THE ME SONG
WHEN STEPHEN DEERING arrived at his brother's brand-new town house, he thought that really Mac was doing himself rather well. It was a smart house just off the park. A neat maid let him in and showed him to a bedroom on the second floor. Mr. and Mrs. Deering, she said, had left instructions that he was to make himself at home. He was to ring if he wanted anything. She hojxid he would be comfortable. The little girl, she added, had been put to bed already. It might be better if the gentleman waited until morning to see her.
Steve Deering agreed that it would be much better to see the little girl in the morning. When the maid had left and he had begun leisurely to unpack, he reflected that the little girl was the only catch in an otherwise perfect arrangement. Still Jennifer—that was her name—Jennifer was only six years old and the servants should certainly be able to take care of her during the two weeks that he was to occupy the house in place of her absent parents. Steve had seen her once or twice, years ago, when Mac and Jill were still bursting with pride over her birth. She had seemed all right. A baby like any other baby. She had blown bubbles. And nowadays, Mac wrote, she was a good kid.
“Jennifer’s all right,” his letter said. "She’s a good, independent sort of kid. We wouldn’t think twice about leaving her for just this short jaunt to Ix>ndon and back, except (hat Annie, the nurse she’s had, stepped off suddenlike and married a policeman. And then, of course, the house is new to her. I had to clear the decorators out of it at the point of a gun almost. So Jill and I thought if you’d
just cast an eye over Jennifer once a day or so the maids'll see to her otherwise. And we thought while you're on the loose between jobs, a couple of weeks in the big town might go over big. How about it?"
“Whoops!” Steve had telegraphed promptly. “Coming, ready or not.” And here he was. A ixrfect set-up.
HE WENT downstairs presently to a good dinner. His blue eyes crinkled as he sat in the sleek, white dining room. He was a lean, dark young man with a pleasant, mouth. He almost hugged himself. Oh, it was a jx-rfect set-up.
Several things made it so. He thought about them, sitting there.
First, he was between jobs. He had resigned from his last berth because there was no future in it. He was a chemist. He had his eye on an opening with “Armance,” the beauty specialist. She was, he knew, really a Mrs. Watson a young, successful widow, very difficult to get at. For weeks he had been trying from out of town to make some contact with her. No luck. But it would be a grand job if he could land it. And now that he was here on the six)t, he thought he could. He felt so sure of it that when Sally Lloyd, Sam Lloyd's wife back home, offered him a letter of introduction because she had been to school with “Armance,” Steve turned it down. He wanted to wangle this himself. Also, he wanted no dealings with Sally.
Sally Lloyd was his second reason for the trip. He was fond of her, but she was one of those happily married people
who could not endure the sight of a bachelor. Steve, she said, twenty-eight and presentable and single, was a blot on the landscape. He was a challenge. She said she was going to fit him out with a wife—or else! When Sam let it slip that Sally was importing some feminine knockout from somewhere, was laying bets that said knockout would trap him in a week, Steve fled in disgust. Women had a nerve. Betting on his susceptibility. Really, it was a little too much. Mac’s letter with its invitation was like a convenient door opening.
Perfect. There was only the kid, Jennifer, on whom he was to keep an eye. She was the only drawback. But that could wait. He took his hat and overcoat and went out into the city’s late-autumn dark.
Stephen Deering went after things. It was the reason he was well known in his field, though he was not yet thirty. On the next day he set out at once to approach the elusive Madame Armance. He spent the morning doing it and he made exactly no progress whatever. Her secretary was vague. Madame Armance was not in the office. She might come in. She might not. If he could wait . . . He waited. He fumed. He left a message finally, and came home at noon with his jaw set. lie wasn’t discouraged. Oh, no. But he was hungry.
Luncheon was announced to him presently and he went in to the solitary meal. Solitary. I le asked about that later.
“Where’s the kid?” he asked the waitress. “Doesn’t she come to the table?”
She burst out eagerly.
“Oh, sir! No, sir. She eats in her new playroom. But oh, sir !”
1 le looked at her. She sounded like a cheering section.
“I low do you mean?”
"Oh, we've had such a time witli her, sir. She was to go to her new school this morning. Just a play school. But she wouldn’t go witli me and she wouldn’t go with cook. She says she wants Annie, her nurse that’s left, sir.”
