Maid and Maiden Aunt
Wherein “a good old egg” contrives the taming of “a grand little panic”
MARTHA BANNING THOMAS
MISS AGATHA SELDEN, like many another aunt, was possessed of a nephew. He was the sort of young man about whom it is pleasant to boast. He was also the sort of young man whose approach was likely to send any aunt of 1878 sensibilities into a shiver of apprehension, and make her hope he was merely dropping in for a call on his way to wherever nephews go on their precipitate pleasures.
His name was Dexter Rand, and he was the child of Agatha’s sister who was dead. Dexter had a father and lived with him more or less, when convenient. But Aunt Agatha was indomitably devoted to, and consistently shocked at the boy—a condition which reduced her to tatters of despair.
“He’s a Seiden in looks,” she was wont to remark a number of times, and indeed was remarking now to h,er very dear friend Dr. Mary Lyons. “He has the light hair and the bronze skin and the periwinkle-blue eyes of my father.”
“Periwinkle?” enquired Dr. Lyons. “I thought that was some sort of a snail.”
“It can be a snail, certainly,” replied Aunt Agatha tart'y, “but in this case I referred to a flower.”
“Oh,” said Dr. Lyons. “Yes. Well, get on with the list.”
“He’s tall,” continued Miss Seiden, paying no heed to her friend’s teasing. “He has my father’s broad shoulders. A really remarkable-looking boy; he will make a stir in the world.”
“Wrong tense, Aggie. He has made a stir in the world ever since he walked down the road stark naked at the age of three.”
Agatha plucked a sugar cube from a silver dish and plopped it into the clear amber of tea. “Do take this, Mary, and stop being so absurd!”
The doctor leaned forward to take the proffered cup, and talked on as she sipped her tea. “But, Aggie, don’t you see that it is always a question of just what kind of a stir one wishes them to make? There are nine thousand kinds of stirs and ten thousand ways of making them. Take Fizzie, for instance ...”
“Oh, don’t let’s take Fizzie,” expostulated Agatha. “She’s as much my niece as Dexter is your nephew. A grand little panic, in her way. I rather admire her.” Agatha sipped her tea while one slender foot, snugly fitted in a dove-colored slipper, tapped the floor in light annoyance.
“Grabbed off plenty of sweeties, too!” added the doctor with relish.
“Where do you pick up such peculiar phrases, Mary?” The doctor grinned. “The honey stuff? Aggie, do tumble off your high horse! You act as if your ears were constructed only to hear mid-Victorian English. These young people are here. We’re surrounded by them. They’re a wild, crazy set, but they belong to us. Dexter to you, Fizzie to me. At least we keep an eye on them because their mothers are dead. They’re so darned alive! Take Fizzie, for instance ...”
Agatha gave a polite sniff. “Must we take Fizzie, for instance? That girl ...”
“That girl,” pronounced Dr. Lyons flatly, “is all right. I’m for her. She looks more like my mother than her own. She’s small and well put together. She’s all sparkle and fizz, with a lot of hard, nervous fibre behind it. She can ride anything from a mustang to a motor cycle. She can make grand doughnuts—and equally grand mistakes. She’s got more pep than a barrel of champagne ...” Dr. Lyons forgot her tea. Her fine eyes were bright with enthusiasm. “I admit that she will probably drive me insane, but that does not .blind me to her swell collection of good qualities.”
“Swell?” murmured Aggie. “Really—”
“Yes, swell! You need tutoring ...”
'T'HE roar of a powerful motor ■‘■shivered the teacups. Wheels slid on the gravel. Two doors slammed shut with simultaneous completeness.
“Dexter,” said Aunt Agatha. She looked slightly and suddenly bleak. “Dear me, I wonder if we have enough food in the house. I hope he’s not bringing three or four college friends to dinner tonight.”
“A fine topic for conversation, but terrifying in the flesh; eh, Aggie?” hooted the doctor without pity.
Two figures stood in the living room door. The amethyst brocaded curtains were pushed back to reveal a good bit in the way of the so-called younger generation. A young man in white flannels; a girl in peacock green. The young man had light hair and a smooth, bronzed skin. His eyes were very blue. The girl was small, with flying black curls and a dimple in her chin.
“My dears!” welcomed Aunt Agatha, and rose with a perfumed swish of garments.
“Hi!” called Dr. Mary Lyons, and waved a hand with toast in it. “Come in and drink.”
“Tea?” enquired the figure in white flannels.
“No less,” said Dr. Mary. “It has been done before by a number of perfectly strong, male creatures, you know !”
