She forgot it for a new dream. For long before the tangled negotiations that surrounded the sale of the old Monroe place were completed, Martie's thoughts were absorbed by a new and tremendous consideration: Clifford Frost was paying her noticeable attention.
Monroe saw this, of course, before she did. Without realizing it, Martie still kept a social gulf between herself and the Frost and Parker families. They were the richest and most prominent people in the village, she was just one of the Monroe girls. She was too busy, and too little given to thought of herself, to waste time on speculations of this nature.
More than that, Lydia's deep resentment of the sale of the old home gave Martie food for thoughts of another nature. Lydia never let the subject rest for an instant. She came to the table red-eyed and sniffing. It was no use to plant sweet-peas this year, it was no use to prune the roses. Whether Lydia was sitting rocking on the side porch silently, through the spring twilight, or impatiently flinging a setting hen off the nest, with muttered observations concerning the senseless scattering of the Monroe family before that setting of eggs could be hatched, Martie felt her deep and angry disapproval.
It was several weeks, and April had clothed Monroe in buttercups and new grass, before Martie became aware that the name of Clifford Frost was frequently associated with Lydia's long protests.
"I suppose it's the new way of doing things," she heard her sister saying one day. "Delicacy--! They don't know what it is nowadays. Do as you like--run into a man's office--meet him on the steps after church--!"
Martie felt a sudden prick. She had indeed gone more than once to Clifford's office, and last Sunday she had indeed chanced to meet him after church--!
"Tear away old associations!" Lydia was continuing darkly. "Slash-- chop--nothing matters! I know I am old-fashioned," she added, with a sort of violent scorn. "But I declare it makes me laugh to remember how dignified I was--Ma used to say that it was born in me to hold aloof! A man had to say something pretty definite before I was willing to fling myself into his arms! And what's the result, I'm an old maid--and I have myself to thank!"
"Lyddy, darling, what are you driving at?"
The sisters were at supper together, on a warm spring Sunday. Martie, removing from his greasy little hand a chop-bone that Teddy had chewed white, looked up to see that her sister's face was pale, and her eyes reddened with tears. Cornered, Lydia took refuge in pathos.
"Oh--I don't know! I suppose it's just that I cannot seem to feel that one of those bare little houses in the Estates ever will seem like home," faltered Lydia. "You and Pa must do as you think best, of course--you're young and bright and full of life, and naturally you forget--but I suppose I feel that Ma--that Ma--!"
She left the table in tears, Martie staring rather bewilderedly after her. Teddy gazed steadily at his mother, a question in his dark eyes. He was not a talkative child, except occasionally, when she and he were alone, but they always understood each other. To Martie he was the one exquisite and unalloyed joy in life. His splendid, warm little person was at once the tie that bound her to the old days, and to the future. Whatever that future might be, it would bring her nothing of which she could be so proud. Nobody else might claim him; he was hers.
He suddenly smiled at her now, and slipping from the table with a great square of sponge cake in his hand, backed up to his mother to have his napkin untied. He guarded his cake as best he could when his mother suddenly beset him with a general rumpling and kissing, and then slipped out into the yard as silently as a little rabbit.
But Martie sat on, musing, trying to catch the inference that she knew she had missed from Lydia's tirades. Lydia was furious about the sale of the house, of course--but this new note--?
In a rush, comprehension came. Alone in the dark old dining room, in the disorder of the Sunday suppertable, Martie's cheeks were dyed a bright, conscious crimson. Could Lydia mean--could Lydia possibly be implying that Cliff--that Cliff--?
For half an hour she sat motionless--thinking. The richest--the most respected man in Monroe, and herself engaged to him, married to him. But could it be true?
She began to remember, to recall and dissect and analyze her recent encounters with Clifford, and as she did so, again the warm girlish colour flooded her cheeks with June. No questioning it, he had rather singled her out for his companionship of late. Last Sunday, and the Sunday before, he had come to call--once, most considerately, the girls thought, to show Pa the plans for the new High School, once to take Martie and Sally and the children driving. Martie had sat next him on the front seat, during the drive, her black veil blowing free about her wide-brimmed hat, her blue eyes dancing with pleasure, and her cheeks rosy in the cool foggy air.
