The Liar (Freeman)
BY MARY E. WILKINS FREEMAN
TWO women sat in Mrs. J. B. Dickerman's parlor in Barr Center. One was Mrs. Dickerman, the other Mrs. Selma Woodsum from Leicester. Mrs. Dickerman was knitting gray mittens.
"I don't know what I would do if it wasn't for knitting," she observed, with a covert air of satisfaction. "I feel as if I were working along the same lines as my Sammy fighting."
Selma Woodsum was no younger than the other woman, but she looked young enough to be her daughter. She was a small woman, delicately rounded, with a curious face for a grown woman. It was pretty, with often the sulky prettiness of a child balked of her own way or confronted with something which irritated her. She had that expression of sulky, irritated prettiness, when Mrs. Dickerman made the remark about the knitting. She spoke in a thin, sweetly shrill voice.
"He isn't fighting. Your son is only playing," said she. She fairly pouted her little red mouth at Mrs. Dickerman.
Mrs. Dickerman looked unaccountably embarrassed. "Oh, of course, Selma, I know my case isn't like yours, with your son right now in the trenches at that awful battle-front," said she.
Selma crimsoned, but her sulky, defiant expression remained.
"It must be dreadful for you," said Mrs. Dickerman.
Selma answered, with sudden firmness, "Of course it is dreadful."
"I should think you would go wild thinking of all the terrible things that can happen to him. I suppose Leon wears a gas-mask."
"I understand they all have to."
"Didn't he write you he wore one?"
Selma hesitated. She looked frightened.
"I don't know as he did."
"Why, I should think you'd want to know."
"Folks can't put everything in letters," said Selma, with a falter in her speech.
"Well, the censor might not let it go through," returned Mrs. Dickerman. "I hope you hear often."
"Of course, with all the ship-sinkings and everything you can't expect to hear as if your Leon was just out West or down South."
"What's the matter?"
"I—guess I'm nervous."
Just then a sudden strain of blatant music cut the still afternoon air. Selma covered her start with an allusion to that. "What's coming?" she said.
Mrs. Dickerman got up and ran to the window. "It is that old circus coming to town!" she cried, excitedly.
"What circus?" asked Selma in a faint voice. She was very white.
"Oh, the ‘World's Greatest Show’ that's been advertised for the last month. Haven't you seen the advertisement?"
"Well, it has. The procession's going by on the other road. The selectmen wouldn't let it come on this street, and I'm glad of it. I wouldn't go a step out of my way to see it, and I'm always afraid when those things come to town. I see to it the house is locked up, and the hen-house, too. So many stragglers, let alone the circus people. I suppose they are about as bad as they make them."
"I was brought up to—think so," said Selma in a curious, faltering, weak voice.
"So was I." Mrs. Dickerman turned and looked at Selma. "For goodness' sake, Selma! Are you sick?"
"No; I'm—all right."
"You look as white as a ghost."
"Don't you want a drink of water or something?"
"No; I'm—all right."
"Well, I hope you are. You do look better now. Guess I'll sit down again. No use craning my neck to see that old procession across the field." Mrs. Dickerman sat down and began to knit. "I wish you had brought your knitting," said she.
"I would, but I didn't expect to stay long, and I'm going to call at Sarah Edgewater's before I take the trolley home, anyway. I must go in a minute now. When I heard your Sammy had been home I thought I must just drop in."
"I'm glad you did. He only had two days' furlough, and ever since he went back I've been lonesomer than ever. J. B. is all day at the store, you know, and lately one of the clerks has been laid up with rheumatism, and he has been down to the store 'most every evening. They are taking account of stock."
"Sammy went day before yesterday?"
"Yes, poor boy. He tried to put a brave face on, but he did hate to leave mother; and my, how much he talked about his good soft bed!"
"He's safe where he is," said Selma, meekly—"and well."
"Oh my, yes; of course Sammy fares well enough with his cot. That ain't goin' to hurt him. He looks as well as ever I have seen him. He ain't quite so stout, but his flesh looks hard. He looks handsome, too, if I do say it, and he's got a new khaki suit. He had an accident happen to the old one. The captain was talking to him, giving orders or something, and he had a telegram to write in a hurry, and Sammy waited till he got it done, and I don't know exactly how it happened. Sammy, he laughed fit to kill when he told his father and me about it. Somehow the captain happened to stand up with the ink-bottle in his hand, and his dog came capering round him, and jumped up and hit the ink-bottle. I don't know just how, but the ink got spilled over Sammy's uniform, and the captain couldn't get mad except at the dog, and Sammy he got a brand-new one. He brought home the other, and I've tried to get the ink stains out, but couldn't so they don't show a little. Goodness!"—Eliza's eyes followed the gaze of Selma's—"did I bring that in here? Why, I must have had it in my hands when you rang the bell. I run in here to peek behind the lace curtains and see who it was, and I must have given it a toss on the sofa. Well, it looks nice in here. Who's that coming, Selma?"
