Martie and Sally loitered through the village, past the post-office and the main shops and down through the poorer part of the town. They entered a quiet region of shabby old houses, turned into a deserted lane, and opened the picket gate before Dr. Ben's cottage. The little house in winter stood in a network of bare vines; in summer it was smothered in roses, and fuchsias, marguerites, hollyhocks, and geraniums pressed against the fence. Marigolds, alyssum, pansies, and border pinks flourished close to the ground, with sweet William, stock, mignonette, and velvet-brown wallflowers. Dr. Ben had planted all these himself, haphazard, and loved the resulting untidy jumble of bloom, with the lilac blossoms rustling overhead, birds nesting in his willow and pepper trees, and bees buzzing and blundering over his flowers.
The house was not quite definite enough in type to be quaint; it presented three much-ornamented gables to the lane, its windows were narrow, shuttered inside with dark brown wood. At the back-between the house and the little river, and shut away from the garden by a fence--were a little barn, decorated like the house in scalloped wood, and various small sheds and out-houses and their occupants.
Here lived the red cow, the old white mare, the chickens and pigeons, the rabbits and bees that had made the place fascinating to Monroe children for many years. Martie said to herself to-day that she always felt like a child when she came to Dr. Ben's, shut once more into childhood's world of sunshine and flowers and happy companionship with animals and the good earth.
To-day the old man, with his setter Sandy, was busy with his bookshelves when the girls went in. Two of the narrow low bay windows that looked directly out on the level of the kitchen path were in this room; the third, the girls knew, was a bedroom. Upstairs were several unused rooms full of old furniture and piles of magazines, and back of the long, narrow sitting room were a little dining room with Crimson Rambler roses plastered against its one window, and a large kitchen in which old Mis' Penny reigned supreme.
Here in the living room were lamps, shabby chairs, an air-tight stove, shells, empty birds' nests, specimens of ore, blown eggs, snakeskins, moccasins, wampum, spongy dry bees' nests, Indian baskets and rugs, ropes and pottery, an enormous Spanish hat of yellow straw with a gaudy band, and everywhere, in disorderly cascades and tumbled heaps, were books and pamphlets and magazines.
Dr. Ben welcomed them eagerly and sent Martie promptly to the kitchen to interview Mis' Penny on the subject of tea. The girls were quite at home here, for the old doctor was Rose Ransome's mother's cousin, and through their childhood the little gabled house had been the favourite object of their walks. Sally, alone with her host, began to help him in his hopeless attempt to get his library in order.
"The point is this, Sally," said Dr. Ben suddenly, after a few innocuous comments on the weather and the health of the Monroe family had been exchanged. "Have you and Joe Hawkes come to care for each other?"
Sally flushed scarlet. She had been thinking hard--for Sally, who was not given to thought--in the hours since the party for Grandma Kelly. Now she began readily, with a great air of frankness.
"I'll tell you, Dr. Ben. I know you feel as if I was trying to hide something from Ma and Pa, and it's worried me a good deal, too. But the truth is, I've known Joe all my life, and he's only a boy, of course--ever so much younger than I am--and he has just gotten this notion into his head. Of course, it's perfectly ridiculous--because naturally I am not going to throw my life away in any such fashion as that! But Joe thinks now that he will never smile again--"
Thus Sally, kneeling among the books, her earnest, pretty, young face turned toward the doctor, her eyes widely opened, as the extraordinary jumble of words poured forth. The unpleasant sensation of their last meeting, the confusing feeling that she was not saying what Dr. Ben wanted her to say, beset her. She felt a sudden, dreadful inclination toward tears, although with no clear sense of a reason for crying.
"I suppose all boys go through their silly stages like measles," said Sally rapidly. "And it's only my misfortune and Joe's that his first love affair had to be me. One reason why I haven't mentioned it at home is--"
"Then you don't care for Joe?" the old man asked with his serious smile.
"Oh, Dr. Ben! Of course, I like Joe enormously, he's a dear sweet boy," Sally answered smoothly. "But you know as well as I do how my father feels toward the village people in Monroe, and while the Hawkeses are just as nice as they can be in their way--" again Sally's flow of eloquence was strangely shaken; she felt as a child might, caught up in the arm of a much larger person and rushed along helplessly with only an occasional heartening touch of her feet to the ground--"after all, that isn't quite our way, is it?" she asked. If only, thought the nervous little girl who was Sally, if only she knew what Dr. Ben wanted her to say!
"Why can't ye be honest with me, Sally?" said the doctor. "Ye love Joe, don't ye?"
Sally's head dropped, the colour rose in her cheeks, and the tears came. She nodded, and through all her body ran a delicious thrill at the acknowledged passion.
"Ye've found each other out, in spite of them all!" said the old man musingly. "And what does his age or yours, or his place or yours, matter beside that? They've tried to fill you with lies, and you've found that the lies don't hold water. Well--"
He straightened up suddenly, and began to march about the room. Sally, kneeling still over the books, tears drying on her cheeks, watched him.
"Sally," said the doctor, "God made you and Joe Hawkes and your love for each other. I don't know who made the social laws by which women govern these little towns, but I suspect it was the devil. You've been brought up to feel that if you marry a man Mrs. Cy Frost doesn't ask to her house, you'll be unhappy ever after. But I ask you, Sally--I ask you as a man old enough to be your father--if you had your home, your husband, your health, your garden, and your children, wouldn't you be a far happier woman than--than Lydia say, or Florence Frost, or all the other girls who sit about this town waiting for a man with position enough--position, bah!--to marry?"
Sally's face was glowing.
"Oh, Dr. Ben, I don't care anything about position!" she said, all her honest innocence in her face.
"Then why do you act as if you did?" he said, well pleased.
