rooms looked out upon the green of the common.

"Oh, well, I don't know. This might be lots worse--in spite of the tidies!" chuckled Mr. John Smith, as he singled out the keys of his trunks.

At the noon dinner-table Mr. Smith met Mr. Frank Blaisdell. He was a portly man with rather thick gray hair and "mutton-chop" gray whiskers. He ate very fast, and a great deal, yet he still found time to talk interestedly with his new boarder.

He was plainly a man of decided opinions--opinions which he did not hesitate to express, and which he emphasized with resounding thumps of his fists on the table. The first time he did this, Mr. Smith, taken utterly by surprise, was guilty of a visible start. After that he learned to accept them with the serenity evinced by the rest of the family.

When the dinner was over, Mr. Smith knew (if he could remember them) the current market prices of beans, corn, potatoes, sugar, and flour; and he knew (again if he could remember) why some of these commodities were higher, and some lower, than they had been the week before. In a way, Mr. John Smith was interested. That stocks and bonds fluctuated, he was well aware. That "wheat" could be cornered, he realized. But of the ups and downs of corn and beans as seen by the retail grocer he knew very little. That is, he had known very little until after that dinner with Mr. Frank Blaisdell.

It was that afternoon that Mr. Smith began systematically to gather material for his Blaisdell book. He would first visit by turns all the Hillerton Blaisdells, he decided; then, when he had exhausted their resources, he would, of course, turn to the town records and cemeteries of Hillerton and the neighboring villages.

Armed with a pencil and a very businesslike looking notebook, therefore, he started at two o'clock for the home of James Blaisdell. Remembering Mr. Blaisdell's kind permission to come and ask all the questions he liked, he deemed it fitting to begin there.

He had no trouble in finding the house, but there was no one in sight this time, as he ascended the steps. The house, indeed, seemed strangely quiet. He was just about to ring the bell when around the corner of the veranda came a hurried step and a warning voice.

"Oh, please, don't ring the bell! What is it? Isn't it something that I can do for you?"

Mr. Smith turned sharply. He thought at first, from the trim, slender figure, and the waving hair above the gracefully poised head, that he was confronting a young woman. Then he saw the silver threads at the temples, and the fine lines about the eyes.

"I am looking for Mrs. Blaisdell--Mrs. James Blaisdell," he answered, lifting his hat.

"Oh, you're Mr. Smith. Aren't you Mr. Smith?" She smiled brightly, then went on before he could reply. "You see, Benny told me. He described you perfectly."

The man's eyebrows went up.

"Oh, did he? The young rascal! I fancy I should be edified to hear it- -that description."

The other laughed. Then, a bit roguishly, she demanded:--"Should you like to hear it--really?"

"I certainly should. I've already collected a few samples of Benny's descriptive powers."

"Then you shall have this one. Sit down, Mr. Smith." She motioned him to a chair, and dropped easily into one herself. "Benny said you were tall and not fat; that you had a wreath of light hair 'round a bald spot, and whiskers that were clipped as even as Mr. Pennock's hedge; and that your lips, without speaking, said, 'Run away, little boy,' but that your eyes said, 'Come here.' Now I think Benny did pretty well." "So I judge, since you recognized me without any difficulty," rejoined Mr. Smith, a bit dryly. "But--you--? You see you have the advantage of me. Benny hasn't described you to me." He paused significantly.

"Oh, I'm just here to help out. Mrs. Blaisdell is ill upstairs--one of her headaches. That is why I asked you not to ring. She gets so nervous when the bell rings. She thinks it's callers, and that she won't be ready to receive them; and she hurries up and begins to dress. So I asked you not to ring."

"But she isn't seriously ill?"

"Oh, no, just a headache. She has them often. You wanted to see her?"

"Yes. But it's not important at all. Another time, just as well. Some questions--that is all."

"Oh, for the book, of course. Oh, yes, I have heard about that, too." She smiled again brightly. "But can't you wait? Mr. Blaisdell will soon be here. He's coming early so I can go home. I have to go home."

"And you are--"

"Miss Duff. My name is Duff."

"You don't mean--'Poor Maggie'!" (Not until the words were out did Mr. Smith realize quite how they would sound.) "Er--ah--that is--" He stumbled miserably, and she came to his rescue.

"Oh, yes, I'm--'Poor Maggie.'" There was an odd something in her expressive face that Mr. Smith could not fathom. He was groping for something--anything to say, when suddenly there was a sound behind them, and the little woman at his side sprang to her feet.

"Oh, Hattie, you came down!" she exclaimed as Mrs. James Blaisdell opened the screen door and stepped out on to the veranda. "Here's Mrs. Blaisdell now, Mr. Smith."

"Oh, it's only Mr. Smith!" With a look very like annoyance Mrs. Blaisdell advanced and held out her hand. She looked pale, and her hair hung a bit untidily about one ear below a somewhat twisted pyramid of puffs. Her dress, though manifestly an expensive one, showed haste in its fastenings. "Yes, I heard voices, and I thought some one had come--a caller. So I came down."

"I'm glad--if you're better," smiled Miss Maggie. "Then I'll go, if you don't mind. Mr. Smith has come to ask you some questions, Hattie. Good-bye!" With another cheery smile and a nod to Mr. Smith, she disappeared into the house. A minute later Mr. Smith saw her hurrying down a side path to the street.

"You called to ask some questions?" Mrs. Blaisdell sank languidly into a chair.

"About the Blaisdell family--yes. But perhaps another day, when you are feeling better, Mrs. Blaisdell."

