Red Hair and Freckles
MARTHA BANNING THOMAS
THE late afternoon shadows lay on the close-cropped lawn which stretched down to the road from the “old Aspinwall place.” The long, graceful arms of the elm trees trembled slightly in warm currents of air.
Bright flowers twinkled on the borders of the garden. A gravel driveway wound in leisurely curves to the great front door. The big, white mansion situated on a small knoll was like a gracious queen throned among her humble subjects, the modest little homes of Meadowfield which dotted the valley on both sides of the broad river.
“Say,” summer tourists would interrupt the driver, “say, slow down a minute, will you? I wonder who keeps up a place like that in this sleepy hole?” And they would crane their necks out of the car windows, and glimpse inviting vistas of more gardens, terraces, or the silver blade of a fountain rising against the sombre green of a clipped yew.
“Oh, probably some rich old guy who can’t get rid of his money fast enough,” someone would reply.
“Comes down here for a week or so every year. They have nutty ideas, those fellers.”
But no rich old guy lived in the Aspinwall place. No rich old guy, to the knowledge of the villagers, ever had lived in it, unless you counted the Major, father of the present Misses Aspinwall. The Major was unquestionably rich, but the village took for granted the house, the grounds, the gardeners, the coachman and the plump span of horses, which for twenty years had clopped up and down the streets on pleasant afternoons, drawing any one of a dozen elegant vehicles of the time. Though the Major had died several years ago, the house looked just the same.
The Misses Aspinwall, now ladies of fifty-five and sixty, had never married. The Major did not approve of matrimony—for others, and what the Major didn’t approve of was very apt to be respected. Yet there had been Sally, the youngest sister. She laughed at the Major, she teased him and drove him into fine, towering rages. She did exactly as she pleased. The Major was really fondest of Sally. At twenty she fell in love with a handsome, impecunious fellow, an artist, whose black hair was never tidy, and whose mouth was sensitive as a girl’s. Sally married Benjamin Drew three weeks after she met him, and hurled her father into one of his most dramatic fits of apoplexy, from which he recovered, in due time, greatly improved—and bestowed upon the young couple a house next door and a pleasant income.
Sally lived only a year and a half after her marriage. She died when Benjamin, her son, was born; and Benjamin her husband, quietly drowned himself the sam° night in the river. His body was never found, only a water-soaked sketch of his wife, which he had drawn and which he always wore in a flat silver locket. A boy swimming in the river had seen it glimmering among the pebbles at the bottom.
The Major sold the place next door, and planted a high, impenetrable hedge along one side, so that his eyes could not see the windows of the room where his favorite daughter had lain in death. The baby boy was instantly taken by his other daughters, and the Major soon grew morose and very frail. He died in a final apoplectic rage over a shoe-lacing which broke on a hot afternoon.
This, then, is a brief but necessary history of “the old Aspinwall place.” Perhaps it explains a bit the curious temperament of Benjamin Drew, Second, and how he brought the mansion on the hill a little closer to the modest homes by the river.
LATE afternoon, and 4 Aunt Ann and Aunt Agatha were waiting for their nephew. College had closed. Bendy had graduated—the aunts were quite sure of this because they had gone to Commencement — and was coming home for a month before going abroad. He had telephoned the night before to say he would arrive about the next afternoon with the last of his bags. His room was ready. His horse was ready. The tennis court was ready— so were his aunts.
“He should be here now,” said Aunt Agatha, in her throaty, aristocratic voice. An immense emerald winked on the finger of one hand. A silver collar curiously wrought of thin, twisted scales circled her long throat. Her gray hair dipped and rose in smooth waves. Aunt Agatha looked very smart, in a perfectly correct, Aspinwall way.
“You know he’s never on time,” said Aunt Ann. “In this day, the quicker you can get anywhere the more tardy you are in arriving.”
They sat in the cool, wide living room. Old rugs on polished floors. Old furniture against mellow walls. Old portraits regarding them steadily out of painted eyes.
Aunt Ann was plump and rather jolly. She had, perhaps, less of the Aspinwall tartness about her than any of the sisters. She took life more graciously, yet she always deferred to Agatha’s opinion in family affairs.
They sat together half an hour longer, saying little. Then Ann rose and murmured something about her delphiniums. Aunt Agatha took up a bit of fine hemstitching.
At a quarter to six a carrot-colored roadster thundered up the drive like a roaring flame. The sound ceased as suddenly as it began, and a boy sprang out of the car before the engine had stopped humming. Bendy’s aunts stood in the doorway, in the immemorial fashion of Aspinwall women greeting their men who were returning home.
The boy dropped his bags, and kissed them each smartly on the cheek. He wore no hat. His black hair, stubborn and stiff as a shoebrush, straggled over his forehead. His lean hands were dirty, his expensive tweeds very mussy, and he wore what were probably the worst-looking shoes in college.
“Gosh, this is good,” he cried, “you two old peaches! Girls,” he grew important, “please come into the living room at once and sit down. I’ve something to say.”
“But your bags. Shall I ring for Timpkins to take them up?”
“Oh, let ’em rot,” smiled Bendy, in perfect good humor. “Come on in.”
