On the sixteenth of June Mr. Rollin Billings entered his home at Westcote very much later than usual, and stealing upstairs, like a thief in the night, he undressed and dropped into bed. In two minutes he was asleep, and it was no wonder, for by that time it was five minutes after three in the morning, and Mr. Billings's usual bedtime was ten o'clock. Even when he was delayed at his office he made it an invariable rule to catch the nine o'clock train home.
When Mrs. Billings awoke the next--or, rather, that same--morning, she gazed a minute at the thin, innocent face of her husband, and was in the satisfied frame of mind that takes an unexpected train delay as a legitimate excuse, when she happened to cast her eyes upon Mr. Billings's coat, which was thrown carelessly over the foot of the bed. Protruding from one of the side pockets was a patent nursing-bottle, half full of milk. Instantly Mrs. Billings was out of bed and searching Mr. Billings's other pockets. To her horror her search was fruitful.
In a vest pocket she found three false curls, or puffs of hair, such as ladies are wearing to-day to increase the abundance of their own, and these curls were of a rich brownish red. Finally, when she dived into his trousers pocket, she found twelve acorns carefully wrapped in a lady's handkerchief, with the initials "T. M. C." embroidered in one corner.
All these Mrs. Billings hid carefully in her upper bureau drawer and proceeded to dress. When at length she awakened Mr. Billings, he yawned, stretched, and then, realizing that getting-up time had arrived, hopped briskly out of bed.
"You got in late last night," said Mrs. Billings pleasantly.
If she had expected Mr. Billings to cringe and cower she was mistaken. He continued to dress, quite in his usual manner, as if he had a clear conscience.
"Indeed I did, Mary," he said. "It was three when I entered the house, for the clock was just striking."
"Something must have delayed you," suggested Mrs. Billings.
"Otherwise, dear," said Mr. Billings, "I should have been home much sooner.
"Probably," said Mrs. Billings, suddenly assuming her most sarcastic tone, as she reached into her bureau drawer and drew out the patent nursing-bottle, "this had something to do with your being delayed!"
Mr. Billings looked at the nursing-bottle, and then he drew out his watch and looked at that.
"My dear," he said, "you are right. It did. But I now have just time to gulp down my coffee and catch my train. To-night, when I return from town, I will tell you the most remarkable story of that nursing-bottle, and how it happened to be in my pocket, and in the mean time I beg you--I most sincerely beg you--to feel no uneasiness."
With this he hurried out of the room, and a few moments later his wife saw him running for his train.
All day Mrs. Billings was prey to the most disturbing thoughts, and as soon as dinner was finished that evening she led the way into the library.
"Now, Rollin?" she said, and without hesitation Mr. Billings began.
I. THE PATENT NURSING-BOTTLE
You have (he said), I know, met Lemuel, the coloured elevator boy in our office building, and you know what a pleasant, accommodating lad he is. He is the sort of boy for whom one would gladly do a favour, for he is always so willing to do favours for others, but I was thinking nothing of this when I stepped from my office at exactly five o'clock yesterday evening. I was thinking of nothing but getting home to dinner as soon as possible, and was just stepping into the elevator when Lemuel laid his hand gently on my arm.
"I beg yo' pahdon, Mistah Billings," he said politely, "but would yo' do me a favour?"
"Certainly, Lemuel," I said; "how much can I lend you?"
"'Tain't that, sah," he said. "I wish t' have a word or two in private with yo'. Would yo' mind steppin' back into yo' office until I git these folks out of th' buildin', so's I can speak to yo'?"
I knew I had still half an hour before my six-two train, and I was not unwilling to do Lemuel a favour, so I went back to my office as he desired, and waited there until he appeared, which was not until he had taken all the tenants down in his elevator. Then he opened the door and came in. With him was the young man I had often seen in the office next to mine, as I passed, and a young woman on whom I had never set my eyes before. No sooner had they opened the door than the young man began to speak, and Lemuel stood unobtrusively to one side.
