Part 6 out of 6
"It will only take you a few moments, Zerubbabel," she said. "I was
going to deliver it myself but Mrs. Stanton wants a fitting right away.
I ought not to have come down to the post at all. But I promised Mrs.
Coombe--does Dr. Callandar permit you to run messages in your
"Sure," declared the youth, "only I don't get much spare time. The
doctor's terrible busy. Since we got the phone in, it's ringing all the
time! But I guess I can slip over to Mrs. Coombe's or if I see Jane I
can give the parcel to her."
"No!" Miss Milligan seemed struck with a sudden hesitancy. "You must
not give it to Jane, you must give it to Mrs. Coombe. Dear me, I believe
I had better take it myself."
Without listening to the boy's polite protests she hurried off again.
Bubble gazed after her with relieved astonishment.
"Guess it must be something for the wedding," declared he, sapiently.
The next day was the day of the Presbyterian Sunday school picnic. It
was bound to be beautiful weather, because it always was. The
Presbyterians seemed to have an understanding with Providence to that
effect. But Jane, who must have been born a sceptic, was up very early
just to see that there was no mistake.
There was a hint, just a hint, of autumn in the air. On the window-sill
lay a golden leaf. It was the forerunner. The garden lay quiet,
brooding; the rising sun shone softly through a yellow haze.
Jane shivered deliciously in her thin night gown. It was going to be a
perfectly glorious, scrumptious day. She leaned farther out to make sure
that the leaves of the small silver maple beneath her window were not
turned wrong side up--a sure sign of rain. And as she looked, she
noticed a curious thing--the side door was open.
Somebody else must be up. If it were Esther, Jane decided that she would
call "Boo" very loudly and surprise her; but it was her mother and not
Esther who came out of the open door. Jane drew back, watching through
the curtains. She thought her mother looked very pretty in her dressing
gown with her hair down and her bare feet thrust into pink satin mules.
It was a pity, Jane thought, that she wasn't as nice as she looked. And
how curiously she was acting. She was actually climbing up the little
ladder which led to the bird house by the side of the lawn. Jane knew
there was nothing at all in the bird house, for she herself had placed
the ladder there the day before. Whatever was she doing? Jane giggled,
for one of Mary's slippers had fallen off leaving her foot bare. But she
didn't seem to care. She was putting her hand far into the bird house.
Jane watched the hand carefully to see what it might bring out. But it
came out empty. Mary hurriedly climbed down the ladder, picked up her
slipper, glanced quickly around the empty garden and ran back into the
house closing the door without a sound.
Jane was puzzled. What had her mother hoped to find in the bird house?
She crept back into bed, wondering, and just as she was slipping off to
sleep, the solution came. "She was hiding something," thought Jane,
sleepily, "and when I get up I'll find out what it is."
Little things are the levers which move the big things of life. Had it
been any other day save the day of the picnic, Jane would certainly have
found out what Mary hid in the bird house and many things might have
been different. But there was so much to do that morning and Ann and
Bubble came over before Jane finished breakfast so that in the
delightful hurry of getting ready and packing baskets, she forgot
all about it.
There was a disappointment, too, at the last moment, for just when they
were all ready and the doctor had come with the motor, Mrs. Coombe
decided that she really did not feel equal to going and that meant that
Esther had to stay behind. Jane showed signs of tears. Ann and Bubble
protested volubly. Even the doctor did his best to change
"You really ought to come, Mary," he said, "the drive alone will do you
good, and if you get tired of it, I can bring you home early." He looked
at her rather anxiously as he spoke but she did not seem ill. She looked
better than usual for her eyes were brighter and her face was
"No, I won't come to-day. I'm tired. There is not the slightest need for
Esther to stay. I am going to stay in my room with a good book."
"Oh, Esther, do come! Oh, Esther, you promised!" Thus Ann and Bubble,
while Jane pulled at her frock.
Mary looked on with a slightly acid smile. The doctor drew her aside.
"Won't you come?" he asked patiently. "You see how disappointed the
"Yes, about Esther. And Esther does not need to stay. It's absurd. Are
you never going to trust me?"
"You know it isn't you that we distrust. It is something stronger than
you, or any of us. Mary, be patient, just a little longer. You want to
be free, don't you?"
She hid the glitter in her eyes, against his coat. "Yes, of course. Only
don't ask me to go to-day. It excites me. I want to be quiet."
"Very well, and you promise--"
"Yes, I'll promise anything. And if Esther stays I'll be decent to her.
Though why you bother about her so much, I don't see. She is nothing
"She is very much to you," sternly.
"Yes--a spy! Oh, well, don't let's quarrel. Be sure to be back early for
the supper party to-night. Mr. Macnair and Annabel are invited. You can
bring them with you in the motor. It is just as well Esther isn't
going. There'll be lots of little things to attend to."
"That's settled then." Knowing that further persuasion was useless, he
kissed her and turned to quiet the eager children.
* * * * *
Almost she held her breath as she watched him go. Her small hands
twisted, a pulse beat visibly in her temple, her lips worked, she shook
from head to foot. Nevertheless she stood there, controlling herself,
until the motor horn had honked its farewell to a chorus of children's
laughter. Then, as one released from some desperate strain, she turned
and fled to her room....
"Mother!" Esther came in slowly, unpinning her hat. There was no answer
to her call. But she had not expected any. In her sulky moods Mrs.
Coombe often went for days without speaking to her step-daughter. When
the girl saw that she had gone to her room she was rather relieved than
otherwise; it meant at least a peaceful afternoon. Mary, in her room,
was considered safe and all that Esther need do was to be ready in order
to accompany her if she decided to go out.
She was not disappointed at missing the picnic. It was getting rather
hard to be gay. And it would be nice to have everything ready when the
It was a quietly beautiful afternoon and as the girl went about her
simple tasks she was not unhappy. Already she was learning the great
lesson which many more fortunate lovers miss, that the rarest fragrance
of love lies in its bestowal. That is why love is of all things most
Once she called up to the blowing curtains of Mrs. Coombe's window.
"Mother, won't you come and help me with the flowers?" But no hand
pushed the curtain aside, nor did she receive any answer. Perhaps Mary
was really asleep. In that case she was sure to be amiable at
Everything was daintily ready and Esther had had time to slip on her
prettiest frock when the "honk" of the returning motor brought a faint
colour into her pale cheeks.
"Dear me, you've got quite a colour, Esther," said Miss Annabel Macnair
in a slightly injured voice. She had come intending to tell Esther how
badly she was looking and to recommend a tonic.
"I don't see why you didn't come to the picnic."
"Oh, Esther," Jane's plain little face was radiant, "you missed it! It
was the nicest picnic yet. I won one race and Bubble won another, and
Ann won't speak to either of us. She says she hates her aunt because
she'd have won a race too if she hadn't had so much starch in her
petticoats. But Mrs. Sykes says she wouldn't be a mite surprised if Ann
has a bad heart--not a wicked heart, just a bad one, the kind that makes
you drop down dead. Some of Ann's folks died of bad hearts, Mrs. Sykes
says. But the doctor says it's all nonsense. He agreed with Ann that it
wasn't anything but petticoats--Oh, say! how pretty the table looks. Did
mother say you could use the best china?"
"Seeing that it's Esther's china on her own mother's side, I guess she
can use it if she likes," said Aunt Amy, mildly belligerent. "I thought
you might want to set the table before we got home, Esther, and I was so
afraid you might forget and use the sprigged tea set. But the doctor
said you'd be sure not to."
"That's one of her queer notions, I suppose?" said Miss Annabel in a
stage whisper plainly heard by every one. "How odd! Can you come
upstairs with me, Esther? I want to speak to you most particularly and I
haven't seen you for ages.
"Not that I haven't tried," she continued in her jerky way as they went
up the stairs together; "but you seem to be always with your mother.
Going to lose her soon. Natural enough. I said to Mrs. Miller, 'There's
real devotion.' Possible to overdo it though. Marriage is terribly
trying. For relatives. But long engagements are worse. How was it you
didn't get to the picnic?"
Esther murmured that she hadn't quite felt like going to the picnic.
"Well, you didn't miss much. Even Angus wasn't as cheerful as usual.
Inclined to be moody. And that brings me to what I wanted to tell you.
Remember that last time you had lunch with us?"
"Remember me saying that I never ask questions, but that I always find
out? Well--I have."
"Have what?" asked Esther, who had not been following.
"Found out. Found out what is the matter with my brother. Exactly what I
thought. He is the victim of an unhappy attachment. Unreciprocated!"
