Infomotions, Inc.Up the Hill and Over / Mackay, Isabel Ecclestone, 1875-1928



Author: Mackay, Isabel Ecclestone, 1875-1928
Title: Up the Hill and Over
Publisher: Project Gutenberg
Tag(s): esther; callandar; coombe; aunt amy; sykes; amy; miss milligan; jane; aunt; doctor; mary coombe; miss philps; ann; miss annabel; esther coombe; aunt amy's; mary
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Title: Up the Hill and Over

Author: Isabel Ecclestone Mackay

Release Date: December 12, 2003  [eBook #10438]

Language: English

Character set encoding: US-ASCII


***START OF THE PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK UP THE HILL AND OVER***


E-text prepared by Brendan Lane, Charlie Kirschner, and the Prooject
Gutenberg Online Distributed Proofreading Team



UP THE HILL

AND OVER

BY

ISABEL ECCLESTONE MACKAY
Author of "The House of Windows," etc.






     _The road runs back and the road runs on,
          But the air has a scent of clover_.
     _And another day brings another dawn,
          When we're up the hill and over_.



TO MY MOTHER

WHO MIGHT HAVE LIKED THIS BOOK HAD SHE LIVED TO READ IT





CHAPTER I


     "From Wimbleton to Wombleton is fifteen miles,
      From Wombleton to Wimbleton is fifteen miles,
      From Wombleton to Wimbleton,
      From Wimbleton to Wombleton,
      From Wombleton--to Wimbleton--is fif--teen miles!"

The cheery singing ended abruptly with the collapse of the singer upon a
particularly inviting slope of grass. He was very dusty. He was very
hot. The way from Wimbleton to Wombleton seemed suddenly extraordinarily
long and tiresome. The slope was green and cool. Just below it slept a
cool, green pool, deep, delicious--a swimming pool such as dreams
are made of.

If there were no one about--but there was some one about. Further down
the slope, and stretched at full length upon it, lay a small boy. Near
the small boy lay a packet of school books.

The wayfarer's lips relaxed in an appreciative smile.

"Little boy," he called, somewhat hoarsely on account of the dust in his
throat, "little boy, can you tell me how far it is from here to
Wimbleton?"

Apparently the little boy was deaf.

The questioner raised his voice, "or if you can oblige me with the exact
distance to Wombleton," he went on earnestly, "that will do quite
as well."

No answer, civil or otherwise, from the youth by the pool. Only a
convulsive wiggle intended to cover the undefended position of the
school books.

The traveller's smile broadened but he made no further effort toward
sociability. Neither did he go away. To the dismayed eyes, watching
through the cover of some long grass, he was clearly a person devoid of
all fine feeling. Or perhaps he had never been taught not to stay where
he wasn't wanted. Mebby he didn't even know that he _wasn't_ wanted.

In order to remove all doubt as to the latter point, the small boy's
head shot up suddenly out of the covering grass.

"What d'ye want?" he asked forbiddingly.

"Little boy," said the stranger, "I thank you. I want for nothing."

The head collapsed, but quickly came up again.

"Ain't yeh goin' anywhere?" asked a despairing voice.

"I was going, little boy, but I have stopped."

This was so true that the small boy sat up and scowled.

"I judge," went on the other, "that I am now midway between Arden,
otherwise, Wimbleton, and Arcady, sometime known as Wombleton. The
question is, which way and how? A simple sum in arithmetic will--little
boy, do not frown like that! The wind may change. Smile nicely, and I'll
tell you something."

Urged by necessity, the badgered one attempted to look pleasant.

"That's better! Now, my cheerful child, what I really want to know is
'how many miles to Babylon?'"

A reluctant grin showed that the small boy's early education had not
been utterly neglected. "Aw, what yeh givin' us?" he protested
sheepishly, "if it's Coombe you're lookin' for, it's 'bout a mile and a
half down the next holler."

"Holler?" the stranger's tone was faintly questioning. "Oh, I see. You
mean 'hollow,' which being interpreted means 'valley,' which means, I
fear, another hill. Little boy, do you want to carry a knapsack?"

"Nope."

"No? Strange that nobody seems to want to carry a knapsack. I least of
all. Well," lifting the object with disfavour, "good-day to you. I
perceive that you grow impatient for those aquatic pleasures for which
you have temporarily abjured the more severe delights of scholarship.
Little boy, I wish you a very good swim."

"Gee," muttered the small boy, "gee, ain't he the word-slinger!"

He returned to the pool but something of its charm was dissipated. Vague
thoughts of school inspectors and retribution troubled its waters. Not
that he was at all afraid of school inspectors, or that he really
suspected the stranger of being one. Still, discretion is a wise thing
and word-slinging is undoubtedly a form of art much used in high
scholastic circles. Also there had been a remark about a simple sum in
arithmetic which was, to say the least, disquieting. With a bursting
sigh, the small sinner scrambled to his feet, reached for the hated
books, and disappeared rapidly in the direction of the halls of
learning.

Meanwhile the stranger, unconscious of the moral awakening behind him,
plodded wearily up the steep and sunny hill. As he is our hero we shall
not describe him. There is no hurry, and there will be other occasions
upon which he will appear to better advantage. At present let us be
content with knowing that there was no reason for the hat and suit he
wore save a mistaken idea of artistic suitability. "If I am going to be
a tramp," he had said, "I want to look like a tramp." He didn't, but his
hat and coat did.

He felt like a tramp, though, if to feel like a tramp is to feel hot and
sticky and hungry. Perhaps real tramps do not feel like this. Perhaps
they enjoy walking. At any rate they do not carry knapsacks, but betray
a touching faith in Providence in the matter of clean linen and
tooth brushes.

Before the top of the hill was reached, Dr. Callandar wished devoutly
that in this last respect he had behaved like the real thing. In setting
out to lead the simple life the ultimate is to be recommended--and
knapsacks are not the ultimate. They are heavy things with the property
of growing heavier, and prove of little use save to sit upon in damp
places. The doctor's feelings in regard to his were intensified by an
utter lack of dampness anywhere. The top of the hill was a sun-crowned
eminence, blazingly, blisteringly, suffocatingly hot. The valley, spread
out beneath him, was soaked in sunshine, a haze of heat quivered visibly
above the roofs of the pretty town it cradled. There was a river and
there were woods, but the trees hung motionless, and the river wound
like a snake of brass among them.

The doctor regarded both the knapsack and the prospect resentfully. He
had hoped for a breeze upon the hill-top, and there was no breeze.
Raising his hand to remove his hat, he noticed that the hand was
trembling, and swore softly. The hand continued to tremble, and holding
it out before him he watched it, interestedly, until a powerful will
brought the quivering nerves into subjection.

"Jove!" he muttered. "Not a moment too soon--this holiday!"

Then, hat in hand, he started down the hill.

It was a long hill, very long, much longer than it had any need or right
to be. It had a twist in its nature which would not allow it to run
straight. It meandered; it hesitated; it never knew its own mind, but
twisted and turned and thought better of it a dozen times in half a
mile. It was a hill with short cuts favourably known to small boys and
to tramps with a distaste for highways; but this tramp, not being a real
one, knew none of them, and was compelled to do exactly as the hill did.
The result was, that when at last it slipped into the cool shade of a
row of beeches at its base, its victim was as exhausted as itself.

He was thirsty, too, and, worse still, he knew from a certain dizzy
blindness that one of his bad headaches was coming on--and there still
lay another mile between him and the town. Pressing his hand against his
eyes to restore for the moment their normal clearness of vision, he saw,
a short way down the road, a gate; and through the gate and behind some
trees, the white gleam of a building. But better than all, he saw,
between the gate and the building, a red pump! Then the blindness and
pain descended again, and he stumbled on more by faith than by sight;
blundering through the half-open gate, his precarious course directed
wholly by the pump's exceeding redness, which shone like a beacon
fire ahead.

Fortunately, it was a real pump with real water and a sucker in good
standing, warranted to need no priming. At the stroke of the red handle
the good, cool water gurgled and arose with a delightful "plop!" It
splashed from the spout freely upon the face and hands of the victim of
the long hill--delicious, life-giving! The delight it brought seemed
compensation almost for heat and pain and weariness. Callandar felt that
if he could only let its sweetness stream indefinitely over his closed
eyes it would wash away the blindness and the ache. Perhaps--

"I am afraid I cannot allow you to use this pump!" said a crisp voice
primly. "This is not," with capital letters, "a Public Pump!"

Callandar wiped the surplus water from his face and looked up. There,
beside him in the yellow haze of his semi-blindness, stood the owner of
the voice. She appeared to be clothed in white, tall and commanding.
Surrounded by the luminous mist, her appearance was not unlike that of a
cool and capable avenging angel.

"This pump," went on the angel with nice precision, "is not for the use
of pedestrians."

"Ah!" said the pedestrian.

"If you will continue down the road," the voice went on, "you will find,
when you reach the town, a public pump. You may use that."

The pedestrian, feeling dizzier than ever, sat down upon the pump
platform. It was wet and cool.

"The objection to that," he said wisely, "is simple. I cannot continue
down the road."

"I should like you to go at once," patiently. "There is a pump--"

The pedestrian raised a deprecating hand.

"Let us admit the pump! Doubtless the pump is there, but there is a pump
here also, and a pump in the hand is worth two pumps, an ice-box and a
John Collins in town. You doubtless know the situation created by
Mahomet and the mountain? This is the same, with a difference. In this
case the pump will not come to me and I cannot go to the pump. Therefore
we both remain _in statu quo_. Do I make myself plain?"

Apparently he did, for there was no answer. Logic, he concluded, had
achieved its usual triumph. The avenging angel had withdrawn. Blissfully
he stooped again, closing his eyes to the cool drip of the water, but
scarcely had they felt its chill relief when a sharp bark caused them to
fly open with disconcerting suddenness--the avenging angel had returned,
and with her was an avenging dog! Seen through the mist, the dog
appeared to be a bull pup of ferocious aspect.

"I am sorry," the cool voice had no ruth in it, "but it is my duty not
to allow tramps upon these grounds. If you will not go, I must ask
the dog--"

"ASK the dog!" In spite of his aching head the tramp (now no longer
pedestrian) laughed weakly.

"Oh, please don't ask him!" he entreated. "He looks too awfully willing!
Besides, I begin to perceive that my presence is not desired. Naturally
I scorn to remain."

Very slowly he raised himself from the damp pump platform by means of
the red pump-handle. In this manner he achieved an upright position
without much difficulty and all might have gone well had he behaved like
a proper tramp. But forgetting himself, under the tyranny of training
and instinct, he attempted, in deference to the sex of the angel, to
raise his hat (which was not on his head anyway). In so doing he
released the red pump-handle, lost his balance, struggled wildly to
regain it, and then collapsed with a terrible sense of failure and
ignominy, right into the open jaws, as it were, of the avenging dog!




CHAPTER II


He had a fancy that something cool and kind was licking his hand....

It felt like the tongue of a friendly dog. He seemed to have been
dreaming about dogs. Something soft and cold lay on his head. It felt
like a wet handkerchief ... the pain had dulled to a slow throbbing ...
if he opened his eyes he would know who licked his hand and what it was
that lay upon his head ... on the other hand, opening his eyes might
bring back the pain. It seemed hardly worth the risk ... still, he would
very much like to know--

Without being able to decide the question, he fell asleep.

When he awoke, his head was clear and the pain was gone. He felt no
longer unbearably tired, but only comfortably weary, deliciously drowsy.
Had he been at home in his own bed he would have turned over and gone
cheerfully to sleep again. As it was, he opened his eyes with a zestful
sense of curiosity.

He was lying, very easily, upon soft grass. Above him spread the thick
greenery of a giant maple; his head rested upon a cushion and close
beside him, with comforting nose thrust into his open palm, lay a
ferocious-looking bull pup. The pup grinned with delight at his
tentative pat; barked fiercely, and then grinned again as if to say,
"Don't mind me, it's only my fun!"

There was a noise somewhere, a loud, cheerful noise--the noise of
children playing. Not one child, nor two, but children--lots of them!
This was perplexing; and another perplexing thing was the nearness of a
white stoop which led up to the door of a white building; neither stoop
nor building had he ever seen before. Again the dog barked, loudly, and
as if in answer to the bark, the door above the stoop opened and a young
girl came out. She cast a casual glance at him as he lay under the tree,
and, settling herself daintily upon the white steps, opened a small
basket and took from it a serviceable square of white damask and a
lettuce sandwich. He could see the lettuce, crisp and green, peeping out
at the edges.

At the sight, he was conscious of a strange sensation; an almost
forgotten feeling to which, for the moment, he could put no name.

And then, as the girl bit into the sandwich, illumination came. He was
_hungry_! But what an unkind, inconsiderate girl!--Another bite and the
sandwich would be gone--

"I am awake," he suggested meekly.

"So Buster said." The girl smiled approvingly at the dog. "Good Buster!
You may come off guard, sir. Run away and get your lunch."

With a delighted bark for thanks the bull pup trotted away. Callandar's
sense of injury deepened. The girl had begun upon a second sandwich.
Perhaps there were only two!

"Are you hungry, Mr. Tramp?" asked the girl innocently.

"I think," he said, pausing in order to give his words full weight, "I
am starving!" Then, as the blissful meaning of this first feeling of
healthy hunger dawned upon him, he added solemnly: "Thank the Lord!"

"Yes?" There was a cool edge of surprise in the girl's voice. She
proceeded thoughtfully with the second sandwich.

"Yes. Hunger is a beautiful thing, a priceless possession. Money cannot
buy it, skill cannot command it. The price of hunger is far
above rubies."

The girl looked down upon him and smiled. It was such a dear little
smile that for a moment its recipient forgot about the disappearing
sandwich.

"I am so glad," she said warmly, "that you feel like that!"

There was a slight pause. "Because," she went on, finishing the last
bite of the second sandwich, "until now I had always thought that hunger
wasn't a bit nice. Unless, of course, one has the power to gratify it."

"Fortunately," said Callandar a little stiffly, "I have that power."

The girl raised her eyebrows. They were long and straight and black, and
she raised them charmingly. But she was a most unkind and heartless
girl, for all that. Never while he lived would he ask her for a
sandwich. With a comfortable feeling of security his hand felt for his
well-filled pocketbook. It was gone!

"By Jove!"

Stronger ejaculation seemed forbidden by the Presence on the steps. He
tapped all his pockets carefully. The pocketbook was in none of
them--and he had used the last cent of loose change for a glass of milk
for breakfast.

"I suppose," the girl had apparently not noticed his sudden
discomfiture, "that you mean you have money? But the nearest place where
money would be of use is Coombe, and Coombe is a full mile away. It is
a pity that my principles, and the principles of the school-board,
should be all against the feeding of tramps. Otherwise I might offer you
a sandwich."

"You might," bitterly, "but I doubt it!"

"Even now, putting the school-board aside, I might offer you one if you
were to ask prettily and to apologise to me for making rather a fool of
me this morning over there by the pump!"

The pump! Why, of course, the pump! It all came back to him now--the
pump, the avenging angel! (Had this been the avenging angel?) The
avenging dog!--Oh, heaven, was _that_ the avenging dog?

He burst into a boyish shout of laughter.

"There are only two sandwiches left," she warned him. The doctor stopped
laughing.

"Oh, please!" he said.

There was something very pleasant about him when he used that tone; a
persuasive charm, a trace of command. The girl liked it--and passed
a sandwich.

"Anyway it was you who took for granted that I was a tramp," he smiled
at her. "If I remember rightly I was hardly in a condition to contradict
you. Not but that it was a natural conclusion. I am curious to know why
you changed your mind."

"Oh! as soon as you fainted I knew. Tramps don't faint!"

"Not ever?"

"Well--hardly ever! And besides--look at your hands!"

The doctor looked, and blushed.

"Dirty?" he ventured.

"Not half dirty enough! And it wasn't only your hands. I noticed--oh!
lots of things!" For no perceptible reason a tiny blush fluttered
across the whiteness of her face like a roseleaf chased by the wind. The
pleasure of watching it made the doctor forget to answer, and the
girl went on:

"I know lots more about you than that you aren't a tramp. I know what
you are. You are a doctor!" triumphantly.

"A Daniel come to judgment!"

"Yes, a Daniel! Only I wouldn't have been quite so sure if you hadn't
dropped this out of your pocket." With a gleeful laugh she held up a
clinical thermometer.

The doctor laughed also. "Men have been hanged on less evidence than
that," he admitted. "All the same I don't know where it came from. Some
one must have judged me capable of wanting to take my own temperature.
Anything else?"

"Only general deductions. You are a doctor, you are going to
Coombe--deduction, you are the doctor who is going to buy out Dr.
Simmonds's practice."

Callandar scrambled up from his pillow with a look of delighted surprise
on his face.

"Why--so I am!" he exclaimed.

"You say that as if you had just found it out."

"Well, er--you see I had forgotten it--temporarily. My head, you know."

The suspicion in the girl's eyes melted into sympathy. "I suppose you
know," she said with quite a motherly air, "that old Doc. Simmonds
hasn't really any practice to sell?"

"No? That's bad. Hasn't he even a little one? You see" (the sympathy had
been so pleasant that he felt he could do with a little more of it), "I
could hardly manage a big one just now. As you may have noticed, my
health is rather rocky. Got to lay up and all that--so it's just as
well that old Simpkins' practice is on the ragged edge."

"The name is Simmonds, not Simpkins," coldly.

"Well, I didn't buy the name with the practice. My own name is
Callandar. Much nicer, don't you think?"

"I don't know. A well-known name is rather a handicap."

This time the doctor was genuinely surprised.

"A handicap? What do you mean?"

"People will be sure to compare you with your famous namesake, Dr.
Callandar, of Montreal. Everyone you meet," with a mischievous smile,
"will say, 'Callandar--ah! no relation to Dr. Henry Callandar of
Montreal, I suppose?' And then they will look sympathetic and you will
want to slap them."

"Dear me! I never thought of that! I had no idea that the Montreal man
would be known up here. In the cities, perhaps, but not here."

The girl raised her straight black brows in a way which expressed
displeasure at his slighting tone.

"You are mistaken," she said briefly. "I must go now. It is time to ring
the bell. The children are running wild."

For the first time the doctor began to take an intelligent interest in
his surroundings, and saw that the tree, the white stoop and the small
white building were situated in a little, quiet oasis separated by a low
fence from the desert of a large yard containing the red pump. On the
other side of the fence was pandemonium!

"Why, it's a school!" he exclaimed.

The school-mistress arose, daintily flicking the crumbs from her white
pique skirt.

"District No. 15. The largest attendance of any in the county. I really
must ring the bell." She flicked another invisible crumb. "I hope," she
added slowly, "that I haven't discouraged you."

"Oh, no! not at all. Quite the contrary. It seems unfortunate about the
name, but perhaps I can live it down. It isn't as if I were just out of
college, you know.--In fact," as if the thought had just come to him,
"do I not seem to you to be a little old for--to be making a
fresh start?"

The girl's eyes looked at him very kindly. It was quite evident that she
thought she understood the situation perfectly. "I shouldn't worry about
that, if I were you," she said. "Young doctors are often no use at all.
A great many people _prefer_ doctors to be older! I know, you see, for
my father was a doctor. He was Dr. Coombe; for many years he was the
only doctor here, the only doctor that counted," with a pretty air of
pride. "The town was named after his father-I am Esther Coombe."

The doctor acknowledged the introduction with a bow and a quick smile of
gratitude.

"You are really very kind, Miss Coombe," he said. "If--if I should take
Dr. Spifkin's practice, I hope I may see you sometimes. It is not far
from here, is it, to the town--pump?"

Esther laughed. "No, but I do not live out here. I only teach here. We
live in town, or almost in. You will pass the house on the way to the
hotel. But before you go--" with a gleeful smile she handed him his lost
pocketbook--"this fell out of your coat when I pull--helped you under
the tree. I should have given it to you before, but I wanted you to
understand just how far the blessing of hunger depends upon one's power
to gratify it."

They laughed together with a splendid sense of comradeship; then with a
startled "I really must ring the bell!" she turned and ran up the steps.

Smilingly he watched her disappear, waiting musingly until a sudden
furious ringing told him that school was called.




CHAPTER III


Two sandwiches, an apple, and a glass of water may save a man from
starvation, but they do not go far towards satisfying the reviving
appetite of a convalescent. Walking with brisk step down the road,
Callandar began to imagine the kind of meal he would order--a clear
soup, broiled steak, crisp potatoes--a few little simple things like
that! He fingered his pocketbook lovingly, glad that, for the first time
in some months, he actually wanted something that money could buy.

Now that noon was past, the intense heat of the morning was tempered by
a breeze. It was still hot and his footsteps raised little cyclones of
dust which flew along the road before him, but the oppression in the air
was gone, and walking had ceased to be a weariness. The mile which
separated him from Coombe appeared no longer endless, yet so insistent
were the demands of his inner man that when a town-going farmer hailed
him with the usual offer of a "lift," he accepted the invitation
with alacrity.

"Better," he murmured to himself, "the delights of rustic conversation
with a good meal at the end thereof than lordly solitude and
emptiness withal."

But contrary to expectation the rustic declined to converse. He was a
melancholy-looking man with a long jaw and eyes so deep-set that the
observer took them on faith, and a nose which alone would have been
sufficient to identify him. Beyond the first request to "step up," he
vouchsafed no word and, save for an inarticulate gurgle to his horse,
seemed lost in an ageless calm. His gaze was fixed upon some indefinite
portion of the horse's back and he drove leaning forward in an attitude
of complete bodily and mental relaxation. If his guest wished
conversation it was apparent that he must set it going himself.

"Very warm day!" said Callandar tentatively.

"So-so." The farmer slapped the reins over the horse's flank, jerked
them abruptly and murmured a hoarse "Giddap!" It was his method of
encouraging the onward motion of the animal.

"Is it always as warm as this hereabouts?"

"No. Sometimes we get it a little cooler 'bout Christmas."

The doctor flushed with annoyance and then laughed.

"You see," he explained, "I'm new to this part of the country. But I
always thought you had it cooler up here."

The manner of the rustic grew more genial.

"Mostly we do," he admitted; "but this here is a hot spell." Another
long pause and then he volunteered suddenly: "You can mostly tell by
Alviry. When she gets a sunstroke it's purty hot. I'm going for the
doctor now."

"Going for the doctor?" Callandar's gaze swept the peaceful figure with
incredulous amusement. "Great Scott, man! Why don't you hurry? Can't the
horse go any faster?"

"Maybe," resignedly, "but he won't."

"Make him, then! A sunstroke may be a very serious business. Your wife
may be dead before you get back."

The deep-set eyes turned to him slowly. There seemed something like a
distant sparkle in their depths.

"Don't get to worrying, stranger. It'll take more 'an a sunstroke to
polish off Alviry."

"Was she unconscious?"

"Not so as you could notice."

"But if it were a sunstroke--look here, I'll go with you myself. I am a
doctor."

"Kind of thought you might be," he responded genially. "Thinking of
taking on old Doc. Simmonds's practice?"

"I don't know. But if your wife--"

The rustic shook his head. "No. You wouldn't do for Alviry. She said to
get Doc. Parker, and a sunstroke ain't going to change her none. But if
she likes your looks she'll probably try you next time. Tumble fond of
experiments is Alviry--hi! giddap!" He slapped his horse more forcibly
with the loose reins and settled into, mournful silence.

"Going to put up at the Imperial?" he asked after a long and peaceful
pause.

"I want to put up somewhere where I can get a good meal and get it
quickly."

The mournful Jehu shook his head gloomily.

"You won't get that at the Imperial."

"Where had I better go?"

"There ain't any other place to go--not to speak of."

The doctor let fall a fiery exclamation.

"What say?"

"I said that it must be a queer town."

"I'm a little hard of hearing, now and agin. But I gather you're not a
church-going man. It's a great church-going place, is Coombe. Old Doc.
Simmonds was a Methody. We were kind of hoping the next one might be a
change. There's two churches of Presbyterians and they're tumble folk
for hanging together."

The doctor laughed. "Thanks for the tip. I'll remember. Coombe is
considered a healthy place, isn't it?"

"Danged healthy."

The commiseration in the other's tone lent to the simple question such
an obvious meaning that the doctor hardly knew whether to be amused
or annoyed.

"Heavens, man! I'm not an undertaker. I asked because I'm rather rocky
myself. That is, partly, why I'm here."

The mournful one nodded. "Good a reason as any," he assented sadly.

"By the way--er--there used to be a Dr. Coombe here, didn't there?
Didn't he live somewhere hereabouts?"

The sad one turned his meditative eyes from their focus upon the horse's
back and rested them upon the open and guileleas face by his side. Then
from deep down in his brawny throat came a sudden sound. It was
unmistakably a chuckle. Without the slightest trace of an accompanying
smile, the sound was startling.

"What's the matter?" asked the doctor irritably.

"Nothing. Only when anybody's seen Esther, they always start asking
about old Doc. Coombe. It gives them a kind of opening. Yes, that's the
old Coombe place--over there. The one with the fir trees and the big elm
by the gate."

"A pleasant house," said Callandar in a detached voice.

"So-so. The old Doc. uster putter around considerable. But they say his
widow isn't doing much to keep it up. Tumble flighty woman, so they say.
Young, you know, just about young enough to be the old Doc.'s
daughter--"

"But--"

"Oh! Esther ain't her child. Esther's ma died when she was a baby. There
is a child, though, Jane they call her, a pindling little thing. But
p'r'aps you've met Jane too?"

"I did not say--"

"No, but I thought likely if you'd met one, you'd have met the other.
Jane's nearly always hanging around Esther 'cept in school hours. Awful
fond of Esther she is. Folks say that Esther's more of a mother to Jane
than her own ma. But I dunno. Alviry says it's a shame the way Esther's
put upon; all the cares of the house when she had ought to be playing
with her dolls. Stepmother with 'bout as much sense as a fly. Old Aunt
Amy, nice sort of soul but--" he touched his head significantly and
heaved the heaviest sigh yet.

"Do you mean to say that there is an aunt who isn't quite sane?" asked
Callandar, surprised.

"_I_ don't say so. Some folks does. Alviry says she's a whole lot wiser
than some of the rest of us."

From the tone of this remark it was evident that Alviry's observation
had been intended personally. Callandar choked back a laugh.

"What say?" asked the other suspiciously.

"I said, rather hard luck for a young girl."

The mournful one nodded and relapsed into melancholy. The doctor
turned his attention to the house which a flicker of the whip had
pointed out. It was long and low, with wide verandas and a somewhat
neglected-looking lawn. At one side an avenue of lilacs curved, and on
the other stood a stiff line of fir trees. The front of the house was
well shaded by maples and near the gate stood a giant elm-tree, around
the trunk of which ran a circular seat. It all looked cool, green and
inviting. As the old horse walked sedately past, a woman's figure came
out of one of the long windows and flung itself lightly, yet, even at
that distance, with a certain suggestion of impatience, into one of the
veranda chairs.

"That'll be Mrs. Coombe now," volunteered his informant. "Tumble saucy
way she has of flinging herself around--jes' like a young girl! Mebby
you can see what sort of dress she's got on. Alviry'll be int'rested
to know."

"It's too far off," said Callandar, amused. "All I can see is that the
lady is wearing something white."

"Went out of weeds right on the dot, she did! It's not much over a year
since the old Doc. died. Esther's still wearing some of her black, but
jes' to wear them out, not as symbols. Mrs. Coombe's got a whole new
outfit, Alviry says. Turrible extravagant! Folks says it takes Esther
all her time paying for them with her school money. But I dunno.
What say?"

"I didn't say anything. But, since you ask, do you think all this is any
of my business?"

"Well, since you ask, it ain't. 'Tisn't my business either; but it kind
of passes the time. Giddap!"

Perhaps the old horse knew he was getting near the end of his journey
for, contrary to expectation, he did "giddap" with a jerk which nearly
unseated the doctor and caused a flicker of mild surprise to flit across
the sad one's face.

"Turrible fast horse, this," he confided, "all you got to do is to get
him going."

"Don't let me take you out of your way. If you'll tell me the
direction--"

"Sit still, stranger. I'm going right past the Imperial. Hardly any
place in Coombe you can go without going past the Imperial. It's what
you call a kind of newclus."

As he spoke, the horse, now going at a fairly respectable rate, turned
into the main street of the town; a main street, thriftily prosperous
but now somewhat a-doze in the sun. Half-way down, the intelligent
animal stopped with another jerk for which the doctor was equally
ill-prepared. Before them stood a modest red brick building, three
stories in height, with a narrow veranda running across the lowest story
just one step up from the pavement. On the veranda were green chairs and
in the chairs reclined such portion of the male Coombers as could do so
without fear and without reproach. Along the top of the veranda was a
large sign displaying the words, "HOTEL IMPERIAL."

Callandar alighted nimbly from the democrat, that being the name of the
light spring wagon in which he had travelled, and shook his good
Samaritan by the hand. "Thank you very much," he said, "and I sincerely
hope that the sunstroke will not have terminated fatally by the time you
reach home."

The deep-set eyes turned to him slowly and again he fancied a twinkle in
their mournfulness. "If it does," said the sad one tranquilly, "it will
be the first time it ever has--giddap!"

As no one came forth to take his knapsack, Callandar slung it over his
shoulder and entered the hotel. The parting remark of his conductor had
left a smile upon his lips, which smile still lingered as he asked the
sleepy-looking clerk for a room, and intimated that he would like lunch
immediately.

"Dining room closed," said that individual shortly.

"What do you mean?"

"Dining room closes at two; supper at six."

"Do you mean to say that you serve nothing between the hours of two and
six?"

"Serve you a drink, if you like," with an understanding grin at his
questioner's dusty knapsack.

Forgetting that he had become a Presbyterian, the doctor made a few
remarks, and from his manner of making them the clerk awoke to the fact
that knapsacks do not a hobo make nor dusty coats a tramp. Now in Canada
no one is the superior of any one else, but that did not make a bit of
difference in the startling change of demeanour which overtook the
clerk. He straightened up. He removed his toothpick. He arranged the
register in his best manner and chose another nib for his pen. When
Callandar had registered, the clerk was very sorry indeed that the hotel
arrangements were rather arbitrary in the matter of meal hours. He was
afraid that the kitchen fires were down and everything cold. Still if
the gentleman would go to his room, he would see what could be done--

The gentleman went to his room; but in no enviable frame of mind. So
wretched was his plight that he was not above valuing the covert
sympathy of the small bell-boy who preceded him up the oilclothed
stairs. He was a very round boy: round legs, round cheeks, round head
and eyes so round that they must have been special eyes made on purpose.
There was also a haunting resemblance to some other boy! Callandar
taxed his memory, and there stole into it a vision of a pool with
willows. He chuckled.

"Boy," he said, "have you a little brother who is very fond of going to
school?"

"Nope," said the boy. (It seemed to be a family word.) "I've got a
brother, but he don't sound like that."

"You ought to be in school yourself, boy. What's your name?"

"Zerubbabel Burk."

"Is that all?"

"Yep. Bubble for short."

"Have you ever known what it is to be hungry?"

"Three times a day, before meals!"

"Well, I'm starving. Do you belong to the Boy Scouts?"

"Betyerlife."

"Well, look here. I am an army in distress. Commissariat cut off,
extinction imminent! Now you go and bring in the provisions. And, as we
believe in honourable warfare, pay for everything you get, but take no
refusals--see?" He pressed a bill into the boy's ready hand and watched
the light of understanding leap into the round eyes with pleasurable
anticipation.

"I get you, Mister! Here's your room, number fourteen."

The boy disappeared while still the key with its long tin label was
jingling in the lock. The doctor opened the door of room number fourteen
and went in.

Rooms, we contend, like people, should be considered in relation to that
state in which it has pleased Providence to place them. To consider
number fourteen in any environment save its own would be manifestly
unfair since, in relation to all the other rooms at the Imperial,
number fourteen was a good room, perhaps the very best. A description
tempts us, but perhaps its best description is to be found in its effect
upon Dr. Callandar. That effect was an immediate determination to depart
by the next train, provided the next train did not leave before he had
had something to eat.

He was aroused from gloomy musings by a discreet tap announcing the
return of the scouting party. The scouting party was piled with parcels
up to its round eyes and from the parcels issued an odour so delicious
that the doctor's depression vanished.

"Good hunting, eh?"

"Prime, sir. 'Tisn't store stuff, either! As soon as I see that look in
your eye I remembered 'bout the tea-fight over at Knox's Church last
night and how they'd be sure to be selling off what's left, for the
benefit of the heathen." The boy gave the roundest wink Callandar had
ever seen and deposited his parcels upon the bed. "They always have
'bout forty times as much's they can use. Course I didn't get you any
_broken_ vittles," he added, noticing the alarm upon the doctor's face.
"It's all as good as the best. Wait till you see!"

He began to clear the wash-stand in a businesslike manner, talking all
the time. "This here towel will do for a cloth. It's bran' clean--cross
my heart! I borrowed a dish or two offen the church. They know me....
We'll put the chicken in the middle and the ham along at this end and
the pie over there where it can't slip off--"

"I don't like pie, boy."

"I do. Pie's good for you. We'll put the beet salad by the chicken and
the cabbage salad by the ham and the chow-chow betwixt 'em. Then the
choc'late cake can go by the pie--"

"Boy, I don't like chocolate cake."

"Honest? Ah, you're kiddin' me! Really? Choc'late cake's awful good for
you. I love chocolate cake. This here cake was made by Esther Coombe's
Aunt Amy--it's a sure winner! Say, Mister, what do you like anyway?"

"Ever so many more things than I did yesterday. By Jove, that chicken
looks good!"

"Yep. That's Mrs. Hallard's chicken. I thought you'd want the best. She
ris' it herself. And made the stuffin' too."

"Did she 'ris' the ham also?"

"Nope. It's Miss Taylor's ham. Home cured. The minister thinks a whole
lot of Miss Taylor's curin'. Ma thinks that if Miss Taylor wasn't quite
so hombly, minister might ask her jest on account of the ham. You try
it--wait a jiffy till I sneak some knives!"

Callandar looked at the decorated wash-stand and felt better. He had
forgotten all about the room, and when the knives came, in even less
than the promised jiffy, he forgot everything but the varied excellences
of the food before him. The chicken was a chicken such as one dreams of.
The salads were delicious, the homemade bread and butter fresh and
sweet; the ham might well cause feelings of a tender nature towards its
curer! The chocolate cake? He thought he might try a small piece and,
having tried, was willing to make the attempt on a larger scale. The boy
was a most efficient waiter, discerning one's desires before they were
expressed. But when they got to the pie, the doctor drew up another
chair at the pie side of the table and waved the waiter into it.

There was no false modesty about the boy; neither did he hold malice. If
he had felt slightly aggrieved at not having been invited earlier, he
forgot it after the first mouthful and for a time there was no further
conversation in number fourteen. The doctor had temporarily discarded
his theory that it is better to rise from the table feeling slightly
hungry. The boy had never had so foolish a theory to discard. The
chicken, the ham, the pie, disappeared as if conjured away. The boy
grew rounder.

"Boy," said the doctor at last, "hadn't you better stop? You are
'swelling wisibly afore my werry eyes!'"

The boy shook his head, but presently he began to have intervals when he
was able to speak.

"Better plant all you can," he advised. "Ma says the grub here would
kill a cat. I eat at home. Ma wouldn't risk my stomach here.
It's fierce."

"But I'll have to eat, boy. Isn't there another hotel?"

"Yep; two. But you couldn't go to them. This here's the only decent one.
Gave you a nice room anyway." He looked around admiringly. "Going to
stay long?"

"No--that is, yes--I don't know! How can I stay if I can't eat?"

The boy picked his round white teeth thoughtfully with a pin.

"You might get board somewheres."

This was a new idea.

"Why--so I might! Does Mrs. Hallard who raises chickens or Miss
What's-her-name who cures ham, keep boarders?"

"Nope. But they're not the only oysters in the soup--There's the bell!
They never give a man a minute's peace. Say, if you don't really like
that pie, don't waste it--see? Tell you about boarding-houses later."

Callandar had to clear the table himself. This he did by the simple
expedient of putting everything on top of everything else. But he did
not waste anything, a precaution whose value he realised that night upon
returning from the dining room where he had spent some time in looking
at that repast known to the Imperial as supper. Bubble, the bell boy,
found him with his mind made up.

"Boy," he said, "you have saved my life. But I fear I can sojourn no
longer in your delightful town. Find me the first train out in the
morning.".

The boy's face fell.

"Ain't you going to stay? Why, it's all over town that you're the new
doctor come to take old Doc. Simmonds's practice. Mournful Mark, that
you drove up with, told it. He said he shouldn't wonder if you're real
clever. Says he suspects you're an old friend of Doc. Coombe's
folks--went to college with the doctor, mebby. Says that likely Alviry
will have you next time she gets a stroke."

"Tempting as the prospect is, boy, I fear ..."

"Oh, dang it! There's the bell again."

He darted out, bumped down the sounding stairs and, while the doctor was
still considering the words of his ultimatum, appeared again at the
door, this time decorously on duty.

"A call for you, sir," said Bubble primly.

"A--what?"

"A call, sir. Mrs. Sykes wants to know if the new doctor will call
'round first thing in the morning to see Mrs. Sykes's Ann. She dunno,
but she thinks it's smallpox."

"Quit your fooling, boy."

"Cross my heart, doctor!"

"Smallpox?"

"Oh!" cheerfully, "I don't cross my heart to that. Mrs. Sykes always
thinks things is smallpox. Ann's had smallpox several times now. But the
rest is on the level. What message, sir?"

Callandar hesitated. (And while he hesitated the Fateful Sisters
manipulated a great many threads very swiftly.) "What train ..." he
began. (The Fateful Sisters slipped a bobbin through and tied a cunning
knot.) Without knowing why, Callandar decided to stay. He laughed.
Bubble stood eagerly expectant.

"Tell Mrs. Sykes I'll come, and ..." but Bubble did not wait for the
end of the message.




CHAPTER IV


Coombe is a pretty place. It has broad streets, quiet and tree-lined. It
has sunny, empty lots where children play. No one is crowded or shut in.
The houses stand in their own green lawns, and are comfortable and even
picturesque. The Swiss chalet style has not yet come to Coombe, so the
architecture, though plain, is not productive of nightmare. The roads
are like country roads, soft and yellowish; green grass grows along the
sides of many of them, and board sidewalks are still to be found,
springy and easy to the tread. There is a main street with macadamised
roadway and stone pavements, real flat stone, for they were laid before
the appearance of the all-conquering cement. There is a postoffice with
a tower and a clock, a courthouse with a fountain and a cannon, a park
with a bandstand and a baseball diamond, a townhall with a belfry and no
bell, an exhaustive array of churches, the Imperial Hotel, and the
market. We mention the market last (as we were taught at school) because
on account of its importance it ought to come first.

When Dr. Callandar, having been efficiently valeted by Bubble, set out
to pay his first professional call, he drew in deep breaths of the
pleasant air with a feeling of well-being to which he had long been a
stranger. He had slept. In spite of the room, in spite of the chocolate
cake, in spite of the pie, he had slept. And that alone was enough to
make the whole world over. It was still hot but with a heat different
from the heat of yesterday. A little shower had fallen during the night.
There was a sense of the north in the air, a light freshness, very
invigorating. He liked the quiet shaded streets; the cannon by the
courthouse amused him; the number of church steeples left him amazed. He
felt as if he had stumbled into a dream-town and must walk carefully
lest he stumble out.

Bubble had given him very complete directions, indeed so minute were
they that we will omit them lest some day you find the way yourself and
drop in on Mrs. Sykes when she is not expecting company. But Dr.
Callandar in his amused absorption had forgotten that he was going to
Mrs. Sykes at all, when he was recalled to a sense of duty by a sharp
hail from the corner house of a street he had just passed. Looking back,
he saw, half-way down the road, a tall, red woman leaning over a gate,
who, upon attracting his attention, began waving her arms frantically,
after the manner of an old-fashioned signalman inviting a train to "Come
on." Callandar's step quickened in spite of himself and he forgot his
idle musings.

"Land sakes! I thought you'd never get here!" exclaimed the red woman
fervently. "I suppose that imp of a boy didn't direct you right. Lucky I
knew you as soon as you passed the corner. Mark Morrison may be as
useless as they make 'em, but he's got a fine gift for description. Come
right in. I'm dreadful anxious about Ann. It don't seem like measles,
and she's had chicken-pox twice, and if she's sickening for anything
worse I want to know it. I ain't one of them optimists that won't
believe they're sick till they're dead. Callandar's your name, Mark
says--any chance of your being a cousin to Dr. Callandar of Montreal
that cured Mrs. Sowerby?"

"No, I am not that Dr. Callandar's cousin."

"I told Mark 'twasn't likely--or you wouldn't be here. Not if he'd any
family feeling. I'm a great believer in a man making his own
stepping-stones anyway," she went on with a friendly smile; "we ought to
rise up on ourselves, like the poet says, and not on our cousins."

"A noble sentiment," said Callandar gravely, as he followed her up the
walk, across a veranda so clean that one hesitated to step on it, and
into a small hall, bare and spotless, where he was invited to hang
up his hat.

"You're younger than I expected," went on Mrs. Sykes kindly. "I hope you
ain't entirely dependent on your practice in Coombe?"

The amazed doctor was understood to murmur something about "private
means."

"That's good. You'd starve if you hadn't. Coombe's a terrible healthy
place and poor Doc. Simmonds didn't pay a call a week. I just felt like
some one ought to warn you. I despise folks who hold back from telling
things because they ain't quite pleasant. Know the worst, I always say;
it's better in the end. Of course, as Mark says, your being a
Presbyterian will make considerable diff'rence. Some folks thought Doc.
Simmonds was pretty nigh an infiddle!"

Too overcome by his feelings to answer, Callandar followed her up the
narrow stair and into a clean bright room with green-tinted walls and
yellow matting on the floor.

Mrs. Sykes waved a deprecatory hand, at once exhibiting and apologising
for so much splendour.

"This is the spare-room," she explained. "And there," pointing to the
high, old-fashioned bed, "is Ann."

Callandar crossed the immaculate matting gingerly, taking Ann on faith,
as it were, for, from the door, no; Ann was visible, only a very small
dent in the big whiteness of the bed.

"Ann! Here's the doctor!"

A small black head and a pair of frightened black eyes appeared for a
moment as if by conjuration, and instantly vanished.

"Ann!" said Mrs. Sykes more sternly.

There was a squirming somewhere under the bedclothes, but nothing
happened.

"Great Scott!" exclaimed the doctor, "you've got the child in a
feather-bed!"

Mrs. Sykes beamed complacently.

"Yes, I have. It may seem like taking a lot of trouble for nothing, but
you never can tell. I ain't one of them that never prepares for
anything. Jest as soon as Ann gets sick I move her right into the
spare-room and put her into the best feathers. Then if she should be
took sudden I wouldn't have anything to regret. The minister and the
doctor can come in here any hour and find things as I could wish....
Ann! what do you mean by wiggling down like that? Ann--come up at once!
The doctor wants to see your tongue."

This time the note of command was effective. The black head came to the
surface, again followed by the frightened eyes and plump little cheeks
stained with feverish red.

"Some cool water, if you please," ordered the doctor in his best
professional manner. Mrs. Sykes opened her lips to ask why, but
something caused her to shut them without asking.

When she had left the room, Callandar leaned suddenly over and lifted
Ann bodily out of the dent and placed her firmly upon a pillow. It was a
very plump pillow, evidently filled with the "best feathers," but
compared with the bed it was as a rock in an ocean.

"Now," he said gravely, "you are safe, for the present. You are on an
island; but be very careful not to slide off for if you do I may never
be able to look at your tongue."

The child's hands grasped the island convulsively.

"Don't hold on like that," he warned. "You might tip." He leaned close
so that she might see the smile in his eyes, "And if you tipped ..."

The child gave a sudden delighted giggle. "I'd go right in over my head,
wouldn't I?"

"Yes. And next time you were rescued you might feel more inclined to
tell your aunt what you had been eating before you became ill."

Ann stopped giggling.

"You don't need to tell _me_," went on the doctor, "because I know!"

"How d'ye know?"

"Magic. Be careful--you were nearly off that time! Does your aunt know
anything about those things you ate?"

"No."

"Very well. But you must promise not to eat those particular things
again. Not even when you get the chance." Then as he saw the woe upon
her face, "At least, not in quantities!"

"Cross my heart!" said Ann, relieved.

"Here's the water," said Mrs. Sykes, returning. "Ann, get right back
into bed. Do you want to get your death? Haven't I told you till I'm
tired to keep your hands in? Is it measles, Doctor? She's subject to
measles. Perhaps it's the beginning of scarlet fever. But if it's
smallpox I want to know. No good ever comes of smoothing things over."

The doctor smiled at Ann.

"It isn't smallpox this time, Mrs. Sykes."

"Did you look at them spots on the back of her neck?"

"Yes. A little rash caused by indigestion. I wouldn't worry."

"Don't mind me. I'm used to worrying. I don't dodge my troubles like
some I know. Indigestion? It looks more like eczema. Eczema is a
terrible trying thing. But if the child's got it I don't want it called
indigestion to spare my feelings."

"But it's not eczema! It's indigestion--and prickly heat. I'm afraid
Ann's stomach has been giving trouble. It has been hotter than is usual
here, I understand. Heat often upsets children. While I write out a
prescription, you might bathe her face and hands."

Mrs. Sykes gazed doubtfully at the water. "She was done once last night
and once this morning just before you came in," she remarked in an
injured tone. "But if you think she needs it again, this sort of water's
no good. Nothing's ever any good for Ann except hot water and soap."

The doctor looked up from his writing in surprise. Then as the meaning
of the thing dawned upon him, he laughed heartily.

"Oh, Ann's as clean as the veranda floor!" he explained. "This is just
to cool her off. Let me show you--doesn't that feel nice, Ann?"

"Lovely!" blissfully.

Mrs. Sykes sniffed.

"I suppose that's some new-fangled notion? I never heard before of
cooling people off when they've got a fever. In my time, the hotter you
were, the hotter you were made to be, till you got cool naturally. I
suppose," with half-interested sarcasm, "that you'd give her cold water
to drink if she asked for it?"

"Certainly."

"Well, I expect she knows better than to ask for it!"

Feeling Ann's imploring gaze, Callandar resorted to diplomacy.

"The fact is, Mrs. Sykes," he said pleasantly, "there really isn't very
much wrong with Ann. You have been letting your forethought and your
natural anxiety run away with you. There is not the slightest occasion
for alarm. If there were, I should not dream of hiding it from one so
well-prepared as yourself. As it is, you have taken a lot of needless
trouble--this beautiful feather-bed, for example! I feel sure that Ann
would do very well in her own bed."

The victim of the feathers gave a relieved gasp which her aunt mistook
for a sigh of regret.

"Her own bed's well enough for anything ordinary," she admitted in a
mollified tone. "Even if it is a store mattress."

"Quite good enough. Many a little girl would be glad of it." The
doctor's tone was virtuous. "If you will allow me, I shall carry her in
now. You see, she is cooler already. By to-morrow, if she takes her
medicine, she ought to be as well as ever."

Ann's own room turned out to be on the shady side, and though not so
grand as the spare-room, it was pleasantly cool. The little bed with the
hard mattress and the snowy counterpane was infinitely to be preferred
to the ocean of feathers, and the rescued maiden lay back on her smaller
pillows with a sigh of gratitude.

"Sure you won't tell?" she whispered as he laid her down.

"Honour bright. Cross my heart! But you must take the medicine. It's
nasty, but not too nasty, and you mustn't squeal--or it will be the
spare-room again. Red cheeks and prickly heat are consequences, but
feather-beds and medicine are retribution."

"That's right, Doctor," said Mrs. Sykes, who had heard the last words.
"There's nothing like a word about retribution when a person's sick. It
helps 'em to realise their state. I don't hold with the light-minded
that want to get away from retribution. Depend upon it, they're the very
folks that's got it coming to them. Yes. No one needs to go around
denying that there's a hell, if their feet are planted upon a rock and
they know they're never going there. It's years now since I've looked
hell in the face and turned my feet the other way. But I do say that if
I'd decided to go straight ahead in the broad and easy path, I wouldn't
try to shut my eyes to the end of it, like some folks! Are you putting
up at the Imperial, Doctor?"

"'Putting up' exactly expresses my condition."

"Well, you may as well know at once that a doctor in a hotel will never
get any forwarder in Coombe. You'll have to get boarding somewhere. Have
you looked around yet?"

"No. I--"

"Then I don't mind telling you that the spare-room is to let and the
little room down below that has a door of its own and seems made exactly
for a doctor's office. I shouldn't mind letting you have them if you
feel sure that the smells wouldn't get loose all through the house and
in the cooking. There's a barn where you could keep your horse."

"I haven't got a horse," protested Callandar feebly.

"But of course you'll be getting one. A doctor has to have a horse. If
you can't pay for it down, Mark knows some one who'd let you have a good
one on time. You can trust Mark, if he _is_ mournful. Of course I don't
say that these rooms are the only rooms to let in Coombe, but I do think
they're about as good as you can get--being so near to Dr. Coombe's old
house. People get used to coming for a doctor down this street."

"But that was, over a year ago."

"It takes more 'an a year for Coombe folks to change their ways. Only
this day week I saw Bill Brooks tearing down this way on account of Mrs.
Brooks' being took kind of unexpected, and Bill losing his head and
forgetting all about Dr. Coombe being dead and Dr. Parker living on the
other side of the town."

"And you think that if I'd been here he would have 'tore' in here?"

"If he hadn't I'd just have called out to him as he went by. He was that
wild he'd have taken anybody."

"I see," with humility. "I lost a good chance there!"

"Well, if you live here you'll get others. Why, from the spare-room
windows you can see the corner window down at the Coombe place. I could
make out to let you have your meals, too. Only I'd expect you to be as
reg'lar as Providence permitted. I know a doctor is bound to be more
aggravating in that way than other folks, but if you'd be as regular as
lay in you, I'd put up with it. 'Tisn't as if I wasn't always prepared.
When will you want to move in?"

"Really, I--I don't know--" The bewildered Callandar glanced for help to
Ann, but met only clasped hands and an imploring stare. "I'll--I'll let
you know," he faltered.

Thinking it over afterwards, he could never understand why he did not
promptly refuse to be coerced, but at the time surrender seemed the only
natural thing. Besides, he couldn't stay another day at the Imperial. He
had to go somewhere. Perhaps it was his destiny to secure Ann against
further feather-beds. Anyway, he accepted it.

"Oh, goody!" cried Ann, clapping her hands.

"Ann! put your hands under those clothes. How often must I tell you that
you'll get your death? If you like, Doctor, there's nothing to prevent
your moving in to-morrow. I'll need a day to air the feather-tick and
make some pie."

The doctor was at last roused to action.

"There are conditions," he said hastily. "If I come here, there is to be
no feather-tick and no pie!"

"No feather-bed?" in amazement.

"No pie?" Ann's voice was a sorrowful whisper.

"You see," Callandar explained, "I am here partly for my health. My
health cannot lie on feather-beds nor eat pie--well, perhaps," with a
glance at Ann, "an occasional pie may do no harm. But I shall send down
some springs and a mattress. I have to use a special kind," hastily.

"Oh! it's spinal trouble, is it?" Mrs. Sykes surveyed him
commiseratingly. "You look straight enough. But land! You never can
tell. Them spinal troubles are most deceiving. Terrible things they are,
but they don't shorten life as quickly as some others. Not that that's a
blessing! Mostly, folks as has them would be glad to go long before they
are took. Still, it gives them some time to be prepared. I remember--"

"I must go now, Mrs. Sykes. Give Ann some of the medicine as soon as it
comes. It isn't exactly spinal trouble that is the matter with me, you
know, but--er--I'll send down the kind of mattress I like. In fact, I
shall probably wish to furnish my rooms myself. You won't mind,
I'm sure."

"Land sakes, no, I don't mind! Most doctors are finicky. Don't worry
about the medicine. I'll see that Ann takes it."

She watched him go with a glance in which satisfaction and foreboding
mingled. "Poor young feller!" she mused. "He didn't like what I said
about his spine a mite. Back troubles makes folks terrible touchy."




CHAPTER V


Two days after the installation of what Mrs. Sykes persisted in calling
the "spinal mattress," Esther Coombe was late in getting home from
school. As was usually the case when this happened, Jane, designated by
mournful Mark as "the Pindling One," was sitting on the gatepost gazing
disconsolately down the road. There were traces of tears upon her thin
little face and the warmth of the hug which returned her sister's
greeting was evidence of an unusually disturbed mind.

"Why aren't you playing with the other children, Jane?"

"I don't want to play, Esther. Timothy's dead."

"Yes, I know, dear. But Fred has promised you a new puppy--"

"I don't want a new puppy. I want Timothy."

"But Timothy is so much happier, Jane. He was old, you know. In the
Happy Hunting Grounds, he will be able to frisk about just like other
dogs. Wouldn't you like an apple?"

Jane considered this a moment and decided favourably. But her tale of
woe was not yet complete. "Mother's ill again," she announced gloomily.
"I mustn't play band or nail the slats on the rabbits' hutch. Aunt Amy
gave me my dinner on the back porch. I liked that. I wouldn't go in the
house, not till you came, Esther."

The straight brows of the elder sister came together in a worried frown.

"You know that is being silly, Jane."

"I don't care."

"You must learn to care. Run now and get the apple and ask Aunt Amy to
wash your face."

Jane tripped away obediently, her griefs assuaged by the mere telling of
them, and Esther passed into the house by way of the veranda. It was a
charming veranda, long and low, opening through French windows directly
into the living room which, like itself, was long and low, and charming.
There is a charm in rooms which can be felt but not described. It exists
apart from the furnishings and even the occupants; it is an essence,
haunting, intangible--the soul of the room! only there are many rooms
which have no soul.

Through the living room at the Elms vagrant breezes entered, loitered,
and drifted out again, leaving behind them scents of sun-warmed flowers.
The light there was soft and green. The comfortable chairs invited rest;
the polished rosewood table, the bright piano shining in the brightest
corner, the smooth old floor in whose rug the colours had long ceased to
trouble, the general air of much used comfort, satisfied and refreshed.

Esther loved the room. Her first childish memory was of the rosewood
table shining like a pool in the lamplight and of her own wondering face
reflected in it, with her father's laughing eyes behind. In every way it
was associated with the beginnings of things. The magic of all music
began for her in the sweet, thin notes of the old square piano; the key
to fairy land lay hidden somewhere in that shelf of well-worn books.

Yet to-night she entered with a hesitating step. It was obvious that she
felt no pleasure in the cool greenness. The room was the same room but
it was as if the expression on a well-known face had unaccountably
changed and become forbidding. The girl sighed as she flung her hat
upon a chair.

"Esther," Jane's voice, somewhat obscured by the eating of the promised
apple, came through the open window, "are you sure about Timothy being
in the Happy Hunting Grounds?"

"Of course, dear."

"But he wasn't what you would call a Christian, Esther?"

"He was a good dog."

"Can Timothy chase chickens there?"

"Probably."

"And cats?"

"Certainly cats."

"Is that what happens to bad cats when they die?"

Esther viewed this logical picture of everlastingly pursued cats with
some dismay.

"N-o. I don't suppose it would be real cats."

"But Tim wouldn't chase anything but real cats."

"Jane, I wish you wouldn't talk with your mouth full."

Being thus reduced to giving up the argument or the apple, Jane
abandoned the former. It was clear that Esther was not in the mood for
argument. The child's quick observation had not failed to note the
lagging step, nor the quick sigh. She nodded her head as if in answer to
some spoken word.

"Yes, I know. I feel like that, too. That's why I didn't come in before;
that's why I'm not really in yet. It catches you by the throat and makes
you breathe funny. What is it, Esther?"

"Why--I don't know, Jane. It's loneliness I think--missing Dad."

The child shook her head. But whatever her objection might have been it
was beyond her power of expression. She slid off the veranda step and
wandered back into the garden. There was another apple in the pocket of
her apron, and apples are great comforters.

Left alone, Esther with a resolutely cheerful air took down a blue bowl
and proceeded to arrange therein the day's floral offerings. A sweet and
crushed mixture they were, pansies, clove-pinks, mignonette, bleeding
hearts, bachelors' buttons, all short stemmed and minus any saving touch
of green, but true love offerings for all that. Wordless gifts most of
them, prim little bunches, hot from tight clasping in chubby hands,
shyly and swiftly deposited on "Teacher's desk" when the back of that
divinity was turned. The blue bowl took kindly to them all, and as the
girl's clever fingers settled and arranged the glowing chaos it seemed
that with their crushed fragrance something of the lost spirit of the
room came back. Just so had she arranged hundreds of times the sweet
smelling miscellanies which had been her father's constant tribute from
grateful patients.

She had almost finished when the door opened to admit a little, grey
wisp of a woman with a mild white face and large faded eyes which might
once have been beautiful. She was dressed entirely in lavender, a
fondness for this colour being one of the many harmless fancies born of
a brain not quite normal. The rather expressionless face brightened at
sight of the girl by the table.

"Why, Esther--I didn't hear you come in. Have you put a mat under the
bowl? See now! You have marked the table."

