It was Wednesday, Ladies' Night at the Mallow House. For many years, Mrs. Wibird and Melissa, and the Misses Bygood had supped with Mr. Mallow on Wednesday evening. It was the "help's" evening out, and the boarders understood that they must sup elsewhere that night. Mr. Mallow invariably cooked the supper, the Wibirds assisting, Mrs. Wibird and Melissa eagerly, Wilson grudgingly. After the delightful little meal, always perfectly cooked and served, Mr. Mallow would take off his coat, roll up his immaculate shirtsleeves, and wash the dishes, the ladies wiping them daintily. Other neighbors would often drop in after supper; it was a pleasant and friendly occasion.
Supper was over now, the dishes washed and put away, and the company gathered in Mr. Mallow's sitting room, a cheerful apartment, with a general aspect of chenille and "tidies," further brightened by a crackling wood fire on the hearth. They were hemming what Mr. Mallow called "wipers," more generally known as dish or glass towels. Mr. Mallow sat in the middle, a large basket balanced on his knees. He sewed slowly and carefully, using a long thread, which [pg 81] Melissa threaded for him, as he was wont to explain that "he was no camel, and could not go through a needle's eye." This was a wonderful joke, and never failed to send a ripple of genteel mirth through the assembled ladies. Mrs. Wibird and Melissa worked with bird-like, darting motions, swift but irregular, dropping their work whenever they spoke, which was very often. The Misses Bygood worked even more swiftly, and with perfect steadiness and grace.
"This is an elegant piece of goods, Marsh!" said Mrs. Wibird. "Better than the last, 'pears to me."
"So fine and smooth!" Miss Egeria cooed softly. "It is a pleasure to work on it, Mr. Mallow."
"'Tis good goods!" Mr. Mallow assented. "Pure linen, not a fibre of cotton in it. I have to have my wipers good. Some things you can squinch on, others you can't; I am thrifty, but I do have to have my wipers good. And plenty!" he added. "A moisty wiper gives me the creeps, it so does. There! I should like to have a clean one for every dish."
A gentle murmur arose, as of highly commending bees.
"Such a profusion!" said Miss Almeria.
"So agreeable," chimed in Miss Egeria, "to be able always to use a dry one. I assure you we greatly appreciate it, Mr. Mallow."
Mr. Mallow beamed and made a little bow over his "wiper," thereby pricking his finger: a crimson drop appeared and fell on the shining linen. Then what a commotion! Melissa flew for water and a "cot." Mrs. Wibird, who could not bear the sight of blood, [pg 82] prepared to faint, but thought better of it, the first red drop being also the last. Miss Almeria and Miss Egeria murmured sympathy, and proffered their own fine handkerchiefs. Mr. Mallow, with manly stoicism, declared that it was "Nothin' at all! nothin' at all! Gives a chance to show that my blood is good and red. None of these white corp'scles they talk about nowadays."
"I've heard of them!" said Mrs. Wibird. "Something to do with corpses, are they?"
"I presume likely!" Mr. Mallow replied, with reserve. "Ahem! not a subject for ladies, perhaps. Sorry I mentioned 'em."
"Have you seen our dear Kitty to-day, Mr. Mallow?" asked Miss Almeria, tactfully, seeing his brow clouded. He had a great deal of delicacy, Mr. Mallow; all Cyrus gentlemen had, she thought gratefully.
"Yes, 'm! yes, I have seen her. I hoped—I asked Kitty to join us this evening, but she was degaged. How are you, Very? Come in! come in! Take a seat! Glad to see you!"
Mr. Jordano entered, bowing right and left with his best Italian air.
"Grazier, Marshall!" he replied urbanely. "Grazier, I'm sure! Good-evening, ladies! Miss Bygood—Miss Egeria—Mrs. Wibird—Miss Melissa"—a separate bow for each lady, but Miss Almeria's was the lowest—"your humble servant!"
