The Arch Strategist
A Story of Love and a Ouija Board
EDITH G. BAYNE
PETER DEANE had never heard of the elder Mr. Weller nor his celebrated piece of advice to his son regarding widows. For, if he had, he would probably never . have gone cruising in the Molly Jane in the first place and therefore the somewhat delicate situation in which he found himself as a result of the last ride would never have arisen. Peter was never one to spurn kindly advice. Among the men he was considered “long which is one of the
tributes one man can pay another and so, deeming him shrewd enough to look after himself, they had allowed him to rush headlong to his doom—though possibly that last is putting it a bit strong.
One could scarcely connect Mrs.
Patricia Wyatt -with a hapless word like that. Life with her would be just one lobster salad after another.
The Molly Jane was Mrs.
Wyatt’s runabout. Peter had walked to the village on this cloudless August afternoon to see about the mending of a bit of harness and to bring his mail, and just east of the Eight Elms—the old Minafer place—the widow had picked him up. Then, the car being newlyr tired and in the best .of running order and its owner newly attired too (since a recent .little smuggling expedition to the ■other side of the St. Lawrence) she needs must take a spin along the speedway and around by Cotter’s Grove and back, thus passing as many houses and as many buggies, wagons and pedestrians as possible.
Behold Peter then, after she had set him down finally at the
gate of his own place, walking I.--
rather moodily to the house where,
upon entering his bachelor kitchen he immediately beheld a not unfamiliar sight—to wit, his table covered with a number of toothsome home-made viands in and on pasteboard dishes and plates and covered with picnic napkins. She had been there first, on her way down ! Oh well, for all her aggravating little ways she was a good sport. She performed her generous deeds on the quiet—didn’t want to be thanked. That reminded him he had forgotten to thank her for that first lot of good things two weeks or so ago. Peter frowned with annoyance, not at his dilatpriness, but at the thought of all the obligations these would-be anonymous donations put him to. Hang it all! It would take three strawberry festivals, a corn-husking and a harvest home supper to wipe out his indebtedness, and by that time the countryside gossip would have attained the volume and pi*oportions of a tornado.
In the midst of his frowning, however, he sniffed longingly at the palate-tickling odox’S that filled the untidy little kitchen. When you have lived interminably on salt pork, boiled potatoes, blackstx*ap, baker’s bread and canned horrors there is something about the aroma of newTly-baked bread and scones and fresh, sugared doughnuts that partakes almost of the celestial. Peter uncovered a plate of jelly rolls and prodded them with a speculative forefinger. They were warm y'et. He leaned down and smelt of a bowl of rich soup. It reminded him, with sudden force, of his mother’s soups. He ran his tongue over his lips and gulped; and then he saw a small loaf of walnut bread and gulped harder. These gulps had to do strictly with the emotions of the appetite, however. There were doughnuts and dainty ham-and-tongue sandwiches and there was a lemon pie with a thick, rich meringue the color of a gold-tipped sunset cloud. Peter straightened up and drew' his eyes reluctantly away from these treasures. He strode over to the cracked mirror above the washbench.
He looked at his image with a kind of stern appraisal.
What in thunder did she see in him anyway! With vague disquietude, not to say alarm, he realized that he was growing old. He had been realizing it for some time, to be sure, but now he almost winced as the full force of it struck him, there in the harsh light from the uncurtained window. Growing old! And he was a lonely man and always must be, considering that of blood relatives he had none. Surely if there was a woman willing, not to say eager, to have him it were the part of wisdom and expediency to close the deal. She too—well, she wasn’t exactly young either. Peter continued to stand before his reflection eyeing each featux-e with cold severity—a plain face lightened or not (usually not) by sombre dark eyes, unsmiling mouth, rather large nose, grey-flecked, black haix% and the scar of a bayonet wound just under his right ear. Suddenly he laughed harshly.
“I’ll do it!” he said grimly. “I’ll do it if Jim’ll buy those forty acres! By the living jingo I’ll do it!”
He turned and made as though to take up the milk pails, but his eye encountered the table first and he stood, considering. He took up a scone and ate it ravenously. He ate four in rapid succession. Then he tried a doughnut.
“I ought to milk first,” he muttered with a glance at the noisy little clock on the shelf. “I ought to. But I won’t.”
Thereupon he dx-ew up a chair and went about the pleasant task of eating in a way that would have kindled pity as well as delight in the eyes of the fair cook could she have witnessed it. Filled to repletion he rose at length and, taking up his pails, hied him leisurely to the stables. As the milk shot into the pail with the customary tink-tank that had become musical monotony to him he gazed out across the dewy meadow, through the open stable doors, and fell to wondering what they made all this fuss about romance and marriage for. It was infinitely
better to make marriage a strictly business proposition. He and the widow now—
Here old Brinale slapped his cheek with her tail and he roared out anathema upon her and shifted his stool more to the right.
“I’ll go over and see Jim to-night,” Peter muttered. “I’ll have it settled before I sleep or—here you !”
CO, when the last ^ chore was done, he took his way across the upper pastore and through the clover meadow by the brook to the old brown house with the twinkling lights that crested Pine Hill. Here dwelt his oldest friend and neighbor, James Butler, a not unworthy little man, but one who wore a permanently crushed air. He was the husband of the best housekeeper in Dundas County. Perhaps that explains it.
