A few days later Rodney Parker walked home from the village with Martie Monroe again. Meeting her in Bonestell's, he paid for her chocolate sundae, and on their way up Main Street they stopped in the Library, so that Miss Fanny saw them. Every one saw them: first of all generous little Sally, who was to meet Martie in Bonestell's, but who, perceiving that Rodney had joined her there, slipped away unseen, and, blindly turning over the ribbons on Mason's remnant counter, prayed with all her heart that Rodney would continue to fill her place.
They walked up Main Street, Martie glancing up from under her shabby hat with happy blue eyes, Rodney sauntering contentedly at her side.
How much he knew, how much he had done, the girl thought, with an ache of hopeless admiration. Almost every sentence opened a new vista of his experience and her ignorance. She did not suspect that he meant it to be so; she only felt dazzled by the easy, glancing references he made to men and books and places.
They stopped at the railroad track to watch the eastward-bound train thunder by. Five hours out of San Francisco, its passengers looked quite at home in the big green upholstered seats. Bored women looked idly out upon little Monroe, half-closed magazines in their hands. Card-playing men did not glance up as the village flashed by. On the platform of the observation car the usual well-wrapped girl and pipe-smoking young man were carrying on the usual flirtation. Martie saw the train nearly every day, but never without a thrill. She said to herself, "New York!" as a pilgrim might murmur of Mecca or of Heaven.
"That's a good train," said Rodney. "Let's see, this is Wednesday. They'll be in New York Sunday night. Awful place on Sunday--no theatres, no ball games, no drinks--"
"I could manage without theatres or ball games," Martie laughed. "But I must have my whisky!"
"It sounded as if I meant that, but you know me!" he laughed back. "Lord, how I'd like to show you New York. Wouldn't you love it! Broadway--well, it's a wonder! There's something doing every minute. You'd love the theatres--"
"I know I would!" Martie assented, glowing.
"My aunt lives there; she has an apartment right on the Park, at West Ninetieth," Rodney said. "Her husband has scads of money," the boy pursued. "You'll have to go on, Martie, there's no two ways about it."
"And Delmonico's?" the girl suggested eagerly. "I've heard of Delmonico's!"
"Delmonico's is where the wedding parties go. Of course, if you say so, Martie--"
That was one of the sweet and thrilling things to remember. And there were other things to make Martie's heart dance as she set the dinner table. But she wondered if she should have asked him in.
Martie stopped short, salt-cellars in her hand. How could she--with Pa's arrival possible at any moment. Besides she had asked him, as they lingered laughing at the gate. That was all right--it was late, anyway. He had gaily refused, and she had not pressed him. And, wonderful thought, they were going walking on Sunday.
Monroe boys and girls usually walked on Sunday. They walked up the track to the Junction, or up between bare fields past the Poor House to the Cemetery. When a young man hired a phaeton at Beetman's, and took his girl for a drive on Sunday, it was a definite avowal of serious attachment. In that case they usually had their Sunday supper at the home of the young man's mother, or married sister, or with some female relative whose sanction upon their plans was considered essential.
Rodney Parker was not quite familiar with this well-established precedent. His sisters were not enough of the village to be asked either to walk or drive with the local swains, and he had been away for several years. For two Sundays he walked with Martie, and then he asked her to drive.
For the girl, these weeks were suffused with a tremulous and ecstatic delight beyond definition, beyond words. What she would not have dared to hope, she actually experienced. No need to boast before Sally and Grace and Florence Frost. They saw: the whole village saw.
Martie bloomed like a rose. She forgot everything--Pa, Len, the gloomy home, the uncertain future--for joy. That her old hat was shabby and her clothes inappropriate meant nothing to Martie; ignorant, unhelped, she stumbled on her way alone. Nobody told her to pin her bronze braids more trimly, to keep her brilliant skin free from the muddying touch of sweets and pastries, to sew a hook here and catch a looping hem there. Nobody suggested that she manicure her fine big hands, or use some of her endless leisure to remove the spots from her blue silk dress.
More; the family dared take only a stealthy interest in Martie's affair, because of Malcolm's extraordinary perversity and Len's young scorn. Malcolm, angered by Lydia's fluttered pleasure in the honour Rodney Parker was doing their Martie, was pleased to assume a high and mighty attitude. He laughed heartily at the mere idea that the attentions of Graham Parker's son might be construed as a compliment to a Monroe, and sarcastically rebuked Lydia when, on a Sunday afternoon, she somewhat stealthily made preparations for tea. Martie and Rod were walking, and Martie, before she went, had said something vague about coming back at half-past four.