"We're having us a sewing-bee!" Mr. Mallow announced, beaming over his basket. "I don't know [pg 83] as you'd care to join us, Very. I never saw you handle a needle. I've just wownded myself, long as I've ben at it."
"Oh, grazier! grazier!" fluttered Mr. Jordano. (This word was a new acquisition; the good gentleman could not resist flourishing it as if it were a specially fine and clean pocket handkerchief. If you had asked its meaning, he would have explained kindly that it was the Italian word for "thanks!") "I fear I should make but a poor hand at needlework, Marshall. A—a most graceful and feminine accomplishment," he bowed round the circle of ladies, "and one I always watch with delight-tite-tite: but I think I will remain a spectator."
He drew a chair into the circle, and took out his notebook.
"Any items for the Scribe?" he asked blandly. "After the excitement of last week—I allude to the return of Miss Katharine Ross to her native heath, if I may quote the Wizard of the North—the town has been unusually quiet, and promised to be equally so to-day-tay-tay; but—a—there was another arrival this afternoon."
"Indeed!" the ladies exclaimed. "Who——"
"I am not aware!" Mr. Jordano waved his notebook in some agitation. "I hoped to find information here, to tell the truth. A distang lady—oh, very distang indeed—quite unknown to me. I failed in my endeavor to interrogate John Tucker; his movements are so extremely quick-wick-wick!"
He looked anxiously from one face to another; [pg 84] the ladies returned his look with another equally anxious. Mr. Mallow, however, nodded importantly.
"Yes!" he said. "I was just goin' to tell the ladies when you come in, Very. I had asked Kitty to join us here this evening, but she is kept at home by a visitor. Ahem!"
Mr. Mallow was too human not to enjoy prolonging the suspense a moment; he was too kind to prolong it further.
"Johanna Ross!" he announced explosively. "I was surprised!"
"Johanna Ross!" all the ladies cried out in chorus.
"Well, I never did!" Mrs. Wibird further elucidated the situation.
"How unexpected!" said Miss Almeria gravely.
"Yet not unnatural, sister!" Miss Egeria murmured gently. "Kitty's own aunt, you know!"
"I am fully aware of that, my love!" Miss Almeria bent her head with dignity. "Nothing could be more natural, under ordinary circumstances; but Johanna is—peculiar, I am obliged to say."
"I never could get over her not comin' to Doctor's funeral!" Mrs. Wibird lamented. "I was brought up with Johanna, but I never could get over that. And that message she sent! They were takin' stock, and John would understand. I hope he did, for I'm sure nobody else did."
Mrs. Wibird gave a shiver of reprehension, and set her thin lips. She was a forlorn little lady, the opposite in every way of her brother. Marshall Mallow would have looked—and been—well nourished on [pg 85] bread and cheese, if he had enough of it. Marcia Mallow had always looked, as Mrs. Sharpe expressed it, like the thin end of a pea-pod, and the most generous diet never added a pound to the ninety-nine she owned to. Melissa had tried more than once to "flesh her up," without success. But then, "they" said she gave all the nice things her brother sent her to "that Wilson." Melissa always looked hungry, too; even to-night, after that excellent lobster supper. Cyrus collectively hoped that that Wilson would get his come-uppance some day. Melissa Wibird would be a pretty girl if she didn't look starved.
"Has she come to stay, think?" asked Mrs. Wibird. "Did Kitty say, Marsh? What did she say?"
"She just said she was sorry she couldn't come, her Aunt Johanna had arrived."
"And you didn't ask her whether she was comin' to stay? Now, Marshall!"
"A—if I may venture a conjecture"—Mr. Jordano waved his notebook with a gesture expressive of deprecatory delicacy—"the lady in question would appear to intend to pass some time in our—shall I say midst? Her trunks—four of them—were of ample size. I should hardly suppose that for a brief sojourn——"
"She's come to stay!" Mrs. Wibird ejaculated positively; the Misses Bygood bent their heads and murmured, "she has doubtless come to stay!"