"Mr. Billings," said the young man, "you may think it strange that I should come to you in this way when you and I are hardly acquaintances, but I have often observed you passing my door, and have noted your kind-looking face, and the moment I found this trouble upon me I instantly thought of you as the one man who would be likely to help me out of my difficulty."
While he said this I had time to study his face, and also to glance at the young woman, and I saw that he must, indeed, be in great trouble. I also saw that the young woman was pretty and modest and that she, also, was in great distress. I at once agreed to help him, provided I should not be made to miss the six-thirty train, for I saw I was already too late for the six-two.
"Good!" he cried. "For several years Madge--who is this young lady--and I have been in love, and we wish to be married this evening, but her father and my father are waiting at the foot of the elevator at this minute, and they have been waiting there all day. There is no other way for us to leave the building, for the foot of the stairs is also the foot of the elevator, and, in fact, when I last peeped, Madge's father was sitting on the bottom step. It is now exactly fifteen minutes of six, and at six o'clock they mean to come up and tear Madge and me away, and have us married."
"To--" I began.
"To each other," said the young man with emotion.
"But I thought that was what you wanted?" I exclaimed.
"Not at all! Not at all!" said the young man, and the young woman added her voice in protest, too. "I am the head of the Statistical Department of the Society for the Obtaining of a Uniform National Divorce Law, and the work in that department has convinced me beyond a doubt that forced marriages always end unhappily. In eighty-seven thousand six hundred and four cases of forced marriages that I have tabulated I have found that eighty-seven thousand six hundred and three have been unhappy. In the face of such statistics Madge and I dare not allow ourselves to be married against our wills. We insist on marrying voluntarily."
"That could be easily arranged," I ventured to say, "in view of the fact that both your fathers wish you to be married."
"Not at all," said Madge, with more independence than I had thought her capable of; "because my father and Henry's father are gentlemen of the old school. I would not say anything against either father, for in ordinary affairs I they are two most suave and charming old gentlemen, but in this they hold to the old-school idea that children should allow their parents to select their life-partners, and they insist that Henry and I allow ourselves to be forced to marry each other. And that, in spite of the statistics Henry has shown them. Our whole happiness depends on our getting out of this building before they can come up and get us. That is why we appeal to you."
"If you still hesitate, after what Madge has said," said Henry, pulling a large roll of paper out of his pocket, "here are the statistics."
"Very well," I said, "I will help you, if I can do so and not miss the six-thirty train. What is your plan?"
"It is very simple," said Henry. "Our fathers are both quite near-sighted, and as six o'clock draws near they will naturally become greatly excited and nervous, and, therefore, less observant of small things. I have brought with me some burnt cork with which I will blacken my face, and I will change clothes with Lemuel, and, in the one moment necessary to escape, my father will not recognize me. Lemuel, on the other hand, will whiten his face with some powder that Madge has brought, and will wear my clothes, and in the excitement my father will seize him instead of me."
"Excellent," I said, "but what part do I play in this?"
"This part," said Henry, "you will wear, over your street clothes, a gown that Madge has brought in her suit-case and a hat that she has also brought, both of which her father will easily recognize, while Madge will redden her face with rouge, muss her hair, don a torn, calico dress, and with a scrub-rag and a mop in her hands easily pass for a scrub-woman.
"And then?" I asked.
"Then you and Lemuel will steal cautiously down the stairs, as if you were Madge and I seeking to escape, while Madge and I, as Lemuel and the scrub-woman, will go down by the elevator. My father and Madge's father will seize you and Lemuel--"
"And I shall appear like a fool when they discover I am a respectable business man rigged up in woman's clothes," I said.
"Not at all," said Madge, "for Henry and I have thought of that. You must play your part until you see that henry and I have escaped from the elevator and have left the building, and that is all. I have had the forethought to prepare an alibi for you. As soon as you see that Henry and I are safe outside the building, you must become very indignant, and insist that you are a respectable married woman, and in proof you must hand my father the contents of this package. He will be convinced immediately and let you go, and then Lemuel can run you up to your office and you can take off my dress and hat and catch the six-thirty train without trouble." She then handed me a small parcel, which I slipped into my coat pocket.
