JANE ALLEN’S TRAGEDY
All that night Ione lay awake thinking of Keith Harford alone in the grimy house in Tarvit Street, at the mercy of the hard-featured woman. It weighed on her heart like an oppression, that somehow she had heard his voice call her from behind the dirty curtain of the fourth-storey room. Towards morning she fell into an uneasy slumber, from which she was awakened by Jane Allen bending over her and touching her gently on the shoulder.
"Tell me what is the matter," said the girl. "I can't bear to hear you lying moaning like that! "
"There is nothing the matter at all," said Ione; "I must have been dreaming."
"Was it about him?” queried Jane almost in a whisper.
Ione was silent, for truly her heart was sick and sore within her.
"Let me come in beside you, Ione," said Jane Allen, "and just tell me anything you want to."
After all, there is nothing in the world like human sympathy. By it alone the heart of man, running for even a little way in double harness, is eased of the straining load which sags and lurches behind him over life's uneasy causeway.
Ione did not know that she was in love — certainly at this time she would most vehemently have denied it, even to Jane Allen; but Jane had infinitely more tact than to ask the question point-blank. She only lay quietly, with her hand round her friend's shoulder. And because the hearts of all women are the same, and their comprehension of each other's good and ill greater than that which is granted to man and woman, Ione March was at once soothed and aided by the gentle hand and silent sympathy of the little type-writing girl. At last Ione spoke, very softly and evenly.
"I have a friend," she said, "one who was kind to me — to whom I wish to be kind. He is very ill. I went to see him to-day, but I could not. The landlady was horrid, and would not let me go up. Yet I seemed to hear his voice calling me to come and help him"
"Ione March," said Jane Allen firmly, giving her a fierce little shake, "now you've got to stop this straight away. You and I will go the first thing in the morning, and if there is any frowsy old rent-grabber in London that can keep me from seeing — him as my heart is set on — well I’ll enjoy meeting her, that's all!"
So the two girls lay awake in each other's arms till the grey of the morning reddened to the smoky copper sunrise of Battersea, while the milk-carts, driving Chelseawards towards the spidery tackling of the Albert Bridge, rattled into hearing, grew louder, clattered, passed, and ceased. Then came the hoarse, coughing cry of the early sweep; after him the man with the unknown proclamation, whose voice in these regions can be heard afar in all weathers — a mysterious calling in the dawn which Ione declared sounded like that of Jonah: "Nineveh the Great shall be destroyed — destroyed in three days!" These all went by at their appointed hours, regular as the circling hands of a watch. For the floral clock of the fields — the wakening daisies, the early-closing “Go-to-bed-John,” the turning of the sun-flower upon its stem, are not more regular than the daily calendar of happenings in the streets of a great city — when one stays in the same spot all day and night, and many days one after the other.
And all through the shifting hours Ione told Jane Allen of her friendship for Keith Harford — of her engagement to Kearney Judd, of the meeting in Switzerland at the hotel of Johann Jossi, and her hot brief anger at Meiringen. Then she went on to tell of the meeting in London after many days, the glances left in her heart, meaningless at the time, which, however, had grown great and important during absence and without the utterance of a word. And all the while Jane Allen murmured question, understanding, sympathy. At last in her turn she began to speak to Ione in the same low and even voice — the voice in which women tell each other the secret things of the heart.
"Yes, Ione dear," she said, "that is the beginning — the beginning of true love. No, don't speak any more: just listen! For such a man you would do much, but not yet all. I have done all — all. But I will only tell you part. For when the heart is bitter it is easy to speak, but not easy to speak wisely.
"Ione, five years ago there was a man who swore he loved me. And I loved him! God help me — I love him still. We went to one chapel. We sang in one choir. He was poor and I was poor, but we worked hard for that which would give us a little home together. Three years — that is a long time out of a girl's life! They said I was pretty then — others than he said so; but I never thought of, and never so much as looked at any other. I believed in him, and trusted him in all things. He was to me as God. He travelled in wool and underclothing for Remington & Carter — I mean that was his business; and we had begun to gather little things for the house. See here, Ione!"
And in the growing light of the dawn Jane Allen leaped from the bed and vanished through the door. In a moment she was back again with what looked like a heavy bundle of white fabric. She had been dry-eyed before, and had kept up throughout her narrative that curiously low and even tone. But now, as she looked down at the linen in her hand, strange quick quivers — a woman's premonition of emotional storm — shook her, and there came a slow recurring sob in her throat. Her voice broke, and whistled like the wind among river reeds.
“See, Ione — read what is written there!"
"Jane Broome, High Peak, No. 12”' she read on the corner of the sheet. The marking-ink was black and dense, as if the iron had only just passed over it for the first time.
"Yes; it had gone as far as that. We lived up Derby way then, and he wrote me every post, year out and year in, till there came a time (it is three years ago this spring) I felt his letters grow cold. There was no meaning behind the loving words. May you never know the dreadfulness of seeing such words written and knowing that! Then the letters began to come every other day, then once a week, and soon only one or two in the month. But at first I just told myself how busy he was, and so I kept my heart up, for I loved him. Then, like you, I began to fear that he was ill. So I got a gold sovereign out of the purse I had saved for the little home, and took the train to the station in the country we had so often talked of going to. I got out there and walked along miry roads to his master's works, asking where he lived of all the people I met. And some looked strange at me, and some laughed, but most did not know who it was I meant. However, bit by bit I found he was living in a new cottage near the Matlock Road. His letters had always been sent to the Works — I had sent one there only the day before! He got them quicker that way, he said. And it was about sundown when I came to the house. It was bright and new-appearing, with a shining brass handle to the door, and in the little garden in front there were Canterbury bells and 'None-so-pretty,' all in blossom. These were his favourite flowers. And as I stood and wondered, there came a tall dark girl out of the cottage door, and looked down the road with her hand above her brows. I had never seen her before, but something told me who she was, and I grew all cold as a stone. Some folk might have thought her pretty. I only thought I should die. But I did not faint. I did not cry. I was not even angry. Only I stood farther off behind some bushes by the wayside, hiding like a thief in a little nook where they had once broken stones — broken them with a hammer — as women's hearts are broken!
"And by-and-by round the turn of the white empty road I saw him come. He had a bundle of papers in his hand, and he waved them when he caught sight of the tall girl. I had seen him do that. And then — and then — she gave a little skip upon one foot as if she were glad, and looked over her shoulder to see that no one was watching. Then catching up her skirt in one hand, she ran to him like a three-year-old child. Ah! she loved him, and she was good—but then so did I. If she deserved happiness more than I, well—that was not my fault. I had loved him first, and longest, and most. But I grew ever colder, and my heart ever stiller. It seemed to be turning to stone within me. But I made no sign, and he and she came slowly past the bushes behind which I stood, and they were looking together at the magazines and books he had brought back. His arm was about her; I knew just how firm the clasp was, just where it began and where it ended. There was a proud look in her eyes, too, that came — as I knew also — from a glad heart. As he came past he slipped his hand up over her shoulder and stroked her further cheek. They were too far off for me to hear what he said, when he did it. But I needed no telling.
