The Gay Cockade/Lady Crusoe
Billy and I came down from the North and opened a grocery store at Jefferson Corners. It is a little store and there aren't many houses near it—just the railroad station and a big shed or two. Beyond the sheds a few cabins straggle along the road, and then begin the great plantations, which really aren't plantations any more, because nobody around here raises much of anything in these days. They just sit and sigh over the things that are different since the war.
That's what Billy says about them. Billy is up-to-date and he has a motor-cycle. He made up his mind when he came that he was going to put some ginger into the neighborhood. So he rides miles every morning on his motor-cycle to get orders, and he delivers the things himself unless it is barrels of flour or cans of kerosene or other heavy articles, and then he hires somebody to help him. At first he had William Watters and his mule. William is black and his mule is gray, and they are both old. It took them hours to get anywhere, and I used to feel sorry for them. But when I found out that compared to Billy and me they lived on flowery beds of ease, I stopped sympathizing. They both have enough, to eat, and they work only when they want to. Billy and I work all the time. We have our way to make in the world, and we feel that it all depends on ourselves. We started out with nothing ahead of us but my ambitions and Billy's energy, and a few hundred dollars which my guardian turned over to me when I married Billy on my twenty-first birthday.
As soon as we were married, we came to Virginia. Billy and I had an idea that everything south of the Mason and Dixon line was just waiting for us, and we wanted to earn the eternal gratitude of the community by helping it along. But after we had lived at Jefferson Corners for a little while, we began to feel that there wasn't any community. There didn't seem to be any towns like our nice New England ones, with sociable trolley-cars connecting them and farmhouses in a lovely line between. You can ride for miles through this country and never pass anything but gates. Then way up in the hills you will see a clump of trees, and in the clump you can be pretty sure there is a house. In the winter when the leaves are off the trees you can see the house, but in the summer there is no sign of it. In the old days they seemed to feel that they were lacking somewhat in delicacy if they exposed their mansions to the rude gaze of the public.
There was one mansion that Billy took me to now and then. It was empty, and that was why we went. The big houses which were occupied were not open to us, except in a trades-person sort of fashion, and Billy and I are not to be condescended to—we had a pair of grandfathers in the Mayflower. But that doesn't count down here, where everybody goes back to William the Conqueror.
That great big empty house was a fine place for our Sunday afternoon outings. We always went to church in the morning, and people were very kind, but it was kindness with a question-mark. You see Billy and I live over the store, and none of them had ever lived on anything but ancestral acres.
So our Sunday mornings were a bit stiff and disappointing, but our afternoons were heavenly. We discovered the Empty House in the spring, and there was laurel on the mountains and the grass was young and green on the slopes, and the sky was a faint warm blue with the sailing buzzards black against it. Billy and I used to stop at the second gate, which was at the top of the hill, and look off over the other hills where the pink sheep were pastured. I am perfectly sure that there are no other sheep in the whole wide world like those Albemarle sheep. The spring rains turn the red clay into a mud which sticks like paint, and the sheep are colored a lovely terra-cotta which fades gradually to pink.
The effect is impressionistic, like purple cows. Billy doesn't care for it, but I do. And I adore the brilliant red of the roads. Billy says he'll take good brown earth and white flocks. He might be reconciled to black sheep but never to pink ones.
We used to eat our supper on the porch of the Empty House. It had great pillars, and it was rather awe-inspiring to sit on the front steps and look up the whole length, of those Corinthian columns. Billy and I felt dwarfed and insignificant, but we forgot it when we turned our eyes to the hills.
The big door behind us and the blank windows were shut and shuttered close. There were flying squirrels on the roof and little blue-tailed lizards on the stone flagging in front of the house; and there was an old toad who used to keep us company. I called him Prince Charming, and I am sure he was as old as Methuselah, and lived under that stone in some prehistoric age.
We just loved our little suppers. We had coffee in our thermos bottle, and cold fried chicken and bread and butter sandwiches and chocolate cake. We never changed, because we were always afraid that we shouldn't like anything else so well, and we were sure of the chicken and the chocolate cake.
And after we had eaten our suppers we would talk about what kind of house we would build when our ship came in. Billy and I both have nice tastes, and we know what we want; and we feel that the grocery store is just a stepping-stone to better things.
The sunsets were late in those spring days, and there would be pink and green and pale amethyst in the western sky, and after that deep sapphire and a silver moon. And as it grew darker the silver would turn to gold, and there would be a star—and then more stars until the night came on.
I can't tell you how we used to feel. You see we were young and in love, and life was a pretty good thing to us. There was one perfect night when the hills were flooded with moonlight. We seemed all alone in a lovely world and I whispered:
"Oh, Billy, Billy, and some folks think that there isn't any God——"
And Billy put his arm around me and patted my cheek, and we didn't say anything for a long time.