They twittered after him into the living room.
“Don’t you want to run up stairs and wash a bit?” suggested Aunt Agatha, “you look tired.”
“Lord, no! That can wait, Annie,” he always acted this way the first few hours of vacation, and his aunts secretly loved it, “you set right here a spell on the sofy,” lapsing affectionately into the village mode of speech, “and Aggie,” he led the elder woman to a high-backed chair, “you fold your hands pretty and don’t interrupt.”
They were childishly obedient, and looked with illconcealed admiration at the boy’s handsome face, the strong figure, and the blue eyes—his mother’s.
Bendy leaned against the mantel. He crossed one foot over the other, showing the hole in the sole of one shoe —Aunt Agatha had difficulty in keeping a disapproving eye away from it. One hand, nervous, long-fingered like his father’s, caressed a carved ivory figurine.
“Ladies, I’ve found her !” he blurted out. “I nearly wrecked the village hustling home to tell you. I’m in love! Completely bowled over! Nutty—off my head! I shall ask her to marry me tonight!”
Aunt Agatha removed her eyes from the hole in the sole of his shoe. Aunt Ann grew a little stiff.
“She’s so cute, I could kiss her eyes right out of her head !”
The aunts suppressed a slight gasp.
“Gee,” he continued, lowering his voice to an earnest pitch, “where has she been all this time? Why haven’t I seen her before? This dead, old town—no offense, ladies!—without a ripple—nothing but strawberry icecream on Tuesday nights, and movies on Saturdays— and now I crash right into the peppiest little sliver of jazz . .
He wagged his head s everal times in utter incomprehension of such a miracle.
Aunt Agatha slowly twisted the emerald ring on her finger. It had belonged to Bendy’s mother, and was to go to Bendy’s bride when he married. But surely the boy was merely exuberant over another pretty face! There had been so many. He was very impressionable like his father. “Doubtless,” said Aunt Agatha, pleasantly, “you have never seen the—er, young person because she was never here before. I understand from the Village Notes in the paper that there are several visitors in town.”
“Oh, no, you’re wrong there, Aggie,” replied Bendy smiling. “That’s too easy.” His dark skin flushed high up over his cheek bones into his hair. He looked quickly from one aunt to another. “For all the world like his father when he was courting Sally,” thought Ann, who inclined toward the phrases of 1885.
“She’s got red hair just the color of my roadster—a burning bush of it. And brown eyes like—” he searched with concentration for an adequate simile, “well, like clear coffee in a silver spoon. You’ve noticed that shade, haven’t you? I’ve often thought how stunning it was.”
“More and more of father cropping out every day,” said Aunt Ann to herself.
“And,” the boy laughed in a sort of happy embarrassment, “the darndest drift of freckles over her nose! Gee, she certainly got me, the minute I saw her. She’s a poem in amber—a concerto running from topaz to—well, Hudson seal !”
They stared at him, the two unmarried daughters of Major Aspinwall; and one of them trembled a little, and the other shut her eyes as if she were caught looking in a forbidden room.
Aunt Agatha was the first to recover. “Have you any idea what the symphony’s name is?” she enquired, not without humor.
“No, not the slightest.”
“Where did you see her?”
“She was licking stamps in the post-office.”
“Was there anyone accompanying her?”
“You mean an obbligato or something—to make the job more soulful?”
“Don’t be absurd,” laughed Aunt Ann.
Bendey grinned. “No, she was all by herself, and that’s a-plenty,I can tell you! She was licking stamps, and pounding them down on the corners of about fifty envelopes. Notice of box-rentals due, maybe.”
“Box rentals!” Aunt Agatha’s silver collar jingled softly as her head came up like a horse scenting trouble. “What can you mean, Benjamin?”
“She was a red-haired girl weighing about ninety pounds, licking stamps behind the window of the postoffice in Meadowbrook. That’s all I know about her.” “Here in Meadowbrook?”
“Yes—and where the dickens has she been all this time? That’s what gets me.”
Aunt Ann grew very white. The quick stab of an old terror made her catch her breath. How strange that this sort of thing should be cropping up again—now, in another generation ! She muttered some excuse and left the room.
Her sister spoke of her departure with some asperity. “Your Aunt Ann always finds it convenient to leave the, moment any acute problem presents itself. I could have wished for her support in this.”
But Bendy was not listening. He had left the mantel and gone to one of the long French windows. There he stood looking out, seeing nothing, his hands in his golf-trousers’ pockets, his shabby shoes turned in a trifle, his head bent in a sweet mist of wonder. “Gosh,” he murmured to himself,
“she’s the very devil for cuteness!”
“Benjamin !” The voice was sharp and demanding. The boy turned to look at his aunt.
“I hope you are not seriously telling me that you are interested in the daughter of the village postmaster— an ordinary village girl !”
“I don’t know who’s daughter she is, but if she’s an ordinary village girl—I say, bring on your village!”
