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Title: Molly Make-Believe
Author: Abbott, Eleanor Hallowell, 1872-1958
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Molly Make-Believe" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



       [Illustration: The so-called delicious, intangible joke]


                                Molly

                             Make-Believe



                                  By

                       Eleanor Hallowell Abbott


                        With Illustrations by

                            Walter Tittle



                               New York

                           The Century Co.

                                 1911



                         Copyright, 1910, by

                           THE CENTURY CO.



       *       *       *       *       *

TO

MY SILENT PARTNER

       *       *       *       *       *



LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS


The so-called delicious, intangible joke               _Frontispiece_

"Good enough!" he chuckled

Every girl like Cornelia had to go South sometime between November and
March

An elderly dame

A much-freckled messenger-boy appeared dragging an exceedingly
obstreperous fox-terrier

"Well I'll be hanged," growled Stanton, "if I'm going to be strung by
any boy!"

Some poor old worn-out story-writer

"Maybe she is--'colored,'" he volunteered at last

"Oh! Don't I look--gorgeous!" she stammered

"What?" cried Stanton, plunging forward in his chair

Cornelia's mother answered this time

He unbuckled the straps of his suitcase and turned the cover backward on
the floor

"Are you a good boy?" she asked

"It's only Carl," he said

       *       *       *       *       *



MOLLY MAKE-BELIEVE

I


The morning was as dark and cold as city snow could make it--a dingy
whirl at the window; a smoky gust through the fireplace; a shadow
black as a bear's cave under the table. Nothing in all the cavernous
room, loomed really warm or familiar except a glass of stale water,
and a vapid, half-eaten grape-fruit.

Packed into his pudgy pillows like a fragile piece of china instead of
a human being Carl Stanton lay and cursed the brutal Northern winter.

Between his sturdy, restive shoulders the rheumatism snarled and
clawed like some utterly frenzied animal trying to gnaw-gnaw-gnaw its
way out. Along the tortured hollow of his back a red-hot plaster fumed
and mulled and sucked at the pain like a hideously poisoned fang
trying to gnaw-gnaw-gnaw its way in. Worse than this; every four or
five minutes an agony as miserably comic as a crashing blow on one's
crazy bone went jarring and shuddering through his whole abnormally
vibrant system.

In Stanton's swollen fingers Cornelia's large, crisp letter rustled
not softly like a lady's skirts but bleakly as an ice-storm in
December woods.

Cornelia's whole angular handwriting, in fact, was not at all unlike a
thicket of twigs stripped from root to branch of every possible
softening leaf.

     "DEAR CARL" crackled the letter, "In spite of your
     unpleasant tantrum yesterday, because I would not kiss you
     good-by in the presence of my mother, I am good-natured
     enough you see to write you a good-by letter after all. But
     I certainly will not promise to write you daily, so kindly
     do not tease me any more about it. In the first place, you
     understand that I greatly dislike letter-writing. In the
     second place you know Jacksonville quite as well as I do, so
     there is no use whatsoever in wasting either my time or
     yours in purely geographical descriptions. And in the third
     place, you ought to be bright enough to comprehend by this
     time just what I think about 'love-letters' anyway. I have
     told you once that I love you, and that ought to be enough.
     People like myself do not change. I may not talk quite as
     much as other people, but when I once say a thing I mean it!
     You will never have cause, I assure you, to worry about my
     fidelity.

     "I will honestly try to write you every Sunday these next
     six weeks, but I am not willing to literally promise even
     that. Mother indeed thinks that we ought not to write very
     much at all until our engagement is formally announced.

     "Trusting that your rheumatism is very much better this
     morning, I am

     "Hastily yours,

     "CORNELIA.

     "P. S. Apropos of your sentimental passion for letters, I
     enclose a ridiculous circular which was handed to me
     yesterday at the Woman's Exchange. You had better
     investigate it. It seems to be rather your kind."

As the letter fluttered out of his hand Stanton closed his eyes with a
twitch of physical suffering. Then he picked up the letter again and
scrutinized it very carefully from the severe silver monogram to the
huge gothic signature, but he could not find one single thing that he
was looking for;--not a nourishing paragraph; not a stimulating
sentence; not even so much as one small sweet-flavored word that was
worth filching out of the prosy text to tuck away in the pockets of
his mind for his memory to munch on in its hungry hours. Now everybody
who knows anything at all knows perfectly well that even a business
letter does not deserve the paper which it is written on unless it
contains at least one significant phrase that is worth waking up in
the night to remember and think about. And as to the Lover who does
not write significant phrases--Heaven help the young mate who finds
himself thus mismated to so spiritually commonplace a nature! Baffled,
perplexed, strangely uneasy, Stanton lay and studied the barren page
before him. Then suddenly his poor heart puckered up like a persimmon
with the ghastly, grim shock which a man experiences when he realizes
for the first time that the woman whom he loves is not shy,
but--_stingy_.

With snow and gloom and pain and loneliness the rest of the day
dragged by. Hour after hour, helpless, hopeless, utterly impotent as
though Time itself were bleeding to death, the minutes bubbled and
dripped from the old wooden clock. By noon the room was as murky as
dish-water, and Stanton lay and fretted in the messy, sudsy
snow-light like a forgotten knife or spoon until the janitor wandered
casually in about three o'clock and wrung a piercing little wisp of
flame out of the electric-light bulb over the sick man's head, and
raised him clumsily out of his soggy pillows and fed him indolently
with a sad, thin soup. Worst of all, four times in the dreadful
interim between breakfast and supper the postman's thrilly footsteps
soared up the long metallic stairway like an ecstatically towering
high-note, only to flat off discordantly at Stanton's door without
even so much as a one-cent advertisement issuing from the
letter-slide.--And there would be thirty or forty more days just like
this the doctor had assured him; and Cornelia had said that--perhaps,
if she felt like it--she would write--six--times.

Then Night came down like the feathery soot of a smoky lamp, and
smutted first the bedquilt, then the hearth-rug, then the
window-seat, and then at last the great, stormy, faraway outside
world. But sleep did not come. Oh, no! Nothing new came at all except
that particularly wretched, itching type of insomnia which seems to
rip away from one's body the whole kind, protecting skin and expose
all the raw, ticklish fretwork of nerves to the mercy of a gritty
blanket or a wrinkled sheet. Pain came too, in its most brutally high
night-tide; and sweat, like the smother of furs in summer; and thirst
like the scrape of hot sand-paper; and chill like the clammy horror of
raw fish. Then, just as the mawkish cold, gray dawn came nosing over
the house-tops, and the poor fellow's mind had reached the point where
the slam of a window or the ripping creak of a floorboard would have
shattered his brittle nerves into a thousand cursing tortures--then
that teasing, tantalizing little friend of all rheumatic invalids--the
Morning Nap--came swooping down upon him like a sponge and wiped out
of his face every single bit of the sharp, precious evidence of pain
which he had been accumulating so laboriously all night long to
present to the Doctor as an incontestable argument in favor of an
opiate.

Whiter than his rumpled bed, but freshened and brightened and
deceptively free from pain, he woke at last to find the pleasant
yellow sunshine mottling his dingy carpet like a tortoise-shell cat.
Instinctively with his first yawny return to consciousness he reached
back under his pillow for Cornelia's letter.

Out of the stiff envelope fluttered instead the tiny circular to which
Cornelia had referred so scathingly.

It was a dainty bit of gray Japanese tissue with the crimson-inked
text glowing gaily across it. Something in the whole color scheme and
the riotously quirky typography suggested at once the audaciously
original work of some young art student who was fairly splashing her
way along the road to financial independence, if not to fame. And this
is what the little circular said, flushing redder and redder and
redder with each ingenuous statement:

     THE SERIAL-LETTER COMPANY.

     Comfort and entertainment Furnished for Invalids, Travelers,
     and all Lonely People.

     Real Letters

     from

     Imaginary Persons.

     Reliable as your Daily Paper. Fanciful as your Favorite
     Story Magazine. Personal as a Message from your Best Friend.
     Offering all the Satisfaction of _receiving_ Letters with no
     Possible Obligation or even Opportunity of Answering Them.

SAMPLE LIST.

Letters from a Japanese Fairy.       (Especially acceptable
  Bi-weekly.                         to a Sick Child. Fragrant
                                     with Incense and
                                     Sandal Wood. Vivid
                                     with purple and orange
                                     and scarlet. Lavishly
                                     interspersed with the
                                     most adorable Japanese
                                     toys that you ever saw
                                     in your life.)

Letters from a little Son.           (Very sturdy. Very
  Weekly.                            spunky. Slightly  profane.)

Letters from a Little Daughter.      (Quaint. Old-Fashioned.
  Weekly.                            Daintily Dreamy.
                                     Mostly about Dolls.)

Letters from a Banda-Sea Pirate.     (Luxuriantly tropical.
  Monthly.                           Salter than the Sea.
                                     Sharper than Coral.
                                     Unmitigatedly murderous.
                                     Altogether blood-curdling.)

Letters from a Gray-Plush Squirrel.  (Sure to please Nature
  Irregular.                         Lovers of Either
                                     Sex. Pungent with
                                     wood-lore. Prowly.
                                     Scampery. Deliciously
                                     wild. Apt to be just a
                                     little bit messy perhaps
                                     with roots and leaves
                                     and nuts.)

Letters from Your Favorite           (Biographically consistent.
    Historical Character.            Historically reasonable.
  Fortnightly.                     Most vivaciously
                                     human. Really unique.)

Love Letters.                        (Three grades: Shy.
  Daily.                             Medium. Very Intense.)

     In ordering letters kindly state approximate age, prevalent
     tastes,--and in case of invalidism, the presumable severity
     of illness. For price list, etc., refer to opposite page.
     Address all communications to Serial Letter Co. Box, etc.,
     etc.

As Stanton finished reading the last solemn business detail he
crumpled up the circular into a little gray wad, and pressed his blond
head back into the pillows and grinned and grinned.

"Good enough!" he chuckled. "If Cornelia won't write to me there seem
to be lots of other congenial souls who will--cannibals and rodents
and kiddies. All the same--" he ruminated suddenly: "All the same I'll
wager that there's an awfully decent little brain working away behind
all that red ink and nonsense."

Still grinning he conjured up the vision of some grim-faced
spinster-subscriber in a desolate country town starting out at last
for the first time in her life, with real, cheery self-importance,
rain or shine, to join the laughing, jostling, deliriously human
Saturday night crowd at the village post-office--herself the only
person whose expected letter never failed to come! From Squirrel or
Pirate or Hopping Hottentot--what did it matter to her? Just the
envelope alone was worth the price of the subscription. How the
pink-cheeked high school girls elbowed each other to get a peep at the
post-mark! How the--. Better still, perhaps some hopelessly unpopular
man in a dingy city office would go running up the last steps just a
little, wee bit faster--say the second and fourth Mondays in the
month--because of even a bought, made-up letter from Mary Queen of
Scots that he knew absolutely without slip or blunder would be
waiting there for him on his dusty, ink-stained desk among all the
litter of bills and invoices concerning--shoe leather. Whether 'Mary
Queen of Scots' prattled pertly of ancient English politics, or
whimpered piteously about dull-colored modern fashions--what did it
matter so long as the letter came, and smelled of faded
fleur-de-lis--or of Darnley's tobacco smoke? Altogether pleased by the
vividness of both these pictures Stanton turned quite amiably to his
breakfast and gulped down a lukewarm bowl of milk without half his
usual complaint.

[Illustration: "Good enough!" he chuckled]

It was almost noon before his troubles commenced again. Then like a
raging hot tide, the pain began in the soft, fleshy soles of his feet
and mounted up inch by inch through the calves of his legs, through
his aching thighs, through his tortured back, through his cringing
neck, till the whole reeking misery seemed to foam and froth in his
brain in an utter frenzy of furious resentment. Again the day dragged
by with maddening monotony and loneliness. Again the clock mocked him,
and the postman shirked him, and the janitor forgot him. Again the
big, black night came crowding down and stung him and smothered him
into a countless number of new torments.

Again the treacherous Morning Nap wiped out all traces of the pain and
left the doctor still mercilessly obdurate on the subject of an
opiate.

And Cornelia did not write.

Not till the fifth day did a brief little Southern note arrive
informing him of the ordinary vital truths concerning a comfortable
journey, and expressing a chaste hope that he would not forget her.
Not even surprise, not even curiosity, tempted Stanton to wade twice
through the fashionable, angular handwriting. Dully impersonal, bleak
as the shadow of a brown leaf across a block of gray granite,
plainly--unforgivably--written with ink and ink only, the stupid,
loveless page slipped through his fingers to the floor.

After the long waiting and the fretful impatience of the past few days
there were only two plausible ways in which to treat such a letter.
One way was with anger. One way was with amusement. With conscientious
effort Stanton finally summoned a real smile to his lips.

Stretching out perilously from his snug bed he gathered the
waste-basket into his arms and commenced to dig in it like a sportive
terrier. After a messy minute or two he successfully excavated the
crumpled little gray tissue circular and smoothed it out carefully on
his humped-up knees. The expression in his eyes all the time was
quite a curious mixture of mischief and malice and rheumatism.

"After all" he reasoned, out of one corner of his mouth, "After all,
perhaps I have misjudged Cornelia. Maybe it's only that she really
doesn't know just what a love-letter OUGHT to be like."

Then with a slobbering fountain-pen and a few exclamations he
proceeded to write out a rather large check and a very small note.

     "TO THE SERIAL-LETTER CO." he addressed himself brazenly.
     "For the enclosed check--which you will notice doubles the
     amount of your advertised price--kindly enter my name for a
     six weeks' special 'edition de luxe' subscription to one of
     your love-letter serials. (Any old ardor that comes most
     convenient) Approximate age of victim: 32. Business status:
     rubber broker. Prevalent tastes: To be able to sit up and
     eat and drink and smoke and go to the office the way other
     fellows do. Nature of illness: The meanest kind of
     rheumatism. Kindly deliver said letters as early and often
     as possible!

     "Very truly yours, etc."

Sorrowfully then for a moment he studied the depleted balance in his
check-book. "Of course" he argued, not unguiltily, "Of course that
check was just the amount that I was planning to spend on a
turquoise-studded belt for Cornelia's birthday; but if Cornelia's
brains really need more adorning than does her body--if this special
investment, in fact, will mean more to both of us in the long run than
a dozen turquoise belts--."

Big and bland and blond and beautiful, Cornelia's physical personality
loomed up suddenly in his memory--so big, in fact, so bland, so blond,
so splendidly beautiful, that he realized abruptly with a strange
little tucked feeling in his heart that the question of Cornelia's
"brains" had never yet occurred to him. Pushing the thought
impatiently aside he sank back luxuriantly again into his pillows, and
grinned without any perceptible effort at all as he planned adroitly
how he would paste the Serial Love Letters one by one into the
gaudiest looking scrap-book that he could find and present it to
Cornelia on her birthday as a text-book for the "newly engaged" girl.
And he hoped and prayed with all his heart that every individual
letter would be printed with crimson ink on a violet-scented page and
would fairly reek from date to signature with all the joyous, ecstatic
silliness that graces either an old-fashioned novel or a modern
breach-of-promise suit.

