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THE WORKS OF KATHLEEN NORRIS
MARTIE THE UNCONQUERED
AFFECTIONATELY DEDICATED TO
JOSEPH SEXTON THOMPSON
At about four o’clock on a windy, warm September afternoon, four girls came out of the post-office of Monroe, California. They had loitered on their way in, consciously wasting time; they had spent fifteen minutes in the dark and dirty room upon an absolutely unnecessary errand, and now they sauntered forth into the village street keenly aware that the afternoon was not yet waning, and disheartened by the slow passage of time. At five they would go to Bonestell’s drug store, and sit in a row at the soda counter, and drink effervescent waters pleasingly mingled with fruit syrups and an inferior quality of ice cream. Five o’clock was the hour for “sodas,” neither half-past four nor half-past five was at all the same thing in the eyes of Monroe’s young people. After that they would wander idly toward the bridge, and separate; Grace Hawkes turning toward the sunset for another quarter of a mile, Rose Ransome opening the garden gate of the pretty, vine-covered cottage near the bridge, and the Monroe girls, Sarah and Martha, in a desperate hurry now, flying up the twilight quiet of North Main Street to the long picket fence, the dark, tree-shaded garden, and the shabby side-doorway of the old Monroe house.
Three of these girls met almost every afternoon, going first to each other’s houses, and later wandering down for the mail, for some trivial errand at drug store or dry-goods store, and for the inevitable ices. Rose Ransome was not often with them, for Rose was just a little superior in several ways to her present companions, and frequently spent the afternoon practising on her violin, or driving, or walking with the Parker girls and Florence Frost, who hardly recognized the existence of Grace Hawkes and the Monroes. The one bank in Monroe was the Frost and Parker Bank; there were Frost Street and Parker Street, the Frost Building and the Parker Building. May and Ida Parker and Florence Frost had gone to Miss Bell’s Private School when they were little, and then to Miss Spencer’s School in New York.
But even all this might not have accounted for the exclusive social instincts of the young ladies if both families had not been very rich. As it was, with prosperous fathers and ambitious mothers, with well-kept, old-fashioned homes, pews in church, allowances of so many hundred dollars a year, horses to ride and drive, and servants to wait upon them, the three daughters of these two prominent families considered themselves as obviously better than their neighbours, and bore themselves accordingly. Cyrus Frost and Graham Parker had come to California as young men, in the seventies; had cast in their lot with little Monroe, and had grown rich with the town. It was a credit to the state now; they had found it a mere handful of settlers’ cabins, with one stately, absurd mansion standing out among them, in a plantation of young pepper and willow and locust and eucalyptus trees.
This was the home of Malcolm Monroe, turreted, mansarded, generously filled with the glass windows that had come in a sailing vessel around the Horn. Incongruous, pretentious, awkward, it might to a discerning eye have suggested its owner, who was then not more than thirty years old; a tall, silent, domineering man. He was reputed rich, and Miss Elizabeth–or “Lily”–Price, a pretty Eastern girl who visited the Frosts in the winter of 1878, was supposed to be doing very well for herself when she married him, and took her bustles and chignons, her blonde hair with its “French twist,” and her scalloped, high-buttoned kid shoes to the mansion on North Main Street.
Now the town had grown to several hundred times its old size; schools, churches, post-office, shops, a box factory, a lumber yard, and a winery had come to Monroe. There was the Town Hall, a plain wooden building, and, at the shabby outskirts of South Main Street, a jail. The Interurban Trolley “looped” the town once every hour.
All these had helped to make Cyrus Frost and Graham Parker rich. They, like Malcolm Monroe, had married, and had built themselves homes. They had invested and re-invested their money; they had given their children advantages, according to their lights. Now, in their early fifties, they were a power in the town, and they felt for it a genuine affection and pride, a loyalty that was unquestioning and sincere. In the kindly Western fashion these two were now accorded titles; Cyrus, who had served in the Civil War, was “Colonel Frost,” and to Graham, who had been a lawyer, was given the titular dignity of being “Judge Parker.”
Malcolm Monroe kept pace with neither his old associates nor with the times. His investments were timid and conservative, his faith in the town that had been named for his father frequently wavered. He was in everything a reactionary, refusing to see that neither the sheep of the old Spanish settlers nor the gold of the early pioneers meant so much to this fragrant, sun-washed table land as did wheat and grapes and apple trees. Monroe came to laugh at “old Monroe’s” pigheadedness. He fought the town on every question for improvements, as it came up. The bill for pavements, the bill for sewerage, the bill for street lights, the high school bill, found in him an enemy as the years went by. He denounced these innovations bitterly. When the level of Main Street was raised four feet, “old Monroe” almost went out of his senses, and the home site, gloomily shut in now by immense trees, and a whole block square, was left four feet below the street level, so that there must be built three or four wooden steps at all the gates. The Monroe girls resented this peculiarity of their home, but never said so to their father.
Rose Ransome, the pretty, neat little daughter of a pretty, neat little widow, was cultivated eagerly by the Monroes, and patronized kindly by the Frost and Parker girls. She had lived all of her twenty years in Monroe, and was too conscientious and amiable to snub the girls supposedly beneath her, and too merry, ladylike, and entertaining to be quite ignored by the richer group. So she brightly, obligingly, and gratefully lunched and drove, read and walked, and practised music with May and Ida and Florence, when they wanted her, and when they did not, or when Eastern friends visited them, or there was for some reason no empty seat in the surrey, she turned back to the company of Grace Hawkes and of Sally and Martie Monroe. Rose admitted frankly to her mother that with the latter group she had “more fun,” but that with her more elevated friends she enjoyed, of course, “nicer times.” Politically she steered a diplomatic middle course between the two, implying, with equal readiness, that she only associated with the poor Monroes because Uncle Ben made her, or that she accepted invitations from the Frost and Parker faction simply to be amiable.
Sally Monroe, innocent, simple, unexacting at twenty-one, really believed Rose to be the sweetly frank and artless person she seemed, but Martie, two years younger, had her times of absolutely detesting Rose. Sally was never jealous, but Martie burned with a fierce young jealousy of all life: of Rose, with her dainty frocks and her rich friends, her curly hair and her violin; of Florence Frost’s riding horse; of Ida Parker’s glib French; of her own brother, Leonard Monroe, with his male independence; of the bare-armed women who leaped on the big, flat-backed horses in the circus; of the very Portuguese children who rode home asleep of a summer afternoon, in fragrant loads of alfalfa.
To-day she was vaguely smarting at Grace’s news: Grace was going to work. She, like the Monroe girls, had often discussed the possibilities of this step, but opportunities were not many, and the idle, pleasant years drifted by with no change. But Ellie Hawkes, Grace’s big sister, who had kept books in the box factory for three years, was to be married now; a step down for Ellie–for her “friend” was only Terry Castle, a brawny, ignorant giant employed by the Express Company–but a step up for Grace. She would be a wage- earner; her pretty, weak face grew animated at the thought, and her shrill voice more shrill.
Martie Monroe had no real desire to work in the box factory, to walk daily the ugly half mile that lay between it and her home, to join the ranks of toilers that filed through the poorer region of town every morning. But like all growing young things she felt a desperate, undefined need. She could not know that self-expression is as necessary to natures like hers as breath is to young bodies. She could only grope and yearn and struggle in the darkness of her soul.
She was nineteen, a tall, strong girl, already fully developed, and handsome in a rather dull and heavy way. Her hands and feet were beautifully made, her hair, although neglected, of a wonderful silky bronze, and her skin naturally of the clear creamy type that sometimes accompanies such hair. But Martie ruined her skin by injudicious eating; she could not resist sweets; natural indolence, combined with the idle life she led, helped to make her too fat. Now and then, in the express office, in the afternoon, the girls got on the big freight scales, and this was always a mortification to Martie. Terry Castle and Joe Hawkes would laugh as they adjusted the weights, and Martie always tried to laugh, too, but she did not think it funny. Martie might have seemed to her world merely a sweet, big, good-natured tomboy, growing into an eager, amusing, ignorant young woman, too fond of sleeping and eating.
But there was another Martie–a sensitive, ambitious Martie–who despised idleness, dependence, and inaction; who longed to live a thousand lives–to conquer all the world; a Martie who was one day a great singer, one day a wartime nurse, one day a millionaire’s beautiful bride, the mother of five lovely children, all carefully named. She would waken from her dreams almost bewildered, blinking at Sally or at her mother in the surprised fashion that sometimes made folk call Martie stupid, humbly enough she thought of herself as stupid, too. She never suspected that she was really “dreaming true,” that the power and the glory lay waiting for the touch of her heart and hand and brain. She never suspected that she was to Rose and Grace and Sally what a clumsy young swan would be in a flock of bustling and competent ducks. Martie did not know, yet, where her kingdom lay, how should she ever dream that she was to find it?
Rose was going back to stay with her cousin in Berkeley to-morrow, it was understood, and so had to get home early this afternoon. Rose, as innocent as a butterfly of ambition or of the student’s zeal, had finished her first year in the State University and was to begin her second to-morrow.
Monroe’s shabby Main Street seemed less interesting than ever when Rose had tripped away. A gusty breeze was blowing fitfully, whisking bits of straw and odds and ends of paper about. The watering cart went by, leaving a cool wake of shining mud. Here and there a surrey, loaded with stout women in figured percales, and dusty, freckled children, started on its trip from Main Street back to some outlying ranch.
As the three girls, arms linked, loitered across the square, Dr. Ben Scott–who was Rose Ransome’s mother’s cousin and was regarded as an uncle–came out of the Court House and walked toward his buggy. The dreaming white mare roused as she heard his voice, and the old brown-and-white setter sprang into the seat beside him.
“Howdy, girls!” said the old man, his big loose figure bulging grotesquely over the boundaries of the seat. “Father pretty well?”
“Well enough, Doc’ Ben, but not pretty!” Martie said, laughing. The doctor’s eyes twinkled.
“They put a tongue in your head, Martie, sure enough!” he said, gathering up the reins.
“It was all they did put, then!” Martie giggled.
