Read PART THREE of The Lovely Lady , free online book, by Mary Hunter Austin, on ReadCentral.com.

IN WHICH PETER BECOMES A BACHELOR

I

The day before leaving for his summer vacation Peter was notified that he was wanted in his private office by the younger Siegel Brother. Though he couldn’t quite fall in with the dark prognostications of Blinders that he was about to be mulcted of his salary by a plot which had been plainly indicated by the marked partiality of our Mr. Croker, the incident gave him some uneasiness. The young Siegel Brother must have been younger than somebody of course, though it couldn’t have been by more than a scratch, and he might have been any age without betraying it, so deeply was he sunk in the evidence of the surpassing quality of the grocery department. However, there was something surprisingly young looking out at Peter from the junior brother’s red and white rotundity, at which he took heart immensely.

“Weatheral, Peter, canned goods, recommended by Mr. Greenslet,” Siegel Brother ticked him off from a manilla envelope. “Just a little honorarium, Mr. Weatheral, we are in the habit of distributing to such of our employees as make practical suggestions to the advantage of the business.” Contriving to make his hands meet in front of him by clasping them very high up on his chest, Siegel Brother assumed that he had folded his arms, and waited to see what Peter would do about it.

“We have also a little savings bank for the benefit of our employees which pays 3 per cent., yet I believe we have you not among our depositors.” There was the slightest possible burr to his speech as though it were blunted by so much fatness.

“Well, you see, sir there’s a mortgage.” Peter was afraid he should damage himself by the admission, but the firm heard him out.

“How much?”

“It was a thousand, but we’ve got it down to seven hundred six hundred and sixty,” Peter corrected himself with a glance at his honorarium.

“And the farm, it is worth ” Siegel Brother parted his hands slightly to admit of any valuation.

“Two thousand.”

“So! Well, Mr. Weatheral, that is not so bad, and if I were you, when I had occasion to speak of it I would say, not ‘I am paying a mortgage,’ that is dead work, Mr. Weatheral, but ‘I am buying a farm.’ It goes easier so.”

“Thank you, sir, I’ll remember.” He supposed his employer was done with him, but as he turned to go he heard his name again.

“You will report to our Mr. Croker when you return, Mr. Weatheral; he thinks he can use you.”

Two weeks later when he came back rested from Bloombury, Peter found himself visible to at least ten persons, all of whom pertained to the boarding-house of the exclusive Mrs. Blodgett, where, by the advice of J. Wilkinson Cohn, he engaged a small room on the third floor with a window opening some six feet from the rear wall of a wholesale stationery, and one electric light discreetly placed to discourage the habit of reading in bed.

From this time on he was visible to Mrs. Blodgett and Aggie and Miss Thatcher, whom he already knew as the pure food demonstrator in dairy products, to two inconsiderable young women from the wholesale stationer’s, and a gentleman from a shoe store, the whole of whose physiognomy appeared to be occupied with the effort to express an engaging youthfulness which the crown of his head explicitly denied. He was occasionally visible to the representative of gentlemen’s outfitters who was engaged to Aggie and took Sunday dinners with them, and he was particularly and pleasingly visible to J. Wilkinson Cohn and Miss Minnie Havens. The rest of his fellow boarders were so much of a likeness, a kind of family likeness that spread all over Siegel Brothers and such parts of the city as Peter had been admitted to, that it was a relief to Peter to realize from his profile that J. Wilkinson’s last name probably ought to have been spelled Cohen. The determinedly young gentleman explained to him that J. Wilkinson’s intrusion into the exclusiveness of Blodgett’s was largely a concession to Aggie’s being as good as married and not liable to social contamination, and to the fact that the little Jew was amusing and pretty near white, anyway.

Miss Minnie Havens did typewriting and stenography in a downtown office and was understood to be in search of economic independence, rather than under the necessity of making a living. She had a high fluffy pompadour and a half discoverable smile which could be brought to a very agreeable laugh if one spent a little pains at it. J. Wilkinson Cohn appeared to find it worth the pains.

The particular advantage of Blodgett’s, besides the fact that you could have two helps of everything without paying extra for it, was that it was exclusive and social. Mrs. Blodgett had collected her family of boarders on the principle of not having anybody who wasn’t a suitable companion for Aggie. There was also a pianola which gave the place a tone.

