Her Christmas Cabby
Her Christmas Cabby
BY AMELIE RIVES
BETTY was sorely homesick and very tired. To paint from nature and for love in the Virginia fields was a singularly different thing from painting strange faces for necessary money in a New York studio. And though Sue was a dear and the stanchest of friends, there were times when Betty wished that she spoke with a Southern instead of a Northern accent, so that old associations would rise softly with her voice.
“You must come out, Betty,” said Sue just here. “You have been in this stuffy studio working and working for two whole days. You are as white as paper.”
Betty sighed and obeyed.
They walked up Fifth Avenue nearly to Central Park.
Betty kept brave step with Sue's long, elastic stride, until her gray eyes were black with fatigue, and one heel smarted as from a burn.
“Sue,” she said, finally, “I … I am dead beat.… I didn't know I was so tired when we started. And I really think my heel is blistered. Do you … could we … do you think it would be dreadfully wicked if we took a cab? I don't feel as though I could stand a car or a 'bus.”
“No, I don't,” said Sue. after a glance at the pale face. “There's a cab-stand on the next corner, and you can choose the horse yourself, as you always like to do.”
Betty managed to limp to the next corner, and then went slowly along the line of waiting cabs.
“I'll take this one,” she said, finally, looking not at the cabby or the cab, but at the horse.
“This one” was a strong, upstanding bay, with clean legs, and a lean, knowing-looking head.
While Sue bargained with the cabby, Betty slipped off her glove and stroked the hay's nose. He started, then turned his head and gave her a benevolent, summing-up sort of look from out his blinkers. She petted him some more. The good, horsey smell of him (she noticed how clean he was) made her homesick for Virginia.
Then Sue called her, and they got into the cab and drove off.
“I've told him to stop at one or two places,” said Sue; “to go shopping is cheaper than to take a drive, and you needn't get out. I can put in a lot of odds and ends in 'a hour.'”
“What a good idea,” said Betty, dreamily. She was leaning back in her corner, watching the steady slouch of the bay's quarters, and thinking that he reminded her of her own “Jackanapes,” that she used to drive so gayly through the fields of Albemarle.
Sue's first two errands took her only a few moments apiece, then she went into a house where dwelt a “little dress-maker,” and Betty knew that there would be a fitting, and a longer absence.
After a minute or so, the cabby swung himself down from his high perch, and as the cab oscillated with his descent, the bay turned his head and gave a long stare backward, as though saying: “Has anything happened to the fare? Or are you only getting down to stretch your legs?”
“You dear!” said Betty, whistling to him. “You're exactly like Jackanapes.…”
The bay continued to regard her, moving his ears questioningly.
“You dear!” said Betty again. “Oh, I do wish I had a lump of sugar.”
The cabby now gave her a shrewd glance. Something in her face seemed to attract him, for after a little while he looked again. Presently he ventured:
“That's a very intelligent animal, ma'am.”
Betty included horse and man in her smile.
“Yes,” said she, “I see that he is. He is just like a dear horse that I had down in my country home in Virginia. Only he was black. I called him 'Jackanapes' because he was such a scamp.… No harm in him. you know. Just scampish.… Had a sense of humor like a man.…”
“This feller's called 'Jonas,' ma'am. No meanin' to it whatever,” said the cabby, coming nearer and smacking Jonas's sleek rump. “But he's a rascal all right.… Oughter bin called Mark Twain judgin' by his sense of humor. Look at him now—lettin' on to kick some, 'cause I ain't got no sugar handy.”
In fact. “Jonas” had pinned back his ears and was feigning a side kick with perfect art.
“He's a dear,” said Betty again. The cabby took a good look at her this time.
“Would you like to get acquainted with him, ma'am?" he ventured suddenly.
“I certainly would,” said Betty.
“Then, if you'll just step down, I'll intrajuce you.”
Betty got out at once.
When she was on the pavement, the cabby took Jonas by the bits and brought him into what he considered a fitting position for the introduction.
“Jonas, my son,” said he, “here's a lady what wants to know you. Please, ma'am, step a leetle this way.”
Betty did so.
“Now, Jonas …” said the cabby.
Jonas turned his wise head toward Betty and slowly bobbed it up and down. Betty curtseyed in return. People, as they passed, looked at the group somewhat curiously, but neither Betty nor Jonas was mindful of men just at that moment.
“Oh, I do wish I had some sugar,” said she again, as, the introduction over, she stood stroking Jonas's forehead and pinching his loose gray under lip. She peeped at his sound teeth. “About seven or eight, isn't he?” she asked.
The cabby beamed.
“Say, you know somethin' 'bout horses, don't you, miss?” said he. (He had decided finally that she was unmarried.) “Jonas is just turned eight.”
