Chapter XXVI
 

"Where's Connie? Where's Hat?" cried Miss Lady breathlessly, bringing her foam-flecked horse to a halt in front of the porch where Mrs. Ivy was sitting in the twilight. "Don Morley has written a book and it's going to be published this month!"

"A book!" echoed Mrs. Ivy incredulously, then,

"Ah, my dear, do get off that vicious beast; I haven't had a moment's peace since Mr. Wicker sent him over!"

Miss Lady slipped to the ground and stood with her arm around Prince's neck, laughing. The thrill of her long ride, the first one in nearly two years, still surged through her, and the news just received made her heart dance for joy. Happiness, in spite of her efforts not to expect it, was beginning to shine across the troubled waters, a dim and wavering light as yet, but drawing her toward it with irresistible fascination. It was something to steer by in times of stress and storm, something to turn to tremulously, in the lonely hours of the night, when over-taxed muscles refused to relax and her tired brain ached with the pity and sorrow of the world.

During her long ride this afternoon she had dared for the first time to give rein to thoughts that had hitherto been held in check. Surely life was more than the dreary, monotonous, loveless business of the past summer! With all its problems and perplexities, it was nevertheless a mysterious, fascinating thing. She did not approve of it, nor did she altogether trust it, but she was incorrigibly in love with it--and would be to the end.

"I suppose you know that supper is over," said Mrs. Ivy, with veiled reproach. "Were there no letters for me?"

"Oh, dear, how stupid of me. I forgot to look through the rest of the mail. Here it is."

Mrs. Ivy sorted out her own official-looking budget, then peered closely at the two remaining envelopes.

"As I suspected," she said with a significant lifting of her eyebrows; "two for Constance, in the same handwriting and both postmarked from the Capitol."

"But what of it, Mrs. Ivy?"

"My dear," Mrs. Ivy breathed, "don't you see they are from Mr. Morley?"

"Yes; but I have one from him, too; he's telling us about his book."

Mrs. Ivy smiled with sad superiority, "Ah, my dear, you are not a very sophisticated little chaperon. I have hesitated to speak to you before, but I really think this young man's attention to Constance should be stopped. It isn't fair to poor Gerald. You know how she has always adored my boy, ever since she was in pinafores, and I don't mind confessing to you that I've encouraged her. Of course Gerald's artistic temperament has made him susceptible to many forms of beauty, but he has really been quite devoted of late. I simply can not endure the thought of that Mr. Morley interfering with the blossoming of their childhood love."

"But Mrs. Ivy, he--he is her cousin; he looks upon her as a child."

"She is only a year younger than you are, my dear, and much more worldly wise. I've had my eyes open and I've seen a great deal. She is getting quite secretive, and she isn't always gracious to Gerald. Mr. Morley's back of it all, you 'II see."

"I don't think there is any danger," said Miss Lady critically examining the tip of Prince's nose.

"Ah, my dear girl, you have been too engrossed for the past six months to notice. Ask Mr. Wicker; he spoke to Gerald about it last spring. Ask Gerald himself, he's wretchedly unhappy. And now you are helping her to get ready to go up to the Capitol to visit, and he's sure to see her every day. I must say that I think it's wretched taste for him to pay attentions to any girl under the circumstances."

In an instant Miss Lady had wheeled with flashing eyes:

"Donald's friends know that he hasn't done anything to be ashamed of! I don't believe he thinks of Connie in the way you mean, but if he does she has every reason to be proud of it!"

And without waiting for an answer she drew the bridle over her arm and tramped indignantly off to the stable.

Mrs. Ivy sighed, then turned to join Mr. Gooch who had just come out on the porch.

"Has it ever occurred to you," she said as if enunciating a hitherto unuttered truth, "how reluctant youth is to learn of age? This dear little widow that the good Doctor left to our care, is making some grave mistakes."

"I think she does fairly well," said Mr. Gooch, settling himself comfortably; "the beef is not always good, but the fowls and the vegetables are ex-excellent."

Mr. Gooch spoke with unusual warmth. Myrtella's cooking, together with Miss Lady's graciousness, and the sharp proprietorship that Hattie had assumed over him, were working a miracle. Even now as the sounds of music and laughter came forth from the living-room, he paused to listen. He was surprised to find that "Molly Darlings," and "Nellie Grays," and other musical girls he'd left behind him, still haunted the dim corridors of his argumentative mind, and gave him little thrills of pleasure.

"Ah," purred Mrs. Ivy, continuing the conversation. "Far be it from me to criticize her. It is against my principles to entertain a critical attitude toward any one. Besides, I quite adore the dear child. I consider her a precious gift to a grateful world. But you must acknowledge, Mr. Gooch, that with all her sweetness, she doesn't always allow herself to be guided."

"Good Lord, no," said Mr. Gooch testily.

"She'll look you straight in the eye and smile, while you are advising her, then go straight off and do as she pleases. This matter of the Doctor's will, for instance. I spent two days arguing with her about the futility of publishing two dozen volumes that nobody will ever read."

"But that was his dying request, Mr. Gooch. Only one who has loved and lost can know the nature of that obligation." Mr. Gooch sniffed impatiently. Conjugal felicity was a subject that irritated him in every fiber.

"Then her charities," he went on crustily; "she's got no money to be throwing away, yet every family on Billy-goat Hill comes to her when it gets into trouble."

"Yes, and she doesn't hesitate to sit down in those dreadful hovels, and take those unclean babies in her arms. It has made me frightfully nervous since we came here. Gerald is so sensitive to germs."

"What is this latest tomfoolery about a kindergarten?"

"Why, she has actually gotten Mrs. Bartrum and Mrs. Horton, and some of those other society women, to rent the hall over the grocery where the Cant-Pass-It Saloon used to be. They are going to open a kindergarten and Margery Sequin is coming home from Europe to take charge of it. I am afraid the project is built upon the sands. There is not a church member on the board!"