There was fire and light in the dining-room at Blodgett’s from seven to nine always, and in the parlour with the pianola on Saturday evening and all day Sunday. Sometimes, even on week days after supper, J. Wilkinson would open the door into the darkened room, push away the pianola and sing topical songs to his own accompaniment until his stiffened fingers clattered on the keys. Other times he would give imitations of popular stage celebrities until Blodgett’s shouted with laughter. At all times they appeared to have a great many engagements. Peter was advised to join this or that organization, and to enter upon social occasions that unfortunately presented themselves in the light of occasions to spend money. Apparently there were no dragons tracking the path of Blodgett’s boarders. Miss Havens did better than any of them for him. She explained to him how to get books from the circulating library, and let him read hers until he could arrange for a card. She said it was a pleasure to think there was going to be somebody in the house who was congenial. It wasn’t that she had anything against Miss Thatcher and the rest of them they just didn’t have the same tastes. She thought a person ought to spend some of the time improving their minds. Although the expression was ambiguous, it served as a sort of sedative to the aching vacuity of the hours which Peter spent away from Siegel Brothers. He found himself spending as many as possible of them with Miss Havens. She had a way of making the frivolling talk of the supper table appear a warrantable substitute for the things that Peter knew, even while he echoed her phrases, that he wasn’t getting. He found himself skidding on the paths of self-improvement and the obligations of seeing life, along the edges of desolation. He immersed himself as far as possible in the atmosphere of Blodgett’s in order that he needn’t have any time left in which to consider how far it fell short of what he had come to find. For this reason he was usually the last at the supper table, but there were occasions when he found it discreet to slip away as early and quietly as possible.

It was one evening about two months after his instalment at Blodgett’s. Peter was sitting in his room when he heard them yammering at his door with so much hilarious insistence that he found himself getting up to open it, without giving himself time to put down the book he was reading or to take off the overcoat he had put on for want of a fire, and finding himself in some embarrassment because of the misapprehension which this fact involved.

“Ready, Peter?”

“Come along, Peter!”

“I ... I’m not going,” said Peter.

“What? Not going to the rink with us to-night? Why, you said ” The bright group of his fellow boarders hung upon the narrow landing like bees at the threshold of a hive.

“I said I’d go if I could ” protested Peter, “and I can’t.”

“Gee! What’s the matter with you?”

“Don’t be a beastly stiff!”

“Come on, fellows, we’ll miss the car. Let him be a stiff if he wants to.”

Peter heard their feet retreating on the stairs, and then he saw that Minnie Havens still hesitated at the landing. She had on her best silk waist and her blond pompadour was brushed higher than ever. Her eyes, which were blue, were fixed directly on him with something in the meeting that gave him the impression, gaspingly, of being about to step off into space. He seemed suddenly to see a path opening directly through the skating rink and the Saturday Social Club to the House of the Shining Walls, and Minnie Havens walking in it beside him. He wrenched his mind away forcibly from that and fixed it on the figure of his weekly salary.

“Couldn’t you?” she persuaded.

“No,” said Peter. “I’m much obliged to you, but I really couldn’t.”

But before he had time to take up his reading, which somehow he was not able to do immediately, he heard Mrs. Blodgett, who made a point of being as kind to her boarders as she could afford to be, tapping at his door.

“I thought you’d be going to the rink to-night.”

“No,” said Peter.

“You don’t think it’s wrong, or anything?”

“Oh, no, not in the least.”

“Well, Mr. Weatheral, I’ve seen a power of young folks, comin’ and goin’, in my business and it don’t pay for ’em to get too stodgy like. They need livenin’ up.” She hung upon the door as Peter waited for her to go. “Miss Havens is a nice girl,” she ventured.

Peter admitted it. “I’ve my mother and sister to think of,” he told her, and presently he found he had told her a great deal more.

“Well,” commented Mrs. Blodgett, “you do have a lot to carry.... Was you readin’ now, Mr. Weatheral? ... because it’s warmer down in my sittin’ room, and there’s only Aggie and me sewin’.... Besides,” she argued triumphantly, “it’s savin’ light.”

First and last he heard a great deal about saving at Blodgett’s. Aggie, who was making up her white things, had something to tell every evening almost, about the price of insertion. But it was saving for a purpose; they were in the way, most of them, of being investors. J. Wilkinson had sixty dollars in his brother’s cigar stand on Fifty-fourth street. He used to let his brother off for Sunday afternoons with quite a proprietary air. The shoe gentleman, whose very juvenile name was Wally Whitaker, didn’t believe in such a mincing at prosperity. He talked freely about tips and corners and margins and had been known to make twenty-seven dollars in copper once. He offered Peter some exclusive inside information in B and C’s before he had been in the house a month.

“Well, you see,” Peter explained himself, “I’m buying a farm up our way!” His fellow boarders laid down their forks to look at him; he could see reflected from their several angles how he had placed himself by the mere statement of his situation. He felt at once the resistance it gave him, the sense of something to pull against, of having got his feet under him. It was the point at which the conquest of the mortgage dragon began to present itself to him as a thing accomplished rather than a thing escaped.

