Life in the shabby, commonplace house that sheltered the Paget family sometimes really did seem to proceed, as Margaret had suggested, in a long chain of violent shocks, narrow escapes, and closely averted catastrophes. No sooner was Duncan's rash pronounced not to be scarlet fever than Robert swallowed a penny, or Beck set fire to the dining-room waste-basket, or Dad foresaw the immediate failure of the Weston Home Savings Bank, and the inevitable loss of his position there. Sometimes there was a paternal explosion because Bruce liked to murmur vaguely of "dandy chances in Manila," or because Julie, pretty, excitable, and sixteen, had an occasional dose of stage fever, and would stammer desperately between convulsive sobs that she wasn't half as much afraid of "the terrible temptations of the life" as she was afraid of dying a poky old maid in Weston. In short, the home was crowded, the Pagets were poor, and every one of the seven possessed a spirited and distinct entity. All the mother's effort could not keep them always contented. Growing ambitions made the Weston horizon seem narrow and mean, and the young eyes that could not see beyond to-morrow were often wet with rebellious tears.
Through it all they loved each other; sometimes whole weeks went by in utter harmony; the children contented over "Parches" on the hearthrug in the winter evenings, Julie singing in the morning sunlight, as she filled the vases from the shabby marguerite bushes on the lawn. But there were other times when to the dreamy, studious Margaret the home circle seemed all discord, all ugly dinginess and thread-bareness; the struggle for ease and beauty and refinement seemed hopeless and overwhelming. In these times she would find herself staring thoughtfully at her mother's face, bent over the mending basket, or her eyes would leave the chessboard that held her father's attention so closely, and move from his bald spot, with its encircling crown of fluffy gray, to his rosy face, with its kind, intent blue eyes and the little lines about his mouth that his moustache didn't hide,—with a half-formed question in her heart. What hadn't they done, these dearest people, to be always struggling, always tired, always "behind the game"? Why should they be eternally harassed by plumbers' bills, and dentists' bills, and shoes that would wear out, and school-books that must be bought? Why weren't they holding their place in Weston society, the place to which they were entitled by right of the Quincy grandfather, and the uncles who were judges?
And in answer Margaret came despondently to the decision, "If you have children, you never have anything else!" How could Mother keep up with her friends, when for some fifteen years she had been far too busy to put on a dainty gown in the afternoon, and serve a hospitable cup of tea on the east porch? Mother was buttering bread for supper, then; opening little beds and laying out little nightgowns, starting Ted off for the milk, washing small hands and faces, soothing bumps and binding cuts, admonishing, praising, directing. Mother was only too glad to sink wearily into her rocker after dinner, and, after a few spirited visits to the rampant nursery upstairs, express the hope that nobody would come in to-night. Gradually the friends dropped away, and the social life of Weston flowed smoothly on without the Pagets.
But when Margaret began to grow up, she grasped the situation with all the keenness of a restless and ambitious nature. Weston, detested Weston, it must apparently be. Very well, she would make the best of Weston. Margaret called on her mother's old friends; she was tireless in charming little attentions. Her own first dances had not been successful; she and Bruce were not good dancers, Margaret had not been satisfied with her gowns, they both felt out of place. When Julie's dancing days came along, Margaret saw to it that everything was made much easier. She planned social evenings at home, and exhausted herself preparing for them, that Julie might know the "right people." To her mother all people were alike, if they were kind and not vulgar; Margaret felt very differently. It was a matter of the greatest satisfaction to her when Julie blossomed into a fluffy-haired butterfly, tremendously in demand, in spite of much-cleaned slippers and often-pressed frocks. Margaret arranged Christmas theatricals, May picnics, Fourth of July gatherings. She never failed Bruce when this dearest brother wanted her company; she was, as Mrs. Paget told her over and over, "the sweetest daughter any woman ever had." But deep in her heart she knew moods of bitter distaste and restlessness. The struggle did not seem worth the making; the odds against her seemed too great.
Still dreaming in the winter dark, she went through the home gate, and up the porch steps of a roomy, cheap house that had been built in the era of scalloped and pointed shingles, of colored glass embellishments around the window-panes, of perforated scroll work and wooden railings in Grecian designs. A mass of wet over-shoes lay on the porch, and two or three of the weather-stained porch rockers swayed under the weight of spread wet raincoats. Two opened umbrellas wheeled in the current of air that came around the house; the porch ran water. While Margaret was adding her own rainy-day equipment to the others, a golden brown setter, one ecstatic wriggle from nose to tail, flashed into view, and came fawning to her feet.
