Sometimes Ferdie's jokes were successful; sometimes they were not. This was one of the jokes that didn't succeed; but as it led to a chain of circumstances that proved eminently satisfactory, Ferdie's wife praised him as highly for his share in it as if he really had done something rather meritorious.
At the time it occurred, however, nobody praised anybody, and feeling even ran pretty high for a time between Ferdie and Elsie, his wife, and her sister Sally, and Dr. Bates.
Dr. Samuel Bates was a rising young surgeon, plain, quiet, and kindly. He was spending a few busy months in California, and writing dutifully home to friends and patients in Boston that he really could not free his hands to return just yet. But Sally knew what that meant; she had known business to keep people in her neighborhood before. So she was studiously unkind to the doctor, excusing herself to Elsie on the ground that nothing on earth would ever make her consider a man with fuzzy red hair and low collars.
Sally was a "daughter" and a "dame"; the doctor was the son of "Bates's Blue-Ribbon Hair Renewer"--awful facts against which the additional fact that he was rich and she was not, counted nothing. Sally talked all the time; the doctor was the most silent of men. Sally was twenty-two, the doctor thirty-five. Sally loved to flirt; the doctor never paid any attention to women. Altogether, it was the most impossible thing ever heard of, and Elsie might just as well stop thinking about it!
"It's a wonderful proof of what he feels," said Elsie, "to have him so gentle when you are rude to him, and so eager to be friends when you get over it!"
"It's a wonderful example of hair-tonic spirit!" Sally responded.
"There's a good deal behind that quiet manner," argued Elsie.
"But not the three generations that make a gentleman!" finished Sally.
Sally was out calling one hot Saturday afternoon when Ferdie, as was his habit, brought Dr. Bates home with him to the Ferdies' little awninged and shingled summer home in Sausalito. Elsie, with an armful of delightfully pink and white baby, led them to the cool side porch, and ordered cool things to drink. Sally, she said, as they sank into the deep chairs, would be home directly and join them.
Presently, surely enough, some one ran up the front steps and came into the wide hall, and Sally's voice called a blithe "Hello!" There was a little rattle to show that her parasol was flung down, and then the voice again, this time unmistakably impeded by hat-pins.
"Where's this fam-i-ly? Did the gentlemen come?"
This gave an opening for the sort of thing Ferdie thought he did very well. He grinned at his guest, and raised a warning finger.
"Hello, Sally!" he called back. "Elsie and I are out here! Bates couldn't come--operation last minute!"
"What--didn't come?" Sally called back after an instant's pause. "Well, what has happened to him? But, thank goodness, now I can go to the Bevis dinner to-morrow! Operation? I must say it's mannerly to send a message the last minute like that!" She hummed a second, and then added spitefully: "What can you expect of hair-tonic, anyway?" The frozen group on the porch heard her start slowly upstairs. "Well, I might be willing to marry him," added Sally, cheerfully, as she mounted, "but it's a real relief to snatch this glorious afternoon from the burning! Down in a second--keep me some tea!"
Nobody moved on the porch. The doctor's face was crimson, Elsie's kind eyes wide with horror. Sally called a final reflection from the first landing:
"Too bad not to have him see me looking so beautiful!" she sang frivolously. "Operation--h'm! An important operation--I don't believe it!"
She proceeded calmly to her room, and was buttoning herself into a trim linen gown when Elsie burst in, flushed and furious, cast the baby dramatically upon the bed, and hysterically recounted the effects of her recent remarks. Sally, at first making a transparent effort to seem amused, and following it with an equally vain attempt at being dignified, finally became very angry herself.
"When Ferdie does things like this," said Sally, heatedly, "I declare I wonder--I was going to say I wonder he has a friend left in the world! As you say, it's done now, but it makes me so furious! And I don't think it shows very much savior faire on your part, Elsie. However, we won't discuss it! Ferdie will try one joke too many, one of these days, and then--Now, look here, Elsie," Sally interrupted her tirade to state with deadly deliberation, "unless that man goes home before dinner, as a man of any spirit would do, I'm going over to Mary Bevis's, and you can make whatever apologies you like!"
"Of course he won't go," said Elsie, with spirit. "The only thing to do is to ignore it entirely. And of course you'll come down."
Sally had resumed her ruffled calling costume, and was now pinning on an effective hat. Her mouth was set.
"Please!" pleaded her sister, inserting a gold bracelet tenderly between George's little jaws, without moving her eyes from Sally.
