The next morning, when the younger girls came down to breakfast, they found only the three women in the kitchen. An odour of coffee hung in the air. Belle was scraping burned toast at the sink, the flying, sooty particles clinging to wet surfaces everywhere. Lydia sat packing cold hominy in empty baking-powder tins; to be sliced and fried for the noon meal. Mrs. Monroe, preferring an informal kitchen breakfast to her own society in the dining room, was standing by the kitchen table, alternating swallows from a saucerless cup of hot coffee with indifferent mouthfuls of buttered cold bread. She rarely went to the trouble of toasting her own bread, spending twice the energy required to do so in protests against the trouble.
Lydia had breakfasted an hour ago. Sally and Martie sliced bread, pushed forward the coffee pot, and entered a spirited claim for cream. It was Saturday morning, when Leonard slept late. Pa was always late. Lydia was anxious to save a generous amount of cream for the sleepers.
"Len often takes a second cup of coffee when he's got lots of time," Lydia said.
"Well, I don't care!" Martie said, suddenly serious. "I'm going to take my coffee black, anyway. I'm getting too fat!"
"Oh, Martie, you are not!" Sally laughed.
"That's foolish--you'll just upset your health!" her mother added disapprovingly.
Martie's only answer was a buoyant kiss. She and Sally carried their breakfast into the dining room, where they established themselves comfortably at one end of the long table. While they ate, dipping their toast in the coffee, buttering and rebuttering it, they chattered as tirelessly as if they had been deprived of each other's society and confidence for weeks.
The morning was dark and foggy, and a coal fire slumbered in the grate, giving out a bitter, acrid smell. Against the windows the soft mist pressed, showing a yellow patch toward the southeast, where the sun would pierce it after a while.
Malcolm Monroe came downstairs at about nine o'clock, and the girls gathered up their dishes and disappeared in the direction of the kitchen. Not that Ma would not, as usual, prepare their father's toast and bacon with her own hands, and not that Lydia would not, as usual, serve it. The girls were not needed. But Pa always made it impossible for them to be idle and comfortable over their own meal. If he did not actually ask them to fetch butter or water, or if he could find no reasonable excuse for fault-finding, he would surely introduce some dangerous topic; lure them into admissions, stand ready to pursue any clue. He did not like to see young girls care- free and contented; time enough for that later on! And as years robbed him of actual dignities, and as Monroe's estimate of him fell lower and lower, he turned upon his daughters the authority, the carping and controlling that might otherwise have been spent upon respectful employees and underlings. He found some relief for a chafed and baffled spirit in the knowledge that Sally and Martie were helpless, were bound to obey, and could easily be made angry and unhappy.
Lydia, her father's favourite, came in with a loaded tray, just as Len, slipping down the back stairs, was being stealthily regaled by his mother on a late meal in the kitchen. Len had no particular desire for his father's undiluted company.
"Good morning, Pa!" Lydia said, with a kiss for his cool forehead. "Your paper's right there by the fire; there's quite a fog, and it got wet."
Hands locked, she settled herself opposite him, and revolved in her mind the terms in which she might lay before him the younger girls' hopes. It was part of Lydia's concientiousness not to fail them now, even though she secretly disapproved of the whole thing.
"Pa," she began bravely, "you wouldn't mind the girls having some of their friends in some evening, would you? I thought perhaps some night when you were down in the city--"
"Your idea, my dear?" Malcolm said graciously.
"Well--Martie's really." Lydia was always scrupulously truthful.
His face darkened a little. He pursed his lips.
"Oh, no, Pa! Just dancing, or--" Lydia was watching him closely, "or games," she substituted hurriedly. "You see the other girls have these little parties, and our girls--" her voice fell.
"Such an affair costs money, my dear!"
"Not much, Pa!"
His eyes were discontentedly fixed upon the headlines of his paper, but he was thinking.
"Making a lot of work for your mother," he protested, "upsetting the whole house like a pack of wolves! Upon my word, I can't see the necessity. Why can't Sally and Martie--"
"But it's only once in a long while, Pa," Lydia urged.
"I know--I know! Well, you ask Martie to speak to me about it in a day or two. Now go call your mother."