“Hum," he said, gravely.
The maid rushed on.
“She's missed the morning part, but there’d still be the afternoon. Mrs. Deering was so particular to have her go. We thought you might talk to her, sir. She's not naughty, mind you. Just, cook and I can’t budge her.”
Steve, who was certain that he could not budge her either, drew a long breath. He muttered:
“I see. All right. I’ll go up and speak to her now.”
“Yes, Mr. Deering. I’ll show you.”
JENNIFER’S rooms were at the back of the house. Her uncle approached them nervously. The maid left him at the door and vanished. He straightened his tie gingerly and lieered inside. It was a large, sunny room—a playroom. There were toys. The furniture was midget. Around it on the wallpaper marched a procession of Peter Rabbits, acting out adventures in—what was the fellow’s name? MacGregor? —in Mr. MacGregor’s garden. At first glance the place appeared to be empty. Then he saw that one small bureau had been moved out from the wall and that someone squatted behind it like a frog. He went in.
“Well,” he said jovially. “Hello!”
A fair head poked out from the crevice. Jennifer Deering followed. She was a slight child with short, wavy hair and large dark eyes that inspected him gravely. She wore a blue dress. Not pretty, but she had a pleasant, serious look., “How do you do,” she said. “You’re my Uncle Stephen.” He looked down at her, trying to appear poised and at his ease.
“That’s right. But you can drop the ‘Uncle.’ You can call me Steve.”
"All right.” She gestured toward the rabbits on the wall and toward the misplaced bureau. “I moved it,” she explained. “I couldn't see what happens after he eats the parsley, so I went in there to look.” After a moment she added dreamily: “He goes to sleep in a basket.”
“Well,” Steve said lamely. “Does he now?”
There was an awkward pause. Jennifer broke it “I know three songs.”
“Well! Do you now?”
“Yes. Annie taught me. She was good at singing. So am I. Would you like to hear?”
He made an effort. So far, he realized, the interview had not been in his hands. He gave what he hoped was an easy laugh.
“Not just now, thanks. You can sing them some other time. But tell me, what’s all this about your new school? Don't you want to go?”
“Not with cook,” Jennifer said firmly. “And not with Rose. I wanted Annie.”
“But Annie’s gone.”
She looked him over carefully. Then she said:
“I'll go with you.”
“Oh, now, listen. Look. Rose’ll do it. She’s ready. She’ll take you.”
“Not with Rose !” Jennifer’s voice was very loud and very distinct, as though he were deaf. “And not with cook. I’ll go with you.”
“But. . . ” Steve stammered helplessly. “I—I've got —
I’m all—oh, the deuce! Okay then, I’ll take you. Let Rose get you ready and I’ll meet you downstairs.”
“All right,” Jennifer said cheerfully.
He went out quickly. He hadn’t planned to play nursemaid, but after all it was little enough to do for Mac and Jill. He grinned suddenly, going downstairs. A queer little kid. He rather liked her.
But he liked her less when she joined him at the frontdoor, ready for her trip to school. She carried a large rubber ball. “Here,” she said. “I haf to take this. You can carry it.” He carried it. He did not intend to, but somehow he found
himself marching up the avenue escorting a blithe young person in a blue reefer, and the ball was under his arm. He had never felt so conspicuous.
It was nothing to what awaited him.
“Will I like it, to school?” she asked, trotting beside him.
“Sure you will.”
“How do you know? Howr can you tell? Did you like it?”
He had hated it. He cast about desperately in his mind for something convincing.
“Why—why there’s even a song about it. Maybe you know it. Maybe it’s one of your songs.”
“No,” she said promptly. “It isn’t. Sing it.”
“Oh, I can’t sing,” he protested.
“Everybody can sing. Go on.”
But he saw her mouth open wide and carefully, and knew that she was about to impress her meaning upon him in that loud voice.
“School days!” he burst out, softly but hastily. “School days. Dear old golden rule days—”
“What's golden rule days?”
“The golden rule?” He welcomed the diversion. “Why, that’s—do unto others as you would be done by.”
“What’s that—do wunto rothers achoowoodbe dunbye?” “I beg your pardon? Oh! Why, it means. . .” He thought for a moment. “It means—if you’re nice to jxîople they’ll be nice to you.”
