It was Christmas time before Julia saw Doctor Studdiford again, and then it was but for a few minutes. Christmas Eve was wet and blowy out of doors, but the assembly hall of The Alexander looked warm and bright; there were painfully made garlands of green looped about the windows, bells of red paper hung from all the chandeliers, and on the stage an enormous Christmas tree glittered with colour and light. Six hundred people were crowded into the room, more than half of them children. Babies twisted and climbed on the laps of their radiant mothers, small girls and boys everywhere were restless with excitement and anticipation. Miss Toland only appeared at intervals, spending most of the afternoon with a few chosen guests in the reception hall, but Julia was everywhere at once. She wore a plain white linen gown, with a bit of holly in her hair and on her breast, and whether she was marshalling small girls into groups, stopping to admire a new baby, meeting the confectioner's men and their immense freezers at the draughty side door, talking shyly with the directors in Miss Toland's room, or consoling some weeping infant in the hall, she was followed by admiring eyes.
At three o'clock the general restlessness visibly increased, and the air in the hall, between steaming wet garments and perspiring humanity, became almost insufferable. Julia experimentally opened a door and let in a wet blast of air, but this was too drastic, and her eyes were brought back from a wistful study of the high windows by a voice that said:
"Merry Christmas! Give me a stick, and I'll do it for you!"
The girl found her hand in Doctor Studdiford's, and their eyes met.
"I didn't know you were here!" said Julia, in swift memory of their last meeting.
"Just come." He looked at her, all kindliness. "How goes it?"
"Finely," Julia answered. When he had opened a window, he followed her across the room. "I may stay near you, mayn't I?"
"I am just going to begin," Julia said, taking her place at the piano, and facing the room across the top of it. Her small person seemed suddenly fired with authority. She struck a full chord. "Children!" she said. "Children! Who is talking? Some one is still talking! Keep still, everybody, please! Keep still, every one.
"Now we are going to sing the 'Adeste'—four verses. And then we'll give out the presents. Listen, every one! We are going to sing the 'Adeste,' and then give out the presents. The presents, of course, go only to our own girls and boys, do you understand that? Listen, children, please!
"But we have a box of candy for every child here, whether that child comes to any of the classes or not! So don't go home without your candy. And don't come up for your present until you hear your name called, do you understand that? If I see any child coming up before Miss Pierce calls her name, I'll send her right back to her seat! Now, the 'Adeste,' please!"
Jim had listened in intense amusement. How positive she was and how authoritative! Her straight little back, her severe braids, her stern blue eyes roving the hall as she touched the familiar chords, were all so different from the vague young women who were Barbara's friends. She played a few wandering chords after the distribution of gifts began, watching the children file up the aisle, and listening, with only an occasional lifting of her blue eyes to his face, to Doctor Studdiford's smiling comments. Her heart was beating high under a flood of unsensed joy, she did not know why—but she was happy beyond all words.
"I'm afraid I'll have to go help Miss Pierce and Miss Furey, Doctor," she said presently, standing up. "Our Miss Scott, who got married two years ago, used to be a perfect wonder at times like this! Here, little girl, little girl! You don't come to the classes, do you? No? Well, then, go back to your seat and wait—you see!" She turned despairingly to Jim. "You see, they're simply making a mess of it!"
"I have to go, anyway," said Jim.
"Oh?" Julia turned surprised eyes toward him, and said the one thing she meant to avoid. "But Mrs. Toland and Miss Barbara are coming," she submitted.
"And what of it?" Jim said meaningly. It was his turn to say the awkward thing. "How are the nerves these days?" he asked quickly.
Colour flooded Julia's face.
"Much better, thank you! I gave the tonic up weeks ago. It was just nerves," explained Julia, "a sort of breakdown after we came back from Cloverdale! And I'm so much obliged to you!" she ended shyly.
"Oh, not at all, not at all!" Jim protested gruffly. An unmanageable silence hung between them for a few seconds; then Julia, with a murmured excuse, went to the extrication of Miss Pierce, now hopelessly involved in a surge of swarming children, and Jim went on his way. He carried with him a warm memory of the erect young figure in white, and the thick twisted braid, set against a background of Christmas green. For Julia the rest of the afternoon was enchanted; an enchantment subtly flavoured with the odour of evergreen, and pierced by rapturous voices, and by the glowing colours of the Christmas tree, and the slapping rain at the window.
She and Miss Toland sat down, exhausted and well satisfied, at seven o'clock, to a scrappy little supper in the littered dining-room: one director had left chocolates, another violets; a child's soiled hair ribbon, still tied, lay on the floor; the chairs were pushed about at all angles.
"Give me some more coffee, dear, and open that box of candy," said Miss Toland luxuriously. "We'll sleep late, and go to high mass at the Cathedral. Alice always has room in her pew. And then we might go over to Sausalito and say 'Merry Christmas.' They'll all be scattered; Jim tells me he and my brother have an operation at twelve, poor wretches! And I suppose Barbara and little Sally will be off somewhere. Sally always tries to keep them together for Christmas Eve, but in my opinion they're all bored by this tree and stocking business. But of course Ned and his extraordinary wife will be all over the place!"
"I've not been in Sausalito, except once, for eight years," Julia said reflectively.
"I know you've not. Well, we'll go to-morrow." Miss Toland reached for a cigarette; yawned as she lighted it. But Julia's heart began to beat fast in nervous anticipation.
Mrs. Toland received them very graciously the next day, and Julia was at once made to feel at home in the pretty house, which was littered charmingly to-day with all sorts of Christmas gifts, and bright with open fires. Barbara was there, and the crippled Richie, but Sally had gone to a Christmas concert with her devoted little squire, Keith Borroughs, and Mrs. Toland presently took Miss Sanna aside for a long, distressed confidence. Theodora, it seemed, had had a stormy argument with her father on the subject of her admirer, Robert Carleton, some days before, and yesterday had left, in defiance of all authority, to meet him for a walk, and lunch with him. She and her father had not spoken to each other since, and Ted was keeping her room. Julia met Ned's wife, a pretentious, complacent little gabbling village belle, and was dragged about by the younger sisters to look at everybody's presents.
"Must be a long time since we saw you here, Miss Page?" said the old doctor, smiling at her over his glasses, as he carved at luncheon.