Esther good humouredly reached for a table-mat, for the polish of this
particular article of furniture was the pride of Aunt Amy's life. "It's
all right, Auntie. It's not really a mark. Look, aren't they sweet? It
is like one of father's posies. Is mother any better?"

"The children must think a lot of you, Esther!"

"Yes, although I think they would bring flowers to any one, bless 'em!
Is mother--"

"Your mother hasn't been down all day. I went up with her dinner but she
didn't take any. She wouldn't answer."

"Auntie, don't you think she ought to do something about these
headaches?"

"I don't know, Esther. She'll be all right to-morrow. She always is."

"Yes. But they are getting more frequent, and you know--she is so
different. She can't be well. Haven't you noticed it?"

"No," vaguely.

"Well, Jane has. So it can't just be imagination. She ought to consult a
doctor."

"She won't."

"But it's absurd! What shall we do if she goes on like this? If there
were only some one who would talk to her! She won't listen to me because
she is older and married and--all that. All the same she doesn't seem
older when she acts like this--like a child!"

"Well, you know, Esther, there isn't any doctor here that your mother
just fancies."

The girl stooped lower over the blue bowl, perhaps to hide the little
smile which crinkled up the corner of her mouth. The faint colour on her
cheek may have been a reflection from the flowers.

"Yes, but haven't you heard? There is a new doctor. He seems quite
different--I mean they say he is awfully nice. Mrs. Sykes' Ann was
telling me all about him. He is going to board with Mrs. Sykes. The
child just worships him already. Perhaps mother might see him."

"I shouldn't worry," said Aunt Amy placidly. "This pepper-grass will be
very nice for tea. Did you tell Jane she might have two apples, Esther?"

"No. I told her she might have one. But I don't suppose two will hurt
her." Esther was used to Aunt Amy's inconsequences which made impossible
the discussion of any subjects save the most trivial. But she sighed a
little as she realised anew that there was no help here.

"Jane is feeling badly about Timothy," she explained. "Don't you think
we might have tea in here, Auntie? It is so cool."

Aunt Amy, who had been anxiously rubbing an imaginary spot on the table,
looked up with a startled air. "Oh, Esther!" she said, in the voice of a
frightened child. Then with a child's obvious effort to control rising
tears, "Of course, if you say so, Esther. But--but do you feel like
risking the round table? Couldn't we have it on the little table in
the corner?"

The girl settled the last of her flowers and pushed back her hair with a
worried gesture. A pang of mingled irritation and anxiety lent an edge
of sharpness to her soft voice.

"Auntie dear! I thought you had quite forgotten that fancy. You know it
is only a fancy. Round tables are just like other tables. And you
promised me--"

"Yes, I know, but--"

"Well, then, be sensible, dear. We shall have tea in here." Then seeing
the real distress on the timid old face, the girl's mood softened. "No,
we shan't," she declared gaily. "We'll have it as usual in the dining
room. You will fix the pepper-grass and I shall set the table."

But the end of Aunt Amy's vagaries was not yet. She hesitated, flushed
and more timidly, yet as one who is compelled, begged for the task of
setting the table herself. "For you know, Esther, the sprigged tea-set
is so hurt if any one but me arranges it. Yes, of course, it is only a
fancy, I know that. But the sprigged tea-set does feel so badly if I
neglect it. All the pink in it fades quite out. You must have noticed
it, Esther?"

The girl sighed and gave in. Usually Aunt Amy's vagaries troubled her
little. Disconcerting at first, they had quickly become a commonplace,
for the coming of Aunt Amy to the doctor's household had been too great
a blessing to invite criticism. Esther had soon learned to express no
surprise when told that the sprigged china had a heart of extreme
sensitiveness, and that the third step on the front stair disliked to be
trodden upon, and that it was dangerous to sit with one's back to a
window facing the east. All these and numberless other strange facts
were part of Aunt Amy's twilight world. To her they were immensely
important, but to the family the really important thing seemed that,
with trifling exceptions, the new inmate of the household was gentle and
kind; her housekeeping a miracle and her cooking a dream. In the years
she had lived with them there had been but one serious thrill of
anxiety, and that came when Dr. Coombe had discovered her endeavouring
to infect Jane with her delusions. This had been strictly forbidden and
the child's mind, duly warned, was soon safeguarded by her own growing
comprehension. Jane quickly understood that it was foolish to shut the
garden gate three times every time she came through it, and that no one
save Aunt Amy thought it necessary to count all the boards in the
sidewalk or to touch all the little posts under the balustrade as one
came down stairs. Some of the prettier, more elusive fancies she may
have retained, but, if so, they did her no harm.

As for Aunt Amy herself, she lived her shadow-haunted life not
unhappily. Dr. Coombe she had worshipped, yet his death had not affected
her as much as might have been feared. Perhaps it was one of her
compensations that death to her was not quite what it is to the more
normal consciousness. It was noticeable that she always spoke of the
doctor as if he were in the next room. Her devotion to him had been
caused by his success in partially relieving her of the most distressing
burden of her disordered brain--the delusion of persecution. Aunt Amy
knew that somewhere there existed a mysterious power known vaguely as
"They" who sought unceasingly to injure her. Of course it was only once
in a while that "They" got a chance, for Aunt Amy was very clever in
providing no opportunities. More than once had she outwitted "Them."
Still, one must be always upon one's guard! From this harrowing delusion
the doctor had done much to deliver her, indeed she had become more
normal in every way under his care. It was only now, a year after his
death, that Esther imagined sometimes that there was a slipping back--

The ill effects of sitting at a round table, for instance? It was a long
time since this particular fancy had been spoken of and Esther had
considered it gone altogether. Yet here it was, cropping out again and
just at a time when other problems threatened. Things seemed determined
to be difficult to-day.

The fact was that Esther was suffering from the need of a confidant.
Really worried as she felt about her step-mother's health, the burden of
taking any determined action against the wishes of the patient herself
was a serious one for a young girl. Yet in whom could she confide? Girl
friends she had in plenty but not one whose judgment she could trust
before her own. Had the minister been an older man or a man of different
calibre she might have gone to him, but the idea of appealing to Mr.
Macnair was distasteful. Neither among her father's friends was there
one to whom she cared to go for advice concerning her father's widow.
They had one and all disapproved, she knew, of the sudden second
marriage and Dr. Coombe had never quite forgiven their disapproval.

Often she felt like refusing the responsibility altogether. After all,
her step-mother was a woman quite old enough to manage her own affairs.
If she wished to foolishly imperil her health why need Esther care? Why
indeed? But this train of reasoning never lasted long. Always there came
a counter-question, "If you do not care, who will?" And the dearth of
any answer settled the burden more firmly upon her rebellious shoulders.
For one thing there was always the inner knowledge that Mary Coombe was
weak and that she, Esther, was strong. She had always known this. Even
when her father had brought home his pretty bride and Esther, a shy,
silent child of eleven, had welcomed her, she had known that the
newcomer was the weaker spirit. The bride had known it too. She had
never attempted to control Esther, leaving the child entirely to her
father--a bit of unwitting wisdom which did much to smooth daily life
at the Elms. If the doctor saw his wife's weakness of character it is
probable that it did not interfere with his love for her. Why need she
be strong while he was strong enough for two? But he had forgotten one
thing--the day when she would have to be strong alone!

The realisation came to him upon his death-bed. Esther was sure of this.
He could not speak, but she had read the message of his eyes, the appeal
to the strength in her to help the other's weakness. No getting away
from the solemn charge of that entreating look!

       *       *       *       *       *

Esther was thinking of that look now, as she sat alone in the dusk of
the veranda. Tea was over and Aunt Amy was putting Jane to bed. From her
mother she had had no word. Blank silence had met her when she had taken
the tea tray upstairs and called softly through the closed door. Mrs.
Coombe was probably asleep. She would be better to-morrow; but before
long she would be ill again, and the interval between the attacks was
becoming shorter.

There was anger as well as anxiety in the girl's mind. Her healthy and
straightforward youth had little patience with her step-mother's
unreasonable caprices. For her illness she had every sympathy, but for
the morbid nervousness which seemed to accompany it, none at all. These
constant headaches, the increasing nervous irritability from which Mrs.
Coombe suffered lay like a shadow over the house. Yet the sufferer
refused to take the obvious way of relief and persisted in her refusal
with a stubbornness of which no one would have dreamed her light nature
capable. Still, willing or unwilling, something must be done. Aunt Amy,
too, was becoming more of an anxiety. Once or twice lately she had
spoken of "Them," a sign of mental distress which Dr. Coombe had always
treated with the utmost seriousness. Perhaps if a doctor were called in
for Aunt Amy, Mrs. Coombe would lose her foolish dread of doctors and
allow him to prescribe for her also. And if the new doctor were half as
clever as Mrs. Sykes said he was--Esther's heart began to warm a little
as her fancy pictured such a pleasant solution of all her problems. The
little smile curved her lips again as she thought of the maple by the
schoolhouse steps, and the lettuce sandwiches and--and everything. She
closed her eyes and tried to recall his face as he had looked up at her.
Instinctively she knew it for a good face, strong, humorous, kindly, but
strong above all. And it was strength that Esther needed. When she went
to bed that night her burden seemed a little lighter.

I believe he can help me, she thought, and it isn't as if he were quite
a stranger. After all, we had lunch together once!




CHAPTER VI


Undoubtedly Esther slept better that night for the thought of the new
doctor. It cannot be said that the doctor slept better because of her.
In fact he lay awake thinking of her. He did not want to think of her;
he wanted to go to sleep. Twice only had he seen her. Once upon the
occasion of the red pump and once when casually passing her on the main
street. There was no reason why her white-rose face with its strange
blue eyes and its smile-curved lips should float about in the darkness
of Mrs. Sykes' best room. Yet there it was. It was the eyes, perhaps.
The doctor admitted that they were peculiar eyes, startlingly blue. Dark
blue in the shade of the lashes, flashing out light blue fire when the
lashes lifted. But Mrs. Sykes' boarder did not want to think about eyes.
He wanted to go to sleep. He did not want to think about hair either.
Although Miss Coombe had very nice hair--cloudy hair, with little ways
of growing about the temple and at the curve of the neck which a blind
man could not help noticing. In the peaceful shadows of the room it
seemed a still softer shadow framing the vivid girlish face.

Still, on the whole, sleep would have been better company and when at
last he did drop off he did not relish being wakened by the voice of Ann
at his door.

"Doc-ter, doc-ter! Are you awake? Can I come in?"

"I am not awake. Go away."

Ann's giggle came clearly through the keyhole.

"You've got a visitor," she whispered piercingly through the same
medium. "A man. A well man, not a sick one. He came on the train. He
came on the milk train--"

"You may come in, Ann." The doctor slipped on his dressing gown with a
resigned sigh. "What man and why milk?"

"I don't know. Aunt Sykes kept him on the veranda till she was sure he
wasn't an agent. Now he's in the parlour. Aunt hopes you'll hurry, for
you never can tell. He may be different from what he looks."

"What does he look?"

Ann's small hands made an expressive gesture which seemed to envisage
something long and lean.

"Queer--like that. He's not old, but he's bald. His eyes screw into you.
His nose," another formative gesture, "is like that. A nawful big nose.
He didn't tell his name."

"If he looks like that, perhaps he hasn't any name. Perhaps he is a
button-moulder. In fact I'm almost certain he is--other name Willits.
Occupation, professor."

"But if he is a button-maker, he can't be a professor," said Ann
shrewdly.

"Oh, yes he can. Button-moulding is what he professes. His line is a
specialty in spoiled buttons. He makes them over."

"Second-hand?"

"Better than new."

Ann fidgeted idly with the doctor's cuff-links and then with a flash of
her odd childish comprehension, "You love him a lot, don't you?" she
said jealously.

The doctor adjusted a collar button.

"England expects that every man shall deny the charge of loving
another," he said, "but between you and me, I do rather like old
Willits. You see I was rather a worn-out button once and he made me
over. Where did you say he was?"

"In the parlour--there's Aunt! She said I wasn't to stay. I'll get it."

Indeed the voice of Mrs. Sykes could be heard on the stairs.

"Ann! Where's that child? Doctor, you'd think that child had never been
taught no manners. You'll have to take a firm stand with Ann, Doctor.
Land Sakes, I don't want to make her out worse'n she is, but you might
as well know that your life won't be worth living if you don't set
on Ann."

"All right, Mrs. Sykes. Painful as it may be, I shall do it. Are you
sure it's safe to leave a stranger in the parlour?"

Mrs. Sykes looked worried. "I hope to goodness it's all right, Doctor.
He's been in the parlour half an hour. I don't think he's an agent,
hasn't got a case or a book anywhere. But agents are getting cuter every
day. Naturally I didn't like to go so far as to ask his name. And I'm
not asking it now. Curiosity was never a fault of mine though I do say
it. Still a woman does like to know who's setting in her front parlour."

"And you shall," declared Callandar kindly. "Just hang on a few moments
longer, dear Mrs. Sykes, and your non-existent but very justifiable
curiosity shall be satisfied."

The parlour at Mrs. Sykes opened to the right of the narrow hall. Its
two windows, distinguished by eternally half-drawn blinds of yellow,
looked out upon the veranda, permitting a decorous gloom to envelop the
sacred precincts. Mrs. Sykes was too careful a housekeeper to take risks
with her carpet and too proud of her possessions to care to hide their
glories altogether; hence the blinds were never wholly drawn and never
raised more than half way. In the yellow gloom, one might feast one's
eyes at leisure upon the centre table, draped in red damask, mystic,
wonderful, and on its wealth of mathematically arranged books, the
Bible, the "Indian Mutiny" and "Water Babies" in blue and gold. This
last had been a gift to Ann and was considered by Mrs. Sykes to be the
height of foolishness. Still, a book is a book, especially when bound in
blue and gold.

Upon the gaily papered walls hung a framed silver name-plate and two
pictures. One a gorgeously coloured print of the lamented Queen Victoria
in a deep gold frame, and the other a representation of an entrancing
allegorical theme entitled "The Two Paths," illustrating the ascent of
the saint into heaven and the descent of the sinner into hell. At the
top of this picture was the legend, "Which will you choose?"--implying a
possible but regrettable lack of taste on the part of the chooser.

Into this abode of the arts and muses came Callandar, alert and smiling.
It was hardly his fault that he stumbled over the visitor who, whether
in awe or fear of these unveiled splendours, had retreated as far as
possible toward the door.

"Don't mind me!" said the visitor meekly.

"Willits! by Jove, I thought it would be you! Say, would you mind not
sitting on that chair? It's just glued!"

The visitor arose with conspicuous alacrity. He was a tall man with a
domelike head, piercing eyes and formidable nose. Ann's description had
been terribly accurate. He observed the tail of his coat carefully and
finding no damage, seemed relieved.

"Sit here," said Callandar affably. "And don't expect me to make you
welcome, because you aren't. What misfortunate chance has brought you
to Coombe?"

"Neither fortune nor chance had anything at all to do with it," declared
the visitor. "I followed your luggage. I wanted to see you."

"Well, take a good look."

"I think you can guess why."

"Yes," with a sigh. "I was always a good guesser. And, frankly, Willits,
I wish you hadn't."

"I do not doubt it. But, first, is there any other place where we can
talk?"

"Don't you like this?" innocently.

The Button-Moulder's look of surprised anguish was sufficient answer.
Callandar laughed.

"You always were a bit narrow in your views, Willits. How often have I
impressed upon you that beauty depends upon understanding? I don't
suppose you have even tried to understand this room? No? Will it help
any if I tell you that Mrs. Sykes went without a spring bonnet that she
might purchase the deep gold frame which enshrines Victoria the Good, or
if I explain that Joseph Sykes, deceased, whose name you see yonder upon
that engraved plate, was the most worthless rogue unhung. Yet the silver
which displays--"

"Not in the least," interrupted the other hastily. "The place is a
nightmare. Nothing can excuse it! And you--how you stand it I
cannot see."

"My dear man, I don't stand it. I am not allowed to. It's only upon
special occasions that any one is allowed to stand this room. You are a
special occasion. But as you seem so unappreciative we can adjourn to my
office if you wish."

"You have an office?"

"Certainly. A doctor has to have an office. This way."

Callandar strode across the room and opened a door in the opposite wall.
It led into another room, smaller, with no veranda in front of it, yet
with a window looking toward the road and two side windows through which
the after flush of sunrise streamed. Its door opened upon a small stone
stoop set in the grass of the front lawn. The furniture of the room was
plain, not to say severe. Cool matting covered the painted floor,
hemstitched curtains of linen scrim hung at the windows. There was a
businesslike desk, a couch, a reclining chair, a stool by the door;
another chair, straight and uncompromising, behind the desk. That
was all.

Willits looked around him in a kind of dazed surprise. "Office!" he kept
murmuring. "_Office_!"

"All rather plain, you see," said Callandar regretfully. "But for a
beginner with his way to make, not so bad. My patients, three up to
date, quite understand and conceal their commiseration with perfect good
breeding. Also, the room has natural advantages, it is in the nature of
an annex, you see, with a door of its own. Quite cut off from the rest
of the house save-for the door by which we entered, the parlour door,
which Mrs. Sykes informs me I may lock if I choose although she feels
sure that I know her too well to imagine any undue liberties
being taken!"

The Button-Moulder with a gesture of despair made as if to sit down upon
the nearest chair, but was prevented with kindly firmness by his host.

"Not that chair, please. It may not be quite dry. I glued--"

The voice of the visitor suddenly returned. It was a very dry voice;
threadlike, but determined.

"Then if you will kindly find me a chair which you have not glued I
shall sit down and dispose of a few burning thoughts. Callandar, as soon
as you have finished playing the fool--"

"Consider it finished, old man."

"Then what does this, all this"--with a sweeping hand wave--"mean? You
cannot seriously intend to stay here?"

"Why not?"

"Your question is absurd."

"No, it isn't. Let it sink in. Why should I not stay here? Examine the
facts. I am ordered change, rest, interest, good air--a year at least
must elapse before I take up my life again. I must spend that year
somewhere. Why not here? It is healthy, high, piney, quiet. I had become
utterly tired of my tramping tour. All the good I can get from it I have
got. Chance, or whatever you like to call it, leads me to this place. A
place which needs a doctor and which this particular doctor needs. There
is nothing absurd about it."

The tall man observed his friend in interested silence. Apparently he
required time to adjust his mind to the fact that Callandar was in
earnest. The badinage he brushed aside.

"Then you really intend--but how about this office? If it is not a
torn-fool office, where does the necessary rest come in?"

"Rest doesn't mean idleness. I should die of loafing. As a matter of
fact since coming here I have rested as I have not rested for a year.
Look at me! Can't you see it? Or is the renovation not yet visible to
the naked eye? Great Scott! I don't need to vegetate in order to
rest, do I?"

"No." Another pause ensued during which the gimlet eyes of the professor
were busy. Then he seemed suddenly to leap to the heart of the matter.

"And--Lorna?" He asked crisply.

It was the other's turn to be silent. He flushed, looked embarrassed,
and drummed with his fingers upon the table.

"Of course I have no right to ask," added Willits primly.

"Yes, you have, old man. Every right. But I knew you had come to ask
that question and I didn't like it. The answer is not a flattering
one--to me. Nor is it what you expected. To be brief, Lorna won't have
me. Refused me--flat!"

Blank surprise portrayed itself upon the professor's face.

"The devil she did!"

"Confess now!" said Callandar, smiling. "You thought I was the one to
blame? There was retributive justice in your eye, don't deny it!"

"But, I don't understand! I thought--I was sure--"

"I know. But she doesn't! Not in that way. As a sister--"

"That's enough! I--Accept my apology. I feel very sorry, Henry."

Again that look of embarrassment and guilt upon the doctor's face.

"No. Don't feel sorry! See here, let's be frank about the whole thing.
It was a mistake, from the very beginning, a mistake. Miss Sinnet,
Lorna, is a girl in a thousand. But--I did not care for her as a man
should care for the woman he makes his wife. Nor did she care for
me--wait, I'm not denying that there was a chance. We were very
congenial. She might have cared if--if I had cared more greatly."

"Henry Callandar! Are you a cad?"

"No. Merely a man speaking the exact truth. I thought I might risk it,
with you. Lorna Sinnet is not a woman to give her love and take a
half-love in return. She was more clear-sighted than you or I. We should
both have been very miserable."

Elliott Willits sighed. He was a very sensible man. He prided himself
upon being devoid of sentiment, but even the most sensible of men,
entirely devoid of sentiment, do not like to see their well laid
plans go wrong.

"Well," he said, "I was mistaken. Let us say no more about it."

Callandar's eyes softened, melted into misty grey. He laid his arm
affectionately over the other's thin shoulders. "Only this," he said.
"That no man ever had a better friend! I know you, old Button-Moulder. I
know your ambition to make of me a 'shining button on the vest of the
world!' You thought that Lorna might help. But I failed you there. I'm
sorry. That was really the bitterness of the whole thing---to fail you!"

"You owe me nothing," gruffly.

"Only my life--my sanity."

"I shall doubt the latter if you stay here."

"No, you will see it triumphantly vindicated. I tell you I am better
already. Look at my hand! Do you remember how it shook the last time I
held it out for you. A few more months of this and it will be steady as
a rock. Ah! it's good to be feeling fit again! And it isn't only a
physical improvement." His smile faded and rising he began to pace the
room. "I doubt if even you fully understand the mental depression that
was dragging me down. No wonder Lorna would have none of me! Strange,
that I cannot understand my own case as I understand the cases of
others. Do what I would, I could not heal myself, the soul of the matter
persistently escaped me. I was beginning to be as much the victim of an
obsession as any of the poor creatures whom I tried to cure."

"You never told me of that."

"No, I was afraid to speak of it. It would have made it seem more real.
But I can tell you now, if you are sure you will not be bored."

"I shall not be bored," said Willits quietly.




CHAPTER VII


"In order to make you understand, I'll have to go back," said the doctor
musingly, "a long way back. Some of the story you already know, but now
I want you to know it all. But first--when you found me in that
hospital, a useless bit of human wreckage, and forced me back into life
with your scorn of a coward and your cutting words, what did you think?
What did I tell you? It is all hazy to me."

"You told me very little. It was plain enough. You had come a bad
cropper. Some girl, I gathered. You had lost her, you blamed yourself.
You talked a great deal of nonsense. I inferred--the usual thing!"

"You were mistaken. It was at once better and worse than that. But let's
begin at the beginning. My father was a fairly wealthy man--but a
dreamer. He made his money by a clever invention and lost it by an
investment little short of idiotic. Like many unpractical men he had
rather fancied himself as a man of business and the disillusion killed
him. He--shot himself. My mother, my sister and myself were left, with
nothing save a small sum in the bank and the deed of the modest house we
lived in. Adela was twenty-one and I was nineteen. We sold the house,
moved into rooms; Adela learned shorthand and went into an office. I
wanted to do the same. But mother was adamant. I must finish my college
course and take my degree; she and Adela could manage until I could make
it up to them later. It was hard, but it seemed the only sensible
thing to do--

"I faced the task of working my way through college with a thankful
heart, for though I pretended that I did not care, it would have been a
terrible thing to have given up my life's ambition. The thought of Adela
trudging to the office hurt--it was the touch of the spur. I needn't
tell you, you can guess how I worked! People were kind. One summer, old
Doctor Inglis, whose amiable hobby it was to help young medical
students, engaged me for the holidays as his chauffeur and general
helper at a wage which would see me through my next term. It seemed an
unusual piece of luck, for he lived only twenty miles from my mother's
home and an electric tram connected the towns. One night I went with
Adela to a Church Social--of all places--and that is where the story
really begins, for it was at the Social that I met Molly Weston. It
seemed the most casual of all accidents, for you can imagine that I did
not frequent churches in those days, and Molly, too, had come there by
chance. She was dressed in pink, her cheeks were pink, she wore a pink
rose in her hair. She was the prettiest little fairy that ever smiled
and pouted her way into a boy's heart. Before I left her I was madly in
love--a boy's first headlong passion. Adela was amazed, teased me in her
elderly sister way but never for a moment took it seriously. Molly was a
mere bird of passage, an American girl staying with friends for a brief
time, therefore my infatuation was a humorous thing. But it was not so
simple as that. Molly stayed on, Dr. Inglis was indulgent, we met
continually. If her friends knew of it they did not care. It was just a
flirtation of their pretty guest's. As a serious factor I was quite
beneath the horizon, a young fellow working his way through college, and
with, later on, a mother and sister to support.

"Molly understood the situation. At least she knew all the facts. I
doubt if she ever understood them. She was one of those helpless,
clinging girls who never seem to understand anything clearly. I remember
well how I used to agonise in explanation, trying to make her see our
difficulties and to face them with me. But when I had talked myself into
helpless silence she would ruffle my hair and say, 'But you really do
love me, don't you, Harry?' or 'I don't care what we have to do, so long
as mother doesn't know.'

"I soon found out that her one strong emotion was fear of her mother.
She was fond of her but she feared her as weak natures fear the strong,
especially when bound to them by ties of blood. I was allowed to see her
photograph--the picture of a grim hard face instinct with an almost
terrible strength. No wonder my pretty Molly was her slave. One would
have deemed it impossible that they were mother and daughter. Molly, it
appears, was like her father, and he, poor man, had been long dead.
Molly would do anything, promise anything, if only her mother might not
know. She had not the faintest scruple in deceiving her, but this I
laid, and still lay, to the strength of her love for me.

"She did love me. She must have loved me--else how could her timid
nature have taken the risk it did?

"Summer fled by like a flash. Molly stayed with her friends as long as
she could find an excuse and then went on for a brief week in Toronto.
It was the week, of course, that I returned to college. We hoped that
she could extend her stay, but her mother wrote 'Come home,' and there
was no appeal from that. Then I did a desperate thing. Without Molly's
knowledge I wrote to her mother telling her that I loved her daughter
and begging, as a man begs for his life, to be allowed to ask her to
wait for me. The letter was a lie in that it concealed the fact that my
love was already confessed but I felt it necessary to shield Molly. I
received no answer to the letter, but Molly received a telegram, 'Come
home at once.'

"I can leave you to imagine the scene--my despair, Molly's tears! Never
for an instant did she dream of disobeying and I--I felt that if she
went I should lose her forever.

"Willits, there is something in me, devil or angel, which will not give
up. Nothing has ever conquered it yet and Molly was like wax in my
hands--so long as 'Mother' need not know. I do not attempt to excuse
myself; what I did was dastardly, but it did not seem so then. The night
before she left, she stole away from home. I had a license and we were
married by a Methodist minister. He knew neither of us and probably
forgot the whole incident immediately. It was a marriage only in name
for we said good-bye at Molly's door. She left next morning. I never saw
her again."

Into the silence which followed, the professor's words dropped dryly.

"What was your idea in forcing a meaningless marriage?"

"I loved her. I knew that it was the only way. Madly as I loved her, I
knew that Molly was weak as water. I could not, would not, run the risk
of letting her leave me without the legal tie. But I justified it to
myself--I could have justified anything, I fear! I vowed a vow that she
would be repaid for the waiting as never woman yet was paid. She wept on
my shoulder and said, 'And you really do love me, Harry--and you'll
swear mother need never know?'

"I swore it. There were to be no letters. Molly was too terrified to
write and still more terrified of receiving a letter. She would live in
constant dread, she said, if there were a possibility of such a thing.
Weak in everything else she was adamant in this.

"I went back to work. I worked with the strength of ten. Health,
comfort, pleasure, all were subordinated to the fever of work. I hoped
that I might steal a glimpse of her sometimes. She promised to try to
return to Toronto. But my letter must have alarmed the mother. I found
out, indirectly, that shortly after her return, Mrs. Weston whisked her
off to Europe. They were gone a year. When they returned I was in the
far west with a government surveying party, earning something to help me
with my last year's college expenses. When I was again in Toronto she
had vanished. Gone, as I afterward learned, to stay with an aunt in
California. Her mother, alive to danger, was not going to risk a
meeting, and my vow to Molly left me helpless. But how I worked!

"That last year things began to come my way. Adela married a fine young
fellow, wealthy and generous. My mother went to live with them in their
western home, Calgary, where they still are. Then Thomas Callandar, my
mother's brother, who had never bothered about any of us living, died,
and left me a handsome property, adding, as you already know, the
condition that I take the family name. You remember that my father's
name, the name under which I married Molly, was Chedridge.

"Nothing now held me from Molly--in another month I would have my
degree, and free and rich I could go to claim her. It seemed like a
fairy tale! In my great happiness I broke my promise and wrote to her,
to the California address, hoping to catch her there. In three weeks'
time the letter came back from the dead letter office. I wrote again,
this time to the Cleveland address, a short note only, telling her I was
free at last. Then, next day, I followed the letter to Cleveland, wealth
in one hand, the assurance of an honourable degree in the other.

"I had no trouble in finding the house. It was one of a row of houses,
nondescript but comfortable, in a pleasant street. It seemed familiar--I
had seen Molly's snapshots of it often. I cannot tell you what it felt
like to be really there--to walk down the street, up the path, up the
steps to the veranda. I was trembling as with ague, I was chalk-white I
knew--was I not in another moment to see my wife!

"I could hear the electric bell tingle somewhere inside. Then an awful
pause. What if they were not at home? What if they lived there no
longer? I knew with a pang of fear that I could not bear another
disappointment.

"There was a sound in the hall, the door knob moved--the door opened. I
gasped in the greatness of my relief for the face in the opening was
undoubtedly the face of Molly's mother. They were at home. They must
have had my letter--they must be expecting me--

"Something in the woman's face daunted me. It was deathly and strained.
Surely she did not intend to continue her opposition? Yet it confused
me. I forgot all that I had intended to say, I stammered:

"'I am Henry Chedridge. I want to see Molly. I am rich, I have my
degree--'

"'You cannot see her!' she said. Just that! The door began to close. But
I had myself in hand now. I laid hold of the door and spoke in a
different tone. The tone of a master.

"'This is foolish, Mrs. Weston. I thought you understood. I can and I
will see your daughter. Molly is my wife!'

"She gave way at that. The door opened wide, showing a long empty hall.
The woman stood aside, made no effort to stop me, but looking me in the
eyes she said: 'You come too late. Your wife is not here. Molly
is dead!'

"Then, in one second, it seemed that all the years of overwork, of
mental strain and bodily deprivation rose up and took their due. I tried
to speak, stuttered foolishly, and fell like dead over the door-sill of
the house I was never to enter.

"You know the rest, for you saved me. When I struggled back to life,
without the will to live, you shamed and stung me into effort. You
brought the new master-influence into my life, taught me that the old
ambition, the old work-ardour was not dead. Those months with you in
Paris, in Germany, in London at the feet of great men saw a veritable
new birth. I ceased to be Henry Chedridge, lover, and became Henry
Callandar, scientist. All this I owe to you."

The other raised his hand.

"No, not that. Some impulse I may have given you, but you have made
yourself what you are. But--you have not told me all yet?"

"No." Again the doctor began his uneasy pacing of the room. "The rest is
harder to tell. It is not so clear. It has nothing to do with facts at
all. It is just that when I first began to show signs of overwork this
last time I became troubled with an idea, an obsession. It had no
foundation. It persisted without reason. It was fast becoming
unbearable!"

He paused in his restless pacing and Willits' keen eyes noticed the look
of strain which had aroused his alarm some months ago. Nevertheless he
asked in his most matter-of-fact tone, "And the idea was--?"

Callandar hesitated. "I can hardly speak of it yet in the past tense.
The idea is--that Molly is not dead!"

"Good Heavens!" ejaculated the professor, startled out of his calm. "But
have you any reason to doubt? To--to base--"

"None whatever. No enquiries which I have made cast doubt upon the
mother's words. But on the other hand I have been unable to confirm
them. I cannot find where my wife died--except that there is no record
of her death in the Cleveland registries. She did not die in Cleveland."

"But you have told me that they were seldom at home. That the mother was
a great traveller."

"Yes. The want of evidence in Cleveland proves nothing."

"Did you feel any doubt at first?"

"Absolutely none. The gloomy house, the empty hall, the white face and
black dress of the woman in the door, the look of horror and anger in
her eyes--yes, and a kind of grim triumph too--all served to drive the
fatal message home. Dead!--There was death in the air of that house,
death in the ghastly face--in the cruel, toneless words!--After my
tedious recovery I made an effort to see Mrs. Weston, although I had
conceived a horror of the woman, but she was gone. The house had been
sold. I tried to trace her without result. She seemed to have vanished
off the face of the earth."

"And how long ago did the whole thing happen?"

"Twelve years. I was twenty-three when I went to claim my bride. I am
thirty-five now."

"Dear me!" said the little man sincerely, "I have always thought you
older than that! But twelve years is--twelve years! And you say this
doubt is a very recent thing?"

"Yes. I have told you the thing is absurd. But I can't help it."

"Have you made any further enquiries?"

"Yes, uselessly. There is a rumour that Mrs. Weston, too, is dead. A
lady who used to know them tells me that she is certain she heard of her
death--in England, she thinks, but upon being questioned was quite at
sea as to where or when or even as to the original source of her
information. She remembers 'hearing it' and that's all. Then I sought
for the aunts, the maiden ladies whom Molly visited in California. They
too are gone, the older died during the time I lay ill in the hospital.
The younger one was not quite bright, I believe, and was taken away to
live with some relatives in the East. It was not Molly's mother who
fetched her. It was a man, a very kind man whom the old lady, my
informant, had never seen before. She said he had a queer name. She
could not remember it, but thought he was a physician. I imagine that
the kind friend was an asylum doctor."

"Very likely. And could your informant tell you nothing of the niece--if
Molly had visited there?"

"She remembered her last visit very well but her memories were of no
value. She was a sweet, pretty child, she said, and she often wondered
how she came to have such a homely mother. She evidently disliked Mrs.
Weston very much, and when I asked her if she had ever heard of Molly's
death she said no, but that she was not a bit surprised as she had
always predicted that the pretty, little, white thing would be worried
into an early grave. I noticed the word 'white' and asked her about it,
for the Molly I knew had a lovely colour. Her memory became confused
when I pressed her, but she seemed quite sure that the girl who came
that winter with her mother was a very pale girl--looked as if she might
have come south for her health."

"All of which goes to prove--"

"Yes--I know. Poor Molly! Poor little girl! I believe in my heart that
our mad marriage killed her. Without me constantly with her, the fear of
her mother, perhaps the doubt of me, the burden of the whole disastrous
secret was too much. And it was my fault, Willits--all my fault!" He
turned to the window to hide his working face. "Do you wonder," he added
softly, "that her poor little wraith comes back to trouble me?"

"Come, come, no need to be morbid! You made a mistake, but you have
paid. As for the doubt which troubles you--it is but the figment of a
tired brain. The mother could have had no possible reason for deceiving
you. You were no longer an ineligible student--and the girl loved you.
Besides, there was the legal tie. Would any woman condemn her daughter
to a false position for life? And without reason? The idea is
preposterous. Come now, admit it!"

"Oh, I admit it! My reasoning powers are still unimpaired. But reason
has nothing to do with that kind of mental torture. It is my soul that
has been sick; it is my soul that must be cured. And to come back to the
very point from which we started, I believe I shall find that cure
here--in Coombe."

"With Mrs. Sykes?" dryly.

"Certainly. Mrs. Sykes is part of the cure."

"And the other part?"

"Oh--just everything. I hardly know why I like the place. But I do. Why
analyse? I can sleep here. I wake in the morning like a man with the
right to live, and for the first time in a year, Willits, a long
torturing year, I am beginning to feel free of that oppression, that
haunting sense that somewhere Molly is alive, that she needs me and that
I cannot get to her. I had begun to fear that it would drive me mad.
But, here, it is going. Yesterday I was walking down a country road and
suddenly I felt free--exquisitely, gloriously free--the past wiped out!
That--that was why I almost feared to see you, Elliott, you bring the
past so close."

The hands of the friends met in a firm handclasp.

"Have it your own way," said the professor, smiling his grim smile.
"Consider me silenced."

The doctor's answer was cut off by the jingling entrance of Mrs. Sykes
bearing before her a large tray upon which stood tall glasses, a beaded
pitcher of ice cold lemonade and some cake with white frosting.

"Seeing as it's so hot," said she amiably, "I thought a cold drink might
cool you off some. Especially as breakfast will be five minutes late
owing to the chicken. I thought maybe as you had a friend, doctor, a
chicken--"

"A chicken will be delicious," said the doctor, answering the question
in her voice. "Mrs. Sykes, let me present Professor Willits; Willits,
Mrs. Sykes! Let me take the tray."

Mrs. Sykes shook hands cordially. "Land sakes!" she said. "I thought you
were a priest! Not that I really suspicioned that the doctor, good
Presbyterian as he is, would know any such. But priests is terrible
wily. They deceive the very elect--and it's best to be prepared. As it
is, any friend of the doctor's is a friend of mine. You're kindly
welcome, I'm sure."

"Thank you," said the professor limply.

The doctor handed them each a glass and raised his own.

"Let us drink," he said, "to Coombe. 'Coombe and the Soul cure!'"

"Amen!" said Willits.

"Land sakes!" said Mrs. Sykes. "I thought it was his spine!"




CHAPTER VIII


Zerubbabel Burk sat upon his stool of office in the doctor's consulting
room, swinging his legs. Would-be discoverers of perpetual motion might
have received many hints from Bubble, though he himself would have
scorned to consider the swinging of legs as motion. He was under the
delusion that he was sitting perfectly still. For the doctor was asleep.

Asleep, at four o'clock on a glorious summer day! No wonder his friend
and partner wore a tragic face.

"Doesn't seem to care a hang if he never gets any patients!" mused
Bubble, resentfully, stealing a half fond, half angry glance at the
placid face of the sleeper. "Only two folks in all day and one a kid
with a pin in its throat. And all he says is, 'Don't worry, son, we're
getting on fine!' We'll go smash one of these days, that's what we'll
do--just smash!"

"Tap-tap" sounded the blinds which were drawn over the western windows.
A pleasant little breeze was trying to come in. "Buzz" sounded a fly on
the wall. Bubble arose noisily and killed it with a resounding "thwack."

"Wake the doctor, would you?" he said. "Take that!"

But even the pistol-like report which accompanied the fly's demise
failed to ruffle the sleeper. Bubble returned disconsolate to
his stool.

"Smash," he repeated, "smash is the word. I see our finish."

The pronoun which Bubble used nowadays was always "we." He belonged to
the doctor body and soul, but it was no servile giving. The doctor also
belonged to him, and it was with this privilege of ownership that he now
found fault with his idol. Had any one else objected to the doctor's
afternoon rest he would have found reason and excuse enough; but in his
own heart he was puzzled. Such indifference to the appearances, such
wilful disregard of "business" could hardly, he thought, be real; yet,
for an imitation, it was remarkably well done. Bubble admired even while
he deprecated.

Why, he did not even go to church so that the minister might introduce
him around as "Dr. Callandar, the new brother who has come amongst us."
Neither did he walk down Main Street, nor show himself in public places.
When he went walking he went early in the morning and directed his steps
toward the country. About all the usual means of harmless and necessary
advertising he did not seem to know Beans! Bubble looked disconsolately
out of the window. There was Ann, now, coming across the yard. School
must be out, and still the doctor slept.

"Anybody in?" asked Ann in a stage whisper.

"Not just now. Been very busy though. Doctor's resting. Stop that
noise."

"I'm not making any noise! He's part my doctor anyway. I'll make a noise
if I like--"

"No you won't, miss!"

"But I don't _like_," added Ann with her impish smile. "If he's asleep
what are you staying here for? Come on out."

Bubble regarded the tempter with scornful amazement.

"That's it!" he exclaimed, "jest like I always said, women haven't any
sense of honour. What d'ye suppose I'm here for?"

"Not just to swing your legs," placidly. "He doesn't need you when he's
asleep, does he? Come on and let's get some water-cress. He'd like some
for his tea--dinner I mean. Say, Bubble, why does he call it dinner?"

"Because he comes from the city, Silly! They don't have any tea in the
city. They have breakfast when they get up and lunch at noon and dinner
about seven or eight or nine at night. Then if they get hungry before
bed-time they have supper. The doctor says he never gets hungry after
dinner so he don't have that."

Ann considered this a moment.

"They do so have tea!" she declared. "I heard Mrs. Andrew West telling
about it. She said her sister in Toronto had a tea specially for her."

"Oh," with superb disdain, "that's just for women. If they can't wait
for dinner they get bread and butter and tea in the afternoon. But they
have to eat it walking around and they only get it when they go out
to call."

Ann sighed. "I'd like to live in the city," she murmured. "Say, don't
you feel as if you'd like a cookie right now?"

Bubble squirmed. But his Spartan fortitude held.

"In business hours? No, thank you. 'Tisn't professional. Look silly,
wouldn't I, if one of our patients caught me eating?"

"How many to-day?"

"That'd be telling. 'Tisn't professional to tell. Doctor says if a man
wants to succeed, he's got to be as dumb as a noyster in business!"

"Pshaw!" said Ann, "Aunty'll tell. She always counts. Then you don't
want a cookie?"

"Well--later on--Cricky! here's some one coming! You scoot--pike it!"

"I won't!" Ann stood her ground, peering eagerly around the rose bush.
"It's only Esther Coombe. She'll be coming to see Aunt--no--she's coming
here! Hi, Bubble, wake him up--quick!"

"Hum, Hum!" said Bubble in a loud voice, rattling a chair. The sleeper
made no movement.

Ann, brave through anxiety, flew across the room and shook him with all
the strength of her small hands. The heavy lids lifted and still
Ann shook.

"Is it an earthquake?" asked the victim politely.

"No--it's a patient! Oh, do get up. Oh, goodness gracious, look at your
hair!"

The doctor passed his hand absently over a disordered head. "Yes," he
said, "I have always thought that shaking is not good for hair. Dear me!
I believe I have been asleep!"

Ann threw him a glance of mingled admiration and reproach and vanished
through the parlour door just as the step of the patient sounded upon
the stone steps.

"Why, Bubble Burk!" said a voice. "What are you doing here?"

At the sound of the voice, sleep fled from the doctor's eyes. He arose
precipitately.

"I'm workin'," Bubble's voice was not as confident as usual. "This here
is Dr. Callandar's office. Mrs. Sykes' visitors go round to the
front door."

"Oh! But it's the doctor I wish to see. Is he in?"

Bubble was now plainly agitated.

"If you'll just wait a moment, I'll--I'll see."

Leaving Esther smiling upon the steps he disappeared into the shaded
office and pulled up the blinds. The couch had been decorously
straightened. The office was empty! Bubble gave a sigh of relief and his
professional manner returned.

"He isn't just what you might call in," he explained affably to Esther.
"But he'll be down directly. Walk in."

Esther walked in and took the seat which Bubble indicated.

"Somebody sick over at your house?" with ill-concealed hope.

Esther dimpled. "Not dangerously, thank you."

"Then it's just tickets for the choir concert. I might have known. But
you're too late. Doctor's got half a dozen already. He--"

Further revelations were cut short by the entrance of the doctor
himself. A doctor with sleep-cleared eyes, fresh collar, and newly
brushed hair. A doctor who shook hands with his caller in a manner which
even the professional Bubble felt to be irreproachable.

"Bubble, you may go."

With a grin of satisfied pride the junior partner departed, but once
outside the gloomy expression returned.

"It's only choir-tickets!" he told Ann, who was waiting around the
corner of the house. "Come on--let's go fishin'."

Inside the office Esther and the doctor looked at each other and smiled.
He, because he felt like smiling; she, because she felt nervous. Yet it
was not going to be as awkward as she had feared. With a decided sense
of relief she realised that Dr. Callandar looked exactly like a doctor
after all! Convention, even in clothes, has a calming effect. There was
little of the weary tramp who had quenched his throat at the school
pump in the well groomed and quietly capable looking doctor. With a
notable decrease of tension Esther saw that the man before her was a
stranger, a pleasant, professional stranger, with whom no embarrassment
was possible.

As for him he realised nothing except that Coombe was really a
delightful place. He felt glad that he had stayed.

"No one ill, I hope, Miss Coombe?" His tone, even, seemed to have lost
the whimsical inflection of the tramp.

"No, Doctor. Not ill exactly. It is Aunt Amy. We cannot understand just
what is the matter. You see, Aunty imagines things. She is not quite
like other people. Perhaps," with a quick smile as she thought of Mrs.
Sykes, "perhaps you may have heard of her--of her fantastic ideas? They
are really quite harmless and apart from them she is the most sensible
person I know. But lately, just the other day, something happened--"

He checked her with an almost imperceptible gesture. "Could you tell me
about it from the beginning?"

Esther looked troubled. "I do not know much about the beginning. You
see, Aunt Amy is my step-mother's aunt, and I have only known her since
she came to live with us shortly after my father's second marriage. But
I know that she has been subject to delusions since she was a young
girl. She was to have been married and on the wedding day her lover
became ill with scarlet fever, a most malignant type. She also sickened
with it a little later; it killed him and left her mentally twisted--as
she is now. Her health is good and the--strangeness--is not very
noticeable. It has usually to do with unimportant things. She is
really," with a little burst of enthusiasm, "a Perfect Dear!"

The doctor smiled. "And the new development?"

"It is not exactly new. She has always had one delusion more serious
than the others. She believes that she has enemies somewhere who would
do her harm if they got the chance. She is quite vague as to who or what
they are. She refers to them as 'They.' Once, when she came to us first,
she was frightened of poison and, although my father, who had great
influence over her, seemed to cure her of any active fear, for years she
has persisted in a curious habit of drinking her coffee without setting
down the cup. The idea seemed to be that if she let it out of her hands
'They,' the mysterious persecutors, might avail themselves of the
opportunity to drug it. Does it sound too fantastic?"

"No. It is not unusual--a fairly common delusion, in fact. There is a
distinct type of brain trouble, one of whose symptoms is a conviction of
persecution. The results are fantastic to a degree."

Well, the day before yesterday Aunt Amy was drinking her coffee as
usual, when she heard Jane scream in the garden. She is very fond of
Jane, and it startled her so that she jumped up at once, forgetting all
about the coffee, and ran out to see what was the matter. Jane had cut
her finger and the tiniest scratch upsets poor Auntie terribly. She is
terrified of blood. When she came back she felt faint and at once picked
up the cup and drank the remaining coffee. I hoped she had not noticed
the slip but she must have done so, subconsciously, for when I was
helping her with the dishes she turned suddenly white--ghastly. She had
just remembered!

'They've got me at last, Esther!' she said with a kind of proud
despair. 'I've been pretty smart, but not quite smart enough.'

I pretended not to understand and she explained quite seriously that
while she had been absent in the garden 'They' had seen her half-filled
cup and seized their opportunity. It was quite useless to point out that
there was no one in the house but ourselves. She only said, 'Oh, "They"
would not let me see them "They" are too smart for that.' Overwhelming
smartness is one of the attributes of the mysterious 'They.'

"I hoped that the idea would wear away but it didn't; it strengthened.
In vain I pointed out that she was perfectly well, with no symptom of
poisoning. She merely answered that naturally 'They' would be too smart
to use ordinary poisons with symptoms. 'I shall just grow weaker and
weaker,' she said, 'and in a week or a month I shall die!' I tried to
laugh but I was frightened. Mother advised taking no notice at all and I
have tried not to, but I can't keep it up. She is certainly weaker and
so strange and hopeless. I am terrified. Can mind really affect matter,
Doctor Callandar?"

"No. As a scientific fact, it cannot. But it is true that certain states
of mind and certain conditions of matter always correspond. Why this is
so, no one knows, when we do know we shall hold the key to many
mysteries. The understanding, even partial, of this correspondence will
be a long step in a long new road. Meanwhile we speak loosely of mind
influencing matter, ignoring the impossibility. And, however it happens,
it is undoubtedly true that if we can, by mental suggestion, influence
your Aunt's mind into a more healthy attitude the corresponding change
will take place physically."

"But I have tried to reason with her."

"You can't reason with her. She is beyond mere reason. I might as well
try to reason you out of your conviction that the sun is shining. A
delusion like hers has all the stability of a perfectly sane belief."

"Then what can we do?"

"Since that delusion is a fact for her we must treat it as if it were a
fact for us."

"You mean we must pretend to believe that the danger is real?"

"It is real. People have died before now of nothing save a fixed idea of
death."

"Oh!"

"But don't worry. Aunt Amy is not going to die. When may I see her? If I
come over in a half an hour will that be convenient?"

Esther rose with relief. How kind he had been! How completely he had
understood! She had been right, perfectly right, in coming to him. In
spite of Mrs. Coombe's ridicule, Aunt Amy's need had been no fancy. And
there was another thing; he was coming to the house. Her mother would
see him--and presto! her prejudice against doctors would vanish--he
would cure the headaches, and everything would be happy again.

The doctor, watching keenly, thought that she must have been troubled
greatly to show such evident relief.

"One thing more," he said. "Was there, do you know, any history of
insanity in your aunt's family?"

The girl paled. The idea was a disturbing one.

"Why--no--I think not. I never heard. You see, she is not my Aunt,
really, but my step-mother's aunt. There was a brother, I think, who
died in--in an institution. He was not quite responsible, but in his
case it was drink. That is different, isn't it? Does it make any
difference?"

"No--only it may help me to understand the case. Good-afternoon."

He watched her go, through a peep-hole made by Bubble in the blind.

"Pretty, isn't she?" said a reflective voice below him.

The doctor started. But it was only Mrs. Sykes who had stepped around
the house corner to pluck some flowers from the bed beneath the window.
As he did not answer, the voice continued, "That boy Burk has gone
fishing. I told you you'd regret putting that new suit on to him, brass
buttons and all! Not that I want to say anything against the lad and his
mother a widow, but when a person's dealing with a limb of mischief a
person ought to know what to expect. Anybody sick over at
Esther's house?"

The doctor, leaning against the door in deep reverie, did not seem to
hear. Mrs. Sykes, after a suspicious glance, decided that perhaps he
really had not heard, and proceeded.

"Not that I'm asking out of curiosity, Land sakes! But I've got some
black currant jelly that sick folks fancy. I could spare a jar as
well as not."

A pause.

The flower picker bunched her flowers into a tight round knot which she
surveyed with pride. "That step-mother of Esther's now," she said. "I
don't hold much with her. Flighty, I call her. Delicate, too, if looks
don't lie. Men are queer. The only thing queerer is women. What d'ye
suppose a sensible middle-aged man like Doctor Coombe ever saw in that
pretty doll? And what did she see in him--old enough to be her father? A
queer match, I call it. But they do say that her side of it is easy
explained. Anyway it must have been a trying thing when the doctor's
gold mine didn't--"

Mrs. Sykes' flow of words ceased abruptly, for rising from a last
descent upon the rose bush she saw that her audience had vanished.

"Dear me! I hope he didn't think I was trying to be curious," said Mrs.
Sykes.




CHAPTER IX


It required some persuasion to induce Aunt Amy to consent to see the
doctor. Doctors, she had found (with the single exception of Dr.
Coombe), were terribly unreasonable. They asked all kinds of questions,
and never believed a word of the answers.

"And if I have a doctor," she declared tearfully, "I shall have to go to
bed. And if I go to bed who will get supper? The sprigged tea-set--"

"But you won't need to go to bed, Auntie. You aren't ill, you know; just
a little bit upset. If you feel like lying down why not use the sofa in
my room? And even if you do not wish to see the doctor for yourself,"
Esther's tone was reproachful, "think what a good opportunity it is for
us to get an opinion about mother. Don't you remember saying just the
other day that you thought mother was foolish to be so nervous
about doctors?"

"Yes, but she needn't stay in the room, need she, Esther? I don't want
her in the room. She laughs. But I would like to lie on your sofa and if
I must see him I had better wear my lavender cap."

"Yes, dear, and you will not mind mother staying--"

"But I do mind, Esther. And anyway she can't," triumphantly, "because
she has gone out."

"Gone out? Mother? But she knew the doctor was coming and she
promised--"

"Yes, I know. She said to tell you she had fully intended staying in
until the doctor had been, but she had forgotten about the Ladies' Aid
Meeting. She simply had to go to that. She said you could attend to the
doctor quite as well as she could and that it was all nonsense anyway,
because there was nothing whatever the matter with me." The faded eyes
filled with tears again and Esther had much ado to prevent their
imminent overflow.

She settled Aunt Amy upon the couch and adjusted the lavender cap
without further betrayal of her own feelings, but in her heart she was
both angry and hurt. Her mother had known of the doctor's intended visit
and had distinctly promised to remain in to receive him. What would Dr.
Callandar think? It was most humiliating.

The Ladies' Aid Meeting was plainly an excuse for a deliberate shirking
of responsibility. Or, worse still, Mrs. Coombe, divining Esther's
double motive, may have left the house purposely to escape seeing the
doctor on her own account. Esther well knew the stubbornness of which
she was capable upon this one question, and the cunningness of it was
like her. She had made no objections; she had not troubled to refuse or
to argue--she had simply gone out.

Well, it was something to feel that she, Esther, had done what she
could. At any rate, there was no time to worry, for the doctor was
already coming up the walk.

Esther hurried to the door. It relieved her to find that he seemed to
expect her, and showed no offence on realising that the patient's
nearest relative was not at home to receive him. Indeed, he seemed to
think of no one save the patient herself. His manner, Esther thought,
was perfect. Had she been a little older she might have suspected such
perfection, deducing from it that Callandar, like herself, was
subconsciously aware of an interest in the situation not altogether
professional. But the girl made no deductions and certainly there was no
trace of any embarrassment in the doctor's way with his patient. It took
only a moment for Esther to decide that here, at least, she had done the
right thing. She waited only long enough to see the frightened look in
Aunt Amy's eyes replaced by one of timid confidence and then, murmuring
an excuse, slipped away, leaving them together.

Callandar also waited while the startled eyes grew quiet and then lifted
the fluttering hand into his own firm one.

"Creatures of habit, we doctors, aren't we?" he said, smiling. "Always
taking people's temperatures."

Aunt Amy ventured upon a vague answering smile.

"I understand," continued the doctor, "that you have reason to fear that
you have been poisoned?"

The hand began to flutter again, but quieted as the pleasant, confident
voice went on:

"Your niece has told me something of the case but no details. Perhaps
you can supply them for me. When exactly did it happen and what kind of
poison was it?"

The fluttering hand became quite still and the eyes of Aunt Amy slowly
filled with a great amazement. Here was an unbelievable thing--a doctor
who did not argue or deny or playfully scold her for "fancies." A doctor
who took her seriously and showed every intention of believing what she
said. No one, save Dr. Coombe, had ever done that--

"It is always best in these cases to get the details from the patient
herself," went on the doctor, encouragingly.

No, he was not laughing! Aunt Amy could detect nothing save the gravest
of interest in his kindly eyes. An immense relief stole over her. A
relief so great that Callandar, watching, felt his heart grow hot
with pity.

"Oh, doctor!" she cried feebly, "I--" a rush of easy tears drowned the
rest of the sentence.

Callandar let her cry. He knew the value of those tears. Presently when
she grew more quiet he exchanged her soaking bit of cambric for his own
more serviceable square. Aunt Amy dried her eyes on it and handed it
back as simply as a child.

"Pray excuse me," she begged, "but--the relief! I might have died if you
had not come." She went on brokenly. "You see," dropping her voice, "my
relatives are _queer_. They have strange ideas. When I know things quite
well they tell me I am mistaken. Mary, my niece, laughs. Even Esther,
who tries to help me, thinks I do not know what I am talking about. They
all argue in the most absurd manner. If I do not pretend always that I
agree with them I have no peace. Sometimes when I tell some of the
things I know, Esther looks frightened and says I am not to tell Jane.
So I try to keep everything to myself. I don't want the children to be
frightened. They are young and ought to be happy. I was happy when I was
young--at least, I think it was I. Sometimes I'm not sure whether it
wasn't some other girl--I get confused--"

"Don't worry about it," said the doctor calmly. "Or about Miss Esther
either. I want to hear all about the poison."

Aunt Amy remembered her precarious condition with a start. Her eyes grew
vague.

"I don't know how They put it in," she said. "I didn't see Them, you
know. I left my cup of coffee standing while I went to find Jane. I
heard her crying. She had cut her finger and when I had bound it up I
felt faint, so I foolishly forgot and picked up the coffee and drank it.
I wasn't quite myself or I should never have been so careless."

The doctor seemed to appreciate this point. "Did you taste anything in
the coffee?" he asked.

"No. Of course They would be too clever for that!"

"And when did you begin to feel ill?"

"Just as soon as I remembered that I had forgotten to pour out a fresh
cup." The naivete of this statement was quite lost upon the
eager speaker.

Esther, who had re-entered the room, opened her lips to improve this
opportunity for argument but, meeting the doctor's eye, refrained.
Callandar took no notice of the significant admission.

"Where do you feel the pain now?" he asked.

Aunt Amy appeared disturbed.

"Mostly in my head--I--I think." She moved restlessly.

Callandar appeared to consider this.

"But I suppose," he said thoughtfully, "that you really feel very little
actual pain. None at all perhaps?"

Aunt Amy admitted that she could not locate any particular pain.

