AT THE moment this story opens candor compels the admission that Mr. Haskell was massaging his bald dollar while he waited for his wife to begin. But I also wish to say (without any fooling) that an unsuspected tragedy had entered his life, to say nothing of the life of Mrs. Haskell.
Not only that, but at the moment this story opens Mr. Haskell had a peaceful appearance, though somewhat worried on account of the increasing size of his bald dollar, and somewhat apprehensive because he wasn't sure how his wife was going to begin. But no matter how peaceful he looked you will presently see that his home was threatening to become the scene of gladiatorial combat, and even though (with his wife's connivance) he was about to turn one of their rooms into a so-called "Cupid's Bower," it would have been more appropriate if they had named it the "Lion's Den": all of which, and a great deal more, is about to be unfolded unto you.
Whereupon I cease to thunder such a thundering long peal in the index, and, starting in the manner of the realistics, I repeat that Mr. Haskell was massaging his bald dollar while he waited for his wife to begin. And that (I think) is the last time we ought to call him "mister," because everybody else called him Bill. In the first place, he had lived all his life in Granby, and, in the second place, his hair (with the exception of that bald spot, about as big as a silver dollar) was black and curly. Wherefore all Granby called him by his first name, even though he was nearly forty-five and had a daughter who was taller than himself.
(Her name was Maude, and she is the one who is mentioned in the title of this our tale. But there I start gossiping again like a garrulous old grandam at a wedding. So now, for the third and last time, I will get me started on my story and leave digressions alone.)
Bill Haskell was massaging—you know what—and waiting for his wife to speak those things which were on her mind, though every married man will understand me when I say that she hadn't told Bill she had anything on her mind. But Bill hadn't been married over twenty years for nothing. He knew the Signs.
Upstairs, Maude was dressing to go out, and, for the benefit of those who have never seen a young girl dressing to go out, I will tell you in the most categorical detail just what Maude was doing.
As soon as she had finished drying the dishes Maude had gone upstairs with a lamp in her hand. This lamp she set down on the bureau, meanwhile studying her features in the mirror. This careful scrutiny being completed, she placed the tip of her finger on the bridge of her nose, and by exerting an upward pressure on her finger increased the "pug" of her nose to a remarkable degree. Maude studied this new angle both full face and profile, and then, suddenly letting her nose spring back to normal, compared the relative effects. This done, she pulled her hair down over her forehead, first on one side and then on the other, and, not being at all convinced which way looked the better, sighed with deep feeling.
RUMMAGING next in her bureau drawer, she found a lace jabot, and, draping this upon her bosom, studied the tout ensemble both with and without that extra pug to her nose. Then back into the drawer went the jabot and out came an orange-colored ribbon which had originally been tied around a bunch of birthday cigars. This ribbon she bound around her forehead, after the fashion originated by certain Greek maids of antiquity and later revived by Mrs. Castle of these our times. The ribbon looked well against her hair, but it didn't look so well against her forehead. Having arrived at this conclusion, Maude dropped the ribbon in an absent-minded manner and stood transfixed in thought. Turning quickly at last, she pulled a cardboard box from under the bed. Out of this box she drew a straw shape, a piece of red velvet, and a white wing which in its time had often flapped as prelude and postlude to the loud, triumphant strains of "Cock-a-doodle-do-o-o-o!"
For nearly ten minutes Maude tried variations of these millinery materials, interrupting herself once to examine a tiny red spot on her nose, and interrupting herself a second time to friz the hair over her ears. How did she do this? By seizing the short strands one by one, pulling them out until they were taut, and rapidly working a moistened thumb and finger up and down the tightened strands. And how did she moisten her thumb and finger? By delicately applying thereto the tip of her tongue. So now you know. At half past seven she heard the kitchen clock downstairs strike "Ting!" and, as though this were a signal, she slapped the millinery back into its box, pinned a pretty little bonnet on her pretty little head, smoothed her hips, preened her waist, drew on an Empire model jacket with large pearl buttons, gave one last lingering look in the mirror, picked up the lamp, and went downstairs, looking quite as innocent as Little Nell and twice as good a looker.
"You won't be late, Maude?" asked ma.
"About half past nine. Going over to the library."
They heard her footsteps tripping along the hall. They heard her stop in front of the mirror in the hall rack. They heard the front door open and shut. And then—
Well, to be perfectly truthful about it, Mrs. Haskell let out the two bottom clasps of her corsets, sighed "Ah-a-h!" with great relief, threw herself back in the easy chair, set Bill with her eye, frowned to herself as she mentally phrased her opening sentence, and then—
Why, then she began.