"I guess it's a boy from the butcher's shop. Yes, there's the wagon."
"Well, I'll run out and take the meat and get it on the ice. I'll be right back."
Mrs. J. B. Dickerman scuttled out of the room. Immediately Selma Woodsum began to act strangely. She had a straw suit-case. She opened it furtively. She rose, peeped out of the door, then made a swift, crouching rush for the sofa and the khaki suit. When Eliza Dickerman returned Selma was standing in the front doorway, suit-case in hand, ready to go.
Eliza exclaimed, "Why, Selma, you ain't going so soon?"
Selma looked at her from under her black hat-brim. Her blue eyes were very clear; her expression was as guileless as a child's. "I've got to if I mean to catch that trolley and get home to Leicester before dark, and look in a minute on Sarah."
"What did you bring that suit-case for this hot day?"
"I brought over my gray-silk dress to the dressmaker's. She's going to make it a little shorter. I'm too old to try to keep up with the styles, but when they mean going around without holding up your skirts, or letting them trail in the dust, I believe in following them no matter how old you are."
Eliza nodded. "That's what I say. I've just had my new black satin made three inches from the ground. She wanted to make it five. I wish you could stay to supper. I'm going to have beefsteak and hot biscuits and strawberries. Why can't you stay? You've nothing to call you home?"
"I am afraid to be out after dark. It's quite a walk from the end of the trolley line."
Eliza laughed meaningly. "And I don't suppose Luke Gleason will be there to meet you, Selma."
Selma took it coolly. "He can't to-night, for he's going to drill. He might otherwise. Sometimes he does, of course. He knows it's a lonely walk and I'm timid."
"Drill! You don't mean to say Luke Gleason's drilling? What for?"
Selma looked mildly indignant. "Why shouldn't he drill if he wants to?"
"Well, as far as that goes, I don't know as there's any reason why old Grandpa Green, who's ninety, shouldn't drill if he wants to, but I don't see any sense in it. Luke's too old to go to war. They wouldn't look at him."
"Older men than Luke are going to war on the other side."
"It ain't going to be like that on this side."
"None of us know," said Selma, with rather dreadful solemnity. "It is just as well that every man, no matter how old he is, should know enough to fight if he has to."
"Luke Gleason drilling," said Eliza Dickerman as Selma, after saying good-by rather stiffly, had gone. "My!"
It was almost dark when Selma Woodsum, hurrying along the country road between the dusty bushes, came in sight of her own house. It was on the outskirts of Leicester, but the village began at once and thickly at that point. The decent—not opulent, but decent—houses had an air of suddenly crowding together the very second a certain place in the road was reached.
Selma saw the house lights gleaming when she came in sight. She drew a sigh, for she was really a timid woman, and was glad to be past the lonely stretch of road. She glanced at her own house, and her heart leaped, then seemed to stand still before it beat again. She had expected to see only a soft mass of shadow, deeper shadow looming up out of the dusk on her home lot, and instead she saw windows full of soft yellow light.
Selma broke into a weak run. She fairly fell upon the kitchen door before she could open it, and a man's glad voice hailed from within:
"Hello, there! That you, mother?"
Selma opened the door. She had left it locked. She entered. In the rocking-chair by the window sat a young man. He looked ghastly, but his eyes twinkled with indomitable cheer—even mirth.
"Well, mother!" he hailed again. His voice was pitifully weak, but charming in its affection and delight.
"That you, Leon?"
"Now, mother, who else could it be? Come here and give a fellow a kiss. My, but I'm glad to get here, and see you. Say, mother, you're just as pretty as ever."
Selma kissed the man and stood over him. "Are you sick?"
He hesitated. "Not so very now, I guess. I have been. Had a fever. I thought I was all right, but when I got seated here I wasn't quite so sure. I had a hard trip from Chicago—pretty hot, you know, and I guess I was pretty weak when I started. I couldn't keep up with the show; had to light out for home and mother to be nursed. Say, mother, ain't you glad to see a feller?"
For answer Selma knelt down beside the man, bent her face over his thin hand and began to weep.
Leon laughed tenderly. "Poor mother! Too much for her, wasn't it?" he crooned. He made shift to smooth her hair with his other hand. "Don't you cry, poor little soul," he went on, weakly. "I'll be all right when I've had a week of your—" He broke off suddenly. His head lopped over on one shoulder.