"'Little Sweetheart!' — that was what he said to her. And it was then that my heart broke. But I waited quite quietly, though I had to catch at the tree to keep from falling. It was a book with bright pictures, all about flowers and greenhouses and seeds and prices that they were looking at together. And when they got near the little door with the brass knocker, she laughed out suddenly, and leaned her head back. He bent down to kiss her, at which she pretended to be angry, and ran in quickly just like a kitten. He followed, smiling, and the door was shut upon them.
"Then a man came by, and I heard a voice saying, not a bit like mine, ‘Whose house might that be? It is a pretty house!' And the man answered, 'Whoy, that's Master Broome's house. Eh! ye may well say 'tis pretty. There's lots of brass i' that house, lady. Whoy, that young man married his maister's daughter ten days agone coom next Saturday.'
"I thanked him, and said that it was a good thing, and that I wished them well. Then I went back to the tree and tried to pray, with my brow hard against the rough bark. But I could not. Yet I used to do it regular before that. He could pray — oh, beautiful! He prayed in a chapel and at meetings, and was a Sunday School teacher. But I never could pray rightly since then. So I stood there and saw the windows of the cottage light up, and never once noticed how fast the night came down. And hours after, still standing and holding to the tree, I saw the light move and darken below, and then flicker and brighten in the windows above. And then — and then — after a while I saw it put out. It rained out there by the tree, and the big broad drops fell on my face. But I did not care, for I fell down and lay all night in the wet like one dead.
"And next day I was taken to the hospital, for it was brain fever I had. And it was eight months and many things had happened before I came out again, the shadow of the girl that walked along that road from the little station, all to see Joseph Broome's wife standing at the door. But when I came home I sent him all the sheets that were not marked and the other things I had got ready. And he took them. But you see these were marked, and so I could not send them. For I heard that her name was Alice."
And all the time Jane Allen knelt by Ione's bedside, holding the linen in her thin fingers, smoothing it and touching it gently as if it had been a dead child, turning the name this way and that as she looked at the pretty neat black lettering. The water was running steadily down her cheeks now, and with the beginning of that the dry sob had ceased. Suddenly, however, the girl threw her face forward, and with her brow sunk on Ione's shoulders, she cried out, -
"Oh, I think I wouldn't have minded if he hadn't stroked her just like he used to do me, on the cheek, I mean, and called her my name — the pet name he called me long before he ever saw her! 'Lil' sweetheart!' he used to say, like that! Oh, he needn't have said that! For he had lots of names girls like to hear. But that was my own — my very own!"
Ione drew the girl to her. She was all trembling now and chill.
"Jane," she said, "get into bed at once!"
"I must put these back," she said, checking her sobs quickly and rising to her feet.
"You will catch cold — I will do that," returned Ione.
So Ione took the linen sheets, and leaving Jane Allen in her warm place, she went into her friend's room. The little bureau was open. On the bed lay a folded dress, of white nun's veiling, with lace and a blue rosette of ribbons upon it at the shoulder — a poor, tawdry, home-made thing. But the same hard woman's sob came into Ione's throat as she gazed, for she knew that she was looking at the wedding-dress of her that should have been Jane Broome. So swiftly and reverently she returned the linen to its place, and nestled the faded white dress tenderly on top. As she pulled it off the bed, a picture lay half revealed underneath the pillow. Ione could not help looking at it by the light of the candle. It represented a very smug-looking young man with short muttonchop whiskers, his abundant hair dressed in a sleek cock's-comb. He was leaning in a self-contented and provincial manner against a pillar which stood alone in a classical landscape. Beside him, and upon a chair, sat the dimpling radiant image of the girl whose pale shadow was to-day Jane Allen. The young man's hand was half raised from her shoulder, as if only the moment before he had stroked her cheek and murmured, "Lil' sweetheart!"
Somehow Ione felt that he did it again as soon as the photographer turned his back to go into his dark room.
She returned to Jane Allen, who silently made room for her; and there, till it was time to rise, did the two girls lie without further spoken word, each comforted and strengthened, their hearts lightened, and the coming day made less dark, because of the tears of the night and the mutual heart-opening of the morning.
Each knew now what the other meant by the pronoun "he." And all real girl friendships are based on that.
THE OPPRESSOR OF THE WIDOW
Before Idalia and Marcus left Audley Street that night they had persuaded Ione to accompany them on their first visit to Rayleigh Abbey, the incubating centre of Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy's bi-monthly new religions.
But before she left London Ione was determined to find Keith Harford and return him the thirty pounds which she knew he could so ill afford. She did not know Keith's address, but on one occasion at his request she had noted down that of his sister-in-law, Mrs. Vincent Harford, with the indefinite intention of calling upon her at some future date. It was a small house in a quiet lane, not far from Audley Street. Ione found it one of a narrow, double row of similar buildings, constructed of the peculiar mealy red brick of South London, and the tenements, though one degree more pretentious than those in Audley Street, were at least ten degrees less comfortable.
Dingy yellow curtains drooping within the small oriel window, marked out the house of Mrs. Vincent Harford from that of her neighbours. Waxen fruitage of brilliant dyspeptic hues inclosed in an oval glass case, was visible where the yellow curtains separated a little the one from the other.
Little Angel, looking infinitely pathetic in a loose faded dress of pale blue, opened the door, and as soon as she recognised the visitor, she flew with a glad cry into Ione's arms.
"I am so glad you've come," she said. "I am all alone in the house, and it is so empty and big. At least, when mother is in bed, and the charwoman won't be back till to-morrow. So I was playing at being the Queen, and cutting off people's heads. Now you can be the Queen, turn and turn about."
"That must be a nice play," said Ione. "But I hope your mother is not seriously ill?"
"Who? Mother? Oh, no, only she always goes to bed when there is nothing else to do. But I’ll tell her, and she’ll be so glad you've come."
And with a skip and a wave of a hand daintily elfish, the quaint neglected child disappeared up the narrow stairs which led to the bedrooms of the little brick house.
A few minutes afterwards, through the thin partitions of the jerry-built house, a querulous voice could be heard asking a question. The low-toned answer was received with the words, "I wonder what has brought her here?"
Presently little Angel came flying back with news.
"Mother's getting up as fast as she can. And I'm to talk to you till she's ready. And oh, I hope it will be such a long time."
So with another shrill cry of joy she caught her friend round the neck.
"You are so pretty, do you know?" she went on, "and ever so much nicer than most pretty people. You don't mind my mussing your things, do you, a bit? When I grow up, I'm going to be very pretty, and have lovely silk dresses. One is to be of sky-blue silk — oh, so thin — and it is to be trimmed with Garibaldi red and to have a broad belt of crimson silk round my waist. Yes, and when I go out people will all say, 'Who is that lovely crea-chure?' Do they say that when you go out? I'm sure they do say it to themselves, for all you have only on an old black frock. I say, though, are you really poor like us, or rich like Uncle Keith? Mamma says that he is ever so rich, and that he ought to let us live in a far nicer place than this."