When this had been agreed upon she and Henry left the office and I took the hat and dress from the suit-case and put them on, while Lemuel put on Henry's suit and whitened his face. This took but a few minutes, and we went into the hall and found Henry and Madge already waiting for us. Henry was blackened into a good likeness of Lemuel, and Madge was quite a mussy scrub-woman. They immediately entered the elevator and began to descend slowly, while Lemuel and I crept down the stairs.
Lemuel and I kept as nearly as possible opposite the elevator, so that we might arrive at the foot of the stairs but a moment before Madge and Henry, and we could hear the two fathers shuffling on the street floor, when suddenly, as we reached the third floor, we heard a whisper from Henry in the elevator. The elevator had stuck fast between the third and fourth floors. As with one mind, Lemuel and I seated ourselves on a step and waited until Henry should get the elevator running again and could proceed to the street floor.
For a while we could hear no noise but the grating of metal on metal as Henry worked with the starting lever of the elevator, and then we heard the two voices of the fathers.
"It is a ruse," said one father. "They are pretending the elevator is stuck, and when we grow impatient and start up the stairs they will come down with a rush and escape us."
"But we are not so silly as that," said the other father. "We will stay right here and wait until they come down."
At that Lemuel and I settled ourselves more comfortably, for there was nothing else to do. I cursed inwardly as I felt the minutes slip by and knew that half-past six had come and gone, but I was sure you would not like to have me desert those two poor lovers who were fighting to ward off the statistics, so I sat still and silent. So did Lemuel.
I do not know how long I sat there, for it was already dark in the narrow stairway, but it must have been a long time. I drowsed off, and I was finally awakened by Lemuel tugging at my sleeve, and I knew that Henry had managed to start the elevator again. Lemuel and I hastened our steps, and just as the elevator was coming into sight below the second floor we were seen by the two fathers. For an instant they hesitated, and then they seized us. At the same time the elevator door opened and Henry and Madge came out, and the two fathers hardly glanced at them as they went out of the door into the street.
As soon as I saw that they were safe I feigned great indignation, and so did Lemuel.
"Unhand me, sir!" I cried. "Who do you think I am? I am a respectable married lady, leaving the building with her husband. Unhand me!"
Instead of doing so, however, the father that had me by the arm drew me nearer to the hall light. As he did so he stared closely at my face.
"Morgan," he said to the other father, "this is not my daughter. My daughter did not have a moustache."
"Indeed, I am not your daughter," I said; "I am a respectable married lady, and here is the proof."
With that I reached for the package Madge had given me, but it was in my coat-pocket, underneath the dress I had on, and it was only with great difficulty and by raising one side of the skirt that I was able to get it. I unwrapped it and showed it to the father that had me by the arm. It was the patent nursing-bottle.
When Mr. Billings had finished his relation his wife sat for a moment in silence. Then she said:
"And he let you go?"
"Yes, of course," said Mr. Billings; "he could not hold me after such proof as that, and Lemuel ran me up to my office, where I changed my hat and took off the dress. I knew it was late, and I did not know what train I could catch, but I made haste, and, on the way down in the elevator, I felt in my pocket to see if I had my commutation ticket, when my hand struck the patent nursing-bottle. My first impulse was to drop it in the car, but on second thought I decided to keep it, for I knew that when you saw it and heard the story you would understand perfectly why I was detained last night."
"Yes?" said Mrs. Billings questioningly. "But, my dear, all that does not account for these."
As she said that she drew from her workbasket the three auburn-red curls.
"Oh, those!" said Mr. Billings, after a momentary hesitation. "I was about to tell you about those."
"Do so!" said Mrs. Billings coldly. "I am listening."
