YOU best wait for me in the motor-car, Mary Ellen,” said Mrs. Morton, as she wiped the last of the lamp chimneys and set it at the end of the shining row on the old walnut table. “I’ll just be a minute longer, but there's a couple of things I can do better alone, if you don’t mind...”
Mary Ellen got swiftly into her fur coat, and patting her mother’s black-clad shoulder gently, she cast one look about the old room, went quietly out and entered her car, which, with its liveried chauffeur waited to drive
the two women cityward.
When the door closed on her daughter’s figure, draped in its fashionable mourning, Mrs. Morton sat down suddenly in the platform rocker and put her gnarled hands
: I wish’t I knew what you thought of my goin’ to live with Mary Ellen, John,” she whispered. “Alone as I’d he, and hungerin’ for you every minute I know I’d be a .t happier here, but she’s so set on it ...” or a moment the only sound in the room was the dig-
clock which had been chief among
steady gleam of humor and intelligence in the blue eyes which the years had neither dulled nor faded to an indeterminate gray, as the years serve so many blue eyes.
Mary Ellen Etheredge had taken her mother in hand. That would have been the answer to Wellington’s confusion, and Mqry Ellen had inherited from her mother at least one instinct, to do well what she undertook to do.
“You’ll simply have to relegate those duds to the rag-bag, mom,” she asserted the day after her mother arrived at the Etheredge house in the city.
“And for why?” asked Martha. “Ain’t they good enough to wear here?”
“Frankly, no,” laughed Mary Ellen, goodnaturedly. “They were antedated even for Wellington, but some one is liable to bid on at the you, thinking they’ve got a genuine antique,
if you appear in those clothes.”
“An’ is that so now?” countered Martha, “and why should I be giving up these comfortable wrappers that aren’t a bit worn, just to please a
chit like you?” . . , .,
“Nobody wears wrappers any more, insisted Mary Ellen “They went out of style with hair cloth, and with cheese for breakfast. I want you to meet my friends looking like a woman of sixty-five, not eighty. Come on, mom, you know how I always loved dressing dolls; let me dress you up just once the way I want to, and see the difference it makes.”
“All right ” agreed Martha, “but I’m not promising anything, remember that. And speaking of dressing dolls reminds me there’s something I can’t understand about you and Austen. You always being so fond of dolls, and him always petting other folks children
“You can wear my last winter’s seal coat to-day, mom. In fact you may as well keep it if it fits you. I ve got my new chinchilla,” stated Mary Ellen, ignoring her mother’s hint at confidence. “The car will be around in
half an hour to take us shopping.”
For a week Mary Ellen indulged in an orgy of shopping, doing it on a wholesale scale that frightened and sobered
Ellen had to content nersen witn purenasmg tne soitesu of silk and wool, but on accessories she let herself go, and never had Martha possessed or dreamed of possessing so many pure linen handkerchiefs, such a quantity of hose and gloves, nor such exotic scents, with bath salts, soap, toilet water and face powder and talcums in matching scents and bottles.
“You’re spoiling me, you and Austen,” she told Mary Ellen with tears in her eyes, “and I do appreciate it, but make no mistake, Mary Ellen, you can’t fillyourfather’s place in my heart, nor the gap he left, with fine clothes and sweet smells.”
Martha would not accept more than two every-day dresses and a Sunday gown, nor could she be persuaded to put by the old fashioned widow’s cap for a mourning hat, although both Mary Ellen and the sales-girl did their best to overcome her objections.
“If the one Miss Sykes made for me back in Wellington don’t measure up to the car and Wilkin’s livery I’m content you should have me a new one made of better crepe —better and blacker,” she smiled, “but I’ll wear no hat tilted over one eye like a perpetual wink at my age and that’s final.”
So the dingy crepe, and silk, nun’s veiling, which had reposed on Miss Sykes’ shelf for the better part of a quarter century were discarded in favor of a rich heavy crepe with a delicate, snowy ruche of white, next the face, and even Mary Ellen was forced to admit that it made her mother look like a fine old patrician. Once only had Martha put herself in the hands of a masseuse. She had set her lips firmly and gone through with it like a man, but she could not be inveigled into repeating the adventure.