"And would you advise me to marry Joe?" she asked radiantly.
"Joe--Tom--Billy, whomever you please!" he answered impatiently. "But don't be afraid because he doesn't wear silk socks, Sally, or smoke a monogrammed cigarette. Why, my child, that little polish, that little fineness, is the woman's gift to her man! These Frosts and Parkers: it was the coarse strength of their grandfathers that got them across the plains; it was the women who packed the books in the horsehair trunks, that read the Bibles and cleaned and sewed and prayed in the old home way. You don't suppose those old miners and grocers, who came later to be the city fathers, ever had as much education as Joe Hawkes, or half as much!"
"I wish my father felt as you do, Doc' Ben," Sally said presently, the brightness dying from her face. "But Pa will never, never--And even if there were no other reason, why Joe hasn't a steady job--"
"That brings me to what I really want to say to you to-day, Sally," the old man interrupted her briskly. He opened a desk drawer and took from it a small, old-fashioned photograph. Sally saw a young woman's form, disguised under the scallops, ruffles, and pleats of the early seventies, a bright face under a cascade of ringlets, and a little oval bonnet set coquettishly awry. "D'ye know who that is?" asked Dr. Ben.
"I--well, yes; I suppose?" murmured Sally sympathetically.
"Yes, it's my wife," he answered. "Mary--Our boy would be thirty. They went away together--poor girl, poor girl! We wanted a big family, Sally; we hoped for a houseful of children. And I had her for only fifteen months--only fifteen months to remember for thirty years!"
Sally was deeply impressed. She thought it strangely flattering in Dr. Ben to take her into his confidence in this way, and that she would tell Martie about it as they walked home.
"No," he said musingly. "I never had a child! And Sally, if I had it all to do over again, I'd marry again. I'd have sons. That's the citizen's duty. Some day we'll recognize it, and then you bearers of children will come into your own. There'll be recognition for every one of them, we'll be the first nation to make our poor women proud and glad when a child is coming. It's got to be, Sally."
Sally was listening politely, but she was not interested. She had heard all this before, many times. Dr. Ben's extraordinary views upon the value of the family were familiar to every one in Monroe. But her attention was suddenly aroused by the mention of her own name.
"Now, supposing that you and Joe take it into your heads to get married some day," the doctor was saying, "how about children?"
Sally's ready colour flooded her face. She made no attempt to answer him.
"Would ye have them?" the old man asked impatiently.
"Why--why, Dr. Ben, I don't know!" Sally said in great confusion. "I--I suppose people do."
"You suppose people do?" he asked scornfully. "Don't ye know they do?"
"Well, I don't suppose any girl thinks very much of such things until she's married," Sally said firmly. "Mama doesn't like us to discuss--"
"Doesn't your mother ever talk to you about such things?" the old man demanded.
"Certainly not!" Sally answered with spirit.
"What does she talk to you about?" he asked amazedly. "It's your business in life, after all. She's not taught ye any other. What does she expect ye to do--learn it all after it's too late to change?"
"All what?" Sally said, a little frightened, even a little sick. He stopped his march, and looked at her with something like pity.
"All the needs of your soul and body," he said kindly, "and your children's souls and bodies. Well! that's neither here nor there. But the fact is this, Sally: I've no children of my own to raise. And as ye very well know, I've got my own theories about putting motherhood on a different basis, a business basis. I want you to let me pay you--as the State ought to pay you--three hundred a year for every child you bear. I want to demonstrate to my own satisfaction, before I try to convince any Government, that if the child-bearing woman were put on a plane of economic value, her barren, parasite sister would speedily learn--"
Sally had turned pale. Now she rose in girlish dignity.
"I hope you'll forgive me, Dr. Ben, for saying that I won't listen to one word more. I know you've been thinking about these things so long that you forget how outrageous they sound! Motherhood is a sacred privilege, and to reduce it to--"
"So is wifehood, Sally!" the old man interposed soothingly.
"Well," she flashed back, "nobody's paid for wifehood!"
"Oh, yes, my dear. You can sue a man for not supporting you. It's done every day!"
"Then--then a man ought to pay the three hundred a year!" countered Sally.
"Well, I'm with you there. But the world has got to see that before you can force him." The doctor sighed. "So you won't let me stand grandfather to your children, Sally?" "Oh, if you were their grandfather'" she answered. "Then you could do as you liked!"
"There you are, the parasite!" he said, smiling whimsically. "You're your mother's daughter, Sally. Give you the least blood-claim on a man's money, and you'll push it as far as you can. But offer to pay you for doing the work God meant you to do and you're cut to the soul. Well--"
He was still holding forth eloquently on the subject of children and nations when Martie came back, and Sally, with a scarlet face, was evidently lost in thoughts of her own.
As the girls walked home, Sally did not repeat to Martie her conversation with the old doctor, nor for many weeks afterward. But Martie did not notice her sister's indignant silence, for they met Rodney Parker coming out of the Bank, and he walked with them to the bridge, and asked Martie to go with him to see the Poulson Star Stock Company in a Return Engagement Extraordinary on the following night.
Martie was conscious of passing a milestone in her emotional life on the evening of this day, when she said to herself that she loved Rodney Parker. She admitted it with a sort of splendid shame, as she went about her usual household occupations, passing from the hot pleasantness of the kitchen to the cool, stale odours of the dining room; running upstairs to light the bathroom-and hall-gas for her father and brother, and sometimes stepping for a moment into the darkness of the yard to be alone with her enchanted thoughts.
All the young Monroes regarded their father's temperamental shortcomings with stoicism, so that it was in no sense resentfully that she faced the inevitable preliminaries that night.
