The Lady Across the Aisle
THE LADY ACROSS THE AISLE
ELLIS PARKER BUTLER
AUTHOR Of "MISS MILLY'S CRÊCHE," ETC.
ILLUSTRATED BY PHILLIPS WARD
NOMINALLY, Jack was in charge of the twins; as a matter of fact, the twins were in charge of Jack, and they felt the weight of the responsibility. It is a serious matter to be aboard a sleeping-car with a young, handsome, bachelor uncle on your hands, and a pretty lady right across the aisle. Unless you are very careful, your uncle is apt to walk across the aisle any minute and say: "Good evening. Pretty Lady; will you marry me?" and if she should say: "Why, yes, Mr. Jack, I don't mind if I do," there would be trouble; probably a spanking apiece for the twins at the very least. For they were under orders.
The parents of the twins were in the South, a vague section of the world, that on the map was long and pink, with a blue gulf on one side and a blue ocean on the other. Bobby was of the opinion that it was "down where the or'nges come from, near to the torrig zome," and Dotty was so sure the climate was warm that she had packed a snowball in her own private satchel, just to surprise the little Floridians, for she had heard that they had never seen snow where papa and mama were spending the winter.
The last injunction to Uncle Jack as the parents of the twins were leaving was: "Don't let them worry the life out of you, and bring them down when we telegraph;" and to the twins: "Take good care of Uncle Jack, and be careful he don't run away and get married." The twins had taken this to heart, and in addition to a close surveillance, they prayed earnestly every night that Uncle Jack might be turned from the temptations of matrimony. It was very wearing on the twins, and they were glad when the time came for them to go to their parents, for then they could unshoulder the burden. And then, just when they were congratulating themselves on having Uncle Jack safely aboard the train, there was a swish of skirts and the suspiciously pretty lady took the seat directly across the aisle.
The twins exchanged glances, and their eyes said plainly: "We must be on our guard." They noticed that when Uncle Jack looked up from his task of arranging his hand baggage and saw the Lady Across the Aisle, he involuntarily assumed a brighter expression, and they silently clasped hands.
The twins were remarkable children. Uncle Jack said they were "peaches," and the older folks said they were "terrors." In anything affecting their common interests, they were one and indivisible in inflicting damage on their enemy, but this loyalty did not extend to merely personal matters.
In cases of necessity they were indivisible allies; in all other cases they were sworn enemies, even to having a code of warfare. In their internecine quarrels, pulling hair, biting, and scratching were rigidly tabooed, but this rule had only come into being after a thorough demonstration that neither could gain a victory by means which were so easily duplicated by the sufferer.
Uncle Jack was therefore pleased to find his journey beginning with the twins at peace with each other, and he smiled gratefully when they clasped hands. In return, the twins grinned at him diabolically, after which they kissed each other and said they were glad they were going away.
As the train rolled out of the dust of the station, the twins studied the Lady Across the Aisle closely. She seemed a very dangerous person. Her tailor-made traveling suit was of a fashionable cut, her hat denoted style, and her face was too pretty to be safe for a bachelor uncle's good. Even her actions were suspicious, and filled the twins with alarm. Instead of openly showing that she had intentions on the peace of Uncle Jack, she masked her schemes behind an apparent indifference, and, from experience, the twins knew that this meant trouble of the worst sort, for whenever they plotted anything particularly dire, they themselves had recourse to a preliminary period of cherubic innocence.
It was to be expected that every unmarried lady should want to marry Uncle Jack, and the twins were surprised that he was not constantly surrounded by a ring of maidens' beseechingly posed on their knees; thus, when the young female person across the aisle calmly ignored him, and, after watching the rapidly moving landscape for a few minutes, buried herself in a magazine, it was quite evident that her purpose was first to lull the suspicions of the twins to rest, and then suddenly spring upon Uncle Jack and marry him before he knew what she was doing. The twins felt that they had a worthy adversary, and prepared to meet guile with guile. They retired to a vacant seat where they could keep an eye on the Lady Across the Aisle and prepare a plan of campaign.
"She's got an uppish nose," Dotty announced as soon as they were seated comfortably. There was utter condemnation of the Lady Across the Aisle in the remark, not that her nose was really so very uppish, but it seemed necessary to begin the campaign with a disparaging remark. The twins always began their private feuds with more or less delicate remarks about each other's personal appearance. It saved the bother of waiting for something to fight about.
Bobby studied the face carefully.
