LUCRETIA stood on the edge of the sidewalk with the wind and rain beating against her. She held her umbrella close to her like a shield, with her head ducked down into its shelter. From one arm dangled her shopping bag, and with the other elbow she clutched a small mink muff and a paper-covered package to her side. As she attempted to cross the street her skirt swathed itself about her as if it had been chiffon, and half-way over, the freakish gale shifted suddenly, and before Lucretia could whirl about to face its new position, it had got a grip on the inside of her umbrella and ripped the poor weak cotton thing inside out.
Two newsboys laughed out loud. An automobile honked impatiently in her ear. Lucretia dropped the flapping wreck in her hands to the pavement, and clutching the brim of her hat, now pulling away dangerously at its moorings, plunged forward toward the haven of the sidewalk. Just as she stepped on the curbing the package, held so securely beneath her elbow, burst its paper covering, and out of it exploded dozens upon dozens of bright orange-colored kumquats. Lucretia stopped stock-still. There was a suggestion of tears in her eyes as she surveyed the spectacle at her feet. The sidewalk seemed alive with kumquats rolling away in every direction. Lucretia glanced at the empty box in her hands an instant; then she grimly proceeded to pick up her treasures. A friendly cabby and a newsboy helped her.
When the box was nearly full again she thanked them, and for the first time glanced about her. Passers-by were smiling. Her gaze sought the low windows of the hotel on the corner. Little red-shaded lights shone out at her through lace curtains. At the window just above a man and a girl were sitting at one of the small tables. The man was hidden behind the lace, but she caught the amused smile of the girl. Oh, well! She tossed her head a little, then walked as proudly as was possible in such a gale to the entrance of the hotel and entered it.
"Please have these wrapped up," she said to the clerk, presenting her box of fruit. "I'll call for them in a little while."
When she came down-stairs ten minutes later, although she had helped herself generously to soap and hot water, towels and scented powder, she knew that she hadn't improved her appearance much—nor her feelings either. There was that queer, choking, cottony sensation in her throat which she knew meant the beginning of one of her terrific colds. Her shoulders ached, too. She glanced at the clock. An hour yet till train time! A writing-room opposite, warm in rose light, beckoned to her. There was an open fire burning; a maid in black and white was noiselessly replenishing the three or four little desks with fresh blotters and writing paper. Lucretia walked in and sat down at the one empty desk in the corner. She drew a sheet of paper toward her, dipped the stub pen intɔ the ink, and proceeded to write furiously.
"Dearest Tom," she began, "I'd like to cover about eight pages of notepaper with all the various forms of 'darn' that exist in this world, add a few dozen stars, twenty exclamation points, and several big, black, splotchy blots of ink the size of five-cent pieces! Then perhaps you'd get a little idea of my feelings! I'm tired of being a poor relation. I hate and despise being a charity-boarder. I'm sick of playing Sarah Crewe, Cinderella, and all the other neglected, woebegone heroines of fiction. I'm miserable and discouraged and heartsick to-night, and I wish this horrid old rain would swallow me up, and drown me somewhere! That's what I wish! My idea of heaven is a big, luxurious room all my own, papered in light blue, with my things spread all around everywhere, and expensive damask at the windows, and heavy mahogany furniture, and a soft, sinky carpet, and lots of mirrors, and a big, generous closet, and a comfy couch, and all the heat I want, and a tiny silk-shaded electric light at the head of the bed, and a masseuse due in fifteen minutes, and a nice, big, prosperous husband thrown in besides, who pampers me to death with extravagant luxuries. That's my idea of heaven! Kumquats, indeed, and pouring pitchforks!"
It was dark when Lucretia finally reached her destination. Henry's wife, Beatrice, in a blue negligee covered with rich yellow lace, opened the door to her.
"Hello, Lu dear!" she exclaimed. "Is it you at last? I've been so worried." She kissed Lucretia on her damp cheek. "Heavens, you're drenched! I was awfully afraid you'd missed the four-ten from town. It took you an age to get here. Have you got the kumquats?"
"All but half a dozen that rolled down the sewer," remarked Lucretia.
"Oh, you angel of mercy!" Beatrice ran on. "I don't know what I should have done if you hadn't telephoned just when you did. Wait till I take them to the cook. She simply insisted on kumquats to garnish the salad. Take off your things, dear. I'll be with you in half a second."