As Peter vaulted the snake fence and approached the porch door, the shrill voice of the lady of the house assailed his ears. He could also hear her stepping briskly about within. He stopped, considering.
“Sounds like poor old Jim’s getting a tongue thrashing,” he reflected. “Perhaps I’d best—”
The screen door swung violently open and the thin, angular form of Mrs. Butler appeared. She carried a pail of something which she threw out.
“—An’ I’ve told you a hundred times if I’ve told you once,” she was saying, emphatically, “never to—”
Then the door slapped to and Peter remained, still irresolute, just south of the currant bushes. But presently he decided to go forward. He might be able to save Jim from the rest of the lecture. It wouldn’t be the first time he had ax*rived thus fortuitously.
“Oh, come now, Mary Ann,” he heard Jim remonstrating feebly, “you never look on nothin’ but the seamy side o’ life. Why don’t—”
“Seamy? Huh!” Mrs. Butler snorted as she wrung a dish tow’el and slapped it over the drying rack. “It seems to be purty nearly all seamy—where it aint patches. Get out an’ split up that kindlin’ an’ leave me room to turn around for pity’s sake! An’ mind an’ come in the back way so’s this floor gits a chance to dry. Is that Bobby I hear cornin’ in the porch?” she added, sharply.
“Hi, you, Bobby!” sang out Jim. “Your maw says you gotta wipe them feet ’for you—oh it’s Peter! Come in, come in!”
“Thanks. Not this time,” said Peter. “Evening,
Mrs. Butlex-. I--come over to take a look at that
“Oh yeah!” returned Jim, bxlghtening perceptibly; and he took down his cow’s breakfast fronritsnail and joined Peter by means of some adroit stepping over the freshly scrubbed yellow floor.
Peter noticed that Mrs. Butler watched every step with held breath and only gave vent to it when her husband after walking like a cat on hot bricks gained the comparative security of the verandah.
Life-sentence himself to this? H’m!
IN a distant corner of the barnyard, seated on the edge of a disrupted hayrick, Peter and Jim by a somewhat devious conversational route that, beginning with the weather and the crops and passing on to a sick cow and the need for more fertilizer in the west field appeared to lead to no ultimate object, finally arrived at a state of understanding, and the exchange of nxan-to-man confidences. Jim wasn’t exactly prepared just at present to purchase the forty acres of bush land. Peter said it didn’t much matter anyway as he’d “kind of changed his mind just in the last half hour or He told Jim his trouble, told it curtly, half-savagely, as of one discharging a most uncongenial task, as indeed it was. The whole instinct of his nature was against casting even the faintest verbal reflection upon the intentions of a lady.
“Of course, it may be only her little way, Jim. She’s —she’s awful friendly and easy to make up to. But— well to-day she squeezed my hand and quoted those lines from Longfellow. You know—”
“Eh? Longfellow? Po’try you mean? Say, this looks serious all right! What lines was she—”
“Oh, about life being short and time fleeting. It looked to me like a strong hint. And this isn’t leap year. I’m plumb up against it, Jim.”
Jim shook his head helplessly and sighed.
“I take it you don’t like her then,” he hazarded at last. “W’ell, I don’t dislike her. I—I might have got to like her if—”
“Yeah?” as Peter paused.
“Well, if she’d let me do the rushing. It’s a man’s place to do the courting, Jim. You know that.”
Jim was silent and in the gloom Peter didn’t see his glance stray to the distant kitchen window.
“You did your own courting, Jim, didn’t you?” Peter pursued.
“It’s so long ago I’ve clean forgot, Peter. My wife was a w'idda woman an’—an’—they got a knack with them, you see.” Then he added loyally, “Mary Ann’s a darned good housekeeper.”
“Well, a man’ll put up with a whole lot for the sake of well-cooked meals, Jim. Mrs. Wyatt, she—she cooks like all possessed.”
“Does she now? A body wouldn’t think she’d get time she spends so much time runnin’ round in that dinky contraption o’ hers!”
“I wish I knew what to do about it. I’m getting on, Jim. I don’t know w'hat she sees in me, but I’m a lucky guy if I could just realize it.”
“The Lord knows it aint your looks,” said Jim, candidly. “Why don’t you work the same dodge on her as you did on that Miss what-d'ye-call-her? Tell her you got heredit’ry cancer or that there’s insanity in the family?”
Peter’s face was warm.
“Well I haven’t got a family for one thing and in any case it wouldn’t make a particle of difference what I said. She—she’s a determined sort, Jim. The affair with Miss Spiffer was mild compared to this. Right this minute I’ve got lumbago, but it wouldn’t faze Mrs. Wyatt any.”
“I tell you what I believe,” said Jim suddenly, like one who is struck by a bright idea. “I believe you’ve got what they call pers’nal magnetism. Yep. That must be it!”
Peter started in some alarm.
“Is it catching?” he asked eagerly then.
“Nope, Peter. It aint. That’s the worst of it. I’m some older’n you an’ I never had it in all my life. So how can I give you advice? There’s somethin’ about you the women like an’ that they fall for. (I’m surprised you aint conceited!) Have you told the lady that your savin’s was all blown to glory in phoney oilstock? That’s a test for your life, Peter.”
“Yes, I tried that wrinkle too. She’s pretty well fixed herself and it didn’t startle her at all. A man’s nigh desperate when he’ll admit a lack of judgment, Jim. You see my case, don’t you? I tell you I don’t hanker for double harness and at the same time I refuse to be brutal! What in Halifax is a man to do?”
