Chapter XI
 

For three hundred and sixty-five days Myrtella Flathers held undisputed sway in the house of Queerington. The Doctor's semi- invalidism, after his return from Thornwood, threw all responsibility upon her, and while she permitted him to wear the crown, it was she who wielded the scepter. Never had the house been in such immaculate order, nor the young Queeringtons appeared in such presentable garments, and never had the front door been slammed so persistently in the face of unwelcome guests.

For the Queerington family tree was afflicted with too many branches. There were little dry twigs of maidenly cousins, knotted and dwarfed stumps of half-gone uncles and aunts, vigorous, demanding shoots of nephews and niece's, all of whom had hitherto imposed upon the Doctor's slender income, and his too generous hospitality.

Myrtella objected to the inroads these invaders made on his time and strength, and she also objected to the extra work their presence entailed upon her. In short, she felt that the family tree needed pruning, and she set herself right heartily to the job. By persistent discourtesy she managed to lop off one relative after another, until she gained for the Doctor a privacy hitherto undreamed of.

"There ain't a hour in the day that I ain't headin' off somebody!" she triumphantly announced one day to the cook from next door. "When I come here you'd 'a' thought it was a railroad station, people comin' and goin' with satchels; and bells a-ringin', and trunks being dragged over the carpets. Dirt from the top of the house to the bottom; Miss Hattie with her petticoats hanging down below her dress; and all the neighbor children racing in and out, and actually takin' the mattress off Bertie's bed to coast down the stairs on!"

"In the name of St. Patrick!" sympathized Norah, the visitor; "and their pa not doin' nothin' with 'em at all?"

"Who said he wasn't?" blazed Myrtella instantly. "You'll be hintin' around next that I was talkin' about the Doctor behind his back. You're fixin' to lose me my place, that's what you are doin'."

"Not me! It's braggin' on you I was not over a week ago, sayin' what a fine, nice cook you was, and how grand and clean it was over here."

"Of course," said Myrtella haughtily, "I may not be workin' fer a lady that's so smart she wouldn't even know her own kitchen if she met it walkin' up the street. I may not work in a house where they pull down the shades and burn red lamps in the day time to keep from showin' the dirt under the sofa. We don't keep two servants and not have enough to feed 'em, but I'm satisfied. At least fer the present. The day will come when I won't have to be in service to no one. I'm puttin' by each week, and the time ain't distant when I'll be settin' at the head of my own boardin'-house table, an' it will be 'Miss Flathers,' if you please! You, Bertie!" this to a frail-looking little boy in the back yard. "You git up off the grass this minute! Fixin' to catch the croup and have me up with you all night, like I was last week."

"Sure 'n I might find a worse place than Mrs. Ivy's," continued Norah. "A bit of blarney, and frish flowers every day in front of her photygraph, and things right for Mr. Gerald, is all she wants. The last place I worked,--Mrs. Sequin's, bad luck to her!... It was a party or a dinner between me and me rest ivery night of the week! Sorra a bit did I care for the whole kit of 'em, barring Mr. Don Morley, as fine a young gentleman as ever set foot in sole leather!"

"Him that shot Dick Sheeley and run away?"

"Him they laid it on," said Norah with indignant emphasis. "It was that good-for-nothin' Mr. Lee Dillingham done it, and Mrs. Sequin a- movin' heaven to marry Miss Margery off to him. I seen how they was tryin' to keep Mr. Don from comin' home and hearin' the tales they was tellin'. He is worth the whole bunch of 'em tied in a knot; a gentleman inside and out, and his hand in his pocket ivery time you served him. Ain't that somebody a-callin' ye down the back stairs?"

"Let 'em call," said Myrtella, to whom these comparisons of past places were replete with interest. "It's just Miss Hattie; if she's got anything worth sayin', she can come down and say it."

It was evidently worth saying, for a moment later, a thin, sharp- featured girl of fourteen thrust her head in at the door.

"Myrtella, I told you I wanted that white dress fixed. I am going to wear it this afternoon."

"It's too early to wear summer clothes," Myrtella announced, continuing her ironing. "I never sewed the buttons on a purpose, so 's you couldn't wear it."

"Well I will wear it! I am going right straight up stairs and pin it on."

As the door slammed, Myrtella turned a beaming face on Norah:

"It ain't hemmed!" she said with satisfaction.

Norah shrugged her shoulders:

"It would be a cold day that'd see anybody makin' me do the cookin' and nursin', and sewin' for a family of four, for five dollars a week!"