"Pa," said she cheerfully over the dessert, "you don't mind if I go to the show with Rodney to-morrow, do you?"
"This is the first I've heard of any show," Malcolm said stiffly, glancing at his wife. Mrs. Monroe patiently told him what she knew of it. "Why, no, I suppose there is no reason you shouldn't go," he presently said discontentedly.
"Oh, thank you, Pa!" Martie said, with a soaring heart. He looked at her dispassionately.
"Your sisters and your brother are going, I suppose?" Malcolm asked, glancing about the circle. Martie told herself she might have known he was not done with the subject so easily.
"I'm not--because I haven't the price!" grinned Leonard. His mother and Lydia laughed.
"I don't suppose Martie proposes going alone with young Parker?" Malcolm asked in well-assumed amazement.
"Why, Pa--I don't see why not" Mrs. Monroe protested weakly.
Her husband was magnificent in his surprise. He looked about in a sort of royal astonishment.
"Don't you, my dear?" he asked politely. "Then permit me to say that I do."
Martie sat dumb with despair.
"Certainly Martha may go, if Leonard and one of her sisters go; not otherwise," said Malcolm. He retired to his library, and Martie had to ease her boiling heart by piling the dinner dishes viciously, and question no more.
However, she consoled herself, there was something rather dignified in this arrangement, after all; Len was presentable, and she was always the happier for being with Sally. She washed her only gloves, pressed her suit, and spent every alternate minute during the next day anxiously inspecting her chin where an ugly pimple threatened to form. The family was again at dinner when Len broached a change of plan.
"Can I go up to Wilson's to-night, Pa?" he asked. Martie flashed him a glance.
"I suppose so, for a little while," Malcolm said tolerantly. The girls looked at each other.
"But I thought you were going to the Opera House with us?" Martie exclaimed.
"Well, now you know I ain't," Len answered airily.
"I am not, Len," corrected his mother. Martie gave him a look of hate.
"Len says he promised to go to Wilson's," Lydia said placatingly. "So I thought perhaps Sally and I would go with you--I'm sorry, Martie!"
For Martie's breast was heaving dangerously.
"Pa, didn't you say Len was to go with us?" she asked with desperate calm.
"I said some one was to go," Malcolm said, disapproving of her vehemence. "I confess I cannot see why it must be Len!"
"Because--because when a man asks a girl to go out with him he doesn't ask the whole family!" Martie muttered in a fury. Her lip trembled, and she got to her feet. "It doesn't matter in the least," she said in a low, shaking voice, "because I am not going myself!"
Flashing from the room, she ran upstairs. She flung herself across her bed, and cried stormily for ten minutes. Then she grew calmer, and lay there crying quietly, and shaken by only an occasional long sob. It was during this stage that Lydia came into the room, and sitting down beside Martie's knees, patted her hand soothingly. Lydia's weak acceptance of the younger sister's distaste for her company gave Martie a sort of shamed heart-sickness.
"Don't!" said she huskily, jerking her arm away.
But Lydia was not to be rebuffed, and Martie was but nineteen, after all, and longing for the happiness she had denied. An hour later, all the prettier for her tears, she met Rodney at the hall door, the boy making no sign of disappointment when Lydia and Sally joined them.
"But say, Martie," he said at once, "I've got only the two seats!"
"Oh, that's all right!" Lydia said quickly and cautiously. "We don't have to sit together!"
Martie's mood brightened and she flushed like a rose when the boy said eagerly:
"Say, listen, Martie. My sister Ida's going to-night, and one or two others, and Mrs. Cliff Frost is going to chaperon us afterward; ask your mother if that's all right."
The girl wasted no time on her mother, but crossed to the library door.
"Pa," said she without preamble, "Mrs. Cliff Frost is chaperoning some of them after the theatre tonight. Can I go?"
"Go where? Shut that door," her father said, half turning.
"Oh--I don't know; to the hotel, I suppose."
"Yes," her father said in a dry voice. "Yes," he added unwillingly. "Go ahead."
So the evening was a great success; one of the memorable times. Martie and Rodney walked ahead of her sisters down town, the boy gallantly securing the girls' tickets before he and Martie went up the aisle to their own seats. All Monroe was in the Opera House. Martie bowed and smiled radiantly. Rodney's sister and Mrs. Frost and a strange man presently returned her smile.
"Rod--wouldn't you rather be with your own family?"
"Well--what do you think?"
The enchantment of it, the warmth and stimulus of his admiration, his absorbed companionship, how they changed the world for Martie! There was a witchery in the air, the blood ran quick in her veins. The dirty big hall, with its high windows, was fairyland; the whispering crowd, Rodney's nearness, and the consciousness of her own youth and beauty, her flushed cheeks and loosened bronze hair, acted upon Martie like strong wine. She grew lovely beneath his very eyes; she was nineteen, and she loved!
They talked incessantly, elaborating the simple things they said with a by-play of eyes and hands, making the insignificant words rich with lowered tones, with smiles and the meeting of eyes. He told Martie of his college days; borrowing episodes at random from the lives of other men, men whom he admired. Martie believed it all, believed that he had written the Junior Farce, that he had been president of his class, that the various college societies had disputed for his membership. In return, she spun her own romances, flinging a veil of attractive eccentricity over her father's character, generously giving Lydia an anonymous admirer, and painting the dreary old mansion of North Main Street as a sort of enchanted prison with her pretty restless self as captive therein. The two exchanged brief French phrases, each believing the other to have a fair command of the language, and Martie even quoted poetry, to which Rodney listened in intense silence, his eyes fixed upon hers.
