"I honestly think that some of us ought to go down to-night and see Grandma Kelly," said Lydia at luncheon a week later. November had come in bright and sunny, but with late dawns and early twilights. Rodney Parker's college friend having delayed his promised visit, the agitating question of the Friday Fortnightly had been temporarily laid to rest, but Martie saw him nearly every day, and family and friends alike began to change in their attitude to Martie.
"I'll go," she and Sally said together--Martie, because she was in a particularly amiable mood; Sally, perhaps because old Mrs. Kelly was Joe Hawkes's grandmother.
"Well, I wish you would, girls," their mother said in her gentle, complaining voice. "She's a dear old lady--a perfect saint about getting to church in all weathers! And while Pa doesn't care much about having you so intimate with the Hawkeses, he was saying this morning that Grandma Kelly is different. She was my nurse when all four of you were born, and she certainly was interested and kind."
"We can go down about seven," Lydia said, "and not stay too long. But I suppose 'most every one in Monroe will run in to wish her many happy returns. Tom David's wife will come in from Westlake with Grandma's great-grandchildren, I guess, and all the others will be there."
"That houseful alone would kill me, let alone having the whole tribe stream in, if I were seventy-eight!" Martie observed. "But I'd just as soon go. We'll see how we feel after dinner!"
And after dinner, the night being fresh and sweet, and the meal early concluded because Malcolm was delayed in Pittsville and did not return for dinner, the three Monroes pinned on their hats, powdered their noses, and buttoned on their winter coats. Any excitement added to her present ecstatic mood was enough to give Martie the bloom of a wild rose, and Sally had her own reasons for radiance. Lydia alone, walking between them, was actuated by cool motives of duty and convention and sighed as she thought of the heat and hubbub of the Hawkes's house, and the hour that must elapse before they were back in the cool night again.
The Hawkeses had always lived in one house in Monroe. It was a large, square, cheap house near the bridge, with a bare yard kept shabby by picking chickens, and a fence of struggling pickets. Behind the house, which had not been painted in the memory of man, was a yawning barn which had never been painted at all. In the yard were various odds and ends of broken machinery and old harness; a wagon-seat, on which Grandma sometimes sat shelling beans or peeling potatoes in the summer afternoons; old brooms, old saucepans, and lengths of rope, clotted with mud. Fuchsia and rose-bushes languished in a tipsy wire enclosure near the front door.
To-night, although the yard presented a rather dismal appearance in the early winter dark, the house was bursting with hospitality and good cheer. From every one of the bare high windows raw gushes of light tunnelled the gloom outside, and although the cold outside had frosted all the glass, dim forms could be seen moving about, and voices and laughter could be heard.
Martie briskly twisted the little rotary bell-handle that was set in the centre of the front door, and before its harsh noise had died away, the door was flung open and the Monroe sisters were instantly made a part of the celebration. Hilarious members of the family and their even more hilarious friends welcomed them in; the bare hallway was swarming with young persons of both sexes; girls were coming down the stairs, girls going up, and the complementary boys lined the wall, or, grinning, looked on from the doorways.
The front room on the left, usually a bedroom, was used for a smoking room to-night; the dining-room door had been locked, but on the right two doors gave entrance to the long parlours, and here were older men, older women--Mrs. Hawkes, big, energetic, perspiring all over her delighted face; Carrie David, wild with hospitable excitement; and Joe Hawkes, Senior, a lean little eager Irishman, quite in his glory to-night. Throned on a sort of dais, in the front bay window, was Grandma Kelly, a little shrivelled beaming old woman, in a crumpled, shining, black satin gown. Her hair was scanty, showing a wide bald parting, and to hear in all the confusion she was obliged occasionally to cup one hand behind her ear, but her snapping eyes were as bright as a monkey's and her lips, over toothless gums, worked constantly with a rotary motion as she talked and laughed. On each side of her were grouped other old ladies--Mrs. Sark, Mrs. Mulkey, Mrs. Hansen, and Mrs. Mussoo--her friends since the days, fifty years before, when they had crossed the plains in hooded wagons, and fought out their simple and heroic destinies on these strange western prairies.
They had borne children, comforting and caring for each other in the wilderness; they had talked of wolves and of Indians while trusting little hands caught their knees and ignorant little lips pulled at their breasts; they had known fire and flood and famine, crude offense and cruder punishment; they had seen the Indians and the buffalo go with the Missions and the sheep; they had followed the gold through its sensational rise to its sensational fall, and had held the wheat dubiously in their fingers before ever California's dark soil knew it--had wondered whether the first apple trees really might come to blossom and bear where the pines were cleared away.
And now, with the second and third generation, had come schools and post-offices, cable cars and gaslight; villages were cities; crossroads were towns. At seventy-eight, Grandma Kelly was far from ready for her nunc dimittis. Great days had been, no doubt, but great days were also to be. Children, grandchildren, and great- grandchildren kept the house swarming with life, and she could never have enough of it.