But Aunt Agatha did not smile. After ten more minutes of conversation Bendy began to realize how very marked were his elder aunt’s convictions on certain social traditions. She grew positively monumental. The boy gazed at her with new eyes. Always he had seen her as a devoted, family female, following him about with clean towels, enquiring about his cold, concocting sickly doses of medicine which she insisted on his taking—and sending him cheques at college. Now he saw an elderly woman, spare of figure, stern of feature. Her sharp chin was raised determinedly above her silver collar, her gray eyes glinted with a cold frost.
“I’m sorry if I’ve offended you, Aunt Agatha,” said the boy, soberly. “I rather took it for granted that you’d be happy over my—happiness.” An ironic smile curved the lips of the woman sitting so straight in the highbacked chair. “Please be so good as to promise me you will not see this person until I have consulted with your Aunt Ann. It is very important that one of your family connections should not be drawn into any foolish entanglements in the village. We have always made it a practice to be kind to the townspeople—but never to mingle with them socially.
Bendy laughed. It was neither a rude laugh nor an impertinent one. Rather was it humorously indulgent. Poor old dears! They were still doddering along in the century of chenille curtains and horsehair sofas. Funny he had never noticed this before—they had just been aunts to him. Nice women. His mother’s older sisters. Yet now at this very moment he was finding them quite alive with their own personalities, hedged about with an antiquated tradition. Unconsciously he included his Aunt Ann in this new stocktaking: his Aunt Ann, who at this moment was standing in the garden, gazing at a yellow rose on an old-fashioned rosebush, with something more than pleased attention. She plucked one, and bent over its aromatic perfume. “The same old silly pain,” she murmured. “Ridiculous—” but she had no thought of her nephew Benjamin standing before his other aunt in the living room.
The boy had given no promises. “I can’t,” he said gently to the cold-eyed woman waiting for his answer. “I really can’t, you know. It’s too much for me, this thing. Laugh if you must, Aunt Agatha, but I’m literally sizzling with joy. I’m going to see her tonight. I’m going to take her to drive. And I shall ask her to marry me !”
rT'HE sun was slow and golden going down that evening. The crickets began early to chirp in the grass. A bullfrog boomed from the garden pool. June-bugs whispered among the taller grasses and rose suddenly like a cloud of blundering airplanes.
Bendy ate dinner alone. Neither of his aunts was present. He knew he had hurt them and he was sorry—yet all this could have no possible bearing on his present preoccupation. At eight o’clock he roared out of the drive in the carrot-colored roadster. Hearing him, his Aunt Ann pressed a cobweb handkerchief to her lips, and re-read a paragraph in Plutarch’s lives—a great favorite with the Major, her father—but Aunt Agatha stirred uneasily in her chair and looked out of the window with a long stare. Neither of them spoke of Benjamin or of his departure.
By nine o’clock Bendy was miles and miles out on the river road. The sky had changed from coral to green, from green to clear yellow, and now it was darkly blue and powdered with stars. No moon.
The roadster purred softly along. A warm breeze rippled over the marsh grasses. Somewhere a thrush let fall his lovely notes. The boy’s black hair was ruffled in the wind. His lean hands rested lightly on the wheel. The clean line of his cheek from eye-socket to jaw was very young, very determined, very lovable.
“Great, isn’t it?” he whispered. “I knew it would be like this.”
His companion would not turn her head. She was looking off to the gleam of the river shining between the waving line of grasses.
“It’s all so wonderful! I feel as if I were drunk on a sunset, or something.” Still the girl said nothing. She moved a little more toward her side of the car.
“Gee—if I’d missed you! If I’d missed you ! Just a fluke of luck to catch you on the corner going to a movie with another guy.” He shook his head in marvel at his own good fortune.
“I came,” said his companion, and she spoke in a small, clear voice, “because I saw that you would make a scene if I didn’t.”
“You were dead right. I would have,” laughed Bendy, missing entirely the real implication in her reply.
Woods now on either side. The car slackened. Above their heads the stars trembled in brightness.
“I don’t understand,” said Bendy. “I’ve lived in Meadowfield all my life, and I’ve never seen you once, not once.”
“You’ve lived here about seven months of your life, and you were too busy to see much of anything but the road out of town.”
“Don’t be nasty, dear. It isn’t your type. The night is too gorgeous, and you’re too sweet. Honestly, I never saw such hair. It’s like a bonfire around an ivory heart, your face. I’m crazy about you. I haven’t thought of another thing ever since I saw you. I walk in a dizzy dream. I love you.” He stopped the car just at the edge of the woods, where the road emerged into the wider spaces of open fields.
“Please drive on, and don’t get silly,” ordered the girl. “I’ve seen college boys before. I knew just about how this ride would turn out. Sorry to disappoint you, but I don’t pet.”
“Don’t say that—” the boy begged, “it hurts. I really love you. With all my heart and soul and body! Can’t you hear it—in my voice?”
Still she said nothing. The boy looked at her, and in the dim light he thought he saw a tiny ripple of emotion pass over the long curve of her throat.
“Don’t you believe me?” he asked.
“I know how to drive, if you won’t,” she said abruptly, and thrust out her hand to turn on the ignition.
Bendy yanked forward the emergency brake. “You may know—but you won’t be able to prove anything, just now.”
