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One afternoon in mid-November Susan and Mary Lou chanced to be in the dining-room, working over a puzzle-card that had been delivered as an advertisement of some new breakfast food. They had intended to go to market immediately after lunch, but it was now three o'clock, and still they hung over the fascinating little combination of paper angles and triangles, feeling that any instant might see the problem solved.
Suddenly the telephone rang, and Susan went to answer it, while Mary Lou, who had for some minutes been loosening her collar and belt preparatory to changing for the street, trailed slowly upstairs, holding her garments together.
Outside was a bright, warm winter day, babies were being wheeled about in the sunshine, and children, just out of school, were shouting and running in the street. From where Susan sat at the telephone she could see a bright angle of sunshine falling through the hall window upon the faded carpet of the rear entry, and could hear Mrs. Cortelyou's cherished canary, Bobby, bursting his throat in a cascade of song upstairs. The canary was still singing when she hung up the receiver, two minutes later,--the sound drove through her temples like a knife, and the placid sunshine in the entry seemed suddenly brazen and harsh.
Susan went upstairs and into Mary Lou's room.
"Mary Lou---" she began.
"Why, what is it?" said Mary Lou, catching her arm, for Susan was very white, and she was staring at her cousin with wide eyes and parted lips.
"It was Billy," Susan answered. "Josephine Carroll's dead."
"What!" Mary Lou said sharply.
"That's what he said," Susan repeated dully. "There was an accident,--at Yellowstone--they were going to meet poor Stewart--and when he got in--they had to tell him--poor fellow! Ethel Frothingham's arm was broken, and Jo never moved--Phil has taken Mrs. Carroll on to-day--Billy just saw them off!" Susan sat down at the bureau, and rested her head in her hands. "I can't believe it!" she said, under her breath. "I simply cannot believe it!"
"Josephine Carroll killed! Why--it's the most awful thing I ever heard!" Mary Lou exclaimed. Her horror quieted Susan.
"Billy didn't know anything more than that," Susan said, beginning hastily to change her dress. "I'll go straight over there, I guess. He said they only had a wire, but that one of the afternoon papers has a short account. My goodness--goodness--goodness--when they were all so happy! And Jo always the gayest of them all--it doesn't seem possible!"
Still dazed, she crossed the bay in the pleasant afternoon sunlight, and went up to the house. Anna was already there, and the four spent a quiet, sad evening together. No details had reached them, the full force of the blow was not yet felt. When Anna had to go away the next day Susan stayed; she and Betsy got the house ready for the mother's home-coming, put away Josephine's dresses, her tennis- racket, her music---
"It's not right!" sobbed the rebellious little sister. "She was the best of us all--and we've had so much to bear! It isn't fair!"
"It's all wrong," Susan said, heavily.
Mrs. Carroll, brave and steady, if very tired, came home on the third day, and with her coming the atmosphere of the whole house changed. Anna had come back again; the sorrowing girls drew close about their mother, and Susan felt that she was not needed.
"Mrs. Carroll is the most wonderful woman in the world!" she said to Billy, going home after the funeral. "Yes," Billy answered frowningly. "She's too darn wonderful! She can't keep this up!"
Georgie and Joe came to Mrs. Lancaster's house for an afternoon visit on Thanksgiving Day, arriving in mid-afternoon with the two babies, and taking Myra and Helen home again before the day grew too cold. Virginia arrived, using her own eyes for the first time in years, and the sisters and their mother laughed and cried together over the miracle of the cure. When Alfie and Freda came there was more hilarity. Freda very prettily presented her mother-in-law, whose birthday chanced to fall on the day, with a bureau scarf. Alfred, urged, Susan had no doubt, by his wife, gave his mother ten dollars, and asked her with a grin to buy herself some flowers. Virginia had a lace collar for Ma, and the white-coated O'Connor babies, with much pushing and urging, bashfully gave dear Grandma a tissue-wrapped bundle that proved to be a silk gown. Mary Lou unexpectedly brought down from her room a box containing six heavy silver tea-spoons.
Where Mary Lou ever got the money to buy this gift was rather a mystery to everyone except Susan, who had chanced to see the farewells that took place between her oldest cousin and Mr. Ferd Eastman, when the gentleman, who had been making a ten-days visit to the city, left a day or two earlier for Virginia City.