" WILL," she began, "I don't think we're doing the right thing by Maude at all. It's been worrying me a lot lately, and don't you think it hasn't!"
And, having hurled this bomb with great precision, she sat up straight in her chair to watch the effect. The effect was instantaneous.
"What do you mean—not doing the right thing by Maude?" demanded Bill, staring at her quite goggle-eyed with amazement.
"I mean just what I say!" she declared, and she looked at him with a certain air of primness which should be explained at once. Mrs. Haskell had been a school-teacher just five months to a day when she had led Bill to the altar, and always after that she had regarded him as her scholar. Now, as all the world knows, in every class there is a favorite scholar, a naughty scholar, and a dunce. So, as time and circumstance demanded, Bill took all these parts, but more particularly he took the third.
"What's the matter with Maude?" asked Bill. "Doesn't she like her job down at the coal yard?"
"Coal yard!" sniffed ma. "For Heaven's sake, William, haven't you got a mind that can rise higher than a coal yard?" And, following up this connubial hot shot, she added with increasing spirit: "We've got to give our Maude a proper place to receive her company, or she'll have no chance at all."
"Company?" uttered Bill. "What company?"
"You know as well as I do what company! Young gentlemen callers! Beaus, if you want to call 'em beaus! Land o' goodness, William, you don't expect our Maude to be keeping books in a coal yard all her life, do you?"
"But, Minnie! Hold on! Our Maude's nothing but a kid yet—"
"Our Maude's twenty next birthday—older than I was when I was married. And I want to tell you again, we've simply got to give that girl a place where she can receive her callers, or she'll have no chance at all!"
"Has she got one, then?" asked Bill, immensely interested.
"One young man, of course," said Bill in an irritated voice. "What do you suppose I meant? One fried egg?"
"Don't you begin to shout at me!"
"I'm not shouting! It's you who are shouting!"
"There! That's always the way when I try to talk to you!" But, checking the note of lamentation in her voice, she added, almost fiercely: "Will Haskell, I tell you, once for all, we've simply got to give our Maude a place where she can receive her callers, or that poor girl will live and die an old maid!"
"But, Minnie! Be reasonable! She has a place—"
"I tell you she hasn't!"
"But, Minnie! She has—"
"I tell you again she hasn't!"
"All right, then, she hasn't! But, all the same I don't see anything to keep her from receiving her callers right here in this room."
"Oh, you don't! Oh, no! And, of course, it's very sweet and romantic for any young man to call on Maude and see you sitting there smoking, in your stocking feet, one slipper off, one slipper on! Yes! And when young Arthur King did call on Maude last winter, what happened?" Bill looked guilty. "You started talking baseball with him!" cried ma triumphantly, "and you ended up by playing checkers! And Maude got mad, and went to bed, and threw her shoes down on the ceiling, clumpety-clump! Do you remember that?"
Whereupon, as every married man will understand. Bill struck his colors and hoisted the white flag. "Well, she can have the front room, can't she?" he demanded, speaking in a large voice, as husbands do when they capitulate.
"That's just what I've been thinking," nodded ma, her eyes sparkling at the success of her first attack. And, instantly launching another, she continued: "But first, of course, we've got to have that room fixed up. Oh, yes! I know what you're going to say! But I want to tell you, William Haskell, that your Aunt Mary has been dead a good many years and times have changed since she fixed that room. Have you seen it lately? Then just you wait! We'll have a look at it."
SHE handed him a lamp from the shelf and, after a sharp tussle, opened a sliding door in the east wall. The door creaked on its rollers as though in remonstrance, and a damp, chilly breath came out of the unused room. Bill was standing behind his wife holding the lamp, and whether or not that cold breath of air cleared his perception I cannot tell But, all the same, you, but for the first time he became conscious of the tragedy, previously mentioned, which had crept unnoticed into his life, to say nothing of the life of Mrs. Haskell. For the first time his eyes took stock of the cheap rat in his wife's hair, of the switch that didn't match, of the ridge across her back which marked the top line of her dollar corsets, of her wrinkled belt and elbows. And, seeing all these things, Bill suddenly realized that, so far as he and Minnie were concerned, Love had finished his visit, picked up his arrows, and flown away long, long ago.
