A Romance of Billy-Goat Hill by Alice Hegan Rice
"A bride who doesn't see her duty, should be made to see it," declared Mrs. Sequin to Mrs. Ivy in her most impressive manner." Something is naturally expected of the wife of John Jay Queerington. I told her expressly that Friday was her day, I even telephoned to remind her, and here it is four o'clock, and people beginning to come, and she off playing tennis!"
They were waiting in the twilight of the Queerington parlor, that plain, stiff, old maid of a parlor that had sprung completely furnished from the brain of a decorator some two decades before and never blinked an eyelid since. It was a room with which no one had ever taken liberties. Hattie had once petulantly remarked that her father would as soon have moved a tooth from his lower to his upper jaw, as to have moved an ornament or picture from the parlor to the second floor.
Mrs. Ivy, the lady addressed, smiled tolerantly. It was one of Mrs. Ivy's most irritating characteristics that she was always tolerant of other people's annoyances. She was blond and plump, and wore a modified toga and a crystallized smile.
"Ah! Mrs. Sequin," she purred, "our little bride is a child of Nature. Sweetness and light! We must not expect too much of her at first. My Gerald says she's like a wild little waterfall dancing in the sun, undammed by conventions. Gerald phrases things so perfectly."
"Well, I've had enough of trying to manage a waterfall!" Mrs. Sequin said grimly. "Cousin John asked me to take her in hand, and I must say I am finding her difficult. Perfectly sweet and good natured, you know, but she goes right on her own way. She has decided that she likes Connie's friends better than the Doctor's, that her hair doesn't feel right arranged the way it should be, that she isn't going to wear dresses made by fashionable dressmakers because they are uncomfortable. She actually told me she liked to be a few minutes out of style!"
"But isn't she right?" murmured Mrs. Ivy. "God has given her a graceful, symmetrical body, shouldn't she clothe it in flowing robes that do not confine or--"
"For Heaven's sake, Mrs. Ivy, don't you dare start her on dress reform! Her one chance for social success is her beauty. She simply terrifies me the way she says right out the first thing that comes into her mind. It will take me months to teach her the first lesson in society, that the most immodest thing in the world is the naked truth."
"What I hope to rouse in the dear girl," said Mrs. Ivy with a superior smile, "is a sense of responsibility toward her fellowmen. I have already proposed her name for the Anti-Tobacco League and Miss Snell, our corresponding secretary of the Foreign Missionary Society, has promised to meet me here at five. It is these young, ardent souls that must take up the banner of reform when it drops from the hands of us veterans."
"Well," said Mrs. Sequin, turning a handsome, bored profile to her companion, "I shall never get over the absurdity of the marriage!"
"Ah!" said Mrs. Ivy, laying a plump white hand on Mrs. Sequin's arm, "cosmic forces brought them together! The thing we seek is seeking us. She was young, inexperienced, adrift in the world; he was ill, lonely, and with three motherless children. She told me that through the past year, the Doctor's letters were all that sustained her."
"Of course they did! Cousin John's letters sustain everybody. Especially if you haven't heard his lectures. Of course he does repeat himself."
"As for her youth," went on Mrs. Ivy. "What if she is a mere rosebud as yet? She'll unfold; we'll help her to unfold, you and I, won't we?"
Meanwhile the bride had slipped in the side entrance and was making frantic haste in the room above to exchange a tennis costume for a new house-dress.
Connie Queerington was assisting, but Connie's assistance was generally a hindrance. She was an exceedingly voluble, blond young person, with blue eyes that enjoyed nothing more than their own reflection.
"I'll never get it hooked if you don't hold still," she was saying. "Every time you laugh you pop it open."
"Fifteen--love, thirty--love, forty--love, game!" rehearsed Miss Lady, practising a newly acquired serve with a vigorous stroke of her racket. "I could play all day and all night! Do you think I'll ever get to be a good player?"
"Of course, if you just won't get so excited and hit the balls before they bounce. Gerald Ivy says your overhand play is great. He's mad about you, anyhow. I'd give both my little fingers to have him look at me as he did at you to-day."
"Silly!" laughed Miss Lady. "There goes the button off my slipper. Do you suppose any one will notice if I pin the strap?"