Myrtella glared at her across the ironing board:

"Who said anybody was makin' me? I'm paid to do the cookin' and housework in this house, and if I see fit to light in and boss things 'round a bit, it's my own business. Thank the Lord, I got manners enough to attend to it! How much coffee did you come over here to borrow?"

"A cupful will do, 'til the morning. I'll bring it back before breakfast."

"Put it in this jar when you do. I keep what you pay back separate from ours, so's I can lend it to you again. We ain't used to chicory."

Norah coughed deprecatingly behind her hand:

"Sure you might make allowance fer a lady as busy as Mrs. Ivy. She can't get her mind down to ordn'ary things."

"Stop her settin' on club boards, and meetin' on committees, and tryin' to regulate the nation, and she might remember to order the groceries. What's she workin' on now?"

"A begger man. It was readin' Scriptures to him she was when I come away, and him a-settin' there, right pitiful, a-tellin' her how he'd lost all he had in the flood. A religious talkin' man if I ever heard one."

"Red-headed?" inquired Myrtella, arresting a hot iron in mid air.

"He was."

"When she gits done with him, you send him over here," Myrtella brought the iron down on the board with a thud. "If there is one person in the world I'm layin' for it's a red-headed flood-sufferer."

Norah on her way out encountered another visitor and turned back to announce him:

"Git on to what Bertie has drawed out here! The craziest, dirtiest kid! Puts me in mind of a egg on a couple of toothpicks!"

Myrtella, peering over her shoulder, suddenly scrambled down the steps.

"It's Chick!" she cried, beaming upon him. "How long you been here, Chick?"

"And who's Chick?" asked Norah, instantly curious. "You seem to set a great store by him! What ails the child? What's he pointin' at our house for? Ain't he got a tongue in his head?"

"He has, though not so long as some folks. Chick! Bertie! Come in here!" and without ceremony Myrtella swept them into the kitchen and slammed the door in Norah's face.

Once within her stronghold, she first embraced Chick, then dragged him forcibly to the sink, and subjected him to a vigorous scrubbing. Both actions apparently bored him acutely, for he turned his soap-dimmed eyes enviously upon the smaller boy who pranced about in transports of joy.

"We'll skate on the pavement!" Bertie was crying excitedly. "You can have one skate, and I'll have the other and we'll see who can beat."

"You won't do nothin' of the kind!" quoth Fate at the faucet. "I ain't goin' to have you racin' 'round and gettin' het up and takin' cold. Besides, you ain't big enough to keep up with Chick!" Then seeing the disappointment her ultimatum had caused, she added, "if it wasn't for you stickin' every thing up, I might make you some candy."

"Oh, 'Tella! will you? 'Lasses candy? Ask him if he likes 'lasses candy."

Violent nods of affirmation from the steam-enveloped victim.

Myrtella had started with the simple ambition to wash Chick's face, but the boundary line had proved troublesome. Whether she sharply defined it, or attempted artistic effects in chiaroscuro the result was equally unsatisfactory. Myrtella was nothing if not thorough; before she finished with Chick, he was standing with his feet in a bucket, as clean and wet and naked as a fish.

All this consumed time, and both boys were growing impatient, when a peculiar noise from outside attracted their attention. To Chick, only, the sound seemed to be familiar, for he laughed and wagged his head and pointed to the yard.

"It sounds like hiccoughs!" said Bertie, his head on one side.

Myrtella's mouth closed like a trap. "I'll hiccough him!" she breathed mysteriously, and leaving the children to watch the candy, she went out on the porch and closed the door behind her.

Bertie, in his short kilts, with his feet curled up in a chair, watched Chick with absorbed interest as he donned his ragged, dirty trousers. A pair of purple suspenders that had once belonged to Mr. Flathers, excited his special admiration.

"Say, Chick, have you got a partner?"

Chick nodded.

"You couldn't be partners with me, too, could you?"

A violent shake of the head.

"I didn't think you could with two fellows at once." Bertie contemplated the boiling candy thoughtfully. "I could get lots of partners if I wasn't always sick. If you ever don't have the one you have got, could you take me, Chick?"

Chick looked him over critically, stood him up and measured heights and even felt his arm for muscle. Then he made a remark that while lacking lucidity was nevertheless conclusive.

"But I'm going to get bigger," urged Bertie.