There was a light, uncertain tread on the ill-built stairs, which, even when Angel flew up them, creaked as under a heavy weight. The little, warped, thin-panelled parlour door opened, and the widow came in. As soon as the child heard her mother coming down the stairs, she sprang down from Ione's knee, passed her fingers through her hair, and tripped over to another chair, on the edge of which she sat with her fingers folded in her lap, and her mouth pursed and prim, looking the very ghost of the child who a moment before had wantoned and chattered in Ione's lap.
"Ah, Miss March," said Mrs. Harford, handing Ione one or two unresponsive fingers, much as if she had been passing her a bunch of bananas. "I remember you. My brother — well, he isn't my brother, thank goodness — my late dear husband's brother, I mean, went away with you after putting me and this poor child into a cab. Of course, he only did that to get rid of us. Keith Harford never has any consideration for any one's feelings but his own."
"Oh, mamma!" said little Angel; "Uncle Keith is very kind, I'm sure. And when he has money he brings me bon-bons; and you know he gave me my own dear dolly."
"When he has money!" cried the widow, with an unpleasant little laugh. "Well, Miss March, I daresay you are a friend of my brother-in-law's, and will go straight and tell him what I say. But I don't care; he knows it already, or ought to. A thousand times I've told him that if he would get a paper to edit, or go on the Stock Exchange, he might easily make enough money to take us all out of this hole. Ah, Lyall Harford, my own dear husband, was so different. You would never have suspected that Keith and he were brothers. It is true that Lyall was most unfortunate, and lost all his money. But then, so long as he had any, or could get any, he spent it like a gentleman — yes, like a gentleman, and not - "
"But," cried Angel anxiously, “Uncle Keith is poor too!"
"Silence, child! What do you know about it? Poor indeed — with his clubs and fine chambers. He keeps us here in this rat-hole, and all the time he is rolling in the lap of luxury himself. Besides which, if he would only ask his friend Hardy for money, he could get all he wanted in a minute. And they say Hardy's mother is just wild to marry him, and he won't. Keith always was so terribly selfish."
Ione could scarcely help smiling during the progress of this diatribe. But she felt that the sooner she got out of the house the more happy she would be.
"I should be glad if you could tell me where to find Mr. Harford," she said at last. "I have some money of his to return to him. He has been very kind to me indeed."
"Oh, I daresay!" cried the widow, tossing her head, and her fingers rap-rapping angrily on the paper before her. "He is just the very man to be angelic to everybody but those he is in duty bound to help — his poor dead brother's wife and child. He'd call up the first crossing sweeper, and stuff his pockets with money. But to me and my child he scarcely allows as much as will keep body and soul together!"
"When I saw Mr. Keith Harford last," said Ione softly, "he certainly was very poor. Don't you think that may be the reason?"
"Poor!" cried Mrs. Vincent Harford; "of course he is poor, and he deserves to be poor, if he is too proud to ask help from the friends he has. And how can he have a spark of consideration for us, and yet refuse to marry a great and good woman like Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy, the advocate of a noble movement — all because, forsooth, she happens to be a little older than himself, and because he pretends that he has not the requisite affection to give her in return. How paltry!"
Ione was glad indeed to get away from the little parlour behind the dingy yellow curtains with Keith Harford's address in her pocket. The palatial apartments to which his sister-in-law so frequently referred turned out to be in a narrow and dingy street leading southward off the Strand, and when Ione reached the place the area of the house suggested that the entire fabric had been reared upon a solid substratum of blackbeetles. Nor was there anything really millionairish about the grimy maid-of-all-work who, after a long interval, answered the bell.
"Mr. Harford, mum? Why, Mr. Harford is ill abed! See him? Well, mum, Mr. Harford has only a bedroom at the top of the house. But, if you like, I’ll go and tell him you are here. Shall I say his sister 'as called?"
At the sound of voices a hard-featured woman came out of some back premises, and stood looking down upon Ione with an air of severe reproach.
"Who is the person, Sarah?" she grated, with the noise of a rotary knife-cleaner when the brushes get a little out of order.
"Friend of Muster Harford's," said Sarah, throwing her voice casually over her shoulder.
"Mr. Harford is in bed, and is not able to see any stranger," said the severe-featured woman; "but I will take care of any message for him, or any letter or package, miss."
She glanced at the envelope in Ione's hand.
"Thank you," said Ione, who had instantly conceived a great dislike for Keith's landlady; "I will not trouble you."
And so walked away. She was resolved not to trust her precious thirty pounds to the care of so evident a harpy. She would either get Marcus Hardy to go with it, or else put her faith in the registration system of H. M. Post Office. As she went slowly away she crossed over to the opposite side of the street, and, casting a glance aloft, she endeavoured to decide which of the small, dirty windows could be that of Keith Harford's room. On the fourth storey one was open nearly half its extent, and the grimy curtain within moved a little as if a breeze were stirring gently up above, though there was not a breath of air in the narrow street where she stood.
MRS. MARCUS HARDY
But Seth Livingston did not lose his post. As he said himself, he stood the "racket." He managed to convince his directors that if he had been wrong-headed and unbusiness-Iike, at least his action had done no great harm — so long, that is, as the knowledge of it was confined to a dozen or so who had the best of reasons for keeping the matter private.
"And thank goodness, there's no Judd-Peters' dollars in this show, or I'd have been done up sure!" said Seth, after he had got outside of the board-room, where, as he admitted, it had taken him "ten blessedly sultry minutes to see the other fellow's bluff, and raise him to the limit."
Ione March remained with his mother all night, and the white-haired old lady alternately nursed and petted her with whispered tenderness and the healing sympathy of silence. Seth himself took a hansom over to Audley Street in the morning, and relieved the anxious minds of Jane Allen and Mrs. Adair. Thence he returned city-ward again accompanying Jane Allen on the top of a bus, talking about Ione "ten-to-the-dozen" the whole time, as Jane afterwards somewhat cryptically affirmed.
In a week or two Ione was able to be out, and even to go back to her work at the tables, but the shock of the night of the Crœsus dinner had told upon her. The old elastic lightness seemed permanently gone from her step. The willowy sway, lissom as the stem of a harebell and yet tense as a steel spring, was missing from her carriage. She moved listlessly, she looked delicate, and when she began her work it was with a grave, pale conscientiousness quite unlike the enthusiasm of her first début as an artist in flowers.
Ione received the first authentic accounts of her father's death from an unexpected source. She was sitting one winter's evening in the early lamplight of the little parlour in Audley Street. She had pulled the shade low, and let her hands fall listlessly on her lap. Ione had obtained a professional substitute for her less important work of the night — a girl whom Seth had found for her, and she was now sitting down to enjoy the luxury of a long rest. Somehow she did not seem to get stronger quickly, and she certainly was much more readily fatigued than of old.
The knocker on the outer door hammered a second loud and insistent reminder, and Ione was wondering indolently how it was that the postman had come so early, and why she had not heard him approaching. For usually Audley Street was so quiet, and the one-brick-thick-standing-on-end Building Society houses were so thin as to their walls, that the postman's double-knock could be heard for at least twenty doors on either side, and over an indefinite area across on the opposite side of the way.
