One wet January night Malcolm came home tired and cross to find his younger daughter his only company for dinner. Lydia had been sent for in haste, by Mrs. Harry Kilroy, whose mother was not expected to live, said the panting messenger, thereby delicately intimating that she was expected to die. Teddy was as usual at Aunt Sally's.
Martie coaxed the fire to a steady glow, and seated herself opposite her father with a curiosity entirely unmixed with the old apprehension. Pa was unmistakably upset about something.
Under her pleasant questioning it came out. Old Tate and Cliff Frost had come into the office of the Monroe Estates that afternoon to make him an offer for the home site. Martie could see that her father regretted that Lydia and Lydia's horrified protests were missing.
"I looked them in the eye," said Malcolm, wiping his moustache before he gave her an imitation of his own scorn, "and I said, 'Gentlemen, before the home that was my father's, and will be my son's, passes from my hands, those hands will be dust!'"
"But why do they want it?" asked Martie after duly applauding this sentiment.
She was rapidly thinking. The old house was mortgaged, and doubly mortgaged. It was useless to the average buyer, for besides the fact that the neighbourhood was no longer Monroe's best, it was four feet below street level. It was surrounded by useless shabby barns and outhouses, it was five times too large for the diminished family, and, in case of Pa's death--and Pa was nearly seventy--it must fetch what it might, for between Len's constant need of money for the Estates, and Lydia's mild helplessness, there could be no holding it for a fair price.
"For the new High School--for the new High School!" her father said impatiently. For perhaps twenty years he had had occasional offers for the property, and had always scornfully refused them.
"Yet I think that's rather touching, Pa," Martie said.
"What's touching?" he asked suspiciously, after a moment in which he obviously tried to see any touching aspect in the affair.
"Why, to have the Monroe High School on the old Monroe site!" Martie said innocently. "Of course Mr. Tate and Cliff Frost know what it means to you, and yet I suppose they realize that the neighbourhood is changing, and that those shops have come in, this side of the bridge, and that, even if we lived here ten years more, we couldn't twenty. I agree with your decision, Pa, of course; but at the same time, I see that no other plot in Monroe would be so fitting!"
Malcolm stirred his tea, raised the cup, and drank off the hot fluid with great gusto. A faint frown darkened his brow.
"And, pray, where would the family live?" he asked presently.
"Where we ought to be now," Martie answered promptly. "In the Estates. I have been thinking lately, Pa, that nothing would give that development such prestige as to have you there! Put up as pretty a house as you choose, build a drive, and put in a handsome fence, but be Malcolm Monroe of the Monroe Estates!"
Always captured by phrases, she saw him tug at his moustache to hide a smile.
"Well!" he said presently. "Well! You astonish me. But yes, I see your point. I must candidly admit you have a point there. With another attractive home there--yes, there is something in that. But I had supposed that you girls had a sentiment for this old place," he added almost reproachfully.
"And so we have!" Martie answered quickly. "But it is one thing to sell this place in small lots, Pa, and have it chopped into shops and shanties, and another to have a three-hundred-thousand-dollar building go in here. The new High School on the old Monroe place; you'll admit there's a great difference?"
Had her bombastic father always been so easily influenced? Martie wondered, remembering the old storms and the old stubbornness. It was true, some persons couldn't do things; other persons could. Lydia and Ma would have goaded him into an obstinacy that no later judgment could dispel, and after his death Monroe would have lamented that he had left next to nothing, for the place had to go for taxes and interest overdue, and Lydia and Ma would have settled themselves comfortably on Len for life.
"All the difference in the world," Malcolm said, now deep in thought.
"You could send a letter to the Zeus," Martie added presently, "saying that you had never even considered such a step before, but that to sell for educational purposes was--you know!--was in accord with the spirit of your father--that sort of thing!"
"And so it was!" he answered warmly.
"A few ready thousands would be the making of the Estates, now," said Martie, "but naturally the town need know nothing of that!"
Malcolm shrugged a careless assent, and silently finished his pie.
"Your sister Lydia--" he began suddenly, shaking his head.
"Yes, Lyd will object," Martie assented, as his voice stopped. "Lyd is a conservative, Pa. She has very little of the spirit that brought Grandfather Monroe here; she doesn't, in the Estates, see property that will be just as beautiful and just as valuable as anything in Monroe in a few years. Why, Pa, you must remember the days when our trees in the yard here were only saplings?"
