Chapter I. The Curtain Rises on a Home
 

None of it might ever have happened, if Richard Kendrick had gone into the house of Mr. Robert Gray, on that first night, by the front door. For, if he had made his first entrance by that front door, if he had been admitted by the maidservant in proper fashion and conducted into Judge Calvin Gray's presence in the library, if he had delivered his message, from old Matthew Kendrick, his grandfather, and had come away again, ushered out of that same front door, the chances are that he never would have gone again. In which case there would have been no story to tell.

It all came about--or so it seems--from its being a very rainy night in late October, and from young Kendrick's wearing an all-concealing motoring rain-coat and cap. He had been for a long drive into the country, and had just returned, mud-splashed, when his grandfather, having taken it into his head that a message must be delivered at once, requested his grandson to act as his messenger.

So the young man had impatiently bolted out with the message, had sent his car rushing through the city streets, and had become a still muddier and wetter figure than before when he stood upon the porch of the old Gray homestead, well out in the edge of the city, and put thumb to the bell.

His hand was stayed by the shrill call of a small boy who dashed up on the porch out of the dusk. "You can't get in that way," young Ted Gray cried. "Something's happened to the lock--they've sent for a man to fix it. Come round to the back with me--I'll show you."

So this was why Richard Kendrick came to be conducted by way of the tall-pillared rear porch into the house through the rear door of the wide, central hall. There was no light at this end of the hall, and the old-fashioned, high-backed settee which stood there was in shadow.

With a glance at the caller's muddy condition the young son of the house decided it the part of prudence to assign him this waiting-place, while he himself should go in search of his uncle. The lad had seen the big motor-car at the gate; quite naturally he took its driver for a chauffeur.

Ted looked in at the library door; his uncle was not there. He raced off upstairs, not noting the change which had already taken place in the visitor's appearance with the removal of the muddy coat and cap.

Richard Kendrick now looked a particularly personable young man, well built, well dressed, of the brown-haired, gray-eyed, clear-skinned type. The eyes were very fine; the nose and mouth had the lines of distinction; the chin was--positive. Altogether the young man did not look the part he had that day been playing--that of the rich young idler who drives a hundred and fifty miles in a powerful car, over the worst kind of roads, merely for the sake of diversion and a good luncheon.

While he waited Richard considered the hall, at one end of which he sat in the shadow. There was something very homelike about this hall. The quaint landscape paper on the walls, the perceptibly worn and faded crimson Turkey carpeting on the floors, the wide, spindle-balustrade staircase with the old clock on its landing; more than all, perhaps, on an October night like this, the warm glow from a lamp with crystal pendants which stood on the table of polished mahogany near the front door--all these things combined to give the place a quite distinctive look of home.

There were one or two other touches in the picture worth mentioning, the touches which spoke of human life. An old-fashioned hat-tree just opposite the rear door was hung full with hats. A heavy ulster lay over a chair close by, and two umbrellas stood in the corner. And over hat-rack, hats, ulster, and chair, with one end of silken fringe caught upon one of the umbrella ribs, had been flung by some careless hand, presumably feminine, a long silken scarf of the most intense rose-colour, a hue so vivid, as the light caught it from the landing above, that it seemed almost to be alive.

From various parts of the house came sounds--of voices and of footsteps, more than once of distant laughter. Far above somewhere a child's high call rang out. Nearer at hand some one touched the keys of a piano, playing snatches of Schumann--Der Nussbaum, Mondnacht, Die Lotosblume. Richard recognized the airs which thus reached his ears, and was sorry when they ceased.

Now there might be nothing in all this worth describing if the effect upon the observer had not been one to him so unaccustomed. Though he had lived to the age of twenty-eight years, he had never set foot in a place which seemed so curiously like a vague dream he had somewhere at the back of his head. For the last two years he had lived with his grandfather in the great pile of stone which they called home. If this were no real home, the young man had never had one. He had spent periods of his life in various sorts of dwelling-places; in private rooms at schools and college--always the finest of their kind--in clubs, on ships, in railway trains; but no time at all in any place remotely resembling the house in which he now waited, a stranger in every sense of the word, more strange to the everyday, fine type of home known to the American of good birth and breeding than may seem credible as it is set down.

"Hold on there!" suddenly shouted a determined male voice from somewhere above Richard. A door banged, there was a rush of light-running feet along the upper hall, closely followed by the tread of heavier ones. A burst of the gayest laughter was succeeded by certain deep grunts, punctuated by little noises as of panting breath and half-stifled merriment. It was easy to determine that a playful scuffle of some sort was going on overhead, which seemed to end only after considerable inarticulate but easily translatable protest on the part of the weaker person involved.

Then came an instant's silence, a man's ringing laugh of triumph; next, in a girl's voice, a little breathless but of a quality to make the listener prick up ears already alert, these most unexpected words:

"'O, it is excellent To have a giant's strength; but it is tyrannous To use it like a giant!'"

