"Good-morning!" said Susan, bravely, when Miss Thornton came into the office the next morning. Miss Thornton glanced politely toward her.
"Oh, good-morning, Miss Brown!" said she, civilly, disappearing into the coat closet. Susan felt her cheeks burn. But she had been lying awake and thinking in the still watches of the night, and she was the wiser for it. Susan's appearance was a study in simple neatness this morning, a black gown, severe white collar and cuffs, severely braided hair. Her table was already piled with bills, and she was working busily. Presently she got up, and came down to Miss Thornton's desk.
"Mad at me, Thorny?" she asked penitently. She had to ask it twice.
"Why should I be?" asked Miss Thornton lightly then. "Excuse me--" she turned a page, and marked a price. "Excuse me--" This time Susan's hand was in the way.
"Ah, Thorny, don't be mad at me," said Susan, childishly.
"I hope I know when I am not wanted," said Miss Thornton stiffly, after a silence.
"I don't!" laughed Susan, and stopped. Miss Thornton looked quickly up, and the story came out. Thorny was instantly won. She observed with a little complacence that she had anticipated just some such event, and so had given Peter Coleman no chance to ask her. "I could see he was dying to," said Thorny, "but I know that crowd! Don't you care, Susan, what's the difference?" said Thorny, patting her hand affectionately.
So that little trouble was smoothed away. Another episode made the day more bearable for Susan.
Mr. Brauer called her into his office at ten o'clock. Peter was at his desk, but Susan apparently did not see him.
"Will you hurry this bill, Miss Brown?" said Mr. Brauer, in his careful English. "Al-zo, I wished to say how gratifite I am wiz your work, before zese las' weeks,--zis monss. You work hardt, and well. I wish all could do so hardt, and so well."
"Oh, thank you!" stammered Susan, in honest shame. Had one month's work been so noticeable? She made new resolves for the month to come. "Was that all, Mr. Brauer?" she asked primly.
"What was your rush yesterday?" asked Peter Coleman, turning around.
"Headache," said Susan, mildly, her hand on the door.
"Oh, rot! I bet it didn't ache at all!" he said, with his gay laugh. But Susan did not laugh, and there was a pause. Peter's face grew red.
"Did--did Miss Thornton get home all right?" he asked. Susan knew he was at a loss for something to say, but answered him seriously.
"Quite, thank you. She was a little--at least I felt that she might be a little vexed at my leaving her, but she was very sweet about it."
"She should have come, too!" Peter said, embarrassedly.
Susan did not answer, she eyed him gravely for a few seconds, as one waiting for further remarks, then turned and went out, sauntering to her desk with the pleasant conviction that hers were the honors of war.
The feeling of having regained her dignity was so exhilarating that Susan was careful, during the next few weeks, to preserve it. She bowed and smiled to Peter, answered his occasional pleasantries briefly and reservedly, and attended strictly to her affairs alone.
Thus Thanksgiving became a memory less humiliating, and on Christmas Day joy came gloriously into Susan's heart, to make it memorable among all the Christmas Days of her life. Easy to-day to sit for a laughing hour with poor Mary Lord, to go to late service, and dream through a long sermon, with the odor of incense and spicy evergreen sweet all about her, to set tables, to dust the parlor, to be kissed by Loretta's little doctor under the mistletoe, to sweep up tissue- paper and red ribbon and nutshells and tinsel, to hook Mary Lou's best gown, and accompany Virginia to evening service, and to lend Georgie her best gloves. Susan had not had many Christmas presents: cologne and handkerchiefs and calendars and candy, from various girl friends, five dollars from the firm, a silk waist from Auntie, and a handsome umbrella from Billy, who gave each one of the cousins exactly the same thing.
These, if appreciated, were more or less expected, too. But beside them, this year, was a great box of violets,--Susan never forgot the delicious wet odor of those violets!--and inside the big box a smaller one, holding an old silver chain with a pendant of lapis lazuli, set in a curious and lovely design. Susan honestly thought it the handsomest thing she had ever seen. And to own it, as a gift from him! Small wonder that her heart flew like a leaf in a high wind. The card that came with it she had slipped inside her silk blouse, and so wore against her heart. "Mr. Peter Webster Coleman," said one side of the card. On the other was written, "S.B. from P.-- Happy Fourth of July!" Susan took it out and read it a hundred times. The "P" indicated a friendliness that brought the happy color over and over again to her face. She dashed him off a gay little note of thanks; signed it "Susan," thought better of that and re- wrote it, to sign it "Susan Ralston Brown"; wrote it a third time, and affixed only the initials, "S.B." All day long she wondered at intervals if the note had been too chilly, and turned cold, or turned rosy wondering if it had been too warm.
