Archerton, a blur of flying trees and houses, bright in the late sunlight, Pottsville, with children wading and shouting, under the bridge, Hunt's Crossing, then the next would be Weston—and home.
Margaret, beginning to gather wraps and small possessions together, sighed. She sighed partly because her head ached, partly because the hot trip had mussed her usual fresh trimness, largely because she was going home.
This was August; her last trip home had been between Christmas and the New Year. She had sent a box from Germany at Easter, ties for the boys, silk scarves for Rebecca, books for Dad; and she had written Mother for her birthday in June, and enclosed an exquisite bit of lace in the letter; but although Victoria's illness had brought her to America nearly three months ago, it had somehow been impossible, she wrote them, to come home until now. Margaret had paid a great deal for the lace, as a sort of salve for her conscience,—not that Mother would ever wear it!
Here was Weston. Weston looking its very ugliest in the level pitiless rays of the afternoon sun. The town, like most of its inhabitants, was wilted and grimed after the burden and heat of the long summer day. Margaret carried her heavy suit-case slowly up Main Street. Shop windows were spotted and dusty, and shopkeepers, standing idle in their doorways, looked spotted and dusty too. A cloud of flies fought and surged about the closely guarded door of the butcher shop; a delivery cart was at the curb, the discouraged horse switching an ineffectual tail.
As Margaret passed this cart, a tall boy of fourteen came out of the shop with a bang of the wire-netting door, and slid a basket into the back of the cart.
"Teddy!" said Margaret, irritation evident in her voice, in spite of herself.
"Hello, Mark!" said her brother, delightedly. "Say, great to see you! Get in on the four-ten?"
"Ted," said Margaret, kissing him, as the Pagets always quite simply kissed each other when they met, "what are you driving Costello's cart for?"
"Like to," said Theodore, simply. "Mother doesn't care. Say, you look swell, Mark!"
"What makes you want to drive this horrid cart, Ted?" protested Margaret. "What does Costello pay you?"
"Pay me?" scowled her brother, gathering up the reins. "Oh, come out of it, Marg'ret! He doesn't pay me anything. Don't you make Mother stop me, either, will you?" he ended anxiously.
"Of course I won't!" Margaret said impatiently.
"Giddap, Ruth!" said Theodore; but departing, he pulled up to add cheerfully, "Say, Dad didn't get his raise."
"Did?" said Margaret, brightening.
"Didn't!" He grinned affectionately upon her as with a dislocating jerk the cart started a ricochetting career down the street, with that abandon known only to butchers' carts. Margaret, changing her heavy suit-case to the rested arm, was still vexedly watching it, when two girls, laughing in the open doorway of the express company's office across the street, caught sight of her. One of them, a little vision of pink hat and ruffles, and dark eyes and hair, came running to join her.
Rebecca was now sixteen, and of all the handsome Pagets the best to look upon. She was dressed according to her youthful lights; every separate article of her apparel to-day, from her rowdyish little hat to her openwork hose, represented a battle with Mrs. Paget's preconceived ideas as to propriety in dress, with the honors largely for Rebecca. Rebecca had grown up, in eight months, her sister thought, confusedly; she was no longer the adorable, un-self-conscious tomboy who fought and skated and toboganned with the boys.
"Hello, darling dear!" said Rebecca. "Too bad no one met you! We all thought you were coming on the six. Crazy about your suit! Here's Maudie Pratt. You know Maudie, don't you, Mark?"
Margaret knew Maudie. Rebecca's infatuation for plain, heavy-featured, complacent Miss Pratt was a standing mystery in the Paget family. Margaret smiled, bowed.
"I think we stumbled upon a pretty little secret of yours to-day, Miss Margaret," said Maudie, with her best company manner, as they walked along. Margaret raised her eyebrows. "Rebel and I," Maudie went on,—Rebecca was at the age that seeks a piquant substitute for an unpoetical family name,—"Rebel and I are wondering if we may ask you who Mr. John Tenison is?"
John Tenison! Margaret's heart stood still with a shock almost sickening, then beat furiously. What—how—who on earth had told them anything of John Tenison? Coloring high, she looked sharply at Rebecca.
"Cheer up, angel," said Rebecca, "he's not dead. He sent a telegram to-day, and Mother opened it—"
"Naturally," said Margaret, concealing an agony of impatience, as Rebecca paused apologetically.