Jennifer took it in slowly. She nodded, repeating:
“Do wunto rothers achoowoodbe dunbye. I like it. I
can perhaps arrange it into another song for me to sing.” And she made it into one, chanting it in march time for the rest of their trip.
The school, when they came to it, was unmistakable. It was a large brownstone front, bearing in its window the sign, “Miss Diller’s School for Lads and Lassies.” Wellnow for it. Steve squared his shoulders. He clutched the rubber ball with one hand, his young charge with the other. They marched through the front door.
IT WAS rather dark inside. He could see small chairs in a room on his left and a piano. Lads and lassies were everywhere, milling about in a confused mass. Stephen Deering and Jennifer Deering stood in the midst of this, rooted. After an alarming interval a middle-aged person with a pince-nez appeared. Miss Diller herself.
“Ah!” she cried, wading skilfully forward. “Isn t this nice? Another little friend. What was the name, sir?”
He told her, though he did not agree that it was nice. “Just in time for closing exercises,” she beamed. “And this is the little girl? So you’re Jennifer Deering, my dear?” Jennifer said she was.
“She’ll go in with the beginners,” Miss Diller explained. “And she must join in the exercises, to break the ice. But stay!” she cried, so suddenly that Steve started in alarm. “James Watson is a little neighbor of yours. He can be her little escort.”
Jennifer’s little escort was summoned and came reluctantly a stocky, freckled child.
“This,” Miss Diller introduced, “is Jennifer Deering, James. Please see that she gets a hook in the pantry.” Jennifer looked up fearfully. “A hook in the pantry !” her eyes exclaimed. Miss Diller beamed after them, remarking: “The pantry is the cloak room. And now, Mr. Deering, come right in and have a seat. You must stay for closing exercises. Such a sweet sight.”
Mr. Deering stayed for closing exercises. It was far from his intention, but Miss Diller overwhelmed him. Somehow he found himself sitting stiffly in a chair against the wall while the beginners closed their school day. He was acutely miserable. One brown hand still clutched a large rubber ball. And to add to his confusion, there was another onlooker. She sat across the room from him - a slender girl in neat dark blue. A nurse to one of the beginners, he supposed. He kept his agonized eyes away from her, but one swift glance had told him she was amazingly pretty.
The beginners stood in a circle, each child before a small chair. Jennifer had been firmly pushed into place by young James, who promptly left her Miss J Ailler seated herself at the piano. She played. Suddenly she sang.
“Good afternoon to you. Good afternoon to you. Good afternoon, dear children, good afternoon to you.”
The beginners answered her aptly.
“Good afternoon, dear teacher, good afternoon to you.”
This over, she turned from the piano.
Be seated, children.”
“IV seated, children.”
Again. Over and over. Miss Diller kept the beginners bobbing up and down like jumping jacks. Steve, slightly dizzy, was quite mystified. So, it seemed, was Jennifer. The moment came when she remained obstinately sitting in her little chair. The exercises halted abruptly.
“What is it, Jennifer?” Miss Diller asked kindly. “Did you get mixed up, dear?”
“But I said ‘Rise,’ Jennifer. It was 'IV seated’ last time.”
Jennifer leaned forward.
“I know,” she said earnestly. “I was waiting till you knew which.”
THERE WAS a flurry. Miss Diller flushed. The beginners murmured among themselves like astonished bees. Steve forgot his discomfort. He shook with suppressed laughter. When he caught the eye of the girl across the room he grinned uncontrollably and received an answering smile. I íe felt better.
Somehow Miss Diller rescued the exercises from disaster. They were fortunately soon over and the beginners were free.
After a while Mr. Deering and the newest beginner found themselves on the sidewalk again, trudging toward home. Directly before them another couple walked. Young James Watson and the girl who had shared Steve’s amusement. I le looked at her back with pleasure. Her coat and hat were very plain a uniform, jx'rhaps but they fitted her. Her hair, he saw, was dark and curled at the neck. He had already noticed that her eyes were hazel, with amazing black lashes. A very pretty girl. Attractive, even. But of course you couldn't go picking up somebody's servant.
Jennifer had no such compunctions. She strode ahead of him now, caught up with the other two and remarked to the boy:
“I know a song about school. Do you?”
James Watson stopp'd and looked at her without enthusiasm.
“No," he said flatly. "School’s dumb. Who wants to go singing about it?"