“I ought to know something about them,” said Betty, smiling. “I think I rode before I walked.” And she told him about the stock-farm in Virginia, and the thoroughbreds and hunters.
“Gee! Don't you miss it?” asked he, sympathetically. “Looks to me like you was pinin' after it just a mite. No liberty meant, miss.”
“Of course not,” said Betty. “I suppose I do 'pine' after it … sometimes.”
“City life sure is hard on them as was born in the country.” said the cabby. “Ben through it myself. Sight of a load a' hay uster knock me out when I first come East.”
“Aren't you a New-Yorker?” asked Betty.
“No'm. Detroit,” said he.
And just here Sue came out, and they went on their way.
As they turned into Fifth Avenue again, the little trap flew up, and the cabby's voice said:
“Say, miss, take your time. Ef you got any little marketin' or so, to do, jest do it easy. Jonas an' me, we ain't thinkin' of prices right now.”
“Oh, … thank you so much!” called Betty.
The trap snapped.
“You seem to have made an ardent friend of your cabby,” said Sue, smiling.
“He is a very nice man—really, Sue,” said Betty. “And Jonas is the dearest horse I've seen since I left Virginia.”
“Well,” said Sue, “I'll just take advantage of his offer to get some celery for a salad to go with the squabs Mrs. Antrim is going to send you. You've simply got to eat some dinner, Betty. You can't go on like this. And if you do I can't stay with you—that's all.”
“Dear Sue," said Betty, cuddling up to her.
“There's no use wheedling—you've got to eat to-night,” said Sue sternly.
They stopped before the little market on Broadway which Sue usually patronized.
“Please, Sue,” urged Betty, “get some lump sugar. I must give Jonas some sugar before we part.”
“Very well,” said Sue, “if they have any.”
She came back in about five minutes, saying that sugar was not to be had in that shop.
“Then an apple,” said Betty. “What a goose I was not to think of it at first! There's a pile of big, red ones in the window. Just buy one, Sue dear, and get the man to cut it up for you.”
Much amazed, Sue went back, and returned with a double handful of sliced apple. The shopman followed and stood in the door watching. Betty, who had pulled off her gloves again, took the apple, and went to Jonas's head. There was a bitter wind blowing, and her fur coat flapped against him, making him snort and back. Then he scented the apple. In another second he was munching joyously, nuzzling deep among Betty's fingers, and stamping now and then with pleasure.
“That's a new sight on Broadway, sure,” said the shopman to his assistant, who had also come to the door.
The touch of fellow-feeling that makes the whole world kin united him, his assistant, Sue, the cabby, and the passers-by in a smiling oneness. Only Betty and Jonas were unconscious save of each other and the apple.
“There … That's all, old man,” said Betty, finally. Then she turned to Sue with a helpless gesture. “My hands are in a mess, aren't they?” said she.
Sue dried them on her own pocket handkerchief and they once more re-entered the cab, after giving the address of the studio.
When they got there, and after he had been paid, the cabby said to Sue:
“Beg pardon, ma'am, but I sure would like to know that lady's name.”
Betty heard him, and came back smiling. The lamplight showed him her clear, pale little face and big gray eyes as she looked up.
“It's rather a hard name,” she said. “I am from Virginia—but my father was a Russian. My name is Nekludoff—Miss Elizabeth Nekludoff.”
The cabby made two attempts at it, then shook his head.
“Guess this other lady's might be easier, ma'am,” said he—“no offence meant. But I'd like to give you my boss's number, so's you can call me up when you want a cab. Would the other lady mind giving her name?”
“Her name is Miss Susan White,” said Betty.
“Ah,” said the cabby. “That's plain English, sure. I'll remember, ma'am.”
He gathered up his reins and was driving off.
“Say, miss,” he called, as Jonas turned, side-stepping deftly with the cumbrous cab, “my name's McGowan … from Cuba!”
Betty broke into her soft laughter, and McGowan's harsh bass joined in. Then Jonas began to trot earnestly.
“Good-night!” called Betty.
“Good-night!” he called back. “Good luck!”
The next night was Christmas Eve. Betty and Sue were alone in the studio. The wind beat against the skylight like Sindbad's roc clamoring for admittance.
Sue was reading aloud to Betty, who lay on the divan with her locked hands over her eyes.
“Betty.” said her friend suddenly, laying down the book, “you aren't listening to a word.”
Betty smiled guiltily.
“Sue, dear,” said she, “I was thinking of McGowan and Jonas.”
“Were you indeed?” said Sue, smiling back. “Well, I don't wonder that you couldn't keep your mind on Emerson.”
“I was thinking that they probably wouldn't have much more of a Christmas than we shall have … poor dear Sue! And you might be merrymaking at that dear home of yours.”
“And so might you be in your home in Virginia, or dining out with any amount of people simply crazy to have you.”