TIM chewed a straw in silence. Peter *-* kicked his heels restlessly against the lower half of the rick and watched the canal lights down the river, strung out along the deep sapphire of the night sky like diamonds on blue velvet.
“Appears to me like you’d best clear out o’ the country—or else take smallpox,” suggested Jim presently.
“Think up a better one,” said Peter, wearily.
Jim was again silent. Finally he straightened up and seized his gloomy companion by one shoulder, chuckling like a small boy bent on mischief.
“I got it, Peter!” he chortled. “And it’s sure pizen for the widda ! Listen now—”
“Sh-h!” cautioned Peter with an overshoulder glance.
“You know that little Minafer girl?”
“Near the village in the big frame house this her name is anyway!”
“That little slim thing with the long fair pigtails down her back? Well, what about her? What on earth has she got to do with—”
She don’t wear pigtails now. Think a minute. That was five or six years ago—afore the war. She’s pushin’ on to twenty-four or five, I reckon. Well, this is my idea, Peter, an’ you can take it or leave it; you must make her your alibi.”
“Alibi ! What.—”
“Now wait. With a female strategist (Jim pronounced it strateegist) like the widda you gotta use diplomacy (Jim accented the clip) an’ fight fire with fii’e. You—”
“Don’t talk so loud!” and Peter glanced over his shoulder again, fancying he heard a crackle in the garden nearby. “Why do you pick on the little Minafer girl? I’m not setting out to break any hearts myself, Jim. I just want to get out of this tangle as easy and as quick as it’s possible to—”
“I know'. The reason I thought o’ Mattie—yes Mattie is the name, I remember! thought o’ Mattie Minafer is because I hear tell she’s a man-hater—a bitter one. So she’d have no feelin’s to consider. Call round on her some—just enough to shake the widda an’ git folks to talkin’—”
“If they talk much more their tongues’ll be paralyzed one of these days,” he said gloomily. “Well, go on. It sounds crazy, but I’m a desperate man.”
“Mattie has had chances galore,” Jim went on. “She’s turned down half-a-dozen decent young fellas. You see, her pa didn’t exactly treat her ma right or somethin’, an’ anyw’ay her ma bein’ more or less an invaleed, Peter, the girl’s had everythin’ to do lonehanded. They’re livin’ on in the old place, but the land’s sold an’ all they keep is a cow now, but even so her ma’s a great care an’ the girl’s fed up with housework an’ who can blame her for wrantin’ to bolt? She’s a right smart little girl, but she’s never had a chance. Just work, work, work, from the time she was nine or ten year old. I’ve heard tell she used to milk seventeen cows an’ you know that big house musta nigh killed her sweepin’ an’ washin’ an’ all. She told every one o’ them fellaß as they’d ask her that she had no mind to change her mode o’ life unless she could better it. She’s teachin’ herself a business course by mail an’ soon’s she can land a job she’s goin’ to take her ma an’ live in town. She likes the country an’ doesn’t care for town much, but she says she’s goin’ to really live some day. Them’s her words.”
“Mattie you say? That’s a neat name.”
“Martha, by rights. She’s got a Mary spirit an’ disposition but the Martha life has been thrust on her an’ it’s turned her into a kind o’ machine I s’pose. Her pa died some few years back—while you was at the front I guess. Mind him?”
Peter gave a grunt of assent.
“He gave me an aw'ful hiding once for stealing apples,” he remarked. “But this isn’t clear yet, Jim. What am I to do? Pretend to rush her?”
“Do as you please. Drop in on her an’ borry a book or make a date to talk to the old lady. She don’t git out at all an’ they keep to themselves so, people think they’re stuck up, I s’pose. Git the habit o’ callin’ there an’ the widda if she’s at all sharp oughta take the hint. Harm’ll be done no one. You don’t care an’ Mattie
won’t. Chances are ten to one she’ll treat you like a piece o’ furniture. But I take it it’s a case o’’ any port in a storm?”
It suie is, Jim. Well, I’d best be hoofing it I’ll think the scheme over. As you say it isn’t like as though it was injuring* anyone.”
“No. Keep that afore you. Mattie aint goin’ to shine up to the farmin’ fraternity. You’re as safe with her as as a duck on a horsepond. She’s a frosty little moon, quite out o reach o’ the likes o’ you. But this is one time she’s goin’ to help a horrid man-creature— only she won’t know a thing about it! Good luck Peter.”
RUT Peter Deane, as he strolled homeward over the dew-drenched pasture land, was in anything but an exultant frame of mind. The scheme wasn’t on-thesquare somehow. Nevertheless all week long, as often as he put the idea from him, it returned and the day Mrs. Wyatt caught him on the telephone and in cooing tones intimated that Friday evening was free and his company would be welcome—more, that she had something very, very important to ask him—he took the plunge and told her he had a previous engagement. So, to make*good his word he was obliged to put in an appearance somewhere on that evening and the Minafer place being as good as any, and the nearest to reach, Peter tacked off across his ten-acre summer-fallow field and*, taking a short-cut through the sugar-maple grove, found himself finally at the white gates of Eight Elms and without any valid excuse for going further.