Suddenly the house was darkened and the curtain rose. The play was "The Sword of the King," a drama that seemed to Martie well suited to her own exalted mood. She thought the whole company wonderful, the leading lady especially gifted. She learned with awe that Rodney had known Wallace Bannister, the leading man, more or less intimately for years. An aunt of his lived in Pittsville and the two had met as boys and later had been classmates for the brief period Bannister had remained at the Leland Stanford University. Martie wrapped her beauty-starved young soul in the perfect past, when men wore ruffles and buckles and capes, and were all gallantry and courage, and when women were beautiful and desired. Between the acts the delicious exchange of confidences between herself and Rodney went on; they nibbled Bonestell's chocolates from a striped paper bag as they talked, and when the final curtain fell on a ringing line there were real tears of pleasure in Martie's eyes.
"Oh, Rodney--this is living!" she whispered, as they filed slowly out.
Sally and Lydia had considerately disappeared. Mrs. Clifford Frost was waiting for them at the door, and Martie, with quick tact, fell into conversation with the kindly matron, walking at her side down the crowded street, and leaving Rodney to follow with the others. Little Ruth Frost had had some trouble fearfully resembling diphtheria, and Martie's first interested question was enough to enlist the mother's attention. The girl did not really notice the others in the party.
They crossed muddy Main Street, passed Wilkins's Furniture and Coffin Parlours, and went into the shabby French restaurant known as Mussoo's. The little eating house, with its cheap, white-painted shop window, looking directly upon the sidewalk, its pyramid of oyster shells cascading from a box set by the entrance, its jangling bell that the opening door set to clanging, its dingy cash register, damp tablecloths, and bottles of red catsup, was not a place to which Monroe residents pointed with pride. Martie would ordinarily have passed it as one unaware of its existence.
But it seemed a thoroughly daring and exciting thing to come here to-night; quite another thing from going to the hotel for vanilla ice cream and chocolate--even supposing the hotel had kept its dining room open for a change, after the six o'clock supper--or to Bonestell's for banana specials. This--this was living! Martie established herself comfortably in the corner, slipped off her coat, smiled lazily at Rodney's obvious manipulation of the party so that he should be next her, played with her hot, damp, blackened knife and fork, and was in paradise.
Ida Parker was in the party, and Florence Frost. The men were Clifford Frost, a pleasant young man getting stout and bald at forty; Billy Frost, a gentle little lad of fifteen who was lame; Rodney, and a rosy-cheeked, black-moustached Dr. Ellis from San Francisco, whose occasional rather simple and stupid remarks were received with great enthusiasm by Ida and Florence.
In this group Martie shone. She had her own gift for ready nonsense, and she was the radiant element that blended the varied types into a happy whole. She skilfully ignored Rodney; Billy, Mary, Cliff, and even Dr. Ellis were drawn into her fun. Rodney glowed. "Isn't she great?" he said to Mary Frost in an aside.
A large bowl of small crackers was set before them, damp squares of strong butter on small nicked plates, finally a bowl of pink, odorous shrimps. These were all gone when, after a long wait, the fried oysters came smoking hot, slipped straight from the pan to the plates. Martie drank coffee, as Mary did; the others had thick goblets of red wine. With the hot, warming food, their gaiety waxed higher; everybody felt that the party was a great success.
The bell on the door reverberated, and a man came in alone, and looked about undecidedly for a seat.
"Hello!" said Rodney. "There's Wallace Bannister!"
The young actor joined them. And this, to Martie, was one of the most thrilling moments of her life. He quite openly wedged his way in to sit on the other side of her; he said that he could see they didn't need the gaslight when Miss Monroe was along. Rodney said she was Brunhilde, and Bannister's comment was that she could save wig bills with that hair! Florence said eagerly that she loved Brunhilde--let's see, what opera did that come in? It was the Ring, anyway. The spirits of the group rose every second.
Ah, this was living--thought Martie. Oysters and wine and a real actor, a man who knew the world, who chattered of Portland, Los Angeles, and San Francisco as if they had been Monroe and Pittsville. It was intoxicating to hear him exchanging comments with Rodney; no, he hadn't finished "coll." "I'm a rolling stone, Miss Monroe; we actor-fellows always are!" He was "signed up" now; he gave them a glimpse of a long, typewritten contract. Martie ventured a question as to the leading lady.
"She's a nice woman," said Wallace Bannister generously. "I like to play against Mabel. Jesse Cluett, her husband, is in the play; and his kid, too, her stepson--Lloyd--he's seventeen. Ever try the profession, Miss Monroe?"
Martie flushed a pleased disclaimer. But the tiny seed was sown, nevertheless. She liked the question; she was even vaguely glad that Mrs. Cluett was forty and a married woman.
Wallace Bannister was older than Rodney, thirty or thirty-two, although even off the stage he looked much younger. He had dipped into college work in a dull season, amusing himself idly in the elementary classes of French and English where his knowledge in these branches gave him immediate prominence--and drifting away in a road company after only a few months of fraternity and campus popularity. His mother and father were both dead; the latter had been a theatrical manager in a small way, sending little stock companies up and down the coast for one-night stands.
Bannister was tall, well-built, and handsome. His cheeks had a fresh fullness, and his black hair was as shining as wet coal. He was eager and magnetic; musical, literary, or religious, according to the company in which he found himself. Martie's thrilled interest firing him to-night, he exerted himself: told stories in Chinese dialect, in brogue, and with an excellent Scotch burr; he went to the rickety piano, and from the loose keys, usually set in motion by a nickel in the slot, he evoked brilliant songs, looking over his shoulder with his sentimental bold eyes at the company as he sang. And Martie said to herself, "Ah--this is life!"
Rodney took her home, the clock in the square booming the half hour after midnight as they went by. And at the side door he told her to look up at the Dipper throbbing in the cool sky overhead. Martie knew what was coming, but she looked innocently up, and went to sleep for the first time in her life with a man's kiss still tingling on her smiling lips.
