VI – September
The office of Dwight Herbert Deacon, Dentist, Gold Work a Speciality (sic) in black lettering, and Justice of the Peace in gold, was above a store which had been occupied by one unlucky tenant after another, and had suffered long periods of vacancy when ladies’ aid societies served lunches there, under great white signs, badly lettered. Some months of disuse were now broken by the news that the store had been let to a music man. A music man, what on earth was that, Warbleton inquired.
The music man arrived, installed three pianos, and filled his window with sheet music, as sung by many ladies who swung in hammocks or kissed their hands on the music covers. While he was still moving in, Dwight Herbert Deacon wandered downstairs and stood informally in the door of the new store. The music man, a pleasant-faced chap of thirty-odd, was rubbing at the face of a piano.
“Hello, there!” he said. “Can I sell you an upright?”
“If I can take it out in pulling your teeth, you can,” Dwight replied. “Or,” said he, “I might marry you free, either one.”
On this their friendship began. Thenceforth, when business was dull, the idle hours of both men were beguiled with idle gossip.
“How the dickens did you think of pianos for a line?” Dwight asked him once. “Now, my father was a dentist, so I came by it natural—never entered my head to be anything else. But pianos——”
The music man—his name was Neil Cornish—threw up his chin in a boyish fashion, and said he’d be jiggered if he knew. All up and down the Warbleton main street, the chances are that the answer would sound the same. “I’m studying law when I get the chance,” said Cornish, as one who makes a bid to be thought of more highly.
“I see,” said Dwight, respectfully dwelling on the verb.
Later on Cornish confided more to Dwight: He was to come by a little inheritance some day—not much, but something. Yes, it made a man feel a certain confidence….
“Don’t it?” said Dwight heartily, as if he knew.
Every one liked Cornish. He told funny stories, and he never compared Warbleton save to its advantage. So at last Dwight said tentatively at lunch:
“What if I brought that Neil Cornish up for supper, one of these nights?”
“Oh, Dwightie, do,” said Ina. “If there’s a man in town, let’s know it.”
“What if I brought him up to-night?”
Up went Ina’s eyebrows. To-night?
“‘Scalloped potatoes and meat loaf and sauce and bread and butter,” Lulu contributed.
Cornish came to supper. He was what is known in Warbleton as dapper. This Ina saw as she emerged on the veranda in response to Dwight’s informal halloo on his way upstairs. She herself was in white muslin, now much too snug, and a blue ribbon. To her greeting their guest replied in that engaging shyness which is not awkwardness. He moved in some pleasant web of gentleness and friendliness.
They asked him the usual questions, and he replied, rocking all the time with a faint undulating motion of head and shoulders: Warbleton was one of the prettiest little towns that he had ever seen. He liked the people—they seemed different. He was sure to like the place, already liked it. Lulu came to the door in Ninian’s thin black-and-white gown. She shook hands with the stranger, not looking at him, and said, “Come to supper, all.” Monona was already in her place, singing under-breath. Mrs. Bett, after hovering in the kitchen door, entered; but they forgot to introduce her.
“Where’s Di?” asked Ina. “I declare that daughter of mine is never anywhere.”
A brief silence ensued as they were seated. There being a guest, grace was to come, and Dwight said unintelligibly and like lightning a generic appeal to bless this food, forgive all our sins and finally save us. And there was something tremendous, in this ancient form whereby all stages of men bow in some now unrecognized recognition of the ceremonial of taking food to nourish life—and more.
At “Amen” Di flashed in, her offices at the mirror fresh upon her—perfect hair, silk dress turned up at the hem. She met Cornish, crimsoned, fluttered to her seat, joggled the table and, “Oh, dear,” she said audibly to her mother, “I forgot my ring.”
The talk was saved alive by a frank effort. Dwight served, making jests about everybody coming back for more. They went on with Warbleton happenings, improvements and openings; and the runaway. Cornish tried hard to make himself agreeable, not ingratiatingly but good-naturedly. He wished profoundly that before coming he had looked up some more stories in the back of the Musical Gazettes. Lulu surreptitiously pinched off an ant that was running at large upon the cloth and thereafter kept her eyes steadfastly on the sugar-bowl to see if it could be from that. Dwight pretended that those whom he was helping a second time were getting more than their share and facetiously landed on Di about eating so much that she would grow up and be married, first thing she knew. At the word “married” Di turned scarlet, laughed heartily and lifted her glass of water.
“And what instruments do you play?” Ina asked Cornish, in an unrelated effort to lift the talk to musical levels.
“Well, do you know,” said the music man, “I can’t play a thing. Don’t know a black note from a white one.”
“You don’t? Why, Di plays very prettily,” said Di’s mother. “But then how can you tell what songs to order?” Ina cried.
“Oh, by the music houses. You go by the sales.” For the first time it occurred to Cornish that this was ridiculous. “You know, I’m really studying law,” he said, shyly and proudly. Law! How very interesting, from Ina. Oh, but won’t he bring up some songs some evening, for them to try over? Her and Di? At this Di laughed and said that she was out of practice and lifted her glass of water. In the presence of adults Di made one weep, she was so slender, so young, so without defences, so intolerably sensitive to every contact, so in agony lest she be found wanting. It was amazing how unlike was this Di to the Di who had ensnared Bobby Larkin. What was one to think?
Cornish paid very little attention to her. To Lulu he said kindly, “Don’t you play, Miss——?” He had not caught her name—no stranger ever did catch it. But Dwight now supplied it: “Miss Lulu Bett,” he explained with loud emphasis, and Lulu burned her slow red. This question Lulu had usually answered by telling how a felon had interrupted her lessons and she had stopped “taking”—a participle sacred to music, in Warbleton. This vignette had been a kind of epitome of Lulu’s biography. But now Lulu was heard to say serenely:
“No, but I’m quite fond of it. I went to a lovely concert—two weeks ago.”
They all listened. Strange indeed to think of Lulu as having had experiences of which they did not know.
“Yes,” she said. “It was in Savannah, Georgia.” She flushed, and lifted her eyes in a manner of faint defiance. “Of course,” she said, “I don’t know the names of all the different instruments they played, but there were a good many.” She laughed pleasantly as a part of her sentence. “They had some lovely tunes,” she said. She knew that the subject was not exhausted and she hurried on. “The hall was real large,” she superadded, “and there were quite a good many people there. And it was too warm.”
“I see,” said Cornish, and said what he had been waiting to say: That he too had been in Savannah, Georgia.
Lulu lit with pleasure. “Well!” she said. And her mind worked and she caught at the moment before it had escaped. “Isn’t it a pretty city?” she asked. And Cornish assented with the intense heartiness of the provincial. He, too, it seemed, had a conversational appearance to maintain by its own effort. He said that he had enjoyed being in that town and that he was there for two hours.
“I was there for a week.” Lulu’s superiority was really pretty.
“Have good weather?” Cornish selected next.
Oh, yes. And they saw all the different buildings—but at her “we” she flushed and was silenced. She was colouring and breathing quickly. This was the first bit of conversation of this sort of Lulu’s life.
After supper Ina inevitably proposed croquet, Dwight pretended to try to escape and, with his irrepressible mien, talked about Ina, elaborate in his insistence on the third person—”She loves it, we have to humour her, you know how it is. Or no! You don’t know! But you will”—and more of the same sort, everybody laughing heartily, save Lulu, who looked uncomfortable and wished that Dwight wouldn’t, and Mrs. Bett, who paid no attention to anybody that night, not because she had not been introduced, an omission, which she had not even noticed, but merely as another form of “tantrim.” A self-indulgence.
They emerged for croquet. And there on the porch sat Jenny Plow and Bobby, waiting for Di to keep an old engagement, which Di pretended to have forgotten, and to be frightfully annoyed to have to keep. She met the objections of her parents with all the batteries of her coquetry, set for both Bobby and Cornish and, bold in the presence of “company,” at last went laughing away. And in the minute areas of her consciousness she said to herself that Bobby would be more in love with her than ever because she had risked all to go with him; and that Cornish ought to be distinctly attracted to her because she had not stayed. She was as primitive as pollen.
Ina was vexed. She said so, pouting in a fashion which she should have outgrown with white muslin and blue ribbons, and she had outgrown none of these things.
“That just spoils croquet,” she said. “I’m vexed. Now we can’t have a real game.”
From the side-door, where she must have been lingering among the waterproofs, Lulu stepped forth.
“I’ll play a game,” she said.
When Cornish actually proposed to bring some music to the Deacons’, Ina turned toward Dwight Herbert all the facets of her responsibility. And Ina’s sense of responsibility toward Di was enormous, oppressive, primitive, amounting, in fact, toward this daughter of Dwight Herbert’s late wife, to an ability to compress the offices of stepmotherhood into the functions of the lecture platform. Ina was a fountain of admonition. Her idea of a daughter, step or not, was that of a manufactured product, strictly, which you constantly pinched and moulded. She thought that a moral preceptor had the right to secrete precepts. Di got them all. But of course the crest of Ina’s responsibility was to marry Di. This verb should be transitive only when lovers are speaking of each other, or the minister or magistrate is speaking of lovers. It should never be transitive when predicated of parents or any other third party. But it is. Ina was quite agitated by its transitiveness as she took to her husband her incredible responsibility.
“You know, Herbert,” said Ina, “if this Mr. Cornish comes here very much, what we may expect.”
“What may we expect?” demanded Dwight Herbert, crisply.
Ina always played his games, answered what he expected her to answer, pretended to be intuitive when she was not so, said “I know” when she didn’t know at all. Dwight Herbert, on the other hand, did not even play her games when he knew perfectly what she meant, but pretended not to understand, made her repeat, made her explain. It was as if Ina had to please him for, say, a living; but as for that dentist, he had to please nobody. In the conversations of Dwight and Ina you saw the historical home forming in clots in the fluid wash of the community.
“He’ll fall in love with Di,” said Ina.
“And what of that? Little daughter will have many a man fall in love with her, I should say.”
“Yes, but, Dwight, what do you think of him?”
“What do I think of him? My dear Ina, I have other things to think of.”
“But we don’t know anything about him, Dwight—a stranger so.”
“On the other hand,” said Dwight with dignity, “I know a good deal about him.”
With a great air of having done the fatherly and found out about this stranger before bringing him into the home, Dwight now related a number of stray circumstances dropped by Cornish in their chance talks.
“He has a little inheritance coming to him—shortly,” Dwight wound up.
“An inheritance—really? How much, Dwight?”
“Now isn’t that like a woman. Isn’t it?”
“I thought he was from a good family,” said Ina.
“My mercenary little pussy!”
“Well,” she said with a sigh, “I shouldn’t be surprised if Di did really accept him. A young girl is awfully flattered when a good-looking older man pays her attention. Haven’t you noticed that?”