Mr. Coleman did not come into the office during the following week, and one day a newspaper item, under the heading of "The Smart Set," jumped at Susan with the familiar name. "Peter Coleman, who is at present the guest of Mrs. Rodney Chauncey, at her New Year's house party," it ran, "may accompany Mr. Paul Wallace and Miss Isabel Wallace in a short visit to Mexico next week." The news made Susan vaguely unhappy.
One January Saturday she was idling along the deck, when he came suddenly up behind her, to tell her, with his usual exuberant laughter, that he was going away for a fortnight with the Wallaces, just a flying trip, "in the old man's private car." He expected "a peach of a time."
"You certainly ought to have it!" smiled Susan gallantly, "Isabel Wallace looks like a perfect darling!"
"She's a wonder!" he said absently, adding eagerly, "Say, why can't you come and help me buy some things this afternoon? Come on, and we'll have tea at the club?"
Susan saw no reason against it, they would meet at one.
"I'll be down in J.G.'s office," he said, and Susan went back to her desk with fresh joy and fresh pain at her heart.
On Saturdays, because of the early closing, the girls had no lunch hour. But they always sent out for a bag of graham crackers, which they nibbled as they worked, and, between eleven and one, they took turns at disappearing in the direction of the lunch-room, to return with well scrubbed hands and powdered noses, fresh collars and carefully arranged hair. Best hats were usually worn on Saturdays, and Susan rejoiced that she had worn her best to-day. After the twelve o'clock whistle blew, she went upstairs.
On the last flight, just below the lunch-room, she suddenly stopped short, her heart giving a sick plunge. Somebody up there was laughing--crying--making a horrible noise--! Susan ran up the rest of the flight.
Thorny was standing by the table. One or two other girls were in the room, Miss Sherman was mending a glove, Miss Cashell stood in the roof doorway, manicuring her nails with a hairpin. Miss Elsie Kirk sat in the corner seat, with her arm about the bowed shoulders of another girl, who was crying, with her head on the table.
"If you would mind your own affairs for about five minutes, Miss Thornton," Elsie Kirk was saying passionately, as Susan came in, "you'd be a good deal better off!"
"I consider what concerns Front Office concerns me!" said Miss Thornton loftily.
"Ah, don't!" Miss Sherman murmured pitifully.
"If Violet wasn't such a darn fool--" Miss Cashell said lightly, and stopped.
"What is it?" asked Susan.
Her voice died on a dead silence. Miss Thornton, beginning to gather up veil and gloves and handbag scattered on the table, pursed her lips virtuously. Miss Cashell manicured steadily. Miss Sherman bit off a thread.
"It's nothing at all!" said Elsie Kirk, at last. "My sister's got a headache, that's all, and she doesn't feel well." She patted the bowed shoulders. "And parties who have nothing better to do," she added, viciously turning to Miss Thornton, "have butted in about it!"
"I'm all right now," said Violet suddenly, raising a face so terribly blotched and swollen from tears that Susan was genuinely horrified. Violet's weak eyes were set in puffy rings of unnatural whiteness, her loose, weak little mouth sagged, her bosom, in its preposterous, transparent white lace shirtwaist, rose and fell convulsively. In her voice was some shocking quality of unwomanliness, some lack of pride, and reserve, and courage.
"All I wanted was to do like other girls do," said the swollen lips, as Violet began to cry again, and to dab her eyes with a soaked rag of a handkerchief. "I never meant nothing! 'N' Mamma says she knows it wasn't all my fault!" she went on, half maudlin in her abandonment.
Susan gasped. There was a general gasp.
"Don't, Vi!" said her sister tenderly. "It ain't your fault if there are skunks in the world like Mr. Phil Hunter," she said, in a reckless half-whisper. "If Papa was alive he'd shoot him down like a dog!"
"He ought to be shot down!" cried Susan, firing.
"Well, of course he ought!" Miss Elsie Kirk, strong under opposition, softened suddenly under this championship, and began to tremble. "Come on, Vi," said she.
"Well, of course he ought," Thorny said, almost with sympathy. "Here, let's move the table a little, if you want to get out."
"Well, why do you make such a fuss about it?" Miss Cashell asked softly. "You know as well as--as anyone else, that if a man gets a girl into trouble, he ought to stand for--"
"Yes, but my sister doesn't take that kind of money!" flashed Elsie bitterly.
"Well, of course not!" Miss Cashell said quickly, "but--"
"No, you're doing the dignified thing, Violet," Miss Thornton said, with approval, "and you'll feel glad, later on, that you acted this way. And, as far as my carrying tales, I never carried one. I did say that I thought I knew why you were leaving, and I don't deny it- -Use my powder, right there by the mirror--But as far as anything else goes--"
"We're both going," Elsie said. "I wouldn't take another dollar of their dirty money if I was starving! Come on, Vi."