"Pretty soon after his wife's death!" Susan had accused Mary Lou, vivaciously.
"Ferd has often kissed me--like a brother---" stammered Mary Lou, coloring painfully, and with tears in her kind eyes. And, to Susan's amazement, her aunt, evidently informed of the event by Mary Lou, had asked her not to tease her cousin about Ferd. Susan felt certain that the spoons were from Ferd.
She took great pains to make the holiday dinner unusually festive, decorated the table, and put on her prettiest evening gown. There were very few boarders left in the house on this day, and the group that gathered about the big turkey was like one large family. Billy carved, and Susan with two paper candle-shades pinned above her ears, like enormous rosettes, was more like her old silly merry self than these people who loved her had seen her for years.
It was nearly eight o'clock when Mrs. Lancaster, pushing back an untasted piece of mince pie, turned to Susan a strangely flushed and swollen face, and said thickly:
"Air--I think I must--air!"
She went out of the dining-room, and they heard her open the street door, in the hall. A moment later Virginia said "Mama!" in so sharp a tone that the others were instantly silenced, and vaguely alarmed.
"Hark!" said Virginia, "I thought Mama called!" Susan, after a half- minute of nervous silence, suddenly jumped up and ran after her aunt.
She never forgot the dark hall, and the sensation when her foot struck something soft and inert that lay in the doorway. Susan gave a great cry of fright as she knelt down, and discovered it to be her aunt.
Confusion followed. There was a great uprising of voices in the dining-room, chairs grated on the floor. Someone lighted the hall gas, and Susan found a dozen hands ready to help her raise Mrs. Lancaster from the floor.
"She's just fainted!" Susan said, but already with a premonition that it was no mere faint.
"We'd better have a doctor though---" she heard Billy say, as they carried her aunt in to the dining-room couch. Mrs. Lancaster's breath was coming short and heavy, her eyes were shut, her face dark with blood.
"Oh, why did we let Joe go home!" Mary Lou burst out hysterically.
Her mother evidently caught the word, for she opened her eyes and whispered to Susan, with an effort:
"Georgia--good, good man--my love---"
"You feel better, don't you, darling?" Susan asked, in a voice rich with love and tenderness.
"Oh, yes!" her aunt whispered, earnestly, watching her with the unwavering gaze of a child.
"Of course she's better--You're all right, aren't you?" said a dozen voices. "She fainted away!--Didn't you hear her fall?--I didn't hear a thing!--Well, you fainted, didn't you?--You felt faint, didn't you?"
"Air---" said Mrs. Lancaster, in a thickened, deep voice. Her eyes moved distressedly from one face to another, and as Virginia began to unfasten the pin at her throat, she added tenderly, "Don't prick yourself, Bootsy!"
"Oh, she's very sick--she's very sick!" Susan whispered, with white lips, to Billy who was at the telephone.
"What do you think of sponging her face off with ice-water?" he asked in a low tone. Susan fled to the kitchen. Mary Lou, seated by the table where the great roast stood in a confusion of unwashed plates and criss-crossed silver, was sobbing violently.
"Oh, Sue--she's dying!" whispered Mary Lou, "I know it! Oh, my God, what will we do!"
Susan plunged her hand in a tall pitcher for a lump of ice and wrapped it in a napkin. A moment later she knelt by her aunt's side. The sufferer gave a groan at the touch of ice, but a moment later she caught Susan's wrist feverishly and muttered "Good!"
"Make all these fools go upstairs!" said Alfie's wife in a fierce whisper. She was carrying out plates and clearing a space about the couch. Virginia, kneeling by her mother, repeated over and over again, in an even and toneless voice, "Oh God, spare her--Oh God, spare her!"
The doctor was presently among them, dragged, Susan thought, from the faint odor of wine about him, from his own dinner. He helped Billy carry the now unconscious woman upstairs, and gave Susan brisk orders.
"There has undoubtedly been a slight stroke," said he.
"Oh, doctor!" sobbed Mary Lou, "will she get well?"
"I don't anticipate any immediate change," said the doctor to Susan, after a dispassionate look at Mary Lou, "and I think you had better have a nurse."
"Yes, doctor," said Susan, very efficient and calm.
"Had you a nurse in mind?" asked the doctor.