Well, she was widowed. She was free to marry again. It seemed strange to her that in eighteen months she had never once weighed the possibility. She had pondered every other avenue open to women; she had considered this work and that, but marriage had not once crossed her mind.
She said to herself that she would not allow herself to think of it now, probably Clifford had never thought of it, and if he had, he was notoriously slow about making up his mind. Her only course was to be friendly and dignified, and to meet the issue when it came.
But if--but if it were her fortune to win the affections of this man, to take her place, here among her old friends, as their leader and head, to entertain in the old house with the cupola, under the plumy maple and locust trees--? If Teddy might grow to a happy boyhood, here with Sally's children, and friendly, gentle little Ruth Frost might find a real mother in her father's young wife--?
Martie's blood danced at the thought. She hardly saw Cliff's substantial figure and kindly face for the glamour of definite advantages that surrounded him. She would be rich, rich enough to do anything and everything for Sally's children, for instance. And what pleasure and pride such a marriage would bring to Lydia, and Pa, and Sally! And how stupefied Len would be, to have the ugly duckling suddenly show such brilliant plumage!
She thought of Rodney and Rose. Rodney was getting stout now, he was full of platitudes, heavy and a little tiresome. Rose was still birdlike, still sure that what she had and did and said and desired were the sum of earthly good. A smile twitched Martie's sober mouth as she thought of Rose's congratulations.
Rose would give her a linen shower, with delicious damp little sandwiches, and maple mousse, or a dainty luncheon with silk-clad, flushed women laughing about the table. And Martie would join the club--be its president, some day--
Meanwhile, once more she must wait. A woman's life was largely waiting. She had waited on Rodney's young pleasure, years ago; waited for Wallace, at rehearsals, or at night; waited for news of Golda; waited for Teddy; and for Wallace again and again; waited for Pa's letter and the check. Patience, Martie said to her eager heart.
Bright, sisterly, Rose presently came into the office, to put a plump little arm about Martie, and give her a laughing kiss. Rose had discovered that Martie was at home again, and wanted her to come to dinner.
It was one of many little signs of the impending event. Martie had not been blind to the whispering and watching all about her. Fanny had subtly altered her attitude, even Sally was changed. Now came Rose, to prove that the matter was reaching a point where it must be taken seriously.
Martie went to the dinner, a little ashamed of herself for doing so. Rose had ignored her for more than a year. But just now she could not afford to ignore Rose.
She was ashamed of Lydia's innocent pride in the invitation. Sally, too, who came to the old house to watch Martie dress, had the old attitude. There was an unexpressed feeling in the air that Martie was stepping up, and stepping away from them. The younger sister, in her filmy black, with her bright hair severely banded, and her quiet self-possession, had some element in her that they were content to lack.
Lydia's red, clean little hands were still faintly odorous of chopped onion, as she moved them from hook to hook. Sally wore an old plaid coat that hung open and showed her shabby little serge gown. The very room, where these girls had struggled with so many inadequate garments, where they had pressed and pieced and turned a hundred gowns, spoke to Martie of her own hungry girlhood.
A motor horn sounded outside. Rodney had come for her. He came in, in his big coat, and shook hands with Sally and Lydia. His eyes were on Martie as she slipped a black cloak over her floating draperies, and the fresh white of throat and arms.
"What have you done to make yourself so pretty?" he asked gallantly, when they were in the car.
"Am I pretty?" she asked directly, in a pleased tone.
It was a tone she could not use with Rodney. She was astonished to have him fling his arm lightly about her shoulders for a minute.
"Just as pretty as when you broke my heart eight years ago!" he said cheerfully. Martie was too much surprised to answer, and as he busied himself with the turns of the road, she presently began to speak of other things. But when they had driven into the driveway of the new Parker house, and had stopped at the side door, he jumped from the car, and came around it to help her out.
She felt him lightly detain her, and looked up at him curiously.
"Well, what's the matter--afraid of me?"
"No-o." Martie was a little confused. "But--but hadn't I better go in?"
