Strawberry Acres by Grace S. Richmond
Part I.--Five Miles Out
Chapter III. The Apartment Overflows
The telephone bell in the Lanes' apartment rang sharply. It had rung once before, but Sally, half-asleep on the couch in the middle of a warm April morning, had not roused enough to notice. She moved reluctantly toward it. Max's voice speaking urgently brought her back to her senses with a jump.
"Sally, where on earth are you? I've just had a wire from the Chases that they're coming through, and will stop off to see us. We'll have to put them up somehow. Of course they don't know how we're fixed, but they'll find out."
"Oh, Max!" Sally's tones were dismayed. "Why, we can't!"
"We'll have to. What would you have me do--wire them not to stop? Besides, I couldn't get them. They've left the place they wired from--reach here to-night at nine. You'll have to have some kind of supper for them."
"Oh, figure it out somehow--you can, you know. I haven't a minute more to talk--inspector's here--everybody busy--" and the click of the receiver in Sally's ear ended the interview.
The Chases! They were young married people, who had been neighbours and schoolmates of the Lanes. Dorothy Eustis, as an older girl, had been much admired by Sally and Josephine until she married Neil Chase; that event had made a great difference in their warmth of feeling. Sally did not like Neil, never had liked him, and never would like him. A certain pomposity of manner, which had been a characteristic of his, ever since the days when he wore dresses and lorded it over the other infants in the park, had made him unpopular. He had, however, become a successful young attorney in his father's law firm, and had within the last year gone to a larger city several hundred miles away to start practice for himself.
The thought of entertaining Neil and Dorothy Chase in the little apartment was almost too much for Sally Lane. The Chases had gone away just before the Lanes had sold the old house, and knew nothing of the new quarters--evidently realized nothing of their small dimensions. It had been characteristic of them to telegraph that they were coming, without waiting for a reply. That was precisely like Neil.
Something must be done, and at once. It was now eleven o'clock. There was none too much time in which to make ready. Sally began reluctantly to plan. The Chases must have her room, of course; it was the best in the flat, measuring eight feet by ten. Bob would have to go in with Uncle Timothy and let Sally have his usual quarters, the couch in the living-room. Sally's room must be hastily put in guest-room order--no easy task, in a space where every inch counts because it must be made the most of. She was thankful, for once, that she need expect none of her family home to luncheon.
At noon, however, quite unexpectedly Bob ran in upon her, an errand from the office where he worked having brought him within a stone's throw of home. He liked to surprise Sally with two-minute visits, when he could do so by making time over the rest of his course.
"Hello, what's up?" was his greeting, as he surveyed his sister standing in the centre of an extraordinary confusion of furnishings which seemed to him to extend over the entire flat.
Sally flung down her dust-cloth and sank into a chair, showing a flushed face and disturbed eyes.
"Max telephoned that the Chases are coming to-night--Neil and Dorothy, on their way somewhere. Isn't it horrible? What do you suppose they'll think of things here?"
"Well, well--old Neil's coming to show us his chest expansion, is he? And my Lady Dolly! Hum--well--I guess it will do'em good to see how some people live. Mrs. Chase will bring four trunks and a lot of hand stuff, will she? If she does, we'll move out and leave them the place."
"Mercy! They're only going to stay overnight--at least, I think that's all. The only thing that keeps me up is the thought that at this time to-morrow they'll be gone! A hospitable hostess I am, Bob. But--Oh, Bobby, my head aches so this morning I just can't rise to the occasion!"
"Your head aches? What's the reason for that?" Bob asked, in some dismay. "You're not a headache sort of girl."
"No, and that's why it seems to take the pluck out of me so. It ached yesterday, too. And I feel just heavy and stupid."
As she spoke, she turned and laid her head down on her arms on the back of her chair. Bob darted across from the doorway and laid an awkwardly sympathetic young hand on the flaxen masses of his sister's hair.
"It's a shame!" he said, warmly. "I wish I could stay and help you. But I tell you what I'll do. I'll be up the minute I get out of the office. Leave the heavy things for me to do. And don't try to house-clean the whole flat just because of Mrs. Dorothy Chase. She isn't worth it."
He was as good as his word. Five o'clock in the afternoon saw him at home again, helping Sally in every way he could think of. Bob was good help, and she had seldom needed him more than to-day. She went about with flushed cheeks, moving languidly, yet keeping steadily at work with the determination of the young hostess who sees nothing else to do.