So, quite worn out at last with all this unwonted excitement, he
drowsed off to sleep for as long as ten minutes and dreamed that he
was a--bigamist.

The next day and the next night were stale and mean and musty with a
drizzling winter rain. But the following morning crashed
inconsiderately into the world's limp face like a snowball spiked with
icicles. Gasping for breath and crunching for foothold the sidewalk
people breasted the gritty cold. Puckered with chills and goose-flesh,
the fireside people huddled and sneezed around their respective
hearths. Shivering like the ague between his cotton-flannel blankets,
Stanton's courage fairly raced the mercury in its downward course. By
noon his teeth were chattering like a mouthful of cracked ice. By
night the sob in his thirsty throat was like a lump of salt and snow.
But nothing outdoors or in, from morning till night, was half as
wretchedly cold and clammy as the rapidly congealing hot-water bottle
that slopped and gurgled between his aching shoulders.

It was just after supper when a messenger boy blurted in from the
frigid hall with a great gust of cold and a long pasteboard box and a
letter.

Frowning with perplexity Stanton's clumsy fingers finally dislodged
from the box a big, soft blanket-wrapper with an astonishingly
strange, blurry pattern of green and red against a somber background
of rusty black. With increasing amazement he picked up the
accompanying letter and scanned it hastily.

"Dear Lad," the letter began quite intimately. But it was not signed
"Cornelia". It was signed "Molly"!



II


Turning nervously back to the box's wrapping-paper Stanton read once
more the perfectly plain, perfectly unmistakable name and
address,--his own, repeated in absolute duplicate on the envelope.
Quicker than his mental comprehension mere physical embarrassment
began to flush across his cheek-bones. Then suddenly the whole truth
dawned on him: The first installment of his Serial-Love-Letter had
arrived.

"But I thought--thought it would be type-written," he stammered
miserably to himself. "I thought it would be a--be a--hectographed
kind of a thing. Why, hang it all, it's a real letter! And when I
doubled my check and called for a special edition de luxe--I wasn't
sitting up on my hind legs begging for real presents!"

But "Dear Lad" persisted the pleasant, round, almost childish
handwriting:

     "DEAR LAD,

     "I could have _cried_ yesterday when I got your letter
     telling me how sick you were. Yes!--But crying wouldn't
     'comfy' you any, would it? So just to send you
     right-off-quick something to prove that I'm thinking of you,
     here's a great, rollicking woolly wrapper to keep you snug
     and warm this very night. I wonder if it would interest you
     any at all to know that it is made out of a most larksome
     Outlaw up on my grandfather's sweet-meadowed farm,--a
     really, truly Black Sheep that I've raised all my own
     sweaters and mittens on for the past five years. Only it
     takes two whole seasons to raise a blanket-wrapper, so
     please be awfully much delighted with it. And oh, Mr. Sick
     Boy, when you look at the funny, blurry colors, couldn't you
     just please pretend that the tinge of green is the flavor
     of pleasant pastures, and that the streak of red is the
     Cardinal Flower that blazed along the edge of the noisy
     brook?

     "Goodby till to-morrow,

     "MOLLY."

With a face so altogether crowded with astonishment that there was no
room left in it for pain, Stanton's lame fingers reached out
inquisitively and patted the warm, woolly fabric.

"Nice old Lamb--y" he acknowledged judicially.

Then suddenly around the corners of his under lip a little balky smile
began to flicker.

"Of course I'll save the letter for Cornelia," he protested, "but no
one could really expect me to paste such a scrumptious blanket-wrapper
into a scrap-book."

Laboriously wriggling his thinness and his coldness into the black
sheep's luxuriant, irresponsible fleece, a bulging side-pocket in the
wrapper bruised his hip. Reaching down very temperishly to the pocket
he drew forth a small lace-trimmed handkerchief knotted pudgily across
a brimming handful of fir-balsam needles. Like a scorching hot August
breeze the magic, woodsy fragrance crinkled through his nostrils.

"These people certainly know how to play the game all right," he
reasoned whimsically, noting even the consistent little letter "M"
embroidered in one corner of the handkerchief.

Then, because he was really very sick and really very tired, he
snuggled down into the new blessed warmth and turned his gaunt cheek
to the pillow and cupped his hand for sleep like a drowsy child with
its nose and mouth burrowed eagerly down into the expectant draught.
But the cup did not fill.--Yet scented deep in his curved, empty,
balsam-scented fingers lurked--somehow--somewhere--the dregs of a
wonderful dream: Boyhood, with the hot, sweet flutter of summer woods,
and the pillowing warmth of the soft, sunbaked earth, and the crackle
of a twig, and the call of a bird, and the drone of a bee, and the
great blue, blue mystery of the sky glinting down through a
green-latticed canopy overhead.

For the first time in a whole, cruel tortuous week he actually smiled
his way into his morning nap.

When he woke again both the sun and the Doctor were staring pleasantly
into his face.

"You look better!" said the Doctor. "And more than that you don't look
half so 'cussed cross'."

"Sure," grinned Stanton, with all the deceptive, undauntable optimism
of the Just-Awakened.

"Nevertheless," continued the Doctor more soberly, "there ought to be
somebody a trifle more interested in you than the janitor to look
after your food and your medicine and all that. I'm going to send you
a nurse."

"Oh, no!" gasped Stanton. "I don't need one! And frankly--I can't
afford one." Shy as a girl, his eyes eluded the doctor's frank stare.
"You see," he explained diffidently; "you see, I'm just engaged to be
married--and though business is fairly good and all that--my being
away from the office six or eight weeks is going to cut like the deuce
into my commissions--and roses cost such a horrid price last Fall--and
there seems to be a game law on diamonds this year; they practically
fine you for buying them, and--"

The Doctor's face brightened irrelevantly. "Is she a Boston young
lady?" he queried.

"Oh, yes," beamed Stanton.

"Good!" said the Doctor. "Then of course she can keep some sort of an
eye on you. I'd like to see her. I'd like to talk with her--give her
just a few general directions as it were."

A flush deeper than any mere love-embarrassment spread suddenly over
Stanton's face.

"She isn't here," he acknowledged with barely analyzable
mortification. "She's just gone south."

"_Just_ gone south?" repeated the Doctor. "You don't mean--since
you've been sick?"

Stanton nodded with a rather wobbly grin, and the Doctor changed the
subject abruptly, and busied himself quickly with the least
bad-tasting medicine that he could concoct.

Then left alone once more with a short breakfast and a long morning,
Stanton sank back gradually into a depression infinitely deeper than
his pillows, in which he seemed to realize with bitter contrition that
in some strange, unintentional manner his purely innocent,
matter-of-fact statement that Cornelia "had just gone south" had
assumed the gigantic disloyalty of a public proclamation that the lady
of his choice was not quite up to the accepted standard of feminine
intelligence or affections, though to save his life he could not
recall any single glum word or gloomy gesture that could possibly have
conveyed any such erroneous impression to the Doctor.

[Illustration: Every girl like Cornelia had to go South sometime
between November and March]

"Why Cornelia _had_ to go South," he reasoned conscientiously. "Every
girl like Cornelia _had_ to go South sometime between November and
March. How could any mere man even hope to keep rare, choice,
exquisite creatures like that cooped up in a slushy, snowy New
England city--when all the bright, gorgeous, rose-blooming South
was waiting for them with open arms? 'Open arms'! Apparently it was
only 'climates' that were allowed any such privileges with girls like
Cornelia. Yet, after all, wasn't it just exactly that very quality of
serene, dignified aloofness that had attracted him first to Cornelia
among the score of freer-mannered girls of his acquaintance?"

Glumly reverting to his morning paper, he began to read and reread
with dogged persistence each item of politics and foreign news--each
gibbering advertisement.

At noon the postman dropped some kind of a message through the slit in
the door, but the plainly discernible green one-cent stamp forbade any
possible hope that it was a letter from the South. At four o'clock
again someone thrust an offensive pink gas bill through the
letter-slide. At six o'clock Stanton stubbornly shut his eyes up
perfectly tight and muffled his ears in the pillow so that he would
not even know whether the postman came or not. The only thing that
finally roused him to plain, grown-up sense again was the joggle of
the janitor's foot kicking mercilessly against the bed.

"Here's your supper," growled the janitor.

On the bare tin tray, tucked in between the cup of gruel and the slice
of toast loomed an envelope--a real, rather fat-looking envelope.
Instantly from Stanton's mind vanished every conceivable sad thought
concerning Cornelia. With his heart thumping like the heart of any
love-sick school girl, he reached out and grabbed what he supposed was
Cornelia's letter.

But it was post-marked, "Boston"; and the handwriting was quite
plainly the handwriting of The Serial-Letter Co.

Muttering an exclamation that was not altogether pretty he threw the
letter as far as he could throw it out into the middle of the floor,
and turning back to his supper began to crunch his toast furiously
like a dragon crunching bones.

At nine o'clock he was still awake. At ten o'clock he was still awake.
At eleven o'clock he was still awake. At twelve o'clock he was still
awake.... At one o'clock he was almost crazy. By quarter past one, as
though fairly hypnotized, his eyes began to rivet themselves on the
little bright spot in the rug where the "serial-letter" lay gleaming
whitely in a beam of electric light from the street. Finally, in one
supreme, childish impulse of petulant curiosity, he scrambled
shiveringly out of his blankets with many "O--h's" and "O-u-c-h-'s,"
recaptured the letter, and took it growlingly back to his warm bed.

Worn out quite as much with the grinding monotony of his rheumatic
pains as with their actual acuteness, the new discomfort of straining
his eyes under the feeble rays of his night-light seemed almost a
pleasant diversion.

The envelope was certainly fat. As he ripped it open, three or four
folded papers like sleeping-powders, all duly numbered, "1 A. M.," "2
A. M.," "3 A. M.," "4 A. M." fell out of it. With increasing
inquisitiveness he drew forth the letter itself.

"Dear Honey," said the letter quite boldly. Absurd as it was, the
phrase crinkled Stanton's heart just the merest trifle.

     "DEAR HONEY:

     "There are so many things about your sickness that worry me.
     Yes there are! I worry about your pain. I worry about the
     horrid food that you're probably getting. I worry about the
     coldness of your room. But most of anything in the world I
     worry about your _sleeplessness_. Of course you _don't_
     sleep! That's the trouble with rheumatism. It's such an old
     Night-Nagger. Now do you know what I'm going to do to you?
     I'm going to evolve myself into a sort of a Rheumatic Nights
     Entertainment--for the sole and explicit purpose of trying
     to while away some of your long, dark hours. Because if
     you've simply _got_ to stay awake all night long and
     think--you might just as well be thinking about ME, Carl
     Stanton. What? Do you dare smile and suggest for a moment
     that just because of the Absence between us I cannot make
     myself vivid to you? Ho! Silly boy! Don't you know that the
     plainest sort of black ink throbs more than some blood--and
     the touch of the softest hand is a harsh caress compared to
     the touch of a reasonably shrewd pen? Here--now, I say--this
     very moment: Lift this letter of mine to your face, and
     swear--if you're honestly able to--that you can't smell the
     rose in my hair! A cinnamon rose, would you say--a yellow,
     flat-faced cinnamon rose? Not quite so lusciously fragrant
     as those in your grandmother's July garden? A trifle paler?
     Perceptibly cooler? Something forced into blossom, perhaps,
     behind brittle glass, under barren winter moonshine? And
     yet--A-h-h! Hear me laugh! You didn't really mean to let
     yourself lift the page and smell it, did you? But what did I
     tell you?

     "I mustn't waste too much time, though, on this nonsense.
     What I really wanted to say to you was: Here are four--not
     'sleeping potions', but waking potions--just four silly
     little bits of news for you to think about at one o'clock,
     and two, and three--and four, if you happen to be so
     miserable to-night as to be awake even then.

     "With my love,

     "MOLLY."

Whimsically, Stanton rummaged around in the creases of the bed-spread
and extricated the little folded paper marked, "No. 1 o'clock." The
news in it was utterly brief.

"My hair is red," was all that it announced.

With a sniff of amusement Stanton collapsed again into his pillows.
For almost an hour then he lay considering solemnly whether a
red-headed girl could possibly be pretty. By two o'clock he had
finally visualized quite a striking, Juno-esque type of beauty with a
figure about the regal height of Cornelia's, and blue eyes perhaps
just a trifle hazier and more mischievous.

But the little folded paper marked, "No. 2 o'clock," announced
destructively: "My eyes are brown. And I am _very_ little."

With an absurdly resolute intention to "play the game" every bit as
genuinely as Miss Serial-Letter Co. was playing it, Stanton refrained
quite heroically from opening the third dose of news until at least
two big, resonant city clocks had insisted that the hour was ripe. By
that time the grin in his face was almost bright enough of itself to
illuminate any ordinary page.

"I am lame," confided the third message somewhat depressingly. Then
snugglingly in parenthesis like the tickle of lips against his ear
whispered the one phrase: "My picture is in the fourth paper,--if you
should happen still to be awake at four o'clock."

Where now was Stanton's boasted sense of honor concerning the ethics
of playing the game according to directions? "Wait a whole hour to see
what Molly looked like? Well he guessed not!" Fumbling frantically
under his pillow and across the medicine stand he began to search for
the missing "No. 4 o'clock." Quite out of breath, at last he
discovered it lying on the floor a whole arm's length away from the
bed. Only with a really acute stab of pain did he finally succeed in
reaching it. Then with fingers fairly trembling with effort, he
opened forth and disclosed a tiny snap-shot photograph of a
grim-jawed, scrawny-necked, much be-spectacled elderly dame with a
huge gray pompadour.

[Illustration: An elderly dame]

"Stung!" said Stanton.

Rheumatism or anger, or something, buzzed in his heart like a bee the
rest of the night.

Fortunately in the very first mail the next morning a postal-card came
from Cornelia--such a pretty postal-card too, with a bright-colored
picture of an inordinately "riggy" looking ostrich staring over a neat
wire fence at an eager group of unmistakably Northern tourists.
Underneath the picture was written in Cornelia's own precious hand the
heart-thrilling information:

"We went to see the Ostrich Farm yesterday. It was really very
interesting. C."



III


For quite a long time Stanton lay and considered the matter judicially
from every possible point of view. "It would have been rather
pleasant," he mused "to know who 'we' were." Almost childishly his
face cuddled into the pillow. "She might at least have told me the
name of the ostrich!" he smiled grimly.

Thus quite utterly denied any nourishing Cornelia-flavored food for
his thoughts, his hungry mind reverted very naturally to the
tantalizing, evasive, sweetly spicy fragrance of the 'Molly'
episode--before the really dreadful photograph of the unhappy
spinster-lady had burst upon his blinking vision.