“I’ll teach you,” she offered kindly, and began at once. Steve caught up to them. He could scarcely help it. He raised his hat and the girl looked up at him, smiling faintly. “Sorry,” he said. “The kids seem to have joined forces.” “Oh, yes. James is very informal.”
She had a nice voice. Low, rather throaty. He asked: “Well, shall we just walk along together, since we’re headed in the same direction?”
As they started forward again, with the children behind them, Jennifer announced:
“If you’re nice to me, I’ll be nice to you.”
“I will if I want,” said James.
"No. Youhafto. It’s a rule. Do wunto rothers achoowoodbe dunbve.”
“It’s a rule.” She sang: “Schooldays. Schooldays. Do wunto. .
After a moment James joined grudgingly in the refrain. The girl at Steve’s side laughed. He said:
“Quite musical, my niece. I understand she has three songs of her own. I taught her this one, so that makes four." “She’s your niece?”
“Yes.” He explained his presence, adding: “I’m Stephen Deering, Miss — that is, Mrs. —?”
“Jones,” she told him. “Miss Ellen Jones.”
“Thanks, Miss Jones. And you’re the kid’s—I mean, you take care of the kid?”
"Yes. We live right next door to your brother’s house. The boy is James Watson.”
The name struck Steve suddenly.
“You don’t mean his mother is Madame Armance? Not that Watson?”
“Why, yes. Though most people don t connect the two. He considered the coincidence. Could it be of any value to him—to his hopes? He didn’t see how. After a moment he raid:
“Well, they seem to have hit it off—those two. Listen to ’em.”
The dirgelike sounds continued from the rear. Suddenly James broke off.
“No!” he objected. “I don’t want to sing about it. School’s dumb. Those exercises are dumb. I think they’re simple. Aren’t they simple, Ellen?”
The girl smiled over her shoulder at him. She drawded: “Perfectly simple, my dear Watson.”
Steve laughed. Then he looked at her sharply.
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Continued from page 5—Starts on page 3
'I say," he ventured presently. “Forgive me—but you’re no ordinary nursemaid. Arc you? Admit it!”
She looked up at him and the hazel eyes clouded.
“I—well, I try to be. It’s all new to me, but the times have been so hard.”
“Oh,” he said quickly. “I’m sorry. The depression. Ah.”
“Ah,” she echoed.
They left it at that.
When they parted on the pavement before their adjacent houses, he gave her his best smile.
“It’s been great, Miss Jones. I’m awfully glad to have met you. Hope it’ll happen again.”
“We,” she said primly, “often go to the park.”
And she vanished indoors, propelling James before her.
Jennifer had left him and was climbing the stairs. She had abandoned the Golden Rule, but she was still making the sounds which she believed to be singing.
“Annie doesn’t live here any more,” she intoned truthfully as she mounted. “Annie doesn’t live here any more.”
Steve grinned up at her back. One of her own three songs? He wondered if the others were as apt.
ON THE NEXT afternoon, Rose and the mysterious cook had a shock. Young Mr. Stephen announced that he would take Jennifer out for her airing. Think of it! A gentleman like him! Cook said it did her heart good to see a young man which was a home body, for once in a way.
But the home body had qualms as he and Jennifer crossed the avenue and set off into the maze of the park. Though the child carried her own ball today, Steve was far from empty handed. At starting she had produced an enormous, limp boy doll which she thrust upon him in her most executive manner. He carried the thing sheepishly under one arm, his hands deep in his pockets, his hat pulled well down. He was an idiot to be doing this. Still—he had his reasons. 'Flic park was a labyrinth.
“Where’ll we go?” he asked helplessly of his niece.
She answered promptly:
“To Annie’s bunk.”
It sounded faintly compromising.
“Her bunk. Her special place, where she used to sit. I’ll show you.”
She showed him. Annie’s bunk turned out to be the end of a long green bench. No one else was seated there. But across the walk several prim figures regarded him suspiciously over the tops of perambulators. Steve sat down, avoiding their eyes. He was not happy. He muttered:
“Well, here we are. Now, play.”
“I'll bounce my hall."