Selma rolled frightened blue eyes up at him. Instantly she was on her feet and across the room and back, and the scent of camphor became evident.
Soon Leon looked up and laughed—his irrepressible laugh. "Don't be scared, mother," he whispered. "I've been toppling over like a kid's doll-baby this way for some time. All the show got used to it. They'd fling cold water at me and go right on about their business. Don't you be scared. Say, mother, what have you got in the house to eat?"
"Lamb broth. I'll warm it right up. Then I'll fix your bed."
"That's the talk. Say, do you know I believe I'd never keeled over in the first place if I'd had anything decent to eat. The grub in some of those little Western towns where we played was weird. Many's the time I've hankered after your lamb broth. Onion in it?"
Selma nodded. "And turnip."
"Now you're talkin'."
Selma began hurrying about. All her agitation had disappeared. She heated lamb broth, fed her son with it—he was much too weak to feed himself—then made his bed ready in his old room. When he was settled in bed she felt of his forehead.
Leon laughed again. "Of course it's a bit hot," he said. "One can't get over a fever in a second."
Selma went down and put some herbs on to steep. She was rather a wise woman about nursing. Leon was not asleep when she carried her bowl of herb brew up-stairs. He was evidently suffering, but his ready laugh came.
"Well, I declare! Just what I expected," he said. "I knew what I was in for. Same old bitter, awful good for fever, just the same."
Selma covered her son warmly. "Now don't you throw off one quilt," she ordered.
"Trust your good little boy," said Leon.
Selma went down-stairs. Soon she heard voices. She was sitting in a front room whose windows were under Leon's open ones. She could hear if he called. She saw the switching skirts of two women coming up her front walk, and knew Aggy Leach and Mrs. Edward Sylvester were going to call on her. She rose and lit her lamp, and went to the door. She knew that they knew her son had returned. She had her finger on her lip. They entered noiselessly and seated themselves.
Mrs. Sylvester's silk skirt rustled a little, and she put a smoothing hand upon it as if to quiet it. "I was over calling on young Mrs. Leicester," she whispered, "and she said her maid told her she saw a young man that looked sick getting off the train, and she thought it was Leon."
Mrs. Sylvester was related to the fine old Sylvester family by marriage, and was very pretty. She looked wonderingly at Selma, and Aggy Leach, a young woman who taught school, looked at her with eager curiosity. Aggy was attractive and loverless, and the victim of dreams. Leon Woodsum had shown her a little attention before he went away, three years ago. Aggy had cherished those attentions in spite of others which had been bestowed upon her later on. Aggy cherished all attentions and wove them into a beautiful fabric on her loom of fancy.
Selma nodded. "And turnip."
"Is—he wounded?" gasped Aggy.
Selma looked at her and said nothing.
Aggy's pretty face assumed a heroic expression. "Blind, or—disfigured?"
Selma straightened herself. "He is not disfigured," she said in rather too loud a voice in case the man overhead were awake.
Aggy touched her own eyes with a look of horror and valor.
Selma had recovered herself. She regarded Aggy with a stony expression.
The two callers, on their homeward way, could not remember that Selma had in reality told them anything definite, had they been pressed, but both were under the firm impression that poor, gallant Leon Woodsum had returned wounded from the front, and had lost the sight of one eye, if not both.
"Mrs. Leicester said her maid said he walked as if he couldn't tell where he was going," mused Mrs. Sylvester.
"Stone-blind! A young man, too! It is dreadful!" sighed Aggy. Then she moved along silently. Before she reached home she had in her dreams married poor, blind Leon, was teaching to support him, and spending her evenings reading and singing to him, until he was blissfully happy.
The next afternoon all Leicester knew that Leon Woodsum had returned home from the European battle-front all but dead from mysterious wounds, with his sight forever gone.
Leon was not so well that day. Selma muffled the door-bell and nursed assiduously. Leon fell asleep after dark, and Selma, watching at a front window, saw Luke Gleason coming. Luke was a very tall man, and walked with long strides, with purposeful strides. Nobody seeing Luke Gleason walking could think for one moment that he had not a very fixed objective; that he was not walking to get somewhere.
Selma was standing in the doorway when Luke came up the front walk bordered with blue iris. She stood in an attitude which in some mysterious way implied the necessity of caution.
Luke began to tread gingerly, encroaching upon the border of the gravel walk. When he reached the woman in the doorway he did not speak. He extended a hand, which was softly grasped, then at once relinquished.