It was just a week later that Lady Crusoe came. I knew that some one was in the house as soon as we passed the second gate. The door was still closed, and the shutters were not opened, but I heard a clock strike—a ship's clock—with bells.
I clutched Billy. "Listen," I said.
He heard it, too; "Who in the dickens?" he demanded.
"There's somebody in the house——"
"Billy, there must be, and we can't sit on the porch."
"You stay here, and I'll go around to the back."
But I wouldn't let him go alone. At the back of the house a window was open, and then we were sure.
"We'd better leave," I said, but Billy insisted that we stay. "If they are new people, I'll find out their names, and come up to-morrow and get their orders."
We went around to the front door and knocked and knocked, but nobody answered. So we sat down on the front step and presently Billy said that we might as well eat our supper, for very evidently nobody was at home.
I didn't feel a bit comfortable about it, but I opened our basket and got out our cups and plates, and Billy poured the coffee and passed the chicken and the bread and butter sandwiches. And just then the door creaked and the knob turned!
My first impulse was to gather up the lunch and tumble it into the basket; but I didn't. I just sat there looking up as calmly as if I were serving tea at my own table, and Billy sat there too looking up.
The door opened and a voice said, "Oh, if you are eating supper, may I have some?"
It was a lovely voice, and Billy jumped to his feet. A lovely head came after the voice. Just the head, peeping around—the body was hidden by the door. On the head was a lace cap with a gold rose, and the hair under the cap was gold.
"You see, I just got up," said the voice, "and I haven't had any breakfast——"
Billy and I gasped. It was seven P.M., and the meal that we were serving was supper!
"Do you mind my coming out?" said the voice. "I am not exactly clothed and in my right mind, but perhaps I'll do."
She opened the door wider and stepped down. I saw that her slippers had gold roses and that they were pale pink like the sunset. She wore a motor coat of tan cloth which covered her up, but I had a glimpse of a pink silk negligee underneath.
She sat quite sociably on the steps with us. "I am famished," she said. "I haven't had a thing to eat for twenty-four hours."
We gasped again. "How did it happen?"
"I was—shipwrecked," she said, "in a motor-car—I am the only survivor——"
Her eyes twinkled. "I'll tell you all about it presently." Then she broke off and laughed. "But first will you feed a starving castaway?"
Yet she didn't really tell us anything. She ate and ate, and it was the prettiest thing to see her. She was dainty and young and eager like a child at a party.
"How good everything is!" she said, at last with a sigh. "I don't think I was ever so hungry in my life."
Billy and I didn't eat much. You see we were too interested, and besides we had had our dinner.
As I have said, she didn't really tell us anything. "It was an accident, and I came up here. And the old clock that you heard strike belonged to my grandfather. He was an admiral, and it was his clock. I used to listen to it as a child."
"What happened to the rest——?" Billy asked, bluntly. He was more concerned about the automobile accident than about her ancestors.
"Oh, do you mean the others in the car?" she came reluctantly back from the admiral and his ship's clock. "I am sure I don't know. And I am very sure that I don't care."
"But were any of them killed?"
"No—they are all alive—but you see—it was a shipwreck—and I floated away—by myself—and this is my island, and you are the nice friendly savages——" she touched Billy on the arm. He drew away a bit. I knew that he was afraid she had lost her mind, but I had seen her twinkling eyes. "Oh, it's all a joke!" I said.
She shook her head. "It isn't exactly a joke, but it might look like that to other people."
"Are you going to stay?"
"I'll come up in the morning for orders," said Billy promptly. "I keep the grocery store at Jefferson Corners."
"Oh," she said, and seemed to hesitate; "there won't be any orders."
Billy stared at her. "But there isn't any other store."
"Robinson Crusoe didn't have stores, did he? He found things and lived on the land. And I am Lady Crusoe."
"Really?" I asked her.
"I've another name—but—if people around here question you—you won't tell them, will you, that I am here——?"
She said it in such a pretty pleading fashion that of course we promised. It was late when we had to go. I insisted that we should leave what remained of the supper, and she seemed glad to get it. "You are nice friendly savages," she said, with that twinkle in her eyes, "and I am very grateful. Come into the house and let me show you my clock——"
She showed us more than the clock. I hadn't dreamed in those days when Billy and I sat alone on the steps of the treasures that were shut up behind us. The old furniture was dusty, but all the dust in the world couldn't hide its beauty. The dining-room was hung with cobwebs, but when the candles were lighted we saw the Sheffield on the old sideboard, the Chinese porcelains, the Heppelwhite chairs, the painted sheepskin screen——
She picked out a lovely little pitcher and gave it to me. I did not learn until afterward that it was pink lustre and worth a pretty penny. She paid in that way, you see, for her supper, and something in her manner made me feel that I must not refuse it.
