We start in life with the most preposterous of all human claims—that one should be understood. We get bravely over that after awhile; but not until the idea has been knocked out of us by the hardest. I used to worry a good deal, myself, because nobody—distinctly not one person—in our family understood me; that is, me in my relation to themselves; nothing else, of course, mattered so much. But that was before I was married. I think it was because Tom understood me from the very first eye-beam, that I loved him enough to marry him and learn to understand HIM. I always knew in my heart that he had the advantage of me in that beautiful art: I suppose one might call it the soul-art. At all events, it has been of the least possible consequence to me since I had Tom, whether any one else in the world understood me or not.
I suppose—in fact, I know—that it is this unfortunate affair of Peggy's which has brought up all that old soreness to the surface of me.
Nobody knows better than I that I have not been a popular member of this family. But nobody knows as well as I how hard I have tried to do my conscientious best by the whole of them, collectively and individually considered. An older sister, if she have any consciousness of responsibility at all, is, to my mind, not in an easy position. Her extra years give her an extra sense. One might call it a sixth sense of family anxiety which the younger children cannot share. She has, in a way, the intelligence and forethought of a mother without a mother's authority or privilege.
When father had that typhoid and could not sleep—dear father! in his normal condition he sleeps like a bag of corn-meal—who was there in all the house to keep those boys quiet? Nobody but me. When they organized a military company in our back yard directly under father's windows—two drums, a fish-horn, a jews-harp, a fife, and three tin pans—was there anybody but me to put a stop to it? It was on this occasion that the pet name Moolymaria, afterward corrupted into Messymaria, and finally evolved into Meddlymaria, became attached to me. To this day I do not like to think how many cries I had over it. Then when Charles Edward got into debt and nobody dared to tell father; and when Billy had the measles and there wasn't a throat in the house to read to him four hours a day except my unpopular throat; and when Charles Edward had that quarrel over a girl with a squash-colored dress and cerise hair-ribbons; or when Alice fell in love with an automobile, the chauffeur being incidentally thrown in, and took to riding around the country with him—who put a stop to it? Who was the only person in the family that COULD put a stop to it?
Then again—but what's the use? My very temperament I can see now (I didn't see it when I lived at home) is in itself an unpopular one in a family like ours. I forecast, I foresee, I provide, I plan—it is my “natur' to.” I can't go sprawling through life. I must know where I am to set my foot. Dear mother has no more sense of anxiety than a rice pudding, and father is as cool as one of his own ice-pitchers. We all know what Charles Edward is, and I didn't count grandmother and Aunt Elizabeth.
There has been my blunder. I ought to have counted Aunt Elizabeth. I ought to have fathomed her. It never occurred to me that she was deep enough to drop a plummet in. I, the burden-bearer, the caretaker, the worrier; I, who am opprobriously called “the manager” in this family—I have failed them at this critical point in their household history. I did not foresee, I did not forecast, I did not worry, I did not manage. It did not occur to me to manage after we had got Peggy safely graduated and engaged, and now this dreadful thing has gaped beneath us like the fissures at San Francisco or Kingston, and poor little Peggy has tumbled into it. A teacupful of “management” might have prevented it; an ounce of worry would have saved it all. I lacked that teacupful; I missed that ounce. The veriest popular optimist could have done no worse. I am smothered with my own stupidity. I have borne this humiliating condition of things as long as I can. I propose to go over to that house and take the helm in this emergency. I don't care whether I am popular or unpopular for it. But something has got to be done for Peggy, and I am going to do it.
I have been over and I have done it. I have taken the “management” of the whole thing—not even discouraged by this unfortunate word. I own I am rather raw to it. But the time has come when, though I bled beneath it, I must act as if I didn't. At all events I must ACT.... I have acted. I am going to New York by the early morning express—the 7.20. I would go to-night-in fact, I really ought to go to-night. But Tom has a supper “on” with some visitors to the Works. He won't be home till late, and I can't go without seeing Tom. It would hurt his feelings, and that is a thing no wife ought to do, and my kind of wife can't do.
I found the house in its usual gelatinous condition. There wasn't a back-bone in it, scarcely an ankle-joint to stand upon: plenty of crying, but no thinking; a mush of talk, but no decision. To cap the situation, Charles Edward has gone on to New York with a preposterous conviction that HE can clear it up.... CHARLES EDWARD! If there is a living member of the household—But never mind that. This circumstance was enough for me, that's all. It brought out all the determination in me, all the manager, if you choose to put it so.