It must have been this feeling of release which opened up for him, from pictures that he saw occasionally with Miss Havens on Sundays, from books he read and discussed with her, avenues that appeared to lead more or less directly to the House. There were times when he found himself walking in them with Miss Minnie Havens, and yet always curiously expecting the Lovely Lady when they found her there, to be quite another person. He came within an inch of telling her about it on the occasion on which she presented him with an embroidered hat marker for Christmas, and when he took her to the theatre with tickets the floor walker had presented to him on account of Mrs. Floor Walker not feeling up to it. It appeared, further, that Miss Havens had a way of falling into profound psychological difficulties which required a vast amount of talking over, and a great many appeals to Peter’s disinterested judgment to extract her, not without some subtle intimations of dizzying escapes for himself. Peter supposed that was always the way with girls. It came to a crisis later where Miss Havens’ whole destiny hung upon the point as to whether she could accept a situation offered her in her own town, or should stay on in the city and see what came of it.

“You’d get more salary there, and be able to live cheaper?” Peter wished to know.

“Oh, yes.” The implication of her tone was that she didn’t see what that had to do with it. It was toward the end of June, and she was looking very pretty in a white dress and a hat that set off her pompadour to advantage, and there was no special reason, as they had the afternoon before them, why they should not have taken some of the by-paths that the girl perceived to lead out from the subject into breathless wonder. She had ways, which were maidenly and good, of opening up to Peter comfortable little garden plots of existence which, though they lay far this side of the House and the Lovely Lady, had in the monotony of the long climb up the scale of Siegel Brothers, moments of importunate invitation.

“And you came up to the city,” Peter went on in the gravelled walk of fact, “just to improve yourself in shorthand so you could get such a situation? I don’t see why you hesitate.”

Miss Havens could hardly say why herself.

“There were so many ways of bettering one’s self in the city. I’ve a great many friends here,” she hinted.

“Not so many,” Peter reminded her, “as you’d have where you were brought up.”

“You are staying in the city?” Miss Havens suggested.

“That’s different. I have to.” He had already told her about Ellen and also about his mother.

“And are you always going to stay on here like this, working and working and never taking any time for yourself? Aren’t you ever going to ... marry?”

“I know too much what poverty is like to ask any woman to share it,” Peter protested.

“Suppose she should ask you?”

“They don’t do that; the right sort.”

“I don’t see why ... if some girl ... cared ... and if she saw ... anybody struggling along under burdens she would be glad to share, and she knew because of that he didn’t mean to ask her ... You think she ought not to let him know?”

“I think it wouldn’t be best,” said Peter.

“You think the man would despise her?”

“Not that; but if he liked her a little ... he might consent to it ... just because he liked her and was tired maybe ... and that wouldn’t be good for either of them.”

“Well, anyway, it doesn’t concern either of us,” said Miss Havens.

The next evening as Peter was letting himself in at his own door he had moved to the second floor front by this time Mrs. Blodgett stopped him.

“Miss Havens left her regards for you,” she explained. “She went to-day.”

“Oh,” said Peter, “wasn’t it sudden?”

“Sort of. She’d been considerin’ of it for some time, and last night she made up her mind. But I did think,” said Mrs. Blodgett, “that she’d have said good-bye to you.” And not eliciting anything by way of a reply, she added: “Miss Havens is a nice girl. I hate to think of her slavin’ her life out in an office. She’d ought to get married.”

“A girl has ever so many more chances in her home town,” Peter offered hopefully.

“Yes, I suppose so.” Mrs. Blodgett sighed. “Is there anything I can do for you, Mr. Weatheral?”

“Nothing, thank you.” He was lingering still on the landing on Mrs. Blodgett’s account, but he found his finger slipping between the leaves of the volume he had brought from the library.

“Ah,” she warned him, “readin’ is an improvin’ occupation, but there’s a book we hadn’t any of us ought to miss, and that’s the Book of Life, Mr. Weatheral.” And somehow with that ringing in his ears, Peter spent several minutes walking up and down in his room before he could settle to his book again.

II

It was a week or ten days after Miss Havens left, before Peter went down to Bloombury for his midsummer vacation, a week in which he had the greatest difficulty in getting back to the House of the Shining Walls. He set out for it almost immediately with a feeling akin to the release with which one returns to daily habit after the departure of an unexpected guest. But his thought would no sooner strike into the accustomed paths than Miss Minnie Havens would meet him there unaccountably, to begin again those long intimate conversations which led toward and about the House, but never quite to it. Peter found himself looking out for those meetings with some notion of dodging them, and yet once they were fairly off, he owned them a great relief from Blodgett’s. Now that it was withdrawn, he realized in the girl’s bright companionship the effect of the rose-red glow of the shade that Aggie drew down over the front parlour lamp on the evenings when the Gentlemen’s Outfitter called. It had prevented his seeing until now, that the chief difference between himself and his fellow boarders, was that for most of them, this was a place where they had come to stay. Having let Miss Havens go on alone to the place she was bound for, he had moments of dreadful sinking, as it occurred to him to wonder if he hadn’t made a mistake in the nature of his own destination. Suppose, after all, he should find himself castaway in some oasis of determined sprightliness with Wally Whitaker in whose pocket pretenses of tips and margins he began to discern a poorer sort of substitute for the House. He was as much bored by the permanently young shoe-salesman after this discovery as before it, but obliged to set a watch on himself lest in a moment of finding himself too much in the same case, he should make the mistake of inviting Wally to Bloombury for his vacation.