Scowlingly he picked up the picture and stared and stared at it.
Certainly it was grim. But even from its grimness emanated the same
faint, mysterious odor of cinnamon roses that lurked in the
accompanying letter. "There's some dreadful mistake somewhere," he
insisted. Then suddenly he began to laugh, and reaching out once more
for pen and paper, inscribed his second letter and his first complaint
to the Serial-Letter Co.

"To the Serial-Letter Co.," he wrote sternly, with many ferocious
tremors of dignity and rheumatism.

     "Kindly allow me to call attention to the fact that in my
     recent order of the 18th inst., the specifications
     distinctly stated 'love-letters', and _not_ any
     correspondence whatsoever,--no matter how exhilarating from
     either a 'Gray-Plush Squirrel' or a 'Banda Sea Pirate' as
     evidenced by enclosed photograph which I am hereby
     returning. Please refund money at once or forward me
     without delay a consistent photograph of a 'special edition
     de luxe' girl.

     "Very truly yours."

The letter was mailed by the janitor long before noon. Even as late as
eleven o'clock that night Stanton was still hopefully expecting an
answer. Nor was he altogether disappointed. Just before midnight a
messenger boy appeared with a fair-sized manilla envelope, quite stiff
and important looking.

     "Oh, please, Sir," said the enclosed letter, "Oh, please,
     Sir, we cannot refund your subscription money because--we
     have spent it. But if you will only be patient, we feel
     quite certain that you will be altogether satisfied in the
     long run with the material offered you. As for the
     photograph recently forwarded to you, kindly accept our
     apologies for a very clumsy mistake made here in the office.
     Do any of these other types suit you better? Kindly mark
     selection and return all pictures at your earliest
     convenience."

Before the messenger boy's astonished interest Stanton spread out on
the bed all around him a dozen soft sepia-colored photographs of a
dozen different girls. Stately in satin, or simple in gingham, or
deliciously hoydenish in fishing-clothes, they challenged his
surprised attention. Blonde, brunette, tall, short, posing with
wistful tenderness in the flickering glow of an open fire, or smiling
frankly out of a purely conventional vignette--they one and all defied
him to choose between them.

"Oh! Oh!" laughed Stanton to himself. "Am I to try and separate her
picture from eleven pictures of her friends! So that's the game, is
it? Well, I guess not! Does she think I'm going to risk choosing a
tom-boy girl if the gentle little creature with the pansies is really
herself? Or suppose she truly is the enchanting little tom-boy, would
she probably write me any more nice funny letters if I solemnly
selected her sentimental, moony-looking friend at the heavily draped
window?"

Craftily he returned all the pictures unmarked to the envelope, and
changing the address hurried the messenger boy off to remail it. Just
this little note, hastily scribbled in pencil went with the envelope:

     "DEAR SERIAL-LETTER CO.:

     "The pictures are not altogether satisfactory. It isn't a
     'type' that I am looking for, but a definite likeness of
     'Molly' herself. Kindly rectify the mistake without further
     delay! or REFUND THE MONEY."

Almost all the rest of the night he amused himself chuckling to think
how the terrible threat about refunding the money would confuse and
conquer the extravagant little Art Student.

But it was his own hands that did the nervous trembling when he opened
the big express package that arrived the next evening, just as his
tiresome porridge supper was finished.

     "Ah, Sweetheart--" said the dainty note tucked inside the
     package--"Ah, Sweetheart, the little god of love be praised
     for one true lover--Yourself! So it is a picture of _me_
     that you want? The _real me_! The _truly me_! No mere pink
     and white likeness? No actual proof even of 'seared and
     yellow age'? No curly-haired, coquettish attractiveness that
     the shampoo-lady and the photograph-man trapped me into for
     that one single second? No deceptive profile of the best
     side of my face--and I, perhaps, blind in the other eye? Not
     even a fair, honest, every-day portrait of my father's and
     mother's composite features--but a picture of _myself_!
     Hooray for you! A picture, then, not of my physiognomy, but
     of my _personality_. Very well, sir. Here is the
     portrait--true to the life--in this great, clumsy,
     conglomerate package of articles that
     represent--perhaps--not even so much the prosy, literal
     things that I am, as the much more illuminating and
     significant things that _I would like to be_. It's what we
     would 'like to be' that really tells most about us, isn't
     it, Carl Stanton? The brown that I have to wear talks loudly
     enough, for instance, about the color of my complexion, but
     the forbidden pink that I most crave whispers infinitely
     more intimately concerning the color of my spirit. And as to
     my Face--_am I really obliged to have a face_? Oh, no--o!
     'Songs without words' are surely the only songs in the world
     that are packed to the last lilting note with utterly
     limitless meanings. So in these 'letters without faces' I
     cast myself quite serenely upon the mercy of your
     imagination.

     "What's that you say? That I've simply _got_ to have a face?
     Oh, darn!--well, do your worst. Conjure up for me then, here
     and now, any sort of features whatsoever that please your
     fancy. Only, Man of Mine, just remember this in your
     imaginings: Gift me with Beauty if you like, or gift me with
     Brains, but do not make the crude masculine mistake of
     gifting me with both. Thought furrows faces you know, and
     after Adolescence only Inanity retains its heavenly
     smoothness. Beauty even at its worst is a gorgeously
     perfect, flower-sprinkled lawn over which the most ordinary,
     every-day errands of life cannot cross without scarring. And
     brains at their best are only a ploughed field teeming
     always and forever with the worries of incalculable
     harvests. Make me a little pretty, if you like, and a little
     wise, but not too much of either, if you value the verities
     of your Vision. There! I say: do your worst! Make me that
     face, and that face only, that you _need the most_ in all
     this big, lonesome world: food for your heart, or fragrance
     for your nostrils. Only, one face or another--I insist upon
     having _red hair_!

     "MOLLY."

With his lower lip twisted oddly under the bite of his strong white
teeth, Stanton began to unwrap the various packages that comprised the
large bundle. If it was a "portrait" it certainly represented a
puzzle-picture.

First there was a small, flat-footed scarlet slipper with a fluffy
gold toe to it. Definitely feminine. Definitely small. So much for
that! Then there was a sling-shot, ferociously stubby, and rather
confusingly boyish. After that, round and flat and tantalizing as an
empty plate, the phonograph disc of a totally unfamiliar song--"The
Sea Gull's Cry": a clue surely to neither age nor sex, but indicative
possibly of musical preference or mere individual temperament. After
that, a tiny geographical globe, with Kipling's phrase--

    "For to admire an' for to see,
    For to be'old this world so wide--
    It never done no good to me,
    But I can't drop it if I tried!"--

written slantingly in very black ink across both hemispheres. Then an
empty purse--with a hole in it; a silver-embroidered gauntlet such as
horsemen wear on the Mexican frontier; a white table-doily partly
embroidered with silky blue forget-me-nots--the threaded needle still
jabbed in the work--and the small thimble, Stanton could have sworn,
still warm from the snuggle of somebody's finger. Last of all, a fat
and formidable edition of Robert Browning's poems; a tiny black
domino-mask, such as masqueraders wear, and a shimmering gilt picture
frame inclosing a pert yet not irreverent handmade adaptation of a
certain portion of St. Paul's epistle to the Corinthians:

     "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels and
     have not a Sense of Humor, I am become as sounding brass, or
     a tinkling symbol. And though I have the gift of
     Prophecy--and all knowledge--so that I could remove
     Mountains, and have not a Sense of Humor, I am nothing. And
     though I bestow all my Goods to feed the poor, and though I
     give my body to be burned, and have not a Sense of Humor it
     profiteth me nothing.

     "A sense of Humor suffereth long, and is kind. A Sense of
     Humor envieth not. A Sense of Humor vaunteth not itself--is
     not puffed up. Doth not behave itself Unseemly, seeketh not
     its own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil--Beareth
     all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things,
     endureth all things. A Sense of Humor never faileth. But
     whether there be unpleasant prophecies they shall fail,
     whether there be scolding tongues they shall cease, whether
     there be unfortunate knowledge it shall vanish away. When I
     was a fault-finding child I spake as a fault-finding child,
     I understood as a fault-finding child,--but when I became a
     woman I put away fault-finding things.

     "And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three. _But the
     greatest of these is a sense of humor!_"

With a little chuckle of amusement not altogether devoid of a very
definite consciousness of being _teased_, Stanton spread all the
articles out on the bed-spread before him and tried to piece them
together like the fragments of any other jig-saw puzzle. Was the young
lady as intellectual as the Robert Browning poems suggested, or did
she mean simply to imply that she _wished_ she were? And did the
tom-boyish sling-shot fit by any possible chance with the dainty,
feminine scrap of domestic embroidery? And was the empty purse
supposed to be especially significant of an inordinate fondness for
phonograph music--or what?

Pondering, puzzling, fretting, fussing, he dozed off to sleep at last
before he even knew that it was almost morning. And when he finally
woke again he found the Doctor laughing at him because he lay holding
a scarlet slipper in his hand.



IV


The next night, very, very late, in a furious riot of wind and snow
and sleet, a clerk from the drug-store just around the corner appeared
with a perfectly huge hot-water bottle fairly sizzling and bubbling
with warmth and relief for aching rheumatic backs.

"Well, where in thunder--?" groaned Stanton out of his cold and pain
and misery.

"Search me!" said the drug clerk. "The order and the money for it came
in the last mail this evening. 'Kindly deliver largest-sized hot-water
bottle, boiling hot, to Mr. Carl Stanton,... 11.30 to-night.'"

"OO-w!" gasped Stanton. "O-u-c-h! G-e-e!" then, "Oh, I wish I could
purr!" as he settled cautiously back at last to toast his pains
against the blessed, scorching heat. "Most girls," he reasoned with
surprising interest, "would have sent ice cold violets shrouded in
tissue paper. Now, how does this special girl know--Oh, Ouch! O-u-c-h!
O-u-c-h--i--t--y!" he crooned himself to sleep.

The next night just at supper-time a much-freckled messenger-boy
appeared dragging an exceedingly obstreperous fox-terrier on the end
of a dangerously frayed leash. Planting himself firmly on the rug in
the middle of the room, with the faintest gleam of saucy pink tongue
showing between his teeth, the little beast sat and defied the entire
situation. Nothing apparently but the correspondence concerning the
situation was actually transferable from the freckled messenger boy to
Stanton himself.

     "Oh, dear Lad," said the tiny note, "I forgot to tell you my
     real name, didn't I!--Well, my last name and the dog's first
     name are just the same. Funny, isn't it? (You'll find it in
     the back of almost any dictionary.)

     "With love,

     "MOLLY.

     "P. S. Just turn the puppy out in the morning and he'll go
     home all right of his own accord."

With his own pink tongue showing just a trifle between his teeth,
Stanton lay for a moment and watched the dog on the rug. Cocking his
small, keen, white head from one tippy angle to another, the little
terrier returned the stare with an expression that was altogether and
unmistakably mirthful. "Oh, it's a jolly little beggar, isn't it?"
said Stanton. "Come here, sir!" Only a suddenly pointed ear
acknowledged the summons. The dog himself did not budge. "Come here, I
say!" Stanton repeated with harsh peremptoriness. Palpably the
little dog winked at him. Then in succession the little dog dodged
adroitly a knife, a spoon, a copy of Browning's poems, and several
other sizable articles from the table close to Stanton's elbow.
Nothing but the dictionary seemed too big to throw. Finally with a
grin that could not be disguised even from the dog, Stanton began to
rummage with eye and hand through the intricate back pages of the
dictionary.

[Illustration: A much-freckled messenger-boy appeared dragging an
exceedingly obstreperous fox-terrier]

"You silly little fool," he said. "Won't you mind unless you are
spoken to by name?"

"Aaron--Abidel--Abel--Abiathar--" he began to read out with petulant
curiosity, "Baldwin--Barachias--Bruno (Oh, hang!) Cadwallader--Cæsar--Caleb
(What nonsense!) Ephraim--Erasmus (How could a girl be named anything like
that!) Gabriel--Gerard--Gershom (Imagine whistling a dog to the name of
Gershom!) Hannibal--Hezekiah--Hosea (Oh, Hell!)" Stolidly with unheedful,
drooping ears the little fox-terrier resumed his seat on the rug.
"Ichabod--Jabez--Joab," Stanton's voice persisted, experimentally. By nine
o'clock, in all possible variations of accent and intonation, he had quite
completely exhausted the alphabetical list as far as "K." and the little
dog was blinking himself to sleep on the far side of the room. Something
about the dog's nodding contentment started Stanton's mouth to yawning and
for almost an hour he lay in the lovely, restful consciousness of being at
least half asleep. But at ten o'clock he roused up sharply and resumed the
task at hand, which seemed suddenly to have assumed really vital
importance. "Laban--Lorenzo--Marcellus," he began again in a loud, clear,
compelling voice. "Meredith--" (Did the little dog stir? Did he sit up?)
"Meredith? Meredith?" The little dog barked. Something in Stanton's brain
flashed. "It is 'Merry' for the dog?" he quizzed. "Here, MERRY!" In another
instant the little creature had leaped upon the foot of his bed, and was
talking away at a great rate with all sorts of ecstatic grunts and growls.
Stanton's hand went out almost shyly to the dog's head. "So it's 'Molly
Meredith'," he mused. But after all there was no reason to be shy about it.
It was the _dog's_ head he was stroking.

Tied to the little dog's collar when he went home the next morning was
a tiny, inconspicuous tag that said "That was easy! The pup's
name--and yours--is 'Meredith.' Funny name for a dog but nice for a
girl."

The Serial-Letter Co.'s answers were always prompt, even though
perplexing.

     "DEAR LAD," came this special answer. "You are quite right
     about the dog. And I compliment you heartily on your
     shrewdness. But I must confess,--even though it makes you
     very angry with me, that I have deceived you absolutely
     concerning my own name. Will you forgive me utterly if I
     hereby promise never to deceive you again? Why what could I
     possibly, possibly do with a great solemn name like
     'Meredith'? My truly name, Sir, my really, truly,
     honest-injun name is 'Molly Make-Believe'. Don't you know
     the funny little old song about 'Molly Make-Believe'? Oh,
     surely you do:

    "'Molly, Molly Make-Believe,
    Keep to your play if you would not grieve!
    For Molly-Mine here's a hint for you,
    Things that are true are apt to be blue!'

     "Now you remember it, don't you? Then there's something
     about

    "'Molly, Molly Make-a-Smile,
    Wear it, swear it all the while.
    Long as your lips are framed for a joke,
    Who can prove that your heart is broke?'

     "Don't you love that 'is broke'! Then there's the last
     verse--my favorite:

    "'Molly, Molly Make-a-Beau,
    Make him of mist or make him of snow,
    Long as your DREAM stays fine and fair,
    _Molly, Molly what do you care!_'"

"Well, I'll wager that her name _is_ 'Meredith' just the same," vowed
Stanton, "and she's probably madder than scat to think that I hit it
right."