“No …” said Betty. “I'm too tired—that's the plain truth, Sue. I'd heaps rather just have Christmas here alone with you. But McGowan and Jonas … I don't believe they'll get as much as 'Merry Christmas.' And that bothers me.”
She sat up suddenly among the rumpled cushions and looked at Sue with bright eyes.
“Sue! … Do hand me my fountain-pen and some paper, like an angel.… My very smartest paper … I've an idea.”
Sue gave them to her.
“Now, Betty,” said she, “what are you going to do? You're not going to invite McGowan and Jonas to hang up their stockings with ours, I suppose?”
“No.… But something like it,” said Betty.
All her face ran over with smiles. She scribbled for a few seconds; then handed Sue the sheet of paper.
“It's very little, I know,” said she, “but it's just the thought. People do like to be thought of at Christmas, and horses too…”
Sue was reading the little missive. It ran as follows:
“For my friend from Cuba, from his friend from Russia, to buy himself some tobacco and Jonas some sugar for Christmas.”
“Betty,” said Sue, when she had finished, “you are a lovable child.… There's no doubt about that.”
“Oh,” said Betty, rather shamefacedly. “it's just a bit of fellow-feeling. You know I can't afford to send him but a dollar.”
“You can't afford that," said Sue, laughing. “But I suspect it will be more really a Christmas gift just for that reason.”
Then she slipped on her coat, and went out and posted the note after Betty had put a new dollar-bill in the envelope.
Christmas day was bleak and forlorn beyond expression. The weather had turned warmer during the night, and such light snow as had fallen had melted along the empty streets into a black oil. The wind blew fitfully; there were little spats and sputters of chill rain.
Betty and Sue had looked at their stockings and giggled over the doggerel in which each little gift was wrapped. They had lunched on tea and omelette, with a bowl of holly between them, and then spent the afternoon in finding room for the beribboned pots and boxes of flowers that smart chauffeurs and footmen handed the proud lift-boy “for Miss Nekludoff.” Among other presents came a box of new-laid eggs from the model farm of one of those whom the New York papers allude to as “New York's smartest and most fashionable young matrons.” From another came a silver bowl filled with topaz jelly. From another a galantine of chicken à la Virginia. From another a huge basket of hothouse fruit, etc., etc. Yet another sent a dainty little tray with the most exquisite invalid's lunch set out on it.
“See,” said Betty, smiling and tearful at the same time, “this is the heart of 'cold' New York, and it is the haughty and bloodless inmates who send me all these lovely things, just because I'm trying to make my own little path in the world, and had a bad fall with my horse, which makes the path a little harder to climb. Why, Sue—I should think I were in Richmond, with all my mother's old friends sending me 'goodies,' if I shut my eyes for only a minute! … Aren't they dears? Aren't the 'fashionable New Yorkers' the very salt of the earth? … And who is keeping my lonely Christmas with me, if you please, but the dearest of Yankees!”
She hugged Sue hard, and incidentally wiped her eyes on her shoulder.
“Mason and Dixon's line is all nonsense,” said she, rather chokily. “I'd like to tie them up by the thumbs with it! … That is all it's good for.…”
As the day wore on, however, she began to feel more and more depressed. The memory of gay house-parties long ago, in dear, red Albemarle, rushed over her. She saw the leaping wood-fires, smelled the aromatic smoke of cedar and pine cones, … heard the soft negro voices saying: “Chris'mus gif', Miss Betty, honey…” felt the warm mother-arms about her; heard her father's delightful accent. “Ver-r-ry happy, Lizinka?”
Betty was an orphan now. She feigned a headache and said that she thought she would go to her room for a few minutes and brush out her hair.
As she sat brushing its thick lengths, and gazing rather sadly at her own eyes in the mirror, she heard a queer sort of bumping noise on the stairs.
“Thump-bump, thump-bump,” it came, with slow regularity. It grew nearer and nearer, then ceased. She heard the studio door open, voices speaking, then there was silence.
Betty listened for a moment longer, and went on slowly brushing her lovely, red-brown hair. She forced her thoughts away from Virginia, and began to wonder if McGowan would receive her little Christmas thought that day.
“I suppose not,” she reflected, “the Christmas mails are so packed.”
Here Sue knocked at the door.
“Betty,” she called, “McGowan is here!”
“Oh!” cried Betty, jumping up and letting fall her brush. “I was just thinking of him! … Do you suppose he can wait until I do up my hair?”
“Sure, lady—I'll wait all right. Take your time,” said a harsh bass from the hall.
“Oh! Is that you, Mr. McGowan?” Betty called back. “Merry Christmas! … I won't be three minutes.”
She “did up” her hair into a big shining twist, and ran to the studio in less than the three minutes.