"Remember?" he echoed impressively. "Why, I remember Monroe as the field between two sheep-ranches. There was not a blade of wheat, not a fruit tree--"
He was well started. Martie listened to an hour's complacent reminiscence. At eight o'clock he went to his study, but came back a moment later, with his glasses pushed up on his lead-coloured forehead, to say that the sum old Tait mentioned would clear the mortgage, build a handsome house, and perhaps leave a bit over for Martie and her boy. At nine he appeared again, to say that he would deed the new house to Lydia, who would undoubtedly take the change a little hard--a little hard!
"Yes," said old Malcolm thoughtfully, from the doorway, glancing, with his spectacles still on his forehead, at the pencilled list he had in his hand. "Yes, I believe I have hit upon the solution! I-- believe--I--have--hit--it!"
Old Mrs. Sark having fulfilled her family's mournful expectations, Lydia stayed for the funeral, and was so deeply absorbed and satisfied by her position in the Kilroy house that she returned home still impressive, consolatory, and crushed in manner.
She sat beside Martie on the front steps, in the warm March twilight, retailing the events of the last three days, and living again their moments of grief and stress.
"I know I was a consolation to them, Mart--of course, there's little enough one can do! But yesterday morning--I sat up both nights; I declare I don't know where the strength comes from--yesterday morning, before the funeral, I went up to Louis Kilroy--I never saw a grown man take a thing so hard--and I said, 'Louis, you must come and have a cup of hot, strong coffee!' Bessie was there, and I must say she seemed as devoted to Grandma as if she'd been her own daughter, and she came and took my hands, and she said, 'Lydia, I never will forget all you've done for us!' Well," Lydia went on, with a sad little deprecatory shrug, "I didn't do much. But it was somebody there, you know! Somebody to do the plain little everyday things that must be done, whether death is in the house, or not!" And Lydia sighed in weary content. "Carrie David says she believes Tom'll go next--"she was pursuing mournfully, when Martie interrupted.
"Say, Lyd dear, we've been having great times since you were away--I didn't have a chance to say a word to you at the funeral--but the school board, or the city fathers, or some one, has made Pa an offer for the house!"
"What house?" Lydia asked interestedly.
"This one." Martie began to chew the fresh sprout of a yellow banksia rose.
"This one!" Lydia's mouth remained a little open, her eyes were wild.
"Yes; this whole tract. They'll fill it in; they want if for the new High School."
"Well--" Lydia tossed her head loftily. "Of course, Pa told them--?"
"Yes, he did tell them, as he always has--that nothing would persuade him to part with it!"
"Well!" said Lydia, breathing again.
"But he's been thinking it over, Lyd, and he's really seriously reconsidering it. You see the instant Pa dies, the Bank will foreclose, for neither you nor I have a cent, and Len is tied up for years with the Estates--"
Martie began to speak eagerly and quickly. But her voice died before Lydia's look.
"Martie! How can you! Speaking of Pa's death in that callous, cold- blooded way; when poor Ma hasn't been buried three years--and now dear old Grandma Sark--"
Lydia fumbled for a handkerchief, and began to sob. After a few moments, in which Martie only offered a few timid pats on her shoulder for consolation, she suddenly dried her eyes, and began with bitter clearness:
"I know who has done this, Mart! I don't say much, but I see. I see now where all your petting of Pa, and humouring Pa, was leading! Oh, how can you--how can you--how can you! My home, the dear old Monroe place, that three generations of us--but I won't stand it! I feel as if Ma would rise up and rebuke me! No, you and Pa can decide what you please, but no power on earth will make me--and where would we live, might I ask? We couldn't go to the Poor House, I suppose?"
"Pa'd build a lovely house, smaller and more modern, on the Estates," Martie explained. Lydia assumed a look of high scorn.
"Oh, indeed!" she said, gulping and wiping her eyes again. "Indeed! Is that so? Move out there so that Len would prosper, so that there would be one more house out on that desolate flat field--very well, you and Pa can go! But I stay here!"
And trembling all over, as she always did tremble when forced into anything but a mildly neutral position, Lydia went upstairs. The dinner hour was embittered by a painful discussion and by more tears.
Malcolm was somewhat inclined to waver toward Lydia's view, but Martie was firm. When Lydia tearfully protested that, just as it stood, the house would made an ideal "gentleman's estate," Martie mercilessly answered that at its present level, without electric light or garage or baths, it was just so much "old wood and plaster." Lydia winced at this term as if she had been struck.
"How would you pay taxes and interest, if anything happened to Pa?" Martie demanded briskly.