Dwight informed her, with an air of immense abstraction, that he left all such matters to her. Being married to Dwight was like a perpetual rehearsal, with Dwight’s self-importance for audience.
A few evenings later, Cornish brought up the music. There was something overpowering in this brown-haired chap against the background of his negligible little shop, his whole capital in his few pianos. For he looked hopefully ahead, woke with plans, regarded the children in the street as if, conceivably, children might come within the confines of his life as he imagined it. A preposterous little man. And a preposterous store, empty, echoing, bare of wall, the three pianos near the front, the remainder of the floor stretching away like the corridors of the lost. He was going to get a dark curtain, he explained, and furnish the back part of the store as his own room. What dignity in phrasing, but how mean that little room would look—cot bed, washbowl and pitcher, and little mirror—almost certainly a mirror with a wavy surface, almost certainly that.
“And then, you know,” he always added, “I’m reading law.”
The Plows had been asked in that evening. Bobby was there. They were, Dwight Herbert said, going to have a sing.
Di was to play. And Di was now embarked on the most difficult feat of her emotional life, the feat of remaining to Bobby Larkin the lure, the beloved lure, the while to Cornish she instinctively played the rôle of womanly little girl.
“Up by the festive lamp, everybody!” Dwight Herbert cried.
As they gathered about the upright piano, that startled, Dwightish instrument, standing in its attitude of unrest, Lulu came in with another lamp.
“Do you need this?” she asked.
They did not need it, there was, in fact, no place to set it, and this Lulu must have known. But Dwight found a place. He swept Ninian’s photograph from the marble shelf of the mirror, and when Lulu had placed the lamp there, Dwight thrust the photograph into her hands.
“You take care of that,” he said, with a droop of lid discernible only to those who—presumably—loved him. His old attitude toward Lulu had shown a terrible sharpening in these ten days since her return.
She stood uncertainly, in the thin black and white gown which Ninian had bought for her, and held Ninian’s photograph and looked helplessly about. She was moving toward the door when Cornish called:
“See here! Aren’t you going to sing?”
“What?” Dwight used the falsetto. “Lulu sing? Lulu?”
She stood awkwardly. She had a piteous recrudescence of her old agony at being spoken to in the presence of others. But Di had opened the “Album of Old Favourites,” which Cornish had elected to bring, and now she struck the opening chords of “Bonny Eloise.” Lulu stood still, looking rather piteously at Cornish. Dwight offered his arm, absurdly crooked. The Plows and Ina and Di began to sing. Lulu moved forward, and stood a little away from them, and sang, too. She was still holding Ninian’s picture. Dwight did not sing. He lifted his shoulders and his eyebrows and watched Lulu.
When they had finished, “Lulu the mocking bird!” Dwight cried. He said “ba-ird.”
“Fine!” cried Cornish. “Why, Miss Lulu, you have a good voice!”
“Miss Lulu Bett, the mocking ba-ird!” Dwight insisted.
Lulu was excited, and in some accession of faint power. She turned to him now, quietly, and with a look of appraisal.
“Lulu the dove,” she then surprisingly said, “to put up with you.”
It was her first bit of conscious repartee to her brother-in-law.
Cornish was bending over Di.
“What next do you say?” he asked.
She lifted her eyes, met his own, held them. “There’s such a lovely, lovely sacred song here,” she suggested, and looked down.
“You like sacred music?”
She turned to him her pure profile, her eyelids fluttering up, and said: “I love it.”
“That’s it. So do I. Nothing like a nice sacred piece,” Cornish declared.
Bobby Larkin, at the end of the piano, looked directly into Di’s face.
“Give me ragtime,” he said now, with the effect of bursting out of somewhere. “Don’t you like ragtime?” he put it to her directly.
Di’s eyes danced into his, they sparkled for him, her smile was a smile for him alone, all their store of common memories was in their look.
“Let’s try ‘My Rock, My Refuge,'” Cornish suggested. “That’s got up real attractive.”
Di’s profile again, and her pleased voice saying that this was the very one she had been hoping to hear him sing.
They gathered for “My Rock, My Refuge.”
“Oh,” cried Ina, at the conclusion of this number, “I’m having such a perfectly beautiful time. Isn’t everybody?” everybody’s hostess put it.
“Lulu is,” said Dwight, and added softly to Lulu: “She don’t have to hear herself sing.”
It was incredible. He was like a bad boy with a frog. About that photograph of Ninian he found a dozen ways to torture her, called attention to it, showed it to Cornish, set it on the piano facing them all. Everybody must have understood—excepting the Plows. These two gentle souls sang placidly through the Album of Old Favourites, and at the melodies smiled happily upon each other with an air from another world. Always it was as if the Plows walked some fair, inter-penetrating plane, from which they looked out as do other things not quite of earth, say, flowers and fire and music.
Strolling home that night, the Plows were overtaken by some one who ran badly, and as if she were unaccustomed to running.
“Mis’ Plow, Mis’ Plow!” this one called, and Lulu stood beside them.
“Say!” she said. “Do you know of any job that I could get me? I mean that I’d know how to do? A job for money…. I mean a job….”
She burst into passionate crying. They drew her home with them.
Lying awake sometime after midnight, Lulu heard the telephone ring. She heard Dwight’s concerned “Is that so?” And his cheerful “Be right there.”
Grandma Gates was sick, she heard him tell Ina. In a few moments he ran down the stairs. Next day they told how Dwight had sat for hours that night, holding Grandma Gates so that her back would rest easily and she could fight for her faint breath. The kind fellow had only about two hours of sleep the whole night long.
Next day there came a message from that woman who had brought up Dwight—”made him what he was,” he often complacently accused her. It was a note on a postal card—she had often written a few lines on a postal card to say that she had sent the maple sugar, or could Ina get her some samples. Now she wrote a few lines on a postal card to say that she was going to die with cancer. Could Dwight and Ina come to her while she was still able to visit? If he was not too busy….
Nobody saw the pity and the terror of that postal card. They stuck it up by the kitchen clock to read over from time to time, and before they left, Dwight lifted the griddle of the cooking-stove and burned the postal card.
And before they left Lulu said: “Dwight—you can’t tell how long you’ll be gone?”
“Of course not. How should I tell?”
“No. And that letter might come while you’re away.”
“Conceivably. Letters do come while a man’s away!”
“Dwight—I thought if you wouldn’t mind if I opened it——”
“Yes. You see, it’ll be about me mostly——”
“I should have said that it’ll be about my brother mostly.”
“But you know what I mean. You wouldn’t mind if I did open it?”
“But you say you know what’ll be in it.”
“So I did know—till you—I’ve got to see that letter, Dwight.”
“And so you shall. But not till I show it to you. My dear Lulu, you know how I hate having my mail interfered with.”
She might have said: “Small souls always make a point of that.” She said nothing. She watched them set off, and kept her mind on Ina’s thousand injunctions.
“Don’t let Di see much of Bobby Larkin. And, Lulu—if it occurs to her to have Mr. Cornish come up to sing, of course you ask him. You might ask him to supper. And don’t let mother overdo. And, Lulu, now do watch Monona’s handkerchief—the child will never take a clean one if I’m not here to tell her….”
She breathed injunctions to the very step of the ‘bus.
In the ‘bus Dwight leaned forward:
“See that you play post-office squarely, Lulu!” he called, and threw back his head and lifted his eyebrows.
In the train he turned tragic eyes to his wife.
“Ina,” he said. “It’s ma. And she’s going to die. It can’t be….”
Ina said: “But you’re going to help her, Dwight, just being there with her.”
It was true that the mere presence of the man would bring a kind of fresh life to that worn frame. Tact and wisdom and love would speak through him and minister.
Toward the end of their week’s absence the letter from Ninian came.
Lulu took it from the post-office when she went for the mail that evening, dressed in her dark red gown. There was no other letter, and she carried that one letter in her hand all through the streets. She passed those who were surmising what her story might be, who were telling one another what they had heard. But she knew hardly more than they. She passed Cornish in the doorway of his little music shop, and spoke with him; and there was the letter. It was so that Dwight’s foster mother’s postal card might have looked on its way to be mailed.
Cornish stepped down and overtook her.
“Oh, Miss Lulu. I’ve got a new song or two——”
She said abstractedly: “Do. Any night. To-morrow night—could you——” It was as if Lulu were too preoccupied to remember to be ill at ease.
Cornish flushed with pleasure, said that he could indeed.
“Come for supper,” Lulu said.
Oh, could he? Wouldn’t that be…. Well, say! Such was his acceptance.
He came for supper. And Di was not at home. She had gone off in the country with Jenny and Bobby, and they merely did not return.
Mrs. Bett and Lulu and Cornish and Monona supped alone. All were at ease, now that they were alone. Especially Mrs. Bett was at ease. It became one of her young nights, her alive and lucid nights. She was there. She sat in Dwight’s chair and Lulu sat in Ina’s chair. Lulu had picked flowers for the table—a task coveted by her but usually performed by Ina. Lulu had now picked Sweet William and had filled a vase of silver gilt taken from the parlour. Also, Lulu had made ice-cream.
“I don’t see what Di can be thinking of,” Lulu said. “It seems like asking you under false——” She was afraid of “pretences” and ended without it.
Cornish savoured his steaming beef pie, with sage. “Oh, well!” he said contentedly.
“Kind of a relief, I think, to have her gone,” said Mrs. Bett, from the fulness of something or other.
“Mother!” Lulu said, twisting her smile.
“Why, my land, I love her,” Mrs. Bett explained, “but she wiggles and chitters.”
Cornish never made the slightest effort, at any time, to keep a straight face. The honest fellow now laughed loudly.
“Well!” Lulu thought. “He can’t be so very much in love.” And again she thought: “He doesn’t know anything about the letter. He thinks Ninian got tired of me.” Deep in her heart there abode her certainty that this was not so.
By some etiquette of consent, Mrs. Bett cleared the table and Lulu and Cornish went into the parlour. There lay the letter on the drop-leaf side-table, among the shells. Lulu had carried it there, where she need not see it at her work. The letter looked no more than the advertisement of dental office furniture beneath it. Monona stood indifferently fingering both.
“Monona,” Lulu said sharply, “leave them be!”
Cornish was displaying his music. “Got up quite attractive,” he said—it was his formula of praise for his music.
“But we can’t try it over,” Lulu said, “if Di doesn’t come.”
“Well, say,” said Cornish shyly, “you know I left that Album of Old Favourites here. Some of them we know by heart.”
Lulu looked. “I’ll tell you something,” she said, “there’s some of these I can play with one hand—by ear. Maybe——”
“Why sure!” said Cornish.