McGowan, in his long, cabby's overcoat, was seated on the extreme edge of a little white Louis XVI. armchair. He rose as Betty entered, and came toward her, and she saw that he was slightly lame. In the broad glare from the studio window his dark head stood out sharply edged with reflected light. It was a square, compact head, that looked as though it had been welded into shape by sledge-hammer blows from life. The eyes were dark, piercing, quintessentially alive, and looked straight at you. The fine nose had been some what battered—“bashed” would be the fitting word. A slightly grizzled mustache hid the mouth, which showed, however, in a grim line underneath. The jaw and chin were those of the born fighter. He was of medium height, wirily built, and looked about fifty.
Betty went up to him and held out her hand, her face all pleased and awakened.
“How nice of you to come, Mr. McGowan,” said she. “I do think it was so nice of you. You're our first Christmas visitor.”
“Lady,” said McGowan, giving the slight hand an earnest wring and then releasing it, “nice or not nice don't- come into this.… What I come for … what I had to come for, was to tell you what this…” he took from his breast pocket Betty's note, and stood weighing it upon his palm … “what this has meant to me. Lady …” he paused and fixed his eyes on the girl's—“Lady … I ain't never had anything get so close to me in my life, and I've lived some time, and some ways,” he added, with a fleeting twinkle. “What made you up and send a Christmas word and present to a old, tough, hard-set New York cabby is what gets me. I ain't never heard of such a thing. Wouldn't 'a' believed it if I'd bin told—no, not by the angel off a Christmas tree … But if you think I'm too tough to appreciate it, why then, lady, you're good and mistaken, that's all.”
“Why, Mr. McGowan.” said Betty, blushing and stammering, “it was only a little Christmas thought.… It … it wasn't anything but … but … just that…”
“'Just that's' good enough for me,” said McGowan.
“Won't you sit down?” said Betty. pointing him to a larger chair. “We can talk so much better.”
“Please to let me do all the talking right now, lady,” replied McGowan, seating himself as directed, and continuing to finger Betty's note. “I ain't what you might call got a start yet. What I lay off to say is this: How is it that I got a own sister. that I set a heap by once, and she and my two brothers done me out of a cool ten thousand between 'em, and you, lady, a stranger as ain't never set eyes on me till two days ago—how is it, I want to know. that you think of me at Christmas, and send me them dandy words and that dollar?”
He did not wait for Betty's confused reply. but marched on his ranks of plain. eager words, quite routing her. “That dollar now, …” continued he, taking it out and unfolding it. “D'you think I'd spend it?” He shook it toward her almost angrily. “'Spend it,' says I. Not on your life! … 'What then?' says you. Why, lady, I'm going to frame it!…”
Betty gazed at him with parted lips.
“Now, lady, if you please …” said McGowan, checking her. “Let me have the floor a leetle longer. Yes, ma'am. I'm going to frame it. You can double on that. I've got two photos of a cousin of mine who did the straight thing by me when I was on my uppers, and I'm going to frame this here dollar, and hang it up between them photos. Then, you see,” he broke off, feeling his eyes glisten and the situation growing somewhat too sentimental—“you see, that way, lady, I'll never go broke!”
“But, Mr. McGowan …” faltered Betty.
“Aw, say! Don't 'Mister' me, lady. Just call me 'Mac.' Why, you got me, sure. Don't you know that? You got me, lady. Why, I'd run round the world and back again before breakfast for you. Any time you need me, all you got to do is to go to the zing-zing [he pointed to the telephone] and say, 'Mac. I've got a job for you.' Sure! I'm talkin' straight talk to you, lady.”
“Mr. McGowan … I mean, Mac …” said Betty. “I do think that this is the nicest Christmas day I ever spent.”
“Aw! … come off!—'Scuse me, miss,” said McGowan, bashfully.
“I do … I do …” insisted Betty. “I was all sad and lonely when you came. And now I feel so happy and cheerful. Why, Mr. … why, Mac … you're giving me the most beautiful Christmas present just by coming here to thank me for my thought of you. Yes, you've given me a new friend.… And how is dear old Jonas?” she wound up, feeling her eyes also glistening.
“Jonas, ma'am,” said McGowan, “is on the road to Colic-town with his manger snowed up with sugar.”
“Good!” cried Betty. “Then he's having a merry Christmas, too.”
But McGowan was looking at her thoughtfully.
“Lady,” said he at last, “since 'friends' is to be the word between us—and long has it been since I've swapped that word with any—I'll just have to tell you one or two little things.”
He eyed her keenly, then he said: “I've been in the lock-up, lady.”
“I'm glad you're not there to-day,” returned Betty, laughing.
McGowan laughed with her.
“'Twere only for scrappin',” said he. “I'm a boss scrapper.”
“Yes, you look as though you could scrap at a pinch,” said Betty, gravely.
