A Romance of Billy-Goat Hill by Alice Hegan Rice
The red lamps were all lighted in Mrs. Ivy's small parlor, and the disordered tea-table and general confusion of the overcrowded room, gave evidence that one of her frequent "at homes" had been brought to an end.
It might have been inferred that the hostess had also been brought to an end, to judge from her closed eyes and clasped hands, and the effort with which she inhaled her breath and the violence with which she exhaled it. The maid, clearing away the tea things, viewed her with apprehension.
"Excuse me, ma'm, but will you be havin' the hot-water bag?" she asked when she could endure the strain no longer.
Mrs. Ivy opened one reluctant eye and condescended to recall her spirit to the material world.
"Norah, how could you?" she asked plaintively. "Haven't I begged you never to disturb my meditation?"
"Yis, ma'm, but this, you might say, was worse than usual. Me mother's twin sister died of the asthmy."
"Never speak to me when you see me entering into the silence. I was denying fatigue; now I shall have to begin all over!"
It was evidently difficult for Mrs. Ivy to again tranquilize her spirit. Her eyes roved fondly about the room, resting first upon one cherished object then upon another. Autographed photographs lined the walls, autographed volumes littered the tables. Above her head two small bronze censers sent wreaths of incense curling about a vast testimonial, acknowledging her valiant service in behalf of the anti- tobacco crusade. Flanking this were badges of divers shape and size, representing societies to which she belonged. In the cabinet at her left were still more disturbing treasures such as Gerald's first pair of shoes, and the gavel that the last president of the Federated Sisterhood had used before she had, as Mrs. Ivy was fond of saying, "been called upon to hand in her resignation by the Board of Death."
Before the error of fatigue had been entirely erased from her mental state, her eyes fell upon a pamphlet, and she immediately became absorbed in its contents. It set forth the need for a Home for Crippled Animals, and by the time she reached the second page she was framing a motion to be presented to her club on the morrow. Mrs. Ivy was greatly addicted to motions; in fact, it was one of her missions in life continually to move that things should be other than they were, without in any way supplying the motive power to change them.
While thus engaged she was interrupted by a belated caller. He was a short, heavy-set young man, with a square prominent jaw, and a twinkle in his eye.
"Mister Decker!" exclaimed Mrs. Ivy, swimming toward him. "After all these months in those wonderful Eastern lands! I can almost catch the odor of sandalwood about you!"
"It's dope," said Decker, with an easy laugh. "Chinese dope. I've had these clothes cleaned twice, and I can't get rid of it. Had them on one night in an opium den in Hankow. Funny how that smell stays with you."
"An opium den?" repeated Mrs. Ivy, lifting a protesting hand. "And is no effort being made to stamp out such iniquities in China? Might not some concerted action on the part of the women's clubs in all the Christian countries create a public sentiment against them?"
Decker bit his lip as he stooped to pick up the leaflet she had dropped.
"Gerald's here I suppose?"
"Of course! How thoughtless of me not to explain that I always insist upon the dear lad resting between four and five. He inherits delicate lungs from his father, and an emotional, artistic temperament from me. Then both of his maternal grandparents had heart trouble."
"Still hammers away at his music, I suppose?" Decker asked, minutely inspecting the photograph of a meek-looking female who appeared totally unable to live up to the bold, aggressive signature with which she had signed herself.
"Dear Miss Snell," Mrs. Ivy explained, "corresponding secretary of the A. T. L. A. If you had only come sooner you could have met her. What were you asking? Oh, yes! about Gerald's music. Why, you could no more imagine Gerald without music, than you could think of a bird without wings. He would simply perish without a piano. When we are abroad we rent one if we are only going to be in a place ten days. His Papa can't understand this, but then Mr. Ivy is not musical, poor dear; he really doesn't know a fugue from a fantasie."
"Neither do I," said Decker. "Do the Queeringtons still live next door?"
"Yes. You know our beloved Doctor has married again."
"What! Good old Syllogism Queerington! you don't mean it! I wonder if he knows her first name? He taught me four years up at the University and never could remember mine."
"Oh! here's my boy! Are you feeling better, dear?" Mrs. Ivy turned expectant eyes to the door where a lean, loosely put together young man was just entering. He had the slouching gait that indicates relaxed ambitions as well as relaxed muscles, and his hands were deep in his pockets as if they were at home there.
"Hello, Decker, glad to see you," he drawled languidly. "Wish you'd stir the fire, Mater dear; it's beastly cold in here."