"Well--what do I get out of it?" he asked, in the old teasing voice of the boy who had liked to play "Post-office" and "Clap-in-and- clap-out" years ago.
But they were not children now, and there was reproach in the glance Martie gave him as she ran up the steps.
Rose, in blue satin, fluttered to meet her and she was conveyed upstairs on a sort of cloud of laughter and affection. Everywhere were lights and pretty rooms; wraps were flung darkly across the Madeira embroidery and filet-work of Rose's bed.
"Other people, Rose?"
"Just the Ellises, Martie, and the Youngers--you don't know them. And a city man to balance Florence, and Cliff." Rose, hovering over the dressing-table exclaimed ecstatically over Martie's hair. "You look lovely--you want your scarf? No, you won't need it--but it's so pretty--"
She laid an arm about Martie's waist as they went downstairs.
"You've heard that we've had trouble with the girls?" Rose said, in a confidential whisper. "Yes. Ida and May--after all Rodney had done for them, too! He did everything. It was over a piece of property that their grandfather had left their father--I don't know just what the trouble was! But you won't mention them to Rod--?"
Everything was perfection, of course. There were cocktails, served in the big drawing room, with its one big rug, and its Potocka and le Brun looking down from the tinted walls. Martie sat between Rodney and the strange man, who was unresponsive.
Rodney, warmed by a delicious dinner, became emotional.
"That was a precious friendship of ours, to me, Martie," he said. "Just our boy-and-girl days, but they were happy days! I remember waking up in the mornings and saying to myself, 'I'll see Martie to- day!' Yes," said Rodney, putting down his glass, his eyes watering, "that's a precious memory to me--very."
"Is Rodney making love to you, Martie?" Rose called gaily, "he does that to every one--he's perfectly terrible!"
"How many children has Sally now?" Florence Frost, sickly, emaciated, asked with a sort of cluck.
"Four," Martie answered, smiling.
"Gracious!" Florence said, drawing her shawl about her.
"Poor Sally!" Rose said, with the merry laugh that accompanied everything she said.
Cliff did not talk to Martie at all, nor to any of the other women. He and the other men talked politics after dinner, in real country fashion. The women played a few rubbers of bridge, and Rose had not forgotten a prize, in tissue-paper and pink ribbon. The room grew hot, and the men's cigars scented the close air thickly.
Rose said that she supposed she should be able to offer Martie a cigarette.
"It would be my first," Martie said, smiling, and Rose, giving her shoulders a quick little impulsive squeeze, said brightly: "Good for you! New York hasn't spoiled you!".
When at eleven o'clock Martie went upstairs for her wraps, Rose came, too, and they had a word in private, in the pretty bedroom.
"Martie--did Cliff say that you and he were going on a--on a sort of picnic on Sunday?"
"Why, yes," Martie admitted, surprised, "Sally is going down to the city to see Joe, and I'll have the children. I happened to mention it to Cliff, and he suggested that he take us all up to Deegan's Point, and that we take a lunch."
Innocently commenced, the sentence ended with sudden self- consciousness. Martie, putting a scarf over her bronze hair saw her own scarlet cheeks in the mirror.
"Yes, I know!" Rose cocked her head on one side, like a pretty bird. "Well, now, I have a plan!" she said gaily, "I suggest that Cliff take his car, and we take ours, and the Ellises theirs, and we all go--children and all! Just a real old-fashioned family picnic."
"I think that would be fun," Martie said, with a slow smile.
"I think it would be fun, too," Rose agreed, "and I've been sort of half-planning something of the sort, anyway! And--perhaps, just now," she added sweetly, "it would be a little wiser that way. You see, I understand you, Martie, and I know we seem awfully small and petty here, but--since we are in Monroe, why, isn't it better not to give any one a chance to talk? Well, about the picnic! Ida and May always bring cake; I'll take the fried chicken; and Mrs. Ellis makes a delicious salad--"
Martie's heart was beating high, and two little white lines marked the firm closing of her lips. Rose's brightly flung suggestion as to the impropriety of her going off for the day with Clifford, Teddy, and Ruth, was seething like a poison within her. But presently she was mechanically promising sandwiches, and Rose was so far encouraged that she could give Martie's arm a little squeeze in farewell.