"So there's an end to my fine projectile!" said Mr. Mallow, with a sigh. Then in answer to inquiring looks:
[pg 86] "A projectile—a plan I had. I thought maybe Kitty would come and keep house for me; asked her, in fact. She promised to think it over; but, of course, there's an end of it now."
"Why, Marshall!" Mrs. Wibird prepared to shed tears. "You know Melissa and I would come any time to keep house for you: you know I have offered to, over and over again, but you always said——"
"Never mind, mother!" Melissa broke in. "That was different! I understand entirely, Uncle Marsh."
Mr. Mallow had been winking both eyes rapidly, a sign of embarrassment with him. He was very good to his sister, and really fond of Melissa, poor child, but—well, Lissy understood!
"A singular coincidence!" Miss Egeria fluttered into the breach. "Sister and I had also hoped—had asked dear Kitty to make her home with us, Mr. Mallow. Of course we had no idea——"
"Why," cried Melissa, "the Chanters expected her to live with them, Zephine told me so this very morning. The boys are going to move into the barn chamber, and the girls into their room, so Kitty can have their room, the girls'. They spoke as if it were all settled."
"Miss Kitty is in great demand: in great demand! Grando demando, as we say in Italy. I happen to know for a fact that Madam Flynt had made a similar plan for Miss Kitty's future. I had the honor of calling upon that estimable lady this afternoon, and she said quite confidently that she expected our young friend to take up her abode—in short, to share her [pg 87] elegant mansion with her. Miss Kitty had promised to think it over, but Madam Flynt appeared to have little doubt-tout-tout——"
"I must say I think Kitty has been rather sly!" said Mrs. Wibird, compressing her thin lips. "It's all very well to keep your own counsel, but there is such a thing as being too close-mouthed, to my mind!"
"Oh, mother!" protested Melissa. "You're entirely mistaken!"
"No doubt!" Mrs. Wibird folded her hands meekly. "I am usually mistaken, I admit; still I have my opinions, poor as they are."
It was Miss Almeria who spoke now, with quiet dignity. "I do not understand, Marcia, that Kitty has done more in any case than agree to think over the invitation received by her. It seems to me in every way proper that she should do so. On the whole——" Miss Almeria paused, to give weight to her words, "on the whole, sadly as we are disappointed, my sister and I rejoice, I am sure, that matters have so arranged themselves that Kitty can remain in her own home. We have not intended to be selfish, friends and neighbors, but we may have been so unconsciously. Kitty is tenderly attached to her own home; I for one am surprised that I did not realize this more fully. It seemed—it would have been such a pleasure to have her——"
"Dear child!" murmured Miss Egeria. "It would indeed! but you are perfectly right, sister!"
"Doubtless Johanna realized this situation. I applaud, though I deplore in certain aspects, her action."
[pg 88] All through Miss Almeria's address, pronounced with much dignity, Mr. Jordano had been making little bows of admiring approbation. When she paused, he took up the word eagerly.
"Applause is doubtless indicated, Miss Almeria. I—a—heartily agree; heartily! A—would it be permissible for me to ask—I am not aware that Miss Ross has visited Cyrus during the years of my sojourn here—" (Mr. Jordano came from Tinkham, but, as every one said, he was not responsible for that, and he came away the very moment he was grown up)—"a—a—in short, are there any items that you would feel at liberty to communicate to the Scribe?"
There was a silence. Cyrus loves to talk, but there are some subjects on which it is reserved. Johanna Ross is one of them. All looked at Miss Almeria, who was turning a hem with exquisite nicety. She felt the look and responded, a slight flush rising to her smooth cheek.
"Miss Ross is a native of Cyrus," she said, "but has not lived here for many years. Twenty, I think, sister?"
"Twenty!" assented Miss Egeria; there was a general confirmatory murmur.