He was relieved, when at last he had got away without it, to be saved from such a misadventure, for he found his mother not standing the heat well, and Ellen anxious. He had never definitely shaped to himself the idea that there could anything happen to his mother; she was as much a part of his life as the aging apple trees and the hills that climbed, with low, gnarled pines to the sky’s edge beyond the marshes, a point from which to take distance and direction. He began to note now the graying hair, the shrunken breast and the worn hands, so blue veined for all their brownness, and he could not sleep of nights because of the sweat that was on his soul, for fear of what might come to her. He would lie in the little room under the roof and hear the elms moving like the riffle of silence into sound, thinking of his mother until at last he would be obliged to rise and move softly about the place, as if by the mere assertion of himself he could make her safer in it. He wished nothing so much as not to disturb her, but she must have been lying awake often herself, for the second or third time this happened, she called to him. He came, half dressed as he was and drew the covers up close about her shoulders, and was exceedingly gay and tender with her.

“There’s nothing troubling you, son?”

“Nothing except to be sure there’s nothing troubling you.”

She gave a little, low laugh like a girl.

“That’s so like your father. I remember he would get up in the night when you were little, and go prowling about ... he used to say he was afraid the roof tree would fall in and kill you. And yet here you are....” She reached out to give him a little pat, as if somehow to reassure him. The low dropping moon made a square block of light on the uncarpeted floor; outside, the orchard waited for the dawn, and the fields brimmed life up to their very doors.

“You’re like him in other ways,” she went on. “Somehow it’s brought him back wonderfully the last two or three days, and especially at night when I’d hear you creaking down the stair. There’s a board there which always does creak, and I’d hear you trying to remember which it was, the same as he used to ”

“I haven’t meant to keep you awake, mother.”

“I’ve been awake. When you’re getting along like, you don’t sleep much, Peter. Sleep is for dreaming, some of it, and the old don’t dream.”

“You’re not to go calling yourself old, mother!”

“And me with a son going twenty-three! We weren’t so young either when we were married, your father and I ... but I want you should sleep, Peter, and dream when you can. You have pleasant dreams, son?”

“Any amount of them.” He was going off into one of those bright fantasies of what he should do when he was rich as he meant to be, with which he had so often beguiled Ellen’s pain, but she kissed him and sent him to bed again lest Ellen should hear them.

It was not more than a day or two after that the minister’s wife caught young Mr. Weatheral walking with his mother in the back pasture with his arm about her, and was slightly shocked by it, for though it was thought highly commendable in him to have paid off the mortgage and managed a silk dress for her and Ellen besides, Bloombury was not habituated to a lively expression of family affection. Peter had consented to gather the huckleberries which Ellen insisted were of a superior flavour in the back pasture, on the sole condition that his mother should come with him, and the minister’s wife had just stepped aside on her way to the Tillinghurst’s to gather the southerwood which grew there, for the minister’s winter cough, when she caught sight of them.

“She couldn’t have stared more if she’d caught me with a girl.” Peter protested.

“It’s only that she’d have thought it more likely,” his mother extenuated. “I hope you aren’t going to be a girl-hater, Peter. I want you should marry some time, and if I haven’t seemed anxious about it before now, you mustn’t think it’s because I want to keep you for Ellen and me. What I don’t want is that you should take to it just because there’s a girl. Not but what that’s natural, but there’s more to it than that, Peter. For you,” she supplemented. She sat down on a gray, round stone while Peter stripped the bushes at her feet, and watched to see if his colour rose while she talked, or his gaze failed to meet hers at any point.

“I’d have liked to have Ellen marry,” said Ellen’s mother, “she’s that kind. Having a man of her own, most any kind of a man so as he would be good to her, would mean such a lot. If Ellen can have a little of what everybody’s having, she’s satisfied. But there are some who can get a great deal more out of it than that ... and if they don’t the rest of it is a drag and a weariness.” He left off stripping the bushes and turned contentedly against her knees.

“You’re my home, Mumsey.”

“And not even,” she gently insisted, “when I’m not here to make it for you. There’s a kind of life goes with loving; it’s like like the lovely inside colour of a shell, and somehow, this winter I’ve wondered if you’d got to the place where you knew what that would be like if you should find it.” She turned his face up to her with a tender anxiety and yet with a little timidity; they did not talk much of such things in Bloombury.

“I know, mother.”

“Yes....” after a long look, “you would; you’re so like your father. But if you know, you mustn’t ever be led by dullness or loneliness into anything less, Peter. Not that I’m afraid you’ll be led into anything wrong ... but there are things that are almost more wrong than downright wickedness....