"Weakness is the predominating symptom," went on the doctor. "It is, in
fact, a very simple case. All the more serious, of course, for being so
simple, _if_ we did not understand it. But now that we know exactly what
is wrong we need have no fear."

Aunt Amy's vague eyes began to shine.

"Shall we get the better of them again?" she asked eagerly.

"We certainly shall," kindly. "Miss Esther, I am going to leave some
medicine for your aunt; these little pink tablets. She must have one
every two hours and two at bedtime. When she has taken them for two days
I shall send something else. You will notice an improvement almost at
once. Even in an hour or two, perhaps. By the end of the week all
medicine may be discontinued."

He crushed a little pink tablet in a spoon, mixed it with water, and
watched the old lady while she eagerly swallowed it.

"There!" he exclaimed. "That is the beginning! All we need now is a
little rest and quiet. Nothing to excite the patient and a tablet
regularly every two hours." He arose, affecting not to see Aunt Amy's
grateful tears. "And of course," he added as if by an afterthought,
"_They_ won't know anything about this. They will think that, having
taken the coffee, the result is certain. They will take for granted that
They have finished you, in fact! So cheer up, it is worth a little
illness to be rid of the fear of Them forever."

A lightning flash of hope lit up the worn face upon the pillow. "Oh,
Doctor! Do you really think I am free?"

"Sure of it."

Aunt Amy sank back with a long sigh; her lined face grew suddenly
peaceful. Esther, who had observed the little scene with wonder, said
nothing, but taking the tablets, kissed her Aunt, and led the way out
in silence.

"Well?"

As they stood together in the hall she could see the amused twinkle in
the doctor's eye.

"I don't like it! You lied to her!"

"So I did," cheerfully.

"These tablets," holding up the glass vial, "what are they?"

"Tonic."

"And the medicine which you are going to send later?"

"More tonic."

"But she thinks--you gave her to understand that they are the antidote
for the poison which you know does not exist."

"No. They are the antidote for a poison which does exist--medicine for a
mind diseased."

"It's--it's like taking advantage of a child."

"So it is, exactly. I suppose you have never taken advantage of a child,
for the child's good?"

"Certainly not."

"Never told one, gave one to understand, so to speak, that a kiss will
cure a bumped head?"

"That's different!"

"Never told your school class during a thunderstorm that lightning never
hurts good children?"

"That's very different."

"And yet all the time you know that lightning falls upon the just and
unjust equally."

Esther was silent. The doctor laughed.

"I fear we are both sad story-tellers," he said gaily. "But in Aunt
Amy's case the fibbing will all be charged to my account, you are merely
the nurse. A nurse's duty is to obey orders and not frown (as you are
doing now) upon the doctor. You will find that I shall effect a cure.
Seriously, I do not believe that you have any idea of what that poor
woman has been suffering. If the delusion of living in continual danger
can be lifted in any way even for a time, it will make life over for
her. You would not really allow a scruple to prevent some alleviation of
your Aunt's condition, would you?"

The girl's downcast eyes flashed up to his, startlingly blue.

"No. I would not. I love her. I would tell all the fibs in the world to
help her. But all the time I should have a queer idea that _I_ was doing
wrong. It would be common sense against instinct."

"Against prejudice," he corrected. "The prejudice which always insists
that truth consists in a form of words."

They were now in the cool green light of the living room. Esther stood
with her back to the table, leaning slightly backward, supporting
herself by one hand. She looked tired. There were shadows under her
eyes. The doctor felt an impulse of irritation against the absent mother
who let the girl outwear her strength.

"My advice to you is not to worry," he said abruptly. "You are tired.
More tired than a young girl of your age ought to be. You cannot teach
those imps of Satan--I mean those charming children--all day and come
back to home cares at night. Will it be possible for me to speak to Mrs.
Coombe before I go?"

Watching her keenly he saw that now he had touched the real cause of the
trouble.

"I am sorry," began Esther, but meeting his look, the prim words of
conventional excuse halted. A little smile curled the end of her lips
and she added, "Since she went out purposely to escape you, it is
not likely."

"Your mother went out to escape me?" in surprise.

"In your capacity of doctor only. You see," with a certain childish
naivete, "she hasn't seen you yet. And mother dislikes doctors very
much. Oh!" with a hot blush, "you will think we are a queer family,
all of us!"

"It is not at all queer to dislike doctors," he answered her cheerfully.
"I dislike them myself. At the very best they are necessary evils."

"Indeed no! And when one is ill it seems so foolish--"

"Is Mrs. Coombe ill?"

"I don't know. I think so. She has headaches. She is not at all like
herself. I hoped so much that you would meet her this afternoon, and
then she--she went out!"

"And this is really what is troubling you, and not Aunt Amy?"

"Yes. You see, Aunt Amy has been quite all right until the last two
days. But mother--that has been troubling us a long time."

"How long?"

"Almost since father died--a year ago."

"But--don't you think that if Mrs. Coombe were really ill her prejudice
would disappear? People do not suffer from choice, usually."

"No. That is just what puzzles me!" She did indeed look puzzled, very
puzzled and very young.

"If I could help you in any way?" suggested Callandar. "You may be
worrying quite needlessly."

"Do people ever consult you about their mothers behind their mother's
back?"

"Often. Why not?"

"Only that it doesn't seem natural. Grown-up people--"

"Are often just as foolish as anybody else!"

"Besides, I doubt if I can make you understand." Now that the ice was
broken Esther's voice was eager. "I know very little of the real trouble
myself. It seems to be just a general state of health. But it varies so.
Sometimes she seems quite well, bright, cheerful, ready for anything!
Then again she is depressed, nervous, irritable. She has desperate
headaches which come on at intervals. They are nervous headaches, she
says, and are so bad that she shuts herself up in her room and will not
let any of us in. She will not eat. I--I don't know very much about
it, you see."

"You know a little more than that, I think, perhaps when you know me
better?--It is, after all, a matter of trusting one's doctor."

"I do trust you. But feelings are so difficult to put into words. And
the greatest dread I have about mother's illness is only a feeling, a
feeling as if I knew, without quite knowing, that the trouble is deeper
than appears. Jane feels it too, so it can't be all imagination. It is
caused, I think, by a change in mother herself. She seems to be growing
into another person--don't laugh!"

"I am not laughing. Please go on."

"Well, one thing more tangible is that the headaches, which seem to mark
a kind of nervous crisis, are becoming more frequent. And the
medicine--"

"But you told me that she took no medicine!"

"Did I? Then I am telling my story very badly. She has some medicine
which she always takes. It is a prescription which my father gave her a
few months before he died. She had a bad attack of some nervous trouble
then which seems to have been the beginning of everything. But that time
she recovered and it was not until after father's death that the
headaches began again. Father's prescription must, long ago, have lost
all effect, or why should the trouble get worse rather than better? But
mother will not hear a word on the subject. She will take that medicine
and nothing else."

"Do you know what the medicine is?"

"No. Father used to fill it for her himself. She says it is a very
difficult prescription and she never has it filled in town, always in
the city."

"But why? Taylor, here, is quite capable of filling any prescription. He
is a most capable dispenser."

"Yes--I know. But mother will not believe it."

"And you say it does her no good whatever?"

"She thinks that it does. She has a wonderful belief in it. But she gets
no better."

The doctor looked very thoughtful.

"She will not allow you to try any kind of compress for her head?"

"No. She locks her door. And I am sure she suffers, for sometimes when I
have gone up hoping to help I have heard such strange sounds, as if she
were delirious. It frightens me!"

"Does she talk of her illness?"

"Never, and she is furious if I do. She says she is quite well and
indeed no one would think that anything serious was wrong unless they
lived in the house. Any one outside would be sure that I am worrying
needlessly. Am I, do you think?"

"I can't think until I know more. But from what you tell me, it looks as
if this medicine she is taking might have something to do with it. If it
does no good, it probably does harm. Perhaps it was never intended to
be used as she is using it. Otherwise, as you say, the attacks would
diminish. At the same time a blind faith in a certain medicine is not at
all uncommon. One meets it constantly. Also the prejudice against
consulting a physician. It is probable that Mrs. Coombe does not realise
that she is steadily growing worse. Could you let me examine the
medicine?"

Esther hesitated.

"It is kept locked up. But, I might manage it. If I asked her for it she
would certainly refuse. I--I should hate to steal it," miserably.

"I see. Well, try asking first. It is just a question of how far one has
the right to interfere with another's deliberately chosen course of
action. The medicine is probably injurious, even dangerous. I should
warn her, at least. If she will do nothing and you still feel
responsible I should say that you have a moral right to have your own
mind reassured upon the matter."

Esther smiled. "I believe I feel reassured already. Perhaps I have been
foolishly apprehensive and it never occurred to me that the medicine
might be at fault; at the worst I thought it might be useless, not
harmful. If I could only manage to have you see it without _taking_ it!
There must be a way. I'll think of something and let you know."

"Do." The doctor picked up his hat for the second time. He was genuinely
interested. He had not expected to find a problem of any complexity in
sleepy Coombe. The cases of Aunt Amy and the peculiar Mrs. Coombe seemed
to justify his staying on. It was pleasant also to help this charming
young girl--although that, naturally, was a secondary consideration!

Esther ran upstairs with a lightened heart.




CHAPTER X


"I really could not help being late, Esther! I tried to hurry them but
Mrs. Lewis was there. You know what _she_ is!"

Mrs. Coombe sank gracefully into a veranda chair. Out of the corners of
her eyes she cast a swift glance at the face of her step-daughter and,
as the girl was not looking, permitted herself a tiny smile of malicious
amusement. She was a small woman but one in whom smallness was charm and
not defect. Once she had been exceedingly pretty; she was moderately
pretty still. The narrow oval of her face remained unspoiled but the
small features, once delicately clear, appeared in some strange way to
be blurred and coarsened. The fine grained skin which should have been
delicate and firm had coarsened also and upon close inspection showed
multitudes of tiny lines. Her fluffy hair was very fair, ashy fair
almost, and would have been startlingly lovely only that it, too, was
spoiled by a dryness and lack of gloss which spoke of careless treatment
or ill health, or both. Still, at a little distance, Mary Coombe
appeared a young and attractive woman. The surprise came when one looked
into her eyes. Her eyes did not fit the face at all; they were old eyes,
tired yet restless, and clouded with a peculiar film which robbed them
of all depth. Curiously disturbing eyes they were, like windows with
the blinds down!

If her eyes were restless, her hands were restless too and she kept
snapping the catch of her hand-bag with an irritating click as
she spoke.

"I know I ought to have been here when the doctor called to see Amy,"
she went on, "but I could not get away. Mrs. Lewis talked and talked.
That woman is worse than Tennyson's brook. She makes me want to scream!
I wonder," musingly, "what would happen if I should jump up some day and
scream and scream? I think I'll try it."

"Do!"

"What did Doctor Paragon-what's-his-name say about Amy?"

"He thinks we have been treating Aunt Amy wrongly. He thinks she should
be humoured more. His name is Callandar."

"Callandar? What an odd name! It sounds half-familiar. I must have heard
it somewhere. There is a Dr. Callandar in Montreal, isn't there? A
specialist or something."

"I think this is the same man. But if it is he, doesn't want it known.
He is here for his health, and he has never taken the trouble to correct
the impression that he is a beginner working up a practice. I thought so
myself at first."

"At first?"

"When I first saw him. I have met him several times."

Mrs. Coombe was evidently not sufficiently interested to pursue the
subject. "Whoever he is," she said fretfully, "I hope he is not going to
allow Amy to fancy herself an invalid."

"He is going to cure the fancy."

"Oh!" dubiously. "Well, I hope he does! I find I must run over to
Detroit for a few days."

"What?"

"It would be provoking to have her ill while I'm away. No one else can
manage Jane properly while you're at school. Where is Jane?"

"I don't know. You are not speaking seriously, are you?"

"I certainly am. At a pinch I suppose I could take Jane with me. She
needs new clothes. But I'd rather not bother with her. Her measure will
do quite as well. I wish you would call her. I've got some butterscotch
somewhere. Here it is." The restless hands fumbled in the hand-bag. "No,
it isn't here, how odd! I promised Jane--"

"Mother, when did you decide to go away?"

"Some time ago. It doesn't matter, does it? I had a letter from Jessica
Bremner to-day. She asks me to come at once. It's in this bag somewhere.
I declare I never can find anything! Anyway, she wants me to come."

"When did you get the letter?"

"On the noon mail, of course."

Esther turned away. She knew very well that there had been no letter
from Detroit on the noon mail. But there seemed no use in saying so.
These little "inaccuracies" were becoming common enough. At first Esther
had exposed and laughed at them as merely humorous mistakes; but that
attitude had long been replaced by a cold disgust which did not scruple
to call things by their right names. She knew very well that Mary Coombe
had developed the habit of lying.

"You see," went on the prevaricator cheerfully, "it would be necessary
to run down to Toronto soon anyway. I haven't a rag fit to wear and
neither has Jane. But Detroit is better. Things are much cheaper across
the line. And easy as anything to smuggle. All you need to do is to wear
them once and swear they're old."

"An oath is nothing? But where is the money coming from?"

Mrs. Coombe shrugged her shoulders. "One can't get along without
clothes! And even if I could, there is another reason for the trip. My
medicine is almost finished. I can't risk being without that."

It was the opportunity for which Esther had waited. She spoke eagerly.

"Why not try getting it filled here? I'm sure they are as careful as
possible at Taylor's."

The hand-bag shut with a particularly emphatic click. Mrs. Coombe rose.

"We have discussed that before," she said coldly. "It is a very
particular prescription and hard to fill. As it means so much to me in
my wretched health to have it exactly right, I am surprised at
you, Esther!"

Esther put the surprise aside.

"You could get it by mail, couldn't you?"

"I shall not try to get it by mail."

"But Taylor's are absolutely reliable. Why not give them a chance? If it
is not satisfactory I shall never say another word. It seems so
senseless going to Detroit for a few drugs which may be had around the
corner. Perhaps it is not as difficult to fill as you think. Let me show
the prescription to Dr. Callandar--" She stopped suddenly for Mrs.
Coombe had grown white, a pasty white, and she broke in upon the girl's
suggestion with a little inarticulate cry of rage, so uncalled for, so
utterly unexpected, that Esther was frightened. For a moment the film
seemed brushed from the hazel eyes--the blinds were raised and angry
fear peeped out.

"You wouldn't dare!" The words were a mere breath. Then meeting the
girl's look of blank amazement she caught herself from the brink of
hysteria and added more calmly, "What an impossible suggestion! I need
no second opinion upon the remedy which your father prescribed for me
and I shall take none. As for the journey, I shall ask your advice when
I wish it. At present I am capable of managing my own affairs. I shall
come and go as I like."

The would-be firm voice wavered wrathed badly toward the end of this
defiance, but the widely opened eyes were still shining and as she
turned to enter the house, Esther caught a look in them, a gleam of
something very like hate.

"So that is what comes of asking," said Esther sombrely.

She did not follow her step-mother into the house but remained for a
while on the veranda, thinking. It was clearly useless to reopen the
subject of the prescription. For some reason Mrs. Coombe regarded it as
a fetish. She would not trust it to Taylor's. She would not allow a
doctor to see it; there remained only the suggestion of Dr. Callandar
that it be inspected without her consent. Esther knew where the
prescription was kept, but--

Women are supposed, by men, to have a defective sense of loyalty and it
is a belief fairly well established, also among men, that there is a
fundamental difference in the attitude of the sexes to that high thing
called honour. Esther was both loyal and honourable. To deceive her
step-mother, however good the motive, could not but be horrible to her
and just now, being angry with a very young and healthy anger, she was
less willing than ever to lose her own self-respect in the service of
Mary Coombe.

"I won't!" said Esther firmly, and went in to prepare Aunt Amy's supper.

"I don't feel like I ought to be eating upstairs this way," fussed the
invalid as Esther came in with the tray. "I am so much better. That
medicine the doctor gave me helped me right away. He must be a very
smart man, Esther."

"It looks like it, Auntie."

"I don't doubt I'll be around to-morrow just like he said. So I don't
want you staying home from school. That girl you get to take your place
is kind of cross with the children, isn't she?"

"She is strict."

"Well, don't get her. I don't like to think about the children being
scared out of their lives on my account. So I'll just get up as usual. I
could get up now if necessary. And my mind feels better."

"Your _mind_?" Never before had Esther heard Aunt Amy refer to "her"
mind as being in any way troublesome.

"Yes. I suppose you never knew, but sometimes I have felt a little
worried about my mind."

"Whatever for?" The surprise which still lingered on the girl's voice
was balm to Aunt Amy's soul. She laughed nervously.

"Of course it was foolish," she said, "but really there have been times
when I have felt--felt, I can hardly express it, but as if there were a
little something _wrong_, you know. Did you ever guess that I felt like
that, Esther?"

"No, Auntie."

Aunt Amy shivered. For a moment her faded eyes grew large and dark. "I'm
glad you did not guess it. It is a dreadful feeling, like night and
thunder and no place to go. A black feeling! I used to be afraid I might
get caught in the blackness and never find a way out and then--"

"And then what, dear?"

"Why, then--I'd be mad, Esther!"

"Oh, darling, how awful!" Esther's warm young arms clasped the trembling
old creature close. "You must never, never be afraid again! Why didn't
you tell me and let me help?"

"I couldn't. You would not have believed me. And it would have
frightened you. And you might have told Mary. If Mary knew of it she
would be certain to be frightened and if she was frightened she would
send me away. Then the darkness would get me."

"It never shall, Auntie. No one shall ever send you away! And you won't
be afraid any more, will you?"

"No, not if you don't keep telling me that things I know aren't true. I
know they are true, you see, but when you say they aren't it makes my
head go round."

"We'll be more careful, dear! And here is your medicine before you have
your supper."

Aunt Amy turned cheerfully to the supper tray.

"Your mother need not be told about it," she observed. "She wouldn't
understand. She was in a while ago to say she hoped I'd be better in the
morning. She is going to the city. What she came for was to ask me to
lend her my ruby ring. She never understands why I can't lend it to her.
I told her she might have the string of pearls and the pearl brooch and
the ring with the little diamonds and anything else except the ruby.
You see, I might die before she got back, and I couldn't die without the
ruby ring on my finger. I promised somebody--I can't remember whom--"

"I know, dear, don't try to remember."

"Mary says it is shameful waste to leave it lying shut up in the box in
my drawer. But it has to lie there. If I took it out now it would stop
shining immediately. And it must be all red and bright when I die, like
a shining star in the dark. Then, afterwards, you can have it, Esther.
You don't mind waiting, do you?"

"Gracious! I hope I'll be an old woman before then! So old that I shan't
care for ruby rings at all."

Aunt Amy looked at the girl's pretty hand wistfully. "I'd like to give
it to you right now, Esther. But you know how it is. I can't. If the red
star did not shine I might lose my way. Some one told me--"

"I know, Auntie. I quite understand. And you have given me so many
pretty things that I don't need the ruby."

"You may have anything else you want. But of course the ruby is the
loveliest of all. If I could only remember who gave it to me--"

"Perhaps you always had it," suggested Esther, hastily, for she knew
quite well the tragic history of the ruby.

"Perhaps. But I don't think so. I love it but I never dare to look at
it. It makes the blackness come so near. Does it make you feel
that way?"

"No--I don't know--large jewels often give people strange feelings they
say."

"Do they?" hopefully. "Go and look at it now. Don't lift it out of the
box. Just open the lid and look in. Perhaps you will feel something."

Esther went obediently to the drawer where the beautiful jewel had lain
ever since Aunt Amy's arrival. As no one outside knew of its existence
it was considered quite safe to keep it in the house. The box lay in a
corner under a spotless pile of sweet smelling handkerchiefs. Esther
snapped open the lid of the case and looked in. She looked close, closer
still, bending over the open drawer--

"Do you feel anything, Esther?"

The girl's answer came, after a second's pause, in a strained voice.
"The drawer is so dark, I can't tell!"

"Take it to the window," said Aunt Amy.

Esther lifted the case from the drawer and carried it into a better
light. Her eyes were panic-stricken. For her indecision had been only a
ruse to give herself time to think. She had known the moment she opened
the case that the ruby was gone!

"It does make me feel queer," she said, closing the case. "I'll put it
away."

"Is it a black feeling?" with interest.

"I think it is."

"Then you are kin to it," said Aunt Amy sagely. "Your mother never has
any feeling about it at all. Except that she would like to wear it. She
was looking at it when she was in. She was as cross as possible when I
told her she could not take it with her."

Esther gathered up the tea things without a word. Her curved mouth was
set in a hard red line. At the door she paused and turning back as if
upon impulse, said: "If it makes you feel like that, I would advise you
not to look at it, Auntie. It will be quite safe. I'll see to that. I'll
appoint myself 'Guardian of the Ring.'"




CHAPTER XI


Esther carried the tea-tray into the kitchen and stood for a moment
beside the open window letting the sweet air from the garden cool the
colour in her cheeks. Through the doorway into the hall she could see
into the living room where Jane sat at the table in a little yellow pool
of lamplight, busy with her school home work. Farther back, near the
dusk of one of the veranda windows, Mrs. Coombe reclined in an easy
chair. Her eyes were closed; in the half light she looked very pretty,
very fragile; her relaxed pose suggested helplessness. Unconsciously
Esther's innate strength answered to the call; her hard gaze softened.
To apply the terms liar and thief to that dainty figure in the chair
seemed little short of brutality. Mary was weak, that was
all--just weak!

At the sound of the girl's step in the doorway Mrs. Coombe opened her
eyes. They were very filmy to-night, blank, contented. Her nervousness
seemed to have left her. Perhaps she was half asleep, for she yawned, an
open, ugly yawn, which she did not trouble to raise her hand to hide.

"I have decided to take Jane with me, Esther."

"I don't want to go," said Jane.

"Well, you are going--that's enough."

"If you have really decided to go," began Esther slowly, "I think you
are wise to take Jane. We cannot tell yet just how Aunt Amy may be."

The child returned to her book with a discontented sigh. Esther came
nearer and spoke in a lower tone. "But before you go," she said, "please
don't forget to replace Aunt Amy's ring. If she were to find it gone it
would be no joke but a serious shock, as I suppose you know."

Mrs. Coombe laughed. And Esther realised that a laugh was the last thing
she had expected. For anger, evasion, denial, she had been prepared.
Mary would probably storm and bluster in her ineffective way--and return
the ring. Instead--

"How did you know I had it?" she asked good humouredly.

"I saw that it was gone."

"And the deduction was obvious? Well, this time you are right. I did
take it. I expect I have a right to borrow my own Aunt's things if she
is too mean to lend them. It's a shame of her to want to keep the only
decent jewel we have shut up. Amy gets more selfish every day."

"But you will put it back before she misses it?"

Mrs. Coombe could see her step-daughter's face quite plainly and its
expression made her wince, but she was reckless to-night. After all, why
pretend? If Esther intended to eternally interfere with her affairs the
sooner an open break came, the better.

"Perhaps, perhaps not. Certainly not until I return from my visit."

Esther fought down her rising dismay.

"Mother, don't you understand what you are doing? The ring is Aunt Amy's
You have no right to take it!"

"I've a right if I choose to make one."

"If Auntie finds out it is not in its box, we cannot tell what the
effect may be!"

"She needn't find out. What she doesn't know won't hurt her!"

"But--it is stealing!"

Mrs. Coombe laughed. "What a baby you are, Esther, for all your solemn
eyes and grown-up airs. Stealing--the idea! Anyway you need not worry
since you are not the thief." She yawned again, rose, and declared that
she felt quite tired enough to go to bed.

When she had gone, Jane left her lessons and came to her sister's side.

"Esther, do I really have to go away with Mother?"

"It looks like it, Janie. But you'll like it. Mrs. Bremner has a little
girl."

"I don't like little girls."

"Then you ought to! The change will probably do you good."

Jane looked dubious. "Things that I don't want never do me any good.
Will you help me with my 'rithmetic?"

"I will when I come back."

"Where're you going?"

"Out. I'll not be long. Answer Aunt Amy's bell if it rings, like a dear
child."

Esther's decision had been made, as many important decisions are,
suddenly, and without conscious thought. All the puzzling over what was
right and wrong seemed no longer necessary. Without knowing why, she
knew that it had become imperative to get some good advice and get it at
once. If she had been disturbed and uneasy before, she was frightened
now. Something must be done, if not for Mary's sake at least for the
sake of the honoured name she bore, and for Jane's sake!

"Mother doesn't seem to _know_ when a thing is wrong any more!" was the
burden of the girl's thought as she hurried upstairs.

She knew where the prescription was kept--in a little drawer of her
father's old desk, a drawer supposed to be secret. To-morrow Mary would
take it away with her. Esther opened the drawer without allowing herself
a moment for thought or regret. The paper was there, folded, in its
usual place.

With a sigh of relief she seized it, hurried to her own room for her hat
and then out into the summer night. A brisk five minute walk brought her
to Mrs. Sykes' gate, and there, for the first time, she hesitated.

"Evening, Esther!" called Mrs. Sykes cheerfully from the veranda. "Come
right along in. Mrs. Coombe told Ann you might be over to borrow the
telescope valise if she decided to take Jane. Rather sudden, her going
away, isn't it? Hadn't heard a word about it until the Ladies' Aid--come
up and sit on the veranda and I'll get it."

"I didn't come for the telescope," said Esther. "I came to see Dr.
Callandar."

"Oh," with renewed interest. "Well, he's in. At least he's in unless he
went out while I was upstairs putting Ann to bed. That's his consulting
room where the light is. It's got a door of its own so folks won't be
tramping up the hall--but of course you know. You were here this
afternoon. Funny, Mrs. Coombe going away with your poor Auntie sick and
all! I suppose it _is_ your Auntie, since it can't be Jane or
Mrs. Coombe?"

"Yes, it is Aunt Amy. She has not been very well."

"The heat, likely. Heat is hard on folks with weak heads. Not that your
Auntie's head ever seems weaker than lots of other folks. Won't you come
up and sit awhile?--Well, ring the bell."

Mrs. Sykes voice trailed off indistinctly as Esther rounded the veranda
corner and stood by the rose bush before the doctor's door. She pushed
the new electric bell timidly.

"You'll have to push harder than that!" called Mrs. Sykes. "It sticks
some!"

But the door had opened at once, letting out a flood of yellow light.

"Miss Coombe--you?"

"It's Esther Coombe come about her Aunt Amy," called the voice from the
veranda.

Hastily the doctor drew her in and closed the door with an emphatic
bang. Then for the second time that day they looked into each other's
eyes and laughed.

"Do you think my patients will stand that?" he asked her ruefully.

"Oh, we are used to Mrs. Sykes, we don't mind."

"That's good! Ah, I see you have the mysterious prescription. It wasn't
so hard after all, was it? Probably your mother was quite as anxious
as you."

"No, she refused to let me show it you. I took it. To-night was the only
chance, for she is going away to-morrow and will take it with her."

"And how about your Presbyterian conscience?" Still with a twinkle.

"Silenced, for the present. But look at it quickly for the silence may
not last. It seemed that I simply had to help mother, in spite of
herself. And there was no other way. All the same I shall despise myself
when I get time to think."

The doctor took the paper with a smile. "When that time comes I shall
argue with you, though argument rarely affects feeling. To my mind you
are doing an eminently sensible thing."

He opened the paper and peered at it under the lamp; looked quickly up
at the girl's eager face and then from her to the paper again.

"What is it?" she asked anxiously.

"Why--I don't know. Where did you get this?"

"In the secret drawer of father's desk."

"Was the prescription always kept there?"

"Yes."

The doctor folded the paper again and handed it to her. "Does this look
like the prescription?"

"Yes, of course. It is the prescription."

"I'm afraid not. Come and look."

Esther seized the paper eagerly and saw--a neatly written recipe for
salad dressing!

Hot and cold with mortification, she stared at it blankly. "I have been
nicely fooled," she said in a low voice.

"Am I permitted to smile, or would it hurt your feelings?"

"It is not at all funny! Of course the real prescription has been
removed. She must have suspected. You see, I asked her to let me have
it. Oh!" with sudden shame and anger. "She guessed that I might take it,
don't you see?"

"I am afraid you are right. But now at least I should think that you
have done your whole duty. It would look as if Mrs. Coombe was herself
aware of the inadvisability of continuing this prescription. Why else
should she be so careful to prevent you showing it to me? At the same
time she is determined to go on using it. We cannot prevent her."

"Can we do nothing?"

"When I see her I shall be better able to judge."

"But she is going away."

"Then we must wait. If it is, as I suspect, a case of disordered nerves
aggravated by improper treatment, the instinct is strongly for
concealment. Do you find, for instance, that Mrs. Coombe is not as frank
in other matters as she used to be?"

A shamed blush crimsoned the girl's cheek, but the doctor's tone was
compelling and she answered in a low voice: "Yes, I think so."

"Don't look like that. It is only a symptom of something rotten in the
nervous system."

"Isn't there such a thing as character?" bluntly.

"As distinct from the nervous system? Some say not. But we do not need
to venture such a devastating belief to know, well, that a dyspeptic is
usually disagreeable. In potential character he may be equal to the
cheeriest man who ever ate a hearty dinner. Think of Carlyle."

"I don't like Carlyle."

"But don't you admire him?"

"No. Do you remember the story of the beggar who picked up his hat one
day and instead of giving him sixpence, Carlyle said, 'Mon, ye may say
ye hae picked up the hat of Thomas Carlyle.'"

The doctor laughed. "Oh he had a guid conceit o' himself--must you go?"
For Esther had risen.

"Yes, thank you. Oh, please do not come with me. It is only a step. I'd
much rather not. Mrs. Sykes would conclude that the whole family were in
danger of immediate extinction."

She was so evidently perturbed that the doctor laid down his hat, but
for the first time it occurred to him that Mrs. Sykes was not an
unmixed blessing.

Esther was holding out her hand.

"Then you think we can safely leave it until mother returns?"

"I think we shall have to, and if things have been going on as long as
you think, a week more or less will make no very material difference. In
any case we cannot examine a lady by force or prevent her from getting a
prescription until one knows it to be dangerous."

"No, of course not. Good-night, and--thank you, Doctor!"

"And I am not to be allowed to walk home with you?"

"Truly, I would rather not."

"Then good-night, and don't worry."

He watched her flit down the dusky path, heard the click of the gate
latch, and turned back into the office to wonder why it seemed suddenly
bare and empty!




CHAPTER XII


Mrs. Coombe had been in the city a week when one morning Ann, who was
feeling lonely without Jane, sat swinging upon the five-barred gate and
whistling intermittently for Bubble. She had become very tired of
waiting. She knew that Bubble could hear. The five-barred gate was
within easy hearing distance of the house, and both doors and windows of
the office were open. Therefore it became each moment more evident that
the whistles were being deliberately ignored.

"Horrid, nasty boy!" exclaimed Ann, climbing to a precarious seat on the
highest of the five bars. "Well, if he waits until I come to get him,
he'll--just wait!"

It was very hot on the gate. The vacant field on the other side, where
the Widow Peel pastured her cow, was hot, too, but if one cut across the
field and circled the back of the Widow Peel's cottage one substantially
lessened the distance between oneself and the cool deliciousness of the
river. The Widow Peel was near-sighted and hardly ever noticed one
rushing over her beds of lettuce and carrots and onions, or if she did,
she could not "fit a name to 'em."

Ann sighed and swung her brown legs. Should she or should she not go in
search of Bubble? Going would mean a distasteful swallowing of proper
pride; not going would mean--no Bubble. It would be a case of cutting
off one's nose--Ann's small white teeth came together with a
little click.

"I'll go. But I'll pay him out afterwards."

With this thoroughly feminine decision she tumbled off the gate, raced
across the orchard and, having paused a moment to regain breath and
poise, appeared casually at the office door. The office looked cool and
empty; Bubble was not upon his official stool. Perhaps, after all, he
had not heard the whistles! Perhaps--

"What d'ye want?" asked a gruff voice from behind the desk.

Ann jumped, and then tried to look as if she hadn't.

"I knew you were there!" she said. "But just you wait till the doctor
catches you at it!" Mounting the step she frowned across at Bubble who,
in the doctor's favourite attitude, was reclining in the doctor's chair.
"I suppose you think you look like him, but you don't, nor act like him
either. If he was sitting there and a lady came in, he'd be up too quick
for anything. And if the lady was polite and stayed on the doorstep
(just like I am) he would say, 'Pray come in, madam,' and then he'd set
a chair and--"

"Oh, cut it out!" Bubble's dignity collapsed with his attitude. The
tilted chair came down with a bang and its occupant settled himself more
naturally upon a corner of the desk. "Don't bother me! I can't come out.
Doctor's away. Some one's got to attend to business. See those
medicines? Well, don't you go handling them! This here is for Lizzie
Stephens (measles), and that there is for Mrs. Nixon (twins). If they
got mixed I'd be responsible. Run away!"

"Where's the doctor?" asked Ann, ignoring.

"The doctor is out. You needn't wait. He won't be back all day."

"Where'd he go?"

"Little girls mustn't ask questions!"

Ann's small face wrinkled into an elfish grin. "I know where he's gone,"
she said slyly.

"Yes, you do!" This sarcastic comment was Bubble's most emphatic
negative.

"Very well, then, I don't."

Not to be outdone, Ann volunteered no further information. She sat down
on the step and waited.

Bubble busied himself with tying up the bottles. Presently he stepped
out from behind the desk.

"Think you can mind the office while I run around with these medicines?"
he asked sternly.

"Sure!" Ann's assent was placid.

"What'll you say if any one comes and asks for the doctor--or me?"

"You're out delivering medicines and the doctor's been called away very
sudden."

"What'll you tell them if they ask you what he's been called away to?"

"Oh, I'll just say they needn't worry, 'tisn't anything catching."

Bubble allowed his face to relax. He even displayed a grudging
admiration for this feminine diplomacy.

"And you wouldn't be telling lies, either," he remarked approvingly.
"All the same," with a return to gloom, "we can't keep it a secret.
Folks are bound to find out. You can bet your eyes on that!"

Ann nodded. "I expect most of them know by now. Any one that wanted to
could see them. _He_ didn't seem to care. They drove right down the main
street and you could see the picnic basket sticking out at the side!"

"O cricky! Isn't that just like him? You'd think he wanted the whole
town to know he'd gone off picnicking with a girl. But I'd have thought
Esther Coombe would have better sense!"

"It wasn't Esther's fault. She couldn't act as if she was ashamed of
him, could she? When a gentleman asks a lady to go out in his automobile
she can't ask him to drive down the back streets."

"If he had only taken her at night!" groaned the harassed junior
partner. "But no, he must take a whole day off and him with two patients
on his hands. Look at me! Have I ever asked off to go on any picnics?
Not on your tintype. Business is business. Doctors can't fool round like
other folks."

Ann nodded agreement. Things were coming her way very nicely. She
glanced at the wrathy Bubble out of the corners of her eyes. "I didn't
think he'd be mean like that," she remarked craftily.

"Like what? He isn't mean!"

"To make you stay in all day."

"He didn't. Not him! He gave me fifty cents and told me to take a day
off. 'Just run around with the medicine, Bubble,' says he, 'and then you
can hike it. I have a feeling in my bones,' he says, 'that nobody's
going to die to-day.'"

"Well, then--"

"A man has a sense of duty for all that."

"Well," rising with a dejected air, "if you're not coming, good-bye. It
will be lovely paddling! Aunt's given me some lettuce sandwiches and two
apple turnovers. One was for you, but I suppose I can eat them both. The
sugar's leaked all round the edge--lovely!"

The stern disciple of business watched her tie on her sun-bonnet with
mingled feelings. It began to look as if she was really going!

"Good-bye," said Ann.

Bubble's red face grew a shade redder.

"Just like a girl!" he said bitterly. "Because a man's got to deliver
two medicine bottles, off she goes and won't wait for him. And the
farthest I've got to go is over to Mrs. Nixon's. The whole thing won't
take five minutes."

Sun-bonnets are splendid things for hiding the face! Had Bubble seen
that slow smile of victory there is no telling what might have happened.
But he did not see it. And Ann was too good a general to exult openly.
Her answer was carefully careless. "I'll wait--if you'll hurry up!"

But the look which she threw after his hastily retreating figure was as
old as Eve.

Meanwhile the doctor and Esther, who had been so criminally careless of
professional appearances as to drive down Main Street with a picnic
basket protruding, were enjoying themselves with an enjoyment peculiar
to careless people. Esther had forgotten about the pile of uncorrected
school exercises which were supposed to form her Saturday's work; the
doctor had forgotten about the measles and the twins. Rain had fallen in
the night and the dust was laid, the trees were intensely green.

Neither of them knew exactly how this pleasant thing had come about,
although, as a matter of crude fact, Mrs. Sykes had played the part of
the god from the machine. This energetic lady had made the doctor's
professional career her peculiar care and it had occurred to her that,
as a resident physician, he was disgracefully ignorant of the
surrounding country. At the same moment she had remembered that
to-morrow was Saturday, and that for trapesing the country and
meandering around in outlandish places there was no one in town equal to
Esther Coombe.

"But," objected the doctor, "I hardly know Miss Coombe well enough to
ask a favour of her."

Mrs. Sykes opined that that didn't matter. "Land sakes," she declared,
"it would be a nice state of affairs if one huming-being couldn't do a
kindness to another without being acquainted a year or two." Besides,
Esther, as the old doctor's daughter, might almost be said to have a
duty toward the newcomer. Mrs. Sykes felt sure that Dr. Coombe would
have insisted upon proper attentions being shown, since he was always
"the politest man you ever saw, and terrible nice to strangers."

Mrs. Sykes also, with the assistance of Aunt Amy, had provided the large
basket. They might not need it all, but then again they might. It was
best to be prepared. And, anyway, no one should ever say that she, Mrs.
Sykes, "skimped" her boarders' meals. As for the big shawl, once
belonging to a venerated ancestress, it is always safe to take a big
shawl on a country trip even in June heat with the thermometer going up.

The doctor agreed to everything, even the shawl. Whether one is taking a
rest cure or not, it is distinctly pleasant to look forward to a day in
the country with a lovely girl. Esther had taken his request quite
simply. It seemed only natural to her that he should wish to explore,
while the invitation to act as guide was frankly welcomed. Indeed her
girlish gaiety in the prospect had shown very plainly that such holidays
had been rare of late. School did not "keep" on Saturday, Jane was away,
and Aunt Amy was so much better that she could leave her without
misgiving. Bubble alone prophesied disaster, and at him they
all laughed.

There is a little folder published by the Town Council which gives a
very good idea of the country around Coombe. We might quote this, but it
will be much better for you to go some time and see things for yourself.
Dr. Callandar saw a great deal that day, but was never very clear
afterwards in his descriptions. It was rocky in spots, he knew, and wild
and sweet and piney. And there were little lakes. He remembered the
lakes particularly because--well, because of what came later.

They had their lunch on the shores of a jewel-like bay, sitting upon the
shawl of Mrs. Sykes' grandmother. Esther had many memories of the place.
She had often camped there with her father. But it had been wilder then.
Once a bear had come right up to the door of her tent.

"By Jove!" said the doctor enviously, "what did you do?"

"I said 'shoo'!"

"And did he?"

"Yes, he did. He was a nice bear, very obedient. Some days later father
and I saw Mrs. Bear trot across the clearing with two baby bears behind.
They were moving. I think Mr. Bear was looking for a house when he
called on me."

Altogether it was a magic day. There is an erroneous belief that magic
has died out of the world. But in our hearts we all know better. Which
of us has not lived through the magic hours of a magic day? Which of us
does not know that land, unmapped, unnamed, a land whose sun is
brighter, whose grass is greener, whose sky is bluer, and whose every
road runs into a golden mist? Magic land it must be, for much seeking
cannot find it. No one, not the wisest nor the best, may enter it at
will; but for every one at some time the unseen gate swings open, birds
sing, flowers bloom, the glory and the dream descend! Poor indeed,
unutterably poor and cheated of his heritage is he who has not
passed that way.

They were not in love, of course. They were too happy for that. Love is
the greatest thing in the world, but it is seldom quite happy. Esther
and the doctor were not lovers but lingered in that deliciously
unconscious state of "going-to-be-in-love-presently" which is nothing
less than heavenly. Therefore they ate their lunch with appetite and
laughed about the story of the bear. Both were surprised when the
doctor's watch told them it was time to think of home.

They came back very slowly along the shaded trail to where the car stood
waiting in the brilliant light of the declining sun.

"Just a moment," said the doctor, and cranked vigorously. A confusion of
odd noises ensued, from which, somehow, the right noise did not emerge.

"Just a moment," he repeated. "There appears to be something loose--or
tight--or something. If you'll just sit out on the grass a moment, Miss
Esther, I'll see what it is."

Esther descended. The grass was just as pleasant to sit upon as the car
seat and she knew nothing whatever about the tricky ways of motors.

"Just a moment," said Callandar for the third time, and disappeared
behind the bonnet. Fifteen minutes after, he reappeared with a very hot
face decorated fantastically with black.

"She's sulking," he announced gloomily.

"Is she?" Esther's tone held nothing save placid amusement.

"Just a moment." The doctor banged down the bonnet and effaced himself
once more. This time under the body of the car.

Motors are mysterious things. Why a well-treated, not to say pampered,
car which some hours before had been left in perfect condition and
excellent temper should abruptly turn stubborn and refuse to fulfil its
chief end is a problem which we shall not attempt to solve. Every one
who has ever owned a motor knows that these things be.

The doctor, a modest man, considered himself a fair mechanician. In
expansive moments he, who made nothing of his undoubted excellence in
his own profession, was wont to boast that you couldn't teach him much
about motors! He had laughed to scorn the remark of his Scotch chauffeur
that "they things need a deal o' humourin'!" Humour a thing of cogs and
screws? Absurd! One must master a motor, not humour her.

Half an hour later he emerged from the car's eclipse and sank, a
pitiable figure, upon the grass beside Esther.

"Won't it go?" asked Esther dreamily. It had been very pleasant sitting
there watching the sun set.

The master of motors made a tragic gesture. "No," he said, "she won't."

"Shake her," said Esther.

Dr. Callandar pushed back his sweat-bedewed hair with fingers which left
a fearsome streak above his left eyebrow. The girl laughed. But the
doctor's decorated face was rueful.

"Do you know, Miss Esther, I'm afraid it isn't a bit funny." His tone,
too, was sober; and Esther, suddenly more fully alive to the situation,
noticed that the hands clasped recklessly about the knees of once
spotless trousers were shaking, just a little. He must be awfully tired!

"That's because you can't see yourself. Give the motor a rest. There is
plenty of time. Let's have tea here instead of on the way home. There is
cold tea and chicken-loaf, bread and butter, and half a tart."

The doctor brightened. "You may have the half-tart," he concluded
generously. "And in return you will forgive me my pessimism. I believe I
am hungry and thirsty and--if I could only swear I should be all right
presently."

Esther put her small fingers in her ears and directed an absorbed gaze
toward the sunset.

Callandar laughed.

"All over!" he called. "Richard is himself again. And now we have got to
be serious. Painful as it is, I admit defeat. I can't make that car
budge an inch. It won't move. We can't push it. We have no other means
of conveyance. Deduction--we must walk!"

"Yes, only like most deductions, it doesn't get us anywhere. We _can't_
walk."

"Not to Coombe of course. Merely to the nearest farm house."

"There isn't any nearest farm house."

"Then to the nearest common or garden house."

"I thought we were going to be serious. Really, there is no house within
reasonable walking distance. We are quite in the wilds here. Don't you
remember the long stretches of waste land we came through? No one builds
on useless ground. The nearest houses of any kind are over on the other
side of the lake. The beach is good there and there are a few summer
cottages and a boarding house. Farther in is the little railway station
of Pine Lake--"

"Jove! That's what we want! Why did you try to frighten me? Once let us
reach the station and our troubles are over. There is probably an
evening train into Coombe."

"There is. But we shall never catch it. We are on the wrong side of the
lake. We have no boat. There is a trail around but it is absolutely out
of the question, too far and too rough, even if we knew it, which we do
not. It would take a woodsman to follow it even in daylight."

"But--" The doctor hesitated. He was beginning to feel seriously
disturbed. It seemed impossible that they could be as isolated as Esther
seemed to think. Distance is a small thing to a powerful motor eating up
space with an effortless appetite, which deceives novice and expert
alike. It is only when one looks back that one counts the miles. He
remembered vaguely that the nearest house was a long way back.

"I'll have another try," he answered soberly, "and in the meantime,
think--think hard! There may be some place you have forgotten. If not,
we are in rather a serious fix."

"There are no bears now," said Esther.

"There are gossips!" briefly.

The girl laughed. The thought of possible gossip seemed to disturb her
not at all. "Oh, it will be all right as soon as we explain,"
confidently. "But Aunt Amy will be terrified. If we could only get word
to Aunt Amy! I don't mind so much about Mrs. Sykes, for she is always
prepared for everything. She will comfort herself with remembering how
she said when she saw it was going to be a lovely day: 'It may be a fine
enough morning, Esther, but I have a feeling that something will happen
before night. I have put in an umbrella in case of rain and a pair of
rubbers and a rug and you'd better take my smelling salts. I hope you
won't have an accident, I'm sure, but it's best to be forewarned.'"

The doctor glanced up from his tinkering to join in her laugh. He felt
ashamed of himself. The possibility of evil tongues making capital of
their enforced position had certainly never entered into the thought of
this smiling girl. Yet that such a possibility might exist in Coombe as
well as in other places he did not doubt. And she was in his charge. The
thought of her clear eyes looking upon the thing which she did not know
enough to dread made him feel positively sick!

When he spoke to her again there was a subtle change in his manner. He
had become at once her senior, the physician, and man of the world.

"Miss Esther," he said, leaving his futile tampering with the machine,
"I can see no way out of this but one. I am a good walker and a fast
one. I shall leave you here with the car and the rugs and a revolver
(there is one in the tool box), and go back along the road. I shall walk
until I come to somewhere and then get a carriage or wagon--also a
chaperone--and come back for you. It is positively the only thing
to do."

Esther's charming mouth drooped delicately at the corners. "Oh no!
That's not at all a nice plan. I'm afraid to stay here. Not of bears,
but of tramps--or--or something."

"Where there are no houses there will be no tramps."

"There may be. You never can tell about tramps. And I couldn't shoot a
tramp. The very best I could do would be to shoot myself--"

"But--"

"And I might bungle even that!" pathetically.

"But, my dear girl--"

"And anyway, I've thought of another plan. There is a place on the lake,
on this side. Not a house exactly, but a log cabin, where old Prue
lives. Did you ever hear of old Prue? She is a man-hater and a recluse
and lives all by herself in the bush. It is a dreadful place and she
keeps a fierce dog! But perhaps she keeps a boat, too. She must keep a
boat," cheerfully, "because she lives right by the water and I know she
fishes. If she would only let us have the boat! But I warn you she may
refuse. She is like the witch in 'Hansel and Gretel.' Do you remember--"

But at the first mention of the boat, the doctor had sprung to action
and was now standing ready laden with the basket and the rug. With the
air of a man who has never heard of "Hansel and Gretel" he slipped a
most businesslike revolver into a pocket of his coat. "For the dog, if
necessary," he said. "We must have that boat! Is it far?"

"Quite a walk. About two miles through the bush. But I know the way and
the trail is fairly good, or should be. It branches off from the one we
took this morning."

The sun was gone when they turned back into the woods but the wonderful
after-light of the long Canadian sunset would be with them for a good
time yet. There was no breeze to stir the trees, but the air had cooled.
It was not unpleasantly hot, now, even in the thickest places. The
doctor stepped out briskly.

"Listen!" Esther paused with uplifted finger. The trees were very still
but in the undergrowth the life of the woods was beginning to stir.
Startled squirrels raced up the fallen logs, glancing backward with
curious but resentful eyes. Hidden skirmishings and rustlings were
everywhere and something brown and furry darted across the path with a
faint cry.

"Don't you feel as if you were in some fairy country?" asked the girl.
"You can feel and hear them all about you though they keep well hidden.
A million eager eyes are watching, Lilliputian armies lie in ambush
beneath the leaves. How quiet they are now that we have stopped moving,
but as soon as we go on the hurry and skurry will break out afresh! We
are the invading army and the fairies fly to help the wood-folk protect
their homes."

As they branched into the deeper path the light grew dimmer. Outside, it
would still be clear golden twilight but here the grey had come. And now
the trees grew closer together and a whispering began--a weird and
wonderful sighing from the soul of the forest; the old, primeval cry to
the night and to the stars.

It was almost dark when they reached the tiny clearing by the lake.
Across the cleared space the water could be seen, faintly luminous, with
the black square of the cabin outlined against it. There was no sign of
life or light from the dark windows. A dog began to bark sharply.

"He is chained!" said Callandar. "We are fortunate."

"How can you tell?"

"A free dog never barks in that tone. I think he has been a bad dog
to-day. Killing chickens, perhaps, or chasing cats. A man-hater, like
your old witch, is certain to have cats! I wonder where she is? Does she
count going to bed at sundown as one of her endearing peculiarities?"

"Quite the contrary, I imagine. Let's knock."

They raced up the path to the door like children and struck some lusty
blows. No one answered. The door was locked and every window was blank.

"Knock again!"

They knocked again, banged in fact, and then rattled the windows.

"She could never sleep through all that racket!" said Callandar with
conviction. "She must be out. Well, out or in, we've got to get that
boat. Let's explore--this path ought to lead to the lake."

"Shall we steal it?" in a delighted whisper.

"We probably shall. You won't mind going to jail, I hope?"

"Not at all!" The doctor was walking so rapidly that Esther was a little
out of breath. "Only, the oars--are certain--to be locked--in the
house!" she warned jerkily.

"Then we shall serve sentence for house breaking also."

"Oh, gracious!" Esther stumbled over the root of a tree and nearly fell.
But the doctor only walked the faster. They scrambled together down the
steep path and over the stretch of rocky beach to where the tiny float
lay a black oblong on the water. The boat house was beside it.

"Eureka!" cried the doctor, springing forward.

But the door of the boat house was open and the boat was gone.




CHAPTER XIII


It is a fact infinitely to be regretted, but the doctor swore!

"Well, did you _ever!_" exclaimed Esther. She was a little tired and
more than a little excited, a condition which conduces to hysteria, and
collapsing upon the end of the float she began to laugh.

"I wish," said the doctor judicially, "that I knew exactly what you find
to laugh at."

"Oh, nothing! Your face--I think you looked so very murderous. And you
did swear--didn't you?"

"Beg your pardon, I'm sure," stiffly.

For an instant they gazed resentfully at each other. The doctor was
seriously worried. Esther felt extremely frivolous. But if he wanted to
be stiff and horrid,--let him be stiff and horrid.

"I declare you act as if it were my fault the old boat is gone!" she
remarked aggrievedly.

"Don't be silly!"

An uncomfortable silence followed. Esther began to realise how tired she
was. Callandar stared out gloomily over the darkening lake.

"Anyway it's bad enough without your being cross," said Esther in a
small voice.

"Cross--my dear child! Did I seem cross? What a brute you must think me.
But to get you into this infernal tangle!--If this old woman is out in
the boat she'll have to come back some time. She can't stay out on the
lake all night."

Esther, who thought privately that this was exactly what the old woman
might do, made no reply. She rather liked the tone of his apology and
was feeling better.

"Then there is the dog. If she is anywhere near, she will be sure to
hear the dog. From the noise he is making she will deduce burglars and
return to protect her property. As a man-hater she will have no fear of
a mere burglar. Luckily for us, that dog has a carrying voice!"

Scarcely had he spoken than the dog ceased to bark.

"Shall I go and throw sticks at it?" asked Esther helpfully.

"Hush! The dog must have heard something. Let's listen!"

In the silence they listened intently. Certainly there was something, a
faint indeterminate sound, a sound not in the bush but in the lake, a
sound of disturbed water.

"The dip of a paddle," whispered Callandar. "Some one is coming in a
canoe. The dog heard it before we did--recognised it, too, probably. It
must be the witch!"

The dipping sound came nearer and presently there slipped from the
shadow of the trees a darker shadow, moving. A canoe with one paddle was
coming toward them.

Esther with undignified haste scrambled up from the float, abandoning
her position in the line of battle in favour of the doctor. The dog
broke into a chorus of ear-splitting yelps of warning and welcome. The
moving shadow loomed larger and a calm though harsh voice demanded, "Be
quiet, General! Who is there?"

"We are!" answered Callandar, stepping as far from the tree shadow as
possible. "Picnickers from Coombe, in an unfortunate predicament. Our
motor has broken down, and we want the loan of a boat to get over to
Pine Lake station."

As he spoke he was vividly conscious of Esther close behind. So near was
she that he felt her warm breath on his neck. She was breathing quickly.
Was the child really frightened? Instinctively he put out his hand,
backward, and thrilled through every nerve when something cool and small
and tremulous slipped into it.

The canoe shot up to the float.

"You can't get any boat here."

There was no surprise or resentment in the harsh level voice. Only
determination, final and unshakable.

Esther felt the doctor's hand close around her own. Its clasp meant
everything, reassurance, protection, strength. In the darkness she
exulted and even ventured to frown belligerently in the direction of the
disagreeable canoeist. They could see her plainly now. A tall woman in a
man's coat with the sleeves rolled up displaying muscular arms. Her
face, even in the half-light, looked harsh and gaunt. With a skill,
which spoke of long practice, she sprang from the canoe, scarcely
rocking it, and proceeded to tie the painter securely to a heavy ring in
the float. Then she straightened herself and turned.

"I'll loose the dog!" she announced calmly.

Just that and no more! No arguments, no revilings, no display of any
human quality. There was something uncanny in her ruthlessness.

"If you do, it will be bad for the dog," said Callandar coldly. "Who
are you who threaten decent people?"

It was the tone of authority and for an instant she answered to it. Her
harsh voice held a faint Scotch accent.

"There'll be no decent people here at this hour o' the nicht. Be off.
You'll get no boat. Nor the hussy either. The dog's well used to
guarding it."

"How dare you!" Esther was so angry at being called a hussy that she
forgot how frightened she was and faced the woman boldly. But the old
hard eyes stared straight into her young indignant ones and showed no
softening. Next moment old Prue had pushed the girl aside and
disappeared in the darkness of the wooded path.

"Quick!" The doctor's tone was crisp and steady. "The canoe is our
chance. Jump in, while I hold it--in the bow, anywhere!"

"But the paddle! She has taken the paddle!" Even as she objected she
obeyed. The frail craft rocked as she slid into it, careful only not to
overbalance; next moment it rocked more dangerously and then settled
evenly into the water under the doctor's added weight.

"Sit tight!" Carefully he leaned over her, steadying the canoe with one
hand on the float. In the other she saw the glint of a knife, felt the
confining rope sever, felt the strong push which separated them from the
float and then, just as a great dog, fiercely silent now, bounded from
the path above, a paddle rose and dipped and they shot out into
the lake.

"If he follows and tries to overturn us I'll have to shoot him," said
the doctor cheerfully. "But he won't. Hark to him!"

The long bay of the baffled dog rose to the stars.

"There was an extra paddle in the boat-house," he explained. "I
took it out when we first came down--in case of accident. Old
She-who-must-be-obeyed must have forgotten it. It is a spliced paddle
but we shall manage excellently. Luckily I know how to use it. All I
need now is direction. Lady, 'where lies the land to which this ship
must go?'"

"'Far, far away is all the seamen know,'" capped Esther, laughing. "But
if you will keep on around that next point and then straight across I
think we ought to get there--Oh, look! there is the moon! We had
forgotten about the moon!"

They had indeed forgotten the moon. And the moon had been part of their
programme too. Both remembered at the same moment that, according to
schedule, they were now supposed to be almost home, running down Coombe
hill by moonlight.

"This is much nicer," said Esther, comfortably.

"But--" he did not finish his sentence. Why disturb her? Besides it
certainly was much nicer! The forgotten moon bore them no malice. A soft
radiance grew and spread around them, the whole sky and lake were
faintly shining though the goddess herself had not yet topped the trees.
The shadows were becoming blacker and more sharply defined. In front of
them the point loomed, inky black. Like a bird of the night the little
canoe shot towards it, skimmed its darkness and then slipped,
effortless, into shining silver space. The smile of the moon! Pleasing
old hypocrite! Always she smiles the same upon two in a canoe!

They were paddling toward her so that her light fell full on the
doctor's face--a clean cut, virile face, manly, stern, yet with a
whimsical sweetness hidden somewhere.

"How handsome he is!" thought Esther, exactly as the moon intended.

"Strong, too," her thought added as the light picked out his well-set
shoulders and the sweep of the arm which sped the paddle so lightly yet
so strongly up and down. Clear, yet soft, the moon showed no touch of
grey in the hair (although the grey was there) nor did she point out the
markings which were the legacy of strenuous years. Seen so, he appeared
no older than she who watched shyly from girlish eyes.

With a little shiver of utmost content Esther settled herself against
the thwart of the canoe.

Manlike he did not know the meaning of that shiver.

"Fool that I am!" he exclaimed. "You are cold, and behold we have left
behind the shawl of Mrs. Sykes' grandmother!"

"Indeed we have not! The dog would have torn it to bits. I assure you
the shawl of the venerated ancestress was in the canoe before I was."