It had seemed such a natural thing to propose, when Sally announced that she was to go down to San Francisco for the day. Martie had asked for the two older children, and had in all innocence suggested to Clifford that they make it a picnic. She carried all day a burning resentment of Rose's interference, and something like anger at him for consulting Rose.
But she showed nothing. She duly kissed Rose, and thanked her for the lovely dinner, and Rodney took her home. Undressing, with moonlight pouring in two cool triangles on the shabby carpet, Martie yawned. The whole experience had been curiously flat, except for Rose's little parting impertinence. But there was no question about it, it had had its heartening significance! It was the future Mrs. Clifford Frost who had been entertained to-night.
Plans for the picnic proceeded rapidly, and Martie knew, as they progressed, that she need only give Cliff his opportunity that day to enter into her kingdom. His eagerness to please her, his unnecessary calls at the Library to discuss the various details, and the little hints and jests that fluttered about her on all sides, were a sure clue.
The morning came when the Frost's big car squeaked down the raw driveway from Clipper Lane, with little Ruth, in starched pink gingham, beaming on the back seat. Martie, in white, with a daisy- crowned hat mashed down over her bright hair, came out from the shadow of the side porch, the children and boxes were duly distributed: they were off.
Martie glanced back to see Lydia's slender form, in a severe gray percale, under one of the lilacs in the side yard. Mary and Jim Hawkes were with her: they all waved hands. Lydia had shaded her face with her fingers, and was blinking in the warm June sunlight. Poor Lydia, Martie thought, she should have been beside Cliff on this front seat, she should have been the happy mother of a sturdy Cliff and Lydia, where Ruth and Teddy and the Hawkes children were rioting in the tonneau.
They went to the Parkers', where the other cars had gathered: there was much laughing and running about in the bright sunlight. The day would be hot--ideal picnic weather. Rodney, directing everybody, managed to get close to Martie, who was stacking coats in the car.
"Like old times, Martie! Remember our picnics and parties?"
Martie glanced at him quickly, and smiled a little doubtfully. She found nothing to say.
"I often look back," Rodney went on. "And I think sometimes that there couldn't have been a sweeter friendship than yours and mine! What good times we had! And you and I always understood each other; always, in a way, brought out the best of each other." He looked about; no one else was in hearing. "Now, I've got the sweetest little wife in the world," he said. "I worked hard, and I've prospered. But there's nothing in my life, Martie, that I value more than I do the memory of those old days; you believe that, don't you?"
"Indeed I do," Martie said cordially, over a deep amusement that was half scorn.
Rodney's next remark was made in a low, intense tone and accompanied by a direct look.
"You've grown to be a beautiful woman, Martie!"
"I have?" she laughed uncomfortably.
"And Cliff," he said steadily, "is a lucky fellow!"
He had noticed it, then? It must be--it must be so! But Martie could not assume the implied dignity.
"Cliff is a dear!" she said lightly, warmly.
"Rose has seen this coming for a long time," Rodney pursued. "Rose is the greatest little matchmaker!"
This was the final irony, thought Martie. To have Rose credited with this change in her fortunes suddenly touched her sense of humour. She did not speak.
"The past is the past," said Rodney. "You and I had our boy-and-girl affair--perhaps it touched us a little more deeply than we knew at the time; but that's neither here nor there! But in any case, you know that you haven't a warmer or a more devoted friend than I am- you do know that, don't you?-and that if ever I can do anything for you, Martie, I'll put my hand in the fire to do it!"
And with his eyes actually a little reddened, and his heart glowing with generous affection, Rodney lightly pressed her hand, laughed, blinked, and turned away. A moment later she heard him call Rose "Dearest," as he capably held her dust-coat for his wife, and capably buttoned and straightened it. They were starting.
The three cars got away in a straggling line, trailed each other through Main Street, and separated for the eleven-mile run. Martie was listening with a half-smile to the children's eager chatter, and thinking vaguely that Clifford might ask her to-day, or might not ask her for three years, when a half-shy, half-husky aside from him, and a sudden exchange of glances ended the speculation once and for all.
