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Cope's excuse, involving the expected visit of a relative, may not have been altogether sincere, but it received, within a week or so, the substantial backing of actuality: a relative came. She was an aunt,--his father's sister,--and she came at the suggestion of a concerned landlady. This person, made anxious by a languid young man who had begged off from his classes and who was likely to need more attention than her scanty margin of leisure could grant, had even suggested a hospital while yet it was easy for him to reach one. Though Cope meant to leave her soon, it did not suit him to leave her quite as soon as this; and so Aunt Harriet came in from Freeford to look the situation over and to lend a hand if need be. She spent two nights in a vacant chamber at transient rates; was grudgingly allowed to prepare his "slops," as he called them, in the kitchen; and had time to satisfy herself that, after all, nothing very serious was the matter.
Randolph did not meet this relative, but he heard about her; and her coming, as a sort of family representative, helped him still further in his picture of the res angusta of a small-town household: a father held closely to office or warehouse--his own or some one else's; a sister confined to her school-room; a mother who found the demands of the domestic routine too exacting even to allow a three-hour trip to town; and a brother--Randolph added this figure quite gratuitously out of an active imagination and a determined desire not to put any of the circle to the test of a personal encounter--and a brother who was perhaps off somewhere "on the road."
The one who met Aunt Harriet was Medora Phillips, and the meeting was brief. Medora had heard from Amy Leffingwell of Cope's absence from his class-room. She herself became concerned; she felt more or less responsible and possibly a bit conscience-stricken. "Next time," she said, "I shall try to have the ventilation right; and I think that, after this, I shall keep to birch beer."
Medora called up Amy at the music-school, one afternoon, at about four. She assumed that the day's work was over, told Amy she was "going around" to see Bertram Cope, and asked her to go with her. "You may act as my chaperon," she said; "for who knows where or how I shall find him?"
As they neared the house a colored man came out, carrying a small trunk to a mud-bespattered surrey. "What! is he going?" said Medora, with a start. "Well, anyway, we're in time to say good-bye." Then, "What's the matter, Jasper?" she asked, having now recognized the driver and his conveyance.
"Got a lady who's gettin' away on the four forty-three."
"Oh!" said Medora, with a gasp of reassurance.
Cope's aunt said good-bye to him up stairs and was now putting on her gloves in the lower hall, in the company of the landlady. Medora appraised the visitor as a semi-rustic person--one of some substance and standing in her own community; marriage, perhaps, had provided her with means and leisure. She had been willing to subordinate herself to a university town apprehended as a social organism, and she now seemed inclined to accept with docility any observations made by a confident urbanite with a fair degree of verve.
"These young men," said Medora dashingly, "are too careless and proud."
"Proud?" asked the other. She felt clearly enough that her nephew had been careless; but pride is not often acknowledged among the members of an ordinary domestic circle.
"They're all mind," Medora went on, with no lapse of momentum. She knew she must work in brief, broad effects: the surrey was waiting and the train would not delay. "They sometimes forget that their intellectual efforts must rest, after all, on a good sensible physical basis. They mustn't scorn the body."
The departing visitor gave a quick little sigh of relief. The views of this fashionable and forthputting woman were in accord with her own, after all.
"Well, I've told Bert," she said, buttoning her second glove, "that he had better take all his meals in one place and at regular hours. I've told him his health is of just as much account as his students and their studies." She seemed gratified that, on an important point, she had reached unanimity with an influential person who was to remain behind; and she got away without too long delaying the muddy surrey and the ungroomed sorrel.
Medora Phillips looked after her with a grimace. "Think of calling him 'Bert'!"
Cope, when advised, came down in a sort of bathrobe which he made do duty as a dressing-gown. He took the stairs in a rapid run, produced an emphatic smile for the parlor threshold, and put a good measure of energy into his handshakes. "Mighty good of you to call," he said to Mrs. Phillips. "Mighty good of you to call," he said to Amy Leffingwell.
Well, he was on his feet, then. No chance to feel anxiously the brow of a poor boy in bed, or to ask if the window was right or if he wouldn't like a sip of water. Life's little disappointments...!
To Amy Leffingwell he seemed pale, and she felt him as glad to sit down at once in the third and last chair the little room offered. She noticed, too, an inkstain on his right forefinger and judged that the daily grind of theme-correction was going on in spite of everything.
"Did you meet my aunt before she got away?" he asked.