The girl, swift as a cat, opened the car door and leaped out. Her dress glimmered whitely like a moth’s wing against the solid black of the woods. But she had scarcely touched the ground when the boy was beside her. He caught her hands as she sped toward the meadow. “Good lord ! I won’t hurt you ! Are you so dumb you can’t tell the difference between a decent man and a bum?” He held her fast, panting a little. “You’ll stay right here. You won’t move an inch until I make you understand I love you. I know —I know with every fibre of my being. I want you to marry me !” His grip tightened. “I wouldn’t hurt your little finger— or harm a hair on your gorgeous head.”
“You’re hurting my hand horribly, right now!” snapped the girl. “Doesn’t it occur to you that the argument is a bit one-sided? You may mean what you say —but what about me?” So cool, so slight, —fire flashing behind ice.
He dropped her hands immediately. “Oh,” he whispered, “Yes—I forgot myself. I’m mad. Please forgive me; I’m sorry.” Then his voice rose in poignant entreaty, “Oh, but you must understand. I love you so!”
They stood there staring at one another in the warm, summer darkness. An owl jeered at them from the depths of the woods. A tree-toad ran his toneless scale. The girl’s chin lifted. The clouded halo of her hair shadowed her white face. Suddenly her resistance slackened, “And you don’t even know my name,” she said gently, “though everyone in town knows yours.”
“What is it, your name?” he asked.
“Jack—from Jacqueline,” she said
“Come, Jack-from-Jacqueline,” begged the boy, “let’s talk this out in the car.”
She nodded. Rather solemnly they arranged themselves once more in the deep leather seat.
“You really did hurt my hand, you know,” the girl remarked in a matter-offact voice.”
“I’m so sorry—where?”
“You jammed the edge of this ring into a joint.”
“What ring?” Bendy switched on the small light on the dashboard. He liftèd her hand and examined it. It was beastly of me.” Then suspiciously, “Who gave you that ring?”
“All you need is a nickel badge and a gun,” replied the girl grimly.
“Sorry again! I’m behaving like a bounder!” He bent his head. A lock of black hair touched her wrist. He slipped off the ring, and kissejd a circlet in its place around her finger. Then, before she realized what he had done, he straightened, and tossed the ring out of the car. “You won’t need this anymore,” he said, “you’ll be wearing an emerald tomorrow.”
A strange, choked sound came from Jacqueline. At first it seemed only laughter, but gradually violent paroxysms shook her whole body. She rocked back andforth, and buried her face in her hands. Tears of hysteria trickled through her fingers. “I’ve heard,” she gasped, “about rich boys so darn spoiled they would grab anything they wanted—but I never knew one before who’d throw away a girl’s engagement ring!”
Bendy was still as a stone. Then in a blind, exalted rage he reached for the girl and drew her close. He kissed the flame of her hair, the long, white curve of her throat, the shadowed hollow at its base. “That for your engagement ring!” he whispered savagely.
She fought like a tiger. She pulled back his head by twisting her fingers in his hair. She held his face away from hers—and even in the dark he saw the burning flash in her eyes. “I wouldn’t marry you—you rich, vulgar, conceited brigand,” she panted, “not if both your snooty old aunts crawled on their bony knees from your house to mine—and offered me millions of emeralds!”
And she gave Bendy a hard, stinging blow on the cheek.
AT TEN-THIRTY that night, Aunt •zV Agatha wound the French clock on the mantel and stepped out into the hall. Aunt Ann had already gone to bed. She met her nephew just coming in. “May I enquire,” asked the elder woman in glacial politeness, “what success you had this evening with the —er—symphony? Will she marry you?”
“She says not,” replied the boy in a low, exhausted voice.
Aunt Agatha was nonplussed. Her carefully prepared conversation collapsed, pricked by the needle of unexpectedness.
“She says not,” repeated Bendy, in a quiet voice, “But she will! ¿May I have mother’s emerald ring, please?”
JACK middle sat of on the a small floor. packing A black box smudge in the ran along one cheek. Her bush of hair had been pushed back from her forehead. She looked tired and cross as she frowned over an open letter in her hand, and her lips moved as she read the words:
“I’ve landed a whale of a job! Right off the bat. A hundred a week. I can’t come home, darling. I’ve got to start right in working tomorrow. So just shut up the house, and come here as soon as you can. I’ve already found a place where we can live. Thank God, we’ll be all right now. I can hardly wait to see you. All my love.—B.”
In sudden fury the girl twisted the letter into bits, and scattered them on the floor. “Shut up the house and come!” she stormed aloud. “If that isn’t the perfect gesture of an Aspinwall ! Leave me behind to do all the dirty work—just like him. He’s a baby—a silly kid—he doesn’t know anything. Why, why did I ever give in and marry him?”
She rose and walked swiftly back and forth across the floor. She was like a jungle creature, furious and caged.
The bare room was pathetically unattractive. Pictures had been pulled down. Chairs were shoved into corners. Rugs were piled in untidy heaps.
• “I might have known how things would turn out—I did know—I was a fool ! Father warned me not to have anything to do with the horrible family !”