"I will not!" said Sally. "I never want to see him again--superior, big, calm codfish--too lofty to care what any one says about him! I don't like a man you can walk on, anyway!" She began to pack things in a suit-case--beribboned night-wear, slippers, powder, and small jars. Presently, hasping these things firmly in, she went to the door, and opened it a cautious crack.
"Where are they?" she asked.
"I don't know," said Mrs. Ferdie, dispiritedly. "I think you're very mean!"
The bedrooms of the Ferdies' house opened in charming Southern fashion upon open balconies, over whose slender rails one could look straight into the hall below. Sally listened intently.
"What a horrible plan this house is built upon!" she said heartily. "Nothing in the world is more humiliating than to have to sneak about one's own house like a thief, afraid of being seen! Where's the motor--at the side door? Good. I'll run it over to the Bevises' myself, and Billy can come back with it. That is, I will if I can manage to get to the side door. Those idiots of men are apparently looking at Ferd's rods and tackle, right down there in the hall! I can distinctly hear their voices! I wish Ferd had thought of situations like this when he planned this silly balcony business! The minute I open this door they'll look up; and I'll stay up here a week rather than meet them!"
"They'll go out soon," said Elsie, soothingly, as she removed a shoe-horn from contact with George's mouth.
"I knew Ferd would regret this balcony!" pursued Sally, eyes to the crack.
"Ferdie's not regretting it!" tittered her sister.
Sally cast her a withering glance. Elsie devoted herself suddenly to George.
"Go down and lure them into the garden," pleaded Sally, presently.
Elsie obligingly picked up her son and departed, but Sally, watching her go, was infuriated to notice that a mild request from George's nurse, who met them in the hall, apparently drove all thoughts of Sally's predicament from the little mother's mind, for Elsie went briskly toward the nursery, and an absolute silence ensued.
Sally went listlessly to the window, where her eye was immediately caught by a long pruning ladder, leaning against the house a dozen feet away. Alma, the little waitress, quietly mixing a mayonnaise on the kitchen porch, was pressed into service, and five minutes later Sally's suit-case was cautiously lowered, on the end of a Mexican lariat, and Sally was steadying the top of the ladder against her window-sill. Alma was convulsed with innocent mirth, but her big, hard hands were effective in steadying the lower end of the ladder.
Sally, who was desperately afraid of ladders, packed her thin skirts tightly about her, gave a fearful glance below, and began a nervous descent. At every alternate rung she paused, unwound her skirts, shut her eyes, and breathed hard.
"Please don't shake it so!" she said.
"Aye dadden't!" said Alma, merrily.
The ladder slipped an inch, settling a little lower. Sally uttered a smothered scream. She dared not move her eyes from the rung immediately in front of them. Her face was flushed, her hair had slipped back from her damp temples. It seemed to her as if she must already have climbed down several times the length of the ladder. At every step she had to kick her skirts free.
"Permit me!" said a kind voice in the world of reeling brick walks and dwarfed gooseberry bushes below her.
Sally, with a thump at her heart, looked down to see Dr. Bates lay a firm hand upon the rocking ladder.
Speechless, she finished the descent, reeling a little unsteadily against the doctor's shoulder as she faced about on the walk. Her face was crimson. To climb down a ladder, with him looking pleasantly up from below, and then to fall into his very arms! Sally shook out her skirts like a furious hen, and walked, with one chilly inclination of the head for acknowledgment of his courtesy, toward the waiting motor.
"Ferdie has promised Bill Bevis that you will spin me over in the motor," said the doctor, a little timidly, when they reached it.
Sally eyed him stonily.
"Why, I had promised Bevis that I would look in to-day," pursued the doctor, uncomfortably; "and when they telephoned about it, a few minutes ago, one of the maids said that she believed that you were going right over, and would bring me."
"I have changed my mind," said Sally. "Perhaps you will drive yourself over?"
"I don't know anything about motors," apologized the doctor, gravely.
"Ferd told one of the maids to say I would?" Sally said pleasantly. "Very well. Will you get in?"
They got in, Sally driving. They swept in silence past the lawns, and into the wide, white highway. A watering-cart had just passed, and the air was fresh and wet. The afternoon was one of exquisite beauty. The steamer from San Francisco was just in, and the road was filled with other motor-cars and smart traps. Sally and the doctor nodded and waved to a score of friends.
"I am as sorry as you are," said the doctor, awkwardly, after the silence had grown very long.