II. THE THREE AUBURN-RED CURLS
When I went down in the elevator (said Mr. Billings) with the nursing-bottle in my pocket, I had no thought but to get to the train as soon as possible, for I saw by the clock in my office that I had just time to catch the eleven-nine if I should not be delayed. Therefore, as soon as I was outside the building I started to run, but when I reached the corner and was just about to step on a passing street-car a hand was laid on my arm, and I turned to see who was seeking to detain me. It was a woman in the most pitiable rags, and on her arm she carried a baby so thin and pale that I could scarcely believe it lived.
One glance at the child showed me that it was on the verge of death by starvation, and this was confirmed by the moans of the mother, who begged me for humanity's sake to give her money with which to provide food for the child, even though I let her, herself, starve. You know, my dear, you never allow me to give money to street beggars, and I remembered this, but at the same time I remembered the patent nursing-bottle I still carried in my pocket.
Without hesitation I drew the patent nursing-bottle from my pocket and told the mother to allow the infant to have a sufficient quantity of milk it contained to sustain the child's life until she could procure other alms or other aid. With a cry of joy the mother took the nursing-bottle and pressed it to the poor baby's lips, and it was with great pleasure I saw the rosy colour return to the child's cheeks. The sadness of despair that had shadowed the mother's face also fled, and I could see that already she was looking on life with a more optimistic view.
I verily believe the child could have absorbed the entire contents of the bottle, but I had impressed upon the mother that she was to give the child only sufficient to sustain life, not to suffice it until it was grown to manhood or womanhood, and when the bottle was half-emptied the mother returned it to me. How much time all this occupied I do not know, but the child took the milk with extreme slowness. I may say that it took the milk drop by drop. A great deal of time must have elapsed.
But when the mother had returned the patent nursing-bottle to me and saw how impatient I was to be gone, she still retained her hold upon my arm.
"Sir," she said, "you have undoubtedly saved the life of my child, and I only regret that I cannot repay you for all it means to me. But I cannot. Stay!" she cried, when I was about to pull my arm away. "Has your wife auburn-red hair?"
"No," I said, "she has not, her hair is a most beautiful black."
"No matter," said the poor woman, putting her hand to her head. "Some day she may wish to change the colour of her hair to auburn-red, which is easily done with a little bleach and a little dye, and should she do so these may come handy;" and with that she slipped something soft and fluffy into my hand and fled into the night. When I looked, I saw in my hand the very curls you hold there. My first impulse was to drop them in the street, but I remembered that the poor woman had not given them to me, but to you, and that it was my duty to bring them home to you, so I slipped them into my pocket.
When Mr. Billings had ended this recital of what had happened to him his wife said:
At the same time she tossed the curls into the grate, where they shrivelled up, burst into blue smoke, and shortly disappeared in ashes.
"That is a very likely story," she said, "but it does not explain how this came to be in your pocket."
Saying this she drew from her basket the handkerchief and handed it to Mr. Billings.
"Hah!" he exclaimed. For a moment he turned the rolled-up handkerchief over and over, and then he cautiously opened it. At the sight of the twelve acorns he seemed somewhat surprised, and when the initials "T. M. C." on the corner of the handkerchief caught his eye he blushed.
"You are blushing--you are disturbed," said Mrs. Billings severely.
"I am," said Mr. Billings, suddenly recovering himself; "and no wonder."
"And no wonder, indeed!" said Mrs Billings. "Perhaps, then, you can tell me how those acorns and that handkerchief came to be in your pocket."
"I can," said Mr. Billings, "and I will."
"You had better," said Mrs. Billings.
III. THE TWELVE ACORNS AND THE LADY'S HANDKERCHIEF
You may have noticed, my dear (said Mr. Billings), that the initials on that handkerchief are "T. M. C.," and I wish you to keep that in mind, for it has a great deal to do with this story. Had they been anything else that handkerchief would not have found its way into my pocket; and when you see how those acorns and that handkerchief, and the half-filled nursing-bottle and the auburn-red curls all combined to keep me out of my home until the unearthly hour of three A. M., you will forget the unjust suspicions which I too sadly fear you now hold against me, and you will admit that a half-filled patent nursing-bottle, a trio of curls, a lady's handkerchief and twelve acorns were the most natural things in the world to find in my pockets.