"Then wrap yourself up. It is wonderful how cool the nights are."

Esther was not cold. But it is sometimes pleasant to be commanded. This
is what enables man to persist in a certain pleasing delusion regarding
woman's natural attitude. When she occasionally pleases herself by a
simulation of subjection he immediately thrills with pride, crying,
"Aha! I have her mastered!" Of course he finds out his mistake later.

It pleased Esther, though not cold, to wrap herself in the shawl and it
pleased Callandar to see her do it. I assure you it left the whole
question of the subjection of women quite untouched.

The moon knew all about it but, feminine herself, she favoured the
deception. Around the girl's dark head she drew a circle of light. The
branching tendrils of her hair, all alive and fanlike now in the
coolness of the night, made a nimbus of black and silver from which her
shadowed face shone like a faint pure pearl. As he seemed younger, so
did she seem older; under the moon she was no longer a child, but a
woman with mysterious eyes.

An impulse came to him--the rare impulse of confidence! Suddenly it
seemed that what he had mistaken for self-sufficiency had been in
reality loneliness. He had learned to live to himself not because he was
of himself sufficient but because no one else, save the Button Moulder,
had ever come within speaking distance. Lorna Sinnet, for all his
admiration of her, had established no claim upon his confidence, yet
now, with this young girl, whom he had known but a few weeks, a new need
developed--a need to talk of himself! A primitive need indeed, but, like
all primitive needs, compelling.

We need not follow the history. Perhaps, reported, it would not seem
very lucid. There were blanks, unsaid things, twists of phrase, eloquent
nothings which, wonderfully understandable in themselves, do not report
well. Somehow he must have made it plain, for Esther understood it and
understood him, too, in a way which we, who have never sailed with him
under the moon, cannot hope to do. Faults of expression are no hindrance
to this kind of understanding. He did not talk well, was clumsy, not at
all eloquent, but magically she reconstructed the hopes and dreams of
his ambitious youth. From a few bald phrases she fashioned the
thunderbolt which shattered them, saw him stunned, then alive again,
struggling. With every ready imagination she leaped full upon the fires
of an ambition which accepted no check but fed upon difficulty and
overleapt obstacles. Between stories of his early college life, her
sympathy sensed the deadly strain which his narrative missed and, long
before he mentioned it, her foresight had descried the coming of hard
won success.

But the really vital thing, the core of the short history, she followed
slowly word by word, anxiously. It told of wonders which she did not
know--love, passion, despair! Now indeed he seemed to be speaking in a
strange language--yet not strange entirely. She hid each broken phrase
in her heart, knowing them rare, and wondering at the treasure entrusted
to her. Some of her girlhood she left behind her as she listened.
Something new, yet surely old, stirred faintly. What was this love he
spoke of? The breath of bygone passion brushed across her untouched soul
and left it trembling!

Into the long silence which followed the story her voice drifted like a
sigh.

"If she could only have lived until you came!"

It was of the girl wife she thought. Her heart was full of an aching
pity for that other girl whom life had cheated of her sweetest gift.
More than the man who had lived out a bitter expiation, did she pity her
who had missed the fight, slipped out of the struggle. Death seemed to
Esther such a terrible thing. The new life stirring in her shuddered at
the thought of mortality. That breath of the divine which we name Love
began already to proclaim itself immortal.

Yet Molly, that other girl, had loved--and died.

The doctor, too, was lost in self communings. Already, with the words
not cold upon his lips, he was surprised that he had told the story. How
could he? Why had he? That pitiful little story of Molly which had been
too sacred for the touch of a word. Above all, why had the telling been
a relief? It was a relief, he knew that. Somewhere, in the silver waters
of Pine Lake he had buried a burden. He felt lighter, younger. Had his
very love for Molly become a load whose proper name was remorse? Had his
heart harboured regret and fear under the name of sorrow? Or had he
never loved at all, never really sorrowed? Had the thing he called love
been but a boy's hot passion caught in the grip of a man's awakening
will, a mistake made irrevocable by a stubbornness of purpose which
could not face defeat? Whatever it had been, it had come to be a burden.
And the burden had lightened--it pressed no longer. In a word, he was
free! He was his own man again, unafraid, able to look into his heart,
to open all the windows--no dark corners, no haunting ghosts! He could
enter now without the dread of echoing footsteps or wistful, half-heard
whisperings. The shade of pretty, childish Molly would vex no more.

The relief of it--the pain of it! It was like a new birth.

Meanwhile the strong, sure strokes were bringing them swiftly nearer the
opposite shore where yellow dots of light proclaimed the position of the
summer cottages. One dot, larger, detached itself from the others and
indicated the flare on the end of the landing float. Outlines began to
be darkly discernible, the moon's silver mirror was shivered by lances
of gold. Very soon their journey would be ended.

The paddle dipped more slowly. Esther sighed, and sat up straighter.
Considering all the trouble they had taken, neither of them seemed
overjoyed to be so near the desired haven.

"We are nearly there," said Callandar obviously.

Esther looked backward over their shining wake. Something precious
seemed to be slipping away on those fairy ripples. Yet all she could
find to say was--

"We have come very fast. You must be tired."

Strange little commonplaces, how they take their due of all the
wonderful hours of life! Esther wriggled out of the shawl, smoothed her
hair, arranged her ruffled collar. Callandar shipped his paddle and
resumed his coat.

"Where to, now?" he asked practically.

"There is only one landing, we shall be right on it in a moment.
Then--there are several of the cottagers whom I know. But I think Mrs.
Burton will be the best. She has often asked me to visit her and is such
a dear that the present unexpected arrival will not make me
less welcome."

"That's good! As for me, I'll make for the station and send the
telegrams. They won't be seriously anxious yet, do you think?
Then--there is a train I think you said?"

"You have missed that. But there is a very early morning train, a milk
train--O gracious!" Esther broke off with a start of genuine
consternation. "To-morrow is Sunday!"

"Naturally!" in surprise.

"How horribly unfortunate! The milk train doesn't run on Sunday!"

"Does the milk object to Sunday travelling?"

"Don't joke!" forlornly. "It's dreadful that it should be Sunday. People
will talk!"

"Oh, will they?" The doctor was immensely surprised. "Why?"

"Because it's Sunday."

"What has Sunday got to do with it? They can't talk. Here you are safe
and sound with your friend Mrs. Burton by 9 o'clock, an intensely
respectable hour even in Coombe. What can they say?"

"But it's Sunday! You will return home, by rail, on Sunday. Every one
will know. Your breaking of the Sabbath will be put down to careless
pleasuring. It will hurt your practice terribly!"

Callandar laughed heartily. But before he could reply the quick bursting
out of a blaze upon the shore startled them both. "What is it?" he asked
apprehensively.

"Only a bonfire! Some one is giving a bonfire party. It is quite the
fashionable thing. There will be songs and speeches with lemonade and
cake. Oh, hurry! We shall be in time for the programme."

The mysterious woman, born of the moon, was gone. In her place was a
rumple-haired, bright-eyed child. Callandar took up the paddle with a
whimsical smile.

"Sit still or you'll overturn the canoe!" he said warningly. And across
the narrowing stretch of water floated the opening sentiments of the
patriotic cottagers.

"O Cana_dah_, our heritage, our love--"




CHAPTER XIV


Henry Callandar, resting neck-deep in the cool green swimming pool,
tossed the wet hair out of his eyes and whistled ingratiatingly to a
watching robin. A delightful sense of guilt enveloped him, for it was
Sunday morning and, since his experience at Pine Lake a week ago, he had
learned a little of what Sunday means in Coombe. Esther had been quite
right in fearing that his return by train upon that sacred day might
deal a severe blow to his prestige--at least until Mrs. Sykes had had
time to explain to every one how unavoidable it had been--and he knew
that if he were to be caught in his present delightful occupation his
Presbyterian reputation might be considered lost forever.

The robin twittered at him prettily but refused to be beguiled. Sunday
bathing was not among its weaknesses. Presently it flew away.

"Gone to tell the minister, I'll be bound!" murmured Callandar. "'Twill
be a scandal in the kirk. I'll lose all my five patients. Horrid
little bird!"

Smiling, he drew himself from the embrace of the faintly shining water
and retiring to the willow screen began to dress with that virtuous
leisureliness which characterises those who rise before their fellows.
He had the world to himself; a world of cool, sweet scents, pure light
and Sabbath quiet--that wonderful quiet which seems a living thing with
a personality of its own, so different is it from the ordinary quiet of
work-a-day mornings.

The primrose sky gave promise of a beautiful day. The blue grey vault
overhead was already filling with shimmering golden light, the drooping
willows and the dew-wet grass were stirring in the breeze of dawn, the
voice of the water sang in the stillness.

Callandar slipped his blue tie snugly under the collar of his white
flannel shirt and sighed with the ecstasy of health renewed. A
half-forgotten couplet hummed through his brain.

     "Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright!
     The bridal of the earth and sky--"

"And it's a hymn, too, or I'm a Dutchman," he declared, much edified.
"That proves that swimming on Sunday is quite compatible with proper
orthodoxy of mind. Shouldn't wonder if the Johnnie who wrote that wrote
it on Sunday morning after a dip. I'll tell Mrs. Sykes he did
anyway--where in thunder did I put my boots?"

The missing articles had apparently fulfilled the purpose of their being
by walking away, or else the robin had collected them as evidence!
Callandar chuckled at a whimsical vision of them in a church court,
damningly marked "Exhibit 1." But as he searched for them the utter
peace of the morning fled and suddenly he became conscious that he and
the willows no longer divided the world between them. Some one was near.
He felt eyes watching. The curious half-lost instinct which warns man of
the approach of his kind, told him that he was no longer alone. The
doctor fixed a stern eye on the screening willows.

"Zerubbabel!" he commanded, "come out of there at once, sir!"

A stirring in the bushes was the only answer.

The doctor glanced at his bootless feet.

"Bubble," more mildly, "if you want a swim--"

"It isn't Bubble," said a meek voice, "it's me. Are you dressed enough
for me to come out?" Without waiting for an answer the elfish face of
Ann appeared through the willow tangle. "If you're looking for your
boots," she remarked kindly, "they're hanging on that limb behind you."

But boots no longer absorbed the doctor.

"Come out of those willows, both of you!"

"There's only me," still meekly. "And I didn't come to swim. I came for
you. Honour bright! The Button Man's here."

"What?"

"Yes, he is. He came in a big grey car and was sitting on the doorstep
when Aunt got up. He told her not to disturb you, but of course Aunt
thought that you ought to know at once and when she found that you were
gone"--a poignant pause!

"Yes, when she found me gone--"

"When she found you gone," slowly, "she said you must have been called
up in the night to a patient!"

"Did she really?" The doctor's laugh rang out.

"And I hope the Lord will forgive her for such a nawful lie!" finished
Ann piously.

"He will, Ann, He will! You can depend on that. He has a proper respect
for loyalty between friends. Did I understand you to say that you had
seen my boots? Oh, yes, thanks! Now I wonder what can have brought our
Button Man back so soon? He didn't by any chance say, I suppose?"

"Him?" with scorn. "Not much fear! I'll do up your boots if you like."

"Thanks, no. That would be using unseemly haste. Button-men who go
visiting on Sunday must learn to wait. Don't you want to have a splash,
Ann? I'll walk on slowly, you can easily catch me up!"

The child looked enviously at the now sparkling water, but shook her
head.

"I'd love to. But I dasn't. Aunt always knows when I've been in. Even if
I go and muddy myself afterwards, she knows. She says a little bird
tells her."

"A robin, I'll bet. I know that bird! Sanctimonious thing! He was
watching me this morning and went off as fast as he knew how, to spread
the news. Ann, you have lived in this remarkable town all your life. Can
you tell me just why it is wicked to go swimming on Sunday?"

Ann looked blank. "No. But it is. You're likely to get drowned any
minute! Not but what I'd risk it if it wasn't for Aunt. I'm far more
scared of Aunt than I am of God," she added reflectively.

"Why, Ann! What do you mean?"

"Well, you never can tell about God, but Aunt's a dead sure thing! If
she says you'll get a smack for going in the river you'll get it--but
God only drowns a few here and there, for examples like."

"Look here!" Callandar paused in his stride and fixed her dark eyes by
the sudden seriousness in his own. "You've got the thing all wrong. God
doesn't drown people for swimming on Sunday. He isn't that sort at all.
He--He--" the unaccustomed teacher of youth faltered hopelessly in his
effort to instruct the budding mind, but Ann's eyes were questioning and
at their bidding the essential truth of his own childhood came back to
him. "God is Love," he declared firmly. "Great Scott! a person would
think that we lived in the Dark Ages! Don't you let 'em frighten you,
Ann. What are you allowed to do on Sunday anyway?"

"Church," succinctly. "And Sunday-school and church and the 'Pilgrim's
Progress.'"

"Well, that's something. Jolly good book, the 'Pilgrim's Progress'!"

"Yes," dubiously. "If it didn't use such a nawful lot of big words. And
if he'd only get on a little faster. He was terrible slow."

"So he was. Well, let us be merry while we can. I'll race you to the
orchard gate."

At the gate they paused to regain their lost breath and sense of decorum
for, across the orchard, the veranda could be plainly seen with the trim
figure of Professor Willits in close proximity to the taller and gaunter
outline of Mrs. Sykes. With one of her shy quick gestures, the child
slipped her fingers from the doctor's hold and sped away through the
trees. Her friendship with Callandar was the most wonderful thing that
had ever happened to Ann, but she was not of the kind which
parades intimacy.

"Patient dead?" asked Willits dryly after they had shaken hands.

"Patient?" Then, catching sight of the flaming red in the cheeks of his
landlady, "Dead? Certainly not. Even my patients know better than to die
on a morning like this. But whatever possessed you to disturb a
righteous household? Mrs. Sykes, he doesn't deserve breakfast, but I do.
When do you think--"

"In just about five minutes, Doctor. Soon's I get the coffee boiling and
the cream skimmed. I didn't know," with an anxiously reproving glance,
"but what you might want to get washed up after you got in."

"I--no, I think I'm quite clean enough, Mrs. Sykes. But it was very
thoughtful of you to wait--"

"Aunt, the coffee's boiling over!" The warning was distinctly audible
and, with a gesture of one who abandons an untenable position, Mrs.
Sykes retreated upon the kitchen.

The visitor watched her flight with mild amaze.

"I suppose I should seem curious if I were to ask why the excellent Mrs.
Sykes imperils her immortal soul in your behalf? But why in the name of
common sense is the peril necessary? It isn't a crime, is it, for a
medical man to get up early and go for a swim?"

"You forget what day it is," said Callandar solemnly. "Or rather, you
never knew. I myself was not properly acquainted with Sunday until I
came to this place. Your presence here is in itself a scandal. People do
not visit upon the Seventh day in Coombe."

"No? You should have informed me of the town's eccentricities. As it is,
if my presence imperils your social standing you can seclude me until
the next train."

"Better than that," cheerfully, "I can take you to church."

The alarmed look upon the professor's face was so enticing that
Callandar continued with glee:

"Why not? I have always thought your objection to church-going a blot
upon an otherwise estimable character. Hitherto I have been too busy to
attend to it, but now--"

"Quit chaffing, Harry! I came up because I had to see you. You pay no
attention to my letters. I never dreamed that you would stay a month in
this backwater. What is wrong? What is the matter with you?"

"Look at me--and ask those questions again."

The keen eyes of the Button-Moulder looked deep into the doctor's steady
ones. There was a slight pause. Then--

"Yes, I see what you mean. I saw it as you came across the orchard." The
sharp voice softened. "My anxiety for your health could hardly survive
the way in which you leaped that fence! But all this makes it only the
more mysterious. Have you found the fountain of youth or--or what?"

Callandar threw an affectionate arm over the other man's shoulders.

"I _am_ young, amn't I! Trouble is, I didn't know it." He ruffled his
hair at the side so that the grey showed plainly. "Terrible thing when
one loses the realisation of youth! But I've had my lesson. I'll never
be old again, never!"

In spite of himself the professor's straight mouth curved a little. A
spark of pride glowed in his cool eyes as he bent them upon the smiling
face of his friend. Yet his tone was mocking as he said, "Then it is the
fountain of youth? One is never too old to find that chimera."

"It's not something that I've found, old cynic. It's something that I've
lost. Look at me hard! Don't you notice something missing? Did you ever
read the 'Pilgrim's Progress'?"

"The Pilgrim's--"

"Breakfast is ready!" called Ann, teetering on her toes in the doorway.

"The Pil--"

"And Aunt--says--will--you--please--come--at--once--so's--the
coff--ee--won't--be--cold!" chanted Ann.

"Yes, Ann. We're coming."

"But I want to know--"

"Old man, I'll tell you after breakfast. I want you to see me eat. I
wish to demonstrate that there is no deception. A miracle has really
happened. No one could observe me breakfasting and doubt it!"

When they were seated he looked guilelessly into the still disapproving
face of Mrs. Sykes. "Perhaps you are wondering, as I did, what has
brought Professor Willits back to Coombe," he said, "but time and space
mean little to professors, and the fact is that Willits has long wished
to hear a sermon by the Reverend Mr. Macnair. He is coming with me this
morning. Perhaps you hadn't better mention it, though. It might disturb
Mr. Macnair to know that so eminent a critic was listening to him."

The eminent critic frowned grimly and took a fourth cream biscuit
without noticing it.

"Not a mite!" declared Mrs. Sykes. "The man ain't born that can fluster
Mr. Macnair. Nor yet the woman, unless it's Esther Coombe--Land sakes,
Doctor! I forgot to tell you how that cup tips! Ann, get a clean table
napkin. I hope your nice white pants ain't ruined, Doctor? I really
ought to put that cup away but it's a good cup if it's held steady and I
hate to waste good things. Last time it tipped was when the Ladies' Aid
met here. Mrs. Coombe had it and the whole cup spilled right over her
dress. I was that mortified! But she didn't seem to care. I can't
imagine what's the matter with that woman. She's getting dreadful
careless about her clothes. Next time I met her she wore that same
dress, splash an' all! 'Tisn't as if she hadn't plenty of new
things,--more than they can afford, if what folks say is true. You
haven't met Mrs. Coombe yet, have you, Doctor?"

"She is away from home."

"Well, when you do meet her you'll see what I mean, or like as not you
won't, being a man. Men never seem to see anything wrong with Mary
Coombe. But Esther must feel dreadful mortified sometimes when her Ma
forgets to get hooked up behind. Esther's as neat as a pin. Always was.
Why, even when she got home last week after that awful time you and she
had up at Pine Lake, and her having to stay overnight without so much as
a clean collar, she walked in here as fresh as a daisy--won't you let me
give you some more coffee, Professor?"

"Thank you, yes. You were saying--"

"Willits, do you think so much coffee is good for you?"

"Land sakes, Doctor, my coffee won't hurt him! It never seems to trouble
you any. As I was saying, one would almost have thought that what with
picnicking in the bush all day and trapesing around in a canoe half the
night and having to stay where she wasn't expected and wouldn't like to
ask the loan of the flat-irons--"

"Please, Mrs. Sykes, don't let Ann eat another biscuit. I don't want her
to be ill just when I want a day off to take Willits to church. Willits,
as your medical adviser, I forbid more coffee. He will really injure
himself, Mrs. Sykes, if I do not take him away. He isn't used to
breakfasts like this and his constitution won't stand it."

Mrs. Sykes beamed graciously under this delicate compliment and
confiscated Ann's latest biscuit with a ruthless hand. "If you gentlemen
would like to sit in the parlour--" she offered graciously. But
Callandar with equal graciousness declined. The office would do quite
well enough. Willits might want to smoke. "And as it-seems that my watch
has stopped," he added, "perhaps you would be so kind as to tell us
when it is time to change for church."

The professor settled himself primly upon the hardest chair which the
office contained and refused a cigar.

"You seem to have acquired a reprehensible habit of fooling, Henry," he
said. "Your language also is strange. When, for instance, you say
'change for church,' to what sort of transformation do you refer?"

Callandar chuckled.

"Only to your clothes, old chap. Don't worry. You wouldn't expect me to
go to church in flannels?"

"I should not expect you to go to church at all."

"Well, the fact is, old man, you are painfully ignorant. I do go to
church, and the proper church costume for a professional man is a frock
coat and silk hat. But as you are a traveller, and as you are not
exactly a professional man, I shall not lose caste by taking you as
you are."

The imperturbable Willits waived the point. "I understood you to say,
also, that your watch had stopped. Was that a joke?"

"No such luck!" The doctor took out his watch and shook it. "Mainspring
gone, I'm afraid!"

"A month ago," said the professor, "if your watch had stopped you would
have had a fit."

"Really! Was I ever such an ass? Well, I'm not the slave of my watch any
longer. Time goes softly in Coombe. Aren't you glad I'm not taking
a fit?"

"I am glad. But I want to understand."

"Then let's return to the 'Pilgrim's Progress.' Ann and I were talking
about it this morning. Do you remember the man with the pack on his back
and how when he reached a certain spot the pack, seemingly without
effort of his own, fell off and was seen no more?"

Willits reflected. The doctor was thoroughly in earnest now. "I seem to
recollect the incident to which you refer," he said after a pause. "If I
remember rightly it is an allegory and is used in a definitely religious
sense. The man with the pack meets a certain spiritual crisis. Do I
understand that you--er--that you have experienced conversion? I am not
guilty of speaking lightly of so important a matter, but I hardly know
how to frame my question."

The doctor tilted back his chair and looked dreamily out of the window.
"I did not mean you to take my illustration literally. My religious
beliefs are very much the same as they have always been. To a
materialist like you they seem, I know, absurdly orthodox; to a church
member in good standing they might seem fatally lax; but such as they
are I have not changed them. Still, I was, as you know, a man with a
burden. You may call the burden consequence or what you will, the name
doesn't matter. The weight of that youthful, selfish, unpardonable act
which bound a young girl to me without giving her the protection which
that bond demanded, was always upon me, crushing out the joy of life.
The news of her death made no difference, except to render me hopeless
of ever making up to her for the wrong I had done. Her death did not set
me free, it bound me closer.

"I seemed like one caught in the tow of some swift tide, always fighting
to get back, yet eternally being drawn away. The tide still flows out,
for the tide of human life is the only tide which never returns, but I
have ceased to struggle. I no longer look back. It is not that God has
forgiven me (I have never been able to think of God as otherwise than
forgiving), it is that I have forgiven myself."




CHAPTER XV


"It amounts to this, then," said Willits presently. "You are cured. The
balance is swinging true again. It has taken a long time, but the cure
is all the more complete for that. Now, when are you coming back to us?"

Callandar did not answer.

"You are needed. Not a day passes that your absence is not felt. You
used to have a strong sense of responsibility toward your work. What has
become of it?"

"I have it still. I am not slighting my work by taking time to build
myself into better shape for it."

"But you will simply stagnate here!" querulously. "You are becoming
slack already. You let your watch run down."

The doctor laughed.

"If many of my patients could do the same without worry they would not
need a doctor. Half of the nervous trouble of the age can be ultimately
traced to watches which won't run down. Leisure--unhurried leisure--that
is what we want. We've got to have it!"

"Piffle! I shall hear you talk about inviting your soul next."

"Well, if I do he is in better shape to accept the invitation than he
used to be."

The professor's gesture was sufficiently expressive.

"Very well. I give up. Remember, I advise against it. I think you are
making a mistake!--I'll have that cigar now. I suppose one is allowed to
smoke in the garden?"

"Yes, do, that's a good fellow! I must run up and make myself
presentable. I suppose you haven't seen Lorna lately?"

"I have seen her very lately. She asked to be remembered."

"Oh, you old prevaricator! Lorna never asked to be remembered in her
life. What she really said was, 'If you see Harry give him my love!'"

"If she did, you don't deserve it! Oh, boy," with sudden earnestness,
"why will you make a fool of yourself? She's a woman in a thousand.
Others see it if you don't. Since you've been away, MacGregor is paying
her marked attention."

"Good old Gregor!" The doctor's exclamation was one of pure pleasure.
"And yet you say my absence isn't doing any good? Go along with you!
Take your cigar and wait for me underneath the Bough. I'll not be long."

He was long, however. The professor's cigar and his cogitations came to
an end together without the promised reappearance. Even when he returned
to the office it was empty except for Ann, who in the stiffest of
starched muslin and whitest of stockings was spread out carefully upon
the widest chair. Her black hair was parted as if by a razor blade and
plastered tightly in slablike masses while the tension of the braids was
such that they stuck out on either side of the small head like decorated
sign posts. Weariness, disgust and defiance were painted visibly upon
the elfish face.

"This is the best chair!" said Ann politely, "but if you'll excuse me I
shan't get up. Every time I sit down it makes a crease in a fresh place.
By the time church is over I look like I was crumpled all over. It's the
starch!" she added in sullen explanation.

Willits, who liked children but did not understand them, essayed a mild
joke.

"Did you put some starch in your hair too?"

Ann flushed scarlet with anger and mortification and made no answer.

"It looked much nicer at breakfast," blundered on the professor
genially. "If I were you I should unstarch it--" he paused abashed by
the glare in Ann's black eyes and turned helplessly to Callandar, who
had just come in, resplendent in faultless church attire.

"Don't listen to him, Ann!" said the doctor. "Button moulders are so
ignorant. They know absolutely nothing about hair or the necessity for
special tidiness on Sundays. All the same, I'm afraid we shall have a
headache if we don't let a reef out somewhere. Sit still a moment, Ann.
I was always intended for a barber."

To the fresh astonishment of Willits his friend's skilful hands busied
themselves with the tightly drawn hair which, only too eager for
freedom, soon fell into some of its usual curves. With a quick, shy
gesture the child drew the adored hand to her lips and kissed it.
Callandar turned a deep red. The professor chuckled, and Ann, furious at
betraying herself before him, fled precipitately, the crackling starch
of her stiff skirts rattling as she ran.

For a moment Willits enjoyed his friend's embarrassment and then, as the
probable meaning of the frock coat began to dawn upon him, his
expression changed to one of apprehension.

"You weren't in earnest about that church nonsense, were you?"

"Certainly. If you need a clean collar take one of mine, and hurry up.
The first bell has stopped ringing."

"But I'm not going!"

"Not if I ask you nicely?"

"But why? What are you going for?"

"Come and see."

The shrewd eyes of the professor grew coldly thoughtful.

"That is exactly what I shall do," he decided.

From the home of Mrs. Sykes upon Duke Street to the First Presbyterian
Church upon Oliver's Hill is a brisk walk of fifteen minutes. As Coombe
lies in a valley, Oliver's Hill is not a hill, really, but a gentle
eminence. It is a charming, tree-lined street bordered by the homes and
gardens of the well-to-do. It is, in fact, _the_ street of Coombe, and
to live upon Oliver's Hill is a social passport seldom mentioned but
never ignored.

As if social prominence were not enough, it had another claim upon the
affections and memories of many, for up this hill every Sunday in a long
and goodly stream poured the first Presbyterians who were not only the
elect but also the elite of Coombe. To see Knox Church "come out" was
one of the sights of the town and, decorously hidden behind a muslin
curtain, a stranger might feast his eyes upon greatness unrebuked. It
was said at one time that every silk hat in Coombe attended Knox Church,
but this was vainglory, for it was afterwards proved that several
repaired to St. Michael's and at least one to the Baptist tabernacle.
With this explanation you will at once understand why the sidewalk was a
few feet broader upon the church side of Oliver's Hill, and if this
circumstance savours to you of ecclesiastical privilege we can only
conclude that you are not Presbyterian, and request you not to be so
narrow-minded.

As the doctor and his half-reluctant friend turned at the foot of the
hill they were immediately absorbed by the stream pressing upwards, for
the last bell had already begun to ring.

"We're all right," whispered Callandar encouragingly. "It rings for five
minutes."

The professor opened his lips to say something, but shut them with a
snap. There was probably method in the doctor's madness but it was
method which would never be disclosed through much questioning. With an
expression of intense solemnity he fixed his eyes, gimlet-like, upon the
middle button of the Sunday blouse of the lady in front of him and
followed up the hill. To the absurdly low-toned remarks of his companion
he vouchsafed no reply whatever.

They entered the church to the subdued rustle of Sunday silks and the
whisper of Sunday voices. At the door some one shook hands with
Callandar and remarked in a ghostly whisper that it was a fine day. A
grave young man, in black, led them to a pew half way down the aisle.
Most of the pews were already full, the latest comers showing slight
signs of hurry; and as they seated themselves the bell stopped and the
organ began.

There was a moment's expectant interval and then two doors, one at
either side of the pulpit, opened simultaneously and the minister
entered from one side, the choir from the other. Before the minister
walked a very solemn man with abnormally long upper lip. This was Elder
John MacTavish, a man of large substance, of great piety and poor
digestion. It was upon this latter account that the doctor always
observed him with peculiar interest, for had not Mrs. Sykes declared
that if he should only be called in once to prescribe for John
MacTavish's stomach his future in Coombe was secure?

"Doctor Parker is doing him just no good at all," she reported. "So keep
an eye on him. If he looks especially dour it's a good sign."

"Would you say that he looks especially 'dour'?" whispered Callandar to
Willits.

"I should. Why?"

"Oh, nothing--only it's a good sign! Hush!"

When the minister has entered the pulpit at Knox Church there is a
moment during which you may bow your head, or, if you consider this
popish, you may cover your face with your gloved hand. It is a moment of
severe quiet. One does not dare even to cough. Hence the doctor's
warning "hush!"

But this morning the quiet was rudely broken. Somewhere, just outside
the open windows, sounded a laugh; a young, clear, unrestrained laugh,
then the call of a sharp whistle, and next moment, through the doors not
yet closed, hurtled something yellow and long-legged! With a joyous bark
it rushed along the nearest aisle, across the front of the pulpit, down
the other aisle and out at the door again.

The congregation was amazed and grieved. Its serenity was shaken, even
the minister seemed disturbed. Some younger members of the choir
giggled. It was most unseemly.

"Naughty dog!" said the voice outside the window. "Go home! Don't dare
to lick my hand!"

One of the choir members grew red in the face and choked. It was
outrageous! And then, as if nothing at all had happened, the girl who
had been the cause of the whole unfortunate incident entered and walked
down the aisle. She appeared to be quite undisturbed; was, in fact,
smiling. Every eye in the church followed her as, a little out of
breath, a little flushed, with dark hair slightly disarranged as if from
an exciting chase, she took her seat, unconscious, or careless, of them
all. The minister, who had paused with almost reproachful obviousness,
gave out the opening psalm and the congregation freed itself from
embarrassment with an accustomed flutter of hymn-books.

Going to church was somewhat interesting after all, thought Professor
Willits. Then, in common with the rest of the congregation, he detached
his eyes from the girl's exquisite profile and focused them upon
the minister.

Friends of the Rev. Angus Macnair asserted that he was a man in a
thousand. For that matter he was a man in any number of thousands; for
his was a personality, true to type, yet not likely to be duplicated.
Born of a Highland Scotch father and a Lowland Scotch mother, he
developed almost exclusively in his father's vein. Loyal in the extreme,
narrow to fanaticism, passionate, emotional, yet trained to the cold
control of a red Indian, he was a man of power, at once the victim and
the triumph of his creed.

Early in life he had come under a conviction of sin, had received
assurance of forgiveness and of election and, before he had left the
Public School, his Call had come. From that time forward he had burnt
with a fierce fire of godliness which, together with a natural
incapacity for seeing two sides to anything, had carried him safely
through the manifold temptations to unbelief and heresy which beset a
modern college education. Many wondered that a man so gifted should
remain in Coombe, but the explanation is simple. He suited Coombe; the
larger churches of the larger cities he did not suit. Lax opinions,
heretical doctrines, outlooks appallingly wide were creeping in
everywhere. It is safe to say that in most of the churches of his own
faith he would have seemed bravely but hopelessly behind the times. But
in Coombe he had found his place. Coombe was conservative. Coombe
Presbyterians were still content to do without frills in the matter of
doctrine. Coombe could still listen to hell fire and, if not unduly
disturbed, did not at least smile behind its hand.

Something of all this the Button-Moulder, student of men, felt as he
watched the sombre yet glowing face of the preacher.

The sermon that morning was one of a series dealing with the
Commandments and the text was, "Thou shalt not bear false witness
against thy neighbour." The speaker had the scholar's power of
concentration, the orator's power of delivery. He was both poignant and
personal. He seemed to do everything save mention names. Some sinners in
that congregation, thought Willits, had undoubtedly been bearing false
witness, and were now listening to a few plain words! Cautiously he
glanced around, almost expecting to see the tale of guilt and sorrow
legibly imprinted upon some culprit's face. But no one seemed at all
disturbed, save one old lady who glared back at him an unmistakable
"Thou art the man!" The congregation sat, serenely, soberly attentive,
testifying their entire agreement with the speaker by an occasional sigh
or nod. The more fiery the preacher's denunciations, the more complacent
his hearers. In astonishment Willits realised that, if appearances go
for anything, no one in Knox Presbyterian Church had ever borne false
witness against anybody!

The collecting of the offering was somewhat of an anti-climax, as was
also the anthem by the choir, the latter consisting of a complicated
arrangement of the question, "If a man die shall he live again?"
reiterated singly by all parts in succession, by duets and quartets and
finally by the whole choir, without so much as a shadow of an answer
appearing anywhere.

Willits gave a long sigh as they stepped into the summer day again. It
had not been uninteresting, but he was quite ready for lunch. The
doctor, on the contrary, seemed unaccountably to linger. He even paused
to talk to a fat lady in mauve velvet who had mauve cheeks to match.

"So glad to see you in church, Doctor! Young men, you know, are inclined
to be young men! And these nice days--very tempting, I'm sure! Is your
friend a stranger?"

Callandar gravely introduced Willits, who became immediately convinced
that this mauve lady was the most unpleasant person he had ever seen and
doubtless the very person to whom the minister had spoken in his sermon.

Why had Callandar let him in for this? Why was he waiting around for
anyway? There he was, shaking hands with some one else--this time it was
the girl who had laughed.

"May I present my friend, Professor Willits, Miss Coombe?"

The girl extended a graceful hand and for an instant the professor was
permitted a look into eyes which caused him to set his firm lips
somewhat grimly.

"And I know, Willits, you will be delighted to meet our pastor, Mr.
Macnair."

A spark began to glow in the professor's eye, but Callandar's face was
guileless. The minister shook hands with professional heartiness, but
his gaze, Willits thought, was wandering. He began to feel interested.

"Very fine day," he remarked imperturbably.

"Lovely, lovely," agreed the minister, still heartily. The mauve lady
was waiting for the pastoral handshake, but he did not notice her. He
was watching the dark girl talking to Callandar.

"What is so rare as a day in June?" said Willits, with deliberate
malice.

"Ah, yes, very much so. Delighted to have met you. You will excuse me,
I'm sure. Annabel," with an impatient glance toward a stout, awkward
woman in the background, "if you are not quite ready I think Miss Coombe
and I will walk on." He moved toward the dark girl as he spoke and
Willits followed.

"Then I'll have to come some other day to get the roses," they heard
Callandar say. "But remember I haven't a single flower in the office. So
it will have to be soon."

"At any time," answered the girl, flushing slightly.

"No flowers?" repeated the minister, a little fussily, "dear me, I will
speak to my sister. Annabel will be delighted to send you any quantity,
Doctor. You must really drop in to see our garden, some day. Sunday, of
course, is a busy day with me. Come, Miss Esther. Good morning, Doctor.
Good morning, Professor. Glad to see you at our services any time--"

Bowing courteously, the minister moved away, followed perforce by Miss
Coombe. (An invitation to lunch at the manse is an honour not to be
trifled with.) Perforce also the doctor stood aside and Willits caught
the look, half shy, half merry, which the girl threw him from the depths
of her remarkable eyes. It was really quite interesting, and rather
funny. Not often had he seen fair ladies carried off from under the nose
of Henry Callandar. Transferring his glance quickly to the face of his
friend, he hoped to surprise a look of chagrin upon his abashed
countenance, but the countenance was not abashed, and the look which he
did surprise there startled him considerably. Henry Callandar, of all
men, to be looking after any girl with a look like that!

Well, he had been invited to come and see. And he had seen.




CHAPTER XVI


As Esther walked away, demurely acquiescent, by the side of the Rev. Mr.
Macnair she was conscious of a conflict of emotions. The sight of the
doctor's disappointed face as he stood hat in hand, awoke regret and
perhaps a trifle of girlish gratification. She had been sorry herself to
miss that half hour among the roses but she was still too young and too
happy to know how few are such hours, how irrevocable such losses. Also,
it had seemed good to her maidenly pride that Dr. Callandar should
know--well, that he should see--just exactly what he should know and see
she did not formulate. But underneath her temporary disappointment she
felt as light and glad as a bird in springtime.

The minister was speaking, but he had been speaking for several moments
before Esther's delighted flutter would permit of her listening to him.
When at last her thoughts came back she noticed, with a happy-guilty
start, that his tone was one of dignified reproof.

"Naturally we all understand," he was saying, "at least I hope we all
understand, that you are not primarily to blame. At the worst one can
only impute carelessness--"

"Oh, but it wasn't carelessness! You don't know Buster. He's the
_cleverest_ dog! He hid. I had no idea that he was with me until he
bounded past me at the church door. And though I whistled and tried to
grab him he was in before I knew it. I'll make him sit up meekly and beg
your pardon."

A flush of what in a layman might have been anger crimsoned the
minister's cheek.

"You are well aware," stiffly, "that I am not referring to the incident
of the dog."

"To what then? I am sorry I wasn't listening but you seemed to be
scolding and I couldn't think of anything else." Even the abstruse Mr.
Macnair saw that her surprise was genuine. His tone grew gentler.

"You are very young, Miss Esther. But since I must speak more plainly, I
was referring to that mad escapade of a week ago. Don't misunderstand
me, the blame undoubtedly rests upon the man who was thoughtless enough,
selfish enough, to put you in such a position."

"Whatever do you mean?" Esther was torn between anger and a desire to
laugh. But seeing the earnestness in his face, anger predominated. "Can
you possibly be referring to the breakdown of Dr. Callandar's motor?"
she asked coldly.

"I refer to the whole unfortunate adventure. If your step-mother had
been at home I feel sure it would not have happened. She would never
have permitted the excursion to take place."

The girl's dark brows drew together in their own peculiar manner.

"Let us be honest," she suggested. "You know quite well that my
step-mother would not have bothered about it in the least."

"I feel it my duty," went on the minister, "to tell you that there were
some peculiar features in connection with the disablement of the motor.
I understand from the mechanician who accompanied Dr. Callandar to the
spot for the recovery of the machine that there was really very little
the matter. A short ten minutes completed the necessary repairs."

"Ten minutes? Oh, how silly he must have felt--the doctor I mean. After
all the hours he spent and the things he said." She laughed with
reminiscent amusement. "He threw the monkey wrench at it, too. And he
thought he knew so much about motors!"

Her companion observed her with sombre eyes. Was it possible that she
had actually missed the point of his remark?

"Can you understand," he said slowly, "how a man used to driving a motor
car can have been entirely baffled by so slight an accident? To me it
seems--odd!"

"So Dr. Callandar thought, only he expressed it more forcibly."

"And you?"

"Well, I suppose I was heartless. But it was the funniest thing I ever
saw!" Esther's laughter bubbled again.

They were now at the manse gate. He saw that he must hasten.

"My dear Miss Esther, let us be serious. I do not like to
disturb your mind but I have a duty in this matter. Has it never
occurred to you that this so-called accident may not have been
so--so--er--entirely--er--irremediable, so to speak, as it was made
to appear?"

"Do you mean that he did it on purpose?" The tone was one of blank
amazement. Esther's hand was upon the gate but forgot to press the
latch. She was a quick brained girl and the insinuation in the
minister's words had been patent. Yet that he should be capable of such
an idea seemed incredible! Had he been looking at her he would have seen
the clear red surge over her face from neck to brow and then recede, but
not before it had lighted a danger spark in her eyes.

"You did mean that!" She went on before he could answer. The scorn in
her voice stung. But the Reverend Angus was not a coward.

"That was my meaning. You are a young and inexperienced girl. You go
upon an excursion with a man whom none of us know. An accident, a very
peculiar accident, happens. You are led to believe that the damage is
serious, but later, when the matter is investigated, it is found to have
been trifling. What is the natural inference? What have you to say?"

"It has been said before," calmly.

"Well--"

"Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor."

They faced each other, the man and the girl. And the man's eyes fell.

"God forbid that I should do so," he murmured.

Esther's face softened. Her anger was not proof against humility.

"If you are really disturbed about it," she said slowly, "I can reassure
you. You say that you do not know Dr. Callandar. But I do know him. The
whole situation rests upon that. He is a man incapable of the caddish
villainy you impute. Why he could not repair the car, I cannot say. I
think," with a smile, "that he does not know quite as much about cars as
he thinks he does. But he did his best, I know that! When we found his
efforts useless we took the only course possible and made at once for
the canoe. We had to steal it, you remember, but the doctor showed no
faltering in that. He was also prepared to shoot the dog. And you have
my word for it that he made no attempt to swamp the canoe or to
otherwise complicate matters. I arrived at Mrs. Burton's by ten minutes
past nine. She was delighted to see me. Dr. Callandar walked over to the
station and sent telegrams to Aunt Amy and Mrs. Sykes. He returned to
Coombe upon the morning train. I remained with Mrs. Burton and came back
in time for school on the milk train Monday morning. That is the whole
story of the adventure and, to be frank, I enjoyed it immensely."

The minister shook his head, but he could say no more. His attitude had
not changed, yet he felt a sense of shame before the straightforward
honesty of Esther's outlook. She had no sense of the evil of the world.
That very fact seemed to make the world less evil.

"When will Mrs. Coombe be back?" he asked abruptly.

Immediately the girl's frank look clouded. "I do not know," she said.
"She hardly ever tells me when she is returning. She may be at home any
day now. You know how impulsively she acts."

"Yes--just so." The minister's manner was absent. "The fact is I wish
very much to speak with your mother regarding a certain matter. Not the
matter we have been discussing, we will say no more of that, but a
matter of great importance to--er--to me. The importance is such indeed
that I doubt if I am justified in delaying longer if you have no idea of
when I may expect to see her."

Had Esther been noticing she must have remarked the unusual agitation of
his manner, but Esther was not noticing.

"Is it anything you could discuss with me?" she asked innocently.
"Mother cares less and less for business. Unless it is something quite
private she will probably turn it over to me in any case."

"But this is not--er--a matter of business. Not exactly. Not a business
matter at all, in fact. It is a matter which--"

"Oh, there you are!" Miss Annabel's voice was breathless but gratified
and free from the faintest suspicion of having arrived, as usual, at
exactly the wrong moment. "Are you showing Esther the new rose, Angus?
Such a disappointment, Esther, my dear! I had quite made up my mind that
it was to be red. It came out pink, and such a beautifully strong
plant--such a waste! I simply can't make myself care for pink roses.
They are so common. Was I very long? You must both be starved. I know I
am. Won't you come upstairs, Esther, and put off your hat?"

Esther intimated that she would. Just now, she had no desire for the
further company of Mr. Macnair. She was conscious even of a faint
stirring of dislike. Therefore the eagerness with which she followed
Miss Annabel filled that good lady with hospitable reproach.

"I didn't intend to be so long," she apologised, "but you know what
choir-leaders are? And Angus won't speak to him. I can't make Angus out
lately. Tell me," abruptly, as they stood in the cool front room with
its closed green shutters, "did _you_ notice anything peculiar
about Angus?"

"No," in surprise, "is he peculiar?"

"Quite. He's getting fussy. He never used to be fussy. The trouble was
to induce him to be fussy enough. Except over church matters. But this
morning he was just like an ordinary man. About his collar" (Miss
Annabel had a fascinating habit of disjointing her sentences anywhere)
"nothing suited him. And you know, Esther, what care I always take with
his collars. He said they were too shiny. Of course they're shiny. Why
not? He said he noticed that men weren't wearing shine on their collars
now. Fancy that!"

"Not really?" Esther's fresh laugh rang out.

"Well, words to that effect. He asked me if I wanted to make him a
laughing stock before the congregation. Did you ever? And he _banged
the door_!"

"Does he not bang doors usually?"

"Never. And he banged it hard. It shook the house."

"But people have to bang doors, hard, sometimes, even ministers. I
wouldn't worry if I were you. It probably did him the world of good. As
for the collars--he may have been noticing Dr. Callandar's. Mrs. Sykes
says the doctor sends all his laundry to the city."

"You don't say? And is it different from ours?"

"I--yes, I think it does look different."

"How did you happen to notice it? Oh, Esther, you aren't really carrying
on with that strange young man, are you?"

The girl's cheek flamed. The question, she knew, was void of offence.
"Carrying on" meant nothing, but the homely phrase seemed suddenly very
displeasing--horribly vulgar! Her very ears burned. What if, some time,
he should hear a like phrase used to describe their wonderful
friendship? The thought was acute discomfort. Oh, how mean and small and
misunderstanding people were!

She took off her hat and smoothed her hair without answering. But Miss
Annabel was so used to having her anxious queries unanswered that she
did not notice the lack.

"I know you haven't, of course," she went on. "But Coombe is such a
place for gossip. Ever since you and he had that smash-up with the
automobile, people have kind of got it into their heads that you're
keeping company. But I said to Mrs. Miller, 'I know Esther Coombe better
than you do and it isn't at all likely that a girl who can pick and
choose will go off with a stranger--even if he is a doctor. And,' I
said, 'how do we know he is a doctor anyway?' Goodness knows he came
into the place like a tramp. You've heard, haven't you, Esther, how he
came into the Imperial with nothing but a knapsack and riding in
Mournful Mark's democrat?"

This time she did pause for an answer and Esther said "Yes," shortly.

"Then that settles it. I knew you had some sense. Just like I said to
Mrs. Miller. Next time I see her I'll tell her what you say. 'Tisn't as
if we knew anything about the man. No wonder you feel vexed about it."

"I hope you will not mention the subject at all."

"Of course not. Except to tell them how silly they are. You're sure you
didn't notice anything queer about Angus when you were walking home
from church?"

"Nothing at all." Yet, as she said it, it occurred to her that she had
noticed something unusual in the minister's manner--an agitation, a lack
of poise! "Perhaps he is disturbed about church matters," she suggested,
thinking of the interrupted conversation about the important matter
which was not business. "Why don't you ask him?"

Miss Annabel shook her head. "Oh, I never ask him anything! But,"
cheerfully, "I almost always manage to find out. I'm rather good at
finding out things. But this isn't a church matter. I know all the
symptoms of that. This is different. It's--it's more human!"

"Liver?" suggested Esther.

"No. I know the symptoms of liver too, Esther! What if it should be
_Love_!"

The idea was so daring that Miss Macnair justly spoke it in italics. But
the attitude of her listener was disappointing. Esther looked as if it
might be quite a natural thing for the minister of Knox Church to
fall in love.

"Love!" she said the word caressingly. "Perhaps it is. They say love is
a disturbing thing. But--does it usually make a man bang doors?"

"It often turns a sensible man into a fool." Miss Annabel's tone held
bitterness. "But what I can't discover is this! If Angus is in love,
whom is he in love with?" The question was delivered with such force
that Esther jumped.

"I'm sure I don't know!"

"Nor do I. And that is what I must find out. I have my suspicions. My
dear, don't let me startle you, but have you ever thought that it might
possibly be--your mother?"

"Gracious! So it might! I never thought of it."

"I have not been blind," went on Miss Annabel complacently. "I have
noticed how often he calls at the Elms and how long he stays. Also how
very considerate he is of Mrs. Coombe, how patient with Jane, how
indulgent with you--"

"Indulgent with me!" indignantly. "Why should he be 'indulgent' with
me?"

"Why, indeed," asked Miss Macnair pointedly, "unless on account of your
mother?"

Esther subdued a desire to laugh. Many little things, half-observed,
seemed to fit in with Miss Annabel's theory. Yet, somehow, instinct told
her that the theory was wrong.

"I don't believe it," she declared finally. "At first I thought it
possible but now I seem to know that we're on the wrong track. Mr.
Macnair is not in love with mother, and as for mother--Oh, the thing is
absurd! Aren't you awfully hungry, Miss Annabel?"




CHAPTER XVII


It was a curious luncheon party. The host was abstracted, nervous, far
from being his usual bland self. The guest was subdued, silent, uneasy
for no reason at all. The hostess, usually an ever-springing well of
comment and question, had decided upon quiet dignity as the most fitting
expression of sensibilities ignored by the banging of doors.

"I think, Angus," she ventured once, "that you ought to remonstrate with
Mr. McCandless in regard to 'If a man die.' An Easter Anthem is an
Easter Anthem, but after five renderings it is hardly fair to expect the
congregation to behave as if they had never heard it before."

"Quite so," said the minister absently.

"Then may I tell him myself that it is your special request--"

"Certainly not. I wish you would not interfere, Annabel. The choir does
very well. I think I have told you before that your continual desire for
something novel in music has not my sympathy. I am not sure that I
approve of this growing craze for anthems. They seem to me, sometimes,
wholly unconnected with worship. We do not ask for new hymns every
Sunday, nor do we ever become weary of the psalms. Indeed, familiarity
seems often the measure of our affection."

"Net with anthems," firmly. "Anthems are different. Aren't anthems
different, Esther?"

"I have known familiarity to breed something besides affection in the
case of anthems," agreed Esther.

In the ordinary course of things this remark would have aroused her host
into delivering a neat and timely discourse upon the proper relation of
music to the service of the Protestant Church and the tendency of the
present age to unduly exalt the former at the expense of the latter. But
to-day he merely upset the salt and looked things at the innocent
salt-cellar which his conscience, or his cloth, did not allow him
to utter.

Miss Annabel raised her eyebrows at Esther in a significant way,
telegraphing, "What did I tell you?" And Esther signaled back, "You were
right. He is certainly not himself."

Several other topics were introduced with no better result and every one
felt relieved when lunch was over.

"I think," said the Reverend Angus, as they arose, "that it is probably
pleasanter in the garden."

Esther glanced at Miss Annabel. She wanted very much to go home. Yet in
Coombe it was distinctly bad mannered to leave hurriedly, after a meal.
She thought of pleading a headache, but the excuse seemed too
transparent and she could think of nothing better. Miss Annabel was
unresponsive. Her host was already moving toward the door. Now he held
it open for her. There was nothing to do but go. If she were clever she
could keep the conversation in Miss Annabel's hands.

But Miss Annabel's brother had other ideas. "I think," he suggested with
the soft authority which in that house was law, "that as you are taking
Mrs. Miller's class, Annabel, it might be well for you to look over the
Sabbath School lesson. Our guest will excuse you, I know."

"Why, I've hardly seen her at all, Angus."

"There will be time later. I am sure Miss Esther understands."

Esther understood very well and her heart sank. She was probably in for
another scolding. However, as politeness required, she murmured that on
no account would she wish to interfere with the proper religious
instruction of Mrs. Miller's class. Miss Annabel looked rebellious, but
as usual found discretion the better part and contented herself with
another facial telegram to Esther: "Find out what is the matter with
him." And Esther smiled and nodded: "I'll try."

"Perhaps you would like to see the rose bush to which my sister
referred," began the minister nervously as they stepped out upon the
lawn. "It is a very fine rose, but pink, I regret to say, pink. It is
unfortunate that Annabel should dislike pink so much. I think myself
that a pink rose is very pretty. Something a little different from the
red and white varieties."

Esther murmured, "Naturally," and opened her strange eyes widely so
that he could see the mischief which was like a blue flash in the depths
of them. He coloured faintly.

"I fear I am talking nonsense! The fact is that I am thinking of
something else. Something so important that it occupies my mind
completely. That is why, Esther, I wished to speak with you alone."

The girl was thoroughly interested now. She was flattered also. Miss
Annabel had been right. Something was troubling the minister. And she,
Esther, was to be his confidant. To her untroubled, girlish conceit
(girls are very wise!) it seemed natural enough. She had no doubt of
her ability to help him. Therefore her face and her answering "Yes?"
were warmly encouraging.

It is a general belief that a woman always knows, instinctively, when a
man is going to propose to her. She cannot be taken unawares; her
flutter, her surprise, her hesitancy are assumed as being artistically
suitable, but her unpreparedness is never bona fide. If this be the true
psychology of the matter then Esther's case was the exception which
proves the rule. No warning came to her, no intuition. She was still
looking at the minister with that warm expression of impersonal
interest, when, without further preliminaries, he began his halting
avowal of love.

Had the poor pink rose-bush suddenly flamed into crimson she could
scarcely have been more surprised. She caught her breath with the shock
of it! But shocks are quickly over. One adjusts one's self with
incredible swiftness. A moment--and it seemed to Esther that she ought
to have been expecting this. That she ought to have known it all along.
Thousands of trifles mocked at her for her blindness, thousands of
unheeded voices shrieked the truth into her opened ears. She felt
miserably guilty. Not yet had she arrived at the stage when she could
justify her blindness and deafness to herself. Later, she would
understand how custom, the life-long habit of regarding the minister as
a man apart, had helped to dull her perception. Later, common sense
would prove her innocent of any wilful blunder. But just now, in her
first bewilderment, it seemed that nothing could ever excuse that lack
of understanding which had made this declaration possible!

"I love you, Esther! I have loved you for two years." (It was like the
Reverend Angus to refer to the exact period.) "You must have seen it.
This can be no surprise to you. You may blame me in your heart for not
speaking sooner. But you were young. There seemed time enough. Then,
lately, when I saw that you were no longer a child, I decided to speak
as soon as your mother should have returned. But to-day I felt that I
could not wait longer. I must know at once--now! I must hear you say
that you love me. That you will be my wife. You will--Esther?"

His impassioned tones lingered on the name with ecstasy.

The startled girl forced herself to look at him, a look swift as a
swallow's dart, but in it she saw everything--the light on his face--the
love in his eyes! And something else she saw, something of which she did
not know the name but from which, not loving him, she shrank with an
instinctive shiver of revolt. He seemed a different man. The minister,
the teacher, was gone, and in his place stood the lover, the claimer.
Yes--that was it. He claimed her, his glance, his voice--somewhere in
the girl's heart a red spark of anger began to glow.

She tried to speak, but he silenced her by a gesture. "No, do not answer
yet. Although you must have known what I have felt for you, you are
startled by my suddenness, I can see that. I have told you that it was
not my intention to speak so soon. Circumstances have hurried me. I felt
that I must have this settled. That--that episode of last week alone
would have determined me. Things like that must not recur. I must have
the right to advise, to--to protect you. You are so young. You do not
know the world, its wickedness, its incredible vileness." His face was
white with intense inward passion. "With me you will be safe. My God!
to think of you at the mercy of that man--of any man! It stirs a madness
of hate in me. Hate is a sin, I know, but God will understand--it is
born of love, of my love for you."

Again the girl tried to force some words from her trembling lips. And
again he stopped her.

"Do not speak yet. I apologise for my violence. Forgive it. We need not
refer to this aspect of the matter again. Let us dwell only upon the
sweeter idea of our love--for you do love me? You will love me--Esther?"

But the time for speech had gone. To her own intense surprise and to the
minister's consternation, Esther burst into tears.

She was frightened, angry, stung with pity and a kind of horror. She
felt herself honoured and insulted at the same time; and with this
strange medley of emotions was a consciousness of youth and inexperience
very different from the calm, untried confidence of a few
minutes before.

"Forgive me, forgive me!" pleaded the conscience stricken suitor. "I
have been too sudden! I should have prepared you. I should have allowed
you to see more plainly." With a lover's first, fond air of possession
he attempted to take her hand.

"Don't!" The word was sharp as a pistol shot. Esther's tears were
suddenly stayed. Furtively she slipped the hand he had touched behind
her. With the other she felt for her handkerchief and frankly wiped
her eyes.

"You startled me," she explained presently. "And I am so sorry, so very
sorry! I never dreamed that you thought of me at all--in that way, any
more than I have thought of you. You honour me very much. But it is
impossible. Quite, quite impossible."

"You mean my position here, as minister? Believe me, I have thought of
all that. There may be difficulties but we will conquer them together.
Nothing is impossible if you love me, dear."

"Oh!" She turned wide blue eyes upon him. "That is just it. I do not
love you."

The blow fell swift, unerring, dealt by the mercilessly honest hand of
youth. Esther's eyes were quite dry now. Her nervousness was passing.
Regret and pity were merged in one overpowering, instinctive desire: the
desire to show him beyond all manner of doubt that she repudiated that
possessive touch upon her hand. "I could not ever possibly marry you,"
she said, as calmly as if she had been accustomed to dismissing suitors
all her life.

They were still standing by the rose-bush whose desperate fate it was to
produce pink roses. With incredulous dismay, the minister saw her turn
from him and take a step toward the house.

She had refused him! She was leaving him! At any moment Annabel might
finish her Sunday School lesson and come out upon the lawn--all his
self-possession vanished like a puff of smoke.

"Esther!" he cried, "Esther! wait. Give me a moment."

She paused, but did not turn.

"I think there is nothing more to say--I am very sorry."