Whether the daily overtures from the Serial-Letter Co. proved to be
dogs or love-letters or hot-water bottles or funny old songs, it was
reasonably evident that something unique was practically guaranteed to
happen every single, individual night of the six weeks' subscription
contract. Like a youngster's joyous dream of chronic Christmas Eves,
this realization alone was enough to put an absurdly delicious thrill
of expectancy into any invalid's otherwise prosy thoughts.

Yet the next bit of attention from the Serial-Letter Co. did not
please Stanton one half as much as it embarrassed him.

Wandering socially into the room from his own apartments below, a
young lawyer friend of Stanton's had only just seated himself on the
foot of Stanton's bed when an expressman also arrived with two large
pasteboard hat-boxes which he straightway dumped on the bed between
the two men with the laconic message that he would call for them again
in the morning.

"Heaven preserve me!" gasped Stanton. "What is this?"

Fearsomely out of the smaller of the two boxes he lifted with much
rustling snarl of tissue paper a woman's brown fur-hat,--very soft,
very fluffy, inordinately jaunty with a blush-pink rose nestling deep
in the fur. Out of the other box, twice as large, twice as rustly,
flaunted a green velvet cavalier's hat, with a green ostrich feather
as long as a man's arm drooping languidly off the brim.

"Holy Cat!" said Stanton.

Pinned to the green hat's crown was a tiny note. The handwriting at
least was pleasantly familiar by this time.

"Oh, I say!" cried the lawyer delightedly.

With a desperately painful effort at nonchalance, Stanton shoved his
right fist into the brown hat and his left fist into the green one,
and raised them quizzically from the bed.

"Darned--good-looking--hats," he stammered.

"Oh, I say!" repeated the lawyer with accumulative delight.

Crimson to the tip of his ears, Stanton rolled his eyes frantically
towards the little note.

"She sent 'em up just to show 'em to me," he quoted wildly. "Just
'cause I'm laid up so and can't get out on the streets to see the
styles for myself.--And I've got to choose between them for her!" he
ejaculated. "She says she can't decide alone which one to keep!"

"Bully for her!" cried the lawyer, surprisingly, slapping his knee.
"The cunning little girl!"

Speechless with astonishment, Stanton lay and watched his visitor,
then "Well, which one would you choose?" he asked with unmistakable
relief.

The lawyer took the hats and scanned them carefully. "Let--me--see" he
considered. "Her hair is so blond--"

"No, it's red!" snapped Stanton.

With perfect courtesy the lawyer swallowed his mistake. "Oh, excuse
me," he said. "I forgot. But with her height--"

"She hasn't any height," groaned Stanton. "I tell you she's little."

"Choose to suit yourself," said the lawyer coolly. He himself had
admired Cornelia from afar off.

The next night, to Stanton's mixed feelings of relief and
disappointment the "surprise" seemed to consist in the fact that
nothing happened at all. Fully until midnight the sense of relief
comforted him utterly. But some time after midnight, his hungry mind,
like a house-pet robbed of an accustomed meal, began to wake and fret
and stalk around ferociously through all the long, empty, aching,
early morning hours, searching for something novel to think about.

By supper-time the next evening he was in an irritable mood that made
him fairly clutch the special delivery letter out of the postman's
hand. It was rather a thin, tantalizing little letter, too. All it
said was,

     "To-night, Dearest, until one o'clock, in a cabbage-colored
     gown all shimmery with green and blue and September
     frost-lights, I'm going to sit up by my white birch-wood
     fire and read aloud to you. Yes! Honest-Injun! And out of
     Browning, too. Did you notice your copy was marked? What
     shall I read to you? Shall it be

    "'If I could have that little head of hers
    Painted upon a background of pale gold.'

     "or

    'Shall I sonnet-sing you about myself?
    Do I live in a house you would like to see?'

     "or

    'I am a Painter who cannot paint,
    ----No end to all I cannot do.
    _Yet do one thing at least I can,
    Love a man, or hate a man!_'

     "or just

    'Escape me?
    Never,
    Beloved!
    While I am I, and you are you!'

     "Oh, Honey! Won't it be fun? Just you and I, perhaps, in all
     this Big City, sitting up and thinking about each other.
     Can you smell the white birch smoke in this letter?"

[Illustration: "Well I'll be hanged," growled Stanton, "if I'm going
to be strung by any boy!"]

Almost unconsciously Stanton raised the page to his face.
Unmistakably, up from the paper rose the strong, vivid scent--of a
briar-wood pipe.

"Well I'll be hanged," growled Stanton, "if I'm going to be strung by
any boy!" Out of all proportion the incident irritated him.

But when, the next evening, a perfectly tremendous bunch of yellow
jonquils arrived with a penciled line suggesting, "If you'll put these
solid gold posies in your window to-morrow morning at eight o'clock,
so I'll surely know just which window is yours, I'll look up--when I
go past," Stanton most peremptorily ordered the janitor to display the
bouquet as ornately as possible along the narrow window-sill of the
biggest window that faced the street. Then all through the night he
lay dozing and waking intermittently, with a lovely, scared feeling in
the pit of his stomach that something really rather exciting was about
to happen. By surely half-past seven he rose laboriously from his bed,
huddled himself into his black-sheep wrapper and settled himself down
as warmly as could be expected, close to the draughty edge of the
window.



V


"Little and lame and red-haired and brown-eyed," he kept repeating to
himself.

Old people and young people, cab-drivers and jaunty young girls, and
fat blue policeman, looked up, one and all with quick-brightening
faces at the really gorgeous Spring-like flame of jonquils, but in a
whole chilly, wearisome hour the only red-haired person that passed
was an Irish setter puppy, and the only lame person was a
wooden-legged beggar.

Cold and disgusted as he was, Stanton could not altogether help
laughing at his own discomfiture.

"Why--hang that little girl! She ought to be s-p-a-n-k-e-d," he
chuckled as he climbed back into his tiresome bed.

Then as though to reward his ultimate good-nature the very next mail
brought him a letter from Cornelia, and rather a remarkable letter
too, as in addition to the usual impersonal comments on the weather
and the tennis and the annual orange crop, there was actually one
whole, individual, intimate sentence that distinguished the letter as
having been intended solely for him rather than for Cornelia's
dressmaker or her coachman's invalid daughter, or her own youngest
brother. This was the sentence:

     "Really, Carl, you don't know how glad I am that in spite of
     all your foolish objections, I kept to my original purpose
     of not announcing my engagement until after my Southern
     trip. You've no idea what a big difference it makes in a
     girl's good time at a great hotel like this."

This sentence surely gave Stanton a good deal of food for his day's
thoughts, but the mental indigestion that ensued was not altogether
pleasant.

Not until evening did his mood brighten again. Then--

     "Lad of Mine," whispered Molly's gentler letter. "Lad of
     Mine, _how blond your hair is_!--Even across the
     chin-tickling tops of those yellow jonquils this morning, I
     almost laughed to see the blond, blond shine of you.--Some
     day I'm going to stroke that hair." (Yes!)

     "P. S. The Little Dog came home all right."

With a gasp of dismay Stanton sat up abruptly in bed and tried to
revisualize every single, individual pedestrian who had passed his
window in the vicinity of eight o'clock that morning. "She evidently
isn't lame at all," he argued, "or little, or red-haired, or anything.
Probably her name isn't Molly, and presumably it isn't even
'Meredith.' But at least she did go by: And is my hair so very
blond?" he asked himself suddenly. Against all intention his mouth
began to prance a little at the corners.

As soon as he could possibly summon the janitor, he despatched his
third note to the Serial-Letter Co., but this one bore a distinctly
sealed inner envelope, directed, "For Molly. Personal." And the
message in it, though brief was utterly to the point. "Couldn't you
_please_ tell a fellow who you are?"

But by the conventional bed-time hour the next night he wished most
heartily that he had not been so inquisitive, for the only
entertainment that came to him at all was a jonquil-colored telegram
warning him--

    "Where the apple reddens do not pry,
    Lest we lose our Eden--you and I."

The couplet was quite unfamiliar to Stanton, but it rhymed sickeningly
through his brain all night long like the consciousness of an
over-drawn bank account.

It was the very next morning after this that all the Boston papers
flaunted Cornelia's aristocratic young portrait on their front pages
with the striking, large-type announcement that "One of Boston's
Fairest Debutantes Makes a Daring Rescue in Florida waters. Hotel Cook
Capsized from Row Boat Owes His Life to the Pluck and Endurance--etc.,
etc."

With a great sob in his throat and every pulse pounding, Stanton lay
and read the infinite details of the really splendid story; a group of
young girls dallying on the Pier; a shrill cry from the bay; the
sudden panic-stricken helplessness of the spectators, and then with
equal suddenness the plunge of a single, feminine figure into the
water; the long hard swim; the furious struggle; the final victory.
Stingingly, as though it had been fairly branded into his eyes, he
saw the vision of Cornelia's heroic young face battling above the
horrible, dragging-down depths of the bay. The bravery, the risk, the
ghastly chances of a less fortunate ending, sent shiver after shiver
through his already tortured senses. All the loving thoughts in his
nature fairly leaped to do tribute to Cornelia. "Yes!" he reasoned,
"Cornelia was made like that! No matter what the cost to herself--no
matter what was the price--Cornelia would never, never fail to do her
_duty_!" When he thought of the weary, lagging, riskful weeks that
were still to ensue before he should actually see Cornelia again, he
felt as though he should go utterly mad. The letter that he wrote to
Cornelia that night was like a letter written in a man's own
heart-blood. His hand trembled so that he could scarcely hold the pen.

Cornelia did not like the letter. She said so frankly. The letter did
not seem to her quite "nice." "Certainly," she attested, "it was not
exactly the sort of letter that one would like to show one's mother."
Then, in a palpably conscientious effort to be kind as well as just,
she began to prattle inkily again about the pleasant, warm, sunny
weather. Her only comment on saving the drowning man was the mere
phrase that she was very glad that she had learned to be a good
swimmer. Never indeed since her absence had she spoken of missing
Stanton. Not even now, after what was inevitably a heart-racking
adventure, did she yield her lover one single iota of the information
which he had a lover's right to claim. Had she been frightened, for
instance--way down in the bottom of that serene heart of hers had she
been frightened? In the ensuing desperate struggle for life had she
struggled just one little tiny bit harder because Stanton was in that
life? Now, in the dreadful, unstrung reaction of the adventure, did
her whole nature waken and yearn and cry out for that one heart in all
the world that belonged to her? Plainly, by her silence in the matter,
she did not intend to share anything as intimate even as her fear of
death with the man whom she claimed to love.

It was just this last touch of deliberate, selfish aloofness that
startled Stanton's thoughts with the one persistent, brutally nagging
question: After all, was a woman's undeniably glorious ability to save
a drowning man the supreme, requisite of a happy marriage?

Day by day, night by night, hour by hour, minute by minute, the
question began to dig into Stanton's brain, throwing much dust and
confusion into brain-corners otherwise perfectly orderly and sweet and
clean.

Week by week, grown suddenly and morbidly analytical, he watched for
Cornelia's letters with increasingly passionate hopefulness, and met
each fresh disappointment with increasingly passionate resentment.
Except for the Serial-Letter Co.'s ingeniously varied attentions there
was practically nothing to help him make either day or night bearable.
More and more Cornelia's infrequent letters suggested exquisitely
painted empty dishes offered to a starving person. More and more
"Molly's" whimsical messages fed him and nourished him and joyously
pleased him like some nonsensically fashioned candy-box that yet
proved brimming full of real food for a real man. Fight as he would
against it, he began to cherish a sense of furious annoyance that
Cornelia's failure to provide for him had so thrust him out, as it
were, to feed among strangers. With frowning perplexity and real
worry he felt the tingling, vivid consciousness of Molly's personality
begin to permeate and impregnate his whole nature. Yet when he tried
to acknowledge and thereby cancel his personal sense of obligation to
this "Molly" by writing an exceptionally civil note of appreciation to
the Serial-Letter Co., the Serial-Letter Co. answered him tersely--

"Pray do not thank us for the jonquils,--blanket-wrapper, etc., etc.
Surely they are merely presents from yourself to yourself. It is your
money that bought them."

And when he had replied briefly, "Well, thank you for your brains,
then!" the "company" had persisted with undue sharpness, "Don't thank
us for our brains. Brains are our business."



VI


It was one day just about the end of the fifth week that poor
Stanton's long-accumulated, long-suppressed perplexity blew up noisily
just like any other kind of steam.

It was the first day, too, throughout all his illness that he had made
even the slightest pretext of being up and about. Slippered if not
booted, blanket-wrappered if not coated, shaven at least, if not
shorn, he had established himself fairly comfortably, late in the
afternoon, at his big study-table close to the fire, where, in his low
Morris chair, with his books and his papers and his lamp close at
hand, he had started out once more to try and solve the absurd little
problem that confronted him. Only an occasional twitch of pain in his
shoulder-blade, or an intermittent shudder of nerves along his spine
had interrupted in any possible way his almost frenzied absorption in
his subject.

Here at the desk very soon after supper-time the Doctor had joined
him, and with an unusual expression of leisure and friendliness had
settled down lollingly on the other side of the fireplace with his
great square-toed shoes nudging the bright, brassy edge of the fender,
and his big meerschaum pipe puffing the whole bleak room most
deliciously, tantalizingly full of forbidden tobacco smoke. It was a
comfortable, warm place to chat. The talk had begun with politics,
drifted a little way toward the architecture of several new city
buildings, hovered a moment over the marriage of some mutual friend,
and then languished utterly.

With a sudden narrowing-eyed shrewdness the Doctor turned and watched
an unwonted flicker of worry on Stanton's forehead.

"What's bothering you, Stanton?" he asked, quickly. "Surely you're not
worrying any more about your rheumatism?"

"No," said Stanton. "It--isn't--rheumatism."

For an instant the two men's eyes held each other, and then Stanton
began to laugh a trifle uneasily.

"Doctor," he asked quite abruptly, "Doctor, do you believe that any
possible conditions could exist--that would make it justifiable for a
man to show a woman's love-letter to another man?"

"Why--y-e-s," said the Doctor cautiously, "I think so. There might
be--circumstances--"

Still without any perceptible cause, Stanton laughed again, and
reaching out, picked up a folded sheet of paper from the table and
handed it to the Doctor.

"Read that, will you?" he asked. "And read it out loud."

With a slight protest of diffidence, the Doctor unfolded the paper,
scanned the page for an instant, and began slowly.

     "Carl of Mine.

     "There's one thing I forgot to tell you. When you go to buy
     my engagement ring--I don't want any! No! I'd rather have
     two wedding-rings instead--two perfectly plain gold
     wedding-rings. And the ring for my passive left hand I want
     inscribed, 'To Be a Sweetness More Desired than Spring!' and
     the ring for my active right hand I want inscribed, 'His
     Soul to Keep!' Just that.