"I was here two years ago, one afternoon," Julia smiled. "But I think I haven't seen you since 'The Amazons'—eight years ago!"
"Eight years!" Barbara said, struck. "Mother, do you realize that it is eight years since I was in that play with the Hazzards and Gray Babcock and the Grinells? Isn't that awful?" She fell into sombre thought.
Julia went through the day in a sort of deep study. This was the enchanted castle that had stood to her for so long as the unattainable height of dreams; these were the envied inhabitants of that castle. Everything was the same, except herself, yet how incredibly the change in her affected everything about her! She was at home here now, could answer the table pleasantries with her ready, grave smile, could feel that her interest in Constance and Jane was a pleasure to them, or could pick a book from the drawing-room table with the confidence that what she said of it would not be ridiculous. She could even feel herself happier than Barbara, who listened so closely to what Julia said of the settlement house, and sighed as she listened.
After luncheon Richie took her driving over cold country roads, behind a big-boned gray mare, and adored her, though she never dreamed it, because she neither offered to take the reins nor asked him at intervals if his back was tired. He was finishing work at the school of medicine now, and although he could never hope to be in regular practice, his thin, bony face was very bright as he outlined his plans. Julia listened to him sympathetically, and said good-bye to him at the boat with a sense of genuine liking on both sides. Miss Toland was waiting for her on the upper deck, her long nose nipped and red in the cold air.
"Well, he saw that you didn't miss it, after all!" said she, with a welcoming light for Julia in her sharp eyes, though she did not smile. "Sit down! I've been hearing nice things about you, my dear! I said to Sally, 'So there is something in old maids' children, eh?'" Miss Toland chuckled; she was well pleased with her protegee. Julia settled herself comfortably beside her. She liked to watch the running gray water, and to feel the cold December wind in her face. The thought of Mark was always with her, poor Mark! so much more in her heart dead than living! But to-day his memory seemed only a part of the tender past; it was toward the future that her heart turned; she felt young and strong and full of hope.
In the new year Jim began to come pretty regularly to the settlement house. Sometimes he stayed but for two minutes, never for more than ten, and usually, even if Julia was out, he left some little gift for her, a book or a magazine, flower seeds, or violets, or a box of candy. She would glance up from the soiled and rumpled sewing of some small girl to find Jim smiling at her from the stage door, or come back from her little shopping round and have a moment's chat with him on the steps. She grew more and more silent, more and more self-contained, but her beauty deepened daily, and her eyes shone like blue stars.
"God, I will not believe it—I cannot believe it!" said Julia, on her knees, at night, her hands pressed tight against her eyes. "But I think he is beginning to love me!" And she walked in a strange dazzle of happiness, rejoicing in every sunny morning that, with its warmth and blueness and distant soft whistles from the bay, seemed to promise the spring, and rejoicing no less when rain beat against the windows of The Alexander, and the children rushed in upon her at three o'clock with raindrops in their hair and on their glowing cheeks. The convent garden, in the February mornings, the assembly room, with late uncertain sunlight checking its floor in the long afternoons, the Colonial restaurant filled with lights and the odours of food at night, all these familiar things seemed strangely new and thrilling, and the arrival of the postman was, twice a day, a heart-shaking event.
In April Doctor Toland went on a fortnight's trip to Mexico, and took his third daughter with him, in the undisguised hope of winning some small share of her confidence, and convincing her of his own disinterested affection. Two days later Barbara telephoned her aunt the harrowing news of Sally's elopement with Keith Borroughs, and Miss Toland went at once to Sausalito, taking Julia along.
They found the big house full of excitement. Richie was with his mother, who had retired to her room and was tearful and hysterical; Ned and his wife had gone back after Christmas to the country town, where he held a small position under his father-in-law; and Jim was doing both his own work and that of his foster father for the time being, and could not be found by telephone; so Julia was received by Barbara and the two younger girls, who were not inclined to make light of the event.
"Four years younger than Sally!" said Constance, not for the first time.
"It's not that," Barbara contributed disgustedly. "But he's only nineteen—not of age, even! And he hasn't one single penny! Why, Mrs. Carter was thinking of sending him abroad for two years' work with his music. I see her doing it now! Little sloppy-haired, conceited idiot, that's what he is!"
"And Richie says he'll have to have his mother's consent before he can marry her," said Jane with a virtuous air.
"It's too disgusting!" Barbara added, giving Jane a sharp glance. "And you oughtn't talk that way, Jane; it doesn't sound very well in a girl your age to talk about any one's having to marry any one!"
"I know this," said Constance gloomily. "It's going to give this family a horrible black eye. A fine chance we'll have to marry, we younger ones, with Sally disgracing every one this way!" Constance was the handsomest of all the Tolands, and felt keenly the disadvantages of being the youngest of four unmarried sisters.
"Don't worry about your marriage until it comes along, Con," said Barbara wearily.
"I'll bet I marry before you do!" said Constance, without venom.
"I long ago made up my mind never to marry at all," Barbara said, with a bored air. Julia chuckled.
"It is so funny to hear you go at each other," she explained. "It sounds so cross—and it really isn't at all! Don't worry, Miss Toland," she added soothingly, "Miss Sally wouldn't marry him if she didn't love him—"
"Oh, she loves him fast enough!" Barbara admitted, consoled.
"And if people love each other, it's all right," Julia went on. Barbara sighed.
"Oh, I hope it is, Julia!" said she, as conscious of the little familiarity for all her abstracted air as Julia was, and suspecting that it thrilled Julia, as indeed it did.
"And it's all the result of idleness, that's what it is, and that's what I've been telling your mother," said Miss Toland, coming in. "You've all got nothing to do except sit about and think how bored you are!"
"Oh, Auntie, aren't you low?" Barbara said tranquilly, going to take an arm of her chair. "All sorts of people elope—there's nothing so disgraceful in that."
"It's disgraceful considering what a father you've got, and what a mother!" Miss Toland said vexatiously. "And Ted worrying your father to death about that scamp, too! I declare it's too much!"
"He's a pretty rich scamp, and a pretty attractive scamp," Barbara said in defence of Theodora's choice. "He's not like that kid of a Keith!"
Julia heard the garden gate slam, and a quick, springing step on the porch before the others did, but it was Jane who said, "Here's Jim!" and Barbara who went to let him in.