Lulu sat at the piano. She had on the wool chally, long sacred to the nights when she must combine her servant’s estate with the quality of being Ina’s sister. She wore her coral beads and her cameo cross. In her absence she had caught the trick of dressing her hair so that it looked even more abundant—but she had not dared to try it so until to-night, when Dwight was gone. Her long wrist was curved high, her thin hand pressed and fingered awkwardly, and at her mistakes her head dipped and strove to make all right. Her foot continuously touched the loud pedal—the blurred sound seemed to accomplish more. So she played “How Can I Leave Thee,” and they managed to sing it. So she played “Long, Long Ago,” and “Little Nell of Narragansett Bay.” Beyond open doors, Mrs. Bett listened, sang, it may be, with them; for when the singers ceased, her voice might be heard still humming a loud closing bar.
“Well!” Cornish cried to Lulu; and then, in the formal village phrase: “You’re quite a musician.”
“Oh, no!” Lulu disclaimed it. She looked up, flushed, smiling. “I’ve never done this in front of anybody,” she owned. “I don’t know what Dwight and Ina’d say….” She drooped.
They rested, and, miraculously, the air of the place had stirred and quickened, as if the crippled, halting melody had some power of its own, and poured this forth, even thus trampled.
“I guess you could do ‘most anything you set your hand to,” said Cornish.
“Oh, no,” Lulu said again.
“Sing and play and cook——”
“But I can’t earn anything. I’d like to earn something.” But this she had not meant to say. She stopped, rather frightened.
“You would! Why, you have it fine here, I thought.”
“Oh, fine, yes. Dwight gives me what I have. And I do their work.”
“I see,” said Cornish. “I never thought of that,” he added. She caught his speculative look—he had heard a tale or two concerning her return, as who in Warbleton had not heard?
“You’re wondering why I didn’t stay with him!” Lulu said recklessly. This was no less than wrung from her, but its utterance occasioned in her an unspeakable relief.
“Oh, no,” Cornish disclaimed, and coloured and rocked.
“Yes, you are,” she swept on. “The whole town’s wondering. Well, I’d like ’em to know, but Dwight won’t let me tell.”
Cornish frowned, trying to understand.
“‘Won’t let you!'” he repeated. “I should say that was your own affair.”
“No. Not when Dwight gives me all I have.”
“Oh, that——” said Cornish. “That’s not right.”
“No. But there it is. It puts me—you see what it does to me. They think—they all think my—husband left me.”
It was curious to hear her bring out that word—tentatively, deprecatingly, like some one daring a foreign phrase without warrant.
Cornish said feebly: “Oh, well….”
Before she willed it, she was telling him:
“He didn’t. He didn’t leave me,” she cried with passion. “He had another wife.” Incredibly it was as if she were defending both him and herself.
“Lord sakes!” said Cornish.
She poured it out, in her passion to tell some one, to share her news of her state where there would be neither hardness nor censure.
“We were in Savannah, Georgia,” she said. “We were going to leave for Oregon—going to go through California. We were in the hotel, and he was going out to get the tickets. He started to go. Then he came back. I was sitting the same as there. He opened the door again—the same as here. I saw he looked different—and he said quick: ‘There’s something you’d ought to know before we go.’ And of course I said, ‘What?’ And he said it right out—how he was married eighteen years ago and in two years she ran away and she must be dead but he wasn’t sure. He hadn’t the proofs. So of course I came home. But it wasn’t him left me.”
“No, no. Of course he didn’t,” Cornish said earnestly. “But Lord sakes——” he said again. He rose to walk about, found it impracticable and sat down.
“That’s what Dwight don’t want me to tell—he thinks it isn’t true. He thinks—he didn’t have any other wife. He thinks he wanted——” Lulu looked up at him. “You see,” she said, “Dwight thinks he didn’t want me.”
“But why don’t you make your—husband—I mean, why doesn’t he write to Mr. Deacon here, and tell him the truth——” Cornish burst out.
Under this implied belief, she relaxed and into her face came its rare sweetness.
“He has written,” she said. “The letter’s there.”
He followed her look, scowled at the two letters.
“What’d he say?”
“Dwight don’t like me to touch his mail. I’ll have to wait till he comes back.”
“Lord sakes!” said Cornish.
This time he did rise and walk about. He wanted to say something, wanted it with passion. He paused beside Lulu and stammered: “You—you—you’re too nice a girl to get a deal like this. Darned if you aren’t.”
To her own complete surprise Lulu’s eyes filled with tears, and she could not speak. She was by no means above self-sympathy.
“And there ain’t,” said Cornish sorrowfully, “there ain’t a thing I can do.”
And yet he was doing much. He was gentle, he was listening, and on his face a frown of concern. His face continually surprised her, it was so fine and alive and near, by comparison with Ninian’s loose-lipped, ruddy, impersonal look and Dwight’s thin, high-boned hardness. All the time Cornish gave her something, instead of drawing upon her. Above all, he was there, and she could talk to him.
“It’s—it’s funny,” Lulu said. “I’d be awful glad if I just could know for sure that the other woman was alive—if I couldn’t know she’s dead.”
This surprising admission Cornish seemed to understand.
“Sure you would,” he said briefly.
“Cora Waters,” Lulu said. “Cora Waters, of San Diego, California. And she never heard of me.”
“No,” Cornish admitted. They stared at each other as across some abyss.
In the doorway Mrs. Bett appeared.
“I scraped up everything,” she remarked, “and left the dishes set.”
“That’s right, mamma,” Lulu said. “Come and sit down.”
Mrs. Bett entered with a leisurely air of doing the thing next expected of her.
“I don’t hear any more playin’ and singin’,” she remarked. “It sounded real nice.”
“We—we sung all I knew how to play, I guess, mamma.”
“I use’ to play on the melodeon,” Mrs. Bett volunteered, and spread and examined her right hand.
“Well!” said Cornish.
She now told them about her log-house in a New England clearing, when she was a bride. All her store of drama and life came from her. She rehearsed it with far eyes. She laughed at old delights, drooped at old fears. She told about her little daughter who had died at sixteen—a tragedy such as once would have been renewed in a vital ballad. At the end she yawned frankly as if, in some terrible sophistication, she had been telling the story of some one else.
“Give us one more piece,” she said.
“Can we?” Cornish asked.
“I can play ‘I Think When I Read That Sweet Story of Old,'” Lulu said.
“That’s the ticket!” cried Cornish.
They sang it, to Lulu’s right hand.
“That’s the one you picked out when you was a little girl, Lulie,” cried, Mrs. Bett.
Lulu had played it now as she must have played it then.
Half after nine and Di had not returned. But nobody thought of Di. Cornish rose to go.
“What’s them?” Mrs. Bett demanded.
“Dwight’s letters, mamma. You mustn’t touch them!” Lulu’s voice was sharp.
“Say!” Cornish, at the door, dropped his voice. “If there was anything I could do at any time, you’d let me know, wouldn’t you?”
That past tense, those subjunctives, unconsciously called upon her to feel no intrusion.
“Oh, thank you,” she said. “You don’t know how good it is to feel——”
“Of course it is,” said Cornish heartily.
They stood for a moment on the porch. The night was one of low clamour from the grass, tiny voices, insisting.
“Of course,” said Lulu, “of course you won’t—you wouldn’t——”
“Say anything?” he divined. “Not for dollars. Not,” he repeated, “for dollars.”
“But I knew you wouldn’t,” she told him.
He took her hand. “Good-night,” he said. “I’ve had an awful nice time singing and listening to you talk—well, of course—I mean,” he cried, “the supper was just fine. And so was the music.”
“Oh, no,” she said.
Mrs. Bett came into the hall.
“Lulie,” she said, “I guess you didn’t notice—this one’s from Ninian.”
“I opened it—why, of course I did. It’s from Ninian.”
Mrs. Bett held out the opened envelope, the unfolded letter, and a yellowed newspaper clipping.
“See,” said the old woman, “says, ‘Corie Waters, music hall singer—married last night to Ninian Deacon——’ Say, Lulie, that must be her….”
Lulu threw out her hands.
“There!” she cried triumphantly. “He was married to her, just like he said!”
The Plows were at breakfast next morning when Lulu came in casually at the side-door. Yes, she said, she had had breakfast. She merely wanted to see them about something. Then she said nothing, but sat looking with a troubled frown at Jenny. Jenny’s hair was about her neck, like the hair of a little girl, a south window poured light upon her, the fruit and honey upon the table seemed her only possible food.
“You look troubled, Lulu,” Mrs. Plow said. “Is it about getting work?”
“No,” said Lulu, “no. I’ve been places to ask—quite a lot of places. I guess the bakery is going to let me make cake.”
“I knew it would come to you,” Mrs. Plow said, and Lulu thought that this was a strange way to speak, when she herself had gone after the cakes. But she kept on looking about the room. It was so bright and quiet. As she came in, Mr. Plow had been reading from a book. Dwight never read from a book at table.
“I wish——” said Lulu, as she looked at them. But she did not know what she wished. Certainly it was for no moral excellence, for she perceived none.
“What is it, Lulu?” Mr. Plow asked, and he was bright and quiet too, Lulu thought.
“Well,” said Lulu, “it’s not much. But I wanted Jenny to tell me about last night.”
“Yes. Would you——” Hesitation was her only way of apology. “Where did you go?” She turned to Jenny.
Jenny looked up in her clear and ardent fashion: “We went across the river and carried supper and then we came home.”
“What time did you get home?”
“Oh, it was still light. Long before eight, it was.”
Lulu hesitated and flushed, asked how long Di and Bobby had stayed there at Jenny’s; whereupon she heard that Di had to be home early on account of Mr. Cornish, so that she and Bobby had not stayed at all. To which Lulu said an “of course,” but first she stared at Jenny and so impaired the strength of her assent. Almost at once she rose to go.
“Nothing else?” said Mrs. Plow, catching that look of hers.
Lulu wanted to say: “My husband was married before, just as he said he was.” But she said nothing more, and went home. There she put it to Di, and with her terrible bluntness reviewed to Di the testimony.
“You were not with Jenny after eight o’clock. Where were you?” Lulu spoke formally and her rehearsals were evident.
Di said: “When mamma comes home, I’ll tell her.”
With this Lulu had no idea how to deal, and merely looked at her helplessly. Mrs. Bett, who was lacing her shoes, now said casually:
“No need to wait till then. Her and Bobby were out in the side yard sitting in the hammock till all hours.”
Di had no answer save her furious flush, and Mrs. Bett went on:
“Didn’t I tell you? I knew it before the company left, but I didn’t say a word. Thinks I, ‘She’s wiggles and chitters.’ So I left her stay where she was.”
“But, mother!” Lulu cried. “You didn’t even tell me after he’d gone.”