"You remember you laughed at me, Esther. Suggested liver. And when I
mentioned your mother you almost convinced me that I was wrong. Although
I am never wrong. It _is_ your mother, Esther. My poor brother,
This was so amazing that Esther waited for more.
"I suppose he felt certain of her until Dr. Callandar stepped in. Could
hardly believe it. When I told him of your mother's reputed engagement
he was not in the least disturbed. Said 'Pshaw!' Couldn't imagine such a
possibility. I said, 'I assure you it is the truth, Angus,' and he
merely remarked, 'Well, what if it is?' in a most matter of fact way.
"And you think--"
"My dear, I am sure. All put on. To deceive me. Although I never am
deceived. So I waited. And then one night last week I happened to get
home from a business session of the Ladies' Aid, early. I went in
quietly. Angus was in his study, without a light, but the door was a
little bit open, and I could hear his voice quite plainly. He was
"My dear, I couldn't help hearing. I didn't listen. I was rooted to the
spot. Positively! He--"
"You must not tell me, Miss Annabel, I won't listen."
"Very well, my dear. Perhaps you are right. Couldn't tell you his very
words anyway. I cannot remember them. He was very eloquent, terribly
worked up! And he was praying for Her. That's what he called your
mother, just Her. It sounded almost--almost popish, you know! Then
suddenly he stopped as if something had cut him off--sharp. There was a
silence. So long I began to be frightened and then he cried out loud,
'Not for me! Not for me!' It was dreadful! But it proves my point, I
think. Why, my dear, whatever is the matter?"
Esther, leaning against the window frame, was sobbing weakly.
"Dear me! I had no idea you would feel it so badly. Take a sip of
Esther struggled to regain her self-control.
"It seems so--sad," she faltered.
"Yes, of course. It is sad. And I have great sympathy with my poor
brother," went on Miss Annabel pinning down her hair net. "But do you
know, I sometimes think," she hesitated and a slow blush arose in her
middle-aged cheek, "I sometimes think that people in love aren't to be
pitied after all. Though it is hardly a thought to express to a young
girl like you.
"You know," she went on awkwardly as Esther still made no remark, "they
feel a great deal, of course, but it must be so very _interesting_. A
little cold cream for my nose, Esther. If I leave it until I get home I
shall certainly peel."
Esther provided the cream and a powder puff. She felt sick at heart. Her
calmer world of the afternoon burst like a bubble leaving only a tear
behind. The vision of Angus Macnair in the dark study reaching out
frantic hands for the thing he knew could never be his, seemed a last
touch of unendurable irony. Surely some one, somewhere, must be moved to
dreadful mirth at these blunders of the fates. From the echo of such
laughter commonplace was the only refuge. Esther bathed her eyes and
called to Jane to let her mother know that supper was ready.
The sounds of the child's cheerful tattoos upon Mrs. Coombe's door
accompanied them down the stairs, but when they had waited a few
minutes, Jane came quietly into the room alone.
"Mother doesn't answer me, Esther."
Miss Annabel looked surprised, then curious. Esther felt her face flame.
It was really too bad of Mary to make things so much harder than she
need. Her refusal to answer could only mean that she had determined to
be thoroughly disagreeable; and with company in the house. But her
annoyance was abruptly checked by the effect of the news upon the
doctor. It was not annoyance she read in his eyes. It was dismay. With a
murmured sentence, which may or may not have been excuse, he turned
from the room.
"I am so sorry," explained Esther smoothly. "Mother is not at all well,
one of her old headaches. The doctor has gone up to see if he can be
of any use."
Miss Annabel shook her head gloomily. "Mark my words," she said, "your
mother ought to take those headaches of hers more seriously. A headache
seems a little thing, but I know of a case--"
With Esther's sympathetic encouragement the good lady launched upon a
recital of melancholy happenings more or less connected with headaches
which occupied her attention very pleasantly and prevented any one else
from saying anything until the return of the awaited guest. He came in
looking as usual and bearing an apology from the hostess for her sudden
indisposition. "Nothing at all serious," he added lightly. "It is
possible that she may join us later." But it was noticeable that as he
spoke he did not look at Esther nor could her anxious glance read the
impassive sternness of his face.
It was not a successful meal. In spite of the pretty table, the dainty
food, the well kept up fire of conversation, the beautiful evening out
of doors, the softly shaded light inside, from first to last the supper
was a nightmare. Of what avail the careful pretence that nothing was
wrong? A very miasma of dread enveloped that table, a thing so palpable
that Miss Annabel found herself starting at a sound, the minister's
ready tongue faltered on a favourite phrase, Esther's clear voice grew
blurred, Aunt Amy wrung her hands, Jane's eyes were wide with
unchildlike care. Only Callandar seemed undisturbed, courteous,
It was a relief to them all when after an uncomfortable half-hour with
coffee on the veranda the minister suddenly remembered a forgotten
committee meeting and hurried Miss Annabel away with half her parting
words unspoken. The doctor, still courteous and interested, walked down
with them to the gate. He would wait, he said, a little longer to see
how Mrs. Coombe found herself. Esther carried off a subdued and silent
Jane to bed.
"Esther," whispered Jane as her sister bent to kiss her, "why do lovely,
lovely days always end so badly?"
"They don't, Janie."
The child sighed. "Mine do. I never had a perfect day in all my life."
"You will have. Every one has perfect days--sometime."
"Have you, Esther?"
Jane looked up sleepily. "Perhaps mine will come to-morrow!"
Esther went slowly down stairs and out into the garden. Callandar was
coming up the path from the gate. He walked slowly. When they met, he no
longer avoided her glance.
"Well?" She had no need to ask. Yet she did ask, falteringly.
"We have failed," he said briefly.
The quiet hopelessness of his voice left no room for argument. Esther
opened her lips to protest, but found nothing to say.
"She has outwitted us," he went on. "How? who can say? They have the
cunning of the devil! There is only one thing to do now. Only one way--"
"The wedding must take place at once. I suppose the farce is really
necessary. But there must be no more delay. Only the unsparing use of a
husband's authority can save her now. I shall take her away. I must be
with her day and night. In France there is a place I know, beautiful,
isolated. I shall take her there. If all else fails there is the
treatment of hypnotic suggestion. But--I shall not fail, I dare not!"
Blindly she put out her hand--he clasped it gently--yet not as if he
knew whose hand it was. Then, laying it aside, he passed by, and,
leaving her sobbing in the dusk, went on into the house and up the
stairs to the closed room.
It became quickly known in Coombe that, owing to Mrs. Coombe's delicate
health, the wedding would take place much sooner than had been expected.
A sea voyage, it was conceded, was the necessary thing and as Dr.
Callandar would not allow his fiancee to go away alone it seemed only
fair that he should make haste to go with her. Comment on all these
points was much more restrained than usual because, just at this time,
Coombe withstood the shock of finding out that Dr. Callandar was no less
than Dr. Henry Chedridge Callandar of Montreal. No, not his brother, nor
his cousin, but the man himself!
Of course Coombe had suspected this all along. Never for a moment had it
been really deceived. Over and over again it had said: "My dear, that
young man is not a mere local practitioner, mark my words!" From the
first, Coombe had observed the marks of true distinction in him. He was
so odd! He seemed to care nothing at all for appearances, and, as
everybody knows, this comfortable attitude of mind is the privilege of
the famous few. Besides, there was the matter of the marriage. Coombe
had been right in thinking that Mary Coombe had not gone into the matter
blindfold. She had known very well upon which side her bread was
buttered, and as to her giving way to his whims in the absurd way she
did--that, too, was understandable under the circumstances.
What puzzled Coombe, now, was how she had managed it. She was not
pretty, at least not very pretty. She was not young, at least only
comparatively young. And goodness knows, she was not clever! Hardly a
mother in Coombe but had at least one daughter prettier, younger and
cleverer; a daughter, in fact, who could give Mary Coombe aces and kings
and still win out. Why had the doctor not been attached to one of these?
It was incomprehensible. Even if, through a misplaced devotion to his
profession, he had determined to marry into a doctor's family--there was
Esther! Esther Coombe was a fine girl and quite nice looking before she
had begun to "go off." Even as it was she had more to recommend her than
her step-mother. There seemed to be a general impression that all men
"If they would only let some woman with sense choose their wives for
them," declared the eldest Miss Sinclair in a burst of confidence, "they
might get along fairly well. But if ever a man gets married to the right
woman, it happens by accident."