"It ain't so awful uppish," he said decisively. "It ain't so uppish as yours is. Your nose," he said with judicial slowness, "is just too uppish for anything. It's like this."
He placed his thumb against the end of his nose and pressed it into the flattest kind of a pug.
Dotty swelled with indignation.
"Your nose," continued Bobby, "looks like it had been stepped on," he considered her nose a minute and then added, "by a ephelunt."
Tears of pain gathered in Dotty's eyes, and Bobby leaped over and put an arm about her neck.
"But I wouldn't mind. Dotty," he said soothingly, "it ain't so'uppish as it might be. It might be like this." He explained his meaning by putting his thumb on Dotty's pink little nose and pushing it violently. She wriggled valiantly, but her head was firmly encircled by his arm, and he squeezed it tightly against his coat. Dotty, however, had not fought innumerable "catch-as-catch-can" battles for naught, and she clasped her hands beneath his knee and "boosted."
In a moment they were merely a tangle of legs and arms on the car seat, and then there was a bump that could be heard from one end of the car to the other, as they fell on the floor between the seats, succeeded by the noise of battle, from the midst of which came the voice of Bobby crying—"No fair pinchings! Dotty, stop pinching or I won't ever fight you again, I won't;" and in muffled tones the reply of Dotty, "Then you let loose of my hair."
There was a rush of feet, and a swish of silk, and Bobby felt a hand on his shoulder. He looked around and saw the Lady Across the Aisle! And, still worse, Uncle Jack was standing in the aisle behind her!
"Don't be frightened," Uncle Jack was saying. "They are not hurt. It's only one of their pretty pastimes. They like it, the little dears. And if you interfere, you will have them at you next. Nice little cherubs, are n't they?"
Either because of her exertion or for some other reason, the face of the Lady Across the Aisle was quite rosy when she stood up again.
"I thought they were hurt," she said, in some confusion.
"Hurt!" laughed Uncle Jack. "Not those two. They come of a tough stock. I used to be half-back in the 'Varsity 'leven myself."
The Lady Across the Aisle made some remark about football, and the twins heard her voice and Uncle Jack's mingled in conversation as they went back to their seats.
Bobby from his seat on Dotty's prostrate form, listened.
"Now, you did it!" he exclaimed. "Now they are interdooced, an' you did it. I ought to pun'sh you."
"I' did n't do it, either," protested Dotty. "You did it your own self. You hollered when I pinched you."
"You know very well, Dotty Morgan," said Bobby, severely, "it ain't never fair pinchings."
"Well, you began it," said Dotty. "I would n't of pinched if you had n't pushed my nose all in."
"I began it!" Bobby exclaimed. "I'd like to know how I began it." I can't help pushing your nose in if it keeps looking as if it was stepped on. You ought n't to have such a pudgy nose, if you don't want it pushed. I 've just got to push it. Don't I always push it when I think of it?"
Dotty could not deny that her nose seemed a perennial temptation, and she felt that the guilt of introducing Uncle Jack and the Lady Across the Aisle lay at her door, but, woman-like, she could not resist a last word.
"Well, anyhow," she said, "I think you might pray to not want to push it."
One of the things Uncle Jack said to the Lady Across the Aisle as they walked back to their seats was:
"They are twins. I am taking them down to Palm Beach and I will be glad to have them in their mother's care again. They are a little strenuous for a man to manage."
And one of the things the Lady Across the Aisle thought was: "He is a gentleman, and handsome, and the boy certainly has his features. Probably the girl resembles his wife."
Perhaps it was on account of his wife that the Lady Across the Aisle managed to seat herself in such a manner that there was plainly only room for one in a car seat built to accommodate two, and if Uncle Jack retreated to the smoking-room at the end of the car, it was only because the Lady Across the Aisle had seemed coldly indifferent regarding his existence.
As he puffed his cigar, he hoped the twins would renew their fight, or create some kind of a riot, so that he might speak again to the Lady Across the Aisle without being impertinent or intrusive, but the angel of peace seemed to have spread its wings over the terrible two.
When Uncle Jack disappeared, the twins, hand in hand, walked down the car and stood before the Lady Across the Aisle. As the mischief of an introduction had been done, it seemed best to their watchful minds to reconnoiter. They stood in silence and looked the Lady Across the Aisle over thoroughly. Their gaze was somewhat trying, and she glanced up at them.
"We'm going to Pa'm Beach," Bobby announced, when he had completed his survey.
"Yes," said Dotty proudly. "In Florida, where the or'nges grows."