And did. She bounced it hard, hopped up and down twice, pawed for it and missed. The ball rolled under a bench up the walk and she disapjjeared after it, crawling. Steve leaned hack. At least the kid was playing. He was relaxing a little, when he became aware of an amused look upon him trom across the way. Ellen Jones sat there, a little apart from the other maids. She was smiling. He saw young James striding toward Jennifer. Steve straightened. He stood up awkwardly.
“Hello!” he called. “I'm on nursery police again. Won’t you join me?”
She came over to him, still smiling, and dropped on to the bench. The grouped duennas behind her looked shocked.
“Good day,” Miss Jones murmured. “And thank you—sir.”
He bent his lean body and sat down beside her. He trowned.
“Please,” he protested. ‘‘Don’t talk like that. Don't say ‘sir.’ You’re not like that j and I know it. You’re regular.”
She looked straight at him.
“That’s nice of you," she said softly. “To think that. To say it. Lots of people don’t.” , Her eyes were beautiful. Beautiful! He j thought only that for a moment. Then he ( heard her words.
“Humph,” he grunted. “I supi>ose I know what that means. It means Mrs. Watson— Madame Armance—whatever you call her —she’s high-hat, eh? She treats you like— well, like a servant? Is that it?”
“Oh, no! Oh, no, indeed. Mrs. Watson’s very nice.”
“Is she now?” he drawled. “I’ve heard different. I’ve heard she was pretty darn up-stage. Certainly her office is.”
“I wouldn't know about that,” Ellen Jones murmured.
Steve looked at her clear profile. She j looked so keen, so alive. She might know i things—little important things that would help him. He said on impulse, boyishly:
"I wish you'd talk to me about her.” Again the lovely eyes came around to him. “Why?” she asked.
And he told her. He thought, even while he did it, that this was undignified—confiding in a domestic, no matter how “regular.” And he’d only met the girl yesterday. She was practically a stranger. Yet he told her his story earnestly. There was something about her—well, he liked confiding in her.
“And so,” he finished, "I want awfully to see her. I know I’m the man for that job, if I could only get to her and make her see it.” Miss Jones spoke slowly after a moment. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I can't help you there. You’d have to approach Madame Armance through her office to work that.”
THE SLOW RED came up Steve’s neck.
Well, she was a cool one! Her tone reproved him. “To work that.” It sounded
of conspiracy and of backstair methods. And it was true. He felt cheap.
“Okay,” he muttered. “You’re right, of course. It’s just I've been after her so hard. Seems as if I’d tried everything. But make out I never said it, will you?”
He never knew what she might have answered, for the miserable moment was cut short. Jennifer stood before him. He blessed her silently.
"I,“ she said, “will take Brawdy-eedle now. You hold the ball.”
He accepted the. ball.
“You sat on him,” she accused. “You sat on Brawdy-eedle. What if you had of squashed him?”
“Oh.” He pulled a doll from the bench behind him. “Sorry. Here. He’s not hurt.” “Well, you might of squashed him.” She crossed the walk toward James Watson, repeating: “All I say is he might of squashed him.”
Steve stared after her.
"That's all she says,” he muttered.
“I,” Ellen Jones remarked politely, “didn’t quite catch the name.”
“It sounded like Brawdy-eedle,” he said, grinning. “Not a common name. Possibly some local dialect.”
"Welsh,” she decided. “Speaks it like a native.”
They both laughed. It broke the restraint between them. Relief surged up in Steve. It was amazing how deeply he had felt her snub, how much he wanted to reinstate himself in her eyes. 1 íe sjx-nt t he rest of the afternoon doing it. It was very pleasant.
At dusk they rose together and started homeward through the park. They were frankly absorbed. James and Jennifer, marching behind them like a rear guard,were almost unnoticed until Jennifer’s raised voice grew penetrating. She announced, loudly and unmusically, that she was headin’ for the last round-up.
“Git along, little dogie,” she exhorted in time to their steps. “Git along, little dogie. Git along, little dogie, git along.”
And so forth. James helped her. "Heavens!” James’s attendant exclaimed. “We’re being drummed out of the park.” “That Annie!” Steve complained. “She’s left her mark, all right. This must be one of the three songs she used to render. Jennifer comes out with them at fitting moments.” “Like theme songs?”
“Exactly. This makes two I’ve heard. I suppose the third will crop up at the proper time.”
“Well, we can only hope it’s not a funeral march.”
Presently they turned into their own block. Steve had a reckless thought.