"Oh, Jimmy, have you heard of Sally?" she faltered, and as they came in from the hall Julia's quick eye saw that she was half clinging to his shoulder, sister fashion, and that his arm was half about her.
"Hello, every one!" said his big, reassuring voice. "How's Mother? Hello, Aunt Sanna—and Miss Page, too! Well, this is fun, isn't it? Yes, Miss Babbie, I've heard of Sally, Sally Borroughs, as she is now—"
"What! Married?" said every one at once, and Mrs. Toland, making an impressive entrance with Richie, sank into a deep chair and echoed: "Married?"
"Married, Mother dear," said Jim. "They found me in Dad's office at five o'clock; Keith's father, a fierce sort of man, was with them, and was for calling the whole thing off. Sally was crying, poor girl, and Keith miserable—"
"Oh, poor old Sally!" said Barbara's tender voice.
"You should have brought her straight home to me!" Mrs. Toland added severely.
"Well, so I thought at first. But they had their license, which would be in the morning papers anyway, and Sally had done the fool thing of mailing letters to two girl friends when she left here this morning—"
"She left me a mere scribble, pinned to her pin-cushion," said her mother, magnificently. "Just as any common actress—"
"Oh, Mother! it wasn't pinned to her cushion at all!" Barbara protested. "She had no pincushion, she has a pin tray."
"I hardly see how it matters, Babbie; it was on her bureau, anyway! Just like a servant girl!" Mrs. Toland persisted.
"Well, anyway, it seemed best to push it right through," said Jim, "especially as they persisted that they would do it again or die—or rather, Sally did!"
"Oh, Jim, don't!" wailed Sally's mother. "Poor, deluded child!"
"I don't mean that Keith wasn't fiery enough," Jim hastened to say. "He's a decent enough little fellow, and he's madly in love. So we all went up to the French church, and Father Marchand married them—"
"A child of mine!" said Mrs. Toland, stricken.
"Keith's father and I witnessed," pursued Jim, "and we both kissed the bride—"
"Sally! And she was such a dear sweet baby!" whispered Mrs. Toland, big tears beginning to run down her cheeks.
"Ah, Mother!" Constance said soothingly, at her mother's knees.
"Sally's of age, of course," Jim argued soothingly, "and one couldn't bring her home like a child. The thing would have gotten out, and she'd have been a marked girl for life! There's really no reason why they shouldn't marry, and the boy—Keith, that is, put her into a carriage quite charmingly, and they drove off. They'll go no farther than Tamalpais or the Hotel Rafael, probably, for Keith has to be back at work on Monday, and I made him promise to bring Sally here on Sunday night."
"And what will they live on?" Mrs. Toland asked stonily.
"That isn't worrying them. Sally has—what? From those bonds of her grandfather's?"
"Three hundred a year," Mrs. Toland said discouragingly.
"And Keith gets fifty-five a month. That's eighty—h'm!" pursued Jim.
"Well, some of us simply will have to help them," suggested Mrs. Toland, with a swift, innocent glance at Miss Sanna.
"His father will have to help," Miss Toland countered firmly.
They presently adjourned to the dining-room, all still talking—even Julia—of Sally. Sally would have to take the Barnes cottage, at fifteen dollars a month, and do her own cooking, and her own sewing—
"They can dine here on Sundays," said Sally's mother, sniffing and wiping her eyes.
"And wouldn't it be awful if they had a baby!" Jane flung out casually.
Every one felt the indelicacy of this, except Julia, who relieved all Jane's hearers by saying warmly:
"Oh, don't say awful! Why, you'd all go wild over a dear little baby!"
Doctor Studdiford gave her a curious look at this, and though Julia did not see it, Barbara did. After dinner the doctor and Barbara played whist with the older ladies, and Julia sat looking over their shoulders for a few minutes, and then went upstairs with Constance and Jane for a long, delightful gossip. The girls must show her various pictures of Keith and Sally, books full of kodak prints, and everywhere Julia saw Jim, too: Jim from the days of little boyhood on to to-day, Jim as camp cook, Jim as tennis champion, Jim riding, yachting, fishing; a younger Jim, in the East at college, a small, stocky, unrecognizable Jim, in short trousers and straw hat. And everywhere, with him, Barbara.
"That's when they gave a play—I was only five," Constance said. "See, this is Jim as Jack Horner, and Babbie as Mother Goose. And look! here's Jim on a pony—that's at his grandfather's place in Honolulu, He stayed there a month every year, when he was a little boy, and Mother and Barbara visited there once. Here we all are, swimming, at Tahoe. And here's Bab in the dress she wore at her coming-out tea—isn't it dear? And look! here she is in an old dress of Jim's mother, and see the old pearls; aren't they lovely? Jim gave them to her when she was twenty."
"Jim was crazy about her then," said Jane.
"I don't think he was," Constance said perversely.
"Oh, Con, you know he was!" Jane protested. "He was, too," she added, to Julia.
"I don't think he was," persisted Constance lightly.
Barbara came in a second later, and again the talk went back to Sally.
"Mother and Aunt Sanna said good-night," reported Barbara, "and Aunt Sanna said to leave the door between your rooms open, and—oh, yes, Doctor Studdiford has been teasing Aunt Sanna to stay for a few days, Miss Page; he says you look as pale as a little ghost!"
"I liked so much to have you call me Julia," was Julia's extremely tactful answer to this. Barbara, perhaps glad to find her message so casually dismissed, smiled her prettiest.
"Julia—then!" and Barbara sat down on a bed, and began to roll up her belt. "Aunt Sanna says she gives Sally and Keith about three months—" she began.
Two days later, on Sunday, the bride and groom came home. Sally, who looked particularly well and was quite unashamed, rushed into her mother's arms, and laughed and cried like a creature possessed. She kissed all her sisters, and if there was a note of disapproval in her welcome, she did not get it. Richie having charitably carried off the somewhat sullen young husband, the bride was presently free to open her heart to the women of the house.
"It's all so different when you're married, isn't it, Mother?" bubbled Sally. "Going into hotels and everything—you don't care who looks at you, you know you've a perfect right to go anywhere with your husband! Now, that look that Keith just gave me, as he went off with Richie—blazing! Well, it would just have amused me when we were engaged, but now I know that he's simply wretched with jealousy, and I'll have to pet him a little and quiet him down! He is a perfect child about money; he will spend too much on everything, and if we go abroad I'll simply have to—"
"Go abroad?" every one echoed.