     "And you needn't bother to write me that you don't
     understand, because you are not expected to understand. It
     is not Man's prerogative to understand. But you are
     perfectly welcome if you want, to call me crazy, because I
     am--utterly crazy on just one subject, and _that's you_.
     Why, Beloved, if--"

"Here!" cried Stanton suddenly reaching out and grabbing the letter.
"Here! You needn't read any more!" His cheeks were crimson.

The Doctor's eyes focused sharply on his face. "That girl loves you,"
said the Doctor tersely. For a moment then the Doctor's lips puffed
silently at his pipe, until at last with an almost bashful gesture, he
cried out abruptly: "Stanton, somehow I feel as though I owed you an
apology, or rather, owed your fiancée one. Somehow when you told me
that day that your young lady had gone gadding off to Florida
and--left you alone with your sickness, why I thought--well, most
evidently I have misjudged her."

Stanton's throat gave a little gasp, then silenced again. He bit his
lips furiously as though to hold back an exclamation. Then suddenly
the whole perplexing truth burst forth from him.

"That isn't from my fiancée!" he cried out. "That's just a
professional love-letter. I buy them by the dozen,--so much a week."
Reaching back under his pillow he extricated another letter. "_This_
is from my fiancée," he said. "Read it. Yes, do."

"Aloud?" gasped the Doctor.

Stanton nodded. His forehead was wet with sweat.

     "DEAR CARL,

     "The weather is still very warm. I am riding horseback
     almost every morning, however, and playing tennis almost
     every afternoon. There seem to be an exceptionally large
     number of interesting people here this winter. In regard to
     the list of names you sent me for the wedding, really, Carl,
     I do not see how I can possibly accommodate so many of your
     friends without seriously curtailing my own list. After all
     you must remember that it is the bride's day, not the
     groom's. And in regard to your question as to whether we
     expect to be home for Christmas and could I possibly arrange
     to spend Christmas Day with you--why, Carl, you are
     perfectly preposterous! Of course it is very kind of you to
     invite me and all that, but how could mother and I possibly
     come to your rooms when our engagement is not even
     announced? And besides there is going to be a very smart
     dance here Christmas Eve that I particularly wish to attend.
     And there are plenty of Christmases coming for you and me.

     "Cordially yours,

     "CORNELIA.

     "P. S. Mother and I hope that your rheumatism is much
     better."

"That's the girl who loves me," said Stanton not unhumorously. Then
suddenly all the muscles around his mouth tightened like the facial
muscles of a man who is hammering something. "I mean it!" he insisted.
"I mean it--absolutely. That's the--girl--who--loves--me!"

Silently the two men looked at each other for a second. Then they
both burst out laughing.

"Oh, yes," said Stanton at last, "I know it's funny. That's just the
trouble with it. It's altogether too funny."

Out of a book on the table beside him he drew the thin gray and
crimson circular of The Serial-Letter Co. and handed it to the Doctor.
Then after a moment's rummaging around on the floor beside him, he
produced with some difficulty a long, pasteboard box fairly bulging
with papers and things.

"These are the--communications from my make-believe girl," he
confessed grinningly. "Oh, of course they're not all letters," he
hurried to explain. "Here's a book on South America.--I'm a rubber
broker, you know, and of course I've always been keen enough about the
New England end of my job, but I've never thought anything so very
special about the South American end of it. But that girl--that
make-believe girl, I mean--insists that I ought to know all about
South America, so she sent me this book; and it's corking reading,
too--all about funny things like eating monkeys and parrots and
toasted guinea-pigs--and sleeping outdoors in black jungle-nights
under mosquito netting, mind you, as a protection against prowling
panthers.--And here's a queer little newspaper cutting that she sent
me one blizzardy Sunday telling all about some big violin maker who
always went out into the forests himself and chose his violin woods
from the _north_ side of the trees. Casual little item. You don't
think anything about it at the moment. It probably isn't true. And to
save your soul you couldn't tell what kind of trees violins are made
out of, anyway. But I'll wager that never again will you wake in the
night to listen to the wind without thinking of the great
storm-tossed, moaning, groaning, slow-toughening forest
trees--learning to be violins!... And here's a funny little old silver
porringer that she gave me, she says, to make my 'old gray gruel taste
shinier.' And down at the bottom of the bowl--the ruthless little
pirate--she's taken a knife or a pin or something and scratched the
words, 'Excellent Child!'--But you know I never noticed that part of
it at all till last week. You see I've only been eating down to the
bottom of the bowl just about a week.--And here's a catalogue of a
boy's school, four or five catalogues in fact that she sent me one
evening and asked me if I please wouldn't look them over right away
and help her decide where to send her little brother. Why, man, it
took me almost all night! If you get the athletics you want in one
school, then likelier than not you slip up on the manual training,
and if they're going to schedule eight hours a week for Latin, why
where in Creation--?"

Shrugging his shoulders as though to shrug aside absolutely any
possible further responsibility concerning, "little brother," Stanton
began to dig down deeper into the box. Then suddenly all the grin came
back to his face.

"And here are some sample wall papers that she sent me for 'our
house'," he confided, flushing. "What do you think of that bronze one
there with the peacock feathers?--say, old man, think of a
library--and a cannel coal fire--and a big mahogany desk--and a
red-haired girl sitting against that paper! And this sun-shiny tint
for a breakfast-room isn't half bad, is it?--Oh yes, and here are the
time-tables, and all the pink and blue maps about Colorado and Arizona
and the 'Painted Desert'. If we can 'afford it,' she writes, she
'wishes we could go to the Painted Desert on our wedding trip.'--But
really, old man, you know it isn't such a frightfully expensive
journey. Why if you leave New York on Wednesday--Oh, hang it all!
What's the use of showing you any more of this nonsense?" he finished
abruptly.

With brutal haste he started cramming everything back into place. "It
is nothing but nonsense!" he acknowledged conscientiously; "nothing in
the world except a boxful of make-believe thoughts from a make-believe
girl. And here," he finished resolutely, "are my own fiancée's
thoughts--concerning me."

Out of his blanket-wrapper pocket he produced and spread out before
the Doctor's eyes five thin letters and a postal-card.

"Not exactly thoughts concerning _you_, even so, are they?" quizzed
the Doctor.

Stanton began to grin again. "Well, thoughts concerning the weather,
then--if that suits you any better."

Twice the Doctor swallowed audibly. Then, "But it's hardly fair--is
it--to weigh a boxful of even the prettiest lies against five of even
the slimmest real, true letters?" he asked drily.

"But they're not lies!" snapped Stanton. "Surely you don't call
anything a lie unless not only the fact is false, but the fancy, also,
is maliciously distorted! Now take this case right before us. Suppose
there isn't any 'little brother' at all; suppose there isn't any
'Painted Desert', suppose there isn't any 'black sheep up on a
grandfather's farm', suppose there isn't _anything_; suppose, I say,
that every single, individual fact stated is _false_--what earthly
difference does it make so long as the _fancy_ still remains the
truest, realest, dearest, funniest thing that ever happened to a
fellow in his life?"

"Oh, ho!" said the Doctor. "So that's the trouble is it! It isn't just
rheumatism that's keeping you thin and worried looking, eh? It's only
that you find yourself suddenly in the embarrassing predicament of
being engaged to one girl and--in love with another?"

"N--o!" cried Stanton frantically. "N--O! That's the mischief of
it--the very mischief! I don't even know that the Serial-Letter Co.
_is_ a girl. Why it might be an old lady, rather whimsically inclined.
Even the oldest lady, I presume, might very reasonably perfume her
note-paper with cinnamon roses. It might even be a boy. One letter
indeed smelt very strongly of being a boy--and mighty good tobacco,
too! And great heavens! what have I got to prove that it isn't even an
old man--some poor old worn out story-writer trying to ease out the
ragged end of his years?"

[Illustration: Some poor old worn-out story-writer]

"Have you told your fiancée about it?" asked the Doctor.

Stanton's jaw dropped. "Have I told my fiancée about it?" he mocked.
"Why it was she who sent me the circular in the first place! But,
'tell her about it'? Why, man, in ten thousand years, and then some,
how could I make any sane person understand?"

"You're beginning to make me understand," confessed the Doctor.

"Then you're no longer sane," scoffed Stanton. "The crazy magic of it
has surely then taken possession of you too. Why how could I go to any
sane person like Cornelia--and Cornelia is the most absolutely,
hopelessly sane person you ever saw in your life--how could I go to
anyone like that, and announce: 'Cornelia, if you find any perplexing
change in me during your absence--and your unconscious neglect--it is
only that I have fallen quite madly in love with a person'--would you
call it a person?--who doesn't even exist. Therefore for the sake of
this 'person who doesn't exist', I ask to be released."

"Oh! So you do ask to be released?" interrupted the Doctor.

"Why, no! Certainly not!" insisted Stanton. "Suppose the girl you love
does hurt your feelings a little bit now and then, would any man go
ahead and give up a real flesh-and-blood sweetheart for the sake of
even the most wonderful paper-and-ink girl whom he was reading about
in an unfinished serial story? Would he, I say--would he?"

"Y-e-s," said the Doctor soberly. "Y-e-s, I think he would, if what
you call the 'paper-and-ink girl' suggested suddenly an entirely new,
undreamed-of vista of emotional and spiritual satisfaction."

"But I tell you 'she's' probably a BOY!" persisted Stanton doggedly.

"Well, why don't you go ahead and find out?" quizzed the Doctor.

"Find out?" cried Stanton hotly. "Find out? I'd like to know how
anybody is going to find out, when the only given address is a private
post-office box, and as far as I know there's no sex to a post-office
box. Find out? Why, man, that basket over there is full of my letters
returned to me because I tried to 'find out'. The first time I asked,
they answered me with just a teasing, snubbing telegram, but ever
since then they've simply sent back my questions with a stern printed
slip announcing, "Your letter of ---- is hereby returned to you.
Kindly allow us to call your attention to the fact that we are not
running a correspondence bureau. Our circular distinctly states,
etc."

"Sent you a printed slip?" cried the Doctor scoffingly. "The
love-letter business must be thriving. Very evidently you are by no
means the only importunate subscriber."

"Oh, Thunder!" growled Stanton. The idea seemed to be new to him and
not altogether to his taste. Then suddenly his face began to brighten.
"No, I'm lying," he said. "No, they haven't always sent me a printed
slip. It was only yesterday that they sent me a rather real sort of
letter. You see," he explained, "I got pretty mad at last and I wrote
them frankly and told them that I didn't give a darn who 'Molly' was,
but simply wanted to know _what_ she was. I told them that it was just
gratitude on my part, the most formal, impersonal sort of gratitude--a
perfectly plausible desire to say 'thank you' to some one who had
been awfully decent to me these past few weeks. I said right out that
if 'she' was a boy, why we'd surely have to go fishing together in the
spring, and if 'she' was an old man, the very least I could do would
be to endow her with tobacco, and if 'she' was an old lady, why I'd
simply be obliged to drop in now and then of a rainy evening and hold
her knitting for her."

"And if 'she' were a girl?" probed the Doctor.

Stanton's mouth began to twitch. "Then Heaven help me!" he laughed.

"Well, what answer did you get?" persisted the Doctor. "What do you
call a realish sort of letter?"

With palpable reluctance Stanton drew a gray envelope out of the cuff
of his wrapper.

"I suppose you might as well see the whole business," he admitted
consciously.

There was no special diffidence in the Doctor's manner this time. His
clutch on the letter was distinctly inquisitive, and he read out the
opening sentences with almost rhetorical effect.

     "Oh, Carl dear, you silly boy, WHY do you persist in
     hectoring me so? Don't you understand that I've got only a
     certain amount of ingenuity anyway, and if you force me to
     use it all in trying to conceal my identity from you, how
     much shall I possibly have left to devise schemes for your
     amusement? Why do you persist, for instance, in wanting to
     see my face? Maybe I haven't got any face! Maybe I lost my
     face in a railroad accident. How do you suppose it would
     make me feel, then, to have you keep teasing and
     teasing.--Oh, Carl!

     "Isn't it enough for me just to tell you once for all that
     there is an insuperable obstacle in the way of our ever
     meeting. Maybe I've got a husband who is cruel to me. Maybe,
     biggest obstacle of all, I've got a husband whom I am
     utterly devoted to. Maybe, instead of any of these things,
     I'm a poor, old wizened-up, Shut-In, tossing day and night
     on a very small bed of very big pain. Maybe worse than being
     sick I'm starving poor, and maybe, worse than being sick or
     poor, I am most horribly tired of myself. Of course if you
     are very young and very prancy and reasonably good-looking,
     and still are tired of yourself, you can almost always rest
     yourself by going on the stage where--with a little rouge
     and a different colored wig, and a new nose, and skirts
     instead of trousers, or trousers instead of skirts, and age
     instead of youth, and badness instead of goodness--you can
     give your ego a perfectly limitless number of happy
     holidays. But if you were oldish, I say, and pitifully 'shut
     in', just how would you go to work, I wonder, to rest your
     personality? How for instance could you take your biggest,
     grayest, oldest worry about your doctor's bill, and rouge it
     up into a radiant, young joke? And how, for instance, out of
     your lonely, dreary, middle-aged orphanhood are you going to
     find a way to short-skirt your rheumatic pains, and braid
     into two perfectly huge pink-bowed pigtails the hair that
     you _haven't got_, and caper round so ecstatically before
     the foot-lights that the old gentleman and lady in the front
     seat absolutely swear you to be the living image of their
     'long lost Amy'? And how, if the farthest journey you ever
     will take again is the monotonous hand-journey from your
     pillow to your medicine bottle, then how, for instance, with
     map or tinsel or attar of roses, can you go to work to solve
     even just for your own satisfaction the romantic, shimmering
     secrets of--Morocco?

     "Ah! You've got me now, you think? All decided in your mind
     that I am an aged invalid? I didn't say so. I just said
     'maybe'. Likelier than not I've saved my climax for its
     proper place. How do you know,--for instance, that I'm not
     a--'Cullud Pusson'?--So many people are."

Without signature of any sort, the letter ended abruptly then and
there, and as though to satisfy his sense of something left
unfinished, the Doctor began at the beginning and read it all over
again in a mumbling, husky whisper.

"Maybe she is--'colored'," he volunteered at last.

"Very likely," said Stanton perfectly cheerfully. "It's just those
occasional humorous suggestions that keep me keyed so heroically up to
the point where I'm actually infuriated if you even suggest that I
might be getting really interested in this mysterious Miss Molly! You
haven't said a single sentimental thing about her that I haven't
scoffed at--now have you?"

"N--o," acknowledged the Doctor. "I can see that you've covered your
retreat all right. Even if the author of these letters should turn out
to be a one-legged veteran of the War of 1812, you still could say, 'I
told you so'. But all the same, I'll wager that you'd gladly give a
hundred dollars, cash down, if you could only go ahead and prove the
little girl's actual existence."

