A Romance of Billy-Goat Hill by Alice Hegan Rice
There was anxiety in the drab house in College Street. The second day of Donald Morley's trial had come and no decision had been reached. Every ring of the telephone, every opening of the front door brought a hurrying of feet through the hall, and an eager demand to know if there was any news.
"I'll never get my lessons!" exclaimed Hattie petulantly, collecting her scattered belongings after one of these rushes to the door. "I wish to Heaven one of my fingers was a lead pencil!"
"Why don't you wish your tongue was one, Hat, then you wouldn't have to sharpen it," suggested Connie.
"I bet Miss Lady had my pencil," went on Hattie, ignoring Connie's comment. "She's never owned a pair of scissors, or a pencil, or a shoe-buttoner since she's been here. And look at those letters on the mantel! She'll never think about mailing them."
"What are they doing with black borders?"
"She bought a job lot of paper the other day, all colors and sizes, trying to be economical. She uses the mourning ones to pay the bills."
"Yes, and I'll have to be putting little pink love letters in big blue envelopes all winter. Say, Hat, do you suppose it would be all right if I called up Mr. Wicker to ask him how the trial is going?"
"Of course not. We'll hear as soon as there is anything to hear. I wish you'd hush talking and let me study."
Connie heroically refrained from speech for five minutes, then she announced:
"Do you know, I don't believe Miss Lady likes him!"
"Who? Mr. Wicker?"
"No, you silly,--Don."
"When did you stop saying Cousin Don, pray?"
"Oh, ages ago. She's always so quiet when he comes, and she goes up- stairs the first chance she gets. I think she's changed a lot since she first came, don't you?"
"Well, I guess you'd change, too, if you had married a sick man with three children, as poor as poverty, and a cook as cross as Myrtella."
"But she has Myrtella eating out of her hand. Imagine my marrying a man as old as Father!"
"If I had to marry, I'd rather marry Father than anybody else. But I've never seen the man yet that I'd be willing to marry."
"Oh, I have! I know ten right now that I'd marry in a minute."
"Connie Queerington! Who are the others beside Gerald and Cousin Don?"
Connie laughed. "Mr. Wicker is not as bad as he was. He must have taken chloroform and had his pompadour cut. Don says he is awfully clever."
"Anybody could be clever who took a whole day to compose each speech. I'll tell you what's the matter with Miss Lady; she is worrying herself sick over Father. Did she tell you what Doctor Wyeth told her?"
"That Father would have to give up his classes, and get away some where? But of course he can't do it."
"But he can! Miss Lady has rented Thornwood from the man who bought it, and we are all to go out there this spring."
"Heavens! That means frogs and crickets and whippoorwills, and a lonesome time for me."
"But think of Father!" said Hattie with her most virtuous air. "If it's perfectly quiet, perhaps he can finish his book."
"No, he won't," said Connie petulantly. "He may finish himself, but he'll never finish that book; he keeps on thinking of more to say, just like Mr. Melcher does when he prays. If it weren't for that stupid old book he might get well. Was that the telephone?"
It proved to be the side-door bell, which was rung by an old woman who had lost her husband and her front teeth, and was engaged in the precarious occupation of selling shoe-strings. She was one of the numerous proteges, who began to call on Miss Lady soon after breakfast, and kept up their visits through the day, to the exasperation of Myrtella Flathers, who spent her time devising means to rid the back hall of these incumbrances.
In this instance strategy was not required, for she was bidden to send the woman away. Such an unusual proceeding aroused her curiosity and she returned to the dining-room to peep through the door at her young mistress, who had been sitting motionless since breakfast with her elbows on the table, and her hands locked under her chin. It was evident that something was wrong, and Myrtella became so concerned that she at last decided to take action. The panacea she applied to all ailments, moral or physical, was a counter-irritant.
"Mis' Squeerington!" she ventured finally. "I hope you ain't fergot that it's Saturday mornin' an' you'd orter row the grocery man. He's a cortion, that's what he is, a-sendin' us Mis' Ivy's ribs, an' Mis' Logan's liver. It ain't a decent way to treat a old customer, an' he orter be told so. There never was a grocery man that was born into the world that didn't have to be rowed! They expect it, they look fer it, an' when they don't get it they feel it."
"I can't 'row' people, Myrtella; I don't know how," said Miss Lady listlessly.
"I'll learn you. You've picked up a lot more already than anybody would 'a' supposed you would when you first come. But one thing you ain't learned. When a lady goes to smilin' over the telephone, an' tellin' the butcher that she don't know one cut from another but she'll trust him to send her a nice piece, you kin count on it she's goin' to git a gristle. Compliments an' smiles may git some things, but it takes rowin' an' back-talk to git a good beefsteak!"
"I think I'll send you to the grocery to-day, Myrtella,--it--it may rain."