"I'll do it," said Decker shortly.
Gerald Ivy dropped gracefully on the sofa, and became absorbed in examining his nails. He was rather a handsome if anemic youth, with the general air of one who has weighed the world and found it wanting. His eyes, large and brown and effective, swept the room restlessly. They were accomplished eyes, being capable of expressing more emotions in a moment than Gerald had felt in a lifetime.
As he idly turned the leaves of a magazine, he asked Decker how long he had been back in America.
"A couple of months, but I've only been in town two weeks. Sorry to hear you are under the weather."
"Oh! I'm a ruin," said Gerald; "a dilapidated, romantic ruin. Something's gone wrong in the belfry to-day. Is my face swollen, Mater?"
Mrs. Ivy bent over him in instant solicitude.
"I do believe it is swollen, darling; just here. Look, Mr. Decker, doesn't it seem a trifle fuller than the other side?"
Cropsie Decker's eye, not being trained by years of maternal solicitude, failed to distinguish any difference.
"No matter," said Gerald gloomily; "if it isn't then it's something else. What's the news, Decker?"
"The only news for me is this idiotic talk that has been allowed to go the rounds about Don Morley. That is what I came to see you about. What does Dillingham have to say about it?"
"Oh, you know Dill; he side-steps. The whole thing has blown over here months ago; the subject is as extinct as the dodo."
"Well, it won't be extinct long! I've cabled Don to come home, and I bet he'll stir things up. There's nothing to hold him now that Margery Sequin's broken her engagement."
"So sad!" murmured Mrs. Ivy. "I hope young Mr. Dillingham won't do anything desperate. To think of his cup of happiness being dashed from his lips--"
The two young men looked at each other and laughed.
"Don't worry about Dill, Mater. He has more than one cup to fall back on. It is old man Sequin that may do something desperate. I hear they have made no end of a row, but Margery holds her own."
"They say on the street," said Decker, "that Mr. Sequin has been counting on the Dillinghams' money to reinforce the bank. He's been going it pretty heavy the last two years."
"One cannot live by bread alone," quoted Mrs. Ivy; "our friends have been living the material life, they have forgotten that they are but stewards, and as stewards will be held accountable for the way they use their wealth. Mrs. Sequin makes absolutely no effort to advance the progress of the world. She has refused from the first to join the A.T.L.A. and she is not even a member of the Woman's Club."
"Well, I hope Mr. Sequin hasn't been playing with Don Morley's money," said Decker, resuming the subject from which Mrs. Ivy had flown off at a tangent. "Donald has always left everything to him, and doesn't know anything more about his investments than I do. All he is concerned with is spending his income, and that keeps him busy."
At this moment Norah appeared with fresh tea and cakes, making her way with some difficulty through the labyrinth of red lamps, small tables, foot-stools and marble-crowned pedestals that crowded the room.
"Ah!" cried Mrs. Ivy, "here are some of the little cakes, Gerald, that you love. You will try one, won't you? We have the greatest time tempting his appetite, Mr. Decker. He can only eat what he likes. I have always contended with his father that there was some physical cause for his craving sweets. I never refused them to him when he was a child. But from the time he was born he has never really lived on food, he has lived on music."
Gerald, at the moment regaling himself with his second cake, gave evidence that he did not rely solely on the sustaining power of music.
"And now, will you excuse me, dear Mr. Decker?" asked Mrs. Ivy, gathering her lavender skirts about her. "I am a very, very busy woman, and my desk claims much of my time. You will come to us again, won't you? Gerald's friends, you know, are my friends. Good-by." And with a tender pressure of the hand, and a lingering look she was gone.
Gerald waited until the door was closed, then produced cigarettes which he proffered to Decker.
"Mater's last hobby is tobacco," he smiled indulgently. "She is going to abolish it from the universe. Do you remember how Doctor Queerington used to hold forth on the subject at the university?"
"By the way, your mother tells me he has married again. I don't know why, but that tickles me. Was she a widow?"
Gerald with his elbows on the arms of his chair and holding his teacup with both hands just below the level of his eyes, looked suddenly gloomy.
"No," he said. "I wish to Heaven she was one!"
"What's the matter with Old Syllogism? I always thought he was a rather good sort."
"I'm not thinking about him!" Gerald said impatiently. "I am thinking of the girl. She can't be much older than I am and the most exquisite thing you ever beheld. Her coloring is absolutely luminous. She ought to be painted by Besnard or La Touche or some of those French chaps that make a specialty of light. She positively radiates!"