The girl laughed. “It’s jake with me,” she answered, and with a snort of incredible swiftness crossed the room to a grey chair wherein she dropped with total relaxation. She had selected the one piece of furniture which set off her dress, her hair, her piquant aggressiveness. She was no bigger than a pinch of paprika.
“You may lay your racket in the hall,” suggested Aunt Agatha to her nephew.
“Right!” smiled Dexter, and flung the object like a juggler, so that it caught by one string and hung suspended on the iron leaf of an electric light fixture.
He then approached the tea table in a succession of motions which can only be described as a slothful dance. His knees bent and straightened to an inaudible rhythm, his eyes were rolled to the ceiling. His hands swam about him like fins. “Fizzie says for the fortieth time —or is it the forty-first, Fizzie?”
“I don’t try to keep tally on that sport!” countered the girl in green.
“Well, we’ll say the forty-first time and be generous. Fizzie says she won’t marry me. Poor little Fizzie! Dumb as a dahlia! But I’ll be kind. I’ll be magnanimous . . . It’s my line, anyhow.”
“Lay off, Dexter, and have some tea,” suggested Dr. Lyons practically.
“Right!” cried the youth, and sank mournfully into a divan.
Agatha had hurried out for more hot water: it was the maid’s afternoon off. She came back with a pyramid of cakes on a silver dish. “Not very appetizing in their arrangement,” she apologized in a voice she tried to make calm and hospitable.
Fizzie rose to help her. Dexter was the author of several gestures which implied, eyes to the contrary, that he also rose. As a matter of fact, he stayed exactly where he was. Aunt Aggie was a good old bobbin. She’d think he’d got up !
“Give me an idea of your tonnage,” commanded Fizzie, “and I’ll heave you some cakes, Deck.”
“Oh, one or two pounds! An ounce or so out of the way won’t matter.”
They settled down to the drinking of tea and eating of cakes. A nervous red rose to Aunt Agatha’s cheeks, and certain twitters jingled through the silver chain she wore about her throat. She loved the boy, of course, but his advent jarred every nerve in her body.
Dr. Mary Lyons, distinguished in her profession as a skilful diagnostician, long, lank, with dark hair greying and keen eyes full of humor.
Dexter Rand in correct but casual white, collar open at the throat, a scarlet sash about his waist and a golden fuzz on the backs of his hands.
Fizzie Fitzmaurice, exquisite, unconcerned, with bare legs terminating in red, high-heeled slippers.
Conversation lapsed. No one minded but Aunt Agatha.
Suddenly Fizzie and Dexter blazed into a quarrel. It began like the crackling of small sticks . . . the inflammable kindling of a disagreement of long standing.
Aunt Agatha recoiled in well-bred horror. Dr. Lyons listened with disinterested enjoyment.
So brisk was the back-chat between the two young people that neither of the onlookers was able to distinguish a whole remark. Splinters flew; sparks raged upward; veritable flames seemed to leap between the contestants. They were unspeakably rude. And clever. And perfectly unprincipled in attacking any break in the opponent’s armor.
Finally, to the amazement of the aunts they rose as if lifted by invisible wires, made polite and simultaneous farewells, and departed quarrelling brilliantly. Dexter was heard to say that he could always think of definitely disagreeable things when he was driving. It freed his mind. Fizzie replied chat she banked on this, since she’d really enjoy something mental to sling her jaws into.
r"pHEY left an echoing void. Teacups settled quietly down in their saucers. The cakes collapsed in a weak slither, many of the foundations having been removed by the departed guests.
“I trust,” said Aunt Agatha, “that they will not murder one another.”
“Oh,” smiled Dr. Lyons easily, “I guess not. Not today anyhow.”
“Mary Lyons, how can you be so—so tough !”
The doctor threw back her head and laughed. Laughed and stretched out her long legs and jabbed her hands deep into her coat pockets. “You’re a dear, devoted, lovable, high-principled antimacassar, Aggie! Why not let ’em row? It’s darned entertaining.”
Whereupon there ensued a watery imitation of the quarrel just rehearsed. The two ladies emerged enormously refreshed. More than this, a certain plan had been mentioned by Dr. Lyons and tentatively discussed; a plan which Aggie rejected with icy gusto and which Mary just as repeatedly presented, in the hope of wearing down resistance.
“Oh, come on, Aggie. Why won’t you do it? Take Fizzie along when you go on your motor trip. She’s grand company and will pull you out of any hole Misfortune may arrange. She can change a tire in no time, scare a carburetor to death, and knows how to get the last spurt from a gallon of gas. Get acquainted with the girl. I tell you she’s all right. Maybt when you know her better you’ll beg her to marry Dexter to keep him out of mischief. I believe in mixing aunts and nephews and nieces in small, prescribed doses.”
