Chapter XXV. The Coming of Thursa
 
  Each hour a pearl, each pearl a prayer
  To still a heart in absence wrung.
  I tell each bead unto the end, and there
      A cross is hung!
  ----My Rosary.

Early in December Thursa came. Martha had asked Pearl to come over and help her to receive her guest, which Pearl was only too glad to do, for she knew how hard all this was for Martha.

"Just like sendin' out invitations to yer own funeral," Pearl said, as early in the morning of the eventful day she walked over the snowy road to the Perkins home. In spite of all, Pearl was determined to have Martha looking her very best. She was even prepared to put powder on Martha's face, and had actually secured some from Camilla for the occasion.

Martha had improved in many ways since the day she and Pearl had talked beside the lilac hedge. She stood straighter; she walked more gracefully; she was more at her ease in conversation. These were the outward visible signs; but the most important change that had taken place in Martha was that she now had a broader outlook on the world. It was no longer bounded on the north by the Assiniboine River and the Brandon Hills, and on the south by the Tiger Hills and Pelican Lake. The hours that she had spent studying the magazine had been well spent, and Martha had really learned a great deal. She had learned that there were hundreds and hundreds of other girls like herself, living lonely lives of endless toil and sacrifice, and who still kept alive the little flame of ambition and the desire to make the best of their surroundings and themselves; and from the stories, which she now read with consuming interest, she learned that there were other women who loved hopelessly, but yet without bitterness, whose hearts were enriched by it, and who went on with their work day by day, bravely fighting the good fight; and with all this Martha's heart was greatly sustained and comforted. Martha had some blue days, too, when she was deeply conscious of her own dullness, and was disposed to give up all her efforts; but Pearl Watson was always able to fire her with fresh enthusiasm, for it was Pearl's good gift that she could inspire people to worthy endeavour.

It was not long before Arthur noticed that Martha was brightening up and that she seemed easier to talk to. After his long days of solitude he was glad of an opportunity to talk to an interested listener, and so he found his way over to the Perkins home three or four nights every week.

He told her stories of his school-days and of the glorious holidays he had spent at his uncle's country home. Arthur was a close observer and an interesting talker, and even Mrs. Perkins sometimes sat up to listen to him. Thomas Perkins said he didn't take much stock in the stories that young English chap told, and so he usually retired to the kitchen, where he would sit studying the catalogues. Mr. Perkins preferred the centre of the stage, if he were on it at all, and certainly would not consent to do a "thinking part" for anybody.

* * *

"Don't you be a bit worried, Martha," Pearl said soothingly, as she was combing Martha's hair that morning; "you'll look just as well as she does. Englishwomen always look queer to me with those big rough coats on them, all crinkly at the seams. They always wear them coming over on the boat, and it looks to me as if they fell in a few times and the stuff shrunk something awful; and their hair is always queer, done in a bun on the small of their neck."

"But Thursa is not like that," Martha said. "She is little and slight, and has a skin as fair as a lily and pink cheeks."

Pearl stepped back to look at Martha's hair, done in a braid around the top, before replying:

"Skin like a lily, has she? Well, that settles it--we'll use the powder. Now, don't say a word, Martha--it ain't wicked at all--it's paintin' and powderin' that's wicked. Now, I could make a bright glow on each of yer cheeks by usin' the red leaf of one of the roses on my summer hat. I thought of that, and I tried it myself--it was a fine colour and would improve you, Martha, but I'm afraid it wouldn't be just the thing to do it, and anyway you are looking fine now, and your red silk waist will give you a colour."

They went down-stairs when Martha's toilet was complete, speculating on what Thursa would be like. Martha was plainly nervous, which Pearl saw, but would not recognize. They were not left long in doubt, for in a few minutes they heard Arthur driving up to the door. Pearl and Martha held each other's hands in suspense until the door opened and Arthur said quite simply:

"Martha, this is Thursa."

And then poor Martha had need of her full supply of true greatness as Thursa's fresh young beauty burst on her, for Thursa was of that most bewitching type of young English girl, clear-skinned and violet-eyed, with a head of curling golden hair. She wore a long green coat and a little green cap that did not begin to hold down the rebellious curls.

If Martha was embarrassed Thursa certainly was not. She kissed Martha impulsively and called her "the dearest thing," and then, turning to Pearl, cried gaily. "Come here, you brown-eyed witch. I should have known you anywhere. You two girls have spoiled Arthur, I am afraid, by dancing attendance on him. He will be so frightfully important and overlordish, but all that will be changed now. I am really a very domineering person."

