Miss Sally peered sharply at Willard Stanley, first through her gold-rimmed glasses and then over them. Willard continued to look very innocent. Joyce got up abruptly and went out of the room.
"So you have bought that queer little house with the absurd name?" said Miss Sally.
"You surely don't call Eden an absurd name," protested Willard.
"I do—for a house. Particularly such a house as that. Eden! There are no Edens on earth. And what are you going to do with it?"
"Live in it."
Miss Sally looked at him suspiciously.
"No. The truth is, Miss Sally, I am hoping to be married in the fall and I want to fix up Eden for my bride."
"Oh!" Miss Sally drew a long breath, partly it seemed of relief and partly of triumph, and looked at Joyce, who had returned, with an expression that said, "I told you so"; but Joyce, whose eyes were cast down, did not see it.
"And," went on Willard calmly, "I want you to help me fix it up, Miss Sally. I don't know much about such things and you know everything. You will be able to tell me just what to do to make Eden habitable."
Miss Sally looked as pleased as she ever allowed herself to look over anything a man suggested. It was the delight of her heart to plan and decorate and contrive. Her own house was a model of comfort and good taste, and Miss Sally was quite ready for new worlds to conquer. Instantly Eden assumed importance in her eyes. She might be sorry for the misguided bride who was rashly going to trust her life's keeping to a man, but she would see, at least, that the poor thing should have a decent place to begin her martyrdom in.
"I'll be pleased to help you all I can," she said graciously.
Miss Sally could speak very graciously when she chose, even to men. You would not have thought she hated them, but she did. In all sincerity, too. Also, she had brought her niece up to hate and distrust them. Or, she had tried to do so. But at times Miss Sally was troubled with an uncomfortable suspicion that Joyce did not hate and distrust men quite as thoroughly as she ought. The suspicion had recurred several times this summer since Willard Stanley had come to take charge of the biological station at the harbour. Miss Sally did not distrust Willard on his own account. She merely distrusted him on principle and on Joyce's account. Nevertheless, she was rather nice to him. Miss Sally, dear, trim, dainty Miss Sally, with her snow-white curls and her big girlish black eyes, couldn't help being nice, even to a man.
Willard had come a great deal to Miss Sally's. If it were Joyce he were after Miss Sally blocked his schemes with much enjoyment. He never saw Joyce alone—that Miss Sally knew of, at least—and he did not make much apparent headway. But now all danger was removed, Miss Sally thought. He was going to be married to somebody else, and Joyce was safe.
"Thank you," said Willard. "I'll come up tomorrow afternoon, and you and I will take a prowl about Eden and see what must be done. I'm ever so much obliged, Miss Sally."
"I wonder who he is going to marry," said Miss Sally, careless of grammar, after he had gone. "Poor, poor girl!"
"I don't see why you should pity her," said Joyce, not looking up from her embroidery. There was just the merest tremor in her voice. Miss Sally looked at her sharply.
"I pity any woman who is foolish enough to marry," she said solemnly. "No man is to be trusted, Joyce—no man. They are all ready to break a trusting woman's heart for the sport of it. Never you allow any man the chance to break yours, Joyce. I shall never consent to your marrying anybody, so mind you don't take any such notion into your head. There oughtn't to be any danger, for I have instilled correct ideas on this subject into you from childhood. But girls are such fools. I know, because I was one myself once."
"Of course, I would never marry without your consent, Aunt Sally," said Joyce, smiling faintly but affectionately at her aunt. Joyce loved Miss Sally with her whole heart. Everybody did who knew her. There never was a more lovable creature than this pretty little old maid who hated the men so bitterly.
"That's a good girl," said Miss Sally approvingly. "I own that I have been a little afraid that this Willard Stanley was coming here to see you. But my mind is set at rest on that point now, and I shall help him fix up his doll house with a clear conscience. Eden, indeed!"
