If only my poor child had a sensible mother," said Mrs. Tressady, calmly, "I suppose we would get Big Hong's 'carshen' for him, and that would do perfectly! But I will not have a Chinese man for Timothy's nurse! It seems all wrong, somehow."
"Big Hong hasn't got a female cousin, I suppose?" said Timothy's father; "a Chinese woman wouldn't be so bad." "Oh, I think it would be as bad--nearly," Mrs. Tressady returned with vivacity. "Anyway, this particular carshen is a man--'My carshen lun floot store'-- that's who it is!"
"Will you kindly explain what 'My carshen lun floot store' means?" asked a young man who was lying in a hammock that he lazily moved now and then by means of a white-shod foot. This was Peter Porter, who, with his wife, completed the little group on the Tressadys' roomy, shady side porch.
"It means my cousin who runs a fruit store," supplied Mrs. Porter--a big-boned, superb blonde who was in a deep chair sewing buttons on Timothy Tressady's new rompers. "Even I can see that--if I'm not a native of California."
"Yes, that's it," Mrs. Tressady said absently. "Go back and read those Situations Wanted over again, Jerry," she commanded with a decisive snip of the elastic she was cunningly inserting into more new rompers for Timothy.
Jerry Tressady obediently sat up in his steamer chair and flattened a copy of the Emville Mail upon his knee.
The problem under discussion this morning was that of getting a nurse for Timothy Tressady, aged two years. Elma, the silent, undemonstrative Swedish woman who had been with the family since Timothy's birth, had started back to Stockholm two months ago, and since then at least a dozen unsatisfactory applicants for her position had taken their turn at the Rising Water Ranch.
Mrs. Tressady, born and brought up in New York, sometimes sighed as she thought of her mother's capped and aproned maids; of Aunt Anna's maids; of her sister Lydia's maids. Sometimes in the hot summer, when the sun hung directly over the California bungalow for seven hours every day, and the grass on the low, rolling hills all about was dry and slippery, when Joe Parlona forgot to drive out from Emville with ice and mail, and Elma complained that Timmy could not eat his luncheon on the porch because of buzzing "jellow yackets," Molly Tressady found herself thinking other treasonable thoughts-- thoughts of packing, of final telegrams, of the Pullman sleeper, of Chicago in a blowing mist of rain, of the Grand Central at twilight, with the lights of taxicabs beginning to move one by one into the current of Forty-second Street--and her heart grew sick with longings. And sometimes in winter, when rain splashed all day from the bungalow eaves, and Beaver Creek rose and flooded its banks and crept inch by inch toward the garden gate, and when from the late dawn to the early darkness not a soul came near the ranch--she would have sudden homesick memories of Fifth Avenue, three thousand miles away, with its motor-cars and its furred women and its brilliant tea-rooms. She would suddenly remember the opera-house and the long line of carriages in the snow, and the boys calling the opera scores.
However, for such moods the quickest cure was a look at Jerry-- strong, brown, vigorous Jerry--tramping the hills, writing his stories, dreaming over his piano, and sleeping deep and restfully under the great arch of the stars. Jerry had had a cold four years ago--"just a mean cold," had been the doctor's cheerful phrase; but what terror it struck to the hearts that loved Jerry! Molly's eyes, flashing to his mother's eyes, had said: "Like his father--like his aunt--like the little sister who died!" And for the first time Jerry's wife had found herself glad that little Jerry Junior--he who could barely walk, who had as yet no words--had gone away from them fearlessly into the great darkness a year before. He might have grown up to this, too.
So they came to California, and big Jerry's cold did not last very long in the dry heat of Beaver Creek Valley. He and Molly grew so strong and brown and happy that they never minded restrictions and inconveniences, loneliness and strangeness--and when a strong and brown and happy little Timothy joined the group, Molly renounced forever all serious thoughts of going home. California became home. Such friends as chance brought their way must be their only friends; such comfort as the dry little valley and the brown hills could hold must suffice them now. Molly exulted in sending her mother snapshots of Timmy picking roses in December, and in heading July letters: "By our open fire--for it's really cool to-day."
Indeed it was not all uncomfortable and unlovely. All the summer nights were fresh and cool and fragrant; there were spring days when all the valley seemed a ravishing compound of rain-cooled air and roses, of buttercups in the high, sunflecked grass under the apple- trees, crossed and recrossed by the flashing blue and brown of mating jays and larks. It was not a long drive to the deep woods; and it was but six miles to Emville, where there was always the pleasant stir and bustle of a small country town; trains puffing in to disgorge a dozen travelling agents and their bags; the wire door at the post-office banging and banging; the maid at the Old Original Imperial Commercial Hotel coming out on the long porch to ring a wildly clamorous dinner-bell. Molly grew to love Emville.
Then, two or three times a year, such old friends as the Porters, homeward bound after the Oriental trip, came their way, and there was delicious talk at the ranch of old days, of the new theatres, and the new hotels, and the new fashions. The Tressadys stopped playing double Canfield and polished up their bridge game; and Big Hong, beaming in his snowy white, served meals that were a joy to his heart. Hong was a marvellous cook; Hong cared beautifully for all his domain; and Little Hong took care of the horses, puttered in the garden, swept, and washed windows. But they needed more help, for there were times when Molly was busy or headachy or proof- reading for Jerry or riding with him. Some one must be responsible every second of the day and night for Timmy. And where to get that some one?