When Martha took Thursa upstairs to remove her wraps she said, as she tucked in her curls before the glass: "It does seem so gorgeous to be away without an aunt. I have three of them at home, you know, and they have always taken the wildest interest in me, and there was always one ready to come with me every place. They are not old really, but they seem old to me, and I really expect they will never die. They have heaps of money, too, and so I simply had to be civil to them. I had a perfectly ripping time on the boat. My aunts put me in charge of the Bishop of Donchester, and he was a perfect love and went to his stateroom so early every evening, and slept in a steamer chair every afternoon until he got ill, the old dear, and then he didn't appear at all for three days, and I really had such jolly fun. It did seem such fun not to be bothered with some one stalking me all the time. There were such pleasant people, too, on shipboard!'"

Martha remembered what Pearl had said about the English girl who had changed her mind coming over on the boat, and, making an excuse about having dinner to see to, went down stairs and sent Pearl up to Thursa. Pearl would get at the true state of affairs quicker than any one else.

"Did you have a pleasant journey?" Pearl asked, when she went upstairs.

"Oh, rather!" said Thursa. "It was simply heavenly to be away any place without an aunt. I was just telling Martha I have three of them--Aunt Honora, Aunt Constance, and Aunt Prudence. They have dangled their money over my head for years, but I don't care now if I never get it. They've always done everything for me. They picked out Arthur for me because his uncle is a bishop, and they do adore bishops."

"But didn't you like Arthur first--yourself--anyway?" Pearl exclaimed, hanging on to the chair in her excitement.

Thursa pursed her pretty lips. "Well enough--oh, yes, real well--and I liked him awfully when he decided to come to Canada--it was so splendid and dashing of him, I thought, and I was simply wild to come, too, for the adventures!"

"The what?" Pearl asked.

"The adventures. It must be perfectly jolly to chase Indians and buffaloes and bears. Wouldn't it be a lark to send one home?"

Pearl winked hard, wondering if it was an Indian, a buffalo, or a bear she wanted to send home.

After dinner, for which Arthur stayed, Thursa said she believed she would take a rest--she had so many letters to write, too, to people she met on shipboard, and such delightful people.

Arthur begged to be let stay 'a little while longer, but Thursa said very, decidedly he must go now and not come back until the next evening, for she really must get her letters done--there was one in particular that must be sent by next post. "Do you know a Mr. Smeaton in Brandon," she asked, "Mr. Jack Smeaton?"

Arthur did not know him.

"He was on the boat and was so jolly! He was teaching me Canadian words. We did have good fun over it. He told me to be sure and let him know how I liked you when I saw you."

Arthur winced.

"I said I would come and see anyway, for I said I couldn't believe you had changed so very much in two years. He said it was always well to take thirty days to consider any serious step, and he taught me the word for it--'a thirty days' option'--that's it, Arthur. That's what I have on you!"

She laughed merrily, but Arthur pleaded with her not to say such things.

Then Thursa became very serious. "Now, Arthur, for heaven's sake," she said, "don't act like the aunts. That's what I've listened to all my life. Calm yourself, my de-ar. That's what I've run away from. I might as well have stayed with them if you're going to do it. It's wicked of you, Arthur, it really is, to scold me, when I came so far just to see you, and when you know how tired I am."

Pearl and Martha retired hastily to the kitchen.

Arthur apologized in due form and Thursa's good-humour came back. "Now, then, Arthur, run along, because I am going to have a long sleep, and then I have some very serious thinking to do. The aunts said that is what I am incapable of doing, but I've done some that would have surprised them if they had just heard me at it. Now I am going to do some more. It's so horrible to be in a quandary. It is as bad as it was when I was choosing a gown for my first party; I lay awake nearly a whole night trying to decide between a reseda and a pink-violet. It was perfectly maddening, and I did have such a head the next day."

"Are you in a quandary now, Thursa?" he asked gently. "Tell me about it."

"Oh, no, Arthur, dear me, no--I haven't got half my thinking done yet. I'll tell you after I get it done. I am so happy to think that I got away without any of the aunts that, really, I am not very worried about anything. You' know I wasn't perfectly sure that I was away until I was a day out, and once I got such a fright--there was something swimming behind the boat! But now, good-bye, Arthur. Kiss me, if you like. There, now, that will do. Yes, I do like you, Arthur, you're a good sort. Good-bye till to-morrow evening."

Two days later Arthur took Thursa over to see the house. She was quite rested now from her journey, and in her scarlet coat and hat she was more bewitching than ever.

"It is very pretty here in the summer-time, Thursa," he said, as they stood together in the little porch. "I had some flowers last year, and the trees are growing nicely. It will be the dearest place on earth to me when you are here. Won't it be glorious to be together always, dearie, you and I? I wonder if you know how beautiful you are, Thursa?"

Thursa knit her brows in deep thought. "I wonder if I do?" she said quite gravely. "I've heard quite a 'lot about it lately, and I don't object to hearing it as much as my aunts would wish me to, I fear. It seems pleasant, really!"