"Hello, Bran!" Margaret said, propping herself against the house with one hand, while she pulled at a tight overshoe. "Hello, old fellow! Well, did they lock him out?"
She let herself and a freezing gust of air into the dark hall, groping to the hat-rack for matches. While she was lighting the gas, a very pretty girl of sixteen, with crimson cheeks and tumbled soft dark hair, came to the dining-room door. This was her sister Julie, Margaret's roommate and warmest admirer, and for the last year or two her inseparable companion. Julie had her finger in a book, but now she closed it, and said affectionately between her yawns: "Come in here, darling! You must be dead."
"Don't let Bran in," cried some one from upstairs.
"He is in, Mother!" Margaret called back, and Rebecca and the three small boys—Theodore, the four-year-old baby, Robert, and Duncan, a grave little lad of seven—all rushed out of the dining-room together, shouting, as they fell on the delighted dog:—
"Aw, leave him in! Aw, leave the poor little feller in! Come on, Bran, come on, old feller! Leave him in, Mark, can't we?"
Kissing and hugging the dog, and stumbling over each other and over him, they went back to the dining-room, which was warm and stuffy. A coal fire was burning low in the grate, the window-panes were beaded, and the little boys had marked their initials in the steam. They had also pushed the fringed table-cover almost off, and scattered the contents of a box of "Lotto" over the scarred walnut top. The room was shabby, ugly, comfortable. Julie and Margaret had established a tea table in the bay window, had embroidered a cover for the wide couch, had burned the big wooden bowl that was supposedly always full of nuts or grapes or red apples. But these touches were lost in the mass of less pleasing detail. The "body Brussels" carpet was worn, the wall paper depressing, the woodwork was painted dark brown, with an imitation burl smeared in by the painter's thumb. The chairs were of several different woods and patterns, the old black walnut sideboard clumsy and battered. About the fire stood some comfortable worn chairs. Margaret dropped wearily into one of these, and the dark-eyed Julie hung over her with little affectionate attentions. The children returned to their game.
"Well, what a time you had with little Dolly Scott!" said Julie, sympathetically. "Ted's been getting it all mixed up! Tell us about it. Poor old Mark, you're all in, aren't you? Mark, would you like a cup of tea?"
"Love it!" Margaret said, a little surprised, for this luxury was not common.
"And toast—we'll toast it!" said Theodore, enthusiastically.
"No, no—no tea!" said Mrs. Paget, coming in at this point with some sewing in her hands. "Don't spoil your dinner, now, Mark dear; tea doesn't do you any good. And I think Blanche is saving the cream for an apple tapioca. Theodore, Mother wants you to go right downstairs for some coal, dear. And, Julie, you'd better start your table; it's close to six. Put up the game, Rebecca!"
There was general protest. Duncan, it seemed, needed only "two more" to win. Little Robert, who was benevolently allowed by the other children to play the game exactly as he pleased, screamed delightedly that he needed only one more, and showed a card upon which even the blank spaces were lavishly covered with glass. He was generously conceded the victory, and kissed by Rebecca and Julie as he made his way to his mother's lap.
"Why, this can't be Robert Paget!" said Mrs. Paget, putting aside her sewing to gather him in her arms. "Not this great, big boy!"
"Yes, I am!" the little fellow asserted joyously, dodging her kisses.
"Good to get home!" Margaret said luxuriously.
"You must sleep late in the morning," her mother commanded affectionately.
"Yes, because you have to be fresh for the party Monday!" exulted Julie. She had flung a white cloth over the long table, and was putting the ringed napkins down with rapid bangs. "And New Year's Eve's the dance!" she went on buoyantly. "I just love Christmas, anyway!"
"Rebecca, ask Blanche if she needs me,"—that was Mother.
"You'd go perfectly crazy about her, Ju, she's the most fascinating, and the most unaffected woman!" Margaret was full of the day's real event.
"And Mother theth that Ted and Dunc and I can have our friendth in on the day after Chrithmath to thee the Chrithmath tree!" That was Rebecca, who added, "Blanche theth no, Mother, unleth you want to make thom cream gravy for the chopth!"
"And, Mark, Eleanor asked if Bruce and you and I weren't going as Pierrot and Pierettes; she's simply crazy to find out!" This was Julie again; and then Margaret, coaxingly, "Do make cream gravy for Bruce, Mother. Give Baby to me!" and little Robert's elated "I know three things Becky's going to get for Christmas, Mark!"