"Well, no," Susan answered, feeling as if she had failed him.
"I can get one," said the doctor thoughtfully.
"Oh, doctor, you don't know what she's been to us!" wailed Mary Lou.
"Don't, darling!" Susan implored her.
And now, for the first time in her life, she found herself really busy, and, under all sorrow and pain, there was in these sad hours for Susan a genuine satisfaction and pleasure. Capable, tender, quiet, she went about tirelessly, answering the telephone, seeing to the nurse's comfort, brewing coffee for Mary Lou, carrying a cup of hot soup to Virginia. Susan, slim, sympathetic, was always on hand,- -with clean sheets on her arm or with hot water for the nurse or with a message for the doctor. She penciled a little list for Billy to carry to the drugstore, she made Miss Foster's bed in the room adjoining Auntie's, she hunted up the fresh nightgown that was slipped over her aunt's head, put the room in order; hanging up the limp garments with a strange sense that it would be long before Auntie's hand touched them again.
"And now, why don't you go to bed, Jinny darling?" she asked, coming in at midnight to the room where her cousins were grouped in mournful silence. But Billy's foot touched hers with a significant pressure, and Susan sat down, rather frightened, and said no more of anyone's going to bed.
Two long hours followed. They were sitting in a large front bedroom that had been made ready for boarders, but looked inexpressibly grim and cheerless, with its empty mantel and blank, marble-topped bureau. Georgie cried constantly and silently, Virginia's lips moved, Mary Lou alone persisted that Ma would be herself again in three days.
Susan, sitting and staring at the flaring gas-lights, began to feel that in the midst of life was death, indeed, and that the term of human existence is as brief as a dream. "We will all have to die too," she said, awesomely to herself, her eyes traveling about the circle of faces.
At two o'clock Miss Foster summoned them and they went into the invalid's room; to Susan it was all unreal and unconvincing. The figure in the bed, the purple face, the group of sobbing watchers. No word was said: the moments slipped by. Her eyes were wandering when Miss Foster suddenly touched her aunt's hand.
A heavy, grating breath--a silence--Susan's eyes met Billy's in terror--but there was another breath--and another--and another silence.
Miss Foster, who had been bending over her patient, straightened up, lowered the gray head gently into the pillow.
"Gone," said Dr. O'Connor, very low, and at the word a wild protest of grief broke out. Susan neither cried nor spoke; it was all too unreal for tears, for emotion of any kind.
"You stay," said Miss Foster when she presently banished the others. Susan, surprised, complied.
"Sorry to ask you to help me," said Miss Foster then briskly, "but I can't do this alone. They'll want to be coming back here, and we must be ready for them. I wonder if you could fix her hair like she wore it, and I'll have to get her teeth---"
"Her what?" asked Susan.
"Her teeth, dear. Do you know where she kept them?"
Appalled, sickened, Susan watched the other woman's easy manipulation of what had been a loving, breathing woman only a few hours before. But she presently did her own share bravely and steadily, brushing and coiling the gray-brown locks as she had often seen her aunt coil them. Lying in bed, a small girl supposedly asleep, years before, she had seen these pins placed so--and so-- seen this short end tucked under, this twist skilfully puffed.
This was not Auntie. So wholly had the soul fled that Susan could feel sure that Auntie--somewhere, was already too infinitely wise to resent this fussing little stranger and her ministrations. A curious lack of emotion in herself astonished her. She longed to grieve, as the others did, blamed herself that she could not. But before she left the room she put her lips to her aunt's forehead.
"You were always good to me!" Susan whispered.
"I guess she was always good to everyone," said the little nurse, pinning a clever arrangement of sheets firmly, "she has a grand face!" The room was bright and orderly now, Susan flung pillows and blankets into the big closet, hung her aunt's white knitted shawl on a hook.
"You're a dear good little girl, that's what you are!" said Miss Foster, as they went out. Susan stepped into her new role with characteristic vigor. She was too much absorbed in it to be very sorry that her aunt was dead. Everybody praised her, and a hundred times a day her cousins said truthfully that they could not see how these dreadful days would have been endurable at all without Susan. Susan could sit up all night, and yet be ready to brightly dispense hot coffee at seven o'clock, could send telegrams, could talk to the men from Simpson and Wright's, could go downtown with Billy to select plain black hats and simple mourning, could meet callers, could answer the telephone, could return a reassuring "That's all attended to, dear," to Mary Lou's distracted "I haven't given one thought to dinner!" and then, when evening came again, could quietly settle herself in a big chair, between Billy and Dr. O'Connor, for another vigil.