And a few minutes later they all said a somewhat subdued and embarrassed farewell to the Misses Kirk, who went down the stairs, veiled and silent, and out of the world of Hunter, Baxter & Hunter's forever.
"Will she sue him, Thorny?" asked Susan, awed.
"Sue him? For what? She's not got anything to sue for." Miss Thornton examined a finger nail critically. "This isn't the first time this has happened down here," she said. "There was a lovely girl here--but she wasn't such a fool as Violet is. She kept her mouth shut. Violet went down to Phil Hunter's office this morning, and made a perfect scene. He's going on East to meet his wife you know; it must have been terribly embarrassing for him! Then old J.G. sent for Violet, and told her that there'd been a great many errors in the crediting, and showed 'em to her, too! Poor kid--"
Susan went wondering back to Front Office. The crediting should be hers, now, by all rights! But she felt only sorry, and sore, and puzzled. "She wanted a good time and pretty things," said Susan to herself. Just as Susan herself wanted this delightful afternoon with Peter Coleman! "How much money has to do with life!" the girl thought.
But even the morning's events did not cloud the afternoon. She met Peter at the door of Mr. Baxter's office, and they went laughing out into the clear winter sunshine together.
Where first? To Roos Brothers, for one of the new folding trunks. Quite near enough to walk, they decided, joining the released throng of office workers who were streaming up to Kearney Street and the theater district.
The trunk was found, and a very smart pigskin toilet-case to go in the trunk; Susan found a sort of fascination in the ease with which a person of Peter's income could add a box of silk socks to his purchase, because their color chanced to strike his fancy, could add two or three handsome ties. They strolled along Kearney Street and Post Street, and Susan selected an enormous bunch of violets at Podesta and Baldocchi's, declining the unwholesome-looking orchid that was Peter's choice. They bought a camera, which was left that a neat "P.W.C." might be stamped upon it, and went into Shreve's, a place always fascinating to Susan, to leave Mr. Coleman's watch to be regulated, and look at new scarf-pins. And finally they wandered up into "Chinatown," as the Chinese quarter was called, laughing all the way, and keenly alert for any little odd occurrence in the crowded streets. At Sing Fat's gorgeous bazaar, Peter bought a mandarin coat for himself, the smiling Oriental bringing its price down from two hundred dollars to less than three-quarters of that sum, and Susan taking a great fancy to a little howling teakwood god; he bought that, too, and they named it "Claude" after much discussion.
"We can't carry all these things to the University Club for tea," said Peter then, when it was nearly five o'clock. "So let's go home and have tea with Aunt Clara--she'd love it!"
Tea at his own home! Susan's heart raced--
"Oh, I couldn't," she said, in duty bound.
"Couldn't? Why couldn't you?"
"Why, because Auntie mightn't like it. Suppose your aunt is out?"
"Shucks!" he pondered; he wanted his way. "I'll tell you," he said suddenly. "We'll drive there, and if Aunt Clara isn't home you needn't come in. How's that?"
Susan could find no fault with that. She got into a carriage in great spirits.
"Don't you love it when we stop people on the crossings?" she asked naively. Peter shouted, but she could see that he was pleased as well as amused.
They bumped and rattled out Bush Street, and stopped at the stately door of the old Baxter mansion. Mrs. Baxter fortunately was at home, and Susan followed Peter into the great square hall, and into the magnificent library, built in a day of larger homes and more splendid proportions. Here she was introduced to the little, nervous mistress of the house, who had been enjoying alone a glorious coal fire.
"Let in a little more light, Peter, you wild, noisy boy, you!" said Mrs. Baxter, adding, to Susan, "This was a very sweet thing of you to do, my dear, I don't like my little cup of tea alone."
"Little cup--ha!" said Peter, eying the woman with immense satisfaction. "You'll see her drink five, Miss Brown!"
"We'll send him upstairs, that's what we'll do," threatened his aunt. "Yes, tea, Burns," she added to the butler. "Green tea, dear? Orange-Pekoe? I like that best myself. And muffins, Burns, and toast, something nice and hot. And jam. Mr. Peter likes jam, and some of the almond cakes, if she has them. And please ask Ada to bring me that box of candy from my desk. Santa Barbara nougat, Peter, it just came."
"Isn't this fun!" said Susan, so joyously that Mrs. Baxter patted the girl's arm with a veiny, approving little hand, and Peter, eying his aunt significantly, said: "Isn't she fun?"