"We did," said Medora, "and we are going to add our advice to hers."
"That's very nice of you," he rejoined, flattered. "But within a couple of months," he went on, with a lowered voice and an eye on the parlor door, "I shall be living in a different place and in quite a different way. Until then...." He shrugged. His shrug was meant to include the scanty, unpretending furnishings of the room, and also the rough casual fare provided by many houses of entertainment out of present sight.
"I almost feel like taking you in myself," declared Medora boldly.
"That's still nicer of you," he said very promptly and with a reinforcement of his smile. "But I'm on the up-grade, and pretty soon everything will come out as smooth as silk. I shall have ten days at home, for the holidays; then, after that, the new dispensation."
Amy Leffingwell tempered her look of general commiseration with a slight lapse into relief. There was no compelling reason why she should have commiserated; perhaps it all came from a desire to indulge in an abandonment to gentleness and pity.
"Do you know," said Cope, with a sort of embarrassed laugh, "I feel as if I were letting myself become the focus of interest. Oughtn't I to do something to make the talk less personal?"
He glanced about the meagre little room. It gave no cue.
"I'm sure Amy and I are satisfied with the present subject," returned Medora.
But Cope rose, and gathered his bathrobe--or dressing-gown--about him. "Wait a moment. I have some photographs I can show you--several of them came only yesterday. I'll bring them down."
As soon as he had disappeared into the hall, Mrs. Phillips gave a slight smile and said quickly:
"For heaven's sake, Amy, don't look so concerned, and mournful, and sympathetic! Anybody might think that, instead of your being my chaperon, I was yours!"
"He doesn't look at all well," said Amy defensively.
"He might look better; but we can't pity a young man too openly. Pity is akin to embarrassment, for the pitied."
Cope came down stairs the second time at a lesser pace. He carried a sheaf of photographs. Some were large and were regularly mounted; others were but the informal products of snap-shottery.
He drew up his chair nearer to theirs and began to spread his pictures over the gray and brown pattern on his lap.
"You know I was teaching, last year, at Winnebago," he said. "Here are some pictures of the place. Science Hall," he began, passing them. "Those fellows on the front steps must be a graduating class.
"The Cathedral," he continued. "And I think that, somewhere or other, I have a group-picture of the choir.
"Sisterhood house," he went on. "Two or three of them standing out in front."
"Sisterhood?" asked Mrs. Phillips, with interest. "What do they do?"
Cope paused. "What do they do, indeed? Well, for one thing, they decorate the altar--Easter, Harvest home, and so on."
"That isn't much. That doesn't take a house."
"Well, I suppose they visit, and teach. Sort of neighborhood centre. Headquarters. Most of them, I believe, live at home."
"Dear me! Is Winnebago large enough to require settlement-work?"
"Don't drive me so! I suppose they want to tone in with the cathedral as a special institution. 'Atmosphere,' you know. Some tracts of our great land are rather drab and vacant, remember. Color, stir,--and distinction, you understand."
"Is Winnebago ritualistic?"
"Not very. While I was there a young 'priest,' an offshoot from the cathedral, started up a new parish in one of the industrial outskirts. He was quite earnest and eloquent and put up a fine service; but nobody except his own father and mother went to hear him preach."
Mrs. Phillips returned to the Sisterhood house.
"Are they nice girls?" she asked acutely.
"Oh, I guess so. I met two or three of them. Nice girls, yes; just trying to be a little different. Here's the boat-house, and some of the fellows in their rowing-clothes. Some sail-boats too."
"Can you sail?" asked Amy. She had the cathedral-choir in one hand and now took the boat-club in the other. She studied both pictures intently, for both were small and crowded.
"Why, I have all the theory and some of the practice. Those small inland lakes are tricky, though."
"Probably no worse than ours," said Mrs. Phillips. "Do help poor Amy," she went on. "Are you in either of these groups?"
"No. Didn't I tell you I was trying to get away from the personal? I'm not in any of these pictures." Amy unconsciously let both half-drop, as if they held no particular interest, after all. And the hand into which the next photograph was put gave it but lukewarm welcome.