“I forgot it,” Mrs. Bett said, “finding Ninian’s letter and all——” She talked of Ninian’s letter.
Di was bright and alert and firm of flesh and erect before Lulu’s softness and laxness.
“I don’t know what your mother’ll say,” said Lulu, “and I don’t know what people’ll think.”
“They won’t think Bobby and I are tired of each other, anyway,” said Di, and left the room.
Through the day Lulu tried to think what she must do. About Di she was anxious and felt without power. She thought of the indignation of Dwight and Ina that Di had not been more scrupulously guarded. She thought of Di’s girlish folly, her irritating independence—”and there,” Lulu thought, “just the other day I was teaching her to sew.” Her mind dwelt too on Dwight’s furious anger at the opening of Ninian’s letter. But when all this had spent itself, what was she herself to do? She must leave his house before he ordered her to do so, when she told him that she had confided in Cornish, as tell she must. But what was she to do? The bakery cake-making would not give her a roof.
Stepping about the kitchen in her blue cotton gown, her hair tight and flat as seemed proper when one was not dressed, she thought about these things. And it was strange: Lulu bore no physical appearance of one in distress or any anxiety. Her head was erect, her movements were strong and swift, her eyes were interested. She was no drooping Lulu with dragging step. She was more intent, she was somehow more operative than she had ever been.
Mrs. Bett was working contentedly beside her, and now and then humming an air of that music of the night before. The sun surged through the kitchen door and east window, a returned oriole swung and fluted on the elm above the gable. Wagons clattered by over the rattling wooden block pavement.
“Ain’t it nice with nobody home?” Mrs. Bett remarked at intervals, like the burden of a comic song.
“Hush, mother,” Lulu said, troubled, her ethical refinements conflicting with her honesty.
“Speak the truth and shame the devil,” Mrs. Bett contended.
When dinner was ready at noon, Di did not appear. A little earlier Lulu had heard her moving about her room, and she served her in expectation that she would join them.
“Di must be having the ‘tantrim’ this time,” she thought, and for a time said nothing. But at length she did say: “Why doesn’t Di come? I’d better put her plate in the oven.”
Rising to do so, she was arrested by her mother. Mrs. Bett was eating a baked potato, holding her fork close to the tines, and presenting a profile of passionate absorption.
“Why, Di went off,” she said.
“Down the walk. Down the sidewalk.”
“She must have gone to Jenny’s,” said Lulu. “I wish she wouldn’t do that without telling me.”
Monona laughed out and shook her straight hair. “She’ll catch it!” she cried in sisterly enjoyment.
It was when Lulu had come back from the kitchen and was seated at the table that Mrs. Bett observed:
“I didn’t think Inie’d want her to take her nice new satchel.”
“Yes. Inie wouldn’t take it north herself, but Di had it.”
“Mother,” said Lulu, “when Di went away just now, was she carrying a satchel?”
“Didn’t I just tell you?” Mrs. Bett demanded, aggrieved. “I said I didn’t think Inie——”
“Mother! Which way did she go?”
Monona pointed with her spoon. “She went that way,” she said. “I seen her.”
Lulu looked at the clock. For Monona had pointed toward the railway station. The twelve-thirty train, which every one took to the city for shopping, would be just about leaving.
“Monona,” said Lulu, “don’t you go out of the yard while I’m gone. Mother, you keep her——”
Lulu ran from the house and up the street. She was in her blue cotton dress, her old shoes, she was hatless and without money. When she was still two or three blocks from the station, she heard the twelve-thirty “pulling out.”
She ran badly, her ankles in their low, loose shoes continually turning, her arms held taut at her sides. So she came down the platform, and to the ticket window. The contained ticket man, wonted to lost trains and perturbed faces, yet actually ceased counting when he saw her:
“Lenny! Did Di Deacon take that train?”
“Sure she did,” said Lenny.
“And Bobby Larkin?” Lulu cared nothing for appearances now.
“He went in on the Local,” said Lenny, and his eyes widened.
“See.” Lenny thought it through. “Millton,” he said. “Yes, sure. Millton. Both of ’em.”
“How long till another train?”
“Well, sir,” said the ticket man, “you’re in luck, if you was goin’ too. Seventeen was late this morning—she’ll be along, jerk of a lamb’s tail.”
“Then,” said Lulu, “you got to give me a ticket to Millton, without me paying till after—and you got to lend me two dollars.”
“Sure thing,” said Lenny, with a manner of laying the entire railway system at her feet.
“Seventeen” would rather not have stopped at Warbleton, but Lenny’s signal was law on the time card, and the magnificent yellow express slowed down for Lulu. Hatless and in her blue cotton gown, she climbed aboard.
Then her old inefficiency seized upon her. What was she going to do? Millton! She had been there but once, years ago—how could she ever find anybody? Why had she not stayed in Warbleton and asked the sheriff or somebody—no, not the sheriff. Cornish, perhaps. Oh, and Dwight and Ina were going to be angry now! And Di—little Di. As Lulu thought of her she began to cry. She said to herself that she had taught Di to sew.
In sight of Millton, Lulu was seized with trembling and physical nausea. She had never been alone in any unfamiliar town. She put her hands to her hair and for the first time realized her rolled-up sleeves. She was pulling down these sleeves when the conductor came through the train.
“Could you tell me,” she said timidly, “the name of the principal hotel in Millton?”
Ninian had asked this as they neared Savannah, Georgia.
The conductor looked curiously at her.
“Why, the Hess House,” he said. “Wasn’t you expecting anybody to meet you?” he asked, kindly.
“No,” said Lulu, “but I’m going to find my folks——” Her voice trailed away.
“Beats all,” thought the conductor, using his utility formula for the universe.
In Millton Lulu’s inquiry for the Hess House produced no consternation. Nobody paid any attention to her. She was almost certainly taken to be a new servant there.
“You stop feeling so!” she said to herself angrily at the lobby entrance. “Ain’t you been to that big hotel in Savannah, Georgia?”
The Hess House, Millton, had a tradition of its own to maintain, it seemed, and they sent her to the rear basement door. She obeyed meekly, but she lost a good deal of time before she found herself at the end of the office desk. It was still longer before any one attended her.
“Please, sir!” she burst out. “See if Di Deacon has put her name on your book.”
Her appeal was tremendous, compelling. The young clerk listened to her, showed her where to look in the register. When only strange names and strange writing presented themselves there, he said:
“Tried the parlour?”
And directed her kindly and with his thumb, and in the other hand a pen divorced from his ear for the express purpose.
In crossing the lobby in the hotel at Savannah, Georgia, Lulu’s most pressing problem had been to know where to look. But now the idlers in the Hess House lobby did not exist. In time she found the door of the intensely rose-coloured reception room. There, in a fat, rose-coloured chair, beside a cataract of lace curtain, sat Di, alone.
Lulu entered. She had no idea what to say. When Di looked up, started up, frowned, Lulu felt as if she herself were the culprit. She said the first thing that occurred to her:
“I don’t believe mamma’ll like your taking her nice satchel.”
“Well!” said Di, exactly as if she had been at home. And superadded: “My goodness!” And then cried rudely: “What are you here for?”
“For you,” said Lulu. “You—you—you’d ought not to be here, Di.”
“What’s that to you?” Di cried.
“Why, Di, you’re just a little girl——”
Lulu saw that this was all wrong, and stopped miserably. How was she to go on? “Di,” she said, “if you and Bobby want to get married, why not let us get you up a nice wedding at home?” And she saw that this sounded as if she were talking about a tea-party.
“Who said we wanted to be married?”
“Well, he’s here.”
“Who said he’s here?”
Di sprang up. “Aunt Lulu,” she said, “you’re a funny person to be telling me what to do.”
Lulu said, flushing: “I love you just the same as if I was married happy, in a home.”
“Well, you aren’t!” cried Di cruelly, “and I’m going to do just as I think best.”
Lulu thought this over, her look grave and sad. She tried to find something to say. “What do people say to people,” she wondered, “when it’s like this?”
“Getting married is for your whole life,” was all that came to her.
“Yours wasn’t,” Di flashed at her.
Lulu’s colour deepened, but there seemed to be no resentment in her. She must deal with this right—that was what her manner seemed to say. And how should she deal?
“Di,” she cried, “come back with me—and wait till mamma and papa get home.”
“That’s likely. They say I’m not to be married till I’m twenty-one.”
“Well, but how young that is!”
“It is to you.”
“Di! This is wrong—it is wrong.”
“There’s nothing wrong about getting married—if you stay married.”
“Well, then it can’t be wrong to let them know.”
“It isn’t. But they’d treat me wrong. They’d make me stay at home. And I won’t stay at home—I won’t stay there. They act as if I was ten years old.”
Abruptly in Lulu’s face there came a light of understanding.
“Why, Di,” she said, “do you feel that way too?”
Di missed this. She went on:
“I’m grown up. I feel just as grown up as they do. And I’m not allowed to do a thing I feel. I want to be away—I will be away!”
“I know about that part,” Lulu said.
She now looked at Di with attention. Was it possible that Di was suffering in the air of that home as she herself suffered? She had not thought of that. There Di had seemed so young, so dependent, so—asquirm. Here, by herself, waiting for Bobby, in the Hess House at Millton, she was curiously adult. Would she be adult if she were let alone?
“You don’t know what it’s like,” Di cried, “to be hushed up and laughed at and paid no attention to, everything you say.”
“Don’t I?” said Lulu. “Don’t I?”
She was breathing quickly and looking at Di. If this was why Di was leaving home….
“But, Di,” she cried, “do you love Bobby Larkin?”
By this Di was embarrassed. “I’ve got to marry somebody,” she said, “and it might as well be him.”
“But is it him?”
“Yes, it is,” said Di. “But,” she added, “I know I could love almost anybody real nice that was nice to me.” And this she said, not in her own right, but either she had picked it up somewhere and adopted it, or else the terrible modernity and honesty of her day somehow spoke through her, for its own. But to Lulu it was as if something familiar turned its face to be recognised.
“Di!” she cried.
“It’s true. You ought to know that.” She waited for a moment. “You did it,” she added. “Mamma said so.”
At this onslaught Lulu was stupefied. For she began to perceive its truth.
“I know what I want to do, I guess,” Di muttered, as if to try to cover what she had said.
Up to that moment, Lulu had been feeling intensely that she understood Di, but that Di did not know this. Now Lulu felt that she and Di actually shared some unsuspected sisterhood. It was not only that they were both badgered by Dwight. It was more than that. They were two women. And she must make Di know that she understood her.
“Di,” Lulu said, breathing hard, “what you just said is true, I guess. Don’t you think I don’t know. And now I’m going to tell you——”
She might have poured it all out, claimed her kinship with Di by virtue of that which had happened in Savannah, Georgia. But Di said:
“Here come some ladies. And goodness, look at the way you look!”