Nevertheless, at a special meeting of the Ladies' Aid, called for the
purpose, it was decided to give the bride a present. They had not
intended to do it for fear of establishing a precedent. But when it came
out who Dr. Callandar was, it hardly seemed right to let one of their
best known members go from them to a more exalted sphere in a city
(which many of them might, from time to time, feel inclined to visit)
without showing her by some small token how very highly she was held in
their regard. Every one could see the sense of this and the vote was
unanimous. In regard to the nature of the gift there was more diversity
of opinion, but it was finally decided that, as the value of this kind
of thing lies not in the gift but in the spirit of the giving, a brown
jar with the word "Biscuits" in silver lettering would do very well.
Carving knives were thought of but as Mrs. Atkins very fitly said,
"Everybody is sure to give carving knives"--a phenomenon which all the
ladies accepted as a commonplace.
Of the prospective bride herself, Coombe saw little. She remained very
much at home. She had lost much of her spasmodic energy, was inclined to
be moody and even rude. Her state of health accounted naturally for this
and also for the arrival of a new inmate at the Elms, a cool and capable
looking person who was discovered, after much amazed enquiry, to be a
trained nurse. Not a hospital nurse exactly but a kind of special nurse
whose duties included massage, and the giving of certain baths and
things which the doctor thought strengthening. Her name was Miss Philps.
Coombe never got behind that. No one could ever boast that she knew more
of Miss Philps than her name. She was, and remains to this day,
There are people like that, although this was Coombe's first experience
of one. Miss Philps was not a recluse. Everywhere Mrs. Coombe went, Miss
Philps went too. Even Esther was not more assiduous in her attentions.
She was not a silent person either, far from it. She bubbled over with
precise and cheerful comment, she appeared to talk even more than was
absolutely necessary and it was only upon her departure that her
entertainers noticed that she had said nothing at all. A very baffling
person to deal with. Coombe could not manage to "take to" her at all and
great sympathy was felt for Mrs. Coombe when she was reported to have
said to Miss Milligan that going out with Miss Philps felt exactly like
a jail delivery--whatever that might be!
But if Miss Philps was not appreciated at large it was different in her
own immediate circle. She had not been at the Elms a day before Esther
recognised the doctor's wisdom in getting her. She was discreet,
capable, kindly. The burden upon the girl's shoulders grew momentarily
lighter. Miss Philps, with her matter of fact cheeriness, her strength
and her experience, was exactly what that house of overstrained
"Dear me," she said, "you're all as fidgety as corn in a popper. And no
need for it. I've nursed dozens worse than your mother, Miss Esther, and
had them right as a trivet before I got through. As long as we can keep
her hands off the stuff--and that's what I'm here for. So don't worry!"
Esther drew a deep breath. It was certainly good to feel the strain
lifting, to have time for dreams again. The time was so pitifully short
now. Two more weeks and she would leave Coombe behind her. The old life
would be definitely over and done with. Looking back, she could see that
it had been a happy life, and the future looked so dark. In youth, all
life's happenings seem so terribly final. Every parting feels like a
parting forever. Esther felt quite sure that she would never return
In the week before the wedding, freed from her continual attendance upon
her mother, she unobtrusively paid farewell to all her old haunts and
favourite places. It was a sweet sadness. She did not taste the sweet,
but it was there. As one grows older, one does not linger over sad
moments. It is because the sweet has vanished, only the bitter remains.
But in untried youth sadness has a touch of beauty, a glamour of
romance which shrouds its deepest pain. It is as if something within us,
infinitely wise, were smiling, knowing well that for the young there is
The maple by the schoolhouse turned early that year. When Esther, in her
pilgrimage, came to say good-bye it welcomed her with all the glory of
autumn. Against its greener brothers it stood out, naming, defiant.
Beside it, the red pump seemed no longer red. Red and yellow, its
falling leaves tossed themselves into the girl's lap as she sat upon the
porch steps. It is almost certain that, as Esther gathered them, she
compared her sad heart to a leaf which had fluttered from the tree of
happy life. There seemed no outlook for her. She could not see through
winter into spring.
The school children with their new teacher (whom Esther could not help
but feel was sadly incompetent) had all gone home and it was very quiet
on the porch steps. She closed her eyes and dreamed and clearly through
her dream she heard, as she had heard that first morning in early
summer, a determinedly cheerful, yet husky, voice singing. Some one was
coming down the hill.
"From Wimbleton to Wombleton is fifteen miles;
From Wombleton to Wimbleton is fifteen miles;
From Wimbleton to Wombleton, from Wombleton to Wimbleton,
From Wimbleton to Wombleton,--"
The song trailed off into silence as it had done before. The girl's
closed eyes smarted with tears--"Oh, it is a very long way!" she
murmured, and burying her face in fallen leaves she felt that at last
she knew the meaning of despair.
But though his voice had echoed through Esther's dream, Callandar was
not on the long hill nor anywhere near it. Unlike Esther, he paid no
farewells during these last days. He avoided the hill particularly and
drove past the schoolhouse seldom and always at top speed. If the sight
of the turning maples moved him at all it was not because he compared
his lost happiness to a fallen leaf. Callandar was long past such gentle
sadnesses as these. Every day he filled as full of work as possible. He
walked far and hard in hope of tiring himself into dreamless sleep at
night. And every day his face grew older, greyer, more sternly set.
At the very last, and as if inspired by some special imp of the
perverse, Mary declared that she must have a church wedding. Opposition
was useless. With all the distorted force of her drug-ridden brain, she
desired this one thing. She wept, she coaxed, she raved. Every woman,
she stormed, had a right to a proper wedding. She had always been
cheated, she had been a pawn shoved about at the bidding of others, her
own wishes never consulted. Was there any reason, any reason at all, why
she should not be properly married in the church?
He ventured quietly to remind her that there were peculiar circumstances
in the case. But she burst out at that. He was ashamed of her. Ashamed
of his own wife. If there were peculiar circumstances whose fault were
they? Not hers, surely? Would she be where she was now if he had not
neglected her all those years? Anyway, peculiar circumstances or not,
she would be married decently or she would not be married at all.
With set lips, the doctor gave in. Opposition maddened her, and, after
all, one farce more or less could not matter much.
"Very well," he said, "make your own arrangements."
Immediately, Mary became amiable. She was quite polite to Miss Philps,
almost pleasant to Esther. Into the preparations for the wedding she
entered with some of her old spasmodic energy. The occasion, she
determined, should be a talked of one in Coombe. She made plans, a fresh
one every day, and talked of them continually.
Only--there was one plan of which she did not speak. There was one
unsaid thing which matured quietly, covered by the noise of much
talking. Yet this plan more than any other would have to do with the
success of her last appearance in Coombe. It would be foolish indeed,
she decided, to let any promise, however well-meant, stand in the way of
this success. She could not, and would not, face a crowded church
feeling as she felt now. That was absurd! She would need some little
stimulant to help her carry it off. A very slightly increased dose would
do it. Only sufficient to banish that horrible craving, to give her a
long, satisfying sleep and then just a touch more, very little, to brace
her in the morning. Enough to send warm tingling thrills of well being
through her tired body, to brighten her eyes, to clear her brain and
steady her shaking nerves--to make her young again, young and a bride.
Only this once! Never again.
Of what use to continue the sophistries which justified her treachery to
herself! Perhaps of the three it was she who suffered most during that
last week. She lived in an agony of anticipation, a hell of desire for
which a sane pen has no description. Yet no one must suspect that she
anticipated or desired anything--not the cool-eyed Miss Philps, not
Esther, not the doctor, not even Jane. The mask must not slip for one
single moment. So far, they suspected nothing; but they were always on
their guard, always. A careless look, an unconsidered movement might
betray her, and then--! She raved in her room sometimes when she thought
of a possible balking of her purpose.
She was very clever. She still had self-control when it was necessary to
have it in the furtherance of the one devouring passion. Only when she
was quite alone did she ever give way. The doctor thought her
wonderfully docile and took heart of hope. A month or two alone with her
in Prance and all would be well. In the meantime, patience! Naturally
she was full of childish whims. He smiled at her indulgently when she
asked him to request Miss Philps to stay outside of the fitting room at
Miss Milligan's. "For you know," she said, "it is bad luck, very bad
luck, for any person to see one, in one's wedding gown before the proper
time. And anyway," the grey eyes filled with easy tears, "I'm sure it
isn't good for me never to be trusted, not even with silly Miss
The plea seemed genuine. It was like Mary to be concerned about the
wedding-dress superstition. And what possible danger could there be?
Miss Milligan in all probability had never heard the fatal names of
opium and cocaine save as unpleasant things associated with Chinese and
tooth-drawing. It was absurd to imagine Mary coming to harm there.