"Well, I think I will, there's milk," Mrs. Paget conceded, rising. "Put Bran out, Teddy; or put him in the laundry if you want to, while we have dinner." Margaret presently followed her mother into the kitchen, stopping in a crowded passageway to tie an apron over her school gown.
"Bruce come in yet?" she said in a low voice.
Her mother flashed her a sympathetic look.
"I don't believe he's coming, Mark."
"Isn't! Oh, Mother! Oh, Mother, does he feel so badly about Betty?"
"I suppose so!" Mrs. Paget went on with her bread cutting.
"But, Mother, surely he didn't expect to marry Betty Forsythe?"
"I don't know why not, Mark. She's a sweet little thing."
"But, Mother—" Margaret was a little at a loss. "We don't seem old enough to really be getting married!" she said, a little lamely.
"Brucie came in about half-past five, and said he was going over to Richie's," Mrs. Paget said, with a sigh.
"In all this rain—that long walk!" Margaret ejaculated, as she filled a long wicker basket with sliced bread.
"I think an evening of work with Richie will do him a world of good," said his mother. There was a pause. "There's Dad. I'll go in," she said, suddenly ending it, as the front door slammed.
Margaret went in, too, to kiss her father; a tired-looking, gray haired man close to fifty, who had taken her chair by the fire. Mrs. Paget was anxious to be assured that his shoulders and shoes were not damp.
"But your hands are icy, Daddy," said she, as she sat down behind a smoking tureen at the head of the table. "Come, have your nice hot soup, dear. Pass that to Dad, Becky, and light the other gas. What sort of a day?"
"A hard day," said Mr. Paget, heavily. "Here, one of you girls put Baby into his chair. Let go, Bob,—I'm too tired to-night for monkey shines!" He sat down stiffly. "Where's Bruce? Can't that boy remember what time we have dinner?"
"Bruce is going to have supper with Richie Williams, Dad," said Mrs. Paget, serenely. "They'll get out their blue prints afterwards and have a good evening's work. Fill the glasses before you sit down, Ju. Come, Ted—put that back on the mantel.—Come, Becky! Tell Daddy about what happened to-day, Mark—"
They all drew up their chairs. Robert, recently graduated from a high chair, was propped upon "The Officers of the Civil War," and "The Household Book of Verse." Julie tied on his bib, and kissed the back of his fat little neck, before she slipped into her own seat. The mother sat between Ted and Duncan, for reasons that immediately became obvious. Margaret sat by her father, and attended to his needs, telling him all about the day, and laying her pretty slim hand over his as it rested beside his plate. The chops and cream gravy, as well as a mountain of baked potatoes, and various vegetables, were under discussion, when every one stopped short in surprise at hearing the doorbell ring.
"Who—?" said Margaret, turning puzzled brows to her mother, and "I'm sure I—" her mother answered, shaking her head. Ted was heard to mutter uneasily that, gee, maybe it was old Pembroke, mad because the fellers had soaked his old skate with snowballs; Julie dimpled and said, "Maybe it's flowers!" Robert shouted, "Bakeryman!" more because he had recently acquired the word than because of any conviction on the subject. In the end Julie went to the door, with the four children in her wake. When she came back, she looked bewildered, and the children a little alarmed.
"It's—it's Mrs. Carr-Boldt, Mother," said Julie.
"Well, don't leave her standing there in the cold, dear!" Mrs. Paget said, rising quickly, to go into the hall. Margaret, her heart thumping with an unanalyzed premonition of something pleasant, and nervous, too, for the hospitality of the Pagets, followed her. So they were all presently crowded into the hall, Mrs. Paget all hospitality, Margaret full of a fear she would have denied that her mother would not be equal to the occasion, the children curious, Julie a little embarrassed.
The visitor, fur-clad, rain-spattered,—for it was raining again,—and beaming, stretched a hand to Mrs. Paget.
"You're Mrs. Paget, of course,—this is an awful hour to interrupt you," she said in her big, easy way, "and there's my Miss Paget,—how do you do? But you see I must get up to town to-night—in this door? I can see perfectly, thank you!—and I did want a little talk with you first. Now, what a shame!"—for the gas, lighted by Theodore at this point, revealed Duncan's bib, and the napkins some of the others were still carrying. "I've interrupted your dinner! Won't you let me wait here until—"
"Perhaps—if you haven't had your supper—you will have some with us," said Mrs. Paget, a little uncertainly. Margaret inwardly shuddered, but Mrs. Carr-Boldt was gracious.