Stanton's shoulders squared suddenly but his mouth retained at least a
faint vestige of its original smile.

"You mistake the situation entirely," he said. "It's the little girl's
non-existence that I am most anxious to prove."

Then utterly without reproach or interference, he reached over and
grabbed a forbidden cigar from the Doctor's cigar case, and lighted
it, and retreated as far as possible into the gray film of smoke.

It was minutes and minutes before either man spoke again. Then at last
after much crossing and re-crossing of his knees the Doctor asked
drawlingly, "And when is it that you and Cornelia are planning to be
married?"

"Next April," said Stanton briefly.

"U--m--m," said the Doctor. After a few more minutes he said,
"U--m--m," again.

[Illustration: "Maybe she is--'colored,'" he volunteered at last]

The second "U--m--m" seemed to irritate Stanton unduly. "Is it your
head that's spinning round?" he asked tersely. "You sound like a Dutch
top!"

The Doctor raised his hands cautiously to his forehead. "Your story
does make me feel a little bit giddy," he acknowledged. Then with
sudden intensity, "Stanton, you're playing a dangerous game for an
engaged man. Cut it out, I say!"

"Cut what out?" said Stanton stubbornly.

The Doctor pointed exasperatedly towards the big box of letters. "Cut
those out," he said. "A sentimental correspondence with a girl
who's--more interesting than your fiancée!"

"W-h-e-w!" growled Stanton, "I'll hardly stand for that statement."

"Well, then lie down for it," taunted the Doctor. "Keep right on being
sick and worried and--." Peremptorily he reached out both hands
towards the box. "Here!" he insisted. "Let's dump the whole
mischievous nonsense into the fire and burn it up!"

With an "Ouch," of pain Stanton knocked the Doctor's hands away. "Burn
up my letters?" he laughed. "Well, I guess not! I wouldn't even burn
up the wall papers. I've had altogether too much fun out of them. And
as for the books, the Browning, etc.--why hang it all, I've gotten
awfully fond of those books!" Idly he picked up the South American
volume and opened the fly-leaf for the Doctor to see. "Carl from his
Molly," it said quite distinctly.

"Oh, yes," mumbled the Doctor. "It looks very pleasant. There's absolutely
no denying that it looks very pleasant. And some day--out of an old trunk,
or tucked down behind your library encyclopedias--your wife will discover
the book and ask blandly, 'Who was Molly? I don't remember your ever saying
anything about a "Molly".--Just someone you used to know?' And your answer
will be innocent enough: 'No, dear, _someone whom I never knew_!' But how
about the pucker along your spine, and the awfully foolish, grinny feeling
around your cheek-bones? And on the street and in the cars and at the
theaters you'll always and forever be looking and searching, and asking
yourself, 'Is it by any chance possible that this girl sitting next to me
now--?' And your wife will keep saying, with just a barely perceptible edge
in her voice, 'Carl, do you know that red-haired girl whom we just passed?
You stared at her so!' And you'll say, 'Oh, no! I was merely wondering
if--' Oh yes, you'll always and forever be 'wondering if'. And mark my
words, Stanton, people who go about the world with even the most innocent
chronic question in their eyes, are pretty apt to run up against an
unfortunately large number of wrong answers."

"But you take it all so horribly seriously," protested Stanton. "Why
you rave and rant about it as though it was actually my affections
that were involved!"

"Your affections?" cried the Doctor in great exasperation. "Your
affections? Why, man, if it was only your affections, do you suppose I'd
be wasting even so much as half a minute's worry on you? But it's your
_imagination_ that's involved. That's where the blooming mischief lies.
Affection is all right. Affection is nothing but a nice, safe flame that
feeds only on one special kind of fuel,--its own particular object.
You've got an 'affection' for Cornelia, and wherever Cornelia fails to
feed that affection it is mercifully ordained that the starved flame
shall go out into cold gray ashes without making any further trouble
whatsoever. But you've got an 'imagination' for this make-believe
girl--heaven help you!--and an 'imagination' is a great, wild, seething,
insatiate tongue of fire that, thwarted once and for all in its original
desire to gorge itself with realities, will turn upon you body and soul,
and lick up your crackling fancy like so much kindling wood--and sear
your common sense, and scorch your young wife's happiness. Nothing but
Cornelia herself will ever make you want--Cornelia. But the other girl,
the unknown girl--why she's the face in the clouds, she's the voice in
the sea; she's the glow of the sunset; she's the hush of the June
twilight! Every summer breeze, every winter gale, will fan the embers!
Every thumping, twittering, twanging pulse of an orchestra, every--. Oh,
Stanton, I say, it isn't the ghost of the things that are dead that will
ever come between you and Cornelia. There never yet was the ghost of any
lost thing that couldn't be tamed into a purring household pet.
But--the--ghost--of--a--thing--that--you've--never--yet--found? _That_,
I tell you, is a very different matter!"

Pounding at his heart, and blazing in his cheeks, the insidious
argument, the subtle justification, that had been teeming in Stanton's
veins all the week, burst suddenly into speech.

"But I gave Cornelia the _chance_ to be 'all the world' to me," he
protested doggedly, "and she didn't seem to care a hang about it!
Great Scott, man! Are you going to call a fellow unfaithful because
he hikes off into a corner now and then and reads a bit of Browning,
for instance, all to himself--or wanders out on the piazza some night
all sole alone to stare at the stars that happen to bore his wife to
extinction?"

"But you'll never be able to read Browning again 'all by yourself',"
taunted the Doctor. "Whether you buy it fresh from the presses or
borrow it stale and old from a public library, you'll never find
another copy as long as you live that doesn't smell of cinnamon roses.
And as to 'star-gazing' or any other weird thing that your wife
doesn't care for--you'll never go out alone any more into dawns or
darknesses without the very tingling conscious presence of a wonder
whether the 'other girl' _would_ have cared for it!"

"Oh, shucks!" said Stanton. Then, suddenly his forehead puckered up.
"Of course I've got a worry," he acknowledged frankly. "Any fellow's
got a worry who finds himself engaged to be married to a girl who
isn't keen enough about it to want to be all the world to him. But I
don't know that even the most worried fellow has any real cause to be
scared, as long as the girl in question still remains the only
flesh-and-blood girl on the face of the earth whom he wishes _did_
like him well enough to want to be 'all the world' to him."

"The only 'flesh-and-blood' girl?" scoffed the Doctor. "Oh, you're all
right, Stanton. I like you and all that. But I'm mighty glad just the
same that it isn't my daughter whom you're going to marry, with all
this 'Molly Make-Believe' nonsense lurking in the background. Cut it
out, Stanton, I say. Cut it out!"

"Cut it out?" mused Stanton somewhat distrait. "Cut it out? What!
Molly Make-Believe?"

Under the quick jerk of his knees the big box of letters and papers
and things brimmed over in rustling froth across the whole surface of
the table. Just for a second the muscles in his throat tightened a
trifle. Then, suddenly he burst out laughing--wildly, uproariously,
like an excited boy.

"Cut it out?" he cried. "But it's such a joke! Can't you see that it's
nothing in the world except a perfectly delicious, perfectly
intangible joke?"

"U--m--m," reiterated the Doctor.

In the very midst of his reiteration, there came a sharp rap at the
door, and in answer to Stanton's cheerful permission to enter, the
so-called "delicious, intangible joke" manifested itself abruptly in
the person of a rather small feminine figure very heavily muffled up
in a great black cloak, and a rose-colored veil that shrouded her nose
and chin bluntly like the nose and chin of a face only half hewed out
as yet from a block of pink granite.

"It's only Molly," explained an undeniably sweet little alto voice.
"Am I interrupting you?"



VII


Jumping to his feet, the Doctor stood staring wildly from Stanton's
amazed face to the perfectly calm, perfectly accustomed air of poise
that characterized every movement of the pink-shrouded visitor. The
amazement in fact never wavered for a second from Stanton's blush-red
visage, nor the supreme serenity from the lady's whole attitude. But
across the Doctor's startled features a fearful, outraged
consciousness of having been deceived, warred mightily with a
consciousness of unutterable mirth.

Advancing toward the fireplace with a rather slow-footed, hesitating
gait, the little visitor's attention focused suddenly on the cluttered
table and she cried out with unmistakable delight. "Why, what are you
people doing with all my letters and things?"

Then climbing up on the sturdy brass fender, she thrust her pink,
impenetrable features right into the scared, pallid face of the shabby
old clock and announced pointedly, "It's almost half-past seven. And I
can stay till just eight o'clock!"

When she turned around again the Doctor was gone.

With a tiny shrug of her shoulders, she settled herself down then in a
big, high-backed chair before the fire and stretched out her overshoed
toes to the shining edge of the fender. As far as any apparent
self-consciousness was concerned, she might just as well have been all
alone in the room.

Convulsed with amusement, yet almost paralyzed by a certain stubborn,
dumb sort of embarrassment, nothing on earth could have forced
Stanton into making even an indefinite speech to the girl until she
had made at least one perfectly definite and reasonably illuminating
sort of speech to him. Biting his grinning lips into as straight a
line as possible, he gathered up the scattered pages of the evening
paper and attacked them furiously with scowling eyes.

After a really dreadful interim of silence, the mysterious little
visitor rose in a gloomy, discouraged kind of way, and climbing up
again on the narrow brass fender, peered once more into the face of
the clock.

"It's twenty minutes of eight, now," she announced. Into her voice
crept for the first time the faintest perceptible suggestion of a
tremor. "It's twenty minutes of eight--now--and I've got to leave here
exactly at eight. Twenty minutes is a rather--a rather stingy little
bit out of a whole--lifetime," she added falteringly.

Then, and then only did Stanton's nervousness break forth suddenly
into one wild, uproarious laugh that seemed to light up the whole
dark, ominous room as though the gray, sulky, smoldering hearth-fire
itself had exploded into iridescent flame. Chasing close behind the
musical contagion of his deep guffaws followed the softer, gentler
giggle of the dainty pink-veiled lady.

By the time they had both finished laughing it was fully quarter of
eight.

"But you see it was just this way," explained the pleasant little
voice--all alto notes again. Cautiously a slim, unringed hand burrowed
out from the somber folds of the big cloak, and raised the pink
mouth-mumbling veil as much as half an inch above the red-lipped speech
line. "You see it was just this way. You paid me a lot of money--all in
advance--for a six weeks' special edition de luxe Love-Letter Serial.
And I spent your money the day I got it; and worse than that I owed
it--long before I even got it! And worst of all, I've got a chance now
to go home to-morrow for all the rest of the winter. No, I don't mean
that exactly. I mean I've found a chance to go up to Vermont and have
all my expenses paid--just for reading aloud every day to a lady who
isn't so awfully deaf. But you see I still owe you a week's
subscription--and I can't refund you the money because I haven't got it.
And it happens that I can't run a fancy love-letter business from the
special house that I'm going to. There aren't enough resources
there--and all that. So I thought that perhaps--perhaps--considering how
much you've been teasing and teasing to know who I was--I thought that
perhaps if I came here this evening and let you really see me--that
maybe, you know--maybe, not positively, but just _maybe_--you'd be
willing to call that equivalent to one week's subscription. _Would
you?_"

In the sharp eagerness of her question she turned her shrouded face
full-view to Stanton's curious gaze, and he saw the little nervous,
mischievous twitch of her lips at the edge of her masking pink veil
resolve itself suddenly into a whimper of real pain. Yet so vivid were
the lips, so blissfully, youthfully, lusciously carmine, that every
single, individual statement she made seemed only like a festive
little announcement printed in red ink.

"I guess I'm not a very--good business manager," faltered the
red-lipped voice with incongruous pathos. "Indeed I know I'm not
because--well because--the Serial-Letter Co. has 'gone broke!
Bankrupt', is it, that you really say?"

With a little mockingly playful imitation of a stride she walked the
first two fingers of her right hand across the surface of the table to
Stanton's discarded supper dishes.

"Oh, please may I have that piece of cold toast?" she asked
plaintively. No professional actress on the stage could have spoken
the words more deliciously. Even to the actual crunching of the toast
in her little shining white teeth, she sought to illustrate as
fantastically as possible the ultimate misery of a bankrupt person
starving for cold toast.

Stanton's spontaneous laughter attested his full appreciation of her
mimicry.

"But I tell you the Serial-Letter Co. _has_ 'gone broke'!" she
persisted a trifle wistfully. "I guess--I guess it takes a man to
really run a business with any sort of financial success, 'cause you
see a man never puts anything except his head into his business. And
of course if you only put your head into it, then you go right along
giving always just a little wee bit less than 'value received'--and so
you can't help, sir, making a profit. Why people would think you were
plain, stark crazy if you gave them even one more pair of poor rubber
boots than they'd paid for. But a woman! Well, you see my little
business was a sort of a scheme to sell sympathy--perfectly good
sympathy, you know--but to sell it to people who really needed it,
instead of giving it away to people who didn't care anything about it
at all. And you have to run that sort of business almost entirely with
your heart--and you wouldn't feel decent at all, unless you delivered
to everybody just a little tiny bit more sympathy than he paid for.
Otherwise, you see you wouldn't be delivering perfectly good sympathy.
So that's why--you understand now--that's why I had to send you my
very own woolly blanket-wrapper, and my very own silver porringer, and
my very own sling-shot that I fight city cats with,--because, you see,
I had to use every single cent of your money right away to pay for the
things that I'd already bought for other people."

"For other people?" quizzed Stanton a bit resentfully.

"Oh, yes," acknowledged the girl; "for several other people." Then,
"Did you like the idea of the 'Rheumatic Nights Entertainment'?" she
asked quite abruptly.

"Did I like it?" cried Stanton. "Did I _like_ it?"

With a little shrugging air of apology the girl straightened up very
stiffly in her chair.

"Of course it wasn't exactly an original idea," she explained
contritely. "That is, I mean not original for you. You see, it's
really a little club of mine--a little subscription club of rheumatic
people who can't sleep; and I go every night in the week, an hour to
each one of them. There are only three, you know. There's a youngish
lady in Boston, and a very, very old gentleman out in Brookline, and
the tiniest sort of a poor little sick girl in Cambridge. Sometimes I
turn up just at supper-time and jolly them along a bit with their
gruels. Sometimes I don't get around till ten or eleven o'clock in the
great boo-black dark. From two to three in the morning seems to be the
cruelest, grayest, coldest time for the little girl in Cambridge....
And I play the banjo decently well, you know, and sing more or
less--and tell stories, or read aloud; and I most always go dressed up
in some sort of a fancy costume 'cause I can't seem to find any other
thing to do that astonishes sick people so much and makes them sit up
so bravely and look so shiny. And really, it isn't such dreadfully
hard work to do, because everything fits together so well. The short
skirts, for instance, that turn me into such a jolly prattling
great-grandchild for the poor old gentleman, make me just a perfectly
rational, contemporaneous-looking play-mate for the small Cambridge
girl. I'm so very, very little!"

