chapter twenty five
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.
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First serialised in 'Woman at Home' as 'The Woman of Fortune' in 1899.