"She is a person of marked abilities, and has always felt—I believe—that Cyrus did not afford sufficient scope for these abilities. She has occupied a responsible position in a large establishment—wholesale—in the city of New York. This has absorbed all her time and energies; she has not felt—until now—that Cyrus [pg 89] had any claim upon them. May I trouble you for the eighty cotton, Mr. Mallow?"
"Certingly! certingly, Miss Bygood!" Mr. Mallow, in his haste to comply with the request, upset his big basket, and spools, tape, buttons, flew in every direction. How the ladies flew after them! How gracefully Miss Egeria glided in pursuit of the big spool of linen thread! how majestically Miss Almeria bent to capture the flood of buttons that poured into her silken lap! how Mrs. Wibird pounced, and Melissa hopped and fluttered! As for Mr. Jordano, he had an encounter with a skein of darning cotton, and entangled himself with it in a quite unbelievable way, and had to be rescued by Miss Egeria. It was a most exciting incident; they spoke of it for weeks after. Mr. Mallow, meantime, sat with the overturned basket still on his knees, grasping it tight, as if he feared it would follow the rest, and ejaculating, "My! my! I am surprised!"
"I make my 'pologies!" he said finally, when the last button had been restored to its place. "I make my 'pologies, ladies! I don't know as I ever did such a thing before. Quite a cat's trophy, I'm sure."
Flushed and breathless with agitation and vicarious exertion, the good gentleman took up his work again, but uttered an exclamation of discomfiture. "There! I've unthreaded my needle. Lissy, you know what I say; I'm no dromedary—I would say camel! Thread it for me, will you, dearie?"
While the threading was in process, Miss Almeria was advising with Mr. Jordano in low tones, as to [pg 90] the precise wording of the item which was to reveal to Cyrus at large the advent of Miss Johanna Ross. He had already, the evening before, submitted to her his account of Kitty's arrival, a piece of writing of which he was modestly proud. It began, "Flushed with oriflammes was the western sky, and Old Sol still shed his cheering ray over Cyrus and environs——"
At this moment the door flew open, and Mrs. Sharpe appeared, with Cissy close behind her. Well! they did look like an old vixen and a young one, there was no doubt about it, though of course Tom ought not to have said it.
"Good-evenin', all!" Mrs. Sharpe was panting, as if she had hurried. "I thought I'd make a run-in: I calc'lated I should find you here, Almeria 'n' Egeria. I want to know if you've heard——" her voice failed her, and she sat down, fanning herself with the "cloud" she had pulled off her head. "I hastened too much," she panted. "I got to get my breath!"
"I don't know as anybody's in a hurry, Mis' Sharpe!" Mr. Mallow's tone was less cordial than usual. He did not like Mrs. Sharpe, or her "run-ins." He didn't see, he had confided to Miss Egeria, why a person should have no privation just because he thought fit to keep a hotel. "It isn't as if she was a guest," he said, "paying or invited."
The rest of the company regarded the newcomers with mingled disfavor and curiosity.
"What is it, Cissy?" Mrs. Wibird asked, the latter sentiment overcoming the former.
[pg 91] "Why," began Cissy, nothing loth; "Miss Johanna——"
"Now you hush up, Cissy!" said her mother, sharply. "You told over to Jebuses, and I'm going to tell here. Johanna Ross has come home!" she announced, with an air of dramatic triumph. "She came this afternoon. I saw her with these eyes." She indicated a pair—well, perhaps not exactly a pair—of yellowish eyes, decidedly too near together for beauty.
"We are aware of that!" replied Mr. Mallow majestically. Sitting with his needle poised in air, his knees rather wide apart, to support the big basket firmly and prevent further "cat's trophy," he looked like a mild and rosy Rhadamanthus about to give judgment.
"Oh, you are! Some one got ahead of me!"
Mrs. Sharpe darted a suspicious glance round the friendly circle.