"Never a thought for her own grief!" said Georgie, to a caller. Susan felt a little prick of guilt. She was too busy and too absorbed to feel any grief. And presently it occurred to her that perhaps Auntie knew it, and understood. Perhaps there was no merit in mere grieving. "But I wish I had been better to her while she was here!" thought Susan more than once.
She saw her aunt in a new light through the eyes of the callers who came, a long, silent stream, to pay their last respect to Louisianna Ralston. All the old southern families of the city were represented there; the Chamberlains and the Lloyds, the Duvals and Fairfaxes and Carters. Old, old ladies came, stout matrons who spoke of the dead woman as "Lou," rosy-faced old men. Some of them Susan had never seen before.
To all of them she listened with her new pretty deference and dignity. She heard of her aunt's childhood, before the war, "Yo' dea' auntie and my Fanny went to they' first ball togethah," said one very old lady. "Lou was the belle of all us girls," contributed the same Fanny, now stout and sixty, with a smile. "I was a year or two younger, and, my laws, how I used to envy Miss Louis'anna Ralston, flirtin' and laughin' with all her beaux!"
Susan grew used to hearing her aunt spoken of as "your cousin," "your mother," even "your sister,"--her own relationship puzzled some of Mrs. Lancaster's old friends. But they never failed to say that Susan was "a dear, sweet girl--she must have been proud of you!"
She heard sometimes of her own mother too. Some large woman, wiping the tears from her eyes, might suddenly seize upon Susan, with:
"Look here, Robert, this is Sue Rose's girl--Major Calhoun was one of your Mama's great admirers, dear!"
Or some old lady, departing, would kiss her with a whispered "Knew your mother like my own daughter,--come and see me!"
They had all been young and gay and sheltered together, Susan thought, just half a century ago. Now some came in widow's black, and some with shabby gloves and worn shoes, and some rustled up from carriages, and patronized Mary Lou, and told Susan that "poor Lou" never seemed to be very successful!
"I sometimes think that it would be worth any effort in the first forty years of your life, to feel sure that you would at least not be an object of pity for the last twenty!" said Susan, upon whom these callers, with the contrasts they presented, had had a profound effect.
It was during an all-night vigil, in the room next to the one in which the dead woman lay. Dr. O'Connor lay asleep on a couch, Susan and Billy were in deep chairs. The room was very cold, and the girl had a big wrapper over her black dress. Billy had wrapped himself in an Indian blanket, and put his feet comfortably up on a chair.
"You bet your life it would be!" said Billy yawning. "That's what I tell the boys, over at the works," he went on, with awakening interest, "get into something, cut out booze and theaters and graphophones now,--don't care what your neighbors think of you now, but mind your own affairs, stick to your business, let everything else go, and then, some day, settle down with a nice little lump of stock, or a couple of flats, or a little plant of your own, and snap your fingers at everything!"
"You know I've been thinking," Susan said slowly, "For all the wise people that have ever lived, and all the goodness everywhere, we go through life like ships with sealed orders. Now all these friends of Auntie's, they thought she made a brilliant match when she married Uncle George. But she had no idea of management, and no training, and here she is, dying at sixty-three, leaving Jinny and Mary Lou practically helpless, and nothing but a lot of debts! For twenty years she's just been drifting and drifting,--it's only a chance that Alfie pulled out of it, and that Georgie really did pretty well. Now, with Mrs. Carroll somehow it's so different. You know that, before she's old, she's going to own her little house and garden, she knows where she stands. She's worked her financial problem out on paper, she says 'I'm a little behind this month, because of Jim's dentist. But there are five Saturdays in January, and I'll catch up then!'"
"She's exceptional, though," he asserted.