But it was not the postman's quick-step retreat from the small outer port of badly varnished pine-wood which took Ione's ear. There came a murmur of voices — one, a gruff man's voice which propounded an inaudible query; then, breaking through this, a girlish voice, clear, high, and rapid, which made a dozen explanations and asked a dozen questions all in the space of a minute. Ione heard with surprise her own name frequently mentioned. Ensued thereafter the rapid frou-frou of silken skirts along the narrow passage. Delicate drapery brushed against the unsympathetic folds of Hugh Adair's shiny black mackintosh which he wore on stormy days to the yard. The door opened, or, more strictly, was burst open in a highly revolutionary manner, and there rushed in — who but Idalia Judd, her hair of more distracting tangle than ever, her cheeks all cream and rose, her eyes sparkling a thousand scintillations per minute, the dimples coming and going incalculably about the corners of her mouth.
"Oh, Ione," she cried, "don't be angry with me. I wanted so to come to you. I am so sorry. I came right away as soon as I had arrived and we could find out where you were."
She threw her arms lovingly about Ione's neck and began to sob on her shoulder, in the quick, helpless way she had when she was moved.
"It was so sad for you, dear, to be so far away. It came so suddenly, and I know you loved him very much. But I went and stopped with him, and tried to do just what you would have done. And oh — Astoria was so angry, and would not speak to me. But mother behaved like a little brick, and said I could go if I wanted to. And he lay so peacefully at the last, saying all the time how he loved you, and that you would have everything you needed, and stroked my hand thinking it was yours, dear. Then he said, ' God bless you, Ione,' and talked all the time about your mother. I never saw any one die before, and at first I was dreadfully frightened. But now I shan't be afraid about death any more. And I did it just because I wanted to, and so that I could tell you — that you mightn't think he was sad or lonely. He never missed you really — after the stroke, you know. He thought you were there all the time until the end. It wasn't sad a bit, dear. It wasn't, indeed."
Ione had never cried since the news struck her down the night of the dinner. Mrs. Livingston had tried to move her, but in vain. The girl was like stone — her face set and pale, her eyelids unnaturally white and swollen, and the strain showing in every movement and line of her face.
But now at Idalia's words she melted suddenly; her lower lids brimmed, pearled, and overflowed. Then the water ran down her cheeks in a steady flood, as if the fountains of a great deep had been broken up.
Idalia talked on while Ione sobbed, her voice now thrilling with tears, now tremulous on the verge of hysterical laughter — but keeping up a steady, healing stream of talk all the time, while her little, plump, daintily-gloved hands were clasped tightly about her friend's neck.
"Yes, Ione, and they were so horrid to me at home — all except only mother. And I have quarrelled with them all, so now you must help me. I've been counting on that such a lot. Oh, and we will be so poor, and I don't really think I could scrub floors or make puddings. But Marcus says that he doesn't like puddings much any way - "
Ione could not believe her ears.
"Marcus — ?" she said, raising her head, and the welling tears stilling themselves automatically with the surprise.
Idalia nodded her head so vehemently that the bird of paradise feathers on her hat almost broke off short.
"Yes, indeed! I knew you would say so (though Ione had not said anything). Well, it is true — though you won't believe it (she spread abroad her hands tragically). We ran away and got married, and now we are paupers!—Yes, paupers; but I love him — oh, so much. He is the silliest old dear; but he thinks I'll make a lovely pauper! Don't you think so, too?"
"You — have — married — Marcus Hardy?" said Ione, in little checks of speech, as her voice gradually recovered command of itself.
"Yes, I have — at least I think so. We were stood up before the sweetest old clergyman, with the silveriest hair, in the loveliest village in all New Hampshire. And he had such a nice voice, though he did take snuff, and he kissed me and patted me on the cheek. All among the mountains it was, you know — and he is outside now."
"Who, the silvery-haired clergyman?" said Ione, still more astonished.
"No — silly! Marcus, I mean; but of course you couldn't think. How can you care about these things yet? But he is a dear, and I rumple his hair every day. Marcus!" she cried, suddenly raising her voice, "where have you got to? Come in, great lummox! I call him that because he doesn't know what 'lummox' means, and he is as big as a house! Ione, tell me, if you love me — is there any pretty girl in this house? It really is not safe, you know, to let him out of one's sight. He flirts, do you know — well, you wouldn't believe how he flirts. We stayed at the sweetest little nunnery in Germany, away up in the Sigmaringenwald, on our honeymoon, and Marcus made eyes at the nuns all the time, and specially at such a pretty one Sister Theresa. She had the loveliest lashes. . . . Yes, you did, you know you did, Marcus Hardy. Oh, think shame!"
His wife paused just long enough to frown severely at Marcus as he appeared in the doorway.
"Now then, do come in! Don't be bashful. Yes, you may kiss Ione—just this once though, and not in corners or behind the door, and never when I'm not there. Oh, I know you, my man!"
Marcus Hardy entered slowly and bashfully, as if insinuating himself sideways through an aperture that was not big enough for him. He seemed to fill the entire sitting-room. Ione rose to welcome him, and held out her hand. Marcus took it, blushing to the roots of his hair.
"Now do it," cried his wife; "I know you are dying to. Kiss your new sister — brace up like a man! There — that isn't really so bad for a first time, but mind — no dress rehearsals behind my back. Bless you, my children!"
Marcus had bent over and imprinted a chaste kiss on Ione's pale cheek.
"You know, Ione dear, you wouldn't believe what a bad boy he is. Oh, I've been finding out such a lot of things since I was married. Do you know, he 'fesses up to having made love to ever so many other girls before he met me, and one he even asked to marry him! Now he says he didn't mean it. But wasn't it horrid of him? Just fancy if the wretch had said 'Yes'! I don't know how men can do such things, and then have the face to make up to a little innocent thing like me; do you, Ione?"
She looked sternly at Marcus, who listened with a broad tolerant smile.
"Yes, I thought you would agree with me! Now don't say a word, Marcus! I declare I can't hear myself speaking for you. Do you know, he has grown such a chatterbox? I simply can't get beginning to talk to Ione. Oh, just wait till I tell you about our marriage. I had to come down by the hen-house ladder out of our boarding-house window, such a rickety construction — and Marcus could not hold it either, because he was listening at Astoria's window to make sure that she kept on snoring — Astoria snores. Yes, indeed, I will tell now if I like. I don't care. At any rate, Marcus, you can't say that I - "
"Idalia!" cried Ione warningly.
"Well, no more he can! And any way, I can say what I like before him, and so can you. For I am an old married woman, and I can chaperon you all now. Oh, won't that be fun? (Idalia clapped her hands joyously.) When you fall in love, I'll take you up the river, and you and he can punt and read poetry, and look into each other's eyes, and say over all the nice old spoony things you want to!"
"And what will you do, Idalia?" said Ione, smiling more brightly than she had done for weeks, and with the colour beginning to steal back into her pale lips.
"Ione March, what will I do? Oh, I know! I shall sit on the bank with my back to you, out of hearing, you know, and knit stockings for Marcus — such big ones they will have to be, and the heels so difficult to turn. Astoria can knit socks and read Kant both at once! She just loves it — I never could. You should have married Astoria, Marcus, only she'd never have looked at you — no, sir! And then I just could not have done without you, you great big, dear thing!"