Selma led and Luke followed. They passed through a front room, then into another, the dining-room at the back. Selma closed the doors carefully. Then she spoke in a thin voice, hardly more than a thread of sound.
"He is in the front chamber on the other side," she said.
She sat down in a dining-chair, and Luke also. Selma glanced at him, then away again. She looked like a scared little girl. Luke was not much older than she, but he might have been her father. He gazed at her tenderly, whimsically, reproachfully. Selma shrugged away from his keen blue gaze; she almost whimpered.
"Whatever possessed you, child?" said Luke.
"Perhaps I don't know what you mean." Selma's voice had a sulky inflection.
"Oh, you do know exactly what I mean. Don't worry. I'm hardly whispering—he can't hear. Selma, what made you tell such a perfect tissue of lies about him?"
Selma faced him fiercely. "You ask why!" she exclaimed. "You ask why! Luke Gleason, you know why."
"I suppose I know why you thought you had to do it, but I don't know your reason for it. I never have, Selma."
"Of course not. If you were a woman, and your only son—"
"But, after all, what is it all about?"
Selma looked at him, and her eyes flashed. Red spots blazed out on her cheeks. She stammered. "About? about? Leon, my son, my own son, going about with a third-rate circus show! About?"
Luke looked at her gravely and quizzically. "But," he said, slowly—he spoke with a slight drawl—"after all, you know I made inquiries. As far as I could find, the show is as respectable as most things of the sort; in fact, rather more so. The principal trouble seemed to be lack of capital. The wild beasts and horses, and the whole set, were not, so to speak, of the expensive variety. Your Leon was the best of the lot. Leon can get in with one of the best shows on the road when he is a little older. He is really pretty good. He did his stunts well, Selma. He brought the house down. I can't really understand why you feel so desperate as to—well, do as you do, and—say the things you do say."
"My son is in a third-rate show! You know how I feel about circuses. My folks would no more have let me go to a circus than turned me into a den of wild beasts. Mother used to say there wasn't much difference between the awful beasts of prey and those terrible men and women all dressed up in all the colors of the rainbow, riding around. A circus always meant to me something dreadful. We hardly even spoke of one when it was in town, and father and mother never let us go to see the procession."
"But, Selma, after all it is the respectability which counts most, and the show is rather unusual in that respect. The manager had his wife with him. She was his wife, all right, and she wasn't in the show; and she spent her time mending and sewing like any decent woman. She makes the costumes."
"Oh, well, my dear child, if you think the costumes were any worse than I have seen the women and girls right here in Leicester getting round in for the last few years, you are mistaken. They were enough sight fuller in the skirts—left you in more doubt, you know—and that was when I saw them; and I don't believe to-day they are much shorter than the skirts I saw Mrs. Henry Tisdale and Mrs. Erastus Dodd wearing to-day. They came into the post-office, and Mrs. Tisdale wore pink stockings, and Mrs. Dodd wore bright blue, and both those women have grandchildren and weigh close to two hundred."
"Luke Gleason, you ought to be ashamed of yourself!"
"I? Maybe so."
"Everybody wears their skirts short now."
"Not like that, I'm glad to say. If I saw—"
"Luke, I will not hear another word."
"All right, child. All I'm driving at is, I can't for the life of me see what you are so upset about Leon for."
"I am. I feel disgraced. He is disgraced."
"It is true, whether you own up to it or not. I was calling on Mrs. J. B. Dickerman to-day. Her Sammy is in the army. He has just been home. She has some reason to be proud of her son."
"He may get killed."
"So may Leon. He goes up in aeroplanes in that awful show, and I know the aeroplane is rickety if it is such a cheap show."
"Guess they look out for their star performers all right. See here, Selma, what is this I hear about your having a khaki suit out on your line, and everybody peeking and telling all round it's covered with blood stains?"
"I've heard it about fifty times to-day. You can't have any khaki suit."
"Why not?" Selma pouted.
"Leon? He was seen getting off the train, and he wasn't dressed in khaki."
"He might have had it in his trunk."
"Didn't have any baggage. Poor chap got home dead broke. I know that as well as you do, Selma. You haven't got any khaki suit."
Selma rose with a jerk. "Just haven't I?" She rushed out and was back in a second with a mass of mustard-colored stuff stiffly carried in her arms. "What do you call this?"
"Where did you get it?" asked Luke, dryly, after a minute.
"Bosh! Now, child, don't you try to work me. What are those spots?"
"Stains of what?"
Luke stared steadily at Selma. She hung her head.
"Bosh!" he cried suddenly. "I know what you mean! Selma, now aren't you ashamed of yourself?"