Back and forth, her feet moving automatically in an unseeing rage. She remembered her father’s anxious, pale face as he had looked when she returned that night from the ride in Bendy’s roadster, now nearly a year ago. “Daughter,” he had said with a gentle melancholy, “I have no word to say about any of your goings or comings; they are your own lookout, but,” his eyes darkened with unhappy memory, “be careful what you finally decide. Rich folks and poor folks don’t jibe, I know! Stick to your own kind—plain middle-class. There’s good stuff in us—and you’ll be happier.”
Had he seen her from his wheel chair by the window when she had climbed into the carrot-colored roadster?
“I’d never marry that self-centred cad —not in ten thousand years!” she had burst forth.
“Oh,” mumbled her father. “Oh—
thinking about marrying him? Did he ask you?”
“Ask!” she laughed harshly. “He nearly dragged me by the hair of my head to the minister’s tonight. He said he could get a special license.”
“Oh,” said her father again. “And what did you do?”
“I pulled his hair, and slapped his face, and ran away !”
“That doesn’t mean anything,” he smiled. But he would say no more.
And she had married the self-centred cad. She had given in. He had broken down all her defenses, which oddly enough were raised because of a long and secret admiration for Benjamin Aspinwall Drew. For years her heart had been immersed in one of those glamorous affairs which young girls sometimes experience. An imaginative adventure, which gave secret hourishment to her soul.
And time and again, the nephew of the rich old ladies in the Aspinwall place had covered her with the dust from his car. Time and again he had roared by her, without so much as turning his head. She had lived in the village for nineteen years, and she had jealously kept track of his every arrival and departure.
She sneered at the aunts. She made fun of their plump old horses so out-of-date, so conspicuous, so traditionally correct. She imitated Aunt Agatha’s voice, and her manner of sending Timpkins into the store on an errand. She sent her father into helpless convulsions of laughter over these little comedies. “The snooty old fossils!” she raged. But after a while, her father was apt to grow a thought sober. “I don’t think Miss Ann Aspinwall is quite—well, quite as stiff-headed as her sister,” he would remark mildly.
“Oh, a snob is a snob,” Jack had declared. “You can’t change ’em.” Yet she had succumbed to the fiery pleading of a son of the house of Aspinwall. She loved Bendy. She had always loved him. And after her consent she was wrapped in a wild sweetness which lifted her to positive ecstasy. Her love fed paradoxically on the very qualities in him which made her the most furious.
She accepted the beautiful emerald, and wore it as a sacred badge of bondage. Her village adorer was tossed into the discard as lightly as Bendy had flung his ring from the car. For a few weeks after the wedding—at which there were no guests—the two lovers rode blindly on the high tide of romance. They forgot everyone but themselves. Bendy had broken with his family. There had been no compromise. She loved him for it, yet she was intelligent enough to realize that in his wholesale disregard of their feelings lay something which was bound to bring trouble.
And now, only a few months later, the girl was pacing angrily to and fro in the living room of a tiny house they had rented at the end of the village street. Finally, she came to a standstill before a highboy which stood in one corner of the room. It was entirely out of scale with the rest of the furniture. It had been a reluctant wedding present from the aunts. Jack regarded it coldly. “You are exactly like them,” she said aloud, “and you don’t fit in here any more than they would. Father was right.”
When the highboy arrived some months previously, the new wife suffered her first inkling of her husband’s utter irresponsibility. “Rather decent of the old girls,” he had exclaimed. “It is a very old, rare piece. Belonged to the English side of the family. Nice old thing, eh what?”
They had opened the drawers, which slid in and out as smoothly as when the highboy was first made. “Good craftsmanship,” Bendy murmured in admiration. “Worth about three thousand, I should say.”
Jack had discovered a small envelope in one of the smaller drawers. It was directed to Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin A. Drew. Before she could open it, Bendy took it from her and found inside a cheque for five hundred dollars. The slip was signed by Aunt Ann.
“Good old egg!” laughed Bendy. “Bet she did it on the sly. Oh, they’ll be calling on you soon, sweetheart.”
They had not called. And Bendy kept the cheque. “It was for both of us,” Jack had reminded him with spirit. “I need some of it right now to pay the rent and our grocery bill.”
“Oh, let ’em rot! People like that are never paid promptly. They’d get too darned important. I need this to settle one or two personal obligations.”
“People like . . . what?” Jack asked dangerously.
“Oh, grocery men and tradespeople. Nice in their way, you know, but should be kept in their places.”
Jack’s red hair fairly crackled. The drift of freckles across her nose stood out in startling contrast to her skin. She had grown very white. “Here’s your ring,” she said. Her voice shook. She trembled from head to foot. Her hand was like ice as she touched Bendy’s.
That had been their first quarrel. Three hours of contrite pleading on the part of the totally surprised husband elapsed before she would allow him to slip on the emerald ring again. “Don’t ever talk that way again,” she commanded. “Lay off the snob-stuff, Bendy, or I’m off you for life!”
She had never seen a penny of the cheque. Bendy brought home fruit—out of season—rare nuts, French bonbons, pheasant, and once a carved piece of jade which took his fancy. The bills ran on, unpaid.
