There were times when Martie found it difficult to believe that she had ever been away from Monroe at all; evenings, when she and Lydia sat talking in the shabby sitting room of the old house; or mornings when she fed the chickens in the soft fog under the willow trees of the yard. Len and Sally were married and gone, dear Ma was gone, and Belle had married, too; a tall gaunt woman called Pauline was in her place.
But these things might all have transpired without touching Martie's own life directly. She might still, in many ways, have been the dreaming, ambitious, helpless girl of seven years ago. Sometimes the realization of all she had endured came to her with an odd sense of shock. She would glance down at her thin hand, in its black cuff, and fall into deep musing, her face grave and weary. Or she would call Teddy from his play, and hold his warm little body close, staring at him with a look that always made the child uneasy. Third Avenue, barred with sun and shade, in the early summer mornings; Broadway on a snowy winter afternoon with the theatre crowd streaming up and down, spring and babies taking possession of the parks--were these all a dream?
No; she had gained something in the hard years; she saw that more and more. Her very widowhood to Monroe had the stamp of absolute respectability. Even Pa was changed toward her; or was it that she was changed toward him? However caused, in their relationship there was a fundamental change.
Pa had been a figure of power and tyranny seven years ago. Now he seemed to Martie only an unreasonable, unattractive old man, thwarted in his old age in everything his heart desired. Lydia was still tremblingly filial in her attitude toward Pa, but Martie at once assumed the maternal. She scolded him, listened to him, and dictated to him, and he liked it. Martie had never loved him as Lydia did; she had defied and disobeyed and deserted him, yet he transferred his allegiance to her now, and clung to her helplessly.
He liked to have her walk down to his office beside him in the mornings, in her plain black. While they walked he pointed out various pieces of property, and told her how cheaply they had been sold forty years ago. The whole post-office block had gone for seven hundred dollars, the hotel site had been Mason's cow-yard! Old man Sark had lived there, and had refused to put black on his house when Lincoln was assassinated.
"And didn't he go to jail for that, Pa?"
"Yes, ma'am, he did!"
"I was in jail, too." Malcolm Monroe would chuckle under his now gray moustache that was yellowed with tobacco stains. "Yes, sir, I rounded up some of the boys, the Twentyonesters, we called ourselves, and we led a riot 'round this town! The ringleaders were arrested, but that was merely a form--merely a form!"
"You must have been a terror, Pa."
"Well--well, I had a good deal of your grandmother's spirit! And I suppose they rather looked to me to set the pace--"
Smiling, they would go along in the sunlight, past the little homes where babies had been turned out into grassy yards, past the straggling stables and the smithy, and the fire-house, and the office of the weekly Zeus. There was more than one garage in Monroe now and the squared noses of Ford cars were at home everywhere. Mallon's Hardware Emporium, the Five-and-Ten-Cent Store, still with its pillars of twisted handkerchiefs, Mason and White's--how familiar they were! And the old Bank, with its wide windows and double roller shades was familiar, too. Martie learned that the Bank had duly worn black a year or two ago for kindly old Colonel Frost; his name had been obliterated from the big window, and Clifford Frost was vice-president now.
"One death is two deaths, they say," Lydia had sighed, telling Martie of the Colonel's death. "You know Cliff's wife died only two months before his father did. That was a terrible thing! Her little girl was seven years old, and she was going to have another--"
When Martie, in the early afternoon of a warm sweet day on mid- February, had stepped from the train, with Teddy's little fingers held tight in hers, Sally's face, running over with tears and smiles, had been the first she found. Curiously changed, yet wonderfully familiar, the sisters had clung together, hardly knowing how to begin their friendship again after six long years. There were big things to say, but they said the little things. They talked about the trip and the warm weather that had brought the buttercups so soon, and the case that had kept Pa on jury duty in Pittsville.
Len--rather pompous, and with a moustache!--explained why his wife could not be there: the two-year-old daughter was not very well. Martie questioned him eagerly of his two children. Both girls, Len said gloomily; he asked his sister if she realized that there was not a Monroe yet.