Few men who have not been ardently pursued by a fascinating widow—a war widow at that—will perhaps understand or have sympathy for Peter Deane. Goodnatured to a fault, unwilling to hurt even a mouse unnecessarily, chivalrous to a degree and not unsociable for all his thirty-three years and “set” habits, he was vastly puzzled and not a little querulous over the persistent way Fate was keeping his peace-loving existence stirred up. He hated letting his telephone hang by its cord—it annoyed central and turned away business of his own. He hated not thanking people for gifts—but the more you thanked them the more they sent. He disliked being curt and grouchy—for his was a pleasant nature and he possessed the happy faculty of believing
the best of a person until it was proven he—or she_
was undeserving of the good opinion.
What was that about borrowing a book that Jim had suggested? Lucky he had remembered! So Peter opened the prim gates, strode up the gravel drive and, mounting the three broad steps, knocked loudly on the panels of the front door—a severe-looking door without a bell. There was an old brass knocker which Peter didn’t try but merely gazed at curiously and overhead was a half?moon transom of colored glass. The white frame house was a county landmark and the figures 1840 in the glass gave its venerable age away.
TTIS knocking was answered promptly by Miss Mattie A Minafer, trig and cool and a little disdainful as he could see even in the moonight. She wore a neat pink print dress and, sure enough, the pigtails were no more; or at least they were on her head now in a loose, unstudied-attractive mass—like corn silk, as Peter thought.
“Good-evening,” said Peter.
“Good-evening,” responded Miss Mattie as in politeness bound.
“I came to borrow a book—if I might.”
“Any—any kind of a book, you know.” “Come in, please.”
Peter entered and Miss Mattie turned up a bracket-lamp nearby and regarded him with detached interest. A farmer come to borrow a book !
“Your pa having had quite a little library 1 thought I might perhaps borrow a volume —now and then,” explained Peter easily, though the recollection of the late William Minafer’s literary habits had just occurred to him. "It’s coming on now to the long evenings, you know—”
“You are welcome to any books we have,” stated Miss Mattie politely. “But I’m afraid they will hardly interest you. He was scientific in his tastes—the occult sciences you know.”
“Yes, I remember. Spiritualism, wasn’t it?”
‘Spiritism,” corrected Miss Mattie in her best schoolm’am manner.
(She had taught the village school three terms.)
“Whatever it is,” said Peter, nodding. “That’ll do, 1 guess, as well as anything.”
Miss Mattie led the way to the living-room where a tall glassed-in bookcase stood.
“Take your choice,” she said, swinging back the doors.
Peter pulled out a volume at random. It was “The Science of Table-Rapping.”
“This sounds—er—interesting. I’ll take it. Could— could I come back for another on Tuesday night?” “Certainly,” responded Miss Mattie. “But come to the side door, please. It’s the one we use most. I mightn’t have heard you to-night only I was just going upstairs with mother’s hot milk.”
“Thanks,” said Peter, picking up his hat. “I hope your ma keeps fairly well?”
“Oh just so-so. By the way you mustn’t tell her you’re studying—that,” and Miss Mattie indicated the book with a nod. “She thinks spiritism wicked—says it’s doubting God.”
Peter thought he sensed an implied reproof in this. “What do you think? he asked.
She shook her head.
“I have no opinion on the subject,” she said coldly. “It takes me all my spare moments perfecting my shorthand.”
PETER now saw on the table nearby many outspuead notebooks and sheets of paper and half-a-dozen sharpened pencils. A sudden idea occurred to him.
“Have you anyone to dictate to you for practice?” he asked.
“No, I haven’t. It’s my only drawback, too. Mother’s eyes aren’t what they once were, and I can’t let her dictate though she often begs to do so. I get along somehow.”
“If—if I came kind of early on Tuesday night,” Peter said boldly, “maybe—well, maybe I could help you out. I surely don’t care to borrow your books and give nothing in return. I—”
“I mean, to say such a thing as that. It is good of you to offer to help me.” And Miss Mattie reflected gravely. “Very well. Come early Tuesday evening. I’ll show you the ouija-board then, too.”
“The—the u/hat?” and Peter stopped short and turned.
“Father’s ouija-board. You know. He used to make the—the spirits talk with it.”
“Did he really? That’s a joke, isn’t it?” and Peter thought it no wonder the villagers had considered the old man “off.”
Miss Mattie shrugged her slim shoulders. She wore an air of cold abstraction. Evidently she wished him off. So Peter went away, Miss Mattie’s clear-toned, indifferent farewell ringing in his ears all the way home.
As to the book he hadn’t had the slightest intention of reading it but for fear she might question him about it on Tuesday he took a tentative dip or two into it that very night—and ended by sitting up till two o’clock, which left him barely three hours for sleep. Thus does Fate manhandle our affairs for us, one and all. Peter might merely have cast the volume aside and taken up the tangled threads of his life again, leaving Miss Mattie and the spirits out of it and eventually receiving the widow into it, but for Fate.
ON Tuesday evening, just as the first friendly stars began to come out over the dense green of the cedars on the river bank, below, Peter once more took his way, but springily now, across the fields and through the grove to the Minafer place. Miss Mattie was drying her hands on a kitchen towel and she nodded briefly at Peter’s apparition through the screen door and requested him to light the lamp. It was some little time before she joined him and he judged that a variety of bothersome little chores detained her somewhere and he examined the late Mr. Minafer’s library at his leisure. About eight o’clock she re-appeared, rather breathless and flushed from her exertions but not in an ill humor. Peter thought what a shame it was she had no help and wondered if she would take it in good part if he volunteered to chop some wood or hoe the garden for her.
