Chapter V. In Miss Flora's Album
 

It was the next afternoon that Mr. Smith inquired his way to the home of Miss Flora Blaisdell. He found it to be a shabby little cottage on a side street. Miss Flora herself answered his knock, peering at him anxiously with her near-sighted eyes.

Mr. Smith lifted his hat.

"Good-afternoon, Miss Blaisdell," he began with a deferential bow. "I am wondering if you could tell me something of your father's family." Miss Flora, plainly pleased, but flustered, stepped back for him to enter.

"Oh, Mr. Smith, come in, come in! I'm sure I'm glad to tell you anything I know," she beamed, ushering him into the unmistakably little-used "front room." "But you really ought to go to Maggie. I can tell you some things, but Maggie's got the Bible. Mother had it, you know, and it's all among her things. And of course we had to let it stay, as long as Father Duff lives. He doesn't want anything touched. Poor Maggie--she tried to get 'em for us; but, mercy! she never tried but once. But I've got some things. I've got pictures of a lot of them, and most of them I know quite a lot about."

As she spoke she nicked up from the table a big red plush photograph album. Seating herself at his side she opened it, and began to tell him of the pictures, one by one.

She did, indeed, know "quite a lot" of most of them. Tintypes, portraying stiffly held hands and staring eyes, ghostly reproductions of daguerreotypes of stern-lipped men and women, in old-time stock and kerchief; photographs of stilted family groups after the "he-is-mine- and-I-am-his" variety; snap-shots of adorable babies with blurred thumbs and noses--never had Mr. John Smith seen their like before.

Politely he listened. Busily, from time to time, he jotted down a name or date. Then, suddenly, as she turned a page, he gave an involuntary start. He was looking at a pictured face, evidently cut from a magazine.

"Why, what--who--" he stammered.

"That? Oh, that's Mr. Fulton, the millionaire, you know." Miss Flora's hands fluttered over the page a little importantly, adjusting a corner of the print. "You must have seen his picture. It's been everywhere. He's our cousin, too."

"Oh, is he?"

"Yes, 'way back somewhere. I can't tell you just how, only I know he is. His mother was a Blaisdell. That's why I've always been so interested in him, and read everything I could--in the papers and magazines, you know."

"Oh, I see." Mr. John Smith's voice had become a little uncertain.

Yes. He ain't very handsome, is he?" Miss Flora's eyes were musingly fixed on the picture before her--which was well, perhaps: Mr. John Smith's face was a study just then.

"Er--n-no, he isn't."

"But he's turribly rich, I s'pose. I wonder how it feels to have so much money."

There being no reply to this, Miss Flora went on after a moment.

"It must be awful nice--to buy what you want, I mean, without fretting about how much it costs. I never did. But I'd like to."

"What would you do--if you could--if you had the money, I mean?" queried Mr. Smith, almost eagerly.

Miss Flora laughed.

"Well, there's three things I know I'd do. They're silly, of course, but they're what I want. It's a phonygraph, and to see Niagara Falls, and to go into Noell's restaurant and order what I want without even looking at the prices after 'em. Now you're laughing at me!"

"Laughing? Not a bit of it!" There was a curious elation in Mr. Smith's voice. "What's more, I hope you'll get them--some time."

Miss Flora sighed. Her face looked suddenly pinched and old.

"I shan't. I couldn't, you know. Why, if I had the money, I shouldn't spend it--not for them things. I'd be needing shoes or a new dress. And I couldn't be so rich I wouldn't notice what the prices was--of what I ate. But, then, I don't believe anybody's that, not even him." She pointed to the picture still open before them.

"No?" Mr. Smith, his eyes bent upon the picture, was looking thoughtful. He had the air of a man to whom has come a brand-new, somewhat disconcerting idea.

Miss Flora, glancing from the man to the picture, and back again, gave a sudden exclamation.

"There, now I know who it is that you remind me of, Mr. Smith. It's him--Mr. Fulton, there."

"Eh? What?" Mr. Smith looked not a little startled.

"Something about the eyes and nose." Miss Flora was still interestedly comparing the man and the picture, "But, then, that ain't so strange. You're a Blaisdell yourself. Didn't you say you was a Blaisdell?"

"Er--y-yes, oh, yes. I'm a Blaisdell," nodded Mr. Smith hastily. "Very likely I've got the--er--Blaisdell nose. Eh?" Then he turned a leaf of the album abruptly, decidedly. "And who may this be?" he demanded, pointing to the tintype of a bright-faced young girl.

"That? Oh, that's my cousin Grace when she was sixteen. She died; but she was a wonderful girl. I'll tell you about her."

"Yes, do," urged Mr. Smith; and even the closest observer, watching his face, could not have said that he was not absorbedly interested in Miss Flora's story of "my cousin Grace."

It was not until the last leaf of the album was reached that they came upon the picture of a small girl, with big, hungry eyes looking out from beneath long lashes.

"That's Mellicent--where you're boarding, you know--when she was little." Miss Flora frowned disapprovingly. "But it's horrid, poor child!"