"Aren't they terrors!" said Mrs. Porter in reference to the nurse- maids that would not come to the ranch on any terms. "What do they expect anyway?"
"Oh, they get lonesome," Molly said in discouragement, "and of course it is lonely! But I should think some middle-aged woman or some widow with a child even--"
"Molly always returns to that possible widow!" said her husband. "I think we might try two!"
"I would never think of that!" said the mistress of the ranch firmly. "Four servants always underfoot!"
"Did you ever think of trying a regular trained nurse, Molly?" Peter Porter asked.
"But then you have them at the table, Peter--and always in the drawing-room evenings. And no matter how nice they are--"
"That's the worst of that!" agreed Peter.
Jerry Tressady threw the Mail on the floor and sat up.
"Who's this coming up now, Molly?" he asked.
He had lowered his voice, because the white-clad young woman who was coming composedly up the path between the sunflowers and the overloaded rose-bushes was already within hearing distance. She was a heavy, well-developed young person upon closer view, with light- lashed eyes of a guileless, childlike blue, rosy cheeks, and a mass of bright, shining hair, protected now only by a parasol. Through the embroidery insertion of her fresh, stiff dress she showed glimpses of a snowy bosom, and under her crisp skirt a ruffle of white petticoat and white-shod feet were visible. She was panting from her walk and wiped her glowing face with her handkerchief before she spoke.
"Howdy-do, folks?" said the new-comer, easily, dropping upon the steps and fanning herself with the limp handkerchief. "I don't wonder you keep a motor-car; it's something fierce walking down here! I could of waited," she went on thoughtfully, "and had my brother brought me down in the machine, but I hadn't no idea it was so far. I saw your ad in the paper," she went on, addressing Mrs. Tressady directly, with a sort of trusting simplicity that was rather pretty, "and I thought you might like me for your girl."
"Well,--" began Molly, entirely at a loss, for until this second no suspicion of the young woman's errand had occurred to her. She dared not look at husband or guests; she fixed her eyes seriously upon the would-be nurse.
"Of course I wouldn't work for everybody," said the new-comer hastily and proudly. "I never worked before and mamma thinks I'm crazy to work now, but I don't think that taking care of a child is anything to be ashamed of!" The blue eyes flashed dramatically--she evidently enjoyed this speech. "And what's more, I don't expect any one of my friends to shun me or treat me any different because I'm a servant--that is, so long as I act like a lady," she finished in a lower tone. A sound from the hammock warned Mrs. Tressady; and suggesting in a somewhat unsteady voice that they talk the matter over indoors, she led the new maid out of sight.
For some twenty minutes the trio on the porch heard the steady rise and fall of voices indoors; then Molly appeared and asked her husband in a rather dissatisfied voice what he thought.
"Why, it's what you think, dear. How's she seem?"
"She's competent enough--seems to know all about children, and I think she'd be strong and willing. She's clean as a pink, too. And she'd come for thirty and would be perfectly contented, because she lives right near here--that house just before you come to Emville which says Chickens and Carpentering Done Here--don't you know? She has a widowed sister who would come and stay with her at night when we're away." Mrs. Tressady summed it up slowly.
"Why not try her then, dear? By the way, what's her name?"
"Tell her I'm English," said Mr. Porter, rapturously, "and that over there we call servants--"
"No, but Jerry,"--Mrs. Tressady was serious,--"would you? She's so utterly untrained. That's the one thing against her. She hasn't the faintest idea of the way a servant should act. She told me she just loved the way I wore my hair, and she said she wanted me to meet her friend. Then she asked me, 'Who'd you name him Timothy for?'"
"Oh, you'd tame her fast enough. Just begin by snubbing her every chance you get--"
"I see it!" laughed Mrs. Porter, for Mrs. Tressady was a woman full of theories about the sisterhood of woman, about equality, about a fair chance for every one--and had never been known to hurt any one's feelings in the entire course of her life.
Just here Belle stepped through one of the drawing-room French windows, with dewy, delicious Timothy, in faded pale-blue sleeping- wear, in her arms.
"This darling little feller was crying," said Belle, "and I guess he wants some din-din--don't you, lover? Shall I step out and tell one of those Chinese boys to get it? Listen! From now on I'll have mamma save all the banty eggs for you, Timmy, and some day I'll take you down there and show you the rabbits, darling. Would you like that?"
Molly glanced helplessly at her husband.
"How soon could you come, Belle?" asked Jerry, and that settled it. He had interpreted his wife's look and assumed the responsibility. Molly found herself glad.
Belle came two days later, with every evidence of content. It soon became evident that she had adopted the family and considered herself adopted in turn. Her buoyant voice seemed to leap out of every opened door. She rose above her duties and floated along on a constant stream of joyous talk.
"We're going to have fried chicken and strawberries--my favorite dinner!" said Belle when Molly was showing her just how she liked the table set. After dinner, cheerfully polishing glasses, she suddenly burst into song as she stood at the open pantry window, some ten feet from the side porch. The words floated out:
"And the band was bravely playing The song of the cross and crown-- Nearer, my god, to thee-- As the ship--"
Mrs. Tressady sat up, a stirring shadow among the shadows of the porch.
"I must ask her not to do that," she announced quietly, and disappeared.