"That will be very nice," said the Lady Across the Aisle.
"We'm got a ticket," Bobby informed her. "But we ain't got it. He's got it." He pointed to the rear of the car where Uncle Jack had disappeared.
" 'Cause—'cause if we lose it the conductor 'll put us off the train," explained Dotty.
"Have you got a ticket?" asked Bobby suddenly.
The Lady Across the Aisle said she had.
"Mine is a long ticket," Bobby told her, and then added quickly: "Let me see your ticket."
The Lady Across the Aisle smiled. She did not meet many children, and their vagaries amused her. She drew her ticket from her purse and held it before Bobby's eyes. His right hand shot out and grasped the slip of paper, and in a moment he had darted into the smoking compartment.
"Uncle Jack!" he cried, "here's her ticket. Tear it up quick, so they 'll put her off the train."
Uncle Jack took the slip of paper and cast his eye over it. Quite unconsciously he noticed that it named her destination as Ormond.
"Bob," he said severely, "where did you get this?"
"I took it from the Lady Across the Aisle, "Bobby said proudly, "so the conductor 'd put her off the train. I don't want her on my train. She's got an uppish nose."
With an exclamation. Uncle Jack sprang from his chair and almost bowled into the Lady Across the Aisle, as he rushed into the car.
"Oh, pardon me," she said sweetly, while he stood in confusion holding the ticket toward her. "I thought perhaps the little boy might lose my ticket. Thank you so much for bringing it to me."
"No, you must forgive me for bringing the two terrors on the same train with civilized beings," Uncle Jack managed to say, despite the violent actions of Bobby, who was beating him about the knees. The Lady Across the Aisle stood with one hand resting against the paneled mahogany of the car.
With startling suddenness Bobby ceased his onslaught, and leaned against the side of the car beside the Lady Across the Aisle. He put his hand behind his back and looked at Uncle Jack with resignation.
"All right!" he said, in a tone of one who has done his utmost to avert a calamity and feels his duty unappreciated. "Why don't you give it to her?"
Uncle Jack realized that he had been standing with the ticket in his hand, and that while he gazed at the pretty face, he had forgotten to give the Lady Across the Aisle the ticket. He felt rude and boorish.
"Give it to her, why don't you?" asked Bobby again. "I don't care. I took it, and the conductor would of put her off, but I don't care, you don't 'preciate things. I guess you want her to stay on my train. I guess you want her to marry you. Why don't you say you want her to marry you?"
Bobby regarded Uncle Jack with pain and indignation. The Lady Across the Aisle flushed first pink and then a rosy red. She held out her hand for the ticket.
"I—" she gasped. "My ticket, please;" and before Jack could speak she had fled.
When dinner was served in the dining-car, she took a seat as far from Uncle Jack and the twins as she could, and after dinner Uncle Jack retreated again to the smoking compartment. He found it impossible to sit opposite the Lady Across the Aisle. There was a haughty tilt to her head that made him uncomfortable, and he could not help seeing it when he sat across from her, for his eyes insisted on turning towards her.
The twins were preternaturally good after dinner, for Uncle Jack allowed them to eat a great many things that were usually forbidden them, and when the porter came to make up their berth they were sleepy, and went to bed without their usual preliminary objections.
Uncle Jack remained in the smoking-room until he was sure the Lady Across the Aisle, together with her air of haughty offense, must have retired, and all night he dreamed of blue eyes that were shocked, and an uppish nose that was just uppish enough to be charming.
The next morning when Dotty was sent into the ladies' dressing-room to make her toilet, she found the Lady Across the Aisle there. Dotty observed that the Lady Across the Aisle seemed very bright and happy, and she had noticed that Uncle Jack was rather short and cross, and her active mind was filled with suspicions. How would a lady who had succeeded in marrying Uncle Jack look if not bright and happy, and how would Uncle Jack look if he had been married perforce, if not cross. Dotty remembered that, on retiring, the twins had left Uncle Jack and the Lady Across the Aisle unchaperoned. Doubtless, the Lady Across the Aisle had taken advantage of this and had married Uncle Jack. Dotty investigated.
"When I get big I'm going to get married," she announced, and then added, as an explanation, "like my papa and mama."
She looked at the Lady Across the Aisle, with her most innocent gaze and inquired.
"Are you married?"
The Lady smiled.
"No," she said.
Dotty heaved a sigh of relief.
"Ain't you going to be?" she asked.