“Not much,” she said, ‘Tm as clean as any woman living, and I’ll not pay anyone to steam the dirt out of my face, squeeze more out with grease, and then pinch me all up to a peak. I’ve suffered the last indignity in the name of beauty that I’m after sufferin’, and that’s flat, Mary Ellen Etheredge.”
“Good for you, Mother,” said Austen, “Eleanora, I think you’ve gone far enough.”
“Where do you get this Eleanora7 business? asked Martha quickly.
“Mary Ellen’s so old-fashioned, mother, I was meaning
to speak to you about it,” she said, flushing slightly. “My friends all know me as Eleanora.”
“I’ll not be calling you that,” said Martha flatly. “Your father picked out Mary Ellen for you, and Mary Ellen you are, but if it will let you out easy I’ll just say ‘you’ or ‘daughter’ to your friends.”
Austen laughed, and Mary Ellen bit her lip in vexation and then joined in rather thinly.
“What I want to know,” said Martha, “is when you are going to let me get into the kitchen and do a bit of baking. I’m that homesick for the sight of a sieve I could kiss it.”
“Sh-sh-sh!” warned Mary Ellen, as the maid came in with fresh coffee, and a heavy silence reigned until she left the room again. “The cook would leave at once if you interfered, mother,” said Mary Ellen, “anyway—”
“Let her leave,” said Martha, “what do we want with a cook in the house, and you and I with nothing else to do?”
“It isn’t to be thought of, mother,” said Mary Ellen firmly. “What would my friends think if they knew I did my own kitchen work?”
“More of you than they do now if they’re worth being friends,” said Martha grimly. “What do you say, Austen?”
“I’m keeping in the neutral class,” he said, uncomfortably, but Martha caught a twinkle in his eye, and knew that she had an ally.
“You really must not interfere with the routine of the house, mother,” said Mary Ellen, nervously. “Good help is so hard to get, and I have just succeeded in training these servants so that they work together without friction.”
“Think of that, now,” said Martha, with mock admira-
tion, “and I don’t doubt you could be doing most of the work while you’re telling them how. What am I supposed to do?”
“The small closed car is at your disposal from ten o’clock until four-thirty every day,” said Mary Ellen.
“That is fine of you, dear,” and although her heart was heavy, she tried to instil warmth into her voice, “but I won’t want the car unless the weather is bad. If I’m not going to do any work I’ll better to walk or my legs will get paralyzed from disuse.”
“You mustn’t walk,” spoke up Mary Ellen quickly. “People would think I was monopolizing the cars if you were seen walking. Besides it isn’t done.”
“I see,” said Martha slowly. “It’s going to be sert of hard for me to live up to all this grandeur, children, and if I make mistakes you must be patient with me. They’ll be mistakes of the head, and not of the heart.”
Austen muttered something under his breath, but Mary Ellen’s eyebrows went up, and excusing himself he was about to leave the dining room when he heard Martha ask meekly:
“Could I go out for a walk at night when no one will see me-—daughter?”
“You must never go out at night unaccompanied, mother. You are too old, and too unused to the city ways,” said Mary Ellen a bit sharply. “I should think you’d be content with a nice home, a car and—nothing to do, she added.
“I should be, dear,” said Martha, “only you see, you don’t just understand—life has become so different.”
And in the hall Austen plunged into his coat, snatched his hat from the butler’s hand, and forgetting his paper flung himself out of the house.
YOU’RE sure you don’t mind my going out a bit, so soon after father’s death, mom?” asked Mary Ellen, a few weeks after Martha had come to the Etheredge home.
“No, Mar Ellen, I don’t mind if you enjoy it,” said
Martha gently, “and your father wouldn’t mir.d either, dear. He used to say the best thing one could do for their dead was to forget them sweetly or remember them happily.”
“It isn’t as though the season were really on, you know,” explained Mary Ellen, apologetically. “These little bridges and luncheons are purely informal. I wouldn’t think of attending formal affairs.”