“I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about when I was your age, and there didn’t seem anything for me but to marry one of the neighbour’s boys that I’d known always, or a long plain piece of school teaching. It wasn’t easy with everybody egging me on but I stuck it out, and at the last along came your father ... I’d like you to have something like that, Peter, and your son coming to you the way you came to me, like it was through a cloud of glory....” He looked up presently on her silence, silver tipped now with the hope of renewal, and he saw her as a man sometimes when he is young and clean, sees his mother, the Sacred Door ... and he did not observe at all that her hands were berry stained and the nails broken, nor that her cheek had fallen in and her hair gray and wispy. But being a young man and never good at talking, it made no difference with him except that as they walked home across the pastures he was more than ever careful of her and teased her more whimsically.

He forgot, after he had settled in his room again at Blodgett’s, that Miss Minnie Havens had ever walked with him in the purlieus of the House, for he was quite taken up with a new set of rooms he had thrown out from it for his mother. She was always there with him now until the day of her death and long after, made a part of all his dreaming by the touch with which she had limned in herself for him, the feature of all Lovely Ladies.

He would write her long letters into which crept much that had been uttered only in the House, which that winter became an estate in Florida, moved there because of Mrs. Weatheral’s need of mild climate. They went abroad after the Christmas Holidays in which she had coughed more than usual and consented to have her breakfast brought up to bed, setting out every evening from Peter’s reading-lamp and arriving very shortly at Italian Cathedrals and old Roman seaport towns that smelled of history.

Dreaming of lovely ladies who have no face or form other than they borrow from the passing incident is a very pleasant way of passing the time, and does not necessarily lead to anything; but when a man goes about afraid lest his mother should die for lack of something he might have got for her, he dreams closer at home. More than ever since the revelation of his mother’s frailness, Peter dreamed of being rich, and since there was nothing nearer to him than the way Siegel Brothers had managed it, he devoted so much time to the scrutiny of their methods that he passed in a very short time from being head of the delivery department to the right hand of Mr. Croker. Even Blinders could not recall, in the three years he had been bundle boy, so marked an example of favouritism.

“They don’t make partners any more out of underlings,” Croker let him know confidentially. “What do you think you’re headed for?” Peter explained himself.

“I wanted to find out how they did it.”

“And when you find out,” Croker wagged at him, “you won’t be able to do anything with it. You have to have capital. Look at the time I’ve been with them!”

“How long is that?” Peter was interested.

“Twenty years.” Croker told him.

“In twenty years,” Peter was confident, “a man ought to be able to find some capital.” After that he began to observe Mr. Croker.

It is probable at this time that if he had not been concerned for his mother’s health, he might have grown as dry and uninteresting as at Blodgett’s they began to think him.

He was a thin young man with hair of no particular colour, and eyes that were good and rather shy about women. He went out very little and had not, Miss Thatcher who sat opposite him was sure, a mind above his business. Aggie had married her Outfitter, and J. Wilkinson Cohn, who had become a full partner in his brother’s cigar stand, had moved out to Fifty-fourth Street, so that there was nobody who could have contradicted her. But lying awake planning how he might piece out life for his mother with comforts, and hearing in every knock the precursor of what might have happened to her, his heart was exercised as it is good for the heart to be even with pain and anxiety. And beyond the heart stretching there was always the House. He could seldom get away to it in his waking hours, but he knew it was there for him, and visiting it in dreams he kept in spite of the anxiety and Mr. Croker, his young resiliency. Along in December, about two weeks before his midwinter holiday, Ellen sent for him.

“It’s not as if there hadn’t been time for everything. You must think of that, Peter. And your being able to come down every Saturday since the first stroke. There’s plenty that are hurried away without a good-bye or anything.”

“I know, Ellen.”

“And it isn’t as if there hadn’t been plenty to say, either. Six weeks would have been too long for anybody less loving than mother. They wouldn’t have known how to go through your life and say just the things you’ll be glad to remember when the time comes for them. You’ve got to keep your mind on those things, Peter.”

“Yes, Ellen.”

The front room had been well rid up after the funeral and everybody at Ellen’s earnest entreaty had left them quite alone. Although there was fire in the base burner, they were sitting together by the kitchen stove, the front of which was thrown open for the sake of the warm glow of the coals. By and by the kettle began to sing and the bare tips of the lilac scratched on the pane like a live thing waiting to be let in. The little familiar sounds refilled for them the empty room.

Outside it was every way such a day as a well-spent life might slip away in; the tracks in the deep-rutted February snow might have been worn there by the habit of sixty years. There was no hint of the spring yet, but here and there in the bare patches on the hills and the frayed icy edges of the drifts, the sign that the weight of the winter was behind them. There would be a little quiet time yet and then the resurrection. The brother and sister had taken it all very quietly. Nobody had ever taken anything in any other way in the presence of Mrs. Weatheral, and that she was there still for them, that she would always be present in their lives, a warm determining influence, was witnessed by that absence of violence which empties too soon the cup of grief. The loss of their mother had at least brought them no sense of leaving her behind. They were going on with their life so soon because she was going with them.