"Yes, but a training like that needn't be exceptional! It seems so strange that the best thing that school can give us is algebra and Caesar's Commentaries," Susan pursued thoughtfully. "When there's so much else we don't know! Just to show you one thing, Billy,--when I first began to go to the Carrolls, I noticed that they never had to fuss with the building of a fire in the kitchen stove. When a meal was over, Mrs. Carroll opened the dampers, scattered a little wet coal on the top, and forgot about it until the next meal, or even overnight. She could start it up in two seconds, with no dirt or fuss, whenever she wanted to. Think what that means, getting breakfast! Now, ever since I was a little girl, we've built a separate fire for each meal, in this house. Nobody ever knew any better. You hear chopping of kindlings, and scratching of matches, and poor Mary Lou saying that it isn't going to burn, and doing it all over---
"Gosh, yes!" he said laughing at the familiar picture. "Mary Lou always says that she has no luck with fires!"
"Billy," Susan stated solemnly, "sometimes I don't believe that there is such a thing as luck!"
"Sometimes you don't--why, Lord, of course there isn't!"
"Oh, Billy," Susan's eyes widened childishly, "don't you honestly think so?"
"No, I don't!" He smiled, with the bashfulness that was always noticeable when he spoke intimately of himself or his own ideas. "If you get a big enough perspective of things, Sue," he said, "everybody has the same chance. You to-day, and I to-morrow, and somebody else the day after that! Now," he cautiously lowered his voice, "in this house you've heard the Civil War spoken of as 'bad luck' and Alf's drinking spoken of as 'bad luck'"---
Susan dimpled, nodded thoughtfully.
"--And if Phil Carroll hadn't been whipped and bullied and coaxed and amused and praised for the past six or seven years, and Anna pushed into a job, and Jim and Betsy ruled with an iron hand, you might hear Mrs. Carroll talking about 'bad luck,' too!"
"Well, one thing," said Susan firmly, "we'll do very differently from now on."
"You girls, you mean," he said.
"Jinny and Mary Lou and I. I think we'll keep this place going, Billy."
"I think you're making a big mistake, if you do. There's no money in it. The house is heavily mortgaged, half the rooms are empty."
"We'll fill the house, then. It's the only thing we can do, Billy. And I've got plenty of plans," said Susan vivaciously. "I'm going to market myself, every morning. I'm going to do at least half the cooking. I'm going to borrow about three hundred dollars---"
"I'll lend you all you want," he said.
"Well, you're a darling! But I don't mean a gift, I mean at interest," Susan assured him. "I'm going to buy china and linen, and raise our rates. For two years I'm not going out of this house, except on business. You'll see!"
He stared at her for so long a time that Susan--even with Billy!-- became somewhat embarrassed.
"But it seems a shame to tie you down to an enterprise like this, Sue," he said finally.
"No," she said, after a short silence, turning upon him a very bright smile. "I've made a pretty general failure of my own happiness, Bill. I've shown that I'm a pretty weak sort. You know what I was willing to do---"
"Now you're talking like a damn fool!" growled Billy.
"No, I'm not! You may be as decent as you please about it, Billy," said Susan with scarlet cheeks, "but--a thing like that will keep me from ever marrying, you know! Well. So I'm really going to work, right here and now. Mrs. Carroll says that service is the secret of happiness, I'm going to try it. Life is pretty short, anyway,-- doesn't a time like this make it seem so!--and I don't know that it makes very much difference whether one's happy or not!"
"Well, go ahead and good luck to you!" said Billy, "but don't talk rot about not marrying and not being happy!"
Presently he dozed in his chair, and Susan sat staring wide-eyed before her, but seeing nothing of the dimly lighted room, the old steel-engravings on the walls, the blotched mirror above the empty grate. Long thoughts went through her mind, a hazy drift of plans and resolutions, a hazy wonder as to what Stephen Bocqueraz was doing to-night--what Kenneth Saunders was doing. Perhaps they would some day hear of her as a busy and prosperous boarding-house keeper; perhaps, taking a hard-earned holiday in Europe, twenty years from now, Susan would meet one of them again.
She got up, and went noiselessly into the hall to look at the clock. Just two. Susan went into the front room, to say her prayers in the presence of the dead.
The big dim room was filled with flowers, their blossoms dull blots of light in the gloom, their fragrance, and the smell of wet leaves, heavy on the air. One window was raised an inch or two, a little current of air stirred the curtain. Candles burned steadily, with a little sucking noise; a clock ticked; there was no other sound.
