Off with the Old
OFF WITH THE OLD
By Edward Boltwood
AT the door of the Brookeses' house, my balance of resolution was thrown out of adjustment by old Mason, who turned the knob. Butlers should be changed every decade; deliver me, for one, from the ancient family servant. Mason grinned respectfully.
"Mr. Robert," he purred, as if I were in college.
"I have not seen you for a long time, Mason," I said, stiffly. "Is Miss Agatha at——?"
Now, I had carefully schemed to use her last name.
"If you will wait in the drawing-room, Mr. Rob." And Mason was gone.
So I crossed the threshold with my plan of campaign ruffled. Even the butler had done his best to set me at once on the old and dangerous plane of intimacy.
In the drawing-room, the Brookes penates served the same disturbing purpose. I recognized, for example, a porcelain shepherd and his shepherdess, about whom Agatha and I joked the Winter before she came out. I caught myself hunting for friends and finding them—a twisted candelabrum, a miniature of Aunt Juliana, a carved chair with ingenious spikes to stick into your spine. Really, how absurd it was that, after so prolonged a residence in Europe, the Brookeses should return to New York with this painfully familiar bric-à-brac!
The clock on the mantel began to sound five. It used to catch on the third tinkle, and was invariably a quarter fast—at least, so Agatha claimed whenever she was late for an appointment with me, which was often. One, two, and now the third stroke jangled. I sighed, and consulted my watch. The clock was fifteen minutes ahead of time.
However, I carry a portrait of Susan inside my watch-case. The habit is commonplace, but comforting. Accordingly, I looked at Susan and was comforted. The thing had to be done, somehow. There was a flurry of the portières.
"Rob!" Agatha gave me her hands, and, naturally, I took them—both of them. She has extremely nice hands. We sat down. I secured the chair with the spikes.
"You see, I lost no time in coming, Agatha. I took you at your word."
"Of course?" Already, I was clutching at the conventional straw of reminiscence. "You once hated people who took you at your word—'duff-muffs,' I think you called them."
Agatha laughed, crinkling her eyes. "I do still; but in this case, it's different."
A man is sensible to be on guard when Agatha crinkles her eyes.
"In this case," she went on, "you knew that I am quite as anxious to see you as you are to see me—and more so, probably."
"Did you like Mentone?" I demanded, sternly.
"Not in the least," said Agatha. "But Mentone liked me, which was more important, on the whole."
"Mentone is human." This would not do; it was necessary, at any cost, to play the brother. "Mentone liked you because you are clever," I explained, pompously, "and good."
"One must be clever to stay good in Mentone. Then there were St. Petersburg and Buda-Pesth and the Isle of Wight, We yote from Gib to Alexandria."
"Past tense of verb, 'to yacht.' And I think you might have written me.
"Quite true," I assented. "But if I had, I would have nothing to tell you now."
"Well!" Agatha's scorn was as charming as ever. "You are telling me absolutely nothing, as it is."
"True again." And I thought desperately of Susan.
"Why don't you recite some of those unwritten letters?"
"That's a fine scheme," said I, meditating. It was an excellent scheme, but the trouble was that I had rehearsed an entirely different method of imparting the news. However, "'Dear Agatha—'" I began, and balked.
"Expressive," she commented, encouragingly, "but brief. I presume you would have cabled it. What was the date of that letter?"
"I haven't finished. The date is a year ago."
"We were in Derbyshire with three dukes. Proceed, sir."
"'Dear Agatha: I am sure you are not changed a bit.'"
"You can be positive," she interpolated, dropping her delightful, brown eyelashes.
My heart also dropped for the fraction of a trifle. Could it be possible that she still imagined that she——?
"Don't interrupt," I advised. "To continue: 'I am sure you are not changed a bit. I am not changed, either.'"
"What on earth could change us?" asked Agatha.
"Well, an auto accident," I suggested, boorishly.
"I'm serious. Rob, we have always been such reliable chums!"