Lucretia looked about the warm, luxurious hall. The drawing-room at the left, usually closed, was open now and aglow in artistic lamplight.
"Where am I to go, Bee?" she asked when Beatrice fluttered back again. "My skirt is making a puddle here."
"The sewing-room, Lu dear. I've been so rushed to-day, I'm afraid the children's dresses are all laid out on the bed up there. But I told Martha to start the gas stove. The heat doesn't seem to get up into the sewing-room through the register. You can keep warm there though, if you don't mind the smell of a little gas. Come on up. You don't know how sorry I was not to meet you in town, Lu, with the motor. But, as I explained when you called up, I simply had to tear around all day in the car myself to get an extra accommodating waitress, and of course I would have sent the car to meet you at the station out here, but Henry is due from Chicago at six in town, and if he's met he'll have just time to dress. Dinner is at eight. I'm having fourteen, and am just about crazy! . . . Dear me, Martha didn't light that stove after all! She's growing more careless every day!"
They were in the sewing-room now. Lucretia lifted her suit-case onto the only empty chair, and began unbuckling the straps.
"How are the children?" she asked.
"Oh, all right. They're simply crazy to see you. They're up in the playroom. I promised them if they'd keep out of the way just this afternoon, that perhaps Aunt Cretia would put them to bed. Would you, Lu? You see, Martha's helping in the kitchen. I've been working all day long like a dog myself. It's the most important dinner I've ever given."
"Of course I'll put the kiddies to bed," smiled Lucretia. "I'd be glad to, if I can crawl in pretty soon after, myself."
"I'm afraid you can't do that, Lu. You see, this noon that irresponsible Miriam Farnley telephoned that the doctor would not let her come out in such a rain—tonsilitis or some such harmless thing! Anyhow, there I was, a girl short, at twelve o'clock! I telephoned to six different people, and not one could I get. Then I thought of you. I know you don't go to big dinners, and I never make you, I'm sure; but this time I simply must have your help. I'm going to give you queer old Professor Blake, who thought you were so interesting last year. He told Henry so."
"Beatrice," burst out Lucretia, "I can't go to any dinner party to-night! I draw the line there. I've been traveling since yesterday at ten o'clock, didn't sleep a wink on the train last night, walked way down to Faneuil Hall Market, stopping at every fruit stand on the way for those silly kumquats, and am sopping wet."
"Why, Lucretia Hamilton! I thought you'd be willing to do anything to help. I thought you'd be willing to do anything for Henry (and what you do for me is for him), after all he tries to do for you—I thought, Lu—"
"I know, I know, Bee. Only how can I? My trunk isn't here. I haven't anything to wear."
"You can wear that spangly evening gown of mine. I haven't had it on for nearly a year. No one will remember it."
"A dress of yours, Bee! Why, I'm six inches taller than you! I'd be ridiculous."
"Nobody will look at the length of your skirt, Lucretia. You'll be sitting down most of the time, anyhow. If you won't do it you'll simply spoil the dinner, and I've worked so hard. I've simply slaved! I'm so tired I can hardly stand. I—"
"Oh, I'll do it, I suppose. Don't get all worked up as late as this."
"There won't be a soul you know except old Blake. The Hazelwoods, the Carters, and the McRays from town are coming. You see how important it is! I'm giving the dinner for Thomas Hornby. He was a classmate of Henry's, and since he has made such a name for himself down there in South America—and such a fortune, too—everybody's crazy to meet him. He's a great drawing-card. Probably you've heard of him."
Lucretia nodded. "Yes," she replied—the papers had been full of Thomas Hornby—"I've heard of him." But she showed no interest. It had been a long while since Lucretia had shown interest in meeting new men, especially celebrities. She was always grubbily dressed, and her brothers and sisters never pushed her into prominence. Sitting silently in her corner, or more likely not appearing at all, she had long ago learned not to expect anything exciting in the way of new acquaintances.
When Lucretia's father died, she was twenty-four years old. She had been his only companion for five years then, living alone with him in the big, square, stucco-covered house in the quiet little town from which she had watched Bella, her elder sister, and each one of her brothers go forth into the world. It had been her eldest brother, Henry, who had explained to Lucretia, late on the afternoon of her father's funeral, that there had been no property left of any sort. In fact, for the last five years he and his brothers, Elmer and Ray, unknown to the simple-minded old man their father had become, had supported him and Lucretia in the old home, and had seen to it that his bank account was never over-drawn. Now, of course, he assured her kindly (his arm was about her waist as he talked) they would all look out for Lucretia. It was fortunate that they could.