Sorry! She was sorry. This young girl upon whom he had set his desire,
of whom he had felt so sure, to whom his love should have come as a
crown, was sorry. King Cophetua, flouted by the beggar maid, could not
have been more astonished, more deeply humiliated!

But the greater wound was not to his pride. At any cost to his dignity
and self-respect he could not let her go like this. His ministerial
manner fell away, his readiness deserted him. In a moment he became all
lover, pleading, entreating, with the one great abandon of his life,
with the stammering eloquence of unspeakable desire!

Slowly the girl turned to him. He saw her pure profile, then the full
charm of her changing face. The blue eyes, widely open, were darker,
lovelier than ever--Surely there was softening in their depths....

"Es--ther, Es--ther!" Miss Annabel's voice broke upon the tense moment
with cheerful insistence, and Miss Annabel herself appeared at the turn
of the walk, waving a slip of paper. She saw them at once.

"You're wanted at home, Esther. Your mother's come back. To-day! Think
of that! On the noon train. In face of the whole town. And all she said
when Elder MacTavish met her coming up from the station was that she had
forgotten it was Sunday. Fancy!"




CHAPTER XVIII


Perhaps never, in all her life of inopportune arrivals, had Miss Annabel
been so truly welcome--or so bitterly resented! Esther turned to her
with a heart-sob of relief, the minister walked away without a word.

"Dear me! What's the matter?" said the good lady. "You seem all excited.
Perhaps I shouldn't have shouted out the news so abruptly. But it never
occurred to me that you might be startled. 'Tisn't as if your mother had
been away a year. Jane's waiting for you down by the gate. Such a
peculiar child! Nothing I could say will induce her to come in. Don't
you find Jane is a peculiar child, Esther?"

"Only a little shy," said Esther, quickening her steps.

"Shy! Mercy, I shouldn't call her shy. That child has the
self-possession of a Chinee! I hope you won't mind me saying it, but a
little shyness is exactly what Jane needs."

Esther, whose shaken nerves threatened hysterical laughter, made no
reply to this, but hurried toward the small figure by the garden gate.

"Oh, Jane!" she called, somewhat shakily.

At her voice, the Shy One stopped kicking holes in the turf with the
toes of her new boots and executing a bearlike rush, threw herself into
her sister's arms.

"I'm home, Esther! So's mother! And she says I don't have to go to
Sunday School. That's why I didn't want to come in. Let's hurry before
the minister comes."

"Listen to that!" said Miss Annabel in indignation. "Any one would
think my brother was an ogre. Angus! Why, he's gone! I thought he was
following us."

"I think Mr. Macnair went into the house."

"Did he? What did I tell you? Perhaps my news surprised him as well as
you. I thought he looked as pale as a plate. What do you think?"

"I think it is none of our business."

Miss Annabel gave her a shrewd look. "Perhaps not your business. You
don't have to live with him. But I do. Well, good-bye, my dear. Tell
your mother," significantly, "that I'll be over to see her soon."

Both girls were relieved that the minister did not leave his study to
say good-bye. They breathed more freely and their steps slackened as
soon as the corner which hid the manse had been safely passed.

"I've got new boots," began Jane. "See them? And Fred's new dog has got
puppies! He calls her Pickles. She got the puppies this morning. Oh!
they're darlings! But Fred is horrid. He says he is going to give me one
for my own, to make up for Timothy. Just as if anything ever could! I
never knew any one so heartless as Fred--except Job."

"Job who?" It was a relief to Esther to let the childish chatter run on.

"Why, _Job_. Job was just like Fred. When all his wives died and his
little children and his cows, he felt bad, but when God gave him more
wives and more children and lots of cows he was pleased as Punch. I
always thought that so strange of God," in a reflective tone, "but I
expect he knew what kind of man Job was and that he didn't have any real
feelings. Do you think I ought to take the puppy, Esther? I shouldn't
like to be like Job."

"I think there is no danger, dear. But how is mother? Better?"

"Was she sick?" in surprise.

"Her headaches, you know."

"Oh, yes. I don't know whether they are better or not," carelessly. "I
didn't see much of mother while we were away. I played all day with Mrs.
Bremner's little girl. Except when we went shopping. I think she must be
better, for she did such lots of shopping."

Esther smiled. "Not very much, I think, Janie. Shopping takes money."

"But she did! I have lots and lots of new clothes. Only,"
discontentedly, "most of them don't fit. Mother could never be bothered
trying them on. She's got some lovely things, too. Dresses and hats and
piles of new shoes and heaps of silk stockings--"

"Jane, why do you say 'lots' and 'piles' and 'heaps' when you know you
are exaggerating?"

But there was a note of anxiety in the reproof nevertheless.

"I'm not exaggerating, Esther! She did. Even Miss Bremner asked her what
she was going to do with them all."

The elder girl's fingers tightened upon the small hand she held. Her red
lips set themselves in a firm line. In face of a danger which she could
see and measure Esther had courage enough. And she had faced this
particular danger before.

"Mother will tell me all about it, no doubt," she said calmly. "Did she
get me something pretty, too?"

"Yes. It's a surprise."

"And when she got all the pretty things I suppose she told the clerks to
charge them?"

"Oh, no. She paid for them out of her purse."

Esther was conscious of a swift reaction. The things were paid for. Of
course Jane had exaggerated. Children have no sense of value. Some
dainty things, Mrs. Coombe was sure to buy; but, as Esther well knew,
her slender stock of money would hardly have run to "piles" and "heaps."
And of course she had been unjust in fearing that Mary had gone into
debt. They had one experience of that kind, an experience which had
ended in a solemn promise that it would never happen again. Mary
understood the position as well as she did.

As the girl's thought trailed naturally into the problem paths of every
day, her weeks of freedom, her new interests, the strange experience in
the manse garden seemed already remote. With the little frown of
accustomed perplexity slipping in between her straight, black brows, her
deeper agitation quieted. The unusual has no antidote so effective as
the commonplace.

They found Mrs. Coombe waiting for them on the veranda. Lying back in
the shade, in her white dress she looked very much at her ease. Yet a
quick observer might have noticed a certain anxiety in the glance she
tried to render merely welcoming. She was thinner than she had been;
tired lines dragged at the corners of the pouting mouth and dark circles
showed plainly through their dusting of pearl powder. Changes which
creep in unnoticed when one sees a person every day are startlingly
apparent when absence has forced a clearer focus. Esther had known that
her step-mother had changed, was changing, but as she bent over her now,
the extent of the change shocked her. With a tightening at her heart
she wondered what her father would say if he could see the difference
wrought by one short year. Pearl powder, lavishly used, is not becoming,
especially when it sifts into multitudes of fine lines; nor can powder
or anything else brighten a dull, yellowing skin which in health would
still be delicately clear and firm.

But the dulled eyes and the faded face were only the symptoms of the
real change in Mary Coombe. The thing itself lay deeper. Striving to
express a subtlety which would not lend itself to words, Esther had more
than once told herself that her mother was "not the same woman." Yet it
was only to-day, as she stooped to kiss her, that the startling, literal
truth of the phrase struck home. The outside changes were nothing--it
was the woman herself who had changed.

"Well, Esther!" The sweet high voice with its impatient note was the
same as ever. "Here we are home again. Fancy me forgetting it was
Sunday! Wasn't it funny? We met old MacTavish coming up from the station
(not a single cab down to meet the train, of course!) and he looked so
shocked. Really, this place grows more insufferable every day. It seems
to agree with you, though, you're looking awfully well. Amy looks well,
too. The new doctor must be something of a wonder."

"He is considered very clever. Aunt Amy is certainly better. Now that
you are home you must let him see what he can do for you."

Mrs. Coombe's pouting lips lengthened into a hard line.

"I won't see a doctor. And that's flat."

"Are you feeling better, then?"

As was always the case, her mother's perversity dissipated Esther's
sympathy and left her tone cold. It was all the colder probably because
just at that moment she had noticed that the simple white frock Mrs.
Coombe was wearing was not simple at all. The delicate embroidery on it
was all hand work. And French embroidery is no inexpensive trifle. It
was probably a new "best" gown; but if so, why had it been worn on the
train, why was it soiled in places and carelessly put on? The skirt was
not even, the collar, having lost a support, sagged at one side and just
below the girdle belt there was a small, jagged rent. Esther noticed
these details with vexation and discomfort, for it was part of the
change in Mary Coombe that from being one of the most carefully gowned
women in town she had become one of the most slovenly. All her natty,
pretty, American "style" which the plainer Canadians had sometimes
envied was gone. But this--this was worse than usual! The girl's quick
eyes travelled downward, noting the increased signs of deterioration
with something like distress.

"Why, mother," she exclaimed involuntarily, "there is a hole in your
stocking!"

"Is there?" Mary Coombe thrust out a small and elegant foot clad in
thinnest silk and shod with pretty slippers not very clean and turning
over at the heel.

"Dear me!" she said. "So there is. I need new slippers too. I quite
forgot to get any."

"Oh, mother!" Jane's cry was instant. "You got heaps. Tan ones and brown
ones and white ones and black ones with silver buckles--"

"Jane!" interrupted Esther, laughing. "Give your imagination a rest."

"But you did, didn't you, mother?"

"Did I? Why, yes--I did buy a few shoes. I had forgotten. The Customs
man didn't find them either. Run and fetch me a clean white pair, Jane,
and bring down the surprise we got for Esther--see how disapproving she
looks. I declare, Esther, it would be just like you to make things
disagreeable the moment I get home. I didn't charge a cent, if that's
what you're afraid of."

"I knew you wouldn't do that," gravely. "And of course I'm glad you got
the things. But I can't see how you managed."

"Oh, sales," vaguely. "Things are so cheap in Detroit and Jessica
Bremner is a born shopper. She gets wonderful bargains. Anyway, I got
them, and I'm not a cent in debt."

"What's debt?" asked Jane.

"Buying what you can't pay for, Janie."

"Oh, mother paid for everything. I saw her. It's Mrs. Bremner that's in
debt, isn't she, mother?"

"Don't be silly, Jane, of course not. Jessica is far better off than we
are."

"But she only gave you half the money for the ring. I heard her say--"

"Jane, get those slippers at once."

"I'm going. But Mrs. Bremner said--"

Mrs. Coombe's hand came down with stinging force upon the child's ear.

"Will you obey me--or will you not?"

Jane retired wailing and her mother sank back into her veranda chair,
red spots burning through the powder on her cheeks.

Esther sat very still for a moment, and then, without looking at the
other, she asked in a low voice:

"What did she mean?"

"How should I know?" fretfully.

"What ring did Mrs. Bremner give you money for? Did--you have to sell
one of your rings?"

"Yes, I did."

"Which one?"

"Oh, don't bother me, Esther."

"But I want to know which one."

"It was the big red one!" called Jane from the hallway, where she had
waited, safely out of reach.

Mary Coombe sprang up, fury blazing in her eyes, but Jane had fled, and
Esther, cool and capable, was blocking the doorway.

"Sit down, mother. I've got to know about this. What ring does she
mean?"

For an instant the older woman hesitated, then with a little shrug she
turned back to the chair. The fury had died away as quickly as it
had arisen.

"I knew you would be disagreeable," she said. "And you were bound to
hear about the ring some time. Jane is the most ungrateful child, and a
little tell-tale; the makings of a regular little cat! I'm sure I spent
her full share on her, and I've brought you something nice, too. Not
that I expect to be thanked for it. Of course I had to have some money.
I hadn't a rag to wear, not a rag. And I got everything ready made. It's
cheaper. Anyway, I can't stand dressmakers any more. They paw one so. I
can't bear to be touched, my wretched nerves! And I remembered the fuss
you made about the bills last time. You know you did make a fuss,
Esther, as if all your dear father left belonged to you and not to me--"

"But what did you _do_?"

"I'm telling you, amn't I? I sold the ring, of course."

"Which ring?"

"The ruby ring. It's the only one that is worth anything!"

"You sold Aunt Amy's ring?"

"If you wish to put it that way, yes. I consider it is as much my ring
as hers. She is my aunt and it is understood that all her things will
come to me. She has lived here ever since I was married and I think it's
a funny thing if she can't help me out occasionally. I simply had to
have money and the ruby was the only thing worth selling. Good Heavens!
Don't look so crazy. One would think I had stolen it!"

"You have."

Again Mrs. Coombe arose; this time without flurry. The little excitement
had done her good. The dull eyes were actually sparkling, the sallow
cheeks were flushed. She looked just as she used to look in one of her
little rages before the great change came.

"That's enough, Esther. I'll take no more from you. I did what seemed to
me right. If Amy were in her right mind I should not have had to take
the ring, she would have offered it. Under the circumstances I did the
only sensible thing. Amy will never discover the loss. I am getting a
very good price for it from Jessica Bremner. It is a valuable jewel. She
snatched at the chance of getting it."

Behind its whiteness Esther's face seemed to glow with pale flame. "Is
it possible that you have forgotten the history of that ring?" she
asked. "That it was poor Auntie's engagement ring and that, although she
can't remember anything about it, she knows it means something more than
life to her. And that she always says that she cannot die without the
ruby on her finger?"

Mrs. Coombe looked uncomfortable, but kept her poise.

"It's all rubbish. She'll forget all about it. Dying people don't think
of ruby rings. And anyway, she will probably outlive all of us. If
not--we can easily divert her attention."

The girl looked at her step-mother in horror, half believing that this
must be some cruel joke. The callousness of the words seemed
unbelievable. But the reality of them could no longer be doubted and the
pale glow died out of her face, leaving it white and hard.

"I do not understand you," she said slowly. "Somehow you do not seem
quite--human. But be sure of this, Aunt Amy shall have back her lover's
ring. Jane says it has not all been paid for. How much did you receive?"

"I shall not tell you. And I warn you, Esther, not to waste your money.
If you buy it back, I shall sell it again."

They were standing now facing each other. Esther took a step forward and
looked down steadily into her step-mother's face. Her own curious eyes
were wide open, they looked like blue stars, bright, cold and
powerful as flame.

"No! You shall not."

For a space Mary Coombe met that sword-like look, then her weaker will
gave way. Her eyes shifted and fell. Her hands began to pluck nervously
at the embroidery of her dress. She laughed, a little, affected laugh
with no mirth in it, turned and entered the house.




CHAPTER XIX


We have stated elsewhere that Coombe was conservative, but by this we do
not mean to imply that it was benighted. Far from it! True, it talked a
great deal before it ventured upon anything strange or new, referred
constantly to the tax rate and ran no risks, but at the time of which we
write it had decided to take a plebescite upon the matter of Local
Option and, a little later, the council wished to go so far as to
present Andrew MacCandless, who had served them five times as mayor,
with an address and a purse of fifty dollars.

The Presbyterian church, too, although still clinging to solid doctrine,
was far removed from the tuning-fork stage. Through throes of terrible
convulsion it had come to possess an organ, a paid soloist, and a
Ladies' Aid, that insidious first thing in women's clubs.

The first meeting of the Knox Church Ladies' Aid, after the return of
Mrs. Coombe and Jane, was held for the purpose of putting together a
quilt, not the old-fashioned kind, of course, but something quite
new--an autograph quilt, very chaste.

It was a large meeting and, providentially, Mrs. Coombe was late. I say
providentially because, had she been early, it is difficult to imagine
how her fellow members would have eased their minds of the load of
comment justified by her indiscreet home-coming, and several other
things equally painful but interesting. The Ladies' Aid had its printed
constitution but it also had its unwritten laws and one of these laws
was that strictest courtesy must always be observed. No member, whatever
her failings, was ever discussed in meeting--when she was present.

"What I cannot excuse," said Mrs. Bartley Simson, "is the tone of levity
in which she answered Mr. MacTavish when he met her on the way from the
station. It is possible that she had some good reason for coming on that
particular train. I am not one of those who hold that nothing can ever
justify Sunday travel. Exceptional cases must be allowed for. But the
frivolity of her excuse nothing can justify."

"Besides," said Miss Atkins, the secretary, "it was a--it sounded
like--what I mean to say is that she could not possibly, _no one_ could
possibly, have forgotten what day of the week it was."

A subdued chorus of "Certainly not" and "Absurd" showed the trend of
public opinion upon this point.

"I once forgot that Wednesday was Thursday," said the youngest Miss
Sinclair, who always stood for peace at any price.

"Don't be silly, Jessie!" The elder Miss Sinclair, who believed in war
with honour, jogged her sister's elbow none too gently. "That's a
different thing altogether. For my own part," raising her voice, "I
think that as a society we cannot be too careful how we minimise the
fact itself. To us, as a society, it is the fact itself that matters,
and not what Mrs. Coombe said about it. That, to a certain extent, may
be her own affair. But I hold, and I say it without fear of successful
contradiction, that no member of a community can disregard the Sabbath
in a public way without affecting the community at large. That is why I
feel justified in criticising Mrs. Coombe's behaviour. And I hope," here
she raised a piercing eye and let it range triumphantly over the circle,
"I sincerely hope that the minister has been told of this occurrence!"

The meeting rustled with approbation. This, it felt, was something like
a proper spirit. There was no compromise here. A thrill of conscious
virtue, raised to the _n_th power, shot through the circle.

"You think that Mr. Macnair ought to take cognizance of it officially?"
asked Miss Atkins. (Being the secretary she used many beautiful words.)

"I do."

"But he and Mrs. Coombe are such friends!" objected the younger Miss
Sinclair, who was a kindly creature.

An electric silence fell upon the quilters. Every one looked toward the
president.

"I cannot allow such insinuations to be made at this meeting," said the
President firmly.

"But--but I did not insinuate anything!" stammered poor Miss Jessie who,
severely jogged by her sister and transfixed by the President's eye, had
turned the colour of the crimson square before her.

"We all know," went on the President more mildly, "that Mr. Macnair
calls fairly often at the Elms. We may even have heard rumours to the
effect that he intends--I hardly know how to phrase it, but as our
minister is unmarried and Mrs. Coombe is a widow you will understand
what I mean. But, ladies, I may state on no less an authority than Miss
Annabel that Mr. Macnair has no such intentions. There is absolutely
nothing in it. His calls no doubt may be accounted for by the presence
of--er--affliction in the house."

"Do you mean Aunt Amy?" A younger woman with a clever and rather pretty
face looked up. "Why, can't you see that there is a much simpler
explanation than that?"

It was certainly unfortunate that Mrs. Coombe should have chosen this
moment to arrive. But the Ladies' Aid were used to interrupted
statements. It was felt to be very convenient that one of the windows
looked out directly upon the steps so that the meeting was never quite
taken by surprise. A sudden pause there might be, but late arrivals had
learned to expect that. It was the penalty for being late.

"Dear Mrs. Coombe, so glad you have come!" said the hostess pleasantly.
"No, you are not very late. We are only just beginning."

Every one nodded and smiled. Chairs were moved and sewing shifted to
provide space for the newcomer. A few left their work in order to shake
hands and there was a general readjustment of everything, including
topics of conversation. In the space of a few seconds it was noticed
that Mrs. Coombe wore a new hat, a new gown, new slippers and silk
stockings and that in spite of all these advantages they had never seen
her look worse.

"Dear Mrs. Coombe, I think your belt-pin has become--allow me!" Miss
Milligan, dressmaker in private life, with a discreet swiftness,
twitched the blouse and skirt into place and deftly fastened it. At the
same time she closed a gap in the fastening of the blouse itself.

Mary Coombe laughed. "Dear me! Am I undone? I must have forgotten to
ask Amy to fix me. These blouses that fasten in the back are such a
nuisance!"

The President smiled politely, but with evident effort. Mrs. Coombe was
a prominent member. Still, on principle, she, a president, could not be
expected to approve of people who forgot to have themselves done up.
Supposing the minister had been present!

"What are we doing this afternoon?" asked the unconscious delinquent
languidly. "Autograph quilts? I've got a lot of blocks for you--friends
of mine in the city." She began to fumble in the pretty workbag she
carried. "Gracious, I was sure I had them with me! Isn't that odd? I
can't find them."

"Let me look," suggested Miss Jessie Sinclair kindly.

But the other snatched back the open bag with a gesture which was almost
rude.

"Oh, no--they are not there! I can't imagine what I have done with
them." She looked up in a bewildered way. Indeed the perturbation was so
out of proportion to the size of the calamity that the ladies questioned
each other with their eyes.

The President tapped with her thimble upon the quilting frame and every
one became very busy. "I hope," she said, taking the conversation into
her own hands for safe keeping, "that you found all well upon your
return, Mrs. Coombe? I hardly ever seem to see Esther now. Did you know
that we have been talking of changing our meeting to Saturday afternoon
so that Esther and some more of our younger folk may join us? We thought
that it would be so nice for them--and for us too," she finished
graciously.

Mrs. Coombe looked surprised. "I can hardly see Esther at a Ladies' Aid
Meeting," she said. "Did she tell you she would come?"

"No. We have not yet told any one of the proposed change. But we all
felt--"

"We all felt," interrupted Miss Sinclair, who was fairly sniffing the
air with the spirit of glorious war, "that the less time our young girls
have to go off philandering with young fools whom no one knows anything
about, the better it will be for everybody concerned!"

Mary looked up with an air of pleased surprise.

"Has Esther been philandering?" she asked eagerly.

The President frowned. This was hardly according to Hoyle.

"I really think," began Miss Jessie Sinclair indignantly, "that Esther
ought to be allowed to tell her mother--"

"Gracious! Esther never tells me anything. And I'm dying to know. Who is
the 'young fool'?--do tell me, somebody."

Strangely enough, now that the way was open, no one seemed to have
anything to say.

"You've simply got to tell me now," urged Mary delightedly. "Unless it's
only a silly bit of gossip."

This fillip had the desired effect. Everybody began to talk at once and
in five minutes Esther's step-mother knew all about the new doctor and
the broken motor. When they paused for breath, she laughed softly.

"It's the most amusing thing I've heard in ages. Fancy--Esther! Oh, it's
delicious." She looked around the circle of surprised and disappointed
faces and laughed again. "Oh, don't pretend! You know very well that
you're not a bit shocked, really. And surely you don't think that I
ought to scold Esther? Why," with a little flare of her old-time
loyalty, "Esther is worth a dozen ordinary girls. I'd trust Esther with
Apollo on a desert island. But I'll admit I'm rather anxious to see the
young man. He must be rather nice if Esther agreed to show him around.
As for the accident," she shrugged her shoulders, "I know enough about
motors to know that that might happen any time."

"You are right, of course," the President's tone was more cordial. "And
anyway we have no right to discuss Esther's affairs. The reference to it
grew out of the proposed change of meeting. And the change of meeting
was thought of chiefly because when Mr. Macnair heard about the escapade
he seemed much worried. Naturally, as he says, he carries all his young
people on his heart, and Dr. Callandar being such a newcomer--"

"Oh, yes, naturally." Mary Coombe's little gurgle of amusement had a
note of cruelty in it, for she alone of all these women had guessed why
the Rev. Angus Macnair should have taken Esther's escapade so much to
heart. She knew, too, that the minister had no chance, but the idea of a
rival was novel--and entertaining. Could Esther really have taken a
fancy to this young doctor? Mary knew the Coombe gossips too well to
take their chatter seriously, but there might be something in it. At any
rate, there was enough to use as a conversational weapon against Esther.
She was becoming a little nervous of Esther lately. The girl was
positively growing up. Somehow, almost overnight it seemed, a new
strength had come to her, a strength which her step-mother's weakness
felt and resented. But now with this nice little story in reserve,
things might be more even. Mary's eyes sparkled as she thought of some
of the smart things she could say the next time Esther began to make a
fuss about--about the matter of the ruby ring, for instance. Esther had
been most disagreeable about that. Just as if any one could have
foreseen that Amy would miss it so soon, or indeed at all, since it had
been her fancy to keep it shut up in a stupid box.

As a matter of fact, the affair of the ring had assumed the proportions
of a small catastrophe. Aunt Amy had been feeling so much better that it
had occurred to her to see if the ring were feeling better too. Only one
peep she would take, hopeful that at last its strange enchantment might
be past. If she could look into its depths without the blackness coming
close she would know, with utter certainty, that Dr. Callandar's
cleverness had circumvented the power of her old enemies. "They" would
trouble her no more.

But when, flushed with hope, she looked--the ring was gone!

Esther, reading in the sitting room, was startled beyond words by the
scream which rang through the house. She seemed to know at once what had
happened and her gaze flew to her step-mother, laden with bitter
reproach, before she sped up the stairs to Aunt Amy's room. The door was
open and the tragedy was plain to see. Aunt Amy stood by the bureau with
the empty box in her hand and on her face an expression so dreadful, so
hopeless that, with a sob, the girl tried to crush it out against
her breast.

"What is it, dear? Don't look like that."

"The ring, Esther! 'They' have taken the ring!"

For an instant the girl hesitated, but common justice demanded that the
sordid truth be told.

"No, dear. The ring is safe. It was taken from the box, but in quite an
ordinary, simple way. Don't tremble so! It is not lost. It is just as if
I had gone to the box and borrowed it--"

As she faltered, the poor woman raised her head in an agony of hope.
"Have you got it, Esther? Oh, Esther, give it to me! I love you, Esther!
You shall have it when I am dead. But I can't die without it. I promised
somebody--I--I can't remember. Oh, Esther, don't keep it away from
me--give it to me now!"

Bitter, angry tears filled the girl's eyes as she took the pleading,
fluttering hands in hers.

"Don't, dear! Listen. It is quite safe. But I haven't got it. I promise
you solemnly I will get it back. You'll believe me, won't you? You know
I would not deceive you. And you won't be frightened? No one had
anything to do with taking it but ourselves. I am going to tell you just
how it happened--"

"Don't bother. I'll tell her myself."

In the doorway stood Mrs. Coombe, her eyes venomous with the anger of
tortured nerves. Her high voice trembled on the verge of hysteria, yet
she tried to speak with her usual mocking lightness.

"There is no need to make a mystery of the thing, I'm sure. I took the
ring because I was hard up--needed money at once. You understand what
that means, I suppose, Amy? You never wore the ring, nor would you allow
me to wear it. It was simply wasted lying in that silly box. My own
jewelry is of much less value. Besides, I use it. One would have thought
that you would be glad to assist in some way with the--er--household
expenses. In any case, no such fuss is necessary, and I should advise
you," her voice grew suddenly cold and menacing, "not to scream like
that again. A few more such shrieks and--people will begin to wonder."
Without so much as a glance at Esther she passed on to her own room.

"Don't mind her!" The indignant girl tried to draw the trembling woman
close. But Aunt Amy cowered away. Five minutes had undone the work of
weeks. All the doctor's carefully laid foundations were crumbling.
Esther, wrung with pity and remorse, stroked the grey hair in silence.
She expected an outbreak of childish tears, but it did not come. Rather,
the shivering grew less and presently Aunt Amy raised her head.

"It was she--Mary--who took it?" she asked in a whisper.

"Yes. But remember I have promised to get it back."

Aunt Amy looked at her blankly. She did not seem to hear.

"I never guessed it was Mary. Never! But now I know. I'll never be
fooled again."

"Know what?" asked Esther uneasily. There was a look in Aunt Amy's eyes
which she disliked, a sly, cool look--more nearly mad than any look she
had ever surprised there. "Tell me what it is that you know," she
repeated coaxingly.

But Aunt Amy would not tell. It was just as well, she thought, that
Esther should not know that at last, after many years, she had found out
the agent employed by "they" for her undoing. Ah, if she had only found
out sooner. The ruby ring might still be shining in its box. But of
course "they" knew that she would never suspect Mary, her own niece.
They were so clever! But now she could be as clever as they--oh, very,
very clever!

"What did she mean about my screaming?" she asked, looking at Esther
cunningly.

"Nothing, nothing at all! Don't think of it."

"But she did. I know what she meant. She meant that if I
get--troublesome--she will shut me up!"

"Nonsense!" declared Esther, thrilled to the heart with pity. "You must
never think such a thought, dear. You shall never live anywhere but here
with us. Why, you are our good angel, Auntie. We could never get on
without you--you know that."

Aunt Amy nodded, stroking the girl's soft hand with her work-worn one.
"You are good and kind, Esther. I know you will take care of me, if you
can. And I'm not afraid just now. It will be all right if I am clever. I
must not be troublesome. If I am, she will put me away with the mad
people. The people that make faces and scream. I never scream. Until
to-day I haven't screamed for a long time. And I'll be more careful. Oh,
I can be very careful, now that I know!"

Again the strange mad look. It flitted across her lifted eyes like a
dark shadow behind a window shade. And again Esther tried gently to
question her, but Aunt Amy was "clever." She didn't intend that Esther
should find out.

The girl left her at last feeling both troubled and sad, but Mary Coombe
laughed at her fears. She was in one of her most difficult moods.

"It was all a tempest in a tea cup, as usual," she declared pettishly.
"I do wish, Esther, that you would not be so disagreeable. She will have
forgotten all about the ring by to-morrow. All she needs is a little
plain speaking, and firmness."

"Firmness! Cruelty, you mean. You terrified her."

"Well, it had a good effect. She quieted down at once."

"She is too quiet. It's that which troubles me. Surely you can see the
damage that has been done? All her new cheerfulness is gone. She is back
to where she was before the doctor helped her."

"I never believed that any real improvement was possible. Insane people
never recover."

"She is not insane! How can you say so? But how shall we explain the
change in her to Dr. Callandar? We can't tell him that--that you--"

"Oh, don't mind me!" flippantly.

"Anyway, the ring will soon be back, thank heaven! I have written to
Mrs. Bremner."

"You wrote to Jessica?"

"Certainly. I told you I should. It was the only thing to do."

Mary Coombe's rage flickered and sank before the quiet force in the
girl's face and voice. With all the will in the world she was too weak
to oppose this new strength in Esther. And before her mortified pride
could frame a retort, the girl had left the room.

It was of this quiet exit of Esther's that Mary was thinking as she
sewed on the autograph quilt. Better than anything else it typified the
change in the girl. It meant decision, and decision meant action. Mary
shrugged her shoulders and frowned over the quilt. Yes, undoubtedly,
Esther was getting troublesome. It might be well if she were married.




CHAPTER XX


Meanwhile, unconscious of her step-mother's troubled musings, Esther was
loitering delightfully on her way from school. Aunt Amy, who never
looked at a clock, but who always knew the time by what Jane called
"magic," was beginning to wonder what had kept her. Strain her eyes as
she would, there was no glint of a blue dress upon the long straight
road, and Dr. Callandar, who in passing had stopped by the gate,
declared that he had noticed a similar absence of that delectable colour
between the cross roads and the school house.

"I thought that I might meet her," he confessed ingenuously, "but when
she was not in sight, I concluded that I was too late. Some of those
angel children have probably had to be kept in. Could you make use of me
instead? I run errands very nicely."

"Oh, it isn't an errand." Aunt Amy smiled, for she liked Dr. Callandar
and was always as simple as a child with him. His easy, courteous
manner, which was the same to her as to every one else, helped her to be
at once more like other people and more like herself. "It's a letter. I
wanted Esther to read it to me. Of course I can read myself," as she saw
his look of surprise, "but sometimes I do not read exactly what is
written. My imagination bothers me. Do you ever have any trouble with
your imagination, Doctor?"

"I have known it to play me tricks."

"But you can read a letter just as it's written, can't you?"

"Yes. I can do that."

"Then your imagination cannot be as large as mine. Mine is very large.
It interferes with everything, even letters. When I read a letter myself
I sometimes read things which aren't there. At least," with a faint show
of doubt, "people say they aren't there."

"In other words," said Callandar, "you read between the lines."

Aunt Amy's plain face brightened. It was so seldom that any one
understood.

"Yes, that's it! You won't laugh at me when I tell you that everything,
letters, handkerchiefs, dresses and everything belonging to people have
a feeling in them--something that tells secrets? I can't quite explain."

"I have heard very sensitive people express some such idea. It sounds
very fascinating. I should like very much to hear about it."

"Would you? You are sure you won't think me queer? My niece, Mary
Coombe, does not like me to tell people about it. She has no imagination
herself, none at all. She says it is all nonsense. But I think,"
shrewdly, "that she would like to know some of the things that I know.
Won't you come in, Doctor? Come in and sit under the tree where it
is cooler."

The doctor's hesitation was but momentary. He was keenly interested. And
at the back of his mind was the thought that Esther must certainly be
along presently. Fate had not favoured him of late. He had not seen her
for five days. It is foolish to leave meetings to fate anyway. Then, if
another reason were needed it was probable that if he stayed he would
meet Esther's mother. He was beginning to feel quite curious about
Mrs. Coombe.

"Thanks. I think I will come in. All the trees in Coombe are cool, but
your elm is the coolest of them all. Let me arrange this cushion for
you. Is that right?"

He settled Aunt Amy comfortably upon the least sloping portion of the
old circular bench and, not wishing to trust it with his own weight, sat
down upon the grass at her feet.

"Now," he said cheerfully, "let us have a regular psychic research
meeting. Tell me all about it."

"What's that?" suspiciously.

"Psychic research? Oh, just finding out all about the queer things that
happen to people."

"Do queer things happen to other people besides me?"

"Why, of course! Queer things happen to everybody."

Aunt Amy seemed glad to know this.

"They never talk about them," she said wistfully. "But, then, neither do
I. Except to you. What was it you wanted me to tell you?"

"Tell me what you mean when you say that you read in a letter what is
not written there. You see I haven't much imagination myself and I don't
understand it."

"Neither do I," naively. "But it seems to be like this--take this
letter, for instance, when I found it in--well, it doesn't matter where
I found it--but as soon as I picked it up, I knew that it was a love
letter. I felt it. It is an old letter, I think. And some one has been
angry with it. See, it is all crumpled. But it is a real love letter.
All the love is there yet. When I took it in my hands it all came out
to me, sweet and strong. Like--like the scent of something keen,
fragrant, on a swift wind. I can't explain it!"

"You explain it very beautifully," gravely. "I can quite understand that
love might be like that."

"Can you?" with a pleased smile. "And can you understand how I feel it?
I can feel things in people, too. Love and hate and envy and all kinds
of things. I never say so. I used to, but people did not like it. They
always looked queer, or got angry. They seemed to think I had no right
to see inside of them. So I soon pretended not to see anything. But a
letter doesn't mind. This one," swinging the crumpled paper swiftly
close to his face, "is glad I found it. Can't you feel it yourself?"

Callandar shook his head. "I am far too dull and commonplace for that!"
He smiled. "But I have no doubt it is all there, just as you say. Why
not? Our knowledge of such things is in its infancy."

Aunt Amy stroked the paper with gentle fingers. "Yes, yes, it is all
there," she murmured. "But I may have read it wrongly for all that. The
written words I mean. I can't help reading what I feel. Once I felt a
letter that was full of hate, dreadful! And I read quite shocking things
in it. But when Esther read it, it was just a polite note, beginning
'Dear' and ending 'Your affectionate friend."'

"It might have been very hateful for all that."

"But no one knew it. That is why I am so anxious always to know if I
read things right. Will you read this letter to me?"

"With pleasure--if I may."

"Oh, it doesn't belong to any one. It isn't Esther's because it's too
old and it begins 'Dearest wife' and it isn't Mary's because it isn't
Doctor Coombe's writing; so you see I thought it might not hurt anybody
if I pretended it was mine."

"No," gently, "I do not see why it would."

"I never had a love letter of my own. Or if I did I cannot find it. The
only thing I ever had with love in it was the ruby ring, and that--"

She checked herself suddenly; her small face freezing into such a mask
of tragedy that Callandar was alarmed. But to his quick "What is it?"
she returned no answer and the expression passed as quickly as it
had come.

When he held out his hand for the letter, she seemed to have forgotten
it. Her gaze had again grown restless and vague. It would do no good to
question further, the rare hour of confession was past.

"You both look very comfortable, I'm sure!" It was Esther's laughing
voice. She had come so quietly that neither of them had heard her. Aunt
Amy's vagueness vanished in a pleased smile and Callandar, as he sprang
to open the gate, forgot all about the unread letter and everything
else, save that she had come.

Why was it, he wondered, that he could never recall her, save in dulled
tints. Lovely as she had lingered in his memory, her living beauty was
so much lovelier. There, in the shade of the elm, her blue dress flecked
with gold, the warm pallor of heat upon her face, her hair lying close
and heavy, a little pulse beating where the low collar softly disclosed
the slim roundness of her white throat, she was not only beautiful, she
was Beauty. She was not only Beauty, she was Herself, the one woman in
the world! He acknowledged it now, with all humility.

The girl greeted him quietly. She did not, as was her custom, look up
at him with that sweet widening of the eyes which he had learned to
hunger for. The truth was that she, too, was moving slowly toward her
awakening. The days in which they had not met had been full of thoughts
of him. Dreams had come to her, vague, delicious bits of fancy which had
whispered in her ear and passed, leaving a new softness in her eyes, a
new flush upon her cheek. There was about her a dewy freshness which
seemed to brighten up the world. Vaguely her girl friends wondered what
had "come over" Esther Coombe, and at home Aunt Amy's pathetic eyes
followed her, dim with a half-memory of long past joy. But it was Mrs.
Sykes' Ann who best expressed the change in her beauty when, one day,
she said to Bubble: "Esther Coombe looks like she was all lighted up
inside and when she walks you'd think the wind was blowing her."

So it happened that while yesterday she might still have smiled into the
doctor's eyes as she greeted him, to-day she shook hands without looking
at his face at all.

Callandar found himself remarking that it was a fine day. Esther said
that it was beautiful--but dusty. A little rain would do good. She
fanned herself with her broad hat, and stopped fanning to examine
closely a tiny stain on the hem of her frock.

"Dear me," she said, "I'm afraid it's axle grease! Mournful Mark gave me
a lift this morning."

"Oh, I hope not!" anxiously from Aunt Amy, and referring, presumably, to
the grease.

The doctor looked at the little stray curl on the nape of the graceful
neck and wished--all the foolish things that lovers have wished since
the world began. But he had a great longing to see her eyes. If he were
to say sharply, "Look at me!" would she look up? Absurd idea! And
anyway he couldn't say it, or anything else, for the first time in his
life Henry Callandar was tongue-tied.

Did she, too, feel strange? Was that why she kept her eyes so
persistently lowered? No, it could hardly be that. She laughed and
talked quite naturally--seemed entire mistress of herself.

"I know I am late, Auntie. It's Friday, you know, and I walked slowly. I
forgot that I had promised to help Jane wash the new pup. But there is
time yet. Supposing we have tea, English fashion, out here. I'll
tell mother--"

"She is at the Ladies Aid, Esther."

"Oh, yes. I forgot. Well, then you must entertain Dr. Callandar while I
see about tea."

"No tea for me, thanks," said the doctor hastily. He didn't know why he
said it except that he wanted to say something, something which might
make her look at him.

But she did not look. His refusal lost him a cup of tea and gained him
nothing whatever.

"No tea?" Her tone was mildly wondering, but she was looking at Aunt Amy
while she spoke. "I'm sorry you are in a hurry. Bubble said you
were busy."

"Not busy exactly. But it's office hours, you know. My partner grows
quite waxy if I'm late, and I'm late now."

"Another day, then?" Esther's tone was charmingly gracious, but she
seemed to be addressing the gate post, as far as he could judge from the
direction of her gaze.

Callandar picked up his hat, gloomily. There was nothing to do now but
take his leave. And if he had had any sense he might have been going to
stay for tea. Office hours be hanged!

"Thank you, another day I shall be delighted." He took the hand she
offered and bowed over it. Delightful custom this of shaking hands!
Esther's hand was cool as a wind-blown leaf. Would she actually say
good-bye without looking at him? He held the hand firmly but she did not
seem to be conscious that he held it. She was smiling at some children
who were going by on the sidewalk.

"Good-bye," said Callandar in a subdued voice.

"Good-bye," said Esther sweetly.

He dropped her hand, they bowed formally, and the foolish, poignant
little tragedy of parting was over. Not once had they looked into each
other's eyes.

When he had gone Esther sank down upon the elm tree seat.

"Oh, Auntie!" she said with a little sob in her voice. "I want--some
tea!"

Aunt Amy glanced irresolutely from the open letter in her hand to the
girl's face, and decided to postpone the matter of the letter. "I'll get
it, Esther. You sit here and rest."

When she returned the girl seemed herself again. She took the tea-tray
and kissed the bearer with a fervour born of remorse. "I am a Pig," she
declared, "and you are a darling! Never mind, we'll even up some day."

"When you have had your tea, Esther, I've got a letter I want you to
read."

"A letter? Who from? I mean, from whom? Gracious! I'll have to be more
careful of the King's English, now that I'm a school teacher."

"I don't know. It is signed just 'H' and it's written to 'Dearest wife.'
You don't know who that could be, do you?"

"Mother, perhaps?"

"No. It's not in your father's writing and his name did not begin with
'H.'"

"Where did you find it, dear?"

"Up in an old trunk of your grandma's--I mean of Mary's mother's. One of
the trunks that were sent here after she died. Mary asked me to put moth
balls in it. This letter was all crushed up in a corner. I took it out
to smooth it, because I knew it was a love letter. You don't think any
one would mind?"

"N--o." Esther, who knew Aunt Amy's feeling about love letters, could
not find it in her heart to disagree. "I think we may fairly call it
treasure-trove. It's only a note anyway." Her eyes ran swiftly over the
two short paragraphs upon the open sheet.

"Dearest wife:--

"At last I can call you 'wife' without fear. Our waiting is over. Brave
girl! If it has been as long to you as to me, you have been brave
indeed. But it is our day now. Even your mother cannot object any
longer. I am coming for you to-morrow. Only one more day!

"Dear, I think that in my wild impatience I did you wrong. But love does
not blame love. No wife shall ever be so loved as you. May God forget me
if I forget what you have done for me...."

"What a strange letter!" Esther looked up wonderingly.

"Is that all, Esther?" Aunt Amy's face was vaguely disappointed. "The
one I read was much longer than that."

"That is all that is written here, Auntie. But it is a beautiful letter.
They had been separated, you see, and she had been brave and waited. One
can imagine--"

The click of the garden gate interrupted her.

"Here's your mother," said Aunt Amy, in a flurried tone. "Don't let
her--"

"Is that the mail, Esther?" Mrs. Coombe's high voice held a fretful
intonation. Aunt Amy seized the letter and hid it in her dress. "She
shan't see it," she whispered childishly.

"Is that the mail?" repeated Mrs. Coombe, coming up the walk.

"No, there is no mail," said Esther, "No one has been to the post
office. Perhaps Jane had better run down now."

"But you had a letter," suspiciously. "I'm sure I saw it. Where is it?"

"Don't be absurd, mother. I have no letter. Nor would I think it
necessary to show it to you if I had. I am not a child."

"You are a child. And let me tell you, a clandestine correspondence is
something which I shall not tolerate. Let me see the letter."

Esther was feeling too happy to be cross. Besides it was rather funny to
be accused of clandestine correspondence.

"I think I'll go and help Jane with the pup," she said cheerfully. "Too
bad you didn't come in sooner, mother. Dr. Callandar was here."

"Then you do refuse to show me the letter?"

"If I had one I should certainly refuse to show it. Why do you let
yourself get so excited, mother? You never used to act like this. It
must be nerves. Every one notices how changed you are." She paused,
arrested by the frightened look which replaced the futile anger on her
step-mother's face.

"I'm not different. Who says I am different? It is you who are trying
to make a fuss. I'm sure I do not care about your letter. Why should I?
Your father always seemed to think you needed no advice from any one.
Only don't imagine that I am blind. I _saw_ you with a letter."

Having triumphantly secured the last word, she turned to busy herself
with the tea-tray, and Esther, knowing the uselessness of argument, went
on toward the house. Aunt Amy attempted to follow but was stopped
by Mary.

"Amy, what did that doctor want here?"

"He came to see me."

Mary laughed. "Likely!" she said. "This tea is quite cold. Was it he who
left the letter for Esther?"

"Esther didn't have a letter. I had one."

Again the incredulous laugh, and the dull red mounted into Aunt Amy's
faded cheeks. She clutched the treasured letter tightly under her dress.
This mocking woman should never see it! But as she turned again to leave
her, another consideration appealed to her unstable mind. Mary suspected
Esther--and nothing would annoy her more than to find herself mistaken.
On impulse Aunt Amy flung the letter upon the tea-tray.

"There it is. Read it, if you like. It has nothing to do with Esther. Or
any one else. I found it in one of your mother's old trunks."

Left alone, Mary Coombe drank her tea, which after all was not very
cold. She was not really interested in the letter, now that she had got
it. Had not a vagrant breeze tossed it, obtrusively, upon her lap, she
would probably not have looked at it.

Listlessly she picked it up, opened it, glanced at the firm, clear
writing....

A sharp, tingling shock ran through her. It was as if some one had
knocked, loudly, at dead of night at a closed door! That writing--how
absurdly fanciful she was getting!

"Dearest wife," she read, "at last I can call you 'wife' without
fear"--the vagrant breeze, which had tossed the letter into her lap,
tossed it off again. Her glance followed it, fascinated!

Of course she had dreamed the writing? She had been terribly troubled by
dreams of late. But what had Amy said about finding the paper in her
mother's trunk? The whole thing was a fantastic nightmare. She had but
to lean forward, pick up the letter, read it properly and laugh at her
foolishness.

But it was a long time before she found the strength to pick it up. When
she did, she read it quietly to the end with its scrawled "H." Then she
read it over again, word by word. Her expression was one of terror
and amaze.

When she had finished she looked up, over the pleasant garden, with
blank eyes. Her face was ashen.

"He came," she said aloud. "He came! But--_what did she tell him when he
came_?"

The garden had no answer to the question. Somewhere could be heard a
girl's laugh and the sharp bark of a protesting puppy. Mary Coombe drew
her hand across her eyes as if to clear them of film and, trying to
rise, slipped down beside the elm-tree seat, a soft blot of whiteness on
the green.

They found her there when they had finished washing the puppy, but
though she came quickly to herself under their eager ministrations, she
would not tell them what had caused her sudden illness. To all their
questionings she answered pettishly, "Nothing! Nothing but the heat."




CHAPTER XXI


When a man of thirty-five has at last shaken himself free from the
burden of an unhappy love affair, he is not particularly disposed to
welcome an emotional reawakening. He knows the pains and penalties too
well; the fire of Spring, he has learned, can burn as well as brighten.
Callandar thought that he had done with love, and a growing suspicion
that love had not done with him brought little less than panic. Upon the
occasion of Willits' second visit he had begun to realise his danger and
the professor never guessed how nearly he had persuaded him to leave
Coombe. Some deep instinct was urging flight, but the impulse had come
just a little bit too late. He could not go, because he wanted so very
much to stay.

After Willits' departure he had deliberately tested himself. For five
days he did not try to see Esther and upon the sixth he realised finally
that seeing Esther was the only thing that mattered. Then had come the
short interview under the elm tree--an interview which had shown him a
new Esther, demure, adorable, with eyes which refused to look at him. He
had come away from that meeting with a new pulse beating in his heart.

To doubt was no longer possible. He loved her.

But she? Lovers are proverbially modest, but their modesty is fear
disguised. They hope so much that they fear to hope at all; it seemed
impossible to Callandar that Esther should not love him and yet it
seemed impossible that she should. Only one thing emerged clearly from
the chaos--the immediate necessity of finding out.

"Why don't you ask her?" demanded Common Sense in that wearily patient
way with which Common Sense meets the vagaries of lovers.

"But it is so soon," objected Caution, while Fear, aroused, whispered,
"Be careful. Give her time." Even Mrs. Grundy made herself heard with
her usual references to what people, represented by Mrs. Sykes, might
say, adding scornfully, "Why, you haven't met the girl's mother yet.
Don't make a fool of yourself, please."

But over all these voices rose another voice, insistent, demanding to be
satisfied. It might be premature, it might be all that was rash and
foolish but he simply had to find out at once whether or not Esther
Coombe loved him.

His final decision came one morning when driving slowly home from an all
night fight with death. He was tired but exultant, because he had won
the fight, and life, which slips so easily away, seemed doubly precious.
After all, he was no longer a boy. If life still held something
beautiful for him, why should he wait? He had waited so many
years already.

Guiding the car with one hand, he slipped the other into his pocket and
opening a small locket which he found there, gazed long and earnestly at
the picture it contained. The face it showed him was a young face, fair,
rounded, childish. Dear Molly! his thought of her was infinitely tender.
He loved her all the more for the knowledge that he had not loved her
enough. Well, he could never atone now. She was gone--slipped away, he
thought, with but little more knowledge of living than the tiny baby he
had just helped to bring into the world. Brushing away the mist which
for a moment blurred his sight, Callandar kissed the picture gently and
shut the case.

The dawn was golden now. The motor began to gather speed. An early
farmer getting into market with a load of hay, drew amiably to one side
to let it pass. From a, wayside house came the cheerful noise of opening
shutters; a milk cart rattled out of a nearby gate; the motor sped still
faster--the new day was fairly begun.

Early as it was, Mrs. Sykes was busy washing the veranda. This was a
ritual, rigorously observed twice every day; in the morning with a pail
and broom, in the evening with the hose. Par be it from us to malign the
excellent Mrs. Sykes or to suggest that her opportune presence on the
front steps was due to anything save the virtue of cleanliness. Mrs.
Sykes, as she often said, couldn't abide curiosity. Still, it would be
very interesting to know whether Amelia Hill's latest was a boy or a
girl. Mrs. Hill had already been blessed with nine olive branches, all
girls, and had confided to Mrs. Sykes that if the tenth presented no
variation, she didn't know what on earth Hill would do--he having acted
so kind of wild-like last time. Mrs. Sykes, unable to resist the trend
of her nature, had advised that no variation could be looked for. "It
may be," she had said, "but after a run of nine, it isn't to be
expected. There's no denying that girls run in some families. I know
jest how you feel, Mrs. Hill, and, if I could, I'd encourage you, for
I'm a great believer in speaking the truth in kindness. But it's best to
be prepared, and a girl it will be, you may be sure."

"You are up early, Mrs. Sykes," said the doctor cheerfully. "Wait till I
take the car around and I'll finish up those steps for you."

"Land no! I won't let you, Doctor. You're clean tired out. I've got a
cup of hot coffee waiting. I don't suppose, with Amelia laid aside, any
of them Hills would think to give you so much as a bite. All girls too."

"Not all girls now, Mrs. Sykes," said the doctor cheerfully. "A son and
heir arrived this morning. Fine little fellow. They appear to be
delighted."

The discomfited prophet leaned against the door-post for support.

"A boy? It can't be a boy! It doesn't stand to reason!"

"It never does, Mrs. Sykes."

"And I was so sure 'twould be another girl!" There was an infinitesimal
pause during which Mrs. Sykes' whole outlook readjusted itself, and then
with a heavy sigh she continued, "Poor Amelia Hill! She'll certainly
have her troubles now. I shouldn't wonder a mite if it didn't live.
Miracles like that seldom do. And if it does, it will be spoiled to
death. No boy can come along after nine sisters and not be made a sissy
of. Far better if it had been a girl in the first place. And yet I
suppose Amelia's just as chirpy as possible? She never was one to look
ahead to see what's coming."

"Lucky for her!" murmured Callandar, as he picked his way over the
shining wetness of the veranda. "And now, Mrs. Sykes, I want you to do
me a favour. Don't go predicting to my patient that her boy baby will
die, or if he doesn't it would be better for him if he did. A woman who
has mothered nine children is entitled to a little peace of mind with
the tenth. Don't you think so?"

"Land sakes, yes. If you put it that way. But the shock will be all the
worse when it comes. Still, if you want the poor thing left in a fool's
paradise I don't object. Perhaps it would be a good thing to have the
three littlest Hills over here to spend a week with Ann. I can stand
them if you can."

"Good idea!" Callandar smiled at her, but attempted no thanks. He had
learned early that she was as shy about doing a kindness as a child who
hides its face, while offering you half of its lolly-pop. "I'll fetch
them. But some one will have to pick them out. Likely as not I'd bring
the middle three instead."

"They are dreadful similar," assented Mrs. Sykes, pouring coffee. "I
don't know but what it was them Hill children that made me a
suffragette!"

"What?"

Mrs. Sykes did not notice the unflattering (or flattering) surprise in
the doctor's voice.

"Yes. I think it was the Hill children as much as anything. There they
are, nine of them, like as peas in a pod, and all healthy. I shouldn't
wonder if the whole nine grows up--and what then? Amelia Hill just can't
hope to marry nine of them. Three out of the bunch would be about her
limit. And what are the others going to get? I say, give them the vote.
Land sakes! Why not? I ain't one to refuse to others what I don't
want myself."




CHAPTER XXII


Tired though he must have been, the doctor had never felt less like
sleep. There was a fever in his blood which the cool quietness of the
spare room could not soothe. The lavendered freshness of the bed invited
in vain. Crossing to the western window, he threw up the blind and
looked out to where, peeping out between roofs and trees, the gable
window of the Elms glittered in the early sun. The morning breeze blew
softly on his face, sweet with the scent of flowering pinks and
mignonette. In the orchard all the birds were up and singing. Every
blade of grass was gemmed with dew, sparkling through the yellow glory
of dawn like diamonds through a primrose veil. But Callandar, usually so
alive to every manifestation of beauty, saw nothing save the distant
glitter of the gable window. The morning, in which he could hardly hope
to see Esther, stretched before him intolerably long.

Upon impulse he drew his desk to the window and, sitting down, began to
write:

"Dear Old Button-Moulder--

"Behold the faulty button about to be recast! This is to be a big day. I
am writing you now because if she refuses me, I shan't be able to tell
you of it, and if she accepts me I shan't have time. I fancy you know
who she is, old man. I saw enlightenment grow in your eyes that day
after church. I hardly knew it myself, then, but now I am sure. Do you
remember that house we looked at one day? I have forgotten even the
street, but we can find it again. It had a long sloping lawn, you
remember, and stone steps and a beautiful panelled hall running straight
through to a walled garden which might well have fallen there by some
Arabian Nights enchantment. That is the house I mean to have for Esther.
I can see her there quite plainly, in her blue dress, filling the rose
bowl which stands upon the round table in a dusky corner of the hall.
Over her shoulder, through the open door, glows the riotous colour of
the garden. Her pure profile gleams like mother-o'-pearl against the
dark panelling--say, Willits, just go and look up that house, will you?
I am going to ask her to marry me. And I never knew before what a coward
I am. Was there ever a chap named Callandar who quoted uppish remarks
about being Captain of his Soul? If so, let me apologise for him. I
think the chap who wrote those verses could never have been in love--or
perhaps he wrote them after she said 'yes.' I'll telegraph the news.
Don't expect me to write. And don't dare to come down to see me. H.C.

"P.S.--I came upon a good thing the other day. It is by Galsworthy, the
chap who writes English problem novels:

     "'If on a spring night I went by
          And God were standing there,
     What is the prayer that I would cry
          To Him? This is the prayer:
     O Lord of courage grave,
          O Master of this night of spring,
     Make firm in me a heart too brave
          To ask Thee anything!'"

"Rather fine, don't you think? Or is it just a madness of pride? On
second thought, I don't believe that I have arrived at the stage when I
can do without God. H."

He folded the letter, stamped and addressed it and placed it upon the
table in the hall where Ann would find and post it. Then, lighting a
cigar, he sat down beside the open window and began to wonder how the
momentous meeting with Esther could be best arranged. Perhaps if he
walked out to the schoolhouse and waited until lunch time? No, it was
Saturday morning and there was no school. The obvious thing was to call
at the house, but this, the doctor felt, was sure to be unsatisfactory.
Not only was there Jane to think of and Aunt Amy--but there was also the
as-yet-unknown Mrs. Coombe. The visit would almost certainly end in a
formal call upon the family. He might perhaps send Bubble over with an
invitation to go fishing. No, that was too risky. Esther might refuse to
go fishing and that would be a bad omen.

In a sudden spasm of nervousness Callandar threw the half-burned cigar
out of the window and, following it with his eyes, was not sorry to be
distracted by the sight of Ann in her night-dress, crying under the pear
tree. Ann crying was an unusual sight, but Ann in a night-dress was
almost unbelievable. The doctor knew at once that something serious must
have happened and went down to see.

The child looked up at his approach, all the natural impishness of her
small face drowned in sorrow. In her open hand she held the body of a
tiny bird, all that was left of a fledgling which had tried its
wings too soon.

"It toppled off and died," said Ann. "All its brothers and sisters
flewed away."

"Heartless things!" said Callandar, and then seeing that comfort was
imperative he sat down beside the mourner and tried to do the proper
thing. He explained to her that the dead bird was only one of a
nest-full and that the dew was wet and that she was getting green stains
on her nightie. He reminded her that birds' lives, for all their seeming
brightness, are full of danger and trouble. Perhaps the baby bird was
just as well out of it. At least it would never know the lack of a worm
in season, nor the bitterness of early snow. This particular style of
comfort he had found very effective in cases other than baby birds, but
it didn't work with Ann.

"I don't care," she sobbed, "it might have lived anyway. It never had a
chance to live."

Living, just living, was with Ann clearly the great thing to be desired.

Callandar stopped comforting and took the child on his knee.