It was a perfect hour, and when, at six, Susan said she must go, the old lady sent her home in her own carriage. Peter saw her to the door, "Shall you be going out to-night, sir?" Susan heard the younger man-servant ask respectfully, as they passed. "Not to- night!" said Peter, and, so sensitive was Susan now to all that concerned him, she was unreasonably glad that he was not engaged to- night, not to see other girls and have good times in which she had no share. It seemed to make him more her own.
The tea, the firelight, the fragrant dying violets had worked a spell upon her. Susan sat back luxuriously in the carriage, dreaming of herself as Peter Coleman's wife, of entering that big hall as familiarly as he did, of having tea and happy chatter ready for him every afternoon before the fire---
There was no one at the windows, unfortunately, to be edified by the sight of Susan Brown being driven home in a private carriage, and the halls, as she entered, reeked of boiling cabbage and corned beef. She groped in the darkness for a match with which to light the hall gas. She could hear Loretta Barker's sweet high voice chattering on behind closed doors, and, higher up, the deep moaning of Mary Lord, who was going through one of her bad times. But she met nobody as she ran up to her room.
"Hello, Mary Lou, darling! Where's everyone?" she asked gaily, discerning in the darkness a portly form prone on the bed.
"Jinny's lying down, she's been to the oculist. Ma's in the kitchen- -don't light up, Sue," said the patient, melancholy voice.
"Don't light up!" Susan echoed, amazedly, instantly doing so, the better to see her cousin's tear-reddened eyes and pale face. "Why, what's the matter?"
"Oh, we've had sad, sad news," faltered Mary Lou, her lips trembling. "A telegram from Ferd Eastman. They've lost Robbie!"
"No!" said Susan, genuinely shocked. And to the details she listened sympathetically, cheering Mary Lou while she inserted cuff-links into her cousin's fresh shirtwaist, and persuaded her to come down to dinner. Then Susan must leave her hot soup while she ran up to Virginia's room, for Virginia was late.
"Ha! What is it?" said Virginia heavily, rousing herself from sleep. Protesting that she was a perfect fright, she kept Susan waiting while she arranged her hair.
"And what does Verriker say of your eyes, Jinny?"
"Oh, they may operate, after all!" Virginia sighed. "But don't say anything to Ma until we're sure," she said.
Not the congenial atmosphere into which to bring a singing heart! Susan sighed. When they went downstairs Mrs. Parker's heavy voice was filling the dining-room.
"The world needs good wives and mothers more than it needs nuns, my dear! There's nothing selfish about a woman who takes her share of toil and care and worry, instead of running away from it. Dear me! many of us who married and stayed in the world would be glad enough to change places with the placid lives of the Sisters!"
"Then, Mama," Loretta said sweetly and merrily, detecting the inconsistency of her mother's argument, as she always did, "if it's such a serene, happy life--"
Loretta always carried off the honors of war. Susan used to wonder how Mrs. Parker could resist the temptation to slap her pretty, stupid little face. Loretta's deep, wise, mysterious smile seemed to imply that she, at nineteen, could afford to assume the maternal attitude toward her easily confused and disturbed parent.
"No vocation for mine!" said Georgianna, hardily, "I'd always be getting my habit mixed up, and coming into chapel without my veil on!"
This, because of its audacity, made everyone laugh, but Loretta fixed on Georgie the sweet bright smile in which Susan already perceived the nun.
"Are you so sure that you haven't a vocation, Georgie?" she asked gently.
"Want to go to a bum show at the 'Central' to-night?" Billy Oliver inquired of Susan in an aside. "Bartlett's sister is leading lady, and he's handing passes out to everyone."
"Always!" trilled Susan, and at last she had a chance to add, "Wait until I tell you what fun I've been having!"
She told him when they were on the car, and he was properly interested, but Susan felt that the tea episode somehow fell flat; had no significance for William.
"Crime he didn't take you to the University Club," said Billy, "they say it's a keen club."
Susan, smiling over happy memories, did not contradict him.
The evening, in spite of the "bum" show, proved a great success, and the two afterwards went to Zinkand's for sardine sandwiches and domestic ginger-ale. This modest order was popular with them because of the moderateness of its cost.
"But, Bill," said Susan to-night, "wouldn't you like to order once without reading the price first and then looking back to see what it was? Do you remember the night we nearly fainted with joy when we found a ten cent dish at Tech's, and then discovered that it was Chili Sauce!"
They both laughed, Susan giving her usual little bounce of joy as she settled into her seat, and the orchestra began a spirited selection. "Look there, Bill, what are those people getting?" she asked.
"It's terrapin," said William, and Susan looked it up on the menu.
"Terrapin Parnasse, one-fifty," read Susan, "for seven of them,-- Gee! Gracious!" "Gracious" followed, because Susan had made up her mind not to say "Gee" any more.