“Don’t you get tired of bein’ on the go all the time?” asked Martha.
“Don’t have time to be tired, mom,” laughed Mary Ellen, as she tilted a huge black hat atop her fair hair, and then pulled it down rakishly until one eye was all but hidden. “Black certainly looks well on me, doesn’t it? Brings out the fairness of my skin more than colors ever did.”
“P’iaps it does,” admitted Martha, “Is it a bridge you’re going to to-day, dear?”
“No, this is a mah jong party.”
“Will you be late, Mary Ellen?”
“Be back in time to dress for dinner, mom, why?”
“I thought maybe you’d be back in time to go for a little walk with me,” said the old woman hungrily. “I ain’t used to the car, and I got a little tired being off my feet so much.”
“Now, if that isn’t Irish,” laughed Mary Ellen. “No, dear, I’m afraid I can’t go walking to-day, I’ll just have time for a massage and a rest before dinner. I want to be fresh for the reception to-night.”
“Of course you do,” said Martha brightly, and Mary Ellen didn’t notice the pathetic droop to the lips that so bravely essayed to smile as her mother said good-bye, and went heavily up the stairs.
“I’m sure I don’t know what mom wants,” she said pettishly to herself, as she pinned the corsage of parma violets on her black coat, and admired the effect. “She’s got a lovely home, and not a thing to do, and yet she doesn’t seem satisfied.”
“Goodbye, mom,” she called sweetly.
Goodbye, daughter, have a nice time,” came Martha's voice, and Mary Ellen shrugged her careless way
out of the house.
Martha watched from behind the heavy gray velvet curtains in her sitting room as the big car swung away from the house, and then she walked aimlessly about the room, setting to rights again everything which she had moved several times already that day. She took up one of the new novels with which Mary Ellen kept her supplied, sank in an overstaffed chair and pretended to read, but although she sat there for nearly an hour there was not a single leaf turned.
Suddenly she rose, hurried to the window, measured the sill with her eyes, and hastened across the room to the house ‘phone which she almost snatched from beneath the ruffled silk skirts of the doll which hid it from view. Her eyes sparkled and there was color in her cheeks for the first time since the masseuse had pinched it there.
"Ask Wilkins to please bring the car around right away,” she said, and so great was her haste that the strings of her new bonnet were tied under one ear. and the seal coat which Mary Ellen had so carelessly given her was fastened awry as she almost ran down the stairs.
‘‘Please take me to the nearest flower store, Wilkins, and hurry,” she panted, as she stepped into the sedan.
“Suppose you tell me just what you are wanting, madam,” suggested Wilkins.
For a long moment Martha measured him with her eyes.
‘ Young fellow," she said, “every time I tell folks here what I want they give me a perfectly logical reason why can't have it. Just you take me to a flower store, and don't ask any questions.”
Wilkins threw back his head and shouted with laughter, and after a startled look around as though to make sure that Mary Ellen could not witness her fall from dignity, Martha joined in the mirth.
“That's the first honest laugh I’ve had since John died,” she said. “Now I'll tell you what I want. I want some geraniums, red ones and salmon ones and plain pink and white ones, and I want them so bad that if you don’t take me to get them I'll take a chance of making my daughter mad, and I’ll hunt them afoot.”
“I'll take you all right,” he said. “I wanted to know what you wanted, so’s I could take you to the right place. Ail florists here don't keep both potted plants and cut
'Cut flowers,” shuddered Martha to herself, “I’m so sick of roses—roses every day—I could yell when Mary Ellen brings them into my room. Those geraniums will sit so pretty-like on the window sill, and I can tend ’em every day and watch ’em grow, just as if I was at home.”
The car drew up before a large store, its plate glass windows filled with perfect blooms.
“It’ll be all right to take them home in the car, won’t it?” asked Martha anxiously, as she stepped out, and Wilkins assured her that it would.
Martha walked about the store in perfect happiness for a few moments. One clerk was busy with a gentleman customer, and the other was at the telephone. The potted plants were not a3 conspicuously shown as were the splendid cut flowers, and Martha was down near the parcel desk before she located the geraniums. So enthralled was she in the gentle touching of their pink and crimson glory that she did not note the approach of the sales girl and the man to the parcel desk behind her.