Jack lay awake many a night worrying. She could not see the end of things. Then came another and fiercer quarrel. Jack insisted on going back to work at the post office. Her father had now become a chronic invalid, and was obliged to give up the few hours a day he had managed to be at the office in order to hold his grant. A new girl had been tried, but she was so incompetent that many complaints had come in. “The job, dumb as it is, will bring us a little money,” declared Jack. “I can pay the house rent and buy a bit of salt . . . now and then !”
Bendy raged up and down the room in the Major’s best manner. Had he been older and fatter, no doubt he would have given himself the pleasure of an apoplectic fit. “You shall not! I say you shall not ! Whoever heard of an Aspinwall wife working—in a post-office?”
This was adding gasoline to flame. “And whoever heard of an Aspinwall husband working anywhere?” This was really too bad of her. But red hair and freckles must crackle with sparks.
“It’s very evident that you haven’t the slightest conception of a family tradition.”
“And it’s equally plain you haven’t the gumption of a worm. You’re about as useful to lean on as a stalk of boiled asparagus.”
They hated themselves for saying these things, but they piled up a bonfire of hot words until both were scorched in mind and heart.
Then in a few days, as if to justify the girl’s despair, Bendy lost the very tenuous job of clerk in a shipping-house in the next town. He never particularly bothered to be on time in the mornings, and he treated all the elder members of the firm with an easy condescension which caused the speedy termination of his presence at the office. “You might possibly turn out to be something some day,” remarked the president, gazing at him gravely over the top of his glasses, “but I don’t know. If you were to ship aboard vessel as a stowaway—and not set foot on land for a year—’twould do you good. You got a long, hard voyage ahead of you, boy, before you’ll be able to steer your craft.”
When the young husband came home with news of his dismissal—to be told with humorous flourishes—Jack met him with a grim announcement. “Timpkins came into the post-office today,” she said, before Bendy could utter a word, “and he said he’d be obliged—those were his exact words, be obliged, if you’d pay the money you borrowed from him in the spring. He says he needs it to meet a note coming due.”
“Let Timpkins go straight to—” exploded Bendy.
“That won’t do,” Jack nipped off his oath. “Talk about honor, and all the high-minded bunk you spout—you’re letting people you despise support you!” And so on. This quarrel lasted for three days. It was concluded when Bendy, swooping down with temperamental suddenness from noble peaks of anger, was cast into dark chasms of humility. He decided in five minutes to go away to find work. Far away. “We can’t go on here. It’s all a mistake. I’m a pretty poor washout,” he finished dejectedly. And Jack wanted to take him in her arms and comfort him.
They had parted with protestations of undying love. “You’re so darned splendid about everything. You let me go with a smile. I’m leaving you alone, poor little girl. But I’ll be sending you money soon. Everything will be all right.”
“I love you,” whispered Jack, and he felt her quiver with joy of the words she spoke.
But no money had come—only the letter, after three weeks of waiting. “The crazy fool,” cried the girl, “hasn’t he any sense at all? How can I leave when I have just two dollars and forty-nine cents?” It never occurred to her to appeal to her father. He had given her warning—she would manage alone.
“I’ll write him a letter that will make him divorce me in a week!” she stormed, “This week—the minute he reads it. I’m through with him forever!”
She found paper and pen. And because she was lonely and afraid and desperately unhappy, she wrote cruel taunts which she knew would drive her husband into a frenzy of wounded pride. “You are a spoiled, selfish, immature child. You are worse—a shirk, leaving the work and worry to me. On what, may I ask, do you think I am to come to you? Shall I be picturesque and beg my way? I have no money. No money? Get that? Unfortunately I do not feel that I can appeal to— well, Timpkins.”
She went, dressed in a green apron, straight to the post-office. “Special Delivery, please,” she asked the girl who was substituting during the less busy hours of the day.
SHE licked the stamp on the envelope with grim fervor, and left the postoffice just as the Aspinwall landau pulled up at the curb. Timpkins was driving, looking straight ahead. The Misses Aspinwall sat at ease among their cushions.
Jack regarded them balefully. She stood poised a moment one foot on the step, her brows contracted in a frown over her sultry eyes. Never in her life had she spoken a word to the ladies from the big house on the hill—nor they to her. Timpkins was always sent into the postoffice to send and receive mail. Aunt Agatha saw the girl first, but gave no sign. “Timpkins, will you please take those letters in? And see that they are properly stamped?” she asked in cool, measured tones.
Something snapped in Jack’s brain. The spectacle of her husband’s relatives, superior, untroubled, surrounded by their casual luxury, was like a lash laid across an open wound. Perhaps she went mad, just for a moment.
With her head high she walked quickly toward the landau. The black smudge was still on her cheek. Her red hair burned in the sun. The freckles on her nose seemed thicker than ever. She met the frosty gray of Aunt Agatha’s eyes with a slight smile.
“I am Mrs. Benjamin Drew,” announced the girl, in a clear unhurried voice, “I thought, perhaps, you would be relieved to know that I am leaving your nephew now—this afternoon—permanently! I’m having an auction of our furniture day after tomorrow at two o’clock.”
The occupants of the carriage stared at the brilliant-eyed girl, so white, so selfassured.