"He's with his aunt, at Dayton, up the road here," continued Rebecca; "and wants you to wire him if he may come down and spend tomorrow here."
Margaret drew a relieved breath. There was time to turn around, at least.
"Who is he, sis?" asked Rebecca.
"Why, he's an awfully clever professor, honey," Margaret answered serenely. "We heard him lecture in Germany this spring, and met him afterwards. I liked him very much. He's tremendously interesting." She tried to keep out of her voice the thrill that shook her at the mere thought of him. Confused pain and pleasure stirred her to the very heart.—He wanted to come to see her, he must have telephoned Mrs. Carr-Boldt and asked to call, or he would not have known that she was at home this week end,—surely that was significant, surely that meant something! The thought was all pleasure, so great a joy and pride indeed that Margaret was conscious of wanting to lay it aside, to think of, dream of, ponder over, when she was alone. But, on the other hand, there was instantly the miserable conviction that he mustn't be allowed to come to Weston, no—no—she couldn't have him see her home and her people on a crowded hot summer Sunday, when the town looked its ugliest, and the children were home from school, and when the scramble to get to church and to safely accomplish the one o'clock dinner exhausted the women of the family. And how could she keep him from coming, what excuse could she give?
"Don't you want him to come—is he old and fussy?" asked Rebecca, interestedly.
"I'll see," Margaret answered vaguely. "No, he's only thirty-two or four."
"And charming!" said Maudie archly. Margaret eyed her with a coolness worthy of Mrs. Carr-Boldt herself, and then turned rather pointedly to Rebecca.
"How's Mother, Becky?"
"Oh, she's fine!" Rebecca said, absently in her turn. When Maudie left them at the next corner, she said quickly:—
"Mark, did you see where we were when I saw you?"
"At the express office—? Yes," Margaret said, surprised.
"Well, listen," said Rebecca, reddening. "Don't say anything to Mother about it, will you? She thinks those boys are fresh in there—She don't like me to go in!"
"Oh, Beck—then you oughtn't!" Margaret protested.
"Well, I wasn't!" Rebecca said uncomfortably. "We went to see if Maudie's racket had come. You won't—will you, Mark?"
"Tell Mother—no, I won't," Margaret said, with a long sigh. She looked sideways at Rebecca,—the dainty, fast-forming little figure, the even ripple and curl of her plaited hair, the assured pose of the pretty head. Victoria Carr-Boldt, just Rebecca's age, as a big schoolgirl still, self-conscious and inarticulate, her well-groomed hair in an unbecoming "club," her well-hung skirts unbecomingly short. Margaret had half expected to find Rebecca at the same stage of development.
Rebecca was cheerful now, the promise exacted, and cheerfully observed:—
"Dad didn't get his raise—isn't that the limit?"
Margaret sighed again, shrugged wearily. They were in their own quiet side street now, a street lined with ugly, shabby houses and beautified by magnificent old elms and maples. The Pagets' own particular gate was weather-peeled, the lawn trampled and bare. A bulging wire netting door gave on the shabby old hall Margaret knew so well; she went on into the familiar rooms, acutely conscious, as she always was for the first hour or two at home, of the bareness and ugliness everywhere—the old sofa that sagged in the seat, the scratched rockers, the bookcases overflowing with coverless magazines, and the old square piano half-buried under loose sheets of music.
Duncan sat on the piano bench—gloomily sawing at a violoncello. Robert,—nine now, with all his pretty baby roundness gone, a lean little burned, peeling face, and big teeth missing when he smiled, stood in the bay window, twisting the already limp net curtains into a tight rope. Each boy gave Margaret a kiss that seemed curiously to taste of dust, sunburn, and freckles, before she followed a noise of hissing and voices to the kitchen to find Mother.
The kitchen, at five o'clock on Saturday afternoon, was in wild confusion, and insufferably hot. Margaret had a distinct impression that not a movable article therein was in place, and not an available inch of tables or chairs unused, before her eyes reached the tall figure of the woman in a gown of chocolate percale, who was frying cutlets at the big littered range. Her face was dark with heat, and streaked with perspiration. She turned as Margaret entered, and gave a delighted cry.