The girls all liked Doc’ Ben. A widower, rich enough now to take only what practice he pleased, simple in his tastes, he lived with his old servant, his horse and cow, his dog and cat, chickens and bees, pigeons and rabbits, in a comfortable, shabby establishment in an unfashionable part of town. Monroe described him as a “regular character.” His jouncing, fat figure–with tobacco ash spilled on his spotted vest, and stable mud on his high-laced boots–was familiar in all her highways and byways. His mellow voice, shot with humorous undertones even when he was serious, touched with equal readiness upon Plato, the habits of bees, the growth of fungus, fashions, Wordsworth, the Civil War, or the construction of chimneys. He was something of a philosopher, something of a poet, something of a reformer.
Martie, watching him out of sight, said to herself that she really must go down soon and see old Dr. Ben, poke among his old books, feed his pigeons, and scold him for his untidy ways. The girl’s generous imagination threw a veil of romance over his life; she told Sally that he was like some one in an English story.
After he had gone, the girls idled into the Town Library, a large room with worn linoleum on the floor, and with level sunlight streaming in the dusty windows. At the long table devoted to magazines a few readers were sitting; others hovered over the table where books just returned were aligned; and here and there, before the dim bookcases that lined the walls, still others loitered, now and then picking a book from the shelves, glancing at it, and restoring it to its place. The room was warm and close with the smell of old books. The whisking of pages, and occasionally a sibilant whisper, were its only sounds. From the ceiling depended signs, bearing the simple command: “Silence”; but this did not prevent the girls from whispering to the energetic, gray-haired woman who presided at the desk.
“Hello, girls!” said Miss Fanny Breck cheerfully, in the low tone she always used in the library. “Want anything to read? You don’t? What are you reading, Martie?”
“I’m reading ‘Idylls of the King,'” Sally said.
“I’ve got ‘Only the Governess,'” added Grace.
“I didn’t ask either of you,” Miss Breck said with the brisk amused air of correction that made the girls a little afraid of her. “It’s Martie here I’m interested in. I’m going to scold her, too. Are you reading that book I gave you, Martie?”
Martie, as Grace and Sally turned away, raised smiling eyes. But at Miss Fanny’s keen, kindly look she was smitten with a sudden curious inclination toward tears. She was keenly sensitive, and she felt an undeserved rebuke.
“Don’t like it?” asked the librarian, disposing of an interruption with that casual ease that always fascinated Martie. To see Miss Fanny seize four books from the hands that brought them into her range of vision, flip open the four covers with terrific speed, manipulate various paper slips and rubber stamps with energy and certainty, vigorously copy certain mysterious letters and numbers, toss the discarded books into a large basket at her elbow and then, for the first time, as she handed the selected books to the applicant, glance up with her smile and whispered “Good afternoon,” was a real study in efficiency.
“I don’t understand it,” Martie smiled.
“Did you read it?” persisted the older woman.
“Well–not much.” Martie had, in fact, hardly opened the book, an excellent collection of some twenty essays for girls under the general title “Choosing a Life Work.”
“Listen. Why don’t you study the Cutter system, and familiarize yourself a little with this work, and come in here with me?” asked Miss Fanny, in her firm, pushing voice.
“When?” Martie asked, considering.
“Well–I can’t say when. I’m no oracle, my dear. But some day the grave and reverend seigneurs on my Board may give me an assistant, I suppose.”
“Oh–I know–” Martie was vague again. “What would I get?”
Miss Fanny’s harsh cheeks and jaw stiffened, her eyes half closed, as she bit her lip in thought.
“Fifteen, perhaps,” she submitted.
Martie dallied with the pleasing thought of having fifteen dollars of her own each month.
“But can’t Miss Fanny make you feel as if you were back in school?” she asked, when the girls were again in Main Street. “I’d just as lieves be in the lib’ary as anywheres,” she added.
“I drather be in the box factory,” Grace said. “More money.”
“More work, too!” Martie suggested. “Come on, let’s go to Bonestell’s!”
Other persons of all ages were in the drug store, seated on stools at the high marble counter, or at the little square cherry tables in the dim room at the rear. Drugs were a lesser consideration than brushes, stationery, cameras, candy, cigars, post cards, gum, mirrors, celluloid bureau sets, flower seeds, and rubber toys and rattles, but large glass flagons of coloured waters duly held the corners of the show windows on the street, and dusty and fly-specked cards advertising patent medicines overlapped each other.
The three girls nodded to various acquaintances, and, as they slid on to seats at the counter, greeted the soda clerk familiarly. This was Reddy Johnson, a lean, red-headed youth in a rather dirty white jacket buttoned up to the chin. Reddy was assisted by a blear-eyed little Swedish girl of about sixteen, who rushed about blindly with her little blonde head hanging. He himself did not leave the counter, which he constantly mopped with a damp, mud-coloured rag. He plunged the streaked and sticky glasses into hot water, set them on a dripping grating to dry, turned on this faucet of sizzling soda, that of rich slow syrup, beat up the contents of glasses with his long-handled spoon, slipped them into tarnished nickelled frames, and slid them deftly before the waiting boys and girls. Hot sauce over this ice cream, nuts on that, lady fingers and whipped cream with the tall slender cups of chocolate for the Baxter girls, crackers with the tomato bouillon old Lady Snow was noisily sipping; Reddy never made a mistake.
Presently he, with a swift motion, set a little plate of sweet crackers before the girls. These were not ordinarily served with five-cent orders, and the three instantly divided them, concealing the little cakes in their hands, and handing the tell-tale plate back to the clerk. A wise precaution it proved, for a moment later “old Bones,” as the proprietor of the establishment was nicknamed, sauntered through the store. In a gale of giggles the girls went out, stealthily eating the crackers as they went. This adventure was enough to put them in high spirits; Martie indeed was so easily fired to excitement that the crossing of wits with Dr. Ben, the personal word with Miss Fanny, and now Reddy’s gallantry, had brightened her colour and carried her elation to the point of effervescence. Sparkling, chattering, flushed under her shabby summer hat, Martie sauntered between her friends straight to her golden hour.
Face to face they came with a tall, loosely built, well-dressed young man, with a straw hat on one side of his head. Such a phenomenon was almost unknown in the streets of Monroe, and keenly conscious of his presence, and instantly curious as to his identity, the girls could not pass him without a provocative glance. “Stunning!” said each girl in her heart. “Who on earth–?”
Suddenly he blocked their way.
“Hello, Sally! Hello, Martie! Too proud to speak to old friends?”
“Why–it’s Rodney Parker!” Martie said in her rich young voice. “Hello, Rodney!”
All four shook hands and laughed joyously. To Rodney the circumstance, at the opening of his dull return home, was welcome; to the girls, nothing short of delight. He was so handsome, so friendly, and in the four years he had been at Stanford University and the summers he had spent in hunting expeditions or in eastern visits to his aunt in New York, he had changed only to improve!
Even in this first informal greeting it was Martie to whom he devoted his special attention. Sally was usually considered the prettier of the two, but Martie was lovely to-night. Rodney turned with them, and they walked to the bridge together. Sally and Grace ahead.
The wind had fallen with the day, the air was mild and warm, and in the twilight even Monroe had its charm. Flowers were blooming in many dooryards, yellow light streamed hospitably across the gravelled paths, and in the early darkness women were waiting in porches or by gates, and whirling hoses over the lawns were drawing all the dark, hidden perfumes into the damp night air.
“You’ve not changed much, Martie–except putting up your hair. I mean it as a compliment!” said Rodney, eagerly, in his ready, boyish voice.
“You’ve changed a good deal; and I mean that as a compliment, too!” Martie returned, with her deep laugh.
His own broke out in answer. He thought her delightful. The creamy skin, the burnished hair that was fanned into an aureole under her shabby hat, the generous figure with its young curves, had helped to bring about in Rodney Parker a sweet, irrational surrender of reason. He had never been a reasonable boy. He knew, of course, that Martie Monroe was not in his sisters’ set, although she was a perfectly NICE girl, and to be respected. Martie was neither one thing nor the other. With Grace, indeed, who was frankly beneath the Parkers’ notice, he might have had almost any sort of affair; even one of those affairs of which May and Ida must properly seem unaware. He might have flirted with Grace, have taken her about and given her presents, in absolute safety. Grace would have guessed him to be only amusing himself, and even confident Rodney, his mother’s favourite and baby, would never have attempted to bring Grace Hawkes home as his sisters’ equal.
But with Martie there was a great difference. The Monroes had been going down slowly but steadily in the social scale, yet they were Monroes, after all. Lydia Monroe had been almost engaged to Clifford Frost, years ago, and still, at all public affairs, the Monroes, the Parkers, and the Frosts met as old friends and equals. Indeed, the Parker girls and Florence Frost had been known to ask the girls’ only brother, Leonard Monroe, to their parties, young as he was, men being very scarce in Monroe, and Leonard, although his sisters were not asked, had gone.
So that when Rodney Parker stopped Martie Monroe on the way home, and fell to flattering and teasing her, and walked beside her to the bridge, he quite innocently plunged himself into social hot water, and laid a disturbing touch upon the smooth surface of the girl’s life.
They talked of trivialities, laughing much. Rodney asked her if she remembered the dreadful day when they had been sent up to apologize to the French teacher, and Martie said, “Mais oui.'” and thrilled at the little intimate memory of disgrace shared.
“And are you still such a little devil, Martie?” he asked, bringing his head close to hers.
“That I’ll leave you to find out, Rod!” she said laughingly.
“Well–that’s one of the things I’m back here to find out!” he answered gaily.
Yes, he was back to stay; he was to go into the Bank. He confidently expected to die of the shock and Martie must help him bear it. Martie promised to open an account. His Dad might let him have a car, if he behaved himself; did Martie like automobiles? Martie knew very little about them, but was sure she could honk the horn. Very well; Martie should come along and honk the horn.
How did they come to be talking of dancing? Martie could not afterward remember. Rodney had a visit promised from a college friend, and wondered rather disconsolately what might be arranged to amuse him. Fortnightly dances–that was the thing; they ought to have Friday Fortnightlies.
The very word fired the girl. She heard the whine of violins, the click of fans, the light shuffle of satin-clad feet. Her eyes saw dazzling lights, shifting colours, in the dull September twilight.
“You could have one at your house,” Rodney suggested.
“Of course we could! Our rooms are immense,” Martie agreed eagerly.
“To begin–say the last Friday in October!” the boy said. “You look up the date, and we’ll get together on the lists!”
Get together on the lists! Martie’s heart closed over the phrase with a sort of spasm of pleasure. She and Rodney conferring– arranging! The bliss–the dignity of it! She would have considered anything, promised anything.