Arthur laughed joyously. Her beauty dazzled him.

Then they went into the house that he had built and furnished with much loving care. Thursa was interested in everything; the shining new pots and pans gave her great delight--she said they were "such jolly little dears," but what were they all for? Arthur tried to explain, but Thursa became impatient at the mention of cooking and washing dishes, and cried out petulantly. "Why don't you tame a squaw and have her do all this? I simply loathe cooking or washing up. It is horrid, messy work, Arthur, and I really never can do it. I know I can't. I never stayed in our scullery at home for one minute. Of course my aunts would not have allowed me to stay anyway, but that isn't why. I simply detest work of that kind."

Arthur's face showed his disappointment. "We will have to get some one to show you how," he said, after an unpleasant pause. "You will not dislike it so much after you learn how, Thursa. It is really pleasant work, housekeeping is, and I am sure you will learn to be a famous little housewife."

"Don't bank too strong on it, Arthur. Isn't that the right word? Mr. Smeaton taught me that. This idea of having to cook has upset me dreadfully."

She sat down in the rocking-chair and rocked herself in her agitation. "Arthur, I shall go staring mad if I have to mess around and try to cook. I know I shall. I feel it beginning on me, and I shall have rough hands, and my skin will get red and blotchy, just like a cook's, and there will always be a greasy smell on my clothes. I am going to cry, Arthur, I am, now, really, and nobody can stop me, and I do cry dreadfully when I start."

"Oh, don't cry, Thursa!" Arthur pleaded, with all the helplessness of a man in the presence of tears. "Don't cry, dearest. You'll break my heart if you cry the first day you come into your new home. I don't want you to cook or work or do anything, only just stay with me and love me and let me look at you--you are too beautiful to ever have to work, darling."

Contrary to her expectations, Thursa did not cry, but looked at Arthur with a very shrewd expression on her pretty face.

"I'd rather stay here and take a chance on it--that's a Canadian word, too--than go back to the aunts and have to work antimacassars and put up with them trailing around after me always--that was perfectly maddening--but it seems to me--" she went over to Arthur's new sideboard and looked critically into the glass--"it seems to me a girl like me--you see I am not what you might call a fright, am I, Arthur?--and here in Canada there are abundant opportunities for good marriages--I think I really should do pretty well."

Arthur stood beside her looking at her image in the glass. When her meaning became clear he turned away hastily to hide the hurt her words had given him.

"You mean I am not good enough for you. You are quite right, I am not. You are a queen among women, Thursa."

"Queen nothing!" Thursa cried impatiently. "You make love like they do it in Scott's novels. The aunts made me read it, and now I simply loathe anything that sounds like it. Now, Mr. Smeaton said I was a peach."

Arthur consigned Mr. Smeaton and all such cads to a hotter climate.

"Good for you, Arthur!" she said, laughing, "you can ride the high horse, too. I like you like that. Now, Mr. Smeaton said----"

"See here, Thursa," Arthur broke in, "did that cur make love to you?"

"Madly," she said.

"And you let him--and listened?"

She clapped her hands and laughed merrily.

"Listened? I didn't have to listen hard. He was near me, you know, and he did make love so beautifully. I wish you could have heard him."

"I'd have bashed his head for him," Arthur said hotly. "Who is he, anyway?"

"He has a dry-goods store in Brandon. He's a linen-draper really, and is only six-and-twenty, but he is awfully clever, and so charming. When I sent you word that I was staying to see the shops I meant I was staying to see his shop. He took me to his own home, and his mother and sisters were lovely to me. He wanted me to marry him at Montreal, and asked me again at North Bay, and twice in Winnipeg, and I really forgot to count how many times he proposed to me in Brandon; but I wanted to be perfectly fair, and would not marry him until I had seen you."

Arthur said not a word, but walked over to the eastern window. It was a pleasant day in early winter. He could see the curls of smoke rising from the neighbours' houses into the frosty air, and the long gray wreath of it that the morning train had left still lay on the Tiger Hills. A mirage had lifted the old spruce bush on the Assiniboine into vision. Every mark on the landscape stung him with remembrances of happy days when youth and love and hope were weaving for him a glorious dream.

He turned suddenly and caught her in his arms. "Don't go back on me, Thursa! I won't give you up!" he cried. "He can't love you the way I do. You haven't been in his mind, day and night, all these years. He doesn't love you, dear, like I do, and he can't have you. I tell you, I won't give you up. You are mine forever."

Suddenly his arms, dropped and he put her away from him. "Let me think a minute, Thursa," he said, in his usual tone. "This has come on me suddenly. Stay here until I come back."

