By Ethel Watts Mumford
BUT, my dear, good woman!"
The little old maid, primly seated on the re-covered sofa, looked the Reverend Mr. Paul in the face, with eyes at once weary and stubborn.
"I'm tired of being a 'good woman'!" she replied in a hushed, sick-room voice.
"Don't, don't!" he ejaculated. "You of all women! Thank God, you couldn't be anything else but a good woman!" Mr. Paul fairly bristled truculent approval of her maiden past.
"Yes," she agreed sadly. "I am afraid I am too old now."
The elderly adviser paled.
"I can only account for your extraordinary conduct," he quavered, "on the ground of demoniac possession. I refuse to believe that one so exemplary can seriously speak as you are speaking or contemplate such actions."
Miss Peck refolded her long hands precisely, almost as if invisible fingers creased and turned them, like putting old lace carefully away.
"I'm sorry," she said meekly, "that I told John anything about it. I ought to have gone over to the city and writ back, but somehow I felt as if John, bein' my brother an' the head of the family, I shud speak to him. I might have known he'd go to you."
"Of course he came to me." Mr. Paul's withered-apple visage wrinkled in indignation. "Have I not always been the devoted friend of every member of your family—your father, your dear mother; those sainted women, your aunts? He would have neglected his duty if he had not come to me."
Miss Peck set her narrow lips.
"Thank you; but there isn't the slightest use arguin'. You're not looking at the rights of the case—leastways, not at my rights. I took care of Mother and Aunt Sue and Sister Emma till the Lord took 'em, an' I don't believe the Lord intends me to take up John's cross for him, an' nurse his wife and children so's he can let Martha go and only keep one servant.
"All my life I've been in somebody else's groove—I ain't never found my own. Now, I just want to do somethin' it's a human pleasure to do. I've wanted what was live an' pretty, an' all I ever had was a cat. I wanted young people when I was young, an' I never cud have 'em, because there wuz always them as it wuz my plain duty to do for. An' the money I inherited from Grandpa Steele I had to spend on keepin' the household goin'; because they said, bein' an unmarried woman, I hadn't but myself to spend it on.
"Oh, I know John's been count in' on gettin' me to housekeep for Eliza, an' my income'll come in handy, an' mebbe with me puttin' in my money on the livin' expenses, he cud spare enough of his for an automobile. Well, he's lookin' to better himself, an' I'm lookin' to better myself, an' them two ain't one!"
"Your brother very properly and very generously offers you the shelter of his home." Mr. Paul looked with an appraising eye at the spacious parlor and its old-fashioned but once costly furniture. "And you could rent this place to summer folks for three or, maybe, four hundred dollars."
She nodded acquiescence at that.
"Mr. Smith says six, on account of the shade trees an' garden. I've told him to go ahead and rent, for, as I said to John, I'm thinkin' of bein' gone some time. I know there's a groove for me somewhere, an' I'm goin' to find it."
"And your brother has a right to know where you are going." The Family Friend was suddenly dragged back to the consideration of the enormity of Miss Peck's avowed intentions. "You, an unmarried woman!"
The ghost of a smile trembled on the virgin lips.
"I'm goin' to jine a friend—a woman friend—an' Mr. Smith is my lawyer, an' if John wants to find out about my health or—or happiness, or anythin' brotherly like that, why, Elisha will be in touch with me 'count of my rents an' such." The bitterness and irony deepened in her voice. "I'm leavin' to-night on the eight-thirty; an' thank you for yer visit. Good-by."
She rose, and, perforce, he rose also.
"It shall not be said that I allowed you to stray unwarned!" he rumbled.
She glanced at him—was it coquettishly? Mr. Paul could hardly believe his eyes.
"Why, if you're thinkin' of comin' over to Providence with me, it wud look better to take the mornin' train."
"What!" exclaimed the outraged shepherd.
"Well, I don't know what's to hinder." She appeared to consider the situation judicially. "I'm some over twenty-one, and I can pay my own way. An' if John wants a guardeen appointed for me, all I says is, 'Let him try.' You forget, an' John forgets, that I've been put upon an' kept down in somebody else's groove, an' shoved about all my life, an' now I'm just bulgin'. So, if you care to set in the parlor, why, you're welcome to set. but you'll have to excuse ma, for I'm goin' to my own room to finish my packin'." A faint flush had mantled her pale cheeks; her faded eyes snapped unwonted fire.