“No! How can you ask it of me? I’d perish. She’d exterminate me just by being Fizzie.”
“And you’d smother her—just by being Aggie!”
Dr Lyons departed on this note. Aggie cleared away the tea things in a great clatter. “Nonsense,” she muttered, “absolute nonsense!” Mary had ruined the day for her.
TN THE end she went. And Fizzie went. But they both balked. It required all of Dr. Lyons’ professional tact to persuade them.
“Fizzie is fed up with the summer crowd here, Agatha. She gets a kick out of it as long as she thinks men are interesting. When she finds they’re not, she’s flat as a tire . ”
“But Dexter,” interrupted Aggie, “she can’t be what you call fed up on him !”
“She’s fed up on his silly adoration. She needs a change before another explosion and quarrel. There’s one man I don’t quite like. You never can tell how these things will jump. I’d take the child away myself if I had time but I’m devilish busy. And it isn’t right for you to motor so far alone, anyhow.”
“There is,” remarked Miss Seiden at this point, “a boat on which it is possible to take one’s car along. After that it is only a two hundred mile drive. Had you forgotten the boat, Mary?”
“No, I hadn’t,” snapped the doctor in exasperation.
“But I thought the whole idea was to motor. You enjoy it. You have a comfortable coupe. If you’re going to ship it like a baby carriage, why have one?”
Aggie cleared her throat and brushed a cookie crumb from the tea tray. “Very well, Mary, just as you wish.” She gave in politely and asked the doctor if she would advise her taking a large or small bottle of milk of magnesia.
And later in the same day: “But, Aunt Mary, what a sketch! Miss Seiden and I on a motor trip? It’s so adolescent of you!”
Dr. Lyons was more patient here. “Aggie’s not so pilgrim as she looks! She drives well, Fizzie. The car goes like a breeze. You’ll see a lot of new country, too. Aren’t you a bit bored with keeping your bright young eye on tea-hounds and golf maniacs? It won’t hurt you to realize there are clouds and trees and a rather grand world about you. Come to, child! If you don’t break away soon, you may never come out of this jazz anaesthetic.”
“But Andrew ...”
Dr. Lyons was waiting for this. “Is Andrew so much?”
“Oh, not much . . . but a little.”
“There are hundreds more where you are going and,” she glanced keenly at the girl, “you’ll have a rest from Dexter.”
“Something in that,” murmured Fizzie. “You win !”
CO HERE they were, the maiden and the maiden aunt—Aggie and Fizzie, peeling off the miles in a snug, smart coupe. The trip was going better than either could have hoped. Aggie tried to be generous-minded. Fizzie strained to be adult. Thus they struck a middle course where they were able to converse with increasing pliability.
The first night on tour was quite successful. They stayed at a pleasant inn and there bad been a dance. Aggie watched, seated on one of those noisy, collapsible chairs. Fizzie clothed in flame— or something so much like it there wasn’t much difference—danced gorgeously with fifteen different men. Aggie wondered how she managed it, and could not decide even by the closest attention. She was thinking' of Dexter. With her smoothly waved coiffure, her wide choker of cut steel, her flowing gown of grey lace, she looked invincibly circumspect.
During a waltz Miss Seiden was quietly notified that a wire awaited her at the hotel desk. Fizzie was unaware of her departure and subsequent return. Aggie failed to mention the wire in any particular.
There followed days of good roads, sunshine, deep green woods and a mileage which rolled up to a thousand. The roads were still good, but the houses far apart. Sometimes they would drive for twenty miles without sight of barn or habitation.
Fizzie was apt to be quiet during these long stretches. It was not that her effervescence had died, but that it was bubbling under a subdued demeanor. As Dr. Lyons had predicted, she had to look at clouds which moved majestically behind pointed spruce trees. She caught shimmering glimpses of blue lakes hidden in forests. She saw an eagle’s unhurried soaring in a ragged patch of sky between two thunderstorms. Yet above all things Fizzie was practical. When a tire sagged into ultimate flatness she had it jacked up and changed in a matter of three minutes. Aggie privately admired the girl’s unconcerned efficiency.
She almost but not quite prevented her thoughts from presenting the idea that Fizzie might make a wise helpmate for Dexter after all. That was the way she put it helpmate. It was the word her mother had used, and Miss Seiden approved of it.
Once the self-starter pushed down to the car floor and stayed there, becoming in that instant nothing more or less than a round piece of metal of no importance. Fizzie ordered the older woman out of the car, yanked the tool kit from under the seat, selected a wrench with swift accuracy, lifted the hood and screwed busily for half a minute. At the end of that time the piece of metal became a self-starter.