"Don't mention it," said Sally, her face flaming again. "That's my brother's idea of humor. I--I shall stay at the Bevises' overnight."
"I--why, I said I would do that!" said Dr. Bates, hastily. "I just called in to the maid, when she telephoned Bevis, and said, 'Ask him if he can put me up overnight.' You see, I've got my things."
"Well, then, I won't," said Sally. Her tone was cold, but a side glance at his serious face melted her a little. "This is all Ferdie!" she burst out angrily.
"Too bad to make it so important," said the doctor, regretfully.
"I don't see why you should stay at the Bevises'," said the girl, fretfully. "It looks very odd--when you had come to us. I--I am going to Glen Ellen early to-morrow, anyway. I would hate to have the Bevises suspect--"
"Then I will go back with you," agreed the doctor, pleasantly.
Sally frowned. She opened her lips, but shut them without speaking. She had turned the car into a wide gateway, and a moment later they stopped at a piazza full of young people. The noisy, joyous Bevis girls and boys swarmed rapturously about them.
After an hour of laughter and shouting, Sally and the doctor rose to go, accompanied to the motor by all the young people.
"Ah, you just got in, doctor?" said gentle Mrs. Bevis, with a glance at the suit-cases.
Sally flushed, but the doctor serenely let the misunderstanding go. There was no good reason to give for the presence of two cases in the car.
"You look quite like an elopement!" said Page Bevis with a joyous shout.
"Put one of the cases in front, Bates, and rest your feet on it," suggested the older boy, Kenneth.
As he spoke, he caught up Sally's case, and gave it a mighty swing from the tonneau to the front seat. In mid-flight, the suit-case opened. Jars and powders, slippers and beribboned apparel scattered in every direction. Small silver articles, undeniably feminine in nature, lay on the grass; a spangled scarf which they had all admired on Sally's slender shoulders had to be tenderly extricated from the brake.
With shrieks of laughter, the Bevis family righted the case and repacked it. Sally was frozen with anger.
"Mother said she knew you two would run off and get married quietly some day!" said pretty, audacious Mary Bevis.
"Dearie!" protested her mother. "I only said--I only thought--I said I thought--Mary, that's very naughty of you! Sally, you know how innocently one surmises an engagement, or guesses at things!"
"Oh, mother, you're getting in deeper and deeper!" said her older son. "Never you mind, Sally! You can elope if you want to!"
"San Rafael's the place to go, Sally," said Mary. "All the elopers get married there. The court-house, you know. No delays about licenses!"
"They're very naughty," said their mother, beginning to see how unwelcome this joking was to the visitors. "Are you going straight home, dear?"
"Straight home!" said the doctor.
"Well, speaking of San Rafael," pursued the matron, kindly--"can't you two and Elsie and Ferd go with us all to-night, say about an hour from now, up to Pastori's and have dinner?"
"Oh, thanks!" said Sally, trying to smile naturally. "I'm afraid not to-night. I've got a headache, and I'm going home to turn in."
Amid cheerful good-bys, she wheeled the car, and drove it along rapidly, pursuing thoughts of the Bevis boys hardly short of murderous. The doctor was silent; but Sally, glancing at him, saw his quiet smile change to an apologetic look, and hated both the smile and the apology.
They went more slowly on the steep road from the water front to the hillside. The level light of the sinking sun shone brilliantly on daisies and nasturtiums at the roadside. Boats, riding at anchor, dipped in the wash of another incoming steamer. Dr. Bates hummed; but Sally frowned, and he was immediately hushed.
"Boy looking for you?" he said presently, as a small and dusty boy rose from a boulder at one side of the road and shouted something unintelligible.
"Why, I guess he is for me!" said Sally, in the first natural tone she had used that afternoon.
But the boy, upon being interrogated, said that the telegram was for "the doc that was visiting up to Miss Sally's house."
Dr. Bates read the little message several times, and absently dismissed the messenger with a coin, which Sally thought outrageously large, and a muttered worried word or two.
"Bad news?" she asked.
"In a way," he said quickly. "When's the next train for San Rafael, Miss Sally? I've got to be there to-night--right away! Do we have to stand here? Thank you. There's a case Field and I have been watching; he says that there's got to be an operation at eight--" His voice trailed off into troubled silence, and he drew out his watch. "Eight!" he muttered. "It's on seven now!"