Lulu glanced down. “I know,” she said, “but I guess you’ll have to put up with me.”
The two women entered, looked about with the complaisance of those who examine a hotel property, find criticism incumbent, and have no errand. These two women had outdressed their occasion. In their presence Di kept silence, turned away her head, gave them to know that she had nothing to do with this blue cotton person beside her. When they had gone on, “What do you mean by my having to put up with you?” Di asked sharply.
“I mean I’m going to stay with you.”
Di laughed scornfully—she was again the rebellious child. “I guess Bobby’ll have something to say about that,” she said insolently.
“They left you in my charge.”
“But I’m not a baby—the idea, Aunt Lulu!”
“I’m going to stay right with you,” said Lulu. She wondered what she should do if Di suddenly marched away from her, through that bright lobby and into the street. She thought miserably that she must follow. And then her whole concern for the ethics of Di’s course was lost in her agonised memory of her terrible, broken shoes.
Di did not march away. She turned her back squarely upon Lulu, and looked out of the window. For her life Lulu could think of nothing more to say. She was now feeling miserably on the defensive.
They were sitting in silence when Bobby Larkin came into the room.
Four Bobby Larkins there were, in immediate succession.
The Bobby who had just come down the street was distinctly perturbed, came hurrying, now and then turned to the left when he met folk, glanced sidewise here and there, was altogether anxious and ill at ease.
The Bobby who came through the hotel was a Bobby who had on an importance assumed for the crisis of threading the lobby—a Bobby who wished it to be understood that here he was, a man among men, in the Hess House at Millton.
The Bobby who entered the little rose room was the Bobby who was no less than overwhelmed with the stupendous character of the adventure upon which he found himself.
The Bobby who incredibly came face to face with Lulu was the real Bobby into whose eyes leaped instant, unmistakable relief.
Di flew to meet him. She assumed all the pretty agitations of her rôle, ignored Lulu.
“Bobby! Is it all right?”
Bobby looked over her head.
“Miss Lulu,” he said fatuously. “If it ain’t Miss Lulu.”
He looked from her to Di, and did not take in Di’s resigned shrug.
“Bobby,” said Di, “she’s come to stop us getting married, but she can’t. I’ve told her so.”
“She don’t have to stop us,” quoth Bobby gloomily, “we’re stopped.”
“What do you mean?” Di laid one hand flatly along her cheek, instinctive in her melodrama.
Bobby drew down his brows, set his hand on his leg, elbow out.
“We’re minors,” said he.
“Well, gracious, you didn’t have to tell them that.”
“No. They knew I was.”
“But, Silly! Why didn’t you tell them you’re not?”
“But I am.”
Di stared. “For pity sakes,” she said, “don’t you know how to do anything?”
“What would you have me do?” he inquired indignantly, with his head held very stiff, and with a boyish, admirable lift of chin.
“Why, tell them we’re both twenty-one. We look it. We know we’re responsible—that’s all they care for. Well, you are a funny….”
“You wanted me to lie?” he said.
“Oh, don’t make out you never told a fib.”
“Well, but this——” he stared at her.
“I never heard of such a thing,” Di cried accusingly.
“Anyhow,” he said, “there’s nothing to do now. The cat’s out. I’ve told our ages. We’ve got to have our folks in on it.”
“Is that all you can think of?” she demanded.
“Why, come on to Bainbridge or Holt, and tell them we’re of age, and be married there.”
“Di,” said Bobby, “why, that’d be a rotten go.”
Di said, oh very well, if he didn’t want to marry her. He replied stonily that of course he wanted to marry her. Di stuck out her little hand. She was at a disadvantage. She could use no arts, with Lulu sitting there, looking on. “Well, then, come on to Bainbridge,” Di cried, and rose.
Lulu was thinking: “What shall I say? I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what I can say.” Now she also rose, and laughed awkwardly. “I’ve told Di,” she said to Bobby, “that wherever you two go, I’m going too. Di’s folks left her in my care, you know. So you’ll have to take me along, I guess.” She spoke in a manner of distinct apology.
At this Bobby had no idea what to reply. He looked down miserably at the carpet. His whole manner was a mute testimony to his participation in the eternal query: How did I get into it?
“Bobby,” said Di, “are you going to let her lead you home?”
This of course nettled him, but not in the manner on which Di had counted. He said loudly:
“I’m not going to Bainbridge or Holt or any town and lie, to get you or any other girl.”
Di’s head lifted, tossed, turned from him. “You’re about as much like a man in a story,” she said, “as—as papa is.”
The two idly inspecting women again entered the rose room, this time to stay. They inspected Lulu too. And Lulu rose and stood between the lovers.
“Hadn’t we all better get the four-thirty to Warbleton?” she said, and swallowed.
“Oh, if Bobby wants to back out——” said Di.
“I don’t want to back out,” Bobby contended furiously, “b-b-but I won’t——”
“Come on, Aunt Lulu,” said Di grandly.
Bobby led the way through the lobby, Di followed, and Lulu brought up the rear. She walked awkwardly, eyes down, her hands stiffly held. Heads turned to look at her. They passed into the street.
“You two go ahead,” said Lulu, “so they won’t think——”
They did so, and she followed, and did not know where to look, and thought of her broken shoes.
At the station, Bobby put them on the train and stepped back. He had, he said, something to see to there in Millton. Di did not look at him. And Lulu’s good-bye spoke her genuine regret for all.
“Aunt Lulu,” said Di, “you needn’t think I’m going to sit with you. You look as if you were crazy. I’ll sit back here.”
“All right, Di,” said Lulu humbly.
It was nearly six o’clock when they arrived at the Deacons’. Mrs. Bett stood on the porch, her hands rolled in her apron.
“Surprise for you!” she called brightly.
Before they had reached the door, Ina bounded from the hall.
She seized upon Di, kissed her loudly, drew back from her, saw the travelling bag.
“My new bag!” she cried. “Di! What have you got that for?”
In any embarrassment Di’s instinctive defence was hearty laughter. She now laughed heartily, kissed her mother again, and ran up the stairs.
Lulu slipped by her sister, and into the kitchen.
“Well, where have you, been?” cried Ina. “I declare, I never saw such a family. Mamma don’t know anything and neither of you will tell anything.”
“Mamma knows a-plenty,” snapped Mrs. Bett.
Monona, who was eating a sticky gift, jumped stiffly up and down.
“You’ll catch it—you’ll catch it!” she sent out her shrill general warning.
Mrs. Bett followed Lulu to the kitchen; “I didn’t tell Inie about her bag and now she says I don’t know nothing,” she complained. “There I knew about the bag the hull time, but I wasn’t going to tell her and spoil her gettin’ home.” She banged the stove-griddle. “I’ve a good notion not to eat a mouthful o’ supper,” she announced.
“Mother, please!” said Lulu passionately. “Stay here. Help me. I’ve got enough to get through to-night.”
Dwight had come home. Lulu could hear Ina pouring out to him the mysterious circumstance of the bag, could hear the exaggerated air of the casual with which he always received the excitement of another, and especially of his Ina. Then she heard Ina’s feet padding up the stairs, and after that Di’s shrill, nervous laughter. Lulu felt a pang of pity for Di, as if she herself were about to face them.
There was not time both to prepare supper and to change the blue cotton dress. In that dress Lulu was pouring water when Dwight entered the dining-room.
“Ah!” said he. “Our festive ball-gown.”
She gave him her hand, with her peculiar sweetness of expression—almost as if she were sorry for him or were bidding him good-bye.
“That shows who you dress for!” he cried. “You dress for me; Ina, aren’t you jealous? Lulu dresses for me!”
Ina had come in with Di, and both were excited, and Ina’s head was moving stiffly, as in all her indignations. Mrs. Bett had thought better of it and had given her presence. Already Monona was singing.
“Lulu,” said Dwight, “really? Can’t you run up and slip on another dress?”
Lulu sat down in her place. “No,” she said. “I’m too tired. I’m sorry, Dwight.”
“It seems to me——” he began.
“I don’t want any,” said Monona.
But no one noticed Monona, and Ina did not defer even to Dwight. She, who measured delicate, troy occasions by avoirdupois, said brightly:
“Now, Di. You must tell us all about it. Where had you and Aunt Lulu been with mamma’s new bag?”
“Aunt Lulu!” cried Dwight. “A-ha! So Aunt Lulu was along. Well now, that alters it.”
“How does it?” asked his Ina crossly.
“Why, when Aunt Lulu goes on a jaunt,” said Dwight Herbert, “events begin to event.”
“Come, Di, let’s hear,” said Ina.
“Ina,” said Lulu, “first can’t we hear something about your visit? How is——”
Her eyes consulted Dwight. His features dropped, the lines of his face dropped, its muscles seemed to sag. A look of suffering was in his eyes.
“She’ll never be any better,” he said. “I know we’ve said good-bye to her for the last time.”
“Oh, Dwight!” said Lulu.
“She knew it too,” he said. “It—it put me out of business, I can tell you. She gave me my start—she took all the care of me—taught me to read—she’s the only mother I ever knew——” He stopped, and opened his eyes wide on account of their dimness.
“They said she was like another person while Dwight was there,” said Ina, and entered upon a length of particulars, and details of the journey. These details Dwight interrupted: Couldn’t Lulu remember that he liked sage on the chops? He could hardly taste it. He had, he said, told her this thirty-seven times. And when she said that she was sorry, “Perhaps you think I’m sage enough,” said the witty fellow.
“Dwightie!” said Ina. “Mercy.” She shook her head at him. “Now, Di,” she went on, keeping the thread all this time. “Tell us your story. About the bag.”
“Oh, mamma,” said Di, “let me eat my supper.”
“And so you shall, darling. Tell it in your own way. Tell us first what you’ve done since we’ve been away. Did Mr. Cornish come to see you?”
“Yes,” said Di, and flashed a look at Lulu.
But eventually they were back again before that new black bag. And Di would say nothing. She laughed, squirmed, grew irritable, laughed again.
“Lulu!” Ina demanded. “You were with her—where in the world had you been? Why, but you couldn’t have been with her—in that dress. And yet I saw you come in the gate together.”
“What!” cried Dwight Herbert, drawing down his brows. “You certainly did not so far forget us, Lulu, as to go on the street in that dress?”
“It’s a good dress,” Mrs. Bett now said positively. “Of course it’s a good dress. Lulie wore it on the street—of course she did. She was gone a long time. I made me a cup o’ tea, and then she hadn’t come.”
“Well,” said Ina, “I never heard anything like this before. Where were you both?”
One would say that Ina had entered into the family and been born again, identified with each one. Nothing escaped her. Dwight, too, his intimacy was incredible.