"Fat—and bossy," reflected Bill, swallowing hard, as a reluctant patient will sometimes swallow a draft of camomile; and, though he tried to put these thoughts behind him, they kept popping up in his mind like the little red devil in a Punch and Judy show.
"There!" said Minnie, advancing into the room with the lamp held high. "What do you think of that?"
The white glare of the lamp shone on her face with merciless insistence. On her lip was a fever blister, and the shine of her nose was like the pale glow of a calcium light. Bill put his hands in his pocket and turned away quickly to look around the room.
"Hang it, I'm getting bald myself," he thought, and a mean little ache began to knock on his heart. A mean little ache, yes, and a nasty little ache, and a painful little ache. But though it was little, it threatened to knock as a mule can kick, and in the meantime it knocked on the door of poor Bill's heart like a cruel creditor come to collect a bill.
" WELL," said Minnie, speaking with asperity, "what do you think of it?"
"Some room," said Bill, and, ashamed of the thoughts which were passing through his mind, he grinned in a sheepish manner and jingled the keys in his pocket.
"You bet it's some room! No wonder your Aunt Mary never got married! Still, perhaps it's just as well she didn't, or she mightn't have left the house to us."
It was, indeed, an old-fashioned room, and for the benefit of future generations I will briefly describe this old-fashioned room, so they will know what our forefathers suffered in the days when the waltz was considered immodest and when a woman's character would have been irretrievably lost if she had ever been discovered crossing her knees in public.
The chief article of furniture was a square piano, hidden under a gray waterproof cover which was lined with cotton flannel. This cover was thrown back far enough to disclose the yellow keys, and the whole effect reminded one of a very old spinster in an alarming state of décolleté.
On the piano were two glass vases, quicksilvered to look like metal and adorned with hand-painted flowers. Each vase contained a small sheaf of wheat tied with narrow white ribbon. This wheat had the miraculous power to shed about a bushel of chaff a week, so that no matter how often the top of the piano was dusted the vases were always surrounded by husks like two extinct volcanoes grandly rising from their circle of ashes.
A Franklin stove was installed in front of the mantel. On the mantelshelf were two glass covers, such as are sometimes seen in railway restaurants to keep hostile flies from the pie. But in this old-fashioned room which we are describing one of the glass covers was placed over a large bouquet of wax flowers and the other shielded a squirrel which had been stuffed in the highly original attitude of eating a nut.
By the side of the Franklin stove was a rush-bottomed chair that Lafayette had sat in. The other chairs had walnut frames and horsehair seats which sloped from the back to the front. When sitting in one of these chairs it behooved the operator to keep his feet firmly braced against the carpet. Otherwise, smiling a sickly smile, one shot the chutes.
Nor is that all. Two oil paintings embellished the wall. One showed an angry sea beating against a lighthouse beneath a flock of sea gulls and a new moon. The other picture (you have probably guessed it) was "Sheep in a Snowstorm"—the poor things!
"And look at that wall paper!" said Minnie in a voice which registered suffering. "William Haskell, I ask you to look at that wall paper!"
Thus invited, Bill looked at it and, truth to tell, it was well worth seeing. The background was a dark, moody green, a color which seemed to be always brooding over the past. And at close intervals upon this background were huge, brown medallions, each medallion framing the picture of a stag with three young does behind him.
"There's no use talking," began Minnie again, "we've simply got to fix this room up so that our Maude can receive her callers in it. Either that or—" She made that vague but unmistakable gesture which every parent of a growing girl understands.
"All right. All right," hurriedly interrupted Bill. "But have you any young man in mind? Or are you trusting to luck?"
"Trusting to luck! If that isn't you all over! There are dozens of young men—yes, dozens!—who would be simply delighted to call here if our Maude only had a decent place. Don't you worry about that part of it!" And, with the least touch of anxiety in her voice, she added: "Don't you know anybody that we could invite. Will?"
"Of course there's Arthur King. We could always get him. But he's too lackadaisical. If our Maude has one fault, she's too easy-going. So we ought to pick a young man who is full of fire and spirit, and then they'd make a good pair."
"The trouble is, you never can tell," objected ma. "I've seen so many young men start out like a house afire, but after a few years they take things just as easy as they can."
"Yes, that's so," acknowledged Bill, uneasily wondering whether this was a masked shot at himself. "But I'll tell you one class of young men who'll hustle as long as they live."