I shall go to New York myself and take the whole thing in hand. If I needed anything to padlock my purpose those dozen words with Peggy would have turned the key upon it. When I found that she wasn't crying; when I got face to face with that soft, fine excitement in the eyes which a girl wears when she has a love-affair, not stagnant, but in action—I concluded at once that Peggy had her reservations and was keeping something from me. On pretence of wanting a doughnut I got her into the pantry and shut both doors.
“Peggy,” I said, “what has Charles Edward gone to New York for? Do you know?”
Peggy wound a big doughnut spinning around her engagement finger and made no reply.
“If it has anything to do with you and Harry Goward, you must tell me, Peggy. You must tell me instantly.”
Peggy put a doughnut on her wedding finger and observed, with pained perplexity, that it would not spin, but stuck.
“What is Charles Edward up to?” I persisted.
The opening rose-bud of Peggy's face took on a furtive expression, like that of certain pansies, or some orchids I have seen. “He is going to take me to Europe,” she admitted, removing both her doughnut rings.
“YOU! To EUROPE!”
“He and Lorraine. When this is blown by. They want to get me away.”
“Away from what? Away from Harry Goward?”
“Oh, I suppose so,” blubbered Peggy.
She now began, in a perfectly normal manner, to mop her eyes with her handkerchief.
“Do you want to be got away from Harry Goward?” I demanded.
“I never said I did,” sobbed Peggy. “I never said so, not one little bit. But oh, Maria! Moolymaria! You can't think how dreadful it is to be a girl, an engaged girl, and not know what to do!”
Then and there an active idea—one with bones in it—raced and overtook me, and I shot out: “Where is that letter?”
“Mother has it,” replied Peggy.
“Have you opened it?”
“Has Aunt Elizabeth opened it?”
“Did Charlies Edward take it with him?”
“I don't think he did. I will go ask mother.”
“Go ask mother for that letter,” I commanded, “and bring it to me.”
Peggy gave me one mutinous look, but the instinct of a younger sister was in her and she obeyed me. She brought the letter. I have this precious document in my pocket. I asked her if she would trust me to find out to whom that letter was addressed. After some hesitation she replied that she would. I reminded her that she was the only person in the world who could give me this authority—which pleased her. I told her that I should accept it as a solemn trust, and do my highest and best with it for her sake.
“Peggy,” I said, “this is not altogether a pleasant job for me, but you are my little sister and I will take care of you. Kiss your old Meddlymaria, Peggy.” She took down her sopping handkerchief and lifted her warm, wet face. So I kissed Peggy. And I am going on the 7.20 morning train.
It is now ten o'clock. My suit-case is packed, my ticket is bought, but Tom has not come back, and the worst of it is he can't get back to-night. He telephoned between courses at his dinner that he had accepted an invitation to go home for the night with one of the men they are dining. It seems he is a “person of importance”—there is a big order behind the junket, and Tom has gone home with him to talk it over. The ridiculous thing about it is that I forget where he was going. Of course I could telephone to the hotel and find out, but men don't like telephoning wives—at least, my man doesn't. It makes it rather hard, going on this trip without kissing Tom good-bye. I had half made up my mind to throw the whole thing over, but Peggy is pretty young; she has a long life before her; there is a good deal at stake. So Tom and I kissed by electricity, and he said that it was all right, and to go ahead, and the other absurd thing about that is that Tom didn't ask me for my New York address, and I forgot to tell him. We are like two asteroids spinning through space, neither knowing the other's route or destination. In point of fact, I shall register at “The Sphinx,” that nice ladies' hotel where mere man is never admitted.
I have always supposed that the Mrs. Chataway Aunt Elizabeth talks about kept a boarding-house. I think Aunt Elizabeth rolls in upon her like a spent wave between visits. I have no doubt that I shall be able to trace Aunt Elizabeth by her weeds upon this beach. After that the rest is easy. I must leave my address for Tom pinned up somewhere. Matilda's mind wouldn't hold it if I stuck it through her brain with a hat-pin. I think I will glue it to his library table, and I'll do it this minute to make sure.... I have directed Matilda to give him chicken croquettes for his luncheon, and I have written out the menu for every meal till I get home. Poor Tom! He isn't used to eating alone. I wish I thought he would mind it as much as I do.
Eleven o'clock.—I am obsessed with an idea, and I have yielded to it; whether for good or ill, for wisdom or folly, remains to be proved. I have telephoned Dr. Denbigh and suggested to him that he should go to New York, too. Considered in any light but that of Peggy's welfare—But I am not considering anything in any light but that of Peggy's welfare. Dr. Denbigh used to have a little tendresse for Peggy—it was never anything more, I am convinced. She is too young for him. A doctor sees so many women; he grows critical, if not captious. Character goes for more with him than with most men; looks go for less; and poor little Peggy—who can deny?—up to this point in her development is chiefly looks.