Grace was gone now, and generous little Sally still ahead of them in the shadows. Martie said a quick, laughing good-night, and ran to join her sister just before Sally opened the side gate. It was now quite dark.
The two girls crossed the sunken garden where clumps of flowers bloomed dimly under the dark old trees, gave one apprehensive glance at the big house, which showed here and there a dully lighted window, and fled noiselessly in at the side door. They ran through a wide, bare, unaired hallway, and up a long flight of unlighted stairs that were protected over their dark carpeting by a worn brown oilcloth.
Sally, and Martie breathless, entered an enormous bedroom, shabbily and scantily furnished. The outline of a large walnut bedstead was visible in the gloom, and the dark curtains that screened two bay windows. Across the room by a wide, dark bureau, a single gas jet on a jointed brass arm had been drawn out close to the mirror, and by its light a slender woman of twenty-seven or eight was straightening her hair. Not combing or brushing it, for the Monroe girls always combed their hair and coiled it when they got up in the morning, and took it down when they went to bed at night. Between times they only “straightened” it.
As the younger girls came in, and flung their hats on the bed, their sister turned on them reproachfully.
“Martie, mama’s furious!” she said. “And I do think it’s perfectly terrible, you and Sally running round town at all hours like this. It’s after six o’clock!”
“I can’t help it if it is!” Martie said cheerfully. “Pa home?”
She asked the all-important question with more trepidation than she showed. Both she and Sally hung anxiously on the reply.
“No; Pa was to come on the four-eleven, and either he missed it, or else something’s kept him down town,” Lydia said in her flat, gentle voice. “Len’s not home either …”
“Praise God from whom all blessings flow!” Martie ejaculated piously, with her gay, wild laugh. “Tell Lyd who we met, Sally!” she called back, as she ran downstairs.
She dashed through the dining room, noting with gratitude that dear old Lyd had set the table in spite of her disapproval. Beyond the big, gloomy room was an enormous pantry, with a heavy swinging door opening into a large kitchen. In this kitchen, in the dim light from one gas jet, and in the steam from sink and stove, Mrs. Monroe and her one small servant were in the last hot and hurried stages of dinner-getting.
Martie kissed her mother’s flushed and sunken cheek; a process to which Mrs. Monroe submitted with reproachful eyes and compressed lips.
“I don’t like this, Martie!” said her mother, shaking her head. “What were you and Sally doing to be so late?”
“Oh, nothing,” Martie said ashamedly. “I’m awf’ly sorry. I had no idea what time it was!”
“Well, I certainly will have Pa speak to you, if you can’t get into the house before dark!” Mrs. Monroe said in mild protest. “Lyd stopped her sewing to set the table.”
“Len home?” Martie, now slicing bread, asked resentfully.
“No. But a boy is different,” Mrs. Monroe answered as she had answered hundreds of times before. “Not that I approve of Len’s actions, either,” she added. “But a man can take care of himself, of course! Len’s always late for meals,” she went on. “Seems like he can’t get it through his head that it makes a difference if you sit down when things are ready or when they’re all dried up. But Pa’s late anyway to-night, so it doesn’t matter much!”
Martie carried the bread on its ugly, heavy china plate in to the table, entering from the pantry just as her father came in from the hall.
“Hello, Pa!” said the girl, placing the bread on the wrinkled cloth with housewifely precision.
Malcolm Monroe gave his youngest daughter glance of lowering suspicion. But there was no cause for definite question, and Martie, straightening the salt-cellars lovingly, knew it.
“Where’s your sister?” her father asked discontentedly.
“Upstairs, straightening her hair for dinner, I THINK.” Martie was sweetly responsive. “But I can find out, Pa.”
“No matter. Here, take these things.” Martie carried away the overcoat and hat, and hung them on the hat rack in the hall.
“Joe Hawkes wants to know if you wish to pay him for driving you up, Pa,” Sally said, coming in from the steps. Dutifully, meekly, she stood looking at her father. Lydia, coming in from the kitchen, gave him a respectful yet daughterly kiss. Singly and collectively there was no fault to be found with the Monroe girls to-night, even by the most exacting parent.
“Your sister said you were upstairs, Sally,” Malcolm said, narrowing his eyes.
“So I was, Pa, but I came down to light the hall gas, and while I was there Joe came to the door,” Sally answered innocently.
“H’m! Well, you tell him to charge it.” Malcolm sat down by the fireplace. There was no fire, the evening was not cold enough for one. He began to unlace his shoes. “Brother home?” he asked, glancing from Lydia, who was filling the water glasses from a glazed china pitcher, to Martie, who was dragging and pushing six chairs into place.
“Not yet–no, sir!” the two girls said together unhesitatingly. Leonard could take care of himself under his father’s displeasure. Martie added solicitously, “Would you like your slippers, Pa? I know where they are; by the chestard.”
He did not immediately answer, being indeed in no mood for a civil response, and yet finding no welcome cause for grievance. He sat, a lean, red-faced man, with a drooping black moustache, a high-bridged nose, and grizzled hair, looking moodily about him.
“Get them–get them; don’t stand staring there, Martie!” he burst out suddenly. Martie caught up his shoes and dashed upstairs.
She went into the large, vault-like apartment that had been her mother’s bedroom for nearly thirty years. To a young and ardent nature, facing the great question of loving and mating, any place less indicative of the warmth and companionship of marriage could hardly have been imagined. The bedstead of heavy redwood was wide, flat, and hard. It was flanked by a marble-topped table and a chair. There were two large, curtained bay windows in this room, too, a faded carpet, a wash-stand with two pallid towels on the rack, several other stiff-backed chairs, and a large bureau with a square mirror and a brown marble slab. Over this slab a thin strip of fringed scarf was laid, and on the scarf stood a brown satin box, with the word “Gloves” painted over the yellow roses that ornamented its cover.
This was all. Mrs. Monroe kept in the box an odd castor, an empty cologne bottle, a new corset string, five coat buttons, a rusty pair of scissors, an old jet bar-brooch whose pin was gone, and various other small odds and ends. She had but one pair of gloves, of black shiny kid, somewhat whitened at the finger-tips, and worn only to church or to funerals. They were a sort of institution, “my gloves,” and were kept in the bureau drawer. They distinguished her state from that of Belle, the maid, who had no gloves at all.
Opposite the bureau, but because of the enormous size of the room, some twenty-five feet away, was the “chestard” the high “chest of drawers” that had won its name from the children’s contracted pronunciation. This bleak article of furniture contained the smaller pieces of Malcolm Monroe’s wardrobe, which matched in plainness and ugliness that of his wife. Stiff white collars caught and rasped when the shallow upper drawer was opened; the middle drawers were filled with brownish gray flannels, and shirts stiff-bosomed and limp of sleeves. But if a curious Martie, making the bed, or putting away the “wash,” ever cautiously tugged out the lowest drawer, she found it so loaded with papers, old account books, and bundles of letters as to awe her young soul. These meant nothing to Martie, and the drawer was heavy to open noiselessly and awkward to close in haste, yet at intervals now and then she liked to peep at its mysterious contents.
To-night, however, Martie gave it neither glance nor thought. She picked up her father’s slippers and ran downstairs again, going to kneel before him and put them on his feet. As she did so her young warm hand felt the cool, slender length of his foot in the thin stocking, and she was conscious of repugnance that even the slightest contact with her father always caused her. There was a definite antagonism between Malcolm and his youngest daughter, suspected by neither. But Martie knew that she did not like the faint odour of his moustache, his breath, and his skin, on those rather infrequent occasions when he kissed her, and her father was well aware that in baffling him, evading him, and anticipating him, Martie was more annoying than the three other children combined.
“Where’s your son?” asked the man of the house, as the dinner, accompanied by his wife, came in from the kitchen.
“I don’t know, Pa,” Mrs. Monroe said earnestly yet soothingly. “Come, girls. Come, Pa!”
Malcolm rose stiffly, and went to his place.
“He comes and goes as if his father’s house was a hotel, does he?” he asked, as one merely curious. “Is that the idea?”
“Why, no, Pa.” Mrs. Monroe was serving an uninteresting meal on heavy plates decorated in toneless brown. Soda crackers and sliced bread were on the table, and a thin slice of butter on a blue china plate. The teaspoons stood erect in a tumbler of red pressed glass. The younger girls had old, thin silver napkin rings; their mother’s was of orange-wood with “Souvenir of Santa Cruz” painted on it; and Lydia and her father used little strips of scalloped and embroidered linen. Lydia had read of these in a magazine and had made them herself, and as her daughterly love swept over all the surface ugliness of his character, she alone among his children sometimes caught a glimpse of her father’s heart. She had an ideal of fatherhood, had gentle, silent, useless Lydia–formed upon the genial, sunshiny type of parent popular in books, and she cast a romantic veil over disappointed, selfish, crossgrained Malcolm Monroe and delighted in little daughterly attentions to him. She sat next to him at table, and put her own kindly interpretation upon his moods.
“I confess I don’t understand your tactics with that boy!” he said now irritably.
“Well, he came in after school, and asked could he go out with the other boys, and I didn’t feel you would disapprove, Pa,” Mrs. Monroe said in a worried voice. “Do eat your dinner before it gets all cold! Lenny’ll be here. You’ll get one of your bad headaches … here he is!”
For, to the great relief of his mother and sisters, Leonard Monroe really did break in from the hall at this point, flinging his cap toward the hat rack with one hand as he opened the door with the other. A big, well-developed boy of seventeen was Lenny, dearest of all her children to his mother, her son and her latest-born, and the secret hope of his father’s heart.
“Say–I’m awful sorry to be so late. Gosh! I ran all the way home. I thought you’d be on the late train, Pa, and I waited to walk up with you!” said Lenny, falling upon cooling mutton, boiled potatoes glazed and sticky, and canned corn.
“Where did you wait?” his father asked, laying one of his endless traps for an untruth.
“Bonestell’s,” Lenny answered, perceiving and evading it.
“Young Hawkes drove me up,” Malcolm said in a mollified tone.
“Oh?” Lenny’s mouth opened innocently. “That’s the way I missed you!”
The inevitable ill-temper on their father’s part being partly dissipated by this time, the girls were free to begin a conversation. Martie’s happiness was flooding her spirit like a golden tide; she was conscious, under all the sordid actualities of a home dinner, that something sweet–sweet–sweet–had happened to her. She bubbled news.
