A Rock in the Baltic by Robert Barr
Chapter II. In the Sewing-Room
Three women occupied the sewing-room with the splendid outlook: a mother and her two daughters. The mother sat in a low rocking-chair, a picture of mournful helplessness, her hands listlessly resting on her lap, while tears had left their traces on her time-worn face. The elder daughter paced up and down the room as striking an example of energy and impatience as was the mother of despondency. Her comely brow was marred by an angry frown. The younger daughter stood by the long window, her forehead resting against the pane, while her fingers drummed idly on the window sill. Her gaze was fixed on the blue Bay, where rested the huge British warship "Consternation," surrounded by a section of the United States squadron seated like white swans in the water. Sails of snow glistened here and there on the bosom of the Bay, while motor-boats and what-not darted this way and that impudently among the stately ships of the fleet.
In one corner of the room stood a sewing-machine, and on the long table were piles of mimsy stuff out of which feminine creations are constructed. There was no carpet on the floor, and no ceiling overhead; merely the bare rafters and the boards that bore the pine shingles of the outer roof; yet this attic was notable for the glorious view to be seen from its window. It was an ideal workshop.
The elder girl, as she walked to and fro, spoke with nervous irritation in her voice.
"There is absolutely no excuse, mamma, and it's weakness in you to pretend that there may be. The woman has been gone for hours. There's her lunch on the table which has never been tasted, and the servant brought it up at twelve."
She pointed to a tray on which were dishes whose cold contents bore out the truth of her remark.
"Perhaps she's gone on strike," said the younger daughter, without removing her eyes from H.M.S. "Consternation." "I shouldn't wonder if we went downstairs again we'd find the house picketed to keep away blacklegs."
"Oh, you can always be depended on to talk frivolous nonsense," said her elder sister scornfully. "It's the silly sentimental fashion in which both you and father treat work-people that makes them so difficult to deal with. If the working classes were taught their place--"
"Working classes! How you talk! Dorothy is as much a lady as we are, and sometimes I think rather more of a lady than either of us. She is the daughter of a clergyman."
"So she says," sniffed the elder girl.
"Well, she ought to know," replied the younger indifferently.
"It's people like you who spoil dependents in her position, with your Dorothy this and Dorothy that. Her name is Amhurst."
"Christened Dorothy, as witness godfather and godmother," murmured the younger without turning her head.
"I think," protested their mother meekly, as if to suggest a compromise, and throw oil on the troubled waters, "that she is entitled to be called Miss Amhurst, and treated with kindness but with reserve."
"Tush!" exclaimed the elder indignantly, indicating her rejection of the compromise.
"I don't see," murmured the younger, "why you should storm, Sabina. You nagged and nagged at her until she'd finished your ball-dress. It is mamma and I that have a right to complain. Our dresses are almost untouched, while you can sail grandly along the decks of the 'Consternation' like a fully rigged yacht. There, I'm mixing my similes again, as papa always says. A yacht doesn't sail along the deck of a battleship, does it?"
"It's a cruiser," weakly corrected the mother, who knew something of naval affairs.
"Well, cruiser, then. Sabina is afraid that papa won't go unless we all have grand new dresses, but mother can put on her old black silk, and I am going if I have to wear a cotton gown."
"To think of that person accepting our money, and absenting herself in this disgraceful way!"
"Accepting our money! That shows what it is to have an imagination. Why, I don't suppose Dorothy has had a penny for three months, and you know the dress material was bought on credit."
"You must remember," chided the mother mildly, "that your father is not rich."
"Oh, I am only pleading for a little humanity. The girl for some reason has gone out. She hasn't had a bite to eat since breakfast time, and I know there's not a silver piece in her pocket to buy a bun in a milk-shop."
"She has no business to be absent without leave," said Sabina.
"How you talk! As if she were a sailor on a battleship-- I mean a cruiser."
"Where can the girl have gone?" wailed the mother, almost wringing her hands, partially overcome by the crisis. "Did she say anything about going out to you, Katherine? She sometimes makes a confidant of you, doesn't she?"
"Confidant!" exclaimed Sabina wrathfully.
"I know where she has gone," said Katherine with an innocent sigh.
"Then why didn't you tell us before?" exclaimed mother and daughter in almost identical terms.
"She has eloped with the captain of the 'Consternation,'" explained Katherine calmly, little guessing that her words contained a color of truth. "Papa sat next him at the dinner last night, and says he is a jolly old salt and a bachelor. Papa was tremendously taken with him, and they discussed tactics together. Indeed, papa has quite a distinct English accent this morning, and I suspect a little bit of a headache which he tries to conceal with a wavering smile."