The air, never too fresh in the Hawkes's house, was hot and charged with odours of cheap cologne, of powder, of human bodies, and of perspiration-soaked garments. The very gaslights screamed above the din as if they found it contagious. Large crayon portraits decorated the walls, that of the late Mr. Kelly having attached to its frame the sheaf of wheat that had lain on his coffin. On the walls also were the large calendars of insurance companies, and one or two china plaques in plush frames. A bead portiere hung between the two parlours, constantly clicking and catching as the guests swarmed to and fro. All the chairs in the house had been set about the walls, and all were occupied. A disk on the phonograph was duly revolving, in charge of a hysterical girl in blue silk and a flushed, humorous young man, but the music was almost unheard.
Whatever their attitude toward this merrymaking had previously been, the Monroe girls were instantly drawn into the spirit of the occasion. Martie and Sally were dragged upstairs, where they left hats and coats, were taken downstairs again with affectionate, girlish arms about their waists; and found themselves laughing and shouting with the rest. Towed through the boiling crowd to Grandma, they kissed the cool, soft old face. They greeted the other old women with pretty enthusiasm.
Lydia meanwhile had decorously delivered her message of good wishes and had drifted to a chair against the wall, where matrons greeted her eagerly and where, in her own way, she began to enjoy herself. Sentiment, hospitality, gaiety filled the air.
"Isn't Grandma wonderful?" said all the voices, over and over. "I think she's wonderful! Mrs. Hawkes had a dinner for just the five old ladies, you know. Wasn't that sweet? The family had to have their dinner earlier--just the five old ladies. Wasn't that a cute idea? Ellen said they looked perfectly dear, all together! Mary Clute couldn't get here from San Francisco, you know, but she sent Grandma a tea-pot cover--the cutest thing! Did you see the Davids' baby? It's upstairs, I guess; it's a darling little thing! Think of it, three great-grandchildren! Oh, I do, too; I think it's a lovely party--I think the rooms look lovely--I think it was an awfully cute idea!"
The oldest David grandchild, becoming sodden with sleepiness, climbed into Lydia's lap. Sally, after exchanging a conscious undertone with young Joe, slipped through the dining-room door with him, and happily joined the working forces in the kitchen. In her mind Sally knew that the Hawkeses were but homely folk; she knew that any Monroe should shrink from this hot and noisy kitchen. But Sally's heart welcomed the eager bustle, the tasks so imperative that her timid little entity was entirely forgotten, the talk that was friendly and affectionate and comprehensible.
Joe and she laughed over piecing tablecloths together for the long table, and kept a jingling ripple of laughter accompanying the jingling of plated spoons and the thick glasses. Ellen and Grace, as the family debutantes, were inside with the company, but Carrie and Min, the married daughters, were here, with old Mrs. Crowley, who never missed an occasion of this kind, Mrs. Mulkey's daughter Annie Tate, Gertie Hansen, and an excited fringe of children too young to dance and too old to be sent off to bed.
As it was the custom for the more intimate friends to bring a cake, a pan of cookies, or a great jug of strong lemonade to such an affair, there was more food than twice this surging group of men, women, and children could possibly consume, so that the boys and girls could keep their mouths full of oily, nutty, walnut wafers and broken bits of layer cake without any conscientious scruples. One of the large kitchen tables was entirely covered with plates bearing layer cakes, with chocolate, maple, shining white, and streaky orange icings, or topped with a deadly coating of fluffy cocoa-nut. On the floor half a dozen ice cream freezers leaked generously; at the sink, Mrs. Rose, who had been Minnie Hawkes, was black and sticky to the elbows with lemon juice.
Meanwhile Martie, more in tune with the actual jollity than either of her sisters, was warming to her most joyous mood. Her costume of thin white waist and worn serge skirt might have been considered deficient in a more formal assembly, but here it passed without comment; the girls' dresses varied widely, and no one seemed any the less gay. Grace had a long streamer of what appeared to be green window-net tied loosely about a worn pink satin slip; Elsa Prout wore the shepherdess costume she had made for the Elks' Hallowe'en Dance, and Mrs. Cazley, sitting with her back against the wall, wore her widow's bonnet with its limp little veil falling down to touch her fresh white shirtwaist. Martie improved her own costume by pinning a large pink tissue-paper rose against her high white stock, and fastening another in her bronze hair; the girls laughed appreciatively at her audacity; a vase of the paper roses had been in the parlour for years. Youth and excitement did the rest.