“You’re new here, aren’t you?” he asked. “Well, this is a standing order. Send a dozen every morning to Mrs. Austen Etheredge at the address on the card I gave you, and enclose one of my cards, in an envelope, with each order. You may vary the color of the roses, but they must be of the best grade, and I’ll pay the account monthly, as I have been doing. You understand?”
“Yes, sir. I’ll attend to it every day myself.”
Martha picked up the two geraniums nearest her hand, and placed them on the parcel desk, giving the man a seemingly casual but appraising look as she did so. He turned to leave the store, and as the girl continued writing in her order book, Martha deliberately set one of the pots on the little pile of cards the man had placed there. As the girl looked up she smiled at her, and indicating the geraniums asked their price, ordered four more in assorted shades, and while the girl was choosing them, deftly moved the first pot, and with it the topmost card.
“Where shall I send them, madam?”
“We'll take them with us,” said Martha, but all her animation, all the pleasure in the possession of her flowers
liad given way to a nausea of distinct dread and disgust.
Mary Ellen receiving flowers every day from a man other than her husband! And letting Austen think she was buying roses every day for her mother, when she was merely clever enough to cover lier own guilt.
All the way home Martha pondered over it. The name on the card was Prentis Dover, and she recognized it as a name often on Austen’s lips.
Arrived home, Wilkins carried the plants to Martha’s bedroom, obtained saucers from the cook for her to set them on, and then with a grin of honest pleasure at the old lady’s delight he left her. Martha watered the plants, fluted some crepe paper she had bought and covered the earthen pots with it, and then stood back to admire her work.
“And every day I’ll turn you so that you get the sun all round,” she promised. “They say a western exposure is the best, and surely if I’m not to have anything else to do but tend you, you ought to do well.”
As she turned, her eyes fell on the tall vase filled with crimson roses, and an expression of disgust spread over her face. “You’ll not be welcome here with my posies,” seh said grimly, and taking the vase turned toward the door with it. There was a light step, and Mary Ellen swung into the room.
“For heaven sakes, mom, where did you get that trash in the window?” she asked in annoyance. “It makes the front of the house look like some market gardener’s home.”
“My geraniums do?” asked Martha quietly.
“They certainly do,” snapped Mary Ellen. “When I go to the trouble of keeping you supplied with roses, I don’t see why you have to clutter the place up with provincial-looking garden truck, that has no fragrance anyway. “Tillie,” as the housemaid appeared in answer to her ring, “will you please see that these plants are removed from Mrs. Morton’s room at once. They came by mistake.”
“Could I keep them if they weren’t allowed to show from the outside, Mary Ellen?” begged Martha.
VI can’t see what you want them for, they’ll only die,” she said, but she dismissed Tillie, and watched with narrowing eyes while her mother transferred them from the window to the desk top, placing them carefully on the towel she spread to protect the desk.
“What do you see in them, anyway?” persisted Mary Ellen pettishly.
“They remind me of home,” said the old woman in a low voice. “We always had geraniums in the garden in the summer and in the house in the winter time, and they just got to be part of my life—-tending them, you know.”
“But the roses need attention, too,” said Mary Ellen. “Their stems should be clipped every morning and the water kept cool and fresh and—”
“Then, suppose you do it,” said Martha, a crimson spot appearing high on each cheek-bone. “Since you set such store by them roses why don’t you keep them yourself, I don’t want them.”
Mary Ellen picked up the roses, and with a scared look on her lovely face left the room, while Martha sank into the big chair and gazed dolefully at her plants.
“She was right, you’ll only die there for lack of sun and
light,” she mourned, and in the course of the following weeks her prophecy was fulfilled, for one by one the leaves yellowed and fell, and one by one the gaily swathed pots were taken from Martha’s room.
MORNING, noon and night, Mary Ellen golfed, danced, played bridge and went to the theatre. Austen was home less and less for the dinners to which Martha sat down in solitary state, and more often than not it was Prentis Dover who was Mary Ellen’s escort to the gay affairs which Austen had no-time to attend.