"You can't conceal a headache, because it's invisible," said the mother seriously. "I wish you wouldn't talk so carelessly, Katherine, and you mustn't speak like that of your father."
"Oh, papa and I understand one another," affirmed Katherine with great confidence, and now for the first time during this conversation the young girl turned her face away from the window, for the door had opened to let in the culprit.
"Now, Amhurst, what is the meaning of this?" cried Sabina before her foot was fairly across the threshold.
All three women looked at the newcomer. Her beautiful face was aglow, probably through the exertion of coming up the stairs, and her eyes shone like those of the Goddess of Freedom as she returned steadfastly the supercilious stare with which the tall Sabina regarded her.
"I was detained," she said quietly.
"Why did you go away without permission?"
"Because I had business to do which could not be transacted in this room."
"That doesn't answer my question. Why did you not ask permission?"
The girl slowly raised her two hands, and showed her shapely wrists close together, and a bit of the forearm not covered by the sleeve of her black dress.
"Because," she said slowly, "the shackles have fallen from these wrists."
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," said Sabina, apparently impressed in spite of herself, but the younger daughter clapped her hands rapturously.
"Splendid, splendid, Dorothy," she cried. "I don't know what you mean either, but you look like Maxine Elliott in that play where she--"
"Will you keep quiet!" interrupted the elder sister over her shoulder.
"I mean that I intend to sew here no longer," proclaimed Dorothy.
"Oh, Miss Amhurst, Miss Amhurst," bemoaned the matron. "You will heartlessly leave us in this crisis when we are helpless; when there is not a sewing woman to be had in the place for love or money. Every one is working night and day to be ready for the ball on the fourteenth, and you-- you whom we have nurtured--"
"I suppose she gets more money," sneered the elder daughter bitterly.
"Oh, Dorothy," said Katherine, coming a step forward and clasping her hands, "do you mean to say I must attend the ball in a calico dress after all? But I'm going, nevertheless, if I dance in a morning wrapper."
"Katherine," chided her mother, "don't talk like that."
"Of course, where more money is in the question, kindness does not count," snapped the elder daughter.
Dorothy Amhurst smiled when Sabina mentioned the word kindness.
"With me, of course, it's entirely a question of money," she admitted.
"Dorothy, I never thought it of you," said Katherine, with an exaggerated sigh. "I wish it were a fancy dress ball, then I'd borrow my brother Jack's uniform, and go in that."
"Katherine, I'm shocked at you," complained the mother.
"I don't care: I'd make a stunning little naval cadet. But, Dorothy, you must be starved to death; you've never touched your lunch."
"You seem to have forgotten everything to-day," said Sabina severely. "Duty and everything else."
"You are quite right," murmured Dorothy.
"And did you elope with the captain of the 'Consternation,' and were you married secretly, and was it before a justice of the peace? Do tell us all about it."
"What are you saying?" asked Dorothy, with a momentary alarm coming into her eyes.
"Oh, I was just telling mother and Sab that you had skipped by the light of the noon, with the captain of the 'Consternation,' who was a jolly old bachelor last night, but may be a married man to-day if my suspicions are correct. Oh, Dorothy, must I go to the ball in a dress of print?"
The sewing girl bent an affectionate look on the impulsive Katherine.
"Kate, dear," she said, "you shall wear the grandest ball dress that ever was seen in Bar Harbor."
"How dare you call my sister Kate, and talk such nonsense?" demanded Sabina.
"I shall always call you Miss Kempt, and now, if I have your permission, I will sit down. I am tired."
"Yes, and hungry, too," cried Katherine. "What shall I get you, Dorothy? This is all cold."
"Thank you, I am not in the least hungry."
"Wouldn't you like a cup of tea?"
Dorothy laughed a little wearily.
"Yes, I would," she said, "and some bread and butter."
"And cake, too," suggested Katherine.
"And cake, too, if you please."
Katherine skipped off downstairs.
"Well, I declare!" ejaculated Sabina with a gasp, drawing herself together, as if the bottom had fallen out of the social fabric.
Mrs. Captain Kempt folded her hands one over the other and put on a look of patient resignation, as one who finds all the old landmarks swept away from before her.
"Is there anything else we can get for you?" asked Sabina icily.
"Yes," replied Dorothy, with serene confidence, "I should be very much obliged if Captain Kempt would obtain for me a card of invitation to the ball on the 'Consternation.'"