She did not ask us to come again, yet I was sure that she liked us. I felt that perhaps it was the grocery store which had made her hesitate. But whatever it was, I must confess that I was a little lonely as I went away. You see we had come to look forward to our welcome at the Empty House. We had known that we were the honored guests of the flying squirrels and the lizards and of old Prince Charming. But now that the house was no longer empty, we would not be welcome. I was sorry that I had accepted the pink pitcher. I should have preferred to feel that I owed no favor to the lady with the twinkling eyes.
It wasn't long after our adventure at the Empty House that Billy asked William Watters to take a big load to a customer two miles out. But William couldn't. He was working, he said, at a regular place. We couldn't imagine William as being regular about anything. He and his mule were so irregular in their habits. They came and went as they pleased, and they would take naps whenever the spirit moved them. But now, as William said, he was "wukin' regular," and he refused to say for whom he worked. But we found out one day when he drove Lady Crusoe down in a queer old carriage with his mule as a prancing steed.
He helped her descend as if she had been a queen, and she came in and talked to Billy. "You see, I've hunted up my friendly savages," she said. "I've reached the end of my resources." She gave a small order, and told Billy that she wasn't at all sure when she could pay her bill, but that there were a lot of things in her old house which he could have for security.
Billy said gallantly that he didn't need any security, and that her account could run as long as she wished and that he was glad to serve her. And he got out his pad and pencil and stood in that nice way of his at attention.
I listened and looked through a window at the back. I had seen her drive up, and she was stunning in the same tan motor-coat that she had worn when we first saw her. But she had on a brown hat and veil and brown shoes instead of the lace cap and rosy slippers.
She asked about me, and Billy told her that I was in the garden. And I was in the garden when she came out; but I had to run. She sat down in a chair on the other side of my little sewing-table and talked to me. It is such a scrap of a garden that there is only room for a tiny table and two chairs, but a screen of old cedars hides it from the road, and there's a twisted apple-tree, and the fields beyond and a glimpse of the mountains.
"How is the island?" Billy asked her.
She twinkled. "I have a man Friday."
She nodded. "The Watters negroes have been our servants for generations. And William thinks that he belongs to me. He cooks for me and forages. He shot two squirrels one morning and made me a Brunswick stew. But I couldn't stand that. You see the squirrels are my friends."
I thought of the flying squirrels and the blue-tailed lizards and the old toad, and I knew how she felt. And I said so. She looked at me sharply, and then she laid her hand over mine: "Are you lonely, my dear?"
I said that I was—a little. Billy had gone in to wait on a customer, so I dared say it. I told her that nobody had called.
"But why not?" she demanded.
"I think," I said slowly, "it is because we live—over the store."
"I see." And she did see; it was in her blood as well as in the blood of the rest of them.
Presently she stood up and said that she must go, and it was then that she noticed the work that was in my basket on the table. She lifted out a little garment and the red came into her cheeks. "Oh, oh!" she said, and stood looking at it. When she laid it down, she came around the table and kissed me. "What a dear you are!" she said, and then she went away.
William Watters came in very often after that; but he said very little about Lady Crusoe. He was a faithful old thing, and he had evidently had instructions. But one morning he brought a fine old Sheffield tray to Billy and asked him to take his pay out of it, and let Lady Crusoe have the rest in cash. William Watters didn't call her "Lady Crusoe," he called her "Miss Lily," which didn't give us the key to the situation in the least. Billy didn't know how to value the tray, so he asked me. I knew more than he did, but I wasn't sure. I told him to advance what he thought was best, and to send it to the city and have it appraised, or whatever they call it, so he did; and when the check from the antique shop came it was a big one.
It wasn't long after that that Lady Crusoe called on me. It was a real call, and she left a card. And she said as she laid it on the table: "As I told you, I'd rather the rest of the natives didn't know—they haven't seen me since I was a child, and they think that I am just some stranger who rents the old place and who wants to be alone."
After she had gone I picked up the card, and what I read there nearly took my breath away. There are certain names which mean so much that we get to look upon them as having special significance. The name that was on Lady Crusoe's card had always stood in my mind for money—oceans of it. I simply couldn't believe my eyes, and I took it down to Billy.
"Look at that," I said, and laid it before him, "and she has asked us to supper for next Sunday!"
Well, we couldn't make anything of it. Why was a woman with a name like that down here with nothing to eat but the things that William Watters could forage for, and that Billy could supply from his little store, and that she paid for with Sheffield trays?