Day by day Martha ate less. She rarely went out in the car now, and each morning saw her face whiter than the day before, her step more laggard, and her eyes duller. No longer did she convulse Austen with her quaint philosophy and her odd expressions. Rather otherwise, for she frequently subdued him with her satire, derided his bondage to business, and worse still, had nothing but praise and pleasantries for Prentis Dover.
THERE was so little harmony[and happiness in the Etheredge home these days that Martha felt herself withdrawing from it in spirit, and her happiest hours were those spent in recalling the years she and John had lived in the little village home. Time and again she would throw herself into the bàttle which she was waging, finding solace in her dreams of the past, until her face began to take on a new expression, and Austen, in one of the brief armistices which he and Mary Ellen occasionally enjoyed, called her attention to the fact.
“Your mother isn’t looking at all well, Eleanora,” he said.
It wasn’t ‘mother’ any more, Martha noted, but ‘your mother!’
“I’m all right,” she said, “At least I’m not sick, not the body of me, but you must admit that it’s no rest cure for an old woman to live with you two.”
“We try our best to make you contented, mother,” said Eleanora. “Just what is it that you miss?”
“Your father, and the peace and love that always meant home to me until I came here,” she said. “I’m not blaming you, daughter—a woman can’t make a home without the co-operation of her man, and when she can’t get that ...”
“I’ve had about all I can stand,” announced Austen, “I can’t work all day and all night, and then face this at home. It’s got to stop. Understand?”
“I hope it will,” retorted Martha, and as she left the room she heard Austen saying something about interference, but Mary Ellen was strangely silent.
That afternoon the doctor came. Martha had protested but Mary Ellen stood firm, and Martha realized that she wasn’t feeling strong, and that somehow all her food seemed to be unappetizing.
“The trouble isn’t of the body,” she told her daughter, “it’s trouble of the mind. You’re my trouble.”
But Mary Ellen let that pass without question or comment.
The doctor was quite young, but already had made a name for himself, and he gave Martha a thorough examination, while Mary Ellen marveled at her mother’s docility in answering his many questions.
“There isn’t anything organically wrong,” he told her, “but you are far from well. You aren’t getting out enough, and you aren’t eating enough. I want you to get out in the sun every day, eat lots of good food and . , . stop worrying,” he concluded with a heart-warming smile.
“Easier to give than to take, doctor,” smiled Martha wanly. “I lost my husband a few months back, and it was kind of hard, shutting up my house and leaving all my old friends. Mary Ellen, if you’d get it, and see that it’s cold, I feel’s though I could take a glass of milk right now,” she interrupted herself to say. Then, as Mary Ellen left the room she turned to the doctor, and said quickly: “There ain’t a thing wrong with me, young fellow, except that I’m a mud-lark in a canary cage. All my life I’ve worked, and now when I need hard work and lots of it to take my mind off missing John, I ain’t got a thing to do but sit around and mope. That’s my disease. Not water on the brain, but too much time on the hands.”
The young doctor put his head in his hands and shook with laughter. Then he patted the old hand encouragingly, and as Mary Ellen returned with the milk he took up his bag and hat and went out, promising to look in again in a day or so.
Continued on page 44
Continued from page 16
TT WAS the next day that Martha took
matters into her own gnarled hands. Prentis Dover was at the house, as usual. He’d called to take Mary Ellen to a musicale at the Artists’ Club, and Martha sat and talked to him while he waited for Mary Ellen to make her appearance.
“Mary Ellen tells me you aren’t quite up to the mark, Mrs. Morton,” he said solicitously. “I hope you’ll be feeling better soon.”
“I don’t know’s I care much,” Martha said, dispiritedly. “There isn’t much to take pleasure in now. Austen’s never home to talk to me, and you and Mary Ellen are always going or coming. The doctor said I ought to go out a lot and be kept cheerful, but it’s hard to do that alone, day in and day out.”
Dover looked uncomfortable.