"Well, they needn't come to me for a contribution," said Mr. Gooch. "I don't believe in kindergartens."

While this conversation was taking place, quite a different one was in progress, on the up-stairs side porch which had been converted into a summer bedroom for Miss Lady and Bertie.

"Do you 'spose," Bert was saying sleepily, "that God 'ud give me a horn 'stead of a harp when I get to heaven, if I ask him to?"

"I know He will, Bert. Take off your other shoe."

"Why didn't He give Chick something to say?"

"He did, but Chick's throat won't let the words come through. Step out of your clothes now, hurry up, Buddikin!"

But Bert's feet were firmly planted, and his sleepy eyes fixed in philosophic musings:

"If He had all kinds of throats I don't see why He didn't give Chick a good one."

This required elucidation, and Miss Lady attempted to make the matter clear while extricating the small boy from his clothes.

"Ain't you going to tell me a story?"

"Not to-night, Bert. I'm so tired; all the stories have run out."

Bert crawled into his bed silently, and lay watching the shadows in the big tree outside.

"I wish Cousin Don was here," he sighed. "He never does run out of stories. When is he coming back?"

"I don't know, dear. Shut your eyes now, and go to sleep."

He shut his eyes obediently, but continued the conversation drowsily,

"He knows all about whales and tigers, and big ships and elephants. He's--been--clear--around--the--earth--"

But the Sandman had conquered, and Miss Lady, having slipped on a dressing-gown and loosened her hair, tiptoed to the far end of the porch and sitting on the railing gazed fixedly out into the gathering darkness. For half an hour the dim enchantments of twilight had been abroad, transforming hill and valley, and merging heaven and earth in a tender, elusive atmosphere of dreams. But her absorbed, white face, and tense hands locked about her knees, showed that she was not concerned with the beauty of the evening.

Mrs. Ivy's words had kindled a bonfire, by the light of which recent events leapt into view. Connie had been secretive, not only about her letters but about her engagements as well. She was growing daily more indifferent to Gerald Ivy, and developing a taste for reading that had been the cause of much surmising and teasing on the part of the household.

Twice during the summer Donald had come to Thornwood, and on both occasions Miss Lady had been seized with an unreasoning fear, not only of him, but of herself. She had received him under the depressing chaperonage of Mr. Gooch and Mrs. Ivy, and she remembered now how Connie had taken possession of him on both occasions. But even if Connie's transitory affections were temporarily engaged, surely Donald was not encouraging her!

A low whistle from the path below made her look down. It was Connie and she was stepping very cautiously as if trying to elude somebody.

"Miss Lady!" she called softly. "Aren't you coming down again?"

"No, I'm going to bed."

"Don't go yet. I'm coming up. I want to tell you something."

A moment later Connie opened the door, and closed it carefully behind her.

"Is Bertie asleep?"

"Yes."

"It's all over!" she announced tragically. "Gerald and I have had an awful quarrel, and he swears he'll never live to see another dawn."

"Of course he won't, I doubt if he has ever seen one. What's his trouble?"

"Everything! He wants me to sit at his feet every hour in the day and adore him, and how can I adore a man who is afraid of a bumblebee, and can't drive, and sleeps with an umbrella over his head to shut out the light? I just simply can't stand him another minute!"

"But, Connie, you were so crazy about him, you wouldn't listen to a word against him."

"I know it. I've been a perfect little idiot." Connie was sobbing now on Miss Lady's shoulder. "The first time I saw him he'd just gotten home from Europe. He was playing at a concert. Everybody said he was a genius, and his eyes were so wonderful, and I had never seen anybody like him. The more he snubbed me the crazier I got about him. It wasn't until Cousin Don came back that I saw him as he really is."

Miss Lady patted the heaving shoulders, but said nothing.

"And the very minute," Connie continued tempestuously, "that I began to feel differently, Gerald began to like me. He has worked himself up to a terrible pitch, and doesn't want me out of his sight for a minute. I feel as if I'd been living on chocolate creams for three months!"

"Connie!" Miss Lady took the tear-stained face between her hands. "I'm glad it isn't Gerald. I'm glad from the bottom of my heart, but are you sure it isn't somebody else?"

Connie's blue eyes, never very steadfast, shifted uneasily, and Miss Lady went on earnestly:

"Are you quite sure you aren't doing just what you did before, getting infatuated, and making yourself miserable over some one who doesn't care for you?"

"But he does!" burst out Connie indignantly; "he cares for me more than for anybody in the world!"

"How do you know?"

"He's told me so! There--I oughtn't to have told! I swore I wouldn't until after the trial. But you won't breathe it, Miss Lady? Promise you won't even ask me to tell you anything more?"

Miss Lady looked at her strangely.

"I know everybody is going to disapprove," Connie went on recklessly, "and say horrid things about him. But I don't care if you will just stand by me. And you will, won't you?"

Twice Miss Lady tried to speak before the words would come, then:

"Yes," she whispered almost breathlessly, "yes, I promise to stand by you,--and by him."

After Connie had gone she went back to her seat on the railing and stared out into the gathering night. For the first time in her life the dark immensity terrified her. The beacon lights by which she had steered were no longer visible. The great lonely sea of life lay about her, and she had lost her course.

"Daddy!" she whispered in terror, "Daddy help me!"

But only the faint cry of a whippoorwill in the valley below answered her call. A trembling seized her and feeling her way to the bed where Bertie lay, she crept in beside him, cuddling the soft, warm little body close, and checking her sobs that they might not wake him. Long after the whippoorwill had ceased its plaint, she lay there staring into the darkness, waiting for the dawn.