"Well, there's my girl! Bless her heart! Look out for this spoon, lovey," she added immediately, giving the girl a guarded embrace. Tears of joy stood frankly in her fine eyes.
"I meant to have all of this out of the way, dear," apologized Mrs. Paget, with a gesture that included cakes in the process of frosting, salad vegetables in the process of cooling, soup in the process of getting strained, great loaves of bread that sent a delicious fragrance over all the other odors. "But we didn't look for you until six."
"Oh, no matter!" Margaret said bravely.
"Rebecca tell you Dad didn't get his raise?" called Mrs. Paget, in a voice that rose above the various noises of the kitchen. "Blanche!" she protested, "can't that wait?" for the old negress had begun to crack ice with deafening smashes. But Blanche did not hear, so Mrs. Paget continued loudly: "Dad saw Redman himself; he'll tell you about it! Don't stay in the kitchen in that pretty dress, dear! I'm coming right upstairs."
It was very hot upstairs; the bedrooms smelled faintly of matting, the soap in the bathroom was shrivelled in its saucer. In Margaret's old room the week's washing had been piled high on the bed. She took off her hat and linen coat, brushed her hair back from her face, flinging her head back and shutting her eyes the better to fight tears, as she did so, and began to assort the collars and shirts and put them away. For Dad's bureau—for Bruce's bureau—for the boys' bureau, table cloths to go downstairs, towels for the shelves in the bathroom. Two little shirtwaists for Rebecca with little holes torn through them where collar and belt pins belonged.
Her last journey took her to the big, third-story room where the three younger boys slept. The three narrow beds were still unmade, and the western sunlight poured over tumbled blankets and the scattered small possessions that seem to ooze from the pores of little boys, Margaret set her lips distastefully as she brought order out of chaos. It was all wrong, somehow, she thought, gathering handkerchiefs and matches and "Nick Carters" and the oiled paper that had wrapped caramels from under the pillows that would in a few hours harbor a fresh supply.
She went out on the porch in time to put her arms about her father's shabby shoulders when he came in. Mr. Paget was tired, and he told his wife and daughters that he thought he was a very sick man. Margaret's mother met this statement with an anxious solicitude that was very soothing to the sufferer. She made Mark get Daddy his slippers and loose coat, and suggested that Rebecca shake up the dining-room couch before she established him there, in a rampart of pillows. No outsider would have dreamed that Mrs. Paget had dealt with this exact emergency some hundreds of times in the past twenty years.
Mr. Paget, reclining, shut his eyes, remarked that he had had an "awful, awful day," and wondered faintly if it would be too much trouble to have "somebody" make him just a little milk toast for his dinner. He smiled at Margaret when she sat down beside him; all the children were dear, but the oldest daughter knew she came first with her father.
"Getting to be an old, old man!" he said wearily, and Margaret hated herself because she had to quell an impatient impulse to tell him he was merely tired and cross and hungry, before she could say, in the proper soothing tone, "Don't talk that way, Dad darling!" She had to listen to a long account of the "raise," wincing every time her father emphasized the difference between her own position and that of her employer. Dad was at least the equal of any one in Weston! Why, a man Dad's age oughtn't to be humbly asking a raise, he ought to be dictating now. It was just Dad's way of looking at things, and it was all wrong.
"Well, I'll tell you one thing!" said Rebecca, who had come in with a brimming soup plate of milk toast, "Joe Redman gave a picnic last month, and he came here with his mother, in the car, to ask me. And I was the scornfullest thing you ever saw, wasn't I, Ted? Not much!"
"Oh, Beck, you oughtn't to mix social and business things that way!" Margaret said helplessly.
"Dinner!" screamed the nine-year-old Robert, breaking into the room at this point, and "Dinner!" said Mrs. Paget, wearily, cheerfully, from the chair into which she had dropped at the head of the table. Mr. Paget, revived by sympathy, milk toast, and Rebecca's attentions, took his place at the foot, and Bruce the chair between Margaret and his mother. Like the younger boys, whose almost confluent freckles had been brought into unusual prominence by violently applied soap and water, and whose hair dripped on their collars, he had brushed up for dinner, but his negligee shirt and corduroy trousers were stained and spotted from machine oil. Margaret, comparing him secretly to the men she knew, as daintily groomed as women, in their spotless white, felt a little resentment that Bruce's tired face was so contented, and said to herself again that it was all wrong.