Lydia, abashed, gave up her plan for tea. But she did what she could for Martie, by inveigling her father into a walk. Martie and Rod came into an empty house, for Sally was out, no one knew where, and Mrs. Monroe had gone to church where vespers were sung at four o'clock through the winter.
Martie's colour was high from fast walking in the cold wind, her eyes shone like sapphires, and her loosened hair, under an old velvet tam-o'-shanter cap, made a gold aureole about her face. Rodney, watching her mount the little hill to the graveyard with a winter sunset before her, had called her "Brunhilde," and he had been talking of grand opera as they walked home.
Enchanted at finding the house deserted, she very simply took him into the kitchen. The kettle was fortunately singing over a sleeping fire; Rodney sliced bread and toasted it, while Martie, trying to appear quite at her ease, but conscious of awkward knees and elbows just the same, whisked from pantry to kitchen busily, disappearing into the dining room long enough to lay the tea cups and plates at one end of the big table.
Only a few moments before the little feast was ready, Lydia came rather anxiously into the kitchen. She greeted Rodney smilingly, seizing the first opportunity for an aside to say to Martie:
"Pa's home, Mart. And he doesn't like your having Rod out here. I walked him up to the Tates', but no one was home except Lizzie. Shame! He saw Rodney's cap in the hall--he's in the dining room." Aloud she said cheerfully: "I think this is dreadful--making you work so hard, Rod. Come--tea's nearly ready. You and I'll wait for it in the dining room, like the gentleman and lady we are!"
"Oh, I'm having a grand time!" Rodney laughed. But he allowed himself to be led away. A few minutes later Martie, with despair in her heart, carried the loaded tray into the dining room.
Her father, in one of his bad moods, was sitting by the empty fireplace. The room, in the early autumn twilight, was cold. Len had come in and expected his share of the unfamiliar luxury of tea, and more than his share of the hot toast.
Rodney, unaffected by the atmosphere, gaily busied himself with the tray. Lydia came gently in with an armful of light wood which she laid in the fireplace.
"There is no necessity for a fire," Malcolm said. "I wouldn't light that, my dear."
"I thought--just to take the chill off," Lydia stammered.
Her father shook his head. Lydia subsided.
"We shall be having supper shortly, I suppose?" he asked patiently, looking at a large gold watch. "It's after half-past five now."
"But, Pa," Lydia laughed a little constrainedly, "we never have dinner until half-past six!"
"Oh, on week days--certainly," he agreed stiffly. "On Sundays, unless I am entirely wrong, we sit down before six."
"Len," Martie murmured, "why don't you go make yourself some toast?"
"Don't have to!" Len laughed with his mouth full.
"Here--I'll go out and make some more!" Rodney said buoyantly, catching up a plate. Lydia instantly intervened; this would not do. Pa would be furious. Obviously Martie could not go, because in her absence Pa, Rodney, and Len would either be silent, or say what was better unsaid. Lydia herself went out for a fresh supply of toast.
Martie was grateful, but in misery. Lydia was always slow. The endless minutes wore away, she and Rodney playing with their empty plates, Len also waiting hungrily, her father watching them sombrely. If Len hadn't come in and been so greedy, Martie thought in confused anger, tea would have been safely over by this time; if Pa were not there glowering she might have chattered at her ease with Rodney, no tea hour would have been too long. As it was, she was self-conscious and constrained. The clock struck six. Really it was late.
The toast came in; Sally came in demurely at her mother's side. She had rushed out of the shadows to join her mother at the gate, much to Mrs. Monroe's surprise. Conversation, subdued but general, ensued. Martie walked boldly with Rodney to the gate, at twenty minutes past six, and they stood there, laughing and talking, for another ten minutes.
When she went in, it was to face unpleasantness. Her mother, with her bonnet strings dangling, was helping Lydia hastily to remove signs of the recent tea party. Sally was in the kitchen; Len reading opposite his father.
"Come here a minute, Martie," her father called as I the girl hesitated in the hallway. Martie came in and eyed him. "I would like to know what circumstances led to young Parker's being here this afternoon?" he asked.
"Why--we were walking, and I--I suppose I asked him, Pa."
"You suppose you asked him?"
"Well--I did ask him."
"Oh, you did ask him; that's different. You had spoken to your mother about it?"
"No." Martie swallowed. "No," she said again nervously. There was a silence while her father eyed her coldly.
"Then you ask whom you like to the house, do you? Is that the idea? You upset your mother's and your sister's arrangement entirely at your own pleasure?" he suggested presently.
"I didn't think it was so much to ask a person to have a cup of tea!" Martie stammered, with a desperate attempt at self-defense. She felt tears pressing against her eyes. Lydia would have been meek, Sally would have been meek, but Martie's anger was her nearest weapon. It angered her father in turn.