I intimated to the doctor that my errand to New York was of an important nature: that it concerned my younger sister; that my husband was, unfortunately, out of town, and that I needed masculine advice. I am not in the habit of flattering the doctor, and he swallowed this delicate bait, as I thought he would. When I asked him if he didn't think he needed a little vacation, if he didn't think he could get the old doctor from Southwest Eastridge to take his practice for two days, he said he didn't know but he could. The grippe epidemic had gone down, nothing more strenuous than a few cases of measles stood in the way; in fact, Eastridge at the present time, he averred, was lamentably healthy. When he had committed himself so far as this, he hesitated, and very seriously said:
“Mrs. Price, you have never asked me to do a foolish thing, and I have known you for a good many years. It is too late to come over and talk it out with you. If you assure me that you consider your object in making this request important I will go. We won't waste words about it. What train do you take?”
I am not a person of divination or intuition. I think I have rather a commonplace, careful, painstaking mind. But if ever I had an inspiration in my life I think I have one now. Perhaps it is the novelty of it that makes me confide in it with so little reflection. My inspiration, in a word, is this:
Aunt Elizabeth has reached the point where she is ready for a new man. I know I don't understand her kind of woman by experience. I don't suppose I do by sympathy. I have to reason her out.
I have reasoned Aunt Elizabeth out to this conclusion: She always has had, she always must have, she always will have, the admiration of some man or men to engross her attention. She is an attractive woman; she knows it; women admit it; and men feel it. I don't think Aunt Elizabeth is a heartless person; not an irresponsible one, only an idle and unhappy one. She lives on this intoxicant as other women might live on tea or gossip, as a man would take his dram or his tobacco. She drinks this wine because she is thirsty, and the plain, cool, spring-water of life has grown stale to her. It is corked up in bottles like the water sold in towns where the drinking-supply is low. It has ceased to be palatable to her.
My interpretation is, that there is no man on her horizon just now except Harry Goward, and I won't do her the injustice to believe that she wouldn't be thankful to be rid of him just for her own sake; to say nothing of Peggy's.
Aunt Elizabeth, I repeat, needs a new man. If Dr. Denbigh is willing to fill this role for a few days (of course I must be perfectly frank with him about it) the effect upon Harry Goward will be instantaneous. His disillusion will be complete; his return to Peggy in a state of abject humiliation will be assured. I mean, assuming that the fellow is capable of manly feeling, and that Peggy has aroused it. That, of course, remains for me to find out.
How I am to fish Harry Goward out of the ocean of New York city doesn't trouble me in the least. Given Aunt Elizabeth, he will complete the equation. If Mrs. Chataway should fail me—But I won't suppose that Mrs. Chataway will fail. I must be sure and explain to Tom about Dr. Denbigh.
“The Sphinx,” New York, 10 P.M.—I arrived—that is to say, we arrived in this town at ten minutes past one o'clock, almost ten hours ago. Dr. Denbigh has gone somewhere—and that reminds me that I forgot to ask him where. I never thought of it until this minute, but it has just occurred to me that it may be quite as well from an ignorant point of view that “The Sphinx” excludes mere man from its portals.
He was good to me on the train, very good indeed. I can't deny that he flushed a little when I told him frankly what I wanted of him. At first I thought that he was going to be angry. Then I saw the corners of his mustache twitch. Then our sense of humor got the better of us, and then I laughed, and then he laughed, and I felt that the crisis was passed. I explained to him while we were in the Pullman car, as well as I could without being overheard by a fat lady with three chins, and a girl with a permit for a pet poodle, what it was that I wanted of him. I related the story of Peggy's misfortune—in confidence, of course; and explained the part he was expected to play—confidentially, of course; in fact, I laid my plot before him from beginning to end.
“If the boy doesn't love her, you see,” I suggested, “the sooner we know it the better. She must break it off, if her heart is broken in the process. If he does love her—my private opinion is he thinks he does—I won't have Peggy's whole future wrecked by one of Aunt Elizabeth's flirtations. The reef is too small for the catastrophe. I shall find Aunt Elizabeth. Oh yes, I shall find Aunt Elizabeth! I have no more doubt of that than I have that Matilda is putting too much onion in the croquettes for Tom this blessed minute. If I find her I shall find the boy; but what good is that going to do me, if I find either of them or both of them, if we can't disillusionize the boy?”
“In a word,” interrupted the doctor, rather tartly, “all you want of me is to walk across the troubled stage—”
“For Peggy's sake,” I observed.