"Is it, indeed, Miss Arrogance?" mocked the deeper voice. "Well, if you had given it back at once, as all laws of justice, not to mention propriety, demanded, I should not have had to force it away from you. Oh, I say, did I really hurt that wrist, or are you shamming?"

"Shamming! You big boys have no idea how brutally violent you are when you want some little thing you ought not to have. It aches like anything," retorted the other voice, its very complaints uttered in such melodious tones of contralto music that the listener found himself wishing with all his might to know if the face of its owner could by any possibility match the loveliness of her voice. Dark, he fancied she must be, and young, and strong--of education, of a gay wit, yet of a temper--all this the listener thought he could read in the voice.

"Poor little wilful girl! Did she get hurt, then, trying to have her own way? Come in here, jade, and I'll fix it up for you," the deeper tones declared.

Footsteps again; a door closed. Silence succeeded for a minute; then the Schumann music began again, a violin accompanying. And suddenly, directly opposite the settee, a door swung slowly open, the hand upon the knob invisible. A picture was presented to the stranger's eyes as if somebody had meant to show it to him. He could but look. Anybody, seeing the picture, would have looked and found it hard to turn his eyes away.

For it was the heart of the house, right here, so close at hand that even a stranger could catch a glimpse of it by chance. A great, wide-throated fireplace held a splendid fire of burning logs, the light from it illumining the whole room, otherwise dark in the October twilight. Before it on the hearth-rug were silhouetted, in distinct lines against its rich background, two figures. One was that of a woman in warm middle life, sitting in a big chair, her face full of both brightness and peace; at her feet knelt a young girl, her arm upon her mother's knees, her face uplifted. The two faces were smiling into each other.

Somebody--it looked to be a tall young man against the fire-glow--came and abruptly closed the door from within, and the picture was gone. The fitful music ceased again; the house was quiet.

Thereupon Richard Kendrick grew impatient. Fully ten minutes must have elapsed since his youthful conductor had disappeared. He looked about him for some means of summoning attention, but discovered none.

Suddenly a latchkey rattled uselessly in the lock of the front door; then came lusty knocks upon its stout panels, accompanied by the whirring of a bell somewhere in the distance.

A maidservant came hurriedly into the hall through a door near Richard, and at the same moment a boy of ten or eleven came tearing down the front stairs. As the lad shouted through the door, Richard recognized his late conductor.

"You can't get in, Daddy; the lock's gone queer. Come around to the back. I'll see to him, Mary," the boy called to the maid, who, nodding, disappeared.

At this moment the door opposite Richard opened again, and the mother of the household came out, her comely waist closely clasped by the arm of the young girl. The two were followed by the tall young man.

Richard stood up, and was, of course, instantly upon the road to the delivery of his message.

Ted, ushering in his father, and spying the waiting messenger, cried repentantly, "Oh, I forgot!" and the tall young man responded gravely, "You usually do, don't you, Cub?" This elder son of the house, waving the small boy aside, attended to taking Richard to the library, and to summoning Judge Calvin Gray.

In five minutes the business had been dispatched, Judge Gray had made friendly inquiry into the condition of his old friend's health, and Richard was ready to take his departure. Curiously enough he did not now want to go. As he stood for a moment near the open library door, while Judge Gray returned to his desk for a newspaper clipping, the caller was listening to the eager greetings taking place in the hall just out of his sight. The father of the family appeared to have returned from an absence of some length, and the entire household had come rushing to meet and welcome him. Richard listened for the contralto notes he had heard above, and presently detected them declaring with vivid emphasis: "Mother has been a dear, splendid martyr. Nobody would have guessed she was lonely, but--we knew!"

"She couldn't possibly have been more lonely than I. Next time I'll take her with me!" was the emphatic response.

Then the whole group swept by the library door, down the hall, and into the room of the great fireplace. Nobody looked his way, and Richard Kendrick had one swift view of them all. Vigorous young men, graceful young women, a child or two, the mother of them all on the arm of her husband--there were plenty to choose from, but he could not find the one he looked for. Then, quite by itself, another figure flashed past him. He had a glimpse of a dusky mass of hair, of a piquant profile, of a round arm bared to the elbow. As the figure passed the hat-tree he saw the arm reach out and catch the rose-coloured scarf, flinging it over one shoulder. Then the whole vision had vanished, and he stood alone in the library doorway, with Judge Gray saying behind him: "I cannot find the clipping. I will mail it to your grandfather when I come upon it."

"I knew that scarf was hers," Richard was thinking as he went out into the night by way of the rear door, Judge Gray having accompanied him to the threshold and given him a cordial hand of farewell. What a voice! She could make a fortune with it on the stage, if she couldn't sing a note. The stage! What had the stage to do with people who lived together in a place like that?

He looked curiously back at the house as he went down the box-bordered path which led, curving, from it to the street. It was obviously one of the old-time mansions of the big city, preserved in the midst of its grounds in a neighbourhood now rampant with new growth. It was outside, on this chill October night, as hospitable in appearance as it was inside; there was hardly a window which did not glow with a mellow light. As Richard drove down the street, he was recalling vividly the picture of the friendly-looking hall with its faded Turkey carpet worn with the tread of many rushing feet, its atmosphere of welcoming warmth--and the rose-hued scarf flung over the dull masculine belongings as if typifying the fashion in which the women of the household cast their bright influence over the men.