"No," said the Lady Across the Aisle, "not for a long, long time, at least. Some time I may."
Dotty considered this. It seemed satisfactory.
"Ain't you even got engaged yet?" she asked.
The Lady shook her head.
"No," she said. "Not even that, yet."
"I am," Dotty assured her. "I'm engaged to my Uncle Jack. I 've been engaged to him for years and years. I guess I 'll get married when I get to Palm Beach, if somebody don't get married to him 'fore I get there."
The Lady Across the Aisle laughed at the queer child.
"So you are going down to meet him, are you?" she asked.
"No," said Dotty, "I'm going to meet my papa and mama. We are taking Uncle Jack."
The Lady Across the Aisle was doing wonderful things to her hair, but she stopped and looked at Dotty.
"Your Uncle Jack—" she began and then: "Oh, yes! I see," and turned to her mirror again.
"Don't you think," Dotty asked earnestly, "that it would be horrid for anybody to marry Uncle Jack when I'm engaged to him?"
"No lady would ever think of such a thing. It would not," said the Lady, "be playing fair."
"You would never think of such a thing, would you?" Dotty said.
"Never," replied the Lady.
Dotty smiled her most deceptive, company smile. It was intended to express utter amiability. It looked like an impish grin.
"Well," she said, "I 've had an awful nice time. I must be going now. Good-by."
She went into the car and drew Bobby into the corner of a seat. He was freshly washed and combed, and haughtily conscious of his hair.
"Your hair," she began graciously, "looks like a drownded kitten. Water's dripping off of it. Sit over, so it don't drip on my dress. She ain't married and she ain't going to be. So that's settled."
"Who said she ain't?" asked Bobby. "I bet it ain't true, who ever said it."
"It's true as ever was!" exclaimed Dotty with indignation. "She said so herself. I knew you would n't believe it, but it's true. You can ask her."
"She'd tell us anything," said Bobby, with the deep sophistry of experience. "She thinks we 're kids. They tell us anything to fool us. And then say they did n't say it. So would you, only you dass n't. I'd push your nose in."
Dotty considered this statement in all its lights. It was an insult and a challenge, but she decided to overlook it temporarily in the interest of greater things. "I 'll fight you for that when we get to Palm Beach," she said sweetly. "I have n't time now. Will you believe her if she says it in front of Uncle Jack?"
"Maybe I will, and maybe I won't," Bobby answered. "How can I tell until she says it? I guess she won't try to fool him, but you look to see if she winks. They 're fooling when they wink. Always."
The Lady Across the Aisle swept in and took a seat at the opposite end of the car, as far as possible from Uncle Jack. It was evident that she was avoiding Uncle Jack as severely as he was avoiding her. The twins were nonplussed—for a moment.
"Go and fight her," Dotty commanded.
"I won't. I 'll get my hair mussed," said Bobby.
Dotty raised one white hand and with a practised touch seized his moist forelock and twisted it.
With the other she clawed the remaining hair into disorder.
"Now go," she said. "It's mussed already."
The Lady Across the Aisle never knew just how it happened.
She had a view of a gentle-mannered boy sliding diffidently upon the seat at her side, and then, quite unexpectedly, a wild beast flung itself upon her and began to push its open palm against her nose. It was so unlooked for that she uttered a little scream, and in a moment Dotty was dragging Bobby away by his legs, and Uncle Jack was holding him by one arm and shaking him vigorously.
"Now, Dotty!" the culprit gasped between shakes.
"Didn't you say you wasn't married, and was n't engaged, and that you would n't. marry Uncle Jack until he ain't engaged to me?" Dotty asked, all in one breath.
The Lady Across the Aisle stopped rubbing her pretty nose, and glanced at Uncle Jack. Her eyes twinkled, and she could not suppress the smile that insisted on tickling the corners of her mouth. Of course, Uncle Jack could not frown ferociously when a lady's eyes twinkled—that would have been most impolite—and in the interest of politeness, he smiled. He even let his eyes twinkle, but he gave Bobby an extra shake to even matters.
"Well?" asked Dotty impatiently.
The Lady Across the Aisle did something she had never done before, but people always did unheard of things where the twins were concerned. She looked straight into Uncle Jack's eyes, and the dark-fringed lid of one of her own eyes quivered tremulously and closed and opened in an unmistakable wink.
"Come on, Bobby," said Dotty sadly. "That settles it."
She took his hand and they walked down the aisle in deep gloom. For Bobby it remained unbroken, but to Dotty came one ray of sunlight.