She had spent the afternoon in the kitchen; she spent the evening in all those little final tasks which seem so small and yet in the aggregate do weigh heavily, upon the eve of entertaining.
Work at the bank kept Max until he had barely time to go to the station for his guests. Alec, coming home to dinner, and finding himself put off with what he hungrily characterized as a mere "bite," on account of the necessities of the occasion, went off again somewhere, declaring that he did not see the occasion for starving the family just on account of entertaining two already overfed visitors. Uncle Timothy, as was to be expected, as soon as he heard of the emergency, joined Bob in coming to Sally's aid, and at half past seven in the evening might have been discovered by the curious, sitting in the small kitchen, a blue-checked apron tied about his neck, busily polishing silver.
"It seemed to me pretty bright before, Sally," was his only comment as he worked. "But I suppose no man could really comprehend the difference between the degree of brightness suitable for one's family and that demanded by company."
"If you had seen Dorothy Chase's wedding silver--" responded Sally, and stopped there, as if words could no further go.
"Yes, yes, I suppose so." Uncle Timothy was rubbing away at a set of thin old teaspoons which had belonged to Sally's grandmother. "Still, my dear, it seems as if things taste better out of these old spoons than out of those handsome new ones the boys gave you Christmas."
"Oh, I love the old things." Sally held a china sugar bowl with a gold band round it up to the light as she wiped it. She had taken all the best old china out of its hiding place under the couch, and was giving it a hot-water bath, drying each article herself, not daring to trust the frail pieces to Bob's hands. "But Dorothy hates old stuff, and wants everything modern."
"I remember," said Uncle Timothy, mildly. "I was always too antique for her to notice. I sha'n't be surprised if she stumbles over me to-night, not noticing that I'm here."
"If she does," called Bob, from the depths of a closet which he was sweeping out under Sally's direction, "she'll settle with me! She'll find I've grown a few inches since she used to call me Sally's 'everlasting little brother.'"
It was all done at last. Sally went to dress, wearily exhorting herself to remember that her room was not her room to-night, and that she must not forget and leave so much as a stray hair-pin on the freshly washed and ironed linen of the little toilet-table.
She stowed away, under the couch on which she was to sleep, the clean cambric house-dress she meant to put on the next morning, feeling that it would not be at all surprising if she were unable to rise from that couch to get breakfast, and wondering what Dorothy Chase could do about breakfast if thrown upon her own resources. It was so unusual for Sally's vigorous young frame to experience such exhaustion after even more severe effort than that of the past day that she could only wonder what it meant, and finally decided, after some speculation, that it was the effect of these first warm days of spring, combined with the stress of entertaining under difficulties.
"Well, here we are!" Max's voice could be heard in the hall outside, ushering in his guests. "Go single file down this passage--you can't get through side by side!"
Sally went hurriedly forward and met Dorothy Chase's smartly tailored figure in the middle of the tiny passage.
"Goodness gracious!" Bob and Alec and Mr. Timothy Rudd heard a familiar high-pitched voice exclaim. "You don't mean to tell us you live in this mouse-hole! Actually, my hat hits on both sides!"
Then came Neil Chase's barytone drawl--how well Bob remembered hating the sound of it with a profound hatred when it had been addressed contemptuously to him! "Really, Dorothy--you know--I told you that brim of yours was an inch and a half beyond the limit, and this proves it!"
But Sally's pretty head was held high. If she had a headache, its effect was visible only in her brilliant cheeks.
"You always ran to extremes, Dorothy, dear. Why didn't you take that absurd creation off in the vestibule? Neil, how are you? Have you your best Chesterfieldian manner with you? Because you'd better leave it outside; the apartment's not large enough for you and it, too!"
"The same impertinent child," declared Mrs. Chase, surveying her hostess in the light of the living-room. "And here's smart Alec," as that youth came forward, his smile of welcome undergoing a wry twist at this somewhat unusual greeting. "And Bob--heavens, child, how you've grown! And this is--oh, yes--Mr. Rudd!"
Her careless hand, in its travelling glove, met Uncle Timothy's grasp, and left it as casually as her bright hazel eyes left the glance of his faded blue ones. Bob, watching, grinned at Uncle Timothy meaningly, and received in return the mild sparkle of amusement with which the "antique" was accustomed to show himself invulnerable to neglect from young persons of Dorothy Chase's stamp.