Lydia wept a few tears; "Martie, dear, to see you in black!" and Martie's eyes watered, and her lip shook.
"Grace and all the others would have come," Sally said quickly, "but we knew you'd be tired, and then it's homecoming, Martie, and you'll have lots of time to see us all!"
She introduced Elizabeth, a lovely, fly-away child with bright loose hair, and Billy, a freckled, ordinary-looking boy, who gave his aunt a beautiful smile from large, dark eyes. The others were left with "Mother"--Joe's mother.
"But, Sally, you're so fat!"
"And, Mart, you're so thin!"
"Never mind; it's becoming to you, Sally. You look still like a little girl. Really, you do! And how's Joe?"
"Oh, Joe's lovely. I went down and spent a week with him. I had the choice of that or a spring suit, and I took that!"
"Went--but where is he? I suppose he hasn't been sent to San Quentin?"
"Oh, Martie, don't! You know Russell Harrison, 'Dutch's' cousin, that used to play with Len, really was sent there!"
"For Heaven's sake, what for?"
"Well, Hugh Wilson had some trouble with Paul King, and--it was about money--and Russell Harrison went to Hughie and told him--"
So the conversation was diverted over and over again; and the inessential things were said, and the important ones forgotten. Len had borrowed the firm's motor car, and they all got in. Martie, used to Wallace's careless magnificence, was accustomed enough to this mode of travel, but she saw that it was a cause of great excitement to the children, and even to Sally.
"You say the 'firm,' Len--I'll never get used to my little brother with a moustache! What do you mean by the 'firm?'" asked Martie. "My goodness--goodness--goodness, there's the Library and Lacey's!" she added, her eyes eagerly roving the streets.
"Miss Fanny is still there; she always speaks so affectionately of you, Martie," said Lydia eagerly and tremulously. Martie perceived that in some mysterious way Lydia was ill at ease. Lydia did not quite know how to deal with a younger sister who was yet a widow, and had lived in New York.
"There was an awful lot of talk about getting her out of the Library," contributed Sally; "they said the Streets were at the back of it; they wanted to put a man in! There was the greatest excitement; we all went down to the Town Hall and listened to the speeches--it was terrific! I guess the Streets and their crowd felt pretty small, because they got--what was it, Len?"
"Seventeen votes out of one hundred and eleven!" Len said, not moving his eyes from the road before him.
"My house is right down there, next door to Uncle Ben's," said Sally, craning her neck suddenly. "You can't see it, but no matter; there's lots of time! Here's the Hawkes's place; remember that?"
"I remember everything," Martie said, smiling. "We're nearly home!"
The old Monroe house looked shabby, even in the spring green. Martie had seen the deeper, fresher green of the East for six successive springs. The eucalyptus trees wore their tassels, the willows' fresh foliage had sprung over the old rusty leaves. A raw gateway had been cut, out by the old barn, into Clipper Lane, and a driveway filled in. Tired, confused, train-sick, Martie got down into the old yard, and the old atmosphere enveloped her like a garment. The fuchsia bushes, the marguerites so green on top, so brown and dry under their crown of fresh life, the heliotrope sprawling against the peeling boards under the dining-room windows, and tacked in place with strips of kid glove--how well she knew them!
They went in the side door, and through the dark dining room, odorous of vegetable soup and bread and butter. An unearthly quiet held the house. Pa's door was closed; Martie imagined the room darker and more grim than ever.
Lydia had given her her old room; the room in which she and Sally had grown to womanhood. It was as clean and bare as a hotel room. Lydia and Sally had discussed the advisability of a bowl of flowers, but had decided flowers might remind poor Mart of funerals. Martie remembered the counterpane on the bed and the limp madras curtains at the windows. She put her gloves in a bureau drawer lined with folded newspaper, and hung her wraps in the square closet that was, for some unimaginable reason, a step higher than the room.