She reached out an impulsive hand. My backbone became panicky, or was it the carving on the chair? At all events, I shifted to the divan beside her.
"Dear Agatha!" I exclaimed.
"Another letter?" said she, innocently.
"Chums is the very word I want to talk about. Suppose something should happen to make a difference in that?"
She raised her eyes, and frowned straight at me. I did not know where to look, and so I looked at Agatha. Whereupon, she frowned the harder and the more becomingly.
"Pay attention to me," she directed.
"Ah, who wouldn't?" said I.
"Rob, dear—" her tone altered to what I used to call her stained-glass voice—"Rob, you make me think that we must understand things together as we never did before. Oh, why can't we be children always? There never was any difficulty about understanding then. Can't we be wise now, like children—in spite of the nonsense that is bound to come, I suppose, to every man—and woman?"
Involuntarily, my fingers pushed themselves into my pocket and around the watch.
"Your letter is unfinished," hinted Miss Brookes.
"Yes—'Yours faithfully, Robert Cryder,'" I concluded.
"Rather terse," she pronounced, critically. "Nevertheless, I have a sweet disposition, and I shall answer it."
Agatha dominated a dusky corner of the divan. She was molded into a gown of a sort of bluish gray or grayish blue—well, I haven't much of a notion about her gown, for the reason that her face was sufficient to engage the entire attention of any number of men from one to a million. Of course, I realized before that Agatha was beautiful, but now— Ah, Susan, Susan!
Agatha commenced her fanciful letter soberly, leaning forward so that a sunbeam fell on the bronze hair.
"'Dear Robert: No matter how many new people I meet, I remember my most perfect pal.'"
"Thank you," I acknowledged; "but dare I put it—sententious?"
"Did you say sentimental?" cried Agatha.
"I did not," I replied, loftily. "Sentimental, indeed!"
Agatha held me for a second in her eyes. "Sentiment is part of the nonsense that's bound to happen," she murmured, and turned her head.
It seemed incredible, but there was a tear in her voice. And, hang it all, why did she look shivery and pitiful, as if she needed to be kissed? Heaven knows I couldn't kiss her! Disaster was ever the result of this confessional business. I swung nearer to Agatha on the divan.
"There are worse things than sentiment," said I. Now that the time had come, I croaked like a raven, just as I expected. "I've been sentimental in your absence—irredeemably sentimental."
She made a little gesture of protest.
"I mean it, Agatha. Sentimental in altogether a new way."
"Must you go on?" There were real tears in her eyes now,
"I'm afraid so. Last Summer, I found a spot in my heart I didn't suspect before. It had been covered up by stuff that doesn't count. Am I to blame? And the finding of it changed all of my life for me, except our friendship; it——"
Agatha took a long breath, and squared her shoulders.
"You can't go on, dear," she said, gently.
"Why not? I must tell you. I came to-day on purpose to tell you. It is best for both of us to get it over with."
She glanced at me more softly and more pitifully than is imaginable. "Rob, I am engaged to be married," said Agatha.
"Oh, may the good Lord deliver us!" I ejaculated, piously. "So am I."
For the instant, we were not less petrified than the shepherd and his sweetheart on the mantel. Then, Agatha pounded her knee three times in an exceedingly vulgar fashion.
"I am glad," she gasped, and laughed until her cheeks were wet.
"That's evident," I observed, as soon as I could observe anything. "When you are through being so violently glad, I'll congratulate you."
"But I was afraid to tell you," she panted, groping for her handkerchief. "Afraid it might hurt you! How did I know what notions you might have about our old affection? Rob, why didn't you speak of your engagement the first minute I came into this room?"
"Who is he?" I temporized.
"Who is she?" retorted Agatha.
But I maintained a discreet silence while she related glowing particulars about Sir Gilbert Stratton, after which Agatha listened sympathetically to my Susanic rhapsody.
I had managed to do pretty well, considering. The credit, however, was perhaps not entirely mine.