“Look here,” he urged. “This is all very amusing, this chatting while we mind the kids. But I—well, I like you. Couldn't I see you some other time? Some evening?” “Oh, sir!” she protested. “A man like you? A girl like me?”
“Stop that. I’m serious. You’re no more a nursemaid than—than I am. You know you’re only playing at it.”
“I mean it’s just a stop-gap. Just something to tide you over a bad spot.”
“Oh.” She looked at him searchinglv for a moment. Then she said : “Thursday is my night out.”
“Thursday? But this is Friday. That's a whole week.”
“Sorry. I've only the one night a week.” “Oh, all right then. It’s a date. Next Thursday. I ’ll wait for you—the back door,
I suppose? We’ll do anything go anywhere —you like.”
“I’d love it. Thank you, sir.”
“Now listen,” he began. “Miss Jones! Ellen... !”
But she laughed, seized young James by the hand and pulled his astonished person with her into the vestibule of his mother's house.
“All I say is,” Jennifer remarked as she and her uncle crossed their own threshold, “all I say is I can sing better than James Watson.”
Steve let her think so.
T_TE SPENT the next week trying harder than ever to see the elusive Armance. He sat in her anteroom for hours. He telephoned her doggedly. He pulled every string he could think of. In vain. She remained invisible, not quite killing his hopes but certainly not raising them. He began to think there was something queer about it.
And there was something queer about Ellen Jones. Something faintly bewildering. Several times during that week he met her in the street with her young charge, and his puzzled feeling grew. He couldn’t quite put her together. She was a lady all right, but she was in a delicate, dependent position, too. Yet. she seemed hardly to think of that. Meeting him and talking to him so lightly, you’d expect her to worry a little about appearances, about her job. She didn’t. She bothered him.
But he forgot all that when Thursday came around at last. He was oddly excited when he went around to the back of the house next door and waited there. She came out to him presently through the servants’ entrance. Before he called a taxi he stopped her gravely under a street lamp.
“Whe-e-ee!” he whistled.
She stared at him.
“What on earth does that queer noise mean?”
“I knew it !” he exulted. “You’re a knockout !”
She was. Her dress, under the coat, was black and long. She wore a snug black hat and pearls. She looked young and lovely and very gay.
They went to the Grierly.
Steve fell in love with her that night. It was like watching a flower open. It was like escorting a Cinderella who need have no fear of midnight. He told her so. He told her that and many other things. She listened, smiling, her eyes warm and clear, so that he felt his heart come up and up into his throat. But she would not answer him directly. Only at the end, she put her hand on his, saying:
“You're sweet -Steve. I'm very happy. But you did say Cinderella, didn’t you? And I must get back to my ashes now. It’s very late.”
He took her home. He was silent in the taxi, holding her hand. He wanted terribly to kiss her, but somehow he was shy. No girl had ever done this to him. At the back of the house, in the areaway, they said good night.
“Like a cook and her beau,” she murmured.
He held both her hands, leaning toward her.
“Ellen—” he began.
At that precise instant a voice above him crooned :
“Kiss me again. Kiss me again. Kiss me again and again.”
' I 'HE GIRL started back. Steve whirled
as though he had been stung. He glared upward. A small head peered down at him from a window next door. Jennifer, of course. Her third song. He made an incoherent sound.
“Hello,” she called softly. “I saw you. 1 was awake and I looked out the window and I saw you.”
“You get back in there!” he ordered. “Hear me?”
She did not appear to hear him. She said:
“That’s one of my songs I was singing. It's a love song. You looked like it, so I sang it.”
He almost roared at her.
“Jennifer! Get in there! Or I’ll come up and spank you.”
There was a stirring behind him, but he stood still craning his neck until Jennifer reluctantly drew in her head and closed the window. Then he turned.
She was gone. Ellen Jones was gone. She had slipped inside when his back was turned. It was the middle of the night. He couldn't reach her. Steve groaned. After a while helet himself disc.onsolatelv into his brother’s house and went upstairs to bed. Confound the kid !
But he was too happy to dwell on it long. Tomorrow was another day. Ellen was right
next door. He would see her. He lay for hours, thinking about her.