Lydia sat on the bed, and Sally on a chair, while Martie slowly moved about her new domain. The children had gone into the yard, 'Lizabeth and Billy charged not to let their little cousin get his clothes dirty; when the trunks came, with his overalls, he could get as dirty as he pleased.
The soiled, tumbled contents of the hand bag, after the five days' trip, filled Martie with a sort of weary concern. She stood, puzzling vaguely over the damp washcloth that was wrapped about a cake of soap, the magazines of which she had grown so tired, the rumpled night-wear.
"I suppose I should hang these up; we may not get the trunks to- night."
"Oh, you will!" Lydia reassured her. A certain blankness fell on them all. It was the glaring spring hour of four o'clock; not lunch time, nor dinner time, nor bed time, nor time to go to market. Suddenly a tear fell on Martie's hand; she sniffed.
"Ah, don't, Mart!" Lydia said, fumbling for her own handkerchief. "We know--we know how hard it is! Your husband, and Ma not here to welcome you--"
The sisters cried together.
But she slept well in the old walnut bed, and enjoyed a delicious, unfamiliar leisure the next morning, when Teddy was turned out to the safety of the yard, and Pa, after paternally reassuring her as to her welcome and pompously reiterating that her old father's home was hers for the rest of her life, was gone. She and Lydia talked deeply over the breakfast table, while Pauline rattled dishes in the kitchen and a soft fog pressed against the windows.
Martie had said that she was going over to Sally's immediately after breakfast, but, in the old way, time drifted by. She went upstairs to make her bed, and she and Lydia talked again, from doorway to doorway. When they were finally dressed to walk down town, Lydia said that she might as well go to market first; they could stop at Sally's afterward.
Teddy galloped and curveted about them; Monroe enchanted Teddy. The sunshine was just pushing back the fog, and the low hills all about the town were coming into view, when Martie took her son in to meet Miss Fanny.
Grayer and thinner, the librarian was otherwise unchanged. The old strong, coarse voice, the old plain dress, serviceable and comfortable, the old delighted affection. Miss Fanny wore glasses now; she beamed upon Teddy as she put them on, after frankly wiping her eyes.
She made a little fuss about Martie's joining the Library, so that Teddy could take home "Davy and the Goblin."
They went out into the warming, drying Main Street again; everywhere Martie was welcomed. In the shops and on the street humble old friends eyed her black respectfully.
The nervousness that she had felt about coming back began to melt like the mist itself. She had dreaded Monroe's old standards, dreaded Rose and Len, and the effect her poverty must have on them. Now she began to see that Rose mattered as little here as she had mattered when Martie was struggling in East Twenty-sixth Street. Rose "went" with the Frosts and the Streets and the Pattersons now. Her intimate friend was Dr. Ellis's wife, a girl from San Francisco.
"Shall we go in for a minute, and make a little visit?" said Lydia, as she had said years ago, whenever they passed the church. Martie nodded. They creaked into the barnlike shabbiness of the edifice; the little red light twinkled silently before the altar. Clara Baxter was tiptoeing to and fro with vases. Teddy twisted and turned, had to be bumped to his knees, was warned in a whisper that he must not talk.
Father Martin was not well; he had an assistant, Lydia said. The bishop wanted to establish a convent here, and old Mrs. Hanson had left eleven hundred dollars for it. Gertie Hanson lived in Fruitvale; she was married to a widower. She had threatened to fight the will, but people said that she got quite a lot of money; the Hansons were richer than any one thought. Anyway, she had not put up a gravestone to her mother yet, and Alice Clark said that Gertie had said that she couldn't afford it.
"Why, that house must have been worth something!" Martie commented, picking up the threads with interest.
"Well, wouldn't you think so!" Lydia said eagerly.
The morning had been so wasted that Sally was in a whirl of dinner- getting when they reached her house. She had her hearty meal at noon on the children's account; her little kitchen was filled with smoke and noise. To-day she had masses of rather dark, mushy boiled rice, stewed neck of lamb, apples, and hot biscuits. Martie, fresh from New York's campaign of dietetic education, reflected that it was rather unusual fare for small children, but Sally's quartette was healthy-looking enough, and full of life and excitement. 'Lizabeth set the table; there was great running about, and dragging of chairs.