"Well, will you kindly remember in future that your ideas of what to ask, and what not to ask, are not the ideas by which this house is governed?" Malcolm asked magnificently.
"Yes, sir." Martie stirred as if to turn and go.
"One moment," Malcolm said discontentedly. "You thoroughly understand me, do you?"
"Yes, sir." Martie's eyes met Len's discreetly raised over the edge of his book and full of reproachful interest. She went into the kitchen.
The spell of a nervous silence which had held the dining room was broken. Mrs. Monroe and Lydia talked in low tones as they went to and fro; Len shifted his position; Sally coming in with a plate of sliced bread hummed contentedly. Martie appeared in her usual place at supper, not too subdued to win a laugh even from her father with some vivacious imitation of Miss Tate rallying the children for Sunday School. Happiness was bubbling like a spring in her heart.
After dinner, the dishes being piled in the sink to greet Belle on Monday morning, she went to the piano and crashed into "Just a Song at Twilight," and "Oh, Promise Me," and "The Two Grenadiers." These and many more songs were contained in a large, heavy album entitled "Favourite Songs for the Home." Martie had a good voice; not better than Sally's or Lydia's, but Sally and Lydia rarely sang. Martie had sung to her own noisy accompaniment since she was a child; she loved the sound of her own voice. She had a hunger for accomplishment, rattled off the few French phrases she knew with an unusually pure accent, and caught an odd pleasing word or an accurate pronunciation eagerly on the few occasions when lecturers or actors in Monroe gave her an opportunity.
To-night her father, in his library, heard the sweet, true tones of her voice in "Lesbia" and "Believe Me," and remembered his mother singing those same old songs. But when a silence followed he remembered only faulty Martie, awkwardly making Rodney Parker welcome at the most inconvenient time her evil genius could have suggested, and he presently went into the sitting room with the familiar scowl on his face.
On the next Sunday Rodney hired a Roman-nosed, rusty white horse at Beetman's, and for two hours he and Martie drove slowly about. They drove up past the Poor House to the Cemetery, and into the Cemetery itself, where black-clad forms were moving slowly among the graves. The day was cold, with a bleak wind blowing; the headstones looked bare and forlorn.
At half-past three, driving down the Pittsville road, back toward Monroe, Rodney said:
"Why don't you come and have tea at our house, Martie?"
Martie's heart rose on a great spring.
"Why--would your mother--" She stopped short, not knowing quite how to voice her hesitation. Had she expressed exactly what was in her mind she might have said: "First, won't your mother and sisters snub me? And secondly, is it quite correct, from a conventional standpoint, for me to accept your casual invitation?"
"Sure. Mother'll be delighted--come on!" Rodney urged.
"I'd love to!" Martie agreed.
"You know, the beauty about you, Martie, is that you're such a good pal," Rodney said enthusiastically as he drove on. "I've always wanted a pal. You and I like the same things; we're both a little different from the common run, perhaps--I don't want to throw any flowers at us, but that's true--and it's wonderful to me that living here in this hole all your life you're so up-to-date--so darned intelligent!"
This was nectar to Martie's soul. But she had never been indulged so recklessly in personalities before, and she did not quite know how to meet them. She wanted to say the right thing, to respond absolutely to his mood; a smile, half-deprecating, half-charmed, fluttered on her lips when Rodney talked in this fashion, but even to herself her words seemed ill-chosen and clumsy. A more experienced woman, with all of Martie's love and longing surging in her heart, would have vouchsafed him just that casual touch of hand on hand, that slight, apparently involuntary swerve of shoulder against shoulder that would have brought the boy's arms about her, his lips to hers.
It was her business in life to make him love her; the only business for which her mother and father had ever predestined her. But she knew nothing of it, except that no "nice" girl allowed a boy to put his arm about her or kiss her unless they were engaged. She knew that girls got into "trouble" by being careless on these matters, but what that trouble was, or what led to it, she did not know. She and Sally innocently believed that some mysterious cloud enveloped even the most staid and upright girl at the touch of a man's arm, so that of subsequent events she lost all consciousness. A girl might attract a man by words and smiles to the point of wishing to marry her, but she must never permit the slightest liberties, she must indeed assume, to the very day of her marriage, that the desire for marriage lived in the heart of the man alone.
Martie never dreamed that the youth and sex within her had as definite a claim on her senses as hunger had in the hour before dinner time, or sleep had when she nodded over her solitaire at night. But she drank in enchantment with Rodney's voice, his laughter, his nearness, and the night was too short for her dreams or the days for her happiness.