“That was why I wanted them all to go away,” Ellen took up the thought again. “I’ve been thinking all day about mother being with father and how glad he’ll be to see her, and yet it seems as if I can feel her here. I thought if we kept still a while she’d make us understand what she wanted us to do.”

“About what, Ellen?”

“About my going up to the city with you to board it seems such a wasteful way to live somehow, just sitting around!”

“It isn’t as expensive as keeping house,” Peter told her, “and I want you to sit around, Ellen; women in Bloombury don’t get enough of that I’m afraid.”

“They don’t. Did you see Ada Harvey to-day? Four children and two teeth out, and her not thirty. I guess you’d take better care of me than that, Peter, only ”

“You think she wouldn’t like it for you?”

“She thought such a lot of keeping up a home, Peter. It was like like those Catholics burning candles. It seemed as if she thought you’d get something out of it if it was just going on, even if you didn’t visit it more than two or three times a year. Lots of women feel that way, Peter, and I guess there must be something in it.”

“There is something in it,” Peter assured her.

“And if I go and board with you we’d have to break up everything ” She looked about on all the familiar mould of daily habit that was her world, and tears started afresh. “And we’ve got all this furniture.” She moved her head toward the door of the front room and the parlour set that had been Peter’s Christmas gift to them two years ago. “For all it was such a comfort to her to have it, it’s as good as new. It seemed as if she thought you were the only one good enough to sit in it.”

“Don’t, Ellen.”

“I know, Peter.” They were silent a while until the deep wells of grief had stilled in the sense of that sustaining presence. “I only wanted to be sure I wouldn’t be going against her, breaking up the home. It seems like anything she set such store by oughtn’t to stop just because she isn’t here to take care of it.” They had to come back to that the next day and the next.

“I only want to do what is best for you, Ellen.”

“I’d be best off if I was making you happy, Peter and I’d feel such a burden somehow, just boarding.”

“The rents are cheaper in the suburbs,” Peter went so far as to admit. It was all so inarticulate in him; how could he explain to Ellen the feeling that he had, that settling down to a home with her would somehow put an end to any dreams he had had of a home of his own, persistent but unshaped visions that vanished before the sudden brightening of Ellen’s face at his least concession.

“We could have somebody in to clean,” she reminded him, “and I hardly ever have to be in bed now.”

The fact was that Peter had the very place in mind; he had often walked out there on Sundays from Blodgett’s; he thought the neighbourhood had a clean and healthy look. He went up on Tuesday to see what could be done about it.

Lessing, who rented him the apartment, made the natural mistake about it that Peter’s age and his inexperience as a householder invited. He said the neighbours were all a most desirable class of people, and Peter could see for himself that the city was bound to build out that way in a few years. As for what Pleasanton could do in the way of climate, well, Lessing told him, with the air of being only a little less interested than he credited Peter with being, look at the perambulators.

They were as fine a lot of wellfilled vehicles as could be produced by any suburb anywhere, and Ellen for one was never tired of looking at them. But Peter couldn’t understand why Ellen insisted on walking home from church Sunday morning the wrong way of the pavement.

“I suppose we do get in the way,” she admitted after he had explained to her that they wouldn’t be crowded off so frequently if they moved with the nurse-maid’s parade and not against it, “but if we go this way we can see all the little faces.”

“I didn’t know you cared so much for babies.”

“Well, you see it isn’t as if I was to have any of my own ” Something in the tone with which she admitted the restraining fact of her affliction brought out for Peter how she had fitted her life to it, like a plant growing hardily out of a rock, climbing over and around it without rancour or rebellion. As he turned now to look at her long, plain face in the light of what had been going on in himself lately, he recalled that the determining influence which had drawn her thick hair into that unbecoming knot at the back of her neck had been the pain it had given her when she first began to put up her hair, to do it higher.

She was watching the bright little bonneted heads go by with the same detachment that he had learned to look at the shop windows, without thinking of appropriating any of their splendour for himself, and when she spoke again it was without any sensible connection with the present occasion.

“Peter, do you remember Willy Shakeley?”

“Shakey Willy, we used to call him. I remember his freckles; they were the biggest thing about him.” He waited for the communicating thread, but nothing came except what presently reached him out of his own young recollections. “He wasn’t good enough for you, Ellen,” he said at last for all comment.