"How did she ever happen to marry the Doctor?"
"Heaven knows! He captured her in the woods somewhere. I don't suppose she had ever seen a man before. Jove! You ought to see her play tennis, and to hear her laugh. She's a perfect wonder, as free and easy as one of the boys, but straight as a die. Doesn't give a flip for money or clothes, or society. Did you ever hear of a really pretty girl being like that?"
"I hope Doctor Queerington likes her as well as you do."
"Heavens, man! everybody likes her; you can't help it. But nobody understands her. You see they look on her as a child; they haven't the faintest conception of what she is going through."
"And you think you have?"
"I know it. She's trying to adjust herself, and she can't. She's finding out her mistake and making a game fight to hide it. When she first came she went in for everything. She had never played tennis or golf, and she got more fun out of learning than anybody I ever saw. Then suddenly she stopped. Some old desiccated relative told the Doctor it didn't look well for his wife to be running around with the young people, and that settled it. She gave up like an angel, and she's not the kind that likes to give up either. Now her days are devoted to the heavy domestic, and her evenings to improving her mind in the Doctor's stuffy old study."
"Talking to the Doctor," confessed Decker, "always affected me like looking at Niagara Falls; grand, and imposing and awe-inspiring, but a little goes a long way. How is she standing it?"
"Getting thinner and paler and prettier every day. She's a country girl, you know, used to horses, and outdoor exercise. She must have been beastly homesick, but she's game through and through. It was awfully hard for her to bluff at first. That's because she is so honest. But she has had to learn. No woman, good or bad, can get through life without learning to bluff, only it comes harder for the good ones. What's that confounded racket in the street?"
They rose and went to the window, Gerald looking over the shoulder of his shorter companion.
A superannuated gray mule hitched to a heavy cart had come to a standstill in the middle of the street, and a group of excited negroes were vainly trying to induce him to move on. With one ear cocked forward, and his forefeet firmly planted, the decrepit animal dumbly made his declaration of independence, taking the blows that rained upon his back with the dogged heroism of one who has resolved to die rather than surrender.
"By Jupiter, if those coons aren't fixing to build a fire under him!" exclaimed Decker. "They'd rather fool with a balking mule than eat watermelon! Let's go out to see the sport."
When Decker reached the porch, having left Gerald at the hall mirror, inspecting his face with minute solicitude, a new figure had appeared on the scene. It was a girl dressed in white, standing in the Queeringtons' yard, and as he looked he saw her suddenly dart out of the gate and into the street as if she had been shot from a cannon.
"Stop pulling his head like that!" she demanded. "Don't you dare to strike him again. Take that fire away!"
The negroes fell back somewhat astonished, and the driver arrested his whip in the air.
"I'll show you how to make him go," she went on; "put mud in his mouth. Yes, mud, a big lump of mud. There, that'll do; make it into a ball, and put it in. Yes, you can! Oh, dear! Give it to me!"
She seized the mule's lower jaw with her thumb and forefinger, and with a deft movement succeeded in getting the unwelcome substance between the animal's teeth.
The mule evinced surprise, then curiosity. His fore feet relaxed, his eye lost its fire, and when a gentle pressure fell upon his halter, he was too engrossed in the new sensation to resist it.
"Bravo, Miss Lady!" called Gerald, sauntering forward to meet her. "I told you you were irresistible. What did you whisper in his ear?"
"Lots of things!" she said, accepting his immaculate handkerchief to wipe the mud from her hands, "but of course the mud helped. Uncle Jimpson taught me that trick. He says a mule has room in his head for only one thought at a time, and all you have to do is to change his balking thought for some other and he'll go."
"I hope you will never have to put mud in my mouth," said Gerald, looking at her with no attempt to conceal his admiration. "Can't you come over and see mother for a bit? She'd love to give you a cup of tea."
"I don't like tea in the afternoon; it spoils my supper." "Well, then, come over to see me. There's a friend of mine I want you to meet. I've been telling him about you."
"I can't. I'm drawing pictures for Bertie. He'll be disappointed."
"So will I. So will Decker."
"Decker?" Miss Lady flashed a glance at him. "You don't mean Cropsie Decker?"
"Yes, I do; the special correspondent for the Herald-Post. Is that sufficient inducement?"
Miss Lady looked at him rather strangely. "I'll come," she said after a moment's hesitation.