They laughed again.
Then McGowan took up the recital of his drawbacks.
“I used to be a hard drinker,” said he.
“I'm sorry,” said Betty.
“But I've quit for some years now.”
“That's good,” said Betty.
“Then I'm mighty set on horse-racin' and gamblin'.”
“I like horses and gambling too,” said Betty, and they laughed again.
“Know how to play cold-hand poker?” asked McGowan.
“I can play draw-poker very well,” replied Betty, “but I don't know the other.”
“I'll learn you sometime, if you like,” said McGowan. “You got a keen eye in your head.”
“Thank you,” said Betty, “I'd love to learn.”
“I'll learn you all right. But say, talkin' of eyes. You got the dandiest pair in your head ever I see. Say, just keep them eyes on me for a bit. Right through to the rubbish in a man they looks. Say, he'd chuck it all right ef you kep' them eyes on him as a friend.”
“I'm your friend all right, Mac,” said Betty, speaking his own language without being aware of it.
“Shake on it—will you?” said he.
Betty put her slim fingers in his hard fist, and they “shook” solemnly.
“And now,” said McGowan, rising with his difficult hitch—“now, lady, I've got a favor to ask you.”
“Certainly,” said Betty, eagerly.
'It's this …” McGowan pursued. hesitating a little. “I don't want you to think I'm the sort as would take any liberties.…”
“Don't be silly, Mac,” said Betty, smiling.
“Well, it's just this, then. I want give you a Christmas present…”
He looked at her anxiously.
“Why, anything that you like, Mac, said she, beaming on him. “I shall be delighted.…”
“Then,” said McGowan, his face relaxing, “I want you should wrap up good and warm, and you and the other lady come and let me and Jonas take you for a Christmas ride. … Are you game for it? … I know you ain't so strong as you might be right now. The other lady was tellin' me how you'd fell with your horse and sorter jarred your back … but the fresh air'll do you good, sure. And just take your time.… Me and Jonas 'll be waitin' round. Say how long? A hour? … three-quarters?…”
“Why, Mac,'” said Betty, her eyes brimming over, “I'll be ready in ten minutes. Indeed … Indeed.…”
She caught up his hard hand in both her own.
“Truly, Mac, this is the very nicest Christmas I ever had!”
That drive with “Mac” and Jonas was a bright memory with Betty all her life. She was so tired that day, that the most cunningly hung and cushioned motor could not have tempted her from her warm studio. But to go with “Mac” and Jonas for that “Christmas ride” she could not fling on her wraps fast enough.
“Sue … Sue …” she laughed, thrusting in hatpins with nervous fingers. “Look at me well, Sue dear. … Look at yourself in the glass.… We're the only women alive who've ever been asked by a New York cabby to take a 'free ride.' That dear McGowan! … Isn't he a perfect dear, Sue? … 'As tough as they make 'em,' in some ways, … and as straight as a string in others. Sue … people will just think they see an ordinary cab clap-clopping up Fifth Avenue, but it will really be a Cinderella coach, with a gold body and diamond wheels.…”
She went chattering down the six flights of stairs (it was a holiday, so there was no boy to work the cranky lift) and out upon the pavement, in such a state of glee that she said “Merry Christmas!” to the stately “Bobby” who was conversing with McGowan when she appeared. That personage stared at her, dumfounded, then reddened to the rim of his helmet, raised a stiff finger in salute, and walked away, overwhelmed with embarrassment.
They got in and McGowan tucked them up with a quite motherly solicitude.
“Sure you're warm enough?” he kept asking.
Then, all the way up the Avenue, the trap would open at intervals and he would demand anxiously:
“Sure Jonas ain't spatterin' you? Sure you won't have me lower the glass?”
It was evident that he thought such an unspoiled heart as Betty's could only come straight from the country, for he took pains to point out to her every place and house of note.
Out to Clermont he and Jonas took them, and then back by way of Riverside Drive. As they were nearing the studio, he asked if they wouldn't like to get something for dinner.
“I would like a dozen lemons,” admitted Betty.
“Well, I guess lemons make good soup all right, if you like it, ma'am," said McGowan.
He drove them to a small Sicilian fruit-shop, and they made their purchase. As the shopman went back with his change up flew the trap.
“Say, what did that dago charge you ladies?” demanded a stern voice.
Betty told him.
“Oh, that's all right, then. From the look of the change I thought he'd cheated you.”
“Oh,” whispered Betty, hugging herself and then Sue, “isn't 'Mac' a treasure! … He's looking after us just as if we were the babes in the wood. Bless him!”
They parted with very “Christmas” feelings all round. “Just ring up the Mayflower Livery Stables, before twelve mornings, and ask for Cabman McGowan, ladies, and you'll get me, sure,” was his last injunction.