"Well, go on!"
"Redheads!" cried Bill in triumph, and when he gave this truly interesting bit of philosophy to the world he wore a far-away resemblance to the lamented Mr. Pickwick elucidating his theory regarding prehistoric stones.
"Redheads?" muttered ma.
"Yes, redheads! You just think of all the redheads you know, and tell me whether there's a lazy one among the lot. No! And never will be! I've noticed it all my life. It's because a redhead has a lot of ginger in him, I guess. Anyhow, they're always strong characters, and, if we can find a nice young red-headed man for our Maude, you can bet your life he'll be a hustler and a good provider."
"Well, there may be something in that," said Minnie thoughtfully, and to herself she added: "Young Joe Wilbur has red hair. So that's what we'll do. Will," she continued aloud. "We'll fix the room up and keep it a secret from Maude till it's done. This room's never opened anyhow. And when we've got the room ready we'll find some nice young fellow, with red hair if we can, to come and have tea with us some evening. And then—"
Again she made a vague but unmistakable gesture, only this time it had a happy ending, and a minute later Bill was hurrying to Rood, the paper hanger's. He came back with two books of samples, and when Maude returned home at half past nine she found her parents looking as bright-eyed and briskly important as a pair of robins in the spring. Bill was hiding the sample books by the immemorial method of sitting upon them, and ma was concealing a furniture catalogue in just the same way.
"We'll call it Cupid's Bower," whispered Bill (while Maude was putting the cat out), and for the first time in many moons' he winked one eye at Minnie.
THE embellishment of Cupid's Bower took the better part of a month, inasmuch as the work could be done only by starts and snatches, in order to keep it a secret from Maude. Ma kept the room locked, under pretense of having mislaid the key (Fie, ma!), but if I were to tell you the exciting moments which she and Bill passed through that month, and how many times Maude nearly surprised their secret, this story would be so breathless it would have to be read in gasps, and nervous persons, or those with weak hearts, wouldn't be able to read this chapter at all.
For the wall paper they selected a design of small tea roses, and the only thing which disappointed Bill was that they couldn't find a border of those dimpled little dancers (with nothing much to wear) which are so generally associated with the tender passion. The walnut-stained woodwork was enameled white, and the only thing which disappointed Bill was that he couldn't touch the paint up with gold-leaf eggs and darts after the well-known manner of salons.
They traded the piano to a dealer in antiques and received in exchange a renovated Wilton rug, three pairs of so-called Cluny curtains, and a tea table. And I wish to say that, when that rug was down and the curtains were up and the table was in, the only thing which disappointed Bill was that he couldn't immediately round up the eligible redheads in those parts and show them the treat in store.
The Franklin stove was moved up into the attic, and so were the wax flowers and that squirrel which had been stuffed in the highly original attitude of eating a nut. In the middle of the mantelshelf Minnie put the little bronze clock from her bureau. To the right she placed a cut-glass bonbon dish which cost her a bookful of stamps at the Blue Stamp Trading Store. To balance this bonbon dish, Bill fetched an ash receiver which some one had given him for a Christmas present the year before the Spanish War. It was an artistic ash receiver, cleverly lined with cigar bands, and when he stepped back to see how that mantelshelf looked the only thing which disappointed Bill was that he had to voice his admiration in hoarse whispers because Maude might have been out on the veranda listening. "Some room! Some room!" hoarsely whispered Bill, and the rest he expressed by facial contortions.
Next morning Minnie stopped the Ten-Cent Package Express and over to the Ladies' Exchange she sent the chair that Lafayette had sat in. Before night it had been sold to Mrs. Lucius Smith, who was trying to join the D. A. R. The ten dollars so acquired were used to buy four pictures, entitled respectively "The Kiss," "Partners for Life," "Developing and Printing," and "Two's Company; Three's None." And when those pictures were finally hung where they showed to the best advantage the only thing which disappointed Bill was the fact that they didn't have a footstool that Washington had rested his Number Tens upon, so they could have bought "Love's Awakening," "When Ignorance Is Bliss," "Two Hearts That Beat Like Sixty," and "Good Night, Dear."
Minnie covered the horsehair chairs with a cheerful chintz, patterned with roses and other posies, and suggestive of flower gardens, singing birds, and fountains softly splashing in the moonlight. "And now we'll get the old couch out of the living room," she said, "and I'll buy a few more yards of chintz. They've simply got to have a couch, so they can get used to the idea of sitting together."