"Oh, I think we must, for Keith's music," Sally said gravely. "He can't settle down here, you know. He's got to live abroad, and he's got to have lessons—expensive lessons. Office work makes him too nervous, anyway."
"Well, my dear, I hope you have money enough to carry out these pleasing plans," said Miss Toland dryly.
"Well, we have my twenty-five a month," Sally said capably, "and Keith's father ought to give him another twenty-five, because the expense of having Keith live at home will be gone, and"—Sally fixed a hopeful eye on her mother—"and I should think Dad would give me at least that, Mother," said she. "I must cost him much more than that!"
"Oh, I—don't—know!" said Mrs. Toland guardedly, taken unawares, and slowly shaking her head.
"Then I thought," pursued the practical Sally, "that if you would give me half the clothes of a regular trousseau, and if Dad would give us our travelling expenses to Berlin for a wedding present—why, there you are!"
"But you two couldn't live on seventy-five dollars a month, Sally!"
"Oh, Mother, Jeannette said you could get a lovely room for two—in a pension—for a dollar a day! And that leaves forty for lessons, two a week, and five dollars over!"
"For laundry and carfare and doctor's bills," said Miss Toland unsympathetically.
"Well!" Sally flared, resentful colour in her cheeks.
"And Dad will never consent to anything so outrageously unfair as living on thirty-five and spending forty for lessons!" said Barbara.
Poor little Sally looked somewhat crushed.
"For heaven's sake don't let Keith hear you say that, Babbie!" she said nervously. "It makes him frantic to suggest that you can get decent lessons in harmony for nothing! I don't know what you know about it, anyway. I'll fix it with Dad!"
"If Dad allows Sally so much, he ought to do the same for the rest of us," Constance suggested. Julia, foreseeing a scene, slipped out of the room.
In the hallway she encountered Doctor Studdiford, who was just downstairs after a late sleep. Jim had the satisfied air of a man who has had a long rest, a shave and a bath, and a satisfactory breakfast.
"Family conference?" he said, nodding toward the sitting-room door.
"Sally and Keith are here," Julia announced.
"Oh, are they? Well, I ought to go in. But I also ought to walk up to the Ridge, and see that poor fellow who ran a shaft into his leg." Jim hesitated. "I suppose you wouldn't like to go with me?" he asked, with his sudden smile. Julia's heart jumped; her eyes answered him. "Well, wrap up snug," said Jim, "for there's the very deuce of a wind!"
So Julia tied herself into the most demure of hats, and buttoned her long coat about her, and Jim shook himself into his heaviest overcoat, and pulled an old cap down over his eyes. They let themselves out at a side door, and a gust of wet wind howled down upon them, and shook a shower from the madly rippling ivy leaves. The sky was high and pale, and crossed by hurrying and scattered clouds; a clean, roaring gale tore over the hills, and ruffled the rain pools in the road, and bowed the trees like whips. The bay was iron colour; choppy waves chased each other against the piers. Now and then a pale flicker of sunlight brightened the whole scene with blues and greens and shadows spectacularly clear; then the clouds met again, and the wind sang like a snapped wire.
Julia and the doctor climbed the long flights of stairs that cut straight up through the scattered homes on the hill. These earthen steps were still running with the late rain, and moss lay on them like a green film. Julia breathed hard, a veil of blown hair crossed her bright eyes, her stinging cheeks glowed.
"I love this kind of a day!" she shouted. Jim's gloved hand helped her to cross a wide pool, and his handsome eyes were full of all delight as he shouted back.
Presently, when they were in a more quiet bit of road, he told her of some of his early boyish walks. "Listen, Julia!" he said, catching her arm. "D'you hear them? It's the peepers! We used to call them that, little frogs, you know—sure sign of the spring!"
And as the wind lulled Julia heard the brave little voices of a hundred tiny croakers in some wet bit of meadow. "We'll have buttercups next week!" said Jim.
He told her something of the sick man to whom they were going, and spoke of other cases, of his work and his hopes.
"Poor Kearney!" said Jim, "his oldest kid was sick, then his wife had a new baby, and now this! You'll like the baby—he's a nice little kid. I took him in my arms last time I was here, and I wish you could have seen the little lip curl up, but he wouldn't cry! A kid two months old can be awfully cunning!" He looked a little ashamed of this sentiment, but Julia thought she had never seen anything so bright and simple and lovable as the smile with which he asked her sympathy.
She was presently mothering the baby, in the Kearneys' little hot living-room, while Doctor Studdiford caused the patient in the room beyond to shout with pain. The howling wind had a sinister sound, heard up here within walls, and Julia was glad to be out in it, and going down the hills again.
"Well, how do you like sick calls?" asked Jim.
"I was glad not to have to see him," Julia confessed. "But it is a darling baby, and such a nice little wife! She has a sister who comes up every afternoon, so she can get some sleep, poor thing. His mother is going to pay their rent until he gets well, and he gets two dollars a week from his union. But she said that if you hadn't—"
"Well, you know now, for such a quiet little mouse of a girl, Julia, you are a pretty good confidence woman!"
"And the baby's to be named for you!" Julia ended triumphantly.
"Lord, they needn't have done that!" said the doctor, with his confused, boyish flush. "Look, Julia, how the tide has carried that ferryboat out of her course!"
Julia's heart flew with the winds; she felt as if she had never known such an hour of ecstasy before. They had crossed the upper road, and were halfway down the last flight of steps, when Jim suddenly caught her hand, and turned her about to face him. Dripping trees shut in this particular landing, and they were alone under the wind-swept sky. Jim put his arms about her, and Julia raised her face, with all a child's serene docility, for his kiss.
"Do you love me, Julie?" said Jim urgently, then. "Do you love me, little girl? Because I love you so much!"
Not the words he had so carefully chosen to say, but he said them a score of times. If Julia answered, it was only with a confused murmur, but she clung to him, and her luminous eyes never moved from his own.
"Oh, my God, I love you so!" Jim said, finally releasing her, only to catch her in his arms again. "Won't you say it once, Julia, just to let me hear you?"