“Put an end to this, Lulu,” he commanded. “Where were you two—since you make such a mystery?”
Di’s look at Lulu was piteous, terrified. Di’s fear of her father was now clear to Lulu. And Lulu feared him too. Abruptly she heard herself temporising, for the moment making common cause with Di.
“Oh,” she said, “we have a little secret. Can’t we have a secret if we want one?”
“Upon my word,” Dwight commented, “she has a beautiful secret. I don’t know about your secrets, Lulu.”
Every time that he did this, that fleet, lifted look of Lulu’s seemed to bleed.
“I’m glad for my dinner,” remarked Monona at last. “Please excuse me.” On that they all rose. Lulu stayed in the kitchen and did her best to make her tasks indefinitely last. She had nearly finished when Di burst in.
“Aunt Lulu, Aunt Lulu!” she cried. “Come in there—come. I can’t stand it. What am I going to do?”
“Di, dear,” said Lulu. “Tell your mother—you must tell her.”
“She’ll cry,” Di sobbed. “Then she’ll tell papa—and he’ll never stop talking about it. I know him—every day he’ll keep it going. After he scolds me it’ll be a joke for months. I’ll die—I’ll die, Aunt Lulu.”
Ina’s voice sounded in the kitchen. “What are you two whispering about? I declare, mamma’s hurt, Di, at the way you’re acting….”
“Let’s go out on the porch,” said Lulu, and when Di would have escaped, Ina drew her with them, and handled the situation in the only way that she knew how to handle it, by complaining: Well, but what in this world….
Lulu threw a white shawl about her blue cotton dress.
“A bridal robe,” said Dwight. “How’s that, Lulu—what are you wearing a bridal robe for—eh?”
She smiled dutifully. There was no need to make him angry, she reflected, before she must. He had not yet gone into the parlour—had not yet asked for his mail.
It was a warm dusk, moonless, windless. The sounds of the village street came in—laughter, a touch at a piano, a chiming clock. Bights starred and quickened in the blurred houses. Footsteps echoed on the board walks. The gate opened. The gloom yielded up Cornish.
Lulu was inordinately glad to see him. To have the strain of the time broken by him was like hearing, on a lonely whiter wakening, the clock strike reassuring dawn.
“Lulu,” said Dwight low, “your dress. Do go!”
Lulu laughed. “The bridal shawl takes off the curse,” she said.
Cornish, in his gentle way, asked about the journey, about the sick woman—and Dwight talked of her again, and this time his voice broke. Di was curiously silent. When Cornish addressed her, she replied simply and directly—the rarest of Di’s manners, in fact not Di’s manner at all. Lulu spoke not at all—it was enough to have this respite.
After a little the gate opened again. It was Bobby. In the besetting fear that he was leaving Di to face something alone, Bobby had arrived.
And now Di’s spirits rose. To her his presence meant repentance, recapitulation. Her laugh rang out, her replies came archly. But Bobby was plainly not playing up. Bobby was, in fact, hardly less than glum. It was Dwight, the irrepressible fellow, who kept the talk going. And it was no less than deft, his continuously displayed ability playfully to pierce Lulu. Some one had “married at the drop of the hat. You know the kind of girl?” And some one “made up a likely story to soothe her own pride—you know how they do that?”
“Well,” said Ina, “my part, I think the most awful thing is to have somebody one loves keep secrets from one. No wonder folks get crabbed and spiteful with such treatment.”
“Mamma!” Monona shouted from her room. “Come and hear me say my prayers!”
Monona entered this request with precision on Ina’s nastiest moments, but she always rose, unabashed, and went, motherly and dutiful, to hear devotions, as if that function and the process of living ran their two divided channels.
She had dispatched this errand and was returning when Mrs. Bett crossed the lawn from Grandma Gates’s, where the old lady had taken comfort in Mrs. Bett’s ministrations for an hour.
“Don’t you help me,” Mrs. Bett warned them away sharply. “I guess I can help myself yet awhile.”
She gained her chair. And still in her momentary rule of attention, she said clearly:
“I got a joke. Grandma Gates says it’s all over town Di and Bobby Larkin eloped off together to-day. He!” The last was a single note of laughter, high and brief.
The silence fell.
“What nonsense!” Dwight Herbert said angrily.
But Ina said tensely: “Is it nonsense? Haven’t I been trying and trying to find out where the black satchel went? Di!”
Di’s laughter rose, but it sounded thin and false.
“Listen to that, Bobby,” she said. “Listen!”
“That won’t do, Di,” said Ina. “You can’t deceive mamma and don’t you try!” Her voice trembled, she was frantic with loving and authentic anxiety, but she was without power, she overshadowed the real gravity of the moment by her indignation.
“Mrs. Deacon——” began Bobby, and stood up, very straight and manly before them all.
But Dwight intervened, Dwight, the father, the master of his house. Here was something requiring him to act. So the father set his face like a mask and brought down his hand on the rail of the porch. It was as if the sound shattered a thousand filaments—where?
“Diana!” his voice was terrible, demanded a response, ravened among them.
“Yes, papa,” said Di, very small.
“Answer your mother. Answer me. Is there anything to this absurd tale?”
“No, papa,” said Di, trembling.
“Can you imagine how such a ridiculous report started?”
“Very well. Now we know where we are. If anyone hears this report repeated, send them to me.”
“Well, but that satchel——” said Ina, to whom an idea manifested less as a function than as a leech.
“One moment,” said Dwight. “Lulu will of course verify what the child has said.”
There had never been an adult moment until that day when Lulu had not instinctively taken the part of the parents, of all parents. Now she saw Dwight’s cruelty to her as his cruelty to Di; she saw Ina, herself a child in maternity, as ignorant of how to deal with the moment as was Dwight. She saw Di’s falseness partly parented by these parents. She burned at the enormity of Dwight’s appeal to her for verification. She threw up her head and no one had ever seen Lulu look like this.
“If you cannot settle this with Di,” said Lulu, “you cannot settle it with me.”
“A shifty answer,” said Dwight. “You have a genius at misrepresenting facts, you know, Lulu.”
“Bobby wanted to say something,” said Ina, still troubled.
“No, Mrs. Deacon,” said Bobby, low. “I have nothing—more to say.”
In a little while, when Bobby went away, Di walked with him to the gate. It was as if, the worst having happened to her, she dared everything now.
“Bobby,” she said, “you hate a lie. But what else could I do?”
He could not see her, could see only the little moon of her face, blurring.
“And anyhow,” said Di, “it wasn’t a lie. We didn’t elope, did we?”
“What do you think I came for to-night?” asked Bobby.
The day had aged him; he spoke like a man. His very voice came gruffly. But she saw nothing, softened to him, yielded, was ready to take his regret that they had not gone on.
“Well, I came for one thing,” said Bobby, “to tell you that I couldn’t stand for your wanting me to lie to-day. Why, Di—I hate a lie. And now to-night——” He spoke his code almost beautifully. “I’d rather,” he said, “they had never let us see each other again than to lose you the way I’ve lost you now.”
“It’s true. We mustn’t talk about it.”
“Bobby! I’ll go back and tell them all.”
“You can’t go back,” said Bobby. “Not out of a thing like that.”
She stood staring after him. She heard some one coming and she turned toward the house, and met Cornish leaving.
“Miss Di,” he cried, “if you’re going to elope with anybody, remember it’s with me!”
Her defence was ready—her laughter rang out so that the departing Bobby might hear.
She came back to the steps and mounted slowly in the lamplight, a little white thing with whom birth had taken exquisite pains.
“If,” she said, “if you have any fear that I may ever elope with Bobby Larkin, let it rest. I shall never marry him if he asks me fifty times a day.”
“Really, darling?” cried Ina.
“Really and truly,” said Di, “and he knows it, too.”
Lulu listened and read all.
“I wondered,” said Ina pensively, “I wondered if you wouldn’t see that Bobby isn’t much beside that nice Mr. Cornish!”
When Di had gone upstairs, Ina said to Lulu in a manner of cajoling confidence:
“Sister——” she rarely called her that, “why did you and Di have the black bag?”
So that after all it was a relief to Lulu to hear Dwight ask casually: “By the way, Lulu, haven’t I got some mail somewhere about?”
“There are two letters on the parlour table,” Lulu answered. To Ina she added: “Let’s go in the parlour.”
As they passed through the hall, Mrs. Bett was going up the stairs to bed—when she mounted stairs she stooped her shoulders, bunched her extremities, and bent her head. Lulu looked after her, as if she were half minded to claim the protection so long lost.
Dwight lighted the gas. “Better turn down the gas jest a little,” said he, tirelessly.
Lulu handed him the two letters. He saw Ninian’s writing and looked up, said “A-ha!” and held it while he leisurely read the advertisement of dental furniture, his Ina reading over his shoulder. “A-ha!” he said again, and with designed deliberation turned to Ninian’s letter. “An epistle from my dear brother Ninian.” The words failed, as he saw the unsealed flap.
“You opened the letter?” he inquired incredulously. Fortunately he had no climaxes of furious calm for high occasions. All had been used on small occasions. “You opened the letter” came in a tone of no deeper horror than “You picked the flower”—once put to Lulu.
She said nothing. As it is impossible to continue looking indignantly at some one who is not looking at you, Dwight turned to Ina, who was horror and sympathy, a nice half and half.
“Your sister has been opening my mail,” he said.
“But, Dwight, if it’s from Ninian——”
“It is my mail,” he reminded her. “She had asked me if she might open it. Of course I told her no.”
“Well,” said Ina practically, “what does he say?”
“I shall open the letter in my own time. My present concern is this disregard of my wishes.” His self-control was perfect, ridiculous, devilish. He was self-controlled because thus he could be more effectively cruel than in temper. “What excuse have you to offer?”
Lulu was not looking at him. “None,” she said—not defiantly, or ingratiatingly, or fearfully. Merely, “None.”
“Why did you do it?”
She smiled faintly and shook her head.
“Dwight,” said Ina, reasonably, “she knows what’s in it and we don’t. Hurry up.”
“She is,” said Dwight, after a pause, “an ungrateful woman.”
He opened the letter, saw the clipping, the avowal, with its facts.
“A-ha!” said he. “So after having been absent with my brother for a month, you find that you were not married to him.”
Lulu spoke her exceeding triumph.
“You see, Dwight,” she said, “he told the truth. He had another wife. He didn’t just leave me.”
Dwight instantly cried: “But this seems to me to make you considerably worse off than if he had.”
“Oh, no,” Lulu said serenely. “No. Why,” she said, “you know how it all came about. He—he was used to thinking of his wife as dead. If he hadn’t—hadn’t liked me, he wouldn’t have told me. You see that, don’t you?”
Dwight laughed. “That your apology?” he asked.