For the first time since they had started it Bill shut off the gas and applied the brakes. That couch had always been regarded as his own particular resting place, and, peering distastefully into the future, he saw a long vista of evenings when he would have to sit on a straight-backed chair and have no couch whereon to stretch his weary bones. "Well," he almost grumbled, "I guess it's all right, but I don't know what you're going to tell Maude when she misses the couch."
"Simple enough. I'll tell her it's gone to be covered."
Bill pouted his lips and for a long time that evening he massaged his dollar in thoughtful silence; but a few nights later, when Minnie sneaked him into the front room and showed him that old couch all decked out and beautified in its new chintz covering, the only thing which disappointed Bill was the fact that he had only one couch to give to Cupid's Bower.
"Isn't it great!" he laughed under his breath. And, truth to tell, Bill was having a better time with his evenings than he had known for years. No longer he sat and read the paper and yawned and rubbed his dollar, or engaged in snappy arguments with Minnie regarding the neighbors' children, the price of eggs, the alleged necessity for a new tailor-made suit, or the best way to fry liver. Instead Bill came home with a smiling-light in his eyes, filled to the brim with some new idea for the beautifying of Cupid's Bower. And then there was that delightful task of keeping everything a secret from Maude, of sitting down to dinner with their unsuspecting daughter while the bower was taking such entrancing form just on the other side of the folding doors. "Isn't it great!" laughed Bill under his breath as he looked at the couch that night. "Oh, my! You've got a new lamp too!"
"I've been saving my tea checks for over two years!" beamed Minnie. "You wait till I light it."
Carefully she pulled down the curtains, and then she lighted the lamp. It was a pretty lamp, standing high on the table and dressed with a saucy flare of old-rose silk which looked like a ballet-dancer's skirt.
"See?" smiled Minnie. "That's the beauty of an old-rose shade. It makes everything look romantic."
"Some lamp!" quoth Bill. "And that reminds me. Down at Muller's there's a special sale of talking machines—dollar down and dollar a week. There's one in the window that was just made for that little table over in the corner. And then if our Maude feels nervous at entertaining her beau, she can put in a record, wind the spring, and—there you are!"
"Well, I guess it won't break us," nodded Minnie. "But you've got to have a new suit and I've got to have a new dress. Whoever he is we must make him think he is marrying into a good family. And, Will, don't you be too free and easy with him. You must act dignified and stately—as though you were a judge or something like that. Can you get your new suit on Saturday?"
"I can," said Bill in a highly judicial manner, "if my credit is still good at Stewart's."
"And I saw the cutest little tea gown to-day—just the shade of that lamp. It was nine forty-eight, cheap as dirt, and I need a new dress anyhow. So the only thing left is to invite some nice young fellow for Sunday night and then we'll spring the surprise on Maude."
Whereupon they both fell into a smiling silence; but nota bene, if you please, and likewise mark this well: Minnie took it for granted that she was going to invite Maude's prospective beau, while Bill understood that this delicate task devolved upon him. "I'll get young Joe Wilbur," thought Minnie. "He's got red hair."
"I'll invite Abner Bennett's boy," thought Bill. "He's got a head like a brick. But I won't tell Minnie till the last minute. She always was down on the Bennetts."
They heard Maude's step on the sidewalk. With the guilty haste of two conspirators they extinguished the light and beat it out of the bower.
WHEN Bill came home for a walk the following Sunday evening he was wearing his new suit and looking as much like a judge as any curly-headed citizen ever looked. Ma was sporting her new tea gown, old rose with green trimmings. And Maude was helping get the supper ready.
"My!" said Maude. "You two are togged up! What's going to happen?"
"Sit up," hastily interrupted ma. "Everything's ready. You'd better take your coat off, pa, so's not to spot it."
He laid it over a chair as carefully as any chief justice, and just as he had taken his place at the table a loud knock sounded on the kitchen door.
"I'll go," said ma, jumping up. "I guess it's the man with the ice cream."
"Ice cream?" cried Maude. "Say, what's going on to-night? A surprise party after church?"
Bill gave his child an eloquently loving wink and bit into a slice of bread with the air of a man who must either stuff his mouth orout a secret.
"Say, ma," persisted Maude when mother returned to the table looking as important as the first of the month and twice as smug, "what's the ice cream for? And why are you and pa all dressed up? Who's going to call to-night?"