“Of course, yes, for Peggy's sake. I am to walk across this fantastic stage in the inglorious capacity of a philanderer.”
“That is precisely it,” I admitted. “I want you to philander with Aunt Elizabeth for two days, one day; two hours, one hour; just long enough, only long enough to bring that fool boy to his senses.”
“If I had suspected the nature of the purpose I am to serve in this complication”—began the doctor, without a smile. “I trusted your judgment, Mrs. Price, and good sense—I have never known either to fail before. However,” he added, manfully, “I am in for it now, and I would do more disagreeable things than this for Peggy's sake. But perhaps,” he suggested, grimly, “we sha'n't find either of them.”
He retired from the subject obviously, if gracefully, and began to play with the poodle that had the Pullman permit. I happen to know that if there is any species of dog the doctor does not love it is a poodle, with or without a permit. The lady with three chins asked me if my husband were fond of dogs—I think she said, so fond as THAT. She glanced at the girl whom the poodle owned.
I don't know why it should be a surprise to me, but it was; that the chin lady and the poodle girl have both registered at “The Sphinx.”
Directly after luncheon, for I could not afford to lose a minute, I went to Mrs. Chataway's; the agreement being that the doctor should follow me in an absent-minded way a little later. But there was a blockade on the way, and I wasn't on time. What I took to be Mrs. Chataway herself admitted me with undisguised hesitation.
Miss Talbert, she said, was not at home; that is—no, she was not home. She explained that a great many people had been asking for Miss Talbert; there were two in the parlor now.
When I demanded, “Two what?” she replied, in a breathless tone, “Two gentlemen,” and ushered me into that old-fashioned architectural effort known to early New York as a front and back parlor.
One of the gentlemen, as I expected, proved to be Dr. Denbigh. The other was flatly and unmistakably Charles Edward. The doctor offered to excuse himself, but I took Charles Edward into the back parlor, and I made so bold as to draw the folding-doors. I felt that the occasion justified worse than this.
The colloquy between myself and Charles Edward was brief and pointed. He began by saying, “YOU here! What a mess!—”
My conviction is that he saved himself just in time from Messymaria.
“Have you found him?” I propounded.
“Haven't seen him?”
“I didn't say I hadn't seen him.”
“What did he say?” I insisted.
“Not very much. It was in the Park.”
“In the PARK? Not very MUCH? How could you let him go?”
“I didn't let him go,” drawled Charles Edward. “He invited me to dinner. A man can't ask a fellow what his intentions are to a man's sister in a park. I hadn't said very much up to that point; he did most of the talking. I thought I would put it off till we got round to the cigars.”
“Then?” I cried, impatiently, “and then?”
“You see,” reluctantly admitted Charles Edward, “there wasn't any then. I didn't dine with him, after all. I couldn't find it—”
“Couldn't find what?”
“Couldn't find the hotel,” said Charles Edward, defiantly. “I lost the address. Couldn't even say that it was a hotel. I believe it was a club. He seems to be a sort of a swell—for a coeducational professor—anyhow, I lost the address; and that is the long and short of it.”
“If it had been a studio or a Bohemian cafe—” I began.
“I should undoubtedly have remembered it,” admitted Charles Edward, in his languid way.
“You have lost him,” I replied, frostily. “You have lost Harry Goward, and you come here—”
“On the same errand, I presume, my distressed and distressing sister, that has brought you. Have you seen her?” he demanded, with sudden, uncharacteristic shrewdness.
At this moment a portiere opened at the side of my back parlor, and Mrs. Chataway, voluminously appearing, mysteriously beckoned me. I followed her into the dreariest hall I think I ever saw even in a New York boarding-house. There the landlady frankly told me that Miss Talbert wasn't out. She was in her room packing to make one of her visits. Miss Talbert had given orders that she was to be denied to gentlemen friends.
No, she never said anything about ladies. (This I thought highly probable.) But if I were anything to her and chose to take the responsibility—I chose and I did. In five minutes I was in Aunt Elizabeth's room, and had turned the key upon an interview which was briefer but more startling than I could possibly have anticipated.
Elizabeth Talbert is one of those women whose attraction increases with the negligee or the deshabille. She was so pretty in her pink kimono that she half disarmed me. She had been crying, and had a gentle look.
When I said, “Where is he?” and when she said, “If you mean Harry Goward—I don't know,” I was prepared to believe her without evidence. She looked too pretty to doubt. Besides, I cannot say that I have ever caught Aunt Elizabeth in a real fib. She may be a “charmian,” but I don't think she is a liar. Yet I pushed my case severely.