She said nothing.
“Look here, Lulu,” he went on, “this is a bad business. The less you say about it the better, for all our sakes—you see that, don’t you?”
“See that? Why, no. I wanted you to write to him so I could tell the truth. You said I mustn’t tell the truth till I had the proofs …”
“Tell everybody. I want them to know.”
“Then you care nothing for our feelings in this matter?”
She looked at him now. “Your feeling?”
“It’s nothing to you that we have a brother who’s a bigamist?”
“But it’s me—it’s me.”
“You! You’re completely out of it. Just let it rest as it is and it’ll drop.”
“I want the people to know the truth,” Lulu said.
“But it’s nobody’s business but our business! I take it you don’t intend to sue Ninian?”
“Sue him? Oh no!”
“Then, for all our sakes, let’s drop the matter.”
Lulu had fallen in one of her old attitudes, tense, awkward, her hands awkwardly placed, her feet twisted. She kept putting a lock back of her ear, she kept swallowing.
“Tell you, Lulu,” said Dwight. “Here are three of us. Our interests are the same in this thing—only Ninian is our relative and he’s nothing to you now. Is he?”
“Why, no,” said Lulu in surprise.
“Very well. Let’s have a vote. Your snap judgment is to tell this disgraceful fact broadcast. Mine is, least said, soonest mended. What do you say, Ina—considering Di and all?”
“Oh, goodness,” said Ina, “if we get mixed up with bigamy, we’ll never get away from it. Why, I wouldn’t have it told for worlds.”
Still in that twisted position, Lulu looked up at her. Her straying hair, her parted lips, her lifted eyes were singularly pathetic.
“My poor, poor sister!” Ina said. She struck together her little plump hands. “Oh, Dwight—when I think of it: What have I done—what have we done that I should have a good, kind, loving husband—be so protected, so loved, when other women…. Darling!” she sobbed, and drew near to Lulu. “You know how sorry I am—we all are….”
Lulu stood up. The white shawl slipped to the floor. Her hands were stiffly joined.
“Then,” she said, “give me the only thing I’ve got—that’s my pride. My pride—that he didn’t want to get rid of me.”
They stared at her. “What about my pride?” Dwight called to her, as across great distances. “Do you think I want everybody to know my brother did a thing like that?”
“You can’t help that,” said Lulu.
“But I want you to help it. I want you to promise me that you won’t shame us like this before all our friends.”
“You want me to promise what?”
“I want you—I ask you,” Dwight said with an effort, “to promise me that you will keep this, with us—a family secret.”
“No!” Lulu cried. “No. I won’t do it! I won’t do it! I won’t do it!”
It was like some crude chant, knowing only two tones. She threw out her hands, her wrists long and dark on her blue skirt.
“Can’t you understand anything?” she asked. “I’ve lived here all my life—on your money. I’ve not been strong enough to work, they say—well, but I’ve been strong enough to be a hired girl in your house—and I’ve been glad to pay for my keep…. But there wasn’t anything about it I liked. Nothing about being here that I liked…. Well, then I got a little something, same as other folks. I thought I was married and I went off on the train and he bought me things and I saw the different towns. And then it was all a mistake. I didn’t have any of it. I came back here and went into your kitchen again—I don’t know why I came back. I s’pose because I’m most thirty-four and new things ain’t so easy any more—but what have I got or what’ll I ever have? And now you want to put on to me having folks look at me and think he run off and left me, and having ’em all wonder…. I can’t stand it. I can’t stand it. I can’t….”
“You’d rather they’d know he fooled you, when he had another wife?” Dwight sneered.
“Yes! Because he wanted me. How do I know—maybe he wanted me only just because he was lonesome, the way I was. I don’t care why! And I won’t have folks think he went and left me.”
“That,” said Dwight, “is a wicked vanity.”
“That’s the truth. Well, why can’t they know the truth?”
“And bring disgrace on us all.”
“It’s me—it’s me——” Lulu’s individualism strove against that terrible tribal sense, was shattered by it.
“It’s all of us!” Dwight boomed. “It’s Di.”
“Di?” He had Lulu’s eyes now.
“Why, it’s chiefly on Di’s account that I’m talking,” said Dwight.
“How would it hurt Di?”
“To have a thing like that in the family? Well, can’t you see how it’d hurt her?”
“Would it, Ina? Would it hurt Di?”
“Why, it would shame her—embarrass her—make people wonder what kind of stock she came from—oh,” Ina sobbed, “my pure little girl!”
“Hurt her prospects, of course,” said Dwight. “Anybody could see that.”
“I s’pose it would,” said Lulu.
She clasped her arms tightly, awkwardly, and stepped about the floor, her broken shoes showing beneath her cotton skirt.
“When a family once gets talked about for any reason——” said Ina and shuddered.
“I’m talked about now!”
“But nothing that you could help. If he got tired of you, you couldn’t help that.” This misstep was Dwight’s.
“No,” Lulu said, “I couldn’t help that. And I couldn’t help his other wife, either.”
“Bigamy,” said Dwight, “that’s a crime.”
“I’ve done no crime,” said Lulu.
“Bigamy,” said Dwight, “disgraces everybody it touches.”
“Even Di,” Lulu said.
“Lulu,” said Dwight, “on Di’s account will you promise us to let this thing rest with us three?”
“I s’pose so,” said Lulu quietly.
“I s’pose so.”
Ina sobbed: “Thank you, thank you, Lulu. This makes up for everything.”
Lulu was thinking: “Di has a hard enough time as it is.” Aloud she said: “I told Mr. Cornish, but he won’t tell.”
“I’ll see to that,” Dwight graciously offered.
“Goodness,” Ina said, “so he knows. Well, that settles——” She said no more.
“You’ll be happy to think you’ve done this for us, Lulu,” said Dwight.
“I s’pose so,” said Lulu.
Ina, pink from her little gust of sobbing, went to her, kissed her, her trim tan tailor suit against Lulu’s blue cotton.
“My sweet, self-sacrificing sister,” she murmured.
“Oh stop that!” Lulu said.
Dwight took her hand, lying limply in his. “I can now,” he said, “overlook the matter of the letter.”
Lulu drew back. She put her hair behind her ears, swallowed, and cried out.
“Don’t you go around pitying me! I’ll have you know I’m glad the whole thing happened!”
Cornish had ordered six new copies of a popular song. He knew that it was popular because it was called so in a Chicago paper. When the six copies arrived with a danseuse on the covers he read the “words,” looked wistfully at the symbols which shut him out, and felt well pleased.
“Got up quite attractive,” he thought, and fastened the six copies in the window of his music store.
It was not yet nine o’clock of a vivid morning. Cornish had his floor and sidewalk sprinkled, his red and blue plush piano spreads dusted. He sat at a folding table well back in the store, and opened a law book.
For half an hour he read. Then he found himself looking off the page, stabbed by a reflection which always stabbed him anew: Was he really getting anywhere with his law? And where did he really hope to get? Of late when he awoke at night this question had stood by the cot, waiting.
The cot had appeared there in the back of the music-store, behind a dark sateen curtain with too few rings on the wire. How little else was in there, nobody knew. But those passing in the late evening saw the blur of his kerosene lamp behind that curtain and were smitten by a realistic illusion of personal loneliness.
It was behind that curtain that these unreasoning questions usually attacked him, when his giant, wavering shadow had died upon the wall and the faint smell of the extinguished lamp went with him to his bed; or when he waked before any sign of dawn. In the mornings all was cheerful and wonted—the question had not before attacked him among his red and blue plush spreads, his golden oak and ebony cases, of a sunshiny morning.
A step at his door set him flying. He wanted passionately to sell a piano.
“Well!” he cried, when he saw his visitor.
It was Lulu, in her dark red suit and her tilted hat.
“Well!” she also said, and seemed to have no idea of saying anything else. Her excitement was so obscure that he did not discern it.
“You’re out early,” said he, participating in the village chorus of this bright challenge at this hour.
“Oh, no,” said Lulu.
He looked out the window, pretending to be caught by something passing, leaned to see it the better.
“Oh, how’d you get along last night?” he asked, and wondered why he had not thought to say it before.
“All right, thank you,” said Lulu.
“Was he—about the letter, you know?”
“Yes,” she said, “but that didn’t matter. You’ll be sure,” she added, “not to say anything about what was in the letter?”
“Why, not till you tell me I can,” said Cornish, “but won’t everybody know now?”
“No,” Lulu said.
At this he had no more to say, and feeling his speculation in his eyes, dropped them to a piano scarf from which he began flicking invisible specks.
“I came to tell you good-bye,” Lulu said.
“Yes. I’m going off—for a while. My satchel’s in the bakery—I had my breakfast in the bakery.”
“Say!” Cornish cried warmly, “then everything wasn’t all right last night?”
“As right as it can ever be with me,” she told him. “Oh, yes. Dwight forgave me.”
She smiled, and trembled.
“Look here,” said Cornish, “you come here and sit down and tell me about this.”
He led her to the folding table, as the only social spot in that vast area of his, seated her in the one chair, and for himself brought up a piano stool. But after all she told him nothing. She merely took the comfort of his kindly indignation.
“It came out all right,” she said only. “But I won’t stay there any more. I can’t do that.”
“Then what are you going to do?”
“In Millton yesterday,” she said, “I saw an advertisement in the hotel—they wanted a chambermaid.”
“Oh, Miss Bett!” he cried. At that name she flushed. “Why,” said Cornish, “you must have been coming from Millton yesterday when I saw you. I noticed Miss Di had her bag——” He stopped, stared. “You brought her back!” he deduced everything.
“Oh!” said Lulu. “Oh, no—I mean——”
“I heard about the eloping again this morning,” he said. “That’s just what you did—you brought her back.”
“You mustn’t tell that! You won’t? You won’t!”
“No. ‘Course not.” He mulled it. “You tell me this: Do they know? I mean about your going after her?”
“You never told!”
“They don’t know she went.”
“That’s a funny thing,” he blurted out, “for you not to tell her folks—I mean, right off. Before last night….”
“You don’t know them. Dwight’d never let up on that—he’d joke her about it after a while.”
“But it seems—”
“Ina’d talk about disgracing her. They wouldn’t know what to do. There’s no sense in telling them. They aren’t a mother and father,” Lulu said.
Cornish was not accustomed to deal with so much reality. But Lulu’s reality he could grasp.
“You’re a trump anyhow,” he affirmed.
“Oh, no,” said Lulu modestly.
Yes, she was. He insisted upon it.
“By George,” he exclaimed, “you don’t find very many married women with as good sense as you’ve got.”
At this, just as he was agonising because he had seemed to refer to the truth that she was, after all, not married, at this Lulu laughed in some amusement, and said nothing.