"Nobody but Myrtella. Sit on your foot if she comes around. If you don't hurry Cousin Katherine will have nervous prostration."
"I don't see why you have to treat reception day like judgment day," complained Miss Lady. "Who else is down stairs?"
"Only Mrs. Ivy now. She is the one who held your hand and called you a sunbeam. Gerald's mother, you know. Hat can't abide her; says she's a pussy-cat. Of course Mr. Gooch will be here for supper."
"A friend of the Doctor's?"
"No, indeed. He isn't anybody's friend. He bores us all to extinction."
"Well, what's he coming for?"
"I don't know. He always comes on Friday. He came in here once to get out of the rain, and Mother asked him to stay to tea. That was ten years ago and he has been back nearly every Friday since."
"Do you have company like this all the time?" asked Miss Lady somewhat breathlessly.
"This is nothing!" exclaimed Connie dramatically. "Before Myrtella came I never knew what it was to sleep in my own bed, and I had to eat the legs of chickens until I felt like a centipede. There! You are all right; come along. Don't forget to tell Father about the party!"
Miss Lady had been married two weeks, but she was still circling wildly in a vortex of new experiences that excited and bewildered her. Through a long, lonely winter she had fought out her problems at the little country school, relying implicitly upon Doctor Queerington's friendship and guidance. His weekly letters, couched in paragraphs of technical perfection, seemed to her oracles of wisdom and beauty. Then the amazing and unbelievable thing had happened! He, the great Doctor Queerington, her father's friend, her friend, the man whom she respected more than any one else in the world, had chosen her, a young, inexperienced girl to be his wife!
To one who was quite sure that she was through with illusions for ever, and who flattered herself that the sentimental age was safely behind her, the honor of a life-long companionship with a man like Doctor Queerington was almost overwhelming. She wanted passionately to be of use in the world, to make her life count for something. The opportunity of being of service to the Doctor, of helping him complete the great work that absorbed him, of ministering to his physical needs, and bringing joy into his life, assumed the character of a sacred privilege.
If haunting doubts and vague unsatisfied longings possessed her at times, she attributed them to that dear but unreal glamour of romance that the Doctor had taught her must be expected to play for a while about the dawn of youth, but which fades away in the noon of maturity. And so not being skilled in the science of self-analysis, she fearlessly put her hand into the Doctor's, and promised to obey with a frank sense of relief at the shifted responsibility.
The new life into which she entered proved different in every respect from what she had expected. The Doctor's time, scheduled to the minute, admitted of no interruptions, however helpful from her. In fact, he seemed to regard her as a cherished luxury which he had no time to enjoy. The children accepted her according to their respective natures, Connie as a chum, Hattie as an arch enemy, and Bertie as an idol.
Hattie was fourteen, and had solved all the problems of the universe. She firmly upheld Aristotle and scornfully dismissed Plato from the world of philosophy. She disapproved of boys, of society, of second marriages, and she had four desperately intimate friends, all of whom were going to be authoresses. According to her observations she was the one person in the universe, excepting her father, who adhered to the truth. Hence her mission in life was to struggle single-handed against other people's inaccuracies.
Miss Lady found refuge from Hattie's caustic comments in Bertie's immediate devotion. He had won her heart on the night of her arrival, when he had gone to sleep in her lap with a last injunction, that she "must stay with them always, until God sent for her."
Whatever ideas Miss Lady had cherished of taking charge of the domestic affairs were promptly discouraged by Myrtella, who had graciously consented to give the new mistress a month's trial, threatening that at the first interference she would abandon her to her fate.
Their first meeting was auspicious. Myrtella on returning from her afternoon out, had heard a wild commotion in the nursery and hastened up to investigate. Bertie's introduction was breathless:
"It's the new mother, 'Tella, and Chick's here, and we are playing bear, and we've broken the bed-springs, and she knows heaps and heaps of stories, and she knows Chick!"
Myrtella, who had steeled herself for mortal combat, was not prepared for a foe who sat in the middle of the nursery bed, laughing behind a tumbled shock of shining brown hair.