They did not see him again, however, until New-Year's night. Betty caught a grippy cold, and Sue kept her severely housed. She was also put on a vegetarian diet by her doctor, so that the New-Year's dinner consisted of a large mess of pottage made of the same plant for which Esau sold his birthright.
Just as they had laid their little table for two, and sat down to it, there came a knock at the studio door. Sue opened it upon McGowan, much powdered with snow as to hat and shoulders.
“Fierce night,” said he. “Happy New Year, ladies.”
“Happy New-Year, Mac,” said Betty. “Have you dined, or will you share our very simple meal? 'Better is a dinner of herbs,' you know, 'where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith.'"
“Sure,” said McGowan. “I know all about that. None better. But I've eat my snack—thank you. Say, though …” He lifted his handsome, damaged nose, and sniffed like a questing hound. “'S that home-made coffee I smell?"
“It is," said Betty, laughing. “Good and black. You shall have a big tea cup full of it, if you like."
“'Like's' the word,” said McGowan. “Gee! You're snug here, ain't you?"
And he shook his snowy hat against the radiator, which fizzled.
“Say, ladies,” remarked he, with a sly grin, as he sat established in the little, white Louis XVI. fauteuil, which he seemed to prefer to all the other chairs, slowly stirring the black decoction with its six lumps of sugar, and looking from Betty to Sue, and back to Betty again. “Bet you a fiver you can't guess where I'm bound for to-night.”
“To a fireman's dance?" said Sue.
“To a prize-fight?” hazarded Betty.
Mac winked at her approvingly.
“You're burnin', all right, as we used to say when I was a kid. But it ain't a prize-fight this time. It's a cock-fight."
Betty, who couldn't honestly smile upon this announcement, and yet who didn't like to seem damping in any way, jumped up just here and went to fetch a little packet of cigars which she had bought for him as a New-Year's present.
“I know women aren't considered to know much about cigars, Mac,” said she, rather shyly, presenting them, “but the man at Henson & Burroughs said that these were good."
“Henson & Burroughs! Whew!” whistled McGowan. “Ain't I the gilt-edged swell, these days? Say, this is kind of you, miss. Ef it ain't at liberty I'll try one right now.”
“Of course,” said Betty. “I brought them for you to have one with your coffee.”
Mac bit off the end of one (it was long and dark) and lighted it by scratching a sulphur match along the white enamelled arm of the chair. Betty winced, but bore it bravely.
“Fine," announced he, coughing a little. “Strong—but I like 'em strong. Ever since that business with my family that I told you about, I don't sleep much nights. So the stronger the tobacco the better I like it.”
“Ah … I'm so sorry, Mac," said Betty, with soft, comprehending eyes fixed on his scarred face. Sue had gone out with the empty dishes. “Is it so bad as that?”
McGowan looked into the kind eyes.
“Broke me all up.” he said, slowly. “Nigh crumpled up the man in me. God! I can't get over it, lady. And it's been six years now.”
“I'm so, so sorry,” said Betty again, with her tender, drawling Southern vowels. “Will you tell me how it happened?”
“That's easy enough,” said McGowan. “I was a wild youngster all right, as I've told you … but I sure was gone on that sister of mine. Whatever money I earned I'd go back home and chuck it in 'Cinda's lap (my sister's name's Lucinda) and say, 'There sis … you spend that for me.…' Yes'm—that's what I done every whack. Then I come out East an' got steadier. Useter think nights of how I'd have 'Cinda come out and live along o' me. We wa'n't neither of us the marryin' kind. Well!—that's all gone to the shop where the scrap-iron goes.…”
He took a long pull at the cigar, and coughed again.
“Good and strong … fine!” he said. reflectively, looking at the red tip.
“I'm afraid it's too strong,” ventured Betty. anxiously.
“Not it! … Couldn't be …” said McGowan.
“Well? …" asked Betty after a while, “won't you tell me some more?”
“Well, miss … you see this little trouble with my leg put me out of work. It's a hard thing for a man to make a legitimate livin' when the work he's used to is took from him. But I've done it. Been a New York cabby now goin' on fifteen year.”
“Poor Mac … How did you hurt your leg?” asked Betty.
“Caught my foot in a frog … switchin'-engine,” said McGowan briefly.
“Oh … don't …” said Betty. She was quite white. “Don't tell me any more, Mac … I … I … It's too dreadful.…”
“Now ain't you the real angel to be carin' like that?" asked McGowan. his dark face twitching for an instant. “Don't you worry.” he then said. “Me and my peg-leg's on real good terms now. Get along first rate. Please not to worry, miss. Say …” he broke off, smiling whimsically. “should think such a solid chunk a' gold as you've got for a heart would weigh you down some. You ain't what 'd be called hefty, ma'am, askin' your pardon.”