Suddenly Selma broke down. She threw the stiff khaki on the floor, sat down, put her head on the dining-table, encircled it with her clasped arms, and wept. Her slender shoulders heaved with sobs like a school-girl's.
Luke patted her head. "Now quit that, Selma," he said. "You'll make yourself sick. Out with it! Tell me where you got that."
Selma sobbed out her confession. "I—couldn't help it!" she gasped.
"If," said Luke Gleason, after a pause, "if you had ever really grown up, I should scold you. What does Mrs. Dickerman think of it?"
"I heard to-day. She—thinks a tramp stole it, a—German spy. She thinks he wanted a khaki suit to spy in."
"Lord! But, Selma, you must know you—stole it."
Selma raised her head and looked at him. Tears were streaming down her cheeks, but she tossed her head. "I did not," said she.
"What in the name of common sense did you do, then?"
"I took it."
Luke grinned. "All right," said he. "Then, after you had taken it, you hung it out on the line for the folks to see, and you told them it was Leon's, and he had fought at the front in it, and been wounded, and those—ink spots were blood stains. What other name do you use for a lie, Selma?"
"I did not tell them," said Selma. "They said so."
"But you did not tell them the truth?"
"I didn't tell them lies."
"You just kept still and let them talk, and didn't tell them they were wrong?"
"I don't see that I did anything so very dreadful. I have suffered everything since Leon went off with that circus, and Mrs. Dickerman was so set up about her Sammy. If Leon was really in the army he could do anything. He would be an officer in no time. And to think of that slow-witted Sammy Dickerman, and my Leon—" Suddenly Selma collapsed again. She wept. "Oh dear!" she sobbed out. "Of course you are right, Luke. I have been very wicked. I have stolen and lied, and all because I was proud; and, after all, Leon is a good boy, and handsome and smart, and—oh, Luke, he is worse, and I am scared to death about him!"
"Call Doctor Ellerton over."
"I—don't want to."
"Selma, I am ashamed of you. You wouldn't rather the boy died than have it come out? And, besides, Ellerton wouldn't talk."
"He would know. Leon talks."
"Great Scott! He isn't delirious?"
"A little now and then. His mind wanders, and he talks about the show. He doesn't know where he is."
Luke sprang to his feet. "You stay right here. I'm going up to see Leon."
Luke went. He was not gone long. When he came back he again patted Selma's bowed head. "I really don't think it is anything serious," he said. "The boy took that journey when he wasn't able, and has a temporary relapse. He hasn't much temperature. His delirium is more from nerve exhaustion than fever. At first he wasn't quite right when he saw me, then he was as sane as I was. Lucky I had my thermometer. That medical training poor father made me take is of some use now and then, if I never did practise and never did lose my money, as father thought I might. Now Selma, I'm going home first, then I'm coming back, and I'm going to stay with Leon to-night; and you go to bed and go to sleep. You'll be worn out."
Selma gave a look of intense gratitude at him. Then she flushed and stammered. "What—will they think?"
"Think, nothing. They all know Leon is home, and they know I took a medical course. You go to bed right off, and you leave the lamps lighted and the front door open. I shall be back in a few minutes. I shall tell everybody I meet just what I am going to do, too. If nothing is underhanded, they will think it is all right, as it is."
"Oh, Luke, I am grateful. I know you are right. Oh, I shall be so glad to have you, and I'll fix a nice little lunch for you."
"All right, then. Now you can go to bed and to sleep, and put it all off your mind."
Selma did not go to bed, however, until Luke returned. She arranged a lunch for him in a room which opened out of Leon's, and sat by the boy, who was quite rational.
"Uncle Luke's a brick!" said Leon. "He's coming back so you can go to sleep, mother. You could, anyway; I should be all right. But you wouldn't; you'd sit up and worry. There isn't a bit of need of it. That confounded journey was too much for me, that was all. If only the management had let me take the plane, goodness! I'd have sailed home, and been like a fighter. When I get rich I'll have a plane and take you up with me, mother. It's grand. You wouldn't be afraid. It's just like climbing mountains on wings instead of feet, and floating down instead of taking headers. I shall be all right in a day or two—no need to worry. I know you don't like the show, but it won't be that all my life. That's just a step. I wish I could stay here and go into a store or something on your account, but you know I can't, don't you, mother?"
It was a week before Leon was able to be down-stairs, nearly another week before he was outdoors, and could go to the post-office and visit his old haunts in the grocery-store and Sylvester's Antique Shop.
Selma watched him set out, and she looked unaccountably worried, Leon thought.
"What's the matter now, mother?" he said. "Here you look as glum as an owl, with your pretty face all drawn down, and your darling boy well enough to be outdoors. What's up, lady?"