When I had left the poor woman with her no-longer-starving baby I hurriedly glanced into a store window, and by the clock there saw it was twenty minutes of one and that I had exactly time to catch the one o'clock train, which is the last train that runs to Westcote. I glanced up and down the street, but not a car was in sight, and I knew I could not afford to wait long if I wished to catch that train. There was but one thing to do, and that was to take a cab, and, as luck would have it, at that moment an automobile cab came rapidly around the corner. I raised my voice and my arm, and the driver saw or heard me, for he made a quick turn in the street and drew up at the curb beside me. I hastily gave him the directions, jumped in and slammed the door shut, and the auto-cab immediately started forward at what seemed to me unsafe speed.
We had not gone far when something in the fore part of the automobile began to thump in a most alarming manner, and the driver slackened his speed, drew up to the curb and stopped. He opened the door and put his head in.
"Something's gone wrong," he said, "but don't you worry. I'll have it fixed in no time, and then I can put on more speed and I'll get you there in just the same time as if nothing had happened."
When he said this I was perfectly satisfied, for he was a nice-looking man, and I lay back, for I was quite tired out, it was so long past my usual bedtime; and the driver went to work, doing things I could not understand to the fore part of the automobile, where the machinery is. I remember thinking that the cushions of this automobile were unusually soft, and then I must have dozed off, and when I opened my eyes I did not know how much time had elapsed, but the driver was still at work and I could hear him swearing. He seemed to be having a great deal of trouble, so I got out of the automobile, intending to tell him that perhaps I had better try to get a car, after all. But his actions when he saw me were most unexpected. He waved the wrench he held in his hand, and ordered me to get back into the automobile, and I did. I supposed he was afraid he would lose his fare and tip, but in a few minutes he opened the door again and spoke to me.
"Now, sport," he said, "there ain't no use thinkin' about gettin' that train, because it's gone, and I may as well say now that you've got to come with me, unless you want me to smash your head in. The fact is, this ain't no public automobile, and I hadn't no right to take you for a passenger. This automobile belongs to a lady and I'm her hired chauffeur, and she's at a bridge-whist party in a house on Fifth Avenue, and I'm supposed to be waiting outside that house. One-fifteen o'clock was the time she said she would be out. But I thought maybe I might make a dollar or two for myself instead of waiting there all that time, and she would never know it. And now it is nearly two o'clock, and if I go back alone she will be raving mad, and I'll get my discharge and no references, and my poor wife and six children will have to starve. So you will have to go with me and explain how it was that I wasn't there at one-fifteen o'clock."
"My friend," I said, "I am sorry for you, but I do not see how it would help you, should I refuse to go and you should, as you say, smash my head in."
"Don't you worry none about that," he said. "If I smashed your head in, as I could do easy enough with this wrench, I'd take what was left of you up some dark street, and lay you on the pavement and run the machine across you once or twice, and then take you to a hospital, and that would be excuse enough. You'd be another 'Killed by an Automobile,' and I'd be the hero that picked you up and took you to the hospital."
"Well," I said, "under the circumstances I shall go with you, not because you threaten me, but because your poor wife and six children are threatened with starvation."
"Good!" he said. "And now all you have to do is to think of what the excuse you will give my lady boss will be."
With that he lay back against the cushions and waited. He seemed to feel that the matter did not concern him any more, and that the rest of it lay with me.
"Go ahead!" I said to him. "I have no idea what I shall tell your mistress, but since I have lost the last train I must try to catch the two o'clock trolley car to Westeote, and I do not wish to spend any more time than necessary on this business. Make all the haste possible, and as we go I shall think what I will say when we get there."
The driver got out and took his seat and started the car. I was worried, indeed, my dear. I tried to think of something plausible to tell the young man's employer; something that would have an air of self-proof, when suddenly I remembered the half-filled nursing-bottle and the three auburn-red curls. Why should I not tell the lady that a poor mother, while proceeding down Fifth Avenue from her scrub-woman job, had been taken suddenly ill, and that I, being near, had insisted that this automobile help me convey the woman to her home, which we found, alas! to be in the farthest districts of Brooklyn? Then I would produce the three auburn-red curls and the half-filled nursing-bottle as having been left in the automobile by the woman, and this proof would suffice.