"Oh! this is Myrtella, isn't it?" asked the bear, shaking back her mane and smiling with engaging frankness. "Bertie says you are Chick's aunt, and Chick's an old friend of mine, isn't it funny?"
"Where'd you ever know Chick?" demanded Myrtella with instant suspicion.
"We both live on Billy-goat Hill. We always wave to each other when I pass by, don't we, Chick?"
Chick, who was partially under the bed, still in his character of intrepid hunter, acknowledged the fact with such a torrent of enthusiastic incoherence that Myrtella interrupted sternly:
"Come out here this minute. It's time for you to be going on home anyhow. First thing I know I'll be getting complained at for having you hanging around so much. And look at your hands, Bertie Queerington! You are going to get put in the bath-tub right off, that's what you are going to get!"
"I'll bathe him," said Miss Lady eagerly.
"No," said Myrtella firmly, "there can't nobody but me manage him."
But in spite of the ferocity of Myrtella's aspect, there was a softened gleam in her eye that showed that the new mistress had begun by giving satisfaction.
The first few days after her arrival, Miss Lady spent in the dim parlor receiving callers. All the Doctor's relatives having survived their spasms of indignation over his marriage, united in a prompt determination to train up his young wife in the way she should go. Advice as various as it was profuse, was showered upon her. At first she was amused; then she was inexpressibly bored; at last she was desperate. She was not used to being indoors all day, she was not used to spending her time with elderly ladies who talked of moral obligations, and social demands, and civic consciences. The duties of her married life which had promised such interesting responsibilities, and wonderful opportunities for aiding the Doctor in his great work, seemed to be shrinking into the dull task of keeping herself and the children out of his way, preserving a tomb-like silence in the house, and entertaining an endless round of callers.
Even this would have been bearable if the Doctor could only have taken time from his soul-absorbing work to listen at the end of the day, with amused tenderness, to all her little experiences, if he had discussed with her the best way of handling the children, laughed with her over her struggles with Myrtella, and encouraged those affectionate words and caresses that were so much a part of her nature.
If he could have done this, Miss Lady would have soon found satisfaction in lavishing her affection upon him. It was her bent to be passionately attached to those about her, and she was not one to stand still in a mental or emotional imprisonment.
But the Doctor was struggling through the most nerve-wrecking month of the year at the university. The beginning of a new term, the adjustment of classes, the enrolment of new pupils, all made a heavy drain on his weakened constitution. He was in no condition in the evenings to give out anything more, even to a young and devoted bride who was quite ready to relinquish any other pleasure to burn incense at the shrine of his learning.
The homesickness that had hung over her since the day she had turned her back on Thornwood would have enveloped her completely had it not been for Connie. Connie was but a year her junior, and was thoroughly disapproved by the family connection. She enjoyed the reputation of being frivolous and vain, and wholly lacking in reverence to her elders.
Connie's friends and amusements proved the line of least resistance along which Miss Lady raced to freedom. The tennis court served as a joyful substitute for the drab dreariness of the new home, and the free and easy companionship of Connie's friends a happy relief from the elderly feminines that invaded it.
The Doctor was still the majestic pivot, round which her thoughts swung, but the circle was growing wider and wider. The difference in their ages, which at first to her inexperience had seemed such a trifling consideration, proved more serious as time went on.
She was eager for life, keen for pleasure, plastic, susceptible. Each new experience was to her an epoch, while to the Doctor, whose habits and opinions were fixed for eternity, it was usually but a fresh interruption to his work.
It was not that he failed to appreciate her. The light that came into his serious eyes whenever she was near, the unfailing courtesy and gentleness with which he spoke to her, the absolute freedom he allowed her, and the flattering appeal he made to her intellect, calmed whatever doubts might have risen in her mind.
Of her own feelings she dared not stop to think. Life was all so strange, so different from what she had expected. The flashes of doubt and perplexity that came in the pauses between Connie's closely planned festivities, she attributed to homesickness.
It was late when her last caller departed, and as she ran lightly up to the Doctor's study, she realized with a little sense of disappointment that she had not seen him since breakfast. Even now she paused at the door, for fear she would interrupt some flight of the muse. But on peeping in she found his big armchair drawn up to the window, and the top of a head appearing above its back. Tiptoeing cautiously forward she clapped her hands over his eyes and dropped a kiss on his upturned forehead.