"Makes me feel a little bit out of it, seeing all the boys with their wives," he said, with a rueful laugh.
"Well, doesn't it?" she agreed cordially, and she added, in a thoughtful voice: "Nothing like happy married life, is there, Cliff?"
"You said it," he answered soberly. "I guess you were pretty happy, Martie?" he questioned delicately.
"In some ways--yes," she said. "But I had sorrow and care, too." They were on the top of the hill now, and could look back at the roofs of Monroe, asleep in Sunday peace, and to the plumy tree-tops over the old graveyard where Ma lay sleeping; "asleep," as the worn legend over the gateway said, "until resurrection morn." Near the graveyard was the "Town farm," big and black, with bent old figures moving about the bare garden. "That's one reason why I love it all so, now," she said softly. "I'm safe-I'm home again!"
"You've certainly got a lot of friends here, Martie."
"Yes, I know I have!" she said gratefully.
He cleared his throat.
"You've got one that will be mighty sorry to have you ever go away from California again." He became suddenly confused and embarrassed by his own words.
"I don't suppose--I don't suppose you'd care to--to try it again, Martie? I'm considerable older than you are--I know that. But I don't believe you'd ever be sorry--home for the boy--"
Colour rushed to her face: voiceless, she looked at him.
"Don't be in any hurry to make up your mind," he said kindly. "You and me are old neighbours and friends--I'm not a-going to rush you-- "
Still Martie was speechless, honestly moved by his affection.
"It never entered my head to put any one in Mary's place," he said, gaining a little ease as he spoke, "until you came back, with that boy to raise, and took hold so plucky and good-natured. Ruth and I are alone now: I've buried my wife and my brother, and my father and mother, and poor Florence ain't going to live long--poor girl. I believe you'd have things comfortable, and, as I say--"
"Why, there's only one thing I can say, Cliff," Martie said, finding words as his voice began to flounder. "I--I'm glad you feel that way, and I hope--I hope I can make you happy. I certainly--I surely am going to try to!"
He turned her a quick, smiling glance, and drew a great breath of relief.
"Well, sir--then a bargain's a bargain!" he said in great satisfaction. "I've been telling myself for several days that you liked me enough to try it, but when it came right down to it I-- well, I was just about scared blue!"
Martie's happy laugh rang out. She laid her smooth fingers over his big ones, on the wheel, for a second. "I don't know that I ever felt any happier in my life!" the man presently declared. "We may not be youngsters, but I don't know but what we can give them all cards and spades when it comes to sure-enough, old-fashioned happiness!"
So it was settled, in a few embarrassed and clumsy phrases. Martie's heart sang with joy and triumph. She really felt a wave of devotion to the big, gentle man beside her; all the future was rose-coloured. She had reached harbour at last.
There was time for little more talk before they were at the beach, and the excitement of luncheon preparations were upon them. The bay, a tidal bay perhaps a mile in circumference, was framed in a fine, sandy shore: long, natural jetties of rock had been flung out far into the softly rippling water. The tide was making, perhaps a dozen feet below the fringe of shells and seaweed, cocoanuts and driftwood that marked high-water.
In a group of great rocks the boxes and baskets were piled, and the fire kindled. The wind blew a shower of fine sand across the faces of the laughing men and women, the children screamed and shouted as they flirted with the lazily running waves. Women, opening boxes of neatly packed food, exclaimed with full mouths over every contribution but their own.
"Martie, this spice cake--! Mine never looks like this. Oh, May, you villain! You said you weren't going to bother with the lettuce sandwiches; they look perfectly delicious! What's in these?--cream cheese and pineapple--they look delicious! Look out for the eggs, George!"
Salt sifted from a folded paper, white enamelled cups were set upon a level surface of the rock, a quart glass jar held lump sugar. The smoke of the fire shifted capriciously, reddening eyes, and bearing with it the delicious odour of brewing coffee.