"But I did say it," Julia said, dimpling and rosy.
"Oh, but darling, you don't know how hungry I am to hear you!"
"How—how could I help it?" Julia stammered; and now the blue eyes she raised were misty with tears.
Jim found this satisfactory, intoxicatingly so. They went a few steps farther and sat on a bit of dry bulk-heading, and began to discuss the miracle. About them the winds of spring shouted their eternal promise, and in their hearts the promise that is as new and as old as spring came to dazzling flower.
"My clever, sweet, little dignified girl!" said Jim. "Julia, do you know that you are the most fascinating woman in the world? I never saw any one like you!"
"I—Oh, Jim!" was all that Julia said, but her dimples and the nearness of the blue eyes helped the stammered words.
"Among all the chattering, vapid girls I know," pursued Jim, "you stand utterly alone, you with your ambitions, and your wiseness! By George! when I think what you have made of yourself, I could get down and worship you. I feel like a big spoiled kid beside you! I've always had all the money I could spend, and you, you game little thing, you've grubbed and worked and made things do!"
"I never had any ambition as high as marrying you," Julia said, with the mysterious little smile that at once baffled and enchanted him. "When I think of it, it makes me feel giddy, like a person walking in a valley who found himself set down on top of a mountain! I never thought of marriage at all!"
"But you are going to marry me, sweet, aren't you?" Jim asked anxiously. "And you are happy, dear? For I feel as if I would die of joy and pride!"
"Oh, I'm happy!" Julia said, and instantly her lip quivered, and her eyes brimmed with tears. She jumped to her feet, and caught him by the hand. "Come on!" she said. "We mustn't be so long!"
"But darling," said Jim, infinitely tender, "why the tears?"
For answer she caught his coat in her shabbily gloved little hands.
"Because I love you so, Jim," she faltered, trying to smile. "You don't know how much!" Her voice had dropped to a whisper, and for a moment her eyes looked far beyond him, down into the valley, and at the iron-cold bay with its racing whitecaps. Then she took his hand, and they began to descend the steps.
"I may tell my mother, Julie?" Jim asked joyously. "And Aunt Sanna? And do you know that Julia is one of my favourite names—"
"No, I want you not to tell any one," Julia decided quickly. "You must promise me that. Nobody." Something in her tone surprised, a little chilled, him.
"Well, because we want to be sure—"
"Oh, sure! Why, but, dearest, aren't you—"
"No, but wait a moment," Julia interrupted, and Jim, turning toward her, saw a real trouble reflected in her face. "I want you to meet my mother, and my own people," she said, scarlet cheeked. Jim's grave, comprehensive look met hers.
"And I want to, dear," he said. And then, as her face did not brighten: "Why, my dearest, you aren't going to worry because your people aren't in the Social Register, and don't go to the Brownings'? I know all sorts of people, Ju—Kearney, up there, is a good friend of mine! And I know from Aunt Sanna that you're a long way ahead of your own people."
"I don't know whether it's 'ahead' or not," said Julia, with a worried laugh. "I suppose only God knows the real value of finger bowls and toothbrushes and silk stockings! I suppose it's 'ahead'!"
She opened the Tolands' side gate as she spoke, and they went into the bare garden.
"Well—but don't go in," pleaded Jim, "there'll be a mob about us in no time, and I've never had you to myself before! When may I come see your people?"
"Will you write?" Julia asked at the side door.
"Oh, but darling, when we've just begun to talk!" fretted Jim. "Would you dare to kiss me right here—no one could possibly see us!"
"I would not!" And Julia flashed him one laughing look as she opened the door. A moment later he heard her running up the stairway.
Julia found Miss Toland upstairs, hastily packing. "Well, runaway!" said the older lady. And then, in explanation, "I think we'd best go, Julia, for my brother and Teddy have just got home, and there'll have to be a great family council to-night."
"Would you stay if I went?" Julia asked, coming close to her.
"No, you muggins! I'd pack you off in a moment if that was what I meant! No, I'm glad enough to get out of it!" Miss Toland stood up. "What's Jim Studdiford been saying to you to give you cheeks like that?" she asked.
"I don't know," Julia whispered, with a tremulous laugh. And for the first time she went into Miss Toland's open arms, and hid her face, and for the first time they kissed each other.
"Anything settled?" the older woman presently asked in great satisfaction.
"Not—quite!" Julia said.
"Not quite! Well, that's right; there's no need of hurry. Oh, law me! I've seen this coming," Miss Toland assured her; "he all but told me himself a week ago! Well, well, well! And it only goes to show, Julia," she added, shaking a skirt before she rolled it into a ball and laid it in her suitcase, "that if you give a girl an occupation, she's better off, she's more useful, and it doesn't keep her fate from finding her out! You laugh, because you've heard me say this before, but it's true!"
Julia had laughed indeed; her heart was singing. She would have laughed at anything to-day.
Four days later, at four o'clock in the afternoon, Doctor Studdiford called at The Alexander, and Miss Page joined him, in street attire, at once. They walked away to the car together, in a street suddenly flooded with golden sunshine.
"Did you tell your mother I was coming, dear?"
"Oh, Jim, of course! I never would dare take them unawares!"
"And did you tell her that you were going to be my adored and beautiful little wife in a few months?"
"In a few months—hear the man! In a few years! No, but I gave them to understand that you were my 'friend.' I didn't mention that you are a multi-millionaire and a genius on leg bones—"
"Julia, my poor girl, if you think you are marrying a multi-millionaire, disabuse your mind, dear child! Aren't women mercenary, though! Here I thought I—No, but seriously, darling, why shouldn't your mother have the satisfaction of knowing that your future is pretty safe?"
"Well, that's hard to say, Jim. But I think you will like her better if she takes it for granted that you are just—well, say just the sort of doctor we might have called in to the settlement house, establishing a practice, but quite able to marry. I feel," said Julia, finding her words with a little difficulty, "that my mother might hurt my feelings—by doubting my motives, otherwise—and if she hurt my feelings she would anger you, wouldn't she?"
"She certainly would!" Jim smiled, but the look he gave his plucky little companion was far removed from mirth.
"And I do dread this call," Julia said nervously. "I came down here yesterday, just to say we were coming, and it all struck me as being—However, there's the house, and you'll soon see for yourself!"