Martie studied her sister with amused admiration. There was small room for maternal vapours in Sally's busy life. Her matter-of-fact voice ruled the confusion.
"Jim, you do as 'Lizabeth tells you, or you'll get another whipping, sir! Pour that milk into the pitcher, Brother. Put on both sugar bowls, darling; Brother likes the brown. Martie, dearest, I am ashamed of this muss, but in two minutes I'll have them all started- -there's baby--'Lizabeth, there's baby; you'll have to go up--"
"I'll go up!" Lydia and Martie said together. Martie went through the bare little hallways upstairs, and peeped into shabby bedrooms full of small beds and dangling nightgowns and broken toys.
Mary was sitting up in her crib, tumbled, red-cheeked, tears hanging on her lashes. The room was darkened for her nap; she wore a worn little discoloured wrapper; she clung to her rag doll. Martie, with deathly weakness sweeping over her, smiled, and spoke to her. The baby eyed her curiously, but she was not afraid. Martie picked her up, and stood there holding her, while the knife turned and twisted in her heart.
After a while she wrapped a blanket about Mary, and carried her downstairs. Sally saw that Martie's face was ashen, and she knew why. Lydia saw nothing. Lydia would have said that Martie had placed poor Wallace's picture on her bureau that morning, and had talked about him, calmly and dry-eyed; so why should she feel so much more for her baby? Teddy had been a little strange, if eagerly friendly, with his other cousins; but he knew how to treat Mary. He picked up the things she threw down from her high-chair, and tickled her, and made her laugh.
"If this elaborate and formal meal is dinner, Sally dear, what is supper?"
"Oh, Martie, it's so delicious to hear you again! Why, supper will be apple sauce and bread and butter and milk, and gingerbread and cookies. It's the same the year round! I like it, really; after we go up to Pa's to supper the children don't sleep well, and neither do I."
"You haven't told me yet where Joe is."
"Oh, I know, and I will! We get talking, and somehow there's so much to say. Why, Joe's finishing his course at Cooper's College in San Francisco; he'll graduate this May. Dr. J. F. Hawkes; isn't that fun!"
"A regular doctor!" Martie exclaimed. "But--but is he going to be one?"
"Be one! I should think he is!" Sally announced proudly. "Uncle Ben says he's a born doctor--"
"And how long has it been Uncle Ben?"
"Oh, 'Lizabeth adopted him. He adores the children."
"He loaned Joe the money," Lydia said with her old air of delicately emphasizing an unsavoury truth.
Sally gave her younger sister a rather odd look at this, but she did not deny the statement.
"And who keeps the quartette going?" asked Martie, glancing about.
"Joe's people; and Pa does send barrels of apples and things, doesn't he, Sally?" Lydia supplied.
"Oh, yes; we only pay twelve dollars rent, and we live very cheaply!" Sally said cheerfully, with another mysterious look.
A day or two later, when they were alone, she told Martie the whole truth.
"It's Uncle Ben, of course, Mart; you remember his old offer, if ever I had any children? He pays me twelve hundred a year for my four. Nobody knows it, not even Lyd. People would only talk, you know, and it's none of their affair. It's his fad, you know. We married young, and Joe had no profession. Uncle Ben thinks the State ought to pay women for bearing children. He says it's their business in life. Women are taking jobs, foregoing marriage, and the nation is being robbed of citizens. He believes that the hardest kind of work is the raising of children, and the women who do it for the State ought to be paid by the State. He does it for me, and I feel as if he was a relation. It's meant everything to Joe and me, and the children, too. Sometimes, when I stop to think of it, it is a little queer, but--when you think of the way people do spend money, for orchids or old books or rugs--it's natural after all! He simply invests in citizens, that's what he says. I would have had them anyway, but I suppose, indeed I know, Mart, that there are lots of women who wouldn't!"