"And I spoke to her about joining in the conversation at dinner," she said, returning. "She took it very nicely."
Belle's youthful spirits were too high to succumb to one check, however. Five minutes later she burst forth again:
"Ring, ting-a-ling, ting-a-ling, on your telephone-- And ring me up tonight--"
"Soft pedal, Belle!" Jerry called.
"Sure!" she called back. "I forgot."
Presently the bright blot of light that fell from the pantry window on the little willow trees vanished silently, and they could hear Belle's voice in the kitchen.
"Good-natured," said Molly.
"Strong," Mrs. Porter said.
"And pretty as a peach!" said Peter Porter.
"Oh, she'll do!" Jerry Tressady said contentedly.
She was good-natured, strong, and pretty indeed, and she did a great deal. Timmy's little garments fluttered on the clothes-line before breakfast; Timmy's room was always in order: Timmy was always dainty and clean. Belle adored him and the baby returned her affection. They murmured together for hours down on the river bank or on the shady porch. Belle always seemed cheerful.
Nor could it be said that Belle did not know her place. She revelled in her title. "This is Mrs. Tressady's maid," Belle would say mincingly at the telephone, "and she does not allow her servants to make engagements for her." "My friends want me to enter my name for a prize for the most popular girl in the Emville bazaar, Mrs. Tressady; but I thought I would ask your permission first."
But there was a sort of breezy familiarity about her very difficult to check. On her second day at the ranch she suddenly came behind Jerry Tressady seated on the piano bench and slipped a sheet of music before him.
"Won't you just run over that last chorus for me, Mr. Tress'dy?" asked Belle. "I have to sing that at a party Thursday night and I can't seem to get it."
No maid between Washington Square and the Bronx Zoo would have asked this favor. Yes, but Rising Water Ranch was not within those limits, nor within several thousand miles of them; so Jerry played the last chorus firmly, swiftly, without comment, and Belle gratefully withdrew. The Porters, unseen witnesses of this scene, on the porch, thought this very amusing; but only a day later Mrs. Porter herself was discovered in the act of buttoning the long line of buttons that went down the back of one of Belle's immaculate white gowns.
"Well, what could I do? She suddenly backed up before me," Mrs. Porter said in self-defence. "Could I tell her to let Hong button her?"
After dinner on the same day Peter Porter cleared a space before him on the table and proceeded to a demonstration involving a fork, a wedding ring, and a piece of string. While the quartet, laughing, were absorbed in the mysterious swinging of the suspended ring, Belle, putting away her clean silver, suddenly joined the group.
"I know a better one than that," said she, putting a glass of water before Mrs. Tressady. "Here--take your ring again. Now wait--I'll pull out one of your hairs for you. Now swing it over the water inside the glass. It'll tell your age."
Entirely absorbed in the experiment, her fresh young face close to theirs, her arms crossed as she knelt by the table, she had eyes only for the ring.
"We won't keep you from your dishes, Belle," said Molly.
"Oh, I'm all through," said Belle, cheerfully. "There!" For the ring was beginning to strike the glass with delicate, even strokes-- thirty.
"Now do it again," cried Belle, delightedly, "and it'll tell your married life!"
Again the ring struck the glass--eight.
"Well, that's very marvellous," said Molly, in genuine surprise; but when Belle had gone back to her pantry, Mrs. Tressady rose, with a little sigh, and followed her.
"Call her down?" asked Jerry, an hour later.
"Well, no," the lady admitted, smiling. "No! She was putting away Timmy's bibs, and she told me that he had seemed a little upset to- night, she thought; so she gave him just barley gruel and the white of an egg for supper, and some rhubarb water before he went to bed. And what could I say? But I will, though!"
During the following week Mrs. Tressady told Belle she must not rush into a room shouting news--she must enter quietly and wait for an opportunity to speak; Mrs. Tressady asked her to leave the house by the side porch and quietly when going out in the evening to drive with her young man; Mrs. Tressady asked her not to deliver the mail with the announcement: "Three from New York, an ad from Emville, and one with a five-cent stamp on it;" she asked her not to shout out from the drive, "White skirt show?" She said Belle must not ask, "What's he doing?" when discovering Mr. Tressady deep in a chess problem; Belle must not drop into a chair when bringing Timmy out to the porch after his afternoon outing; she must not be heard exclaiming, "Yankee Doodle!" and "What do you know about that!" when her broom dislodged a spider or her hair caught on the rose-bushes.
To all of these requests Belle answered, "Sure!" with great penitence and amiability.
"Sure, Mis' Tress'dy--Say, listen! I can match that insertion I spilled ink on--in Emville. Isn't that the limit? I can fix it so it'll never show in the world!"
"I wouldn't stand that girl for--one--minute," said Mrs. Porter to her husband; but this was some weeks later when the Porters were in a comfortable Pullman, rushing toward New York.
"I think Molly's afraid of flying in the face of Providence and discharging her," said Peter Porter--"but praying every day that she'll go."
This was almost the truth. Belle's loyalty, affection, good nature, and willingness were beyond price, but Belle's noisiness, her slang, and her utter lack of training were a sore trial. When November came, with rains that kept the little household at Rising Water prisoners indoors, Mrs. Tressady began to think she could not stand Belle much longer.