"Well, do you know what she is up to? That—that stay-away—her that Cyrus isn't good enough for, that wouldn't attend her own brother's funeral because she was too stuck-up—do you know what has come to her in judgment? She has come back to Cyrus because she was obliged to! she has come back to saddle herself on her brother's child, that she has neglected ever since she was born; she has taken to her bed, and there she is to remain. Yes, Mr. Mallow! yes, girls! Mr. Jordano, you can put it in the paper, if you're a mind to. Miss Johanna Ross, the fine New York lady who shook the dust of Cyrus off her feet, is a bedridden invalid!"
[pg 92] She gazed around with eager triumph, drinking in the looks of dismay like wine.
"A bedridden invalid!" she repeated. "What do you think of that?"
"Who told you this?" asked Marshall Mallow abruptly.
"A—precisely!" chimed in Mr. Jordano, in whom incredulity and good feeling were wrestling with the journalistic instinct. "What ground, so to speak, is there for this hypothesis-sis-sis?"
"Mother heard her say so!" Cissy hastened to put in. "Now, Mother, you might let me say a word! She heard the telephone, and——"
"I thought 'twas our ring!" cried Mrs. Sharpe. "I took up the receiver, and a strange voice was speakin'. I knew 'twas no one in Cyrus: I thought mebbe somethin' was wrong and I ought to notify the marshal. And these words I heard: 'No, Madam Flynt, I'm sorry, but I can't come, because I am taking to my bed, there to remain.' And Madam Flynt said, 'Oh, Johanna!' Then I knew!"
Again, Mrs. Sharpe swept the circle with eager eyes. She had made the sensation of her life and was greedy of its sweets. But before any one could respond a rustle of skirts arose outside, a hubbub of voices, and in came The Boarders.
Some of the Boarders were ready enough to sup "outside" on Wednesday evening. Mrs. Scatter and her sister Miss Pringle went regularly to Judge Peters's, and looked forward, and back, to it all the week through. Not that the Judge's Mary was a [pg 93] "patch" upon Mr. Mallow's Rosanna, but it made a change, and there was always a sense of distinction in supping with "my cousin, the Judge." In the same way, the Misses Caddie (Miss Pearl in the Bank, Miss Ruby in the Telegraph Office) were glad and proud of their weekly evening with Madam Flynt. But it was hard on those who had no life-long ties with Cyrus. Mr. and Mrs. Bagley (he traveled in oil—mystic phrase—she worked in hair, and "chiropodded," as Mr. Mallow put it) had only been there a matter of ten years, and they had no resource but the Dew Drop Inn, a very inferior little hostelry down by the station. It was harder still on the "transients." A tired bond salesman, let us say, just in from a long journey, and looking forward to one of the famous Mallow House suppers, was not pleased, after giving up his bag and taking his key, to be told, "No supper to-night, sir!" He might protest, in angry bewilderment, asking if this called itself a hotel, etc., etc. It made no difference: Billy had the one reply, "Wednesday: no supper, sir!" If the angry guest still protested, Mr. Mallow would come out of the office, smiling and urbane. Very sorry, but it was a Rule of the House. The Help, you see, their evening out; they had to be considered, times like these. Dew Drop Inn wasn't but a step; Billy would go down with him and bespeak a good supper.
"We'll make it up to you at breakfast!" the guest was cheerfully assured, as Mr. Mallow bowed him toward the door, and this assurance was amply fulfilled. Now and then a traveler called for his bag [pg 94] and went in a huff to spend the night at the Dew Drop Inn; but he never did it twice.
Now, as I said, the Boarders were back, and rustling in with a pleasant sense of home-coming. There were two or three salesmen to-night, old customers, who knew and accepted the Mallow House ways; they were not Cyrus people, however, and it would have been highly improper to continue the conversation recently begun. Even the Sharpes realized this.
"Come on, Mother!" whispered Cissy, pulling her mother's shawl. "You won't get another word in to-night! They are just as glad, too, I can see that."