After that, Lucretia had spent every winter with Beatrice and Henry, every spring with Mollie and Ray, every summer with Constance and Elmer, and autumns she went to Chicago for three months with Sister Bella. Bella had not married into prosperity, and Lucretia worked very hard in Chicago making dresses for her three little nieces. In fact, in all four of her homes she was always darning, mending linen, putting away the weekly laundry, straightening out the storeroom, unpacking furs and blankets and winter flannels, or spending a morning with the housemaid cleaning silver. She was always up-stairs early after breakfast to help make beds or get the children off to school.
Every month Lucretia received a check for her clothes signed by Henry. It wasn't a very large check; Lucretia knew that Bee couldn't dress on three times the amount, but as she toiled up the stairs to-day to the playroom on the third floor she told herself that Bee was exactly right. She ought to be willing to do anything she could to help Henry. She would take a big dose of quinine, and really it didn't make much difference how queerly she looked in Bee's gown; she never attracted much attention.
If Lucretia had known that afternoon, when she occupied the little desk in the writing-room of the hotel, that some one had been sitting directly behind her waiting for a chance at the pen and ink himself, and watching her in the meanwhile, she would not have expressed herself with quite such abandon. It had been Thomas Hornby who, hidden behind the lace curtain of the hotel, had smiled with his companion at the girl outside in the street, and later, having put his luncheon companion into a taxicab, had sauntered back to write a note.
"I shouldn't have noticed her at all," he told his mother late that afternoon as he sat in her upstairs town-house sitting-room, stretched out before the fire, "but she had such a ferocious manner with her pen. She dipped, and scratched, and blotted for ten minutes solid, I should say, then folded up her letter, put it into an envelope, sealed it, crushed it undirected into a little brown muff she carried, and stamped out of the room in the same mad manner. I didn't connect her at first with the plucky girl in the street who had dropped the kumquats, in spite of the fact that they both carried small brown muffs and that I had seen the kumquat girl bear her basket of wet fruit, open to the gaze of everybody, straight to the desk of this hotel with the air of a young page bearing a crown on a sofa pillow. I'd been writing at that desk for five minutes, fully, when suddenly I saw this staring at me on a fresh blotter. It reads backward on the blotter of course, but it's clear as day. See? 'Kumquats, indeed, and pouring pitchforks!'"
Thomas Hornby handed an oblong blotter across the table to his mother.
"Why, there's more below," she smiled, adjusting her glasses as she leaned toward the light.
"There's a whole lot more," he laughed. "The pad must just have had a fresh blotter, for it was criss-crossed with only her handwriting. She wrote very rapidly, and used a stub pen, and I guess I've got her entire letter right here in this room. After I'd made out a sentence or two I slipped the whole blotter out of the pad, folded it up and brought it along. If we hold it up to a looking-glass the words will come out as clear as day. Come on over here to this mirror, and let's see what else the blotter has got to say."
"I'd like to know this girl," Thomas Hornby exclaimed, as they puzzled the lines out together. "Just listen here to her idea of heaven." He read Lucretia's words out loud, almost tenderly. "'Twould be great fun doing things for her, eh, Mother?" he exclaimed boyishly. "Most women are so everlastingly used to luxury; most of the women I've met since I came home, that is. American girls seem to expect so confoundedly much when they marry. My difficulty is not that I'm financially unable to provide it, but such everlasting assumption seems to take all the joy of giving and making happy away from me."
He went back to his chair and sat down. "Take this little Larrabee girl I lunched with this noon," he went on, "nice girl, fine people—her family; but I'll wager she was carrying around on her person about five thousand dollars' worth of jewelry! And so used to costly food that we had to hunt the menu through three times to find anything she really wanted. Only twenty-one, and telling me she must hurry off to consult about a French lady's-maid for herself—her perfect treasure of a Lucille was to be married—and would I ask that a taxicab be called? Such a used-to-it, matter-of-course little manner she had about everything! It wouldn't be much pleasure to me to drop into a jeweler's on the way home some night and buy her a little diamond pendant for her birthday. She can't keep track of the ones she has already. My precious little fortune, my devotion, would simply be a handful more of feathers in her already soft-enough couch. No, I don't think Elsie Larrabee appeals to me, Mother. I want to count more with a woman. I like this note from its gingery start through to the big, prosperous husband at the end. Too bad I haven't more of a clew for discovering the young creature who scratched it off. She's lost to me as completely as if I'd never seen her. By the time I'd got into the corridor of the hotel, she had disappeared. I was just curious enough to see if her umbrella was still out in the gutter. I went out and picked it up—a cheap little cotton thing. I thought her address might be in it, but it wasn't! All I know about the girl is, she carries a small brown mink muff and a basket of kumquats. Sherlock Holmes couldn't find her on that."