The cold November weather might have been rosy June; the dull routine of the Monroe home a life rich and full for Martie now. She sang like a lark, feeding the chickens in the foggy mornings; she dimpled at her own reflection in the mirror; she walked down town as if treading the clouds. Anything interested her, everything interested her. Mrs. Harry Locker, born Preble, said that Martie just seemed inspired, the way she talked when old lady Preble died. Miss Fanny, in the Library, began to entertain serious hopes that the girl would take the Cutter system to heart, and make a clever understudy at the old desk. Sally, watching, dreamed and yearned of Martie's distinction, Martie's happiness; Lydia prayed. Malcolm Monroe, as became a man of dignity, ignored the whole affair, but Len, realizing that various advantages accrued, befriended his sister, and talked to Rodney familiarly, as man to man.
"I can't stand that fresh kid!" said Rodney of Len. Martie shrugged without speaking. She owed Len no allegiance. Had it suited Rodney to admire Len, Martie would have been a loyal sister. As it was, she would not risk a difference with Rodney for any one like Len. She was embarked now upon a vital matter of business. Had a few hundreds of dollars been involved, Malcolm Monroe would have been at her elbow, advising, commending. As it was, her happiness, her life, her children, her whole future might be jeopardized or secured with no sign from him. Interference from her mother or sisters would have been considered indelicate. So Martie stood alone.
Immediately after the theatre party, the question of a series of dances again arose, and Martie somewhat hesitatingly repeated her offer of the Monroe house for the first. Rodney's friend, Alvah Brigham, was to come to the Parker family for Thanksgiving; the dance was to be on Friday night, and a large picnic to Brewster's Woods on Saturday. They would take a lunch, build a fire for their coffee, and have the old school-day programme of singing and games.
For the dance, the two big parlours and the back room must be cleared; that was simple enough. Angela Baxter would be at the piano for the music; sufficient, if not extraordinary, and costing only two dollars. The supper would be sandwiches, cake, coffee, and lemonade: Monroe's invariable supper. Rodney thought ices necessary, and suggested at least a salad. Martie and Sally considered the salad.
"Lord, I wish we could have a punch," Rodney complained. The girls laughed.
"Oh, Rod--Pa would explode!"
"Darn it," the boy mused, "I don't see why. He's not a teetotaler." "Well, I know," Martie conceded. "But that's different, of course! No--we can't have punch. I don't know how to make it, anyway--" She was hardly following her own words. Under them lay the wonderful consciousness that Rodney Parker was here at the house, sitting on the porch steps on a warm November morning, as much at home as Leonard himself. The sun was looking down into the dark garden, damp paths were drying in sudden warmth after a rain.
In such an hour and such a mood, Martie felt absolutely confident that the dance would be a great success. More; it seemed to her in the heartening morning sunlight that it would be the first of many such innocent festivities, and that before it was over--before it was over, she and Rodney might have something wonderful to tell the girls and boys of Monroe.
But in the long winter afternoons her confidence waned a little, and at night, dreaming over her cards, she began to have serious misgivings. Then the old house seemed cold and inhospitable and the burden of carrying a social affair to success fell like a dreadful weight on the girl's soul. Mama, Lydia, and Sally would cooperate to the best of their power, of course; Pa and Len might be expected to make themselves as annoying as possible.
Supper, decorations, even the question of gowns paled before the task of making a list of guests. Sally and Martie early realized that they must inevitably hurt the feelings and disappoint the trust of more than one old friend. Mrs. Monroe and Lydia grew absolutely sick over the necessity.
"Ma, this is just for the younger set," Martie argued. "And if people like Miss Fanny and the Johnsons expect to come to it, why, it's ridiculous, that's all!"
"I know, dear, but it's the first party we have given in years" her mother said plaintively, "and one hates to--"
"What I've done" said Martie in a worried tone, "is write down all the possible boys in Monroe, even counting Len and Billy Frost, and Rod, and Alvah Brigham. Then I wrote down all the girls I'd like to ask if I could, and there were about fourteen too many. So now I'm scratching off all the girls I can--"
"I do think you ought to ask Grace Hawkes!" Lydia said firmly and reproachfully.
"Well, I can't!" Martie answered quickly. "So it doesn't matter what you think! I beg your pardon, Lyd," she added penitently, laying her hand on Lydia's arm. "But you know Rodney's sisters would die if Grace came!"
"Well, I think it's a mistake to slight Grace," Lydia persisted.
Martie studied her pencilled list gloomily for a few seconds.
"Sometimes I wish we weren't having it!" she said moodily.
"Oh, Martie, when we've always said we'd give anything to entertain as other people do!" Sally exclaimed. "I do think that's unreasonable!"
Martie made no answer. She was looking at a memorandum which read: "Invitations--cream--Angela--stamps--illusion--slippers."
As the days went by the thought of the dance grew more and more troublesome. The details of the affair were too strange to be entered into with any confidence, any rush of enthusiasm and spontaneity. Every hour brought her fresh cause for worry.
Nothing went well. The thought of her dress worried her. She had conceived the idea of a black gown ornamented with cretonne roses, carefully applied. She and Sally cut out the flowers, and applied them with buttonhole stitch, sewing until their fingers were sore, their faces flushed, and their hair in frowsy disorder. It was slow work. Miss Pepper, the seamstress, engaged for one day only to do the important work on both Sally's and Martie's gown, kept postponing, as she always did postpone, the day, finally appointing the Wednesday before Thanksgiving Day. Pa's cousin, a certain Mrs. Potts, wrote from Portland that she was coming down for the holiday, and Sally and Martie could have wept at the thought of the complication of having her exacting presence in the house. Worse than this Pa, who was to have gone to San Francisco on business on Friday morning--whose decision to do so had indeed been one of Martie's reasons for selecting this date for the affair--suddenly changed his plan. He need not go until December, he said.