They left the Roman-nosed horse and the surrey at Beetman's livery stable, a damp and odorous enclosure smelling of wet straw, and with the rear quarters of nervous bay horses stirring in the stalls. The various men, smoking and spitting there in the Sunday afternoon leisure, knew Martie and nodded to her; knew who her companion was.
Martie and Rodney walked down South California Street, into the town's nicest quarter, and passed the old-fashioned wooden houses, set far back in bare gardens: the Wests' with its wooden palings; the Clifford Frosts', with a hooded baby carriage near the side door; and the senior Frosts', a dark red house shut in by a dark red fence. The Barkers' house was the last in the row, rambling, ugly, decorated with knobs and triangles of wood, with many porches, with coloured glass frames on its narrow windows, yet imposing withal, because of its great size and the great trees about it. Martie had not been there since her childhood, in the days before Malcolm Monroe's attitude on the sewer and street-lighting questions had antagonized his neighbours, in the days when Mrs. Frost and Mrs. Parker still exchanged occasional calls with Martie's mother.
The girl found strangely thrilling Rodney's familiarity here. He crossed the porch, opened the unlocked front door, and led Martie through a large, over-furnished hall and a large, stately drawing room. The rugs, lamps, chairs, and tables all belonged to entirely different periods, some were Mission oak, some cherry upholstered in rich brocade; there was a little mahogany, some maple, even a single handsome square chair of teakwood from the Orient. On the walls there were large crayon portraits made from photographs of the girls, and there were cushions everywhere, some of fringed leather, some of satin painted or embroidered, some of cigar ribbons of clear yellow silk, some with college pennants flaunting across them.
Beyond this room was another large one, looking out on the lawn and the shabby willows at the side of the house. Into this room the more favoured one had been casting off its abandoned fineries for many years. There were more rugs, pillows, lamps, and chairs in here, but it was all more shabby, and the effect was pleasanter and softer. Ida's tea table stood by the hearth, with innovations such as a silver tea-ball, and a porcelain cracker jar decorated with a rich design in the minutely cut and shellacked details of postage stamps. A fire winked sleepily behind the polished steel bars of the grate, the western window was full of potted begonias and ferns, the air was close and pleasantly scented with the odour of a good cigar.
Judge Parker, a genial man looking more than his fifty-five years, sat alone, smoking this cigar, and Martie, greeting him prettily, was relieved to find that she must not at once face the ladies of the house. Rather uncertainly she took off her hat, but did not remove the becoming blue sweater. She sat erect in a low, comfortable armchair whose inviting curves made her rigid attitude unnatural and difficult, and talked to the Judge. The old man liked all fresh young girls, and laughing with her, he vaguely wondered in his hospitable heart why Monroe's girls were not more often at the house.
Ida and May, tall, colourless young women, presently came down. They noticed Martie's shoe-lacings and the frill of muddy petticoat, the ungloved hands and the absurdity of her having removed her hat, and told Rodney about these things later. At the time they only made her uncomfortable in quiet little feminine ways; not hearing her when she spoke, asking her questions whose answers must surely embarrass her.
Tea came in. Martie smiled at Carrie David, who brought it. She liked Carrie, who was the Hawkes' cousin, but did not quite think she should speak to her here. Carrie, who was a big, gray-haired woman of fifty, was in the room only a moment after all.
Judge Parker, amiably under the impression that young people were happier alone, went away to walk down Main Street, glancing at the sky and greeting his townspeople in his usual genial fashion. May poured the tea, holding Rodney in conversation the while. Ida talked to Martie in a vivacious, smiling, insincere way, difficult to follow.
Martie listened sympathetically, more than half believing in the bright picture of social triumphs and San Francisco admirers that was presented her, even though she knew that Ida was twenty-six, and had never had a Monroe admirer. Dr. Ben had once had a passing fancy for May's company; May was older than Ida, and, though like her physically, was warmer and more human in type. But even this had never been a recognized affair; it had died in infancy, and the Parker girls were beginning to be called old maids.
Rodney walked with Martie to the gate when she left, but no farther, and as she went on her way, uncomfortable thoughts were uppermost in her mind. Martie had never driven with a young man before, and so had no precedent to guide her, but she wondered if Rodney should not have gone with her to her own gate. Perhaps she had stayed too long- -another miserable possibility. And how "snippy" Ida and May had been!
Still, Monroe had seen her driving with Rodney, and she had had tea at the Parkers'! So much was gain. She had almost reached the shabby green gate that led into the sunken garden when Sally, flying up behind her in the dusk, slipped a hand through her arm. Martie, turning with a start and a laugh, saw Joe Hawkes, ten feet away, smiling at her.