"I believe you've got the right idea, little Ann," he said. "It isn't so
much the sorrow that counts or the joy either, but just the living
through it. We're bound to get somewhere if we keep on. Don't cry any
more and we'll bury the little bird all done up in nice white fluffy
cotton. As Mrs. Burns says when any one dies: 'It's such a comfort to
have 'em put away proper.' And then after a while you and Bubble might
go fishing."

"I can't." Ann showed signs of returning tears. "If Aunt lets me go
anywhere, I promised to go and help Esther Coombe pick daisies to fix
the church for to-morrow."

Here was chance being kind indeed! But the doctor dissembled his
exultation.

"Hum! too bad. Where did Miss Esther tell you to go?" he asked
guilelessly.

"To the meadow over against the school."

"What time?"

"Half past two."

"Well, cheer up, I'll tell you what--I'll go and help Miss Esther pick
the daisies. I can pick quite as fast as you. And I'll speak to Aunt
Sykes and make it right with her. So if you run now and get dressed you
and Bubble may go just as soon as you've had breakfast. And stay all
day. Be sure you stay all day, mind."

A good sound hug was the natural answer to this and when the
conspirators met at breakfast everything had been satisfactorily
arranged. Ann had her holiday and the doctor's way lay clear before him.
For all his apparent ignorance Callandar knew that daisy field quite as
well as Ann. It was wild and lonely, yet full of cosy nooks and hollows.
Mild-eyed cows sometimes pastured there. It was a perfect paradise for
meadow-larks. Could any man ask better than to meet the girl he loved in
a field like that?

"You're not eating a mite, Doctor."

With a start, Callandar helped himself to marmalade.

       *       *       *       *       *

So much for the morning of the eventful day. We have given it in detail
because it was so commonplace, so empty of any incident which might have
foreshadowed the happenings of the afternoon. Callandar was restless,
but any man is restless under such circumstances. He found the morning
long, but that was natural. Long afterwards he thought of its slow
moving hours, lost in wonder that he should have caught no glimpse,
heard no whisper, while all the time, through the beauty of the scented,
summer day, the footsteps of inescapable fate drew so swiftly near.
Fortunate indeed for us that the fragile house we dwell in is provided
with no windows on the future side, and that the veil of the next moment
is as impenetrable as the veil of years.

What are they, anyway, these curious combinations of unforeseen
incidents which under the name of "coincidence" startle us out of our
dull acceptance of things? Can it be that, after all, space and
circumstance are but pieces in a puzzle to which the key is lost, so
that, playing blindly, we are startled by the _click_ which announces
the falling of some corner of the puzzle into place? Or is it merely
that we are all more closely linked than we know, and is "coincidence"
but the flashing of one of numberless invisible links into the light of
common day? Some day we shall know all about it; in the meantime a
little wonder will do us good.

It was, of course, coincidence that this afternoon Mary Coombe should
offer to gather the marguerites for Esther and that, the Saturday help
having failed to materialise, Esther was glad of the offer which left
her free to help Aunt Amy in the kitchen. It was also coincidence that
Mary should choose to wear her one blue dress and her shady hat which
looked a little like Esther's. But, given these coincidences, it is easy
to understand why the doctor, passing slowly by the field of
marguerites, felt his heart bound at the supposed sight of Esther among
the flowers.

Now that the moment had really come, his restlessness fell from him. He
felt cool, confident, happy! The world, the beautiful world, was gay in
gold and green. Over the rise, half hidden by its gentle undulation, he
caught the glint of a blue gown--

Running his car under the shade of some nearby trees, the doctor leapt
the pasture fence in one fine bound. The blue figure among the daisies
was stooping, her face hidden by a shady hat. No one else was in
sight--just he and she in all the lovely, sunny, breeze-swept earth! He
came towards her softly; called her name, but so low that she did not
hear. Then a meadow-lark, disturbed, flew up with his piercing "sweet!"
the stooping figure turned and he saw, in the clear sunlight, the face
under the shady hat--

Had something in his brain snapped? Or was he living through a nightmare
from which he would awake presently? The world, the daisy field, the
figure in blue, himself, all seemed but baseless fabrics of some
fantastic vision!

For, by a strange enchantment, the face which should have been Esther's
face was the face of Molly Weston, his lost wife!

It could not be! But it was.

Incredible the swiftness with which nature rights herself after a
stunning shock. Only for a moment was Callandar left in his paradise of
uncertainty. The next moment, he knew that he beheld no vision, knew it
and accepted it as certainly and completely as if all his life had been
but a preparation for the revelation.

"You!" he said. It was only a whisper but it seemed to fill the
universe. "You--Molly!"

At the name, the hazel eyes which had met his so blankly sprang suddenly
alive--recognition, knowledge, fear, entreaty, flashed across them in
one moment's breathless space--then they grew blank again and Mary
Coombe fell senseless beside her sheaf of daisies.




CHAPTER XXIII


Bending over the form of his lost wife, Henry Callandar forgot Esther.
His mind, careful of its sanity, removed her instantly from the
possibility of thought. She was gone--whisked away by some swift genie
and, with her, vanished the world of blue and gold inhabited by lovers.

There remained only that white, faded face among the daisies. With
careful hands he removed the crushed hat and loosened the collar at the
neck. It was Molly. Not a doubt of that. Not Molly as he remembered her
but Molly from whom the years had taken more than their toll, giving but
little in return. He could not think beyond this fact, as yet. And he
felt nothing, nothing at all. Both heart and mind lay mercifully numb
under the anaesthetic of the shock.

Deftly he did the few things necessary to restore the swooning woman,
noting with a doctor's eye the first faint flush of pink under the dead
white nails, then the flutter of breath through the parted lips and the
slow unclosing of the hazel eyes which, at sight of him, sprang widely,
vividly into life.

"Harry!" The name was the merest whisper and held a quiver of fear. He
remembered, stolidly, that just so had she whispered it upon the evening
of their hurried marriage.

"Yes, Molly. It is all right. Don't be frightened!"--Just so had he
soothed her.

She closed her eyes a moment while strength came back and then, raising
herself, slipped out of his arms with a little breathless movement of
avoidance. She seemed indeed to cower away and the fear in her eyes hurt
him with a physical pang. Instinctively he put out his hand to reassure
her, repeating his entreaty that she should not be frightened.

"But I am frightened!" Her voice was hoarse. "You terrified me! You had
no right to come like that. You should have let me know--sent
word--or--or something."

"Sent word?" He repeated the words, in a dazed way. "How could I? How
could I know?"

"How could you come if you didn't know?" Already the miracle of
readjustment which in women is so marvellously quick, had given back to
Mary Coombe something of her natural manner. Besides, she had always
known that some day he might find her--if he cared to look.

"Why should you come at all?" she flashed, raising defiant eyes. "The
time to come was long ago."

"I did come." Callandar spoke slowly. "I came--" he paused, for how
could he tell her that his coming had been to a house of death.

The bald answer, the strangeness of his gaze stirred her fear again. For
a moment they stared at each other, each busy with the shifting puzzle.
Then her quicker intuition abandoned the mystery of the present meeting
to straighten out the past.

"Then you followed the letter?"

"Yes, I followed the letter."

"And you saw her--my mother?"

"Yes, I saw your mother."

Impulsively he moved toward her but she shrank back, plainly terrified.

"Don't! I didn't know. I swear I did not know. I never saw the
letter--until last night. And I don't understand. What--what did my
mother tell you when you came?"

"There was only one thing which would have kept me from you, Molly."

"Only one thing? What?" she almost whispered.

"She told me you were dead."

The flash of understanding on her face showed that she, at least, had
shifted part of the puzzle into place.

"I see now," she said slowly, "I have wondered ever since I saw the
letter. But I did not think she would go that far. Yet it was the
simplest way. There was no date on the letter--but I guessed that it
must have come too late."

"Too late?"

"Yes, or she would never have dared. Besides she might not have wanted
to. She didn't know. I never had the courage to tell her. But if the
letter had come in time--"

She faltered, growing confused under his intense gaze.

"In time for what?" he prompted patiently.

She brushed the question aside.

"Did you believe her when she said that?"

"Yes. Why should I have doubted? It seemed to be the end. I fainted on
the doorstep. A long illness followed, when it was at its worst a friend
came--helped me to pull out. When I was well again, I searched for your
mother, employed detectives, but we never found her. Neither did we find
anything upon which to hang a doubt of what she had told me."

"No. She was very clever."

"But _why?_ For God's sake, why? Why should she lie to me? I had never
harmed her. We were married. I could give you a home. She knew it. I
told her. Why should she do this senseless, horrible thing?"

She looked at him with wide eyes and stammered,

"Don't--don't you know?"

A sense of some hitherto undreamed horror came to him with that
stammering whisper. The spur of it brought some of his firmness back.

"I do not know. There must have been a reason. You must tell me."

He forced her, through sheer will, to lift her eyes to his. They were
startled and sullen. With a start he saw, what he had missed before,
that this woman, his wife, was a stranger. But he had himself well in
hand now and his gaze did not falter. There was no escaping its demands.
Her answer came in a little burst of defiance.

"Yes, there was a reason. You may as well know it. Your letter and your
coming were both too late. I was married."

The doctor was not quick enough for this--

"Yes, of course you were, but--"

"Oh, not to you! Can't you understand? I was married to another man....
You need not look like that! What did you expect? I warned you. I knew I
could never defy mother. I told you so. But you said it wouldn't be
long--that she need never know. And I waited and waited. I could have
married more than once but I wouldn't. I faced mother and said I
wouldn't. But every time it was harder. I couldn't keep it up. And you
didn't come. Then when he came and we thought he was so rich she made me
marry him. She _made_ me. I thought you were never coming back anyway. I
wrote you once telling you to come. You didn't answer."

She paused breathless but he could find nothing to say. It seemed a
small thing that the letter must have missed him somewhere, his whole
mind was absorbed in trying to comprehend one stupendous fact. The
puzzle had shifted into place indeed.

"I thought you didn't care any more," her words raced as if eager to be
done, "and mother gave me no peace. You will never understand how
terrified I was of mother. And he seemed so kind and was going to be
rich. He owned part of a gold mine--mother was sure it would mean
millions. But it didn't. Mother was fooled there!" with a gleam of
malice. "The mine turned out to be worthless--after we were married."

Callandar drew a sharp breath and shook himself as if to throw off the
horror of some enthralling nightmare.

"You married him--this man--knowing that you were a wife already?"

"A fine sort of wife!" He quivered at the coarseness of meaning in her
tone. "We were never really married."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that it was all a farce. What's a ceremony? For all I knew it
wasn't even legal. When you did not answer my letter I thought that was
what your silence meant. I asked a girl to ask her father who was a
lawyer if a marriage was legal when the girl was under age and the
parents didn't know about it. He said sometimes it wasn't."

Callandar groaned. "And you married again--on that?"

"Yes. I had to, anyway. I couldn't hold out against mother. I daren't
tell her. She left us after the wedding, when the mine failed, and went
back to Cleveland. It was there she must have got your letter, and the
note I found last night. And when you came, she told you I was dead--to
save the scandal. She was always different after that, though I never
guessed why. It was a lie, you see, and mother was terrified of telling
lies. It was the only thing she was afraid of. She believed that liars
go to hell."

The tone in which she spoke of the probable torment of her mother was
quite without feeling. Callandar listened in fascinated wonder. Was this
Molly?--Pretty, kind-hearted Molly?

"I cannot understand," he said in a stifled voice. "It is all too
horrible! This man you married--"

"He is dead. He died a year ago. I thought at first that you must have
found out and that was why you came. I should have died of fright if you
had come while he was alive. He would never have understood--never! He
didn't like mother but he wasn't afraid of her. And I think that at last
he suspected that she had made me marry him for his money. But he was
always good. At first I was afraid all the time--oh, it was dreadful! I
think I have always been afraid--all my life--" Without warning she
threw her hands out wildly and broke into choking sobs, crying with the
abandon of a frightened child. Yet no one could have mistaken the
impulse of her grief. It was for herself she wept.

Was it possible that she was a child still? A child in spite of her
woman's knowledge, and the dulled lustre of her hair? Callandar
remembered grimly that Molly's views of right and wrong had always been
peculiarly simple. She had never wished to do wrong, but when she had
done it, it had never seemed so very wrong to her. Her greatest dread
had always been the dread of other people's censure.

"Don't cry," he said gently.

She must have felt the change in his voice, for although her sobs
redoubled she did not again shrink from the hand he laid upon her hair.
It was all over. She had told him the truth. Surely he must see that he
was the one to blame, not she.

After a while she dried her eyes and looked up at him timidly but with
restored confidence.

"People need never know now!" she said more calmly.

"People? Do people matter?"

She picked a daisy and began nervously to strip it of its petals--a pang
of agony caught at the man's heart. So, only that morning, had he
imagined himself consulting the daisy oracle. "She loves me, she loves
me not." Absolutely he put the memory from him. Molly was speaking.

"People do matter. They make things so unpleasant. Not that I care as
much about them as I used to; but still, one has to be careful. People
are so prying, always wanting to know things," she glanced around
nervously, "but let's not talk about them. I don't understand things
yet. How did you find me, if you thought I was--dead?"

"Accident, if there be such a thing. I was driving down the road. I am
living in the town near here--in Coombe!"

"But you can't! I live in Coombe. It is my home. There isn't a Chedridge
in the place."

"My name is not Chedridge now. I took my uncle's name when I inherited
his money. I am called Henry Callandar."

"Callandar!" Her voice rose shrilly on the word. "And you are living in
Coombe? Why you are--you must be--Esther's Dr. Callandar!"

The man went deathly white, yet his enormous self-control, the fruit of
years, held him steady.

Mary Coombe began to laugh weakly. "Why, of course, that explains it
all, don't you see? Haven't you placed me yet? Esther is my
step-daughter. The man I married was Doctor Coombe."

"Good God!" The exclamation was revelation enough had Mary Coombe heard
it. But she did not hear it; this new aspect of the situation had seemed
to her so farcical that her laughter threatened to become hysterical.
"Oh, it's so funny!" she gasped.

It was certainly funny--such a good joke! The Doctor thought he might as
well laugh too. But at the sound of his laughter, hers abruptly ceased.

"Don't do that!"

He tried to control himself. It was hard. He wanted to shriek with
laughter. Esther's step-mother, the mysterious Mrs. Coombe, was
Molly--his wife! Some mocking demon shouted into his ears the words he
had intended to say to her when he came to tell her that he and Esther
loved each other. He thought of his own high mood of the morning, of the
tender regret which he had laid away with the dead of the dead past. It
seemed as if all the world were rocking with diabolic laughter--Fate
plans such amusing things!

He caught himself up--madness lay that way.

"Please don't laugh!" said Mrs. Coombe a trifle fretfully. "At least not
so loudly. You startle me. My nerves are so wretched. And anyway it's
more serious than you seem to think. We shall have to discuss ways of
managing so that people will not know. Your being already acquainted
with Esther will help. It will make your coming to the house quite
natural. But it will be better to admit that we knew each other years
ago, were boy and girl friends or something like that. Your change of
name and my marriage will explain perfectly why we did not know each
other until we met. Nobody will go behind that. They will think it quite
romantic. The only one we need be afraid of is Esther. She is so quick
to notice--"

She did not know about Esther then? She had never guessed that the girl
was more to him than a mere acquaintance. Thank God for that! And thank
God, above all, that the worst had not happened--Esther herself did not
know, would never know now--

"I believe it can come quite naturally after all," Mary went on more
cheerfully. "No one will wonder at anything if we say we are old
friends. And we can be specially careful with Esther. I wouldn't have
her know for anything. She is like her father. She would never
understand. She doesn't know what it is to be afraid, as I was afraid of
my mother. Do you think it is wicked that sometimes I'm glad she is
dead, mother, I mean?"

He answered with an effort. "You used to be fond of your mother, Molly."

"Oh, don't call me Molly. Call me Mary. It will sound much better. No
one has ever heard me called Molly here. If Esther heard it she would
wonder at once. You will be careful, won't you?"

"Yes. I shall be careful." He had not heard what she said, save that she
had mentioned Esther's name. Rather he was thinking with a gratitude
which shook his very soul that fate had at least spared the innocent.
Esther was safe. She did not love him. He felt sure of that now. Strange
irony, that his deepest thankfulness should be that Esther did not
love him.

A small hand fell like a feather upon his arm.

"Harry!"

"Yes, Molly!"

He looked down into her quivering face and saw in it, dimly, the face of
the girl in his locket, not a mere outward semblance this time but the
soul of Molly Weston, reaching out to him across the years. Her light
touch on his arm was the very shackle of fate. Her glance claimed him.
Nothing that she had done could modify that claim--the terrible claim of
weakness upon the strength which has misled it.

Vaguely he felt that this was the test, the ultimate test. If he failed
now he was lost indeed. Something within him reached out blindly for the
strength he had dreamed was his, found it, clutched it desperately--knew
that it held firm.

He took the slight figure in his arms, felt that it still trembled and
said the most comforting thing he could think of. "Don't worry, Molly.
No one will ever know."




CHAPTER XXIV


Ester was sitting upon the back porch, hulling strawberries and watching
with absent amusement the tireless efforts of Jane to induce a very fat
and entirely brainless pup to shake hands. It had been a busy day, for
owing to the absence of the free and independent "Saturday Help" Esther
had insisted upon helping Aunt Amy in the kitchen. Now the Saturday pies
and cakes were accomplished and only the strawberries lay between Esther
and freedom.

She had intended, a little later, to walk out along the river road in
search of marguerites, but when Mary, more than usually restless after
her fainting spell of yesterday, had offered to go instead, she had not
demurred. It would be quite as pleasant to take a book and sit out under
the big elm. Esther was at that stage when everything seems to be for
the best in this "best of all possible worlds." She was living through
those suspended moments when life stands tiptoe, breathless with
expectancy, yet calm with an assurance of joy to come.

With the knowledge that Henry Callandar was not quite as other men, had
come an intense, delicious shyness; the aloofness of the maiden who
feels love near yet cannot, through her very nature, take one step
to meet it.

There was no hurry. She was surrounded with a roseate haze, lapped in
deep content; for, while the doctor had learned nothing from their last
meeting under the elm, Esther had learned everything. She had not seemed
to look at him as they parted, yet she had known, oh, she had known very
well, how he had looked at her! All she wanted, now, was to be alone
with that look; to hold it there in her memory, not to analyse or
question, but to glance at it shyly now and again, feeding with quick
glimpses the new strange joy at the heart.

"D'ye think He ever forgets to put brains into dogs?" asked Jane
suddenly. "Oh, you silly thing, don't roll over like that! Stop
wriggling and give me your paw!"

"He, who?" vaguely.

Jane made a disgusted gesture. "You're not listening, Esther! You know
there is only one Person who puts brains into dogs!"

"But Pickles is such a puppy, Jane. Give him time."

"It's not age," gloomily. "It's stupidness. All puppies are stupid, but
Pickles is the most abnormously stupid puppy I ever saw."

Esther laughed. "Where did you get the word, ducky?"

"From the doctor. It was something he said about Aunt Amy. Say, Esther,
isn't he going to take you driving any more? I saw him going past this
very afternoon. He turned down towards the river road. There was lots of
room. Next time he takes you, may Pickles and me go too?"

"Pickles and I, Jane."

"Well, may we?"

"I don't know. Perhaps. When did the doctor go past?"

"Nearly two hours ago. I wonder if there's some one kick down there?
Bubble says they're getting a tremenjous practice. I don't like Bubble
any more. He thinks he's smart. I don't like Ann, either. I shan't ask
her to my birthday party."

"I thought you loved Ann."

"Well, I don't. She thinks she's smart!"

"Ann, too? Smartness must be epidemic."

"It's all on account of the doctor," gloomily. "They can't get over
having him boarding at their place. I told Ann that my own father was a
doctor, but she said dead ones didn't count. Then I told her that my
mother didn't have to keep boarders anyway."

"That was a naughty, snobbish thing to say. I'm ashamed of you!"

"What's 'snobbish'?"

"What you said was snobbish. Think it over and find out."

Jane was silent, apparently thinking it over. The fat pup, tired with
unwonted mental exertions, curled up and went to sleep. Esther returned
to her dreams. Then, into the warm hush of the late afternoon came the
quick panting of a motor car.

"There he is!" cried Jane excitedly. "Let's both run down to the gate to
see him."

"Jane!" Esther's cheeks were the colour of her ripest berry. "Jane, come
here! I forbid you--Jane!"

"He's stopping anyway. He'll be coming in. You had better take off that
apron.--Oh, look! Some one's with him. Why," with some disappointment,
"it's mother! He is letting her out. I don't believe he is coming in at
all--let go! Esther, you pig, let me go!"

She wriggled out of her sister's firm hold but not before the motor had
started again; when she reached the gate it was out of sight.

Mrs. Coombe surveyed her daughter coldly. "You are a very ill-mannered
child," she said, and putting her aside walked slowly up the path and
around the house to where Esther sat on the back porch.

"Where are the daisies?" asked Esther, looking up from her berries.

"The daisies?" vaguely. "Good gracious! I forgot all about the daisies."

"Didn't you get any?"

"Heaps, but the fact is I didn't bring them home. I felt so tired. I
don't know how I should have managed to get home myself if Dr. Callandar
hadn't picked me up."

"Dr. Callandar?" Esther's voice was mildly questioning.

"Yes, why not?"

"I thought you had not met him."

"Neither I had--at least I hadn't met him for a good many years." Mary
gave a little excited laugh. "But that's the funny part of it--he is an
old friend."

Esther looked up with her characteristic widening of the eyes. The news
was genuinely surprising. And how agitated her mother seemed!

"It is really quite a remarkable coincidence," went on Mary nervously.
"I was so surprised, startled indeed. Although it's pleasant, of course,
to meet an old schoolmate."

"You and Doctor Callandar schoolmates?" The eyes were very wide now.

Mary grew more and more confused.

"Yes--that is, not exactly. I mean his name wasn't Callandar then. His
name was Chedridge. Did you never hear me speak of Harry Chedridge?"

"Never."

"Well, you never listen to half I say. And how was I to know that Doctor
Callandar was the Harry Chedridge I used to know? He took the name of
Callandar from an uncle--or something. Anyway it isn't his own."

Esther hulled a particularly fine berry and carefully putting the hull
in the pan, threw the berry away.

"Curiouser and curiouser!" she said, quoting the immortal Alice. "Did
you recognise him at once?"

If it be possible for a lady of this enlightened age to simper, Mrs.
Coombe simpered. "He recognised me at once!" with faint emphasis on
the pronouns.

The girl choked down a rising inclination to laugh.

"Why shouldn't he? I suppose you haven't changed very much."

"Hardly at all, he says; at least he says he would have known me
anywhere. But it's quite a long time, you know, terribly long. I was a
young girl then. Naturally, he was much older."

"I should have thought so. That's why it seems queer--your having been
schoolmates."

Mrs. Coombe looked cross. "I did not mean schoolmates in that sense."

"Oh, merely in a Pickwickian sense!" Esther's laugh bubbled out.

Mary arose. She was afraid to risk more at present, until she had been
to her room and--rested awhile. "You are rude, as usual," she said with
dignity. "When I said that Dr. Callandar and I were schoolmates I meant
simply that we were old friends, that we knew each other when we were
both younger. I do not see anything at all humorous in the statement."

"No, of course not!" with quick compunction. "It's quite lovely. Just
like a book. Why didn't he come in?"

The question was so cleverly casual that no one could have guessed the
girl's consuming interest in the answer. But its cleverness had overshot
the mark, for so colourless was the tone in which it was asked that Mary
did not notice it at all. Instead she retreated steadily along her
own line.

"I hope I always treat your friends with proper courtesy, Esther. And I
shall expect you to do the same with mine. Dr. Callandar is a very old
friend indeed. Should he call to-night I wish you to receive him
as such."

"I'll try," said the girl demurely.

The way of escape was now open, but Mrs. Coombe hesitated. She seemed to
have something else to say. Something which did not come easily. "It's
horrid living in a town like Coombe," she burst out. "People always want
to know everything. We met the elder Miss Sinclair on the river
road--you know what that means! If people ask you any question--or
anything--you had better tell them at once that Dr. Callandar is not a
stranger."

"I should not dream of suppressing the fact."

"You see," again that odd hesitation, "he may call--rather often.
And--people talk so easily."

Despite her care, Esther's sensitive face flamed in answer to the
quickened beat of her heart. What an odd thing for her mother to say!
What did she mean? Was it possible that he had already told her--asked
her? Or had she merely guessed? There was a moment's pause, and then,
"Let them talk!" said the girl softly. "It can't make any difference, to
them, how often Dr. Callandar calls."

Mrs. Coombe looked doubtful, hesitated once more, but finally turned
away without speaking. As she went, she cast a careless glance at Aunt
Amy, who stood just within the kitchen doorway, a curiously watchful
look in her usually expressionless eyes.

"Berries all ready, Auntie," said Esther cheerfully. "What's the matter
with me as a Saturday Help?"

But Aunt Amy did not smile as she usually did.

"She's gone to get dressed," she said abruptly, indicating with a
backward gesture Mrs. Coombe's retiring figure.

"Well?"

"For him. She's gone to get dressed for him."

Esther was puzzled. "Why shouldn't she? Oh, I forget you didn't know!
It's quite a romance. Mother used to know Dr. Callandar when she was a
girl. 'We twa hae rin aboot the braes,' you know. Only it seems so
funny. Fancy, Dr. Callandar and mother! But we shan't have to worry any
more about her health. She can't possibly avoid him now."

Aunt Amy was not listening. The curiously watchful look was still in her
eyes and suddenly, apropos of nothing, she began to wring her hands in
the strange, dumb way which always preceded one of her characteristic
mental agonies,--agonies which, far beyond her understanding as they
were, never failed to awake profound compassion in Esther.

"What is it, dear?" she asked gently. "Are you not so well?"

"Don't you ever feel things, Esther? Don't you ever sense
things--coming?"

"No, dear. And neither do you, when you are well. You are tired." She
placed her hands firmly upon the locked hands of Aunt Amy and with
tender force attempted to separate them. But Jane, who had been a silent
but interested spectator, spoke eagerly.

"Don't, Esther! Do let her tell us what is coming. You know she always
tells right when she wrings her hands. Go on, Auntie--"

"Jane, be quiet! I'll tell you why afterwards. Auntie dear, sit down."

'Aunt Amy's hands relaxed and the strange look faded. "It's nothing,"
she said. "It's gone! I must be more careful. Do not mention it to your
mother, children. She might think me queer again, and I am not at all
queer any more. You have noticed that I'm not, haven't you, Esther? I'll
do anything you say, my dear."

"Then lie out in the hammock while I get supper. The berries are all
ready. Then we'll all get dressed. Jane may wear one of her new frocks
and you shall wear your grey voile. It will be quite a party."

"Will there be ice cream? Because if there isn't I don't want to get
dressed," sighed Jane. "My new things don't fit. They look like bags."

"It will soon be holidays and then I'll fix them for you."

Jane laid a childish cheek to her sister's hand.

"Nice Esther," she cooed. "I'm sorry I called you a pig." Then, in a
change of tone as they left Aunt Amy resting in the hammock, "Esther,
why is Auntie so afraid of mother lately? She says such queer things I
don't know what she means."

"Neither do I, dear. But I think it is just a passing fancy. She was
very much hurt about the ring being sold. When she gets it back she will
forget about it."

"She looks at mother as if she hates her."

"Oh, no!" in a startled tone. "How can you say such a thing, Jane?"

"But she does. I've seen her. I don't blame her. I think it was
horrid--"

"That's enough. You know nothing about it. Little girls who do not
understand have no right to criticise."

"Fred says it was the most underhan--"

"Jane, one word more and you shall have no berries to-night. Duck, don't
you realise that you are speaking in a very unkind way of your
own mother."

The child's eyes filled with ready tears, but her little mouth was
stubborn. "Auntie's more my mother, Esther, and so are you. And it was
mean to take the ring and I don't care whether I have any berries
or not."

Supper was a very quiet meal that night. Mrs. Coombe, interrupted in the
process of dressing, came down in an old kimono, but ate almost nothing,
Jane was sullen, Aunt Amy silent and Esther happily oblivious to
everything save her own happy thoughts.

As soon as she could, she slipped away to her own room, and, choosing
everything with care, began to dress herself as a maiden dresses for the
eye of her lover. She was to be all in white, her dainty dress, her
petticoats, stockings and shoes. White made her look younger than ever,
absurdly young. He had never seen her all in white and she knew quite
well how soft it made the shadows of her hair, how startlingly blue her
eyes, how warm and living the ivory of her lovely neck.

"Oh, I am glad I am pretty!" she whispered to her mirror. "Glad, glad!"
Then with a laugh at her own childishness she "touched wood" to
propitiate the jealous fates and ran down stairs to hide herself in the
duskiest corner of the veranda.

It was delightful there. The cooling air was sweet with the mingled
perfumes of the garden border below, an early star had fallen,
sparkling, upon the blue-grey train of departing day, a whispering
breeze crept, soft-footed, through the shrubbery. Esther lay back in the
long chair and closed her eyes. For thirty perfect moments she waited
until the click of the garden gate announced his coming. Then she sprang
up, smiling, blushing,--peering through the screen of vines--

A man was coming up the path. At first sight he seemed a stranger, some
one who walked heavily, slowly--the doctor's step was quick and
springing. Yet it was he! She drew back, shyly, yet looked again. Some
one, in a pretty green silk gown, had slipped out from under the big elm
and was meeting him with outstretched hands.

"Mother," thought Esther, "how strange!"

They had paused and were talking together. Mary's high, sweet laugh
floated over the flowers, then her voice, a mere murmur. His voice,
lower still. Then silence. They had turned back, together, down the
lilac walk.

Esther sat down again. She felt numb. She closed her eyes as she had
done before. But all the dreams, all the happy thoughts were gone. She
opened them abruptly to find Aunt Amy staring down upon her, dumbly,
wringing her hands. In the warm summer air the girl shivered.

"What is it?" she asked a little sharply. But Aunt Amy seemed neither to
see nor hear her. She flitted by like some wandering grey moth into the
dim garden, still wringing her hands.

Esther sat up. "How utterly absurd," she said aloud. Indeed she felt
heartily ashamed of herself. To behave like a foolish child, to startle
Aunt Amy into a fit and all because her mother and Dr. Callandar had
gone for a stroll down the lilac walk--the most natural thing in the
world. They would return presently. She had only to wait. But the
waiting was not quite the same. Those golden moments already sparkled in
the past. Nothing could ever be quite the same as if he had come
straight up the path to where she waited for him in the dusk.

       *       *       *       *       *

In the living-room, Jane who had small patience with twilight, had
lighted the lamp. Its shaded beams fell in golden bars across the
veranda floor. The sky was full of stars, now, but the voice of the
breeze was growing shrill, as if whistling up the rain.

They were coming back along the side of the house. Esther rose quickly
and slipped into the safety of the commonplace with Jane and the lighted
lamp. Mrs. Coombe entered first, there was an instant to observe and
wonder at her. She seemed a different woman, young, pretty, sparkling;
even her hair seemed brighter. Behind her came Callandar and when Esther
saw his face her heart seemed to stop. It was the face, almost, of a man
of middle age, a firm, quiet face with cold eyes.

"Esther!" Mrs. Coombe's voice held incipient reproof.

The girl came forward and offered her hand. The doctor, this new doctor,
took it, let it drop and said, "Good evening, Miss Esther," then turned
to Jane with a politely worded message from Ann and Bubble.

"You can tell them I won't go," said Jane crossly. "They think they are
smart. Just because--"

Esther slipped quietly from the room. In the hall outside she paused,
breathless. She felt as if she had run a long way. Shame enveloped her,
a shame whose cause she could not put into words. She only knew that she
had, in the few seconds of that cold greeting, been profoundly
humiliated. She quivered with the sting of unwarranted expectancy. But
if this had been all, it would have been well. There was something else,
some deeper pain surging through the smart of wounded pride, something
which led her with blind steps into a dark corner of the stairs where
she sat very quiet and still.

Through the open front door, she could see the bars of lamplight on the
deserted veranda, and hear from the open windows of the living-room a
hum of conversation in which Jane seemed to be taking a leading part.
Then came the tinkle of the old piano and Mary's voice, singing, or
attempting to sing, for it was soon apparent that her voice sagged
pitifully on the high notes.

Presently Jane came out, banging the door. Jane's manners, Esther
thought, were really very bad. She had probably banged the door because
she had been sent to bed and she had probably been sent to bed because
she had been saucy. Esther wondered what particular form her sauciness
had taken, but when Jane called softly, "Esther!" she did not answer.
She did not want to put Jane to bed to-night. The child flashed past her
up the stairs and soon could be heard from an upstair window calling
imperatively for Aunt Amy. But Aunt Amy, flitting through the dim garden
wringing her hands, did not hear. Jane, much injured, went to bed by
herself that night.

In the lamp-lit room there was no more music. The murmur of voices grew
less distinct. There were intervals of silence. (Only very old friends
can support a silence gracefully--but of course these two were very old
friends.) Esther wondered, idly, how it would be best to explain her
absence to her mother. Toothache, perhaps? Not that the excuse mattered.
Mary never listened to excuses. She would be cross and fretful anyway
and complain that Esther never treated her friends with proper courtesy.
The best thing she could do would be to go to bed. But she made no
movement to go; the moments ticked by on the hall clock unnoticed.

After a time, which might have been long or short, there was a stir in
the room and her mother's voice called "Esther! Esther!"

The girl stood up, smoothed her white dress, slipped out on to the
veranda and into the garden. From there she answered the call.
"Yes, Mother?"

"Where are you? You sound as if you had been asleep. Doctor Callandar is
going."

Esther came lightly up the steps.

"So soon?"

"It is early," agreed Mrs. Coombe playfully, "but I can't keep him."

Esther, herself in shadow, could see the doctor's face as he stood
quietly beside his hostess. It was full of an endless weariness. Her
pride melted. Impulsively she put out a warm hand--

"Good night, Miss Esther. How very sweet your garden is at night. But it
feels as if our fine weather were over. The wind begins to blow
like rain."

Esther's hand dropped to her side. Perhaps he had not seen it in the
dusk.




CHAPTER XXV


We all know that strange remoteness into which one wakes from out deep
sleep. Though the eye be open, the Ego is not there to use it. For an
immeasurable second, the awakener knows not who he is, nor why, nor
where. Only there is, faintly perceptible, a reminiscent consciousness
whether of joy or sorrow, a certain flavour of the soul, sweet or
bitter, into which the Ego, slipping back, announces, "I am happy" or "I
am miserable."

Esther had not hoped to sleep that night but she did sleep and heavily.
When she awoke it was to blankness, a cold throbbing blankness of
undefined ill being. Then her Ego, with a sigh, came back from far
places; the busy brain shot into focus; all the memories, fears,
humiliation of the night before stood forth clear and poignant. She
buried her face in the pillow.

Yet, after the first rush of consciousness, there came a difference.
There always is a difference between night and day thoughts. Fresh from
its wonder-journey, the soul is braver in the morning, the brain is
calmer, the spirit more hopeful. After a half-hour's self-examination
with her face in the pillow Esther began to wonder if she had not been
foolishly apprehensive and whether it were not possible that half her
fears were bogies. The weight began to lighten, she breathed more
freely. Looking over the rim of the sheltering pillow the morning seemed
no longer hateful.

Foremost of all comforting thoughts was the conviction that instinct
must still be trusted against evidence. Through all her speculations as
to the unexplained happenings of the previous day, she found that
instinct held firmly to its former belief regarding the doctor's
feelings toward herself. There are some things which one knows
absolutely and Esther knew that Henry Callandar had looked upon her as a
man looks upon the woman he loves. He had loved her that night when they
paddled through the moonlight; he had loved her when he watched for her
coming along the road, but most of all he had loved her when, under the
eye of Aunt Amy, they had said good-bye at the garden gate. This much
was sure, else all her instincts were foresworn.

After this came chaos. She could not in any way read the riddle of his
manner of last night. Had the sudden resumption of his old friendship
with her mother absorbed his mind to the exclusion of everything else?
Impossible, if he loved her. Had purely physical weariness or mental
worry blotted her out completely for the time being? Impossible, if he
loved her. Then what had happened?

Doubtless it would all be simple enough when she understood. She sighed
and raised her head from the pillow. At any rate it was morning. The day
must be faced and lived through. Any one of its hours might bring
happiness again.

The rainstorm which had swept up during the night had passed, leaving
the morning clean. She needed no recollection to tell her that it was
Sunday. The Sabbath hush was on everything; no milkman's cans jingled
down the street; no playing children called or shouted; there was a bell
ringing somewhere for early service. Esther sighed again. She was sorry
it was Sunday. Work-a-day times are easiest.

A rich odour of coffee, insinuating itself through the half open door,
testified mutely to the fact that Aunt Amy was getting breakfast. It was
later than usual. After breakfast it would be time to dress for church.
Every one in Coombe dressed for church. It was a sacred rite. One and
all, they had clothes which were strictly Sabbatarian, known indeed by
the name of Sunday Best.

Esther's Sunday best was a blue, voile, a lovely blue, the colour of her
eyes when in soft shadow. It was made with a long straight skirt
slightly high at the waist, round neck and elbow sleeves and with it
went soft, wrinkly gloves and a wide hat trimmed with cornflowers. She
knew that she looked well in it--and the doctor would be in church.

On this thought which flew into her mind like a swift swallow through an
open window, her lethargy fled and in its place came nervous haste; a
feverish impatience which brought her with a bound out of bed, flushed
and eager. Philosophy is all very well but it never yet stilled the
heart-beat of the young.

Aunt Amy looked up in mild surprise as she hurried into the kitchen in
time to butter toast and poach the eggs.

"Why, Esther!" she said in her bewildered way. "I thought--I didn't
think that you would get up this morning."

"Why? I am perfectly well, Auntie. Where is mother?"

"Oh, she's up! Picking flowers."

Esther looked slightly surprised. It was not Mrs. Coombe's habit to rise
early or to pick flowers, but before she had time to comment, Mary
herself entered the kitchen with an armful of roses.

"Hurry with your breakfast, Jane," she said, "I want you to take these
over to the doctor's office. I wonder you have not sent some to the poor
man before this, Esther. Mrs. Sykes' roses never amount to anything.
Shall I pour the coffee? I suppose you felt that you did not know him
well enough. But flowers sent in a neighbourly way would have been quite
all right. If you weren't always so stiff, people would like you better.
I felt quite ashamed of your behaviour last night. Of course it wasn't
necessary for you to stay in the room _all_ the evening, but it was
simply rude to run away as you did. You needn't make Jane an excuse.
Jane could put herself to bed, for once."

"I did--" began Jane, but catching sight of her sister's face, went no
further. And Mrs. Coombe, who was always talkative when airing a
grievance, paid no attention.

"If you are feeling huffy about the motor breaking down, you'll just
have to get over it," she went on. "It couldn't possibly have been Dr.
Callandar's fault anyway."

"I am quite sure that it wasn't."

"Then don't sulk. He is rather fine looking, don't you think? Though as
a boy he was almost ugly. It doesn't seem to matter in men--ugliness, I
mean. And of course in those days he could not afford to dress; dress
makes such a difference. I shouldn't be a bit surprised if his clothes
are English made. That baggy look that isn't really baggy, you know.
When I knew him his people were quite poor. Only a mother and sister.
The father shot himself. People said suicide ran in that family. But
Harry--Henry said that if it did, it was going to stop running. He said
such odd things. I was staying with friends when I met him, at a church
social. One meets all kinds at an affair like that. My friends didn't
ask him to the party they gave for me. For although they were a very
good family, the Chedridges, Henry was almost a hired man at that time,
working for old Dr. Inglis, to put himself through college. His mother
and sister never went out."

"Were they both invalids?"

"Don't be clever, Esther! I mean socially, of course. Jane, run up to my
dresser and look in the second drawer on the right hand side and bring
down my small photo case. I think I have a photo somewhere, not a very
good one, but enough to show how homely he was.... Amy, aren't you going
to eat any breakfast this morning?"

Aunt Amy, who had been following her niece's unusual flow of talk with
fascinated attention, returned with a start to her untasted egg. Esther
tried to eat some toast and choked. In spite of all her resolutions she
felt coldly and bitterly angry. That her mother should dare to gossip
about him like that! That she should call him "ugly," that she should
speak with that air of almost insolent proprietorship of those wonderful
early years long, long before she, Esther, had come into his life at
all, it was unendurable!

Do not smile, sophisticated young person. When you are in love you will
know, only too well, this jealousy of youless years; this tenderness for
photos and trifling remembrances of the youth of the one you love. You
will envy his very mother, who, presumably, knew him fairly well in the
nursery, and that first dreadful picture of him in plaid dress and
plastered hair will seem a sacred relic.

In the meantime you may take my word for it, and try to understand how
Esther felt as she bent, perforce, over the photo of a dark-browed lad
whose very expression was in itself a valid protest against photography.

"Ugly, wasn't he?" asked Mrs. Coombe.

"Very," said Esther.

"Perfectly fierce," said Jane, peering over her shoulder. "Really
fierce, I mean, not slang. He looks as if he would love to bite
somebody."

"The photographer, probably."

Esther shrugged her shoulders and laid the photo carelessly upon the
table. So careless was she, in fact, that a sharp "Look out!" from Jane
did not prevent a sudden jerk of her elbow upsetting her steaming cup of
coffee right over the pictured face.

With an angry exclamation, Mary sprang forward to rescue her property
but Esther had already picked it up and was endeavouring to repair the
damage with her table napkin.

"Oh, do take care!" said Mary irritably. "Don't rub so _hard_--you'll
rub all the film off--there! What did I tell you?"

"Dear me! who would ever have dreamed it would rub off that easily?"
Esther surveyed the crumpled bits of photo with convincing dismay.

"Any one, with sense. It's ruined--how utterly stupid of you, Esther."
Mary's voice quivered with anger. "You provoking thing! I believe you
did it on purpose."

The cold stare from the girl's eyes stopped her, but she added
fretfully, "You are always doing things to annoy me. I can't think why,
I'm sure."

"She was trying to dry it," declared Jane, belligerently. "She didn't
mean to hurt the old photo. Did you, darling?"

"I can hardly see what my motive could have been," said Esther politely,
rising from the table. She had deliberately tried to destroy the
photograph and was exultantly glad that she had succeeded, yet, so
quickly does the actress instinct develop under the spur of necessity,
that her face and manner showed only amused tolerance of such a foolish
suspicion.

Later, the culprit smiled understandingly at her image in the mirror as
she dressed for church. "I did not know I could be so catty," she told
her reflection, "but I don't care. She hadn't any right to have that
darling picture. Ugly, indeed!" The blue eyes snapped and then became
reflective. "Only she didn't think it ugly any more than I did. It was
just talk. She was certainly furious when the film rubbed off. I
wonder--" She fastened the last dark tress of hair, still wondering.

All the way to church she wondered, walking demurely with Jane up
Oliver's Hill, while Mary, nervously gay, fluttered on a step or two
ahead. Jane found her unresponsive that morning. The acquaintances they
passed found her distant. They wondered if Esther Coombe were becoming
"stuck up" since she had a school of her own? For although, as Miss
Agnes Smith said, it is not quite the thing to do more than nod and
smile on the way to church, one doesn't need to pass one's friends
looking like an absent-minded funeral.

Poor Esther! She saw nobody because she looked for only one.

"Oh, Esther, Mrs. Sykes has a new bonnet. There she is, Esther, look!"

"Very pretty," murmured Esther absently.

Jane dropped her hand. "You're blind as well as deaf, Esther. It's
perfectly, dreadfully awful, and you know it!"

Thus abjured, Esther managed to look at Mrs. Sykes' bonnet. And, having
looked, she laughed. Mrs. Sykes had certainly surpassed herself in
bonnets. And poor Ann, her skirts were stiffer, her pig-tails tighter
and her small face more mutinous than ever. The doctor was not of the
party. Esther had known that, long before Jane had noticed the bonnet.

Still, there was nothing in that. He did not always walk with Ann to
church. He might not come up Oliver's Hill at all. He might come from
the opposite direction. He might be in church already. Esther's step
quickened. But she had no excuse for hurry. Unless one sang in the choir
or were threatened with lateness it was not etiquette to push ahead of
any one on Oliver's Hill. Decently and in order was the motto, so Esther
was sharply reminded when she had almost trodden on the unhastening
heels of Mrs. Elder MacTavish.

Mrs. MacTavish turned in surprise but, seeing Esther, relaxed into the
usual Sunday smile and bow.

"Good morning, Esther. Good morning, Mrs. Coombe. Good morning, Jane.
What perfect weather we are having. You are all well, I hope?"

"Very well, thank you."

"And dear Miss Amy?"

"Very well indeed."

"So sad that she never cares to come to church. But of course one
understands. And it must be a satisfaction to you all that she keeps so
well. I said to Mr. MacTavish only last night that I felt sure Dr.
Callandar was not being called in professionally. That is the worst of
being a doctor. One can hardly attend to one's social duties without
arousing fear for the health of one's friends. Not that Dr. Callandar is
overly sociable, usually."

The last word, delivered as if by an afterthought, said everything which
she wished it to say. Esther's lips shut tightly. Mary Coombe flushed.
But she was quick to seize the opening nevertheless.

"Such an odd thing, dear Mrs. MacTavish! Dr. Callandar turns out to be
quite an old friend of--of my family. We knew each other as boy and
girl. In his college days, you know."

"How very pleasant. But I always understood your family lived in
Cleveland. Did Dr. Callandar take his degree in the States?"

"Oh, no, of course not, but I was visiting in Canada when we knew each
other. Mutual friends and--and all that, you know."

"Very romantic," said Mrs. MacTavish. Her tone was pleasantly cordial,
yet there was a something, a tinge--her quick glance took in Mrs.
Coombe's pretty dress and flowered hat, and the beginning of a smile
moved her thin lips. She said nothing. But then she did not need to say
anything. Mind reading is common with women.

Mrs. Coombe was furious. Esther laughed suddenly, a bubbling, girlish
laugh, and then pretended that she had laughed because Jane had stubbed
her toe. Jane looked hurt, Mrs. Coombe suspicious and Mrs. MacTavish
amused. So in anything but a properly Sabbatical frame of mind the
little party arrived at the church door.

Who does not know, if only in memory, that exquisite thrill of fear and
expectation with which Esther entered the place which might contain the
man she loved? Another moment, a breath, and she might see him!... And
who has not known that stab of pain, that awful darkness of the spirit,
which came upon her as, instantly, she knew that he was not there?

He was not in the church. Mental telepathy is recognised as well by its
absence as by its presence. Esther knew that the church was empty of her
lover and that it would remain empty. He was not coming to church
to-day. Fortunate indeed that Mrs. MacTavish was not looking, for the
girl's lip quivered, an unnatural darkness deepened the blue of her
eyes. Then, smiling, she followed her mother up the aisle. Girls are
wonderfully brave and if language is given us to conceal our thoughts
smiles are very convenient also.

Mary Coombe settled herself with a flutter and a rustle, and then,
behind the decorous shield of a hymn book, she whispered,

"Did you see Dr. Callandar as we came in?"

"No."

"Look and see if he is here."

The girl glanced perfunctorily around.

"No," she said.

Mrs. Coombe frowned. She was patiently annoyed and Esther felt cold
anger stir again. What difference could the doctor's absence possibly
make to Mary Coombe?

The singing of the psalm and the reading were long drawn out
wearinesses. Esther had not come to church to worship that morning. We
do not comment upon her attitude. We merely state it. To-day, church,
the service and all that it stood for had been absolutely outside of
her emotions. Yet with the prayer came the thought of God and with the
thought a thrill of angry fear--a fear which was an inevitable after
effect of her very orthodox training. God, she felt dimly, did not like
people to be very happy. He was a jealous God. He was probably angry now
because she had come to church thinking more of Dr. Callandar than of
Him. "Thou shalt have no other Gods before me!" Awful, mystical words!
Did they mean that one couldn't have any human god at all? Not even a
near, kind protecting god--like the doctor? It frightened her.

She found herself explaining to God that her lover was not really a
rival. That although she loved him so terribly it was in quite a
different way and would never interfere with her religious duties. Then,
feeling the futility of this, she pretended carelessness, trying to
deceive God into the belief that she didn't think so very much of the
doctor anyway.

This was in the prayer, while she sat with her eyes decorously shaded by
her hand. Above her in the pulpit, the minister in an ecstasy of
petition set forth the needs of the church, the state and the
individual. Esther did not hear a word until a sudden dropping of his
voice forced a certain phrase upon her attention. He was praying, with
an especial poignancy for "that blessing which maketh rich and addeth
no sorrow."

Was there such a blessing? A blessing which would make rich and add no
sorrow? No wonder the minister prayed for it. To Esther, whose mind was
saturated with the idea of God as the author of chastenings, the
possibility came with a shock of joy. She, too, began to pray, and she
prayed for one thing only, over and over--the blessing that maketh rich
and addeth no sorrow. There was no need, she felt, to specify further.
God was sure to guess what blessing she meant.

A subdued rustle, a swaying as of barley in a gentle breeze and the
prayer was over. Esther removed her hand from her eyes and looked up at
the minister. For a tiny second his glance met hers. A thrill shot
through her, a thrill of dismay. With all the force of a new idea, it
came to her that she and he were in the same parlous case. He loved her,
as she loved--somebody else.

And that meant that he must suffer, suffer as she had suffered last
night. Last week when he had told her of his love she had been
surprised, sorry and a little angry. But last week he had spoken of
unknown things. Love and suffering had been words to her then, now they
were realities.

Then, for she was learning quickly now, came another flash of
enlightenment. They had been praying for the same thing. He, too, had
prayed for the blessing which maketh rich--and he had meant _her_. She
knew it. He had been asking God to give her to him. Horrible!

Common sense shrank back before the invading flood of fear. What if God
had listened? What if He had answered? Ministers, she knew, have great
influence with God. What if He had said, "Yes"? What if all the trouble
of last night, the blankness of to-day, were part of the answer?

"Never! Never!" she said. She almost said it aloud, so real had her fear
been. Her eyes, fixed upon the minister's face, were terrified, but her
soul was strong. Fearful of blasphemy, yet brave, she faced the bogie of
a God her thought had evoked, saying, "I make my own choice. Take my
lover from me if you will--I shall never give myself to another."

All this was very wrong, shocking even, especially in church. But it
really happened and is apt to happen any Sunday in any church so long as
human love rebels at the idea of a Divine love less tender than itself.

Gradually the panic fear died down. Esther's sane and well-balanced
nature began to assert itself. Some voice, small but insistent, began to
say, "God is not like that," and she listened and was comforted. She had
not yet come to the love which casts out fear, but she was done with the
fear which casts out love.

So that when on the church steps in the sunshine she felt Angus
Macnair's hand tremble in hers, she was able to meet his eyes,
straightly, understandingly, but unafraid.




CHAPTER XXVI


The manner in which Dr. Callandar spent that tragic Sunday is not
clearly on record. We have watched Esther so closely that he has been
permitted to escape our observation, and it would be manifestly unfair
to expect any coherent account of the day from him. He knows that he
went for a walk, early, and that he walked all day. He remembers once
resting by the willow-fringed pool which had seen his introduction into
Coombe, but he could not stay there. Between him and that hot June day
lay the wreck of a world. Once he stumbled upon the Pine Lake road and
followed it a little way. But here, too, memory came too close and drove
him aside into the fields. There he tried to face his future fairly,
under the calm sky. But it was hard work. With such a riot of feeling,
it was difficult to think. His mind continually fell away into the
contemplation of his own misery. It was a bad day, a day which left an
ineffaceable mark.

With night came the first sign of peace, or rather of capitulation. He
fought no more because he realised that there was nothing for which to
fight. There had never been, from the very first moment, a possibility
of escape, the smallest ray of hope. Fate had met him squarely and the
issue had never been in doubt.

It was a "wonderful clear night of stars" when, having circled the town
in his aimless wandering, he found himself opposite the schoolhouse gate
and calm enough to allow his thoughts to dwell definitely upon Esther.
She, at least, was safe, and the knowledge brought pure thankfulness.
Not for anything in the world would he have had her entangled in this
tragic coil. Leaning over the gate he saw the school steps, faintly
white in the starlight. It needed small effort of imagination to see her
there as he had seen her that first day--a happy girl, looking at him
with the long, straight glance of unawakened youth. A great wave of
protecting love went out to meet that vision. Self was lost in its
immensity. As he had found her, so, please God, she was still and so he
would leave her.

Then, somewhere in the back of his brain, a question sprang to vivid
life. Was she the same? He knew that all day he had been fighting back
that question. Last night something had frightened him--something
glimpsed for a moment in Esther's face when she had come in from the
garden to say good-night. Fancy, perhaps, or a trick of the lamplight.
She could not really have changed. He would not allow himself even to
dream that she had changed.

By this time she would know about himself and Mary--know all that any
one was to know. He had insisted upon that. Mary had promised to tell
her to-day that they were to be married soon. Next time he saw her she
would look upon him with different eyes; eyes which would see not her
sometime friend and companion but her step-mother's future husband. He
must steel himself for this. Probably she would laugh a little. He hoped
she would laugh. Last night she had looked so--she had not looked like
laughter. If she should laugh it would answer the last doubt in his
heart. He would know that she was free.

Presently he felt himself to be unbearably weary. Physical needs,
ignored all day, began to clamour. He must get home at once. No _outre_
proceedings must raise the easy breath of gossip. He must not flinch, he
dared not run away, all must be done decently and in order. Let him only
keep his head now--the bravest man need not look too far into
the morrow.

It must be late, he knew. The road into Coombe was deserted. All the
buggies of the country folk returning from evening service had passed
long ago and even the happy young couples indulging in a Sunday night
"after church" flirtation had decorously sought their homes. He looked
at his watch by the clear starlight. It was later even than he had
thought. No need to avoid passing the Elms, now; they would all be
asleep--he might perhaps be able to sleep himself if he knew that no
light burned in Esther's window.

There was no light in the house anywhere. It stood black in the shadow
of its trees. The doctor found himself walking softly. His steps grew
slower, paused. Irresistibly the "spirit in his feet" drew him to the
closed gate from where he could see the black oblong of her window.

"She is asleep," he thought. "Of course she is asleep. Thank God!"

Then, on the instant of dropping his eyes from the window, he saw her.
She was standing quite near, in the shadow of the elm.

"Esther!" The one word leaped from his lips like a cry.

"Yes, it is I," she said.

She offered no word of explanation nor did any need of one occur to
him. Moving from the shadow into the soft starlight she came toward him
like the spirit of the night. But when she paused, so close that only
the gate divided them, he saw that her eyes were wide and dark
with trouble.

"I am so glad you came. I wanted to see you. I--I could not sleep." She
spoke with the direct simplicity of a child, yet nothing could have
shown more plainly that she was a child no longer. All her pretty
girlish hesitation, all her happy shyness had passed away on the breath
of the great awakening. It was a woman who stood there, pale, remote,
with a woman's question in her eyes.

The keen shock of the change in her filled Callandar with rebellious
joy; it would be pain presently, but, just for the moment, love exulted
shamelessly, claiming her own. He tried to answer her but no words came.

"You look very tired." She seemed not to notice his silence. "I must not
keep you. But there is a question I want to ask. Mother told me to-night
that you and she are to be married. Is it true?"

How incredible she was, he thought. How perfect in her direct and simple
dignity. Yet there had crept into her tone a wistfulness which broke
his heart.

"Yes. It is true." He could do no less than meet her on her own high
ground.

"She said," the girl's sweet, remote voice went on, "that you had loved
each other all your lives. Is that true, too?"

He had hoped that he might be spared the bitterness of this, but since
only one answer was possible, "It is true," he said hoarsely, "it is
true that we loved each other--long ago."

"Long ago--and now?" He was to be spared nothing, it seemed. Her wide
eyes searched his face. Lest she should read it too plainly, he
bowed his head.

Then suddenly, even as she drew back from him, hurt to the heart, some
trick of moonlight on his half-hidden face, linked to swift memory,
showed her another moonlight night, a canoe, a story told--and in a
flash the miracle had happened. Intuition had leaped the gulf of his
enforced silence--Esther knew.

A great wonder grew in her eyes, an immense relief.

"Why," she spoke whisperingly, "I see, I know! She, my mother, is the
girl you told me of. The girl you married--"

She did not need the confirmation of his miserable eyes. It was all
quite plain. With a little broken sigh of understanding, she leaned her
head against the gate post and, all child again, began to cry softly
behind the shelter of her hands.

"Esther!"

He could say nothing, do nothing. He dared not even touch the dark, bent
head. But we may well pity him as he watched her.

The girl's sobbing wore itself out and presently she lifted
tear-drenched eyes, like the blue of the sky after rain. Her tragic,
unnatural composure had all been wept away.

"I understand--now," she faltered. "Before, I didn't. I thought dreadful
things. I thought that I--that you--oh, I couldn't bear the things I
thought! But it's better now. You did love me--didn't you?"

"Before God--yes!"

She went on dreamily. "It would have been too terrible if you hadn't--if
you had just pretended--had been amusing yourself--been false and base.
But I felt all along that you were never that. I knew there must be
some explanation and it didn't seem wrong to ask. Instead of pretending
that I didn't know all the things you had not time to say. Forgive me
for ever doubting that you were brave and good."