"And is he financing Joe, too?"
"Oh, no, indeed! Uncle Ben never speaks of money to me; I don't ever get one cent except my regular allowance. Why, when Joe was ill, and one of the babies--Billy, it was--was coming, he came in to see me now and then, but he never said boo about helping! Joe is working his way; he's chauffeur for Dr. Houston; that's something else nobody knows."
"I think that's magnificent of Joe!" Martie said, her face glowing.
"He graduates this year," Sally said proudly, "and then I think he will start here. For a long time we thought we'd have to move away then, because every one remembers little Joe Hawkes delivering papers, and working in the express office. But now that the hospital, up toward the Archer place, is really going to be built, Uncle Ben says that Joe can get a position there. It's Dr. Knowles's hospital, and Uncle Ben is his best friend. Of course that's big luck for Joe."
"Not so much luck," Martie said generously, "as that Joe has worked awfully hard, and done well."
"Oh, you don't know how hard, Mart! And loving us all as he does, too, and being away from us!" Sally agreed fervently. "But if he really gets that position, with my hundred, we'll be rich! We'll have to keep a Ford, Mart; won't that be fun?"
"Dr. Ben might die, Sally," Martie suggested.
"That wouldn't make any difference," the older sister said composedly. "I have the actual deeds--the titles, whatever they are- -to the property my money comes from. He gave me them a year ago, when he was sixty. I certainly dread the talk there'll be when his will comes to light, but Joe will be here then, and Joe isn't afraid of any one."
"He's done for you what Pa should have done," Martie mused.
"Oh, well, Pa did his best for us, Mart." Sally said dutifully; "he gave us a good home--"
"Was it a good home?" Martie questioned mildly.
"It was a much finer home than my children have, Mart."
"As far as walls and tables and silver spoons, I suppose it was. But, Sally, there's no child alive who has a sweeter atmosphere than this--always with mother, always learning, and always considered! Why, my boy is blooming already in it!"
Sally's face flushed with pleasure.
"Martie, you make me so proud!"
"If you can only keep it up, Sally. With me it doesn't matter so much, because I've only the one, and no husband whose claims might interfere. But when 'Lizabeth and Mary, as well as the boys, are older--"
"You mean--always let them have their friends at the house, and so on?" Sally asked slowly.
"Yes, but more than that! Let them feel as much a part of the world as the boys do. Put them into any work--only make them respect it!"
"Pa might have helped us, only neither you nor I, nor Lyd, ever showed the least interest in work," Sally submitted thoughtfully.
"Neither did Len--but he made Len!"
"Yes, I see what you mean," Sally admitted with an awakening face. "But we would have thought he was pretty stern, Mart," she added.
"Just as children do when they have to learn to read and write," countered Martie. "Don't you see?"
Sally did not see, but she was glad to see Martie's interest. She told Lydia later that Martie really seemed better and more like her old self, even in these few days.
With almost all the women of Monroe, Lydia now considered Martie's life a thing accomplished, and boldly accomplished. To leave home, to marry, to have children in a strange city, to be honorably widowed and to return to her father's home, and rear her child in seclusion and content; this was more than fell to the lot of many women. Lydia listened with actual shudders to Martie's casually dropped revelations.
"This John Dryden that I told you about, Lyd--the man who wrote the play that failed--was anxious for me to go on with the Curley boarding-house," Martie said one day, "and sometimes now I think I should have done so."
"Good heavens!" Lydia, smoothing the thin old blankets on Martie's wide, flat bed, stopped aghast. "But why should you--Pa is more than willing to have you here!"
"I know, darling. But what really deterred me was not so much Pa's generosity, but the fact that I would have had to lease the property for three years; George Curley wanted to be rid of the responsibility. And to really make the thing a success, I should have had the adjoining house, too; that would have been about four thousand rent."
"Four thousand--Martie, you would have been crazy!"