“I return this ring to you,” she slipped the emerald from her finger, and offered it to the elder Miss Aspinwall. “Bendy is away just now, and he has told me it belonged to his mother. I know it is very precious to you. Father was right. The rich and the poor don’t jibe!”
Aunt Agatha reached a gloved hand for the ring, like one who hardly comprehended what she was doing. Aunt Ann whispered, “Oh—my dear! My dear!” Timpkins came out of the post-office. “Good-by,” said Jack.and smiled.
The landau drove off.
“We must go to the auction,” said Aunt Ann, in a low voice, a few minutes later.
“Decidedly not,” snapped her sister. “I will not be subjected to such humiliation.”
“I was not thinking of that,” said Aunt Ann. There was a high flush of color on her cheeks. Her blue eyes had lost their mild candor. “We shall go, both of us. Poor, poor things!”
"DUT Aunt Ann had her way. They went to the auction. The fat span of horses found an advantageous spot near the sidewalk. The ladies in the landau could see and hear perfectly.
About a hundred people crowded about a jabbering gentleman in a gray, battered fedora. Small clusters of furniture, looking particularly desolate, were scattered about the lawn. The auctioneer had already begun his loud harangue. “What am I offered for this elegant chair, ladies and gentlemen? Can you see how beautiful it is? Take a look, come nearer! There, I’ll turn it about so you can see it from all sides.”
The crowd pressed closer. Aunt Agatha’s nose raised a point or two. Aunt Ann looked very pale. There was no sign of Jacqueline, but her father, seated in a wheel-chair, watched from the porch of the house.
“Five dollars—five-fifty. Do I hear five seventy-five? Do I hear six dollars. Six dollars. Gone—at six dollars! Legally robbed for six . . dollars!”
The man in the wheel-chair glanced toward the street.
“Who is that man?” asked Aunt Agatha.
“He is David Garden. Jacqueline’s father.”
She received a sharp glance of surprise. “How does it happen that you have so much information about these people?”
Ann said nothing.
The man was now regarding them rather steadily. There was something vaguely accusing in his look. “How rude these country people are!” remarked Aunt Agatha.
“Don’t be so superior. David Garden is a very nice man.”
“I shall talk the way I please. A pretty time for you to be teaching me manners ! Why should you champion an ignorant, common villager?” They could not develop this situation into a quarrel because of the presence of Timpkins on the box.
Another man arrived, a heavy-jowled, stocky fellow in a brown suit. He listened to the bidding for a few minutes, then he went to the door of the house and knocked. He was at once admitted. The door shut quickly behind his broad back. “She has strange guests,” remarked the elder Miss Aspinwall.
“Can’t you give her one generous thought?” flared her sister.
The girl’s father had turned away from them. He seemed intent on watching the door through which the man had disappeared.
“What am I offered for this—han . . . sum mirror? Do I hear one dollar? Do I hear one-fifty? What am I offered . . .?” The raucous bargaining continued, a hoarse noise which seemed to hang palpitating from every branch of every tree.
The door of the house opened, and Jacqueline stood on the threshold. In contrast to the drab mass of people on the lawn her vividness stood out like candle flame against gray rain. She wore a short black jacket and a yellow pleated skirt. Her hair burned about her white, heartshaped face. They watched her, the people on the lawn, and the two ladies in the landau, as she bent over her father for a few moments of conversation. He nodded, looking up in her face with a long scrutiny. Then she went swiftly to the auctioneer. Again she seemed to be explaining something important. The man listened, and gave a surprised gesture with his hand. The crowd waited. The auctioneer stepped down from his box, and the girl mounted it in his place. She stood there, gazing about her with a mixture of defiance and pride.
“Fancy!” hissed Aunt Agatha. “Sh!” warned her sister.
The slight figure of the girl, short skirt blowing about her knees, was alive with some secret purpose which glowed through her, as light shines through parchment. “Ladies and gentlemen,” she began in a clear voice. “For private reasons I wish personally to auction off one of the things on sale here. It is very old and valuable. It has had a long and distinguished history. You will have to bid high to get it!”
A low murmur passed over the crowd. There was a bustling and jostling at the door of the house. Men were lifting something. The crowd made way for them as they advanced. They carried a large, bulky object and set it upright beside the girl. It was a tall dresser of many drawers.
“The highboy!” gasped Aunt Ann. “The highboy we gave them for a wedding present.”
“What better proof of her incurable vulgarity?” Blue lightning zigzagged from Aunt Agatha’s eyes.
“What am I offered for this fine old highboy?” began Jack. “Who offers me five hundred—come, come, ladies and gentlemen! Perhaps you do not realize the priceless value of this ancient piece. Look at it! Come nearer, so you may see it. Rare—old—mellow with centuries of loving care.”
She paused. A hush lay on the people. They were aware of some poignant quality in the situation—felt but not understood.
“You can see for yourselves the ageless beauty of this highboy,” continued the cool voice, enunciating every syllable. “I beg you to step nearer and look at the carving—the lovely old brass handles —the perfect craftsmanship of the piece. You won’t find anything to match this in the whole country, I dare say. Come, who offers a thousand dollars?”
“One—thousand—dollars.” A man’s voice. David Garden’s.