"Oh, no." She smiled a little more cordially. "I can answer to-day as well as any time--though I'm not sure I can tell you very much, ever. I think it's fine you are making the book, though. Some way it gives a family such a standing, to be written up like that. Don't you think so? And the Blaisdells are really a very nice family--one of the oldest in Hillerton, though, of course, they haven't much money."

"I ought to find a good deal of material here, then, if they have lived here so long."

"Yes, I suppose so. Now, what can I tell you? Of course I can tell you about my own family. My husband is in the real estate business. You knew that, didn't you? Perhaps you see 'The Real Estate Journal.' His picture was in it a year ago last June. There was a write-up on Hillerton. I was in it, too, though there wasn't much about me. But I've got other clippings with more, if you'd like to see them--where I've poured, and been hostess, and all that, you know."

Mr. Smith took out his notebook and pencil.

"Let me see, Mrs. Blaisdell, your husband's father's name was Rufus, I believe. What was his mother's maiden name, please?"

"His mother's maiden name? Oh, 'Elizabeth.' Our little girl is named for her--Bessie, you know--you saw her last night. Jim wanted to, so I let him. It's a pretty name--Elizabeth--still, it sounds a little old- fashioned now, don't you think? Of course we are anxious to have everything just right for our daughter. A young lady soon coming out, so,--you can't be too particular. That's one reason why I wanted to get over here--on the West Side, I mean. Everybody who is anybody lives on the West Side in Hillerton. You'll soon find that out."

"No doubt, no doubt! And your mother Blaisdell's surname?" Mr. Smith's pencil was poised over the open notebook.

"Surname? Mother Blaisdell's? Oh, before she was married. I see. But, dear me, I don't know. I suppose Jim will, or Flora, or maybe Frank-- though I don't believe he will, unless her folks kept groceries. Did you ever see anybody that didn't know anything but groceries like Frank Blaisdell?" The lady sighed and shrugged her somewhat heavy shoulders with an expressive glance.

Mr. Smith smiled understandingly.

"Oh, well, it's good--to be interested in one's business, you know."

"But such a business!" murmured the lady, with another shrug.

"Then you can't tell me Mrs. Rufus Blaisdell's surname?"

"No. But Jim--Oh, I'll tell you who will know," she broke off interestedly; "and that's Maggie Duff. You saw her here a few minutes ago, you know. Father Duff's got all of Mother Blaisdell's papers and diaries. Oh, Maggie can tell you a lot of things. Poor Maggie! Benny says if we want anything we ask Aunt Maggie, and I don't know but he's right. And here I am, sending you to her, so soon!"

"Very well, then," smiled Mr. Smith. "I don't see but what I shall have to interview Miss Maggie, and Miss Flora. Is there nothing more, then, that you can tell me?"

"Well, there's Fred, my son. You haven't seen him yet. We're very proud of Fred. He's at the head of his class, and he's going to college and be a lawyer. And that's another reason why I wanted to come over to this side--on Fred's account. I want him to meet the right sort of people. You know it helps so much! We think we're going to have Fred a big man some day."

"And he was born, when?" Mr. Smith's pencil still poised above an almost entirely blank page.

"He's seventeen. He'll be eighteen the tenth of next month."

"And Miss Bessie, and Benny?"

"Oh, she's sixteen. She'll be seventeen next winter. She wants to come out then, but I think I shall wait--a little, she's so very young; though Gussie Pennock's out, and she's only seventeen, and the Pennocks are some of our very best people. They're the richest folks in town, you know."

"And Benny was born--when?"

"He's eight--or rather nine, next Tuesday. Dear me, Mr. Smith, don't you want anything but dates? They're tiresome things, I think,--make one feel so old, you know, and it shows up how many years you've been married. Don't you think so? But maybe you're a bachelor."

"Yes, I'm a bachelor."

"Are you, indeed? Well, you miss a lot, of course,--home and wife and children. Still, you gain some things. You aren't tied down, and you don't have so much to worry about. Is your mother living, or your father?"

"No. I have no--near relatives." Mr. Smith stirred a little uneasily, and adjusted his book. "Perhaps, now, Mrs. Blaisdell, you can give me your own maiden name."

"Oh, yes, I can give you that!" She laughed and bridled self- consciously. "But you needn't ask when I was born, for I shan't tell you, if you do. My name was Hattie Snow."

"'Harriet,' I presume." Mr. Smith's pencil was busily at work.

"Yes--Harriet Snow. And the Snows were just as good as the Blaisdells, if I do say it. There were a lot that wanted me--oh, I was pretty then, Mr. Smith." She laughed, and bridled again self-consciously. "But I took Jim. He was handsome then, very--big dark eyes and dark hair, and so dreamy and poetical-looking; and there wasn't a girl that hadn't set her cap for him. And he's been a good husband to me. To be sure, he isn't quite so ambitious as he might be, perhaps. I always did believe in being somebody, and getting somewhere. Don't you? But Jim--he's always for hanging back and saying how much it'll cost. Ten to one he doesn't end up by saying we can't afford it. He's like Jane,--Frank's wife, where you board, you know,--only Jane's worse than Jim ever thought of being. She won't spend even what she's got. If she's got ten dollars, she won't spend but five cents, if she can help it. Now, I believe in taking some comfort as you go along. But Jane--greatest saver I ever did see. Better look out, Mr. Smith, that she doesn't try to save feeding you at all!" she finished merrily.

"I'm not worrying!" Mr. Smith smiled cheerily, snapped his book shut and got to his feet.

"Oh, won't you wait for Mr. Blaisdell? He can tell you more, I'm sure."

"Not to-day, thank you. At his office, some time, I'll see Mr. Blaisdell," murmured Mr. Smith, with an odd haste. "But I thank you very much, Mrs. Blaisdell," he bowed in farewell.