“If you and he hadn't taken that 5.40 train to New York—”
“We didn't take the 5.40 train,” retorted Elizabeth Talbert, hotly. “It took us. You don't suppose—but I suppose you do, and I suppose I know what the whole family supposes—As if I would do such a dastardly!—As if I didn't clear out on purpose to get away from him—to get out of the whole mix—As if I knew that young one would be aboard that train!”
“But he was aboard. You admit that.”
“Oh yes, he got aboard.”
“Made a pleasant travelling companion, Auntie?”
“I don't know,” said Aunt Elizabeth, shortly. “I didn't have ten words with him. I told him he had put me in a position I should never forgive. Then he told me I had put him in a worse. We quarrelled, and he went into the smoker. At the Grand Central he checked my suitcase and lifted his hat. He did ask if I were going to Mrs. Chataway's. I have never seen him since.”
“Aunt Elizabeth,” I said, sadly, “I am younger than you—”
“Not so very much!” retorted Aunt Elizabeth.
“—and I must speak to you with the respect due my father's sister when I say that the nobility of your conduct on this occasion—a nobility which you will pardon me for suggesting that I didn't altogether count on—is likely to prove the catastrophe of the situation.”
Aunt Elizabeth stared at me with her wet, coquettish eyes. “You're pretty hard on me, Maria,” she said; “you always were.”
“Hurry and dress,” I suggested, soothingly; “there are two gentlemen to see you downstairs.”
Aunt Elizabeth shook her head. She asserted with evident sincerity that she didn't wish to see any gentlemen; she didn't care to see any gentlemen under any circumstances; she never meant to have anything to do with gentlemen again. She said something about becoming a deaconess in the Episcopal Church; she spoke of the attractions in the life of a trained nurse; mentioned settlement work; and asked me what I thought of Elizabeth Frye, Dorothea Dix, and Clara Barton.
“This is one advantage that Catholics have over us,” she observed, dreamily: “one could go into a nunnery; then one would be quite sure there would be no men to let loose the consequences of their natures and conduct upon a woman's whole existence.”
“These two downstairs have waited a good while,” I returned, carelessly. “One of them is a married man and is used to it. But the other is not.”
“Very well,” said Aunt Elizabeth, with what (it occurred to me) was a smile of forced dejection. “To please you, Maria, I will go down.”
If Aunt Elizabeth's dejection were assumed, mine was not. I have been in the lowest possible spirits since my unlucky discovery. Anything and everything had occurred to me except that she and that boy could quarrel. I had fancied him shadowing Mrs. Chataway for the slightest sign of his charmer. I don't know that I should have been surprised to see him curled up, like a dog, asleep on the door-steps. At the present moment I have no more means of finding the wetched lad than I had in Eastridge; not so much, for doubtless Peggy has his prehistoric addresses. I am very unhappy. I have not had the heart left in me to admire Dr. Denbigh, who has filled his role brilliantly all the afternoon. In half an hour he and Aunt Elizabeth had philandered as deep as a six months' flirtation; and I must say that they have kept at it with an art amounting almost to sincerity. Aunt Elizabeth did not once mention settlement work, and put no inquiries to Dr. Denbigh about Elizabeth Frye, Dorothea Dix, or Clara Barton.
I think he took her to the Metropolitan Museum; I know he invited her to the theatre; and there is some sort of an appointment for to-morrow morning, I forget what. But my marked success at this end of the stage only adds poignancy to my sense of defeat at the other.
I am very homesick. I wish I could see Tom. I do hope Tom found my message about Dr. Denbigh.
Twenty-four hours later.—The breeze of yesterday has spun into a whirlwind to-day. I am half stunned by the possibilities of human existence. One lives the simple life at Eastridge; and New York strikes me on the head like some heavy thing blown down. If these are the results of the very little love-affair of one very little girl—what must the great emotion, the real experience, the vigorous crisis, bring?
At “The Sphinx,” as is well known, no male being is admitted on any pretence. I believe the porter (for heavy trunks) is the only exception. The bell-boys are bell-girls. The clerk is a matron, and the proprietress a widow in half-mourning.
At nine o'clock this morning I was peremptorily summoned out of the breakfast-room and ordered to the desk. Two frowning faces received me. With cold politeness I was reminded of the leading clause in the constitution of that house.
“Positively,” observed the clerk, “no gentlemen callers are permitted at this hotel, and, madam, there are two on the door-steps who insist upon an interview with you; they have been there half an hour. One of them refuses to recognize the rule of the house. He insists upon an immediate suspension of it. I regret to tell you that he went so far as to mention that he would have a conversation with you if it took a search-warrant to get it.”
“He says,” interrupted the proprietress in half-mourning, “that he is your husband.”