“He was kind, and he wouldn’t have minded about my being lame, but a man has to have a healthy wife if he’s a farmer.” How completely she had accepted the deprivation for herself, he saw by her not wasting a sigh over it; she had schooled herself so long to go no further in her thought than she went on the crutch which tapped now on the pavement beside him. As if to stop his going any further on her account she smiled up at him. “Peter, if you were to meet any of the things you thought you’d grow up to be, do you suppose you’d know them?”

At least he could have told her that he didn’t meet any of them on his way between Siegel Brothers and the flat in Pleasanton.

There are many things which if a young man goes without until he is twenty-five he can very well do without, but the one thing he cannot leave off without hurting him is the expectation of some time doing them. The obligation of the mortgage and Ellen’s lameness had been a sort of bridge for Peter, a high airy structure which engaged the best of him and so carried him safely over Blodgett’s without once letting him fall into the unlovely vein of life there, its narrowness, its commonness. He had known, even when he had known it most inaccessible, that there was another life which answered to every instinct of his for beauty and fitness. He waited only for the release from strain for his entry with it. Now by the shock of his mother’s death he found himself precipitated in a frame of living where a parlour set out of Siegel Brothers’ Household Emporium was the limit of taste and understanding. The worst thing about Siegel Brothers’ parlour sets was that he sold them. He knew it was his particular value to Siegel Brothers that he had always known what sort of things were acceptable to the out-of-town trade. He had selected this one distinctly with an eye to the pleasure his mother and Ellen would get out of what Bloombury would think of it. He hadn’t expected it would turn and rend him. That it was distinctly better than anything he had had at Blodgett’s was inconsiderable beside the fact that Blodgett’s hadn’t owned him. That he was owned now by his sister and the furniture, was plain to him the first time he sat down to figure out the difference between his salary and what it would cost him to let Ellen be a burden to him in the way that made her happiest. Not that he thought of Ellen in that way; he was glad when he thought of it at all articulately, to be able to make life so little of a burden to her. But though he saw quite clearly how, without some fortunate accident, the rest of his life would be taken up with making a home for Ellen and making it secure for her in case anything happened to him, he saw too, that there was no room in it for the Lovely Lady. The worst of all this was that he did not see how he was to go on without her.

He had fled to her from the inadequacy of all substitutes for her that his life afforded, and she had ended by making him over into the sort of man who could never be satisfied with anything less. Something he owed, no doubt, to that trait of his father’s which made his memories of Italy more to him than his inheritance, but there it was, a world Peter had built up out of books and pictures and music, more real and habitable than that in which he went about in a gray business suit and a pleasant ready manner; a world from which, every time he fitted his key in the latch of the little flat in Pleasanton, he felt himself suddenly dispossessed.

It was not that he failed to get a proper pleasure out of being a householder, in being able to take a certain tone with the butcher and discuss water rates and rents with other householders going to and fro on his train. Ellen’s cooking tasted good to him and it was very pleasant to see the pleasure it gave her to have Burnell of the hardware, out to supper occasionally. He made friends with Lessing, whose natty and determinedly architectural office with its air of being somehow akin to Wally Whitaker, occupied the corner where Peter waited every morning for his car. Lessing began it by coming out on the very first occasion to ask him how his sister did, in an effort to correct any impression of a want of perspicuity in his first estimate of Peter’s situation. He kept it up for the reason perhaps that men friends are meant for each other from the beginning of time quite as much as we are accustomed to thinking of them as being meant for the lovely ladies whom they so frequently miss. Lessing was about Peter’s own age and had large and cheerful notions of the probable increase of real-estate values in Pleasanton, combined with a just appreciation of the simple shrewdness which had so recommended Peter to his employers.

“You’d be a crackerjack to talk to the old ladies,” Lessing generously praised him. “I scare ’em; they think I’m too hopeful.” That he didn’t, however, have the same effect on young ladies was apparent from the very pretty one whom Peter used to see about, especially on early closing Saturday afternoons, helping him to shut up the office and get off to the ball game. He couldn’t have told why, but those were the days when Peter allowed the car to carry him on to the next block, before alighting, after which he would make a point of being particularly kind to Ellen. It would never do for her to get a notion that the tapping of her crutch beside him had scared anything out of Peter’s life which he might think worth having in it.

Along toward Thanksgiving time, on an occasion when Peter had just missed his car and had to wait for another one, Lessing J. B. on the door sign, though he was the sort that everybody who knew him called Julian came quite out to the pavement and stood there with his hands in his pockets and his hair beginning to curl boyishly in the dampness, quite brimming over with good fortune. Singularly he didn’t mention it at once, but began to complain about the low state of the market in real estate.

“Not but that the values are all right,” he was careful to explain; “it’s just that they are all right makes it so trying. If a fellow had a little capital now, he could do wonders. The deuce of a chap like me is that he hasn’t any capital unless there’s some buying.”

“You think it’s a good time then to lay out a little money?”

“Good! Good! Oh, Lord, it’s so good that if a fellow had a few thousands just put around judiciously, he wouldn’t be able to sleep nights for hearing it turn over.” He kicked the gravel in sheer impatience. “How’s your sister?”