"But she looks so--so sad," murmured Mr. Smith.

"Yes, I know. She always did." Miss Flora sighed and frowned again. She hesitated, then burst out, as if irresistibly impelled from within. "It's only just another case of never having what you want when you want it, Mr. Smith. And it ain't 'cause they're poor, either. They ain't poor--not like me, I mean. Frank's always done well, and he's been a good provider; but it's my sister-in-law--her way, I mean. Not that I'm saying anything against Jane. I ain't. She's a good woman, and she's very kind to me. She's always saying what she'd do for me if she only had the money. She's a good housekeeper, too, and her house is as neat as wax. But it's just that she never thinks she can use anything she's got till it's so out of date she don't want it. I dressmake for her, you see, so I know--about her sleeves and skirts, you know. And if she ever does wear a decent thing she's so afraid it will rain she never takes any comfort in it!"

"Well, that is--unfortunate."

"Yes, ain't it? And she's brought up that poor child the same way. Why, from babyhood, Mellicent never had her rattles till she wanted blocks, nor her blocks till she wanted dolls, nor her dolls till she was big enough for beaus! And that's what made the poor child always look so wall-eyed and hungry. She was hungry--even if she did get enough to eat."

"Mrs. Blaisdell probably believed in--er--economy," hazarded Mr. Smith.

"Economy! My stars, I should think she did! But, there, I ought not to have said anything, of course. It's a good trait. I only wish some other folks I could mention had more of it. There's Jim's wife, for instance. Now, if she's got ten cents, she'll spend fifteen--and five more to show how she spent it. She and Jane ought to be shaken up in a bag together. Why, Mr. Smith, Jane doesn't let herself enjoy anything. She's always keeping it for a better time. Though sometimes I think she does enjoy just seeing how far she can make a dollar go. But Mellicent don't, nor Frank; and it's hard on them."

"I should say it might be." Mr. Smith was looking at the wistful eyes under the long lashes.

"'T is; and 't ain't right, I believe. There is such a thing as being too economical. I tell Jane she'll be like a story I read once about a man who pinched and saved all his life, not even buying peanuts, though he just doted on 'em. And when he did get rich, so he could buy the peanuts, he bought a big bag the first thing. But he didn't eat 'em. He hadn't got any teeth left to chew 'em with."

"Well, that was a catastrophe!" laughed Mr. Smith, as he pocketed his notebook and rose to his feet. "And now I thank you very much, Miss Blaisdell, for the help you've been to me."

"Oh, you're quite welcome, indeed you are, Mr. Smith," beamed Miss Blaisdell. "It's done me good, just to talk to you about all these folks and pictures. I we enjoyed it. I do get lonesome sometimes, all alone, so! and I ain't so busy as I wish I was, always. But I'm afraid I haven't helped you much--just this."

"Oh, yes, you have--perhaps more than think," smiled the man, with an odd look in his eyes.

"Have I? Well, I'm glad, I'm sure. And don't forget to go to Maggie's, now. She'll have a lot to tell you. Poor Maggie! And she'll be so glad to show you!"

"All right, thank you; I'll surely interview--Miss Maggie," smiled the man in good-bye.

He had almost said "poor" Maggie himself, though why she should be poor Maggie had come to be an all-absorbing question with him. He had been tempted once to ask Miss Flora, but something had held him back. That evening at the supper table, however, in talking with Mrs. Jane Blaisdell, the question came again to his lips; and this time it found utterance.

Mrs. Jane herself had introduced Miss Maggie's name, and had said an inconsequential something about her when Mr. Smith asked:--

"Mrs. Blaisdell, please,--may I ask? I must confess to a great curiosity as to why Miss Duff is always 'poor Maggie.'"

Mrs. Blaisdell laughed pleasantly.

"Why, really, I don't know," she answered, "only it just comes natural, that's all. Poor Maggie's been so unfortunate. There! I did it again, didn't I? That only goes to show how we all do it, unconsciously."

Frank Blaisdell, across the table, gave a sudden emphatic sniff.

"Humph! Well, I guess if you had to live with Father Duff, Jane, it would be 'poor Jane' with you, all right!"

"Yes, I know." His wife sighed complacently.

"Father Duff's a trial, and no mistake. But Maggie doesn't seem to mind."

"Mind! Aunt Maggie's a saint--that's what she is!" It was Mellicent who spoke, her young voice vibrant with suppressed feeling. "She's the dearest thing ever! There couldn't be anybody better than Aunt Maggie!"

Nothing more was said just then, but in the evening, later, after Mellicent had gone to walk with young Pennock, and her father had gone back down to the store, Mrs. Blaisdell took up the matter of "Poor Maggie" again.

"I've been thinking what you said," she began, "about our calling her 'poor Maggie,' and I've made up my mind it's because we're all so sorry for her. You see, she's been so unfortunate, as I said. Poor Maggie! I've so often wished there was something I could do for her. Of course, if we only had money--but we haven't; so I can't. And even money wouldn't take away her father, either. Oh, mercy! I didn't mean that, really,--not the way it sounded," broke off Mrs. Blaisdell, in shocked apology. "I only meant that she'd have her father to care for, just the same."

