Chapter XII. Anticipation
 

The day before the fair Sandy employed a substitute at the post-office, in order to give the entire day to preparation for the festivities to come.

Early in the morning he went to town, where, after much consultation and many changes of mind, he purchased a suit of clothes. Then he rented the town dress-suit, to the chagrin of three other boys who had each counted upon it for the coming hop.

With the precious burden under his arm, Sandy hastened home. He spread the two coats on the bed, placing a white shirt inside each, and a necktie about each collar. Then he stood back and admired.

"It's meself I can see in them both this minute!" he exclaimed with delight.

His shoes were polished until they were resplendent, but they lost much of their glory during subsequent practising of steps before the mirror. He even brushed and cleaned his old clothes, for he foresaw the pain of laying aside the raiment of Solomon for dingy every-day garments.

Toward noon he went down-stairs to continue his zealous efforts in the kitchen. This met with Aunt Melvy's instant disapproval.

"For mercy sake, git out ob my way!" she cried, as she squeezed past the ironing-board to get to the stove. "I'll press yer pants, ef you'll jus' take yourself outen de kitchen. Be sure don't burn 'em? Look a-heah, chile; I was pressin' pants 'fore yer paw was wearin' 'em!"

Aunt Melvy's temper was a thing not to be trifled with when a "protracted meeting" was in session. For years she had been the black sheep in the spiritual fold. Her earnest desire to get religion and the untiring efforts of the exhorters had alike proved futile. Year after year she sat on the mourners' bench, seeking the light and failing each time to "come th'u'."

This discouraging condition of affairs sorely afflicted her, and produced a kind of equinoctial agitation in the Hollis kitchen.

Sandy went on into the dining-room, but he found no welcome there. Mrs. Hollis was submerged in pastry. The county fair was her one dissipation, and her highest ambition was to take premiums. Every year she sent forth battalions of cakes, pies, sweet pickles, beaten biscuit, crocheted doilies, and crazy-quilts to capture the blue ribbon.

"Don't put the window up!" she warned Sandy. "I know it's stifling, but I can't have the dust coming in. Why don't you go on in the house?"

Mrs. Hollis always spoke of the kitchen and dining-room as if they were not a part of the house.

"Can't ye tell me something that's good for the sunburn?" asked Sandy, anxiously. "It's a dressed-up shooting-cracker I'll be resembling the morrow, in spite of me fine clothes."

"Buttermilk and lemon-juice," recommended Mrs. Hollis, as she placed the last marshmallow on the roof of a four-story cake.

Sandy would have endured any discomfort that day in order to add one charm to his personal appearance. He used so many lemons there were none left for the judge's lemonade when he came home for dinner.

"Just home from the post-office?" he asked when he saw Sandy enter the dining-room with his hat on.

"Jimmy Reed's doing my work to-day," Sandy said apologetically. "And if you please, sir, I'll be keeping my hat on. I have just washed my hair, and I want it to dry straight."

The judge looked at the suspicious turn of the thick locks around the brim of the stiff hat and smiled.

"Vanitas vanitatum, et omnia vanitas," he quoted. "How many pages of Blackstone to-day?"

Sandy made a wry face and winked at Mrs. Hollis, but she betrayed him.

"He has been primping since sun-up," she said. "Anybody would think he was going to get married."

"Sweet good luck if I was!" cried Sandy, gaily.

The judge put down his fork and laid his hand on Sandy's arm. "You mustn't neglect the learning, Sandy. You've made fine progress, and I'm proud of you. You've worked your way this far; I'll help you to the top if you'll keep a steady head."

"That I'll do," cried Sandy, grasping his hand. "It's old Moseley's promise I have for steady work at the academy. If I can't climb the ladder, with you at one end and success at the other, then I'm not much of a chicken--I mean I'm not much."

"Well, you better begin by leaving the girls alone," said Mrs. Hollis as she moved the sugar out of his reach. "Just let one drive by the gate, and we don't have any peace until you know who it is."

"By the way," said the judge, as he helped himself to a corn-dodger and two kinds of preserves, "I'm sorry to see the friendship that's sprung up between Annette Fenton and young Nelson. I don't know what the doctor's thinking about to let it go on. Nelson is hitting a pretty lively pace for a youngster. He'll never live to reap his wild oats, though. He came into the world with consumption, and I don't think he will be long getting out of it. He's always getting into difficulty. I have had to fine him twice in the past month for gambling. Do you see anything of him, Sandy?"

"No," said Sandy, biting his lip. His pride had suffered more than once at Carter's condescension.

"Martha Meech must be worse," said Mrs. Hollis. "The up-stairs blinds have been closed all day."

Sandy pushed back the apple-dumpling which Aunt Melvy had made at his special request.

"Perhaps I can be helping them," he said as he rose from the table.

When he came back he sat for a long time with his head on his hand.

"Is she much worse?" asked Mrs. Hollis.

"Yes," said Sandy; "and it's little that I can do, though she's coughing her life away. It's a shame--and a shame!" he cried in hot rebellion.

All his vanity of the morning was dispelled by the tragedy taking place next door. He paced back and forth between the two houses, begging to be allowed to help, and proposing all sorts of impossible things.

When inaction became intolerable, he plunged into his law books, at first not comprehending a line, but gradually becoming more and more interested, until at last the whole universe seemed to revolve about a case that was decided in a previous century.

When he rose it was almost dusk, and he came back to the present world with a start. His first thought was of Ruth and the rapturous prospect of seeing her on the morrow; a swift doubt followed as to whether a white tie or a black one was proper; then a sudden fear that he had forgotten how to dance. He jumped to his feet, took a couple of steps--when he remembered Martha.

The house seemed suddenly quiet and lonesome. He went from the sitting-room to the kitchen, but neither Mrs. Hollis nor Aunt Melvy was to be found. Returning through the front hall, he opened the door to the parlor.

The sight that met him was somewhat gruesome. Everything was carefully wrapped in newspapers. Pictures enveloped in newspapers hung on the walls, newspaper chairs stood primly around a newspaper table. In the dim twilight it looked like the very ghost of a room.

Sandy threw open the window, and going over to the newspaper piano, untied the wrappings. He softly touched the keys and began to sing in an undertone. Old Irish love-songs, asleep in his heart since they were first dropped there by the merry mother lips, stirred and awoke. The accompaniment limped along lamely enough; but the singer, with hat over his eyes and lemon-juice on his nose, sang on as only a poet and lover can. His rich, full voice lingered on the soft Celtic syllables, dwelt tenderly on the diminutive endearments, while his heart, overcharged with sorrow and joy and romance and dreams, spilled over in an ecstasy of song.

Next door, in an upper bedroom, a tired soul paused in its final flight. Martha Meech, stretching forth her thin arms in the twilight, listened as one might listen to the strains of an angel choir.

"It's Sandy," she said, and the color came to her cheeks, the light to her eyes. For, like Sandy, she had youth and she had love, and life itself could give no more.