He was introduced to the ouija-board and also to a large glass globe resting on a pad of black velvet and then left to his own devices while Miss Mattie practised an hour on a rattly old typewriter and then went upstairs to “settle” her mother for the night. When she came down again it was too late for dictation and Peter made his adieu and went home, carrying two books with him. He had indicated that he might drop in Friday night to return them. They were “The Veil and What Lies Behind” and “Consulting the Ouija.”
Peter saw a busy winter ahead, if he intended to read through the whole set, and he now decided he might as well. He was becoming deeply interested, enthralled even, with the occult and he hadn’t thought of Mrs. Patricia Wyatt all evening. But the memory returned with singular force as soon as he opened his kitchen door and struck a match, for there on his bare little table lay another lot of gifts from the goddess, including lemon jelly with whipped cream this time.
Two days later in his rural-mail box at the head of the lane, Peter found a familiar-looking violet-tinted note addressed in a large, flowing, reckless hand, and dolefully swore. The note opened like a playful tap of a fan—and ended like a bombshell!
"Dear old boy—I know where you were Tuesday ! Foolish old dear, were you trying to melt the Little Icicle? Never mind, I’m not the least, tiniest bit jealous. You remember our visit to
Sequoyah’s Stone on Dominion Day, don’t you ? Well !.....
Come up Sunday to dinner. Patty.’’
DETER was very uneasy all the rest of the week.
Good heavens! Was she really taking that Stone incident seriously? He spent Sunday afternoon in the barn loft reading “The Spirit Word” and thinking of breach-of-promise. Strategist! Why, she was a female Foch, that’s what she was! And Peter fairly haunted the Minafer place the week following, arriving so early and so often he was beginning to feel like a boarder. He grew into an odd habit too of looking back over his shoulder, but whether it was a disembodied spirit he dreaded to see or the full and ravishing form of the pretty widow, he could scarcely have told. He made a tentative effort at confiding in Miss Mattie one night.
“You know Sequoyah’s Stone up on Indian Point?” he commenced, nonchalantly.
Miss Mattie glanced up from her notebook and nodded. Peter avoided her clear blue eye and ruffling the leaves of his book went on hurriedly:
“There’s a — a sort of story about it, isn’t there?”
“A legend, yes.”
“Is it true? I mean do many folk put stock in it?”
“Oh yes,” said Miss Mattie gravely. “I’ve heard of a lot of people who disregarded it and came to grief. It is evidently one of those legends that we must believe—can believe.”
“Would you mind telling me all you know about it?” and Peter’s anxiety was ill-disguised.
“There isn’t much to tell. This tall flat rock stands at the extreme end of the Point—a promontory in fact it is. There’s just room enough for two people on it and there are two pairs of footprints, a man’s and a woman’s. They look as though they had been there since the Upheaval. Sequoyah was an Indian maiden who took a reluctant lover out there and threatened to kill him and throw him into the deep water below— they say you can’t find bottom there—if he didn’t marry her. The inference is that he gave in. But to this day the girl and her male companion who climb that rock and place their feet in the stony footprints of those early lovers—”
“Yes?” Peter prompted breathlessly as Mattie paused presumably for the purpose of making her ending thé more impressive. “Yes?”
“— must marry!”
“Must!” exclaimed Peter his brows close-drawn.
“Absolutely must or all sorts of trouble will come to them.”
“I—let’s get out the board and have a little go at the spirits. What say?”
Peter’s air of levity would have deceived a shrewder person even, than Miss Minafer. They seated themselves at opposite sides of a small table and placed the finerer-tips of both hands on the ouija-board. Then they fell into a more or less trance-like state which they termed “concentration.” But for a long time the ouija remained unresponsive. Miss Minafer, her red lips apart and her cheeks flushed, whispered the questions Peter asked, relaying them on to the spirit world with at least a semblance of faith. Peter relied on her wholly. Being the child of her father she couldn’t help but have “a pull” with those strange beings behind the veil!
“Shall I take the plunge?” whispered Peter breathing thickly and forgetting to elucidate to his medium what it was he intended to plunge into.
“Better—go—slow.” The board spelled out slowly after a long wait.
“What must I do?”—next question.
Peter’s face wore a puzzled frown as they rose from their seance at length, the ouija having closed up like an oyster after its two succinct remarks.
“Miss Mattie,” he began as he took up his hat and began to brush it with his coat sleeve (though it was quite a new hat and Peter was never anything but well groomed when “dressed up”). “Miss Mattie, you always put things so clearly I’ve a mind to ask your advice on
a matter that—well, I’m in a fix. Horns of a dilemma. You know what I mean.”
“Between the—the Old Nick and the Ocean?” “Exactly.”
“State the case.”
“I can’t. That’s the trouble.”
“But innuendoes don’t help much, Mr. Deane.”
“Once or twice you’ve called me Peter.”
“That’s better,” said Peter with intense satisfaction, his dilemma forgotten now. “I feel favored you should call me by my given name. I hear tell you don’t like farmers.”
“Perhaps not the men so much as the life, Peter,” said the girl slowly. “Now you—”
“I, what?” he prompted eagerly as she broke off. “You’re different,” said Mattie reflectively. “You read and study. And—and once about twelve years ago my life was saved in a particularly gallant way by a young farmer. I have never forgotten him, Peter. I always liked him.”
Her last words were very low. But he heard.
“Who—” he was beginning and then he stopped.