"His little supper will stand him in about fifteen dollars," estimated Billy, with deep interest. "He's ordering champagne,-- it'll stand him in thirty. Gosh!"
"What would you order if you could, Bill?" Susan asked. It was all part of their usual program.
"Planked steak," answered Billy, readily.
"Planked steak," Susan hunted for it, "would it be three dollars?" she asked, awed.
"I'd have breast of hen pheasant with Virginia ham," Susan decided. A moment later her roving eye rested on a group at a nearby table, and, with the pleased color rushing into her race, she bowed to one of the members of the party.
"That's Miss Emily Saunders," said Susan, in a low voice. "Don't look now--now you can look. Isn't she sweet?"
Miss Saunders, beautifully gowned, was sitting with an old man, an elderly woman, a handsome, very stout woman of perhaps forty, and a very young man. She was a pale, rather heavy girl, with prominent eyes and smooth skin. Susan thought her very aristocratic looking.
"Me for the fat one," said Billy simply. "Who's she?"
"I don't know. don't let them see us looking, Bill!" Susan brought her gaze suddenly back to her own table, and began a conversation.
There were some rolls on a plate, between them, but there was no butter on the table. Their order had not yet been served.
"We want some butter here," said Billy, as Susan took a roll, broke it in two, and laid it down again.
"Oh, don't bother, Bill! I don't honestly want it!" she protested.
"Rot!" said William. "He's got a right to bring it!" In a moment a head-waiter was bending over them, his eyes moving rapidly from one to the other, under contracted brows.
"Butter, please," said William briskly.
"Butter. We've no butter."
"Oh, certainly!" He was gone in a second, and in another the butter was served, and Susan and Billy began on the rolls.
"Here comes Miss---, your friend," said William presently.
Susan whirled. Miss Saunders and the very young man were looking toward their table, as they went out. Catching Susan's eye, they came over to shake hands.
"How do you do, Miss Brown?" said the young woman easily. "My cousin, Mr. Brice. He's nicer than he looks. Mr. Oliver? Were you at the Columbia?"
"We were--How do you do? No, we weren't at the Columbia," Susan stammered, confused by the other's languid ease of manner, by the memory of the playhouse they had attended, and by the arrival of the sardines and ginger-ale, which were just now placed on the table.
"I'm coming to take you to lunch with me some day, remember," said Miss Saunders, departing. And she smiled another farewell from the door.
"Isn't she sweet?" said Susan.
"And how well she would come along just as our rich and expensive order is served!" Billy added, and they both laughed.
"It looks good to me!" Susan assured him contentedly. "I'll give you half that other sandwich if you can tell me what the orchestra is playing now."
"The slipper thing, from 'Boheme'," Billy said scornfully. Susan's eyes widened with approval and surprise. His appreciation of music was an incongruous note in Billy's character.
There was presently a bill to settle, which Susan, as became a lady, seemed to ignore. But she could not long ignore her escort's scowling scrutiny of it.
"What's that?" demanded Mr. Oliver, scowling at the card. "Twenty cents for what?"
"For bread and butter, sir," said the waiter, in a hoarse, confidential whisper. "Not served with sandwiches, sir." Susan's heart began to thump.
"Billy--" she began.
"Wait a minute," Billy muttered. "Just wait a minute! It doesn't say anything about that."
The waiter respectfully indicated a line on the menu card, which Mr. Oliver studied fixedly, for what seemed to Susan a long time.
"That's right," he said finally, heavily, laying a silver dollar on the check. Keep it." The waiter did not show much gratitude for his tip. Susan and Billy, ruffled and self-conscious, walked, with what dignity they could, out into the night.
"Damn him!" said Billy, after a rapidly covered half-block.
"Oh, Billy, don't! What do you care!" Susan said, soothingly.
"I don't care," he snapped. Adding, after another brooding minute, "we ought to have better sense than to go into such places!"
"We're as good as anyone else!" Susan asserted, hotly.
"No, we're not. We're not as rich," he answered bitterly.
"Billy, as if money mattered!"
"Oh, of course, money doesn't matter," he said with fine satire. "Not at all! But because we haven't got it, those fellows, on thirty per, can throw the hooks into us at every turn. And, if we threw enough money around, we could be the rottenest man and woman on the face of the globe, we could be murderers and thieves, even, and they'd all be falling over each other to wait on us!"
"Well, let's murder and thieve, then!" said Susan blithely.
"I may not do that--"
"You mayn't? Oh, Bill, don't commit yourself! You may want to, later."
"I may not do that," repeated Mr. Oliver, gloomily, "but, by George, some day I'll have a wad in the bank that'll make me feel that I can afford to turn those fellows down! They'll know that I've got it, all right."