“No,” said Betty, smiling back at him. “I'm certainly not 'hefty.' Not these days, anyway … But, Mac, you've never finished about your sister … I do want to hear so very much."
McGowan took another long pull at his cigar.
“It was like this," he said. “You see, my oldest brother was a skilled mechanic. We was all trained some that way, but Bob he got ahead. He got on, till he owned shops of his own. Made a right good pile. Bob was always kinder soft on me, like I was on 'Cinda … though I was such a wild kid, as I've said. Yes, Bob'd have left me my share. sure. Well, when a feller back in Detroit wrote me as how Bob was dyin', I lit out for home. 'Twa'n't the money, though I'm human and money's a mighty good thing to keep human on … but somehow I wanted to see Bob before he left for good. So I lit out. … Well, … it's easy told, as I said. Them two brothers and that sister a' mine, they backed and filled, and lied to me … and sent me off to the wrong place … and by the time I got things straightened out, Bob, he'd shifted on to the main track and was out of sight for this life. They say, if he'd 'a' knowed I even wanted to 'a' seen him, he'd 'a' altered his will. My share 'd 'a' been ten thousand. The others got it. That's all. But somehow the thought of 'Cinda chippin' in with 'em, and the thought o' Bob never knowin' as how I wanted to see him … them two thoughts squeezes me nights same's when a man gets squeezed between two buffers. … That's all, ma'am.”
“Oh, Mac …” said Betty, when he paused, hands hanging down between his knees, and sombre eyes fixed on the floor, “are you sure … are you sure that Lucinda 'chipped in'?”
“Sure,” said McGowan, grimly.
“But how can you be sure? … Did you ever see her again? … Did you ever speak with her?”
“She took her share, lady, and I ain't never heard from her since, that's sure enough for you, ain't it?”
He looked up fiercely, and his jaw set.
“Somehow …” said Betty, “somehow … I feel sorry for Lucinda, Mac.”
“Well, don't get sorry for no more right now,” said he, suddenly twinkling. “Or that heart o' yourn'll bust sure. Say, I must be gettin' along. Much obliged for a very pleasant evenin' and the cigars, ma'am. And now I'll be wishing you 'good-night and slumbers light.' That's what my good old ma used ter say to me when she tucked me up. It's what's of her in me, I guess, that's kept me from slumpin' altogether. Takes a pinch of good mother to season a scamp,” he wound up, with his dry grin. “Well I'm off for keeps now. You'd better go right to bed, miss—no liberty intended. I've wore you out, I'm afraid, but you sure have set me up. Good-night.”
“Good-night, said Betty. “Come soon again. And … I really wouldn't be too sure about Lucinda's having turned against you. I feel things sometimes, and I feel that.”
“Well, bless your gold nugget of a heart, 'Cinda or no 'Cinda,” said McGowan, and he was gone.
“Mac,” said Betty, the next time that she saw him, “where does your sister Lucinda live now?”
“Out in Weston, Detroit. Why?”
“I just wanted to know,” said Betty. “Is it a big town or a little town?”
“Might 'a' growed some,” said McGowan. “'Twa'n't much of a place 'when I last saw it. You ain't botherin' over that old story, are you, miss?”
“Not … bothering, exactly,” said Betty.
“Well, don't you,” said McGowan. “I had a lot a' gall to go shiftin' my troubles onto you, anyhow. I've been good and mad at myself thinkin' over it, many a time. I didn't have no business to.…”
Betty just touched his hand, and he stopped. “We're friends, you know, Mac,” said she.
Here Sue came in and he got up and took his leave.
It was about a week after this that Sue, coming in from a short walk, found Betty looking earnestly at an envelope that she had just addressed.
“Sue …” said she, before her friend could speak, “run out again just a second, before you take off your things, and post this for me, will you?”
Sue took the letter. It was addressed to “Miss Lucinda McGowan, Weston, Detroit.”
“Betty,” exclaimed she, “what are you up to now?”
“Never mind,” said Betty, with joyous mystery. “You'll know in due time.”
The weeks went by, and several more letters were sent to Miss McGowan, when one morning Sue's voice, somewhat agitated, called from the outer passage:
“Betty …” it said, “Betty, … come here a minute.”
Betty went to the door.
“Oh. my dear Betty,” said Sue. “Miss Lucinda McGowan is in the studio and asking for you!"
Betty's whole face leaped alight.
“It's all right, Sue dear,” said she. “Let me go to her … quick! And be sure that no one is allowed to come in.”
She ran to the studio, entered it softly, and closed the door behind her.
Lucinda McGowan was standing in the middle of the room, gazing anxiously toward the door. She was a fair, frail woman of about forty, with nervous, pale blue eyes, and a sweet, weak little mouth, that twitched as she saw Betty.