“I am offered one thousand dollars,” cried Jack, and sudden color stained her cheeks. “Who will give me fifteen hundred? Do I hear fifteen hundred?”
“Two thousand dollars!” This from the landau. Aunt Agatha’s cold voice.
“Two thousand dollars—I am offered two thousand dollars. Who offers me twenty-five hundred?”
Soon there grew a determined bidding between the man in the wheel-chair and Aunt Agatha. He gave no single glance in their direction. He fastened his eyes on his daughter.
“Three thousand,” from the carriage at the curb.
“Thirty-five hundred,” the steady voice of Jack’s father.
The girl again paused. She seemed enveloped in a burning excitement which played about her, but did not affect her cool poise.
“Five thousand dollars,” snapped Aunt Agatha.
The people sighed, in murmurous amazement.
“Sold!” cried Jack. “Sold for five thousand dollars—to Miss Agatha Aspinwall !”
A MAN’S figure, unnoticed by the crowd, made its way quietly around the edge of the lawn and entered the house. Jack flung a brilliant smile at her rapt congregation, stepped down from the box and walked to the porch. She spared one grateful look at her father and then disappeared through the door.
Bendy was standing in the middle of the bare little dining room. His fists were clenched, his feet braced, his jaws set. One black lock of hair fell across his forehead. He was glaring at a man who took his ease in a rocker, the one remaining article left in the room.
Jack sauntered in, both hands in her jacket pockets, red hair becomingly disarranged. “Too bad you missed the auction, Bendy!” she said cheerfully. “Have you a cigarette about you? We really pulled out quite a wad of money from it, especially for the highboy.”
“For God’s sake Jack—”
She saw then how tired he was, how worn. His body sagged with weariness. But she held to her course. “I auctioned off the highboy myself. Got five thousand. Not so bad. Your Aunt Agatha bought it —restored to the ancient Aspinwall bosom !”
Bendy took a faltering step forward. “What does it mean? Who is this strange person in my house?” The boy’s voice was hoarse, his eyes bloodshot.
“It means that I have sold every stick we own, down to the last match! It means I shall have money. It means I can pay our debts—that I am square with the world! It means I am leav ...” She checked herself. No, she could not do it —not before the stocky individual in brown. She swerved away from her list. “May I introduce you to Mr. Baily, the sheriff? Mr. Baily, my husband, Mr. Drew.”
Bendy staggered as if struck.
“He came to attach the property—the proceeds from the sale—sent here by our creditors. I had to sell the highboy in order to have any money left at all. Mr. Baily has been very considerate. We should be grateful. He has stayed in the house during the whole thing. I think that matters can now be entirely straightened up.” She threw the bulky man a significant look. “I wonder if I may see you this evening to make a final settlement?”
Mr. Baily smiled and retired.
Bendy, haggard, older somehow all in a minute, spoke carefully. “Your letter— I came as fast as I could. Left my new job cold. I couldn’t bear what you said — I was afraid you’d be gone—”
The girl turned away, stricken by his genuine suffering. Turned away to see Aunt Agatha standing in the door— Aunt Ann—her father close behind. Bendy looked at them. His muscles stiffened. He moved toward them like a sleep-walker. “Aunt Agatha,” he said stiffly, “please make Jack stay with me. I love her so!”
rT'HERE was a formal dinner party at L “the old Aspinwall place” the following evening. Aunt Agatha in diamonds, Aunt Ann in lavender, Jack in black velvet, wearing a single jewel on her finger, a large emerald. David Garden in evening clothes of an ancient cut. Bendy in a business suit and rather shabby shoes.
The boy rose from his chair. Eyes dark with happiness, a flush on his cheeks. “A toast to red hair and freckles! A toast to the girl who yanked me up on my feet, all standing—my wife !”
The others at the table rose, all except
David Garden and his daughter. Then when the toast was drunk, up sprang Jack. “A toast to a grand enemy—Miss Agatha Aspinwall !”
Bendy, in the course of half an hour’s furious oration after the auction, had whipped them all into a clear understanding of Jack’s desperate situation, her need of money, her spirit, his own unworthiness. Aunt Agatha had been the last to surrender, but when she hauled down her colors, she did so handsomely. “You have made me, through your very love, a baby, a fool, an incompetent—but Jack has made me a man!” His father cropping out, thought Aunt Ann. “If she won’t have me again, I shall drown myself in the river tonight!” Bendy was shouting a trifle too theatrically, but remembering another tragic event, the aunts shook with fear.
Jack’s heart had ached at sight of him. Her love flooded through her, and before them all she kissed him and pushed back the lock of hair from h's forehead.
Later, on the evening of the dinner, in a shadowed corner of the living room, David Garden spoke whimsically to Aunt Ann. “Of course, you knew—women always do—that I loved you—hopelessly, from afar, for years? It was very sweet.”
“Yes—I knew,” said Aunt Ann.
He laughed gently. “There, perhaps, it is, again, in another form. Queer, isn’t it?” He nodded toward the hall, where a slight figure dressed in black velvet clung to a man in a business suit.
Aunt Agatha came rustling through the room: “Jacqueline, where are you? I wish to ask you if you think the—highboy will fit in your new home, next door?”