For the gracious permission Lydia gave him an appreciative kiss, leaving him comfortable with his fire, his newspaper, and his armchair, as she went on her errand.
"Pa was terribly sweet about the dance," she told Martie and Sally.
Belle was now deep in breakfast dishes, and the two girls had gone out into the foggy dooryard with the chickens' breakfast. A flock of mixed fowls were clucking and pecking over the bare ground under the willows. Martie held the empty tin pan in one hand, in the other was a half-eaten cruller. Sally had turned her serge skirt up over her shoulders as a protection against the cool air, exposing a shabby little "balmoral."
"Oh, Lyd, you're an angel!" Martie said, holding the cruller against Lydia's mouth. But Lydia expressed a grateful negative with a shake of her head; she never nibbled between meals.
She retailed the conversation with her father. Martie and Sally became fired with enthusiasm as they listened. An animated discussion followed. Grace was a problem. Dared they ignore Grace? There was a lamentable preponderance of girls without her. All their lists began and ended with, "Well, there's Rodney and his friends-- that's two--"
The day was as other days, except to Martie. When the chickens were fed, she and Sally idled for perhaps half an hour in the yard, and then went into the kitchen. Belle, sooty and untidy, had paused at the kitchen table, with her dustpan resting three feet away from the cold mutton that lay there. Mrs. Monroe's hair was in some disorder, and a streak of black from the stove lay across one of her lean, greasy wrists. The big stove was cooling now, ashes drifted from the firebox door, and an enormous saucepan of slowly cooking beans gave forth a fresh, unpleasant odour. At all the windows the fog pressed softly.
"Are you going down town, Sally?" the mother asked.
"Well--I thought we would. We can if you want!" said Sally.
"If you do, I wish you'd step into Mason & White's, and ask one of the men there if they aren't ever going to send me the rest of my box of potatoes."
"All right!" Martie and Sally put their hats on in the downstair hall, shouted upstairs to Lydia for the shoes, and sauntered out contentedly into the soft, foggy morning. The Monroe girls never heard the garden gate slam behind them without a pleasant yet undefined sense of freedom. The sun was slowly but steadily gaining on the fog, a bright yellow blur showed the exact spot where shining light must soon break through. Trees along the way dripped softly, but on the other side of the bridge, where houses were set more closely together, and gardens less dense, sidewalks and porches were already drying.
The girls walked past the new, trim little houses and the clumsy, big, old-fashioned ones, chattering incessantly. Their bright, interested eyes did not miss the tiniest detail. The village, sleepier than ever on the morning of the half-holiday, was full of interest to them.
Mrs. Hughie Wilson was sweeping her garden path, and called out to them that the church concert had netted 327 dollars; wasn't that pretty good?
A few steps farther on they met Alice Clark, who kept them ten minutes in eager, unimportant conversation. Her parting remark sent the Monroe girls happily on their way.
"I hear Rodney Parker's home--don't pretend to be surprised, Martha Monroe. A little bird was telling me that I'll have to go up North Main Street for news of him after this!"
"Who do you s'pose told her we met Rod Parker?" Martie grinned as they went on.
"People see everything! Oh, Martie," said Sally earnestly, "I do hope you are going to marry; no, don't laugh! I don't mean Rod, of course, I'm not such a fool. But I mean some one."
"You ought to marry first, Sally; you're the older," Martie said, with averted eyes and a sort of delicious shame.
"Oh, I don't mind that, Martie, if only we begin!" Sally answered fervently. "When I think of what the next ten years mean for us, it just makes me sick! Either we'll marry and have our own homes and children, or we'll be like Alice, and the Baxters, and Miss Fanny--"
"I'd just as soon have a good job like Miss Fanny," Martie said hardily. "She gets sixty a month."
"Well, I wouldn't!" Sally protested in a sudden burst. "Being in an office would kill me, I think! I just couldn't do it! But I believe I could manage a little house, and children, and I'd like that! I wouldn't mind being poor--I never really think of being anything else--but what I'm so afraid of is that Len'll marry and we'll just be--just be aunts!"
Such vehemence was not usual to Sally, and as her earnestness brought her to a full stop on the sidewalk, the two sisters found themselves facing each other. They burst into a joyous laugh, as their eyes met, and the full absurdity of the conversation became apparent.
