A Romance of Billy-Goat Hill by Alice Hegan Rice
The new year began inauspiciously at the Queerington's. In the first place Bertie woke up with the chickenpox and was banished to the nursery. Then the Doctor followed his annual custom of going over his business affairs, with the usual result that he found his accounts greatly overdrawn. This fact was solemnly communicated to each member of the family in turn together with admonitions in regard to the future. By lunch time Hattie had been sent to her room for impertinently suggesting that her father spent more on his books than she did on her clothes, and Connie was sulking over a reduced allowance.
"Of course," the Doctor explained to Miss Lady as he sank exhausted into his invalid chair which had been pressed into service again during the past few weeks, "I have no doubt but that Basil Sequin can arrange things for me. He always has in the past, but he seems very pressed of late, very harassed. I hardly like to approach him so soon again for a loan."
"Couldn't we rent a smaller house, and have less company?" suggested Miss Lady.
The Doctor shook his head. "It would be very difficult for me to adjust myself to new surroundings. The conditions here for my work are fairly satisfactory. The Ivy's piano, to be sure, is a constant annoyance, but by using cotton in my ears I obviate that nuisance. It is particularly unfortunate that this complication about money should come just at the most critical point of my work. Unless Basil Sequin can make some arrangement, I shall be seriously embarrassed."
"I'll tell you what we can do," cried Miss Lady brightly, just as if she had not been trying to get herself up to the point of making the offer for a week. "We can sell off another bit of Thornwood. Since the Sequins built out there ever so many people have asked about ground."
"No," said the Doctor, the lines of care deepening in his fine, grave face. "There is little left now but the house and farm. Your sentiment regarding the place is such that I cannot permit the sacrifice. The matter will doubtless adjust itself. I shall take some private pupils at the university and perhaps arrange an extra course of lectures. The exigencies of the past two years have been exceptional."
"But you are already working yourself to death," protested Miss Lady. "Doctor Wyeth said last week that you could not stand the strain. The rest of us ought to do something; we must do something!"
"You are doing something, my dear. You are relieving me of innumerable burdens in regard to the house and the children. You are proving of great assistance to me in my work, not only by your reading aloud, but by the unfailing sympathy and understanding you give me. Whatever success shall crown my life work will be in a measure due to you."
She was sitting on a hassock at his feet, and she looked up at him with strange, dumb eyes. His frail body and towering ambition, his loveless life that knew not what it missed, roused in her a pity almost maternal. A fierce resentment rose within her against herself, for not loving him as she knew a husband should be loved. If he had only won her with his heart instead of his head!
The door bell rang and Miss Lady glanced up apprehensively.
"It was the pickle woman," announced Myrtella, coming in a moment later from the hall. "I sent her about her business."
"Not Miss Ferney!" cried Miss Lady, springing up and rushing out to call her.
Miss Ferney Foster with much difficulty was persuaded to return and sit on the edge of a hall chair. On New Year's in the past she had always made a formal call at Thornwood and presented the Colonel with a sample of her best wares. The Colonel in turn had invariably sent down cellar for one of the cobwebbiest bottles on the swinging shelf and bestowed it upon her with great gallantry. The indignity of having been refused admittance at the house of the Colonel's daughter was almost more than she could bear.
"Now, tell me about everybody out home," demanded Miss Lady eagerly. "Begin at the bottom of the hill and go right straight up."
"I don't know much news," Miss Ferney said, plucking at the fingers of her cotton gloves. "I been sewing up to the Sequins' all week."
"Mercy! How grand we are getting!"
"Just hemming table clothes and napkins. I can't say I think much of their new place. It's kind of skimpy."
"Why, Miss Ferney! It is the biggest house I was even in!"
"I ain't talking 'bout the size. I'm talking 'bout the fixings. There ain't a single carpet that fits the floor by two feet, and the wallpaper's patched in every room but one. As for the dining-room! Well, I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes! They haven't got a picture, or a tidy, or a curtain, or a lamberkin, of any kind. 'Spose I oughtn't to tell it on 'em, but the day I was there they didn't even have a tablecloth!"
Miss Lady laughed in spite of herself, and Bertie heard her and got out of bed to call over the banisters that if they were telling jokes to please come up there.
"You know that young man that used to be out to the Wickers'?" asked Miss Ferney on the way up. "Well, he's Mrs. Sequin's brother. He's giving 'em considerable trouble."
"How do you mean?"
"They want him to go 'way somewheres, and he won't do it. The servant girl told me that him and his sister had been having it up and down, and that Miss Margery took his side."