It was a pleasant vigil. In the middle of it, when his brain, as he put it, was “hitting on all eight,” he had a sudden thought. Something like a flash of lightning happened in his head, and he almost rolled out of bed. Was that it? Could that be the answer? Did that explain the baffling quality he had felt in Ellen Jones?
He rejected it at first.
She wasn’t Ellen Jones. She wasn’t a nursemaid at all. She was—she must be the young, widowed Mrs. Watson Madame Armance, herself!
Of course. If he needed definite proof he had it in the way the lady's office had held him off. He had thought that was queer— their vagueness, their attitude which balked yet never quite dismissed him. Naturally she couldn’t grant him an interview until this masquerade was played out.
“Surprise, surprise,” he muttered under his breath.
He felt queer, lying there. What was it all about, anyway? What was she up to with this elaborate pretense? He supposed she had begun it on impulse, that first day when he mistook her identity. But it made him a little angry to be deceived like this. He thought of his own frank talk and scowled uneasily. Then their evening together came flooding back over him. He saw her eyes again, warm and saying what her lips did not. He drew a long breath in the dark. He had caught her. He would turn the tables on her. The darling !
"DUT HE HAD to wait. On the next day Mac and Jill came home. Steve was surprised. He had been so absorbed in his own affairs that he had honestly forgotten all about them. They simply walked in on him. At once the house became their house, and he was a guest in it.
They had dinner that night, the three of them in Jill’s perfect white dining room. She looked very small and blonde and alive, sitting across the table from her lanky husband. She smiled at Steve.
“You’ve been grand, Stevie. Jennifer dotes on you and Rose tells me you were simply lovely to the child. What can the owner do to redeem it?”
“She’s a nice kid, Jennifer,” he said. “We got along fine. I like beauing her around except when she went operatic on me.” Mac grinned. He narrowed the blue eyes that were so like his brother’s. He drawled: “Come clean, big boy. You didn’t stick around the house all the time, minding Jennifer. Not you. What else did you do? Let’s have it?”
.Steve felt a little warmth under his dark skin, but he said innocently:
“Tried to get me a job. And didn’t.” “How come?”
He explained. He made a good story of his failure with the Armance offices. He made it account for every waking moment. He said absolutely nothing about Ellen Jones. Jill broke in before he finished: “That’s it ! That’s what we’ll do. You’ve been a good boy, Stevie, and you shall be rewarded. We’ll have a party. A kind of housewarming. I’ll invite Mrs. Watson and make sure that she comes. I’ve met her. She’s a nice little thing. You’ll have a chance to turn your well-known charm on her. Does that appeal to you?”
Did it appeal to him? He grinned. He thanked her. He said:
“Swell, Jill. You’re nature’s noblewoman. Count me in.”
But inside, he wanted to shout. It was perfect. To meet her like this, on his own ground; to throw her little joke back at her. It was worth waiting for.
It was even worth days without seeing her, he decided. During that week she seemed to hide herself, never coming out of the house next door. He let her hide. He could afford to. The big moment was coming, and it would be his—not hers.
Jill had a talent for parties. This one, Steve thought when the evening finally arrived, looked promising. The music was right, there was plenty to drink and all the women were pretty. He wore tails and a
white tie and felt good after his quiet two weeks. She would arrive presently and he would spring his little surprise. There would be a delightful showdown between them. His heart quickened at the prospect. Meanwhile he thought he would have a good time.
He did. Plenty of ladies were anxious to talk to Mac's lean young brother who had such a charming smile. They were very nice to him. He had just left one of them and was strolling toward the bar, when Jill's voice behind him said:
“Oh, I do want you to meet Steve Deering, my brother-in-law. Steve, turn around here. You must know Mrs. Watson.”
He paused, his pulses drumming. He began to smile. Slowly he turned. And as he turned he spoke.
“Smartie !” he said.
Then for several seconds he stood ¡XTfectly still. Somebody murmured blankly: “How do you do !”
CUE WAS small, with keen brown eyes. ^ She wore a really beautiful black gown. She had red hair. She was not she was emphatically not Ellen Jones. Steve stared at her. The inside of his head felt like a Ferriss wheel. In a moment Jill said sharply:
“Steve! Come to! Are you tight?”
“No, no,” he stammered. His wits began to come back. “I’m so surprised. So charmed.” He turned his smile on the stranger before him. “Are you the Mrs. Watson—the Madame Armance Mrs. Watson?”
