Chapter VII. Poor Maggie and Some Others
 

It was half an hour later, when Mr. Smith and Benny were walking across the common together, that Benny asked an abrupt question.

"Is Aunt Maggie goin' ter be put in your book, Mr. Smith?"

"Why--er--yes; her name will be entered as the daughter of the man who married the Widow Blaisdell, probably. Why?"

"Nothin'. I was only thinkin'. I hoped she was. Aunt Maggie don't have nothin' much, yer know, except her father an' housework--housework either for him or some of us. An' I guess she's had quite a lot of things ter bother her, an' make her feel bad, so I hoped she'd be in the book. Though if she wasn't, she'd just laugh an' say it doesn't matter, of course. That's what she always says."

"Always says?" Mr. Smith's voice was mildly puzzled.

"Yes, when things plague, an' somethin' don't go right. She says it helps a lot ter just remember that it doesn't matter. See?"

"Well, no,--I don't think I do see," frowned Mr. Smith.

"Oh, yes," plunged in Benny; "'cause, you see, if yer stop ter think about it--this thing that's plaguin' ye--you'll see how really small an' no-account it is, an' how, when you put it beside really big things it doesn't matter at all--it doesn't really matter, ye know. Aunt Maggie says she's done it years an' years, ever since she was just a girl, an' somethin' bothered her; an' it's helped a lot."

"But there are lots of things that do matter," persisted Mr. Smith, still frowning.

"Oh, yes!" Benny swelled a bit importantly, "I know what you mean. Aunt Maggie says that, too; an' she says we must be very careful an' not get it wrong. It's only the little things that bother us, an' that we wish were different, that we must say 'It doesn't matter' about. It does matter whether we're good an' kind an' tell the truth an' shame the devil; but it doesn't matter whether we have ter live on the West Side an' eat dinner nights instead of noons, an' not eat cookies any of the time in the house,--see?"

"Good for you, Benny,--and good for Aunt Maggie!" laughed Mr. Smith suddenly.

"Aunt Maggie? Oh, you don't know Aunt Maggie, yet. She's always tryin' ter make people think things don't matter. You'll see!" crowed Benny.

A moment later he had turned down his own street, and Mr. Smith was left to go on alone.

Very often, in the days that followed, Mr. Smith thought of this speech of Benny's. He had opportunity to verify it, for he was seeing a good deal of Miss Maggie, and it seemed, indeed, to him that half the town was coming to her to learn that something "didn't matter"-- though very seldom, except to Benny, did he hear her say the words themselves. It was merely that to her would come men, women, and children, each with a sorry tale of discontent or disappointment. And it was always as if they left with her their burden, for when they turned away, head and shoulders were erect once more, eyes were bright, and the step was alert and eager.

He used to wonder how she did it. For that matter, he wondered how she did--a great many things.

Mr. Smith was, indeed, seeing a good deal of Miss Maggie these days. He told himself that it was the records that attracted him. But he did not always copy records. Sometimes he just sat in one of the comfortable chairs and watched Miss Maggie, content if she gave him a word now and then.

He liked the way she carried her head, and the way her hair waved away from her, shapely forehead. He liked the quiet strength of the way her capable hands lay motionless in her lap when their services were not required. He liked to watch for the twinkle in her eye, and for the dimple in her cheek that told a smile was coming. He liked to hear her talk to Benny. He even liked to hear her talk to her father--when he could control his temper sufficiently. Best of all he liked his own comfortable feeling of being quite at home, and at peace with all the world--the feeling that always came to him now whenever he entered the house, in spite of the fact that the welcome accorded him by Mr. Duff was hardly more friendly than at the first.

To Mr. Smith it was a matter of small moment whether Mr. Duff welcomed him cordially or not. He even indulged now and then in a bout of his own with the gentleman, chuckling inordinately when results showed that he had pitched his remark at just the right note of contrariety to get what he wanted.

For the most part, however, Mr. Smith, at least nominally, spent his time at his legitimate task of studying and copying the Blaisdell family records, of which he was finding a great number. Rufus Blaisdell apparently had done no little "digging" himself in his own day, and Mr. Smith told Miss Maggie that it was all a great "find" for him.

Miss Maggie seemed pleased. She said that she was glad if she could be of any help to him, and she told him to come whenever he liked. She arranged the Bible and the big box of papers on a little table in the corner, and told him to make himself quite at home; and she showed so plainly that she regarded him as quite one of the family, that Mr. Smith might be pardoned for soon considering himself so.