That same evening in Bee's old ball gown, with a scarf draped around her shoulders to conceal the unbecoming neck line, Lucretia found herself sitting beside Professor Blake about nine o'clock, trying very hard to follow the course of his conversation. Her head ached; there was a continual buzzing in her ears (she must have taken too much quinine), and she had to clench her hands tightly together in her lap every once in a while to keep her teeth from chattering. She simply must not begin to shake and tremble here. She began counting how many half-hours it would be before she could escape to the dark sewing-room up-stairs. She wished the topaz-colored champagne, which she didn't touch, sparkling there in the crystal glass before her, had been hot jamaica-ginger tea in a thick crockery cup.
"Now, Miss Hamilton," Lucretia suddenly heard Professor Blake ask, smiling at her expectantly, "what is your idea of heaven?"
Lucretia almost jumped. "Heaven?" What had heaven to do with landscape gardening? Professor Blake had been describing the nature of bulbs to her a moment ago. "Heaven?" Why should any sane mortal pursue such horribly deep subjects at a dinner party, anyhow? Lucretia's idea of heaven? A hot-water bag and a fresh nightgown flashed before her eyes.
"My idea of heaven?" she smiled, trying to focus her thoughts. "My idea of heaven, Mr. Blake? Well," she went on, "I've been traveling for about two days now, so my idea of heaven to-night is a room all my own, prepared in light blue, with my things spread all around everywhere, and expensive damask at the windows, and heavy mahogany furniture, and a soft carpet, and lots of mirrors, and a big generous closet, and a comfy couch" (where in the world, thought Lucretia, had she read this, anyhow?), "and all the heat I want, and a tiny silk-shaded electric light at the head of the bed, and a masseuse due in fifteen minutes, and—" She stopped. What had she said? A masseuse! And she was about to stumble on to the "nice, big, prosperous husband!" Was the quinine going to her head? She glanced up to see if any one else had heard, and her eyes suddenly met those of Thomas Hornby, directly opposite. He was gazing straight at her; he had heard every word. She felt it in the amazed and interested expression in his eyes. She looked away, flushed deeply, and reached for her water. She took three or four swallows, and glanced across the table again. How rude of him! He was still staring at her. At last he looked away, but she was conscious of his gray eyes seeking her out again and again, as the courses proceeded. It was uncomfortable.
After dinner, Beatrice led her guests through the conservatory to the new music-room which Henry had just built on. Lucretia sat as near one of the doors as she could; possibly she might slip away unnoticed as soon as the men rejoined the ladies and enlarged the group a little. She sat apart from the others, alone on her little gilt chair, and waited her opportunity. How pretty the women were, she thought, as she stirred her coffee; what charm that tall, artistic-looking Larrabee girl, whom Bee had selected for Mr. Hornby especially, possessed. It must be a joy, thought Lucretia, to be able to lean so conspicuously against a piano like that, confident of the faultless lines of figure, coiffure, gown, and falling scarf.
Even as she thought this she saw the men coming in at the farther door, and she leaned to make sure that the scarf she carried concealed the street boots which she was wearing. Somebody began to play a fox-trot, and Lucretia saw Henry approach Miss Larrabee and ask her to dance. Gradually the other men followed his example, and Lucretia flushed when she saw Mr. Hornby look about the room and then, catching sight of her sitting there alone in her queer little outgrown dress, approach her, smiling.
"Won't you dance with me, Miss Hamilton?" he asked her pleasantly.
"I don't do the new dances," she replied. "I'm sorry."
"Oh, all the better then!" exclaimed Mr. Hornby. "I do 'em only out of politeness myself, and abominably at that. We can talk instead. Let me take your scarf, and let's go out there into the conservatory."