And with a sudden bird-like swoop she had perched on the extreme point of the bashful giant's knees, and was rumpling his abundant hair.
"Look at him," she continued, leaning back with a good grip on his forelock, and calling upon Ione for admiration; "isn't he a picnic? Isn't he a transformation scene, a White City all by himself? Don't you wish you had a brother, Marcus, for Ione to fall in love with?"
"So I have a brother — young cub!" growled the blushful bridegroom, uncomfortably moving about on his chair.
"And do you know, we shall be so poor! Church-mice are bloated what-do-you-call-'ems to us. Why, all I shall have (till I get papa by himself, when Astoria is safe out of the way) is only ten thousand dollars a year, and about twelve hundred that Marcus has from his estate and things!"
"That isn't dollars, though," said Marcus, beginning to cheer up and look about him.
"And we are going to have such sweet times in the dearest little cottage, Marcus and I. Of course we can't afford a proper house, or carriages, or servants. O dear, we are to have only one little Biddy-of-all-work! And I'm to do rice puddings, and there’ll be a little boy in nice, shiny buttons to clean the boots and keep it cheerful for the hired help. No, I think we won't wear boots that need to be blacked at all — brown leather is so much nicer anyway, and cheaper too, especially the sloppy kind with canvas tops. They're only half-a-crown a pair at the Stores, if you smile nicely at the clerk who attends to you!"
"We shan't be so poor as all that," ventured Marcus the giant. But his wife swooped down upon him, and snapped him up.
"O yes, we will, nice thing. (Isn't he nice, Ione? It's only the Green-eyed One that makes you not answer.) Of course we shall be poor, and have just nothing a year to live on. I think it is a shame, his mother has a beautiful castle about as big as Windsor all to herself."
"Imitation — all iron girders and cockroaches!" put in Marcus.
His wife rumpled his hair down over his brow, till his blue eyes looked ruefully forth from the tangle like an owl out of an ivy bush.
"It's nice, Ione; just try it! Curls like that over the forehead tickle your hand so cunningly when you stroke them. She won't, horrid thing! Ne-evvv-er mind, then, it's ownest own will do it for it, all it wants, so it shall then!"
"O shame — shame!" said Marcus, blushing more redly than ever out of the overhanging wisp of hair Idalia had stirred up. Then he picked up his wife as easily as a kitten and set her down on a chair.
Idalia rose to her feet, and stamped on the thin carpet.
"O you great, strong, horrid brute — I hate you — abusing your poor little wife! Don't speak to me — you see how I am not allowed to say a single word in my own defence, Ione. All is over between us! Besides, you are looking at Ione twice as often as you look at me, and you said that you liked her better than you liked me at Grindelwald. Yes, you did — you know you did! Now don't argue, Marcus Hardy. You know very well that you have not a single word to say for yourself, and I 'm not going to listen to it anyway, if you had. Thank goodness, I've got something else to do!"
Marcus looked over to Ione for sympathy. She smiled such a smile as had not been on her lips since she listened last to the bright irresponsibility of Idalia, that sweetest of featherheads, and loyalest of friends.
"There you are at it again," she cried, "you are both doing it now. Marcus Hardy, I won't have you flirting with Ione before my very face, if I am an orphan in a strange land. I shan't cry. No, sir! I shall just say, 'Good-bye, Mr. Man — pleased to have met you. You're welcome to the other girl, if you can get her.' Only I don't believe she'd look at you — though some women are such flirts, it's perfectly horrid!"
And so on.
THE CRŒSUS CLUB
Mr. Kearney Judd was giving a dinner at the Hotel Universal. The primogenital reversion of a hundred millions of money was trysted to be at the table. This consisted generally of rabbit-mouthed, small-moustached young men with prominent owlish eyes. For the worship of Mammon and the life-long pursuit of the elusive gods of script and share do not, somehow or other, conduce to the production of beauty in the second generation.
With these there were young men of the English style of the cult, heavier of body and broader of base, with prominent noses set in the pallid pastiness of their features. There were also several journalists, for the most part correspondents of distinguished financial papers, a stray diplomatist of the more impecunious sort, not perhaps altogether above doing a little diplomacy on his own account when he had the opportunity. In fact, it was a dinner given to the brothers of the celebrated Crœsus Club by their distinguished Prior, Mr. Kearney Judd.
The celebration was to take place in two of the handsomest rooms of the Hotel Universal. The guests assembled in the Salon de la Commune, and the dinner was laid in the Salle de Robespierre. The decorations were of the choicest kind throughout, and no expense was to be spared to make the distinguished gathering worthy both of the host and of that famous hotel-restaurant, which was just then establishing the world-wide reputation, details of which may be seen from the advertisements of any illustrated journal.
As Mr. Kearney Judd was distinguishing the Universal Hotel by making it the place of his residence while in London, it was natural that he should be in the salon of reception in time to receive his guests. Also as the hour of dinner had been fixed early in order to facilitate an adjournment to the "Elysium" Music Hall in time for the principal item on the programme, the smallish purse-mouthed brethren of St. Crœsus, with their buffalo-horn moustaches, arrived with equal alacrity, and were warmly received by their distinguished Prior.
But the control of the Universal Hotel did not look with the same enthusiasm upon the unusually early dinner hour. The chef was in a thumb-biting, shoulder-shrugging state of revolt in the magnificent kitchens at the top of the house. The lady decorator had been disappointed by the late arrival of her flowers. The foreign supplies had not come on in time. And so it chanced that even while the guests were assembling in the Salon de la Commune, in the adjoining Salle deft hands were throwing here and there across the great table sprays of Persian lilac, bleached by rapid forcing in the dark, and subduing to a half light the sparkle of the electric lamps underneath, glowing loops which beamed through the mist of blue and white with suggestions of azure heavens and angelic purity exceedingly appropriate to the Crœsus Club.
Banks of moss were overlaid with the deep unutterable tones of the trumpet gentian, rising from the still rarer sapphire of the smaller Alpine flower. Above shone masses of blue cornflower, snowy ageratum, and noble Swan River daisies. Swiftly and in silence white fingers were showering among these sprays of long-leafed speedwell and creamy spirӕa alternating with smilax and the stiffer stems of innocent forget-me-not, in token of the eternal devotion of the members of the Crœsus Club to each other — so long, that is, as they did not lose their money and their several fathers kept out of the Gazette.
The rooms were only separated from each other by the thinnest of folding doors. In fact, little more than a screen of veneer hung upon a framework of ash divided the Salon de la Commune from that of the Salle de Robespierre. In the momentary lulls and silences of their fast-running talk, the guests could hear the clink of silver on glass, and even see at times the flash of black and white as nimble servitors passed in and out.
Prior Kearney Judd stood by the doorway receiving his guests. It was not a large dinner party, but every one there was somebody — or at least the son of somebody, which is of course the same thing. Furthermore, with the exception of a shy journalist who bore a poet's name, and one or two slim diplomats, there was not a man in the room who willingly referred to his grandfather.
The Prior of the Most Noble Order of the Sons of Crœsus was in high spirits. He had received intelligence that night which warmed the cockles of his heart. He felt that in honour he could not keep the matter long from the company.