It was while at work in this corner that he came to learn so much of Miss Maggie's daily life, and of her visitors.

Although many of these visitors were strangers to him, some of them he knew.

One day it was Mrs. Hattie Blaisdell, with a countenance even more florid than usual. She was breathless and excited, and her eyes were worried. She was going to give a luncheon, she said. She wanted Miss Maggie's silver spoons, and her forks, and her hand painted sugar-and- creamer, and Mother Blaisdell's cut-glass dish.

Mr. Smith, supposing that Miss Maggie herself was to be at the luncheon, was just rejoicing within him that she was to have this pleasant little outing, when he heard Mrs. Blaisdell telling her to be sure to come at eleven to be in the kitchen, and asking where could she get a maid to serve in the dining-room, and what should she do with Benny. He'd have to be put somewhere, or else he'd be sure to upset everything.

Mr. Smith did not hear Miss Maggie's answer to all this, for she hurried her visitor to the kitchen at once to look up the spoons, she said. But indirectly he obtained a very conclusive reply; for he found Miss Maggie gone one day when he came; and Benny, who was in her place, told him all about it, even to the dandy frosted cake Aunt Maggie had made for the company to eat.

Another day it was Mrs. Jane Blaisdell who came. Mrs. Jane had a tired frown between her brows and a despairing droop to her lips. She carried a large bundle which she dropped unceremoniously into Miss Maggie's lap.

"There, I'm dead beat out, and I've brought it to you. You've just got to help me," she finished, sinking into a chair.

"Why, of course, if I can. But what is it?" Miss Maggie's deft fingers were already untying the knot.

"It's my old black silk. I'm making it over."

"Again? But I thought the last time it couldn't ever be done again."

"Yes, I know; but there's lots of good in it yet," interposed Mrs. Jane decidedly; "and I've bought new velvet and new lace, and some buttons and a new lining. I thought I could do it alone, but I've reached a point where I just have got to have help. So I came right over."

"Yes, of course, but"--Miss Maggie was lifting a half-finished sleeve doubtfully--"why didn't you go to Flora? She'd know exactly--"

Mrs. Jane stiffened.

"Because I can't afford to go to Flora," she interrupted coldly. "I have to pay Flora, and you know it. If I had the money I should be glad to do it, of course. But I haven't, and charity begins at home I think. Besides, I do go to her for new dresses. But this old thing--! Of course, if you don't want to help me--"

"Oh, but I do," plunged in Miss Maggie hurriedly. "Come out into the kitchen where we'll have more room," she exclaimed, gathering the bundle into her arms and springing to her feet.

"I've got some other lace at home--yards and yards. I got a lot, it was so cheap," recounted Mrs. Jane, rising with alacrity. "But I'm afraid it won't do for this, and I don't know as it will do for anything, it's so--"

The kitchen door slammed sharply, and Mr. Smith heard no more. Half an hour later, however, he saw Mrs. Jane go down the walk. The frown was gone from her face and the droop from the corners of her mouth. Her step was alert and confident. She carried no bundle.

The next day it was Miss Flora. Miss Flora's thin little face looked more pinched than ever, and her eyes more anxious, Mr. Smith thought. Even her smile, as she acknowledged Mr. Smith's greeting, was so wan he wished she had not tried to give it.

She sat down then, by the window, and began to chat with Miss Maggie; and very soon Mr. Smith heard her say this:--

"No, Maggie, I don't know, really, what I am going to do--truly I don't. Business is so turrible dull! Why, I don't earn enough to pay my rent, hardly, now, ter say nothin' of my feed."

Miss Maggie frowned.

"But I thought that Hattie--isn't Hattie having some new dresses--and Bessie, too?"

A sigh passed Miss Flora's lips.

"Yes, oh, yes; they are having three or four. But they don't come to me any more. They've gone to that French woman that makes the Pennocks' things, you know, with the queer name. And of course it's all right, and you can't blame 'em, livin' on the West Side, as they do now. And, of course, I ain't so up ter date as she is. And just her name counts."

"Nonsense! Up to date, indeed!" (Miss Maggie laughed merrily, but Mr. Smith, copying dates at the table, detected a note in the laugh that was not merriment.) "You're up to date enough for me. I've got just the job for you, too. Come out into the kitchen." She was already almost at the door. "Why, Maggie, you haven't, either!" (In spite of the incredulity of voice and manner, Miss Flora sprang joyfully to her feet.) "You never had me make you a--" Again the kitchen door slammed shut, and Mr. Smith was left to finish the sentence for himself.