And they talked, these two. Not all the time, but in the long stretches of wild country. Aggie was dazed by the girl’s extreme frankness. Fizzie grew almost hysterical at what she termed “the old bobbin’s moth-eaten convictions.” It was a wonder they could comprehend one another’s speech. But then, of course, they were both trying. They grew positively confidential, shouting somehow across the wide valley of the generation separating them. Fizzie told Miss Seiden that there was a man she liked rather well—an Andrew Dinwiddie; a person met this summer at the country club.
Aggie suffered a faint shock. She had thought Dexter Well, really, how was it possible for a girl to look at anyone else?
“Andrew’s a wild egg—addled a bit, but biologically attractive.”
“What?” asked the woman, startled into a flushed distaste at the sound of this curious phrase.
“Oh, magnetic, if you like,” said Fizzie. “I enjoy being near him.”
“Indeed,” replied the driver, swerving around a deep puddle.
“Dark, almost a Spanish type,” continued the girl, who was not without guile in thus disturbing the aunt’s placid superstitions about her nephew’s charm. “Hot-tempered and subtle; really has made the summer for me. One soon gets stale playing around with the usual type.”
Aggie shifted into second gear and roared up a steep hill.
“It’s growing a bit rough,” she murmured, “and when did we last see a house?”
“Oh, about ten miles back, I guess. He has the only authentic humid eyes I’ve ever seen. And long, slow fingers ...”
“I wonder if we’re on the right road. This is very strange.
It can’t be the regular route.”
The road was indeed narrow.
The trees crowded close to the edge of it. A thin strip of sky lay over their heads. A rabbit skittered across their path into the bushes. A strange bird called. The light through the trees was shadowed and deep.
“Primeval stuff, I suppose,” commented Fizzie, and liked the cool wind on her cheek.
“I’d hate to have engine trouble here,” said Aggie.
“A bit awkward, but I have a gun in case of trouble.”
“Yes,” she answered airily,
“I always take one along to scare off bootleggers!”
“Well !” murmured the driver, only half hearing.
Now there were many sharp turns. Small rocks rose in the middle of the road. Big boulders loomed up at the sides.
No houses. No barns. Nothing but more road and the dense woods on either hand.
“He’s got a perfectly asinine name,” remarked Fizzie impartially. “Who ever heard of a Dinwiddie outside of a school history?”
The car bounded into a hole. Coming out again it struck some mud and skidded. With a
sickening rush it slid into a ditch. Fizzie felt the door handle bury itself in the flesh of her right arm. The side of her head banged against the window, and Miss Seiden was flung violently against her.
“Stuck,” she announced. “Stuck for the night. No need to look. I know it. This is clay mud and deep. The car tips over so far we’d never get any traction. We’ll have to wait for help. We’ve got the gun, and we’ll gulp down enough raw Nature to suit even Aunt Mary.”
They wiggled out of the car, which had a list of about forty degrees. Aggie’s toque canted over one eye giving her a totally unwarrantable effect of rakishness. Fizzie promptly ripped her dress on some briars. Her arm ached a little and she was hungry. She knew she was hungry the moment the car struck the ditch. Knew it with a dismal certainty. They had not stopped for lunch, bringing with them fruit and small cakes which were nearly consumed. She was remembering, as she gazed at the jaunty wire wheels so hopelessly lodged in the mud, that extra hot bun she left on her plate at breakfast . . . the half cup of coffee. Oh, dash Aunt Mary Lyons, anyhow!
"K/TISS AGATHA SELDEN and Miss Fizzie Fitzmaurice spent the night in the woods. All of it. It was an experience which drew them together. The girl said to herself: “Gee, she’s sporting, all right! Not a howl !” Aggie went about making them as comfortable as possible. First, she whirled her toque into the air where it fell and hung swinging on a blackberry bush. She left it there with a fine disregard of evening dew. She dragged out two steamer blankets. She asked Fizzie which she preferred, the inside or the out? The girl said it was a clear night and she’d take the rumble. They found a partly demolished box of crackers, which they divided and ate leisurely as if they were nibbling cakes at a party. They also found forty feet of stout rope.
“What in the name of seven singing seamen is this hawser for?” exclaimed Fizzie.
“Oh, I once had to be towed. They provided a really shocking line, frayed and worn out. It broke three times, so I always bring my own in case of trouble.”
“It would help us now if another car just happened to come through here during the summer! But with the gun and rope we ought to survive. You lasso, and I’ll shoot !”
But they were not afraid. What was there to be afraid of, they said. Not afraid, only very hungry. They talked together a great deal more before going to sleep. Twilight came. Then the dark. Large birds flapped over their heads. There were frequent rustlings of a small nature in the bushes.