Mixed in with these general subjects were several of a more personal nature: groups of twos and threes, and a number of single figures. One face and figure, as Mrs. Phillips presently came to notice, occurred again and again, in various attitudes and costumes. It was a young man of Cope's own age--or perhaps two or three years older. He was of Cope's own height, but slightly heavier, with a possible tendency to plumpness. The best of the photographs made him dark, with black, wavy hair; and in some cases (where sunlight did not distort his expression) he indulged a determined sort of smile. He figured once, all by himself, in choir vestments; again, all by himself, in rowing toggery; a third time, still by himself, in a costume whose vague inaccuracy suggested a character in amateur theatricals.
"Who is this?" inquired Mrs. Phillips, with the last of these in hand.
Cope was prompt, but vague.
"Oh, that's a chum of mine, up there. He belongs to a dramatic club. They give 'The School for Scandal' and 'Caste,' and--well, more modern things. They have to wear all sorts of togs."
"And here he is again? And here? And here?"--shuffling still another picture into view.
"He's fond of costume, isn't he?"
"Very versatile," returned Cope, lightly and briefly. "Clothes to correspond."
Mrs. Phillips began to peer again at the picture of the choir-group. "Isn't he here too?"
"Yes. With the first tenors. There you have him,--third from the left, just behind that row of little devils in surplices."
"You and he sing together?"
"Sometimes--when we are together."
"'Larboard Watch' and 'Suona la Tromba' and----?"
"Oh, heavens!" said Cope. He threw up his head quite spiritedly. There was now more color in his cheeks, more sparkle in his eyes, more vibration in his voice. Amy looked at him with a vanishing pity and a growing admiration.
"Let us fellows be of our own day and generation," he added.
"Willingly," said Mrs. Phillips. "But my husband was fond of 'Larboard Watch'; I heard him sing in it before we were married. Shall I ever hear you sing together?" she asked.
"Possibly. He is coming down here early in January. To look after me."
"After you?" Mrs. Phillips reviewed the photographs once more. "I imagine you may sometimes have to look after him."
Cope sobered a little. "Sometimes," he acknowledged. "We shall look after each other," he amended. "We are going to live together."
"Oh, then, he is coming to stay? You've been a long time in reaching the point. And why do you say 'possibly' when I ask about your singing together? Aren't you coming to my house 'together'?"
"I withdraw the 'possibly.' Probably."
"And now withdraw the 'probably.' Make it 'certainly.'"
"That's better," murmured her companion.
Then Mrs. Phillips must know the new-comer's name, and must have an outline of the proposed plan. And Amy Leffingwell began to look with renewed interest on the counterfeit form and features of the young man who enjoyed Bertram Cope's friendly regard. And so the moments of "entertainment"-- Cope's in turn--went on.
"I'm glad he really appears to like somebody," declared Mrs. Phillips, on the way home; "it makes him seem quite human." Inwardly, she was resolving to have both the young men to dine at the earliest possible date. It was not always practicable to invite a single young man as often as you wished. Having two to ask simplified the problem considerably.
Cope, flushed and now rather tired, walked up stairs with his photographs, took a perfunctory sip from a medicine-glass, looked at the inkstain on his finger, and sat down at his table. Two or three sheets of a letter were lying on it, and he re-read a paragraph or so before dipping his pen.
"You were rather exacting about that week-end excursion. Mr. R. was all right, and a few days of new air and new scenes would have done me a lot of good. Still, I acknowledge your first claim. But remember that I gave up Indian Rock for you, even if you didn't give up Green Bay for me. I hope the fellow who took you hasn't got anything further to propose. If he has, I ask for a tip in turn.
"Naturally it wasn't the easiest thing in the world to explain to him, and I haven't seen him since. But I can truly say that a relative did come, and that she was needed--or thought she was."
He picked up his pen for a fresh paragraph.
"The new photos--added to those I had--have come in quite nicely. They have just helped me entertain a couple of callers. Women have abounded in these parts to-day: Mrs. Peck, scurrying about more than usual; an aunt from home, getting away with her baggage--more than she needed to bring; and then the two who have just gone. It all makes me feel like wanting to take part in a track-meet or a ball-game--though, as I am now, I might not last two minutes at either. The lady who called was Mrs. Phillips. I thought she might as well know that you were coming. Of course you are already invited, good and plenty, to her house. Look in old music-books and see if you can't find 'Larboard Watch.' If it turns out you can get away before the holidays, come down and go out with me to Freeford for Christmas. I have had some rather glum hours and miss you more than ever. I have been within arm's length of one of the University trustees (who can probably place me now!)--but I don't know just how much that can be counted upon for, if for anything. Show yourself,--that will help.
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