Here, where her motives could not be misunderstood, where her presence indeed was to be construed as adding distinction and dignity to the festivities, Martie could be herself. She laughed, she flirted with the common yet admiring boys, she paid charming attention to the old women. A rambling musical programme was presently set in motion; Martie's voice led all the voices. She was presently asked to sing alone, and went through "Believe Me" charmingly, putting real power and pathos into the immortal words. Returning, flushed and happy in a storm of clapping, to her place between Al Lunt and Art Carter on the sofa, she kept those appreciative youths in such convulsions of laughter that their entire neighbourhood was sympathetically affected. Carl Polhemus, who played the organ at church, had begun a wandering improvisation on the piano, evidently so taken with certain various chords and runs that he could not resist playing them passionately over and over. A dangerous laugh, started among the younger set, began to strangle and stifle his audience. Martie, looking straight ahead of her, gave only an occasional spasmodic heave of shoulders and breast, but her lips were compressed in an agony, and her eyes full of tears. From the writhing boys on each side of her came frequent smothered snorts.
In upon this scene came old Dr. Ben, who had worked hand in hand with Grandma Kelly in the darkened rooms where many of these hilarious youngsters had drawn their first breath. Although the infatuated musician did not stop at this interruption, many of his listeners rose to greet the newcomer, and the tension snapped.
Dr. Ben sat down next to the old lady, and the room, from which the older guests were quietly disappearing, was enthusiastically cleared for dancing. The air, close already, became absolutely insufferable now; the men's collars wilted, the girls' flushed faces streamed perspiration. But the cool side-porch was accessible, and the laughter and noise continued unabated.
Quietly crossing the dark backyard for his horse and buggy at ten o'clock, Dr. Ben came upon Joe Hawkes sitting on the shadowy steps with--he narrowed his eyes to make sure--yes, with little Sally Monroe. The old man formed his lips into a slow, thoughtful whistle as he busied himself with straps and buckles. Slowly, thoughtfully, he climbed into his buggy.
"Sally!" he called, sitting irresolute with the reins in his hands.
The opaque spot that was Sally's gown did not stir in the shadows.
"Sally!" he called again. "I see ye, and Joe Hawkes, too. Come here a minute!"
She went then, slowly into the clear November moonlight.
"What is it, Doc' Ben?" she asked, in a rather thick voice and with a perceptible gulp. Even in this light he could see her wet lashes glitter.
For a minute he did not speak, fat hands on fat knees. Sally, innocent, loving, afraid, hung her head before him.
"Like Joe, do ye, Sally?" said the mild old voice.
"I--" Sally's voice was almost inaudible--"why, I don't know, Doc, Ben," she faltered. "My mother--my father--" she stopped short.
"Your father and mother, eh?" Dr. Ben repeated musingly, as if to himself.
"I couldn't like--any one--if it was to make all the people who love me unhappy, I suppose," Sally said in her mild, prim voice, with an effort at lightness. "No happiness could come of that, could it, Doctor?"
To this dutiful expression the doctor made no immediate answer, observing in a dissatisfied tone, after a pause: "That sounds like your mother, or Lydia."
Sally, leaning against the shabby cushions of the carriage, looked down in silent distress.
"There never could be anything serious between Joe Hawkes and I," she said presently, with a little unnatural laugh. She was not quite sure of her pronoun. She looked anxiously at Dr. Ben's face. It was still troubled and overcast. Sally wondered uncomfortably if he would tell her mother that she was seeing Joe frequently. As it chanced, she and Joe had more than once encountered the old man on their solitary walks and talks. She thought, in her amiable heart, that if she only knew what Dr. Ben wanted her to say she would say it; or what viewpoint he expected her to take she would assume it.
"Joe and I were helping Mrs. David," she submitted timidly, "and we came out to sit in the cool."
"Don't be a hypocrite, Sally," the doctor said absently. Sally laughed with an effort to make the conversation seem all a joke, but she was puzzled and unhappy. "Well," said the doctor suddenly, gathering up his reins and rattling the whip in its socket as a gentle hint to the old mare, "I must be getting on. I want you to come and see me, Sally. Come to-morrow. I want to talk to you."
"Yes, sir," Sally answered obediently. She would have put out her tongue for his inspection then and there if he had suggested it.
When the old phaeton had rattled out of the yard she went back to the shadows and Joe. She was past all argument, all analysis, all reason, now. She hungered only for this: Joe's big clean young arms about her; Joe's fresh lips, with their ignorant passion, against hers. For years she had known Joe only by sight; a few months ago she had been merely amused and flattered by the boy's crudely expressed preference; even now she knew that for a Monroe girl, at twenty-one, to waste a thought on a Hawkes boy of nineteen was utter madness. But a week or two ago, walking home from church with her mother and herself on Sunday night, Joe had detained her for a moment under the dooryard trees--had kissed her. Sally was like a young tiger, tamed, petted, innocuous, whose puzzled lips have for the first time tasted blood. Every fibre in her being cried for Joe, his bashful words were her wisdom, his nearness her very breath and being.