Grace Hawkes actually was going to work Monday–Rose was going back to visit Alma–they had met Doc’ Ben, hadn’t they, Sally? Oh, and Rodney Parker was home!
“Lucky stiff!” Lenny commented in reference to Rodney.
“He’s awfully nice!” Martie said eagerly. “He walked up with us!”
“With us–with YOU!” Sally corrected archly.
“What time was that?” their father asked suddenly.
“About–oh, half-past four or five. Sally and I went down for the mail.”
“Rodney Parker …” Leonard began. “Say, mama, this is all cold,” he interrupted himself to say coaxingly.
“I’ll warm it for you, Babe,” Lydia said, rising as her mother began to rise, and reaching for the boy’s plate.
“Don’t call me BABE!” he protested.
His older sister gave his rough head a good-natured pat as she passed him.
“You’re all the baby we have, Lenny–and he was an awfully sweet baby, wasn’t he, ma?” she said.
“Rodney Parker’s going to be in the Bank; I bet he doesn’t stay,” Leonard resumed. “Could you get me into the Bank, Pa?”
“Dear me–I remember that boy as such a handsome baby, before you were born, Martie,” her mother said. “And to think he’s been through college!”
“I wish I could go to college, you bet!” observed Lenny. His father shot him a glance.
“Your grandfather was a college graduate, my son, and as you know only an accident cut short my own stay at my alma mater–hem!” he said pompously. “I have no money to throw away; yet, when you have decided upon a profession, you need only come to your father with a frank, manly statement of your plans, and what can be done will be done; you know that.” He wiped his moustache carefully, and glanced about, meeting the admiring gaze of wife and daughters.
“If you’ve got any sense, you’ll go, Len,” Martie said. “I wish you’d let me go study to be a trained nurse, Pa! Miss Fanny wants me to go into the lib’ary. I bet I could do it, and I’d like it, too …”
“And speaking of your grandfather reminds me,” Malcolm said heavily, “that one of the things that delayed me to-day was a matter that came up a week or two ago. When the town buys the old Archer ranch as a Park, they propose to put twelve thousand dollars into improvements–“
“Oh, joy!” said Martie. “Excuse me, Pa!”
“The trolley will pass it,” her father pursued, “the Park being almost exactly half-way between Monroe and Pittsville. Now Pittsville …”
“What do you bet they get all the glory?” Martie flashed. “Their Woman’s Club…” Her voice fell: “I DO beg your pardon, Pa!” she said again contritely.
“I can discuss this with your mother,” Malcolm said in majestic patience.
“Oh, no! PLEASE, Pa!”
Her father studied her coldly, while the table waited with bated breath.
“Pittsville,” he resumed in a measured voice, without moving his eyes from his third daughter, “is, as usual, making a very strong and a most undignified claim for the Park. They wish it to be known as the Pittsville Casino. But Selwyn told me to-day that our people propose to take a leading share of the liability and to call the Park the Monroe Grove.”
He paused. His listeners exchanged glances of surprise and gratification.
“Not that there’s a tree there now!” Martie said cheerfully.
It was an unfortunate speech, breaking irreverently as it did upon this moment of exaltation. Lydia hastily came to Martie’s relief.
“Pa! ISN’T that splendid–for Grandfather Monroe! I think that’s very nice. They know what this town would have amounted to without HIM! All those fine reference books in the library–and files and files of bound magazine’s! And didn’t he give the property for the church?”
Every one present was aware that he had; there was enthusiastic assent about the table.
“They propose,” Malcolm added as a climax, “to erect a statue of Leonard Monroe in a prominent place in that Park; my gift.”
“Pa!” said a delighted chorus. The girls’ shining eyes were moist.
“It was Selwyn’s idea that there should be a fund for the cost of the statue,” their father said. “But as the town will feel the added taxation in any case, I propose to make that my gift. The cost is not large, the time limit for paying it indefinite.”
“Twenty thousand dollars?” Martie, who had a passion for guessing, ventured eagerly.
“Not so much.” But Malcolm was pleased to have the reality so much more moderate than the guess. “Between two and three thousand.”
“Some money!” Leonard exclaimed. He grinned at Martie contemptuously. “TWENTY!” said he.
“Your sister naturally has not much idea of the value of money,” Malcolm said, with what was for him rare tolerance. “Yes, it is a large sum, but I can give it, and if my townspeople turn to me for this tribute to their most distinguished pioneer …”
During the rest of the meal no other subject was discussed.
The evening was bright with memories and dreams for Martie. When a large dish of stewed apples in tapioca had been eaten, the whole family rose and left the room, and Belle, the little maid, came in wearily, alone, to attack the disordered table. For two hours the sound of running water and the dragging of Belle’s heavy feet would be heard in the kitchen. Meanwhile, Belle’s mother, in a small house down in the village, would keep looking at the clock and wondering whatever had become of Belle, and Belle’s young man would loiter disconsolately at the bridge, waiting.
The three Monroe girls and their mother went into the parlour, Malcolm going across the hall to a dreary library, where he had an old-fashioned cabinet desk, and Lenny gaining a reluctant consent to his request to go down to “Dutch’s” house, where he and Dutch would play lotto.
“Why doesn’t Dutch Harrison ever come here to play lotto?” Martie asked maliciously. “You go to Dutch’s because it’s right down near Bonestell’s and Mallon’s and the Pool Parlour!” Leonard shot her a threatening glance, accepted a half-permission, snatched his cap and was gone.
The parlour was large, cold, and uncomfortable, its woodwork brown, its walls papered in dark green. Lydia lighted the fire, and as Leonard had made his escape, Belle brought up a supplementary hodful of coal. Martie lighted two of the four gas jets, and settled down to solitaire. Sally read “Idylls of the King.” Lydia and her mother began to sew, the older woman busy with mending a hopelessly worn table-cloth, the younger one embroidering heavy linen with hundreds of knots. Lydia had been making a parasol top for more than a year. They gossiped in low, absorbed tones of the affairs of friends and neighbours; the endless trivial circumstances so interesting to the women of a small town.
There were two gas jets, also on hinged arms, beside the white marble fireplace, and one of these Sally lighted, taking her father’s comfortable chair. A hood of thin plum-coloured flannel, embroidered in coloured flowers, was on the mantel, with shells, two pink glass vases, and a black marble clock. On the old square piano, where yellowing sheets of music were heaped, there was a cover of the same flannel. Albums and gift books, Schiller’s “Bell” with Flaxman plates, and Dante’s “Inferno” with Dore’s illustrations–lay on the centre table; Martie pushed them back for her game.
She looked a mere overgrown, untidy girl, to whose hair, belt, finger-nails, and shoes she might have attended with advantage. But Martie was a bride to-night, walking the realm of Romance.
She had never had an admirer, nor had Sally. Neither girl admitted it, but it was true. Poor Lydia had had a taste of the joy of life, and a full measure of the sorrow, seven years ago, when Clifford Frost, twelve years her senior, at thirty-one the perfect match, had singled her out for his favour. Martie and Sally could remember how pleasantly exciting it was to have Cliff Frost so much at the house, how Lydia laughed and bloomed! Lydia had been just Sally then: her age, and her double.
What had gone wrong, the younger girls sometimes wondered. Pa had been pompous, of course; Cliff had not been made exactly comfortable, here by this marble mantel. Lydia had quavered out her happy welcome, her mother had fluttered and smiled. And Cliff had given her candy, and taken her to the Methodist Bazaar and the Elks’ Minstrels, and had given her a fan. The candy was eaten long ago, and the dance music and the concerts long forgotten in the village, but Lydia still had the fan.
For a year, for two, for three, the affair went on. There was a cloud in the sky before Mary Canfield came to visit Mrs. Frost, but with her coming, joy died in Lydia’s heart. Mary was made for loving; Mary’s mother and father and aunts and cousins all made it easy for any man to fall in love with her. Mary danced, played the piano, chattered French, changed from one pretty frock to another, tirelessly. In short, Mary was a marketable product, and Lydia was not.
Cliff came to tell Lydia that he and Mary were to be married, and that she had always been his best pal, and that their friendship had been one of the sweetest things in his life. He kissed her in brotherly fashion when he went away. Mary, lovely in bridal silks, came to call on Lydia a few months later, and to this day when she met faded, sweet Miss Monroe, the happy little wife and mother would stop in street or shop and display little Ruth’s charms, and chat graciously for a few minutes. She always defended Lydia when the Frost and Parker factions lamented that the Monroe girls were inclined to be “common.”
Martie thought of none of these things to-night. She thought of Rodney Parker, and her heart floated upon clouds of rose-coloured delight. Dreamily manipulating the cards, she remembered that twilight meeting. “Are you still a little devil, Martie … I’m going to find out.” Again they were walking slowly toward the bridge. “How many people have told you you’ve grown awfully pretty, Martie? … You and I’ll get together on the lists. …”
The girl stopped, with arrested fingers and absent eyes. The rapture of remembering thrilled her young body like a breath of flame blown against her. She breathed with deep, slow respirations, holding her breath with a risen breast, and letting it go with a long sigh. Now and then she looked with an ashamed and furtive glance from her mother’s gray head and Lydia’s busy fingers to Sally’s absorbed face under the opaque white globe of the gaslight, almost as if she feared that the enchantment that held heart and brain would be visible to watching eyes.
“Mind you,” Lydia was saying in a low tone, “Flora said that Lou acted very queer, from the very moment she went in–Lou asked her if she wanted to look at poor Mr. Lowney, and Flora went in, and he was all laid out, with flowers and all, in that upstairs room where Al died. Grandma Lowney was there, and–oh, quite a few others, coming and going, Mrs. Mallon and the Baxter girls. Flora only stayed a minute, and when she and Lou went out, she says, ‘Lou, has Annie Poett been here since he was taken sick?’ and Lou began to cry and said that her mother answered the telephone when Annie called up last week, and it seems Annie asked was Joe Lowney sick and Mrs. King said ‘No.'”
“For heaven’s sake!” Mrs. Monroesaid, incredulous and absorbed.
“Well, that’s what Flora said. But mind you, Ma, on Tuesday night little Hildegarde King went to the door, and she says that Annie Poett came in and went upstairs–Lou was dishing supper, you know the Allens and Mrs. Gorman were there for the funeral, and they were all at table–and, by the way, Flora says that Lou says that Lizzie Alien was there in that house for three days–that is, it was nearly three days, for they stayed for supper Wednesday night–and that Lizzie never raised her hand to ONE THING, just did nothing but sit around and cry, and say what a good brother Joe was!”