But Mr. Smith was not finishing sentences. Neither was his face expressing just then the sympathy which might be supposed to be showing, after so sorry a tale as Miss Flora had been telling. On the contrary, Mr. Smith, with an actual elation of countenance, was scribbling on the edge of his notebook words that certainly he had never found in the Blaisdell records before him: "Two months more, then--a hundred thousand dollars. And may I be there to see it!"

Half an hour later, as on the previous day, Mr. Smith saw a metamorphosed woman hurrying down the little path to the street. But the woman to-day was carrying a bundle--and it was the same bundle that the woman the day before had brought.

But not always, as Mr. Smith soon learned, were Miss Maggie's visitors women. Besides Benny, with his grievances, young Fred Blaisdell came sometimes, and poured into Miss Maggie's sympathetic ears the story of Gussie Pennock's really remarkable personality, or of what he was going to do when he went to college--and afterwards.

Mr. Jim Blaisdell drifted in quite frequently Sunday afternoons, though apparently all he came for was to smoke and read in one of the big comfortable chairs. Mr. Smith himself had fallen into the way of strolling down to Miss Maggie's almost every Sunday after dinner.

One Saturday afternoon Mr. Frank Blaisdell rattled up to the door in his grocery wagon. His face was very red, and his mutton-chop whiskers were standing straight out at each side.

Jane had collapsed, he said, utterly collapsed. All the week she had been house-cleaning and doing up curtains; and now this morning, expressly against his wishes, to save hiring a man, she had put down the parlor carpet herself. Now she was flat on her back, and supper to be got for the boarder, and the Saturday baking yet to be done. And could Maggie come and help them out?

Before Miss Maggie could answer, Mr. Smith hurried out from his corner and insisted that "the boarder" did not want any supper anyway--and could they not live on crackers and milk for the coming few days?

But Miss Maggie laughed and said, "Nonsense!" And in an incredibly short time she was ready to drive back in the grocery wagon. Later, when he went home, Mr. Smith found her there, presiding over one of the best suppers he had eaten since his arrival in Hillerton. She came every day after that, for a week, for Mrs. Jane remained "flat on her back" seven days, with a doctor in daily attendance, supplemented by a trained nurse peremptorily ordered by that same doctor from the nearest city.

Miss Maggie, with the assistance of Mellicent, attended to the housework. But in spite of the excellence of the cuisine, meal time was a most unhappy period to everybody concerned, owing to the sarcastic comments of Mr. Frank Blaisdell as to how much his wife had "saved" by not having a man to put down that carpet.

Mellicent had little time now to go walking or auto-riding with Carl Pennock. Her daily life was, indeed, more pleasure-starved than ever-- all of which was not lost on Mr. Smith. Mr. Smith and Mellicent were fast friends now. Given a man with a sympathetic understanding on one side, and a girl hungry for that same sympathy and understanding, and it could hardly be otherwise. From Mellicent's own lips Mr. Smith knew now just how hungry a young girl can be for fun and furbelows.

"Of course I've got my board and clothes, and I ought to be thankful for them," she stormed hotly to him one day. "And I am thankful for them. But sometimes it seems as if I'd actually be willing to go hungry for meat and potato, if for once--just once--I could buy a five-pound box of candy, and eat it up all at once, if I wanted to! But now, why now I can't even treat a friend to an ice-cream soda without seeing mother's shocked, reproachful eyes over the rim of the glass!"

It was not easy then (nor many times subsequently) for Mr. Smith to keep from asking Mellicent the utterly absurd question of how many five-pound boxes of candy she supposed one hundred thousand dollars would buy. But he did keep from it--by heroic self-sacrifice and the comforting recollection that she would know some day, if she cared to take the trouble to reckon it up.

In Mellicent's love affair with young Pennock Mr. Smith was enormously interested. Not that he regarded it as really serious, but because it appeared to bring into Mellicent's life something of the youth and gayety to which he thought she was entitled. He was almost as concerned as was Miss Maggie, therefore, when one afternoon, soon after Mrs. Jane Blaisdell's complete recovery from her "carpet tax" (as Frank Blaisdell termed his wife's recent illness), Mellicent rushed into the Duff living-room with rose-red cheeks and blazing eyes, and an explosive:--"Aunt Maggie, Aunt Maggie, can't you get mother to let me go away somewhere--anywhere, right off?"