"My goodness!" Belle would say loudly when sent for to bring a filled lamp. "Is that other lamp burned out already? Say, listen! I'll give you the hall lamp while I fill it." "You oughtn't to touch pie just after one of your headaches!" she would remind her employer in a respectful aside at dinner. And sometimes when Molly and her husband were busy in the study a constant stream of conversation would reach them from the nursery where Belle was dressing Timothy:
"Now where's the boy that's going to let Belle wash his face? Oh, my, what a good boy! Now, just a minny--minny--minny--that's all. Now give Belle a sweet, clean kiss--yes, but give Belle a sweet, clean kiss--give Belle a kiss--oh, Timmy, do you want Belle to cry? Well, then, give her a kiss--give Belle a sweet kiss--"
When Molly was bathing the boy Belle would come and take a comfortable chair near by, ready to spring for powder or pins, but otherwise studying her fingernails or watching the bath with genial interest. Molly found herself actually lacking in the strength of mind to exact that Belle stand silently near on these occasions, and so listened to a great many of Belle's confidences. Belle at home; Belle in the high school; Belle trying a position in Robbins's candy store and not liking it because she was not used to freshness--all these Belles became familiar to Molly. Grewsome sicknesses, famous local crimes, gossip, weddings--Belle touched upon them all; and Molly was ashamed to find it all interesting, it spite of herself. One day Belle told Molly of Joe Rogers, and Joe figured daily in the narratives thereafter--Joe, who drove a carriage, a motor, or a hay wagon, as the occasion required, for his uncle who owned a livery stable, but whose ambition was to buy out old Scanlon, the local undertaker, and to marry Belle.
"Joe knows more about embalming than even Owens of Napa does," confided Belle. "He's got every plat in the cemetery memorized--and, his uncle having carriages and horses, it would work real well; but Scanlon wants three thousand for the business and goodwill."
"I wish he had it and you this minute!" Molly would think. But when she opened Timmy's bureau drawers, to find little suits and coats and socks in snowy, exquisite order; when Timmy, trim, sweet, and freshly clad, appeared for breakfast every morning, his fat hand in Belle's, and "Dea' Booey"--as he called her--figuring prominently in his limited vocabulary, Molly weakened again.
"Is he mad this morning?" Belle would ask in a whisper before Jerry appeared. "Say, listen! You just let him think I broke the decanter!" she suggested one day in loyal protection of Molly. "Why, I think the world and all of Mr. Tressady!" she assured Molly, when reproved for speaking of him in this way. "Wasn't it the luckiest thing in the world--my coming up that day?" she would demand joyously over and over. Her adoption of and by the family of Tressady was--to her, at least--complete.
In January Uncle George Tressady's estate was finally distributed, and this meant great financial ease at Rising Water. Belle, Molly said, was really getting worse and worse as she became more and more at home; and the time had come to get a nice trained nurse--some one who could keep a professional eye on Timmy, be a companion to Molly, and who would be quiet and refined, and gentle in her speech.
"And not a hint to Belle, Jerry," Molly warned him, "until we see how it is going to work. She'll see presently that we don't need both."
When Miss Marshall, cool, silent, drab of hair and eye, arrived at the ranch, Belle was instantly suspicious.
"What's she here for? Who's sick?" demanded Belle, coming into Mrs. Tressady's room and closing the door behind her, her eyes bright and hard.
Molly explained diplomatically. Belle must be very polite to the new-comer; it was just an experiment--"This would be a good chance to hint that I'm not going to keep both," thought Molly, as Belle listened.
Belle disarmed her completely, however, by coming over to her with a suddenly bright face and asking in an awed voice:
"Is it another baby? Oh, you don't know how glad I'd be! The darling, darling little thing!"
Molly felt the tears come into her eyes--a certain warmth creep about her heart.
"No," she said smiling; "but I'm glad you will love it if it ever comes!" This was, of course, exactly what she did not mean to say.
"If we got Miss Marshall because of Uncle George's money," said Belle, huffily, departing, "I wish he hadn't died! There isn't a thing in this world for her to do."
Miss Marshall took kindly to idleness--talking a good deal of previous cases, playing solitaire, and talking freely to Molly of various internes and patients who admired her. She marked herself at once as unused to children by calling Timothy "little man," and, except for a vague, friendly scrutiny of his tray three times a day, did nothing at all--even leaving the care of her room to Belle.
After a week or two, Miss Marshall went away, to Belle's great satisfaction, and Miss Clapp came. Miss Clapp was forty, and strong and serious; she did not embroider or confide in Molly; she sat silent at meals, chewing firmly, her eyes on her plate. "What would you like me to do now?" she would ask Molly, gravely, at intervals.
Molly, with Timothy asleep and Belle sweeping, could only murmur:
"Why, just now,--let me see,--perhaps you'd like to write letters-- or just read--"
"And are you going to take little Timothy with you when he wakes up?"
Molly would evade the uncompromising eyes.
"Why, I think so. The sun's out now. You must come, too."
Miss Clapp, coming, too, cast a damper on the drive; and she persisted in talking about the places where she was really needed.
"Imagine a ward with forty little suffering children in it, Mrs. Tressady! That's real work--that's a real privilege!"
And after a week or two Miss Clapp went joyously back to her real work with a generous check for her children's ward in her pocket. She kissed Timothy good-by with the first tenderness she had shown.