"Boys," he cried, "I've something to tell you — you are all interested in the Combination. Or if not, you are all going to be. There's one more of the enemy gone under—and we pocket the loot — one the less to stand in the victorious way of Judd-Peters. 'One more unfortunate weary of breath, rashly un-something-ate, gone to his thingummy.'"
The "boys" hushed to learn Kearney's news, for the Prior seldom spoke articulately without having received abundant "pointers" from the Great-and-Only. Therefore his words were as gold and worth noting. Indeed, most of the members of the Crœsus Club, after a night with their Prior, secretly consulted their shirt cuffs of the evening, and (not always to their advantage) arranged the finances and speculations of the following morning by the light of these words of weighty wisdom.
"He isn't a very big fish; indeed, only a jerky and troublesome one. My old man has been fooling him and playing him for some time — Governor Henry Quincy March, you know!"
"Oh, yes," said the Man-with-a-Grandfather, "I've heard of him — Governor of Callibraska in war time, wasn't he — raised the shekels for the freedom of the nigger — that kind of thing? Enlisted afterwards as a private in the army; very noble; went to Andersonville, ‘cause he wouldn't bow the knee ' — no end of a fellow."
"As you say," nodded Kearney drily, “no end of a fellow. Only — there is an end of him now. But there is more to his record than that, and I know it. He started out in business with the cash he sneaked from the Liberation Bureau. He throve on plunder and carpet-bagging all through the late sixties. This March fellow has been in our way a long time. He's been playing the patriot even more than usual lately, only rather overdoing the part — million dollars to this and that hospital, ten millions to Taskora University, to found a scientific chair for the study of the other side of the moon. All very well when you've got the boodle and want more — no better ad. in the world than astronomy for a philanthropic fraud like March. But when you haven't got the ready, and don't deserve to have it, it gets to be about time for some one to shut down on the fool. So my old man did the shutting, and now - "
"I've seen him," interrupted one of the diplomats, pulling his moustache. "By Jove, I say, hadn't he a daughter of sorts — handsome girl, too? Saw her at Naples or Sorrento!"
"Say, weren't you rather sweet in that quarter, Kearney? Gave you the mitten once, didn't she? Well, I bet she is deuced sorry now!"
These were the cries which greeted Kearney's news.
"I think old March had a daughter," said the Prior, stroking his moustache, also twirling his own particular buffalo-horn; "don't know where she is now. She’ll have to turn out and do something for her living, which will be good for her!"
The folding doors slid noiselessly open. Instinctively, with a relieved apprehension of the announcement of dinner, the whole Crœsus Club turned towards the Salle de Robespierre. And there, set against a background of darkest blue, and backed by a faint shiny mist of electric light from a hundred half-hidden fairy lamps, stood a slender figure in a plain black gown, relieved only by a wide collar of white about her throat. The girl's face was pale as death. Her eyes were hollow and brilliant. Her lips were parted, and showed full geranium scarlet against the ivory whiteness of her skin. Ione's whole attitude expressed such a world of anger and contempt, that the Brothers of Crœsus nearest the folding doors shrank back as if they feared that the girl was about to strike them on the face.
"Yes," she said, her words sounding out clearly and distinctly amid the hush of expectant silence, "Governor March has a daughter. I am that daughter. And I am earning my own living. I have turned out honestly to win my bread. You say that my father has failed in business — that he has been disgraced. Gentlemen, my father cannot be disgraced. His record is written. Before one of you was born he had done his work, and America is to-day what she is because of such men as my father."
There was a murmur and an astonished recoil among the guests. Behind her the waiters clustered and whispered. "Run for the manager!" said one. "Bring Mr. Livingston — the girl's gone mad!" whispered another.
But Ione had more to say before any one could stop her.
"As for that thing there," she pointed an indignant finger at Kearney, who after recovering from his first surprise, stood nonchalantly smiling and stroking his moustache, "it is my life's disgrace that for a few days I wore his ring on my finger, till I learned to know the wretched coward, the despicable liar he is. But tomorrow I will write to Governor March, and as sure as that reptile crawls upon the earth, he shall be punished. My father will require the justification of his words from him to his face, and if he dare not meet him man to man — well, with such as he, there is at least some satisfaction to be got out of a horse-whip."
As Ione spoke out her indignation a stony silence fell upon the company, broken only by an agonised whisper from the diplomat.
"My God — the girl doesn't know!"
Ione March ran her eye over the company — a slow withering glance of infinite disdain.
"You are men, you are gentlemen — most of you are Americans — you would not stand and listen to your own fathers and sisters being belied and insulted behind their backs. Gentlemen, I put it to you, has Governor March deserved ill of his country? He has no son to stand up and vindicate him here — only one feeble girl. I ask you, gentlemen, is there no one who will have the manliness to defend the absent, and to say to that liar and cad the words which I cannot say."
"Yes, by Jove, there just is! I'll take up that contract!" said Seth Livingston, quietly stepping out of the blue dusk of the Salle de Robespierre into the full glare of the Salon de la Commune, and taking up his stand beside the slender pathetic figure in black. "My father knew Governor March, I know his daughter, and no man insults either in my presence, or yet in the Hotel Universal."
"And who might you be?" sneered Kearney Judd, giving a still more pronounced upward turn to his thin moustache.
"I am a man and an American — you are no more and no better. Let that be answer enough for you!" retorted Seth Livingston.
"You may perhaps hear of this to-morrow through your directors," said Kearney Judd, who meantime had recognised the European agent of the Universal Hotel Syndicate.
His opponent nodded grimly.
"That's all right," he said. "You'll find Seth Livingston on hand when the music plays."
But the journalist, touched by the beauty and the pitifulness of the girl, had a word to say.
"I am sure that we all sympathise with Miss March in her bereavement," he began lamely enough. Then the chorus broke indignantly about him.
"Shut up - !" "Hold your tongue, man! Hush—don't you see - ?"
But the heart of the journalist was stirred within him. He merely raised his voice above the turmoil, and held on his way.
"We are men," he said, squaring himself for a deliverance; "we have spoken too freely. De mortuis, you know. Let us all apologise very humbly, as I do to the young lady. Governor March's death clears all back scores!"
There was a confused murmur as if to drown his final words; but it came too late. Ione March had heard.
"Governor March's death - " she gasped; "you say his 'death.' My father dead, and I not told of it — I not with him!"
She stood a moment longer, swaying like a lily in the wind, looking dully from one to the other, as if not understanding why they were all gathered there.
"Is this true, Seth Livingston? Ah, you are silent; you know it. You knew it this afternoon, and you did not tell me! I thank you, sir—I thank you, gentlemen. I ask your pardon. I must go— I must go to find my father. I think — I think he is needing me!
And she fell back into Seth Livingston's arms.
"Gentlemen," said her champion, "you see that it is impossible after this that you can dine here to-night. Be good enough to adjourn elsewhere."
"Very pretty—exceedingly neatly acted," sneered Kearney. "Let's leave the hotel drummer with the girl. Come on, boys; this has been better than any show we are likely to see to-night."
Seth Livingston shifted the unconscious girl into the arms of a sympathetic waiter.
"This may be hanged poor business as business," he muttered; "but I guess I'm going to see it through."