Mother and daughter departed, and the others followed, after a suitable interchange of greetings with the newcomers. Wilson Wibird had come upstairs with the Sharpes, and had been hanging about the doorway, half curious, half sullen. He had been annoying Billy all the evening in the office, and had finally been dismissed by that apostle of silence, with "Go 'long! work to do!" He resented having to escort his mother and sister home, but there was no choice, with Mr. Mallow's eye upon him.
"Here's Wilson, all ready!" said the kindly potentate. "Wilse, you'll find a basket in the back entry that Rosanny packed for your Ma. Take it along, but be sure to bring it back in the morning; Rosanny wants it. Good-night, Marshy; good-night, Lissy! Sleep tighty, flea bitey!"
Mr. Jordano, as was his custom, offered his escort to the Misses Bygood, and they walked off together [pg 95] in the fashion of other days, the gentleman giving an arm to each.
"A highly agreeable occasion!" he said. "Friend Mallow is the ideal host-tost-tost."
"He is indeed!" said Miss Egeria, "and it is so remarkable, Mr. Jordano, for a lone man, so to speak, to be such an excellent housekeeper. I am told that the Mallow House is known far and wide as an ideal hostelry. It is very gratifying to know that Cyrus institutions (for the Mallow House is surely an institution) rank so high throughout the State."
"Bello hotello! bello hotello," assented Mr. Jordano warmly. "House and host are well matched, well matched. May I ask, Miss Bygood, if you attach any—serious—a—importance to Mrs. Sharpe's—shall I say singular statement?"
Miss Almeria pondered. "It is hard to say!" she pronounced finally. "The method by which the information was obtained—but we will not speak of that!" she closed her eyes for a moment, as if to shut out an unlovely vision. "Miss Ross is peculiar: there is no gainsaying that. She has always gone her own way, with no guidance—that I am aware of—beyond her own wishes. But she is a woman of character and education, and I cannot for a moment believe that matters are as—as we have heard them represented. Doubtless we shall know all in good time. Meanwhile—may I ask if you were contemplating the possibility of altering or adding to your item, Mr. Jordano?"
Mr. Jordano fluttered perceptibly.
[pg 96] "Not if it would appear in any way unsuitable to a lady—to ladies"—with a little bow to Miss Egeria, "whose exquisite refinement of taste is equal to their—ahem! shall I say, other characteristics? Not for worlds, Miss Bygood, if you advise against it. At the same time, if—if the information is to be—a—generally disseminated, it might—the official organ—it might be expected by the people—il Publico, you understand-tand-tand—I will do whatever you advise, Miss Bygood!" the poor gentleman concluded.
It was heroic, though none of the three fully realized it. To relinquish such a "story," leave it to unofficial babblers and—Mr. Jordano feared—spiteful gossips, when it might be set down with gravity and ornamented with flowers of speech—yes, it was heroic. The two ladies thought it very nice of Mr. Jordano; but they thought no more than that, and Miss Almeria gave the coup de grace with unfaltering hand.
"It will be best, I am convinced," she said, "to leave the item as it stood before Mrs. Sharpe's entrance. I will say, her unseemly entrance. Your own instinctive delicacy is so well known, Mr. Jordano——"
"Oh! grazier! grazier!" murmured Mr. Jordano, trying to bow gracefully, a difficult thing with a lady on either arm—"too much, Miss Almeria!"
"So well known," Miss Almeria repeated, with a gracious bend of her own stately head, "that all Cyrus will appreciate your motive for abstaining from comment upon what we have heard. If it proves true, we shall know it soon enough; if false——" Miss Almeria's [pg 97] gesture was eloquent as well as dignified.
"If false," cried Mr. Jordano,—they were now at Mr. Bygood's door, and the ladies withdrew their arms, enabling him to fling his cloak over his left shoulder with a noble gesture—"if false, it has no place in the columns of the Cyrus Centinel."