Selma tried to laugh. "Nothing," she said. "I wouldn't stay too long, if—I were you, the first time."
"Oh no, of course not; but I'm all right, mother."
"It's the first time you have been out."
"Save us! mother, if you don't act as if you thought it might be my last! What's the matter?"
Selma laughed stiffly. "Nothing, of course. Don't try to talk too much. You haven't got your strength back yet."
"Strength enough to take you up in one hand and shake you if you don't stop worrying," Leon called back, gaily. He was a handsome, well-set-up lad. Selma eyed him adoringly as he swung down the street. Still the look of abject worry was in her face.
Leon was gone all the morning. When he came home he looked sober. He ate his dinner with an appetite, but did not talk much. Every now and then he seemed on the verge of asking a question, then checked himself.
After dinner Leon went out again. She tried to prevent him, but he was almost curt with her: "I am going to call on Mrs. Edward Sylvester. I met her with my old girl, Aggy Leach, and Mrs. Sylvester asked me to come over and play tennis on her new court. She asked me to dinner, but I told her I had to go home and eat fatted-calf hash."
Leon laughed gaily at his own joke. Then he opened his mouth as if to ask a question. Selma visibly cringed, and paled.
Leon gave her a curious look, kissed her and went out. Late in the afternoon he entered the post-office. Luke Gleason was there. There was no one in the office except the two. Luke came out of his sanctum, locking the door. He was rather over-punctilious with regard to his Government job. He came out in the large, dirty, littered room where Leon stood, and motioned him to the settee.
"Sit down here. Don't stand up," said Luke. "What's the matter, Leon?"
Leon gazed around cautiously.
"Not a soul within gunshot," said Luke. "As far as anybody coming in, two nights out of three I might as well go home as keep this open till eight o'clock. What's up, Leon?"
The boy burst out desperately.
"Everything!" he gasped.
"Yes, everything. Uncle Luke, what has mother been doing and saying?"
Luke looked soberly at him. "I suppose I know what you mean," he said, "but I guess you had better tell me right out."
"Well, I have been all over Leicester to-day, and everybody's been asking me the most tom-fool questions."
"Yes. I'd like to know what they all mean. Say they all think I've been fighting in the trenches over there at the European war-front, with France and England, you know; and they think I'm wounded, and blind, and I declare if Aggy Leach didn't try to lead me, and she asked how could I manage to get round so well when I was blind, and she thought it was wonderful, and the way she and Mrs. Sylvester wondered when they found I could play tennis well, and asked me if I had been to the training-schools for the blind in Paris, and once Mrs. Sylvester grabbed me when she thought I didn't see a stone and was going to stumble over it when I started to go. What in the name of common sense does it mean?"
"What do you think it means?"
Leon colored. "Oh, hang it all! I know, I suppose. I never felt like such a fool. I declare, I couldn't even say positively I wasn't blind for fear I'd—do her mischief—give her away. Uncle Luke, what possessed mother?"
"She has always felt dreadfully about your being connected with that circus, you know," Luke replied, soberly.
"Mother's a fool!" said the boy.
"You shouldn't speak that way about your own mother, Leon."
"Well, I can't help it because she is my mother, can I? She is an awful fool. Then, you know, she's been telling all round that I've been in the European war—our war now, but at the European front—and come home wounded, and blind."
"I don't think she exactly said so," Luke replied, hesitatingly.
"But she let them think so. Just the same thing. And what's all this fool stuff about my blood-stained khaki suit? I never owned one, much less a blood-stained one. Did mother have one out on the clothes-line? I heard that, and I was struck dumb, couldn't say a word. What is that nonsense?"
Luke told him.
"Great Scott!" said Leon, and sat staring before him, seeing nothing. "What did possess her?" he said, presently.
"Now look here, Leon, you mustn't feel hard about your mother. It isn't right. She isn't like the new-fashioned woman. You can't judge her like you could a man or one of those women. She's just a woman. You've got to make allowances."
"But what in the name of common sense am I going to do? Lord! I owe something to myself. I can't stand this reputation for glory which I haven't got. Why, hang it! I can't even say I can see as well as a hawk, for fear of giving my own mother away. Of course she's a fool, but she's my mother, and I've got to stand all this, but it makes me out an awful liar myself. Don't you understand what an awful fix I'm in? I simply can't tell the truth because if I do they will know she—well, you know. I won't say it about poor mother. And I can't even deny things. Well, I suppose all I can do is to light out, go back to that confounded show, and it was getting too rank for me, that's the truth. One thing that made me sick—they've got some people in this season that I can't stand for. But I've got to go back. I'd enlist to-morrow if I wouldn't have to tell the truth to be accepted, and give mother away. I can't even do that."