In an instant a strange, belligerent little gentleman had sprung to his feet and was confronting her with features that resembled those of a magnified and outraged bumblebee.
"I am so sorry!" stammered Miss Lady in laughing chagrin, "I--I thought you were the Doctor!"
"Even so," admitted the stranger rather firmly, standing with chin lifted and nostrils dilated, "even so. You seem to have forgotten the fact that Doctor Queerington is now a benedict!"
"Yes, but you don't understand." I am--"
"A friend of Constance' no doubt. But under the circumstances you will permit me to say that such conduct is ill-advised. I should not mention it were I not a friend of the family--"
"Oh! You are Mr. Gooch?"
"I am. And I have the pleasure of addressing--"
"Why, I'm Mrs. Queerington," said Miss Lady, blushing furiously.
Mr. Gooch sank back into the chair and looked at her indignantly.
"Impossible!" he exploded. "They did not tell me--in fact I was not prepared--May I ask you not to mention my mistake to the girls? Constance, as you doubtless have discovered, is very silly, given to making great capital out of nothing. We will not mention it."
"Ah!" said the Doctor in the doorway with his arms full of books. "How are you, my dear? How are you, Mr. Gooch? What is this conspiracy of silence?"
"It is only against the girls," laughed Miss Lady. "We'll take him in, won't we, Mr. Gooch?"
The Doctor listened with tolerant amusement as Miss Lady gave a dramatic account of the double mistake, but Mr. Gooch failed to smile.
All through supper that evening Miss Lady tried in vain to propitiate the guest. His manner showed only too plainly that he regarded her as an intrusion in the family which he had seen fit to adopt. It was not until the pudding arrived that his mood mellowed. Myrtella's cooking was so eminently to his taste that he was willing to put up with a great deal for the privilege of enjoying it. Moreover, laughter always improved his digestion and the young person at the head of the table was proving amusing.
"Mr. Gooch is waiting for more coffee," announced Hattie, interrupting an animated account Miss Lady was giving of her first day at the country school.
"Let her finish the story," said the Doctor to whom food was immaterial. He was indulging in the unusual luxury of loitering at the table after the meal was finished, a habit seldom tolerated in the Queerington household.
"But there isn't time," insisted Hattie. "Connie is having a party to- night."
"A party?" The Doctor's brows lifted.
"Yes," broke in Connie. "Miss Lady said she didn't think you'd mind, and she persuaded Myrtella to let us dance in here. You won't mind the noise, just this one night, will you, Father?"
The Doctor considered the matter gravely. After all, his reading would be interrupted by Mr. Gooch, so he might as well assent. He seldom objected to any plan that did not interfere with his own actions. His absorption in the race precluded an interest in mere family matters.
"They are not pressing you into service, I hope?" he asked, glancing at Miss Lady.
"Indeed we are!" cried Connie. "She's going to play for us to dance, when she isn't dancing herself. Of course we want her with us."
"You forget, Constance, that there are other claims upon her. Mr. Gooch and I would like to have her with us in the study."
Miss Lady looked up in pleased surprise.
"That settles it, Connie," she said; "you girls can play for yourselves. Come on and go to bed, Kiddie," and with Bertie at her heels, the new mistress of Queerington raced down the hall.
For ten years Doctor Queerington and Mr. Gooch had played pinochle every Friday evening. The Doctor did not especially enjoy it, except as one of those incidents that grows acceptable by long repetition. He was a born routinist, regarding a well-regulated world as a place where everything ran in the same grooves to eternity. One of his chief sources of satisfaction in regard to his second marriage was that it promised not to interfere with those established laws which regulated his day, from the prompt breakfast at 7:15 to the long hours with his books in the evening. In short, Doctor Queerington was a sort of well- regulated human clock, announcing his opinions as irrevocably as the striker announces the hours, and ticking along so monotonously between times that one almost forgot he was there.