Ma looked at Bill with a glance that said: "The time has arrived when we must break the news to our daughter," and Bill gave ma a look which replied: "Go to it, old girl. You've always been the spokesman in this house."
"Maude," began ma in her best school-teaching manner, "your father and I have reached the conclusion that you have now arrived at the age when a girl may naturally begin to think of marriage. This, of course, is a very important step, and we want to give you all the help we can. So we decided that the first thing to do—"
At this point another loud knock sounded on the kitchen door. "I'll go," said ma, and presently she returned, looking puzzled. "Will, did you order two quarts of ice cream from Deane's?"
"Sure," said Bill. "Strawberry and vanilla. What's the matter?"
"Then why didn't you tell me? I went and ordered a quart from Dodge's, and I'm sure we'll never be able to eat it all." She resumed her place at the table, frowning at Bill with the prescience of an experienced wife who feels in her bones that her husband has made a precious mess of something or other which has not yet come to light. "Let me see," she said. "Oh, yes. Your father and I have decided, Maude, that no girl has any chance of finding a good husband nowadays unless she has a proper place to receive her callers—a place where she will look her best. So, as a surprise to you, pa and I have been fixing up the front room—"
She arose, quivering to the eyelids with that dramatic instinct which is the heritage of every daughter of Eve, and in the same spirit she pulled back the sliding door that led to Cupid's Bower. And I wish to say (again without any fooling) that anyone would have been obliged to go a long way that night to find a prettier room, with its rosy lamp throwing a glamouring light over those harmonious chintzes and over the sofa and chairs and pictures and curtains, and all and sundry.
"Oh, say!" squealed Maude, jumping up. "If this isn't some class!"
She paused at the threshold like a votary before a shrine, and then she entered with light, graceful steps, piping out with «fresh excitement as each new item caught her eye. Ma and Bill exchanged gratified glances. It was the peace before the storm.
"So as soon as you've finished your supper, Maude," said ma, "you run upstairs and put on that net dress with the Dresden slip, because we're going to have company to-night and we want you to look your best. Your father and I have been talking it over, and we're going to give you all the help we can. So to-night I invited Joe Wilbur to come over and show us how to run the talking machine—"
"Joe Wilbur?" said Bill in a dazed voice. "That young rowdy? Why, I invited Abner Bennett's boy to come over to-night!"
"Abner Bennett's boy?" fiercely demanded ma. "What did you ask him for?"
"You know what I asked him for!"
"Abner Bennett's boy!"
"Yes, Abner Bennett's boy!"
"If that isn't you all over!"
"Yes, that's me all over!"
"You always muddle everything up!"
"Oh, I do. eh? Huh! Who muddled up Uncle Henry's funeral?"
"Who burned their trousers down at Hartford?"
"Who walked along Fifth Avenue with their—?"
"Now, William, don't be a fool!"
"Oh, no; it's you who's the fool!"
"Abner Bennett's boy!" bitterly complained ma. "Why, I've known those Bennetts as long as I can remember, and I never knew a good one yet!" And, raising her voice to the pitch of utter exasperation, she cried: "What on earth did you pick him for?"
Realizing (as ever) that it was time to strike his flag, and yet not wishing to say too much in front of Maude. Bill frowningly put one hand above his head and then snatched it away as though it were burning. Having thus signified (by the noble art of pantomime) a red-head, he uttered from the corner of his mouth these cryptic words: "Strong character!"
"Grrrrh!" choked ma, and, turning to their thunderstruck daughter, she added: "Maude, you run upstairs now and get changed, and if young Abner Bennett does have the nerve to come around here to-night, you remember you're your mother's daughter and you'll know how to handle him!"
Staring from one frowning parent to the other, Maude left the room. A minute later, above the crescendo of ma's reproaches, Bill thought he heard somebody at the telephone in the hall, but ma was making such a noise he couldn't say for sure.
AT a quarter to eight Maude was still upstairs changing. Ma and Bill were in the kitchen, feeling ashamed of themselves (I am glad to be able to tell you this) for the remarks which they had recently exchanged with such deep emotion. Outwardly, however, they were each as adamant. In fact, Bill not only looked judicial, he looked as though he were just waiting for the clerk of court to bring him his little black cap before sentencing a culprit to the gallows.
Upon this tense situation the doorbell suddenly rang as a bell rings at a prize fight to announce the beginning of another round.