Bending over the cake she was cutting, Martie sensed that Cliff was beside her. She dared not give him a betraying word, the others were too close, but she sent him an upward glance. His answering glance was so full of pride and excitement, Martie felt her soul flood with content. Driving home, against the straight-falling spokes of the setting sun, they could talk a little, shyly and inconsequently. A first dew had fallen, bringing a sharp, sweet odour from the brown grass; Monroe seemed a dear and homely place as they came home.
"Were you surprised, Martie?"
"When I first thought of it? I was absolutely stunned! But to-day?-- no, I wasn't exactly surprised to-day."
"I had no idea, even this morning!" he confessed. She wondered if her admission smacked of the designing widow.
"Other people will be!" she said in smiling warning.
He chuckled mischievously.
"Well, won't they?" He smiled for a moment or two in silence, over his wheel. Martie made another tiny misstep.
"I suppose there's no reason why I shouldn't tell Lydia--" she began musingly.
"Don't tell a soul!" he said quickly. "Not for a while, anyway. When we get all our plans made, then we'll tell 'em, and turn around and get married before you could say 'Jack Robinson!'"
She felt a little chill; a younger woman, with a younger lover, would have had her pouting and her petting for this. But what did it matter? Clifford had his first kiss in the dim old parlour with the gas-brackets that evening; and after a few days he was as fervent a lover as any woman could ask, eager to rush through the necessary preparations for their marriage, and to let the world know of his happiness.
He was more demonstrative than Martie had anticipated, or than she really cared to have him. She found odd girlish reserves deep in her being when he put his arms about her. He was never alone with her for even a minute without holding her close, turning up her lovely face for his smiling kisses, locking a big warm arm about her shoulders.
After some thought, she told Lydia and Sally, on a hot afternoon when they were upstairs in the cool window end of the hallway, patiently going over boxes and boxes of old letters. She had been absent-minded and silent that day, and Sally had once or twice looked at her in surprise.
"Girls--listen. I'm going to be married!" she said abruptly, her eyes childishly widened, dimples struggling at the corners of her demure mouth. Sally leaped up in a whirlwind of letters, and gave a shout of delight.
"I knew it! I knew it! You can't tell me! I said so to Joe. Oh, Mart, you old darling, I'm so glad--I'm gladder than I can say!"
"Well, dear, I hope you'll be just as happy as possible!" said Lydia's wilted voice. Martie kissed her cheek, and she returned the kiss. "I can't say I'm surprised, for nothing very much surprises me now," Lydia went on. "Cliff was simply heartbroken when Mary died, and he said then to Angela that there would never be another woman in his life, but of course we all know how much that means, and perhaps it's better as it is. I often wish I was constituted as most people seem to be nowadays--forget, and rush on to something else; that's the idea! But I hope you'll be very happy, Martie; you'll certainly have everything in the world to make you happy, but that doesn't always do it, of course. I believe I'll take these letters of Ma's to Aunt Sally downstairs; they might get mixed in with the others and burned. I suppose I'm not much in the mood for weddings and jollifications now, what with all this change bringing back--our loss. If other people can be happy, I hope they will; but sometimes I feel that I'll be glad to get out of it all! I'll leave you two girls to talk wedding, and if you need me again, call me."
"Isn't she the limit!" Sally said indignantly, when Lydia had trailed away. "Just when you're so happy! For Heaven's sake tell me all about it, and when it's going to be, and how it began, and everything!"
Martie was glad to talk. She liked to hear Sally's praise of Cliff; she had much to praise in him herself. She announced a quiet wedding; indeed they were not going to spread the news of the engagement until all their plans were made. Perhaps a week or two before the event they would tell a few intimate friends, and be safely away on their honeymoon before the village was over the first gasp.
"Don't mind Lyd," Sally said consolingly. "She'll have a grand talk with Pa, and feel martyred, and talk it over with Lou and Clara, and come to the conclusion that it's all for the best. Poor Lyd, do you remember how she used to laugh and dance about the house when we were little? Do you remember the Spider-web Party?"
"Do you remember the pink dress, Sally? I used to think Lyd was the loveliest thing in creation in that dress!"
Sally was flushed and dimpling; she was not listening.
"Mart! I think it's the most exciting thing--! Shall you tell Teddy?"