"And I've got a music box, and a water pistol, and some marbles--"

At this Chick promptly produced a handful of marbles from his own pocket, and signified, by many whispers and hisses, that he was engaged in a wholesale and retail trade along that line, and open to negotiations.

Bertie made a hurried trip to the nursery and returned with a neat blue bag from which he poured treasures of agate and crystal.

Chick lost all interest in the candy. His professional reputation was at stake. Never could he face the gang on Billy-goat Hill, if he failed to fleece this lamb that Providence had so clearly thrust in his way.

Meanwhile Myrtella was exercising an elder sister's prerogative on the back steps, and bestowing upon her brother what she modestly called a piece of her mind.

For Phineas, in one of his periodical backslidings, had slid too far. His ambition to excel as a regenerate had carried him out of the quiet pastures of the Immanuel flock, into the more exhilarating battle- field of the Salvation Army. Lured by the prospect of recounting his experiences on a street corner to the accompaniment of an accordion, he had forsaken the safe shelter of the Ladies' Aid, and sought new worlds to conquer.

The experiment had not been a success. He was now, at the end of a year, going from door to door, ragged and unkempt, playing the small and uninteresting role of flood-sufferer. But Phineas' spirit soared blithely above his circumstances. He even encouraged Myrtella in her tirade against him, spurring her on to fresh effort, as the monks of old! courted flagellation.

"That's right, Sis!" he urged, "you git it all out of your system. I says to the lady next door, I says, what I need is a dressing down from my good sister. She'll give me gussie, says I, then she'll light in an' help me. That's her way, I says, there ain't a more generous person on this terrestrial globe. I 'lowed maybe she'd be moved to follow your example, but she wasn't. She handed me out a line of Sunday school talk fer more 'n a hour, then she didn't give me nothin' but this here Bible, an' me a starvin' man! I've ate a little of everything in my day, but I'm skeered to risk my digestion on Deuteronomies and Psa'ms!"

"Well, you needn't come beggin' 'round here, and trackin' in the mud," announced Myrtella firmly. "I'm done with you! You had just as good a chance to get on as me. I never ast favors of nobody; I went to work an' hustled. What's more, I ain't goin' to stop 'til I get to be a boardin'-house keeper. And what'll you be? A lazy, drunken, good-for- nothin' sponge."

Phineas, toying with his hat, suddenly sniffed the air and smiled.

"Molasses candy!" he exclaimed joyfully. "I couldn't git on to what was making me feel so good. Say, Sis, you must 'a' knowed I was a- comin'."

Myrtella stood in rigid disapproval on the top step and surveyed her next of kin with such chilling contempt that he decided to change his tactics.

"Honest, now, Sis, I never come to beg for nothin'. What I really come for was to tell you 'bout our good luck."

This move was so adroit that it caught Myrtella unawares, and elicited a faint show of curiosity. "We never knowed it 'til last week," Phineas proceeded mysteriously, "an' we ain't mentioned it to nobody 'til we git a parlor fitted up an' a sign painted."

"What for?"

"Fer see-ances! There's been a Dago doctor, calls himself Professor King, hangin' 'round the Hill, an' the minute he lays eyes on Maria Flathers he seen she was a mejium. He give her four lessons fer a dollar, an' she begin to hear raps an' bells ringin' the fifth settin'. Last night she begin to move the furniture."

"She must 'a' been in a trance!" exclaimed Myrtella. "I been knowin' Maria about fourteen years an' I never heard of her movin' the furniture. She can go to more pains to scrub around a table leg than any one I ever knowed."

But in spite of her scoffing, Myrtella was impressed. For many years she had considered a visit to a spiritualist, or clairvoyant, one of her wildest and most extravagant dissipations. The possibility of having a medium in the family was a luxury not to be lightly dismissed.

"Where'd you git the money fer the lessons?" she demanded suddenly.

Phineas hesitated and was lost.

"You spent Chick's! He's as ragged as a scarecrow. Looks like he don't get enough food to push his ribs out. I ketch you spendin' the money I give him on sperrits, livin' or dead, an' I'll never give you another cent!"

"Now, Sis, hold on! You didn't lemme finish. I'm thinkin' some of running a undertaker's business, along in conjunction with the see- ances. We could keep tab on the customers then, and build up a good trade. All on earth we need is just a little capital, an' we'd be a self-supportin' couple inside a week."

So convincing were Phineas' arguments, that in the end Myrtella consented to act as deus ex machina for the new psychical venture, on condition that Chick should be properly clothed, and fed, and made to go to school.