The house itself was something of a shock to Jim, but if Julia guessed it, he gave her no evidence of his feeling, and was presently taken into the stifling parlour, and introduced to Julia's mother, a little gray now, but hard lipped and bright eyed as ever, and to Mrs. Cox, who had been widowed for some years, and was a genial, toothless, talkative old woman, much increased in her own esteem and her children's as the actual owner of the old house.
"Mother, we want some air in here!" Julia said, going to a window.
"Julia's a great girl for fresh air," said Emeline. "Sit down, Doctor, and don't mind Ma!" Mrs. Cox, perhaps slightly self-conscious, was wandering about the room picking threads from the carpet, straightening the pictures on the walls, and dubiously poking a small stopped clock on the mantel.
"How's your arm to-day?" Julia asked, stopping behind her mother's chair, and laying two firm young hands on her shoulders.
"What do you think of a girl that runs off and doesn't see her mother for weeks at a time, Doctor?" Mrs. Page demanded a little tartly. "Her papa and I was devoted to her, too! But I suppose if she marries, she'll be too grand for us altogether!"
"Now, Mother!" said Julia pleadingly, half vexed, half indulgent.
"I had an elegant little place myself when I was first married," Mrs. Page continued, in a sort of discontented sing-song. "Julia must have told you about her papa—"
Julia's serious eyes flashed a look to Jim, and he saw something almost like humour in their blue deeps.
"That's a crayon enlargement of my youngest son," the old woman was presently saying, "Chess. A better boy never lived, but he got in with bad companions and they got him in jail. Yes, indeed they did! On'y the governor let him out again—"
The call was not long. Doctor Studdiford shook hands with both the ladies, in departing, and Julia kissed her mother and grandmother dutifully. The two walked almost in silence to the car.
"Downtown?" asked Julia, in surprise.
"Downtown, for tea," Jim said. And when they were comfortably established in a secluded corner of the Golden Pheasant, he expelled a long breath from his lungs, and sent Julia his sunniest smile as he said:
"Well, you're a wonder!"
"I?" Julia touched her heart with her fingers, and raised her eyebrows.
"Oh, yes, you are!" Jim repeated. "You're a little wonder! To make yourself so sweet and fine and dear, it shows that you're one of the big people of the world, Julie! Some one of the writers, Emerson I guess it was, says that when you find a young person who is willing to accept the wisdom of older people, and abide by it, why, you may watch that young person for great things. And you see, I propose to!"
Julia had no answering smile ready. Instead her face was very grave as she said musingly:
"I hardly know why I wanted you to meet my mother and grandmother, Jim. I don't know quite what I expected when you did meet them, but—but you mustn't make light of the fact that they are different from your people, and different from me, too. For three or four days and nights now I've been thinking about—us. I've been wondering whether this engagement would be a—a happy thing for you, Jim. I've wondered—"
"But, sweetheart!" he interrupted eagerly, "I love you! You're the only woman I ever wanted to marry! I love you just because you are different, you are so much wiser and deeper and truer than any other girl I ever knew, and if your people and your life have made you that, why I love them, too! And you do love me, Julie?"
Julia raised heavy eyes, and he could see that tears were pressing close behind them. She did not speak, but her look suddenly enveloped him like a cloud. Jim felt a sudden prick of tears behind his own eyes.
"Sweetness," he said gravely, "I know you love me! And Julia, my whole soul is simply on fire for you. Don't—don't let any mere trifle come between us now. Let me tell my mother and father to-morrow!"
A clear light was shining in Julia's eyes. Now, as she automatically arranged the tea things before her, and poured him his first cup of tea, she said:
"Jim, I told you that I haven't thought much about marriage for myself. I suppose it's funny that I shouldn't, for they say most girls do! But perhaps it was because the biographies and histories I began to read when I came to the settlement house were all about men: how Lincoln rose, how Napoleon rose, how this rich man sold newspapers when he was a little boy, and that other one spent his first money in taking his mother out of the poorhouse. And of course marriage doesn't enter so much into the lives of men. It came to me years ago that what wise men are trying to din into young people everywhere is just this: that if you make yourself ready for anything, that thing will come to you. Just do your end, and somewhere out in the queer, big, incomprehensible machinery of the world your place will mysteriously begin to get ready for you—Am I talking sense, Jim?"
"Absolutely. Go on!" said Jim.
"Well, and so I thought that if I took years and years I might—well, you won't see why, but I wanted to be a lady!" confessed Julia, her lips smiling, but with serious eyes. "And, Jim, everything comes so much more easily than one thinks. Your aunt knew I wasn't, but I happened to be what she needed, and I kept quiet, and listened and learned!"
"And suppose you hadn't happened upon the settlement house?" asked Jim, his ardent eyes never moving from her face.
"Why, I would have done it somehow, some other way. I meant to take a position in some family, and perhaps be a trained nurse when I was older, or study to be a librarian and take the City Hall examinations, or work up to a post-office position! I had lots of plans, only of course I was only a selfish little girl then, and I thought I would disappear, and never let my own people hear from me again!"
"But you softened on that point, eh?" asked Jim.
"Oh, right away!" Julia's wonderful eyes shone upon him with something unearthly in their light. "Because God decides to whom we shall belong, Jim," said she, with childish faith, "and to start wrong with my own people would mean that I was all wrong, everywhere. But my highest ambition then was to grow, as the years went on, to be useful to nice people, and to be liked by them. I never dreamed every one would be so friendly! And when Miss Pierce and Miss Scott have asked me to their homes, and when Mrs. Forbes took me to Santa Cruz, and Mrs. Chetwynde asked me to dine with them, well, I can't tell you what it meant!"
"It meant that you are as good—and better, in every way—than all the rest of them put together!" said the prejudiced Jim.
"Oh, Jim!" Julia looked at him over her teacup, a breach of manners which Jim thought very charming. "No," she said, presently, pursuing her own thoughts, "but I never thought of marriage! And now you come along, Jim, so—so good to me, so infinitely dear, and I can't—I can't help caring—" And suddenly her lip trembled, and tears filled her eyes. She looked down at her teacup, and stirred it blindly.
"You angel!" Jim said.