Susan stood, motionless herself, looking soberly down upon the quiet face of the dead. Some new dignity had touched the smooth forehead, and the closed eyes, a little inscrutable smile hovered over the sweet, firmly closed mouth. Susan's eyes moved from the face to the locked ivory fingers, lying so lightly,--yet with how terrible a weight!--upon spotless white satin and lace. Virginia had put the ivory-bound prayer-book and the lilies-of-the-valley into that quiet clasp, Georgie, holding back her tears, had laid at the coffin's foot the violets tied with a lavender ribbon that bore the legend, "From the Grandchildren."
Flowers--flowers--flowers everywhere. And auntie had gone without them for so many years!
"What a funny world it is," thought Susan, smiling at the still, wise face as if she and her aunt might still share in amusement. She thought of her own pose, "never gives a thought to her own grief!" everyone said. She thought of Virginia's passionate and dramatic protest, "Ma carried this book when she was married, she shall have it now!" and of Mary Lou's wail, "Oh, that I should live to see the day!" And she remembered Georgie's care in placing the lettered ribbon where it must be seen by everyone who came in to look for the last time at the dead.
"Are we all actors? Isn't anything real?" she wondered.
Yet the grief was real enough, after all. There was no sham in Mary Lou's faint, after the funeral, and Virginia, drooping about the desolate house, looked shockingly pinched and thin. There was a family council in a day or two, and it was at this time that Susan meant to suggest that the boarding-house be carried on between them all.
Alfred and his wife, and Georgie and the doctor came to the house for this talk; Billy had been staying there, and Mr. Ferd Eastman, in answer to a telegram, had come down for the funeral and was still in the city.
They gathered, a sober, black-dressed group, in the cold and dreary parlor, Ferd Eastman looking almost indecorously cheerful and rosy, in his checked suit and with his big diamond ring glittering on his fat hand. There was no will to read, but Billy had ascertained what none of the sisters knew, the exact figures of the mortgage, the value of the contents of Mrs. Lancaster's locked tin box, the size and number of various outstanding bills. He spread a great number of papers out before him on a small table; Alfred, who appeared to be sleepy, after the strain of the past week, yawned, started up blinking, attempted to take an intelligent interest in the conversation; Georgie, thinking of her nursing baby, was eager to hurry everything through.
"Now, about you girls," said Billy. "Sue feels that you might make a good thing of it if you stayed on here. What do you think?"
"Well, Billy--well, Ferd---" Everyone turned to look at Mary Lou, who was stammering and blushing in a most peculiar way. Mr. Eastman put his arm about her. Part of the truth flashed on Susan.
"You're going to be married!" she gasped. But this was the moment for which Ferd had been waiting,
"We are married, good people," he said buoyantly. "This young lady and I gave you all the slip two weeks ago!"
Susan rushed to kiss the bride, but upon Virginia's bursting into hysterical tears, and Georgie turning faint, Mary Lou very sensibly set about restoring her sisters' composure, and, even on this occasion, took a secondary part.
"Perhaps you had some reason---" said Georgie, faintly, turning reproachful eyes upon the newly wedded pair.
"But, with poor Ma just gone!" Virginia burst into tears again.
"Ma knew," sobbed Mary Lou, quite overcome. "Ferd--Ferd---" she began with difficulty, "didn't want to wait, and I wouldn't,--so soon after poor Grace!" Grace had been the first wife. "And so, just before Ma's birthday, he took us to lunch--we went to Swains---"
"I remember the day!" said Virginia, in solemn affirmation.
"And we were quietly married afterward," said Ferd, himself, soothingly, his arm about his wife, "and Mary Lou's dear mother was very happy about it. Don't cry, dear---"
Susan had disliked the man once, but she could find no fault with his tender solicitude for the long-neglected Mary Lou. And when the first crying and exclaiming were over, there was a very practical satisfaction in the thought of Mary Lou as a prosperous man's wife, and Virginia provided for, for a time at least. Susan seemed to feel fetters slipping away from her at every second.