This agreement having been arrived at, Myrtella reached for her broom, and began such a vigorous attack on the steps, that Flathers was forced to conclude that his presence could be cheerfully dispensed with. He gathered himself up, slapped his hat on the side of his head, tucked his Bible under his arm, and made a sweeping bow.

"Fare thee well, my own true love. Bring the money Saturday night, an' Maria'll wind up the sperrits an' let 'em manifest fer you, free of charge. Sorry I can't wait fer that molasses candy to git done. You might send me some by Chick. Adiew!"

Myrtella stood, broom in hand, and watched the loose-jointed figure slouch down the pavement and out the back gate. He was cheerfully whistling the doxology, and his face wore the rapt expression of one whose thoughts are not on earthly things. She sighed and shook her head.

"Front door bell's ringing," called Bertie, "so's the telephone, and Father's gone out and says you can clean his study. There's the bell again."

"I expect it's Mr. Gooch inviting himself to supper. I ain't goin' to let him in. Give me that there plate to pour the candy in."

"Look, 'Telia, what Chick traded me!"

Myrtella cast a side glance at Bertie's extended palm, and promptly rescinded the deal.

"Ain't you ashamed of yourself, Chick Flathers! Tradin' a little fellow's fine marbles fer them comman allies? It's cheatin', that's what it is, it's stealin'! Ain't you ashamed?"

Chick was ashamed and had the grace to show it. His contrition would probably not have developed except through exposure, but standing before Myrtella's accusing glance, and the surprised, hurt look in Bertie's eyes, his hardened conscience was pricked, and his lip began to tremble.

With a fierce gesture of protection Myrtella pulled him to her:

"Don't, Chick! Don't cry! I wasn't meanin' to scold you. You ain't had a chance like other boys. You never had no playthings, you never had nothin'. You was a poor little abandoned child ever since you was born. Oh! God, I'm a wicked woman! I ain't fit to live on the earth!"

This amazing outburst so stunned the two small boys, that they stood looking at her in open-eyed astonishment. For some moments she swayed to and fro with her apron over her head, then savagely dried her eyes, and, bidding them follow her, stalked up the back stairs with broom and dust pan.

Doctor Queerington's study was at the top of the house, where by means of closing the doors and windows, and stuffing his ears with cotton, he was able to shut out that material world to which he preferred to remain a stranger. The room was filled from floor to ceiling with books, and it was one of the crosses of Myrtella's life that behind the visible rows of volumes, stood other rows, forming a sort of submerged library beyond the reach of her cloth and duster.

In no room in the house did she feel her importance more fully than in this inner shrine. She had calculated with mathematical precision the exact position of each of the Doctor's desk utensils, she knew the divinity that hedged about a manuscript, and the inviolable nature of bookmarks.

When Bertie began fingering the inkstand, she pounced upon him.

"Don't you dare touch a thing, either one of you! When the Doctor told me to take charge of his things, I took it. There ain't ever been a word of complaint since I come here, and I ain't goin' to have one at this here late date. There's the Doctor now comin' up the steps; I'll finish up here later. Get away from there, Chick!"

But Chick had made a discovery. On the Doctor's desk, smiling out from a porcelain frame, he had found his divinity! It was the beautiful young lady who had once taken his part in a fight with Skeeter Sheeley over a whip handle; it was the young lady who always smiled at him when she rode by Billy-goat Hill; it was she who had changed his life ambition from grand larceny to plumbing! Heedless of warning he snatched at the picture, and as he did so it slipped from his fingers and the frame shattered on the floor.

Doctor Queerington, at the doorway, took in the situation at a glance. He looked quickly from Myrtella's horrified face to the cringing figure of the strange child, then he smiled reassuringly.

"There is no serious harm done," he said in a quiet, pleasant voice; "the frame can be easily replaced, and as for the photograph--" he paused and smiled again, then he drew Bertie's hand into his; "Myrtella, I shall no longer have need of a photograph of that young lady. She has consented to come herself and take charge of us all."

Myrtella stood as one petrified; her massive figure with its upraised duster was silhoueted against the light, like a statue of the goddess of war. At last she found voice:

"To take charge?" she gasped. "Do you mean she's comin' to be Mis' Squeerington?"

"I do."

"Well, I give notice," announced Myrtella with all the dignity of offended majesty, and shoving Chick before her, she slammed the door upon the astonished Doctor and stalked haughtily down the stairs.