"Don't—make—me—cry—!" Julia begged thickly. A second later she looked up and laughed through tears. "And I feel like a person who has been skipped over four or five grades at school; I don't know whether I can be a rich man's wife!" she said whimsically. "I know I can go on as I am, reading and thinking, and listening to other people, and keeping quiet when I have nothing to say, but—but when I think of being Mrs. James Studdiford—"
"Oh, I love to hear you say it!" Jim leaned across the table, and put one warm big hand over hers. "My darling little wife!"
The word dyed Julia's cheeks crimson, and for the long hour that they lingered over their tea she seemed to Jim more charming than he had ever found her before. Her gravity, with its deep hint of suppressed mirth, and her mirth that was always so delicate and demure, so shot with sudden pathos and seriousness, were equally exquisite; and her beauty won all eyes, from the old waiter who hovered over their happiness, to the little baby in the street car who would sit in Julia's lap and nowhere else. Jim presently left Julia to her Girls' Club, consoling himself with the thought that on the following night they were to make their first trip to the theatre together.
But when, at half-past seven the next evening, Jim presented himself at the settlement house, he found Julia alone, and obviously not dressed for the theatre. She admitted him with a kiss that to his lover's enthusiasm was strangely cool, and drew him into the reception hall.
"Your aunt had to go out with Miss Parker," said Julia. "But she'll positively be here a little after eight."
"My darling, I didn't come to see Aunt Sanna!" Jim caught her to him. "But, sweetheart," he said, "how hot your face is, and your poor little hands are icy! Aren't you well?"
"No, I don't believe I'm very well!" Julia admitted restlessly, lighting the shaded lamp on the centre table, and snapping off the side lights that so mercilessly revealed her pale face and burning eyes.
"Not well enough for the theatre? Well, but darling, I don't care one snap for the theatre," Jim assured her eagerly. "Only I hate to see you so nervous and tired. Has it been a hard day? Aunt Sanna—?"
"No, your aunt's an angel to me—no, it's been an easy day," Julia said, dropping into a chair, and pushing her hair back from her face with a feverish gesture. A second later she sprang up and disappeared into the assembly hall. "I thought I mightn't have locked the door," she said, returning.
"Why, sweetheart," Jim said, in great distress, "what is it? You're not one bit like yourself!"
"No, I know I'm not," Julia said wildly. She sat down again. "I've been thinking and thinking all day, until I feel as if I must go crazy!" she said with a desperate gesture. "And it's come to this, Jim—Don't think I'm excited—I mean it. I—we can't be married, Jim. That's all. Don't—don't look so amazed. People break engagements all the time, don't they? And we aren't really engaged, Jim; nobody knows it. And—and so it's all right!"
Anything less right than Julia's ashen face and blazing eyes, and the touch of her cold wet little hands, Jim thought he had never seen. He stepped into the bathroom, and ran his eye along the trim row of labelled bottles on the shelf.
"Here, drink this, dear," he said, coming back to her with something clear and pungent in a glass. "Now, come here," and half lifting the little figure in his arms he put her on the couch, and tucked a plaid warmly about her. "Don't forget that your husband is also a doctor," said Jim, sitting down so that he could see her face, and hold one hand in both of his. "You're all worn out and excited, and no wonder! You see, most girls take out their excess emotion on their families, but my little old girl is too much alone!"
Julia's eyes were fixed on him as if she were powerless to draw them away. It was sweet—it was poignantly sweet—to be cared for by him, to feel that Jim's warm heart and keen mind were at her service, that the swift smile was for her, the ardour in his eyes was all her own. For perhaps half an hour she rested, almost without speaking, and Jim talked to her with studied lightness and carelessness. Then suddenly she sat up, and put her hands to her loosened hair.
"I must look wild, Jim!"
"You look like a ravishing little gipsy! But I wish you had more colour, mouse!"
"Am I pale?" Julia asked, with a little nervous laugh. Jim dropped on one knee beside her, and studied her with anxious eyes, and she pushed the hair off his forehead, and rested her cheek against it with a long sigh as if she were very tired.
"What is it, dear?" asked Jim, with infinite solicitude.
"Well!" Julia put the faintest shadow of a kiss on his forehead, then got abruptly to her feet and crossed the room, as if she found his nearness suddenly insufferable. "I can't break my engagement to you this way, Jim," said she. "For even if I told you a thousand times that I had stopped loving you"—a spasm of pain crossed her face, she shut her hands tightly together over her heart—"even then you would know that I love you with my whole soul," she said in a whisper with shut eyes. "But you see," and Julia turned a pitiful smile upon him, "you see there's something you don't understand, Jim! You say I have climbed up alone, from being a tough little would-be actress, who lived over a saloon in O'Farrell Street, to this! You say—and your aunt says—that I am wise, wise to see what is worth having, and to work for it! But has it never occurred to one of you—" Julia's voice, which had been rising steadily, sank to a cold, low tone. "No," she said, as if to herself, sitting down at the table, and resting her arms upon it. "No, it has never occurred to one of them to ask why I am different—to ask just what made me so! Life boils itself down to this, doesn't it?" she went on, staring drearily at the shadowy corner of the room beyond her. "That women have something to sell, or give away, and the question is just how much each one can get for it! That's what makes the most insignificant married woman feel superior to the happiest and richest old maid. She says to herself, 'I've made my market. Somebody chose me!' That's what motherhood and homemaking rest on: the whole world is just one great big question of sex, spinning away in space! And even after a woman is married, she still plays with sex; she likes to feel that men admire her, doesn't she? At dinners there must be a man for every woman; at dances no two girls must dance together! And here, the minute a new girl comes to join my clubs, I try to read her face. Is she pure, or has she already thrown away—"
"Julia, dear!" said Jim, amazed and troubled, but she silenced him with a quick gesture. Her cheeks were burning now, and her words came fast.
"Those poor little girls at St. Anne's," she said feverishly, "they've thrown their lives away because this thing that is in the air all about them came too close. They were too young legally to be trusted as Nature has trusted them for years! They heard people talk of it, and laugh about it—it didn't seem very dangerous—"
"Julia!" Jim said again, pleadingly.