"We would have no rent to pay," Lydia countered quickly, red spots burning in her cheeks, and giving her mild face an unusually wild look. "Why do people own their homes, if there's no economy in it?"
"Rent doesn't come to three thousand a year!" Martie reminded her. Lydia looked startled. "We could rent that whole upper floor," she said hesitatingly.
"But you would rather have this place a school house than a boarding-house?" argued Martie.
Lydia's wet eyes reddened again.
"Don't say such horrible things, Martie! The way you put things it's enough to scare Pa to death! Why shouldn't we live here, as we always have lived?" She turned to her father. "Pa, it's not right for you to consider such a change just because Martie---"
"I'm doing it for you, Lyd," Martie said quickly. "I shall be in New York--"
They hardly heard her; Martie had talked of New York since she was a child. But Martie suddenly realized that it was true; she had really been planning and contriving to go back through all these placid months.
"I'll discuss it with your brother," Malcolm finally said. "I'll see what Leonard thinks."
"But, Pa," Martie protested, "what does Len know about it?"
"I suppose a man may be supposed to know more about business than a woman!" Lydia exclaimed.
"Yes--yes, this is a man's affair," Malcolm conceded, scraping his chin. "Your brother has been associated with men in business affairs for years; he had some college work. I'll see Len."
There was nothing more to say. Martie felt instinctively that Len would approve of the sale of the old place, and she was right, but it was galling to have his opinion so eagerly sought by her father, and to have him so gravely quoted. Len, slow witted and suspicious, thought that there was "something in the idea," but added pompously that he could not see that the Monroes, as a family, were under any need of obliging the Frosts and the Tates, and that the property was there in any case, and there was no occasion for hurry.
Malcolm repeated these views at the dinner table with great seriousness, and Lydia triumphantly echoed them over and over. As she and Martie dusted and made beds the older sister poured forth a quiet stream of satisfied comment. Such things were for men's deciding, after all, and she, Lydia, never would and never could understand how they were able to settle things so quickly and so wisely.
But Martie was not beaten. She knew that Len was wrong; there was no time to waste. The old Mussoo tract, down at the other end of the town, was also under consideration, and the deal might be closed any day. One quiet, wet day she asked Miss Fanny for leave of absence, and went to the office of old Charley Tate. Mr. Tate was not there, Potter Street told her, taking his feet from a desk, and slapping his book shut. However, if there was anything he could do, Mart--?
No; she thanked him. She would go up to the Bank, and see Mr. Frost. She met Rose coming out as she went in.
"Hello, Martie!" Rose was all cordiality. "Nice weather for ducks, isn't it? But fortunately you and I aren't sugar or salt, are we? Were you going to see Rodney?"
"Clifford Frost," Martie told her. Did Rose's face really brighten a little--she wondered?
"Oh! Well, he's there! Come soon and see Doris!" Rose got into the motor car, and Martie went into the Bank.
Clifford was a tall man, close to fifty, thinner than Dr. Ben, more ample of figure than Malcolm. He wore a thin old alpaca coat in the Bank in this warm spring weather. A green shade was pushed up against his high forehead, which shone a little, and as Martie settled herself opposite him, he took off his big glasses, and dried them in a leisurely fashion with a rotary motion of his white handkerchief.
He was reputedly the richest man in town, but rich in country fashion. Such property as he had, cattle, a farm or two, several buildings in Main Street, and stock in the Bank, he studied and nursed carefully, not from any feeling of avarice, but because he was temperate and conservative in all his dealings.
Martie liked his office, much plainer than Rodney's, but with something dignified about its well-worn furnishings that Rodney's shining brass and glass and mahogany lacked. She thought that perhaps Ruth had given her father the two pink roses that were toppling in a glass on the desk; she eyed the big photograph of Colonel Frost respectfully.
"Well, well, Mrs. Bannister, how do you do! I declare I haven't seen much of you since you came back! How's that boy of yours? Nice boy-- nice little feller."
"He's well, thank you, Clifford; he's never been ill. And how's your own pretty girl?" Martie smiled, using the little familiarity deliberately.
When he answered, with a father's proud affection, he called her "Martie," as she suspected he might. She went to her point frankly. Pa, she explained, was playing fast and loose with the town's offer for the property. The man opposite her frowned, nodded, and stared at the floor.
"You girls naturally feel--" he nodded sympathetically.
"Lydia does. But, Clifford, that's just where I need your help. I think it would be madness not to sell!"
"Madness not to?" It was not clear yet. "Then you want to?"