They did not return to the parlor but to the music-room, a large room on the opposite side of the hall, which Mrs. Ivy, a firm believer in the psychological effect of color, had fitted out in blue to induce a contemplative mood in the occupants. On the mantel and tables were the same miscellaneous collection of bric-a-brac that characterized the parlor. Several pictures of Gerald adorned the walls, the most imposing of which presented him seated at the piano, with his mother standing beside him, a rapt expression on her elevated profile.
Miss Lady flitted about from object to object, asking questions, not waiting for answers, seeing everything, commenting on everything while the two young men stood side by side on the hearth rug and watched her. She was like a humming-bird afraid to light.
"Please, Mrs. Queerington," Gerald begged at last. "You know you don't care for those old kodaks. I'll show them to you another time. I want you to talk to Decker. Sit down here in this big chair and I'll sit at your feet, where I belong, and Cropsie'll sit anywhere he likes and tell us about his adventures."
"But where's your mother? I thought you said she was serving tea?"
"She'll be down directly. Now, tell us a story, Decker. A man can't wander around the Orient for a year without having something exciting happen to him."
"I'm afraid I haven't an experiencing nature," said Decker, smiling. "You ought to have Morley here. He's the fellow that went over with me, Mrs. Queerington. I'll back him against the field for having adventures. You remember that big fire last year in Tokyo? Don was the first Johnny on the spot, doing the noble hero act, dragging out women and children and gallantly fighting the flames, while I lay up in bed at the Imperial Hotel and fought mosquitoes! He was in a collision at sea, just off the coast of Korea, got mixed up in a Chinese uprising in Nanking and was arrested for a spy while taking pictures of the fortifications at Miyajima. If I had half his luck I'd be the highest priced man in the syndicate."
"I don't know that I particularly envy him his luck in the incident that happened here just before he left," said Gerald, lighting a fresh cigarette.
"It was nothing to his discredit," said Decker hotly. "He happened to be a witness when that fool Dillingham got into a shooting scrape, and he left town because he did not want to testify against the man his niece was going to marry. He didn't consider the consequences, he never does. It was a toss up when I met him in 'Frisco whether he would come home, or go on."
"Didn't he know he was indicted?" asked Gerald.
"Certainly not. Neither of us knew it until I got home and found people talking about 'Poor Donald Morley,' and acting as if he were a refugee from justice. Two or three letters came from Mrs. Sequin, but she was so busy urging Don to stay away that she hadn't time to write anything else. We did get one old home paper, somewhere in Java, with an account of the trial. That was the first intimation Don had that Dillingham was throwing off on him. Even then he could scarcely believe it; there's nothing in him to understand a man like Lee Dillingham."
"But he was with him,--that night at the saloon," ventured Miss Lady, sitting up very straight and listening very intently.
Gerald smiled skeptically. "He went in out of the rain, my dear lady; that's what he wrote home, I understand; and he didn't indulge in a single drink. Rather a strain on the imagination in the light of subsequent events."
"See here, Ivy," said Decker, rising and standing before the fire with his square jaw thrust out, and the twinkle gone from his eye. "I happen to know this story from beginning to end, and we both know Don Morley. He's as full of faults as a porcupine is of quills, but he's neither a liar nor a coward. If he says he was sober that night I'd stake my life he was."
There was an uncomfortable pause during which Gerald tenderly felt his afflicted face, and Decker glared at the chandelier.
"He ought to have stayed to explain," said Miss Lady, not daring to look up; "a man's first duty is to himself and--and to those who care for him."
"That was the trouble," said Decker slowly. "It seems that the one person Don cared most about wouldn't listen to an explanation. He wrote her full particulars, and asked her to telegraph him if he should go or stay. When I met him in 'Frisco he had been waiting for that wire for three days, and he was nearly off his head. I got him on the steamer almost by main force. We laid over ten days in Honolulu, and he got the notion that a letter would be waiting for him in Yokohama, and that he would take the next steamer home. All the way across I heard about that girl from the time the Chino brought our coffee in the morning until we went below again for the night. He all but said his prayers to her; cut out everything to drink; even refused to play a friendly game of poker. Why, I've tramped so many decks to the tune of that girl's charms that I could write a book about her."
"What is her name?" asked Gerald greatly interested.