Neil's greetings of the family were also highly characteristic. One who had never before seen him might have argued many things from the style of his opening address:
"This is Alec, eh? Well, Alec, I see you're still the flower of the family. Bob--how do you like sweeping out offices? Better than going to school? And here's Uncle Thomas--beg pardon--Uncle Joshua. Not got it right yet, Sally? Confound my memory--yes, yes--Uncle Timothy. How are you, my dear sir?"
"I see," responded Mr. Rudd, suddenly grown quietly dignified, as he surveyed this jocular young man whom he remembered as a youth whom he had frequently longed to thrash, "that in spite of the pressure of years and responsibility you happily retain your boyish characteristics."
Young Mr. Chase regarded Uncle Timothy for an instant without speaking. Then he turned to Sally with a quite audible comment: "The old gentleman hasn't changed much, has he? Keep him with you all the time?"
"We couldn't live without him," was Sally's quick reply. Uncle Timothy, catching the answer, smiled to himself. It would take more than the advent of these gay comets in his sky to disturb his content in the stars which revolved loyally about him.
The two hours which followed were occupied in instructing the guests how to bestow themselves in the unaccustomed limitations of the Lane apartment without doing themselves physical injury. The Chases evidently felt that the surest way to show their appreciation of the hospitality offered them was to be uninterruptedly mirthful at its character.
"For goodness' sake, Sally," cried Mrs. Chase, with a little shriek, "you're not going to put us both in here! Neil, don't you dare to come in until I get out--there isn't room. Where shall I hang my coat? Oh, is there a closet behind that curtain? Six hooks! Neil, you can't have but one of them--I want the rest. Sally, how did you ever come to it, after that great roomy old house of yours? I should suffocate in a week! It's lucky we're going on to-morrow. I couldn't change my gowns in here."
"I thought you were an experienced traveller," retorted Sally, lightly enough. She had known quite what to expect from Dorothy; it did not disturb her seriously. "Good travellers can tuck themselves away anywhere. Besides, this room is palatial in comparison with Uncle Timothy's. There's not room for a dressing-table in his. You should be thankful that you have one, and a mirror. The mirror's the one real essential for Dorothy Eustis Chase. I made sure you had that."
"It's just like you not to own up that you're cramped." Dorothy was taking full advantage of the mirror pointed out. Her elaborately waved chestnut locks received her full attention for a space, and Sally slipped away to the kitchen.
They sat down presently to something which was not a dinner, and proved decidedly more than a lunch. The guests ate ravenously, but did not forget to take note of their surroundings. Neil's back was too close to the wall for Sally to squeeze by him when she rose to change the plates, and this amused him very much. "Two more guests, and the room would burst, wouldn't it?" he suggested, as he handed a plate at her request. "I didn't know they ever made a flat as small as this"
"They make them much smaller," declared Max, with a sparkle of the eye. "I assure you we have never felt crowded--until to-night."
"Oh, don't mind us!" Dorothy cried. "You see, we've just come from visiting the Grandons, and their house is so enormous it makes everything seem small. It was a day's journey across our room, and Neil's dressing-room was as big as this whole flat. It's a lovely place to visit, they do everything for you. They have so many servants, and such well trained ones, you absolutely forget how to wait on yourself."
"How long were you there?" Alec inquired.
"Why, from Wednesday to--when did we leave there, Neil? Oh, yes, it must have been yesterday morning."
"Three days? No wonder you became too used to such luxury to be able to come down to waiting on yourselves." And Alec applied himself to his plate with a sense of having evened things up with Mrs. Chase in return for her "smart Alec."
It was Sally who kept matters running smoothly, her head throbbing all the while. When the Chases had been finally tucked away--still ironic--in their quarters, and the rest of the family had bestowed themselves in the space belonging to them, she sat down by the open window, too weary to undress. Here Bob, emerging from Uncle Timothy's room in search of belongings necessary to his comfort, found her.
"Why don't you go to bed?" he asked.
"I'm going. But I'd like to sit here all night."
"You'll catch cold by that window. Head still ache?"
"I suppose so. I'm too tired to feel anything any more."
"Cheer up. I'll be around bright and early and do everything I know."
"Of course you will, Bobby," and she held out her hand. He grasped it.
"Your hand's hot," he observed. "Aren't sick, are you?"
"Of course not. I'm never sick. Go to bed, dear. I'll be all right in the morning."
Optimistically, Bob thought she would. The next morning, however, the Sally who confronted him looked so far from herself, as she went slowly about the little kitchen, that he was worried, and said so.
"Never mind. Don't say anything. After breakfast I can rest."