We had supper that Sunday night in the great dining-room. There was a five-branched candlestick with tall white candles in the center of the shining mahogany table and William Watters acted as butler. You never would have believed how well he did it. And after supper we had coffee on the front porch and looked out over the hills at the sunset, and the silver moon and the old toad came out from under his stone and sat with us.
Lady Crusoe was in a thin white dress which she had made for herself, and she talked of the old place and of her childhood there. But not a word did she say of why she had come back to live alone on the Davenant ancestral acres.
It was her mother, we learned, who was a Davenant, and it was her mother's father who was the old admiral. She said nothing of the man whose name was on her card. It was as if she stopped short when she came to that part of her life, or as if it had never been.
She took me up-stairs after a while and left Billy to smoke on the porch. She said that she had something that she wanted me to see. Her room was a huge square one at the southwest corner of the house. There was a massive four-poster bed with faded blue satin curtains, and there was a fireplace with fire-dogs and an Adam screen. Lady Crusoe carried a candle, and as she stood in the center of the room she seemed to gather all of the light to her, like the saints in the old pictures. She was so perfectly lovely that I almost wanted to cry. I can't explain it, but there was something pathetic about her beauty.
She set the candle down and opened an old brass-bound chest. She took out a roll of cloth and brought it over and laid it on the table beside the candle.
"I bought it with some of the money that your Billy got for my Sheffield tray," she said. Then she turned to me with a quick motion and laid her hands on my shoulders. "Oh, you very dear—when I saw you making those little things—I knew that—that the good Lord had led me. Will you—will you—show me—how?"
I told Billy about it on the way home.
"She doesn't know anything about sewing, and she hasn't any patterns, and I am to go up every day, and William Watters will come for me with his mule——"
Then I cried about her a little, because it seemed so dreadful that she should be there all alone, without any one to sustain her and cherish her as Billy did me.
"Oh, Billy, Billy," I said to him, "I'd rather live over a grocery store with you than live in a palace with anybody else——"
And Billy said, "Don't cry, lady love, you are not going to live with anybody else."
And he put his arm around me, and as we walked along together in the April night it was like the days when we had been young lovers, only our joy in each other was deeper and finer, for then we had only guessed at happiness, and now we knew——
Well, I went up every day. William Watters came for me, and I carried my patterns and we sat in the big west room, and right under the window a pair of robins were building a nest.
We watched them as they worked, and it seemed to us that no matter how hard we toiled those two birds kept ahead. "I never dreamed," Lady Crusoe remarked one morning, "that they were at it all the time like this."
"You wait until they begin to feed their young," I told her. "People talk about being as free as a bird. But I can tell you that they slave from dawn until dark. I have seen a mother bird at dusk giving a last bite to one squalling baby while the father fed another."
Lady Crusoe laid down her work and looked out over the hills. "The father," she said, and that was all for a long time, and we stitched and stitched, but at last she spoke straight from her thoughts: "How dear your husband is to you!"
"That's what husbands are made for."
"Some of them are not, dear," her voice was hard, "some of them expect so much and give so little——"
I kept still and presently she began again. "They give money—and they think that is—enough. They give jewels—and think we ought to be profoundly grateful."
"Well, my experience," I told her, "is that the men give as much love as the women——"
She looked at me. "What do you mean?"
"Love costs them a lot."
"In what way?"
"They work for us. Now there's Billy's grocery store. If Billy didn't have me, he'd be doing things that he likes better. You wouldn't believe it, but Billy wanted to study law, but it meant years of hard work before he could make a cent, and he and I would have wasted our youth in waiting—and so he went into business—and that's a big thing for a man to do for a woman—to give up a future that he has hoped for—and that's why I feel that I can't do enough for Billy——"
"I don't see why you should look at it in that way," she said, and her eyes were big and bright. "Women are queens, and they honor men when they marry them——"
"If women are queens," I told her, "men are kings—Billy honored me——"
She smiled at me. "Oh, you blessed dear——" she said, and all of a sudden she came over and knelt beside me. "What would you think of a man who married a woman whom the world called beautiful and brilliant, and whom—whom princes wanted to marry—— And he was a very plain man, except that he had a lot of money—millions and millions—and after he married the woman whom he had said that he worshiped, he wanted to make just an every-day wife of her. He wanted her to stay at home and look after his house. He told her one night that it would be a great happiness for him if he could come in and find her warming—his slippers. And he said that his ideal of a woman was one who—who—held a child in her arms——"
I looked down at her. "Well, right in the beginning," I said, "I should like to know if the woman loved the man——"
She stared at me and then she stood up. "If she did, what then? She had not married to be—his slave——"
I pointed to the mother robin on the branch below. "I wonder if she calls it slavery! You see—she is so busy—building her nest she hasn't time to think whether Cock Robin is singing fewer love songs than he sang early in the spring."
