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It all depends upon a consciousness of values, a sense of proportion.
--Arthur Christopher Benson.
"The heavens have fallen!" I announced in the doorway of the Gay Lady's room. "Cook is ill--I had the doctor for her in the night. And my little waitress went home just yesterday to her sister's wedding."
"And breakfast to get," responded the Gay Lady, arriving instantly at the point, as she always does. She had been dressing leisurely. Now she made all speed and instead of white linen she slipped into a blue-and-white-checked gingham. "Don't worry--I'll be down in three minutes," she assured me cheerily.
I found Lad building the kitchen fire--in the country we do not have gas ranges. "I'll have her roaring in a jiff," he cried. "I learned a dandy way camping last year."
Breakfast came off nearly on schedule time. The Gay Lady's omelet was a feathery success, her coffee perfect, my muffins above reproach. Lad had helped set the table, he had looked over the fruit, he had skimmed the cream.
Azalea came in a little late. She had been my guest for a week, and a delightful guest, too. She has a glorious voice for singing, and she is very clever and entertaining--everybody likes her.
* * * * * * *
Of course, when I arose to take away the fruit-plates and bring on the breakfast, the fact that I was servantless came out. To the Philosopher and the Skeptic, who were immediately solicitous, I explained that we should get on very well.
"We'll see that you do," promised the Skeptic. "There are a few things I flatter myself I can do as well as the next man--or woman. Consider me at your service."
"The same here," declared the Philosopher. "And--I say--don't fuss too much. Have a cold lunch--bread and milk, you know, or something like that."
I smiled, and said that would not be necessary. Nor was it. For five years after my marriage I had been my own maid-servant--and those were happy days. My right hand had by no means forgotten her cunning. As for both the Gay Lady's pretty hands--they were very accomplished in household arts. And she had put on the blue-and-white gingham.
"I can wipe dishes," offered the Philosopher, as we rose from the table.
"It's a useful art," said the Gay Lady. "In ten minutes we'll be ready for you."
The Skeptic looked about him. Then he hurried away without saying anything. Two minutes later I found him making his bed.
"Go away," he commanded me. "It'll be ship-shape, never fear. You remember I was sent to a military school when I was a youngster."
From below, as I made Azalea's bed, the strains of one of the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies floated up to me. Azalea was playing. We had fallen into the habit of drifting into the living-room, where the piano stood, every morning immediately after breakfast, to hear Azalea play. In the evenings she sang to us; but one does not sing directly after breakfast, and only second in delight to hearing Azalea's superb voice was listening to her matchless touch upon the keyboard. I said to myself, as I went about the "upstairs work"--work that the Skeptic, with all his good will, could not do, not being allowed to cross certain thresholds--that we should sorely miss Azalea's music when she should go away next week.
The Gay Lady and I managed luncheon with very little exertion, we had so much assistance. Dinner cost us rather more trouble, for Cook's dinners are always delicious, and we could not have a falling off under our régime. But it was a great success, and our men praised us until we felt our labours fully repaid. Still, we were a trifle fatigued at the end of the day. Cook had needed a good deal of waiting upon, and though the Gay Lady had insisted on sharing this service with me it had required many steps and the exercise of some tact--Cook having been fully persuaded all day that her end was near.
"I have told her six times that people don't die of lumbago," said the Gay Lady, "but her tears flow just as copiously as ever. I've written three letters to her friends for her. To-morrow I suppose I shall have to write her last will and testament."
* * * * * * *
But on the morrow Cook was enough better to be able to indite her own documents, though as yet unable to come downstairs. It was well that she did not require much of our time, however, for just before noon a party of touring motorists drove up to our door and precipitated themselves upon us with warm greetings--and hungry looks toward our dining-room.
"Smoke and ashes!" cried the Skeptic, under his breath, appearing in the kitchen, whither the Gay Lady and I had betaken ourselves as soon as we had furnished our guests with soap and water and clothes-brushes, and left them to remove as much of the dust of the road from their persons as could be done without a full bath--"why didn't you send them on to the village inn? Of all the nerve!--and you don't know any of them intimately, do you?"
I shook my head. "One of them was my dearest enemy in school-days," I admitted, "and I never saw but one of the others. Never mind. Do you suppose you could saddle Skylark and post over to town for some beefsteak? I've sent Lad to the neighbours for other things. Beefsteak is what they must have--porterhouse--since I've not enough broilers in the ice-box to go around that hungry company."
"Sure thing," and the Skeptic was off. But he came back to say in my ear: "See here, why doesn't Miss Azalea come out and help? She's just sitting on the porch, looking pretty."
"Somebody ought to play hostess, since I must be here," I responded, without meeting his inquiring eye. I did urgently need some one to beat the oil into the salad dressing I was making, for there were other things I must do. The Gay Lady was already accomplishing separate things with each hand, and directing Lad at the same time. The Skeptic looked at her appreciatively.
"She mourns because she can't sing!" said he, and laughed quietly to himself as he swung away. Yet he had seemed much impressed with Azalea's singing all the week, and had turned her music for her devotedly.
We got through it somehow. "I thought they'd eat their heads off," commented the Philosopher, who had carved the beefsteak and the broilers, and had tried to give everybody the tenderloin and the white breast meat, and had eaten drumsticks and end pieces himself, after the manner of the unselfish host.
* * * * * * *
There were piles and mountains of dishes after that luncheon. They looked the bigger to us because we had been obliged to leave them for two hours while we sat upon the porch with our motorists, who said they always took a good rest in the middle of the day, and made up by running many extra miles at night. When they had gone, loudly grateful for our hospitality--two of the men had had to have some more things to eat and drink before they could get up steam with which to start--the Gay Lady and I stood in the door of the kitchen and drew our first sighs over the state of things existing.