Mr. Eastman took them all to lunch, at a modest table d'hote in the neighborhood, tipped the waiter munificently, asked in an aside for a special wine, which was of course not forthcoming. Susan enjoyed the affair with a little of her old spirit, and kept them all talking and friendly. Georgie, perhaps a little dashed by Mary Lou's recently acquired state, told Susan in a significant aside, as a doctor's wife, that it was very improbable that Mary Lou, at her age, would have children; "seems such a pity!" said Georgie, shrugging. Virginia, to her new brother-in-law's cheerful promise to find her a good husband within the year, responded, with a little resentful dignity, "It seems a little soon, to me, to be joking, Ferd!"
But on the whole it was a very harmonious meal. The Eastmans were to leave the next day for a belated honeymoon; to Susan and Virginia and Billy would fall the work of closing up the Fulton Street house.
"And what about you, Sue?" asked Billy, as they were walking home that afternoon.
"I'm going to New York, Bill," she answered. And, with a memory of the times she had told him that before, she turned to him a sudden smile. "--But I mean it this time!" said Susan cheerfully. "I went to see Miss Toland, of the Alexander Toland Settlement House, a few weeks ago, about working there. She told me frankly that they have all they need of untrained help. But she said, 'Miss Brown, if you could take a year's course in New York, you'd be a treasure!' And so I'm going to borrow the money from Ferd, Bill. I hate to do it, but I'm going to. And the first thing you know I'll be in the Potrero, right near your beloved Iron Works, teaching the infants of that region how to make buttonholes and cook chuck steak!"
"How much money do you want?" he asked, after a moment's silence.
"Three hundred! The fare is one hundred!"
"I know it. But I'm going to work my way through the course, Bill, even if I have to go out as a nurse-girl, and study at night."
Billy said nothing for awhile. But before they parted he went back to the subject.
"I'll let you have the three hundred, Sue, or five hundred, if you like. Borrow it from me, you know me a good deal better than you do Ferd Eastman!"
The next day the work of demolishing the boarding-house began. Susan and Virginia lived with Georgie for these days, but lunched in the confusion of the old home. It seemed strange, and vaguely sad, to see the long-crowded rooms empty and bare, with winter sunlight falling in clear sharp lines across the dusty, un-carpeted floors. A hundred old scars and stains showed on the denuded walls; there were fresher squares on the dark, faded old papers, where the pictures had been hung; Susan recognized the outline of Mary Lord's mirror, and Mrs. Parker's crucifix. The kitchen was cold and desolate, a pool of water on the cold stove, a smooth thin cake of yellow soap in a thick saucer, on the sink, a drift of newspapers on the floor, and old brooms assembled in a corner.
More than the mortgage, the forced sale of the old house had brought only a few hundreds of dollars. It was to be torn down at once, and Susan felt a curious stirring of sadness as she went through the strange yet familiar rooms for the last time.
"Lord, how familiar it all is!" said Billy, "the block and the bakery! I can remember the first time I saw it."
The locked house was behind them, they had come down the street steps, and turned for a last look at the blank windows.
"I remember coming here after my father died," Susan said. "You gave me a little cologne bottle filled with water, and one of those spools that one braids worsted through, do you remember?"
"Do you remember Miss Fish,--the old girl whose canary we hit with a ball? And the second-hand type-writer we were always saving up for?"
"And the day we marked up the steps with chalk and Auntie sent us out with wet rags?"
"Lord--Lord!" They were both smiling as they walked away.
"Shall you go to Nevada City with the Eastmans, Sue?"
"No, I don't think so. I'll stay with Georgie for a week, and get things straightened out."
"Well, suppose we go off and have dinner somewhere, to-morrow?"
"Oh, I'd love it! It's terribly gloomy at Georgie's. But I'm going over to see the Carrolls to-morrow, and they may want to keep me---"
"They won't!" said Billy grimly.
"Won't?" Susan echoed, astonished.
"No," Billy said with a sigh. "Mrs. Carroll's been awfully queer since--since Jo, you know---"
"Why, Bill, she was so wonderful!"
"Just at first, yes. But she's gone into a sort of melancholia, now, Phil was telling me about it."
"But that doesn't sound a bit like her," Susan said, worriedly.
"No, does it? But go over and see them anyway, it'll do them all good. Well--look your last at the old block, Sue!"
Susan got on the car, leaning back for a long, goodbye look at the shabby block, duller than ever in the grimy winter light, and at the dirt and papers and chaff drifting up against the railings, and at the bakery window, with its pies and bread and Nottingham lace curtains. Fulton Street was a thing of the past.
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