From this you will see that, upon the occasion of the last discovery,
Mary had lied desperately and well. The "cache" in the bird-house had
been found, but Miss Milligan's name had never been connected in the
most remote way with that relapse. Mary had sworn that the new supply
had not been new at all but had formed part of an old cache which she
had hidden, in a place which even she had forgotten, all quite
accidentally. And although many supplementary enquiries were made, the
real truth had remained undiscovered.
So in the simplest way in the world, Mary secured several uninterrupted
"fittings" with Miss Milligan while the excellent Miss Philps sat
without and waited.
"This is positively the last time I shall have to trouble you, dear Miss
Milligan," said her customer sweetly. "Of course, as soon as we are
married, I am going to tell Dr. Callandar all about it and when he sees
how very much better my medicine has made me, he will be quite ready to
withdraw his objections. In the meantime I am sure you feel, as I do,
that our little ruse has been quite justifiable!"
Miss Milligan did. She felt quite proud of her part in it. It is
something to help a fellow woman and still more to get the better of a
fellow man. Especially such a celebrated man as Dr. Callandar! She would
order the fresh supply at once, that very afternoon, by the first mail.
And as soon as the packet came she would see that Mrs. Coombe had it in
person. "There is certain to be a few last touches necessary to the
dress after it has been sent home," she remarked with a smile of truly
"Yes!" said Mary. "That night--after the dress comes home!" She spoke
sharply, unnaturally. Her face turned a dull, pasty white. She shook so
that Miss Milligan was thoroughly frightened. But presently she
controlled herself and forced a pathetic smile.
"You see, dear Miss Milligan, how much I need it."
"Indeed a blind bat could see that!" said the dressmaker pityingly.
"Shall I call the nurse?"
But Mrs. Coombe would not hear of Miss Milligan calling the nurse!
It is the onlooker who sees most of the game and Aunt Amy was an ideal
onlooker. Always self-effacing and silent, she was now more silent and
self-effacing still. Consequently the principal actors tended to forget
their parts when in her presence. No one explained anything to Aunt Amy
but no one concealed anything from her. She simply "didn't matter." So
far as the playing out of the little drama was concerned, Aunt Amy was
supposed to be safely off the stage. She looked and listened, had her
strange flashes of psychic insight and came to her own conclusions about
it all, quite undisturbed by facts as they appeared to others. Her
conclusions were very simple. Esther loved the doctor. The doctor loved
Esther. That, in spite of this, Callandar was deliberately planning to
marry Mary she considered a purely arbitrary matter arranged by those
mysteriously malignant powers known as "They." Callandar, himself, had
clearly no choice, Esther was helpless, and Mary triumphed easily and
inevitably because Mary was one of "Them" herself. Aunt Amy had become
firmly convinced of this latter fact. Everything went to prove it--the
theft of the ring, the threat to shut her (Amy) up, the easy triumph
over Esther, and a thousand and one trifles all "confirmation strong as
proofs of holy writ." Of course it would be impossible to make this
clear to Esther or the doctor. Amy realised that and did not try. But in
her own mind she thought of it continually. And her little pile of proof
mounted higher day by day.
Esther, absorbed in the care of her step-mother, was not even aware that
Aunt Amy noticed her growing listlessness, her heavy eyes, her fits of
brooding. She did not know that a silent foot paused before her closed
door, listening. All she knew was that it was relief unspeakable to be
with Aunt Amy, to let drop the mask of cheerful energy without fear of
questioning or of wonder. Aunt Amy didn't matter.
Mary, too, felt that it was needless to hoodwink Amy. No need to pretend
with her. She might show herself as irritable, as conscienceless, as
nerve-racked and disagreeable as she chose without fear of displaying
"symptoms." Aunt Amy was not looking for symptoms, indeed Mary thought
she grew more stupid daily. After her marriage something would really
have to be done about Amy. She hoped the doctor wouldn't be silly
Even Dr. Callandar was not careful to hide his burden from those faded
eyes. He was more self-conscious even with Ann or Bubble than he was
with her. What matter if she did see his mouth harden or his eyes
burn?--Poor Aunt Amy, such things could have no meaning for her. She was
a soul apart.
A soul apart indeed, how far apart none of them quite realised; yet near
enough to love--and hate. As the days went by and Esther drooped like a
graceful plant athirst for water there grew in Aunt Amy's twisted brain
a slow corroding anger. The timid, bitter anger of a weak nature which
is often more deadly than the lordly passion of the strong.
If she could only do something. If she could only outwit "Them"! She
would do anything at all, if she could only find the thing to do. It was
terrible to be so helpless. It was maddening to have to be so careful.
Yet careful she must be, she never forgot that. Often as she went about
the house or stood in the sunny kitchen rolling out her flaky pie-crust,
she pondered over ways and means. But none seemed suitable. Some of her
plans were fantastic to a degree, but she always had sense enough to
reject them in the end. In her planning she was conscious of no sense of
right or wrong but only of suitability. There could be no question of
right or wrong in dealing with "Them." They were outside the pale. No.
What she wanted was something simple and effective. A little poison,
now--in a pie? But Amy knew nothing of poison, nor how to obtain any,
nor how to use it effectively in a pie when once obtained. She might
consult the doctor perhaps? But something warned Aunt Amy that the
doctor would not take kindly to the idea of a little poison in a pie. So
this beautiful scheme had to be given up. She sighed.
"What a big sigh, Auntie!" Esther, who was sitting at the table peeling
apples, looked up questioningly. "A penny for your thoughts."
A look of cunning came over Aunt Amy's face. And instead of speaking her
real thoughts she said, "I was thinking of weddings, Esther."
"But why the sigh?"
"I don't like weddings. Once there was a young girl going to be married.
She was very happy. She was so happy that she was afraid to look at her
own face in the glass. And it was eleven o'clock on Tuesday. I mean she
was waiting for eleven o'clock on Tuesday. She was to be married then.
But just one minute before the time, something happened--the clock
stopped, I think. Anyway eleven o'clock on Tuesday never came. So she
could not get married. And she grew old and her flowers fell to pieces.
It was very sad."
Aunt Amy moved uneasily. "Do you know who the girl was, Esther?"
"Don't you know, Auntie?"
"No, that is, I am never sure. Sometimes I think I used to know her. But
she's gone. I never see her now. I'd like to find her if I could."
"You will find her some day, Auntie. Try not to fret about it."
It was seldom indeed that Aunt Amy spoke even thus vaguely of that other
self of hers which she had lost in the tragedy of her youth. Esther's
heart was full of pity as she listened. What was her own trouble
compared to this? She at least would have her memories.
"There is just one chance," went on Aunt Amy, now gently excited. She
had never spoken of this chance before but she felt that Esther might
like to hear of it. "Just one chance! You see, the world being
round--the world is round, isn't it, Esther?"
"Well, the world being round there is a chance that, if she waits long
enough, eleven o'clock on Tuesday may come around again. Then if she is
ready and if she has the ring he gave her, the red ring, and if they are
both very quick they may be married after all."
"Oh, Aunt Amy, _dear_! That is why you love the ruby ring?"
But the old lady's memory was clouding again. She looked bewildered and
would say no more. Esther kissed her with new tenderness. "I am so glad
you have it safely back," she whispered. "You need never be afraid of
losing it again."
Aunt Amy found it hard to make the pies that morning. She was enveloped
in a deep sadness, a sadness which in some misunderstood way seemed
inseparable from the idea of that lost friend of hers, the girl-bride
whose marriage hour had never struck. It seemed to Aunt Amy that the
girl had been waiting a very long time and was tired. Even if the world
were round, it was a very big world and eleven o'clock on Tuesday took a
wearisome time to travel around it. She could not understand why she
should feel so terribly sorry for the waiting girl, but she did. A hot
tear fell into the pie-crust. That would never do! The pie-maker
furtively dried her eyes and came back to the consideration of more
It may seem strange that no one noticed the morbid state of Aunt Amy at
this time. But it would have been more strange if any one had noticed
it. Of outward signs there were practically none. Even the silent
hand-wringing had ceased. She ceased to rebuke Jane for stepping upon
the third stair; she ceased to talk of the peculiarities inherent in
sprigged china. She was more and more careful not to mention "Them,"
and, as always, her housekeeping was a wonder and a delight.
She even offered to make Mary's wedding-cake. An offer which Mary
received graciously. No one could make fruit cake like Aunt Amy and if
it proved too big for the house oven the baker could bake it in his.