"If Cook doesn't get down pretty soon----" said I dejectedly, and did not try to finish the sentence. Somehow that hasty cookery for five extra people had been depressing. I couldn't think of a thing that had been left in the house that would do for dinner--due now in three short hours.
But the Gay Lady rallied nobly.
"There's plenty of hot water," said she, "and those dishes will melt away in no time. Then--you're going to have a long sleep, whether we get any dinner to-night or not."
The Skeptic spoke from behind us. "Here's a fresh recruit," said he in a jovial tone, which I understood at once was manufactured for the occasion. We looked around and saw Azalea at his elbow. She was smiling rather dubiously. I wondered how he had managed it. Afterward I learned that he had boldly asked her if she didn't want to help.
"I hope I shan't break anything," murmured Azalea, accepting a dish-towel. The Skeptic took another. "Oh, no," he assured her. "That delicate touch of yours--why, I never heard anybody who could play pianissimo--legato--cantabile--like you. You wouldn't break a spun-glass rainbow."
Azalea did not break anything. I think it was because she did not dry more than one article to the Skeptic's three and the Gay Lady's six. Once she dropped a china cup, but the Skeptic caught it and presented it to her with a bow. "Don't mention it," said he. "I'm an old first-baseman."
The Philosopher came through the kitchen with a broom and dustpan. He had been attempting to sweep the dining-room floor--which is of hardwood, with a centre rug--and had had a bad time of it. The Skeptic jeered at him and mentioned the implements he should have used. Azalea looked at them both wonderingly.
"How in the world do you men come to know so much about housework?" she inquired, wiping a single teaspoon diligently. The Gay Lady had just lifted a dozen out of the steaming pan for her, but Azalea had laid them all down on the table, and was polishing them one by one.
"I find it comes in handy," said the Skeptic. "You never stay anywhere, you know, that sooner or later something doesn't happen unexpectedly to the domestic machinery. Besides, I like to show off--don't you? See here"--he turned to me. There was a twinkle in his wicked eye. "See here, why not let Miss Azalea and me be responsible for the dinner to-night--with Philo as second assistant? You and the Gay Lady are tired out. Miss Azalea can tell me what to do, and I'll promise to do it faithfully."
He had not the face to look at the guest as he made this daring suggestion. His audacity took my breath away so completely that I could make no rejoinder, but the Gay Lady came to the rescue. I don't know whether she had seen Azalea's face, but I had.
"I have a surprise for to-night," said she, picking up a trayful of china, "and I don't intend anybody shall interfere with it. Nobody is even to mention dinner in my presence."
The Skeptic took the tray away from her. "There are some other things I should like to mention in your presence," said he, so softly that I think nobody heard him but myself, who was nearest. "And one of them is that somebody I know never looked sweeter than she does this----"
I rattled the saucers in the pan that nobody might catch it. The Gay Lady was colouring so brilliantly that I feared the Skeptic might drop the tray, for he was not looking at all where he was going. But she disappeared into the pantry, and there was nothing left for him to do but to place the tray on the shelf outside, ready for her to take the contents in through the window.
* * * * * * *
The Gay Lady put me upon my own bed, tucked me up, drew the curtains, and left me to my nap. She left a kiss on my cheek also, and as she dropped it there I thought of the Skeptic again--I don't know why. I wondered casually what he would give for one like it.
When I awoke my room was so nearly dark that I was startled into thinking it next morning. The Lad's voice, speaking eagerly through my door, was what had roused me. He was summoning me to dinner. "It's all ready," he was calling.
I dressed dazedly, refreshed and wondering. I went down to preside at the most delicious meal I had eaten in a month. The Gay Lady--in white muslin, with cheeks like roses--seemed not in the least fatigued. The Skeptic looked like a young commanding general who had seen his forces win triumphantly against great odds. The Philosopher was hilarious. Azalea seemed somewhat quiet and thoughtful.
When the dishes were done and the kitchen in order--matters which were dispatched like wildfire--we gathered upon the porch as usual.
"There is nothing in the world I should like so much," said the Gay Lady presently, from the low chair where she sat, with the Skeptic on a cushion so near to her feet that in the shadow his big figure seemed to melt into her slight one, "as some music. Is it asking too much, dear, after all those dishes?"
"I don't feel a bit like singing," answered Azalea.
The Philosopher sat beside her on the settle, and he turned to add his request to the Gay Lady's.
The Skeptic spoke heartily from his cushion.
"If you knew how much pleasure you've given us all these mornings and evenings," he said, "never having to be urged, but being so generous with your great art----"
"Somehow it doesn't look so great to me to-night," said Azalea quietly.
I almost thought there were tears in her voice. She has a beautiful speaking voice, as singers are apt to have.
Everybody was silent for an instant, in surprise--and anxiety. Azalea was a very lovely girl--nobody had meant to hurt her.
Had the Skeptic's shot in the kitchen gone home? Nobody would be sorrier than he to deal a blow where only a feather's touch was meant.
"It looks so great to me," said the Gay Lady very gently, "that I would give--years of my life to be able to sing one song as you sing Beethoven's 'Adelaide.'"
"Of course I can't refuse, after that," said Azalea modestly, though more happily, I thought, and the Philosopher went away with her into the half-lit living room.
"May I say anything?" asked the Skeptic, looking up into the Gay Lady's face, in the way he has when he wants to say things very much but is doubtful how she will take them--a condition he is frequently in.
She shook her head--I think she must have been smiling. It was so evident--that which he wanted to say. He wanted to assure her that her own accomplishments----
But the Gay Lady shook her head. "Let's just listen," she said.
So we listened. It was worth it. But, after all, I doubt if the Skeptic heard.
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