"Only, of course," she finished wryly; "only, of course, it costs such
a horrid big lot for costumes and carriages and things. That's what's
'busted' me, as the boys say. And then, of course, I'm most dreadfully
sleepy all the day times when I ought to be writing nice things for my
Serial-Letter Co. business. And then one day last week--" the vivid
red lips twisted oddly at one corner. "One night last week they sent
me word from Cambridge that the little, little girl was going to
die--and was calling and calling for the 'Gray-Plush Squirrel Lady'.
So I hired a big gray squirrel coat from a furrier whom I know, and I
ripped up my muff and made me the very best sort of a hot, gray,
smothery face that I could--and I went out to Cambridge and sat three
hours on the footboard of a bed, cracking jokes--and nuts--to beguile
a little child's death-pain. And somehow it broke my heart--or my
spirit--or something. Somehow I think I could have stood it better
with my own skin face! Anyway the little girl doesn't need me any
more. Anyway, it doesn't matter if someone did need me!... I tell you
I'm 'broke'! I tell you I haven't got one single solitary more thing
to give! It isn't just my pocket-book that's empty: it's my head
that's spent, too! It's my heart that's altogether stripped! _And I'm
going to run away! Yes, I am!_"

Jumping to her feet she stood there for an instant all out of breath,
as though just the mere fancy thought of running away had almost
exhausted her. Then suddenly she began to laugh.

"I'm so tired of making up things," she confessed; "why, I'm so tired
of making up grandfathers, I'm so tired of making up pirates, I'm so
tired of making-up lovers--that I actually cherish the bill collector
as the only real, genuine acquaintance whom I have in Boston.
Certainly there's no slightest trace of pretence about him!... Excuse
me for being so flippant," she added soberly, "but you see I haven't
got any sympathy left even for myself."

"But for heaven's sake!" cried Stanton, "why don't you let somebody
help you? Why don't you let me--"

"Oh, you _can_ help me!" cried the little red-lipped voice excitedly.
"Oh, yes, indeed you can help me! That's why I came here this evening.
You see I've settled up now with every one of my creditors except you
and the youngish Boston lady, and I'm on my way to her house now.
We're reading Oriental Fairy stories together. Truly I think she'll be
very glad indeed to release me from my contract when I offer her my
coral beads instead, because they are dreadfully nice beads, my real,
unpretended grandfather carved them for me himself.... But how can I
settle with you? I haven't got anything left to settle with, and it
might be months and months before I could refund the actual cash
money. So wouldn't you--couldn't you please call my coming here this
evening an equivalent to one week's subscription?"

[Illustration: "Oh! Don't I look--gorgeous!" she stammered]

Wriggling out of the cloak and veil that wrapped her like a
chrysalis she emerged suddenly a glimmering, shimmering little
oriental figure of satin and silver and haunting sandalwood--a
veritable little incandescent rainbow of spangled moonlight and
flaming scarlet and dark purple shadows. Great, heavy, jet-black curls
caught back from her small piquant face by a blazing rhinestone
fillet,--cheeks just a tiny bit over-tinted with rouge and
excitement,--big, red-brown eyes packed full of high lights like a
startled fawn's,--bold in the utter security of her masquerade, yet
scared almost to death by the persistent underlying heart-thump of her
unescapable self-consciousness,--altogether as tantalizing, altogether
as unreal, as a vision out of the Arabian Nights, she stood there
staring quizzically at Stanton.

"_Would_ you call it--an--equivalent? _Would_ you?" she asked
nervously.

Then pirouetting over to the largest mirror in sight she began to
smooth and twist her silken sash into place. Somewhere at wrist or
ankle twittered the jingle of innumerable bangles.

"Oh! Don't I look--gorgeous!" she stammered. "O--h--h!"



VIII


Everything that was discreet and engaged-to-be-married in Stanton's
conservative make-up exploded suddenly into one utterly irresponsible
speech.

"You little witch!" he cried out. "You little beauty! For heaven's
sake come over here and sit down in this chair where I can look at
you! I want to talk to you! I--"

Pirouetting once more before the mirror, she divided one fleet glance
between admiration for herself and scorn for Stanton.

"Oh, yes, I felt perfectly sure that you'd insist upon having me
'pretty'!" she announced sternly. Then courtesying low to the ground
in mock humility, she began to sing-song mischievously:

    "So Molly, Molly made-her-a-face,
    Made it of rouge and made it of lace.
    Long as the rouge and the lace are fair,
    Oh, Mr. Man, what do you care?"

"You don't need any rouge or lace to make _you_ pretty!" Stanton
fairly shouted in his vehemence. "Anybody might have known that that
lovely, little mind of yours could only live in a--"

"Nonsense!" the girl interrupted, almost temperishly. Then with a
quick, impatient sort of gesture she turned to the table, and picking
up book after book, opened it and stared in it as though it had been a
mirror. "Oh, maybe my mind is pretty enough," she acknowledged
reluctantly. "But likelier than not, my face is not becoming--to me."

Crossing slowly over to Stanton's side she seated herself, with much
jingling, rainbow-colored, sandalwood-scented dignity, in the chair
that the Doctor had just vacated.

"Poor dear, you've been pretty sick, haven't you?" she mused gently.
Cautiously then she reached out and touched the soft, woolly cuff of
his blanket-wrapper. "Did you really like it?" she asked.

Stanton began to smile again. "Did I really like it?" he repeated
joyously. "Why, don't you know that if it hadn't been for you I should
have gone utterly mad these past few weeks? Don't you know that if it
hadn't been for you--don't you know that if--" A little over-zealously
he clutched at the tinsel fringe on the oriental lady's fan. "Don't
you know--don't you know that I'm--engaged to be married?" he finished
weakly.

The oriental lady shivered suddenly, as any lady might shiver on a
November night in thin silken clothes. "Engaged to be married?" she
stammered. "Oh, yes! Why--of course! Most men are! Really unless you
catch a man very young and keep him absolutely constantly by your
side you cannot hope to walk even into his friendship--except across
the heart of some other woman." Again she shivered and jingled a
hundred merry little bangles. "But why?" she asked abruptly, "why, if
you're engaged to be married, did you come and--buy love-letters of
me? My love-letters are distinctly for lonely people," she added
severely.

"How dared you--How dared you go into the love-letter business in the
first place?" quizzed Stanton dryly. "And when it comes to asking
personal questions, how dared you send me printed slips in answer to
my letters to you? Printed slips, mind you!... How many men are you
writing love-letters to, anyway?"

The oriental lady threw out her small hands deprecatingly. "How many
men? Only two besides yourself. There's such a fad for nature study
these days that almost everybody this year has ordered the 'Gray-Plush
Squirrel' series. But I'm doing one or two 'Japanese Fairies' for sick
children, and a high school history class out in Omaha has ordered a
weekly epistle from William of Orange."

"Hang the High School class out in Omaha!" said Stanton. "It was the
love-letters that I was asking about."

"Oh, yes, I forgot," murmured the oriental lady. "Just two men besides
yourself, I said, didn't I? Well one of them is a life convict out in
an Illinois prison. He's subscribed for a whole year--for a
fortnightly letter from a girl in Killarney who has got to be named
'Katie'. He's a very, very old man, I think, but I don't even know his
name 'cause he's only a number now--'4632'--or something like that.
And I have to send all my letters over to Killarney to be mailed--Oh,
he's awfully particular about that. And it was pretty hard at first
working up all the geography that he knew and I didn't. But--pshaw!
You're not interested in Killarney. Then there's a New York boy down
in Ceylon on a smelly old tea plantation. His people have dropped him,
I guess, for some reason or other; so I'm just 'the girl from home' to
him, and I prattle to him every month or so about the things he used
to care about. It's easy enough to work that up from the social
columns in the New York papers--and twice I've been over to New York
to get special details for him; once to find out if his mother was
really as sick as the Sunday paper said, and once--yes, really, once I
butted in to a tea his sister was giving, and wrote him, yes, wrote
him all about how the moths were eating up the big moose-head in his
own front hall. And he sent an awfully funny, nice letter of thanks to
the Serial-Letter Co.--yes, he did! And then there's a crippled French
girl out in the Berkshires who is utterly crazy, it seems, about the
'Three Musketeers', so I'm d'Artagnan to her, and it's dreadfully hard
work--in French--but I'm learning a lot out of that, and--"

"There. Don't tell me any more!" cried Stanton.

Then suddenly the pulses in his temples began to pound so hard and so
loud that he could not seem to estimate at all just how loud he was
speaking.

"Who are you?" he insisted. "Who are you? Tell me instantly, I say!
_Who are you anyway?_"

The oriental lady jumped up in alarm. "I'm no one at all--to you," she
said coolly, "except just--Molly Make-Believe."

Something in her tone seemed to fairly madden Stanton.

"You shall tell me who you are!" he cried. "You shall! I say you
shall!"

Plunging forward he grabbed at her little bangled wrists and held them
in a vise that sent the rheumatic pains shooting up his arms to add
even further frenzy to his brain.

"Tell me who you are!" he grinned. "You shan't go out of here in ten
thousand years till you've told me who you are!"

Frightened, infuriated, quivering with astonishment, the girl stood
trying to wrench her little wrists out of his mighty grasp, stamping
in perfectly impotent rage all the while with her soft-sandalled,
jingling feet.

"I won't tell you who I am! I won't! I won't!" she swore and reswore
in a dozen different staccato accents. The whole daring passion of
the Orient that costumed her seemed to have permeated every fiber of
her small being.

Then suddenly she drew in her breath in a long quivering sigh. Staring
up into her face, Stanton gave a little groan of dismay, and released
her hands.

"Why, Molly! Molly! You're--crying," he whispered. "Why, little girl!
Why--"

Backing slowly away from him, she made a desperate effort to smile
through her tears.

"Now you've spoiled everything," she said.

"Oh no, not--everything," argued Stanton helplessly from his chair,
afraid to rise to his feet, afraid even to shuffle his slippers on the
floor lest the slightest suspicion of vehemence on his part should
hasten that steady, backward retreat of hers towards the door.

Already she had re-acquired her cloak and overshoes and was groping
out somewhat blindly for her veil in a frantic effort to avoid any
possible chance of turning her back even for a second on so dangerous
a person as himself.

"Yes, everything," nodded the small grieved face. Yet the tragic,
snuffling little sob that accompanied the words only served to add a
most entrancing, tip-nosed vivacity to the statement.

"Oh, of course I know," she added hastily. "Oh, of course I know
perfectly well that I oughtn't to have come alone to your rooms like
this!" Madly she began to wind the pink veil round and round and round
her cheeks like a bandage. "Oh, of course I know perfectly well that it
wasn't even remotely proper! But don't you think--don't you think that
if you've always been awfully, awfully strict and particular with
yourself about things all your life, that you might have
risked--safely--just one little innocent, mischievous sort of a half
hour? Especially if it was the only possible way you could think of to
square up everything and add just a little wee present besides? 'Cause
nothing, you know, that you can _afford_ to give ever seems exactly like
giving a really, truly present. It's got to hurt you somewhere to be a
'present'. So my coming here this evening--this way--was altogether the
bravest, scariest, unwisest, most-like-a-present-feeling-thing that I
could possibly think of to do--for you. And even if you hadn't spoiled
everything, I was going away to-morrow just the same forever and ever
and ever!"

Cautiously she perched herself on the edge of a chair, and thrust her
narrow, gold-embroidered toes into the wide, blunt depths of her
overshoes. "Forever and ever!" she insisted almost gloatingly.

"Not forever and _ever_!" protested Stanton vigorously. "You don't
think for a moment, do you, that after all this wonderful, jolly
friendship of ours, you're going to drop right out of sight as though
the earth had opened?"

Even the little quick, forward lurch of his shoulders in the chair
sent the girl scuttling to her feet again, one overshoe still in her
hand.

Just at the edge of the door-mat she turned and smiled at him
mockingly. Really it had been a long time since she had smiled.

"Surely you don't think that you'd be able to recognize me in my
street clothes, do you?" she asked bluntly.

Stanton's answering smile was quite as mocking as hers.

"Why not?" he queried. "Didn't I have the pleasure of choosing your
winter hat for you? Let me see,--it was brown, with a pink
rose--wasn't it? I should know it among a million."

With a little shrug of her shoulders she leaned back against the door
and stared at him suddenly out of her big red-brown eyes with singular
intentness.

"Well, _will_ you call it an equivalent to one week's subscription?"
she asked very gravely.

Some long-sleeping devil of mischief awoke in Stanton's senses.

"Equivalent to one whole week's subscription?" he repeated with mock
incredulity. "A whole week--seven days and nights? Oh, no! No! No! I
don't think you've given me, yet, more than about--four days' worth to
think about. Just about four days' worth, I should think."

Pushing the pink veil further and further back from her features, with
plainly quivering hands, the girl's whole soul seemed to blaze out at
him suddenly, and then wince back again. Then just as quickly a droll
little gleam of malice glinted in her eyes.

"Oh, all right then," she smiled. "If you really think I've given you
only four days' and nights' worth of thoughts--here's something for
the fifth day and night."

Very casually, yet still very accurately, her right hand reached out
to the knob of the door.

"To cancel my debt for the fifth day," she said, "do you really
'honest-injun' want to know who I am? I'll tell you! First, you've
seen me before."

"What?" cried Stanton, plunging forward in his chair.

Something in the girl's quick clutch of the door-knob warned him quite
distinctly to relax again into his cushions.

"Yes," she repeated triumphantly. "And you've talked with me too, as
often as twice! And moreover you've danced with me!"

Tossing her head with sudden-born daring she reached up and snatched
off her curly black wig, and shook down all around her such a great,
shining, utterly glorious mass of mahogany colored hair that Stanton's
astonishment turned almost into faintness.

"What?" he cried out. "What? You say I've seen you before? Talked with
you? Waltzed with you, perhaps? Never! I haven't! I tell you I
haven't! I never saw that hair before! If I had, I shouldn't have
forgotten it to my dying day. Why--"

With a little wail of despair she leaned back against the door. "You
don't even remember me _now_?" she mourned. "Oh dear, dear, dear! And
I thought _you_ were so beautiful!" Then, woman-like, her whole
sympathy rushed to defend him from her own accusations. "Oh, well, it
was at a masquerade party," she acknowledged generously, "and I
suppose you go to a great many masquerades."

Heaping up her hair like so much molten copper into the hood of her
cloak, and trying desperately to snare all the wild, escaping tendrils
with the softer mesh of her veil, she reached out a free hand at last
and opened the door just a crack.

"And to give you something to think about for the sixth day and
night," she resumed suddenly, with the same strange little glint in
her eyes, "to give you something to think about the sixth day, I'll
tell you that I really was hungry--when I asked you for your toast. I
haven't had anything to eat to-day; and--"

[Illustration: "What?" cried Stanton, plunging forward in his chair]

Before she could finish the sentence Stanton had sprung from his
chair, and stood trying to reason out madly whether one single more
stride would catch her, or lose her.