Miss Seiden melted thoroughly into reminiscence and told Fizzie—hardly realizing she had done so, so great was the influence of silence, hunger and the immensity of the woods—that she had once been seriously in love with Dexter’s father. “A very remarkable man, my dear. This circumstance may be one reason why I am so fond of Dexter, though he resembles in looks my side of the family.”
“Oh,” said Fizzie. A moth brushed her cheek. Fireflies danced in bright garlands over a roadside brook. “Oh, yes. Please tell me about him.” Her voice was soft and friendly.
“There is little to say. My sister was younger and far prettier. I could not stand in her way ...” A silence. Then, Miss Seiden being a lady of strict principles, adhered to them. “No, that is not true. I could never have stood in the way of my sister. She was lovely; quite, quite lovely. After he saw her, he could not help forgetting me.”
Fizzie could discern only the dim outline of her companion’s profile. It looked, she decided, a little grim. “Nonsense,” she declared. “I bet you could have had any old muffin you wanted. Men are nice but infantile. Just feed their lordliness and bend your independdence to look as if you were leaning on them, and you’ve got ’em hog-tied.”
Miss Seiden winced. The idea of hog-tying Dexter Rand, Sr., was distinctly repellent to her.
It was growing late; eleven o’clock perhaps. A few stars trembled in the strip of sky over their heads. A damp fragrance floated out to them from the woods. Far away a motor horn sounded. Both occupants of the car sat up and listened intently. Again the horn, faint and musical in the distance.
“Someone’s following us. The sound is back of us. Perhaps they can drag us out,” said Fizzie.
“But, my dear . . . arriving at the inn this time of night . . . two women alone. . Do you think . . . ?”
“Show me the inn, by golly !” was the succinct reply.
A broad band of light touched the trees at the curve of the road. Again the horn, much louder. The car was coming fast. “If he doesn’t watch out he’ll park himself upside down in a ditch, too,” muttered the girl. The coupé had head and tail lights on. The oncoming car could hardly miss seeing them, yet it did not slacken speed. Because of their position the road was left clear for its passing. Which was fortunate. With a thundering engine and a splatter of mud the caí whizzed by like a meteor.
“Whew!” whistled Fizzie, “there goes a night’s lodging !”
Agatha sat very still. The girl was aware of her quietness as a tangible thing. “What i; it?” she asked.
“Nothing. I was just won dering ... I almost thought I saw ...”
“Saw what, Miss Seiden?”
“Oh, I merely—” she broke off abruptly. “Are yoi sure, child, you’ll be warm enough in that rug in thi rumble?”
“Heavens, yes! Well, good-night, Miss Seiden! W have connecting rooms . . . without bath !”
They settled down to rest with what comfort the; could muster. Miss Selden’s carefully arranged hair la; on a rolled-up sweater for a pillow. Fizzie fitted hersel into a corner of the rumble. And the night encompasses them.
The woods crowded nearer. Tiny leaves jostled on another on the branches of trees. “I can walk for hel) in the morning,” said the girl to herself, and immediatel, fell asleep
After what seemed only a few minutes she wa wakened by a stealthy tapping. It was Aunt Aggi knocking on the rear window of the car. Fizzie, sh whispered desperately, “Please wake up . wake up! The girl opened her eyes. She had been so comfortabl sound asleep. Now she shivered a little in the cool night air.
“Fizzie,” continued the excited whisper, “look ahead on your left. It’s been standing there for half an hour . . .
The girl leaned sideways in order to peer around the corner of the car. She frowned and blinked, and was forced to realize that she was looking squarely into two large orbs hung suspended in the night. These orbs did not so much blaze as glow. They were motionless as twin topazes. The lights of the car, dimmed shone only straight ahead. This curious manifestation was outside their area.
“What is it?” entreated the voice nervously.
Fizzie suffered a strange tumble around her heart, but resolutely deepened her regard. “Well,” she hazarded, “I’m no Indian guide, but my guess is that a large, male moose has come to call. In fact,” she quickly shifted to the other side of the rumble and commanded a better view, “in fact, I see two more of ’em; though,” she became quaint, “it’s hard to tell gender just by eyes . . . They may be lady-moose . . . Are there lady moose?
. . . Who knows? Shall I pick them off?”
“Pick them off?” whispered Aunt Aggie, “I don’t quite get your meaning.”
“Shoot ’em, plug ’em, bump ’em off ... !”
“Why, I’m not versed in such matters. What would you advise?” Aunt Aggie could no more help being pedantic in the middle of the night, and in a strange forest, than Fizzie could help rolling her stockings.
“I say, let ’em stare, if they get any kick out of it. Pull down your car curtains if they annoy you.”