Mr. Paul looked helplessly at the hallway and the shining newel post. It was obviously impossible for him to pursue this recalcitrant maiden to her bedroom, yet to permit such a dismissal was to accept humiliation.
"I hope—I pray," he groaned, "that you will not live to look hack upon this hour as the dark turning-point of your life! I have warned you."
"Tell Martha"—Miss Peck's voice reached him from the upper landing—"that she needn't worry about Thomas. I've bought a cat basket, an' I'm taking him with me."
The hall door slammed.
Miss Elizabeth laughed out loud. The sound shocked her. Instinctively she shot a glance at the doors down the hall—the doors that for so many weary years had opened and dosed to the tyrannical orders of the two warped and vampirish women who had drained her youth and sapped her life. The silence was reassurance. She was free, with no regrets and no self-reproaches—free!—to indulge herself, to be herself. A neat new suitcase lay on the bed; over the walnut footboard spread her best blue foulard and her black straw hat with the buttercup clusters, that had been universally criticized as "unsuitable"—even before custom had demanded respectful black. She hated black. It might be a sin, but crape she abominated. She was determined not to put on mourning. The town could call shame to her; she would be too far to hear. She meant to wear gay colors and frequent cheerful places. The word "appropriate" should no longer exist in her bright lexicon. Before the mirror she fluffed her faded hair, loosening it from its prim coil.
She would wear silk underwear, she decided. She had seen it advertised, and she loved the caressing touch of silk. She meant, in her orgy of extravagance, to put herself quite beyond the pale of propriety. Wholesale, sinful waste it was to be. It included a bottle of Mary Garden perfume. All her practical, everyday belongings were neatly stored in the attic. The new suitcase would contain only what necessaries could not be dispensed with, for her entire wardrobe was to be new.
Having completed her toilet, closed the bag, made a tour of inspection of each speckless chamber, she picked up the purring cat from its accustomed cushion, soothed its reluctant introduction into the shining traveling basket, secured all windows and doors, locked the kitchen door on the outside, and, without a sigh or a backward glance, walked calmly down the village street. Boldly flaunting the blue foulard in the place of expected weeds, she deposited the keys in the office of Mr. Smith, promised to write as soon as settled, committed what appeared to be a major operation in concealing the large roll of bills which her lawyer counted out on the worn rosewood table, and betook herself to the Commercial House for her last meal in Mayfield.
Eight o'clock found her installed in the train, answering with matter of fact gentility the questions of the friends gathered to see her off. John had not appeared, and she began to hope against hope that her departure was to be mercifully ignored by her indignant relative. But such an easy evasion was not to be hers. John Peck had timed and planned his appearance. He blustered in just as the cars shocked together with the first jar of departure. Snatching up the new suitcase, he sent it flying through the open window, narrowly missing the heads of the assembled villagers gathered on the platform. Instinctively Miss Peck snatched the cat-basket to her breast, as her brother seized her roughly by the arm and jerked her from the seat with the intention of rushing her down the aisle and off the train.
But not for nothing had she foreseen this day and assured herself a protected escape. As her resisting little body was propelled toward the platform, the conductor and Mr. Elisha Smith, attorney-at-law, arose to interfere, and they were not without a sympathetic understanding of Miss Peck's feelings.
"Upon what authority?" demanded the lawyer.
"John Peck, get off this train," snarled the conductor. "You ain't got no call to interfere with your sister. She's free, white, and twenty-one, ain't she?" He reached up to the bell cord, and the train jarred to a stop. "Put him off, will ye, Eli?" he growled. "This train's goin' somewhere, and she's on her way."
Protesting and furious, John Peck was hustled to the ties. The guard gave the signal, the train moved on.
Flustered and red, her neat bonnet rakishly awry, Miss Peck sank again into the red velvet seat.