Dinner was the same old haphazard meal with which she was so familiar; Blanche supplying an occasional reproof to the boys, Ted ignoring his vegetables, and ready in an incredibly short time for a second cutlet, and Robert begging for corn syrup, immediately after the soup, and spilling it from his bread. Mrs. Paget was flushed, her disappearances kitchenward frequent. She wanted Margaret to tell her all about Mr. Tenison. Margaret laughed, and said there was nothing to tell.
"You might get a horse and buggy from Peterson's," suggested Mrs. Paget, interestedly, "and drive about after dinner."
"Oh, Mother, I don't think I had better let him come!" Margaret said. "There's so many of us, and such confusion, on Sunday! Ju and Harry are almost sure to come over."
"Yes, I guess they will," Mrs. Paget said, with her sudden radiant smile. "Ju is so dear in her little house, and Harry's so sweet with her," she went on with vivacity. "Daddy and I had dinner with them Tuesday. Bruce said Rebecca was lovely with the boys,—we're going to Julie's again sometime. I declare it's so long since we've been anywhere without the children that we both felt funny. It was a lovely evening."
"You're too much tied, Mother," Margaret said affectionately.
"Not now!" her mother protested radiantly. "With all my babies turning into men and women so fast. And I'll have you all together to-morrow—and your friend I hope, too, Mark," she added hospitably. "You had better let him come, dear. There's a big dinner, and I always freeze more cream than we need, anyway, because Daddy likes a plate of it about four o'clock, if there's any left."
"Well—but there's nothing to do," Margaret protested.
"No, but dinner takes quite a while," Mrs. Paget suggested a little doubtfully; "and we could have a nice talk on the porch, and then you could go driving or walking. I wish there was something cool and pleasant to do, Mark," she finished a little wistfully. "You do just as you think best about asking him to come."
"I think I'll wire him that another time would be better," said Margaret, slowly. "Sometime we'll regularly arrange for it."
"Well, perhaps that would be best," her mother agreed. "Some other time we'll send the boys off before dinner, and have things all nice and quiet. In October, say, when the trees are so pretty. I don't know but what that's my favorite time of all the year!"
Margaret looked at her as if she found something new in the tired, bright face. She could not understand why her mother—still too heated to commence eating her dinner—should radiate so definite an atmosphere of content, as she sat back a little breathless, after the flurry of serving. She herself felt injured and sore, not at the mere disappointment it caused her to put off John Tendon's visit, but because she felt more acutely than ever to-night the difference between his position and her own.
"Something nice has happened, Mother?" she hazarded, entering with an effort into the older woman's mood.
"Nothing special." Her mother's happy eyes ranged about the circle of young faces. "But it's so lovely to have you here, and to have Ju coming to-morrow," she said. "I just wish Daddy could build a house for each one of you, as you marry and settle down, right around our house in a circle, as they say people do sometimes in the Old World. I think then I'd have nothing in life to wish for!"
"Oh, Mother—in Weston!" Margaret said hopelessly, but her mother did not catch it.
"Not, Mark," she went on hastily and earnestly, "that I'm not more than grateful to God for all His goodness, as it is! I look at other women, and I wonder, I wonder—what I have done to be so blessed! Mark—" her face suddenly glowed, she leaned a little toward her daughter, "dearie, I must tell you," she said; "it's about Ju—"
Their eyes met in the pause.
"Mother—really?" Margaret said slowly.
"She told me on Tuesday,." Mrs. Paget said, with glistening eyes. "Now, not a word to any one, Mark,—but she'll want you to know!"
"And is she glad?" Margaret said, unable to rejoice.
"Glad?" Mrs. Paget echoed, her face gladness itself.
"Well, Ju's so young,—just twenty-one," Margaret submitted a little uncertainly; "and she's been so free,—and they're just in the new house! And I thought they were going to Europe!"
"Oh, Europe!" Mrs. Paget dismissed it cheerfully. "Why, it's the happiest time in a woman's life, Mark! Or I don't know, though," she went on thoughtfully,—"I don't know but what I was happiest when you were all tiny, tumbling about me, and climbing into my lap.... Why, you love children, dear," she finished, with a shade of reproach in her voice, as Margaret still looked sober.