“No,” answered the woman. “No, I’m certainly not to be stared out of countenance by a—er—male moose and his friends. But you might keep your gun at hand.”
“I am,” replied Fizzie. “Of course I could sing to them. That usually brings on a panic.”
Fizzie was scared. So was Miss Seiden. But they did not mention it. And the girl actually began to sing. She chose one of the more militant war songs, just to bolster up her courage. Her voice rose in the air, thin as smoke. It seemed to ascend in a wavering spiral of sound. There was no substance in it. “Eerie,” said Aggie to herself. “I do wish she wouldn’t.”
The song dissolved into the night mist. The moose stayed.
“They seem to enjoy it,” called Miss Seiden, managing a stiff smile.
Fizzie started another, a popular dance tune. She sang the words, snapping her fingers and stamping her feet in the bottom of the car in time to the rhythm. “Let’s see how jazz affects them,” she muttered before beginning.
Then, without warning, another voice joined in—a man’s voice. He, too, sang the words, all of them. Together the song made quite a little stir in the deep wood’s silence. In sheer hypnotic fright the girl continued to the end.
There followed an awesome silence. Then there was a sly crackling of twigs, the very uncertain blur of a figure disappearing. And the moose went, making no sound.
“Quite—a—nice duet,” chattered Fizzie valiantly.
“Come right in here with me, child!” commanded Miss Seiden.
Obediently the girl clambered out of the rumble, dragging her rug with her. She half fell into Aggie’s outstretched arms. “It’s a little cold out there, anyhow,” she apologized.
“Go to sleep, dear,” said the woman with a curiously tender inflection in her voice. “I’ll stay awake to watch.” Aggie fought against offering a bony and aristocratic shoulder for Fizzie’s head. An unwonted flood of warmth poured through her veins. “The girl’s a thoroughbred,” she said to herself. “I’ll have to send a note to Mary tomorrow admitting it!”
“Andrew would not care for this,” said the girl drowsily. “I’m sure of it. He’d be afraid !”
Miss Seiden sat bolt upright the remainder of the night. She thought a great deal about a great many things. Her own youth and love for Dexter’s father; how she had quivered at the very sight of his fine head and the mirthful challenge in his dark eyes. She wondered why she had so completely forgotten the precious pain of young love. And in shocking, dreadful heresy she even reflected that very likely Dexter Rand, Jr., was not good enough for Fizzie!
TATE in the afternoon of the following day a muddy coupé drew up at the entrance of a barn-like structure which bore a crazy sign rattling in the wind, “Buttonball Inn.”
“I suppose this must be the place,” remarked Miss Seiden a trifle wearily.
“It’s here in The Tourist’s Guide as ‘ First class : five dollars a day and beautiful view.’ ”
Fizzie was already out of the car, dragging piles of baggage with her. “Let’s take a chance anyhow,” she said. “There does seem to be a view if you care to look at it. Personally, I’m too hungry.”
Aggie, too, alighted, and together they climbed the steps, which sagged just enough to suggest an abandoned homestead. They rang a bell-pull, and heard a mournful jingle in some distant hall. There was no answer. Already shadows lay on the grass. Small sailboats bobbed about in the harbor. Gilt-edged clouds tumbled through the sun’s last glory.
“Let’s barge in,” said Fizzie, and kicked the door open with a foot, as both arms were heaped with baggage. “I knew by the looks of the place there would be no one to help us.”
They found a hall with a desk. It was quite empty and chilly. They stood about uncertainly, when a small man bobbed up behind a counter-like arrangement and gazed at them. He was dressed in a strange combination of serge and tweed with several buttons gone from his vest. His hair had permanently retreated from his forehead and stood belligerently at the rear of his cranium; in fact, here was a forehead too steep and unaccommodating for any hair to decorate. The man blinked like someone suddenly endowed with eyes.
“Have you a room for us for the night?” enquired Miss Seiden in her New England contralto.
The man was totally uninterested. He stared gloomily at a blotter.
“A room?” insisted Aggie tartly, “Come, come, my good man. Isn’t this a hotel?”
Without a word he disappeared, only to shoot up again, jingling a bunch of keys in his hand. Abruptly he left the desk and started down the hall. “Let’s follow,” whispered Fizzie. “Guess we’ve come a little early for the summer rush!” she laughed.
Through a cool, dark corridor, down some steps, a turn to the right and a door was thrown open. The man then left them, and the two guests entered an enormous, high-ceilinged room with a microscopic electric bulb hanging on a cord from the centre of the ceiling.
“It’s dreary and clean. Let’s stay,” said the girl.
“Very well. The beds look tidy.”