She spoke quite distinctly, and as these dreadful words re-echoed through the lobby, I saw that two ladies had come out from the reception-room and were drinking the scene down. One of these was the fat lady with the three chins; the other was the poodle girl. She held him, at that unpleasant moment, by a lavender ribbon leash. It seems she gets a permit for him everywhere.
And he is the wrong sex, I am sure, to obtain any privileges at “The Sphinx.”
The mosaic of that beautiful lobby did not open and swallow me down as I tottered across it to the vestibule. A strapping door-girl guarded the entrance. Grouped upon the long flight of marble steps two men impatiently awaited me. The one with the twitching mustache was Dr. Denbigh. But he, oh, he with the lightning in his eyes, he was my husband, Thomas Price.
“Maria,” he began, with ominous composure, “if you have any explanations to offer of these extraordinary circumstances—” Then the torrent burst forth. Every expletive familiar to the wives of good North-American husbands broke from Tom's unleashed lips. “I didn't hear of it till afternoon. I took the midnight express. Billy told Matilda he saw you get aboard the 7.20 train It's all over Eastridge. We have been married thirteen years, Maria, and I have always had occasion to trust your judgment and good sense till now.”
“That is precisely what I told her,” ventured Dr. Denbigh.
“As for you, sir!” Tom Price turned, towering. “It is fortunate for YOU that I find my wife in this darned shebang.—Any female policeman behind that door-girl? Doctor? Why, Doctor! Say, DOCTOR! Dr. Denbigh! What in thunder are you laughing at?”
The doctor's sense of humor (a quality for which I must admit my dear husband is not so distinguished as he is for some more important traits) had got the better of him. He put his hands in his pockets, threw back his handsome head, and then and there, in that sacred feminine vestibule, he laughed as no woman could laugh if she tried.
In the teeth of the door-girl, the clerk, and the proprietress, in the face of the chin lady and the poodle girl, I ran straight to Tom and put my arms around his neck. At first I was afraid he was going to push me off, but he thought better of it. Then I cried out upon him as a woman will when she has had a good scare. “Oh, Tom! Tom! Tom! You dear old precious Tom! I told you all about it. I wrote you a note about Dr. Denbigh and—and everything. You don't mean to say you never found it?”
“Where the deuce did you leave it?” demanded Thomas Price.
“Why, I stuck it on your pin-cushion! I pinned it there. I pinned it down with two safety-pins. I was very particular to.”
“PIN-CUSHION!” exploded Tom. “A message—an important message—to a MAN—on a PIN-cushion!”
Then, with that admirable self-possession which has been the secret of Tom Price's success in life, he immediately recovered himself. “Next time, Maria,” he observed, with pitying gentleness, “pin it on the hen-coop. Or, paste it on the haymow with the mucilage-brush. Or, fasten it to the watering-trough in the square—anywhere I might run across it.—Doctor! I beg your pardon, old fellow.—Now madam, if you are allowed by law to get out of this blasted house I can't get into, I will pay your bill, Maria, and take you to a respectable hotel. What's that one we used to go to when we ran down to see Irving? I can't think—-Oh yes—'The Holy Family.'”
“Don't be blasphemous, Price, whatever else you are!” admonished the doctor. He was choking with laughter.
“Perhaps it was 'The Whole Family,' Tom?” I suggested, meekly.
“Come to think of it,” admitted Tom, “it must have been 'The Happy Family.' Get your things on, Mysie, and we'll get out of this inhuman place.”
I held my head as high as I could when I came back through the lobby, with a stout chambermaid carrying my suit-case. The clerk sniffed audibly; the proprietress met me with a granite eye; the lady with the three chins muttered something which I am convinced it would not have added to my personal happiness to hear; but I thought the girl with the lavender poodle watched me a little wistfully as I whirled away upon my husband's big forgiving arm.
The doctor, who had really laughed until he cried, followed, wiping his merry eyes. These glistened when on the sidewalk directly opposite the hotel entrance we met Elizabeth Talbert, who had arranged, but in the agitation of the morning I had entirely forgotten it, to come to see me at that very hour.
So we fell into line, the doctor and Aunt Elizabeth, my husband and I, on our way to take the cars for “The Happy Family,” when suddenly Tom clapped his hands to his pockets and announced that he had forgotten—he must send a telegram. Coming away in such a hurry, he must telegraph to the Works. Tom is an incurable telegrapher (I have long cherished the conviction that he is the main support of the Western Union Telegraph Company), and we all followed him to the nearest office where he could get a wire.