"Oh, and you have to operate--horrible for you!" said Sally, taking the car skilfully toward the railroad station as she spoke. "But I don't see how you can! You've missed the six-thirty train, and there's not another until after nine. But you can wire Dr. Field that you will be there the first thing in the morning."
The doctor paid no attention.
"The livery stable is closed, I suppose?" he asked.
"Oh, long ago!"
He ruminated frowningly. Suddenly his face cleared.
"Funny how one thinks of the right solution last!" he said in relief. "How long would it take you to run me up there? Forty minutes?"
"I don't see how I could," said Sally, flushing. "I can take the car home, though, and ask Ferd to do it. But that woman's at the hotel, isn't she? I couldn't go up there and sit outside, with every one I knew coming out and wondering why I brought you instead of Ferd! Elsie wouldn't like it. You must see--"
"It would take us fifteen minutes at least to go up and get Ferd," objected the doctor, seriously; "and he's not much better than I am at running it, anyway!"
"Well, I'm sorry," said Sally, shortly, "but I simply couldn't do it. Dr. Field should have given you more notice. It would look simply absurd for me to go tearing over these country roads at night--Elsie would go mad wondering where I was--"
They were in the village now. Troubled and stubborn, Sally stopped the car, and looked mutinously at her companion. The doctor's rosy face was flushed under his flaming hair, and in his very blue eyes was a look that struck her with an almost panicky sensation of surprise. Sally had never seen any man regard her with an expression of distaste before, but the doctor's look was actually inimical.
"I feared that you would be the sort of woman to fail one utterly, like this," he said quietly. "I've often wondered--I've often said to myself, 'could she ever, under any circumstances, throw off that pretty baby way of hers, and forget that this world was made just for flirting and dressing and being admired?' By George, I see you can't! I see you can't! Well! Now, whom can I get to take me up there within the hour?"
He appeared to ponder. Sally sat as if stupefied.
"Don't resent what I say when I'm upset," said the doctor, absently. "You can't help your limitations, I can't help mine. I see a young woman--she's just lost a little boy, and she's all her husband has left--I see her dying because we're too late. You see a few empty- headed women saying that Sally Reade actually went driving alone, without her dinner, for three hours, with a man she hardly knew. I am not blaming you. You have never pretended to be anything but what you are. I blame myself for hoping--thinking--but, by George, you'd be an utter dead weight on a man if it was ever up to you to face an epidemic, or run a risk, or do one-twentieth of the things that those very ancestors of yours, that you're so proud of, used to do!"
Sally set her teeth. She leaned from the car to summon a small girl loitering on the road.
"You're one of the White children, aren't you?" said she to the child. "I want you to go up to Mrs. Ferdie Potter's house, and tell Mrs. Potter that her sister won't be home for several hours, and that I'll explain later. Now," said Sally, turning superbly to the doctor, "pull your hat down tight. We're going fast!"
They were three miles farther on their way before he saw that her little chin was quivering, and great tears were running down her small face. Time was precious, but for a few memorable moments they stopped the car again.
Miss Sally and Dr. Bates returned to the sleepy and excited Ferdies' at one o'clock that night. The light that never was on land or sea glittered in Sally's wonderful eyes; the doctor was white, shaken, and radiant. Sally flew to her sister's arms.
"We waited to see--and she came out of it--and she has a fair fighting chance!" said Sally, joyously; and the look she gave her doctor made Elsie's heart rise with a bound.
"Runaways," said Elsie, "come in and eat! I never knew a serious operation to have such a cheering effect on any one before!"
"It all went so well," said Sally, contentedly, over chicken and ginger ale. "But, Elsie! Such fun!" she burst out, her dimples suddenly again in view. "I am disgraced forever! After we had done everything to make the Bevis crowd think we were eloping, what did we do but run into the whole crowd at San Anselmo! I wish you could have seen their faces! We had said we couldn't possibly go; and we were going too fast to stop and explain!"
"We'll explain to-morrow," said the doctor, so significantly that Ferdie rose instantly to grasp his hand, and Elsie fell again upon Sally as if she had never kissed her before.
"Not--not really!" gasped Elsie, turning radiantly from one to the other.
"Oh, really!" said Sally, with her prettiest color. "He despises me, but he will take the case, anyway! And he has done nothing but mortify and enrage me all day, but I feel that I should miss it if it stopped! So we are going to sacrifice our lives to each other-- isn't it edifying and beautiful of us? We'll tell you all about it to-morrow. Jam--Sam?"