“I’ll go out and see if I can screw some information about a garage and dinner out of the image,” announced Fizzie. She was gone ten minutes, clattering back again along the corridor in her high heels.
“I’ve driven the coupé around to the rear of this place,” she announced. “There is no garage and supper is at six.”
“No garage? How extraordinary!”
“I think I managed to get the car directly under our bedroom window where we can keep an eye on it. This place has a sinister vibration.”
They bathed in cold, clear water poured from a pitcher into a wash bowl. They dried their faces on coarse, clean towels. They thought hungrily of supper, remembering the night’s experience just passed.
“Luckily we found the right road finally,” said Fizzie, “and we certainly did have a time heaving the bus out of the ditch.”
“You did it, my dear,” said Aunt Aggie admiringly.
“Oh, nothing to that. The clay dried a little in the morning sun and I found those two planks for runways near by.” “You’re very efficient,” declared Miss Seiden, looking at her back hair by the aid of a hand-mirror.
Fizzie lighted a cigarette.
They had supper of thin, tepid soup, cold roast beef, lettuce creased like a well-thumbed road map, and damson preserves. Neither of the guests complained. Their forks rattled hollowly in an empty dining room.
“Funny about that car shooting by us last night,” mused Fizzie.
“Yes,” answered her companion, trying to decide which portion of her lettuce was least shop-worn.
“And then that second coupé passed us not long after we had started,” added the girl. “That was a lonely, out-of-the-way road, and the coupé was exactly the same model as yours Miss Seiden. I wonder,” she hesitated, “if it could have possibly been the guy who buzzed by us so fast last night?”
The older woman’s fork was poised above her salad. Her eyelashes flickered. “Oh, how could it be, my dear? The first car went by us in the night; the second car passed us this morning.”
“But a car can stop, Miss Seiden, and wait.”
“What would be the object in this case?”
But Fizzie was already tired of the argument. She was gazing out of the window at the silvery purple sea, the last gash of red in the west, the black, black spruces. “Nice,” she murmured. “Andrew would be decorative this evening.”
“And Dexter?” asked Miss Seiden quickly.
“Oh, he doesn’t fit into any special scenery,” replied the girl; “he makes the scenery fit around him. He’s good at it, if you care for that sort of thing.”
“Oh,” replied her companion, not knowing in the least what she meant, and applied herself to a pallid plum.
'T'HE inn being cold and cheerless the two guests retired very early. But not before a certain matter had been attended to. Miss Seiden, not liking the queer atmosphere of the place, was worried about her car.
“Let’s anchor it,” said Fizzie.
“Anchor? But how?”
They were already partially undressed. “I can drop out of this window. It’s only about nine feet from the ground, first floor, and tie the car with the rope.” “The rope?”
“Yes, I brought it in here by mistake with the other things. We threw it on the floor after yesterday morning’s fracas getting the car out of the ditch. I’ll tie it to the front fender.”
Miss Agatha blinked. “Then what?” “It’s long enough to have double strands. I’ll haul it up again and knot it around the iron post of my bed.”
“Very well,” assented the woman, “Shall you—er—descend in your pyjamas?”
“Why not? Excellent for climbing.” Fizzie went over the window-sill like a monkey and dropped lightly on the grass beneath. “Give me the rope,” she whispered.
Aggie paid it out from a coil into the girl’s upstretched hands.
“Why, here’s another coupé,” cried Fizzie, forgetting secrecy in surprise.
“It’s exactly like yours.”
Aggie glanced down and said nothing but: “Tie it quickly, child, and climb back !”
“Must have driven in while we were at supper,” muttered Fizzie. “We’ve seen no one, though.”
It was very dark. A cloudy, moonless night. Here in the shadow of a hill it seemed completely black. The woman could scarcely see what the girl was about. Besides there was a confusing hurry of excitement before anyone should come. “Make haste, child,” she called. “I think I hear footsteps.”
Fizzie tied a very hard and intricate knot in the middle of the rope, slipped it through an open space in the fender and then threw both ends back to Aunt Agatha. “Pull it around the bed post and hold it,” she ordered. Aunt Agatha did as requested and soon Fizzie was clambering over the sill. “I used the rope handover-hand and braced my feet against the house,” she exclaimed.
A man walked in the darkness under the window. “Lucky!” laughed the girl, looking like a frivolous mandarin in her Chinese coat and trousers.
They settled themselves in bed with long sighs of satisfaction, and they giggled over the car’s moorings. “We’ll rise early,” said Miss Seiden, “and be away as soon as possible from this dismal place.”
“Can’t be too early for me,” said Fizzie, and plunged into sleep.