And the next moment something swift as the first upward rush of a rocket struck Kearney Judd between the eyes, and he found himself upon the floor of the Salon de la Commune.
"Take him to his room!" said Seth Livingston. And went to his own to send in his resignation.
Meanwhile Mrs. Livingston was caring for the unconscious girl, and bending over Ione, murmuring little motherly tendernesses.
Ten minutes later Seth came in after knocking gently.
His mother whispered to him,--
"She will do nicely — she is coming to. You did quite right, Seth boy!"
“Thank you, mother," said her son, who knew he had not erred when his mother used his pet name. "I guess you and I will have to go back to Salem now. I can get a berth at three dollars a day in the boot factory, and Mamie must hang on a spell longer at the book-keeping till I break out in a new place."
"And in Salem I will get something fit to eat!" said his mother.
THE FLOWER GIRL
The room in which Ione found herself was not a large one, but it wore an aspect somewhat unfamiliar within a few hundred feet of the murky Tamesis. On the walls were framed engravings — Washington crossing the Delaware occupying the place of honour above the mantlepiece. The Declaration of Independence was being signed on the wall over against the window. Prints of Faneuil Hall and the Old South Meeting-House occupied niches near the fireplace. In one corner there was a sort of shrine composed of American flags, framed and glazed, the Stars glittering on top, and the Stripes descending perpendicularly to the bottom of the frame. Opposite was another glass-case, in which hung an old blue coat with shoulder-straps of rusty gold, together with an officer's sword suspended by a waist-belt.
A thin-faced old lady, with a sedately placid expression and the whitest hair in the world, was knitting by the window, her fingers never resting for a moment as the nimble thread wove out and in. She pulled at the wool ball in her large apron-pocket every minute or two with that automatic hitch which tells of a lifetime of practice.
"Miss March, this is my mother," said Seth Livingston; "she is quite the latest and most satisfactory thing in mothers, too, and always comes home to tea. Mother, this is Miss March, with whom I am permitted to make you acquainted, and she is the daughter of Governor March of Callibraska."
"My dear!" said the old lady, rising and holding out one hand, while she conserved her knitting with the other. "Why, I've heard of your father as much as a million times! Indeed, he got all my spring chickens for two whole years to melt into bullets to help end the dreadful war! — and — and I gave him two of my sons as well."
She cast a look at the blue coat which hung limply opposite the trophy of flags.
"Mother," said Seth, "do give Miss March some tea, before you get talking about the War. There's nothing so thirsty as talking about the War. It's as bad as lunching with three brigadier-generals at the Union Club."
"Don't you mind Seth, Miss March," said the gracious old lady, smiling placidly at her guest; "when you've lived as long as I have with joking men, you’ll know that more than half the time they are the only ones to see their own fun."
"Say it, mother!" said her son provokingly.
"Well, I will, Seth." She nodded a little defiantly at him. "He wants me to say that I wouldn't be as funny as he is for a farm. He says that that makes him feel as if he were right down by Boston Harbour. It seems curious they don't say a simple thing like that over here."
"Yes, mother," he answered; "whenever you get to saying that, I can smell the South Bay and hear the N. Y. express sail through to Matapan just a-whooping!"
By this time the tea was poured out, and the old lady produced from a wall-press sundry cakes and mysterious condiments, which she set on the table with great complacency.
"Do you know, I just can't take to these stiff English afternoon teas. They are no better than the departed spirits of square meals," said Mrs. Livingston vigorously; "and so every morning I go and buy in all the nice American-tasting things I can find, and then Seth and I have them in the afternoon."
"She is a real moral old lady, my mother!" mused Seth, to the electric-light fittings —"teaching me to swindle my own hotel, and bribing me by offering to share the proceeds of the crime. Did you ever happen to read that notice, mother?" He pointed to a card tacked on the wall.
No Meals to be Partaken of
in the Apartments
Without Special Arrangement
with the Direction
of the Syndicate Hotels.
"Well, sonny," said his mother, "aren't you the ‘Direction of the Hotels’? At any rate, you've been telling me nothing else ever since I came over in the Circassia. I wouldn't be as - "
"No, mother, not again quite so soon. Do give Miss March a rest!" said Seth, putting his hands dejectedly into the pockets of his coat. What he felt there made his lip suddenly quiver. He had forgotten the crushing sorrow which was waiting for this girl at the end of their light talk. At any rate, he would get her launched upon her work before she heard the news, and the necessities of her new position might perhaps help her not to break down under the blow which, sooner or later, must fall upon her.
"Mother," he said, "this young lady knows all about Mamie in Salem - "
"I guess you've been telling her yourself, then," cried Mrs. Livingston; "you ought to be ashamed of yourself, Seth. Miss March, he can't keep from telling every one he meets about little Mamie Grove. He generally gets there within ten minutes. How long was he with you? You look so sweet and sympathetic, that I shouldn't blame him if he got to Salem within a minute and a half."
"Mother, you are really the most unscrupulous person. And yet they say that the great American lie is going out! They should just hear my mother abusing and slandering her only son! But the truth is, that with Miss March alongside, most men would forget to mention Salem at all!"
"Well, Seth, if you could be sensible for five minutes, perhaps you would tell us how you propose to attach Miss March to the service of your Hotels?"
"Why, mother. Miss March is already engaged to arrange flowers on the dining-tables at half a guinea for each set-out; and as we have many special dinners, I think she may count on at least three or four in an evening. And of course, as the thing has to be done quickly, we will stand cab fares between the hotels."
"Dear me!" said Ione, smiling gladly; "you are quite a fairy prince with a magic wand. Why, I shall be a millionairess, and have money to burn! But perhaps, after they see me start in to do one table, the Direction will shut down on me, and say, 'Flowers is off; please help lay the cloths — it is all you are good for!'"
"And a very nice thing too," said Mrs. Livingston; "I just ache to show these lazy good-for-nothing German waiters how cloths are laid in New England!"
"I think there is not the least doubt that Miss March will succeed," said Seth. "I'll take her round right now, and introduce her to our Manager. Don't tell him that you haven't had fifty years' experience! Go to the stalls in the court-yard and get what flowers you want. They all belong to the Syndicate. The Manager doesn't know beans about decoration anyway, and the head waiters don't go beyond sticking a score of roses in a glass pail, like so many cigarette spills. So you have carte-blanche and my blessing. You will get your money every night from the cashier, or have your cash made up each Saturday, if that suits you better."
"I don't know how to thank you, Mr. Livingston; I don't know what I can do - " Ione began, a little hard knot coming suddenly in her throat. After all, it was a great thing that this young American was doing for her so lightly.
"You can give my mother a kiss, if you like," laughed Seth; "I know she would like it, and she's just particular nice to kiss. And as for me, why, you can get that car-girl to make room for me beside her again, next time I am down on my luck and riding on the bottom step of a Pullman."
* * * * *
With characteristic readiness to adapt herself to the business in hand, Ione instantly pulled off her gloves and ran out to the nearest ladies' shop to buy a white linen "Squire" collar, such as school-boys and nurses wear, and a pair of white turned-back cuffs to match. These she fitted over her black dress with the old lady's assistance, and in ten minutes she had extemporised a completely suitable costume. In a quarter of an hour Seth Livingston was informed that his new recruit was ready to begin work.