"Really!" gasped Sabina, "and may not my mother supplement my father's efforts by providing you with a ball dress for the occasion?"
"I could not think of troubling her, Miss Kempt. Some of my customers have flattered me by saying that my taste in dress is artistic, and that my designs, if better known, might almost set a fashion in a small way, so I shall look after my costume myself; but if Mrs. Captain Kempt were kind enough to allow me to attend the ball under her care, I should be very grateful for it."
"How admirable! And is there nothing that I can do to forward your ambitions, Miss Amhurst?"
"I am going to the ball merely as a looker-on, and perhaps you might smile at me as you pass by with your different partners, so that people would say I was an acquaintance of yours."
After this there was silence in the sewing room until Katherine, followed by a maid, entered with tea and cakes. Some dress materials that rested on a gypsy table were swept aside by the impulsive Katherine, and the table, with the tray upon it, was placed at the right hand of Dorothy Amhurst. When the servant left the room, Katherine sidled to the long sewing table, sprang up lightly upon it, and sat there swinging a dainty little foot. Sabina had seated herself in the third chair of the room, the frown still adding severity to an otherwise beautiful countenance. It was the younger daughter who spoke.
"Now, Dorothy, tell us all about the elopement."
"I soothed my mother's fears by telling her that you had eloped with the captain of the 'Consternation.' I must have been wrong in that guess, because if the secret marriage I hoped had taken place, you would have said to Sabina that the shackles were on your wrists instead of off. But something important has happened, and I want to know all about it."
Dorothy made no response to this appeal, and after a minute's silence Sabina said practically:
"All that has happened is that Miss Amhurst wishes father to present her with a ticket to the ball on the 'Consternation,' and taking that for granted, she requests mother to chaperon her, and further expresses a desire that I shall be exceedingly polite to her while we are on board the cruiser."
"Oh," cried Katherine jauntily, "the last proviso is past praying for, but the other two are quite feasible. I'd be delighted to chaperon Dorothy myself, and as for politeness, good gracious, I'll be polite enough to make up for all the courteous deficiency of the rest of the family.
'For I hold that on the seas, The expression if you please A particularly gentlemanly tone implants, And so do his sisters and his cousins and his aunts.'
Now, Dorothy, don't be bashful. Here's your sister and your cousin and your aunt waiting for the horrifying revelation. What has happened?"
"I'll tell you what is going to happen, Kate," said the girl, smiling at the way the other ran on. "Mrs. Captain Kempt will perhaps consent to take you and me to New York or Boston, where we will put up at the best hotel, and trick ourselves out in ball costumes that will be the envy of Bar Harbor. I shall pay the expense of this trip as partial return for your father's kindness in getting me an invitation and your mother's kindness in allowing me to be one of your party."
"Oh, then it isn't an elopement, but a legacy. Has the wicked but wealthy relative died?"
"Yes," said Dorothy solemnly, her eyes on the floor.
"Oh, I am so sorry for what I have just said!"
"You always speak without thinking," chided her mother.
"Yes, don't I? But, you see, I thought somehow that Dorothy had no relatives; but if she had one who was wealthy, and who allowed her to slave at sewing, then I say he was wicked, dead or alive, so there!"
"When work is paid for it is not slavery," commented Sabina with severity and justice.
The sewing girl looked up at her.
"My grandfather, in Virginia, owned slaves before the war, and I have often thought that any curse which may have been attached to slavery has at least partly been expiated by me, as foreshadowed in the Bible, where it says that the sins of the fathers shall affect the third or fourth generations. I was thinking of that when I spoke of the shackles falling from my wrists, for sometimes, Miss Kempt, you have made me doubt whether wages and slavery are as incompatible as you appear to imagine. My father, who was a clergyman, often spoke to me of his father's slaves, and while he never defended the institution, I think the past in his mind was softened by a glamor that possibly obscured the defects of life on the plantation. But often in depression and loneliness I have thought I would rather have been one of my grandfather's slaves than endure the life I have been called upon to lead."
"Oh, Dorothy, don't talk like that, or you'll make me cry," pleaded Kate. "Let us be cheerful whatever happens. Tell us about the money. Begin 'Once upon a time,' and then everything will be all right. No matter how harrowing such a story begins, it always ends with lashin's and lashin's of money, or else with a prince in a gorgeous uniform and gold lace, and you get the half of his kingdom. Do go on."