Jane was delighted. She told Bubble that it was to be a "hugeous" cake,
the like of which was never seen in Coombe and she defied Ann to produce
any relative or ancestor whatever whose wedding-cake had even faintly
approached such dimensions. Ann retorted that big wedding-cakes were
vulgar and that her Aunt Sykes did not think it proper for a widow woman
to have a wedding-cake at all.
The making of the cake was a great mental help to Aunt Amy. It seemed to
ease her mind and aid her to think clearly. She thought of many things
as she prepared the materials, made most clever plans. That all the
plans had to do with the preventing of the marriage and the final
circumventing of "Them" goes without saying. There was one especially
good plan which came to her while she stoned the raisins. Still another,
while the currants were being looked over, and a third, more brilliant
than either, while she chopped the candied peel. The trouble was that
when she came to mix all her ingredients into the batter, her plans
began to mix up too, until all was hopeless confusion. It was most
disheartening! And the wedding, now, only a few days off. She wanted to
go away into a corner and wring her hands, but if she did, some one
might notice--and then "They" would have the chance they were looking
for. Aunt Amy was too clever for that!
The day before the wedding, the wedding dress came home. No one had seen
it. Mary's superstition in regard to this point was indulgently smiled
at by everybody.
"But hadn't I better see it on you just once," suggested Esther. "Some
trifle may have been forgotten and a missing hook and eye might spoil
the effect of the whole thing."
"Oh, I have thought of that. Miss Milligan is going to run in after
supper to see that everything is right. Then if anything is needed she
can attend to it at once. Of course, it doesn't matter about Miss
Milligan seeing it--for bad luck I mean."
"How about me?" asked Callandar, smiling.
"You!" with a playful shriek, "you would be worse than anybody. You
would hoodoo it entirely!"
"How about little girls?" asked Jane coaxingly.
Mary turned suddenly peevish. "Don't bother me, Jane. I shall not let
any one see it and that's enough." But their combined suggestions had
disturbed her, and it was only upon their serious assurance that of
course her wishes would be respected that her amiability returned.
Yet it was apparent that she felt rather worried about the dress herself
for she had worked herself into a small fever of nervous anxiety before
the promised appearance of Miss Milligan for the last fitting. When at
last that lady arrived, a trifle late, and very much out of breath, Mary
would hardly let her say good evening to the others, before hurrying
"And I think," said she hesitatingly, "that I shan't come down again
to-night. I am tired. If the doctor calls in, tell him that I am trying
to get a good rest for to-morrow. Good night, Miss Philps. Good
To the girl's astonishment she kissed her. A light, hot kiss which fell
on her cheek like a fleck of glowing ash. Yet it was a real kiss and may
have meant that the giver was not ungrateful. Jane, too, had a good
night kiss that night; but Aunt Amy had already gone upstairs.
* * * * *
"Well?" They were safely in the upstairs room now and the door was
"I've got it. It came on the afternoon mail. I went down to the post
office specially. I knew you kind of counted on it for to-morrow."
With the glee of a child playing conspirator Miss Milligan dived into
the recesses of the reticule she carried. "Here it is. No, that's
peppermints. But it's here somewhere--"
"Oh, hurry!" Mary almost snatched the packet from the friendly hand. At
sight of it she turned deathly white and began to shake as she had
shaken that day in the fitting-room. But this time she recovered
quickly, almost before Miss Milligan had noticed it.
"Thank you so much," she said. With the last effort of her self-control
she forced herself to place the packet upon the dresser. She wanted to
snatch at it to tear it open, to scream with the relief of the tablets
in her hand, but she did none of these things. Instead she thanked Miss
Milligan again and proceeded to talk of other things, anything that
would do to fill up the short time necessary to conceal the real purpose
of the visit so that Esther and Miss Philps would not suspect--never for
a moment suspect!
"Do you think we really need try on the dress?" asked the conscientious
Mrs. Coombe thought not. It was quite all right, she felt sure of that.
And really she was a little tired. It had been a trying day. She
moistened her lips and tried to smile, keeping her eyes well away from
the tempting heaven in the little pasteboard box. Would the woman
Fortunately Miss Milligan was a lady who prided herself upon her good
sense and also upon her proper pride. She always knew, she declared,
when she was not wanted, and, strange as it may seem, it began to dawn
upon her that this was one of those rare occasions. Mrs. Coombe was very
pleasant, of course, but Miss Milligan missed something, a certain
cordiality which might have tempted her to prolong her stay. She was not
offended, for if she considered that her self-denying journeys to the
post office were meeting with less than their just deserts, she was not
a woman to insist upon gratitude where gratitude was not freely given.
She stayed therefore no longer than the fiction of dress-fitting
required and then with a somewhat strained "good night" passed down the
stairs and out of the house.
Mary waited, rigid as a statue, until she heard the front gate close,
then, the last defence down, she sprang to the dressing table--tearing
off the paper from the package as a puppy dog might tear the covering
from a bone. A glass of water stood ready. Her shaking hands reached for
it, counted the number of tablets and slipped them in. Then, with a long
breath of relief, the tension relaxed. She raised her eyes, triumphing
eyes, to the mirror and saw--Aunt Amy watching her from the doorway.
She had forgotten to lock the door!
But it was only Aunt Amy.
Fear and relief came in almost the same breath. She steadied herself
against the dresser.
"Shut the door!"
Aunt Amy obeyed. But she shut herself inside the door. "What do you
want?" Mary never wasted words on Amy--"Ah!"
With a motion so swift that it seemed like a conjuror's miracle, Aunt
Amy had slipped from her stand by the door, snatched up the open box,
and was back again before the choking cry on the other's lips had
"Esther says you musn't take these," said Aunt Amy in her colourless
For a second Mary hesitated. If she made the murderous spring which
every baffled nerve in her tortured body urged her to make, Amy would
scream. A scream would mean, Miss Philps--Esther--the doctor: agony and
defeat. With a mighty effort she held herself. She tried to
"Don't be a fool, Amy. This is some medicine the doctor gave me himself.
Hand it to me at once."
Aunt Amy smiled. It was a sly little smile. It made Mary want to rave,
for it said more plainly than words that Aunt Amy knew. Swiftly she
changed her tactics. Her face softened, became gentle, entreating--
"Amy--dear. I am only going to use a little. If you love me, give me the
Useless! Aunt Amy still smiled. She put the box behind her. With her
other hand she felt for the door knob.
"Amy, give it to me! What have I ever done to you?"
"You stole my ring." In exactly the same tone she might have said, "You
are a murderess."
The ring! Mary had forgotten the ring. Wait, perhaps it was not hopeless
even yet. Amy placed an absurd value on that ring--and she, Mary, had
the gem in her possession. She did not know that Esther had found and
restored it. To her it was still in the box at the bottom of her drawer.
A dazzling plan flashed through her excited brain. She would bribe Amy
with the ring. The thought nerved her.
"Do you really want your ring back?" she asked sweetly.
Aunt Amy paused with her hands on the door knob.
"I have it back."
"Oh, no. You haven't. It is in a box in my drawer."
"It is not. Esther gave it to me!" But there was a spark of fear in
Amy's eyes. Contradiction so easily confused her. _Had_ Esther given her
the ring? She felt oddly uncertain.
Mary laughed, and the laugh increased Aunt Amy's confusion. After all it
was quite possible that Mary had taken the ring again. It had been
locked away and hidden, but locks and hiding-places were never an
obstacle to "Them."
"I've got it safe enough!" taunted Mary, tormentingly.
The spark of fear flamed. Amy took a swift step forward. "Give it to
"Give me the box--and I will."
Aunt Amy had ceased to care about the box. Almost she placed it in the
outstretched hand, then, with quick cunning, caught it back.
"The ring first."
Mary shrugged her shoulders. She felt cool enough now. It was going to
be easy. She turned to the bureau and began to pull things out of the
drawer, scattering them anywhere. She could not remember exactly where
she had put the ring. As she searched, she talked.
"There is nothing to be tragic about," she said. "I intended to give you
your ring anyway--some day. And the medicine is nothing that will hurt.
It is only something to make me sleep so that I shan't look a sight
to-morrow. I am taking only a little. No one will know. I shall not even
oversleep. But if Esther or any of them knew, they would make a fuss.
You must promise not to tell them--before I give you the ring. Just tell
Esther that I do not want to be disturbed early. I'll wake myself, in
plenty of time for the wedding."