He looked at her. Then he looked away. That blush could mean but one thing: She loved that
knight of the soil, whoever he was. With difficulty Peter held his curiosity in check. Unrequited ' love ? Pride? Prejudice?
And very suddenly his dilemma settled itself. Peter watched for a moment longer the bright, downbent head, the slim fingers pleating a fold of her apron, the lingering rose-color in her cheek. Then he went away, with the briefest possible good-bye.,
Mattie stood watching his tall, loose-limbed form till it melted into the dark and the distance beyond the elms. She went back to her books and practised feverishly for half an hour. She was gaining both in speed and accuracy.
QN Sunday Peter walked over to Mrs. Wyatt’s. ' But on the way he dwelt over again upon an odd and not unpleasant thrill which he had experienced twice that week when on study bent in the old living-room at Miss Minafer’s. Peter was not usually introspective or disposed to self-analysis but he wondered why, when they had both reached for a dropped pencil and their hands had met briefly, just why his whole being had been filled with a strange turbulence. Again, she had admired a stick-pin made from a piece of shell and he had removed it and shown it to her and in returning it she had remarked his good taste in neckties—in a casual and almost indifferent way too but his heart had responded in a manner that was truly perplexing. The widow lavished fulsome praise on him at all times yet never had warm words of her» made his heart do a hurdle. So Peter pondered and he recalled a number of pleasing things that had nothing whatever to do with Mrs. Patricia Wyatt— the shadow on a Puritan cheek of thick curling lashes ; the rare smile of lips that had never known the touch of lipstick, being of Nature’s own red, full-formed and —well, provocative, only Peter didn’t think of that term; glinty, brown-gold hair full of imprisoned sunshafts, hair that his hands itched to touch, to smooth or to rumple un as the mood swayed him; cool, clear blue eyes that would have been childlike but for that brooding wistfulness that darkened them so often. Peter shook off thoughts of these things with some difficulty.
On the following evening he announced to Miss Mattie that he and Mrs. Wyatt were to be married in two weeks’ time. She received the news in silence. Mrs. Minafer, who had taken lately to coming downstairs in the evening, was quite voluble, however. She left off complaining of the dampness and the rheumatism and the prices of garden produce and congratulated Peter. She praised the widow’s looks, her vivacity, her friendliness, her house and her car and all things else that were hers, until the prospective groom was weary. The only thing left unpraised was her strategy, but possibly Mrs. Minafer was ignorant of this superior quality of the charming widow.
“Yes, Peter, you’re a lucky man,” repeated the old lady in her high thin voice as she nodded at him from her cushioned easy-chair by the coal-stove. “And October weddings are always the nicest for country folks. To tell you the truth, Peter, I was getting real anxious about you and this spirit stuff. It’s made you awful solemn or something. You used to be a rare mischeevious lad, Peter. The widow Wyatt will be just the one to perk you up again. Oh you Continued on page 70 needn’t to look so surprised! I caught you twice hiding that there wicked board that William used to set such store by. And one night I heard you reading aloud to Mattie here something about controls and vibrations and mejums. It’s downright sinful and you hadn’t ought to meddle with the future, I tell you ! It never did William no good.”
The Arch Strategist
Continued from page 28
The old lady shook her head as she spoke. Miss Mattie went on writing, but a close observer might have noted that her hand trembled. Peter felt uncomfortable and he covered the book he had just opened with a newspaper. His interest in the occult, mild to indifference on the start, was daily assuming proportions that alarmed him. A kind of fever was in his veins. He wondered occasionally if he might not be going mad, like poor William Minafer. The night they had made the board say: “Don’t be in a hurry” he hadn’t slept at all. He couldn’t keep away from Eight Elms. It drew him like a magnet. Last night—no, the night before!—the board had cautioned: “Be-
“The trouble with you, Peter,” Mrs. Minafer went on, “is that you’re too simple-minded. Credulous! Willjam was the same way. A sincere, simplehearted, good soul of a man, a trifle short-tempered to be sure, Put easily led.”
(The favorite terms applied by the villagers to that good soul had invariably been couched differently, of which “harsh” and “tyrannical” had been the mildest.)
Miss Mattie was so very silent her mother finally turned to her and said:
“Close up your books, Mattie, and make youself agreeable. Can’t you talk some to Peter?”
“I’ve got to skim the milk, Mother, as soon as I finish this.”
“Let it wait.”
“To-morrow’s churning day,” said the girl briefly and closed her exercise books with a snap.
“Didn’t I smell fresh doughnuts yesterday, Mattie—no, the day before?” Mrs. Minafer queried as her daughter rose. “Go fetch some in to Peter.”
Miss Mattie flushed—with either annoyance or embarrassment—but she obeyed. Then she went out alone to the milkhouse, taking a tall tallow dip and a skimmer.
It may have been ten minutes later or it may have been twenty when Peter, recollecting a spirit-level he had loaned Miss Mattie and which he would need on the morrow, followed her. He made so little sound on the soft turf that he was upon her before she knew it. She was on the cold cement floor with her head sunk in her arms on a milk-bench and sobbing like a broken-hearted child. Her whole attitude was one of hopeless grief, of despair and utter abandonment to the passion that gripped her.
“Wh—why Mattie!” Peter cried in amazement, as he blundered right in, and then stopped, petrified.
Miss Mattie sprang up. She turned a flushed, tear-wet face to him and then stamped her foot.