Some one was before him at the window, a person holding a hesitant pencil above a yellow blank. I believe I am not without self-possession myself, partly natural, and partly acquired by living so long with Tom; but it took all I ever had not to utter a womanish cry when the young man turned his face and I saw that it was Harry Goward.
The boy's glance swept us all in. When it reached Aunt Elizabeth and Dr. Denbigh he paled, whether with relief or regret I had my doubts at that moment, and I have them still. An emotion of some species possessed him so that he could not for the moment speak. Aunt Elizabeth was the first to recover herself.
“Ah?” she cooed. “What a happy accident! Mr. Goward, allow me to present you to my friend Dr. Denbigh.”
The doctor bowed with a portentous gravity. It was almost the equal of Harry's own.
After this satisfactory incident everybody fell back instinctively and gave the command of the expedition to me. The boy anxiously yielded his place at the telegraph window to Tom; in fact, I took the pains to notice that Harry's telegram was not sent, or was deferred to a more convenient season. I invited him to run over to “The Happy Family” with us, and we all fell into rank again on the sidewalk, the boy not without embarrassment. Of this I made it my first duty to relieve him. We chatted of the weather and the theatre and hotels. When we had walked a short distance, we met Charles Edward dawdling along over to “The Sphinx” (however reluctantly) to call upon his precious elder sister. So we paired off naturally: Aunt Elizabeth and the doctor in front, Goward and I behind them, and Tom and Charles Edward bringing up the rear.
My heart dropped when I saw what a family party air we had. I felt it to my finger-tips, and I could see that the lad writhed under it. His expression changed from misery to mutiny. I should not have been surprised if he had made one plunge into the roaring current of Broadway and sunk from sight forever. The thing that troubled me most was the poor taste of it: as if the whole family had congregated in the metropolis to capture that unhappy boy. For the first time I began to feel some sympathy for him.
“Mr. Goward,” I said, abruptly, in a voice too low even for Aunt Elizabeth to hear, “nobody wishes to make you uncomfortable. We are not here for any such purpose. I have something in my pocket to show you; that is all. It will interest you, I am sure. As soon as we get to the hotel, if you don't mind, I will tell you about it—or, in fact, will give it to you. Count the rest out. They are not in the secret.”
“I feel like a convict arrested by plainclothes men,” complained Harry, glancing before and behind.
“You won't,” I said, “when you have talked to me five minutes.”
“Sha'n't I?” he asked, dully. He said nothing more, and we pursued our way to the hotel in silence. Elizabeth Talbert and Dr. Denbigh talked enough to make up for us.
Aunt Elizabeth made herself so charming, so acutely charming, that I heard the boy draw one quick, sharp breath. But his eyes followed her more sullenly than tenderly, and when she clung to the doctor's arm upon a muddy crossing the young man turned to me with a sad, whimsical smile.
“It doesn't seem to make much difference—does it, Mrs. Price? She treats us all alike.”
There is the prettiest little writing-room in “The Happy Family,” all blue and mahogany and quiet. This place was deserted, and thither I betook myself with Harry Goward, and there he began as soon as we were alone:
“Well, what is it, Mrs. Price?”
“Nothing but this,” I said, gently enough. “I have taken it upon myself to solve a mystery that has caused a good deal of confusion in our family.”
Without warning I took the muddy letter from my pocket, and slid it under his eyes upon the big blue blotter.
“I don't wish to be intrusive or strenuous,” I pleaded, “none of us wishes to be that. Nobody is here to call you to account, Mr. Goward, but you see this letter. It was received at our house in the condition in which you find it. Would you be so kind as to supply the missing address? That is all I want of you.”
The boy's complexion ran through the palette, and subsided from a dull Indian-red to a sickly Nile-green. “Hasn't she ever read it?” he demanded.
“Nobody has ever read it,” I said. “Naturally—since it is not addressed. This letter went fishing with Billy.”
The young man took the letter and examined it in trembling silence.
Perhaps if Fate ever broke him on her wheel it was at that moment. His destiny was still in his own hands, and so was the letter. Unaddressed, it was his personal property. He could retain it if he chose, and the family mystery would darken into deeper gloom than ever. I felt my comfortable, commonplace heart beat rapidly.
Our silence had passed the point of discomfort, and was fast reaching that of anguish, when the boy lifted his head manfully, dipped one of “The Happy Family's” new pens into a stately ink-bottle, and rapidly filled in the missing address upon the unfortunate letter. He handed it to me without a word. My eyes blurred when I read:
“Personal. Miss Peggy Talbert, Eastridge. (Kindness of Miss Alice Talbert.)”
“What shall I do with it?” I asked, controlling my agitation.
“Deliver it to her, if you please, as quickly as possible. I thought of everything else. I never thought of this.”