"Spare me--"

She was not yet old enough to understand the tragic appeal. For she
leaned nearer, laying her soft hand over his clenched ones.

"It is all so very, very sad," she said with quaint simplicity which was
part of her, "but not so bad--oh, not nearly so bad as if you had been
pretending--or I mistaken. Think!--How terrible to give one's love
unworthily or unasked!"

"But you do not love me," he burst out, "you cannot! You must not!"

Never had he seen her eyes so sweet, so dark.

"I do love you. And I honour you above all men."

Before he could prevent her, she had stooped--her lips brushed his hand.

"Oh, my Dear!"--He had reached the limit of his strength--instant flight
alone remained if he would keep the precious flower of her trust. And
she, too, was trembling. But in the soft starlight they looked into each
other's eyes, and what they saw there helped. Their hands clasped, but
in that moment of parting neither thought of self, so both were strong.




CHAPTER XXVII


Mrs. Sykes thought much about her boarder in those days and, for a
wonder, said very little. Gossip as she was, she could, in the service
of one she liked, be both wise and reticent. Perhaps she knew that
oracles are valued partly for their silences. At any rate her prestige
suffered nothing, for the less she said, the more certain Coombe became
that she could, if she would, say a great deal. Of course her pretence
of seeing nothing unusual in the doctor's engagement was simply absurd.
Coombe felt sure that like the pig-baby in "Alice," she only did it "to
annoy because she knows it teases."

One by one the most expert gossips of the town charged down upon the
doctor's landlady and one by one they returned defeated.

"True about the doctor and Mary Coombe? Why, yes of course it's true.
Land sakes, it's no secret." Mrs. Sykes would look at her visitor in
innocent astonishment. "Queer? No. I don't see anything queer about it.
Mary Coombe's a nice looking woman, if she is sloppy, and I guess she
ain't any older than the doctor, if it comes to that. No, the doctor
doesn't say much about it. He ain't a talking man. Sudden? Oh, I don't
know. 'Tisn't as if they'd met like strangers. As you say, they _might_
have kept company before. But I never heard of it. I always forget,
Mrs. MacTavish, if you take sugar? One spoon or two? As you say, old
friends sometimes take up with old friends. But sometimes they don't. My
Aunt Susan found her second in a man who used to weed their garden. But
it's not safe to judge by that. Ann, hand Mrs. MacTavish this cup, and
go tell Bubble Burk that if he doesn't stop aggravating that dog, it'll
bite him some day, and nobody sorry."

In this manner did Mrs. Sykes hold the fort. Not from her would Coombe
hear of those "blue things of the soul" which her quick eye divined
behind the quiet front of her favourite. But with the doctor himself she
had no reserves, it being one of her many maxims that "what you up and
say to a person's face doesn't hurt them any." The doctor was made well
aware that her unvarnished opinion of his prospective marriage was at
his disposal at any time.

"I'm not one as gives advice that ain't asked," declared Mrs. Sykes with
sincere self-deception. "But what sensible folks see in Mary Coombe I
can't imagine. I may be biased, not having ever liked her from the very
first, but being always willing to give her a chance--which I may say
she never took. There's a verse in the Bible she reminds me of,
'Unstable as water'--Ann, what tribe was it that the Lord addressed them
words to?"

"I don't know, Aunt."

"There, you see! She doesn't know! That's what happens along of all
these Sunday Schools. In my day I'd be spanked and sent to bed if I
didn't know every last thing about the tribes."

"Ann and I will go and look it up," said the doctor hastily, hoping to
escape; "it will be good discipline for both of us."

"Land sakes! I'm not blaming you, Doctor. Naturally you haven't got your
mind on texts, and I don't blame you about the other thing either. Men
are awful easy taken in. My Aunt Susan used to say that the cleverer a
man was the more he didn't understand a woman. Dr. Coombe was what you'd
call clever, too, but it didn't help him any. Mind you, I'm not
criticising, far from it, but I suppose a person may wonder what a man's
eyes are for, without offence. No one knows better than you, Doctor,
that I'm not an interfering woman and I'd never dream of saying a word
against Mary Coombe to the face of her intended husband, but if I did
say anything it would have to be the truth and the truth is that a more
thorough-paced bit of uselessness I never saw."

"Mrs. Sykes," the doctor's voice was dangerously quiet, "am I to
understand that you are tired of your boarder?"

Mrs. Sykes jumped.

"Land, Doctor, don't get ruffled! I'm real sorry if I've hurt your
feelings. I didn't mean to say a word when I set out. My tongue just
runs away. And naturally you have to stand up for Mrs. Coombe. I see
that. That'll be the last you'll hear from me and 'tisn't as if I'd ever
turn around and say 'I told you so' afterwards."

This was _amende honorable_ and the doctor received it as such; but when
he had gone into his office leaving his breakfast almost untouched, Mrs.
Sykes shook her head gloomily.

"You needn't tell me!" she murmured, oblivious of the fact that no one
was telling her anything. "You needn't tell me!" Then, with rare
self-reproach, "Perhaps I hadn't ought to have said so much, but such
blindness is enough to provoke a saint. If he'd any eyes--couldn't he
see Esther?" Mrs. Sykes sighed as she emptied the doctor's untasted cup.

More frankly disconsolate, though not so outspoken, were Ann and Bubble.
Not only did they dislike the bride elect but they objected to marriage
in general. "A honeymoon will put the kibosh on this here practice,
sure," moaned Bubble.

"Look at me. I'm not thinking of getting married, am I? No, and I'm
never going to get married either."

"I am," said Ann, "and I'm going to have ten sons and the first one is
going to be called 'Henry' after the doctor."

"Huh!" said Bubble, "bet you it isn't. Bet you go and call it after its
father. They all do."

"No chance! Bet you I won't. I wouldn't call it 'Zerubbabel' for
anything."

For an instant they glared at each other, and then as the awful
implication dawned upon Bubble his round face grew crimson and his voice
thrilled with just resentment.

"Well, if you think you're going to marry me, Miss Ann, you're jolly
well mistaken."

"Will if I like," said Ann, retiring into her sun-bonnet.

Upon the whole, however, their affection for the doctor kept them
friendly. Both children felt that something was wrong somewhere. Their
idol was not happy. Bubble whispered to Ann of long hours when the
doctor sat in his office with an open book before him, a book the pages
of which were never turned. Ann told of weary walks when she trotted
along by his side, wholly forgotten. Only between themselves did they
ever speak of the change in him, and Henry Callandar was well repaid
for the careless kindness of his brighter hours by a faithful
guardianship, a quick-eyed consideration and a stout line of defence
which protected his privacy and ignored his moods without his ever being
aware of such a service.

Esther he seldom saw. She was remarkably clever, he thought, with a
tinge of bitterness, in arranging duties and pleasures which would take
her out of his way. It was better so, of course. It was the worst of
injustice to feel hurt with her for doing what of all things he would
have had her do. But one doesn't reason about these things, one feels.

Sometimes he wondered if that midnight interview with her at the gate
had ever really taken place--or had it been midsummer madness, too sweet
to exist even in memory? Certainly, in the Esther he saw now there was
nothing of the Esther of the stars. She wore her mask well. School had
closed for the holidays and the summer gaieties of Coombe were in full
swing. Esther boated, picnicked, played croquet and tennis. If there was
any change in her at all it showed only in a kind of feverish gaiety
which seemed to wear her strength. She was certainly thinner. Callandar
ventured to suggest to Mary that she was looking far from well. But Mary
laughed at the idea. She was very much annoyed with Esther. The girl
appeared to care nothing at all for the great event, refused to discuss
it, declined absolutely to put herself out in the slightest for the
entertainment of her mother's prospective husband, seemed to avoid him
in fact. Moreover, she openly expressed her intention of leaving home
immediately after the wedding. Mrs. Coombe was afraid people would talk.

Of them all, Aunt Amy was the only one who understood. How her poor,
unsound brain arrived at the knowledge we cannot say. Perhaps Esther was
more careless in her presence, dropping her mask almost as if alone, or
perhaps Aunt Amy's strange psychic insight took no note of masks, or
perhaps--account for it as you will, Aunt Amy knew! Esther and Dr.
Callandar loved each other, and Mary stood between. This latter fact was
not at all surprising to Aunt Amy. Was it not the special delight of the
mysterious "They" to bring misery to all Aunt Amy loved, and was not
Mary their accredited agent? The affair of the ruby ring had proved her
that, though no one else must guess it. What would come of it all, Aunt
Amy could not tell. Wring her hands as she might she could not see into
the future. Often she would mutter a little as she went about her work,
or stand still staring, straining into the dark. No one noted any
difference in her save Jane, for Jane was as yet happily free to
observe. The others, caught up in the whirl of their own destinies, saw
nothing save the problems in their own anxious hearts.

"Esther," said Jane one evening, "Aunt Amy is odder and odder and you
don't seem to care a bit."

Esther, who was preparing to go to a garden party, turned back, a little
startled.

"What do you mean, Jane?"

"I don't know. Can't you see that she isn't happy?"

"But she is better. She never complains. She almost never fancies things
now."

"She goes into corners and stares--and she wrings her hands."

"But she always did that, duck."

Jane was not equal to a more lucid explanation.

"It's not the same," she insisted. "I know it isn't. Esther, when you
go away, will you take Aunt Amy and me?"

"How could I, dear? Your home is here. And you like Dr. Callandar, don't
you?"

"I used to. But he never plays with the pup any more. He's different.
And you're different and mother's different. I don't want to live with
mother. That was a fib I told you the other day about the cut on my
head. I didn't fall and hurt it. It was mother She threw her clothes
brush at me."

"Jane!" There was pure horror in her sister's voice.

"Yes, she did. I went into her room when she was taking some medicine in
a glass and I asked her what it was. Honest, Esther, that is all I did.
And she screamed at me--and threw the brush."

Esther came back into the room and sat down.

"When was this?" in businesslike tones.

Jane considered. "It was that day she wasn't down stairs at all, and
sent word to Dr. Callandar not to come--three days ago I think."

"Yes, I remember. O Janie dear, it looks as if things were going to be
bad again! It must have been one of her very bad headaches. She was
probably in great pain. Of course she did not mean to throw the brush
Are you sure it was medicine she was taking?"

"It was something in a glass," vaguely, "she was mixing it--look out,
Esther! You are spoiling your new gloves."

The girl threw the crumpled gloves aside and drawing the child to her
knee kissed her gently.

"It seems to me," she said slowly, "that big sister has been losing her
eyes lately. She must find them again; it isn't going to help to be a
selfish pig."

"Help what, Esther?"

Esther's only answer was another kiss, but when she had hurried out of
the room, Jane found something round and wet upon her hand.




CHAPTER XXVIII


Jane was still looking at the wet place on her hand when the doctor
entered.

"Esther's been crying," she told him. In her voice was the awe which
children feel at the phenomenon of tears in grown-ups.

Callandar felt his heart contract--Esther crying! But he could not
question the child.

"I don't know why," went on Jane obligingly. "Esther's so strange
lately. Every one is strange. You are strange too. Am I strange?"

"A little," said Callandar gravely.

"Perhaps it's catching? Do you want mother? She is upstairs and her door
is locked. Perhaps she'll be down in a little while. She said Esther was
to stay in and entertain you, but Esther wouldn't. She has gone to a
garden party. I'll entertain you if you like."

"That will be very nice."

"Shall I play for you on the piano?"

"Thanks. And you won't mind if I sit in the corner here and close my
eyes, until your mother comes?"

"No. You may go quite to sleep if you wish. I'm not sensitive about my
playing. Bubble says you are nearly always tired now. He says you have
such a 'normous practice that you hardly ever get a wink of sleep.
That's what makes you look so kind of hollow-eyed, Bubble says."

"So Bubble has been diagnosing my case, has he?"

"Oh, he doesn't talk about professional cases usually. He said that
about you because Mrs. Atkins said that being engaged didn't seem to
agree with you. She said she was just as glad you didn't take a fancy to
her Gracie if prospective matteromony made you look like the dead
march in Saul."

"Observing woman!"

"What," resumed Jane, "is a dead march in Saul?"

"It is a musical composition."

Jane considered this and then dismissed it with a shrug. "It sounded as
if it was something horrid. Mrs. Atkins thinks she's smart. Anyway, I
didn't tell mother."

"Well, suppose you run now and tell her that I am here."

"Can't. The door is locked."

"Then let us have some of the music you promised. I'll sit here and
wait."

Strange to say, Jane's music was not unsoothing. She had a smooth, light
touch and the little airs she played tinkled sweetly enough from the old
piano. The weary, nerve-wrung man was more than half asleep when she
grew tired of playing and slipped off to bed without disturbing him. The
moments ticked themselves away on the big hall clock. Mrs. Coombe did
not come, nor did the doctor waken.

He was aroused an hour later by a voice upon the veranda. It was
Esther's voice and in response to it he heard a deeper murmur, a man's
voice without doubt. There was a moment or two of low-toned talk, then
"Good-night," and the girl came in alone.

She did not see him as she came slowly across to the table. He thought
she looked grave and sad, older too--but, so dear! With a weary gesture
she began to pull off her long gloves.

"Who was it with you, Esther?" He tried hard to make the inquiry, so
devouringly eager, sound carelessly casual.

She looked up with a start.

"Oh--I didn't see you, Doctor! Mr. Macnair was with me. Did you wish to
see him?" She could play at the game of carelessness better than he.
"Where is mother?" she added quickly.

"In her room, I think. Esther, are you going to marry Macnair?"

The girl slipped off her second glove, blew gently into its fingers,
smoothed them and laid it with nice care upon the table beside
its fellow.

"I do not know."

He realised with a shock that he had expected an indignant denial.

"You do not love him!"

"No. Not now. He knows that. And I do not expect ever to love him. But
perhaps, after a long while, if I could make him happy--it is so
terrible not to be happy," she finished pathetically.

Callandar could have groaned aloud; the danger was so clear. And how
could he, of all men, warn her. Yet he must try. He came quickly across
to where she stood and compelled her gaze to his.

"Do not make that mistake, Esther! It is fatal. Try to believe that in
spite of--of everything, I am speaking disinterestedly. You are young
and the young hate suffering. You would marry him, out of pity. But I
tell you that no man's happiness comes to him that way. You will have
sacrificed yourself to no purpose. The risk is too awful. Wait. Time is
kind. You will know it, some day. But even though you do not believe it
now--wait. Wait forever, rather than marry a man to whom you cannot give
your heart."

"That is your advice?" She spoke heavily. "You would like some day to
see me marry a man I could--love?"

"Yes, a thousand times yes!"

"I shall think over what you say." She was still gravely controlled but
it was a control which would not last much longer. She glanced around
the empty room with a quick caught breath. "Why are you left all alone?"

"Is a keeper necessary?" Then, ashamed of his irritation and willing to
end a scene which threatened to make things harder for both of them, he
added in his ordinary tone, "I really do not know who is responsible for
such unparalleled neglect. Jane played me to sleep, I fancy. She said
her mother was upstairs but would be down presently. It must be late. I
had better go."

"Wait a moment, I will see if there is any message from mother."

As she left the room her light scarf slipped from her shoulders and fell
softly across his arm. Callandar crushed it passionately to his lips and
then, folding it carefully, laid it beside the gloves upon the table.
Even the scarf was not for him. Aunt Amy, passing through the hall on
her way upstairs, saw the dumb caress and shivered anew at the
mysterious power of "They" which could tear such a man as Callandar from
the woman he loved.

Esther was gone only a moment and when she returned she brought with her
a change of atmosphere. Something had banished every trace of
self-consciousness from her manner. She looked anxious but it was an
anxiety with which no embarrassment mingled.

"Doctor," she said at once, "mother seems to be ill. The door is locked
and she did not answer my knocking. Yet she is not asleep. I could hear
her talking. I think you ought to come up."

An indescribable look flitted across the doctor's face. He looked at the
girl a moment in measuring silence and then pointed to a chair.

"Sit down," he said briefly, "I thought that this would come. I have
been afraid of it for some time. Is it possible that you have no
suspicion at all in regard to these peculiar--illnesses--of your
mother's?"

The startled wonder in her eyes was answer enough even without the
quick, "What do you mean?"

Callandar's face grew gravely compassionate. "I think you ought to
know," he said. "I have put off saying anything because I was not
absolutely sure myself. And I have never had quite the right opportunity
of finding out. But I have had fears for some time now that your mother
is in the habit of taking some drug which--well, which is certainly not
good for her. Do not look so frightened. It may not be serious. Do you
remember when you first consulted me about your mother and how we both
agreed that the medicine she was taking for her nervous attacks might be
harmful? I was suspicious then, but there was little to go on, only her
fear of any one seeing the prescription, and a few general symptoms
which might be due to various causes. Since then I--I have noticed
things which have made me anxious. I think for her own sake as well as
yours and mine, the sooner the truth is known the better. Are you sure
the door is locked?"

"Yes," the girl's voice was tense, "but the window is open. It opens on
the top of the veranda. You could enter there."

"If that is the only way, I must take it. I thought, I hoped that if
things were as I feared she would tell me herself, but she never has. It
is useless, now, to hope for her confidence. The instinct is so strongly
for concealment. We must help her in spite of herself."

"Hurry then! I shall wait here. You will call me if necessary?"

She did not ask him exactly what it was that he feared nor did he tell
her, but for the first time in many weeks they were able to look at each
other as comrades look. The eruption of the old trouble into the new
obscured the latter so that, for the time at least, the sick woman
behind the locked door held first place in both their thoughts.

It seemed to Esther that she waited a long time before the summons came.
Then she heard him call, "Esther!" It was a doctor's call, cool,
passionless, commanding. She flew up the stairs, closing Jane's door as
she hurried by. The door to her mother's room was open. It was brightly
lighted. The shade of the lamp had been removed and its garish yellow
fell full upon the bed and the strange figure which lay there.

Mary Coombe had apparently thrown herself down fully dressed--but in
what a costume! Surely no nightmare held anything more bizarre. Esther
had no time to notice details but she remembered afterwards how the feet
were clothed in different coloured stockings and that while one
displayed a gaily buckled slipper, the other was carefully laced into a
tan walking boot. Just now she could see nothing but the face, for the
greatest shock was there. It did not look like Mary's face at all--it
was strange, old, yellow and repulsive. Her unbrushed, lustreless hair
hung about it in a dull mat, one of her hands was clutched in it--the
hand was dirty.

A terrible thought struck every vestige of colour from Esther's cheek.
Her terrified gaze swept over the disordered room, up to the face of the
man who stood there so silently, then down again to the inert woman upon
the bed. Once, not long ago, she had seen a drunken man asleep upon the
roadside grass--like this.

"Is it--is it drink?" The words were a whisper of horror.

The doctor shook his head.

"I wish it were. I wish it were only that. Have you never heard of the
drug habit--morphia, opium? That is what we have to fight--and it is
what I feared."

"Oh!" It was a breath of relief. To Esther, who knew nothing of drugs,
or drug habits, the truth seemed less awful than the thing she
had imagined.

"Is--is it serious?" she asked timidly.

The doctor smiled grimly. "You will see. No need to frighten you now.
But it will be a fight from this on." He threw a light coverlet over the
helpless figure and replacing the shade on the lamp, turned down the
flaring wick. "I will tell you what I can, but at present it is very
little. Probably this began long ago, before your father's death. In the
first place there may have been a prescription--I think you said she had
had an illness in which she suffered greatly. The drug, opium in some
form probably, may have been given to reduce the pain--and continued
after need for it was gone without knowledge of its dangerous qualities.
Nervous people form the habit very quickly. Then--I am only
guessing--as the amount contained in the original prescription ceased to
produce the desired effect, she may have found out what drug it was that
her appetite craved. If she saw the danger then, it was already too
late. She could not give up voluntarily and was compelled to go on,
shutting her eyes to the inevitable consequences, if indeed she ever
clearly knew them."

"But now that you know? It ought not to be hard to help her now that you
know. There are other drugs--"

"Yes. There is a frying-pan and a fire. In fact I fear that she has
already tried that expedient herself. Some of the symptoms point to
cocaine. No, our best hope is in the decreasing dose with proper
auxiliary treatment. I cannot tell yet how serious the case may be. At
any rate there must be an end of the mystery. Every one in the house
must know, even Jane; for in this fight ignorance means danger. But," he
hesitated and his face grew dark, "you cannot realise what this is going
to mean. It is my burden, not yours. At least I have the right to save
you that. We must have a nurse--"

A little eager cry burst from her. "Oh, no! Not that! You wouldn't do
that. You can't mean not to let me help."

"You do not know--"

"I do not care what it means. But if you won't let me help, if you shut
me out--" Her voice quivered dangerously, but with a spark of her old
fire she recovered herself. "You cannot," she added more firmly,
"because it is my burden as well as yours. Whatever she is to you, she
was my father's wife and I am responsible to him. Unless extra help is
really needed, no nurse shall take my place."

"Very well," quietly. "Call Aunt Amy, then, and search the room. She
will sleep for a long time yet. When she wakes there must be no more of
the drug within her reach. I must find out the amount to which she has
been accustomed and arrange a decreasing dose. But if you are to be a
nurse, you know, you must expect a bad time. It will not be easy."

Esther's reply was to call Aunt Amy and while the doctor explained to
the bewildered old lady the danger in which her niece stood and the
absolute importance of keeping all "medicine" away from her, Esther
quietly and swiftly searched the room. Boxes and drawers she unlocked
and opened, the dresser, the writing-table, the bureau, the long unused
sewing basket, all were examined without success. But in the locked box
which contained her father's portrait, she made another discovery which
woke a little throb of angry pity in her heart. There, still wrapped in
its carelessly torn off postal wrappings, lay the box containing the
ruby ring which Jessica Bremner had returned. Mary must have got it from
the post herself and had immediately hidden it, careless of the fact
that all Esther's careful savings had been necessary to make the return
possible. Without comment she slipped the ring into the bosom of
her dress.

"Have you found anything?"

"Nothing yet."

Aunt Amy took a fascinated step nearer the figure on the bed. If
Callandar could have intercepted the look she cast upon it he might have
been warned of the subtle change which had taken place in her of late,
but the doctor had turned to help Esther. Aunt Amy could gaze
undisturbed.

"She looks like Richard," said Aunt Amy suddenly. "Do you remember
Richard?" She brushed her hand over her eyes in a painful effort of
memory. "He was a bad man, a very bad man."

"She means her brother Richard," explained Esther. "He has been dead for
ages. I believe he was not a family ornament."

"Just like Richard," murmured Aunt Amy again with a quickly checked
chuckle. "But you ought to be glad of that. You won't have to marry her
now. You can marry Esther."

If a shell had burst in the quiet room, it could scarcely have caused
more consternation. The doctor's stern face quivered, Esther's searching
hand dropped paralysed. Here was a danger indeed! Was their secret
really so patent? Or had it been but a vagrant guess of a clouded mind?

Callandar recovered himself first. Without glancing at the girl he
walked quietly over to the bed and placing his hand upon Aunt Amy's
shoulder compelled wavering eyes to his.

"Aunt Amy, you must never say that again." He spoke with the crisp
incisiveness of a master, but for once his subject did not immediately
respond. With a sulky look she tried to wrench herself free.

"Why?" she questioned. But Callandar knew his business too
well to argue. "You must never say it again," he repeated.
"You--must--never--say--it--again!"

The poor, weak lips began to quiver. Her own boldness had frightened her
quite as much as his vehemence. Her eyes fluttered and fell.

"Very well, Doctor," she answered meekly.

They searched now in silence and presently Esther emerged from the
closet with a pair of dainty slippers in her hand.

"I think I have found something," she said. "There are three pairs of
party slippers and the toes of them are all stuffed with these." She
handed the doctor a package of innocent looking tablets done up in
purplish blue paper.

Callandar glanced at them, shook them out and counted their number.

"You are sure you have them all?"

"I can find no trace of more."

"Then I think we have a strong fight coming--but a good hope, too."




CHAPTER XXIX


Miss A. Milligan stood before the door of her select dressmaking
parlours, meditatively picking her teeth with a needle. We hasten to
observe that her teeth were quite clean and that this was merely a
harmless habit denoting intense mental concentration. Miss Milligan was
tall and full of figure with an elegant waist and a bust so like a
pin-cushion that it fulfilled the duties of that article admirably. Her
small bright eyes set in a wide expanse of face suggested nothing so
much as currants in an underdone bun, and just now, as she watched the
graceful figure of Mrs. Coombe, bride to be, disappear around the
corner, they gave the impression of having been poked too far in while
the bun was soft.

The door of Miss Milligan's select parlours did not open upon the main
street, it being far from her desire to attract promiscuous trade. The
parlours, indeed, were situated upon one of the "nicest" streets in
Coombe and occupied a corner lot, so that a splendid view down two of
the most genteel residential streets was obtainable from their windows.
The only sign of business anywhere was a board of chaste design over the
doorway, bearing the simple legend, "A. MILLIGAN." Even the word
"Dressmaker" was considered superfluous. Also there was one window, near
the door, which from time to time displayed wonderfully coloured plates
of terribly twisting and elegantly elongated females purporting to be
the very latest from Paris (_France_).

Mrs. Coombe was getting some "things" made at Miss Milligan's. It had
been rumoured at first that she had contemplated running down to Toronto
and Detroit, buying most of her trousseau there, but for some
unexplained reason the plan had been given up. Doctor Callandar, it
appeared, believed in patronising local tradesmen and had been
sufficiently ungallant to veto the Detroit visit altogether. Everybody
wondered why Mary Coombe stood it. Surely it was bad enough when a man
sets up to be a domestic tyrant after marriage. They were surprised at
Dr. Callandar--they hadn't thought it of him.

"It is women like Mary Coombe who submit tamely to such indignities,"
declared the eldest Miss Sinclair, "who have held back the emancipation
of women from the beginning of time."

"She looks so poorly, too," agreed Miss Jessie. "I am sure she needs a
change. I should think that Esther would insist upon it."

But Esther appeared in all things to back up Dr. Callandar. People
admitted that they were disappointed in Esther and only hoped that the
day would never come when she would be sorry. For if all the world loves
a lover, all the world is indulgent to a prospective bride and any one
could see that this particular bride was being denied her proper
privileges. Any one would think she was a child and not to be trusted
alone. Esther went with her everywhere, simply everywhere. Of course it
was sweet of Esther to be so attentive, but people didn't wonder that
her mother didn't like it.

Such were the current comments of the town, sent out somewhat in the
nature of feelers, for behind them all, Coombe, having a very sensitive
nose for gossip, was uneasily aware that their cleverest investigators
were not yet in possession of the root of the matter. Every one seemed
to know everything, and yet--no wonder that Miss Milligan picked her
teeth in agonies of mental tumult at finding herself sole possessor of a
satisfactory explanation which she was bound in honour not to disclose.

Mrs. Coombe had just been in. She had been having a "first fitting" and
in the privacy of the fitting room she had been perfectly frank with
Miss Milligan. She had told Miss Milligan "things." She had told her
things which would move a heart of stone, regardless of the fact that
Miss Milligan's heart was made of the softest of soft materials and beat
warmly under her spiky pin cushion. The fact that her eyes were hard and
black had nothing to do with it; mistakes in eyes occur constantly in
the best regulated families. At this very moment when her eyes were more
like currants than ever she was making up her mind that, come what
might, doctors or no doctors, she was not going to see a fellow
creature put upon.

For, you see, Mrs. Coombe, poor little thing, had confided in Miss
Milligan. She had told her all about it, and like most mysteries, it had
turned out to be very simple. It seemed that Dr. Callandar, such a
perfectly charming man in most respects, had a most absurd prejudice
against patent medicines. This prejudice, common to the medical
profession on account of patents interfering with profits, was, in Dr.
Callandar's case, almost an obsession. Miss Milligan, being a sensible
person, knew very well that there are patents _and_ patents. Some of
them are frauds, of course, but there are others which are better than
any prescription that any doctor ever wrote. Miss Milligan did not speak
from hearsay, she had had an extensive experience the results of which
lent themselves to conversational effort. Therefore it is easy to see
how she understood and sympathised at once when Mrs. Coombe told her of
a remedy which she had found to be quite excellent but which the doctor
absolutely forbade her to use.

"Not that he means to be inconsiderate, dear Miss Milligan, only he is
so very sure of his own point of view. Doctors have to be firm of
course. But you can see it is rather hard on me. The trouble is that I
cannot obtain the remedy I need in Coombe. It is a remedy very little
known and useful only in obscure nerve troubles. I have been in the
habit of getting it from a certain firm in Detroit, not a very
well-known firm, and now, of course, that is impossible--without
upsetting the doctor, which I hesitate to do."

Miss Milligan was of the opinion that a little upsetting was just what
the doctor required.

"No--o." The visitor shook her head. She could not bring her mind to it.
She would prefer to suffer herself. But did not Miss Milligan think
that, in face of such an unreasonable and violent prejudice, a little
innocent strategy might be justified?

Miss Milligan thought so, very emphatically.

Mrs. Coombe sighed. "I do so want to look well for the wedding, you
know. And really, nothing seems to help me like my own particular
medicine. It is hard, very hard, to be without it."

Miss Milligan did not doubt it. It seemed, to her, a perfect shame. But
had Mrs. Coombe ever tried "Peebles' Perfect Pick-me-ups" for the
nerves? They were certainly very excellent.

Yes. Mrs. Coombe had heard of them and no doubt they were very good for
some people. But constitutions differ so. On the whole she felt sure
that even "Peebles' Perfect Pick-me-ups" would not suit her nearly as
well as her own particular remedy.

It was at this point that Miss Milligan stopped fitting and began to
pick her teeth, a sign, as we have before stated, of great mental
activity. If nothing would suit Mrs. Coombe but this one medicine and if
the medicine could be obtained in Detroit and if Mrs. Coombe had the
correct address--why not write for it? It was a brilliant idea, but Mrs.
Coombe shook her head.

She had the address, naturally, and she had also thought of writing, but
it would be of no use. Esther and the doctor actually watched her mail.

"Incredible!"

"Oh, not in any offensive way. They did not mean to be tyrannous. They
were quite convinced that patent medicines were very injurious. But
women suffering from nerves (like yourself, dear Miss Milligan) know
that relief is often found in the least likely places and from remedies
not mentioned in the Materia Medica."

Miss Milligan knew that very well. And people are so hard to convince.
When Mrs. Barker, over the hill, had first recommended that new
blood-purifier to Miss Milligan, Miss Milligan had laughed. But after
taking only six bottles she had thanked Mrs. Barker with tears in her
eyes. "And I must say," added she in a burst of virtuous indignation,
"that if I were going to Detroit to-morrow I would bring you back all
the patent medicine you wanted, Mrs. Coombe, and be very glad to
do it."

This was most satisfactory save for one small fact, namely that Miss
Milligan was not going to Detroit to-morrow. Mrs. Coombe thanked her
very much and raised her arm (which shook sadly) while Miss Milligan
pinned in the underarm seam.

"Even as it is," went on Miss Milligan, "I don't see why--a little
higher please, and turn a trifle to the light, thank you!--I don't see
why it can't be done. Nobody inspects my mail, thank heaven! and one
address is as good to a druggist as another."

What a bright idea! Strange that it had never occurred to Mrs. Coombe to
arrange things so easily. It was very, very clever and kind of Miss
Milligan to think of it. But--people might talk! Think how upset the
doctor would be if their innocent little plot were spoken of abroad.
People are so unkind, quite horrid in fact. And as Esther and the doctor
were doing it all for her good they would naturally hate to have their
actions misunderstood. Of course, Mrs. Coombe knew that Miss Milligan
herself would never mention it to a soul. She felt quite sure of that,
still--as it did not appear how the little plot could be spread abroad
under those circumstances unless the lay-figure in the corner should
become communicative, Mrs. Coombe's sentence remained plaintively
unfinished. Miss Milligan, in spite of its being so very unnecessary,
found herself promising solemnly never to mention it.

As the whole thing was entirely unpremeditated it seemed like a special
piece of good luck that Mrs. Coombe should have at that moment in her
pocket a note to the druggists (who were not called druggists, exactly)
and that all she needed to do was to add Miss Milligan's address, and
hand to that lady sufficient money to secure a postal note as an
enclosure. She did this very quickly and the whole little affair was
satisfactorily disposed of when Esther was seen coming hurriedly down
the street.

"I thought," said Esther, who entered a little out of breath and with a
worried pucker between her eyes, "I thought that I would just run in and
see how the linings look."

"You can never tell anything from linings," said Miss Milligan in an
injured tone. "Gracious! I don't suppose any one would ever want a dress
if they went by the way the linings look. I always advise my customers
never to look in the glass until I get to the material, what with seams
on the wrong side and all!"

"There is really nothing at all to see as yet," assented Mrs. Coombe
crossly.

Esther seated herself by the open window.

"Very well," she said quietly. "I won't look. I'll just wait."

Mrs. Coombe shrugged her shoulders and displaced a pin or two. There was
an injured look upon her face and Miss Milligan, replacing the pins,
wondered how it is that nice girls like Esther Coombe never see when
they're not wanted.

The fitting went quickly forward. Mrs. Coombe seemed to have lost all
her genial expansiveness. Miss Milligan's pins had overflowed from her
pin-cushion into her mouth and Esther, who appeared tired, gazed
steadily out of the window. Only the humming of the machines in the
adjoining workroom and the subdued talk and laughter of Miss Milligan's
young ladies saved the silence from becoming oppressive. Occasionally,
when her supply of pins became exhausted, Miss Milligan would
contribute a cooing murmur to the effect that it did "set beautiful
across the shoulders" or that "the long line over the hip was
quite elegant."

Without doubt the atmosphere had changed with the coming of Esther. Mrs.
Coombe became each moment more fidgety, she became, in fact, jerky! Her
hands twitched, her head twitched, she could not stand still and
suddenly she twitched herself out of Miss Milligan's hands altogether
and flinging herself into a chair declared that she couldn't stand any
more fitting that day. Even Miss Milligan's black currant eyes could see
that her nerves were terribly wrong--she looked ghastly, poor thing! And
all on account of a silly prejudice regarding patent medicines.

Esther, who exhibited no surprise at her mother's sudden collapse,
helped Miss Milligan to unpin the linings.

"My mother has been a little longer than usual without her tonic," she
calmly explained. "The other fittings can wait," and quickly, yet
without flurry, she found Mary's hat, bag, gloves and parasol and picked
up her handkerchief which she had flung upon the floor.

Mrs. Coombe accepted these services without thanks, indulging indeed in
a little spiteful laugh which Miss Milligan obligingly attributed to her
poor nerves. Things had come to a pretty pass indeed, thought the
sympathetic dressmaker, when a grown woman is obliged to have her
medicine chosen for her like a baby.

As she stood in the doorway watching the two ladies out of sight, a just
indignation grew within the breast so strongly fortified outside, so
vulnerable within; and without even waiting to call her giggling young
ladies to order, she pinned on her hat and departed to send Mrs.
Coombe's postal note to the Detroit druggist, who, oddly enough, was not
a druggist at all.




CHAPTER XXX


Esther and her step-mother set out upon their homeward walk in silence.
The older woman's face was drawn and bitter, Esther's thoughtful and
sad. Though there seemed no reason for haste, Mrs. Coombe's steps grew
constantly quicker until she was hurrying breathlessly.

More than once the girl glanced at her anxiously as if about to speak,
yet hesitating. Then when the walk threatened to become a run she laid a
detaining hand upon her arm.

"If you walk so very rapidly, mother, people will notice." It was the
only argument which never failed of effect. Mrs. Coombe's steps
slackened.

"Besides," went on Esther eagerly, "every moment is a gain. Ten minutes
more will make this the longest interval yet. Don't you think you
could try...."

"No!"

The word was only a gasp and the face Mary turned for a moment on the
girl was livid. The eyes shone with hate. "You--you beast!" she muttered
chokingly.

Esther turned a shade paler, but otherwise gave no sign that she had
heard. "Mother, just try, you are doing so well, so splendidly. The
doctor says ..."

"Be quiet--be quiet! I hate him. I won't try. I won't be tortured--oh,
why can't you all leave me alone!" She began to sob and moan under her
breath, careless even of a possible passerby. Fortunately there was no
one, and they were already within sight of home. Esther, very white,
supported the shaking woman with her arm and they hurried on together.
At the door she would still have accompanied her but Mary flung herself
angrily from her hold and ran up the stairs with sudden feverish
strength. Esther turned into the living room and dropped into the
nearest chair.

She was still sitting there without having removed either hat or gloves
when, a little later, Callandar entered.

"Well, nurse," with a faint smile, "how are things to-day?" His quick
eye had noticed in a moment the girl's closed eyes and listless
attitude, but nothing in his tone betrayed it.

"Very well, I think, until a little while ago. We were late in getting
home from the dressmaker's--"

"I see. You look rather done up. The fact is you are overdoing things.
Rather foolish, don't you think?"

"No," stubbornly. "I am all right."

"You are exhausted and there is no need. Things are going well. The dose
is steadily diminishing, more quickly than she suspects. It looks as if
we might begin to breathe again. It is a great gain to feel reasonably
sure that she has no more of the stuff hidden anywhere. If she had, she
would have used it during that last crisis."

The girl in the chair winced. She hated even to think of the night to
which his words referred. "Yes," she said, "but--but there won't be any
more times like that, will there?"

"Yes," grimly. "We are not through yet. But every crisis will be a
little easier--if things go as they are going."

Esther sighed. "It is very terrible, isn't it?" she said. "And really it
doesn't seem fair, for it wasn't her fault; in the beginning she didn't
know. And she does suffer so."

"We must not think of it in that way. It helps more to think of the
suffering she is escaping. What she is going through now is saving her,
body and soul. It is taking her out of torment and leading her back to
life, and sanity. You don't know, but I do, and any struggle, any
suffering is mild compared to the horrors before her if she kept on. She
was taking some cocaine too. The word means nothing to you, but to a
physician it spells hell. So you see--it gives one strength."

Esther sat up and straightened her collar. "I'm ashamed of myself," she
said. "No wonder you want another nurse. But I won't resign yet. And I
wanted to ask you--do you think it is necessary now to be with her
whenever she goes out? She hates it so. I think she is getting to hate
me, too. Where could she possibly get the stuff? None of our local
stores would sell it without a prescription."

"I know. But in a case like this you can never be sure of anything. No,
we must not relax in the slightest. Even as it is, I am continually
afraid." He began to pace the room restlessly. "There may be a weak spot
somewhere, some loop-hole we have forgotten. I think the druggists are
safe and the mail is watched. That last supply, you are sure it was all
destroyed?"

"Yes, I burned it. At least I gave it to Aunt Amy to burn. I couldn't
leave mother."

"Well, let us call Aunt Amy, and make sure. I believe I am foolishly
nervous, but--" without finishing his sentence the doctor walked to the
door and waited there until Aunt Amy answered his call.

"Auntie," said Esther, "you remember the little package I gave you that
night when mother was so ill? It was done up in purplish blue paper."

"Yes, Esther."

"Do you remember what you did with it, dear?"

Aunt Amy looked frightened.

"I--I don't know. I've a very good memory, Esther. But somehow I'm not
quite sure."

"You will remember presently," said Callandar kindly. "We want to be
quite sure that it was destroyed. You know, I explained to you, that
Mary must take no more of that medicine. It is very dangerous...."

"What does it do?" unexpectedly.

"It is a kind of poison. It makes people very ill, so ill that in time
they die."

"Mary likes it. She says it makes her nerves better and puts her to
sleep."

"When did she say that?"

"When she asked me if I had any."

The doctor and the girl exchanged a quick look.

"And you gave her some?"

"Oh, no, I couldn't. I had burned it in the stove--I remember now."

They both drew a breath of intense relief. But when she had left them,
Callandar looked very sober. "There, you see," he said, "was a
possibility we had overlooked."

"Yes, and it would have been my fault. I should have made sure long ago.
It is hard to get out of the habit of taking things for granted."

"Yet it is the one thing we must never do. In this we must trust no one,
and nothing. Then we shall win. If there is no relapse now, the worst,
the slowest part, is over. Soon you will be free, dear girl--and God
bless you forever for what you have been to her and to me."

She answered him only with a wistful smile and when he had gone, she
sighed. She would be free soon, he said. Strange that he could not see
that it was her freedom that she dreaded. Hard as it had been, hard as
it was, there was a still harder time coming--the time when she would be
free--free, to leave forever the man she loved.

The present with its load of duty and anxiety, the constant strain of
watching, its bearing of poor Mary's thousand ingratitudes seemed dear
and desirable when she thought of the black gulf of separation at the
end of the tortuous way. But of course he could not guess. How could he?
Men are so different from women.

She knew, though, that she was coming to the end of her strength. Not
even the doctor guessed how great the strain of those past weeks
had been.

When Mary had awakened to find that her secret was discovered she had
been like a mad thing. There had been rage, tears, protestations,
hysterical denials--finally confession and anguished promises. That she
had never realised the reality of her danger, nor the extent of her
servitude was plain. It seemed easy enough to promise. Esther and the
doctor were making a terrible fuss about nothing, as usual. She grew
sulky under Callandar's warnings and her fury knew no bounds when she
found that certain of her hidden stores had been confiscated. She
demanded that the supply be left in her hands; was not her
promise enough?

But all this was before she knew what denial meant, before she realised
that the way back along the path she had trodden so easily was
thick-set with suffering; that every backward inch must be fought for
with agony and tears. Then she had broken down altogether, had raved and
pleaded. The very knowledge of the depth to which she had fallen,
threatened to send her deeper still. Callandar soon realised that if she
were to be saved it must be in spite of herself. There were but two
points of strength in her weak nature; one the newly awakened, yet
capricious passion for himself, and the other that ruling terror of her
life, which of all her inherent safeguards was the last to give way
under the assaults of the drug, namely, "What will people say?" but
neither of these, nor both of them together, could stand for a moment
before the terrible appetite when once its craving was denied.

Twice she failed her helpers just when they were beginning to hope. In
her first search Esther had not exhausted the hiding places of the
poison and, to retain the temptation by her, Mary had lied and lied
again. Twice when the crises of her desire had come upon her she had
given way, helplessly, completely; and twice they had begun all over
again. The third time she had not been able to procure the drug, had
been compelled to fight through on the decreasing dose which the doctor
had allowed.

No wonder Esther shuddered when she thought of that night! Yet at the
time she had stood beside the moaning woman, white and firm, when even
Callandar had staggered for a moment from the room.

Next morning they had taken heart of hope again. Undoubtedly Mary had
exhausted the supply, and the possibility of its being replenished
seemed remote. It was only a matter of time now; of care, of
unremitting, yet gentle vigilance and Mary would be cured. The bride
could go to her husband, clean and in her right mind. And Esther
would be free.

Strangely enough, it was Mary herself who objected to a hastening of
their remarriage. Perhaps in spite of her inevitable deterioration there
was that in her still which forbade her going to him as she was. Perhaps
it was only another and more obscure effect of the drug; some downward
instinct which made her dread the putting of herself within the circle
of her husband's strength. She would fight her fight outside. Why? Was
it because she would conquer of herself, or because she did not really
wish to conquer at all?

To Esther, Mary's refusal came as a reprieve. But to Callandar it was
but a lengthening out of torture. Man's love must always, in its
essence, be different from woman's; though many women seem incapable of
recognising this fact. To Esther, now that she had put aside her first
half-understood glimpse of passion, it was sweet to be near him, to hear
his voice, to touch his hand and, above all, to spend her strength in
his service. But to him the strain was almost intolerable. The sight of
her, the touch of her, the whole soul-shattering nearness of her beauty
meant constant conflict; all the fiercer since it must be unsuspected.

Willits, the only man who had been told the truth, watched the fight
with admiration, sharply touched with anxiety. Expert in the moulding of
buttons, he knew very well that Callandar was drawing rather recklessly
upon his newly acquired strength. If the tension did not slacken soon
there might be another physical breakdown, and then--Willits shrugged
his shoulders. It would be entirely too bad if this very fine button
were to be spoiled after all. His heart was sore for his friend.

"You see," Callandar had written in one of his rare letters, "it was a
right instinct which warned me that no man escapes the consequences of
his own acts. There did come a short, golden time when I put the voice
of instinct behind me and dared to think that I, at least, had shaken
myself free. Closing the door of yesterday, I boldly knocked open the
door of to-morrow--and lo, to-morrow and yesterday were one!

"I know, now, that even had poor Mary been dead, as I believed, the
payment would have been exacted in some other way. When my brain is
clear enough to think, I have flashes of thankfulness that payment is
permitted to take the form of expiation. I can save Mary, and I will. In
some strange and rather dreadful way her need is my salvation.

"I have said nothing of Esther. How can I? The other day I heard Miss
Sinclair say that Esther Coombe was losing all her good looks. 'Thin as
a rail, and peeked as a pin' were the words she used. To me she has
never been so lovely. She is thinner; there are hollows in her cheeks;
her lips are no longer a thread of scarlet. The transparent lids of her
deep, wonderful eyes droop often and her hair seems to have lost its
life and hangs soft and very close to her face. I love her. I love her
as a man loves a woman, as a knight loves his lady, as a Catholic loves
the Madonna! This terrible strain must soon be over for her. I am doing
all in my power to hurry on the marriage. She is young. She is bound to
forget. When she leaves here she goes out of my life--and may God
speed her!

"She is to go to Toronto. Lorna Sinnet has good friends there and they
will take her into their circle. She will begin to taste a fuller life,
and as her interests expand the old wound will heal. She will find
happiness yet. When Mary recovers, she and I will return to Montreal. I
am quite fit now. I feel that I can never work hard enough. Mary will
like the excitement of city life, and I rely upon you and Lorna to make
our coming as easy as possible. How is Lorna? A talk with her will be
a tonic.

"Does not all this sound admirably lucid and sensible? I want you to see
that I am not losing my hold--that I have finally faced down the problem
of the future. And there is one thing that has come to me out of all
this, a wonderful thing; I have forgotten Fear. It seems to me that all
my life I have lived in fear. Now I am not afraid...."

It was when Bubble was entering the post office for the purpose of
posting this letter that he met Miss Milligan, coming out. Miss Milligan
was evidently in a hurry, so great a hurry that she had not time to
question Bubble upon affairs in general as was her usual custom. Instead
she asked him to do something for her. It was a trifling service, only
to deliver to Mrs. Coombe a small postal packet which she held in
her hand.

"It will only take you a few moments, Zerubbabel," she said. "I was
going to deliver it myself but Mrs. Stanton wants a fitting right away.
I ought not to have come down to the post at all. But I promised Mrs.
Coombe--does Dr. Callandar permit you to run messages in your
spare time?"

"Sure," declared the youth, "only I don't get much spare time. The
doctor's terrible busy. Since we got the phone in, it's ringing all the
time! But I guess I can slip over to Mrs. Coombe's or if I see Jane I
can give the parcel to her."

"No!" Miss Milligan seemed struck with a sudden hesitancy. "You must
not give it to Jane, you must give it to Mrs. Coombe. Dear me, I believe
I had better take it myself."

Without listening to the boy's polite protests she hurried off again.
Bubble gazed after her with relieved astonishment.

"Guess it must be something for the wedding," declared he, sapiently.




CHAPTER XXXI


The next day was the day of the Presbyterian Sunday school picnic. It
was bound to be beautiful weather, because it always was. The
Presbyterians seemed to have an understanding with Providence to that
effect. But Jane, who must have been born a sceptic, was up very early
just to see that there was no mistake.

There was a hint, just a hint, of autumn in the air. On the window-sill
lay a golden leaf. It was the forerunner. The garden lay quiet,
brooding; the rising sun shone softly through a yellow haze.

Jane shivered deliciously in her thin night gown. It was going to be a
perfectly glorious, scrumptious day. She leaned farther out to make sure
that the leaves of the small silver maple beneath her window were not
turned wrong side up--a sure sign of rain. And as she looked, she
noticed a curious thing--the side door was open.

Somebody else must be up. If it were Esther, Jane decided that she would
call "Boo" very loudly and surprise her; but it was her mother and not
Esther who came out of the open door. Jane drew back, watching through
the curtains. She thought her mother looked very pretty in her dressing
gown with her hair down and her bare feet thrust into pink satin mules.
It was a pity, Jane thought, that she wasn't as nice as she looked. And
how curiously she was acting. She was actually climbing up the little
ladder which led to the bird house by the side of the lawn. Jane knew
there was nothing at all in the bird house, for she herself had placed
the ladder there the day before. Whatever was she doing? Jane giggled,
for one of Mary's slippers had fallen off leaving her foot bare. But she
didn't seem to care. She was putting her hand far into the bird house.
Jane watched the hand carefully to see what it might bring out. But it
came out empty. Mary hurriedly climbed down the ladder, picked up her
slipper, glanced quickly around the empty garden and ran back into the
house closing the door without a sound.

Jane was puzzled. What had her mother hoped to find in the bird house?
She crept back into bed, wondering, and just as she was slipping off to
sleep, the solution came. "She was hiding something," thought Jane,
sleepily, "and when I get up I'll find out what it is."

Little things are the levers which move the big things of life. Had it
been any other day save the day of the picnic, Jane would certainly have
found out what Mary hid in the bird house and many things might have
been different. But there was so much to do that morning and Ann and
Bubble came over before Jane finished breakfast so that in the
delightful hurry of getting ready and packing baskets, she forgot
all about it.

There was a disappointment, too, at the last moment, for just when they
were all ready and the doctor had come with the motor, Mrs. Coombe
decided that she really did not feel equal to going and that meant that
Esther had to stay behind. Jane showed signs of tears. Ann and Bubble
protested volubly. Even the doctor did his best to change
Mary's decision.

"You really ought to come, Mary," he said, "the drive alone will do you
good, and if you get tired of it, I can bring you home early." He looked
at her rather anxiously as he spoke but she did not seem ill. She looked
better than usual for her eyes were brighter and her face was
faintly flushed.

"No, I won't come to-day. I'm tired. There is not the slightest need for
Esther to stay. I am going to stay in my room with a good book."

"Oh, Esther, do come! Oh, Esther, you promised!" Thus Ann and Bubble,
while Jane pulled at her frock.

Mary looked on with a slightly acid smile. The doctor drew her aside.

"Won't you come?" he asked patiently. "You see how disappointed the
children are."

"Yes, about Esther. And Esther does not need to stay. It's absurd. Are
you never going to trust me?"

"You know it isn't you that we distrust. It is something stronger than
you, or any of us. Mary, be patient, just a little longer. You want to
be free, don't you?"

She hid the glitter in her eyes, against his coat. "Yes, of course. Only
don't ask me to go to-day. It excites me. I want to be quiet."

"Very well, and you promise--"

"Yes, I'll promise anything. And if Esther stays I'll be decent to her.
Though why you bother about her so much, I don't see. She is nothing
to you."

"She is very much to you," sternly.

"Yes--a spy! Oh, well, don't let's quarrel. Be sure to be back early for
the supper party to-night. Mr. Macnair and Annabel are invited. You can
bring them with you in the motor. It is just as well Esther isn't
going. There'll be lots of little things to attend to."

"That's settled then." Knowing that further persuasion was useless, he
kissed her and turned to quiet the eager children.

       *       *       *       *       *

Almost she held her breath as she watched him go. Her small hands
twisted, a pulse beat visibly in her temple, her lips worked, she shook
from head to foot. Nevertheless she stood there, controlling herself,
until the motor horn had honked its farewell to a chorus of children's
laughter. Then, as one released from some desperate strain, she turned
and fled to her room....

"Mother!" Esther came in slowly, unpinning her hat. There was no answer
to her call. But she had not expected any. In her sulky moods Mrs.
Coombe often went for days without speaking to her step-daughter. When
the girl saw that she had gone to her room she was rather relieved than
otherwise; it meant at least a peaceful afternoon. Mary, in her room,
was considered safe and all that Esther need do was to be ready in order
to accompany her if she decided to go out.

She was not disappointed at missing the picnic. It was getting rather
hard to be gay. And it would be nice to have everything ready when the
party returned.

It was a quietly beautiful afternoon and as the girl went about her
simple tasks she was not unhappy. Already she was learning the great
lesson which many more fortunate lovers miss, that the rarest fragrance
of love lies in its bestowal. That is why love is of all things most
securely ours.

Once she called up to the blowing curtains of Mrs. Coombe's window.

"Mother, won't you come and help me with the flowers?" But no hand
pushed the curtain aside, nor did she receive any answer. Perhaps Mary
was really asleep. In that case she was sure to be amiable at
supper time.

Everything was daintily ready and Esther had had time to slip on her
prettiest frock when the "honk" of the returning motor brought a faint
colour into her pale cheeks.

"Dear me, you've got quite a colour, Esther," said Miss Annabel Macnair
in a slightly injured voice. She had come intending to tell Esther how
badly she was looking and to recommend a tonic.

"I don't see why you didn't come to the picnic."

"Oh, Esther," Jane's plain little face was radiant, "you missed it! It
was the nicest picnic yet. I won one race and Bubble won another, and
Ann won't speak to either of us. She says she hates her aunt because
she'd have won a race too if she hadn't had so much starch in her
petticoats. But Mrs. Sykes says she wouldn't be a mite surprised if Ann
has a bad heart--not a wicked heart, just a bad one, the kind that makes
you drop down dead. Some of Ann's folks died of bad hearts, Mrs. Sykes
says. But the doctor says it's all nonsense. He agreed with Ann that it
wasn't anything but petticoats--Oh, say! how pretty the table looks. Did
mother say you could use the best china?"

"Seeing that it's Esther's china on her own mother's side, I guess she
can use it if she likes," said Aunt Amy, mildly belligerent. "I thought
you might want to set the table before we got home, Esther, and I was so
afraid you might forget and use the sprigged tea set. But the doctor
said you'd be sure not to."

"That's one of her queer notions, I suppose?" said Miss Annabel in a
stage whisper plainly heard by every one. "How odd! Can you come
upstairs with me, Esther? I want to speak to you most particularly and I
haven't seen you for ages.

"Not that I haven't tried," she continued in her jerky way as they went
up the stairs together; "but you seem to be always with your mother.
Going to lose her soon. Natural enough. I said to Mrs. Miller, 'There's
real devotion.' Possible to overdo it though. Marriage is terribly
trying. For relatives. But long engagements are worse. How was it you
didn't get to the picnic?"

Esther murmured that she hadn't quite felt like going to the picnic.

"Well, you didn't miss much. Even Angus wasn't as cheerful as usual.
Inclined to be moody. And that brings me to what I wanted to tell you.
Remember that last time you had lunch with us?"

"Yes."

"Remember me saying that I never ask questions, but that I always find
out? Well--I have."

"Have what?" asked Esther, who had not been following.

"Found out. Found out what is the matter with my brother. Exactly what I
thought. He is the victim of an unhappy attachment. Unreciprocated!"

"But--"

"You remember you laughed at me, Esther. Suggested liver. And when I
mentioned your mother you almost convinced me that I was wrong. Although
I am never wrong. It _is_ your mother, Esther. My poor brother,
brokenhearted, quite--utterly!"

This was so amazing that Esther waited for more.

"I suppose he felt certain of her until Dr. Callandar stepped in. Could
hardly believe it. When I told him of your mother's reputed engagement
he was not in the least disturbed. Said 'Pshaw!' Couldn't imagine such a
possibility. I said, 'I assure you it is the truth, Angus,' and he
merely remarked, 'Well, what if it is?' in a most matter of fact way.
Quite calm!"

"And you think--"

"My dear, I am sure. All put on. To deceive me. Although I never am
deceived. So I waited. And then one night last week I happened to get
home from a business session of the Ladies' Aid, early. I went in
quietly. Angus was in his study, without a light, but the door was a
little bit open, and I could hear his voice quite plainly. He was
praying--"

"Oh, please--"

"My dear, I couldn't help hearing. I didn't listen. I was rooted to the
spot. Positively! He--"

"You must not tell me, Miss Annabel, I won't listen."

"Very well, my dear. Perhaps you are right. Couldn't tell you his very
words anyway. I cannot remember them. He was very eloquent, terribly
worked up! And he was praying for Her. That's what he called your
mother, just Her. It sounded almost--almost popish, you know! Then
suddenly he stopped as if something had cut him off--sharp. There was a
silence. So long I began to be frightened and then he cried out loud,
'Not for me! Not for me!' It was dreadful! But it proves my point, I
think. Why, my dear, whatever is the matter?"

Esther, leaning against the window frame, was sobbing weakly.

"Dear me! I had no idea you would feel it so badly. Take a sip of
water--do!"

Esther struggled to regain her self-control.

"It seems so--sad," she faltered.

"Yes, of course. It is sad. And I have great sympathy with my poor
brother," went on Miss Annabel pinning down her hair net. "But do you
know, I sometimes think," she hesitated and a slow blush arose in her
middle-aged cheek, "I sometimes think that people in love aren't to be
pitied after all. Though it is hardly a thought to express to a young
girl like you.

"You know," she went on awkwardly as Esther still made no remark, "they
feel a great deal, of course, but it must be so very _interesting_. A
little cold cream for my nose, Esther. If I leave it until I get home I
shall certainly peel."