Luke regarded the boy steadily.
Leon looked inquiringly at him. "What is it, Uncle Luke?"
"There is something you can do, if you are in earnest about enlisting."
"In earnest! Of course I am, but how can I? Even if the conscription bill were passed, I'd give mother away if I stayed here. They'd find out. Of course I'd have to register. There wasn't a blamed thing the matter with me—it's a hole I'm in. Don't you see? And back of my mind when I was coming home was that idea of enlisting, if mother wouldn't make too much fuss. Lord! I begin to think she wouldn't!"
"No, she wouldn't. You are right there."
"Mother wouldn't make a fuss about my enlisting and going to France to fight in the trenches, and maybe never set eyes on me again, and yet she could—Lord! Uncle Luke, women are queer! Well, she's made it impossible for me to do anything but go back to that beastly show. Hope I get drafted out there so they don't find out what she did."
"It's easier than that."
Leon looked at him eagerly. "What do you mean?"
"I've got considerable property, and no relations, and—"
"What do you mean, Uncle Luke?"
"You could fly an aeroplane, couldn't you?"
"Better than I can do anything else. I'd thought of that. Say, the stunts I did in the plane in that show would count over there! I ain't saying it to brag, but—I can fly, Uncle Luke."
"Then why shouldn't you?"
The two talked, their heads close together.
When Leon reached home his mother met him at the door. She looked scared, but his gay salutation made her smile with relief.
"Think you'd lost your treasure, mother?" he called out.
"Your supper's getting cold," she responded in her sweet, rather weak voice. She smiled when her son kissed her, but when the smile faded she looked queer to him.
"What's the matter, mother?" he asked, turning and looking down at her as they entered the house.
"You don't look like yourself. Been doing your hair a different way? No, it isn't that. You do look sort of used up, mother. Don't you feel well?"
"Perfectly well," replied Selma; but her lips quivered and tears rolled over her cheeks.
"Now, mother, what in the name of common sense are you crying for? Say, you didn't get worried about me because I stayed so late, did you?"
Selma shook her head, speechless.
"Then what is it?"
"Your supper is cold," Selma stammered in a choking voice.
"And that's what you're crying about? Mother, you never grew up. What were they thinking about to let you get married? And here you've got a grown-up son, you not grown up. Lord! mother, I'll have to adopt you. Say, how'd you like that, eh?"
Selma tried to laugh, and presently her worried expression disappeared.
"Better primp a little, mother," he advised. "I saw Uncle Luke. I dropped in at the post-office, and I reckon he'll be around. Say, mother, that was a jim-dandy supper all right, and I feel good. Go and put on that lavender dress of yours."
Selma did not color. "Are you sure he's coming?"
"Yes, he said he was."
"If he comes, I've got to see him alone," said Selma, abruptly.
Leon laughed. "All right, mother. I'll make myself scarce." Leon went out; then he returned: "Say, mother, I'm going to tell you, myself. First I thought I'd let Uncle Luke. What do you say to my going—to France, to the front in France?"
Selma looked up at him. Her blue eyes seemed black in her white face. "To France?"
"Yes, Uncle Luke is going to manage it for me. He has a cousin who married an English army officer in Canada. He is going to fix it all up. I'm going to Canada, then ho for France! and your smart son flying an aeroplane, and covering himself with glory thick as eagle feathers, and you as proud as Punch, when he comes home with his coat so covered with badges of honor and things there won't be room for a scarf-pin. Eh, mother? You aren't going to show the white feather now? Say, mother, you aren't—"
"No," said Selma, quite clearly, "I am not. Go up-stairs and read your paper. I'll leave the dishes."
"You're the mother for a brave son who is going to fly for the right to be proud of," said Leon, rather hoarsely. He shook her little shoulders, but did not kiss her; then he went out.
"When are you going?" Selma called after him.
"Not before a week. Oh, you won't need to shake when you get the papers for an age yet."
"I shall have time to see to your mending, and get your clothes in order," said Selma. She said it with a certain note of comfort.
Leon marveled at the ways of women as he went up-stairs. He sat beside the window reading the paper when Luke came—it was not long. Leon reflected that he hoped his mother would marry Luke. He did not like his mother to live alone, but he could not stay home with his unclipped wings of restlessness. "A pretty mess of it I'd make," he thought, as he sat there and heard the murmur of greeting at the door below. "I'd most likely take to drink. A little town like Leicester is not for me. Lord! I was born with the purpose to get out of it."