She went over her ground patiently. His face brightened with comprehension.
"I see! Well, now, that puts a different face on it," he said. "Of course, I want the deal to go through," he admitted, "and if you can talk your father over--"
"That's what I want you to do!" Martie assured him gaily.
He laughed in answer.
"He don't pay any attention to me!" he confessed. "I's telling him only yes'day that it wasn't good business to hang onto that piece. I told--"
"But Clifford," she suggested, "I want you to take this tack. I want you to tell him that the town has a sentiment about it--the old Monroe place, you know. Tell him that people feel it ought to be public property, and then, when he agrees, whip some sort of paper out of your pocket, and have him sign it then and there!"
Clifford Frost was not quick of thought, but he was shrewd, and his smile now was compounded of admiration for the scheme and the schemer alike.
"I declare you're quite a business woman, Martie!" he said. "It's a pity Len hasn't got it, too. I b'lieve I can work your Pa that way; anyway, I'll try it! I supposed you girls were hanging on like grim death to that piece--"
After this the conversation rambled pleasantly; presently, in the midst of a discussion of mortgages, he took one of the roses, and called her attention to it. It had had some special care; Martie could honestly admire it. Clifford told her to keep it, and her blue eyes met his friendly ones, behind the big glasses, as she pinned it on her blouse.
"I declare you've got quite a different look since you came back, Martie," he said. "You're quite a New Yorker! I said to Ruthie a while back, that there was a strange lady in town; I'd seen her with Mrs. Joe Hawkes. 'Why, Papa,' she says, 'that's Mrs. Bannister!' I assure you I could hardly believe it. You've took off considerable flesh, haven't you?"
"I've had my share," Martie answered in the country phrase, with a smile and a sigh.
"Well, I guess that's so, too!" he said quickly with an answering sigh. "What was the--the cause?" he asked delicately. "He was a big, strong fellow. I remember him quite well; friend of Rodney's."
He told her circumstantially, in return for her brief confidences, of his wife's death. How she had not been well, and how she had refused the regular dinner on a certain night, first mentioned as "the Tuesday," and then corrected to "the Wednesday," and had asked Polly to boil her two eggs, and then had not wanted them, either. With loving sorrow he had remembered it all; frank tears came to his eyes, and Martie liked him for them.
When they parted, he walked with her to the Bank door, and asked her, if she was interested in roses, to let him drive her up some day to see his.
"An old-fashioned garden--an old-fashioned garden!" he said, smiling from the doorway. Martie, pleasantly stirred, went back to the Library, to put her rose in water and congratulate herself upon her mission.
"Poor Clifford! He will never get over his wife's death!" Lydia said that evening. "Where'd you meet him, Mart?"
"I deposited some money in the Bank," Martie said truthfully. "He's awfully pleasant, I think."
Lydia paid no further attention. She presently went back to another topic. "Nelson Prout said he was going to take it up with the Principal. He says there's no earthly reason in the world why Dorothy shouldn't have passed this Christmas. Elsa told me Dorothy has been crying ever since and they're worried to death about her--"
Lydia suspected no treachery. What Len and Pa had settled was settled. She felt that Martie was merely easing her indignation when the younger sister spent several evenings attempting to write an article on the subject of economic independence for women. Martie had tried to write years ago; it was a safe and ladylike amusement.
"What's it all about?" Lydia asked.
"Oh, it's practically an appeal to give girls the same chance that boys have!"
"But don't they have it? Girls don't want it, that's all."
"Neither do boys, Lyd."
"So your idea would be to force something they didn't want on girls, just because it's forced on boys?" Lydia said, quietly triumphant.
Martie, looking up from her scratched sheets, smiled and blinked at her sister for a few seconds.
"Exactly!" she said then, pleasantly.
She finished the little article, and called it "Give Her A Job!" It was only what she had attempted to express during her first return visit to Monroe years ago; during those days and nights of fretting when the thought of Golda White had ridden her troubled thoughts like an evil dream. Later, she had re-written the article, just before Wallace's return from long absence to New York. Now she wrote it again: it was a relief to have it finally polished and finished, and sent away in the mail. She had never before despatched it so indifferently.
Even when the editor's brief, pleasant note was in her hand, three weeks later, and when she had banked the check for thirty-five dollars, Martie was not particularly thrilled. It was so small a drop in the ocean of magazine reading--it was so short a step toward independence! She told Miss Fanny and Sally about it, and for a month or two watched the magazine for it. Then she forgot it.