Leonard, who at first had been faintly interested in the proceedings, later annoyed his sisters by intimating that he would not be present at the dance. Martie and Sally did not want him for any social qualities he possessed, but he was a male; he would at least help to offset the alarming plurality of females.
Acceptances came promptly from the young women of Monroe, even from Ida and May Parker. Florence Frost regretted; she was smitten even now with the incurable illness that would end her empty life a few years later. Such men as Martie and Sally had been able to list as eligible--the new young doctor from the Rogers building, little Billy Frost, the Patterson boys, home from college for Thanksgiving, Reddy Johnson, and Carl Polhemus--answered not at all, as is the custom with young men. Sally and Martie did not like the Patterson boys; George was fat and stupid; Arthur at eighteen sophisticated and blase, with dissipated eyes; both were supercilious, and the girls did not really believe that they would come. Still, there was not much to lose in asking them.
There had been a debate over Reddy Johnson's name; but Reddy was a wonderful dancer. So he was asked, and Martie went so far as to say that had Joe Hawkes possessed an evening suit, he and Grace might have been asked, too. As it was, Sally and Martie hoped they would not meet Grace until the affair was over.
They fumed and fussed over the list until they knew it by heart. They wondered who would come first, how soon they should begin dancing, how soon serve supper. Mrs. Monroe thought supper should be served at half-past ten. Martie groaned. Oh, they couldn't serve supper until almost midnight, she protested.
Dinner was at noon on Thanksgiving Day, and the Monroes, sated and overwarm, were sitting about the fire when Rodney Parker and his friend, Alvah Brigham, came to take Martie and Sally walking. The girls were sewing at the endless roses; but they jumped up in a flutter, and ran for hats and sweaters. They did not exchange a word, nor lose a second, while they were upstairs, running down again immediately to end the uncomfortable silence that held the group about the fire.
It was a cold, bleak day, and the pure air was delicious to Martie's hot cheeks after the close house. She had immediately taken possession of Alvah; Sally and Rodney followed. They took the old bridge road, which the girls loved for the memory of bygone days, when they had played at dolls' housekeeping along the banks of the little Sonora, climbed the low oaks, and waded in the bright shallow water. Even through to-day's excitement Martie had time for a memory of those long-ago summer afternoons, and she said to herself with a vague touch of pain that it would of course be impossible to have with any man the serene communion of those days with Sally.
Mr. Brigham was a pale, rather fat young man with hair already thinning. He did not have much to say, but he was always ready to laugh, and Martie saw that he had cause for laughter. She rattled on recklessly, anxious only to avoid silence; hardly conscious of what she said. The effect of the cool, fresh air was lost upon Martie to- day; she was fired to fever-pitch by Rodney's nearness.
He had not ever said anything exactly loverlike, she said to herself, with a sort of breathless discontent, when she was setting the table for a cold supper that night. But he had brought his friend to them after all! She must not be exacting. She had so much- -
"I beg your pardon, Cousin Allie?" she stammered. Her obnoxious relative, a stout, moustached woman of fifty, warming her skirts at the fire, was smiling at her unkindly.
"You always was a great one to moon, Martha!" said Mrs. Potts, "I's asking you what you see in that young feller to make such a to-do about?"
"Then you don't like him?" Martie countered, laughing. Mrs. Potts bridled. Her favourite attitude toward life was a bland but suspicious superiority; she liked to be taken seriously.
"I didn't say I didn't like him," she answered, accurately, a little nettled. "No, my dear, I didn't say that. No. I wouldn't say that of any young man!" she added thoughtfully.
Smiling a dark smile, she looked into the fire. Martie, rather uncomfortable, went on with her task.
"He's seemed to admire our Mart in a brotherly sort of way since the very beginning," Lydia explained, anxious as usual to say the kind thing, and succeeding as usual in saying the one thing that could hurt and annoy. "He's quite a boy for the girls, but we think our Martie is too sensible to take him seriously, yet awhile!" And Lydia gave her sister a smile full of sweet significance.
"Hope she is!" Mrs. Potts said heavily. "For if that young feller means business I miss my guess!"
"Oh, for pity's sake--can't a man ask a girl to go walking without all this fuss!" Martie burst out angrily. "I never heard so much-- crazy--silly--talk--about--nothing!"
The last words were only an ashamed mumble as she disappeared kitchenward.
"H'm!" said Mrs. Potts, eying Lydia over her glasses. "Kinder touchy about him just the same. Well! what's he to that young feller used to come see you, Lydia? Ain't the Frosts and the Parkers kin?"
"I really think she's the most detestable old woman that ever was!" Martie said, when the three girls were going to bed that night. Lydia, loitering in her sister's room for a few minutes, made no denial.
"Well, by this time to-morrow night the party will be nearly over!" yawned Sally.
Martie looked at the clock. A quarter past eleven. What would be happening at quarter past eleven to-morrow night?
The girls awakened early, and were early astir. A rush of preparation filled the morning, so soothing in its effect upon nerves and muscles that Martie became wild with hope. The parlours looked prettier than the girls had ever seen them; the pungent sweetness of chrysanthemums and evergreen stealing into the clean, well-aired spaces, and bowls of delicious violets sending out currents of pure perfume. Martie swept, straightened, washed gas globes, shook rugs. She gathered the flowers herself, straightening the shoulders that were beginning to ache as she arranged them with wet, cool fingers. Sally was counting napkins, washing china and glass. Belle dragged through the breakfast dishes. Lydia was capably mixing the filling for sandwiches. Outside, the morning was still; fog dripped from the trees. Sometimes the sudden sputtering chuckle of disputing chickens broke the quiet; a fish cart rattled by unseen, the blare of the horn sending Mrs. Monroe with a large empty platter to the gate.