She clung to him now, in the dark kitchen porch, in a fever of pure desire. Their hearts beat together. Sally's arms were bent against the boy's big chest, as his embrace crushed her; they breathed like runners as they kissed each other.
A moment later they went back into the kitchen to scoop the hard- packed ice cream into variegated saucers and enjoy unashamedly such odd bits of it as clung to fingers or spoon. The cakes had all been cut now, enormous wedges of every separate variety were arranged on the plates that were scattered up and down the long stretch of the table in the dining room. The dancers and all the other guests filed out to enjoy the supper, the room rang with laughter and screamed witticisms. A popular feature of the entertainment was the mottoes, flat scalloped candies of pink and white sugar, whose printed messages caused endless merriment among these uncritical young persons. "Do You Love Me?"; "I Am A Flirt"; "Don't Kiss Me"; "Oh, You Smarty," said the mottoes insinuatingly, and the revellers read them aloud, exchanged them, secreted them, and even devoured them, in their excessive delight.
Presently they all toasted Grandma Kelly in lemonade. The old lady, with Lydia and some of the older women, was enjoying her cake and cream in the parlour, but tears of pride and joy came to her eyes when the young voices all rose with lingering enjoyment on "Silver Threads Among the Gold," and there was a general wiping of eyes at "She's a Jolly Good Fellow" which followed it. Then some of the girls rushed in to kiss her once more, and, as it was now nearly twelve o'clock, Lydia called her sisters, and they said their good- nights.
Walking home under a jaded moon, yawning and cold in the revulsion from hours of excitement and the change from the heated rooms to the cold night air, Lydia was complacently superior; they were certainly warm-hearted, hospitable people, the Hawkeses, and she was glad that they, the Monroes, had paid Grandma the compliment of going. Sally, hanging on Lydia's arm, was silent. Martie, on her other arm, was smilingly reminiscent. "That Al Lunt was a caution," she observed. "Wasn't Laura Carter's dance music good? Wasn't that maple walnut cake delicious?" She had eaten goodness knows how much ice cream, because she sat at table between Reddy Johnson and Bernard Thomas, and every time Carrie David or any one asked them if they wanted any more ice cream, Bernie had put their saucers in his lap, and told Carrie that they hadn't had any yet.
Len suddenly came up behind his sisters, frightening them with a deep "Boo!" before he emerged from the blackness to join them.
"Javva good time?" he asked, adding carelessly, "I was there."
"Yes, you were!" Martie said incredulously. "You wish you were!"
"Honest, I was," Len said. "Honest I was, Lyd."
"Well, you weren't there until pretty late, Len," Lydia said in mild disapproval.
"Lissun," Len suggested pleadingly. "Tell Pa I brought you girls home from Hawkes's--go on! Lissun, Lyd, I'll do as much for you some time--"
"Oh, Len, how can I?" Lydia objected.
"Well, I went in, honest, early in the evening," the boy asserted eagerly. "But I can't stand those boobs and roughnecks, so I went down town for a while. Then I came back and waited until you girls came out of the gate. I'll cross my heart and hope to die if I didn't!"
"If Pa asks me--" Lydia said inexorably.
For a few moments they all walked together in the dark. Then Len said suddenly:
"Say, Mart, I saw Rod Parker to-night. He was down town, and he asked me how my pretty sister was!"
"Did he?" Martie spoke carelessly, but her heart leaped.
"He talked a lot about you," went on Len, "he's going to call you up in the morning about something."
"Oh--?" Martie mused. "I shouldn't wonder if it was about a dance we were talking about," she said thoughtfully. She was quite acute enough to see perfectly that Len was trying to enlist her silence in his cause should their father make a general inquiry, and philosophical enough to turn his mood to her own advantage. "Lissun, Len," said she, "if I try to have a party you'll get the boys you know to come, won't you? There are always too many girls, and I want it to go off nicely. You will, won't you?"
"Sure I will," Len promised heartily. He and his sister perfectly understood each other.
They all went quietly upstairs; Len to dreamless sleep, Sally to thrilled memories of Joe--Joe--Joe, and Martie to shifting happy thoughts of the evening and its little triumphs, thoughts that always came back to Len's talk with Rodney. Rodney had asked Len for his pretty sister.
Lydia lay wide awake for a long time. There was no doubt of it now; she and her mother had told each other several times during the last month or two that there was still doubt. But she was not mistaken to-night in thinking that Len's breath was strong from something alcoholic, that Len's eager, loose-lipped speech, his unusual manner--She went over and over the words she would use in telling her mother all about it in the morning. The two women would carry heavy hearts on Len's account for the whole cold, silent day. But they would not tell Pa--no, there was nothing sufficiently serious as yet to tell Pa!