"Can you brace up to get through breakfast?" demanded Bob, anxiously. Sally assured him that she could, and proved it. Somehow, after the manner of women, she came to the table with a smile so bright that nobody noticed that she ate almost nothing, that her hand shook as she poured the coffee, and that her long-lashed blue eyes were very heavy.
Immediately after breakfast the Chases were off--in a cab engaged by Max, in deference to Sally's wishes. Neil and Dorothy took a jocose farewell, the one declaring that their presence had stretched the apartment till it could be seen to gape at the seams, the other vowing that Sally must come to see her soon, in order to be able to take a full breath again. Then the cab bore them away.
"Well, of all the--" Alec left the sentence unfinished.
Max completed it for him. "Nerve! If that's a sample of legal brilliancy of wit, I'm sorry for the defendant who employs him," he grunted.
The Chases had arrived on Saturday night, and were continuing their journey without reference to the fact that it was Sunday. Sally turned back into the passage, remembering that on Sundays her family were to be provided for in the matter of luncheon, and that they were in the habit of looking forward to the extra good things she was accustomed to serve them upon that day. She sank into a chair and stared at the breakfast-table standing just as they had all left it.
"Don't you stir, Sis!" cried Bob, returning with the others. "Al and I'll do the dishes." Then, as he saw an expression of disfavour cross his brother's face at this unwelcome proposal, he added quickly, "She's sick, Sally is, with all this, and it's time somebody noticed it."
They all looked at her. She tried to smile up at them, but the unwilling tears came instead. "I'll be all right, if I can just lie down a while," she said.
Then they rallied, in alarm. Not one of them but loved Sally as the dearest thing in the world, however careless of her comfort one or another of them might now and then seem to be.
Max put a brotherly arm round her. "Tired out, little girl?" he asked, gently, and led her toward the couch in the living-room.
"All for those ungrateful duffers!" As he followed to put a pillow under his sister's head Alec looked as if he would like to knock at least one of the "duffers" down.
"She's had all she could do to keep up, for twenty-four hours!" cried Bob, pulling a small knit rug over Sally's feet.
She managed to smile at them, choking back quite unwonted tears--Sally was no baby, to cry at a touch of fatigue. She had known they would be very good to her, once they understood.
It was Uncle Timothy who at once became practical. He drew up a chair beside the couch and took Sally's wrist in his, counting carefully. Then he laid his hand on her forehead, against her flushed cheeks. He bade her put out her tongue, and surveying that tell-tale member through his spectacles, came to his conclusions. These he did not inflict upon Sally, who had closed her eyes, and lay like a tired child. Instead, he beckoned Max into another room, and said, "She's sick, sure enough. Pulse jumping, skin hot and dry--and too tired to move. Suppose you telephone Doctor Wood to look in this morning."
Max lost no time. He went down stairs to telephone, that Sally-might not hear, and in his suddenly roused anxiety made his message so urgent that the doctor arrived within the hour. He was the family physician long employed by the Lanes, and he had known Sally from her babyhood. It took him but the space of a brief, yet thorough, examination to form his opinion. He communicated it, under his breath, to Sally's "four men," who had tiptoed anxiously out into the hall where he had beckoned them.
"It looks mighty like typhoid," he said--and they winced at the word. "It's too soon to be certain, but there's more or less of it about. You can't take care of her here, and she'll be far better off at the hospital. I'll send a carriage and a nurse by twelve o'clock."
So do hours change outlooks. The last thing any one of the Lanes had expected to be doing at noon on that peaceful spring Sunday was to be standing in the vestibule of the Winona flats, watching the little sister being conveyed away, in the care of a nurse. But so it was.
"Don't look so blue, dears," Sally had murmured, as she left them. "I'll soon be back, you know."
"Heaven grant it!" ejaculated Uncle Timothy, in his heart. As for the others, they filed silently up stairs again, and into the empty room. It was full of all the things that had seemed to make it home--with Sally there. But somehow it looked empty now.
Nobody said much of anything unless it became necessary, but before bedtime four pregnant sentences had been uttered.
"That nurse looked as if she knew something," said Max, suddenly.
"There's not a man in the city equal to Wood," declared Alec.
"Seems as if she couldn't smile quite like that if she was going to be awfully sick," was Bob's contribution to the sum total of hopefulness.
But it was Uncle Timothy, as usual, who hit the nail on the head. "Boys," said he, "we can do our part--on our knees."
And, to a man, they nodded. Suddenly, they could not speak.