It suddenly occurred to Richard Kendrick that if he had lived in such a home even until he went away to school, if he had come back to such a home from college and from the wanderings over the face of the earth with which he had filled in his idle days since college was over, he should be perhaps a better, surely a different, man than he was now.

       *       *       *       *       *

Louis Gray, coming into the hall precisely as Richard Kendrick, again enveloped in his muddy motoring coat, was releasing Judge Gray's hand and disappearing into the night, looked curiously after the departing figure. His sister Roberta, following him into the hall a moment after, rose-coloured scarf still drifting across white-clad shoulder, was in time to receive his comment:

"Seems rather odd to see that chap departing humbly by any door but the front one."

"You knew him, then. Who was he?" inquired his sister.

"Didn't you? He's a familiar figure enough about town. Why, he's Rich Kendrick. Grandson of Matthew Kendrick, of Kendrick & Company, you know. Only Rich doesn't take much interest in the business. You'll find his doings carefully noticed in certain columns in certain society journals."

"I don't read them, thank you. Do you?"

"Don't need to. Kendrick's a familiar figure wherever the gay and youthful rich disport themselves--when he's in the country at all. He's doing his best to get away with the money his father left him. Fortunately the bulk of the family fortune is still in the hands of his grandfather, who seems an uncommonly healthy and vigorous old man." Louis laughed. "Can't think what Rich Kendrick can be doing here with Uncle Cal. I believe, though, he and old Matthew Kendrick are good friends. Probably grandson Richard came on an errand. It certainly behooves him to do grandfather's errands with as good a grace as he can muster."

"He was sitting in the hall quite a while before Uncle Cal saw him," volunteered Ted, who had tagged at Roberta's heels, and was listening with interest.

"Sitting in the hall, eh--like any district messenger?" Louis was clearly delighted with this news. "How did it happen, Cub? Mary take him for an everyday, common person?"

"I let him in. I thought he was a chauffeur," admitted Ted. "He was awfully wet and muddy. Steve took him in to Uncle Cal."

An explosion of laughter from his interested elder brother interrupted him. "I wish I'd come along and seen him. So he had the bad manners to sit in our hall in a wet and muddy motoring coat, and go in to see Uncle Cal--"

"The young man had on no muddy coat when Stephen brought him in to see me," declared Judge Calvin Gray, coming out and catching the last sentence. "He put it on in the hall before going out. What are you saying? That was the grandson of my good friend, Matthew Kendrick, and so had claim upon my good will from the start, though I haven't laid eyes upon the boy since his schooldays. He was rather a restless and obstreperous youngster then, I'll admit. What he is now seems pleasing enough to the eye, certainly, though of course that may not be sufficient. A fine, mannerly young fellow he appeared to me, and I was glad to see that he seemed willing enough to run upon his grandfather's errands, though they took him out upon a raw night like this."

But Louis Gray, though he did not pursue the subject further, was still smiling to himself as he obeyed a summons to dinner.

At opposite ends of the long table sat Mr. and Mrs. Robert Gray. The head of the house looked his part: fine of face, crisp of speech, authoritative yet kindly of manner. His wife may be described best by saying that one had but to look upon her to know that here sat the Queen of the little realm, the one whose gentle rule covered them all as with the brooding wing of wise motherhood. Down the sides of the board sat the three sons: Stephen, tall and slender, grave-faced, quiet but observant; Louis, of a somewhat lesser height but broad of shoulder and deep of chest, his bright face alert, every motion suggesting vigour of body and mind; Ted--Edgar--the youngest, a slim, long-limbed lad with eyes eager as a collie's for all that might concern him--this was the tale of the sons of the house. There were the two daughters: Roberta, she of the rose-coloured scarf--it was still about her shoulders, seeming to draw all the light in the room to its vivid hue, reflecting itself in her cheeks--Roberta, the elder daughter, dusky of hair, adorable of face, her round white throat that of a strong and healthy girl, her laugh a song to listen to; the other daughter, Ruth, a fair-haired, sober-eyed creature of growing sixteen, as different as if of other blood. One would not have said the two were sisters. There was one more girl at the table; no, not a girl, yet she looked younger than Roberta--a little person with a wild-rose, charming face, and the sweetest smile of them all--Rosamond, Stephen's wife, quite incredibly mother of two children of nursery age, at this moment already properly asleep upstairs.

Last but far from least, loved and honoured of them all above the lot of average man to command such tribute, was the elder brother of the master of the house, his handsome white head and genial face drawing toward him all eyes whenever he might choose to speak--Judge Calvin Gray. All in all they were a goodly family, just such a family as is to be found beneath many a fortunate roof; yet a family with an individuality all its own and a richness of life such as is less common than it ought to be.