"Didn't she make you feel like an ant in an anthill?" asked Belle, cheerfully watching the departing carriage. "She really didn't take no interest in Timothy because there wasn't a hundred of him!"
There was a peaceful interval after this, while Molly diligently advertised for "A competent nurse. One child only. Good salary. Small family in country."
No nurse, competent or incompetent, replied. Then came the January morning when Belle casually remarked: "Stupid! You never wound it!" to the master of the house, who was attempting to start a stopped clock. This was too much! Mrs. Tressady immediately wrote the letter that engaged Miss Carter, a highly qualified and high-priced nursery governess who had been recommended by a friend.
Miss Carter, a rosy, strong, pleasant girl, appeared two days later in a driving rain and immediately "took hold." She was talkative, assured in manner, neat in appearance, entirely competent. She drove poor Belle to frenzy with her supervision of Timothy's trays, baths and clothes, amusements and sleeping arrangements. Timmy liked her, which was point one in her favor. Point two was that she liked to have her meals alone, liked to disappear with a book, could amuse herself for hours in her own room.
The Tressadys, in the privacy of their own room, began to say to each other: "I like her--she'll do!"
"She's very complacent," Molly would say with a sigh.
"But it's nothing to the way Belle effervesces all over the place!"
"Oh, I suppose she is simply trying to make a good impression-- that's all." And Mrs. Tressady began to cast about in her mind for just the words in which to tell Belle that--really--four servants were not needed at the ranch. Belle was so sulky in these days and so rude to the new-comer that Molly knew she would have no trouble in finding good reason for the dismissal.
"Are we going to keep her?" Belle asked scornfully one morning--to which her mistress answered sharply:
"Belle, kindly do not shout so when you come into my room. Do you see that I am writing?"
"Gee whiz!" said Belle, sorrowfully, as she went out, and she visibly drooped all day.
It was decided that as soon as the Tressadys' San Francisco visit was over, Belle should go. They were going down to the city for a week in early March--for some gowns for Molly, some dinners, some opera, and one of the talks with Jerry's doctor that were becoming so delightfully unnecessary.
They left the ranch in a steady, gloomy downpour. Molly did her packing between discouraged trips to the window, and deluged Belle and Miss Carter with apprehensive advice that was not at all like her usual trusting outlook.
"Don't fail to telephone me instantly at the hotel if anything--but, of course, nothing will," said Molly. "Anyway you know the doctor's number, Belle, and about a hot-water bag for him if his feet are cold, and oil the instant he shows the least sign of fever--"
"Cert'n'y!" said Belle, reassuringly.
"This is Monday," said Molly. "We'll be back Sunday night. Have Little Hong meet us at the Junction. And if it's clear, bring Timmy."
"Cert'n'y!" said Belle.
"I hate to go in all this rain!" Molly said an hour or two later from the depths of the motor-car.
Miss Carter was holding Timmy firmly on the sheltered porch railing. Belle stood on an upper step in the rain. Big Hong beamed from the shadowy doorway. At the last instant Belle suddenly caught Timmy in her arms and ran down the wet path.
"Give muddy a reel good kiss for good-by!" commanded Belle, and Molly hungrily claimed not one, but a score.
"Good-by, my heart's heart!" she said. "Thank you, Belle." As the carriage whirled away she sighed. "Was there ever such a good- hearted, impossible creature!"
Back into the house went Belle and Timmy, Miss Carter and Big Hong. Back came Little Hong with the car. Silence held the ranch; the waning winter light fell on Timmy, busy with blocks; on Belle darning; on Miss Carter reading a light novel. The fire blazed, sank to quivering blue, leaped with a sucking noise about a fresh log, and sank again. At four the lamps were lighted, the two women fussed amicably together over Timothy's supper. Later, when he was asleep, Miss Carter, who had no particular fancy for the shadows that lurked in the corners of the big room and the howling wind on the roof, said sociably: "Shall we have our dinner on two little tables right here before the fire, Belle?" And still later, after an evening of desultory reading and talking, she suggested that they leave their bedroom doors open. Belle agreed. If Miss Carter was young, Belle was younger still.
The days went by. Hong served them delicious meals. Timmy was angelic. They unearthed halma, puzzles, fortune-telling cards. The rain fell steadily; the eaves dripped; the paths were sheets of water.
"It certainly gets on your nerves--doesn't it?" said Miss Carter, when the darkness came on Thursday night. Belle, from the hall, came and stood beside her at the fireplace.
"Our 'phone is cut off," said she, uneasily. "The water must of cut down a pole somewheres. Let's look at the river."
Suddenly horror seemed to seize upon them both. They could not cross the floor fast enough and plunge fast enough into the night. It was dark out on the porch, and for a moment or two they could see nothing but the swimming blackness, and hear nothing but the gurgle and drip of the rain-water from eaves and roof. The rain had stopped, or almost stopped. A shining fog seemed to lie flat--high and level over the river-bed.
Suddenly, as they stared, this fog seemed to solidify before their eyes, seemed curiously to step into the foreground and show itself for what it was. They saw it was no longer fog, but water--a level spread of dark, silent water. The Beaver Creek had flooded its banks and was noiselessly, pitilessly creeping over the world.
"It's the river!" Belle whispered. "Gee whiz, isn't she high!"
"What is it?" gasped Miss Carter, from whose face every vestige of color had fled.