"I'll go," said ma, grimly rising. "And if it is Abner Bennett—"
She assumed the austere look of a school-teacher about to ask the incorrigible scholar to spell phthisis, but a minute later Bill heard peaceful conversation at the front door. "It's young Wilbur," thought Bill. "Ma's putting him wise. Heh! And now she's taking him into the bower. Well, if she thinks she can make a goat of me like that—"
He put on his hat and let himself out of the back door. At the second lamp-post he met a resolute young man who seemed to be in what the sporting writers love to describe as the pink of condition. And this young man had a head of hair like an oriflamme of battle.
"’Evening, Abner," said Bill. "How's the boy?"
"Too bad," said the diplomatic William in a voice that Talleyrand might have envied. "Joe Wilbur's up to the house, and somebody was telling me down at the depot the other morning that Joe was trying to hang the Indian sign on you."
"Who? That stiff? I should bibble!"
"Ain't afraid of him, eh?"
"See me tremble!"
"That's the way to talk! I didn't know Wilbur was coming over to-night, but I guess that isn't going to stop you from showing us the fine points about a talking machine, eh?"
"Good boy!" For a moment Bill's hand rested on the young man's shoulder with a friendly pressure that said: "I'm backing you to win," and the next minute he had opened their front door and had led his candidate into the hall. Mrs. Haskell had gone upstairs to fetch Maude, hut when she heard the footsteps in the hall below she ran to the upper landing and exclaimed in a loud whisper: "Is that you, Will? Come up here right away!"
"Just a moment," said William, and, taking his company by the arm, he led him firmly into Cupid's Bower and shut the door upon him. "There!" thought Bill as he hurried upstairs, "Maude's got something to pick from now. Let her please herself!"
WHEN Mr. Bennett entered Cupid's Bower Mr. Wilbur was sitting on the sofa, where ma had left him, looking at "The Life and Sonnets of Elizabeth Barrett Browning" (which he had picked up from the table) much as the Rev. Mr. Stiggins might have gazed at "The Life and Battles of the Hon. John Lambastem Sullivan." At the entrance of Bill's candidate, ma's candidate glanced up from his poetry, and each gentleman exchanged a nod which might have measured somewhere between one-thirty-second and one-sixteenth of an inch and which might have occupied (in time) the same important fraction of a second.
Displeased at being caught with a book of poetry in his hand, Mr. Wilbur tossed the volume on the table and, stretching out his legs in an insouciant attitude, thrust both his hands into his trouser pockets. Bill's candidate yawningly picked up the book, and when he saw what manner of thing it was he looked at Mr. Wilbur as though to say: "You poor cheese! So that's the sort of yap you read, is it? Well, just you wait till I tell the boys at the Engine House to-morrow night. Doings will be done, dear Perceval! Doings will be done, believe me!"
Mr. Wilbur yawned—a wide, free yawn which ingeniously served the double purpose of proclaiming his equality to all mankind in general and his utter contempt of present company in particular.
Bill's candidate, resting his head on the back of his chair, curled his lips into a very curly pucker and whistled: "Can't You Take It Back and Change It for a Boy?" And then, as though to show that he was thoroughly at ease, he arose and began to examine the pictures on the wall. Ma's candidate, also rising, sauntered toward the talking machine. And a close observer might have imagined that the hair of each candidate seemed to turn a few shades redder into a sort of menacing incandescence.
Mr. Wilbur selected the "Anvil Chorus" and placed it in the machine, and I wish to say that every time the little hammer came down on the anvil young Abner Bennett scowled, and every time the sledge hammer fell he grimaced with the pain. Having thus suffered (as he thought) sufficiently, he reached toward the table to examine the other records. Simultaneously ma's candidate also reached for a record, the result being that "Love's Young Dream" fell to the ground between them. The rivals glared at each other. Mr. Wilbur gave a glance that said: "You clumsy mut!" and Mr. Bennett replied in the same manner: "Have you never been in a parlor before, you lumbering jackass?" Each then, to show his good breeding, stooped to pick the fallen record. And, as they stooped, their shoulders happened to touch.
Feeling a slight pressure against his shoulder, Mr. Wilbur naturally pushed back, the preservation of the equilibrium being nature's first law.
Mr. Bennett also pushed back, breathing hard and meaning business.