Lucretia was hot all over with embarrassment. She couldn't give up her scarf—her shoes would show. Besides, she, of all people, mustn't go off alone with the lion of the evening.
"Let's sit here," she suggested.
"All right." He drew up a chair intimately as if he meant to stay. "I hope you didn't think me rude at dinner," he said.
"Of course not," she stumbled. She had forgotten how to parry with a man.
"I couldn't help overhearing what you were saying to your dinner partner," he went on, "about your idea of heaven. I've read those same words before somewhere—was it possibly in a novel? Perhaps you can help me." He was watching her closely as he talked. "You didn't finish the quotation, you know. It ended 'and a nice, big, prosperous husband thrown in besides, who pampers me with extravagant luxuries.' Do you remember?"
Lucretia turned surprised eyes upon him. "Yes," she replied, puzzled, "it does end like that. I remember it does; but I really don't know where I picked up that quotation. I think it must have been out of a best-seller by the tone of it. Don't you?"
"Queer we both should remember it." He paused a moment. Then, "This house of your brother's is an impossible spot to reach from town," he broke off. "I missed the seven-fifteen train out, and had to walk a mile in the rain from the station below. When I got here ten minutes late I was in a fine sort of mood! I felt like covering eight pages of notepaper with all the forms of 'darn,' and 'dash it' that exist in the world, adding a few dozens stars and twenty exclamation points besides."
Lucretia gazed upon him wonderingly. Where, she tried to think, had she heard those words before?
"You've left out the big, black splotches of ink," she suddenly sparkled. She had forgotten all about her grotesque appearance.
"So I have!" he took up eagerly, "the size of dimes."
"No, five-cent pieces," insisted Lucretia.
Thomas Hornby looked straight into Lucretia's eyes.
"I've found you!" he exclaimed delightedly. "I've found you! Who's Tom?"
There was no chance for an answer.
"Go and rescue Mr. Hornby," the vigilant hostess had communicated to her husband by a swift glance and frown in Lucretia's direction. Henry had obeyed as soon as the music stopped. He and Miss Larrabee had come to a standstill directly in front of Lucretia just as Mr. Hornby asked, "Who's Tom?"
"Come into the conservatory with Miss Larrabee and me, and see my sweet geranium tree," Henry invited both Lucretia and Thomas Hornby. Another couple approached. There was a breaking up and exchange of partners.
Lucretia saw her chance. She slipped quietly out of sight, and escaped unnoticed into a back corridor.
At one o'clock Lucretia lay wide awake, reviewing one after another all the novels she had read in the last three years. Quite unexpectedly the explanation of the puzzling phenomenon flashed upon her. Why, she had written the absurd quotations herself, that very afternoon, in the little writing-room of the hotel, to her fictitious Tom! She had slipped the letter into her muff afterward. Hastily she threw back the bed-clothes and stepped out of bed. She turned on the electricity and hurried across the bare floor to the closet. She pulled down her muff from the shelf. Here was the letter, just where she had tucked it away, and sealed up, too, in its envelope. She ripped it open. She read her words through. What could it mean, anyhow? Lucretia put her hands to her cheeks. They were burning hot. She must have a fever.
"Look here, Lucretia Hamilton," she said out loud grimly, "you'd better hurry and get back into bed. I believe you're coming down with a terrible sickness."
But she wasn't. Lucretia had never been terribly sick. The time had never come when it was convenient. Next morning, as she lay staring at the ceiling trying to muster up courage to jump out of bed and ask one of the children to tell Mother that Aunt Cretia was going to sleep through breakfast this morning, Beatrice tapped on the door and came in. She was half dressed, and her hair was tucked out of sight inside a flower-trimmed breakfast cap.
"Heaven's, Lu, it's half past eight!" she exclaimed. "Henry's just gone down to breakfast. What do you suppose? We've decided to run down to New York this afternoon for a fortnight. Henry thinks I'm all tired out, and ought to get away from the children and housekeeping for a little while. He says now that you're here I can go just as well as not. I don't know but that I do need a little change. You're such a lamb, Lu! The children are perfectly willing to have us go anywhere if only Aunt Cretia will come and stay with them. We leave at five this afternoon."
So it really wasn't after all a very propitious morning to be sick in bed. Lucretia put all thought of a fever straight out of her mind. Naturally, if Beatrice and Henry were going to New York for two weeks she couldn't be packed away under down comforters in the sewing-room. Anyhow, probably she'd feel all right after a cup of hot coffee.