She looked at him severely.
“Ah!” To Jill: “You see! My mistake.
I hadn’t dared hope I’d meet this Mrs. Watson.”
Jill glanced at him as if she feared for his sanity. Then she shrugged, smiled at her guest and went away. Steve began to talk. He never knew afterward what he said. His partner listened blankly for a while. Suddenly she smiled:
“Young man,” she said, “I think you’re nuts. But I rather like you. Let’s dance.” They danced. She was a grand person. Almost at once she remarked:
“I’ve heard about you. And Mac and Jill have been telling me more tonight. Now let’s have it. What have you done? What do you want me to do?”
So it was here, his chance. I íe clutched at it blindly. He began to tel! her his story, growing calmer and steadier as he went along. At the end she said:
“Um. Drop in at my office and see me. I’d like to talk business. Let's see—not tomorrow come Friday.”
“I —” lie stammered. “You—”
“Yes. You and I.” The music stopped and she added briskly: “Run along now. I mustn’t monopolize you. But mind you do drop in. Friday. I never forget an appointment.”
And she was gone. Steve gulped a drink. He needed it.
The thing was done. He had his opening. As easy as that. She really was a grand person. But he wandered dizzily out into the hall. What about Ellen Jones, then? She really was a nursemaid? He had been wrong. So what? He felt like a whirling dervish.
Without knowing it, he walked slowly upstairs and along the upper hall. A door ahead of him was ajar. He pushed through it and into a dimly lit room. In a moment he realized that he was in Jennifer’s playroom. In another moment he saw that he was not alone. On the tiny sofa, so near to the floor that she was almost lying down, was a girl. She was slender, with dark hair and hazel eyes. She wore a long white dress, cut very low. She was beautiful.
After a while Steve said, like a sleepwalker. “Ellen!”
“What—what are you doing here?”
“I’m going to the party. I was waiting to make an effective entrance. I thought this was a good place to wait.”
Effective entrance. He stared at her. His brain began to function.
“Now,” he said loudly. “What is all this?
I was right. I knew you weren’t what you pretended. I thought— but who the deuce are you, anyway?”
“I am Ellen Jones.”
“But who. . .? But where. . .?”
“Who? Well, Sally Lloyd. Where? Your home town. I went up to visit her there. I was to work on you. Sam bet us each a new hat that you wouldn’t get caught. So naturally, when you came down here, I had to come after you. You see”— her eyes were dancing—“I'm staying with Dotty Watson. 1 went to school with her,
He took it in slowly. He could feel himself getting hot all over.
“Oh. It was a bet,” he said stupidly. She nodded. Something in his chest began to hurt. His eyes narrowed.
“So! Very amusing! A bet, eh?”
“It ivas a bet. But now—well, Steve—” “Quite a joke. Ha, ha!”
“Steve! Stop making those explosive noises. 1 tell you it started as a bet, but—” “A really good joke. Oh, a really good—” I íe broke off, for a voice low down beside him asked:
“What’s a goxJ joke?” lie was too angry to be surprised. He snapped :
“Go to bed, Jennifer.”
“I was in bed,” she pointed out. “You woke me up. You were yelling. What’s a good joke?”
“Steve, please. . .”
She was standing up now, quite close to him, but he would not look at her. He was furious.
“Well, you can get your new hat! That’s something, isn’t it? That's what you wanted. I'm happy to—”
“You’re not either, happy," Jennifer interrupted loudly. “It’s not either a good joke. You're mad. You're fighting." She clutched her nightgown about her, turning toward the door. “Ali I say is—do wunto rothers achoowoodlre dunbve!”
And she swept from the room.
Steve faltered. The girl was looking at him. She seemed to shine in the dim light. Her eyes were wide and soft. She whispered: “That's all she says.”
He met her eyes and forgot everything. He took a step forward.
“It’s enough,” he said.
Then she was in his arms. Her face was hidden. He stared at the top of her dark head. They were quiet for a long time.
After a while Ellen stirred. She put her head back and looked up at him. She took hold of his lapels. She murmured:
“All / say is—”
“What?” he asked shakily. “ ‘Git along, little dogie?’ ”
“No.” Her hands slid up his coat and around his neck. “No. All I say is, ‘Kiss me, kiss me again!’ ”
So he did.