It was a formula that he had kept on with because to have dropped it immediately might have betrayed the extenuating nature of its inception, and besides there were so many directions in which one might start conversationally off from it. He made use of it now without waiting for Peter’s habitual “Very well, thank you,” by a burst into confidence.

“You see I’m engaged to be married yes, I guess you’ve seen me with her. Fact is, I haven’t cared how much people have seen so long as she’s seen it, too; and now we’ve got it all fixed up, naturally I’m on the make. I’m dashed if I don’t think I’ll have to take a partner.”

“I’ve been wanting to speak to you about some property of mine,” Peter ventured. “It’s a farm up country.”

“What’s it worth?”

“Well, I’ve added to it some the last ten years and made considerable improvement. I ought to get three thousand.”

“That’s for farming? For summer residence it ought to bring more than that. Any scenery?”

“Plenty,” Peter satisfied him on that score. “I’ve been thinking,” he let out shyly, “that if I could put the price of it in some place where I could watch it, the money would do me more good....”

Lessing turned on him a suddenly brightening eye.

“That’s the talk say, you know I think I could get you forty-five hundred for that farm of yours anyway.” They looked at one another on the verge of things hopeful and considerable. As Peter’s car swung around the curve, suddenly they blushed, both of them, and reached out and shook hands.

That evening as Peter came home he saw Lessing buying chrysanthemums at the florist’s with a happy countenance, and to master the queer pang it gave him, Peter got off the car and walked a long way out on the dim wet pavement. He was looking at the bright picture of Lessing and the girl she was really very pretty and seeing instead, himself, quite the bachelor, and his lame sister taking their blameless dull way in the world. He couldn’t any more for the life of him, get a picture of himself without Ellen in it; the tapping of her crutch sounded even in the House when he visited it in his dreams. It was well on this occasion that he had Ellen beside him, for she showed him the way presently to take it, as he knew she would take it as soon as he went home and told her as another door by which they could enter sympathetically in the joyousness they were denied. She would be so pleased for Julian’s sake, in whom, by Peter’s account of him, she took the greatest interest, and so pleased for the girl to have such a handsome, capable lover. It made, for Ellen, a better thing of life if somebody could have him.

Peter went back after a while with that thought to the florist’s and bought chrysanthemums, taking care to ask for the same kind Mr. Lessing had just ordered. He was feeling quite cheerful even, as he ran up the steps with them a few minutes later, and saw the square of light under the half-drawn curtain, and heard the tap of Ellen’s crutch coming to meet him.

That night after he had gone to bed a very singular thing happened. The Princess out of the picture visited him. It was there at the foot of his bed in a new frame where Ellen had hung it the young knight riding down the old, lumpy dragon, but with an air that Peter hadn’t for a long time been able to manage for himself, doing a great thing easily the way one knew perfectly great things couldn’t. The assistant sales manager of Siegel Brothers had been lying staring up at it for some time when the Princess spoke to him. He knew it was she, though there was no face nor form that he could remember in his waking hours, except that it was familiar.

“Ellen is right,” she told him; “it doesn’t really matter so long as somebody finds me.”

“But what have I done?” Peter was sore with a sense of personal slight. “It wasn’t in the story that there should be a whole crop of dragons.”

“All dragons are made so that where one head comes off there are seven in its place; and you must remember if somebody didn’t go about slaying them, I couldn’t be at all.” This as she said it had a deep meaning for Peter that afterward escaped him. “And you can hold the dream. It takes a lot of dreaming to bring one like me to pass.”

“I’m sick of dreams,” said Peter. “A man dies after a little who is fed on nothing else.”

“They die quicker if they stop dreaming; on those that have the gift for it the business of dreaming falls. Listen! How many that you know have found me?”

“A great many think they have; it comes to the same thing.”

“The same for them; but you must see that I can never really be until I am for those outside the dream. The trouble with you is that you’d wake up after a while and you would know.”

“Yes,” Peter admitted, “I should know.”

“Well, then,” she was oh, so gentle about it, “yours is the better part. If you can’t have me, at least you’re not stopping me by leaving off for something else. In the dream I can live and grow, and you can grow to me. Do you remember what happened to Ada Harvey? I’ve saved you from that at any rate.”

“No,” said Peter, “it was the dragon saved me. I thought you were she. It’s saved me from lots of things, now that I think of it.”

“Ah, that’s what we have to do between us, Peter, we have to save you. You’re worth saving.”

“Save me for what?” Peter cried out to her and so strongly in his loneliness that he found himself starting up from his bed with it. He could see the dragon spitting flames as before, and the pale light from the swinging street lamp gilding the frame of the picture. Though he did not understand all that had happened to him, as he lay down again he was more comforted than he had been at any time since he had made up his mind that he was to be a bachelor.