“Oh, Miss Lucinda,” said the girl, whispering, and going quickly up to her, “is it really you? … Oh, I am so glad. I am Mac's friend, you know, I am Betty Nekludoff.”
“I hope you are well now, miss,” said Lucinda, tremulously. She stood holding her black travelling-bag to her with both arms. The train-dust under her eyes and on her soft, faded hair made her look haggard.
“I am very well indeed, thank you,” said Betty, “but you must be very tired. Sit here in this armchair. Nobody is coming in. I've given orders. Shall I make you a cup of nice, strong tea?”
“That sure sounds good,” said Lucinda, and she smiled for the first time.
Betty made the tea and poured it out for her, into one of her pet cups. Then she took one herself, and soon they were talking like old friends. Lucinda's story was brief and to the point.
“When them letters o' yours begin comin',” said she, “seemed like they was just answers to prayer. They ain't ben two minutes in the last six years, I don't believe, that the thought a' Jim ain't ha'nted me.… Seems like I'd go crazy nights, tryin' to fix it out how I c'd get word to him. You see, miss, as I have wrote you, they must 'a' kep' back all my letters … for it wa'n't in Jim to be onforgivin'. No, that wa'n't in him. Well … you know it all, miss. Then … after your last two letters come, I jist went to a first-rate lawyer-man, as you said, and put the whole thing to him. … And he fixed things up for me, and … and … I just boarded a train an' come right on. That's all, miss.”
There was much more, however, but it came out little by little, as poor Lucinda relaxed for the first time in that dreary six years, and the hot tea and Betty's sympathy unsealed the fountain of her shy heart. She was very exhausted, poor soul. To travel straight from Detroit to New York in common passenger-coaches, by night and day, is a fatiguing experience, especially when one is over forty and has never travelled so much as a day before in one's whole life.
Finally Betty persuaded her to wait two days for the meeting with her brother. “You are so tired,” she said, “and Sue and I will take such care of you, that you will feel like a new woman by then. You won't be so nervous, and it will be much better for you both. Don't you think so yourself, Miss Lucinda?”
Miss Lucinda, nervously relieved to have the great scene of her uneventful life deferred for even two days, gladly consented. There was as much pain as pleasure in the feeling with which she looked forward to this renewal of an old tie, after so many sad events and such a bitter estrangement.
So Betty and Sue kept kindly watch over her until the day on which it had been decided that MacGowan should be told the truth.
On that morning he knocked betimes at the studio door. A sparkling, breathless Betty opened to him.
“I've a surprise for you, Mac!” cried she. “Just sit there in your pet chair. … I'll go and bring it to you.…”
“Ain't she the best ever?” said he to Sue.
“I guess you'll think there's a better even to her best, in about two minutes,” said Sue, with unusual expansiveness. Then she, too, went out.
Presently Betty came softly back. She held by the hand a little, faded, sweet-mouthed woman, who trembled from head to foot, and clasped a shabby black travelling-bag closely to her.
“Here's my surprise,” said Betty.
“'Cinda!” cried McGowan, and he went white.
The little woman shook and shook. “Oh … Jim…” gasped she. “Oh … Jim!”
Then she went toward him, thrusting out the bag with both hands.
“Take it … take it … take it … for God's sake…” she stammered and began to sob.
McGowan stared at her with such fierce eyes, that even Betty felt a little frightened. She had put light hands on primeval passions and they shook her too, in their eruption.
“Take it, Mac …” she urged now, rather piteously. “Don't you see how she wants you to take it?…”
"Whats it, anyhow?" said McGowan, roughly.
“It's all the money what was gave me …” sobbed Lucinda. “Before God it is, Jim … I ain't never touched a cent of it. Seemed like it was serpents to me.… It's all I got. Before God it is …”
McGowan wrenched open the shabby bag and peered in. For one instant the lust of gold made his face ugly. Then he drew out a big cotton handkerchief, knotted into a bundle. He jerked the knots apart. What he saw, sent him stumbling to a chair.
“Godamighty,” said he, “the girl's ben goin' about N'York with thousands in cash, loose like this.…”
Then suddenly he set bag and handkerchief on the floor. He reached Lucinda in a stride, had her in his arms, bundling her up to him, as children bundle a dear and forlorn doll.
“'Cinda…” said he … “Little Sis…”
Betty stole out.
“And now,” said McGowan to Betty an hour later, “ef you think any family reunion is goin' to keep me and Jonas from takin' you for your ride— Well, miss, you're mistaken, that's all.”
But Betty shook her head, between tears and laughter.
“No, Mac …” said she. … “To-night you are both going to have dinner with me here in the studio. But this time you're to hitch Jonas to a buggy and take Lucinda for a drive in the Park.”
This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.
The longest-living author of this work died in 1945, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 77 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.