Esther provided the cream and a powder puff. She felt sick at heart. Her
calmer world of the afternoon burst like a bubble leaving only a tear
behind. The vision of Angus Macnair in the dark study reaching out
frantic hands for the thing he knew could never be his, seemed a last
touch of unendurable irony. Surely some one, somewhere, must be moved to
dreadful mirth at these blunders of the fates. From the echo of such
laughter commonplace was the only refuge. Esther bathed her eyes and
called to Jane to let her mother know that supper was ready.

The sounds of the child's cheerful tattoos upon Mrs. Coombe's door
accompanied them down the stairs, but when they had waited a few
minutes, Jane came quietly into the room alone.

"Mother doesn't answer me, Esther."

Miss Annabel looked surprised, then curious. Esther felt her face flame.
It was really too bad of Mary to make things so much harder than she
need. Her refusal to answer could only mean that she had determined to
be thoroughly disagreeable; and with company in the house. But her
annoyance was abruptly checked by the effect of the news upon the
doctor. It was not annoyance she read in his eyes. It was dismay. With a
murmured sentence, which may or may not have been excuse, he turned
from the room.

"I am so sorry," explained Esther smoothly. "Mother is not at all well,
one of her old headaches. The doctor has gone up to see if he can be
of any use."

Miss Annabel shook her head gloomily. "Mark my words," she said, "your
mother ought to take those headaches of hers more seriously. A headache
seems a little thing, but I know of a case--"

With Esther's sympathetic encouragement the good lady launched upon a
recital of melancholy happenings more or less connected with headaches
which occupied her attention very pleasantly and prevented any one else
from saying anything until the return of the awaited guest. He came in
looking as usual and bearing an apology from the hostess for her sudden
indisposition. "Nothing at all serious," he added lightly. "It is
possible that she may join us later." But it was noticeable that as he
spoke he did not look at Esther nor could her anxious glance read the
impassive sternness of his face.

It was not a successful meal. In spite of the pretty table, the dainty
food, the well kept up fire of conversation, the beautiful evening out
of doors, the softly shaded light inside, from first to last the supper
was a nightmare. Of what avail the careful pretence that nothing was
wrong? A very miasma of dread enveloped that table, a thing so palpable
that Miss Annabel found herself starting at a sound, the minister's
ready tongue faltered on a favourite phrase, Esther's clear voice grew
blurred, Aunt Amy wrung her hands, Jane's eyes were wide with
unchildlike care. Only Callandar seemed undisturbed, courteous,
interested.

It was a relief to them all when after an uncomfortable half-hour with
coffee on the veranda the minister suddenly remembered a forgotten
committee meeting and hurried Miss Annabel away with half her parting
words unspoken. The doctor, still courteous and interested, walked down
with them to the gate. He would wait, he said, a little longer to see
how Mrs. Coombe found herself. Esther carried off a subdued and silent
Jane to bed.

"Esther," whispered Jane as her sister bent to kiss her, "why do lovely,
lovely days always end so badly?"

"They don't, Janie."

The child sighed. "Mine do. I never had a perfect day in all my life."

"You will have. Every one has perfect days--sometime."

"Have you, Esther?"

"Yes, dear."

Jane looked up sleepily. "Perhaps mine will come to-morrow!"

Esther went slowly down stairs and out into the garden. Callandar was
coming up the path from the gate. He walked slowly. When they met, he no
longer avoided her glance.

"Well?" She had no need to ask. Yet she did ask, falteringly.

"We have failed," he said briefly.

The quiet hopelessness of his voice left no room for argument. Esther
opened her lips to protest, but found nothing to say.

"She has outwitted us," he went on. "How? who can say? They have the
cunning of the devil! There is only one thing to do now. Only one way--"

"You mean?--"

"The wedding must take place at once. I suppose the farce is really
necessary. But there must be no more delay. Only the unsparing use of a
husband's authority can save her now. I shall take her away. I must be
with her day and night. In France there is a place I know, beautiful,
isolated. I shall take her there. If all else fails there is the
treatment of hypnotic suggestion. But--I shall not fail, I dare not!"

Blindly she put out her hand--he clasped it gently--yet not as if he
knew whose hand it was. Then, laying it aside, he passed by, and,
leaving her sobbing in the dusk, went on into the house and up the
stairs to the closed room.




CHAPTER XXXII


It became quickly known in Coombe that, owing to Mrs. Coombe's delicate
health, the wedding would take place much sooner than had been expected.
A sea voyage, it was conceded, was the necessary thing and as Dr.
Callandar would not allow his fiancee to go away alone it seemed only
fair that he should make haste to go with her. Comment on all these
points was much more restrained than usual because, just at this time,
Coombe withstood the shock of finding out that Dr. Callandar was no less
than Dr. Henry Chedridge Callandar of Montreal. No, not his brother, nor
his cousin, but the man himself!

Of course Coombe had suspected this all along. Never for a moment had it
been really deceived. Over and over again it had said: "My dear, that
young man is not a mere local practitioner, mark my words!" From the
first, Coombe had observed the marks of true distinction in him. He was
so odd! He seemed to care nothing at all for appearances, and, as
everybody knows, this comfortable attitude of mind is the privilege of
the famous few. Besides, there was the matter of the marriage. Coombe
had been right in thinking that Mary Coombe had not gone into the matter
blindfold. She had known very well upon which side her bread was
buttered, and as to her giving way to his whims in the absurd way she
did--that, too, was understandable under the circumstances.

What puzzled Coombe, now, was how she had managed it. She was not
pretty, at least not very pretty. She was not young, at least only
comparatively young. And goodness knows, she was not clever! Hardly a
mother in Coombe but had at least one daughter prettier, younger and
cleverer; a daughter, in fact, who could give Mary Coombe aces and kings
and still win out. Why had the doctor not been attached to one of these?
It was incomprehensible. Even if, through a misplaced devotion to his
profession, he had determined to marry into a doctor's family--there was
Esther! Esther Coombe was a fine girl and quite nice looking before she
had begun to "go off." Even as it was she had more to recommend her than
her step-mother. There seemed to be a general impression that all men
are fools.

"If they would only let some woman with sense choose their wives for
them," declared the eldest Miss Sinclair in a burst of confidence, "they
might get along fairly well. But if ever a man gets married to the right
woman, it happens by accident."

Nevertheless, at a special meeting of the Ladies' Aid, called for the
purpose, it was decided to give the bride a present. They had not
intended to do it for fear of establishing a precedent. But when it came
out who Dr. Callandar was, it hardly seemed right to let one of their
best known members go from them to a more exalted sphere in a city
(which many of them might, from time to time, feel inclined to visit)
without showing her by some small token how very highly she was held in
their regard. Every one could see the sense of this and the vote was
unanimous. In regard to the nature of the gift there was more diversity
of opinion, but it was finally decided that, as the value of this kind
of thing lies not in the gift but in the spirit of the giving, a brown
jar with the word "Biscuits" in silver lettering would do very well.
Carving knives were thought of but as Mrs. Atkins very fitly said,
"Everybody is sure to give carving knives"--a phenomenon which all the
ladies accepted as a commonplace.

Of the prospective bride herself, Coombe saw little. She remained very
much at home. She had lost much of her spasmodic energy, was inclined to
be moody and even rude. Her state of health accounted naturally for this
and also for the arrival of a new inmate at the Elms, a cool and capable
looking person who was discovered, after much amazed enquiry, to be a
trained nurse. Not a hospital nurse exactly but a kind of special nurse
whose duties included massage, and the giving of certain baths and
things which the doctor thought strengthening. Her name was Miss Philps.
Coombe never got behind that. No one could ever boast that she knew more
of Miss Philps than her name. She was, and remains to this day,
a mystery.

There are people like that, although this was Coombe's first experience
of one. Miss Philps was not a recluse. Everywhere Mrs. Coombe went, Miss
Philps went too. Even Esther was not more assiduous in her attentions.
She was not a silent person either, far from it. She bubbled over with
precise and cheerful comment, she appeared to talk even more than was
absolutely necessary and it was only upon her departure that her
entertainers noticed that she had said nothing at all. A very baffling
person to deal with. Coombe could not manage to "take to" her at all and
great sympathy was felt for Mrs. Coombe when she was reported to have
said to Miss Milligan that going out with Miss Philps felt exactly like
a jail delivery--whatever that might be!

But if Miss Philps was not appreciated at large it was different in her
own immediate circle. She had not been at the Elms a day before Esther
recognised the doctor's wisdom in getting her. She was discreet,
capable, kindly. The burden upon the girl's shoulders grew momentarily
lighter. Miss Philps, with her matter of fact cheeriness, her strength
and her experience, was exactly what that house of overstrained
nerves needed.

"Dear me," she said, "you're all as fidgety as corn in a popper. And no
need for it. I've nursed dozens worse than your mother, Miss Esther, and
had them right as a trivet before I got through. As long as we can keep
her hands off the stuff--and that's what I'm here for. So don't worry!"

Esther drew a deep breath. It was certainly good to feel the strain
lifting, to have time for dreams again. The time was so pitifully short
now. Two more weeks and she would leave Coombe behind her. The old life
would be definitely over and done with. Looking back, she could see that
it had been a happy life, and the future looked so dark. In youth, all
life's happenings seem so terribly final. Every parting feels like a
parting forever. Esther felt quite sure that she would never return
to Coombe.

In the week before the wedding, freed from her continual attendance upon
her mother, she unobtrusively paid farewell to all her old haunts and
favourite places. It was a sweet sadness. She did not taste the sweet,
but it was there. As one grows older, one does not linger over sad
moments. It is because the sweet has vanished, only the bitter remains.
But in untried youth sadness has a touch of beauty, a glamour of
romance which shrouds its deepest pain. It is as if something within us,
infinitely wise, were smiling, knowing well that for the young there is
always to-morrow.

The maple by the schoolhouse turned early that year. When Esther, in her
pilgrimage, came to say good-bye it welcomed her with all the glory of
autumn. Against its greener brothers it stood out, naming, defiant.
Beside it, the red pump seemed no longer red. Red and yellow, its
falling leaves tossed themselves into the girl's lap as she sat upon the
porch steps. It is almost certain that, as Esther gathered them, she
compared her sad heart to a leaf which had fluttered from the tree of
happy life. There seemed no outlook for her. She could not see through
winter into spring.

The school children with their new teacher (whom Esther could not help
but feel was sadly incompetent) had all gone home and it was very quiet
on the porch steps. She closed her eyes and dreamed and clearly through
her dream she heard, as she had heard that first morning in early
summer, a determinedly cheerful, yet husky, voice singing. Some one was
coming down the hill.

     "From Wimbleton to Wombleton is fifteen miles;
      From Wombleton to Wimbleton is fifteen miles;
      From Wimbleton to Wombleton, from Wombleton to Wimbleton,
      From Wimbleton to Wombleton,--"

The song trailed off into silence as it had done before. The girl's
closed eyes smarted with tears--"Oh, it is a very long way!" she
murmured, and burying her face in fallen leaves she felt that at last
she knew the meaning of despair.

But though his voice had echoed through Esther's dream, Callandar was
not on the long hill nor anywhere near it. Unlike Esther, he paid no
farewells during these last days. He avoided the hill particularly and
drove past the schoolhouse seldom and always at top speed. If the sight
of the turning maples moved him at all it was not because he compared
his lost happiness to a fallen leaf. Callandar was long past such gentle
sadnesses as these. Every day he filled as full of work as possible. He
walked far and hard in hope of tiring himself into dreamless sleep at
night. And every day his face grew older, greyer, more sternly set.

At the very last, and as if inspired by some special imp of the
perverse, Mary declared that she must have a church wedding. Opposition
was useless. With all the distorted force of her drug-ridden brain, she
desired this one thing. She wept, she coaxed, she raved. Every woman,
she stormed, had a right to a proper wedding. She had always been
cheated, she had been a pawn shoved about at the bidding of others, her
own wishes never consulted. Was there any reason, any reason at all, why
she should not be properly married in the church?

He ventured quietly to remind her that there were peculiar circumstances
in the case. But she burst out at that. He was ashamed of her. Ashamed
of his own wife. If there were peculiar circumstances whose fault were
they? Not hers, surely? Would she be where she was now if he had not
neglected her all those years? Anyway, peculiar circumstances or not,
she would be married decently or she would not be married at all.

With set lips, the doctor gave in. Opposition maddened her, and, after
all, one farce more or less could not matter much.

"Very well," he said, "make your own arrangements."

Immediately, Mary became amiable. She was quite polite to Miss Philps,
almost pleasant to Esther. Into the preparations for the wedding she
entered with some of her old spasmodic energy. The occasion, she
determined, should be a talked of one in Coombe. She made plans, a fresh
one every day, and talked of them continually.

Only--there was one plan of which she did not speak. There was one
unsaid thing which matured quietly, covered by the noise of much
talking. Yet this plan more than any other would have to do with the
success of her last appearance in Coombe. It would be foolish indeed,
she decided, to let any promise, however well-meant, stand in the way of
this success. She could not, and would not, face a crowded church
feeling as she felt now. That was absurd! She would need some little
stimulant to help her carry it off. A very slightly increased dose would
do it. Only sufficient to banish that horrible craving, to give her a
long, satisfying sleep and then just a touch more, very little, to brace
her in the morning. Enough to send warm tingling thrills of well being
through her tired body, to brighten her eyes, to clear her brain and
steady her shaking nerves--to make her young again, young and a bride.

Only this once! Never again.

Of what use to continue the sophistries which justified her treachery to
herself! Perhaps of the three it was she who suffered most during that
last week. She lived in an agony of anticipation, a hell of desire for
which a sane pen has no description. Yet no one must suspect that she
anticipated or desired anything--not the cool-eyed Miss Philps, not
Esther, not the doctor, not even Jane. The mask must not slip for one
single moment. So far, they suspected nothing; but they were always on
their guard, always. A careless look, an unconsidered movement might
betray her, and then--! She raved in her room sometimes when she thought
of a possible balking of her purpose.

She was very clever. She still had self-control when it was necessary to
have it in the furtherance of the one devouring passion. Only when she
was quite alone did she ever give way. The doctor thought her
wonderfully docile and took heart of hope. A month or two alone with her
in Prance and all would be well. In the meantime, patience! Naturally
she was full of childish whims. He smiled at her indulgently when she
asked him to request Miss Philps to stay outside of the fitting room at
Miss Milligan's. "For you know," she said, "it is bad luck, very bad
luck, for any person to see one, in one's wedding gown before the proper
time. And anyway," the grey eyes filled with easy tears, "I'm sure it
isn't good for me never to be trusted, not even with silly Miss
Milligan."

The plea seemed genuine. It was like Mary to be concerned about the
wedding-dress superstition. And what possible danger could there be?
Miss Milligan in all probability had never heard the fatal names of
opium and cocaine save as unpleasant things associated with Chinese and
tooth-drawing. It was absurd to imagine Mary coming to harm there.

From this you will see that, upon the occasion of the last discovery,
Mary had lied desperately and well. The "cache" in the bird-house had
been found, but Miss Milligan's name had never been connected in the
most remote way with that relapse. Mary had sworn that the new supply
had not been new at all but had formed part of an old cache which she
had hidden, in a place which even she had forgotten, all quite
accidentally. And although many supplementary enquiries were made, the
real truth had remained undiscovered.

So in the simplest way in the world, Mary secured several uninterrupted
"fittings" with Miss Milligan while the excellent Miss Philps sat
without and waited.

"This is positively the last time I shall have to trouble you, dear Miss
Milligan," said her customer sweetly. "Of course, as soon as we are
married, I am going to tell Dr. Callandar all about it and when he sees
how very much better my medicine has made me, he will be quite ready to
withdraw his objections. In the meantime I am sure you feel, as I do,
that our little ruse has been quite justifiable!"

Miss Milligan did. She felt quite proud of her part in it. It is
something to help a fellow woman and still more to get the better of a
fellow man. Especially such a celebrated man as Dr. Callandar! She would
order the fresh supply at once, that very afternoon, by the first mail.
And as soon as the packet came she would see that Mrs. Coombe had it in
person. "There is certain to be a few last touches necessary to the
dress after it has been sent home," she remarked with a smile of truly
Machiavellian subtlety.

"Yes!" said Mary. "That night--after the dress comes home!" She spoke
sharply, unnaturally. Her face turned a dull, pasty white. She shook so
that Miss Milligan was thoroughly frightened. But presently she
controlled herself and forced a pathetic smile.

"You see, dear Miss Milligan, how much I need it."

"Indeed a blind bat could see that!" said the dressmaker pityingly.
"Shall I call the nurse?"

But Mrs. Coombe would not hear of Miss Milligan calling the nurse!




CHAPTER XXXIII


It is the onlooker who sees most of the game and Aunt Amy was an ideal
onlooker. Always self-effacing and silent, she was now more silent and
self-effacing still. Consequently the principal actors tended to forget
their parts when in her presence. No one explained anything to Aunt Amy
but no one concealed anything from her. She simply "didn't matter." So
far as the playing out of the little drama was concerned, Aunt Amy was
supposed to be safely off the stage. She looked and listened, had her
strange flashes of psychic insight and came to her own conclusions about
it all, quite undisturbed by facts as they appeared to others. Her
conclusions were very simple. Esther loved the doctor. The doctor loved
Esther. That, in spite of this, Callandar was deliberately planning to
marry Mary she considered a purely arbitrary matter arranged by those
mysteriously malignant powers known as "They." Callandar, himself, had
clearly no choice, Esther was helpless, and Mary triumphed easily and
inevitably because Mary was one of "Them" herself. Aunt Amy had become
firmly convinced of this latter fact. Everything went to prove it--the
theft of the ring, the threat to shut her (Amy) up, the easy triumph
over Esther, and a thousand and one trifles all "confirmation strong as
proofs of holy writ." Of course it would be impossible to make this
clear to Esther or the doctor. Amy realised that and did not try. But in
her own mind she thought of it continually. And her little pile of proof
mounted higher day by day.

Esther, absorbed in the care of her step-mother, was not even aware that
Aunt Amy noticed her growing listlessness, her heavy eyes, her fits of
brooding. She did not know that a silent foot paused before her closed
door, listening. All she knew was that it was relief unspeakable to be
with Aunt Amy, to let drop the mask of cheerful energy without fear of
questioning or of wonder. Aunt Amy didn't matter.

Mary, too, felt that it was needless to hoodwink Amy. No need to pretend
with her. She might show herself as irritable, as conscienceless, as
nerve-racked and disagreeable as she chose without fear of displaying
"symptoms." Aunt Amy was not looking for symptoms, indeed Mary thought
she grew more stupid daily. After her marriage something would really
have to be done about Amy. She hoped the doctor wouldn't be silly
about it.

Even Dr. Callandar was not careful to hide his burden from those faded
eyes. He was more self-conscious even with Ann or Bubble than he was
with her. What matter if she did see his mouth harden or his eyes
burn?--Poor Aunt Amy, such things could have no meaning for her. She was
a soul apart.

A soul apart indeed, how far apart none of them quite realised; yet near
enough to love--and hate. As the days went by and Esther drooped like a
graceful plant athirst for water there grew in Aunt Amy's twisted brain
a slow corroding anger. The timid, bitter anger of a weak nature which
is often more deadly than the lordly passion of the strong.

If she could only do something. If she could only outwit "Them"! She
would do anything at all, if she could only find the thing to do. It was
terrible to be so helpless. It was maddening to have to be so careful.
Yet careful she must be, she never forgot that. Often as she went about
the house or stood in the sunny kitchen rolling out her flaky pie-crust,
she pondered over ways and means. But none seemed suitable. Some of her
plans were fantastic to a degree, but she always had sense enough to
reject them in the end. In her planning she was conscious of no sense of
right or wrong but only of suitability. There could be no question of
right or wrong in dealing with "Them." They were outside the pale. No.
What she wanted was something simple and effective. A little poison,
now--in a pie? But Amy knew nothing of poison, nor how to obtain any,
nor how to use it effectively in a pie when once obtained. She might
consult the doctor perhaps? But something warned Aunt Amy that the
doctor would not take kindly to the idea of a little poison in a pie. So
this beautiful scheme had to be given up. She sighed.

"What a big sigh, Auntie!" Esther, who was sitting at the table peeling
apples, looked up questioningly. "A penny for your thoughts."

A look of cunning came over Aunt Amy's face. And instead of speaking her
real thoughts she said, "I was thinking of weddings, Esther."

"But why the sigh?"

"I don't like weddings. Once there was a young girl going to be married.
She was very happy. She was so happy that she was afraid to look at her
own face in the glass. And it was eleven o'clock on Tuesday. I mean she
was waiting for eleven o'clock on Tuesday. She was to be married then.
But just one minute before the time, something happened--the clock
stopped, I think. Anyway eleven o'clock on Tuesday never came. So she
could not get married. And she grew old and her flowers fell to pieces.
It was very sad."

"Poor Auntie!"

Aunt Amy moved uneasily. "Do you know who the girl was, Esther?"

"Don't you know, Auntie?"

"No, that is, I am never sure. Sometimes I think I used to know her. But
she's gone. I never see her now. I'd like to find her if I could."

"You will find her some day, Auntie. Try not to fret about it."

It was seldom indeed that Aunt Amy spoke even thus vaguely of that other
self of hers which she had lost in the tragedy of her youth. Esther's
heart was full of pity as she listened. What was her own trouble
compared to this? She at least would have her memories.

"There is just one chance," went on Aunt Amy, now gently excited. She
had never spoken of this chance before but she felt that Esther might
like to hear of it. "Just one chance! You see, the world being
round--the world is round, isn't it, Esther?"

"Yes."

"Well, the world being round there is a chance that, if she waits long
enough, eleven o'clock on Tuesday may come around again. Then if she is
ready and if she has the ring he gave her, the red ring, and if they are
both very quick they may be married after all."

"Oh, Aunt Amy, _dear_! That is why you love the ruby ring?"

But the old lady's memory was clouding again. She looked bewildered and
would say no more. Esther kissed her with new tenderness. "I am so glad
you have it safely back," she whispered. "You need never be afraid of
losing it again."

Aunt Amy found it hard to make the pies that morning. She was enveloped
in a deep sadness, a sadness which in some misunderstood way seemed
inseparable from the idea of that lost friend of hers, the girl-bride
whose marriage hour had never struck. It seemed to Aunt Amy that the
girl had been waiting a very long time and was tired. Even if the world
were round, it was a very big world and eleven o'clock on Tuesday took a
wearisome time to travel around it. She could not understand why she
should feel so terribly sorry for the waiting girl, but she did. A hot
tear fell into the pie-crust. That would never do! The pie-maker
furtively dried her eyes and came back to the consideration of more
immediate problems.

It may seem strange that no one noticed the morbid state of Aunt Amy at
this time. But it would have been more strange if any one had noticed
it. Of outward signs there were practically none. Even the silent
hand-wringing had ceased. She ceased to rebuke Jane for stepping upon
the third stair; she ceased to talk of the peculiarities inherent in
sprigged china. She was more and more careful not to mention "Them,"
and, as always, her housekeeping was a wonder and a delight.

She even offered to make Mary's wedding-cake. An offer which Mary
received graciously. No one could make fruit cake like Aunt Amy and if
it proved too big for the house oven the baker could bake it in his.
Jane was delighted. She told Bubble that it was to be a "hugeous" cake,
the like of which was never seen in Coombe and she defied Ann to produce
any relative or ancestor whatever whose wedding-cake had even faintly
approached such dimensions. Ann retorted that big wedding-cakes were
vulgar and that her Aunt Sykes did not think it proper for a widow woman
to have a wedding-cake at all.

The making of the cake was a great mental help to Aunt Amy. It seemed to
ease her mind and aid her to think clearly. She thought of many things
as she prepared the materials, made most clever plans. That all the
plans had to do with the preventing of the marriage and the final
circumventing of "Them" goes without saying. There was one especially
good plan which came to her while she stoned the raisins. Still another,
while the currants were being looked over, and a third, more brilliant
than either, while she chopped the candied peel. The trouble was that
when she came to mix all her ingredients into the batter, her plans
began to mix up too, until all was hopeless confusion. It was most
disheartening! And the wedding, now, only a few days off. She wanted to
go away into a corner and wring her hands, but if she did, some one
might notice--and then "They" would have the chance they were looking
for. Aunt Amy was too clever for that!




CHAPTER XXXIV


The day before the wedding, the wedding dress came home. No one had seen
it. Mary's superstition in regard to this point was indulgently smiled
at by everybody.

"But hadn't I better see it on you just once," suggested Esther. "Some
trifle may have been forgotten and a missing hook and eye might spoil
the effect of the whole thing."

"Oh, I have thought of that. Miss Milligan is going to run in after
supper to see that everything is right. Then if anything is needed she
can attend to it at once. Of course, it doesn't matter about Miss
Milligan seeing it--for bad luck I mean."

"How about me?" asked Callandar, smiling.

"You!" with a playful shriek, "you would be worse than anybody. You
would hoodoo it entirely!"

"How about little girls?" asked Jane coaxingly.

Mary turned suddenly peevish. "Don't bother me, Jane. I shall not let
any one see it and that's enough." But their combined suggestions had
disturbed her, and it was only upon their serious assurance that of
course her wishes would be respected that her amiability returned.

Yet it was apparent that she felt rather worried about the dress herself
for she had worked herself into a small fever of nervous anxiety before
the promised appearance of Miss Milligan for the last fitting. When at
last that lady arrived, a trifle late, and very much out of breath, Mary
would hardly let her say good evening to the others, before hurrying
her upstairs.

"And I think," said she hesitatingly, "that I shan't come down again
to-night. I am tired. If the doctor calls in, tell him that I am trying
to get a good rest for to-morrow. Good night, Miss Philps. Good
night, Esther!"

To the girl's astonishment she kissed her. A light, hot kiss which fell
on her cheek like a fleck of glowing ash. Yet it was a real kiss and may
have meant that the giver was not ungrateful. Jane, too, had a good
night kiss that night; but Aunt Amy had already gone upstairs.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Well?" They were safely in the upstairs room now and the door was
closed.

"I've got it. It came on the afternoon mail. I went down to the post
office specially. I knew you kind of counted on it for to-morrow."

With the glee of a child playing conspirator Miss Milligan dived into
the recesses of the reticule she carried. "Here it is. No, that's
peppermints. But it's here somewhere--"

"Oh, hurry!" Mary almost snatched the packet from the friendly hand. At
sight of it she turned deathly white and began to shake as she had
shaken that day in the fitting-room. But this time she recovered
quickly, almost before Miss Milligan had noticed it.

"Thank you so much," she said. With the last effort of her self-control
she forced herself to place the packet upon the dresser. She wanted to
snatch at it to tear it open, to scream with the relief of the tablets
in her hand, but she did none of these things. Instead she thanked Miss
Milligan again and proceeded to talk of other things, anything that
would do to fill up the short time necessary to conceal the real purpose
of the visit so that Esther and Miss Philps would not suspect--never for
a moment suspect!

"Do you think we really need try on the dress?" asked the conscientious
Miss Milligan.

Mrs. Coombe thought not. It was quite all right, she felt sure of that.
And really she was a little tired. It had been a trying day. She
moistened her lips and tried to smile, keeping her eyes well away from
the tempting heaven in the little pasteboard box. Would the woman
never go!

Fortunately Miss Milligan was a lady who prided herself upon her good
sense and also upon her proper pride. She always knew, she declared,
when she was not wanted, and, strange as it may seem, it began to dawn
upon her that this was one of those rare occasions. Mrs. Coombe was very
pleasant, of course, but Miss Milligan missed something, a certain
cordiality which might have tempted her to prolong her stay. She was not
offended, for if she considered that her self-denying journeys to the
post office were meeting with less than their just deserts, she was not
a woman to insist upon gratitude where gratitude was not freely given.
She stayed therefore no longer than the fiction of dress-fitting
required and then with a somewhat strained "good night" passed down the
stairs and out of the house.

Mary waited, rigid as a statue, until she heard the front gate close,
then, the last defence down, she sprang to the dressing table--tearing
off the paper from the package as a puppy dog might tear the covering
from a bone. A glass of water stood ready. Her shaking hands reached for
it, counted the number of tablets and slipped them in. Then, with a long
breath of relief, the tension relaxed. She raised her eyes, triumphing
eyes, to the mirror and saw--Aunt Amy watching her from the doorway.

She had forgotten to lock the door!

But it was only Aunt Amy.

Fear and relief came in almost the same breath. She steadied herself
against the dresser.

"Shut the door!"

Aunt Amy obeyed. But she shut herself inside the door. "What do you
want?" Mary never wasted words on Amy--"Ah!"

With a motion so swift that it seemed like a conjuror's miracle, Aunt
Amy had slipped from her stand by the door, snatched up the open box,
and was back again before the choking cry on the other's lips had
formed itself.

"Esther says you musn't take these," said Aunt Amy in her colourless
voice.

For a second Mary hesitated. If she made the murderous spring which
every baffled nerve in her tortured body urged her to make, Amy would
scream. A scream would mean, Miss Philps--Esther--the doctor: agony and
defeat. With a mighty effort she held herself. She tried to
speak quietly.

"Don't be a fool, Amy. This is some medicine the doctor gave me himself.
Hand it to me at once."

Aunt Amy smiled. It was a sly little smile. It made Mary want to rave,
for it said more plainly than words that Aunt Amy knew. Swiftly she
changed her tactics. Her face softened, became gentle, entreating--

"Amy--dear. I am only going to use a little. If you love me, give me the
box."

Useless! Aunt Amy still smiled. She put the box behind her. With her
other hand she felt for the door knob.

"Amy, give it to me! What have I ever done to you?"

"You stole my ring." In exactly the same tone she might have said, "You
are a murderess."

The ring! Mary had forgotten the ring. Wait, perhaps it was not hopeless
even yet. Amy placed an absurd value on that ring--and she, Mary, had
the gem in her possession. She did not know that Esther had found and
restored it. To her it was still in the box at the bottom of her drawer.
A dazzling plan flashed through her excited brain. She would bribe Amy
with the ring. The thought nerved her.

"Do you really want your ring back?" she asked sweetly.

Aunt Amy paused with her hands on the door knob.

"I have it back."

"Oh, no. You haven't. It is in a box in my drawer."

"It is not. Esther gave it to me!" But there was a spark of fear in
Amy's eyes. Contradiction so easily confused her. _Had_ Esther given her
the ring? She felt oddly uncertain.

Mary laughed, and the laugh increased Aunt Amy's confusion. After all it
was quite possible that Mary had taken the ring again. It had been
locked away and hidden, but locks and hiding-places were never an
obstacle to "Them."

"I've got it safe enough!" taunted Mary, tormentingly.

The spark of fear flamed. Amy took a swift step forward. "Give it to
me!"

"Give me the box--and I will."

Aunt Amy had ceased to care about the box. Almost she placed it in the
outstretched hand, then, with quick cunning, caught it back.

"The ring first."

Mary shrugged her shoulders. She felt cool enough now. It was going to
be easy. She turned to the bureau and began to pull things out of the
drawer, scattering them anywhere. She could not remember exactly where
she had put the ring. As she searched, she talked.

"There is nothing to be tragic about," she said. "I intended to give you
your ring anyway--some day. And the medicine is nothing that will hurt.
It is only something to make me sleep so that I shan't look a sight
to-morrow. I am taking only a little. No one will know. I shall not even
oversleep. But if Esther or any of them knew, they would make a fuss.
You must promise not to tell them--before I give you the ring. Just tell
Esther that I do not want to be disturbed early. I'll wake myself, in
plenty of time for the wedding."

"In plenty of time for the wedding!" For a moment Amy wondered what it
was about the phrase which sounded familiar? Then she seemed to see, as
in a dream, the vision of a young girl all in white, with flowers in her
hands, sitting alone in a room waiting, watching a clock--a clock which
never quite came round to the hour of eleven on Tuesday. Time has a
great deal to do with weddings, evidently. People who wish to be married
must be ready at the fateful moment, otherwise they have to
wait--forever, perhaps. "Plenty of time"--suddenly a flash of direct
inspiration seemed to coordinate her scattered faculties. She saw
clearly a plan, a beautiful, simple plan to prevent the marriage. What
if Mary should _not_ wake in plenty of time for the wedding? What if the
hour, the wedding hour, should not find her ready? The thing was so
simple! If one tablet would make Mary sleep, two would make her sleep
longer. For the moment she forgot even the ruby ring in her childish
pleasure at such a clever idea. Her worn face was lit by a satisfied
smile as she swiftly, quietly dropped more tablets from the box into the
glass--one--two--she was not quite sure how many!

"Here is the ring," said Mary turning at last from the disturbed drawer
with a cardboard box in her hand. It was the box from which Esther had
taken the ring long before, but Mary was in too great a hurry to open
it. She did not doubt that it contained the ring. For once in her life
Mary thought she was playing fair.

They completed the exchange in silence, Mary wondering a little at the
pleasant change which she saw in Amy's face. But she was too hurried to
enquire into the cause of it. She hardly waited to hear her promise not
to tell Esther but fairly pushed her from the room. Then, secure behind
her locked door, she wiped the perspiration from her forehead and sank
exhausted into the nearest chair.

When her strength came back her first care was to hide the remaining
tablets in a safe place in her travelling bag, she never intended to use
them again, never! But it would do no harm to feel that she could trust
herself to leave them alone, as of course she could. Then she loosened
her hair, not pausing to brush it, and, slipping off her dress, wrapped
herself in a certain flowered dressing gown. Not one of the dainty new
ones, but a gown whose lace was yellowed and torn, a gown which felt
like an old friend but which, after to-night, she would wear no more--

Listen! Was that some one at the door?

Only Miss Philps calling good-night. Mary answered "Good-night" in a
sleepy voice, and the step passed on. It left her shaking like a leaf in
the wind. What else indeed was she? A fluttering, fading leaf shaken in
the teeth of a wind of dread and mad desire.

All was quiet now. She would be disturbed no more that night. Her
shaking hands rattled the spoon which stirred the mixture in the glass.
The familiar motion quieted her. Here, right in her hands, was peace,
rest, a swift and magical release from the torment of appetite denied.
To-morrow--but why think of to-morrow? She might be stronger then.
Everything might be easier. All she really needed was a long
night's sleep.

She turned out the light and throwing up the blind stood for a moment
looking out into the soft moonlight. The moon was clear. It would be a
beautiful day for the wedding! Smiling, she picked up the glass and
with a whispered, "Here's to the bride!" raised it to her eager lips
and drank.

       *       *       *       *       *

Silence settled down upon the Elms. There was a harvest moon that night,
a glorious rounded moon more golden than silver. The garden slumbered,
wrapped in mellow light, even the shadows gleamed faintly luminous. The
breeze, roaming at will, shook drowsy perfume from the lingering
flowers, but for all it aped the summer it was unmistakably an autumn
breeze, melancholy, earth-scented. It stirred the curtains at Mary's
window; rustled through the great bowlful of crimson leaves upon
Esther's writing table and softly stirred the dark hair of the girl as
she sat with her face hidden in her curved arms. For a very long time
she sat there while the moon looked in and looked away again and who
can tell what her thoughts were, or if she thought at all.

By and by she rose and went to the window, looking out to where a month
ago she had stood by the garden gate under the stars. It was drenched
with moonlight now and the shadow under the elm tree was dark.

What was that? A darker shadow in the shadow? Esther's hand caught at
the curtain, her heart gave a great leap and then grew still. She knew
who stood there. This was the good-bye he could not speak. Tears fell
unheeded down the girl's pale cheeks. If during those last days she had
had any doubt of the love which loyalty to Mary had helped him hide so
well, they were all swept away now. A warm spot grew and glowed in her
heart and a line from that old immortal love lyric which she had learned
in her school days came back vivid with eternal truth.

     "I had not loved thee, dear, so much
     Loved I not honour more."




CHAPTER XXXV


It was a perfect day for the wedding. Autumn at her brightest and gayest
before her new bright robes began to brown. Soft air, mellow sun,
cool-lipped breeze, horizon veiled in tinted mist--a gem of a day, the
jewel of a season.

"Them as has, gets," murmured Mrs. Sykes, gloomily, as she tied on her
Sunday bonnet. She rather resented the kindness of nature upon this
present occasion. A nice rain would have suited her mood better.

Nevertheless, much as her mind misgave her in regard to the wedding, she
was early on her way to the Elms to see if she could help.

"They're sure to be flustrated," she told herself. "Aunt Amy's just as
likely as not to lose what little bit of head she has and hired help are
broken reeds. Esther will have the brunt of it. She'll be glad enough to
see me, I'll be bound."

Do not imagine that Mrs. Sykes was curious. Curiosity was a failing
which she systematically repudiated. But she was a very helpful person
and it was wonderful how many opportunities of helpfulness she found
upon solemn or joyous occasions. If, while helping, her ears were open,
and her eyes shrewd, can she be blamed for that? There may be people
with ears who hear not but they do not live in Coombe. The only
difficulty is to manage to be, like Mr. Micawber, on the spot.

Mrs. Sykes was early, but not too early. When she slipped in at the side
door there was already a stir of unusual movement in the house but the
final flutter was still measurably distant. Jane dashed past with
crimped hair and white ribbons flying. Miss Philps, very stately in a
new gown, was arranging flowers in geometrical patterns. Dr. Callandar,
self-possessed as ever, talked upon the veranda with Professor Willits
who had arrived the night before. Aunt Amy was busy in the kitchen.
Esther, flushed and excited, with eyes that flashed blue fire, seemed
everywhere at once.

"Oh, Mrs. Sykes," she exclaimed, "how nice of you to come! Won't you
please get Jane and tie her up--her ribbons, I mean? It is almost time
to dress."

"Would you like me to assist?" asked Miss Philps, looking up from a
geometrical pattern.

"Oh, thanks, Miss Philps. There are some hooks I cannot manage. But
mother will probably need a lot of help. I thought you were with
her now."

"No. She has not yet sent for me." Miss Philps drew out her watch and
consulted it. "Dear me!" with slight surprise, "it is much later than I
thought. Perhaps I had better go up."

Esther looked worried. "I believe you had--if she hurries at the last
she will be terribly excited. Aunt Amy told me she wished particularly
not to be disturbed this morning, but surely she has forgotten how late
it is getting."

"I'll go up," said Miss Philps. "It's time for her tonic anyway, and we
must persuade her to eat something. When you are ready for me to hook
your dress, call. I can easily manage you both."

This is all that Mrs. Sykes heard, for just then Jane flew by again like
a returning comet and had to be captured and properly tied up. Mrs.
Sykes, as she admitted herself, was no hand at fancy fixings but she was
painstaking and conscientious and the bow-tying absorbed all her
energies. She was getting on very well and had almost succeeded in
adjusting the last bow when a cry from the room above startled her into
the tying of a double knot.

"What was that?"

It was not a loud cry--but there was something in it which brought Mrs.
Sykes' heart leaping into her throat, which sent Esther reeling against
the stair baluster, which brought the doctor, white-faced from the
veranda--it was the kind of cry which carries in its note the psychic
essence of terror and disaster.

Mrs. Sykes for all her iron nerve felt suddenly faint. Jane began to
cry. The doctor and Esther had raced up the stairs. But there was no
repetition of the cry. Instead there was silence. Then a murmur of
voices and sounds of ordered activity overhead.

Clearly something had happened. But what? Mrs. Sykes wanted very much to
go and see. But the glimpse she had caught of Callandar's eyes as he
sprang to the stair, the look of white horror in Esther's face as she
followed him, and above all, that strange terrifying Something in the
cry she had heard seemed to discourage enquiry. The good lady turned her
attention to the comforting of Jane. After all, if she waited long
enough she could hardly help hearing all about it. At first hand, too.

It seemed a long time that she waited. Miss Philps came up and down the
stairs several times but she did not appear to see Mrs. Sykes. Jane
stopped crying and wandered out into the garden. Still Mrs. Sykes
waited and presently Aunt Amy came in, looking quite excited and asked
eagerly what time it was. Mrs. Sykes told her, adding with asperity that
these were fine goings-on, and that they'd all be late for the wedding
if they didn't hurry up.

"Yes, I think they will. I'm almost sure they will," said Aunt Amy, and
she laughed as a child laughs when it is greatly pleased.

"Dear me, she is much madder than I thought," murmured Mrs. Sykes.
"Whatever is the matter? What are they doing?" she asked in a
louder tone.

Aunt Amy raised a finger, "Hush! she's asleep. Let us tidy up the room.
I don't think she is going to wake up for a long time yet. And then
she'll have to wait till the world goes round again."

"Well of all the--" began Mrs. Sykes, but she was interrupted by the
entrance of Professor Willits. With the virtuous air of one who strictly
minds her own business she began to tie her bonnet strings.

"Don't go, Mrs. Sykes," said the professor gravely. "I think--I'm afraid
you may be needed."

"I hope nothing serious has happened?" faltered Mrs. Sykes, now
thoroughly disturbed, but he did not seem to hear her. He was listening
intently to the sounds overhead. They were very slight sounds now and
presently they ceased altogether. Willits looked more anxious. Then, in
the midst of a new, heavier silence, Dr. Callandar himself came down
the stairs.

At first sight he appeared almost as usual. He did not notice Mrs. Sykes
but went straight across the room to Willits.

"Nothing--any use--" he began haltingly. Then suddenly the words ceased
to come. His lips moved but there was no sound. With an expression of
intense surprise he lifted his hand to his head, and swayed awkwardly
into the nearest chair.

"Land sakes, look out! he's going to fall," cried Mrs. Sykes in terror.

"Breakdown," said the professor briefly. "I expected something of the
kind. Help me to get him to the car."

"Oh, Land, Land," moaned; Mrs. Sykes, "whatever"--but realising that the
time for questioning was not yet, she did what she was told without
more words.

"Better send for Dr. Parker," said Willits crisply to Miss Philps who
had come in quietly. "Better tell the minister, too. Keep the little
girl down stairs. I'll be back as soon as I can. Mrs. Sykes, I shall
want you to come with me."

"Oh, Land--" but she got no further, the car was off like the wind.

Later when the doctor had been put to bed like a child and telegrams
dispatched which would bring a specialist and a nurse on the afternoon
train, the good lady drew a long breath and decided that she couldn't
"last out" a moment longer.

Drawing Willits from the room her questions burst forth in their
unstemmed torrent.

The tall man listened at first in bewilderment. Then, as the true
inwardness of the case dawned on him, a look which was almost admiration
came over his angular countenance.

"Why, Mrs. Sykes," he said, "is it possible that you do not know? I
would have told you before but I took your knowledge for granted. The
poor lady whom my friend was to marry was found dead in her bed. She
died during the night. An overdose of sleeping powder."




CHAPTER XXXVI


Autumn that year was short and golden. Winter came early. In November it
stormed, thawed, stormed again and began to freeze in earnest. The frost
bit deeply but one night when its grip was sure, the temperature rose a
little and snow began to fall. For days and nights it snowed, softly,
steadily, without wind, and then the clouds parted and the sun shone
out--a far off sun in a sky as blue as summer and cold as polar seas.
The air tingled and snapped with frost. In the azure cup of the sunlit
sky it sparkled like golden wine, and, like wine, it thrilled and
strengthened. People stamped their feet and beat their hands to keep
warm but smiled the while and murmured: "Glorious!"

So much for the weather--since it was the weather which became the main
factor in helping Coombe forget the tragedy at the Elms. Wonder is no
nine-day affair in Coombe. One sensation is carefully conserved until
the next one comes along, but in this case the early winter with its
complete change of interests, its sleighing, skating and snow-shoeing,
its reawakening of business and social bustle proved a distraction
almost as effective as battle, murder or sudden death. The talk died
down, the interest slackened, and the principal actors were once more
permitted to become normal persons living in a normal world.

For a time it had seemed that this desired condition would never be
obtained. Coombe had felt the breath of a mystery. It was supposed to
know everything and suspected that it knew nothing--a state of things
aggravating to any well regulated community.

There had been an inquest, of course, and at the inquest the whole sad
affair was supposed to have been made plain. It was simplicity itself.
Simplicity, in fact, was its most annoying characteristic. Mrs. Coombe,
it appeared, had been for a long time somewhat of a sufferer from an
obscure trouble, referred to generally as "nerves." For the relief of
this trouble, one of whose symptoms was insomnia, she had, from time to
time, had recourse to narcotics which, as everyone knows, are dangerous,
if not, as many thought, positively immoral. Undoubtedly the poor lady
had died from an overdose. It was easy, the coroner said, for a
sympathetic mind to reconstruct the details of the terrible occurrence.
It was the night before the wedding and the deceased had retired early.
Miss Milligan, who had run in for a last look at the wedding gown, and
who had been the very last person to see and speak with her, deposed
that she had appeared more than ordinarily tired and seemed anxious to
be alone. Asked if she detected any other signs of disordered nerves the
witness had said, no. The deceased had not appeared worried about
anything? No. The wedding gown had been quite satisfactory? Quite.

No more questions were asked and Miss Milligan had not thought it
necessary to go into the matter of the getting of the nerve tonic. The
dead woman's harmless little deception was safe in her hands. It hadn't
anything to do with the case anyway. Although in her own heart Miss
Milligan blamed Dr. Callandar severely for not allowing the poor woman
to use her tonic constantly. Had he done so the final tragedy might
never have happened. Needless to say this good lady never knew what she
had done. The fact that Mary Coombe had been a drug victim under
treatment did not come out at the inquest. The coroner knew, but he was
a sensible man and a very kind one. It hardly needed the logical
arguments of Miss Philps or the heart-broken entreaties of Esther to
convince him that knowledge of this fact was not for the general public.
The only legally necessary information was the cause of death and that
was simple enough. Easily understood, too, for given a tendency to
sleeplessness and the excitement incident to a wedding, what more
natural than that the excited bride should have sought relief in her
customary sleeping draught.

The mistake, the taking of a lethal dose, was, as all such mistakes are,
inexplicable. Did her hand shake? Had she miscounted the number of
tablets? Had she, in her nervous state, deliberately risked a larger
dose whose danger she did not realise? These questions would never be
answered. She had been alone in her room, nor was there a thread of
evidence upon which to hang a theory. Esther, the nurse, Jane, Dr.
Callandar (poor man!) had noticed nothing out of the ordinary when they
had parted from her that last time. Aunt Amy's evidence was not taken.
No one thought to question her and she volunteered no information. Of
all the household at the Elms she was least disturbed by the tragedy,
but, naturally, one does not expect the mentally weak to realise sorrow
like ordinary people. This exemption was, as many did not fail to
remark, one of their compensations. So in this, as in other things, Aunt
Amy did not matter. She went her quiet way undisturbed, the one
contented and peaceful person in that house of shock and horror.

Why, then, since all was so plain, did Coombe scent a mystery? It would
be hard to say. Perhaps the curious behaviour of Dr. Callandar was
partly responsible. When the news of his sudden breakdown became known
the first natural comment was, "So, you see, he did love her after all."
But, upon longer consideration this did not seem to meet the case. A man
may be genuinely in love with a woman and yet not be stricken, as had
the doctor, by her sudden death. Dimly, Coombe felt that there must be a
cause behind the cause. Miss Sinclair, the eldest, even went so far as
to quote Shakespeare to the effect that "men have died and the worms
have eaten them, but not for love." True, the doctor was not dead but
his illness was proving a very long and stubborn one. In its early
stages he had been taken away to Toronto for special treatment and had
been quite unable to see any one, even the minister, before he left.
Mrs. Sykes alone, with the exception of the trained nurses, had laid
eyes on him since his sudden collapse on the day of the wedding. And
Mrs. Sykes, miraculously, had nothing to say.

It was rumoured, however, that his brain was affected, that he was
paralysed, that he was deaf and blind, that he was dying of slow
decline. Somehow the town felt that Mary Coombe, living or dead, did not
loom large enough as a cause of such disintegration.

Esther's actions, too, were part of the puzzle. It had been confidently
supposed that she would go away at once for a rest and change. Every one
knew that the Hollises had offered to take her with them on a long trip
to the Pacific Coast. But Esther had declined to go. She declined to go
anywhere. Worn out as she was with strain and grief, she persisted in
disregarding the advice of everybody. ("So headstrong in a young girl!
But Doctor Coombe, her father, was always like that.") Apparently she
intended to go on exactly as if nothing had happened and to all
arguments said nothing save, "I think it will be best," or, "I am not
fit for strange scenes just now," or something equally futile. Coombe
was quite annoyed with Esther--so stubborn!

Only to Miss Annabel did the girl attempt to justify her attitude when
that kind soul had exhausted persuasion and was inclined to feel both
worried and hurt.

"Don't you see," she explained haltingly, "I can't go away. I don't want
to. I can't make the effort. Here every one understands and will make
allowances. I want to be quiet, to rest, to think. I want to get back to
where I was before--if I can."

"Before what, my dear?"

"Before--everything! I can't explain. But I know it is the only way I
shall ever be content. I want to take my school again and to go on
working and looking after Jane and Aunt Amy. Although," with a little
smile, "it is really Auntie who looks after Jane and me. Won't you help
me, dear Miss Annabel? I am quite sure that this is the only thing
to do."

"You are a strange girl, Esther. One would think you would be crazy to
get away. Look at Angus! He's going. He has suddenly found out that a
trip to the Holy Land is necessary if one is to speak intelligently upon
many portions of the Bible. Absurd! But I never let him dream that I
know that isn't his reason. And I hope you won't. It is all over now and
the sooner he forgets the better. But I think even you are convinced,
now, that I was right about--you know to what I refer!"

Esther murmured something indistinguishable and Miss Annabel departed
much pleased with her own perspicacity. And she did help. She let it be
known at the Ladies' Aid that she quite understood Esther and approved
of her. After all, it was senseless to run away from trouble since
trouble can run so much faster. And it was natural and right of Esther
to feel that nowhere could she find so much sympathy and consideration
as in her own town. Travelling was fatiguing anyway.

As for the school, that was easily arranged. A little discreet wire
pulling and Esther was once more established as school mistress of
District Number Fifteen. People shook their heads, but by the time of
the first snowstorm they had ceased to prophesy nervous prostration, and
by the time sleighing was fairly established they were ready to admit
that the girl had acted sensibly after all.

No one guessed that there was another reason for Esther's refusal to go
away. It was a simple reason and had to do with the fact that in Coombe
the mails were sure and regular. Travellers miss letters and strange
addresses are uncertain at best, but in Coombe there was small chance of
any untoward accident befalling a certain weekly letter in the
handwriting of Professor Willits. Esther lived upon these letters. Brief
and dry though they were, they formed the motive power of her life and
indeed it was from one of them that she had received the impetus which
roused her from her first trance of grief and horror.

"My dear young lady (Willits had written).

"I believe that there are times when the truth is a good thing. It might
be tactful to pretend that I do not know the real reason of Calendar's
collapse but it would also be foolish. I think he is going to pull
through. Now the question is--how about you? Are you going to be able to
do your part?

"Let me be more explicit. It may be a long time before our friend is
thoroughly re-established in health but it is quite probable that he
will be well enough, and determined enough, to face some of his problems
in the spring. He will turn to you. Are you going to be able to help
him? When he comes to you will he find a silly, nervous girl, all
horrors and regrets and useless might-have-beens or will he find you
strong and sane, healthily poised, ready to face the future and let the
dead past go? For the past is dead--believe me!

"You have seemed to me to be an excellently normal young person, but no
doubt the shock and trouble of late events have done much to disturb
your normality. Can you get it back? On the answer to that, depends
Callandar's future. I shall keep you informed, weekly, of his progress."

Esther had thought deeply over this letter. Its brief, stern truth was
exactly the tonic she needed. Like a strong hand it reached down into
her direful pit of morbid musings, and, clinging to it, she struggled
back into the sunlight. Above all and in spite of everything, she must
not fail the man she loved!

At first she had to fight with terrors. She feared she knew not what.
The vision of Mary upon the bed, still and ghastly in the golden light
of morning, came back to shake her heart. The memory of Callandar's
face, of the frantic struggle to drag the dead woman back to life, made
many a night hideous. The endless questioning, Could it have been
prevented? Could I have done more? tortured her, but by and by, as she
faced them bravely, these terrors lost their baleful power. Her youth
and common-sense triumphed.

The school helped. One cannot continue very morbid with a roomful of
happy, noisy children to teach and keep in order. Jane's need of her
helped, for she, dared not give way to brooding when the child was
near. Aunt Amy helped--perhaps most of all. She was a constant wonder
to the girl, so cheerful was she, so thoughtful of others, so forgetful
of herself. Her little fancies seemed to have ceased to fret her, there
was a new peace in her faded eyes. Sometimes as she went about the house
she would sing a little, in a high thready voice, bits from songs that
were popular in her youth. "The Blue Alsatian Mountains" or "When You
and I Were Young, Maggie" or "Darling Nellie Grey." She told Esther that
it was because she felt "safe." "The blackness hardly ever comes now,"
she said. "I don't think 'They' will bother me any more."

"Why?" asked Esther, curious.

But Aunt Amy did not seem to know why--or if she knew she never told.




CHAPTER XXXVII


A robin hopped upon the window sill of School-house Number Fifteen and
peered cautiously into the room. He had no business there during lesson
hours and the arrival of Mary's little lamb could not have been more
disturbing. The children whispered, fidgeted, shuffled their feet and
banged their slates.

"Perhaps they do not know it is spring," thought the robin and ruffling
his red breast and swelling his throat he began to tell them.

"It is spring! It is spring! It is spring!"

The effect was electrical. Even the tall young teacher turned from her
rows of figures on the blackboard.

"Come out! come out! come out!" sang the robin.

The teacher tapped sharply for order and the robin flew away. But the
mischief was done. It was useless to tell them, "Only ten minutes more."
Ten minutes--as well say ten years. The little fat boy in the front seat
began to cry. A long sigh passed over the room. Ten minutes? The teacher
consulted her watch, hesitated, and was lost.

"Close books," she ordered. "Attention. Ready--March." The jostling
lines scrambled in some kind of order to the door and then broke into
joyous riot. It was spring--and school was out!

Their teacher followed more slowly, pausing on the steps to breathe
long and deeply the sweet spring air. In a corner by the steps there was
still a tiny heap of shrinking snow, but in the open, the grass was
green as emerald, violets and wind flowers pushed through the tangle of
last year's leaves. The trees seemed shrouded in a fairy mist of green.
Robins were everywhere.

The girl upon the steps was herself a vision of spring--the embodiment
of youth and beautiful life. Coombe folks admitted that Esther Coombe
had "got back her looks." Had they been less cautious they might have
said much more, for the subtle change which had come to Esther, the
change which marks the birth of womanhood, had left her infinitely
more lovely.

From the pocket of the light coat she wore she brought forth a handful
of crumbs and scattered them for the saucy robins and then, unwilling to
hasten, sat down upon the steps to watch their cheerful wrangling.
Peeling for more crumbs she drew out a letter--a single sheet covered
with the crabbed handwriting of Professor Willits. At sight of it a soft
flush stole over her face. She forgot the crumbs and the robins for,
although her letter was two days old and she knew exactly what it
contained, the very sight of the written words was joy to her. Like all
Willits' notes it was short and to the point.

"Our friend has gone," she read. "We wanted to keep him for a month yet,
but the robins called too loudly. He left no word of his destination,
only a strange note saying that at last he was up the hill and over. May
he find happiness, dear lady, on the other side."

One thing I notice--this recovery of his is different from his former
recovery. If I were not afraid of lapsing into sentiment, I should say
that he has achieved a soul cure. The morbid spot which troubled him so
long is healed. A psychologist might explain it, but you and I must
accept the result and be thankful. It is as if his subconscious self
had removed a barrier and signalled 'Line clear--go ahead.' It is more
than I had ever dared to hope.

     Your friend,
          E.P. Willits.

"P.S.: Are you ready?"

Esther looked at the postscript and smiled--that slow smile which lifted
the corner of her lips so deliciously.

"May we wait for you, Teacher?"

"Not to-day, dears."

The children moved regretfully away. Presently the school yard was
deserted. The busy robins had finished quarrelling over their crumbs and
were holding a caucus around the red pump. In the quietness could be
heard the gurgle of the spring rivulets on the hill.

Was there another sound on the hill, too? A far off whistling mingled
with the gurgling water and twittering birds? Esther's hand tightened
upon the letter--she leaned forward, listening intently. How loud the
birds were! How confusing the sound of water! But now she caught the
whistling again--

     "_From Wimbleton to Wombleton is fifteen miles_"--

The familiar words formed themselves upon the girl's lips before the
message of the tune reached her brain and brought her, breathless, to
her feet. He was coming--so soon!

Panic seized her. Her hand flew to her heart--she would hide in the
school-room, anywhere! Then she remembered Willits' postscript, the
postscript which she had thought so needless. Her hand fell to her side.
The panic died. Next moment, head high and eyes smiling, she walked down
to the gate.

He was coming along the road under the budding elms--hatless, carrying a
knapsack. His tweeds were splashed with mud from the spring roads, his
face was thin, his hair was almost grey. Yet he came on like a conqueror
and there was nothing old or tired in the bound wherewith he leaped the
gate he would not pause to open.

"Esther!"

She looked up into his eyes and found them shadowless. Her own eyes
veiled themselves,

Neither found anything to say.

But overhead a robin burst into heavenly song.



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