“I used to be mighty fond of music and the theatre and having a sociable cup of tea in the afternoon, times I'd come up to visit Mary Ellen, but since I’m here for good it just seem’s though they think it’s enough to live in the house with them. Nobody takes me anywhere.
“Now, now, Mrs. Morton, you mustn’t feel like that,” declared Dover. “First thing you know you’ll have developed an inferiority complex and ...”
“It sounds like something indecent, at my age,” interrupted Martha, “and I’ll ...”
“What I was going to suggest,” he interrupted in his turn, “was that you get your hat and cloak, and come along to this musicale with us. Maybe it’d brighten you up a bit.”
“D’you mean it?” said Martha.
“Why . . . er . . . that is . . . of course,” he stammered, and Martha with more of her old time vim than she had evidenced in many weeks, almost ran up the stairs, colliding, in her haste, with Mary Ellen.
“I’m going, too. I’ll just be a minute,” she panted as she brushed past her daughter.
“Going . . . but, mother . . .!” Martha was out of hearing, and if the glow in her eyes was partly anger-bred, she still had a chuckle in her throat as she donned the becoming widow’s bonnet and her black cloak.
The musicale was a huge success from Martha’s viewpoint, but neither Mary Ellen nor Prentis Dover had high praise for it.
“His touch was too heavy, and then he lacked the interpretive spirit,” stated Dover, critically.
“I thought his choice of selections was hardly in keeping with the plane of musical mentality represented by the club,” offered Mary Ellen.
“For my part,” declared Martha, “although of course I’m no judge, it was mighty fine. But then I go out so seldom I guess I’m easily pleased, like the youngsters,” she added, with a touch of pathos.
“What time shall I call for you?” asked Prentis Dover.
“About eight,” said Mary Ellen, carelessly.
And then Martha, guileless as a bisque doll, touched Prentis lightly with her gray gloved hand, and asked naively;
“Where are we going to-night?”
T HAD lasted for ten days.
Whether it was the golf club in the morning, the matinee, or long drive, or twilight musical in the afternoon, the theatre, concert, or club dance at night, Martha was a definite quantity in a most uncongenial trinity. Mary Ellen protested that her mother would make herself ill. Prentis Dover alternately fumed and sulked, but Martha, buoyant and blissful,
! seemed perfectly unconscious of the fact that she was unwelcome, taking it for 1 granted that she was included in every outing. And, to the utter horror of Mary I Ellen, her mother’s presence actually was
accepted as a matter of course, and hostesses in inviting Mary Ellen would add with the most maddening sincerity:
“I want your mother, too, my dear, she’s so refreshing.”
Austen had become a silent third at. the breakfast table, and that was almost the only occasion now, on which Martha saw him. She knew, without having commented on the fact, that Mary Ellen had taken possession of one of the guest rooms and she guessed what Mary Ellen thought no one but herself knew, that night after night her pillow was tear wet. What Mary Ellen didn’t know, because she never went into Austen’s room, was that his bed was seldom slept in, and that he would pace the room or read, sunk deep and despairing in his big chair, until dawn.
Another thing that Mary Ellen didn’t know was that Martha had taken to buying rubbing alcohol by the large bottle, and that every night she rubbed her aching feet and limbs with it.
“God knows I’d give every theatre and club and party in the world for three hours in my cobbler rocker with Thomas purring on my lap,” she muttered the tenth night, as she eased herself gingerly into the bed. “I’m the worst hypocrite alive. I smile when I’d like to bite, and I say I want to go everywhere when what I want most of all is a chance to warm a chair again. I’m too old to stand this pace long.”
It was the very next day that Mary Ellen revolted. She and Prentis had managed to have five minutes alone, and were just hastening, almost stealthily, out to the car when Martha, coated and hatted and gloved and smiling, joined them.
“Where are we going to-day?” she asked blithely.
“Nowhere,” snapped Mary Ellen. “Prentis, you go alone, Mother and I are staying home this afternoon.”
Martha didn’t say anything. She knew the time had come for a showdown, and she was trembling but resolute.
“Now,” said Mary Ellen, “this farce has been going on long enough.”
“What farce?” asked Martha innocently.