Miss Sally sniffed and tripped out of the room to hunt up a furniture catalogue. Joyce sighed and let her embroidery slip to the floor.
"Oh, I'm afraid Willard's plan won't succeed," she murmured. "I'm afraid Aunt Sally will never consent to our marriage. And I can't and won't marry him unless she does, for she would never forgive me and I couldn't bear that. I wonder what makes her so bitter against men. She is so sweet and loving, it seems simply unnatural that she should have such a feeling so deeply rooted in her. Oh, what will she say when she finds out—dear little Aunt Sally? I couldn't bear to have her angry with me."
The next day Willard came up from the harbour and took Miss Sally down to see Eden. Eden was a tiny, cornery, gabled grey house just across the road and down a long, twisted windy lane, skirting the edge of a beech wood. Nobody had lived in it for four years, and it had a neglected, out-at-elbow appearance.
"It's rather a box of a place, isn't it?" said Willard slowly. "I'm afraid she will think so. But it is all I can afford just now. I dream of giving her a palace some day, of course. But we'll have to begin humbly. Do you think anything can be made of it?"
Miss Sally was busily engaged in sizing up the possibilities of the place.
"It is pretty small," she said meditatively. "And the yard is small too—and there are far too many trees and shrubs all messed up together. They must be thinned out—and that paling taken down. I think a good deal can be done with it. As for the house—well, let us see the inside."
Willard unlocked the door and showed Miss Sally over the place. Miss Sally poked and pried and sniffed and wrinkled her forehead, and finally stood on the stairs and delivered her ultimatum.
"This house can be done up very nicely. Paint and paper will work wonders. But I wouldn't paint it outside. Leave it that pretty silver weather-grey and plant vines to run over it. Oh, we'll see what we can do. Of course it is small—a kitchen, a dining room, a living room, and two bedrooms. You won't want anything stuffy. You can do the painting yourself, and I'll help you hang the paper. How much money can you spend on it?"
Willard named the sum. It was not a large one.
"But I think it will do," mused Miss Sally. "We'll make it do. There's such satisfaction getting as much as you possibly can out of a dollar, and twice as much as anybody else would get. I enjoy that sort of thing. This will be a game, and we'll play it with a right good will. But I do wish you would give the place a sensible name."
"I think Eden is the most appropriate name in the world," laughed Willard. "It will be Eden for me when she comes."
"I suppose you tell her all that and she believes it," said Miss Sally sarcastically. "You'll both find out that there is a good deal more prose than poetry in life."
"But we'll find it out together," said Willard tenderly. "Won't that be worth something, Miss Sally? Prose, rightly written and read, is sometimes as beautiful as poetry."
Miss Sally deigned no reply. She carefully gathered up her grey silken skirts from the dusty floor and walked out. "Get Christina Bowes to come up tomorrow and scrub this place out," she said practically. "We can go to town and select paint and paper. I should like the dining room done in pale green and the living room in creamy tones, ranging from white to almost golden brown. But perhaps my taste won't be hers."
"Oh, yes, it will," said Willard with assurance. "I am quite certain she will like everything you like. I can never thank you enough for helping me. If you hadn't consented I should have had to put it into the hands of some outsider whom I couldn't have helped at all. And I wanted to help. I wanted to have a finger in everything, because it is for her, you see, Miss Sally. It will be such a delight to fix up this little house, knowing that she is coming to live in it."
"I wonder if you really mean it," said Miss Sally bitterly. "Oh, I dare say you think you do. But do you? Perhaps you do. Perhaps you are the exception that proves the rule."
This was a great admission for Miss Sally to make.
For the next two months Miss Sally was happy. Even Willard himself was not more keenly interested in Eden and its development. Miss Sally did wonders with his money. She was an expert at bargain hunting, and her taste was excellent. A score of times she mercilessly nipped Willard's suggestions in the bud. "Lace curtains for the living room—never! They would be horribly out of place in such a house. You don't want curtains at all—just a frill is all that quaint window needs, with a shelf above it for a few bits of pottery. I picked up a love of a brass platter in town yesterday—got it for next to nothing from that old Jew who would really rather give you a thing than suffer you to escape without taking something. Oh, I know how to manage them."