I had fully decided on this when the automobile stopped in front of a large house in Fifth Avenue, and I had time to tell the driver that I had thought of the proper thing to say, but that was all, for the waiting lady came down the steps in great anger, and was about to begin a good scolding, when she noticed me sitting in her automobile.
If she had been angry before she was now furious, and she was the kind of young woman who can be extremely furious when she tries. I think nothing in the world could have calmed her had she not caught sight of my face by the light of two strong lamps on a passing automobile. She saw in my face what you see there now, my dear--the benevolent, fatherly face of a settled-down, trustworthy, married man of past middle age--and as if by magic her anger fled and she burst into tears.
"Oh, sir!" she cried, "I do not know who you are, nor how you happen to be in my car, but at this moment I am homeless and friendless. I am alone in the world, and I need advice. Let me get into the car beside you--"
"Miss," I said, "I do not like to disoblige you, but I can never allow myself to be in an automobile at this time of night with a strange woman, unchaperoned."
These words seemed almost more than she could bear, and my heart was full of pity, but, just as I was about to spring from the automobile and rush away, I saw on the walk the poor woman to whose baby I had given the half of the contents of the patent nursing-bottle. I called her and made her get into the automobile, and then I let the young woman enter.
"Now," I said, "where to?"
"That," she said, "is what I do not know. When I left my home this evening I left it forever, and I left a note of farewell to my father, which he must have received and read by this time, and if I went back he would turn me from the door in anger, for he is a gentleman of the old school."
When I heard these words I was startled. "Can it be," I asked, "that you have a brother henry?"
"I have," she admitted; "Henry Corwin is his name." This was the name of the young man I had helped that very evening to marry Madge. I told her to proceed.
"My father," she said, "has been insisting that I marry a man I do not love, and things have come to such a point that I must either accede or take things into my own hands. I agreed to elope this evening with the man I love, for he had long wished me to elope with him. I was to meet him outside his house at exactly one-fifteen o'clock, and I told him that if I was not there promptly he might know I had changed my mind. When the time came for me to hasten to him in my automobile, which was then to hurry us to a waiting minister, my automobile was not here. Unfortunately I did not know my lover's address, for I had left it in the card pocket in this automobile. I knew not what to do. As the time passed and my automobile did not appear I knew that my lover had decided that I was not coming, and had gone away into his house. Now I cannot go home, for I have no home. I cannot so lower my pride as to ring the bell of his house and say I wish to be forgiven and married even yet. What shall I do?"
For answer I felt in the card pocket of the automobile and drew out the address of her lover, and without hesitation I gave the address to the chauffeur. In a few minutes we were there. Leaving the young woman in the car with the poor woman, I got out and surveyed the house. It was unpromising. Evidently all the family but the young man were away for the summer, and the doors and windows were all boarded up. There was not a bell to ring. I pounded on the boards that covered the door, but it was unavailing. The young woman called to me that the young man lived in the front room of the topmost floor, and could not hear me, and I glanced up and saw that one window alone of all those in the house was not boarded up. Instantly I hopped upon the seat beside the driver and said, "Central Park."
We dashed up Fifth Avenue and into the Park at full speed, and when we were what I considered far enough in I ordered him to stop, and hurrying up a low bank I began to grope among the leaves of last year under the trees. I was right. In a few minutes I had filled my pockets with acorns, was back in the car, and we were hurrying toward the house of the lover, when I saw standing on a corner a figure I instantly recognized as Lemuel, the elevator boy, and at the same time I remembered that Lemuel spent his holidays pitching for a ball nine, He was just the man I needed, and I stopped and made him get into the car. In a minute more we were before the house again, and I handed Lemuel a fistful of acorns. He drew back and threw them with all his strength toward the upper window.