“You’ve been a jewel in their home all right,” said Cornish. “I bet they’ll miss you if you do go.”
“They’ll miss my cooking,” Lulu said without bitterness.
“They’ll miss more than that, I know. I’ve often watched you there——”
“You have?” It was not so much pleasure as passionate gratitude which lighted her eyes.
“You made the whole place,” said Cornish.
“You don’t mean just the cooking?”
“No, no. I mean—well, that first night when you played croquet. I felt at home when you came out.”
That look of hers, rarely seen, which was no less than a look of loveliness, came now to Lulu’s face. After a pause she said:
“I never had but one compliment before that wasn’t for my cooking.” She seemed to feel that she must confess to that one. “He told me I done my hair up nice.” She added conscientiously: “That was after I took notice how the ladies in Savannah, Georgia, done up theirs.”
“Well, well,” said Cornish only.
“Well,” said Lulu, “I must be going now. I wanted to say good-bye to you—and there’s one or two other places….”
“I hate to have you go,” said Cornish, and tried to add something. “I hate to have you go,” was all that he could find to add.
Lulu rose. “Oh, well,” was all that she could find.
They shook hands, Lulu laughing a little. Cornish followed her to the door. He had begun on “Look here, I wish …” when Lulu said “good-bye,” and paused, wishing intensely to know what he would have said. But all that he said was: “Good-bye. I wish you weren’t going.”
“So do I,” said Lulu, and went, still laughing.
Cornish saw her red dress vanish from his door, flash by his window, her head averted. And there settled upon him a depression out of all proportion to the slow depression of his days. This was more—it assailed him, absorbed him.
He stood staring out the window. Some one passed with a greeting of which he was conscious too late to return. He wandered back down the store and his pianos looked back at him like strangers. Down there was the green curtain which screened his home life. He suddenly hated that green curtain. He hated this whole place. For the first time it occurred to him that he hated Warbleton.
He came back to his table, and sat down before his lawbook. But he sat, chin on chest, regarding it. No … no escape that way….
A step at the door and he sprang up. It was Lulu, coming toward him, her face unsmiling but somehow quite lighted. In her hand was a letter.
“See,” she said. “At the office was this….”
She thrust in his hand the single sheet. He read:
” … Just wanted you to know you’re actually rid of me. I’ve heard from her, in Brazil. She ran out of money and thought of me, and her lawyer wrote to me…. I’ve never been any good—Dwight would tell you that if his pride would let him tell the truth once in a while. But there ain’t anything in my life makes me feel as bad as this…. I s’pose you couldn’t understand and I don’t myself…. Only the sixteen years keeping still made me think she was gone sure … but you were so downright good, that’s what was the worst … do you see what I want to say …”
Cornish read it all and looked at Lulu. She was grave and in her eyes there was a look of dignity such as he had never seen them wear. Incredible dignity.
“He didn’t lie to get rid of me—and she was alive, just as he thought she might be,” she said.
“I’m glad,” said Cornish.
“Yes,” said Lulu. “He isn’t quite so bad as Dwight tried to make him out.”
It was not of this that Cornish had been thinking.
“Now you’re free,” he said.
“Oh, that …” said Lulu.
She replaced her letter in its envelope.
“Now I’m really going,” she said. “Good-bye for sure this time….”
Her words trailed away. Cornish had laid his hand on her arm.
“Don’t say good-bye,” he said.
“It’s late,” she said, “I——”
“Don’t you go,” said Cornish.
She looked at him mutely.
“Do you think you could possibly stay here with me?”
“Oh!” said Lulu, like no word.
He went on, not looking at her. “I haven’t got anything. I guess maybe you’ve heard something about a little something I’m supposed to inherit. Well, it’s only five hundred dollars.”
His look searched her face, but she hardly heard what he was saying.
“That little Warden house—it don’t cost much—you’d be surprised. Rent, I mean. I can get it now. I went and looked at it the other day, but then I didn’t think——” he caught himself on that. “It don’t cost near as much as this store. We could furnish up the parlour with pianos——”
He was startled by that “we,” and began again:
“That is, if you could ever think of such a thing as marrying me.”
“But,” said Lulu. “You know! Why, don’t the disgrace——”
“What disgrace?” asked Cornish.
“Oh,” she said, “you—you——”
“There’s only this about that,” said he. “Of course, if you loved him very much, then I’d ought not to be talking this way to you. But I didn’t think——”
“You didn’t think what?”
“That you did care so very much—about him. I don’t know why.”
She said: “I wanted somebody of my own. That’s the reason I done what I done. I know that now.”
“I figured that way,” said Cornish.
They dismissed it. But now he brought to bear something which he saw that she should know.
“Look here,” he said, “I’d ought to tell you. I’m—I’m awful lonesome myself. This is no place to live. And I guess living so is one reason why I want to get married. I want some kind of a home.”
He said it as a confession. She accepted it as a reason.
“Of course,” she said.
“I ain’t never lived what you might say private,” said Cornish.
“I’ve lived too private,” Lulu said.
“Then there’s another thing.” This was harder to tell her. “I—I don’t believe I’m ever going to be able to do a thing with law.”
“I don’t see,” said Lulu, “how anybody does.”
“I’m not much good in a business way,” he owned, with a faint laugh. “Sometimes I think,” he drew down his brows, “that I may never be able to make any money.”
She said: “Lots of men don’t.”
“Could you risk it with me?” Cornish asked her. “There’s nobody I’ve seen,” he went on gently, “that I like as much as I do you. I—I was engaged to a girl once, but we didn’t get along. I guess if you’d be willing to try me, we would get along.”
Lulu said: “I thought it was Di that you——”
“Miss Di? Why,” said Cornish, “she’s a little kid. And,” he added, “she’s a little liar.”
“But I’m going on thirty-four.”
“So am I!”
“Isn’t there somebody——”
“Look here. Do you like me?”
“It’s you I was thinking of,” said Lulu. “I’d be all right.”
“Then!” Cornish cried, and he kissed her.
“And now,” said Dwight, “nobody must mind if I hurry a little wee bit. I’ve got something on.”
He and Ina and Monona were at dinner. Mrs. Bett was in her room. Di was not there.
“Anything about Lulu?” Ina asked.
“Lulu?” Dwight stared. “Why should I have anything to do about Lulu?”
“Well, but, Dwight—we’ve got to do something.”
“As I told you this morning,” he observed, “we shall do nothing. Your sister is of age—I don’t know about the sound mind, but she is certainly of age. If she chooses to go away, she is free to go where she will.”
“Yes, but, Dwight, where has she gone? Where could she go? Where——”
“You are a question-box,” said Dwight playfully. “A question-box.”
Ina had burned her plump wrist on the oven. She lifted her arm and nursed it.
“I’m certainly going to miss her if she stays away very long,” she remarked.
“You should be sufficient unto your little self,” said Dwight.
“That’s all right,” said Ina, “except when you’re getting dinner.”
“I want some crust coffee,” announced Monona firmly.
“You’ll have nothing of the sort,” said Ina. “Drink your milk.”
“As I remarked,” Dwight went on, “I’m in a tiny wee bit of a hurry.”
“Well, why don’t you say what for?” his Ina asked.
She knew that he wanted to be asked, and she was sufficiently willing to play his games, and besides she wanted to know. But she was hot.
“I am going,” said Dwight, “to take Grandma Gates out in a wheel-chair, for an hour.”
“Where did you get a wheel-chair, for mercy sakes?”
“Borrowed it from the railroad company,” said Dwight, with the triumph peculiar to the resourceful man. “Why I never did it before, I can’t imagine. There that chair’s been in the depot ever since I can remember—saw it every time I took the train—and yet I never once thought of grandma.”
“My, Dwight,” said Ina, “how good you are!”
“Nonsense!” said he.
“Well, you are. Why don’t I send her over a baked apple? Monona, you take Grandma Gates a baked apple—no. You shan’t go till you drink your milk.”
“I don’t want it.”
“Drink it or mamma won’t let you go.”
Monona drank it, made a piteous face, took the baked apple, ran.
“The apple isn’t very good,” said Ina, “but it shows my good will.”
“Also,” said Dwight, “it teaches Monona a life of thoughtfulness for others.”
“That’s what I always think,” his Ina said.
“Can’t you get mother to come out?” Dwight inquired.
“I had so much to do getting dinner onto the table, I didn’t try,” Ina confessed.
“You didn’t have to try,” Mrs. Bett’s voice sounded. “I was coming when I got rested up.”
She entered, looking vaguely about. “I want Lulie,” she said, and the corners of her mouth drew down. She ate her dinner cold, appeased in vague areas by such martyrdom. They were still at table when the front door opened.
“Monona hadn’t ought to use the front door so common,” Mrs. Bett complained.
But it was not Monona. It was Lulu and Cornish.
“Well!” said Dwight, tone curving downward.
“Well!” said Ina, in replica.
“Lulie!” said Mrs. Bett, and left her dinner, and went to her daughter and put her hands upon her.
“We wanted to tell you first,” Cornish said. “We’ve just got married.”
“Forevermore!” said Ina.
“What’s this?” Dwight sprang to his feet. “You’re joking!” he cried with hope.
“No,” Cornish said soberly. “We’re married—just now. Methodist parsonage. We’ve had our dinner,” he added hastily.
“Where’d you have it?” Ina demanded, for no known reason.
“The bakery,” Cornish replied, and flushed.
“In the dining-room part,” Lulu added.
Dwight’s sole emotion was his indignation.
“What on earth did you do it for?” he put it to them. “Married in a bakery——”
No, no. They explained it again. Neither of them, they said, wanted the fuss of a wedding.
Dwight recovered himself in a measure. “I’m not surprised, after all,” he said. “Lulu usually marries in this way.”
Mrs. Bett patted her daughter’s arm. “Lulie,” she said, “why, Lulie. You ain’t been and got married twice, have you? After waitin’ so long?”
“Don’t be disturbed, Mother Bett,” Dwight cried. “She wasn’t married that first time, if you remember. No marriage about it!”
Ina’s little shriek sounded.
“Dwight!” she cried. “Now everybody’ll have to know that. You’ll have to tell about Ninian now—and his other wife!”
Standing between her mother and Cornish, an arm of each about her, Lulu looked across at Ina and Dwight, and they all saw in her face a horrified realisation.
“Ina!” she said. “Dwight! You will have to tell now, won’t you? Why I never thought of that.”
At this Dwight sneered, was sneering still as he went to give Grandma Gates her ride in the wheel-chair and as he stooped with patient kindness to tuck her in.
The street door was closed. If Mrs. Bett was peeping through the blind, no one saw her. In the pleasant mid-day light under the maples, Mr. and Mrs. Neil Cornish were hurrying toward the railway station.