"You certainly do," laughed Willard. "It amazes me to see how far you can stretch a dollar."
Willard did the painting under Miss Sally's watchful eye, and they hung the paper together. Together they made trips to town or junketed over the country in search of furniture and dishes of which Miss Sally had heard. Day by day the little house blossomed into a home, and day by day Miss Sally's interest in it grew. She began to have a personal affection for its quaint rooms and their adornments. Moreover, in spite of herself, she felt a growing interest in Willard's bride. He never told her the name of the girl he hoped to bring to Eden, and Miss Sally never asked it. But he talked of her a great deal, in a shy, reverent, tender way.
"He certainly seems to be very much in love with her," Miss Sally told Joyce one evening when she returned from Eden. "I would believe in him if it were possible for me to believe in a man. Anyway, she will have a dear little home. I've almost come to love that Eden house. Why don't you come down and see it, Joyce?"
"Oh, I'll come some day—I hope," said Joyce lightly. "I think I'd rather not see it until it is finished."
"Willard is a nice boy," said Miss Sally suddenly. "I don't think I ever did him justice before. The finer qualities of his character come out in these simple, homely little doings and tasks. He is certainly very thoughtful and kind. Oh, I suppose he'll make a good husband, as husbands go. But he doesn't know the first thing about managing. If his wife isn't a good manager, I don't know what they'll do. And perhaps she won't like the way we've done up Eden. Willard says she will, of course, because he thinks her perfection. But she may have dreadful taste and want the lace curtains and that nightmare of a pink rug Willard admired, and I dare say she'd rather have a new flaunting set of china with rosebuds on it than that dear old dull blue I picked up for a mere song down at the Aldenbury auction. I stood in the rain for two mortal hours to make sure of it, and it was really worth all that Willard has spent on the dining room put together. It will break my heart if she sets to work altering Eden. It's simply perfect as it is—though I suppose I shouldn't say it."
In another week Eden was finished. Miss Sally stood in the tiny hall and looked about her.
"Well, it is done," she said with a sigh. "I'm sorry. I have enjoyed fixing it up tremendously, and now I feel that my occupation is gone. I hope you are satisfied, Willard."
"Satisfied is too mild a word, Miss Sally. I am delighted. I knew you could accomplish wonders, but I never hoped for this. Eden is a dream—the dearest, quaintest, sweetest little home that ever waited for a bride. When I bring her here—oh, Miss Sally, do you know what that thought means to me?"
Miss Sally looked curiously at the young man. His face was flushed and his voice trembled a little. There was a far-away shining look in his eyes as if he saw a vision.
"I hope you and she will be happy," said Miss Sally slowly. "When will she be coming, Willard?"
The flush went out of Willard's face, leaving it pale and determined.
"That is for her—and you—to say," he answered steadily.
"Me!" exclaimed Miss Sally. "What have I to do with it?"
"A great deal—for unless you consent she will never come here at all."
"Willard Stanley," said Miss Sally, with ominous calm, "who is the girl you mean to marry?"
"The girl I hope to marry is Joyce, Miss Sally. Wait—don't say anything till you hear me out." He came close to her and caught her hands in a boyish grip. "Joyce and I have loved each other ever since we met. But we despaired of winning your consent, and Joyce will not marry me without it. I thought if I could get you to help me fix up my little home that you might get so interested in it—and so well acquainted with me—that you would trust me with Joyce. Please do, Miss Sally. I love her so truly and I know I can make her happy. If you don't, Eden shall never have a mistress. I'll shut it up, just as it is, and leave it sacred to the dead hope of a bride that will never come to it."