My dear, will you believe it? Those acorns were wormy! They were light. They would not carry to the window, but scattered like bits of chips when they had travelled but half-way. I was upset, but Lemuel was not. He ordered the chauffeur to drive to lower Sixth Avenue with all speed, in order that he might get a baseball. With this he said he could hit any mark, and we had started in that direction when, passing a restaurant on Broadway, I saw emerge Henry and Madge.
"Better far," I said to myself, "put this young woman in charge of her brother and his new wife than leave her to elope alone," and I made the chauffeur draw up beside them. Hastily I explained the situation, and where we were going at that moment, and Henry and Madge laughed in unison.
"Madge," said Henry, "we had no trouble making wormy acorns travel through the air, had we?" And both laughed again. At this I made them get into the automobile, and while we returned to the lover's house I made them explain. It was very simple, and I had just tied a dozen acorns tightly in my handkerchief, making a ball to throw at the window, when the poor woman with the baby noticed that the window was partly open. I asked Lemuel if he could throw straight enough to throw the handkerchief-ball into the window, and he said he could, and took the handkerchief, but a brighter idea came to me, and I turned to the eloping young lady.
"Let me have your handkerchief, if it has your initials on it," I said; "for when he sees that fall into his room he will know you are here. He will not think you are forward, coming to him alone, for he will know you could never have thrown the handkerchief, even if loaded with acorns, to such a height. It will be your message to him."
At this, which I do pride myself was a suggestion worthy of myself, all were delighted, and while I modestly tied twelve acorns in the handkerchief on which were the initials "T. M. C.," all the others cheered. Even the woman from whom I had received the three auburn-red curls cheered, and the baby that was half-filled out of the patent nursing-bottle crowed with joy. But the chauffeur honked his honker. Lemuel took the handkerchief full of acorns in his hand and drew back his famous left arm, when suddenly Theodora Mitchell Corwin--for that was the eloping young lady's name--shrieked, and looking up we saw her lover at the window. He gave an answering yell and disappeared, and Lemuel let his left arm fall and handed me the handkerchief-ball.
In the excitement I dropped it into my pocket, and it was not until I was on the car for Westcote that I discovered it, and then, not wishing to be any later in getting home, I did not go back to give it to Theodora Mitchell Corwin; in fact, I did not know where she had eloped to. Nor could I give it to Madge or Henry, for they had gone on their wedding journey as soon as they saw Theodora and her lover safely eloped.
I had no right to give it to the poor woman with the baby, even if she had not immediately disappeared into her world of poverty, and it certainly did not belong to Lemuel, nor could I have given it to him, for he took the ten dollars the lover gave him and stayed out so late that he was late to work this morning and was discharged. He said he was going back to Texas. So I brought the handkerchief and the twelve acorns home, knowing you would be interested in hearing their story.
When Mr. Billings had thus finished his relation of the happenings of his long evening, Mrs. Billings was thoughtful for a minute. Then she said:
"But Rollin, when I spoke to you of the handkerchief and the twelve acorns you blushed, and said you had reason to blush. I see nothing in this kind action you did to cause a blush."
"I blushed," said Mr. Billings, "to think of the lie I was going to tell Theodora Merrill Corwin--"
"I thought you said her name was Theodora Mitchell Corwin," said Mrs. Billings.
"Mitchell or Merill," said Mr. Billings. "I cannot remember exactly which."
For several minutes Mrs. Billings was silent. Occasionally she would open her mouth as if to ask a question, but each time she closed it again without speaking. Mr. Billings sat regarding his wife with what, in a man of less clear conscience, might be called anxiety. At length Mrs. Billings put her sewing into her sewing-basket and arose.
"Rollin," she said, "I have enjoyed hearing you tell your experiences greatly. I can say but one thing: Never in your life have you deceived me. And you have not deceived me now."
For half an hour after this Mr. Billings sat alone, thinking.
Return to the Ellis Parker Butler library , or . . . Read the next short story; Pigs Is Pigs