"Why, Mellicent! Away? And just to-morrow the Pennocks' dance?"

"But that's it--that's why I want to go," flashed Mellicent." I don't want to be at the dance--and I don't want to be in town, and not at the dance."

Mr. Smith, at his table in the corner, glanced nervously toward the door, then bent assiduously over his work, as being less conspicuous than the flight he had been tempted for a moment to essay. But even this was not to be, for the next moment, to his surprise, the girl appealed directly to him.

"Mr. Smith, please, won't you take me somewhere to-morrow?"

"Mellicent!" Even Miss Maggie was shocked now, and showed it.

"I can't help it, Aunt Maggie. I've just got to be away!" Mellicent's voice was tragic.

"But, my dear, to ask a gentleman--" reproved Miss Maggie. She came to an indeterminate pause. Mr. Smith had crossed the room and dropped into a chair near them.

"See here, little girl, suppose you tell us just what is behind--all this," he began gently.

Mellicent shook her head stubbornly.

"I can't. It's too--silly. Please let it go that I want to be away. That's all."

"Mellicent, we can't do that." Miss Maggie's voice was quietly firm. "We can't do--anything, until you tell us what it is."

There was a brief pause. Mellicent's eyes, still mutinous, sought first the kindly questioning face of the man, then the no less kindly but rather grave face of the woman. Then in a little breathless burst it came.

"It's just something they're all saying Mrs. Pennock said--about me."

"What was it?" Two little red spots had come into Miss Maggie's cheeks.

"Yes, what was it?" Mr. Smith was looking actually belligerent.

"It was just that--that they weren't going to let Carl Pennock go with me any more--anywhere, or come to see me, because I--I didn't belong to their set."

"Their set!" exploded Mr. Smith.

Miss Maggie said nothing, but the red spots deepened.

"Yes. It's just--that we aren't rich like them. I haven't got--money enough."

"That you haven't got--got--Oh, ye gods!" For no apparent reason whatever Mr. Smith threw back his head suddenly and laughed. Almost instantly, however, he sobered: he had caught the expression of the two faces opposite.

"I beg your pardon," he apologized promptly. "It was only that to me-- there was something very funny about that."

"But, Mellicent, are you sure? I don't believe she ever said it," doubted Miss Maggie.

"He hasn't been near me--for a week. Not that I care!" Mellicent turned with flashing eyes. "I don't care a bit--not a bit--about that!"

"Of course you don't! It's not worth even thinking of either. What does it matter if she did say it, dear? Forget it!"

"But I can't bear to have them all talk--and notice," choked Mellicent. "And we were together such a lot before; and now--I tell you I can't go to that dance to-morrow night!"

"And you shan't, if you don't want to," Mr. Smith assured her. "Right here and now I invite you and your Aunt Maggie to drive with me to- morrow to Hubbardville. There are some records there that I want to look up. We'll get dinner at the hotel. It will take all day, and we shan't be home till late in the evening. You'll go?"

"Oh, Mr. Smith, you--you dear! Of course we'll go! I'll go straight now and telephone to somebody--everybody--that I shan't be there; that I'm going to be out of town!" She sprang joyously to her feet--but Miss Maggie held out a restraining hand.

"Just a minute, dear. You don't care--you said you didn't care--that Carl Pennock doesn't come to see you any more?"

"Indeed I don't!"

"Then you wouldn't want others to think you did, would you?"

"Of course not!" The red dyed Mellicent's forehead.

"You have said that you'd go to this party, haven't you? That is, you accepted the invitation, didn't you, and people know that you did, don't they?"

"Why, yes, of course! But that was before--Mrs. Pennock said what she did."

"Of course. But--just what do you think these people are going to say to-morrow night, when you aren't there?"

"Why, that I--I--" The color drained from her face and left it white. "They wouldn't expect me to go after that--insult."

"Then they'll understand that you--care, won't they?"

"Why, I--I--They--I can't--" She turned sharply and walked to the window. For a long minute she stood, her back toward the two watching her. Then, with equal abruptness, she turned and came back. Her cheeks were very pink now, her eyes very bright. She carried her head with a proud little lift.

"I think, Mr. Smith, that I won't go with you to-morrow, after all," she said steadily. "I've decided to go--to that dance."

The next moment the door shut crisply behind her.