Outside the cold, bracing air fanned his burning face. He stood on the bank of the Plover Creek and looked with unseeing eyes around him, and found himself thinking of the most trifling things--he couldn't think about what he wanted to; his brain refused to act. Suddenly there came over him a great calmness, and with it a strong resolve. He would do the square thing. He loved Thursa, but there was something stronger even than that--something that must be obeyed.

When Arthur went back to the house his face was white with the conflict, but his resolve was taken "Do you want to marry this Brandon man, Thursa?" he asked.

"I don't know. I am thinking. Don't hurry me now. I can't bear to be hurried. That's where Aunt Honora and I never could agree; she crowded me so. I am thinking very hard, really. Mr. Smeaton's offer is still open. I was to let him know. Of course, Arthur, you are a bishop's nephew, and that's something. Mr. Smeaton's family are all in trade."

"That does not matter in this country," said Arthur. "No, that's what he said, too. He is so witty and clever. He said I could write to the aunts that I had married the son of a leading M. P. of the West."

"Is his father a Member of Parliament?" Arthur asked quickly.

Thursa laughed delightedly. "M. P. stands for 'milk peddler,'" she said. "Wasn't he adorable to think of that?"

"Very clever indeed," Arthur said quietly.

"We did have screaming fun over it. He said we would spell it Smeatholym if it would make the aunts feel any easier, and he told me I could tell them how brave he was--that he once slew a wild oryx. He said he often drove a yoke of wild oryxen before him as gentle as lambs. I know Aunt Constance would be deeply impressed with this. He even went so far, Arthur--he was so deadly in earnest--to give me the telegraph form to sign. It is all written if I decide to marry him."

"Let me see it!" said Arthur.

She opened her little bead purse and handed him a yellow telegraph blank, on which was written:

  "Mr. John Smeaton,
  "Rosser Avenue,
  "Brandon,
  "L. G. D. is past. O. for O."

"What does it mean?" he asked.

"You could never guess--it is so funny," she laughed. '"L. G. D.' is 'love's golden dream.' 'O. for O.' means 'open for offers.'"

Arthur's face was twitching with pain and anger, but with wonderful self-control he asked her again:

"Do you want to marry this man?"

"I think I do, Arthur. He's lovely."

Arthur handed her his pencil and motioned to her to sign the blank.

"Oh, Arthur!" she cried, "do you mean it? May I sign it? Do you not mind?"

She flung her arms around his neck and kissed him impulsively. Arthur made no response to her embrace, but the perspiration stood out in beads on his forehead.

"Sign it," he said, almost roughly. He turned away his head, while she signed her name.

She watched him anxiously. Why didn't he speak? This was dreadfully unpleasant.

"Thursa," he said at last, "will you sing for me that Rosary song? Just once. I want to hear it."

She sang it, sweet and tender as ever, every word a caress.

When she was done, he stood up and said very gently, but very sadly, "I wanted to be sure it was not ever meant for me. A clean cut is the easiest healed."

He went to his phonograph records and picked out the "Rosary." Only for a second he fondled it in his hand, then crushed it in pieces and threw them into the fire. "There now, Thursa," he said steadily, "that chapter is closed forever."

She looked at him in astonishment. "Why don't you get excited and threaten to shoot yourself and all that?"

"Because I have no notion of doing it," he said.

"Well, I do wish you would be a little bit melodramatic--this is deadly uninteresting. I would have loved to write home something really thrilling."

"This is thrilling enough for me, Thursa," he answered. Then, after a pause, he said, "Shall I send your telegram?"

"Not just yet," she answered. "You see, Arthur, I want to be sure. I know that Mr. Smeaton is lovely and all that, but I want to be sure he is a gentleman. I want you to go and see him; Arthur. I will do whatever you say."

She came and put her hands on Arthur's shoulders and looked up at him.

"Arthur, I have not treated you very well, but you'll do this for me, and if you find that he is not--" she hesitated--"I do not like to speak of him in this way, it doesn't seem right to doubt him, and I don't doubt him really; but you will do it, won't you, Arthur?"

"I will not do it!" he cried. "Don't ask me to do this!"

"And Arthur, if you come back and say that I must forget him, I will, try to, and I will marry you and try to like all these horrid little pots and pans. I truly will, and we will never speak of this again."

She was looking into his face as she spoke, and there was an earnestness in the depths of her violet eyes, a sweet womanliness, that he had never seen before.

"Oh, Thursa!" he cried, his voice quivering with tenderness. "You are making it hard for me--how can I help but perjure myself to win you? Any man would lie to you rather than lose you. Send some one else; I can't do it. I can't come back and tell you he is worthy of you."

Thursa drew his face down to hers and kissed his cheek.

"Arthur, I know you, and I will trust you. You couldn't lie; you don't know how, and you will do this, for me."