"Is he going to stay?" Miss Lady paused and her fingers gripped the banister.
"I dunno. I guess if he gits mad enough he'll run off to China like he did before. Ain't that somebody calling you?"
It was Connie who had run up to say that a young man was at the front door who looked like a tombstone with a blond pompadour.
"Noah Wicker!" exclaimed Miss Lady. "I forgot that I told him I would try to get him into Mr. Gooch's law office the first of the year. Wasn't it like him to arrive the first day? You go down, Connie, that's a darling, and entertain him 'til I come. I'll be there directly."
But "directly" proved an elastic term, for after Miss Ferney had left, and four different persons had been assured over the telephone that all invitations were being declined on account of the Doctor's indisposition, Miss Lady found Hattie still sulking in her room, and spent a half hour in restoring peace to that troubled bosom.
Meanwhile Myrtella came up to announce with elation that a waterpipe had burst in the cellar. Few things roused such joy in Myrtella as the bursting of a waterpipe. It was an act of insubordination on the part of the pipe, with which she deeply sympathized.
"And it's Mr. Gooch's night for supper, and if that man in the parlor stays, too, the ice cream won't go 'round," she declared, with evident satisfaction in the cumulative tragedy.
By the time the knots were untied, Miss Lady had forgotten all about Noah Wicker, and it was only when Connie came in declaring indignantly that she wouldn't talk to the stupid fellow another minute, that she remembered.
"You poor dear child!" she cried, giving her a repentant squeeze. "I am sorry. Hattie, would you mind going down and entertaining him a second, 'til I change my dress?"
"I would," said Hattie firmly.
Of course Noah stayed to dinner, and Miss Lady regarded it as an act of Providence that he and Mr. Gooch should have thus immediately been thrown together.
But when Mr. Gooch arrived he was concerned with much more important affairs. He brought the astounding news that Donald Morley had returned home and, against the advice of his family and his lawyers, decided to stand his trial for the shooting of Dick Sheeley!
"It is perfectly preposterous!" Mr. Gooch exploded, "to voluntarily put himself in the clutches of the law in a complicated case like this! He could have lived elsewhere for a few years. Even if he is innocent, the evidence is all against him. I have argued with him for two days. His sister tells me that she has worked on him for a week. He will listen to nobody."
"Quite right," said the Doctor emphatically. "The establishment of his good name should be his primary consideration. 'The purest treasure mortal times afford is spotless reputation.' I am more gratified than I can say that Donald is taking this course. He is justifying my persistent belief in his integrity. Once cleared by a jury the ghost of that unfortunate affair will, I trust, be laid forever."
"It is not so certain that he will be cleared," Mr. Gooch said, taking his accustomed seat at the table, with a solicitous eye on the door where Myrtella would appear with the soup. "I shall do my best for him, but I have my doubts."
"You say he has been here a week?" the Doctor asked. "Strange he has not been in to see us. He was always fond of the children, and professed a certain regard, I believe, for me. I want him to meet Mrs. Queerington."
There was a pause, during which Noah Wicker turned a surprised glance upon the hostess.
"I know Mr. Morley," she said steadily, while the color mounted to her cheeks. "I knew him when he was with Noah at the farm."
"Indeed," said the Doctor. "I must have forgotten your mentioning it. I am afraid, Mr. Wicker, we've been neglecting you to-night in our concern over Donald's problems. But it is a subject in which you are doubtless equally interested?"
Noah started to reply, but realizing that the company was looking at him, forgot what he was going to say and bowed instead.
At this juncture the thing of all others that Miss Lady dreaded, occurred. Donald Morley was announced by Myrtella in tones whose accents implied that nothing could now prevent the ice cream from giving out.
"Well, well!" cried the Doctor, rising and greeting him with outstretched hand, "a hearty welcome home. You know everybody here, I believe? Even Mrs. Queerington tells me she has met you. And this is Hattie. I am quite sure you were not prepared to see her so tall."
Donald, retaining Hattie's hand, made the round of greetings.
"Where are Connie and Bert?"
"Connie is dressing for a party, and poor old Bert is struggling with the chickenpox," Miss Lady managed to say as she busied herself with the coffee cups.
"And now tell us about yourself," said the Doctor, drawing a chair for Donald beside his own. "You will pardon my cushions, but I am still something of an invalid, and the little lady at the end of the table insists upon spoiling me. You knew, of course, of my accident, some two years ago?"
"Not until I got home," Donald said without looking up. "I hope you've gotten well again?"