She laughed and was down on her knees beside me again. "Oh, you funny little practical thing! But it wasn't because I missed the love songs. He sang them. But because I couldn't be an everyday wife——"
"What kind of wife did you want to be?"
"I wanted to travel with him alone—I planned a honeymoon in the desert, and we had it—and I planned after that to sail the seas to the land of Nowhere—and we sailed—and then—I wanted to go to the high plains—and ride and camp—and into the forests to hunt and fish—but he wouldn't. He said that we had wandered enough. He wanted to build a house—and have me warm—his slippers——"
"And so you quarreled?"
"We quarreled—great hot heavy quarrels—and we said things—horrid things—that we can't forgive——"
She was sobbing on my shoulder and I said softly: "Things that you can't forgive?"
"Yes. And that he can't. That's why I ran away from him."
"I couldn't stand it to see him going around with his face stern and set and not like my lover's. And he didn't speak to me except to be polite. And he asked people to go with us—everywhere. And we were never alone——"
"What had you said to make him—like that?"
She raised her head. "I told him that I—hated him——"
She knelt back on her heels.
"It was a dreadful thing to say, wasn't it? That's why I ran away. I couldn't stand it. I knew it was a thing no man—could—forgive——"
I smoothed her hair and rocked her back and forth while she cried. It was strange how much of a child she seemed to me. And I was only the wife of a country grocer and lived over the store, and she was the wife of a man whose name was known from east to west, and all around the world. But you see she hadn't learned to live. Neither have I, really. But Billy has taught me a lot.
I think it was a comfort for her to feel that she had confided in me. But she made me promise that whatever happened I wouldn't let him know.
"Unless I—die," she said, and she was as white as a lily, "unless I die, and then you can—set him—free——"
Billy was sorry that I had promised. "Somehow I feel responsible, sweetheart, and I'll bet her poor husband is almost crazy."
"Would you be, Billy?"
He caught me to him so quickly that he almost shook the breath out of me. "Don't ask a thing like that," he said, and his voice didn't sound like his own. "If anything should happen to you—if anything should happen—I should—I should—oh, why will women ask things like that——?"
In the days that followed, Billy didn't want me out of his sight. He even hated to have me go up to the Davenant house with William Watters. "Take care of her, William," he would say, and stand looking after us.
William and I got to be very good friends. He was a wise old darky, and he was devoted to Lady Crusoe. He usually served tea for us out under the trees, unless it was a rainy day, and then we had it in the library.
It was on a rainy day that Lady Crusoe said: "I wonder what has become of William. I haven't seen him since you came. I have hunted and called, and I can't find him."
He appeared at tea time, however, with a plate of hot waffles with powdered sugar between. When his mistress asked him about his mysterious disappearance, he said that he had cleaned the attic.
"But, William, on such a day?"
"I kain't wuk out in the rain, Miss Lily, so I wuks in——"
That was all he would say about it, and after we had had our tea, she said to me, "There are a lot of interesting things in the attic. Let's go up and see what Willie has been doing——"
The dim old place was as shining as soap and water could make it, and there was the damp smell of suds. There was the beat of the rain on the roof, and the splash of it against the round east window. Through the west window came a pale green light, and there was a view over the hills. As we became accustomed to the dimness our eyes picked out the various objects—an old loom like a huge spider under a peaked gable, a chest of drawers which would have set a collector crazy, Chippendale chairs with the seats out, Windsor chairs with the backs broken, gilt mirror frames with no glass in them—boxes—books—bottles—all the flotsam and jetsam of such old establishments. Most of the things had been set back against the wall, but right in the middle of the floor was an object which I took at first for a small trunk.
Lady Crusoe reached it first, and knelt beside it. She gave a little cry. "My dear, come here!" and I went to her, and in another moment, I, too, was on my knees. For the dark object was a cradle—a lovely hooded thing of mahogany, in which the Davenants had been rocked for generations.
"William got it out," Lady Crusoe said, "ready to be carried down. Oh, my good old man Friday! Do you mind if I cry a little, you very dear?"
It rained a great deal that summer, and it was hot and humid. Billy and I longed for the cold winds that sweep across the sea on the North Shore, but we didn't complain, for we had each other, and I wouldn't exchange Billy for any breeze that blows.
Lady Crusoe suffered less than I, for she was on her native heath, and in the afternoon when we sewed together William Watters made lemonade, and in the evening when Billy came up for me we sat out under the stars until whispers of wind stirred the trees, and then we went away and left our dear lady alone.
As the time went on we hated more and more to leave her, but she was very brave about it. "I have my good man Friday," she told us, "to protect me, and my grandfather's revolver."