"Why, it's the river!" Belle answered, slowly, uneasily. She held out her hand. "Thank God, the rain's stopped!" she said under her breath. Then, so suddenly that Miss Carter jumped nervously, she shouted: "Hong!"
Big Hong came out, and Little Hong. All four stood staring at the motionless water, which was like some great, menacing presence in the dark--some devil-fish of a thousand arms, content to bide his time.
The bungalow stood on a little rise of ground in a curve of the river. On three sides of it, at all seasons, were the sluggish currents of Beaver Creek, and now the waters met on the fourth side. The garden path that led to the Emville road ran steeply now into this pool, and the road, sloping upward almost imperceptibly, emerged from the water perhaps two hundred feet beyond.
"Him how deep?" asked Hong.
"Well, those hollyhocks at the gate are taller than I am," Belle said, "and you can't see them at all. I'll bet it's ten feet deep most of the way."
She had grown very white, and seemed to speak with difficulty. Miss Carter went into the house, with the dazed look of a woman in a dream, and knelt at the piano bench.
"Oh, my God--my God--my God!" she said in a low, hoarse tone, her fingers pressed tightly over her eyes.
"Don't be so scared!" said Belle, hardily, though the sight of the other woman's terror had made her feel cold and sick at her stomach. "There's lots of things we can do--"
"There's an attic--"
"Ye-es," Belle hesitated. "But I wouldn't go up there," she said. "It's just an unfloored place under the roof--no way out!"
"No--no--no--not there, then!" Miss Carter said heavily, paler than before. "But what can we do?"
"Why, this water is backing up," Belle said slowly, "It's not coming downstream, so any minute whatever's holding it back may burst and the whole thing go at once--or if it stops raining, it won't go any higher."
"Well, we must get away as fast as we can while there is time," said Miss Carter, trembling, but more composed. "We could swim that distance--I swim a little. Then, if we can't walk into Emville, we'll have to spend the night on the hills. We could reach the hills, I should think." Her voice broke. "Oh--this is terrible!" she broke out frantically--and she began to walk the floor.
"Hong, could we get the baby acrost?" asked Belle.
"Oh, the child--of course!" said Miss Carter, under her breath. Hong shook his head.
"Man come bimeby boat," he suggested. "Me no swim--Little Hong no swim."
"You can't swim" cried Miss Carter, despairingly, and covered her face with her hands.
Little Hong now came in to make some earnest suggestion in Chinese. His uncle, approving it, announced that they two, unable to swim, would, nevertheless, essay to cross the water with the aid of a floating kitchen bench, and that they would fly for help. They immediately carried the bench out into the night.
The two women followed; a hideous need of haste seemed to possess them all. The rain was falling heavily again.
"It's higher," said Miss Carter, in a dead tone. Belle eyed the water nervously.
"You couldn't push Timmy acrost on that bench?" she ventured.
It became immediately evident, however, that the men would be extremely fortunate in getting themselves across. The two dark, sleek heads made slow progress on the gloomy water. The bench tipped, turned slowly, righted itself, and tipped again. Soon they worked their slow way out of sight.
Then came silence--silence!
"She's rising!" said Belle.
Miss Carter went blindly into the house. She was ashen and seemed to be choking. She sat down.
"They'll be back in no time," said she, in a sick voice.
"Sure!" said Belle, moistening her lips.
There was a long silence. Rain drummed on the roof.
"Do you swim, Belle?" Miss Carter asked after a restless march about the room.
"Some--I couldn't swim with the baby--"
Miss Carter was not listening. She leaned her head against the mantelpiece. Suddenly she began to walk again, her eyes wild, her breath uneven.
"Well, there must be something we can do, Belle!"
"I've been trying to think," said Belle, slowly. "A bread board wouldn't float, you know, even if the baby would sit on it. We've not got a barrel--and a box--"
"There must be boxes!" cried the other woman.
"Yes; but the least bit of a tip would half fill a box with water. No--" Belle shook her head. "I'm not a good enough swimmer."
Another short silence.
"Belle, does this river rise every winter?"
"Why, yes, I suppose it does. I know one year Emville was flooded and the shops moved upstairs. There was a family named Wescott living up near here then--" Belle did not pursue the history of the Westcott family, and Miss Carter knew why.
"Oh, I think it is criminal for people to build in a place like this!" Miss Carter burst out passionately. "They're safe enough--oh, certainly!" she went on with bitter emphasis. "But they leave us--"
"It shows how little you know us, thinking we'd run any risk with Timmy--" Belle said stiffly; but she interrupted herself to say sharply: "Here's the water!"
She went to the door and opened it. The still waters of Beaver Creek were lapping the porch steps.
Miss Carter made an inarticulate exclamation and went into her room. Belle, following her to her door, saw her tear off her shoes and stockings, and change her gown for some brief, dark garment.
"It's every one for himself now!" said Miss Carter, feverishly. "This is no time for sentiment. If they don't care enough for their child to--This is my gym suit--I'm thankful I brought it. Don't be utterly mad, Belle! If the water isn't coming, Timmy'll be all right. If it is, I don't see why we should be so utterly crazy as not to try to save ourselves. We can easily swim it, and then we can get help--You've got a bathing suit--go put it on. My God, Belle, it's not as if we could do anything by staying. If we could, I'd--"
Belle turned away. When Miss Carter followed her, she found her in Mrs. Tressady's bedroom, looking down at the sleeping Timmy. Timmy had taken to bed with him a box of talcum powder wrapped in a towel, as a "doddy." One fat, firm little hand still held the meaningless toy. He was breathing heavily, evenly--his little forehead moist, his hair clinging in tendrils about his face.