“What business have you f-followmg me like this?” she flung at him and then a fresh sob caught in her throat and she turned aside hastily.
“Why, Mattie!” and Peter blinked helplessly at her in the feeble light cast by the flickering candle. “What’s wrong? Are you sick or—or anything? I sure wondered why you quit your books so early. Are you sick?”
Miss" Mattie shook her head. Peter advanced until he stood beside her. Then impulsively he took her hand.
“Mattie—” he began and then forgot what he intended to say.
The girl had regained some degree of her old composure.
“Peter, you go back into the house now. And don’t tell Mother!” she said, freeing her hand and picking up the ladle.
“I won’t,” said Peter. “Not till you tell me what—why—”
She didn’t look up and he saw that her lip trembled.
“Mattie!” cried Peter and not aware of what he did he caught her to him, and held her.
He kissed her then twice and as quickly let go, for the realization that he was bound to quite another woman rushed over him like a sudden chill wind.
“If—if Mrs. Wyatt—the widow—” Miss Mattie began, standing back and gazing at him wildly. “If she knew!”
“Darn the widow!” said Peter and again caught the girl to him and kissed her in an ecstasy.
A thin voice from some distance calling “Mattie!” at last gave him pause and Mattie, breaking from him, mumbled something about her mother’s gruel and rushed away. Peter took a long, long breath. Then gritting his teeth he stalked slowly away and over the meadows and the pasture-land to his lone bachelor abode. Of course this ended his visits to Eight Elms!
All night long he rolled and tossed. That last couple of kisses had been returnedJim Butler’s words recurred to him again and again : “Mattie aint goin’ to shine up to the farmin’ fraternity.” Of course not !
And the very next day he heard at the village store that the Minafers were moving to town at the end of the following week. Miss Mattie was now “perficient” and could “tickle the typewriter” with the best of them and Mrs. Minafer, though really sorry to give up her old home, was cheerful and hopeful. Well— that ended that. And Peter strove to look forward to a certain fast-approaching day with something approximating a philosophical frame of mind.
It was two days before the wedding day when the natty little Molly Jane, bearing her mistress and Peter Deane villageward at the end of a windy, raw afternoon, became stalled. The misfortune, if such it were, occurred just in front of the prim gates of EightElms. The two occupants of the car got out and in turn and together struggled with Molly Jane’s works, but to little avail. The services of a garageman were needed and the car must be tow’ed away, they finally realized.
Mrs. Wyatt shivered and glanced up the driveway to the white house with its closed shutters and air of seclusion, not to say gloom.
“Dear, dear ! I’d love a cup of tea,” she murmured. ‘Do you suppose these people—Minafers is it?—are gone yet?”
“They go Monday morning,” said Peter. “We could walk down to Hughson’s—it’s only a little further— and John would drive us back.”
“Couldn’t think of it, Peter old boy! I’m not a bit used to walking in these shoes. I’m going in to Minafer’s. Come along.”
“You go then and I’ll—•”
“No, you must come *oo. I’m afraid of the Little Icicle, Peter, I am really! Besides there’s a ’phone here and we can send for a rig without getting in the least wet. It’s coming on to rain now and there'll be a steady shower by six.”
Miss Mattie Minafer professed herself agreeably surprised. As to tea, why they must stay to supper! She wouldn’t hear of anything less. She was just getting it, she said, and had made corn muffins.
Peter Deane telephoned for help and secured the promise of a “lift” home before eight o’clock while Mrs. Wyatt, chatted amiably with Mrs. Minafer and Mattie bustled about between kitchen and living-room. Supper around the circular table before the grate-fire proved a bounteous repast. There was head-cheese and a dish of scalloped tomatoes with potato salad, and muffins and honey followed by lemon jelly with whipped cream, and walnut cake. Miss Mattie had used the Crown Derby teaset and the heavy old silver. She might have been frocked and prepared on purpose for this little social hour. She wore a clinging old-blue silk dress, obviously a well-worn one, and a lace collar held in place by an old-fashioned cameo brooch. She conversed with an unusual degree of animation and Peter caught himself eagerly listening for her clear ringing laugh. Feast though it was to the ill-fed bachelor, he ate little.
It was the old lady who introduced the subject of the ouija-board, and Mrs. Wyatt professed a desire to see “how the thing worked.” So Peter and Mattie were detailed to demonstrate and when the four rose from supper they grouped themselves about the small table in the unlighted portion of the room and "the spirits” were prevailed upon to talk, Miss Mattie fetching a candle in an old silver candlestick so that they might read the messages. It was astonishing how much “the spirits” knew and how ready they were to talk. Peter admitted that they had never before been so loquacious and chummy. From time to time he glanced back over his shoulder in a strange manner, and once Miss Mattie rose and fastened the windowcatch thinking that the wind annoyed him.
Mrs. Wyatt, intensely superstitious, watched and listened in absorbed silence. From time to time she put forth hushed queries. Were those investments going to turn out all right? Was Cousin Margaret going to invite her to the city this winter? Should she buy a satinchiffon or a crêpe charmeuse for that Florida trip?
And then the widow, with an arch look at Peter, propounded the question that quite obviously had been trembling on the tip of her tongue for some time. “Is—is it right that I should marry again? Does Frank object?”
