Alice was softly crooning to herself as her mother turned the corner of the house and approached through the dusk.
“Isn't it the most BEAUTIFUL evening!” the daughter said. “WHY can't summer last all year? Did you ever know a lovelier twilight than this, mama?”
Mrs. Adams laughed, and answered, “Not since I was your age, I expect.”
Alice was wistful at once. “Don't they stay beautiful after my age?”
“Well, it's not the same thing.”
“Isn't it? Not ever?”
“You may have a different kind from mine,” the mother said, a little sadly. “I think you will, Alice. You deserve——”
“No, I don't. I don't deserve anything, and I know it. But I'm getting a great deal these days—more than I ever dreamed COULD come to me. I'm—I'm pretty happy, mama!”
“Dearie!” Her mother would have kissed her, but Alice drew away.
“Oh, I don't mean——” She laughed nervously. “I wasn't meaning to tell you I'm ENGAGED, mama. We're not. I mean—oh! things seem pretty beautiful in spite of all I've done to spoil 'em.”
“You?” Mrs. Adams cried, incredulously. “What have you done to spoil anything?”
“Little things,” Alice said. “A thousand little silly—oh, what's the use? He's so honestly what he is—just simple and good and intelligent—I feel a tricky mess beside him! I don't see why he likes me; and sometimes I'm afraid he wouldn't if he knew me.”
“He'd just worship you,” said the fond mother. “And the more he knew you, the more he'd worship you.”
Alice shook her head. “He's not the worshiping kind. Not like that at all. He's more——”
But Mrs. Adams was not interested in this analysis, and she interrupted briskly, “Of course it's time your father and I showed some interest in him. I was just saying I actually don't believe he's ever been inside the house.”
“No,” Alice said, musingly; “that's true: I don't believe he has. Except when we've walked in the evening we've always sat out here, even those two times when it was drizzly. It's so much nicer.”
“We'll have to do SOMETHING or other, of course,” her mother said.
“I was thinking——” Mrs. Adams paused. “Well, of course we could hardly put off asking him to dinner, or something, much longer.”
Alice was not enthusiastic; so far from it, indeed, that there was a melancholy alarm in her voice. “Oh, mama, must we? Do you think so?”
“Yes, I do. I really do.”
“Couldn't we—well, couldn't we wait?”
“It looks queer,” Mrs. Adams said. “It isn't the thing at all for a young man to come as much as he does, and never more than just barely meet your father and mother. No. We ought to do something.”
“But a dinner!” Alice objected. “In the first place, there isn't anybody I want to ask. There isn't anybody I WOULD ask.”
“I didn't mean trying to give a big dinner,” her mother explained. “I just mean having him to dinner. That mulatto woman, Malena Burns, goes out by the day, and she could bring a waitress. We can get some flowers for the table and some to put in the living-room. We might just as well go ahead and do it to-morrow as any other time; because your father's in a fine mood, and I saw Malena this afternoon and told her I might want her soon. She said she didn't have any engagements this week, and I can let her know to-night. Suppose when he comes you ask him for to-morrow, Alice. Everything'll be very nice, I'm sure. Don't worry about it.”
“Well—but——” Alice was uncertain.
“But don't you see, it looks so queer, not to do SOMETHING?” her mother urged. “It looks so kind of poverty-stricken. We really oughtn't to wait any longer.”
Alice assented, though not with a good heart. “Very well, I'll ask him, if you think we've got to.”
“That matter's settled then,” Mrs. Adams said. “I'll go telephone Malena, and then I'll tell your father about it.”
But when she went back to her husband, she found him in an excited state of mind, and Walter standing before him in the darkness. Adams was almost shouting, so great was his vehemence.
“Hush, hush!” his wife implored, as she came near them. “They'll hear you out on the front porch!”
“I don't care who hears me,” Adams said, harshly, though he tempered his loudness. “Do you want to know what this boy's asking me for? I thought he'd maybe come to tell me he'd got a little sense in his head at last, and a little decency about what's due his family! I thought he was going to ask me to take him into my plant. No, ma'am; THAT'S not what he wants!”
“No, it isn't,” Walter said. In the darkness his face could not be seen; he stood motionless, in what seemed an apathetic attitude; and he spoke quietly, “No,” he repeated. “That isn't what I want.”