"No--of course we can't leave him!" said Miss Carter, heavily, as the women went back to the living-room. She went frantically from window to window. "It's stopped raining!" she announced.
"We'll laugh at this to-morrow," said Belle. They went to the door. A shallow sheet of water, entering, crept in a great circle about their very feet.
"Oh, no--it's not to be expected; it's too much!" Miss Carter cried. Without an instant's hesitation she crossed the porch and splashed down the invisible steps.
"I take as great a chance in going as you do in staying," she said, with chattering teeth. "If--if it comes any higher, you'll swim for it--won't you, Belle?"
"Oh, I'd try it with him as a last chance," Belle answered sturdily. She held a lamp so that its light fell across the water. "That's right. Keep headed that way!" she said.
"I'm all right!" Miss Carter's small head was bravely cleaving the smooth dark water. "I'll run all the way and bring back help in no time," she called back.
When the lamp no longer illumined her, Belle went into the house. The door would not shut, but the water was not visibly higher. She went in to Timmy's crib, knelt down beside him, and put her arms about his warm little body.
Meanwhile Timmy's father and mother, at the hotel, were far from happy. They stopped for a paper on their way to the opera on Thursday night; and on their return, finding no later edition procurable, telephoned one of the newspapers to ask whether there was anything in the reports that the rivers were rising up round Emville. On Friday morning Jerry, awakening, perceived his wife half-hidden in the great, rose-colored window draperies, barefoot, still in her nightgown, and reading a paper.
"Jerry," said she, very quietly, "can we go home today? I'm worried. Some of the Napa track has been washed away and they say the water's being pushed back. Can we get the nine o'clock train?"
"But, darling, it must be eight now."
"I know it."
"Why not telephone to Belle, dear, and have them all come into Emville if you like."
"Oh, Jerry--of course! I never thought of it." She flew to the telephone on the wall. "The operator says she can't get them-- they're so stupid!" she presently announced.
Jerry took the instrument away from her and the little lady contentedly began her dressing. When she came out of the dressing- room a few moments later, her husband was flinging things into his suitcase.
"Get Belle, Jerry?"
"Nope." He spoke cheerfully, but did not meet her eyes. "Nope. They can't get 'em. Lines seem to be down. I guess we'll take the nine."
"Jerry,"--Molly Tressady came over to him quietly,--"what did they tell you?"
"Now, nothing at all--" Jerry began. At his tone terror sprang to Molly's heart and sank its cruel claws there. There was no special news from Rising Water he explained soothingly; but, seeing that she was nervous, and the nine was a through train, and so on--and on--
"Timmy--Timmy--Timmy!" screamed Molly's heart. She could not see; she could not think or hear, or taste her breakfast. Her little boy- -her little, helpless, sturdy, confident baby, who had never been frightened, never alone--never anything but warm and safe and doubly, trebly guarded--
They were crossing a sickening confusion that was the hotel lobby. They were moving in a taxicab through bright, hideous streets. The next thing she knew, Jerry was seating her in a parlor car.
"Yes, I know, dear--Of course--Surely!" she said pleasantly and mechanically when he seemed to expect an answer.--She thought of how he would have come to meet her; of how the little voice always rang out: "Dere's my muddy!"
"Raining again!" said Jerry. "It stopped this morning at two. Oh, yes, really it did. We're almost there now. Hello! Here's the boy with the morning papers. See, dear, here's the head-line: Rain Stops at One-fifty--"
But Molly had seen another headline--a big headline that read: "Loss of Life at Rising Water! Governess of Jerome Tressady's Family Swims One Mile to Safety!"--and she had fainted away.
She was very brave, very reasonable, when consciousness came back, but there could be no more pretence. She sat in the demoralized little parlor of the Emville Hotel--waiting for news--very white, very composed, a terrible look in her eyes. Jerry came and went constantly; other people constantly came and went. The flood was falling fast now and barges were being towed down the treacherous waters of Beaver Creek; refugees--and women and children whom the mere sight of safety and dry land made hysterical again--were being gathered up. Emville matrons, just over their own hours of terror, were murmuring about gowns, about beds, about food: "Lots of room-- well, thank God for that--you're all safe, anyway!" "Yes, indeed; that's the only thing that counts!" "Well, bless his heart, we'll tell him some day that when he was a baby--" Molly caught scraps of their talk, their shaken laughter, their tears; but there was no news of Belle--of Timmy--
"Belle is a splendid, strong country girl, you know, dear," Jerry said. "Belle would be equal to any emergency!"
"Of course," Molly heard herself say.
Jerry presently came in from one of his trips to draw a chair close to his wife's and tell her that he had seen Miss Carter.
"Or, at least, I've seen her mother," said Jerry, laying a restraining hand upon Molly, who sat bolt upright, her breast heaving painfully--"for she herself is feverish and hysterical, dear. It seems that she left--Now, my darling, you must be quiet."
"I'm all right, Jerry. Go on! Go on!"