The boy was right. A little New England village with conservatism as its backbone was not for him. He was alien to it. He could not live in narrow, monotonous environments and remain true to his instincts. No man who lives contrary to his instincts of life makes a success of living. Small wonder that the boy had fled when that little traveling show had struck its shabby tents in the vacant lot below the house three years before. Small wonder that the little show could not hold him. Leon had a nature equipped with wings for large flights. Now the first great flight of the whole world beckoned him. He was elate, enraptured. He had done wonderful, harebrained things with a plane, and come triumphantly gliding down the long aerial slant of life instead of the dreadful perpendicular of death.
He felt himself a master of the new air-craft, and with reason. Sitting there by the window, he dreamed of the aid he would give brave, insulted France.
Down-stairs in the sitting-room Selma and Luke were talking. Luke had hardly been seated before Selma went over to her desk, drew out a sheet of paper and handed it to him. She was silent; her face was quite impassive. She knew that he knew, and no shame of disclosure was over her.
Luke read, then he turned upon her sternly. "You mean—" he began.
"I mean to have it published in the Leicester News Thursday."
"You cannot do it."
"You mean to confess in this way that you have—lied about your son, and—stolen?"
Selma nodded. She was pale now.
"You can't do it, Selma."
"What can I do, then?" she pleaded, piteously. "I lied; you know I did. And I stole that suit, and when people thought what they did I let them think it. I've got to confess, and I can't go all over Leicester and Barr Center and Barr-by-the-Sea and South Barr, from house to house, and confess. I can't think of any other way but to have it published in the Leicester News. I wrote it while Leon was out this afternoon."
Luke tore the sheet of paper into bits. "Where's your waste-paper basket?" said he.
"What else can I do?"
"You don't seem to think of your son. What would he do if this came out?"
Selma stared at him.
"He would stand by you, of course, but do you think it's fair?"
Selma was silent a second. Then she faltered, "I never thought—"
"No, you didn't, child; but you can't saddle all this foolishness onto Leon."
Selma looked at him with eyes through which the soul of a little naughty, perplexed girl seemed to look.
The man looked lovingly. "What a goose you are, Selma!" he said.
"You don't think I ought?"
"Why, of course you ought not."
"Then what can I do?"
"Do nothing, and make the best of it."
"And not confess?"
"Not to four villages. I reckon the Almighty, and your son and your husband will be about enough, and if they are not, you've got to take your medicine, child."
"Does Leon know?" gasped Selma.
"Of course he knows, and can't tell. You've put him in a lie, too."
"I haven't got any husband," Selma said in a queer voice.
"You are going to have—me. I have stood all the nonsense I'm going to. You've got to be taken care of whether you want to or not. I am going to marry you right away."
Selma looked at him helplessly.
"I don't pretend it can be the same that it might have been at first, when you and I were both young, and you had not married another man, now, when you've been through all that and have got a grown-up son, and I've been through what I have. It can't be the same. We won't pretend it can be. The nightingales and moonlights of life are over for both of us, but I reckon there's a lot left. We hear a lot about ideals for nations nowadays. I reckon there's ideals for men and women as well as nations, and we've got them left, and they're worth more than we are."
"You want to marry me after I—told those lies?"
"I've torn them up. They are scraps of paper." Luke laughed.
Luke did not stay long. When he left he bent over and kissed Selma and told her to say her prayers, and go to bed and to sleep and not worry.
Luke had not gone very far down the road before he heard a quick step behind him, and halted. "Well, son?" he said as Leon came up with him.
"I am going to marry your mother, son."
"Well, I am glad, for I didn't like to leave her alone."
"Some women never should be left alone—some good women, too."
"I don't see why mother hasn't married you before," said Leon.
Luke laughed. "I never asked her," he said. "Somehow, I can't reason it out, this last made me feel as if I couldn't wait another minute till I did."
"You never asked her?" repeated Leon. He flushed.
"Oh, I mean since she married and your father died. Of course I asked her before that. I was good friends with her, and liked her, and stood by her, but I don't know as I should ever have really thought of marrying her at this date if—she hadn't done such a darn-fool thing."
Leon looked at the older man, and his gay look and manner were gone. He spoke a little sternly. "After all," he said, "I make excuses for her, and in reality she does not seem to me to be as responsible as some women. Mother is like a child, and somehow I've always loved her better for it; but, since you are going to marry mother, I owe it to her, and to you, to say I am sorry for her and for me that she—told those—stories."
Luke Gleason looked steadily and lovingly at the young man. "You are going to make the stories true, my son," said he. "There are more reasons than one for going to war."