“The idea of a woman of your age trying to ...”
“It doesn’t make any difference what age mothers are, Mary Ellen,” said Martha gently; “their children are always children to them, and when they find them making a mess of life ...”
“Who is making a mess of life?” asked Mary Ellen succinctly.
“You are, dear, and Austen and Prentis Dover.”
“Leave him out of it,” said Mary Ellen, sharply.
“So long as you won’t leave him out of anything I don’t see ...” began Martha, but Mary Ellen had thrown herself on the chesterfield and given way to an almost childish burst of tears and sobs . . . childish in the uncontrolled suddenness of the outbreak, but with a trouble deeper than that of childhood, finding vent in the sobs which racked her slender body, and the tears which scalded her eye-lids.
Martha’s lips trembled and her face
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worked, but she didn’t take a step toward the pitiful figure.
“I’m sorry if I’ve spoiled your fun,” she said gently, “but it was so lonely here all day by myself, Mary Ellen, and the doctor said for me to go out, and . . .” and even in the midst of her pain for Mary Ellen, and her realization of the seriousness of the situation, Martha couldn’t keep back a little smile at the thought that the girl actually believed she had enjoyed it all. “Besides ... I knew about the roses, and at first I thought I’d protect you from Prentis and then ...”
Mary Ellen sat up with a flounce.
“You knew all the time they were from Prentis, and didn’t say anything? . . .”
“What was there to say? And when would I get the time to say it to you?” asked Martha
“I’m so rushed. It’s such a full life . . . Austen so busy . . .”
“Life!” snorted Martha. “You don’t know the meaning of it. You’re so busy with fritterin’ things that aren’t worth anything, that you haven’t the time to realize your life is empty. You aren’t a home-maker, Mary Ellen, you’re just a spender. You dress and dance and smoke and gamble—Oh, yes, I know that too— and all the time you’re refusin’ to read the meaning of life in your woman’s body. You had a good man for a husband, and you’ve lost him. Full? Your life’s so empty it rattles.”
“Don’t mother—don’t. Austen started it, working all the time, never having a minute to take me anywhere. I couldn’t stay in night after night and just wait for him.”
“There’s other things to wait for besides just your man, Mary Ellen,” said Martha softly, “s’pose you think a bit . . .” and she went out of the room, leaving Mary Ellen huddled in the corner of the chesterfield, her face white and tear-stained, her eyes wide and dark and tuestioning . . .
VW’ILKINS,” said Martha, a few minutes later, as she stepped into the car, “is there a park anywhere near here?”
“Pryde’s Park ma’am.”
“Then drive me there the straightest way you know, and when you come to the entrance I want you to leave me and come back home. I’m going to have one more walk before my legs atrophy.”
Wilkins laughed, but he looked rather worried.
“Wouldn’t it be better for me to wait at the entrance and pick you up there in case Mrs. Etheredge saw me come home without you?”
“No it wouldn’t,” retorted Martha crisply. “I’m tired of being babied and I’m going to use my mind before I lose it. If Mrs. Etheredge asks you anything you tell her she directed you to take orders from me, and that my orders were to put me down at the park entrance and go home.”
Wilkins touched his cap and departed, and Martha, one wary eye recording the landmarks as she went along, smiled at the feel of the earth beneath her feet again.
“Imagine being cooped up in a closed car with spring in the air like this,” she soliloquized. “At home the tulips and daffodils will just be beginning to send up their first shoots, and me not there to watch ’em.”
She kept to the road for half an hour, and then, with a crooning little cry she left it suddenly, ran a few steps over the soft sward and fell on her knees, unmindful of the soil to dress or coat. In her gloved hands she cupped the furry stems, the broad leaves and tender tinted bloom of the first hepaticas.
“Hepaticas,” she murmured. “I reckon our wood is sweet with them, and next it’ll be violets, and then the bluebells’llbe coming along.”
Farther back from the road she saw another clump, the flowers untouched by the sun a deeper tone of orchid, and it was while she was kneeling there that
the determination to have them conquered her.