"Mrs. Paget, that's charming of you," she said. "But I had tea at Dayton, and mustn't lose another moment. I shan't dine until I get home. I'm the busiest woman in the world, you know. Now, it won't take me two minutes—"
She was seated now, her hands still deep in her muff, for the parlor was freezing cold. Mrs. Paget, with a rather bewildered look, sat down, too.
"You can run back to your dinners," said she to the children. "Take them, Julie. Mark, dear, will you help the pudding?" They all filed dutifully out of the room, and Margaret, excited and curious, continued a meal that might have been of sawdust and sand for all she knew. The strain did not last long; in about ten minutes Mrs. Paget looked into the room, with a rather worried expression, and said, a little breathlessly:—
"Daddy, can you come here a moment?—You're all right, dear," she added, as Mr. Paget indicated with an embarrassed gesture his well worn house-coat. They went out together. The young people sat almost without speaking, listening to the indistinguishable murmur from the adjoining room, and smiling mysteriously at each other. Then Margaret was called, and went as far as the dining-room door, and came back to put her napkin uncertainly down at her place, hesitated, arranged her gown carefully, and finally went out again. They heard her voice with the others in the parlor... questioning... laughing.
Presently the low murmur broke into audible farewells; chairs were pushed back, feet scraped in the hall.
"Good-night, then!" said Mrs. Carr-Boldt's clear tones, "and so sorry to have—Good-night, Mr. Paget!—Oh, thank you—but I'm well wrapped. Thank you! Good-night, dear! I'll see you again soon—I'll write."
And then came the honking of the motor-car, and a great swish where it grazed a wet bush near the house. Somebody lowered the gas in the hall, and Mrs. Paget's voice said regretfully, "I wish we had had a fire in the parlor—just one of the times!—but there's no help for it." They all came in, Margaret flushed, starry-eyed; her father and mother a little serious. The three blinked at the brighter light, and fell upon the cooling chops as if eating were the important business of the moment.
"We waited the pudding," said Julie. "What is it?"
"Why—" Mrs. Paget began, hesitatingly. Mr. Paget briskly took the matter out of her hands.
"This lady," he said, with an air of making any further talk unnecessary, "needs a secretary, and she has offered your sister Margaret the position. That's the whole affair in a nutshell. I'm not at all sure that your mother and I think it a wise offer for Margaret to accept, and I want to say here and now that I don't want any child of mine to speak of this matter, or make it a matter of general gossip in the neighborhood. Mother, I'd like very much to have Blanche make me a fresh cup of tea."
"Wants Margaret!" gasped Julie, unaffected—so astonishing was the news—by her father's unusual sternness. "Oh, Mother! Oh, Mark! Oh, you lucky thing! When is she coming down here?"
"She isn't coming down here—she wants Mark to go to her—that's it," said her mother.
"Mark—in New York!" shrilled Theodore. Julie got up to rush around the table and kiss her sister; the younger children laughed and shouted.
"There is no occasion for all this," said Mr. Paget, but mildly, for the fresh tea had arrived. "Just quiet them down, will you, Mother? I see nothing very extraordinary in the matter. This Mrs.—Mrs. Carr Boldt—is it?—needs a secretary and companion; and she offers the position to Mark."
"But—but she never even saw Mark until to-day!" marvelled Julie.
"I hardly see how that affects it, my dear!" her father observed unenthusiastically.
"Why, I think it makes it simply extraordinary!" exulted the generous little sister. "Oh, Mark, isn't this just the sort of thing you would have wished to happen! Secretary work,—just what you love to do! And you, with your beautiful handwriting, you'll just be invaluable to her! And your German—and I'll bet you'll just have them all adoring you—!"
"Oh, Ju, if I only can do it!" burst from Margaret, with a little childish gasp. She was sitting back from the table, twisted about so that she sat sideways, her hands clasped about the top bar of her chair-back. Her tawny soft hair was loosened about her face, her dark eyes aflame. "Lenox, she said," Margaret went on dazedly; "and Europe, and travelling everywhere! And a hundred dollars a month, and nothing to spend it on, so I can still help out here! Why, it—I can't believe it!"—she looked from one smiling, interested face to another, and suddenly her radiance underwent a quick eclipse. Her lip trembled, and she tried to laugh as she pushed her chair back, and ran to the arms her mother opened. "Oh, Mother!" sobbed Margaret, clinging there, "do you want me to go—shall I go? I've always been so happy here, and I feel so ashamed of being discontented,—and I don't deserve a thing like this to happen to me!"