"She says that Hong and Little Hong managed to get away early in the evening for help. She didn't leave until about midnight, and Belle and the boy were all right then--"
"Oh, my God!" cried poor Molly.
"Molly, dear, you make it harder."
"Yes, I know." Her penitent hot hand touched his own. "I know, dear- -I'm sorry."
"That's all, dear. The water wasn't very high then. Belle wouldn't leave Timmy-" Jerry Tressady jumped suddenly to his feet and went to stare out the window with unseeing eyes. "Miss Carter didn't get into town here until after daylight," he resumed, "and the mother, poor soul, is wild with fright over her; but she's all right. Now, Molly, there's a barge going up as far as Rising Water at four. They say the bungalow is still cut off, probably, but they'll take us as near as they can. I'm going, and this Rogers--Belle's friend--will go, too."
"What do you think, Jerry?" she besought him, agonized.
"My darling, I don't know what to think."
"Were--were many lives lost, Jerry?"
"A few, dear."
"Jerry,"--Molly's burning eyes searched his,--"I'm sane now. I'm not going to faint again; but--but--after little Jerry--I couldn't bear it and live!"
"God sent us strength for that, Molly."
"Yes, I know!" she said, and burst into bitter tears.
It had been arranged that Molly should wait at the hotel for the return of the barge; but Jerry was not very much surprised, upon going on board, to find her sitting, a shadowy ghost of herself, in the shelter of the boxed supplies that might be needed. He did not protest, but sat beside her; and Belle's friend, a serious, muscular young man, took his place at her other side.
The puffing little George Dickey started on her merciful journey only after some agonizing delays; but Molly did not comment upon them once, nor did any one of the trio speak throughout the terrible journey. The storm was gone now, and pale, uncertain sunlight was falling over the altered landscape--over the yellow, sullen current of the river; over the drowned hills and partly submerged farms. A broom drifted by; a child's perambulator; a porch chair. Now and then there was frantic signalling from some little, sober group of refugees, huddled together on a water-stained porch or travelling slowly down the heavy roads in a spattered surrey.
"This is as near as we can go," Jerry said presently. The three were rowed across shallow water and found themselves slowly following on foot the partly obliterated road they knew so well. A turn of the road brought the bungalow into view.
There the little house stood, again high above the flood, though the garden was a drenched waste, and a shallow sheet of water still lay across the pathway. The sinking sun struck dazzling lights from all the windows; no living thing was in sight. A terrible stillness held the place!
To the gate they went and across the pool. Then Jerry laid a restraining hand on his wife's arm.
"Yes'm. You'd 'a' better wait here," said young Rogers, speaking for the first time. "Belle wouldn't 'a' stayed, you may be sure. We'll just take a look."
They were not ten feet from the house, now--hesitating, sick with dread. Suddenly on the still air there was borne a sound that stopped them where they stood. It was a voice--Belle's voice--tired and somewhat low, but unmistakably Belle's:
"Then i'll go home, my crown to wear; for there's a crown for me--"
"Belle!" screamed Molly. Somehow she had mounted the steps, crossed the porch, and was at the kitchen door.
Belle and Timothy were in the kitchen--Timothy's little bib tied about his neck, Timothy's little person securely strapped in his high chair, and Timothy's blue bowl, full of some miraculously preserved cereal, before him. Belle was seated--her arms resting heavily and wearily upon his tray, her dress stained to the armpits, her face colorless and marked by dark lines. She turned and sprang up at the sound of voices and feet, and had only time for a weak smile before she fell quite senseless to the floor. Timmy waved a welcoming spoon, and shouted lustily: "Dere's my muddy!"
Presently Belle was resting her head upon Joe's big shoulder, and laughing and crying over the horrors of the night. Timothy was in his mother's arms, but Molly had a hand free for Belle's hand and did not let it go through all the hour that followed. Her arms might tighten about the delicious little form, her lips brush the tumbled little head--but her eyes were all for Belle.
"It wasn't so fierce," said Belle. "The water went highest at one; and we went to the porch and thought we'd have to swim for it-- didn't we, Timmy? But it stayed still a long time, and it wasn't raining, and I came in and set Timmy on the mantel--my arms were so tired. It's real lucky we have a mantel, isn't it?"
"You stood, and held Tim on the mantel: that was it?" asked Jerry.
"Sure--while we was waiting," said Belle. "I wouldn't have minded anything, but the waiting was fierce. Timmy was an angel! He set there and I held him--I don't know--a long time. Then I seen that the water was going down again; I could tell by the book-case, and I begun to cry. Timmy kept kissing me--didn't you, lover?" She laughed, with trembling lips and tearful eyes. "We'll have a fine time cleaning this house," she broke off, trying to steady her voice; "it's simply awful--everything's ruined!"
"We'll clean it up for your marriage, Belle," said Jerry, cheerfully, clearing his throat. "Mrs. Tressady and I are going to start Mr. Rogers here in business--"
"If you'd loan it to me at interest, sir-" Belle's young man began hoarsely. Belle laid her hand over Molly's, her voice tender and comforting--for Molly was weeping again.
"Don't cry, Mis' Tress'dy! It's all over now, and here we are safe and sound. We've nothing to cry over. Instead," said Belle, solemnly, "we'd ought to be thanking God that there was a member of the family here to look out for Timmy, instead of just that hired governess and the Chinee boys!"