The others knew that the late Major Wyatt, who had died before his opportunity came to sail for France, had been of a jealous disposition
A tiny clock chimed eight at this point, but nobody heard. Outside a wet moon rode among scudding clouds. The rain had ceased, but seemed again imminent and a boisterous autumn gale sang whining about the old Minafer house, occasionally shaking raindrops from a large maple against the window paiies.
Mrs. Minafer, sensitive always to climatic conditions, shivered and half murmured that she felt a draught. No one heard or at least paid any heed. All the others were too deeply intent on the board—waiting for the answer that would come from the shade of the late Major Wyatt. The shrill whistle of the Mocassin train likewise went unheeded.
“A promise is a promise,” came the message from the board.
Mrs. Wyatt was now thoroughly keyed-up.
“Tell him—tell Frank—he is unreasonable,” she cried at length. Her eyes were glued on the board.
“If you persist—” the board recommenced. “—in your defiance of a sacred promise—”
The widow moaned.
“—Misfortune shall come upon you. Beware.”
The widow shuddered. She gazed wildly at Peter, whose eyes were fixed on the board. She got up shakily, clutched her temples in her palms, swung about slightly and would have fallen but that at this juncture ner attention was attracted to the long French window which involuntarily she faced. She gave a muffled scream.
“Look! Lookl” she articulated then. “The shadow on the window!
Everybody looked. Clearly outlined against the shirred silk curtain was the shadow of a man in uniform. Half a moment it remained and then slowly it disappeared, fading downward. When the rest turned about again, wide-eyed and white-faced, Mrs. Patricia Wyatt lay in a little silken heap on the floor.
AS Mrs. Minafer had observed, October weddings are the most appropriate for country folks. But Peter Deane and Mattie Minafer, as they sped toward the seaboard on their short honeymoon a week later, little cared what the season or the weather. Romance had flung its rosy veil between them and things mundane, and in spirit they had entered the gateway of April. ! As a matter of fact the weather was ! singularly fine all the way down the blue ' St. Lawrence and into tidewater; and there on the sheltered side of the deck of a palatial little coastwise steamer we shall have our final close-up of them, Mattie in becoming bridelike grey—a pussywillow grey—and Peter in one of the newest cuts in masculine attire, a suit that accentuated the rugged, manly lines of his form and made him easily the best groomed of all the men on board —yet not one whit less the Peter of blue jeans, simple, sincere and true.
“When the widow called the whole thing off,” Peter was saying, “my first feeling naturally was relief. But hope didn’t at once follow because you see I reminded myself that you had once loved someone else and that you might still love him. I mean the young farmer who saved your life. Why are you so mysterious about him?”
Mattie glanced up sidewise from under her wiae nat which she held to her head with one nand, the other being crooked round Peter’s arm and she smiled in that sweetly aggravating way she had at times.
“I do believe you’re jealous!” she exclaimed.
“WTho was he?” asked Peter, his brows close-drawn.
“He was a dear boy, Peter.”
“Have—have you seen him—seen much of him? Is he from round our neighborhood ?”
“Yes.” And Mattie leaned lower over the rail.
“Who is he anyway? Not that I —” Mattie squeezed Peter’s arm and a little ripple of merriment faint as a zephyr floated to his ear.
“Who is he, Peter? He’s a great big stupid with a very bad memory ! He jerked me back from a runaway team and—and was hurt himself.”
“Oh!” and Peter’s tone was in falling reflection.
That! And she had remembered it all these years.
“And I suppose you didn’t think I guessed who the real giver-of-gifts was —those dishes fit for the very gods?” “How did you find out? I thought I was very sly, Peter.”
“I discovered it indirectly the last time I had supper at Mrs. Wyatt’s. Her cook had a night off and—well, I had indigestion for two days afterwards!” “Take her all in all Peter she was quite a strategist.”
“That’s what Jim Butler called her. It was her strongest point.”
“But the arch-strategist — that’s me—”
“A horrible name, dearest! But go on.”
“Well, you see, someone has said that if one only knows the weakest point in the character of the enemy he is bound to be subjugated. I knew that the weakest thing about Mrs. Wyatt was her superstition, for father terrified her once not meaning to, and I simply played on it, at first just for mischief and later with serious intent. Peter—those messages the board spelled out—weren’t real. I jiggled the board. I made the answers! It was a wild, mad game Peter, with you for the prize! The unhappiness you couldn’t conceal nearly broke my heart Peter!”
“Never mind about that, now,” said Peter soothingly, for Mattie’s voice had ended in a little catch. “Tell me if you can how you worked the shadow on the curtain.”
“I didn’t have anything to do with that. It was sheer accident or coincidence or—”
“Good fortune,” Peter supplied as Mattie searched for a synonym.
“Both then. Major Stevens sometimes brings our mail up from the village when it’s rainy and drops it in the letter-box at the French window. He never bothers to rap or come in because he knows how long I am at the back of the house at that time and so he just goes on home. He has to pass Eight Elms anyway. He was the ghost.”
“He was also the one that threw the rice-pudding at the station,” Peter remarked as he ran his finger around inside his collar and thereupon sent a small trickle of something cold and gritty travelling down his spine. “But the Lord knows I forgive him fully and freely! How did you know Mrs. Wyatt promised the Major never to marry again?”
“Just guessed it,” said Mattie. “The Major was known as a rather jealous husband you know and that’s the first promise a jealous mate extracts. Do you think we should burn the ouijaboard, Peter?”
“No,” Peter said after a moment’s reflection. “Let’s gild it and hang it on the wall.”