"Well, anyway," she said, "you'll get spanked when we get to Palm Beach. And I 'll stand outside the door and hear you yell."
In this thought Dotty found some consolation, but it did not have a similarly brightening effect on Bobby.
Uncle Jack stood a moment undecided what to do, and then the Lady Across the Aisle drew her draperies almost imperceptibly closer to her, and Uncle Jack said:
"Perhaps I had better sit here awhile to protect you from further assaults of the enemy."
From speaking of enemies it was but natural that they should soon turn to speaking of friends—and other things, and they quite forgot the twins, who found a little relief from their woe by going into the vestibule that connected the cars, and standing with one foot on one car and one on the other, while the movements of the train joggled them deliciously.
When the Lady Across the Aisle left the train two obsequious gentlemen assisted her to alight. One was in uniform and received a glittering piece of silver; the other wore a gray morning suit and received only a smile, but he seemed as well pleased as the porter.
"Well, Jack! Well, Bobby! Well, Dotty!" exclaimed Mrs. Morgan when the train discharged its passengers at Palm Beach. "And how have you been. How did they behave, Jack?"
"The worst ever," said Uncle Jack truthfully. "Could n't have been worse, if they had tried. They broke all records."
Dotty and Bobby smiled sweetly.
"The little darlings!" cried Mrs. Morgan, laughing, but Jack frowned.
"Really," he said, "you should n't laugh. I don't mind their ways myself, but they insisted on annoying a young lady who was unfortunate enough to sit across the aisle. They made her life miserable."
"Her nose was uppish, like Dotty's," said Bobby, in extenuation of his sins.
"She winked at Uncle Jack," remarked Dotty to complete the vindication.
Uncle Jack blushed.
"If she winked," he said hotly, "it was because she was perfectly well-bred and wished to spare my feelings."
Mrs. Morgan smiled and laid her hand on his arm.
"Jack," she said, "there is not the least need for you to defend her. I can quite understand that winking at a strange young man in a public car is a proof of perfect breeding in a lady."
"Oh, if you are going to side against her, too," said Jack, haughtily, and then he caught the twinkle in his sister's eye and laughed, a little foolishly.
For several days before the wedding, which was not until the next June, the twins were disconcertingly angelic. They submitted to the ordeal of trying on new and resplendent garments with scarcely a murmur, and even spent for wedding gifts the money given for that purpose, without rebellion. At the church Bobby marched up the aisle in his character of page with becoming gravity, and Dotty was all sweetness as a flower-girl, strewing violets before the bride. Even their behavior at the house reception was ominously correct. As the afternoon passed they sat affectionately side by side on the stairs, but their mother trembled whenever her glance fell upon them.
"Uncle Jack won't live here any more," said Dotty at length.
"No, " said Bobby soberly. "He's going to live with her."
"You look as if you wanted to howl," said Dotty. "I 'll bet you cry when they go."
Bobby was discreetly silent.
"I feel like I'd bust any minute," continued Dotty.
Bobby put his chin in his hands sadly.
"Nobody nice says 'bust,' " he observed.
"You looked like a monkey in those blue velvet pants," said Dotty softly.
"And all anybody could see of you," replied Bobby, gently, "was blue legs and pug nose."
"We can't do it here," said Dotty, looking around the crowded room. "Come on."
She took his hand and led him through the maze of skirts and dress trousers to where the new Aunt Jack stood.
"Will you excuse us, please, a little while?" she asked, and the bride stooped and kissed them both.
"Certainly, darlings," she said, and the two wended their way back, and up the stairs to their own room.
"Now!" cried Dotty, with relief, when their door closed behind them, "who was all blue legs?"
"Who was a monkey?" cried Bobby.
It was a glorious battle, the best they had ever fought, and before they could go down-stairs again they had to change their torn garments for others less festive, but they had conquered their woe. Life without Uncle Jack would not be life as it was, but they still had each other.
"Oh, well," sighed Dotty, when the carriage had taken Uncle Jack and the Lady Across the Aisle away, "I guess Uncle Jack wanted somebody his size to fight. He never had anybody."
"Yes," Bobby agreed, "1 guess so. I guess he wanted an uppish nose like yours to push. Come on up and fight."
"No," said Dotty, "1 feel too squirmy. Don't you feel like a chunk of your insides was gone?"
Bobby considered the question.
"Yes," he said, "I feel hollow. But I ain't. I'm full of cake."