"Well, Thomas," she laughed excitedly, "we're off." She laughed again, the words had such a sportive sound. She repeated them as she stroked the wild-eyed cat "We're off!"
With unabated relish, she traveled through the night, changed at a musty junction, and eventually arrived at her destination in the pale dawn hours. She sat in the station waiting-room, wondering at its immensity, at the people, at the number and speed of the trains, at the news depots, the restaurants, the cab stand. It was all new and of absorbing interest. At half past seven, when she judged it would be safe to assume that the day was well started for everyone, she called a cab, consulted a newspaper clipping, and directed that she be driven to the hotel. Arrived at its carven portals, she was dazed by its magnificence. A liveried doorman possessed himself of Thomas's basket, and she entered the halls of splendor. She was quite self-possessed, however, when she stepped up to the desk, and with assurance sharpened by anxiety, demanded to see "Miss Margot Fontaine."
The red-eyed night clerk, who was not yet off duty, looked at her and chuckled as he glanced at a board covered with mystic signs: "Left word not to be called till eleven-thirty"
"Is she sick?" inquired the elderly ingénue.
"Not so's you could notice it," the clerk replied. "Stoppin' here?" he inquired.
"Of course I am," Miss Peck snapped back.
"Sign there." He whirled the register at her. "Front?" he called.
"If you please," she agreed, with lofty detachment.
"Please what?" inquired the mystified clerk.
"A front room," she retorted. In the glow of her deliverance from bondage she almost hoped a "front" room was extra-expensive.
The clerk stifled a laugh, and tossed a key to the grinning bellboy. "Four thirty-six," he ordered. "Any baggage, Miss?"
"I'm going out to buy some this noon," she assured him with dignity.
A desk telephone rang. He picked up the receiver. "Oh, three sixty-one—yes. Hold on a minute," he called after the new arrival. "It's Miss Fontaine—wants her coffee in her room. All right. Say, tell Miss Fontaine that Miss Peck—Miss Elizabeth Peck, of Mayfield—is here to see her.... Yes, I'll hold the wire.... Tell her to come right up? All right.... Front, show the lady to three sixty-one, and tell the floor maid to make up four thirty-six. Elevator to the right, Miss."
Both Thomas and his owner suffered from the sudden ascension. Had a stomach been permissible in an unmarried lady, Miss Peck would have clutched hers in squeamish terror.
She had hardly recovered from the shock when the bellboy knocked on a numbered door, which was opened by a negro maid. A flutter of blue chiffon, a tousle of brown curls, and a flash of lace cap buried itself on Miss Peck's lean bosom. In her emotion Thomas was forgotten, and his basket bumped to the floor, while the old maid's yearning arms closed over the slim shoulders that strained close to her.
"Mary Allen! Well, well, Mary Allen!" she repeated over and over in a voice grown suddenly husky and sweet.
The girl threw back her head, tossing aside the concealing frills and curls and revealing a face the loveliness of which the faint traces of the last night's make-up seemed to enhance rather than mar.
"How good of you to come. How did you find me? I—I thought of going over to Mayfield to surprise you, but I couldn't, on account of the theatre. We're here only three days, and we're giving five performances." The words tumbled from her lips as she led Miss Elizabeth into the room, drew up a chintz armchair and climbed back into bed. "Oh," she continued, her face growing pink with earnestness, "I'm so glad you did come. I felt so mean that I hadn't written you. You don't know—it makes all the difference in the world. But, tell me all about yourself. How did they let you off?"
"They didn't," said Miss Peck, suddenly reverting to her defiant manner. "John threw my bag out of the car window. Lucky it wasn't Thomas—oh, where is Thomas?"
The broadly smiling maid laid the basket on the bed.
"Thomas!" exclaimed Mary Allen, alias Margot Fontaine. "Not old Tom!"
"No, but the dead spit of him. It's his great-grandson, and very tame and affectionate, but just a mite nervous."
The girl dumped the offended feline on the bed and exclaimed in admiration:
"Oh, Mattie, look!"
"Here's yer coffee, Miss." The servant set the tray on the bed. "This is sorter early fer you-all. Yer better take it while it's hot."
A frown darkened the girl's bright face.