"Hello, Joe!" she said, a little puzzled. Not that it was not quite natural for Sally to stop and speak to Joe, if she wanted to; Joe had been a familiar figure in their lives since they were children. But--
But Sally was laughing and panting in a manner new and incomprehensible. She caught Martie by both hands. All three, young and not understanding themselves or life, stood laughing a little vaguely in the sharp winter dusk. Joe was a mighty blond giant, only Martie's age, and younger, except in inches and in sinews, than his years. He had a sweet, simple face, rough, yellow hair, and hairy, red, clumsy hands. A greater contrast to gentle little Sally, with her timid brown eyes and the bloodless quiet of manner that was like her mother and like Lydia, could hardly have been imagined.
"Where've you been?" Martie asked.
"We've been to church!" dimpled Sally with a glance at Joe.
The pronoun startled Martie.
"We were up in the organ loft," Joe contributed with his half- laughing, half-nervous grin.
Still bewildered, Martie followed her sister into the dark garden, after a good-night nod to Joe, and went into the house. Their father reluctantly accepted the girls' separate accounts of the afternoon: Sally had been in church, Martie had driven about with Rod and had gone to tea at his house. Lydia fluttered with questions. Who was there? What was said? Malcolm asked Martie where Rodney had left her.
"At the gate, Pa," the girl responded promptly.
All through the evening her eyes kept wandering in disapproval toward Sally. Joe Hawkes!--it was monstrous. That stupid, common lout of a boy--nearly two years her junior, too.
They were undressing, alone in their room, when she spoke of the matter.
"Sally," said she, "you didn't really go sit in the choir with Joe Hawkes, did you?"
"Well--yes, in a way," Sally admitted, adding indulgently, "he's such an idiot!"
"How do you mean?" Martie asked sharply. For Sally to flush and dimple and give herself the airs of a happy woman over the calf-like attentions of this clumsy boy of nineteen was more than absurd, it was painful. "Sally--you couldn't! Why, you oughtn't even to be friends with Joe Hawkes!" she stammered. "He gets--I suppose he gets twenty dollars a month."
"On, no; more than that!" Sally said, brushing her fine, silky, lifeless hair. "He gets twenty-five from the express company, and when he meets the trains for Beetman he gets half he makes."
Martie stood astounded at her manner. That one of the Monroe girls should be talking thus of Joe Hawkes! What mattered it to Sarah Price Monroe how much Joe Hawkes made, or how? Joe Hawkes--Grace's insignificant younger brother! Sally saw her consternation.
"Now listen, Mart, and don't have a fit," she said, laughing. "I'm not any crazier over Joe than you are. I know what Pa would say. I'm not likely to marry any one on thirty dollars a month, anyway. But listen, Joe has always liked me terribly--"
"I never knew it!" Martie exclaimed.
"No; well, neither did I. But last year when he broke his leg I used to go in and see him with Grace, and one day she left the room for a while, and he sort of--broke out--"
"The gall!" ejaculated Martie.
"Oh, no, Mart--he didn't mean it that way. Really he didn't. He just wanted--to hold my hand, you know--and that. And he never thinks of money, or getting married. And, Mart, he's so grateful, you know, for just a moment's meeting, or if I smile at him, going out of church--"
"I should think he might be!" Martie interpolated in fine scorn.
"Yes, I know how you feel, Martie," Sally went on eagerly, "and that's true, of course. I feel that way myself. But you don't know how miserable he makes himself about it. And does it seem wrong to you, Mart, for me just to be kind to him? I tell him--I was telling him this afternoon--that some day he'll meet some nice sweet girl younger than he, and that he'll be making more money then--you know- -"
Her voice faltered. She looked wistfully at her sister.
"But I can't see why you let a big dummy like that talk to you at all!" Martie said impatiently after a short silence. "What do you care what he thinks? He's got a lot of nerve to dare to talk to you that way. I--well, I think Pa would be wild!"
"Oh, of course he would," Sally agreed in a troubled voice. "And I know how you feel, Martie, with Joe's aunt working for the Parkers, and all," she added. "I'll--I'll stop it. Truly I will. I'm only doing it to be considerate to Joe, anyway!"
"You needn't do anything on my account," Martie said gruffly. "But I think you ought to stop it on your own. Joe is only a kid, he doesn't know beans--much less enough to really fall in love!"
She lay awake for a long time that night, in troubled thought. Cold autumn moonlight poured into the room; a restless wind whined about the house. The cuckoo clock struck eleven--struck twelve.
At all events she had gone driving with Rodney; she had had tea at the Parkers'--