"Yes, I know, Mother," Margaret said. "But Julie's only got the one maid, and I don't suppose they can have another. I hope to goodness Ju won't get herself all run down!"
Her mother laughed. "You remind me of Grandma Paget," said she, cheerfully; "she lived ten miles away when we were married, but she came in when Bruce was born. She was rather a proud, cold woman herself, but she was very sweet to me. Well, then little Charlie came, fourteen months later, and she took that very seriously. Mother was dead, you know, and she stayed with me again, and worried me half sick telling me that it wasn't fair to Bruce and it wasn't fair to Charlie to divide my time between them that way. Well, then when my third baby was coming, I didn't dare tell her. Dad kept telling me to, and I couldn't, because I knew what a calamity a third would seem to her! Finally she went to visit Aunt Rebecca out West, and it was the very day she got back that the baby came. She came upstairs—she'd come right up from the train, and not seen any one but Dad; and he wasn't very intelligible, I guess—and she sat down and took the baby in her arms, and says she, looking at me sort of patiently, yet as if she was exasperated too: 'Well, this is a nice way to do, the minute my back's turned! What are you going to call him, Julia?' And I said, 'I'm going to call her Margaret, for my dear husband's mother, and she's going to be beautiful and good, and grow up to marry the President!'" Mrs. Paget's merry laugh rang out. "I never shall forget your grandmother's face."
"Just the same," Mrs. Paget added, with a sudden deep sigh, "when little Charlie left us, the next year, and Brucie and Dad were both so ill, she and I agreed that you—you were just talking and trying to walk—were the only comfort we had! I could wish my girls no greater happiness than my children have been to me," finished Mother, contentedly.
"I know," Margaret began, half angrily; "but what about the children?" she was going to add. But somehow the arguments she had used so plausibly did not utter themselves easily to Mother, whose children would carry into their own middle age a wholesome dread of her anger. Margaret faltered, and merely scowled.
"I don't like to see that expression on your face, dearie," her mother said, as she might have said it to an eight-year-old child. "Be my sweet girl! Why, marriage isn't marriage without children, Mark. I've been thinking all week of having a baby in my arms again,—it's so long since Rob was a baby."
Margaret devoted herself, with a rather sullen face, to her dessert. Mother would never feel as she did about these things, and what was the use of arguing? In the silence she heard her father speak loudly and suddenly.
"I am not in a position to have my children squander money on concerts and candy," he said. Margaret forgot her own grievance, and looked up. The boys looked resentful and gloomy; Rebecca was flushed, her eyes dropped, her lips trembling with disappointment.
"I had promised to take them to the Elks Concert and dance," Mrs. Paget interpreted hastily. "But now Dad says the Bakers are coming over to play whist."
"Is it going to be a good show, Ted?" Margaret asked.
"Oh," Rebecca flashed into instant glowing response. "It's going to be a dandy! Every one's going to be there! Ford Patterson is going to do a monologue,—he's as good as a professional!—and George is going to send up a bunch of carrots and parsnips! And the Weston Male Quartette, Mark, and a playlet by the Hunt's Crossing Amateur Theatrical Society!"
"Oh—oh!"—Margaret mimicked the eager rush of words. "Let me take them, Dad," she pleaded, "if it's going to be as fine as all that! I'll stand treat for the crowd."
"Oh, Mark, you darling!" burst from the rapturous Rebecca.
"Say, gee, we've got to get there early!" Theodore warned them, finishing his pudding with one mammoth spoonful.
"If you take them, my dear," Mr. Paget said graciously, "of course Mother and I are quite satisfied."
"I'll hold Robert by one ear and Rebecca by another," Margaret promised; "and if she so much as dares to look at George or Ted or Jimmy Barr or Paul, I'll—"
"Oh, Jimmy belongs to Louise, now," said Rebecca, radiantly. There was a joyous shout of laughter from the light-hearted juniors, and Rebecca, seeing her artless admission too late, turned scarlet while she laughed. Dinner broke up in confusion, as dinner at home always did, and everybody straggled upstairs to dress.
Margaret, changing her dress in a room that was insufferably hot, because the shades must be down, and the gas-lights as high as possible, reflected that another forty-eight hours would see her speeding back to the world of cool, awninged interiors, uniformed maids, the clink of iced glasses, the flash of white sails on blue water. She could surely afford for that time to be patient and sweet. She lifted Rebecca's starched petticoat from the bed to give Mother a seat, when Mother came rather wearily in to watch them.