"In plenty of time for the wedding!" For a moment Amy wondered what it
was about the phrase which sounded familiar? Then she seemed to see, as
in a dream, the vision of a young girl all in white, with flowers in her
hands, sitting alone in a room waiting, watching a clock--a clock which
never quite came round to the hour of eleven on Tuesday. Time has a
great deal to do with weddings, evidently. People who wish to be married
must be ready at the fateful moment, otherwise they have to
wait--forever, perhaps. "Plenty of time"--suddenly a flash of direct
inspiration seemed to coordinate her scattered faculties. She saw
clearly a plan, a beautiful, simple plan to prevent the marriage. What
if Mary should _not_ wake in plenty of time for the wedding? What if the
hour, the wedding hour, should not find her ready? The thing was so
simple! If one tablet would make Mary sleep, two would make her sleep
longer. For the moment she forgot even the ruby ring in her childish
pleasure at such a clever idea. Her worn face was lit by a satisfied
smile as she swiftly, quietly dropped more tablets from the box into the
glass--one--two--she was not quite sure how many!
"Here is the ring," said Mary turning at last from the disturbed drawer
with a cardboard box in her hand. It was the box from which Esther had
taken the ring long before, but Mary was in too great a hurry to open
it. She did not doubt that it contained the ring. For once in her life
Mary thought she was playing fair.
They completed the exchange in silence, Mary wondering a little at the
pleasant change which she saw in Amy's face. But she was too hurried to
enquire into the cause of it. She hardly waited to hear her promise not
to tell Esther but fairly pushed her from the room. Then, secure behind
her locked door, she wiped the perspiration from her forehead and sank
exhausted into the nearest chair.
When her strength came back her first care was to hide the remaining
tablets in a safe place in her travelling bag, she never intended to use
them again, never! But it would do no harm to feel that she could trust
herself to leave them alone, as of course she could. Then she loosened
her hair, not pausing to brush it, and, slipping off her dress, wrapped
herself in a certain flowered dressing gown. Not one of the dainty new
ones, but a gown whose lace was yellowed and torn, a gown which felt
like an old friend but which, after to-night, she would wear no more--
Listen! Was that some one at the door?
Only Miss Philps calling good-night. Mary answered "Good-night" in a
sleepy voice, and the step passed on. It left her shaking like a leaf in
the wind. What else indeed was she? A fluttering, fading leaf shaken in
the teeth of a wind of dread and mad desire.
All was quiet now. She would be disturbed no more that night. Her
shaking hands rattled the spoon which stirred the mixture in the glass.
The familiar motion quieted her. Here, right in her hands, was peace,
rest, a swift and magical release from the torment of appetite denied.
To-morrow--but why think of to-morrow? She might be stronger then.
Everything might be easier. All she really needed was a long
She turned out the light and throwing up the blind stood for a moment
looking out into the soft moonlight. The moon was clear. It would be a
beautiful day for the wedding! Smiling, she picked up the glass and
with a whispered, "Here's to the bride!" raised it to her eager lips
* * * * *
Silence settled down upon the Elms. There was a harvest moon that night,
a glorious rounded moon more golden than silver. The garden slumbered,
wrapped in mellow light, even the shadows gleamed faintly luminous. The
breeze, roaming at will, shook drowsy perfume from the lingering
flowers, but for all it aped the summer it was unmistakably an autumn
breeze, melancholy, earth-scented. It stirred the curtains at Mary's
window; rustled through the great bowlful of crimson leaves upon
Esther's writing table and softly stirred the dark hair of the girl as
she sat with her face hidden in her curved arms. For a very long time
she sat there while the moon looked in and looked away again and who
can tell what her thoughts were, or if she thought at all.
By and by she rose and went to the window, looking out to where a month
ago she had stood by the garden gate under the stars. It was drenched
with moonlight now and the shadow under the elm tree was dark.
What was that? A darker shadow in the shadow? Esther's hand caught at
the curtain, her heart gave a great leap and then grew still. She knew
who stood there. This was the good-bye he could not speak. Tears fell
unheeded down the girl's pale cheeks. If during those last days she had
had any doubt of the love which loyalty to Mary had helped him hide so
well, they were all swept away now. A warm spot grew and glowed in her
heart and a line from that old immortal love lyric which she had learned
in her school days came back vivid with eternal truth.
"I had not loved thee, dear, so much
Loved I not honour more."
It was a perfect day for the wedding. Autumn at her brightest and gayest
before her new bright robes began to brown. Soft air, mellow sun,
cool-lipped breeze, horizon veiled in tinted mist--a gem of a day, the
jewel of a season.
"Them as has, gets," murmured Mrs. Sykes, gloomily, as she tied on her
Sunday bonnet. She rather resented the kindness of nature upon this
present occasion. A nice rain would have suited her mood better.
Nevertheless, much as her mind misgave her in regard to the wedding, she
was early on her way to the Elms to see if she could help.
"They're sure to be flustrated," she told herself. "Aunt Amy's just as
likely as not to lose what little bit of head she has and hired help are
broken reeds. Esther will have the brunt of it. She'll be glad enough to
see me, I'll be bound."
Do not imagine that Mrs. Sykes was curious. Curiosity was a failing
which she systematically repudiated. But she was a very helpful person
and it was wonderful how many opportunities of helpfulness she found
upon solemn or joyous occasions. If, while helping, her ears were open,
and her eyes shrewd, can she be blamed for that? There may be people
with ears who hear not but they do not live in Coombe. The only
difficulty is to manage to be, like Mr. Micawber, on the spot.
Mrs. Sykes was early, but not too early. When she slipped in at the side
door there was already a stir of unusual movement in the house but the
final flutter was still measurably distant. Jane dashed past with
crimped hair and white ribbons flying. Miss Philps, very stately in a
new gown, was arranging flowers in geometrical patterns. Dr. Callandar,
self-possessed as ever, talked upon the veranda with Professor Willits
who had arrived the night before. Aunt Amy was busy in the kitchen.
Esther, flushed and excited, with eyes that flashed blue fire, seemed
everywhere at once.
"Oh, Mrs. Sykes," she exclaimed, "how nice of you to come! Won't you
please get Jane and tie her up--her ribbons, I mean? It is almost time
"Would you like me to assist?" asked Miss Philps, looking up from a
"Oh, thanks, Miss Philps. There are some hooks I cannot manage. But
mother will probably need a lot of help. I thought you were with
"No. She has not yet sent for me." Miss Philps drew out her watch and
consulted it. "Dear me!" with slight surprise, "it is much later than I
thought. Perhaps I had better go up."
Esther looked worried. "I believe you had--if she hurries at the last
she will be terribly excited. Aunt Amy told me she wished particularly
not to be disturbed this morning, but surely she has forgotten how late
it is getting."
"I'll go up," said Miss Philps. "It's time for her tonic anyway, and we
must persuade her to eat something. When you are ready for me to hook
your dress, call. I can easily manage you both."
This is all that Mrs. Sykes heard, for just then Jane flew by again like
a returning comet and had to be captured and properly tied up. Mrs.
Sykes, as she admitted herself, was no hand at fancy fixings but she was
painstaking and conscientious and the bow-tying absorbed all her
energies. She was getting on very well and had almost succeeded in
adjusting the last bow when a cry from the room above startled her into
the tying of a double knot.
"What was that?"
It was not a loud cry--but there was something in it which brought Mrs.
Sykes' heart leaping into her throat, which sent Esther reeling against
the stair baluster, which brought the doctor, white-faced from the
veranda--it was the kind of cry which carries in its note the psychic
essence of terror and disaster.
Mrs. Sykes for all her iron nerve felt suddenly faint. Jane began to
cry. The doctor and Esther had raced up the stairs. But there was no
repetition of the cry. Instead there was silence. Then a murmur of
voices and sounds of ordered activity overhead.
Clearly something had happened. But what? Mrs. Sykes wanted very much to
go and see. But the glimpse she had caught of Callandar's eyes as he
sprang to the stair, the look of white horror in Esther's face as she
followed him, and above all, that strange terrifying Something in the
cry she had heard seemed to discourage enquiry. The good lady turned her
attention to the comforting of Jane. After all, if she waited long
enough she could hardly help hearing all about it. At first hand, too.
It seemed a long time that she waited. Miss Philps came up and down the
stairs several times but she did not appear to see Mrs. Sykes. Jane
stopped crying and wandered out into the garden. Still Mrs. Sykes
waited and presently Aunt Amy came in, looking quite excited and asked
eagerly what time it was. Mrs. Sykes told her, adding with asperity that
these were fine goings-on, and that they'd all be late for the wedding
if they didn't hurry up.
"Yes, I think they will. I'm almost sure they will," said Aunt Amy, and
she laughed as a child laughs when it is greatly pleased.
"Dear me, she is much madder than I thought," murmured Mrs. Sykes.