"Bill, I don't think that's much of an ambition," Susan said, candidly, "to want so much money that you aren't afraid of a waiter! Get some crisps while we're passing the man, Billy!" she interrupted herself to say, urgently, "we can talk on the car!"
He bought them, grinning sheepishly.
"But honestly, Sue, don't you get mad when you think that about the only standard of the world is money?" he resumed presently.
"Well, we know that we're better than lots of rich people, Bill."
"How are we better?"
"More refined. Better born. Better ancestry."
"Oh, rot! A lot they care for that! No, people that have money can get the best of people who haven't, coming and going. And for that reason, Sue," they were on the car now, and Billy was standing on the running board, just in front of her, "for that reason, Sue, I'm going to make money, and when I have so much that everyone knows it then I'll do as I darn please. And I won't please to do the things they do, either!"
"You're very sure of yourself, Bill! How are you going to make it?"
"The way other men make it, by gosh!" Mr. Oliver said seriously. "I'm going into blue-printing with Ross, on the side. I've got nearly three thousand in Panhandle lots--"
"Oh, you have not!"
"Oh, I have, too! Spence put me onto it. They're no good now, but you bet your life they will be! And I'm going to stick along at the foundry until the old man wakes up some day, and realizes that I'm getting more out of my men than any other two foremen in the place. Those boys would do anything for me--"
"Because you're a very unusual type of man to be in that sort of place, Bill!" Susan interrupted.
"Shucks," he said, in embarrassment. "Well," he resumed, "then some day I'm going to the old man and ask him for a year's leave. Then I'll visit every big iron-works in the East, and when I come back, I'll take a job of casting from my own blue-prints, at not less than a hundred a week. Then I'll run up some flats in the Panhandle--"
"Having married the beautiful daughter of the old man himself--" Susan interposed. "And won first prize in the Louisiana lottery--"
"Sure," he said gravely. "And meanwhile," he added, with a business- like look, "Coleman has got a crush on you, Sue. It'd be a dandy marriage for you, and don't you forget it!"
"Well, of all nerve!" Susan said unaffectedly, and with flaming cheeks. "There is a little motto, to every nation dear, in English it's forget-me-not, in French it's mind your own business, Bill!"
"Well, that may be," he said doggedly, "but you know as well as I do that it's up to you--"
"Suppose it is," Susan said, satisfied that he should think so. "That doesn't give you any right to interfere with my affairs!"
"You're just like Georgie and Mary Lou," he told her, "always bluffing yourself. But you've got more brains than they have, Sue, and it'd give the whole crowd of them a hand up if you made a marriage like that. Don't think I'm trying to butt in," he gave her his winning, apologetic smile, "you know I'm as interested as your own brother could be, Sue! If you like him, don't keep the matter hanging fire. There's no question that he's crazy about you-- everybody knows that!"
"No, there's no question about that," Susan said, softly.
But what would she not have given for the joy of knowing, in her secret heart, that it was true!
Two weeks later, Miss Brown, summoned to Mr. Brauer's office, was asked if she thought that she could do the crediting, at forty dollars a month. Susan assented gravely, and entered that day upon her new work, and upon a new era. She worked hard and silently, now, with only occasional flashes of her old silliness. She printed upon a card, and hung above her desk, these words:
"I hold it true, with him who sings To one clear harp in divers tones, That men may rise on stepping-stones Of their dead selves, to higher things."
On stepping-stones of her dead selves, Susan mounted. She wore a preoccupied, a responsible air, her voice softened, her manner was almost too sweet, too bright and gentle. She began to take cold, or almost cold, baths daily, to brush her hair and mend her gloves. She began to say "Not really?" instead of "Sat-so?" and "It's of no consequence," instead of "Don't matter." She called her long woolen coat, familiarly known as her "sweater," her "field-jacket," and pronounced her own name "Syusan." Thorny, Georgianna, and Billy had separately the pleasure of laughing at Susan in these days.
"They should really have a lift, to take the girls up to the lunch room," said Susan to Billy.
"Of course they should," said Billy, "and a sink to bring you down again!"
Peter Coleman did not return to San Francisco until the middle of March, but Susan had two of the long, ill-written and ill-spelled letters that are characteristic of the college graduate. It was a wet afternoon in the week before Holy Week when she saw him again. Front Office was very busy at three o'clock, and Miss Garvey had been telling a story.