At two o'clock Lydia and Martie walked down town for the last shopping. Martie was aware, under the drumming excitement in her blood, that she was already tired. But to buy bottled cherries for the lemonade, olives for the sandwiches, and flat pink and white mint candies was exhilarating, and Reddy Johnson's cheery "See you to-night, Martie!" made her blue eyes dance with pleasure. After all, a dance was no such terrible matter!
They were in Mason and White's, seated at a counter, in consultation over a purchase of hairpins, when two gloved hands were suddenly pressed over Martie's eyes, and a joyous voice said "Hello!" The next instant Rose's eyes were laughing into hers.
"Rose Ransome!" Martie and Lydia said together. The two younger girls began to chatter eagerly.
Why, when had she gotten home? Only this morning. And oh, it did seem so good to be home! And how was everybody? And how was college? Oh, fine! And was she still at the same house? Oh, yes! And so poor old Mrs. Preble was dead? Uncle Ben had felt so badly--
"Say, Rose, we're having a sort of party to-night," Martie said awkwardly, and with a certain hesitation. Details followed. Rose, as pretty as a bird in her little checked suit and feathered hat, listened with bright interest. "Why can't you come?" Martie finished eagerly. "The more the merrier!"
"Well--no." Rose hesitated prettily. "My first evening at home, you know--I think I hadn't better. I'd love to, Martie. And about the picnic to-morrow; that I can do! What'll I bring?"
"Rose is a sweet little thing," Lydia said, when the sisters were walking home again. "I'm sorry she can't come to-night; she has a way of making things go."
Martie did not answer. She was mentally, for the hundredth time, putting on the black gown with the pink roses stitched all about the flounce, and piling up her bronze hair.
The short afternoon waned, fog closing in the village again with the dark. Martie and Sally came down to supper with thin little crepe wrappers over their crisp skirts and best stockings and slippers. Both girls had spent the late afternoon in bathing, taking last stitches, laughing and romping over the upper floor, but the blazing colour in their faces now was as much from nervous fatigue as from excitement. Neither was hungry, nor talkative, and Mrs. Potts and their father monopolized the conversation.
Len was sulky because he had played his usual game badly this evening, and chance failing him had favoured the girls. He had asked to be excused from the party, to their deep but unexpressed indignation, and had almost won his father's consent to a request to go down town a while, when a casual inquiry from Malcolm as to what he intended to do down town inspired Len to a reminiscent chuckle and an artless observation that gee! he might get a chance to sit outside of the hotel and watch Colonel Frost's new automobile for him, if the Colonel, as was usual, came down to the monthly meeting of the Republican Club.
For a few seconds Malcolm did not sense the full indignity of his son's position as groom for Cyrus Frost. When he did, Leonard had a bad quarter of an hour, and was directed to get into his Sunday suit, make himself as useful and agreeable to his sisters as was possible, and let his father hear no more of this nonsense about old Frost and his automobile.
Chuckling over this turn of events, the girls went upstairs to finish dressing. Sally, in an old pink gown, freshly pressed, was pretty; but Martie, turning flushed and self-conscious from the dim old mirror, was quite lovely. The black gown made her too-generous figure seem almost slender; the cretonne roses glowed richly against the black, and Martie's creamy skin and burnished hair were all the more brilliant for the contrast. Her heart rose buoyantly as she realized the success of the gown, and she ran downstairs with sudden gay confidence in herself and her party.
Her father and mother, with Mrs. Potts, had considerately disappeared. Malcolm had gone down town; the ladies, wrapped in shawls, were gossiping in Mrs. Potts's vaultlike chamber. Lydia was moving about in the downstairs rooms.
"Oh, Martie, Rose telephoned," Lydia said as her sister came in, "and she says that Mr. Rice and her mother say she must come up to- night, if it's only for a little while. She's going to bring her violin."
"Oh, that's good," Martie answered absently, sitting down to play "The Two Grenadiers" with great spirit. "There's some one now, Lyd!" she added in a half panic, as the doorbell rang. Lydia, her colour rising suddenly, went to the door, raising her hand above as she passed under the gaslight to turn the lights to their full brilliancy. The first arrival was Angela Baxter, with her music roll under her arm. She kissed Lydia, and went upstairs with Sally.
Then there were other feet on the porch: in came the German girls and Laura Carter, hooded in knitted fragile scarfs, and wrapped in pale blue and pink circular capes edged narrowly with fluffy eiderdown. Elmer King, hoarsely respectful, and young Potter Street followed. Martie, taking the girls upstairs, called back to them that she would send Len down. While they were all in Lydia's room, laying off wraps and powdering noses, Maude Alien came up, and "Dutch" Harrison's older sister Kate, and Amy Scott, and Martie was so funny and kept them all in such roars of laughter that Sally was conscious of a shameless wish that this was what Monroe called a "hen party," with no men asked. Then they could have games, Proverbs and even Hide-the-Thimble, and every one would feel happy and at home.
When they went down Robert Archer, a quiet mild young man who was in the real estate business, had come; and he and Elmer and Potter were sitting silently in the parlour. Martie and Sally and the other girls went in, and every one tried to talk gaily and naturally as the young men stood up, but there seemed to be no reason why they should not all sit down, and, once seated, it seemed hard to talk. What Martie said was met with a nervous glimmer of laughter and a few throaty monosyllables.