"Whatever is the matter? What are they doing?" she asked in a
Aunt Amy raised a finger, "Hush! she's asleep. Let us tidy up the room.
I don't think she is going to wake up for a long time yet. And then
she'll have to wait till the world goes round again."
"Well of all the--" began Mrs. Sykes, but she was interrupted by the
entrance of Professor Willits. With the virtuous air of one who strictly
minds her own business she began to tie her bonnet strings.
"Don't go, Mrs. Sykes," said the professor gravely. "I think--I'm afraid
you may be needed."
"I hope nothing serious has happened?" faltered Mrs. Sykes, now
thoroughly disturbed, but he did not seem to hear her. He was listening
intently to the sounds overhead. They were very slight sounds now and
presently they ceased altogether. Willits looked more anxious. Then, in
the midst of a new, heavier silence, Dr. Callandar himself came down
At first sight he appeared almost as usual. He did not notice Mrs. Sykes
but went straight across the room to Willits.
"Nothing--any use--" he began haltingly. Then suddenly the words ceased
to come. His lips moved but there was no sound. With an expression of
intense surprise he lifted his hand to his head, and swayed awkwardly
into the nearest chair.
"Land sakes, look out! he's going to fall," cried Mrs. Sykes in terror.
"Breakdown," said the professor briefly. "I expected something of the
kind. Help me to get him to the car."
"Oh, Land, Land," moaned; Mrs. Sykes, "whatever"--but realising that the
time for questioning was not yet, she did what she was told without
"Better send for Dr. Parker," said Willits crisply to Miss Philps who
had come in quietly. "Better tell the minister, too. Keep the little
girl down stairs. I'll be back as soon as I can. Mrs. Sykes, I shall
want you to come with me."
"Oh, Land--" but she got no further, the car was off like the wind.
Later when the doctor had been put to bed like a child and telegrams
dispatched which would bring a specialist and a nurse on the afternoon
train, the good lady drew a long breath and decided that she couldn't
"last out" a moment longer.
Drawing Willits from the room her questions burst forth in their
The tall man listened at first in bewilderment. Then, as the true
inwardness of the case dawned on him, a look which was almost admiration
came over his angular countenance.
"Why, Mrs. Sykes," he said, "is it possible that you do not know? I
would have told you before but I took your knowledge for granted. The
poor lady whom my friend was to marry was found dead in her bed. She
died during the night. An overdose of sleeping powder."
Autumn that year was short and golden. Winter came early. In November it
stormed, thawed, stormed again and began to freeze in earnest. The frost
bit deeply but one night when its grip was sure, the temperature rose a
little and snow began to fall. For days and nights it snowed, softly,
steadily, without wind, and then the clouds parted and the sun shone
out--a far off sun in a sky as blue as summer and cold as polar seas.
The air tingled and snapped with frost. In the azure cup of the sunlit
sky it sparkled like golden wine, and, like wine, it thrilled and
strengthened. People stamped their feet and beat their hands to keep
warm but smiled the while and murmured: "Glorious!"
So much for the weather--since it was the weather which became the main
factor in helping Coombe forget the tragedy at the Elms. Wonder is no
nine-day affair in Coombe. One sensation is carefully conserved until
the next one comes along, but in this case the early winter with its
complete change of interests, its sleighing, skating and snow-shoeing,
its reawakening of business and social bustle proved a distraction
almost as effective as battle, murder or sudden death. The talk died
down, the interest slackened, and the principal actors were once more
permitted to become normal persons living in a normal world.
For a time it had seemed that this desired condition would never be
obtained. Coombe had felt the breath of a mystery. It was supposed to
know everything and suspected that it knew nothing--a state of things
aggravating to any well regulated community.
There had been an inquest, of course, and at the inquest the whole sad
affair was supposed to have been made plain. It was simplicity itself.
Simplicity, in fact, was its most annoying characteristic. Mrs. Coombe,
it appeared, had been for a long time somewhat of a sufferer from an
obscure trouble, referred to generally as "nerves." For the relief of
this trouble, one of whose symptoms was insomnia, she had, from time to
time, had recourse to narcotics which, as everyone knows, are dangerous,
if not, as many thought, positively immoral. Undoubtedly the poor lady
had died from an overdose. It was easy, the coroner said, for a
sympathetic mind to reconstruct the details of the terrible occurrence.
It was the night before the wedding and the deceased had retired early.
Miss Milligan, who had run in for a last look at the wedding gown, and
who had been the very last person to see and speak with her, deposed
that she had appeared more than ordinarily tired and seemed anxious to
be alone. Asked if she detected any other signs of disordered nerves the
witness had said, no. The deceased had not appeared worried about
anything? No. The wedding gown had been quite satisfactory? Quite.
No more questions were asked and Miss Milligan had not thought it
necessary to go into the matter of the getting of the nerve tonic. The
dead woman's harmless little deception was safe in her hands. It hadn't
anything to do with the case anyway. Although in her own heart Miss
Milligan blamed Dr. Callandar severely for not allowing the poor woman
to use her tonic constantly. Had he done so the final tragedy might
never have happened. Needless to say this good lady never knew what she
had done. The fact that Mary Coombe had been a drug victim under
treatment did not come out at the inquest. The coroner knew, but he was
a sensible man and a very kind one. It hardly needed the logical
arguments of Miss Philps or the heart-broken entreaties of Esther to
convince him that knowledge of this fact was not for the general public.
The only legally necessary information was the cause of death and that
was simple enough. Easily understood, too, for given a tendency to
sleeplessness and the excitement incident to a wedding, what more
natural than that the excited bride should have sought relief in her
customary sleeping draught.
The mistake, the taking of a lethal dose, was, as all such mistakes are,
inexplicable. Did her hand shake? Had she miscounted the number of
tablets? Had she, in her nervous state, deliberately risked a larger
dose whose danger she did not realise? These questions would never be
answered. She had been alone in her room, nor was there a thread of
evidence upon which to hang a theory. Esther, the nurse, Jane, Dr.
Callandar (poor man!) had noticed nothing out of the ordinary when they
had parted from her that last time. Aunt Amy's evidence was not taken.
No one thought to question her and she volunteered no information. Of
all the household at the Elms she was least disturbed by the tragedy,
but, naturally, one does not expect the mentally weak to realise sorrow
like ordinary people. This exemption was, as many did not fail to
remark, one of their compensations. So in this, as in other things, Aunt
Amy did not matter. She went her quiet way undisturbed, the one
contented and peaceful person in that house of shock and horror.
Why, then, since all was so plain, did Coombe scent a mystery? It would
be hard to say. Perhaps the curious behaviour of Dr. Callandar was
partly responsible. When the news of his sudden breakdown became known
the first natural comment was, "So, you see, he did love her after all."
But, upon longer consideration this did not seem to meet the case. A man
may be genuinely in love with a woman and yet not be stricken, as had
the doctor, by her sudden death. Dimly, Coombe felt that there must be a
cause behind the cause. Miss Sinclair, the eldest, even went so far as
to quote Shakespeare to the effect that "men have died and the worms
have eaten them, but not for love." True, the doctor was not dead but
his illness was proving a very long and stubborn one. In its early
stages he had been taken away to Toronto for special treatment and had
been quite unable to see any one, even the minister, before he left.
Mrs. Sykes alone, with the exception of the trained nurses, had laid
eyes on him since his sudden collapse on the day of the wedding. And
Mrs. Sykes, miraculously, had nothing to say.
It was rumoured, however, that his brain was affected, that he was
paralysed, that he was deaf and blind, that he was dying of slow
decline. Somehow the town felt that Mary Coombe, living or dead, did not
loom large enough as a cause of such disintegration.
Esther's actions, too, were part of the puzzle. It had been confidently
supposed that she would go away at once for a rest and change. Every one
knew that the Hollises had offered to take her with them on a long trip
to the Pacific Coast. But Esther had declined to go. She declined to go
anywhere. Worn out as she was with strain and grief, she persisted in
disregarding the advice of everybody. ("So headstrong in a young girl!
But Doctor Coombe, her father, was always like that.") Apparently she
intended to go on exactly as if nothing had happened and to all
arguments said nothing save, "I think it will be best," or, "I am not
fit for strange scenes just now," or something equally futile. Coombe
was quite annoyed with Esther--so stubborn!
Only to Miss Annabel did the girl attempt to justify her attitude when
that kind soul had exhausted persuasion and was inclined to feel both
worried and hurt.
"Don't you see," she explained haltingly, "I can't go away. I don't want
to. I can't make the effort. Here every one understands and will make
allowances. I want to be quiet, to rest, to think. I want to get back to
where I was before--if I can."