Dorothy looked up at her impatient friend, and a radiant cheerfulness chased away the gathering shadows from her face.
"Well, once upon a time I lived very happily with my father in a little rectory in a little town near the Hudson River. His family had been ruined by the war, and when the plantation was sold, or allowed to go derelict, whatever money came from it went to his elder and only brother. My father was a dreamy scholar and not a business man as his brother seems to have been. My mother had died when I was a child; I do not remember her. My father was the kindest and most patient of men, and all I know he taught me. We were very poor, and I undertook the duties of housekeeper, which I performed as well as I was able, constantly learning by my failures. But my father was so indifferent to material comforts that there were never any reproaches. He taught me all that I know in the way of what you might call accomplishments, and they were of a strangely varied order-- a smattering of Latin and Greek, a good deal of French, history, literature, and even dancing, as well as music, for he was an excellent musician. Our meager income ceased with my father's life, and I had to choose what I should do to earn my board and keep, like Orphant Annie, in Whitcomb Riley's poem. There appeared to be three avenues open to me. I could be a governess, domestic servant, or dressmaker. I had already earned something at the latter occupation, and I thought if I could set up in business for myself, there was a greater chance of gaining an independence along that line than either as a governess or servant. But to do this I needed at least a little capital.
"Although there had been no communication between the two brothers for many years, I had my uncle's address, and I wrote acquainting him with the fact of my father's death, and asking for some assistance to set up in business for myself, promising to repay the amount advanced with interest as soon as I was able, for although my father had never said anything against his elder brother, I somehow had divined, rather than knew, that he was a hard man, and his answering letter gave proof of that, for it contained no expression of regret for his brother's death. My uncle declined to make the advance I asked for, saying that many years before he had given my father two hundred dollars which had never been repaid. I was thus compelled, for the time at least, to give up my plan for opening a dressmaking establishment, even on the smallest scale, and was obliged to take a situation similar to that which I hold here. In three years I was able to save the two hundred dollars, which I sent to my uncle, and promised to remit the interest if he would tell me the age of the debt. He replied giving the information, and enclosing a receipt for the principal, with a very correct mathematical statement of the amount of interest if compounded annually, as was his legal right, but expressing his readiness to accept simple interest, and give me a receipt in full."
"The brute!" ejaculated Katherine, which remark brought upon her a mild rebuke from her mother on intemperance of language.
"Well, go on," said Katherine, unabashed.
"I merely mention this detail," continued Dorothy, "as an object lesson in honesty. Never before since the world began was there such a case of casting bread upon the waters as was my sending the two hundred dollars. My uncle appears to have been a most methodical man. He filed away my letter which contained the money, also a typewritten copy of his reply, and when he died, it was these documents which turned the attention of the legal arm who acted for him to myself, for my uncle had left no will. The Californian firm communicated with lawyers in New York, and they began a series of very cautious inquiries, which at last resulted, after I had furnished certain proofs asked for, in my being declared heiress to my uncle's estate."
"And how much did you get? How much did you get?" demanded Katherine.
"I asked the lawyers from New York to deposit ten thousand dollars for me in the Sixth National Bank of this town, and they did so. It was to draw a little check against that deposit, and thus learn if it was real, that I went out to-day."
"Ten thousand dollars," murmured Katherine, in accents of deep disappointment. "Is that all?"
"Isn't that enough?" asked Dorothy, with a twinkle in her eyes.
"No, you deserve ten times as much, and I'm not going to New York or Boston at your expense to buy new dresses. Not likely! I will attend the ball in my calico."
Dorothy laughed quietly, and drew from the little satchel she wore at her side a letter, which she handed to Katherine.
"It's private and confidential," she warned her friend.
"Oh, I won't tell any one," said Katherine, unfolding it. She read eagerly half-way down the page, then sprang to her feet on the top of the table, screaming:
"Fifteen million dollars! Fifteen million dollars!" and, swinging her arms back and forth like an athlete about to leap, sprang to the floor, nearly upsetting the little table, tray and all, as she embraced Dorothy Amhurst.
"Fifteen millions! That's something like! Why, mother, do you realize that we have under our roof one of the richest young women in the world? Don't you see that the rest of this conference must take place in our drawing-room under the most solemn auspices? The idea of our keeping such an heiress in the attic!"
"I believe," said Sabina, slowly and coldly, "that Mr. Rockefeller's income is--"
"Oh, blow Mr. Rockefeller and his income!" cried the indignant younger sister.
"Katherine!" pleaded the mother tearfully.