"Heavens, I don't know! She was a wood nymth, a dryad, a jewel, a flower, I could keep it up indefinitely. He had a new one for her every day. When we reached Japan, he couldn't wait for the steamer to dock but went ashore in the pilot boat, and made a bee line for Cook's. There was nothing there. It was like that at every port we touched. Each time he would get his hopes up to fever heat, and each time he'd be disappointed. I never saw such perseverance and belief. He made excuse after excuse for her. He was too proud to write again, and he got leaner and leaner and more and more homesick. You know that collision I spoke of? Well, he got in that by waiting over a steamer at Nagasaki in the hope of getting a letter before he left Japan."
"What happened next?" asked Gerald; "did another planet swim into his ken?"
"Hardly. The smash came just before I left him, a couple of months ago. We were at Raffles Hotel in Singapore having tea with some French girls from the steamer. Our purser happened along and gave Don a letter which I recognized as being from Mrs. Sequin. He read the first sheet, then looked up in a wild sort of way, and asked if we'd mind excusing him as he had something he wanted to see to before the steamer sailed. At five o'clock he'd never shown up, and I had to hustle our bags ashore and start out to look for him. He'd been awfully seedy for a couple of months and when he got left I knew something serious had happened. I found him late that night in the foreign hospital out of his head with a fever. It seems the letter had told him that his girl was going to be married, and half beside himself he had gotten into a rikisha, and ridden for hours in the tropical sun, trying to face the fact. Of course in the run-down state he was in, it put him out of business, and by the time he got back to Raffles', he didn't know who he was, nor where he was. I stayed with him until the Herald-Post sent for me to come home. Maybe you don't think I hated to leave the old chap, in that God-forsaken country, lying flat on his back, staring at the ceiling, with all his illusions smashed."
"Did he want to come with you?" asked Gerald.
"He didn't want anything. He had wanted one thing so long there was no more want left in him. I tried to get him to let me engage passage for him on the next home-bound steamer. But he said he doubted if he'd ever come back, that as soon as he was able to travel he would go on around the world, and that it didn't make much difference where he landed."
"Quite a tragic little romance," Gerald said. "What a lot of mischief you women have to answer for, Mrs. Q.!"
But Miss Lady did not hear him, she was still leaning forward absorbed in Decker's narrative.
"If he comes home, in answer to your cable, when can he get here?" she asked.
"Not before Christmas I should say."
"If I were Lee Dillingham I should go South for the winter," Gerald said, going to the piano and striking a few random chords.
After Cropsie Decker left, Miss Lady sat very quiet in the big chair, while Gerald played to her. It was well that only the kindly old bust of Liszt looked down on her tense white face, and clasped hands.
For over two months she had been fighting a specter, never daring to lift her eyes to it, but fighting it blindly, passionately, unceasingly. She had denied its existence, refuted every memory, filled her life to the brim with other interests, other affections, and here suddenly she had met it face to face, and it was no longer horrible, but a beautiful, radiant vision, a thing to be buried in her innermost being, a sacred, solemn thing, not to be looked at, or dwelt upon, but no longer to be denied.
The stormy, insistent strains of the "Appassionata" filled the room, surging through every fiber of her, lifting and abasing her by turns. How could she get hold of herself while Gerald played like that? She was sinking in a great sea of emotion and the music swept about her like a mighty gale, shutting out everything in the world but Donald Morley. He had not failed her, it was she who had failed him. He was coming home, and it was too late. She would have to meet him face to face, to see all that he had suffered in his eyes and speak no word. Surely she might give him this one hour, just while the music lasted; give it to him and to herself for the lifetime together they had missed.
She did not know when the music stopped, she did not know when Gerald came back to the hassock at her feet. He had evidently been there some time when she was aware of his elbow on the arm of her chair, and his head buried in it.
"Gerald!" she said, starting up; "what's the matter?"
"Everything. Is that your trouble?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that you are unhappy," he said, catching her hand.
She sprang to her feet and snapped on the electric lights.
"Do I look as if I were unhappy?" she demanded, flashing on him her old, bright smile. "It was the music, and the twilight, and the way you played. That sonata ought never to be played except in a crowded room with all the lights on."
"It wasn't the music," Gerald persisted; "you know it wasn't. Something's troubling you, and something is troubling me. May I tell you what is the matter with me, Miss Lady?"
He was looking at her very intently across the table, and Miss Lady for the first time recognized the danger signals in his eyes.
"Let me guess!" she cried, her wits springing to her rescue. "I think I know. I thought so when I first came in. It's mumps!"
Gerald's hand flew instinctively to his face, and his eyes sought the mirror. Miss Lady, in applying to Gerald Ivy, Uncle Jimpson's remedy for a balking mule, had averted a disaster.