"Sally, I don't dare." A shadow fell across Martie's bright face. In these days she was wistfully tender and gentle with her son. Teddy would not always be first in her consideration; there might be serious rivals some day. Life was changing for little unconscious Teddy.
He would not remember his father, and the little sister laughing in her high-chair, and the cold, dirty streets, and the shabby, silent mother with her busy, tired hands and her frozen heart. It was all gone, like a dream of struggle and shame, love and hate, joy and suffering.
One day, with Teddy and Clifford, she went up to the old house. Ruth, clean and mannerly, raised her innocent girl's face for her new mother's kiss, for Ruth was in the secret. Martie liked Ruth, a simple, normal little person who played "jacks" and "houses" with her friends under the lilac trees, and had a "best dress" and loved "Little Women" with a shy passion. Martie foresaw only a pleasant relationship with the child. What she lacked in imagination was more than made up in sense. Ruth would graduate, marry, have children, as placidly as a stout and sturdy little cow. But Martie and Ruth would always love, even if they did not understand, each other.
The house was old-fashioned: big double parlours, big folding doors, and one enormous square bathroom on the second floor, for the needs of all the house. The cheerful, orderly pantries smelt of painted wood; the kitchen had cost old Polly two or three unnecessary miles of walking every month of her twenty-six years' tenancy. Martie liked the garden best, and the old stables painted white. She loved the rich mingled scents of wallflower and alyssum and lemon verbena; and, as they walked about, she tucked a velvet plume of dark heliotrope into the belt of her thin white gown. "My first colour!" she said to Clifford.
Ruth assumed charming, older-sister airs with Teddy. She laughed at his comments, and quoted him to Martie: "He says he's going to learn to ride Whitey!" "He says he doesn't like such big houses!"
Clifford opened doors and smiled at Martie's interest. She could see that he loved every inch of the old place. She saw herself everywhere, writing checks at the old walnut desk, talking with Polly in the pantry. She could sow Shirley poppies in the bed beneath the side windows; she could have Mrs. Hunter, the village sewing woman, comfortably established here in the sewing-room for weeks, if she liked, making ginghams for Ruth and Ruth's new mother.
When those days came Clifford would gradually abandon this unwelcome role of lover, and be her kindly, middle-aged old friend again. Sometimes, in the new shrinking reluctance she felt when they were alone, she wondered what had become of the old Clifford. There was something vaguely offending, something a little undignified, about this fatuous, eager, elderly man who could so poorly simulate patience. He was not passionate--she might have forgiven him that. But he was assuming passion, assuming youth, happily egotistical.
He was fifty-one: he had won a beautiful woman hardly more than half his age. He wanted to talk about it, to have the conversation always congratulatory and flattering. He had the attitude of a young husband, without his youth, to which everything is forgiven.
Altogether, Martie found her engagement strangely trying. Rose, instantly suspicious, was presently told of it, and Martie's sisters and Rose planned an announcement luncheon for early July. Martie thought she would really be glad when the fuss and flurry was over.
Long familiar with money scarcity, she wondered sometimes just what her financial arrangement with her new husband would be. Clifford was the richest man in Monroe. Not a shop would refuse her credit; nor a woman in town feel so sure of her comfort and safety.
But what else? Bitter as her long dependence had been, and widowed and experienced as she was, she dared not ask. There was something essentially indelicate in any talk of an allowance now. She would probably do what was done by almost all the wives she knew: charge, spend little, and when she must have money, approach her husband at breakfast or dinner: "Oh, Clifford, I need about ten dollars. For the man who fixed the surrey, dear, and then if I take all the children in to the moving pictures, they'll want ice-cream. And I ought to send flowers to Rose; we don't charge there. Although I suppose I could send some of our own roses just as well!"
And Clifford, like other husbands, would take less money than was suggested from his pocket and say: "How's seven? You can have more if you want it, but I haven't any more here! But if you like, send Ruth down to the Bank--"
"What a fool I am!" Martie mused. "What does independence amount to, anyway? If I ever had it, I'd probably be longing to get back into shelter again.