"Oh, you wouldn't," protested Miss Sally. "It would be a shame—such a dear little house—and after all the trouble I've taken. But you have tricked me—oh, you men couldn't be straightforward in anything—"
"Wasn't it a fair device for a desperate lover, Miss Sally?" interrupted Willard. "Oh, you mustn't hold spite because of it, dear; And you will give me Joyce, won't you? Because if you don't, I really will shut up Eden forever."
Miss Sally looked wistfully around her. Through the open door on her left she saw the little living room with its quaint, comfortable furniture, its dainty pictures and adornments. Through the front door she saw the trim, velvet-swarded little lawn. Upstairs were two white rooms that only wanted a woman's living presence to make them jewels. And the kitchen on which she had expended so much thought and ingenuity—the kitchen furnished to the last detail, even to the kindling in the range and the match Willard had laid ready to light it! It gave Miss Sally a pang to think of that altar fire never being lighted. It was really the thought of the kitchen that finished Miss Sally.
"You've tricked me," she said again reproachfully. "You've tricked me into loving this house so much that I cannot bear the thought of it never living. You'll have to have Joyce, I suppose. And I believe I'm glad that it isn't a stranger who is to be the mistress of Eden. Joyce won't hanker after pink rugs and lace curtains. And her taste in china is the same as mine. In one way it's a great relief to my mind. But it's a fearful risk—a fearful risk. To think that you may make my dear child miserable!"
"You know you don't think that I will, Miss Sally. I'm not really such a bad fellow, now, am I?"
"You are a man—and I have no confidence whatever in men," declared Miss Sally, wiping some very real tears from her eyes with a very unreal sort of handkerchief—one of the cobwebby affairs of lace her daintiness demanded.
"Miss Sally, why have you such a rooted distrust of men?" demanded Willard curiously. "Somehow, it seems so foreign to your character."
"I suppose you think I am a perfect crank," said Miss Sally, sighing. "Well, I'll tell you why I don't trust men. I have a very good reason for it. A man broke my heart and embittered my life. I've never spoken about it to a living soul, but if you want to hear about it, you shall."
Miss Sally sat down on the second step of the stairs and tucked her wet handkerchief away. She clasped her slender white hands over her knee. In spite of her silvery hair and the little lines on her face she looked girlish and youthful. There was a pink flush on her cheeks, and her big black eyes sparkled with the anger her memories aroused in her.
"I was a young girl of twenty when I met him," she said, "and I was just as foolish as all young girls are—foolish and romantic and sentimental. He was very handsome and I thought him—but there, I won't go into that. It vexes me to recall my folly. But I loved him—yes, I did, with all my heart—with all there was of me to love. He made me love him. He deliberately set himself to win my love. For a whole summer he flirted with me. I didn't know he was flirting—I thought him in earnest. Oh, I was such a little fool—and so happy. Then—he went away. Went away suddenly without even a word of goodbye. But he had been summoned home by his father's serious illness, and I thought he would write—I waited—I hoped. I never heard from him—never saw him again. He had tired of his plaything and flung it aside. That is all," concluded Miss Sally passionately. "I never trusted any man again. When my sister died and gave me her baby, I determined to bring the dear child up safely, training her to avoid the danger I had fallen into. Well, I've failed. But perhaps it will be all right—perhaps there are some men who are true, though Stephen Merritt was false."
"Stephen—who?" demanded Willard abruptly. Miss Sally coloured.
"I didn't mean to tell you his name," she said, getting up. "It was a slip of the tongue. Never mind—forget it and him. He was not worthy of remembrance—and yet I do remember him. I can't forget him—and I hate him all the more for it—for having entered so deeply into my life that I could not cast him out when I knew him unworthy. It is humiliating. There—let us lock up Eden and go home. I suppose you are dying to see Joyce and tell her your precious plot has succeeded."
Willard did not appear to be at all impatient. He had relapsed into a brown study, during which he let Miss Sally lock up the house. Then he walked silently home with her. Miss Sally was silent too. Perhaps she was repenting her confidence—or perhaps she was thinking of her false lover. There was a pathetic droop to her lips, and her black eyes were sad and dreamy.