"I couldn't sleep," she explained. "I was worried and—and—restless. Oh, I'm so glad you came." Her eyes sought the older woman's face adoringly. "Tell me the worst," she burst out. "How short are you going to stay with me? When do you have to go back—the very last minute?"
"I'm never going back at all," said Miss Peck. "If you don't mind, Mary, I'll travel with you awhile, if I won't be in the way. I made up my mind when I seen the paper, sayin' you was here in the 'Glory Hallelujah' company, but I didn't know how I could make it, so I didn't send no word."
"What! Have you eloped for good? How wonderful!" Miss Fontaine bounced with delight.
Miss Peck put away her hands again with her lingering folding gesture. "Yes," she said, "I sorter cleaned up on what I seen was my duties. We all got our just burdens, but there's them that's unjust. Mr. Paul wrastled with me, and John tried to shanghai me, but I seen no reason to give up. I told 'em I hadn't ever found my real groove in life, but I meant to find it. I don't see why it ain't possible to do right, and what you want to, at the same time. I notice the men seems to manage it."
"Did they know you were coming to me?" demanded Mary Allen.
"Sakes, no!" Miss Peck shivered at the thought. "That wud have finished it! Why, my dear, since you've been a play actress, your name ain't mentioned 'cept by the real bad boys." Miss Peck laughed, an amused, tolerant laugh.
But Mary Allen's face flamed.
"Well, I like that!" she exclaimed; then ha eyes grew troubled. ^What's become of Cousin Hilda Safford?" she inquired after a moment's pause.
"Why, after you went, she married Lef Taylor. They live in the old Taylor mansion up Ridge Street."
"Has she ever asked for me?" said Mary, her voice lowered.
"No. But you've got no call to keep her on your feelin's, Mary. If ever a woman nagged a girl into takin' the bit in her teeth, your Cousin Hilda nagged you. It was just jealousy, Mary, because you're purty. And, Mary"—she paused to feast her eyes on the tousled vision of beauty before her—"if she could see you now, she'd up and die." Miss Peck sighed a sigh of utter content "It just rests me to look at you. I don't know what the Lord put into me to make me love purty young things so, but I do. All my life I've loved 'em—flowers an' people an' cats, an' silks an' satins, an' babies, an' pictures an' gold frames. Why, Mary dear, it's that strong in me that I've passed the Fish House at night—that was before the town went dry—and just seen the lights through the windows shining on all that bar-glass an' blue an' green an' yellow bottles, an' heard that big music-box goin', an' I've just longed to be a man an' go in there an' see it all an' hear it. Mary, do you know, in all my life I've never had any fun? I've never had a laugh that didn't have a bite in it!"
Mary put out a smooth, beringed hand.
"Miss Elizabeth. I wonder—I wonder did you need me as much as I needed you? You—you've had the courage to see straight, to light your way against your environment, because you saw you were 'in wrong.' Oh, Miss Elizabeth, I've got to do that, too! I know you don't understand, but never mind that, not now, at least. If John threw your wardrobe out of the window we've got to go shopping, haven't we? I'll get right up." She was already kicking her slim feet into the worn blue satin mules at the foot of the bed.
In a daze of happiness, Miss Peck watched the erstwhile Mary Allen grow in beauty under Mattie's skilful fingers. Such shining boots with white kid tops, and such a simple tailored suit of blue, with sudden sophisticated dashes of color, such artfully plain hair under its tilted turban! It was all perfection—enhanced by the faint perfume of powder and aromatic essences. The toilet that consumed an hour and a half seemed to complete itself with magical rapidity to the fascinated eyes of Miss Peck. Thus and so would she dress, from patent leather tip to feather tip, from pink crêpe de Chine to gray fox fur, she, whose life had been buckramed in challies, prints and astrakhan cloth.
Mary caught up a diamond wrist watch from the dressing-table and absently shook back her cuff. Then she changed color and put down the trinket as the telephone rang.
"See who that is," she ordered.
"How very purty." Miss Peck picked up the watch with awe. It was so small and seemingly fragile. "Eleven o'clock," she exclaimed. "My, Mary, you must use shorter hours than we do down to Mayfield!"