“You stay down at that place,” Adams went on, hotly, “instead of trying to be a little use to your family; and the only reason you're ALLOWED to stay there is because Mr. Lamb's never happened to notice you ARE still there! You just wait——”
“You're off,” Walter said, in the same quiet way. “He knows I'm there. He spoke to me yesterday: he asked me how I was getting along with my work.”
“He did?” Adams said, seeming not to believe him.
“Yes. He did.”
“What else did he say, Walter?” Mrs. Adams asked quickly.
“Nothin'. Just walked on.”
“I don't believe he knew who you were,” Adams declared.
“Think not? He called me 'Walter Adams.'”
At this Adams was silent; and Walter, after waiting a moment, said:
“Well, are you going to do anything about me? About what I told you I got to have?”
“What is it, Walter?” his mother asked, since Adams did not speak.
Walter cleared his throat, and replied in a tone as quiet as that he had used before, though with a slight huskiness, “I got to have three hundred and fifty dollars. You better get him to give it to me if you can.”
Adams found his voice. “Yes,” he said, bitterly. “That's all he asks! He won't do anything I ask HIM to, and in return he asks me for three hundred and fifty dollars! That's all!”
“What in the world!” Mrs. Adams exclaimed. “What FOR, Walter?”
“I got to have it,” Walter said.
“But what FOR?”
His quiet huskiness did not alter. “I got to have it.”
“But can't you tell us——”
“I got to have it.”
“That's all you can get out of him,” Adams said. “He seems to think it'll bring him in three hundred and fifty dollars!”
A faint tremulousness became evident in the husky voice. “Haven't you got it?”
“NO, I haven't got it!” his father answered. “And I've got to go to a bank for more than my pay-roll next week. Do you think I'm a mint?”
“I don't understand what you mean, Walter,” Mrs. Adams interposed, perplexed and distressed. “If your father had the money, of course he'd need every cent of it, especially just now, and, anyhow, you could scarcely expect him to give it to you, unless you told us what you want with it. But he hasn't got it.”
“All right,” Walter said; and after standing a moment more, in silence, he added, impersonally, “I don't see as you ever did anything much for me, anyhow either of you.”
Then, as if this were his valedictory, he turned his back upon them, walked away quickly, and was at once lost to their sight in the darkness.
“There's a fine boy to've had the trouble of raising!” Adams grumbled. “Just crazy, that's all.”
“What in the world do you suppose he wants all that money for?” his wife said, wonderingly. “I can't imagine what he could DO with it. I wonder——” She paused. “I wonder if he——”
“If he what?” Adams prompted her irritably.
“If he COULD have bad—associates.”
“God knows!” said Adams. “I don't! It just looks to me like he had something in him I don't understand. You can't keep your eye on a boy all the time in a city this size, not a boy Walter's age. You got a girl pretty much in the house, but a boy'll follow his nature. I don't know what to do with him!”
Mrs. Adams brightened a little. “He'll come out all right,” she said. “I'm sure he will. I'm sure he'd never be anything really bad: and he'll come around all right about the glue-works, too; you'll see. Of course every young man wants money—it doesn't prove he's doing anything wrong just because he asks you for it.”
“No. All it proves to me is that he hasn't got good sense asking me for three hundred and fifty dollars, when he knows as well as you do the position I'm in! If I wanted to, I couldn't hardly let him have three hundred and fifty cents, let alone dollars!”
“I'm afraid you'll have to let ME have that much—and maybe a little more,” she ventured, timidly; and she told him of her plans for the morrow. He objected vehemently.
“Oh, but Alice has probably asked him by this time,” Mrs. Adams said. “It really must be done, Virgil: you don't want him to think she's ashamed of us, do you?”
“Well, go ahead, but just let me stay away,” he begged. “Of course I expect to undergo a kind of talk with him, when he gets ready to say something to us about Alice, but I do hate to have to sit through a fashionable dinner.”
“Why, it isn't going to bother you,” she said; “just one young man as a guest.”
“Yes, I know; but you want to have all this fancy cookin'; and I see well enough you're going to get that old dress suit out of the cedar chest in the attic, and try to make me put it on me.”
“I do think you better, Virgil.”