“Did you ever!” commented Mrs. Monroe.
“Anyway, nobody got up from the table, and all they had for it was Hildegarde’s word, and she wasn’t sure it was Annie. Grandma Lowney was asleep–they’d gotten her to lie down; she took more care of Joe than any one else, you know, and she sat up both nights. Clara Baxter says she looks awful; she doesn’t believe she’ll get over it.”
“I shouldn’t wonder!” said Mrs. Monroe with a click of commiseration.
“Lou told Flora that the night Joe was dying, Grandma broke out and said to Paul King that if Joe hadn’t gone with him out to Deegan Point two weeks ago, he never would have had that chill. But Flora says …”
The low voices went on and on, even after Malcolm Monroe came in, thoroughly tired and a little chilly, to take his own chair by the fire. Sally, deposed, came to sit opposite Martie, and idly watched the solitaire.
“Isn’t Rodney Parker nice?” Sally whispered cautiously, after a while.
“I think he is!” Martie answered hardily; but the happy colour came to her cheeks.
“I’ll bet all the girls go crazy about him!” Sally submitted.
A faint pang of jealousy, a vague sense of helplessness, seized upon Martie. He had been so cordially gay and delightful with her; would he be that with all the girls? Would Florence Frost, three years older than he, fall a victim to his charm as quickly as she, Martie, had fallen? Martie had mentioned Florence Frost this afternoon, and by subtle, instinctive, girlish reasoning had found consolation in his reply. “She’s my sister’s friend; she’s awfully smart, you know- -books and all that!” Rodney honestly felt an entire indifference to this admirable young neighbour, and Martie understood his remark as meaning exactly that.
She went on with her patience, the particular game known as the “Idle Year.” Sometimes Sally touched or mentioned a card. Sometimes, as a final problem presented itself, the girls consulted as to the wisdom of this play or that. Between games Martie shuffled vigorously, and they talked more freely.
“I think he’s crazy about you,” said Sally.
“Oh, Sally, don’t be such a fool!”
“I’m not fooling. Look at the way he turned back and walked with us, and he never took his eyes off you!” Sally, somewhat dashed for an instant by Martie’s well-assumed scorn, gained confidence now, as the new radiance brightened her sister’s face. “Why, Mart,” she said boldly, “there is such a thing as love at first sight!”
Love at first sight! Martie felt a sort of ecstatic suffocation at the words. An uncontrollable smile twitched at her mouth, she recommenced her game briskly. Her heart was dancing.
“Lissun; do you suppose Ma would ever let us have a party here?” Martie presently ventured.
Sally pursed her lips and shook a doubtful head.
“Oh, but, Sally, I don’t mean a real party, of course. Just about twenty–” Martie began.
“Lemonade and cake?” Sally supplied.
“Well–coffee and sandwiches, Rodney seemed to think. And punch.”
“Punch! Martie! You know Pa never would.”
“I don’t see why not,” Martie said discontentedly, slapping down her cards noisily. Sally spoke only the truth, yet it was an irritating truth, and Martie would have preferred a soothing lie.
“What about music for dancing?” Sally asked, after a thoughtful interval.
“Angela Baxter,” Martie said with reviving hope.
“But she charges two dollars; at least she did for the Baptist euchre.”
“Well–that’s not so much!”
“We could make those cute brown-bread sandwiches Rose had,” Sally mused, warming to the possibility. “And use the Canton set. Nobody in town has china like ours, anyway!”
“Oh, Sally,” Martie was again fired, “we could have creamed chicken and sandwiches–that’s all anybody ever wants! And it’s so much sweller than messy sherbets and layer cake. And we could decorate the rooms with greens–“
“Our rooms are lovely, anyway!” Sally stated with satisfaction.
“Why, with the folding doors open, and fires in both grates, they would be perfectly stunning!” Martie spoke rapidly, her colour rising, her blue eyes glittering like stars. “Of course, the back room isn’t furnished, but we could scatter some chairs around in there; we’ll need all the room for dancing, anyway!”
“We couldn’t dance on this carpet,” Sally submitted, perplexed, as she glanced at the parlour’s worn floor-covering.
“No, but we could in the back room–that floor’s bare–and in the hall,” Martie answered readily. You see it’s the first of a sort of set of dances; the next would be at the Frosts’ or the Barkers’, and it would mean that we were right in things–“
“Oh, it would be lovely if we could do it!” Sally agreed with a sigh. “Play the Queen on here, Martie, and then you’ll have a space.”
“Do you propose to play that game much longer, girls?” their father asked, looking patiently over his book.
“Are we disturbing you, Pa?” Martie countered politely.
“Well–but don’t stop on my account. Of course the sound of cards and voices isn’t exactly soothing. However, go on with your game–go on with your game! If I can’t stand it, I’ll go back to the library.”
“Oh, no, Pa, it’s too cold in there; this is the time of year you always get that cold in your nose,” Mrs. Monroe said pleadingly.
“I was going right up, anyway,” Sally said with an apologetic air and a glance toward the door.
“I’ll go, too!” Martie jumbled the cards together, and rose. “It’s nearly ten, anyway.”
A moment later she and Sally went out of the room together. But while Sally went straight upstairs, to light the bedroom gas, fold up the counterpane, and otherwise play the part of the good sister she was, Martie noiselessly opened the side door and stepped out for a breath of the sweet autumn night.
There was a spectacularly bright moon, somewhere; Martie could not see it, but beyond the sunken garden she caught glimpses of silvery brightness on the roofs of Monroe. Even here, under the dark trees, pools of light had formed and the heavy foliage was shot with shafts of radiance. A strong wind was clicking the eucalyptus leaves together, and carrying bits of rubbish here and there about the yard. Martie could hear voices, the barking of dogs, and the whine of the ten o’clock trolley, down in the village.
The gate slammed. Leonard came in.
“Pa tell you to watch for me?” he asked fearfully.
“No.” Martie, sitting on the top step and hugging her knees, answered indifferently. “It’s not ten yet. What you been doing?”
“Oh, nothing!” Len passed her and went in.
As a matter of fact, he had called for his chum, sauntered into the candy store for caramels, joined the appreciative group that watched a drunken man forcibly ejected from Casserley’s saloon, visited the pool room and witnessed a game or two, gone back into the street to tease two hurrying and giggling girls with his young wit, and drifted into a passing juggler’s wretched and vulgar show. This, or something like this, was what Len craved when he begged to “go out for a while” after dinner. It was sometimes a little more entertaining, sometimes less so; but it spelled life for the seventeen-year-old boy.
He could not have described this to Martie, even had he cared to do so. She would not have understood it. But she felt a vague yearning, too, for lights and companionship and freedom, a vague envy of Leonard.
The world was out there, beyond the gate, beyond the village. She was in it, but not of it. She longed to begin to live, and knew not how. Ten years before she had been only a busy, independent, happy little girl; turning to her mother and sister for advice, obeying her father without question. But Pa and Lydia, and Len with his egotism, and Ma with her trials, were nothing to Martie now. In battle, in pestilence, or after a great fire, she would have risen head and shoulders above them all, would have worked gloriously to reestablish them. She supposed that she loved them dearly. But so terrible was the hunger of her heart for her share of life–for loving, serving, planning, and triumphing–that she would have swept them all aside like cobwebs to grasp the first reality flung her by fate.
Not to stagnate, not to smother, not to fade and shrink like Lydia– like Miss Fanny at the library, and the Baxter girls at the post- office! Every healthy young fibre of Martie’s soul and body rebelled against such a fate, but she could not fully sense the barriers about her, nor plan any move that should loosen her bonds. Martie believed, as her parents believed, that life was largely a question of “luck.” Money, fame, friends, power, to this man; poverty and obscurity and helplessness to that one. Wifehood, motherhood, honour and delight to one school girl; gnawing, restless uselessness to the next. “I only hope you girls are going to marry,” their mother would sometimes say plaintively; “but I declare I don’t know who–with all the nice boys leaving town the way they do! Pa gives you a good home, but he can’t do much more, and after he and I go, why, it will be quite natural for you girls to go on keeping house for Len–I suppose.”
Martie’s sensitive soul writhed under these mournful predictions. Dependence was bitter to her, Len’s kindly patronage stung her only a little less than his occasional moods of cheerful masculine contempt. He meant to take care of his sisters, he wasn’t ever going to marry. Pa needn’t worry, Len said. The house was mortgaged, Martie knew; their father’s business growing less year by year; there would be no great inheritance, and if life was not satisfying now, when she had youth and plenty, what would it be when Pa was gone?
It was all dark, confusing, baffling, to ignorant, untrained nineteen. The sense of time passing, of opportunities unseen and ungrasped, might well make Martie irritable, restless, and reckless. Happiness and achievement were to be bought, but she knew not with what coinage.
To-day the darkness had been shot by a gleam of living light. Through Rodney Parker’s casual gallantries Martie’s eyes looked into a new world. It was a world of loving, of radiant self-confidence and self-expression. Martie saw herself buying gowns for the wedding, whisking in and out of Monroe’s shops, stopped by affectionate and congratulatory friends. She was dining at Mrs. Barker’s, dignified, and yet gracious and responsive, too. Dear old Judge Parker was being courteous to her; Mrs. Parker advising Rodney’s young wife. There were grandchildren running over the old place. Martie remembered the big rooms from long-ago red-letter days of her childhood. How she would love her home, and what a figure of dignity and goodness Mrs. Rodney Parker would be in the life of the town.
Oh, dear God–it was not so much to ask! People were getting married all the time; Rodney Parker must marry some one. Lydia was unwed, Sally had no lover; but out of so rich and full a world could not so much be spared to Martie? Oh, how good she would be, how generous to Pa and the girls, how kind to Ida and May!
Martie bowed her head on her knees. If this one thing might come her way, if it might be her fate to have Rodney Parker love her, to have the engagement and the wedding follow in their happy order, she would never ask more of God; gaining so much she would truly be good, she would live for others then!
When she raised her face it was wet with tears.
The next morning, when the younger girls came down to breakfast, they found only the three women in the kitchen. An odour of coffee hung in the air. Belle was scraping burned toast at the sink, the flying, sooty particles clinging to wet surfaces everywhere. Lydia sat packing cold hominy in empty baking-powder tins; to be sliced and fried for the noon meal. Mrs. Monroe, preferring an informal kitchen breakfast to her own society in the dining room, was standing by the kitchen table, alternating swallows from a saucerless cup of hot coffee with indifferent mouthfuls of buttered cold bread. She rarely went to the trouble of toasting her own bread, spending twice the energy required to do so in protests against the trouble.