So the summer passed, and the fall came, and the busy robin and all of her red-breasted family started for the South, and there was rain and more rain, so that when October rolled around the roads were perfect rivers of red mud, and the swollen streams swept under the bridges in raging torrents of terra-cotta, and the sheep on the hills were pinker than ever. There was no lack of color in those gray days, for the trees burst through the curtain of mist in great splashes of red and green and gold. But now I did not go abroad with William Watters behind his old gray mule, for things had happened which kept me at home.
It was on a rainy November night that I came down to the store to call Billy to supper. I had brought a saucer for old Tid, the store cat, and when he had finished Billy had cut him a bit of cheese and he was begging for it. We had taught Tid to sit up and ask, and he looked so funny, for he is fat and black and he hates to beg, but he loves cheese. We were laughing at him when a great flash of light seemed to sweep through the store, and a motor stopped.
Billy went forward at once. The front door opened, and a man in a rain-coat was blown in by the storm.
"Jove, it's a wet night!" I heard him say, and I knew it wasn't any of Billy's customers from around that part of the country. This was no drawling Virginia voice. It was crisp and clear-cut and commanding.
He took off his hat, and even at that distance I could see his shining blond head. He towered above Billy, and Billy isn't short. "I wonder if you could help me," he began, and then he hesitated, "it is a rather personal matter."
"If you'll come up-stairs," Billy told him, "there'll be only my wife and me, and I can shut up the store for the night."
"Good!" he said, and I went ahead of them with old Tid following, and presently the men arrived and Billy presented the stranger to me.
He told us at once what he wanted. "I thought that as you kept the store, you might hear the neighborhood news. I have lost—my wife——"
"Dead?" Billy inquired solicitously.
"No. Several months ago we motored down into this part of the country. Some miles from here I had trouble with my engine, and I had to walk to town for help. When I came back my wife was gone——"
I pinched Billy under the table. "Gone?" I echoed.
"Yes. She left a note. She said that she could catch a train at the station and that she would take it. Some one evidently gave her a lift, for she had her traveling bag with her. She said that she would sail at once for France, and that I must not try to follow her. Of course I did follow her, and I searched through Europe, but I found no trace, and then it occurred to me that after all she might still be in this part of the country——"
I held on to Billy. "Had you quarreled or anything?"
He ran his fingers through his hair. "Things had gone wrong somehow," he said, uncertainly, "I don't know why. I love her."
If you could have heard him say it! If she could have heard him! There was a silence out of which I said: "Did you ask her to warm your slippers?"
He stared at me, then he reached out his hands across the table and caught hold of mine in such a strong grip that it hurt. "You've seen her," he said, "you've seen her——?"
Then I remembered. "I can't say any more. You see—I've promised——"
"That you wouldn't tell me?"
He threw back his head and laughed. "If she's in this part of the country, I'll find her." And I knew that he would. He was the kind of man you felt wouldn't know there were obstacles in the way when he went after the thing he wanted.
I made him stay to supper. It was a drizzly cold night and he looked very tired.
"Jove," he said, "you're comfortable here, with your fire and your pussy-cat, and your teakettle on the hearth! This is the sort of thing I like——"
"You wouldn't like living over a grocery store," I told him.
"Oh, nobody around here ever has, and they are all descended from signers of the Declaration of Independence and back of that from William the Conqueror, and they stick their noses in the air."
"Shades of Jefferson!—why should they?"
"They shouldn't. But they do——"
He came back to the subject of his wife. "I didn't want her to warm my slippers. It was only that I wanted her to feel like warming them," he appealed to Billy, and Billy nodded. Billy positively purrs when I make him comfortable after his day's work. He says that it is the homing instinct in men and that women ought to encourage it.
"Does she warm yours?" he asked Billy.
"Not now, she's too busy——" and then as if the stage were set for it, there came from the next room a little, little cry.
I went in and brought out—Junior! He was only a month old, but you know how heavenly sweet they are with their rose-leaf skins, and their little crumpled hands and their downy heads—Junior's down was brown, for Billy and I are both dark.
"You see he keeps me busy," I said.
I was so proud I am perfectly sure it stuck out all over me, and as for Billy he beamed on us in a funny fatherly fashion that he had adopted from the moment that he first called me "Little Mother."
"Do you wonder that she hasn't time to warm my slippers?" was his question.
The stranger held out his arms——"Let me hold the little chap." And he sat there, without a smile, looking down at my baby. When he raised his head he said in a dry sort of fashion, "I thought the pussy-cat and the teakettle were enough—but this seems almost too good to be true——"
I can't tell you how much I liked him. He seemed so big and fine—and tender. I came across a poem the other day, and he made me think of it:
"... the strong"
The Master whispered, "are the tenderest!"