Bill's candidate, looking more belligerent at every tick of the clock, preserved his pressure against the other's shoulder and slowly straightened his figure from its stooping position. In the same grim silence Mr. Wilbur accompanied him upward, so that presently they stood like the two sides of a capital A, each young gentleman digging his feet into the rug, too dignified to speak, too proud to be the first to stop pushing. And while they stood in that strange position, fists clenching and temperatures rapidly rising to the explosive point, each caught a movement through the window and each saw the following pleasing sight happening right out on the moonlit veranda:
Maude had her arms around a young man's neck. And the two together were giving a beautiful tableau vivant of "The Kiss."
"Who's the guy?" muttered Mr. Wilbur, relaxing his pressure.
"Ed Perkins," whispered Mr. Bennett, relaxing his. "His old man owns the coal yard. Say, let's beat it. We don't want to butt in on anything like this!"
UPSTAIRS ma and Bill were still discussing the sensation of the evening, "Well, I never thought Maude was going to surprise us like that!" exclaimed Bill.
"Our Maude's a very attractive girl," said ma, bridling with pride. "She could pick and choose from the very best families in this land, and don't you think she couldn't!"
"Ye-eh," said Bill. "I know it. And, of course, that's the reason you had the house turned upside down fixing Cupid's Bower. 'A girl hasn't the slightest chance nowadays unless she has a pleasant place to receive her company.' Oh, no! Certainly not!" (Bill's irony.) "And all the time Maude and this young Perkins were getting engaged down in the coal yard—down in a black and smutty coal yard, stealing kisses to the music of a switch engine, and holding hands behind the stove and chestnut bins. Don't tell me! But I guess I'd better chase those two red-headed young squirts out of Cupid's Bower. If our bashful daughter has telephoned for young King Coal as she said she would— Why," said Bill, staring into the bower half a minute later and blinking his eyes, "they've gone!"
"Sh!" cautioned ma, who had been peeping through the hall window. "They're just walking off together under the corner lamp-post, and Maude and her young man are sitting on the top step looking at the moon—just the way we used to."
Bill and ma entered Cupid's Bower and grinned at each other. "These young people don't seem to need our help," said Bill, "so I'll try this easy-chair myself."
He sat down, as handsome a young man of forty-five (in his new suit) as you would wish to find in a month of Sundays. And ma sat on the couch opposite him, in her old-rose tea gown, beneath that romantic shade which they had planted there for Maude. It was a rosy light which filtered through that shade, and it was a knowing light, too, and a glowing light, and, as it softly beamed on Bill and ma, Bill's bald dollar didn't show a cent's worth, and ma's face looked as smooth and young as it had looked in the days when she and Bill had sat on a top step, too, and had gazed at the moon's reflection in each other's eyes.
"Minnie, I'll tell you one thing: you're looking younger than our bashful daughter," said Bill, his honest old phiz alight with pride and admiration. "Yes, old lady," he continued, shaking his finger at her, "you've been deceiving me. You haven't grown old at all."
"You behave yourself!" said ma.
In growing delight Bill went for the box of candy which they had planted there for Maude.
"My, but it's a long time since I had good candy. Mmm, how good! See? Jam inside. You have this half. Remember how I used to light your cigar?"
SHE arose with a grace which was far from lost on Bill, and came back with a match and one of the cigars which they had planted there for Maude's young man. And when the cigar was finally lighted, ma threatened to singe Bill's mustache in the good old way, and then, of course, Bill grabbed her hands and blew the match out and kept hold of ma's hands till she sat down beside him on the sofa again.
"It's a pleasant room," said Bill, looking around and patting ma's hand.
"Yes," said ma, patting back.
"We'll have a lot of comfort here if— Listen!" Bill cocked his ears to a noise he thought he had heard on the top step outside.
"The idea!" murmured ma as the sound rose again. "I never heard such a loud one!"
"That comes from learning in a coal yard," said Bill in a superior voice. "Now, when you and I were in practice—" He arose from the sofa as gallant a young fellow of forty-five as ever stepped, and after he had laid down his cigar on the ash receiver he returned to his place by the side of ma. And I wish to state that simultaneously Love came running in at the door, tugging his trunk behind him as though he knew he was coming back to stay.
Out on the top step Maude and her young man suddenly started and turned around.
"What was that?" whispered young Mr. Perkins.
"Sounded like pa mocking us," whispered Maude. "Let's go and look."
They were tiptoeing across the veranda when all at once they stopped. Ma was at the window, blushing in the moonlight and pulling down the curtains of Cupid's Bower.