Lydia had breakfasted an hour ago. Sally and Martie sliced bread, pushed forward the coffee pot, and entered a spirited claim for cream. It was Saturday morning, when Leonard slept late. Pa was always late. Lydia was anxious to save a generous amount of cream for the sleepers.
“Len often takes a second cup of coffee when he’s got lots of time,” Lydia said.
“Well, I don’t care!” Martie said, suddenly serious. “I’m going to take my coffee black, anyway. I’m getting too fat!”
“Oh, Martie, you are not!” Sally laughed.
“That’s foolish–you’ll just upset your health!” her mother added disapprovingly.
Martie’s only answer was a buoyant kiss. She and Sally carried their breakfast into the dining room, where they established themselves comfortably at one end of the long table. While they ate, dipping their toast in the coffee, buttering and rebuttering it, they chattered as tirelessly as if they had been deprived of each other’s society and confidence for weeks.
The morning was dark and foggy, and a coal fire slumbered in the grate, giving out a bitter, acrid smell. Against the windows the soft mist pressed, showing a yellow patch toward the southeast, where the sun would pierce it after a while.
Malcolm Monroe came downstairs at about nine o’clock, and the girls gathered up their dishes and disappeared in the direction of the kitchen. Not that Ma would not, as usual, prepare their father’s toast and bacon with her own hands, and not that Lydia would not, as usual, serve it. The girls were not needed. But Pa always made it impossible for them to be idle and comfortable over their own meal. If he did not actually ask them to fetch butter or water, or if he could find no reasonable excuse for fault-finding, he would surely introduce some dangerous topic; lure them into admissions, stand ready to pursue any clue. He did not like to see young girls care- free and contented; time enough for that later on! And as years robbed him of actual dignities, and as Monroe’s estimate of him fell lower and lower, he turned upon his daughters the authority, the carping and controlling that might otherwise have been spent upon respectful employees and underlings. He found some relief for a chafed and baffled spirit in the knowledge that Sally and Martie were helpless, were bound to obey, and could easily be made angry and unhappy.
Lydia, her father’s favourite, came in with a loaded tray, just as Len, slipping down the back stairs, was being stealthily regaled by his mother on a late meal in the kitchen. Len had no particular desire for his father’s undiluted company.
“Good morning, Pa!” Lydia said, with a kiss for his cool forehead. “Your paper’s right there by the fire; there’s quite a fog, and it got wet.”
Hands locked, she settled herself opposite him, and revolved in her mind the terms in which she might lay before him the younger girls’ hopes. It was part of Lydia’s concientiousness not to fail them now, even though she secretly disapproved of the whole thing.
“Pa,” she began bravely, “you wouldn’t mind the girls having some of their friends in some evening, would you? I thought perhaps some night when you were down in the city–“
“Your idea, my dear?” Malcolm said graciously.
“Well–Martie’s really.” Lydia was always scrupulously truthful.
His face darkened a little. He pursed his lips.
“Oh, no, Pa! Just dancing, or–” Lydia was watching him closely, “or games,” she substituted hurriedly. “You see the other girls have these little parties, and our girls–” her voice fell.
“Such an affair costs money, my dear!”
“Not much, Pa!”
His eyes were discontentedly fixed upon the headlines of his paper, but he was thinking.
“Making a lot of work for your mother,” he protested, “upsetting the whole house like a pack of wolves! Upon my word, I can’t see the necessity. Why can’t Sally and Martie–“
“But it’s only once in a long while, Pa,” Lydia urged.
“I know–I know! Well, you ask Martie to speak to me about it in a day or two. Now go call your mother.”
For the gracious permission Lydia gave him an appreciative kiss, leaving him comfortable with his fire, his newspaper, and his armchair, as she went on her errand.
“Pa was terribly sweet about the dance,” she told Martie and Sally.
Belle was now deep in breakfast dishes, and the two girls had gone out into the foggy dooryard with the chickens’ breakfast. A flock of mixed fowls were clucking and pecking over the bare ground under the willows. Martie held the empty tin pan in one hand, in the other was a half-eaten cruller. Sally had turned her serge skirt up over her shoulders as a protection against the cool air, exposing a shabby little “balmoral.”
“Oh, Lyd, you’re an angel!” Martie said, holding the cruller against Lydia’s mouth. But Lydia expressed a grateful negative with a shake of her head; she never nibbled between meals.
She retailed the conversation with her father. Martie and Sally became fired with enthusiasm as they listened. An animated discussion followed. Grace was a problem. Dared they ignore Grace? There was a lamentable preponderance of girls without her. All their lists began and ended with, “Well, there’s Rodney and his friends– that’s two–“
The day was as other days, except to Martie. When the chickens were fed, she and Sally idled for perhaps half an hour in the yard, and then went into the kitchen. Belle, sooty and untidy, had paused at the kitchen table, with her dustpan resting three feet away from the cold mutton that lay there. Mrs. Monroe’s hair was in some disorder, and a streak of black from the stove lay across one of her lean, greasy wrists. The big stove was cooling now, ashes drifted from the firebox door, and an enormous saucepan of slowly cooking beans gave forth a fresh, unpleasant odour. At all the windows the fog pressed softly.
“Are you going down town, Sally?” the mother asked.
“Well–I thought we would. We can if you want!” said Sally.
“If you do, I wish you’d step into Mason & White’s, and ask one of the men there if they aren’t ever going to send me the rest of my box of potatoes.”
“All right!” Martie and Sally put their hats on in the downstair hall, shouted upstairs to Lydia for the shoes, and sauntered out contentedly into the soft, foggy morning. The Monroe girls never heard the garden gate slam behind them without a pleasant yet undefined sense of freedom. The sun was slowly but steadily gaining on the fog, a bright yellow blur showed the exact spot where shining light must soon break through. Trees along the way dripped softly, but on the other side of the bridge, where houses were set more closely together, and gardens less dense, sidewalks and porches were already drying.
The girls walked past the new, trim little houses and the clumsy, big, old-fashioned ones, chattering incessantly. Their bright, interested eyes did not miss the tiniest detail. The village, sleepier than ever on the morning of the half-holiday, was full of interest to them.
Mrs. Hughie Wilson was sweeping her garden path, and called out to them that the church concert had netted 327 dollars; wasn’t that pretty good?
A few steps farther on they met Alice Clark, who kept them ten minutes in eager, unimportant conversation. Her parting remark sent the Monroe girls happily on their way.
“I hear Rodney Parker’s home–don’t pretend to be surprised, Martha Monroe. A little bird was telling me that I’ll have to go up North Main Street for news of him after this!”
“Who do you s’pose told her we met Rod Parker?” Martie grinned as they went on.
“People see everything! Oh, Martie,” said Sally earnestly, “I do hope you are going to marry; no, don’t laugh! I don’t mean Rod, of course, I’m not such a fool. But I mean some one.”
“You ought to marry first, Sally; you’re the older,” Martie said, with averted eyes and a sort of delicious shame.
“Oh, I don’t mind that, Martie, if only we begin!” Sally answered fervently. “When I think of what the next ten years MEAN for us, it just makes me sick! Either we’ll marry and have our own homes and children, or we’ll be like Alice, and the Baxters, and Miss Fanny–“
“I’d just as soon have a good job like Miss Fanny,” Martie said hardily. “She gets sixty a month.”
“Well, I wouldn’t!” Sally protested in a sudden burst. “Being in an office would KILL me, I think! I just couldn’t do it! But I believe I COULD manage a little house, and children, and I’d like that! I wouldn’t mind being poor–I never really think of being anything else–but what I’m so afraid of is that Len’ll marry and we’ll just be–just be AUNTS!”
Such vehemence was not usual to Sally, and as her earnestness brought her to a full stop on the sidewalk, the two sisters found themselves facing each other. They burst into a joyous laugh, as their eyes met, and the full absurdity of the conversation became apparent.
Still giggling, they went on their way, past the old smithy, where a pleasant breath of warmth and a splendid ringing of hammers came from the forge, and past the new garage of raw wood with the still- astonishing miracle of a “horseless carriage” in its big window, pots of paint and oil standing inside its door, and workmen, behind a barrier of barrels and planks, laying a cement sidewalk in front. They passed the Five-and-Ten-Cent Store, its unwashed windows jammed with pyramids of dry-looking chocolates, post cards, and jewellery, and festoons of trashy embroidery, and the corner fruit stands heaped with tomatoes and sprawling grapes. At the Palace Candy Store a Japanese boy in his shirt-sleeves was washing the show window, which was empty except for some rumpled sheets of sun-faded pink crepe paper. By the door stood two large wooden buckets for packing ice cream. The ice and salt were melted now, and the empty moulds, still oozing a little curdled pink cream, were floating in the dirty water.
“Why aren’t you girls at home sewing for the poor?” demanded a pleasant voice over their shoulders. The girls wheeled about to smile into the eyes of Father Martin. A tall spare old man, with enormous glasses on his twinkling blue eyes, spots and dust on his priestly black, and a few teeth missing from his kindly, big, homely mouth, he beamed upon them.
“Well, how are ye? And your mother’s well? Well, and what are ye buying–trousseaux?”
“We’re just looking, Father,” Martie giggled. “Looking for husbands first, and then clothes!”
Laughing, the girls walked with him across the street to Mallon’s Hardware Emporium, where baskets of jelly glasses were set out on the damp sidewalk, with enamel saucepans marked “29c.” and “19c.” in black paint, carpet sweepers, oil stoves, and pink-and-blue glass vases. They went on to the shoe shop, to the grocery, to the post- office, past the express office, where Joe Hawkes sat whittling in the sun. They paused to study with eager interest the flaring posters on the fences that announced the impending arrival of Poulson’s Star Stock Company, for one night only, in “The Sword of the King.” They discovered with surprise that it was nearly twelve o’clock, bought five cents’ worth of rusty, sweet, Muscat grapes, to be eaten on the way home, and turned their faces toward the bridge.