“I don’t care what Mary Ellen says,” she said. “I gave in about the geraniums . . . I’ve nearly smothered in that overstuffed chair because she didn’t want the neighbors to see a cobbler rocker cornin’ in, and I’ll keep these on the bathroom window where no one can see them, but keep them I will, or go crazy.”
In a moment her kid gloves were off and she was digging at the roots with her bare hands, digging deep to protect them, striving to keep sufficient of the black earth about them so that they would not wither, even momentarily, for lack of nourishment. She spread her sheer linen handkerchief to receive them, and so absorbed was she in her task that she did not hear a motor car stop with a sudden grinding of brakes, nor the swift steps which brought Prentis Dover to her.
“Why Mrs. Morton,” he exclaimed, “I thought it was some one lying here hurt.”
“I’ve got to have these hepaticas,” she said, looking up at him piteously. “I must have something to tend. First it was John, and then it was John and Mary Ellen, and then, after Mary Ellen married it was John again and Thomas the cat and my flowers. And now—now—it isn’t anything, and I’m just dying by inches for something that needs me.”
For a moment the man didn’t speak, and when he did his voice was husky.
“I think I understand,” he said. “. . . you’re sure you’re not hurt?”
“No, I’m not hurt, not the outside of me. Just tired and homesick and . . . and if you don’t look out you’ll have me bellerin’ on your shoulder,” she finished, standing up with the hepaticas in her hand. “I’m so tired of forced flowers and forced friendships and overstuffed furniture and stomachs,” she went on again, looking him squarely in the face, and then at his sudden peal of laughter she looked startled for a moment, before she, too, began to laugh, even while her lips quivered.
“Take me to some quiet place where I can get a cup of tea, and a pot for my flowers,andthendrivemehome,’’she commanded him, much as Mary Ellen might have done, and brushing the dirt from her skirt and coat as best he could, he put her in the car and started for a tea shop.
“I’m a sight,” declared Martha as they went in. “You order tea and a mite of toast, and I’ll telephone Mary Ellen so’s she won’t be nervous about my staying out alone.”
But it wasn’t to Mary Ellen she telephoned, and long after her toast was crumbled uneaten cn her plate, and her tea cold in its cup, she lingered there in the little shop with Prentis Dover.
“You know I didn’t like you a bit at first, but you’ve sort of grown on me,” she declared at length, as though she’d been trying to get up courage to tell him this.
“That’s nice . . .’’he began.
“I’m glad you like it, for there’s bitter coming,” she told him grimly. “You ought to know better than to make trouble between Mary Ellen and Austen, you don’t really care ...”
“I swear I do,” he broke in sternly.
“Then you’ve no business to, and you’ll get over it without being scarred,” she told him flatly, “What you want is to find some nice little girl for yourself and teach her^the meaning of love and . . . and . . . play in your own backyard. Now take me home, please.”
It was a silent drive home, and, when they reached the house Martha’s lips quivered again, for what she had hoped to see was not there.
“I’m coming in,” declared Prentis doggedly, and Martha without answering him, picked up the little pot she had bought and which held her hepaticas, and, with a look of the utmost weariness on her face, preceded him into the house.
It wasn’t guile that made her open the door softly. She was in that chastened
mood which makes for quiet movement, and there was no sound as the two stepped into the hall, their footsteps muted on the velvet rug. Martha staggered a little, and one hand went out to catch at the portiere, and the little pot of hepaticas fell from her nerveless hand and broke in fragments on the polished floor. Within the living room two figures which had stood, fused into one in the closeness of their embrace, broke apart suddenly, and a radiant Mary Ellen flew toward her mother, and then stopped short at the sight of the fragments of earthenware,
the scattered dirt and the fading hepaticas on the floor. Martha’s coat and skirt were earth-stained and draggled, and her nails were black from delving, but as Mary Ellen’s eyes travelled upward and met the shining contentment in the old eyes, she knew that there was nothing amiss.
“Maybe Austen can find another pot for my pretties,” said Martha simply, as she stooped to gather them up. She turned toward the door, but there was no one in the hall, and only the roar of a motor could be heard, growing fainter in the distance.