"Sweet girl to take them, Mark," said Mother, appreciatively. "I was going to ask Brucie. But he's gone to bed, poor fellow; he's worn out to-night."
"He had a letter from Ned Gunther this morning," said Rebecca, cheerfully,—powdering the tip of her pretty nose, her eyes almost crossed with concentration,—"and I think it made him blue all day."
"Ned Gunther?" said Margaret.
"Chum at college," Rebecca elucidated; "a lot of them are going to Honolulu, just for this month, and of course they wanted Bruce. Mark, does that show?"
Margaret's heart ached for the beloved brother's disappointment. There it was again, all wrong! Before she left the house with the rioting youngsters, she ran upstairs to his room. Bruce, surrounded by scientific magazines, a drop-light with a vivid green shade over his shoulder, looked up with a welcoming smile.
"Sit down and talk, Mark," said he.
Margaret explained her hurry.
"Bruce,—this isn't much fun!" she said, looking about the room with its shabby dresser and worn carpet. "Why aren't you going to the concert?"
"Is there a concert?" he asked, surprised.
"Why, didn't you hear us talking at dinner? The Elks, you know."
"Well—sure! I meant to go to that. I forgot it was to-night," he said, with his lazy smile. "I came home all in, forgot everything."
"Oh, come!" Margaret urged, as eagerly as Rebecca ever did. "It's early, Bruce, come on! You don't have to shave! We'll hold a seat,—come on!"
"Sure, I will!" he said, suddenly roused. The magazines rapped on the floor, and Margaret had barely shut the door behind her when she heard his bare feet follow them.
It was like old times to sit next to him through the hot merry evening, while Rebecca glowed like a little rose among her friends, and the smaller boys tickled her ear with their whispered comments. Margaret had sent a telegram to Professor Tenison, and felt relieved that at least that strain was spared her. She even danced with Bruce after the concert, and with one or two old friends.
Afterwards, they strolled back slowly through the inky summer dark, finding the house hot and close when they came in. Margaret went upstairs, hearing her mother's apologetic, "Oh, Dad, why didn't I give you back your club?" as she passed the dining-room door. She knew Mother hated whist, and wondered rather irritably why she played it. The Paget family was slow to settle down. Robert became tearful and whining before he was finally bumped protesting into bed. Theodore and Duncan prolonged their ablutions until the noise of shouting, splashing, and thumping in the bathroom brought Mother to the foot of the stairs. Rebecca was conversational. She lay with her slender arms locked behind her head on the pillow, and talked, as Julie had talked on that memorable night five years ago. Margaret, restless in the hot darkness, wondering whether the maddening little shaft of light from the hall gas was annoying enough to warrant the effort of getting up and extinguishing it, listened and listened.
Rebecca wanted to join the Stage Club, but Mother wouldn't let her unless Bruce did. Rebecca belonged to the Progressive Diners. Did Mark suppose Mother'd think she was crazy if she asked the family not to be in evidence when the crowd came to the house for the salad course? And Rebecca wanted to write to Bruce's chum, not regularly, you know, Mark, but just now and then, he was so nice! And Mother didn't like the idea. Margaret was obviously supposed to lend a hand with these interesting tangles.
"...and I said, 'Certainly not! I won't unmask at all, if it comes to that!'... And imagine that elegant fellow carrying my old books and my skates! So I wrote, and Maudie and I decided... And Mark, if it wasn't a perfectly gorgeous box of roses!... That old, old dimity, but Mother pressed and freshened it up.... Not that I want to marry him, or any one..."
Margaret wakened from uneasy drowsing with a start. The hall was dark now, the room cooler. Rebecca was asleep. Hands, hands she knew well, were drawing a light covering over her shoulders. She opened her eyes to see her mother.
"I've been wondering if you're disappointed about your friend not coming to-morrow, Mark?" said the tender voice.
"Oh, no-o!" said Margaret, hardily. "Mother—why are you up so late?"
"Just going to bed," said the other, soothingly. "Blanche forgot to put the oatmeal into the cooker, and I went downstairs again. I'll say my prayers in here."
Margaret went off to sleep again, as she had so many hundred times before, with her mother kneeling beside her.