"It's Mr. Robert wants to see you, Miss." Mattie almost whispered the message. "Says he's on his way up."
Mary hesitated, then shut her lips firmly.
"All right, Mattie. Carry those things into the alcove and pull the curtains." She tossed a pair of pink satin corsets into an open trunk and closed the lid. Then she turned again to her visitor. "It's Mr. Thomas—he wrote the play. He's been traveling with the company so that he can make what changes he wants before we strike a big town. He—he—wants me to have the lead in the new piece he's working on."
There was a knock on the door, followed almost instantly by the entrance of a tall, well groomed man, remotely threatened by the forties. His deeply lined face was attractive, but for a twist of bitterness in his thin lips that was belied by the shrewd gentleness of his eye. He started as his glance noted the newcomer.
"I beg pardon," he said, as if conscious and somewhat ashamed of the abruptness of his entrance.
"Oh, good morning, Robert." Miss Fontaine's voice was thin and clear as glass. "This is Miss Peck—my very dear friend; in fact, my only friend in what used to be my home town. She's come to me to be my companion."
"Oh," he said noncommittally.
Miss Peck's heart warmed toward the man who appreciated Mary Allen.
"Mary's sweet enough to say as I can travel with her, an' not be in the way," she beamed. "I'm sorter huntin' for my groove, you see. I've never been out of Mayfield before, and I've never been so happy, either."
"Miss Peck"—Mary sought and found her gloves—"was good to me always, when I needed goodness. When I ran away she stood by me and helped me. And when I needed money she scrimped herself and sent it to me. She's my good angel, Mr. Thomas." Her dark-lashed eyes met his with a swift look of meaning.
"Angels are very necessary sometimes—in our business." There was a touch of irony in his voice, and a quick response to the challenge of her look. Then he turned courteously. "I shall be delighted to include you, Miss Peck. We had planned, Miss Fontaine and I, to take a little run into the country before the matinée. You'll come, of course."
"Of course," said Mary quickly. Miss Peck was puzzled at the ring of defiance in the tone.
The author's keen eyes were traveling covertly over every detail of the new companion's face and figure. He looked as if he wanted to sneer. And yet, the kind, tired eyes smiled reluctantly. Miss Peck felt flustered, as if somehow she needed to explain her presence.
"I ran away, too," she stated boldly.
"Indeed? When?" he inquired politely.
"Why, just now. I don't know as I'd have had the courage if I hadn't helped Mary when she run off. But I remembered, and I kept telling myself that Mary was all right. She'd found her groove, and why shouldn't I? You see, Mr. Thomas, you don't know what it is to be brought up a woman. Everything's your duty if you're a woman; an' lots of duties that wouldn't grind so hard if they was shared, get laid onto some one woman in the family, an' after a while you only got courage enough to keep those crosses goin'. An' then, you can't believe how hard it is to step out without a burden, an' look for what rightfully you've hankered after. I'm sure it ain't wrong to do your duty and be happy, too, if you can find it to do."
Miss Peck stopped short. Her sudden burst of confidence to a stranger appalled her, but his sympathetic, attentive silence drew her on.
"I don't think Mr. Thomas quite understands women." Mary's voice was again brittle and thin. "He—he's perhaps a little cynical. He doesn't know how hard it is—to—to be a woman. I think he's always thought that because I ran away from—you wouldn't call it 'home,' Miss Elizabeth, would you?—that—that— Oh, well, let's be going." She turned away helplessly.
But Miss Peck was too startled at the last suggestion.
"Why, she just couldn't stay in Mayfield. Why Mr. Thomas, Mary Allen always was a heart of gold. It was just that she was pretty an' so full of life that there was them who should have been her friends that weren't. Why, for meanness, Hilda Safford hasn't got her like, an' Hilda Safford was Mary's guardeen. Oh, Mr. Thomas, you mustn't think because she tuck to play actin' that there was any bad in her. Why, I know how hard she worked an' starved." She stopped again and looked, puzzled, at the man before her. "Why," she murmured, "I thought it was just us poor, ignorant countries who held by them ideas. I didn't think there was city folks so plum' foolish—but—well—I guess now as we two run-aways can take care of each other—that is, if you're sure I won't be in the way?"