“I hope the moths have got in it,” he said. “Last time I wore it was to the banquet, and it was pretty old then. Of course I didn't mind wearing it to the banquet so much, because that was what you might call quite an occasion.” He spoke with some reminiscent complacency; “the banquet,” an affair now five years past, having provided the one time in his life when he had been so distinguished among his fellow-citizens as to receive an invitation to be present, with some seven hundred others, at the annual eating and speech-making of the city's Chamber of Commerce. “Anyhow, as you say, I think it would look foolish of me to wear a dress suit for just one young man,” he went on protesting, feebly. “What's the use of all so much howdy-do, anyway? You don't expect him to believe we put on all that style every night, do you? Is that what you're after?”
“Well, we want him to think we live nicely,” she admitted.
“So that's it!” he said, querulously. “You want him to think that's our regular gait, do you? Well, he'll know better about me, no matter how you fix me up, because he saw me in my regular suit the evening she introduced me to him, and he could tell anyway I'm not one of these moving-picture sporting-men that's always got a dress suit on. Besides, you and Alice certainly have some idea he'll come AGAIN, haven't you? If they get things settled between 'em he'll be around the house and to meals most any time, won't he? You don't hardly expect to put on style all the time, I guess. Well, he'll see then that this kind of thing was all show-off, and bluff, won't he? What about it?”
“Oh, well, by THAT time——” She left the sentence unfinished, as if absently. “You could let us have a little money for to-morrow, couldn't you, honey?”
“Oh, I reckon, I reckon,” he mumbled. “A girl like Alice is some comfort: she don't come around acting as if she'd commit suicide if she didn't get three hundred and fifty dollars in the next five minutes. I expect I can spare five or six dollars for your show-off if I got to.”
However, she finally obtained fifteen before his bedtime; and the next morning “went to market” after breakfast, leaving Alice to make the beds. Walter had not yet come downstairs. “You had better call him,” Mrs. Adams said, as she departed with a big basket on her arm. “I expect he's pretty sleepy; he was out so late last night I didn't hear him come in, though I kept awake till after midnight, listening for him. Tell him he'll be late to work if he doesn't hurry; and see that he drinks his coffee, even if he hasn't time for anything else. And when Malena comes, get her started in the kitchen: show her where everything is.” She waved her hand, as she set out for a corner where the cars stopped. “Everything'll be lovely. Don't forget about Walter.”
Nevertheless, Alice forgot about Walter for a few minutes. She closed the door, went into the “living-room” absently, and stared vaguely at one of the old brown-plush rocking-chairs there. Upon her forehead were the little shadows of an apprehensive reverie, and her thoughts overlapped one another in a fretful jumble. “What will he think? These old chairs—they're hideous. I'll scrub those soot-streaks on the columns: it won't do any good, though. That long crack in the column—nothing can help it. What will he think of papa? I hope mama won't talk too much. When he thinks of Mildred's house, or of Henrietta's, or any of 'em, beside this—She said she'd buy plenty of roses; that ought to help some. Nothing could be done about these horrible chairs: can't take 'em up in the attic—a room's got to have chairs! Might have rented some. No; if he ever comes again he'd see they weren't here. 'If he ever comes again'—oh, it won't be THAT bad! But it won't be what he expects. I'm responsible for what he expects: he expects just what the airs I've put on have made him expect. What did I want to pose so to him for—as if papa were a wealthy man and all that? What WILL he think? The photograph of the Colosseum's a rather good thing, though. It helps some—as if we'd bought it in Rome perhaps. I hope he'll think so; he believes I've been abroad, of course. The other night he said, 'You remember the feeling you get in the Sainte-Chapelle'.—There's another lie of mine, not saying I didn't remember because I'd never been there. What makes me do it? Papa MUST wear his evening clothes. But Walter——”
With that she recalled her mother's admonition, and went upstairs to Walter's door. She tapped upon it with her fingers.
“Time to get up, Walter. The rest of us had breakfast over half an hour ago, and it's nearly eight o'clock. You'll be late. Hurry down and I'll have some coffee and toast ready for you.” There came no sound from within the room, so she rapped louder.
“Wake up, Walter!”
She called and rapped again, without getting any response, and then, finding that the door yielded to her, opened it and went in. Walter was not there.