Still giggling, they went on their way, past the old smithy, where a pleasant breath of warmth and a splendid ringing of hammers came from the forge, and past the new garage of raw wood with the still- astonishing miracle of a "horseless carriage" in its big window, pots of paint and oil standing inside its door, and workmen, behind a barrier of barrels and planks, laying a cement sidewalk in front. They passed the Five-and-Ten-Cent Store, its unwashed windows jammed with pyramids of dry-looking chocolates, post cards, and jewellery, and festoons of trashy embroidery, and the corner fruit stands heaped with tomatoes and sprawling grapes. At the Palace Candy Store a Japanese boy in his shirt-sleeves was washing the show window, which was empty except for some rumpled sheets of sun-faded pink crepe paper. By the door stood two large wooden buckets for packing ice cream. The ice and salt were melted now, and the empty moulds, still oozing a little curdled pink cream, were floating in the dirty water.
"Why aren't you girls at home sewing for the poor?" demanded a pleasant voice over their shoulders. The girls wheeled about to smile into the eyes of Father Martin. A tall spare old man, with enormous glasses on his twinkling blue eyes, spots and dust on his priestly black, and a few teeth missing from his kindly, big, homely mouth, he beamed upon them.
"Well, how are ye? And your mother's well? Well, and what are ye buying--trousseaux?"
"We're just looking, Father," Martie giggled. "Looking for husbands first, and then clothes!"
Laughing, the girls walked with him across the street to Mallon's Hardware Emporium, where baskets of jelly glasses were set out on the damp sidewalk, with enamel saucepans marked "29c." and "19c." in black paint, carpet sweepers, oil stoves, and pink-and-blue glass vases. They went on to the shoe shop, to the grocery, to the post- office, past the express office, where Joe Hawkes sat whittling in the sun. They paused to study with eager interest the flaring posters on the fences that announced the impending arrival of Poulson's Star Stock Company, for one night only, in "The Sword of the King." They discovered with surprise that it was nearly twelve o'clock, bought five cents' worth of rusty, sweet, Muscat grapes, to be eaten on the way home, and turned their faces toward the bridge.
But the morning, for Martie, had held its golden moment. When they passed the Bank, Sally had been dreaming, as Sally almost always was, but Martie's eyes had gone from shining gold-lettered window to window, and with that new, sweet suffocation at her heart she had found the object of her searching--the satiny crest of Rodney Parker's sleek hair, the fresh-coloured profile that had been in her waking and sleeping thoughts since yesterday. He was evidently hard at work; indeed he was nervous and discouraged, had Martie but known it; he did not look up.
But Martie did not want him to look up. She wanted only the stimulation to her thoughts that the sight of him caused, the enchanting realization that he was there. She had a thrilling vision of herself entering that bank, a privileged person, "young Mrs. Rodney." Old Judge Parker coming out of his private office with his hands full of papers would nod to her with his fatherly smile, Rodney grin the proud yet embarrassed grin of a man confronted in office hours by his women-folk.
Suddenly Martie decided that she would begin to save money. She and Sally had jointly fallen heir to a young Durham cow when Cousin Sally Buckingham died, and the cow being sold for thirty-five dollars, exactly seventeen dollars and fifty cents had been deposited in the bank in each girl's name. This was four years ago; neither one ever dreamed of touching the precious nest-egg; to them it represented wealth. Len had no bank account, nor had Mama nor Lydia. All Martie's dreams of the future began, included, or ended on the expenditure of this sum. It bought text books, wedding veils, railway tickets in turn. Now she thought that if she saved another dollar, and went into the Bank duly to deposit it, Rodney must see her, might even wait upon her; it would be a perfectly legitimate way of crossing his line of vision.
The Monroes had plenty of spending money; for although their father was strongly opposed to the idea of making any child of his a definite allowance, he allowed them to keep the change whenever they executed small commissions for him, and to wheedle from him stray quarter and half dollars. Lydia had only to watch for the favourable moment to get whatever she asked, and with Leonard he was especially generous. Martie knew that she could save, if she determined to do so. She imagined Rodney's voice: "Bringing more money in? You'll soon be rich at this rate, Martie!"