"Miss Sally," said Willard at last, as they neared her house, "had Stephen Merritt any sisters?"
Miss Sally threw him a puzzled glance.
"He had one—Jean Merritt—whom I disliked and who disliked me," she said crisply. "I don't want to talk of her—she was the only woman I ever hated. I never met any of the other members of his family—his home was in a distant part of the state."
Willard stayed with Joyce so brief a time that Miss Sally viewed his departure with suspicion. This was not very lover-like conduct.
"I dare say he's like all the rest—when his aim is attained the prize loses its value," reflected Miss Sally pessimistically. "Poor Joyce—poor child! But there—there isn't a single inharmonious thing in his house—that is one comfort. I'm so thankful I didn't let Willard buy those brocade chairs he wanted. They would have given Joyce the nightmare."
Meanwhile, Willard rushed down to the biological station and from there drove furiously to the station to catch the evening express. He did not return until three days later, when he appeared at Miss Sally's, dusty and triumphant.
"Joyce is out," said Miss Sally.
"I'm glad of it," said Willard recklessly. "It's you I want to see, Miss Sally. I have something to show you. I've been all the way home to get it."
From his pocketbook Willard drew something folded and creased and yellow that looked like a letter. He opened it carefully and, holding it in his fingers, looked over it at Miss Sally.
"My grandmother's maiden name was Jean Merritt," he said deliberately, "and Stephen Merritt was my great-uncle. I never saw him—he died when I was a child—but I've heard my father speak of him often."
Miss Sally turned very pale. She passed her cobwebby handkerchief across her lips and her hand trembled. Willard went on.
"My uncle never married. He and his sister Jean lived together until her late marriage. I was not very fond of my grandmother. She was a selfish, domineering woman—very unlike the grandmother of tradition. When she died everything she possessed came to me, as my father, her only child, was then dead. In looking over a box of old papers I found a letter—an old love letter. I read it with some interest, wondering whose it could be and how it came among Grandmother's private letters. It was signed 'Stephen,' so that I guessed my great-uncle had been the writer, but I had no idea who the Sally was to whom it was written, until the other day. Then I knew it was you—and I went home to bring you your letter—the letter you should have received long ago. Why you did not receive it I cannot explain. I fear that my grandmother must have been to blame for that—she must have intercepted and kept the letter in order to part her brother and you. In so far as I can I wish to repair the wrong she has done you. I know it can never be repaired—but at least I think this letter will take the bitterness out of the memory of your lover."
He dropped the letter in Miss Sally's lap and went away.
Pale, Miss Sally picked it up and read it. It was from Stephen Merritt to "dearest Sally," and contained a frank, manly avowal of love. Would she be his wife? If she would, let her write and tell him so. But if she did not and could not love him, let her silence reveal the bitter fact; he would wish to spare her the pain of putting her refusal into words, and if she did not write he would understand that she was not for him.
When Willard and Joyce came back into the twilight room they found Miss Sally still sitting by the table, her head leaning pensively on her hand. She had been crying—the cobwebby handkerchief lay beside her, wrecked and ruined forever—but she looked very happy.
"I wonder if you know what you have done for me," she said to Willard. "But no—you can't know—you can't realize it fully. It means everything to me. You have taken away my humiliation and restored to me my pride of womanhood. He really loved me—he was not false—he was what I believed him to be. Nothing else matters to me at all now. Oh, I am very happy—but it would never have been if I had not consented to give you Joyce."
She rose and took their hands in hers, joining them.
"God bless you, dears," she said softly. "I believe you will be happy and that your love for each other will always be true and faithful and tender. Willard, I give you my dear child in perfect trust and confidence."
With her yellowed love letter clasped to her heart, and a raptured shining in her eyes, Miss Sally went out of the room.