"Why, God bless her heart!" said Mrs. Paget, tenderly, "of course you'll go!"
"Oh, you silly! I'll never speak to you again if you don't!" laughed Julie, through sympathetic tears.
Theodore and Duncan immediately burst into a radiant reminiscence of their one brief visit to New York; Rebecca was heard to murmur that she would "vithet Mark thome day"; and the baby, tugging at his mother's elbow, asked sympathetically if Mark was naughty, and was caught between his sister's and his mother's arms and kissed by them both. Mr. Paget, picking his paper from the floor beside his chair, took an arm-chair by the fire, stirred the coals noisily, and while cleaning his glasses, observed rather huskily that the little girl always knew, she could come back again if anything went wrong.
"But suppose I don't suit?" suggested Margaret, sitting back on her heels, refreshed by tears, and with her arms laid across her mother's lap.
"Oh, you'll suit," said Julie, confidently; and Mrs. Paget smoothed the girl's hair back and said affectionately, "I don't think she'll find many girls like you for the asking, Mark!"
"Reading English with the two little girls," said Margaret, dreamily, "and answering notes and invitations. And keeping books—"
"You can do that anyway," said her father, over his paper.
"And dinner lists, you know, Mother—doesn't it sound like an English story!" Margaret stopped in the middle of an ecstatic wriggle. "Mother, will you pray I succeed?" she said solemnly.
"Just be your own dear simple self, Mark," her mother advised. "January!" she added, with a great sigh. "It's the first break, isn't it, Dad? Think of trying to get along without our Mark!"
"January!" Julie was instantly alert. "Why, but you'll need all sorts of clothes!"
"Oh, she says there's a sewing woman always in the house," Margaret said, almost embarrassed by the still-unfolding advantages of the proposition. "I can have her do whatever's left over." Her father lowered his paper to give her a shrewd glance.
"I suppose somebody knows something about this Mrs. Carr-Boldt, Mother?" asked he. "She's all right, I suppose?"
"Oh, Dad, her name's always in the papers," Julie burst out; and the mother smiled as she said, "We'll be pretty sure of everything before we let our Mark go!" Later, when the children had been dismissed, and he himself was going, rather stiffly, toward the stairs, Mr. Paget again voiced a mild doubt.
"There was a perfectly good reason for her hurry, I suppose? Old secretary deserted—got married—? She had good reason for wanting Mark in all this hurry?"
Mrs. Paget and her daughters had settled about the fire for an hour's delicious discussion, but she interrupted it to say soothingly, "It was her cousin, Dad, who's going to be married, and she's been trying to get hold of just the right person—she says she's fearfully behindhand—"
"Well, you know best," said Mr. Paget, departing a little discontentedly.
Left to the dying fire, the others talked, yawned, made a pretence of breaking up: talked and yawned again. The room grew chilly. Bruce,—oldest of the children,—dark, undemonstrative, weary,—presently came in, and was given the news, and marvelled in his turn. Bruce and Margaret had talked of their ambitions a hundred times: of the day when he might enter college and when she might find the leisure and beauty in life for which her soul hungered. Now, as he sat with his arm about her, and her head on his shoulder, he said with generous satisfaction over and over:—
"It was coming to you, Mark; you've earned it!"
At midnight, loitering upstairs, cold and yawning, Margaret kissed her mother and brother quietly, with whispered brief good-nights. But Julie, lying warm and snug in bed half-an-hour later, had a last word.
"You know, Mark, I think I'm as happy as you are—no, I'm not generous at all! It's just that it makes me feel that things do come your way finally, if you wait long enough, and that we aren't the only family in town that never has anything decent happen to it!... I'll miss you awfully, Mark, darling!... Mark, do you suppose Mother'd let me take this bed out, and just have a big couch in here? It would make the room seem so much bigger. And then I could have the girls come up here, don't you know—when they came over.... Think of you—you—going abroad! I'd simply die! I can't wait to tell Betty!... I hope to goodness Mother won't put Beck in here!... We've had this room a long time together, haven't we? Ever since Grandma died. Do you remember her canary, that Teddy hit with a plate?... I'm going to miss you terribly, Mark. But we'll write...."