"Teddy, do you understand that Mother is going to marry Uncle Cliff?" she asked the child. He rested his little body against her, one arm about her neck, as he stood beside her chair.
"Yes, Mother," he answered unenthusiastically. After a second's thought he began to twist a white button on her blouse. "And then are we going back to New York?" he asked.
"No, Loveliness, we stay here." She looked at the child's downcast face. "Why, Teddy?" she urged.
Ever since he could speak at all, he had had a fashion of whispering to her anything that seemed to him especially important or precious, even when, as now, they were quite alone. He put his lips to her ear.
"What is it, dearest? I can't hear you!"
"I said," he said softly, his lips almost touching her cheek, "that I would like to go back to New York just with you, and have you take me out in the snow again, and have you let me make chocolate custard, the way you always did--for just our own supper, our two selves. I like all my aunts and every one here, but I get lonesome."
"Lonesome?" she echoed, trying to laugh over a little pang.
"Lonesome--for you!" he answered simply. Martie caught him to her and smothered him in her embrace.
"You little troubadour!" she laughed, with her kiss.
The three sisters had never been so much together in their lives as they were when the time came to demolish the old home. Sally, with a train of dancing children, came up every morning after breakfast, and she and Martie and Lydia patiently plodded through store-rooms, attics, and closets that had not been disturbed for years.
Lydia's constant cry was: "Ah, don't destroy that; I remember that ever since I was a baby!" Sally was more apt to say: "I believe I could use this; it's old, but it could be put in order cheaper than buying new!" Martie was the iconoclast.
"Now here's this great roll of silk from Grandmother Price's wedding dress; what earthly good is this to any one?" she would demand briskly. "And here's the patchwork quilt Ma started when Len was a baby, with all the patches pinned together! Why should we keep these things? And Lydia's sketch-books, when she was taking lessons, and the old air-tight stove, and Pa's brother's dentist chair--it's hopelessly old-fashioned now! And what about these piles and piles of Harper's and Scribner's, and the broken washstand that was in Belle's, room and the curtains, that used to be in the back hall? I move we have a bonfire and keep it going all day--"
"I'd forgotten that the old rocking-horse was here," Sally said one day, with pleasure. "The boys will love it! And do you know, Lyd, I was thinking that this little table with the leg mended and painted white wouldn't be a bit bad in my hall. I really need a table there, for Joe brings in his case, or the children get the mail--we'd have lots of use for it. And here's the bedside table, that's an awfully good thing to have, because in case of illness--"
"Heavens!" said Martie. "She's trying to break something to us; she suspects that there may be an illness some day in her house--"
"Oh, I do not!" said Sally, flushing and giggling in the old way.
"Len's first little suit," Lydia mused. "Dear me--dear me! And this old table-cover; I remember when that was new! And here are Aunt Carrie's things; she sent Ma a great box of them when she died; look, Sally, the old-fashioned sleeves with fibre-chamois in them! This box is full of hats; this was my Merry Widow hat; it was always so pretty I hated to destroy it, but I suppose it really isn't much good! I wonder if some poor woman could use it. And these are all old collars of Pa's and Len's--it seems a shame to throw them away. I wonder if we could find some one who wears this size? Martie, don't throw that coat over there in the pile for the fire--it's a good piece of serge, and that cape style may come in again!"
Absorbed and interested, the three worked among memories. Sometimes for an hour at a time there was silence in the attic. Martie, with a faded pink gingham dress spread across her lap, would be eight again, trotting off to school with Sally, and promising Ma to hold Len's hand when they crossed Main Street. How clean and trim, how ready for the day, she had felt, when her red braid was tied with a brown ribbon, and this little garment firmly buttoned down the back, and pressed with a great sweep of Ma's arms to crush the too stiffly starched skirt!
Sally observed amusedly, perhaps a little pityingly, that Lydia wanted everything. There was nothing in the old house for which Lydia did not expect to have immediate need in the new. This little table for the porch, this extra chair for the maid's room, this mirror, this mattress, this ladder. The older sister reserved enough furniture to fill the new house twice over; she would presently pack the new rooms with cumbersome, useless possessions, and go to her death believing herself the happier for having them.