"'Don't whistle, Mary, there's a good girl,' the priest says," related Miss Garvey. "'I never like to hear a girl whistle,' he says. Well, so that night Aggie,"--Aggie was Miss Kelly--"Aggie wrote a question, and she put it in the question-box they had at church for questions during the Mission. 'Is it a sin to whistle?' she wrote. And that night, when he was readin' the questions out from the pulpit, he come to this one, and he looked right down at our pew over his glasses, and he says, 'The girl that asks this question is here,' he says, 'and I would say to her, 'tis no sin to do anything that injures neither God nor your neighbor!' Well, I thought Aggie and me would go through the floor!" And Miss Kelly and Miss Garvey put their heads down on their desks, and laughed until they cried.
Susan, looking up to laugh too, felt a thrill weaken her whole body, and her spine grow cold. Peter Coleman, in his gloves and big overcoat, with his hat on the back of his head, was in Mr. Brauer's office, and the electric light, turned on early this dark afternoon, shone full in his handsome, clean-shaven face.
Susan had some bills that she had planned to show to Mr. Brauer this afternoon. Six months ago she would have taken them in to him at once, and been glad of the excuse. But now she dropped her eyes, and busied herself with her work. Her heart beat high, she attacked a particularly difficult bill, one she had been avoiding for days, and disposed of it in ten minutes.
A little later she glanced at Mr. Brauer's office. Peter was gone, and Susan felt a sensation of sickness. She looked down at Mr. Baxter's office, and saw him there, spreading kodak pictures over the old man's desk, laughing and talking. Presently he was gone again, and she saw him no more that day.
The next day, however, she found him at her desk when she came in. They had ten minutes of inconsequential banter before Miss Cashell came in.
"How about a fool trip to the Chutes to-morrow night?" Peter asked in a low tone, just before departing.
"Lent," Susan said reluctantly.
"Oh, so it is. I suppose Auntie wouldn't stand for a dinner?"
"Pos-i-to-ri-ly not!" Susan was hedged with convention.
"Positorily not? Well, let's walk the pup? What? All right, I'll come at eight."
"At eight," said Susan, with a dancing heart.
She thought of nothing else until Friday came, slipped away from the office a little earlier than usual, and went home planning just the gown and hat most suitable. Visitors were in the parlor; Auntie, thinking of pan-gravy and hot biscuits, was being visibly driven to madness by them. Susan charitably took Mrs. Cobb and Annie and Daisy off Mrs. Lancaster's hands, and listened sympathetically to a dissertation upon the thanklessness of sons. Mrs. Cobb's sons, leaving their mother and their unmarried sisters in a comfortable home, had married the women of their own choice, and were not yet forgiven.
"And how's Alfie doing?" Mrs. Cobb asked heavily, departing.
"Pretty well. He's in Portland now, he has another job," Susan said cautiously. Alfred was never criticized in his mother's hearing. A moment later she closed the hall door upon the callers with a sigh of relief, and ran downstairs.
The telephone bell was ringing. Susan answered it.
"Hello Miss Brown! You see I know you in any disguise!" It was Peter Coleman's voice.
"Hello!" said Susan, with a chill premonition.
"I'm calling off that party to-night," said Peter. "I'm awfully sorry. We'll do it some other night. I'm in Berkeley."
"Oh, very well!" Susan agreed, brightly.
"Can you hear me? I say I'm---"
"Yes, I hear perfectly."
"I say I can hear!"
"And it's all right? I'm awfully sorry!"
"All right. These fellows are making such a racket I can't hear you. See you to-morrow!"
Susan hung up the receiver. She sat quite still in the darkness for awhile, staring straight ahead of her. When she went into the dining-room she was very sober. Mr. Oliver was there; he had taken one of his men to a hospital, with a burned arm, too late in the afternoon to make a return to the foundry worth while.
"Harkee, Susan wench!" said he, "do 'ee smell asparagus?"
"Aye. It'll be asparagus, Gaffer," said Susan dispiritedly, dropping into her chair.
"And I nearly got my dinner out to-night!" Billy said, with a shudder. "Say, listen, Susan, can you come over to the Carrolls, Sunday? Going to be a bully walk!"
"I don't know, Billy," she said quietly.
"Well, listen what we're all going to do, some Thursday. We're going to the theater, and then dawdle over supper at some cheap place, you know, and then go down on the docks, at about three, to see the fishing fleet come in? Are you on? It's great. They pile the fish up to their waists, you know--"
"That sounds lovely!" said Susan, eying him scornfully. "I see Jo and Anna Carroll enjoying that!"
"Lord, what a grouch you've got!" Billy said, with a sort of awed admiration.
Susan began to mold the damp salt in an open glass salt-cellar with the handle of a fork. Her eyes blurred with sudden tears.
"What's the matter?" Billy asked in a lowered voice.
She gulped, merely shook her head.
"You're dead, aren't you?" he said repentantly.
"Oh, all in!" It was a relief to ascribe it to that. "I'm awfully tired."