"Before what, my dear?"
"Before--everything! I can't explain. But I know it is the only way I
shall ever be content. I want to take my school again and to go on
working and looking after Jane and Aunt Amy. Although," with a little
smile, "it is really Auntie who looks after Jane and me. Won't you help
me, dear Miss Annabel? I am quite sure that this is the only thing
"You are a strange girl, Esther. One would think you would be crazy to
get away. Look at Angus! He's going. He has suddenly found out that a
trip to the Holy Land is necessary if one is to speak intelligently upon
many portions of the Bible. Absurd! But I never let him dream that I
know that isn't his reason. And I hope you won't. It is all over now and
the sooner he forgets the better. But I think even you are convinced,
now, that I was right about--you know to what I refer!"
Esther murmured something indistinguishable and Miss Annabel departed
much pleased with her own perspicacity. And she did help. She let it be
known at the Ladies' Aid that she quite understood Esther and approved
of her. After all, it was senseless to run away from trouble since
trouble can run so much faster. And it was natural and right of Esther
to feel that nowhere could she find so much sympathy and consideration
as in her own town. Travelling was fatiguing anyway.
As for the school, that was easily arranged. A little discreet wire
pulling and Esther was once more established as school mistress of
District Number Fifteen. People shook their heads, but by the time of
the first snowstorm they had ceased to prophesy nervous prostration, and
by the time sleighing was fairly established they were ready to admit
that the girl had acted sensibly after all.
No one guessed that there was another reason for Esther's refusal to go
away. It was a simple reason and had to do with the fact that in Coombe
the mails were sure and regular. Travellers miss letters and strange
addresses are uncertain at best, but in Coombe there was small chance of
any untoward accident befalling a certain weekly letter in the
handwriting of Professor Willits. Esther lived upon these letters. Brief
and dry though they were, they formed the motive power of her life and
indeed it was from one of them that she had received the impetus which
roused her from her first trance of grief and horror.
"My dear young lady (Willits had written).
"I believe that there are times when the truth is a good thing. It might
be tactful to pretend that I do not know the real reason of Calendar's
collapse but it would also be foolish. I think he is going to pull
through. Now the question is--how about you? Are you going to be able to
do your part?
"Let me be more explicit. It may be a long time before our friend is
thoroughly re-established in health but it is quite probable that he
will be well enough, and determined enough, to face some of his problems
in the spring. He will turn to you. Are you going to be able to help
him? When he comes to you will he find a silly, nervous girl, all
horrors and regrets and useless might-have-beens or will he find you
strong and sane, healthily poised, ready to face the future and let the
dead past go? For the past is dead--believe me!
"You have seemed to me to be an excellently normal young person, but no
doubt the shock and trouble of late events have done much to disturb
your normality. Can you get it back? On the answer to that, depends
Callandar's future. I shall keep you informed, weekly, of his progress."
Esther had thought deeply over this letter. Its brief, stern truth was
exactly the tonic she needed. Like a strong hand it reached down into
her direful pit of morbid musings, and, clinging to it, she struggled
back into the sunlight. Above all and in spite of everything, she must
not fail the man she loved!
At first she had to fight with terrors. She feared she knew not what.
The vision of Mary upon the bed, still and ghastly in the golden light
of morning, came back to shake her heart. The memory of Callandar's
face, of the frantic struggle to drag the dead woman back to life, made
many a night hideous. The endless questioning, Could it have been
prevented? Could I have done more? tortured her, but by and by, as she
faced them bravely, these terrors lost their baleful power. Her youth
and common-sense triumphed.
The school helped. One cannot continue very morbid with a roomful of
happy, noisy children to teach and keep in order. Jane's need of her
helped, for she, dared not give way to brooding when the child was
near. Aunt Amy helped--perhaps most of all. She was a constant wonder
to the girl, so cheerful was she, so thoughtful of others, so forgetful
of herself. Her little fancies seemed to have ceased to fret her, there
was a new peace in her faded eyes. Sometimes as she went about the house
she would sing a little, in a high thready voice, bits from songs that
were popular in her youth. "The Blue Alsatian Mountains" or "When You
and I Were Young, Maggie" or "Darling Nellie Grey." She told Esther that
it was because she felt "safe." "The blackness hardly ever comes now,"
she said. "I don't think 'They' will bother me any more."
"Why?" asked Esther, curious.
But Aunt Amy did not seem to know why--or if she knew she never told.
A robin hopped upon the window sill of School-house Number Fifteen and
peered cautiously into the room. He had no business there during lesson
hours and the arrival of Mary's little lamb could not have been more
disturbing. The children whispered, fidgeted, shuffled their feet and
banged their slates.
"Perhaps they do not know it is spring," thought the robin and ruffling
his red breast and swelling his throat he began to tell them.
"It is spring! It is spring! It is spring!"
The effect was electrical. Even the tall young teacher turned from her
rows of figures on the blackboard.
"Come out! come out! come out!" sang the robin.
The teacher tapped sharply for order and the robin flew away. But the
mischief was done. It was useless to tell them, "Only ten minutes more."
Ten minutes--as well say ten years. The little fat boy in the front seat
began to cry. A long sigh passed over the room. Ten minutes? The teacher
consulted her watch, hesitated, and was lost.
"Close books," she ordered. "Attention. Ready--March." The jostling
lines scrambled in some kind of order to the door and then broke into
joyous riot. It was spring--and school was out!
Their teacher followed more slowly, pausing on the steps to breathe
long and deeply the sweet spring air. In a corner by the steps there was
still a tiny heap of shrinking snow, but in the open, the grass was
green as emerald, violets and wind flowers pushed through the tangle of
last year's leaves. The trees seemed shrouded in a fairy mist of green.
Robins were everywhere.
The girl upon the steps was herself a vision of spring--the embodiment
of youth and beautiful life. Coombe folks admitted that Esther Coombe
had "got back her looks." Had they been less cautious they might have
said much more, for the subtle change which had come to Esther, the
change which marks the birth of womanhood, had left her infinitely
From the pocket of the light coat she wore she brought forth a handful
of crumbs and scattered them for the saucy robins and then, unwilling to
hasten, sat down upon the steps to watch their cheerful wrangling.
Peeling for more crumbs she drew out a letter--a single sheet covered
with the crabbed handwriting of Professor Willits. At sight of it a soft
flush stole over her face. She forgot the crumbs and the robins for,
although her letter was two days old and she knew exactly what it
contained, the very sight of the written words was joy to her. Like all
Willits' notes it was short and to the point.
"Our friend has gone," she read. "We wanted to keep him for a month yet,
but the robins called too loudly. He left no word of his destination,
only a strange note saying that at last he was up the hill and over. May
he find happiness, dear lady, on the other side."
One thing I notice--this recovery of his is different from his former
recovery. If I were not afraid of lapsing into sentiment, I should say
that he has achieved a soul cure. The morbid spot which troubled him so
long is healed. A psychologist might explain it, but you and I must
accept the result and be thankful. It is as if his subconscious self
had removed a barrier and signalled 'Line clear--go ahead.' It is more
than I had ever dared to hope.
"P.S.: Are you ready?"
Esther looked at the postscript and smiled--that slow smile which lifted
the corner of her lips so deliciously.
"May we wait for you, Teacher?"
"Not to-day, dears."
The children moved regretfully away. Presently the school yard was
deserted. The busy robins had finished quarrelling over their crumbs and
were holding a caucus around the red pump. In the quietness could be
heard the gurgle of the spring rivulets on the hill.
Was there another sound on the hill, too? A far off whistling mingled
with the gurgling water and twittering birds? Esther's hand tightened
upon the letter--she leaned forward, listening intently. How loud the
birds were! How confusing the sound of water! But now she caught the
"_From Wimbleton to Wombleton is fifteen miles_"--
The familiar words formed themselves upon the girl's lips before the
message of the tune reached her brain and brought her, breathless, to
her feet. He was coming--so soon!
Panic seized her. Her hand flew to her heart--she would hide in the
school-room, anywhere! Then she remembered Willits' postscript, the
postscript which she had thought so needless. Her hand fell to her side.
The panic died. Next moment, head high and eyes smiling, she walked down
to the gate.
He was coming along the road under the budding elms--hatless, carrying a
knapsack. His tweeds were splashed with mud from the spring roads, his
face was thin, his hair was almost grey. Yet he came on like a conqueror
and there was nothing old or tired in the bound wherewith he leaped the
gate he would not pause to open.
She looked up into his eyes and found them shadowless. Her own eyes
Neither found anything to say.
But overhead a robin burst into heavenly song.