His mother had accompanied the transformation with approving and patriotic murmurs.
"American? Well, I should say so! They don't breed your kind over here, my dear. It comes of generations of huskings and quiltings, and of doing one full share of man's work and taking two shares of man's responsibility."
She paused a little, contemplating the completion of Ione's swift arrangements. "What State did your father come from?" she asked.
"Well, as you know," answered Ione, looking up, "he was Governor of Callibraska during the War, but by birth he was an Ohio man - "
"The step-mother of Presidents," commented Seth from the sitting-room; "she smacked them for their good all the time they were little, and stood around with her hands in her pockets taking the credit of them after they got big!"
His mother looked through the doorway at him as he lounged against the mantelpiece with his hands in his pockets.
"I wouldn't be - "
"Yes, mother, I know; but really, really — that's the third time! But about Ohio, it's the frozen truth, any way."
"Good-bye, my dear," said the white-haired old lady. "I don't know what he means; nor does he, half the time. But run in here and see me often, and tell me how you are getting on. I don't know anything about dressing up tables with flowers, but if I could come and hold the string and the wire fixings for you - "
"Well, mother, you just can't — else you'd be sitting up half the night with your cough. So take your bonnet and go out and see if you can't buy better buckwheat than the second-hand sawdust you got last time in that shop in Regent Street. I can't have two such tearing beauties going about the tables in the restaurant and into the private dining-rooms, disorganising the waiters and reducing the call-boys to more than their ordinary level of drivelling idiocy."
Ione had many a time decorated dinner-tables for her father. It had been one of his greatest pleasures to watch her nimble fingers moving among the rich blooms of the Mediterranean sea-board. But she had no conventions, and her creations were by no means in accordance with the traditions. Her manner was quiet and assured; and even on this first night she achieved some quite remarkable successes.
Her experience, from the point of view of a diner, had informed her that, before all things, people desire to be able to see each other without gazing through a tangled tropical forest of ferns and sprays, or playing bo-peep round a palm. She found also that most of the stands and epergnes were too stiff for the smaller tables; but with yards of trailing smilax and delicately wreathed lilac-blossomed wistaria, she toned down the harshness of their outlines.
Ione endeavoured to treat each table as a distinct picture, making of one an arrangement in rich red tones, culminating in the splendid crimson of the Bolivian sage and the scarlet of that imperial martagon lily to which even King Solomon in all his glory was not like.
"Was the young man who ordered this table dark or fair?" she asked suddenly of the chief steward of the restaurant. That Parisian elegant looked somewhat astonished, but answered, smiling and twirling his moustache, "Mees, he was blonde."
"And the table is ordered for three," mused Ione, with her finger to her cheek; "one will be the gooseberry, the other will be her. And if he is fair, it is about four to one that she will be dark. We will give them the red table."
And so indeed it proved; and with her diamond-lit crown of blue-black hair, Ione's flamboyant royal colour harmonised as never table decorations had done before.
When Ione came back the next night, she found that so far as that hotel was concerned, her reputation was made. She had smiled graciously as the dinner-giver anxiously adjusted her opera-cloak, and whispered something in his ear. Then the lover had turned about to say to the deferential manager, "The young lady desires to congratulate you on your table-decorator!"
It was with joy in her heart that Ione returned to the little house, where Jane Allen was sitting up anxiously awaiting her return.
"Wherever have you been, Ione?" she cried, as soon as she had flown into the narrow passage to clutch her friend round the neck. Mrs. Adair came bustling out, her face red from the oven in which she had been preparing a beefsteak-pie to be carried by Tom Adair and his father to the works on the morrow.
Ione told all her tale of Seth Livingston's kindness, and not the least of her joy was the sight of the unselfish rejoicing of these honest hearts.
"So in a week or two I shall be quite rich, and be able to give you all a treat to the Crystal Palace, or even, if you are very good, to Hampton Court on Sunday. Besides" — she turned and put her hand affectionately on the plump matronly shoulder of Mrs. Adair — "it is high time that I paid my debts. I have been expecting, any time these two weeks, that you would be putting me to the door."
John Adair coughed as if he had been about to speak, while his father moved his feet off the kitchen fender noisily and upset the tongs.
"Eh, lassie!" said Mrs. Adair, holding up her hands in protest; "how can ye speak like that? Ye are just like yin o' oorsels, an' were I ever to speak o' siller to ye, ony yin o' thae twa men sittin' aboot the fire wad gie me my head in my hand and my lugs to play wi'!"
It was with moist eyes and trembling lips, to find herself among such simple loving souls, that Ione moved upstairs to her little bedroom. As she did so, Mrs. Adair called after her.
"Miss March," she said, "there was a gentleman here this afternoon. He would not give any message, nor sae muckle as leave his name; but he gied me a letter for you. You will find it on your bedroom table."
"What was the gentleman like?" asked Ione.
"'Deed, I didna tak' muckle notice o' him, for the girdle was on, and the scones readying fine; and wi' thae wig-ma-leeries o' useless English fire-places, that hae nocht but a bit patlid for the lowe to keek up through, ye need to keep your mind on your scones when they are on. But he was a lang lad, gye white and shilpit, and lookin' as if he had clean forgotten what day o' the week it was."
The description of Keith Harford was too clear to be mistaken. Ione ran up to her bedroom with an eagerness which she did not own even to herself.
On the table lay a plain business envelope sealed with a red seal. With fingers that trembled she tore it open, and half a dozen crisp Bank of England notes fluttered out. A scrap of paper accompanied them, with a few words written upon it.
"Dear Miss March, I cannot allow you to suffer through my fault. Pardon this, and do not be angry.
Tears sprang to Ione's eyes, and she patted her shoe on the scrap of carpet which lay in front of the little looking-glass.
"Oh, he ought not to have done this — I cannot take it! I shall go to-morrow and give it back to him."
Then she remembered that she did not know Keith Harford's address. At this moment Jane Allen came in with eager eyes of inquiry. She pounced at once upon the traces of the tears which Ione had hastily endeavoured to wipe away.
"What did I tell you?" she said reproachfully. "I knew how it would be! You should never have let him speak to you again. Men are all vipers, and whenever you give them an inch they will take an ell!"
"But, Jane," said Ione, smiling in rather April fashion, "this is not the man I was once engaged to. I never saw Mr. Harford till I was in Switzerland a year ago."
Jane Allen's eyes danced with a sudden joyous light.
"Why didn't you tell me so before?" she said. "Here I have been just horrid to you for weeks, all because I thought you were taking him on again — and I knew too well what that meant. But, tell me, is he nice? Do you love him?"
"No," said Ione doubtfully; "I do not love him. How should I, after seeing him only half a dozen times? But I am sorry for him. He is ill and poor, and does not know how to look after himself any more than a baby."
Jane Allen did not say a single word, but rose from the side of the bed whereon she had been sitting. She came swiftly and impulsively over to Ione and kissed her. Then, still without a word, she went into her own room.
First serialised in 'Woman at Home' as 'The Woman of Fortune' in 1899.