He had been there, however; had slept upon the bed, though not inside the covers; and Alice supposed he must have come home so late that he had been too sleepy to take off his clothes. Near the foot of the bed was a shallow closet where he kept his “other suit” and his evening clothes; and the door stood open, showing a bare wall. Nothing whatever was in the closet, and Alice was rather surprised at this for a moment. “That's queer,” she murmured; and then she decided that when he woke he found the clothes he had slept in “so mussy” he had put on his “other suit,” and had gone out before breakfast with the mussed clothes to have them pressed, taking his evening things with them. Satisfied with this explanation, and failing to observe that it did not account for the absence of shoes from the closet floor, she nodded absently, “Yes, that must be it”; and, when her mother returned, told her that Walter had probably breakfasted down-town. They did not delay over this; the coloured woman had arrived, and the basket's disclosures were important.
“I stopped at Worlig's on the way back,” said Mrs. Adams, flushed with hurry and excitement. “I bought a can of caviar there. I thought we'd have little sandwiches brought into the 'living-room' before dinner, the way you said they did when you went to that dinner at the——”
“But I think that was to go with cocktails, mama, and of course we haven't——”
“No,” Mrs. Adams said. “Still, I think it would be nice. We can make them look very dainty, on a tray, and the waitress can bring them in. I thought we'd have the soup already on the table; and we can walk right out as soon as we have the sandwiches, so it won't get cold. Then, after the soup, Malena says she can make sweetbread pates with mushrooms: and for the meat course we'll have larded fillet. Malena's really a fancy cook, you know, and she says she can do anything like that to perfection. We'll have peas with the fillet, and potato balls and Brussels sprouts. Brussels sprouts are fashionable now, they told me at market. Then will come the chicken salad, and after that the ice-cream—she's going to make an angel-food cake to go with it—and then coffee and crackers and a new kind of cheese I got at Worlig's, he says is very fine.”
Alice was alarmed. “Don't you think perhaps it's too much, mama?”
“It's better to have too much than too little,” her mother said, cheerfully. “We don't want him to think we're the kind that skimp. Lord knows we have to enough, though, most of the time! Get the flowers in water, child. I bought 'em at market because they're so much cheaper there, but they'll keep fresh and nice. You fix 'em any way you want. Hurry! It's got to be a busy day.”
She had bought three dozen little roses. Alice took them and began to arrange them in vases, keeping the stems separated as far as possible so that the clumps would look larger. She put half a dozen in each of three vases in the “living-room,” placing one vase on the table in the center of the room, and one at each end of the mantelpiece. Then she took the rest of the roses to the dining-room; but she postponed the arrangement of them until the table should be set, just before dinner. She was thoughtful; planning to dry the stems and lay them on the tablecloth like a vine of roses running in a delicate design, if she found that the dozen and a half she had left were enough for that. If they weren't she would arrange them in a vase.
She looked a long time at the little roses in the basin of water, where she had put them; then she sighed, and went away to heavier tasks, while her mother worked in the kitchen with Malena. Alice dusted the “living-room” and the dining-room vigorously, though all the time with a look that grew more and more pensive; and having dusted everything, she wiped the furniture; rubbed it hard. After that, she washed the floors and the woodwork.
Emerging from the kitchen at noon, Mrs. Adams found her daughter on hands and knees, scrubbing the bases of the columns between the hall and the “living-room.”
“Now, dearie,” she said, “you mustn't tire yourself out, and you'd better come and eat something. Your father said he'd get a bite down-town to-day—he was going down to the bank—and Walter eats down-town all the time lately, so I thought we wouldn't bother to set the table for lunch. Come on and we'll have something in the kitchen.”
“No,” Alice said, dully, as she went on with the work. “I don't want anything.”
Her mother came closer to her. “Why, what's the matter?” she asked, briskly. “You seem kind of pale, to me; and you don't look—you don't look HAPPY.”
“Well——” Alice began, uncertainly, but said no more.
“See here!” Mrs. Adams exclaimed. “This is all just for you! You ought to be ENJOYING it. Why, it's the first time we've—we've entertained in I don't know how long! I guess it's almost since we had that little party when you were eighteen. What's the matter with you?”
“Nothing. I don't know.”
“But, dearie, aren't you looking FORWARD to this evening?”
The girl looked up, showing a pallid and solemn face. “Oh, yes, of course,” she said, and tried to smile. “Of course we had to do it—I do think it'll be nice. Of course I'm looking forward to it.”