If the Friday evening game was to him merely a habit, to Mr. Gooch it was an occasion. Having once seated himself, and glanced around to make sure his hand was not reflected in a mirror, he spread his cards gingerly in his palm with only the corners visible, squared his jaw and proceeded with solemnity to observe the full rigor of the game. There was no trifling with points, or replaying of tricks. The marriage of kings and queens was solemnized without rejoicing, and even the parade of a royal sequence brought no flush of triumph to his cheek, but moved him only to chronicle it in small, precise figures in a red morocco note-book which he always brought with him for the purpose.
When Miss Lady came up to the study, after giving Bertie two encores to "Jack the Giant Killer," she found the men silently absorbed in their game. Sitting on a hassock at the Doctor's side, she tried to follow the detailed explanation that he gave during each deal. But the jargon of "declarations," and "sequences," and "common marriages" soon grew wearisome, and she found herself idly studying the Doctor's fine, serious face, and listening for his low, flexible voice which unconsciously softened when he spoke to her.
In spite of the fact that the study was very warm these sultry September evenings, and the Doctor's mental strides much too long for her to keep pace, she nevertheless looked eagerly forward to the hours spent there. If at times she failed to follow his elucidations, or grew sleepy reading aloud from some well-thumbed classic, it was not because her admiration and respect for her husband were lessening. In fact, he was always at his best at this time, surrounded by the books he knew and loved, and expanding under the approbation of his one appreciative listener. Here he reigned, a feudal lord, safe guarded in his castle of books against that strange and formidable enemy, the World.
"Four aces, and pinocle," announced Mr. Gooch with grim satisfaction.
Miss Lady rose restlessly and went to the window in the alcove. From the parlor below came the strains of a waltz and snatches of laughter; overhead the stars loomed big and white in the summer night. She thought how strange and lonesome it must be out at Thornwood with the lights all out and the windows nailed up. The little night things were singing in the garden by this time, and the cool breezes were beginning to stir the treetops. She wondered how Mike was getting along without her, and a lump rose in her throat. She swallowed resolutely, and smiled confidently up at the stars. Her married life was not in the least what she had expected, but it would all work out for the best. To be sure, nobody seemed to need her, nothing was required of her, but she would make a place for herself, she must make a place for herself. Perhaps if she had something to do besides playing with Connie and her friends all day, she would get over this feeling of uselessness, and this haunting homesickness for the hills and valleys, for her horses and dogs, and the old brick house among the trees.
Suddenly she caught her breath and listened:
"He's coming home," Mr. Gooch was saying in the room behind her. "At least, they've sent for him. Young Decker, who has just gotten back, says Morley will come on a stretcher rather than have people believe that he shot a man, then ran away. They had never heard a word of the indictment."
"As I expected," the Doctor said, shuffling the cards. "When does he return?"
"When he's able to travel, I suppose. Decker left him down with a fever in a hospital in Singapore. He's done for himself, I am afraid."
"Very probably," said the Doctor. "Poor Donald! It's your lead."
Miss Lady slipped behind the curtain, and steadied herself by the window sill. Why had her heart almost stopped beating? Why was it beating now as if it would strangle her? Why did the thought of Donald Morley lying ill and friendless in a foreign hospital rouse every desire in her to go to him at once at any cost? Waves of surprise and shame surged over her. She heard nothing, saw nothing, save the fact that something she thought was dead had come to life. She was wakening from a long numb sleep, and the wakening was terrifying. What irremediable catastrophe had happened between now and that supreme moment when she had stood under the lilacs in the twilight with Donald Morley's arms about her, his breath on her cheek, and his passionate plea: "Oh, if you only knew how I need you! I'll be anything under heaven for your sake if you'll only stand by me!"
"My game," said the Doctor. "Fortune has favored me. What became of Miss Lady? The call of the young people down-stairs grew too strong, I presume."
Mr. Gooch, in a very bad humor over the loss of the last game, sullenly packed his deck of cards in the case with the red morocco note-book and made ready to take his departure. The Doctor automatically placed the card table against the wall, arranged the chairs at their prefer angles, straightened a book on his desk, and turned out the lights, leaving a slim white figure with trembling hands and terror-stricken eyes, cowering in the starlight behind the swaying curtains.