"Too tired to go to church with Mary Lou and me, dear?" asked Virginia, coming in. "Friday in Passion Week, you know. We're going to St, Ignatius. But if you're dead--?"
"Oh, I am. I'm going straight to bed," Susan said. But after dinner, when Mary Lou was dressing, she suddenly changed her mind, dragged herself up from the couch where she was lying and, being Susan, brushed her hair, pinned a rose on her coat lapel, and powdered her nose. Walking down the street with her two cousins, Susan, storm- shaken and subdued, still felt "good," and liked the feeling. Spring was in the air, the early darkness was sweet with the odors of grass and flowers.
When they reached the church, the great edifice was throbbing with the notes of the organ, a careless voluntary that stopped short, rambled, began again. They were early, and the lights were only lighted here and there; women, and now and then a man, drifted up the center aisle. Boots cheeped unseen in the arches, sibilant whispers smote the silence, pew-doors creaked, and from far corners of the church violent coughing sounded with muffled reverberations. Mary Lou would have slipped into the very last pew, but Virginia led the way up--up--up--in the darkness, nearer and nearer the altar, with its winking red light, and genuflected before one of the very first pews. Susan followed her into it with a sigh of satisfaction; she liked to see and hear, and all the pews were open to-night. They knelt for awhile, then sat back, silent, reverential, but not praying, and interested in the arriving congregation.
A young woman, seeing Virginia, came to whisper to her in a rasping aside. She "had St. Joseph" for Easter, she said, would Virginia help her "fix him"? Virginia nodded, she loved to assist those devout young women who decorated, with exquisite flowers and hundreds of candles, the various side altars of the church.
There was a constant crisping of shoes in the aisle now, the pews were filling fast. "Lord, where do all these widows come from?" thought Susan. A "Brother," in a soutane, was going about from pillar to pillar, lighting the gas. Group after group of the pendent globes sprang into a soft, moony glow; the hanging glass prisms jingled softly. The altar-boys in red, without surplices, were moving about the altar now, lighting the candles. The great crucifix, the altar-paintings and the tall candle-sticks were swathed in purple cloth, there were no flowers to-night on the High Altar, but it twinkled with a thousand candles.
The hour began to have its effect on Susan. She felt herself a little girl again, yielding to the spell of the devotion all about her; the clicking rosary-beads, the whispered audible prayers, the very odors,--odors of close-packed humanity,--that reached her were all a part of this old mood. A little woman fluttered up the aisle, and squeezed in beside her, panting like a frightened rabbit. Now there was not a seat to be seen, even the benches by the confessionals were full.
And now the organ broke softly, miraculously, into enchanting and enveloping sound, that seemed to shake the church bodily with its great trembling touch, and from a door on the left of the altar the procession streamed,--altar-boys and altar-boys and altar-boys, followed through the altar-gate by the tall young priest who would "say the Stations." Other priests, a score of them, filled the altar-stalls; one, seated on the right between two boys, would presently preach.
The procession halted somewhere over in the distant: arches, the organ thundered the "Stabat Mater." Susan could only see the candles and the boys, but the priest's voice was loud and clear. The congregation knelt and rose again, knelt and rose again, turned and swayed to follow the slow movement of the procession about the church.
When priest and boys had returned to the altar, a wavering high soprano voice floated across the church in an intricate "Veni Creator." Susan and Mary Lou sat back in their seats, but Virginia knelt, wrapped in prayer, her face buried in her hands, her hat forcing the woman in front of her to sit well forward in her place.
The pulpit was pushed across a little track laid in the altar enclosure, and the preacher mounted it, shook his lace cuffs into place, laid his book and notes to one side, and composedly studied his audience.
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen. 'Ask and ye shall receive---'" suddenly the clear voice rang out.
Susan lost the sermon. But she got the text, and pondered it with new interest. It was not new to her. She had "asked" all her life long; for patience, for truthfulness, for "final perseverance," for help for Virginia's eyes and Auntie's business and Alfie's intemperance, for the protection of this widow, the conversion of that friend, "the speedy recovery or happy death" of some person dangerously ill. Susan had never slipped into church at night with Mary Lou, without finding some special request to incorporate in her prayers.
To-night, in the solemn pause of Benediction, she asked for Peter Coleman's love. Here was a temporal favor, indeed, indicating a lesser spiritual degree than utter resignation to the Divine Will. Susan was not sure of her right to ask it. But, standing to sing the "Laudate," there came a sudden rush of confidence and hope to her heart. She was praying for this gift now, and that fact alone seemed to lift it above the level of ordinary, earthly desires. Not entirely unworthy was any hope that she could bring to this tribunal, and beg for on her knees.
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