"Just one moment, Jim, and I'll be done! When they had learned their lesson, when they had found out what sorrow it brought, when they knew that there was only loss and shame in it for them—then it was too late! Then men, and women, too, expected them to go on giving; there was nothing else to do. Oh," said Julia, in a heartbreaking voice, bringing her locked hands down upon the table as if she were in physical agony, "if the law would only take a hand before and not afterward! Or if, when they are sick to death of men, they could believe that time would wash it all away; that there was clean, good work for them somewhere in the world!"
"My darling, why distress yourself about what can't possibly concern you?" Jim said. Julia stared at him thoughtfully for a few silent seconds.
"It does concern me. That's how I bought my wisdom," she said quietly then, with no emotion deeper than a mild regret visible in her face. Voice and manner were swept bare of passion; she seemed infinitely fatigued. "That's why I can't marry you, Jim."
"What do you mean?" Jim said easily, uncomprehendingly, the indulgent smile hardly stricken from his lips.
Julia's eyes met his squarely across the lamplight.
"That," she said simply.
There was a silence, and no change of expression on either face. Then Jim stood up.
"I don't believe it!" he said, with a short laugh.
"It's true," said Julia. "I was not fifteen. How long ago it was! Nobody has ever known—you need not have known. But I am glad I told you. I have been thinking of nothing else but telling you for two days and two nights. And sometimes I would say to myself that what that old little ignorant Julia did would not concern you—"
Jim made an inarticulate sound, from where he sat with his elbows on his knees, with his face dropped in his hands.
"But I see it does concern you!" Julia said, quickly, with great simplicity. "I—luckily I decided to tell you this morning," she said, "for I am absolutely exhausted now. It was a terrible thing to keep thinking about, and I could not have fought it out any longer! There were extenuating circumstances, I suppose. I was a spoiled little empty-headed girl; the girls all about me were reckless in everyway; I did not know the boundary-line, or dream that it mattered very much, so long as no one knew! My mother had been unhappy in my childhood, and used to talk a good deal about the disappointment of marriage. Perhaps I don't make myself clear?"
"You! Julia!" Jim whispered, his hands still over his face.
"Yes, I know," Julia said drearily. "I don't seem like that sort of a girl, I know."
Then there was a long silence.
"You—poor—little—kid!" Jim said, after a while, getting up and beginning to walk the floor. "Oh, my God! My God! Poor little kid!"
"I suppose there are psychological moments when one wakes up to things," Julia went on, in a tone curiously impersonal. "I was in some theatricals with your sister, years ago. Every one snubbed me, and no wonder! There was a man named Carter Hazzard—and I suddenly seemed to wake up at about that time—"
"Carter Hazzard!" The horror in Jim's voice rang through the room. Julia frowned.
"I only saw him two or three times," she said. "No. But he flirted with me, and flattered me, and then Barbara told me he was married, and then I found out that they all thought I was vulgar and common—and so I was. And I suppose I wanted to be loved and made much of, and he—this man—was good to me!"
"Not you—of all women!" Jim said dully, as if to himself.
"I know how you feel," Julia said without emotion, "because of course I feel that way, too—now! And I never loved him, never even thought I did! It was only a little while—two weeks or three, I guess—before I told him I couldn't ever love him. I said I thought I might, but it was like—like realizing that I had been throwing away gold pieces for dimes. Do you know what I mean? And the most awful disgust came over me, Jim—a sort of disappointment, that this talked-of and anticipated thing was no more than that! And then I came here, and I knew that keeping still about it was my only chance, and oh, how sick I was, soul and body, for a fresh start! And then your aunt talked to me, and said what a pity it is that young girls think of nothing but love and lovers, and so throw away their best years, and I thought that I was done with love; no more curiosity—no more thrill—and that I would do something with my life after all!"
Her voice dropped, and again there was silence in the room. Jim continued to pace the floor.
"Why, there's never been a morning at St. Anne's that I haven't looked at those girls," Julia presently resumed, "and said to myself that I might have been there, with my head shaved and a green check dress on! Lots of them must be better than I!"
"Don't!" Jim said sharply, and there was a silence until Julia said wonderingly:
"Isn't it funny that all last night, and the night before, I thought I was going to die, telling you this—and now it just doesn't seem to matter at all?"
"That's why you've never married?" Jim said, clearing his throat.
"I've never wanted to until now," Julia said. "And I—I am so changed now that somehow I would never think of that—that bad old time, in connection with marriage! It was as if that part of my life was sealed beyond opening again—
"And then you came. I only wanted no one to guess that I cared at first. And then, when I saw that you were beginning to care, too, oh, my God! I thought my heart would burst!"
And with sudden terrible passion in her voice, she got up in her turn and began to pace the room. Jim, who had flung himself into a chair opposite hers, rested his elbows on the table, and his face in his hands.
"But I feel this about your caring for me, Jim," Julia said. "In a strange, mysterious way I feel that giving you up—giving you up, my best and dearest, is purification! When—when this is over, I shall have paid! It may be"—tears flooded her eyes, and she came back to her chair and laid her head on her arm—"it may be that I can't bear it, and that I will die!" sobbed Julia. "But I shall always be glad that I told you this to-night!" There was a long silence, and then again Jim came to kneel beside her, and put one arm about her.
"My own little girl!" said he. At his voice Julia raised her head, and put her arms about his neck like a weary child, and rested her wet face against his own.
"My own brave girl!" Jim said. "I know what courage it took to have you tell me this! It will never be known to any one else, sweetheart, and we will bury it in our hearts forever. Kiss me, dearest, and promise me that my little wife will stop crying!"
For a moment it was as if she tried to push him away.
"Jim," she whispered, tears running down her face, "have you thought—are you sure?"
"Quite sure, sweetheart," he said soothingly and tenderly. "Why, Julie, wouldn't you forgive me anything I might have done when I was only an ignorant little boy?"
Julia tightened her arms about him, and sobbed desperately for a long while. Then her breathing quieted, and she let Jim dry her eyes with his own handkerchief, and listened, with an occasional long sigh, to his eager, confident plans. They were still talking quietly when the street door was flung open and Miss Toland came in, on a rush of fresh air.
"Rain!" said Miss Toland. "Terrible night! Not an umbrella in the Parker house until Clem came home—it's quarter to ten!"
"Congratulate us, Aunt Sanna," said Jim, rising to his feet with his arm still about Julia. "Julia has promised to marry me!"