Mary put a shaking arm about her friend's shoulders.
"You're just a—a dear!" she whispered.
Mr. Thomas smiled whimsically.
"Well, people, let's get out. Don't forget, Margot, you've got to stop at the theatre and see Marslo. They're changing the curtain in the second act, and the new costumes for the third act interpolated song came last night.
She nodded absently as she preceded them into the hall. Miss Peck glowed. This was more exciting than pink silk underwear. The theatre, in the morning, when only theatre people were allowed! It amazed her that Mary Allen seemed rather bored.
As they walked down the dingy alley to the stage door, Miss Peck experienced all the thrills of a conspirator. Fire escapes, freckled scenery, men in overalls rushing stiff banks of artificial flowers, the chill of housed, stale air—here was adventure at last!
In the darkling depths of the stage a piano sounded, a loud voice cried an imperative "Now, all together," and a burst of girlish voices rose in a swinging ragtime tune.
"That's a hummer, that new number." The playwright nodded his satisfaction. "And I had to fire Cottlin, almost, to make him rehearse it. Run along, Margot, and get it over with. Don't take all day."
In a blind daze of happiness Miss Peck followed in the wake of the star, but hung back shyly as, with businesslike directness, Miss Fontaine buttonholed a stout and protesting gentleman. Miss Peck glanced over her shoulder and gave a little gasp of delight. Was this Heaven?
A long, windowless room was illuminated by a brilliance of electric bulbs, that shone and glittered on spangles and tulle, satins and sequins, reds, blues, greens—all the colors of the rainbow in prismatic showers. In the far corner a half-dressed girl stood before a kneeling colored woman, who deftly adjusted a too voluminous costume to the contours of the prospective wearer. The girl was pretty, with a coarse picturesqueness that fitted well with the parrot brilliance of her surroundings.
Miss Peck sighed with delight. Here at last was beauty, light, color, youth, all the things she had worshiped from afar with such longing. The shine of the artificial light on bare necks and arms, the gloss of rippled hair, with its keen high lights, the contrast of the maid's brown profile against the lemon yellow of a tinseled cape—it was Romance.
"You lookin' for Miss French?" the colored attendant inquired. "She ain't here yet. Blamed if she hasn't got the pip most of the time," she grumbled. "This show'll ditch if they don't get a wardrobe woman as sticks on the job."
"I'm here with Miss—Miss Fontaine," Miss Peck murmured.
The woman glanced at her surprised, nodded acceptance, and turned to thread a needle from an orange spool.
"Oh, there you are!" It was Mary's voice behind her. "I thought I'd lost you. What are you doing in the chorus dressing-room?"
"Oh," gasped Miss Peck, "ain't it beautiful? Ain't it beautiful!" I—I cud just set here forever an' see all them pretty things. I'd just like to tech 'em all with my fingers."
Mary Allen's face flickered with amusement and sobered to sympathetic earnestness.
"Why, I do believe you were born to be a wardrobe woman. Why, Miss Elizabeth, perhaps it's your groove!" She looked into her companion's ecstatic face, and her own saddened with memories. "And what a friend you'd be to them, Miss Elizabeth. Why you'd be a Godsend, you would, you and your dear, big goodness. I—we'll have to think about that. Why, you—you'd mother them all!"
With a tramping of feet on the stairs and giggles at the door, the released chorus entered the dressing-room with a shy greeting to Miss Fontaine—blondes, brunettes, redheads, Pickford curls, and Dutch bobs; tall and "pony," glittering in their new "feature" costumes. Their young stir and bustle was like the noisy chittering of birds. If a contented hen could smile, her expression would doubtless duplicate that on Miss Peck's face.
Regretfully she turned, threading her way amid the maze of "props" to the stage entrance, with its mail rack and the cubby of the guardian of wonderland. But even as she turned into the narrow entry, the door opened with a vicious slam. Silhouetted against the light, tall, gaunt, and menacing, stood John Peck.