“Never thought of—”
“That she might not have got it.”
“Now then, Mr. Goward,” I ventured, still speaking very gently, “do you mind telling me what you took that 5.40 train for?”
“Why, because I didn't get an answer from the letter!” exclaimed Harry, raising his voice for the first time. “A man doesn't write a letter such as that more than once in a lifetime. It was a very important letter. I told her everything. I explained everything. I felt I ought to have a hearing. If she wanted to throw me over (I don't deny she had the right to) I would rather she had taken some other way than—than to ignore such a letter. I waited for an answer to that letter until quarter-past five. I just caught the 5.40 train and went to my aunt's house, the one—you know my uncle died the other day—I have been there ever since. By-the-way, Mrs. Price, if anything else comes up, and if you have any messages for me, I shall be greatly obliged if you will take my address.”
He handed me his card with an up-town street and number, and I snapped it into the inner pocket of my wallet.
“Do you think,” demanded Harry Goward, outright, “that she will ever forgive me, REALLY forgive me?”
“That is for you to find out,” I answered, smiling comfortably; for I could not possibly have Harry think that any of us—even an unpopular elder sister—could be there to fling Peggy at the young man's head. “That is between you and Peggy.”
“When shall you get home with that letter?” demanded Harry.
“Ask my husband. At a guess, I should say tomorrow.”
“Perhaps I had better wait until she has read the letter,” mused the boy. “Don't you think so, Mrs. Price?”
“I don't think anything about it. I will not take any responsibility about it. I have got the letter officially addressed, and there my errand ends.”
“You see, I want to do the best thing,” urged Harry Goward. “And so much has happened since I wrote that letter—and when you come to think that she has never read it—”
“I will mail it to her,” I said, suddenly. “I will enclose it with a line and get it off by special delivery this noon.”
“It might not reach her,” suggested Harry, pessimistically. “Everything seems to go wrong in this affair.”
“Would you prefer to send it yourself?” I asked.
Harry Goward shook his head.
“I would rather wait till she has read it. I feel, under the circumstances, that I owe that to her.”
Now, at that critical moment, a wide figure darkened the entrance of the writing-room, and, plumping down solidly at another table, spread out a fat, ring-laden hand and began to write a laborious letter. It was the lady with the three chins. But the girl with the poodle did not put in an appearance. I learned afterward that the dog rule of “The Happy Family” admitted of no permits.
Harry Goward and I parted abruptly but pleasantly, and he earnestly requested the privilege of being permitted to call upon me to-morrow morning.
I mailed the letter to Peggy by special delivery, and just now I asked Tom if he didn't think it was wise.
“I can tell you better, my dear, day after tomorrow,” he replied. And that was all I could get out of him.
“The Happy Family.”—It is day after tomorrow, and Tom and I are going to take the noon train home. Our purpose, or at least my purpose, to this effect has been confirmed, if not created, by the following circumstances:
Yesterday, a few hours after I had parted from Harry Goward in the blue writing-room of “The Happy Family,” Tom received from father a telegram which ran like this:
“Off for Washington—that Gooch business. Shall take Peggy. Child needs change. Will stop over from Colonial Express and lunch Happy Family. Explicitly request no outsider present. Can't have appearance of false position. Shall take her directly out of New York, after luncheon. Cyrus Talbert.”
Torn between filial duty and sisterly affection, I sat twirling this telegram between my troubled fingers. Tom had dashed it there and blown off somewhere, leaving me, as he usually does, to make my own decisions. Should I tell Harry? Should I not tell Harry? Was it my right? Was it not his due? I vibrated between these inexorable questions, but, like the pendulum I was, I struck no answer anywhere. I had half made up my mind to let matters take their own course. If Goward should happen to call on me when Peggy, flying through New York beneath her father's stalwart wing, alighted for the instant at “The Happy Family”—was I to blame? Could I be held responsible? It struck me that I could not. On the other hand, father could not be more determined than I that Peggy should not be put into the apparent position of pursuing an irresolute, however repentant, lover.... I was still debating the question as conscientiously and philosophically as I knew how, when the bell-boy brought me a note despatched by a district messenger, and therefore constitutionally delayed upon the way.
The letter was from my little sister's fiance, and briefly said:
“My dear Mrs. Price,—I cannot tell you how I thank you for your sisterly sympathy and womanly good sense. You have cleared away a lot of fog out of my mind. I don't feel that I can wait an unnecessary hour before I see Peggy. I should like to be with her as soon as the letter is. If you will allow me to postpone my appointment with yourself, I shall start for Eastridge by the first train I can catch to-day.
“Henry T. Goward.”