Martie, tinkling pins into a saucer on the bureau, opening the upper drawer to sweep her brush and comb into it, and jerking the limp linen scarf straight, only smiled and shrugged in answer. She had been widowed three months, and already reviving energy and self- confidence were running in her veins. Already she realized that it had been a mistake to accept her father's hospitality in the first panic of being dependent. However graceful and dignified her position was to the outsider's eye, in this old house in the sunken block, she knew now that Pa was really unable to offer her anything more than a temporary relief from financial worry, and that her chances of finding employment in Monroe as compared to New York were about one to ten.
Malcolm Monroe had been deeply involved for several years in "the firm" by which term he and Len referred to their real estate business together. A large tract of grassy brown meadow, south of the town, had been in his possession for thirty years; it was only with the opening of the new "Monroe's Grove" that he had realized its possibilities, or rather that Len had realized them.
Len had held one or two office positions in Monroe unsatisfactorily before his twentieth year, and then had persuaded his father to send him to Berkeley, to the State University. Ma and Lydia had been proud of their under-graduate for one brief year, then Len was back again, disgusted with study. After a few months of drifting and experimenting, the brilliant idea of developing the old south tract into building sites had occurred to Len, and presently his father was also persuaded that here was a splendid opportunity. A little office on Main Street was rented, and its window embellished with the words "Own a Home in the Monroe Estates." Len really worked violently for a time; he rode his bicycle back and forth tirelessly. He married, and moved out into the Estates, and he personally superintended the work that went on there. Streets and plots were laid out, trees planted, the fresh muddy roads were edged with pyramids of brown sewer pipes.
The financial outlay was enormous, unforeseen. Taxes went up, sidewalks crumbled back into the grass again, the four or five unfenced little wooden houses that were erected and occupied added to the general effect of forlornness. The Estates were mortgaged, and to the old mortgage on the homestead another was added.
Len took Martie out to see the place. Slim little trees were bending in a sharp April wind; a small woman at the back of one of the small houses was taking whipping clothes from a line. The streets were deep in mud; Martie smiled as she read the crossposts: "High Street," "Maple Avenue," and "Sunset Avenue." Here and there a sign "Sold" embellished a barren half-acre.
"You've really done wonders, Len," she said encouragingly. "And of course there's nothing like land for making money!"
"Oh, there's a barrel of money in it," he answered dubiously, kicking a lump of dirt at his feet. They had left the little car at a comparatively dry crossing, and were walking about. "We've put in a hundred more trees this year, and I think we'll start another house pretty soon." And when they got back in the car, his face flushed from vigorous cranking, he added, "I talked Pa into getting the car; it makes it look as if we were making money!"
"Of course it does," Martie said amiably. She thought her own thoughts.
Lydia had nothing but praise for Len; he had worked like a Trojan, she said. And Pa had been wonderfully patient and good about the whole thing.
"Pa was telling me the other day that he could have gotten ever so much money for this place, if he had had it levelled the time the whole town was," Lydia said, in her curious tone that was triumphantly complaining, one day.
"I wonder what it's worth, as it stands," mused Martie.
"Oh, Martie, I don't know! I don't know anything about it; he just happened to say that!"
It was later on this same day that Martie went in to see Miss Fanny, and put her elbows on the desk, resting her troubled face in her hands.
"Miss Fanny, sometimes I despair! Heaven knows I have had hard knocks enough, and yet I never learn," she burst out. "Seven years ago I used to come in here to you, and rage because I was so helpless! Well, I've had experience since, bitter experience, and yet here I am, helpless and a burden still!"
Miss Fanny smiled her wide, admiring smile. Without a word she reached to a shelf behind her, and handed Martie a familiar old volume: "Choosing a Life Work." The colour rushed into Martie's face as she took it.
"I'll read it now!" she said simply.
"If you really want to work, Martie," suggested the older woman, "why don't you come in here with me? Now that we've got the Carnegie endowment, we have actually appropriated a salary for an assistant."
Martie looked at her thoughtfully, looked backward perhaps over the long years.
"I will," she said.