Before he went away, he took my hand in his. "I want you to play a game with me. Do you remember when we were children that we used to hide things, and then guide the ones who hunted by saying 'warmer' when we were near them, and 'colder' when they wandered away? Will you say 'warm' and 'cold' to me? That won't be breaking your promise, will it?"
"Then let's begin now. To-morrow morning I shall go to the north and east——"
"To the south and west——"
"Up a hill?"
"Very warm. But you mustn't ask me any more."
"All right. But I am coming again, and we will play the game."
Billy went down with him, and when he came back we stood looking into the fire, and he said, "You didn't tell him?"
"Of course not. That's the lovely, lovely thing that he must find out for himself——"
The next day I went to see Lady Crusoe. William Watters took me. "They's a man been hangin' round this mawnin'," he complained, "an' a dawg——"
"What kind of man, William?"
"He's huntin', and Miss Lily she doan' like things killed——"
Half-way up, we passed the man. His hat came off when he saw me. "It's cold weather we're having," he said pleasantly.
"It's getting warmer," I flung back at him, and William drove on with a grunt.
I had Junior with me, and when I reached the house I went straight up-stairs. In the very center of the room in the hooded mahogany cradle was another crumpled rose-leaf of a child. But this was not a "Junior."
"Robin-son," Lady Crusoe had whispered, when I had first bent over her and had asked the baby's name.
"Because of the robins?" I had asked.
She shook her head. "I couldn't call him Crusoe, could I?"
So there he lay, little Robinson Crusoe, in a desert expanse of polished floor, and there he crowed a welcome to my own beautiful baby!
Lady Crusoe was in a big chair. She was not strong, and William Watters had brought his sister Mandy to wait on her. She was very pale, this lovely lady, and there were shadows under her eyes. As I sat down beside her, she said: "I shall have to have your Billy sell some more things for me. You see the servants must be paid, and my Robin must be comfy. There's a console-table that ought to bring a lot from a city dealer."
"I wish that you needn't be worried," I said. "I wish—I wish—that you'd let me send for Robin's father——"
"Robin's father!" she drew a quick breath, "how funny it sounds!—Robin's father——"
I waited for that to sink in, and then I said: "I know how you feel. When I think of Billy as Junior's father it is different from thinking of him as my husband, and it makes a funny sensation in my throat as if I wanted to cry——"
"You've nothing to cry about," she told me fiercely, "nothing, but I sometimes feel as if I could weep rivers of tears!"
I realized that I must be careful, so I changed the subject. "William," I said after a pause, "is worrying about a man who is hunting over the grounds."
"He told me. I can't understand why any one should trespass when the place is posted. I sent William to tell him, but it didn't seem to have any effect. I haven't heard him shoot. When I do, I shall go out and speak to him myself."
I wondered if Fate were going to settle it in that way, and I wondered too if it would be breaking my promise to tell him to shoot! We sewed in silence for a while, but Lady Crusoe was restless. At last she wandered to the window. It was a long French window which opened on a balcony. She parted the velvet curtains and looked out. "There he is again," she said, with irritation, "by the gate with his gun and dog——"
I rose and joined her. The man stood by the gate-post, and the dog sat at his feet. They might have been a pair of statues planted on the round top of the hill, with the valleys rolling away beneath them and the mountain peaks and the golden sky beyond. Lady Crusoe was much stirred up over it.
"I'll send William again, when he comes with our tea. I won't have my wild things shot. There was a covey of partridges on the lawn this morning, and my squirrels come up to the porch to be fed. Men are cruel creatures with their guns and their traps."
"Women are cruel, too," I told her, and now I took my courage in my hands. "Suppose, oh, suppose, that the mother robin had stolen her nest and had never let the father robin share her happiness, wouldn't you call that cruel?"
"What do you mean?" her voice shook.
"You have stolen your—nest——"
"Why shouldn't I steal it? I had always felt that when I wanted a real home it would be here. And the time had come when I wanted a—home. So I planned to come—with him. It was to be my surprise—he doesn't even know that the old place belongs to me. He thought it was just another of my restless demands, but he let me have my way. We had friends with us when we started; they left us at Washington. It was after we were alone that—we quarreled—and I ran away. I left a note and told him that I had gone to France. I suppose he followed and didn't find me. I am not even sure that he wants to find me."
"Do you want to be found?"
"I don't know. I'd rather not talk about it."
William came in with the tea and was told to send the intruder off.
"I done sent him, Miss Lily," he said, with dignity, "but he ain't gwine to go. He say he ain't, and I kain't make him."
She went again to the window, and this time she drew back the faded hangings and stepped out on the balcony.
I heard her utter a cry; then the whole room seemed to whirl about me as she came in, dragging the curtains together behind her. Every drop of blood was drained from her face.