But the morning, for Martie, had held its golden moment. When they passed the Bank, Sally had been dreaming, as Sally almost always was, but Martie’s eyes had gone from shining gold-lettered window to window, and with that new, sweet suffocation at her heart she had found the object of her searching–the satiny crest of Rodney Parker’s sleek hair, the fresh-coloured profile that had been in her waking and sleeping thoughts since yesterday. He was evidently hard at work; indeed he was nervous and discouraged, had Martie but known it; he did not look up.
But Martie did not want him to look up. She wanted only the stimulation to her thoughts that the sight of him caused, the enchanting realization that he was there. She had a thrilling vision of herself entering that bank, a privileged person, “young Mrs. Rodney.” Old Judge Parker coming out of his private office with his hands full of papers would nod to her with his fatherly smile, Rodney grin the proud yet embarrassed grin of a man confronted in office hours by his women-folk.
Suddenly Martie decided that she would begin to save money. She and Sally had jointly fallen heir to a young Durham cow when Cousin Sally Buckingham died, and the cow being sold for thirty-five dollars, exactly seventeen dollars and fifty cents had been deposited in the bank in each girl’s name. This was four years ago; neither one ever dreamed of touching the precious nest-egg; to them it represented wealth. Len had no bank account, nor had Mama nor Lydia. All Martie’s dreams of the future began, included, or ended on the expenditure of this sum. It bought text books, wedding veils, railway tickets in turn. Now she thought that if she saved another dollar, and went into the Bank duly to deposit it, Rodney must see her, might even wait upon her; it would be a perfectly legitimate way of crossing his line of vision.
The Monroes had plenty of spending money; for although their father was strongly opposed to the idea of making any child of his a definite allowance, he allowed them to keep the change whenever they executed small commissions for him, and to wheedle from him stray quarter and half dollars. Lydia had only to watch for the favourable moment to get whatever she asked, and with Leonard he was especially generous. Martie knew that she could save, if she determined to do so. She imagined Rodney’s voice: “Bringing more money in? You’ll soon be rich at this rate, Martie!”
A few days later Rodney Parker walked home from the village with Martie Monroe again. Meeting her in Bonestell’s, he paid for her chocolate sundae, and on their way up Main Street they stopped in the Library, so that Miss Fanny saw them. Every one saw them: first of all generous little Sally, who was to meet Martie in Bonestell’s, but who, perceiving that Rodney had joined her there, slipped away unseen, and, blindly turning over the ribbons on Mason’s remnant counter, prayed with all her heart that Rodney would continue to fill her place.
They walked up Main Street, Martie glancing up from under her shabby hat with happy blue eyes, Rodney sauntering contentedly at her side.
How much he knew, how much he had done, the girl thought, with an ache of hopeless admiration. Almost every sentence opened a new vista of his experience and her ignorance. She did not suspect that he meant it to be so; she only felt dazzled by the easy, glancing references he made to men and books and places.
They stopped at the railroad track to watch the eastward-bound train thunder by. Five hours out of San Francisco, its passengers looked quite at home in the big green upholstered seats. Bored women looked idly out upon little Monroe, half-closed magazines in their hands. Card-playing men did not glance up as the village flashed by. On the platform of the observation car the usual well-wrapped girl and pipe-smoking young man were carrying on the usual flirtation. Martie saw the train nearly every day, but never without a thrill. She said to herself, “New York!” as a pilgrim might murmur of Mecca or of Heaven.
“That’s a good train,” said Rodney. “Let’s see, this is Wednesday. They’ll be in New York Sunday night. Awful place on Sunday–no theatres, no ball games, no drinks–“
“I could manage without theatres or ball games,” Martie laughed. “But I must have my whisky!”
“It sounded as if I meant that, but you know me!” he laughed back. “Lord, how I’d like to show you New York. Wouldn’t you love it! Broadway–well, it’s a wonder! There’s something doing every minute. You’d love the theatres–“
“I know I would!” Martie assented, glowing.
“My aunt lives there; she has an apartment right on the Park, at West Ninetieth,” Rodney said. “Her husband has scads of money,” the boy pursued. “You’ll have to go on, Martie, there’s no two ways about it.”
“And Delmonico’s?” the girl suggested eagerly. “I’ve heard of Delmonico’s!”
“Delmonico’s is where the wedding parties go. Of course, if you say so, Martie–“
That was one of the sweet and thrilling things to remember. And there were other things to make Martie’s heart dance as she set the dinner table. But she wondered if she should have asked him in.
Martie stopped short, salt-cellars in her hand. How could she–with Pa’s arrival possible at any moment. Besides she had asked him, as they lingered laughing at the gate. That was all right–it was late, anyway. He had gaily refused, and she had not pressed him. And, wonderful thought, they were going walking on Sunday.
Monroe boys and girls usually walked on Sunday. They walked up the track to the Junction, or up between bare fields past the Poor House to the Cemetery. When a young man hired a phaeton at Beetman’s, and took his girl for a drive on Sunday, it was a definite avowal of serious attachment. In that case they usually had their Sunday supper at the home of the young man’s mother, or married sister, or with some female relative whose sanction upon their plans was considered essential.
Rodney Parker was not quite familiar with this well-established precedent. His sisters were not enough of the village to be asked either to walk or drive with the local swains, and he had been away for several years. For two Sundays he walked with Martie, and then he asked her to drive.
For the girl, these weeks were suffused with a tremulous and ecstatic delight beyond definition, beyond words. What she would not have dared to hope, she actually experienced. No need to boast before Sally and Grace and Florence Frost. They saw: the whole village saw.
Martie bloomed like a rose. She forgot everything–Pa, Len, the gloomy home, the uncertain future–for joy. That her old hat was shabby and her clothes inappropriate meant nothing to Martie; ignorant, unhelped, she stumbled on her way alone. Nobody told her to pin her bronze braids more trimly, to keep her brilliant skin free from the muddying touch of sweets and pastries, to sew a hook here and catch a looping hem there. Nobody suggested that she manicure her fine big hands, or use some of her endless leisure to remove the spots from her blue silk dress.
More; the family dared take only a stealthy interest in Martie’s affair, because of Malcolm’s extraordinary perversity and Len’s young scorn. Malcolm, angered by Lydia’s fluttered pleasure in the honour Rodney Parker was doing their Martie, was pleased to assume a high and mighty attitude. He laughed heartily at the mere idea that the attentions of Graham Parker’s son might be construed as a compliment to a Monroe, and sarcastically rebuked Lydia when, on a Sunday afternoon, she somewhat stealthily made preparations for tea. Martie and Rod were walking, and Martie, before she went, had said something vague about coming back at half-past four.
Lydia, abashed, gave up her plan for tea. But she did what she could for Martie, by inveigling her father into a walk. Martie and Rod came into an empty house, for Sally was out, no one knew where, and Mrs. Monroe had gone to church where vespers were sung at four o’clock through the winter.
Martie’s colour was high from fast walking in the cold wind, her eyes shone like sapphires, and her loosened hair, under an old velvet tam-o’-shanter cap, made a gold aureole about her face. Rodney, watching her mount the little hill to the graveyard with a winter sunset before her, had called her “Brunhilde,” and he had been talking of grand opera as they walked home.
Enchanted at finding the house deserted, she very simply took him into the kitchen. The kettle was fortunately singing over a sleeping fire; Rodney sliced bread and toasted it, while Martie, trying to appear quite at her ease, but conscious of awkward knees and elbows just the same, whisked from pantry to kitchen busily, disappearing into the dining room long enough to lay the tea cups and plates at one end of the big table.
Only a few moments before the little feast was ready, Lydia came rather anxiously into the kitchen. She greeted Rodney smilingly, seizing the first opportunity for an aside to say to Martie:
“Pa’s home, Mart. And he doesn’t like your having Rod out here. I walked him up to the Tates’, but no one was home except Lizzie. Shame! He saw Rodney’s cap in the hall–he’s in the dining room.” Aloud she said cheerfully: “I think this is dreadful–making you work so hard, Rod. Come–tea’s nearly ready. You and I’ll wait for it in the dining room, like the gentleman and lady we are!”
“Oh, I’m having a grand time!” Rodney laughed. But he allowed himself to be led away. A few minutes later Martie, with despair in her heart, carried the loaded tray into the dining room.
Her father, in one of his bad moods, was sitting by the empty fireplace. The room, in the early autumn twilight, was cold. Len had come in and expected his share of the unfamiliar luxury of tea, and more than his share of the hot toast.
Rodney, unaffected by the atmosphere, gaily busied himself with the tray. Lydia came gently in with an armful of light wood which she laid in the fireplace.
“There is no necessity for a fire,” Malcolm said. “I wouldn’t light that, my dear.”
“I thought–just to take the chill off,” Lydia stammered.
Her father shook his head. Lydia subsided.
“We shall be having supper shortly, I suppose?” he asked patiently, looking at a large gold watch. “It’s after half-past five now.”
“But, Pa,” Lydia laughed a little constrainedly, “we never have dinner until half-past six!”
“Oh, on week days–certainly,” he agreed stiffly. “On Sundays, unless I am entirely wrong, we sit down before six.”
“Len,” Martie murmured, “why don’t you go make yourself some toast?”
“Don’t have to!” Len laughed with his mouth full.
“Here–I’ll go out and make some more!” Rodney said buoyantly, catching up a plate. Lydia instantly intervened; this would not do. Pa would be furious. Obviously Martie could not go, because in her absence Pa, Rodney, and Len would either be silent, or say what was better unsaid. Lydia herself went out for a fresh supply of toast.
Martie was grateful, but in misery. Lydia was always slow. The endless minutes wore away, she and Rodney playing with their empty plates, Len also waiting hungrily, her father watching them sombrely. If Len hadn’t come in and been so greedy, Martie thought in confused anger, tea would have been safely over by this time; if Pa were not there glowering she might have chattered at her ease with Rodney, no tea hour would have been too long. As it was, she was self-conscious and constrained. The clock struck six. Really it WAS late.
The toast came in; Sally came in demurely at her mother’s side. She had rushed out of the shadows to join her mother at the gate, much to Mrs. Monroe’s surprise. Conversation, subdued but general, ensued. Martie walked boldly with Rodney to the gate, at twenty minutes past six, and they stood there, laughing and talking, for another ten minutes.
When she went in, it was to face unpleasantness. Her mother, with her bonnet strings dangling, was helping Lydia hastily to remove signs of the recent tea party. Sally was in the kitchen; Len reading opposite his father.
“Come here a minute, Martie,” her father called as I the girl hesitated in the hallway. Martie came in and eyed him. “I would like to know what circumstances led to young Parker’s being here this afternoon?” he asked.