"He's something of a trial, I take it, eh?" smiled Mr. Smith.

"Trial! I should say he was. Poor Maggie! How ever she endures it, I can't imagine. Of course, we call him Father Duff, but he's really not any relation to us--I mean to Frank and the rest. But their mother married him when they were children, and they never knew their own father much, so he's the father they know. When their mother died, Maggie bad just entered college. She was eighteen, and such a pretty girl! I knew the family even then. Frank was just beginning to court me.

"Well, of course Maggie had to come home right away. None of the rest wanted to take care of him and Maggie had to. There was another Duff sister then--a married sister (she's died since), but she wouldn't take him, so Maggie had to. Of course, none of the Blaisdells wanted the care of him--and he wasn't their father, anyway. Frank was wanting to marry me, and Jim and Flora were in school and wanted to stay there, of course. So Maggie came. Poor girl! It was real hard for her. She was so ambitious, and so fond of books. But she came, and went right into the home and kept it so Frank and Jim and Flora could live there just the same as when their mother was alive. And she had to do all the work, too. They were too poor to keep a girl. Kind of hard, wasn't it?--and Maggie only eighteen!"

"It was, indeed!" Mr. Smith's lips came together a bit grimly.

"Well, after a time Frank and Jim married, and there was only Flora and Father Duff at home. Poor Maggie tried then to go to college again. She was over twenty-one, and supposed to be her own mistress, of course. She found a place where she could work and pay her way through college, and Flora said she'd keep the house and take care of Father Duff. But, dear me; it wasn't a month before that ended, and Maggie had to come home again. Flora wasn't strong, and the work fretted her. Besides, she never could get along with Father Duff, and she was trying to learn dressmaking, too. She stuck it out till she got sick, though, then of course Maggie had to come back."

"Well, by Jove!" ejaculated Mr. Smith.

"Yes, wasn't it too bad? Poor Maggie, she tried it twice again. She persuaded her father to get a girl. But that didn't work, either. The first girl and her father fought like cats and dogs, and the last time she got one her father was taken sick, and again she had to come home. Some way, it's always been that way with poor Maggie. No sooner does she reach out to take something than it's snatched away, just as she thinks she's got it. Why, there was her father's cousin George--he was going to help her once. But a streak of bad luck hit him at just that minute, and he gave out."

"And he never tried--again?"

"No. He went to Alaska then. Hasn't ever been back since. He's done well, too, they say, and I always thought he'd send back something; but he never has. There was some trouble, I believe, between him and Father Duff at the time he went to Alaska, so that explains it, probably. Anyway, he's never done anything for them. Well, when he gave out, Maggie just gave up college then, and settled down to take care of her father, though I guess she's always studied some at home; and I know that for years she didn't give up hope but that she could go some time. But I guess she has now. Poor Maggie!"

"How old is she?"

Why, let me see--forty-three, forty-four--yes, she's forty-five. She had her forty-third birthday here--I remember I gave her a handkerchief for a birthday present--when she was helping me take care of Mellicent through the pneumonia; and that was two years ago. She used to come here and to Jim's and Flora's days at a time; but she isn't quite so free as she was--Father Duff's worse now, and she don't like to leave him nights, much, so she can't come to us so often. See?"

"Yes, I--see." There was a queer something in Mr. Smith's voice. "And just what is the matter with Mr. Duff?"

"Matter!" Mrs. Jane Blaisdell gave a short laugh and shrugged her shoulders. "Everything's the matter--with Father Duff! Oh, it's nerves, mostly, the doctor says, and there are some other things--long names that I can't remember. But, as I said, everything's the matter with Father Duff. He's one of those men where there isn't anything quite right. Frank says he's got so he just objects to everything--on general principles. If it's blue, he says it ought to be black, you know. And, really, I don't know but Frank's right. How Maggie stands him I don't see; but she's devotion itself. Why, she even gave up her lover years ago, for him. She wouldn't leave her father, and, of course, nobody would think of taking him into the family, when he wasn't born into it, so the affair was broken off. I don't know, really, as Maggie cared much. Still, you can't tell. She never was one to carry her heart on her sleeve. Poor Maggie! I've always so wished I could do something for her!

"There, how I have run on! But, then, you asked, and you're interested, I know, and that's what you're here for--to find out about the Blaisdells."

"To--to--f-find out--" stammered Mr. Smith, grown suddenly very red.

"Yes, for your book, I mean."

"Oh, yes--of course; for my book," agreed Mr. Smith, a bit hastily. He had the guilty air of a small boy who has almost been caught in a raid on the cooky jar.

"And although poor Maggie isn't really a Blaisdell herself, she's nearly one; and they've got lots of Blaisdell records down there-- among Mother Blaisdell's things, you know. You'll want to see those."

"Yes; yes, indeed. I'll want to see those, of course," declared Mr. Smith, rising to his feet, preparatory to going to his own room.