"It ain't goin' to rain before noon," Myrtella said authoritatively, in a tone that indicated her intention of stopping it immediately if it showed any intention of doing so. "It'll do you good to git out and walk a spell."
Miss Lady shook her head.
"Well, then you better let me send Bertie down here, he's makin' a awful racket in the nursery an' his pa'll be after him soon."
Bertie was induced to abandon a life of adventure on the footboard of his bed, by the suggestion that Miss Lady had something to tell him in the dining-room. He came tearing through the hall shouting, "Extras," at the top of his voice.
"Bertie, darling! Please don't," cried Miss Lady roused from her apathy. "Remember it's Saturday and Father's home."
"I wish he wasn't," said Bertie. "I hate a tiptoe house! When can I call extras?"
"When we get up to Thornwood. You and I will play all over the hills, and I'll teach you to be a real country boy."
"And can Chick be there, too?"
"Yes, and perhaps by that time Chick will have been to the hospital and can talk like other boys."
Bertie was standing on the back of her chair by this time, apparently trying to strangle her.
"And can we slide down the ice-house like you used to do? And will Uncle Jimpson call up the doodle-bugs out of the ground like he did when you was a little girl?"
"Listen!" cried Miss Lady suddenly starting up. "What is that?"
From the far end of the street came the sound, "Wuxtry! Here's your Wuxtry! All about--"
"It's just the newsboy I was being like," said Bertie. "What's the matter? What makes you shake so, Miss Lady?"
Myrtella thrust her head in the door. "Here comes that there Mrs. Ivy running 'cross the yard. She's good fer a hour."
But Mrs. Ivy did not seem to be good for anything by the time Miss Lady reached her. She was half reclining on a haircloth sofa in the front hall with a bottle of smelling salts to her nose and a newspaper in her hand.
"Oh, my dear!" she managed to gasp. "Such a frightful shock! So utterly unexpected!"
"Do you mean Don?" Miss Lady's lips scarcely moved as she asked the question.
"No, the bank! I was all alone in the house when I heard the boys calling the extras--Ah! my poor weak heart!"
"Brandy?" suggested Miss Lady anxiously.
Mrs. Ivy raised feeble but protesting eyes: "Never! The Angel of Death shall never find me with the odor of liquor on my lips. Could you send for some nitroglycerin?"
By the time Mrs. Ivy was revived, Connie and Hattie had joined the group in the hall, and the latter was reading aloud in awe-struck tones the account of the People's Bank failure. The age and reputation of the institution and the prominence of Basil Sequin as a local financier gave the subject grave significance.
"And to think that I should be involved!" wailed Mrs. Ivy. "I've only been treasurer of the W. A. Board for six weeks and this was my first investment! They told me to use my judgment, and I did the best I could! Only last Thursday I went to see Mr. Gilson the broker, you know, about investing the money we're collecting for building the Parish House. He said I had come at the right moment as he had just gotten hold of some of the People's Bank stock, 'gilt edged,' he called it, and I remember just what I said to him, I said, 'Mr. Gilson, I simply let Providence lead me, and it led me to your door!' and I bought it!" sobbed Mrs. Ivy; "forty shares!"
"I suppose Father's lost awfully," said Hattie, sitting round eyed and anxious on the steps.
"And all the Sequins, and Don," added Connie.
"It says that all the stockholders and most of the depositors stand to lose heavily," said Miss Lady, scanning the paper; "I must tell the Doctor at once."
She sped up the steps and knocked breathlessly at his study door. It was only at the second knock that she was bidden to enter.
The Doctor sat at his desk in a long, gray dressing-gown, with a rug across his knees: around him were ranged several straight-backed chairs on which were spread hundreds of pages of closely written manuscript. At his elbow on a stand was an immense dictionary, from which he lifted a pair of absorbed and preoccupied eyes.
"Doctor!" Miss Lady burst out impetuously, "the Bank has failed--the paper says--"
"If you please!" the Doctor raised an imploring hand; "don't tell me now. The news will keep and I am in a most critical stage of my summary. Today's work is important, very important. Kindly close the door."
Miss Lady stood in the hall without and stared at the drab-colored wallpaper. A fierce anger rose in her, not against the Doctor, but against that vampire work which was sucking all the vitality and sympathy and understanding out of him. She was eager to bear his burdens; she was willing to fight his battles; but it was hard to take his side single-handed against herself. She wanted love, and affection and sympathy, and she wanted a manly shoulder to weep on when the way became too hard. But the Doctor's slanting, scholarly shoulder afforded no resting-place for a world-weary head.
"Mis' Squeerington!" called Myrtella from the lower floor. "The grocery man didn't have no beets, and his new potatoes is hard as rocks, an' if I was you I'd go over to Smithers jes' to spite him out fer a spell. And I fergot to tell you that that there Mr. Wicker called you up a hour ago, an' sez the case was lost. I don't know what he meant. I hope he ain't lost it 'round here. Next thing I hear they'll be sayin' I took it!"