"Well!"' His voice boomed in the echoing hall. "So, here's where you are! Disgracin' me, disgracin' yourself! Oh, it didn't take me long to find ye, when I heard that Mary Allen was here, masqueradin' as 'Miss Fontaine.' I come in on the first train this mornin', and the hotel, they sent me here. And lemme tell you, I'll have no more of this!"
Mary Allen pushed past her friend and faced the intruder.
"John Peck," she ordered sharply, "go away and leave us alone." She glowed. "Miss Elizabeth's coming with me, and you'll not interfere with her—do you understand!"
"I won't, won't I?" he jeered. "Let me tell you, Miss Fontaine—Mary Allen as was—let me tell you that I'll prove in court that you ain't no fit companion for my sister, no, nor any respectable female woman. Oh, you needn't think we don't hear nothin' down our way—you an' your writer man—travelin' round the country with ye. Why, the first reporter I asked at the News office, told me what everybody was a sayin'. I guess we'll hev no more of your lip, Miss Fontaine. And as fer you, Elizabeth Peck, go get yer darned Tom-cat, an' go home, where ye belong!"
Mary fell back a few short paces.
"Oh!" she gasped. "Oh!"
Miss Peck recovered her voice with a snap.
"Me nor my cat will have nothin' more to do with you, John Peck—never, for what ye dare to say against Mary Allen. Neither me, nor my friends, nor my cat, nor my money, is none of yours!"
"Thank you. Miss Peck." A calm voice behind them spoke, and Robert Thomas stepped forward. With a courteous inclination he passed the two women. "Mr. Peck," he drawled, "I want to explain something, and I'll see that that explanation is in every paper to-morrow. Miss Fontaine, or Miss Allen—I don't in the least care which, has done me the honor to consent to become my wife. I think, in view of your very enlightening insults, the sooner the better."
Mary, with a sudden, choking gasp, turned and buried her face on Miss Peck's shoulder. Her whole body was tense, and the hands that clutched her friend's thin arms were shaking.
"And now that that's understood, Mr. Peck, I'll add that your sister will be our very welcome guest. And I'll remark that if you importune her in any way, it will be the worse for you!"
John Peck laughed.
"Ye can tell all that to the marines," he jeered, "but I'll take that fool woman outer your clutches, if I hev to hev her judged incompetent."
"John Peck, John Peck!" Miss Elizabeth's voice rang with menace. "If you don't git, an' git quick, I'll sue you for every red cent you ever borrowed from me, I will; an' I know about yer bank account, John, the one you keeps on the quiet over to Boston. An' what's more, when some as I know of finds out about that there Boston account, I guess you'll learn to pay yer honest dues, an' leave them that's only askin' to live honest in their own groove, alone!"
A look of blank amazement settled on John Peck's face. His clenched hands relaxed and began to fumble nervously at his pockets. He moistened dry lips, cleared his throat, and stepped back.
"You can go to perdition!" he croaked. "Yer no sister of mine."
He heaved his broad shoulders through the narrow doorway, and the clack of his retreating steps sounded in the alley.
Robert Thomas turned. The hand that he laid on Mary's heaving shoulder was very gentle.
"I guess you were right," he said softly. "I've—my vision has been wrong—about women."
The girl turned to him with a sob.
Miss Peck smiled benignly on them both, with the sweetness of one who knows no guile. Then her lips twitched; her rusty laugh broke out
"My!" she ejaculated. "Weren't it just Providence that I guessed right? I've always been certain he was miserin' over to Boston—but I didn't know till I saw his jaw plumb fall off."
Giggling and nudging, like a boarding school released, the show girls began to riot down the chute. The turbulent stream sobered respectfully as it bubbled past the author and the star, and broke again into ripples of talk and laughter as young feet danced down the hard flagstones to the street
Miss Peck sighed happily.
"Ain't they sweet—ain't they just sweet! I wonder how all their mothers can do without 'em. My! It must be lonesome when they go!" She sighed again. "Law, it jest rests me to look at 'em. 'Pears like I found my groove."
The playwright turned toward her, the light of sudden understanding in his eyes.
"As I live!" he exclaimed, "I've got you—I'm on. I'll be hanged if you aren't the Mother Superior of the Chorus! That's what—the Mother Superior!"