“Why–we were walking, and I–I suppose I asked him, Pa.”
“You SUPPOSE you asked him?”
“Well–I DID ask him.”
“Oh, you DID ask him; that’s different. You had spoken to your mother about it?”
“No.” Martie swallowed. “No,” she said again nervously. There was a silence while her father eyed her coldly.
“Then you ask whom you like to the house, do you? Is that the idea? You upset your mother’s and your sister’s arrangement entirely at your own pleasure?” he suggested presently.
“I didn’t think it was so much to ask a person to have a cup of tea!” Martie stammered, with a desperate attempt at self-defense. She felt tears pressing against her eyes. Lydia would have been meek, Sally would have been meek, but Martie’s anger was her nearest weapon. It angered her father in turn.
“Well, will you kindly remember in future that your ideas of what to ask, and what not to ask, are not the ideas by which this house is governed?” Malcolm asked magnificently.
“Yes, sir.” Martie stirred as if to turn and go.
“One moment,” Malcolm said discontentedly. “You thoroughly understand me, do you?”
“Yes, sir.” Martie’s eyes met Len’s discreetly raised over the edge of his book and full of reproachful interest. She went into the kitchen.
The spell of a nervous silence which had held the dining room was broken. Mrs. Monroe and Lydia talked in low tones as they went to and fro; Len shifted his position; Sally coming in with a plate of sliced bread hummed contentedly. Martie appeared in her usual place at supper, not too subdued to win a laugh even from her father with some vivacious imitation of Miss Tate rallying the children for Sunday School. Happiness was bubbling like a spring in her heart.
After dinner, the dishes being piled in the sink to greet Belle on Monday morning, she went to the piano and crashed into “Just a Song at Twilight,” and “Oh, Promise Me,” and “The Two Grenadiers.” These and many more songs were contained in a large, heavy album entitled “Favourite Songs for the Home.” Martie had a good voice; not better than Sally’s or Lydia’s, but Sally and Lydia rarely sang. Martie had sung to her own noisy accompaniment since she was a child; she loved the sound of her own voice. She had a hunger for accomplishment, rattled off the few French phrases she knew with an unusually pure accent, and caught an odd pleasing word or an accurate pronunciation eagerly on the few occasions when lecturers or actors in Monroe gave her an opportunity.
To-night her father, in his library, heard the sweet, true tones of her voice in “Lesbia” and “Believe Me,” and remembered his mother singing those same old songs. But when a silence followed he remembered only faulty Martie, awkwardly making Rodney Parker welcome at the most inconvenient time her evil genius could have suggested, and he presently went into the sitting room with the familiar scowl on his face.
On the next Sunday Rodney hired a Roman-nosed, rusty white horse at Beetman’s, and for two hours he and Martie drove slowly about. They drove up past the Poor House to the Cemetery, and into the Cemetery itself, where black-clad forms were moving slowly among the graves. The day was cold, with a bleak wind blowing; the headstones looked bare and forlorn.
At half-past three, driving down the Pittsville road, back toward Monroe, Rodney said:
“Why don’t you come and have tea at our house, Martie?”
Martie’s heart rose on a great spring.
“Why–would your mother–” She stopped short, not knowing quite how to voice her hesitation. Had she expressed exactly what was in her mind she might have said: “First, won’t your mother and sisters snub me? And secondly, is it quite correct, from a conventional standpoint, for me to accept your casual invitation?”
“Sure. Mother’ll be delighted–come on!” Rodney urged.
“I’d love to!” Martie agreed.
“You know, the beauty about you, Martie, is that you’re such a good pal,” Rodney said enthusiastically as he drove on. “I’ve always wanted a pal. You and I like the same things; we’re both a little different from the common run, perhaps–I don’t want to throw any flowers at us, but that’s true–and it’s wonderful to me that living here in this hole all your life you’re so up-to-date–so darned intelligent!”
This was nectar to Martie’s soul. But she had never been indulged so recklessly in personalities before, and she did not quite know how to meet them. She wanted to say the right thing, to respond absolutely to his mood; a smile, half-deprecating, half-charmed, fluttered on her lips when Rodney talked in this fashion, but even to herself her words seemed ill-chosen and clumsy. A more experienced woman, with all of Martie’s love and longing surging in her heart, would have vouchsafed him just that casual touch of hand on hand, that slight, apparently involuntary swerve of shoulder against shoulder that would have brought the boy’s arms about her, his lips to hers.
It was her business in life to make him love her; the only business for which her mother and father had ever predestined her. But she knew nothing of it, except that no “nice” girl allowed a boy to put his arm about her or kiss her unless they were engaged. She knew that girls got into “trouble” by being careless on these matters, but what that trouble was, or what led to it, she did not know. She and Sally innocently believed that some mysterious cloud enveloped even the most staid and upright girl at the touch of a man’s arm, so that of subsequent events she lost all consciousness. A girl might attract a man by words and smiles to the point of wishing to marry her, but she must never permit the slightest liberties, she must indeed assume, to the very day of her marriage, that the desire for marriage lived in the heart of the man alone.
Martie never dreamed that the youth and sex within her had as definite a claim on her senses as hunger had in the hour before dinner time, or sleep had when she nodded over her solitaire at night. But she drank in enchantment with Rodney’s voice, his laughter, his nearness, and the night was too short for her dreams or the days for her happiness.
They left the Roman-nosed horse and the surrey at Beetman’s livery stable, a damp and odorous enclosure smelling of wet straw, and with the rear quarters of nervous bay horses stirring in the stalls. The various men, smoking and spitting there in the Sunday afternoon leisure, knew Martie and nodded to her; knew who her companion was.
Martie and Rodney walked down South California Street, into the town’s nicest quarter, and passed the old-fashioned wooden houses, set far back in bare gardens: the Wests’ with its wooden palings; the Clifford Frosts’, with a hooded baby carriage near the side door; and the senior Frosts’, a dark red house shut in by a dark red fence. The Barkers’ house was the last in the row, rambling, ugly, decorated with knobs and triangles of wood, with many porches, with coloured glass frames on its narrow windows, yet imposing withal, because of its great size and the great trees about it. Martie had not been there since her childhood, in the days before Malcolm Monroe’s attitude on the sewer and street-lighting questions had antagonized his neighbours, in the days when Mrs. Frost and Mrs. Parker still exchanged occasional calls with Martie’s mother.
The girl found strangely thrilling Rodney’s familiarity here. He crossed the porch, opened the unlocked front door, and led Martie through a large, over-furnished hall and a large, stately drawing room. The rugs, lamps, chairs, and tables all belonged to entirely different periods, some were Mission oak, some cherry upholstered in rich brocade; there was a little mahogany, some maple, even a single handsome square chair of teakwood from the Orient. On the walls there were large crayon portraits made from photographs of the girls, and there were cushions everywhere, some of fringed leather, some of satin painted or embroidered, some of cigar ribbons of clear yellow silk, some with college pennants flaunting across them.
Beyond this room was another large one, looking out on the lawn and the shabby willows at the side of the house. Into this room the more favoured one had been casting off its abandoned fineries for many years. There were more rugs, pillows, lamps, and chairs in here, but it was all more shabby, and the effect was pleasanter and softer. Ida’s tea table stood by the hearth, with innovations such as a silver tea-ball, and a porcelain cracker jar decorated with a rich design in the minutely cut and shellacked details of postage stamps. A fire winked sleepily behind the polished steel bars of the grate, the western window was full of potted begonias and ferns, the air was close and pleasantly scented with the odour of a good cigar.
Judge Parker, a genial man looking more than his fifty-five years, sat alone, smoking this cigar, and Martie, greeting him prettily, was relieved to find that she must not at once face the ladies of the house. Rather uncertainly she took off her hat, but did not remove the becoming blue sweater. She sat erect in a low, comfortable armchair whose inviting curves made her rigid attitude unnatural and difficult, and talked to the Judge. The old man liked all fresh young girls, and laughing with her, he vaguely wondered in his hospitable heart why Monroe’s girls were not more often at the house.
Ida and May, tall, colourless young women, presently came down. They noticed Martie’s shoe-lacings and the frill of muddy petticoat, the ungloved hands and the absurdity of her having removed her hat, and told Rodney about these things later. At the time they only made her uncomfortable in quiet little feminine ways; not hearing her when she spoke, asking her questions whose answers must surely embarrass her.
Tea came in. Martie smiled at Carrie David, who brought it. She liked Carrie, who was the Hawkes’ cousin, but did not quite think she should speak to her here. Carrie, who was a big, gray-haired woman of fifty, was in the room only a moment after all.
Judge Parker, amiably under the impression that young people were happier alone, went away to walk down Main Street, glancing at the sky and greeting his townspeople in his usual genial fashion. May poured the tea, holding Rodney in conversation the while. Ida talked to Martie in a vivacious, smiling, insincere way, difficult to follow.
Martie listened sympathetically, more than half believing in the bright picture of social triumphs and San Francisco admirers that was presented her, even though she knew that Ida was twenty-six, and had never had a Monroe admirer. Dr. Ben had once had a passing fancy for May’s company; May was older than Ida, and, though like her physically, was warmer and more human in type. But even this had never been a recognized affair; it had died in infancy, and the Parker girls were beginning to be called old maids.
Rodney walked with Martie to the gate when she left, but no farther, and as she went on her way, uncomfortable thoughts were uppermost in her mind. Martie had never driven with a young man before, and so had no precedent to guide her, but she wondered if Rodney should not have gone with her to her own gate. Perhaps she had stayed too long- -another miserable possibility. And how “snippy” Ida and May had been!
Still, Monroe had seen her driving with Rodney, and she had had tea at the Parkers’! So much was gain. She had almost reached the shabby green gate that led into the sunken garden when Sally, flying up behind her in the dusk, slipped a hand through her arm. Martie, turning with a start and a laugh, saw Joe Hawkes, ten feet away, smiling at her.
“Hello, Joe!” she said, a little puzzled. Not that it was not quite natural for Sally to stop and speak to Joe, if she wanted to; Joe had been a familiar figure in their lives since they were children. But–
But Sally was laughing and panting in a manner new and incomprehensible. She caught Martie by both hands. All three, young and not understanding themselves or life, stood laughing a little vaguely in the sharp winter dusk. Joe was a mighty blond giant, only Martie’s age, and younger, except in inches and in sinews, than his