Sally wanted to suggest games, but did not dare. Martie, and indeed every one else, would have been glad to play Proverbs and Twenty Questions, but she did not quite like to begin anything so childish at a real dance. She looked at the clock: just nine. The evening was yet young.
Suddenly Angela Baxter stopped murmuring to Lydia, and began to rattle a quick two step from the piano. Robert Archer, sitting next to Martie, asked her at once to dance, and Potter Street asked Sally, but both girls, glancing self-consciously at their guests, declined, and the young men subsided. So nobody danced the first dance, and after it there was another lull. Then Martie cheerfully asked Angela for a waltz, and said bravely:
"Come on, some of you, do dance this! I can't because I'm hostess."
At this there was some subdued laughter, and immediately the four young men found partners, and two of the girls danced together. Then little Billy Frost came in, and after him, as fresh and sweet as her name, came Rose with the Monroe's only dentist, Bruce Tate. Dr. Tate was a rather heavy young man, flirtatious and conceited.
Rose put her violin on the piano, and explained that she had met Rodney Parker that afternoon, "hadn't seen him for years!" and that he had talked her into coming. No--she wouldn't play until later laughed Rose; now she wanted to dance.
The hours that followed seemed to Martie like years. She never forgot them. She urged her guests into every dance with almost physical force; she felt for the girls who did not dance a nervous pity. Ida and May came in: neither danced, nor was urged to dance. They went home at ten o'clock. It was immediately afterward that Rodney came with his friend. Martie met them in the hall, ready for the intimate word, the smile that should make all this tiresome business of lights and piano and sandwiches worth while. Rodney was a little flushed and noisy, Alvah red-faced, breathing and speaking a little thickly. They said they were thirsty.
"Lemonade?" Martie suggested confidently.
Rodney glanced quickly at his friend. "Oh, Gawd!" said Mr. Brigham simply.
Then they were in the hot parlour, and Martie was introducing them to a circle that smiled and said "Pleased to meet choo," over and over. Alvah would not dance, remarking that he hated dancing. And Rodney--Rodney had eyes for no one but Rose. Martie saw it, every one saw it.
Rose was at her best to-night. She knew college songs that Rodney and Alvah knew, she dimpled and coquetted with the pretty confidence of a kitten. She stood up, dainty and sweet in her pink gown, and played her violin, with the gaslight shining down into her brown eyes, and her lace sleeve slipping back and forth over her white arm as the bow whipped to and fro.
Rodney did not leave her side, except for a dance with Martie and one with Sally. After a while he and Rose went out to sit on the stairs. Alvah grew noisy and familiar, and Martie did not know quite how to meet his hilarity, although she tried. She was afraid the echoes of his wild laugh would greet her father's ears, if he had come in and was upstairs, and that Pa might do something awful.
The evening wore on. Lydia looked tired, and Sally was absolutely mute, listening politely to Robert Archer's slow, uninteresting narration of the purchase of the Hospital site. Martie felt as if she had been in this dreadful gaslight forever; she watched the clock.
At eleven they all went out to the dining room, and here the first real evidences of pleasure might be seen on the faces of the guests. Now Lydia, too, was in her favourite element, superintending coffee cups, while Sally, alert again, cut the layer cakes. The table looked charming and the sandwiches and coffee, cream and olives, were swiftly put in circulation. Under the heartening rattle of cutlery and china every one talked, the air was scented with coffee, the room so warm that two windows by general consent were opened to the cool night.
Martie took her share of the duties of hospitality as if in an oppressive dream. Rodney sat beside her, and Rose on his other side. To an outsider Martie might have seemed her chattering self, but she knew--and Sally knew--that the knife was in her heart. She said good-night to Rodney brightly, and kissed Rose. Rodney was to take Rose home because, as she explained to Martie in an aside, it was almost on his way, and it seemed a shame to take Dr. Tate so far.
"I've been scolding Rod terribly; those boys had highballs or something before they came here," Rose said, puckering her lips and shaking her head as she carefully pinned a scarf over her pretty hair. "So silly! That's what we were talking about on the stairs."
She tripped away on Rodney's arm. Alvah, complaining of a splitting head, went off alone. Somehow the others filtered away; Angela Baxter, who was to spend the night with Lydia, piled the last of the dishes with Lydia in the kitchen. Sally, silent and yawning, sank into an armchair by the dying fire. Martie, watching the lanterns, and hearing the voices die away after the last slamming of the gate, stood on the dark porch staring into the night. The trees scarcely showed against a heavy sky, a restless wind tossed their uppermost branches; a few drops of rain fell on a little gust of air. The night was damp and heavy; it pressed upon the village almost like a soft, smothering weight. Martie felt as if she could hear the world breathe.
With miserable, dry eyes, she looked up at the enveloping blackness; drops of rain on her burning face, a chill shaking her whole body in the thin gown. Martie wanted to live no longer; she longed to press somehow into that great silent space, to cool her burning head and throbbing heart in those immeasurable distances on distances of dark. She did not want to go back into the dreadful house, where the chairs were pushed about, and the table a wreck of wilted flowers and crumbs, where the air was still laden with the odour of coffee and cigarettes. She did not want to reclaim her own shamed and helpless little entity after this moment of escape.
Her own pain and mortification--ah, she could have borne those. But to have Lydia and Sally and Len and all Monroe sorry for her ...
Martie did not sleep that night. She tossed in a restless agony of remembering, and the pitiable party seemed a life-failure, as she lay thinking of it in the dark, a colossal blunder never to be obliterated. They were unlucky--the Monroes. They never could do things like other people.
Early in the cold dawn she heard the quiet slop and spatter of rain. Thank God there could be no picnic to-day! Exhausted, she slept.