"Oh, no, I shall never be well. The physicians assured me of that from the first, but they also said that with care and proper conservation of my energies I would probably live to a ripe old age. I do not suppose you have ever had to resist the temptation to overwork, Donald?"
Donald smiled and puckered his brow.
"He has plenty of work cut out for him now!" growled Mr. Gooch, whose mind having been temporarily diverted by the salad now rushed back to the trial.
"Work for an admirable cause," said the Doctor. "Mr. Gooch has just been telling us of your decision, Donald, and I cannot express my gratification at your course of action."
"Thank you, Doctor! That's the first encouragement I've had. My family seem to think I am a lunatic, and even my lawyer, here, is taking the case under protest."
"The value of a good name," began the Doctor, then remembering that he had delivered himself at length on that subject earlier in the evening, he broke off by inquiring if Donald had been doing any writing during his absence.
"Oh! yes, I am always scribbling. It doesn't amount to anything though."
"Yes, it does, too!" declared Hattie, to whom Cousin Don had always been a hero. "Mr. Decker told Gerald Ivy that you did all the best things in the articles he sent home for the syndicate."
"I suspected it!" said the Doctor. "I thought I recognized your humorous view-point in that first article on China. I remarked to my wife at the time that you had visualized the scene, for the reader, exactly as you had seen it."
"But I didn't!" said Donald. "I wrote that story a month before we reached China. Decker hit on the idea of getting all the articles written while we were crossing the Pacific, so we wouldn't have to bother about them after we landed. We used to get up on the boat-deck and turn them off like hot cakes. That's all foolishness about my doing the best parts. Why, Decker is a wonder! He 's reducing the thing to a science; he doesn't even need a pen or a pencil; just plenty of guide books, a paper of pins, and a pair of scissors. Lapboard literature, he calls it. He spent most of his time trimming my effusions down to measurements."
"That is because you indulged your imagination. It is a drug in the journalistic market, but it is invaluable elsewhere. Why not try something for the magazines? Choose a congenial theme and give your fancy full rein. It will be interesting to see what comes of it."
Connie's entrance here interrupted further conversation. She had neglected no detail of her toilet, and the result was a pink and white confection ready for conquest.
"We thought you were never coming to see us, Cousin Don," she said, half pouting, and giving a side glance at Noah Wicker. "You 've been home a whole week!"
"Heavens, Connie! I didn't expect to find you so grown up. How long have you been out?"
"I 've never been in," she said, releasing her hand and smiling consciously. "Aren't you coming to the Bartrums' party to-night?"
"No, I'm not in a mood for parties these days."
"But I 've never had a chance to dance with you since you taught me to waltz."
"Horrible deprivation! Can you still do the cake walk I taught you?"
"Yes, and so can Miss Lady! Isn't it funny? She says it 's the one the darkeys dance at the picnics up at Thornwood! Come on, Miss Lady; let 's show them!"
"Constance, Constance!" remonstrated the Doctor gently, as the girl seized Miss Lady's hands and tried to draw her to her feet. "You see, Donald, the children forget that Mrs. Queerington is anything but a play-fellow, and sometimes--" he rose and laid a hand on her shoulder, "sometimes she forgets, too."
Donald pushed back his chair abruptly.
"I think I'll come to the party, Connie, after all. I'll run up to Decker's room at the hotel and change my togs. You will save me a waltz or two?"
"All of them, if you like! It's going to be the jolliest dance of the season, everybody says so. Change your mind, Miss Lady, and come! I don't see how you can hesitate when you remember the time you had at the Sequins'! Gerald is coming for me; we can all go down together."
Miss Lady needed only the spark of Connie's enthusiasm to start all the forbidden fires in her. Her eyes flew to the Doctor's face.
He smiled as he caught her eager look. "Go with them, my dear, if you like. It is quite a natural instinct, I believe, to celebrate the first night of the New Year."
"But you, will you take me? Just this once, Doctor?"
"No, no. My party days are over. Donald here will take my place, will you not, Donald?"
But Miss Lady gave him no chance to answer. That mad insistent clamor within her for joy, for life, for love, could not be trusted for a moment. She was afraid of herself!
"I'll stay home," she said, with a brave attempt at gaiety, conscious of Donald's critical eyes upon her. "We will have a pinochle tournament, and Noah and I will beat the home team on its own ground. Won't we, Noah?"
But Noah did not hear her; he was absorbed in watching Connie who stood on tiptoe, pinning a flower in Don Morley's buttonhole.