"William," she said, sharply, "that man—is coming toward the house! If he asks for me—I am not—at home."
"Nawm," and William went down to answer the blows of the brass knocker.
We heard him open the door, we heard the crisp, quick voice. We heard William's stately response. Then the quick voice said: "Will you tell your mistress that I shall wait?"
William came up with the message. "He's settin' on the po'ch, an' he looks like he was makin' out to set there all night."
"Let him sit," said Lady Crusoe inelegantly. "Lock all of the doors, William, and serve the tea."
She sat there and drank a cup of it scalding hot, with her head in the air and her foot tapping the floor. But I couldn't drink a drop. I was just sick with the thought of how he loved her, and of how she had hardened her heart.
At last I couldn't stand it any longer. The tears rolled down my cheeks. Lady Crusoe set her cup on the tray and stared at me in amazement. "What's the matter?"
"Oh, how can you—when he loves you?"
I don't know how I dared say it, for her eyes were blazing in her white face, and my heart was thumping, but there was Robinson Crusoe crowing in his hooded cradle, and Robin's father was on the front step, with the old oak door shut and barred against him.
She leaned forward, and I knew what was coming. "How did you know it was—my husband?"
My eyes met hers squarely. "He came to the store. He was looking for you."
"And you told him that I was here?"
"No. I wanted to. But I had promised."
For a little while neither of us spoke. The silence was broken by a thud, as if a flying squirrel had dropped from the roof to the balcony. A stick of wood fell apart in the grate, and the crow of the baby in the hooded cradle was answered by the baby on my lap.
Lady Crusoe hugged her knees with her white arms as if she were cold, although the room was hot with the blazing fire. "I think you might have told me. It would have been the friendly thing to have told me——"
"Billy thought it wasn't best."
"What had Billy to do with it?"
"Billy has everything to do with me. I talked it over with him—and—and Billy's such a darling to talk things over——"
I broke down and sobbed and sobbed, and the tears dripped on Junior's precious head. And at last she said, her face softened, "You silly little thing, what do you want me to do?"
"If it were Billy, I should ask him in—and show him—the baby——"
"If it were Billy, you would set your heart under his heel for him to step on. I am not like that——"
Another squirrel dropped to the balcony. The sun was setting, and between the velvet curtains I could see it blood-red behind the hills.
Lady Crusoe rose, pacing the room restlessly. The wind rising rattled the long windows. A shadow blotted out the sun.
"I suppose if you were I," she said at last, "you'd take your baby in your arms, and go down and say to that man on the steps, 'Come in and be lord of the manor and the ruler of your wife and child.'"
I held Junior close and my voice trembled. "I should never say a thing like that to—Billy——"
"What would you say?"
"I should say"—I choked over it, and broke down at the end—"oh, lover, lover, this is your son—and I am his happy mother——"
She stopped in front of me and stood looking down, with the anger all gone from her eyes. Then, before she could turn or cry out, the long windows were struck open by something that was stronger than the wind. There had been no flying squirrels on the balcony, and the shadow which had hidden the sun was the breadth and height of the big man who stood between the velvet curtains! He crossed the room at a stride.
"Did you think that bolts and bars could keep me from you?" he asked, and took Lady Crusoe's hands in a tight grip and drew her toward him. She resisted for a moment. Then her white slenderness was crushed in his hungry arms.
Well, as soon as I could gather up Junior and his belongings, I went down to wait for Billy. But before I went I saw her drop on her knees beside the hooded cradle and lift out little Robin, and, still kneeling, hold him up toward his father, as the nun holds up Galahad in the Holy Grail.
And what do you think I heard her say?
"Oh, lover, lover, this is your son—and I am his happy mother!"
Billy came in glowing from his walk in the sharp air, and I can't tell you how good it seemed to feel his cold cheek against my cheek, and his warm lips on mine. We were a rapturous trio in front of the library fire, and there we were joined presently by the rapturous trio from above stairs. They treated Billy and me as if we were a pair of guardian angels. Then we had dinner together, with Mandy and William in the background beaming.
And that night I told Billy all about it. "Isn't it beautiful, Billy? They are going to live on the old Davenant place, and it is to be their home."
Everybody calls on us now. You see, Lady Crusoe's family is older than any of the others, and then there's her husband's money. And I shine in her reflected light, for our friendship, as she says, is founded on a rock. But Billy says it is founded on a wreck. Yet while he jokes about it, I know that he is proud of his friendship with Robin's father. And when the spring comes, we are to take old Tid and our blessed Junior and our family effects to an adorable cottage with a garden on all four sides of it and set well back from the road. You see, we feel that we can afford it, for we have the exclusive business of supplying the needs of the Davenant estate, and we are thus financially on our feet.