Beatrice and Henry left the house at four that afternoon. At eleven the same night, Lucretia was awakened by a noise, like the bark of a dog, issuing from the nursery. It was Bobbie with the croup. She recognized the sound fast enough, once she had shaken herself awake. It was no time for her to have even a cold! So when she came down-stairs the next afternoon to meet Thomas Hornby, she was feeling quite herself again.
He had telephoned to see if she would be at home, and had suggested that she come out in his car for a ride, when he had learned that she had been inside all day taking care of a sick child. Lucretia had put on Bee's long motor-coat, left behind in the closet. The little round fur cap that matched it became her. Thomas Hornby hadn't thought her pretty the other night, but as she came smiling down the stairs, enveloped in the rich dark fur, he proclaimed her lovely.
"How's the patient?" he asked, taking her hand in greeting.
"Oh, much better," she smiled. "I must be back, though, at five-thirty. I have to take his temperature."
"Very well, I'll see to that." Most girls had to be back for hair-dressers or manicurists, some such nonsense. Thomas Hornby had had a débutante sister once. "I'll get you back any hour you say. But, look here, you'll need a muff," he broke off. "It's fearfully cold. Bring that little brown one," he laughed.
Lucretia replied, "Where have you seen me before, please?"
"Is this yours?" he sparkled, and from beneath his coon coat he produced a small umbrella. "I've had it mended."
Lucretia took the ninety-eight-cent wooden-handled affair and examined it. "It's mine," she conceded, and a little perplexed pucker appeared between her eyes.
"Your sister's salad was a triumph the other night," Thomas Hornby went on, tormentingly. "The kumquats simply made it, for me. The gutter didn't hurt them a bit."
"Oh, you saw me that day!" Lucretia exclaimed.
"I saw you, poor Sarah Crewe," he taunted.
The perplexed pucker between Lucretia's eyes deepened. "That letter of mine, that perfectly inexcusable and nauseating letter of mine—" she retorted.
"Oh, please, please," he objected.
"Is up-stairs in my muff, and has been ever since I wrote it," she went on. "Mr. Hornby, I don't believe I like jokes I can't see through. Are you going to explain this one to me sometime?"
"Sometime," he granted. Then, "Who's Tom?" he inquired. "We'd got that far when your brother dragged me in to see his blessed geranium tree, and you ran away, Cinderella. Who's Tom?"
"He's nobody," Lucretia assured Mr. Hornby hotly. "Tom is just a comfortable name I use, to write inexcusable letters to—once in a while. I wouldn't impose such rot on anybody real."
"Tom is my name," interposed Thomas Hornby, quietly; "so don't blame me for reading what's written to me, please."
"Will you answer me a question?" broke off Lucretia.
"Were you looking over my shoulder in the writing-room that day when I wrote that disgusting note?"
"On my honor, no," Thomas Hornby replied. "It was mental telepathy," he gayly told her. Then, mischievously, "I felt you writing my name, lady," he said.
"You're having great fun with me," remarked Lucretia. "Did you used to like to turn turtles on their backs when you were a small boy, and see them squirm, Mr. Hornby?"
He laughed outright at that.
"Let's not go out in the car," he broke off. Let's stay in, and talk!"
Lucretia couldn't help but glow at the tribute in the suggestion. It had been years since she had felt exhilaration like this.
Late that night, wrapped in her warm, unbeautiful wrapper, Lucretia, redolent of camphorated oil, sat among an array of croup kettles and bottles of medicine, and watched beside Bobbie.
"It was just a social call," she told herself over and over again. Still later, attempting to drop sirup of ipecac into a quarter of a glass of water, she lost track completely of her count. A pair of gray eyes persisted in gazing at her, and a voice, vibrating and enthusiastic, kept repeating, "Let's stay in, and talk!"
"Don't be an old-maid fool," Lucretia exclaimed out loud.
Little she guessed that ten miles away Thomas Hornby, smoking furiously, was scattering his desk with embryos of notes to her! "Dear Sarah Crewe: Will you be at home—," "Dear Cinderella: If you've nothing else to do—," "Dear Aunt Lucretia: I hope Bobbie—," "Dear Turtle," "Dear Kumquat Lady," "My dear Miss Hamilton," they read.