AS A matter of fact, the two guests were wakened several hours earlier than they planned. At two a.m. the barnlike bedroom was rent with the raucous scraping . of some heavy object being dragged across the floor. It was a loud and hideous sound. The heavy object was no less than Fizzie’s bed, which rushed to the side of the room near the window with ‘a deafening bang.
A roaring filled the air; also profanity. Aunt Agatha sat up in bed and shrieked.
“I’m being towed,” cried Fizzie. “Someone is stealing your car. They’re trying to back it now. Oh, boy, now this is fun!” The girl crawled swiftly to the foot of her bed which was on a level with the window-sill. “Hey, you pirate. Lay off my car!” she yelled.
Aggie, hastily folded into a dressing gown, joined the adventure. Below the window in the blackness of night they could dimly see a small closed car which was pulling away from the house, and the two strands of rope tied about Fizzie’s bed, taut and creaking.
A harsh word floated up to them. A man leaped out of the car and ran forward. “Tied . . . by golly!” he cried. “Of all the nerve ...”
“You’ve said it, bimbo!” called Fizzie. “Tied is right. If you’re so nervous why aren’t your headlights on?”
The man faltered. He was tall, with a cap well pulled down over his eyes.
“It’s my car,” he insisted, and his voice became curiously muffled.
“You take it and see what happens. I’ve got a gun here and a medal for marksmanship. Pardon the reference.”
“My dear . . . I really wouldn’t,”
fluttered Miss Seiden, who seemed to be behaving very queerly.
“Do you happen to recollect the number of your car?” asked the man in polite hostility.
Fizzie was obliged to admit that she did not. Numbers bored her. “What is the number, Miss Seiden?” she whispered.
Aggie cleared her throat, “The number! is Ontario 45,630.”
“Right,” said the man. He stepped back and shut off his motor, reappearing with a flashlight. “Will you be so good as to look at the number on this car?” he asked.
Both women looked. “Quebec, 18,200,” read the girl slowly, “Why, I—oh! I beg your pardon!” A deep palpitating hush, “I must have anchored the wrong car!”
“Right again,” cried the man. “Have you a knife about you?”
She was too involved in embarrassment to notice Miss Seiden who was leaning far out of the window and making small, waggling signals with her hands. Indeed she nodded her head so vigorously that her night hairpins rattled out and hit the hood of the car beheath.
“Oh, I am sorry,” went on the girl. “You see the cars are exactly alike and in my hurry I chose the wrong one."
Miss Seiden gave a last mysterious waggle with the left hand, and drew back.
“Fizzie . . . for the forty-first—or is it the forty-second?—time . . . will you
The man’s voice, now full and natural, came up with all the ringing assurance of Dexter Rand, Jr.
“You big bum,” shot back the quick reply, “where did you get that coupé?”
NEXT morning two coupés left the Buttonball Inn. Miss Seiden driving ahead, Fizzie and Dexter behind. “I borrowed this car from a guy I knew in Montreal, and trailed you. Aunt Aggie kept me informed. She’s a grand old dame, is Aggie. Knew I was crazy about you . .” said Dexter Rand, Jr. “Of course you would have recognized my own roadster, so I took this . . . lost you the time you got off the road into the woods . . . but found you again.”
Fizzie was inclined to be acrid. “Then it was your beautiful baritone that joined mine in the duet?” she said sarcastically.
“Yes . . . did it to let Aunt Aggie know I was sticking by. I had passed you, then I found a place to stay in the woods until you got ahead of me next day. Say, you know that Dinwiddie flapdoodle?”
“Oh, I’ve heard about him somewhere,” said Fizzie lightly.
“Well he eloped—eloped in the good old style with the village policeman’s daughter! Read it in the paper last night. Say, he’s got rotten taste!”
“Yes . . always suspected him of it,” smiled the girl a little wryly. She suddenly found herself being kissed rather violently. “Will you marry me, you darned little bandit with a gun?”
“Oh . , . quite probably. What a swell old girl Aggie is!” said Fizzie thoughtfully. “And where were you going at two a.m. in that car?”
“Merely getting out of your way again before you were up. Thought you were all tucked up nicely until I found I was tied!”
Miss Agatha Seiden reached a telegraph office first. She sent a long day letter to Dr. Mary Lyons.
“COME AT ONCE STOP CHAPERONE CHILDREN HOME STOP I HAVE HAD ENOUGH STOP DEXTER MAKES ME FRIGHTFULLY NERVOUS STOP WÁNT TO GRAB OFF SOME REST STOP SHALL BE TALKING LIKE FIZZIE IF WITH HER ANOTHER DAY STOP LET YOUR PATIENTS GO BOOM STOP AGGIE.”