"Oh, confound it," Thomas Hornby exclaimed as a clock struck twelve. "I'll wait till morning, and telephone!"
Ten days later Lucretia and Thomas Hornby were sitting in the big living-room before the open fire, waiting for the arrival of Beatrice and Henry. They occupied a corner of the davenport. Lucretia's white fingers were interlaced with Thomas Hornby's. They sat as if listening to music or poetry, or something very beautiful outside the room, and remote.
After a long silence Thomas Hornby said, as if resuming a topic they had discussed and let rest for a little while, "I know it must seem soon—Easter, I mean—and you've known me only two weeks; but it isn't as if Henry didn't know all about me, or as if you'd never heard of me before. Is it? Really I'd like to have it Easter. It seems as if I couldn't wait very long to make a try at furnishing that little corner of heaven for you—damask, and soft carpets, and big closets, and a masseuse, and the last item, as well, that you said you'd like thrown in. Does Easter seem too absurdly soon to fit in with your plans? Of course, I want it to be as you wish. Tell me if I'm preposterously in a hurry, and I won't say another word." He paused an instant, but she made no response. "Why don't you say, Lucretia?" he asked gently.
Lucretia drew her hand away. "I suppose I don't say," she replied, "for the same reason I can't focus my thoughts on any topic in the world when there's a band playing outside in the street. When I hear you talking about—like this, it stirs me so that I simply can't do anything but wonder."
She rose and went over to the fire. With one toe on the brass fender, and leaning her forehead on the edge of the mantel, she went on, talking into the flames. "Ever since Father died I've been so in the way in the world!" she exclaimed. "I've been so unwanted! My brothers' and sisters' lives are full and overflowing. There's been little room for me. Of course they've been as kind as they knew how, but I've dreaded the approach of many an evening because I've known that I was interfering with quiet, homey, tête-à-tête dinners, and intimate talks. I've tried to make myself small and keep out of the way, but it's been difficult. And now when you come, and make me feel so important, so desired, well,"—her voice caught a little, but she kept on—"well, it moves me like twenty bands playing in glorious unison all at once!"
Lucretia stood up very straight, and winked hard. She put the tip of her forefinger on the glass covering on the face of the clock. "Half past eight," she said, with an attempt at gayety. "In half an hour Bee and Henry will be here. To-morrow morning when the mail arrives all over the country, the other members of my family will receive the glad tidings of their release from their yearly three-months' duty to poor Lucretia." She smiled.
Thomas Hornby rose, and approached the fire. "But about Easter, Lucretia," he pursued persistently. "You're tormenting the turtle now. Aren't you going to tell me, dear?"
The smile vanished on Lucretia's face. She turned away.
"I'll never get used to it—never!" she whispered. "I mean your—the little words you finish with." Then turning to him she offered him both her hands. "I've told them all in the letters that it will be Easter!"
Lucretia was waiting in the sewing-room when Beatrice came up at eleven o'clock. She had gone up-stairs before Henry and Beatrice had entered the house. It had been Thomas Hornby who greeted the home-comers, and who had then broken to them his surprising news.
"But, Lu, I can't believe it!" exclaimed Beatrice. "You, and in that funny old dress of mine. Thomas Hornby, of all men! Why, Lu dear! But tell me, he said something about Easter. You know you can't get married Easter. Henry and I are going to Bermuda, and we can't leave the children Easter unless you're here. I told Thomas Hornby so."
"Easter! Preposterous!" wrote Molly, Ray's wife. "Why, Lu, you hardly know the man yet. We're planning to go to California in April. You simply have got to wait till June. How can we go to California without you to stay with the babies?"
"Easter!!" said Constance, with two exclamation points. "Why, Lucretia Hamilton, you always said October was the ideal month for weddings. Easter! You know I can't go to Maine, as I always do for August, unless you're here in town to order and look out for Elmer."
"Easter! Well, I must say!" expostulated Bella from Chicago. "Well, then I see where I can't go East, after all, next fall to get that much-needed rest you've been so keen on my having, after six solid summers in this hot-box of Chicago. You promised you'd be here with the girls, you remember. Of course I couldn't consider leaving otherwise."
Lucretia read the letters out loud to Thomas Hornby one night.
"Poor unwanted Lucretia!" he said tenderly, his arms suddenly about her. "Easter—oh, my dear!" he exclaimed.