"And as for something for you to think about the seventh day and
night," she gasped hurriedly. Already the door had opened to her hand
and her little figure stood silhouetted darkly against the bright,
yellow-lighted hallway, "here's something for you to think about for
_twenty_-seven days and nights!" Wildly her little hands went
clutching at the woodwork. "I didn't know you were engaged to be
married," she cried out passionately, "and I _loved_ you--_loved_
you--_loved_ you!"

Then in a flash she was gone.



IX


With absolute finality the big door banged behind her. A minute later
the street door, four flights down, rang out in jarring reverberation.
A minute after that it seemed as though every door in every house on
the street slammed shrilly. Then the charred fire-log sagged down into
the ashes with a sad, puffing sigh. Then a whole row of books on a
loosely packed shelf toppled over on each other with soft jocose
slaps.

Crawling back into his Morris chair with every bone in his body aching
like a magnetized wire-skeleton charged with pain, Stanton collapsed
again into his pillows and sat staring--staring into the dying fire.
Nine o'clock rang out dully from the nearest church spire; ten
o'clock, eleven o'clock followed in turn with monotonous, chiming
insistency. Gradually the relaxing steam-radiators began to grunt and
grumble into a chill quietude. Gradually along the bare, bleak
stretches of unrugged floor little cold draughts of air came creeping
exploringly to his feet.

And still he sat staring--staring into the fast graying ashes.

"Oh, Glory! Glory!" he said. "Think what it would mean if all that
wonderful imagination were turned loose upon just one fellow! Even if
she didn't love you, think how she'd play the game! And if she did
love you--Oh, lordy; Lordy! LORDY!"

Towards midnight, to ease the melancholy smell of the dying lamp, he
drew reluctantly forth from his deepest blanket-wrapper pocket the
little knotted handkerchief that encased the still-treasured handful
of fragrant fir-balsam, and bending groaningly forward in his chair
sifted the brittle, pungent needles into the face of the one glowing
ember that survived. Instantly in a single dazzling flash of flame the
tangible forest symbol vanished in intangible fragrance. But along the
hollow of his hand,--across the edge of his sleeve,--up from the
ragged pile of books and papers,--out from the farthest, remotest
corners of the room, lurked the unutterable, undestroyable sweetness
of all forests since the world was made.

Almost with a sob in his throat Stanton turned again to the box of
letters on his table.

By dawn the feverish, excited sleeplessness in his brain had driven
him on and on to one last, supremely fantastic impulse. Writing to
Cornelia he told her bluntly, frankly,

     "DEAR CORNELIA:

     "When I asked you to marry me, you made me promise very
     solemnly at the time that if I ever changed my mind
     regarding you I would surely tell you. And I laughed at you.
     Do you remember? But you were right, it seems, and I was
     wrong. For I believe that I have changed my mind. That
     is:--I don't know how to express it exactly, but it has been
     made very, very plain to me lately that I do not by any
     manner of means love you as little as you need to be loved.

     "In all sincerity,

     "CARL."

To which surprising communication Cornelia answered immediately; but
the 'immediately' involved a week's almost maddening interim,

     "DEAR CARL:

     "Neither mother nor I can make any sense whatsoever out of
     your note. By any possible chance was it meant to be a joke?
     You say you do not love me 'as little' as I need to be
     loved. You mean 'as much', don't you? Carl, what do you
     mean?"

Laboriously, with the full prospect of yet another week's agonizing
strain and suspense, Stanton wrote again to Cornelia.

     "DEAR CORNELIA:

     "No, I meant 'as little' as you need to be loved. I have no
     adequate explanation to make. I have no adequate apology to
     offer. I don't think anything. I don't hope anything. All I
     know is that I suddenly believe positively that our
     engagement is a mistake. Certainly I am neither giving you
     all that I am capable of giving you, nor yet receiving from
     you all that I am capable of receiving. Just this fact
     should decide the matter I think.

     "CARL."

Cornelia did not wait to write an answer to this. She telegraphed
instead. The message even in the telegraph operator's handwriting
looked a little nervous.

"Do you mean that you are tired of it?" she asked quite boldly.

With miserable perplexity Stanton wired back. "No, I couldn't exactly
say that I was tired of it."

Cornelia's answer to that was fluttering in his hands within twelve
hours.

"Do you mean that there is someone else?" The words fairly ticked
themselves off the yellow page.

It was twenty-four hours before Stanton made up his mind just what to
reply. Then, "No, I couldn't exactly say there is anybody else," he
confessed wretchedly.

Cornelia's mother answered this time. The telegram fairly rustled with
sarcasm. "You don't seem to be very sure about anything," said
Cornelia's mother.

Somehow these words brought the first cheerful smile to his lips.

"No, you're quite right. I'm not at all sure about anything," he wired
almost gleefully in return, wiping his pen with delicious joy on the
edge of the clean white bed-spread.

Then because it is really very dangerous for over-wrought people to
try to make any noise like laughter, a great choking, bitter sob
caught him up suddenly, and sent his face burrowing down like a
night-scared child into the safe, soft, feathery depths of his
pillow--where, with his knuckles ground so hard into his eyes that all
his tears were turned to stars, there came to him very, very slowly,
so slowly in fact that it did not alarm him at all, the strange,
electrifying vision of the one fact on earth that he _was_ sure of: a
little keen, luminous, brown-eyed face with a look in it, and a look
for him only--so help him God!--such as he had never seen on the face
of any other woman since the world was made. Was it possible?--was it
really possible? Suddenly his whole heart seemed to irradiate light
and color and music and sweet smelling things.

[Illustration: Cornelia's mother answered this time]

"Oh, Molly, Molly, Molly!" he shouted. "I want _you_! I want _you_!"

In the strange, lonesome days that followed, neither burly
flesh-and-blood Doctor nor slim paper sweetheart tramped noisily over
the threshold or slid thuddingly through the letter-slide.

No one apparently was ever coming to see Stanton again unless actually
compelled to do so. Even the laundryman seemed to have skipped his
usual day; and twice in succession the morning paper had most
annoyingly failed to appear. Certainly neither the boldest private
inquiry nor the most delicately worded public advertisement had proved
able to discover the whereabouts of "Molly Make-Believe," much less
succeeded in bringing her back. But the Doctor, at least, could be
summoned by ordinary telephone, and Cornelia and her mother would
surely be moving North eventually, whether Stanton's last message
hastened their movements or not.

In subsequent experience it seemed to take two telephone messages to
produce the Doctor. A trifle coolly, a trifle distantly, more than a
trifle disapprovingly, he appeared at last and stared dully at
Stanton's astonishing booted-and-coated progress towards health.

"Always glad to serve you--professionally," murmured the Doctor with
an undeniably definite accent on the word 'professionally'.

"Oh, cut it out!" quoted Stanton emphatically. "What in creation are
you so stuffy about?"

"Well, really," growled the Doctor, "considering the deception you
practised on me--"

"Considering nothing!" shouted Stanton. "On my word of honor, I tell
you I never consciously, in all my life before, ever--ever--set eyes
upon that wonderful little girl, until that evening! I never knew that
she even existed! I never knew! I tell you I never knew--_anything_!"

As limply as any stout man could sink into a chair, the Doctor sank
into the seat nearest him.

"Tell me instantly all about it," he gasped.

"There are only two things to tell," said Stanton quite blithely. "And
the first thing is what I've already stated, on my honor, that the
evening we speak of was actually and positively the first time I ever
saw the girl; and the second thing is, that equally upon my honor, I
do not intend to let it remain--the last time!"

"But Cornelia?" cried the Doctor. "What about Cornelia?"

Almost half the sparkle faded from Stanton's eyes.

"Cornelia and I have annulled our engagement," he said very quietly.
Then with more vehemence, "Oh, you old dry-bones, don't you worry
about Cornelia! I'll look out for Cornelia. Cornelia isn't going to
get hurt. I tell you I've figured and reasoned it all out very, very
carefully; and I can see now, quite plainly, that Cornelia never
really loved me at all--else she wouldn't have dropped me so
accidentally through her fingers. Why, there never was even the ghost
of a clutch in Cornelia's fingers."

"But you loved _her_," persisted the Doctor scowlingly.

It was hard, just that second, for Stanton to lift his troubled eyes
to the Doctor's face. But he did lift them and he lifted them very
squarely and steadily.

"Yes, I think I did--love Cornelia," he acknowledged frankly. "The
very first time that I saw her I said to myself. 'Here is the end of
my journey,' but I seem to have found out suddenly that the mere fact
of loving a woman does not necessarily prove her that much coveted
'journey's end.' I don't know exactly how to express it, indeed I feel
beastly clumsy about expressing it, but somehow it seems as though it
were Cornelia herself who had proved herself, perfectly amiably, no
'journey's end' after all, but only a way station not equipped to
receive my particular kind of a permanent guest. It isn't that I
wanted any grand fixings. Oh, can't you understand that I'm not
finding any fault with Cornelia. There never was any slightest
pretence about Cornelia. She never, never even in the first place,
made any possible effort to attract me. Can't you see that Cornelia
_looks_ to me to-day exactly the way that she looked to me in the
first place; very, amazingly, beautiful. But a traveler, you know,
cannot dally indefinitely to feed his eyes on even the most wonderful
view while all his precious lifelong companions,--his whims, his
hobbies, his cravings, his yearnings,--are crouching starved and
unwelcome outside the door.

"And I can't even flatter myself," he added wryly; "I can't even
flatter myself that my--going is going to inconvenience Cornelia in
the slightest; because I can't see that my coming has made even the
remotest perceptible difference in her daily routine. Anyway--" he
finished more lightly, "when you come right down to 'mating', or
'homing', or 'belonging', or whatever you choose to call it, it seems
to be written in the stars that plans or no plans, preferences or no
preferences, initiatives or no initiatives, we belong to those--and
to those only, hang it all!--who happen to love _us_ most!"

Fairly jumping from his chair the Doctor snatched hold of Stanton's
shoulder.

"Who happen to love _us_ most?" he repeated wildly. "Love _us_? _us_?
For heaven's sake, who's loving you _now_?"

Utterly irrelevantly, Stanton brushed him aside, and began to rummage
anxiously among the books on his table.

"Do you know much about Vermont?" he asked suddenly. "It's funny, but
almost nobody seems to know anything about Vermont. It's a darned good
state, too, and I can't imagine why all the geographies neglect it
so." Idly his finger seemed to catch in a half open pamphlet, and he
bent down casually to straighten out the page. "Area in square
miles--9,565," he read aloud musingly. "Principal products--hay, oats,
maple-sugar--" Suddenly he threw down the pamphlet and flung
himself into the nearest chair and began to laugh. "Maple-sugar?" he
ejaculated. "Maple-sugar? Oh, glory! And I suppose there are some
people who think that maple-sugar is the sweetest thing that ever came
out of Vermont!"

The Doctor started to give him some fresh advice--but left him a
bromide instead.



X


Though the ensuing interview with Cornelia and her mother began quite
as coolly as the interview with the Doctor, it did not happen to end
even in hysterical laughter.

It was just two days after the Doctor's hurried exit that Stanton
received a formal, starchy little note from Cornelia's mother
notifying him of their return.

Except for an experimental, somewhat wobbly-kneed journey or two to
the edge of the Public Garden he had made no attempts as yet to resume
any outdoor life, yet for sundry personal reasons of his own he did
not feel over-anxious to postpone the necessary meeting. In the
immediate emergency at hand strong courage was infinitely more of an
asset than strong knees. Filling his suitcase at once with all the
explanatory evidence that he could carry, he proceeded on cab-wheels
to Cornelia's grimly dignified residence. The street lamps were just
beginning to be lighted when he arrived.

As the butler ushered him gravely into the beautiful drawing room he
realized with a horrid sinking of the heart that Cornelia and her
mother were already sitting there waiting for him with a dreadful
tight lipped expression on their faces which seemed to suggest that
though he was already fifteen minutes ahead of his appointment they
had been waiting for him there since early dawn.

The drawing room itself was deliciously familiar to him;
crimson-curtained, green carpeted, shining with heavy gilt picture
frames and prismatic chandeliers. Often with posies and candies and
theater-tickets he had strutted across that erstwhile magic threshold
and fairly lolled in the big deep-upholstered chairs while waiting for
the silk-rustling advent of the ladies. But now, with his suitcase
clutched in his hand, no Armenian peddler of laces and ointments could
have felt more grotesquely out of his element.

Indolently Cornelia's mother lifted her lorgnette and gazed at him
skeptically from the spot just behind his left ear where the barber
had clipped him too short, to the edge of his right heel that the
bootblack had neglected to polish. Apparently she did not even see the
suitcase but,

"Oh, are you leaving town?" she asked icily.

Only by the utmost tact on his part did he finally succeed in
establishing tête-à-tête relations with Cornelia herself; and even
then if the house had been a tower ten stories high, Cornelia's
mother, rustling up the stairs, could not have swished her skirts any
more definitely like a hissing snake.

In absolute dumbness Stanton and Cornelia sat listening until the
horrid sound died away. Then, and then only, did Cornelia cross the
room to Stanton's side and proffer him her hand. The hand was very
cold, and the manner of offering it was very cold, but Stanton was
quite man enough to realize that this special temperature was purely a
matter of physical nervousness rather than of mental intention.

Slipping naturally into the most conventional groove either of word or
deed, Cornelia eyed the suitcase inquisitively.

"What are you doing?" she asked thoughtlessly. "Returning my
presents?"

"You never gave me any presents!" said Stanton cheerfully.

"Why, didn't I?" murmured Cornelia slowly. Around her strained mouth a
smile began to flicker faintly. "Is that why you broke it off?" she
asked flippantly.

"Yes, partly," laughed Stanton.

Then Cornelia laughed a little bit, too.

After this Stanton lost no possible time in getting down to facts.

Stooping over from his chair exactly after the manner of peddlers whom
he had seen in other people's houses, he unbuckled the straps of his
suitcase, and turned the cover backward on the floor.

Cornelia followed every movement of his hand with vaguely perplexed
blue eyes.

"Surely," said Stanton, "this is the weirdest combination of
circumstances that ever happened to a man and a girl--or rather, I
should say, to a man and two girls." Quite accustomed as he now was to
the general effect on himself of the whole unique adventure with the
Serial-Letter Co. his heart could not help giving a little extra jump
on this, the verge of the astonishing revelation that he was about to
make to Cornelia. "Here," he stammered, a tiny bit out of breath,
"here is the small, thin, tissue-paper circular that you sent me from
the Serial-Letter Co. with your advice to subscribe, and there--"
pointing earnestly to the teeming suitcase,--"there are the minor
results of--having taken your advice."

In Cornelia's face the well-groomed expression showed sudden signs of
immediate disorganization.

Snatching the circular out of his hand she read it hurriedly, once,
twice, three times. Then kneeling cautiously down on the floor with
all the dignity that characterized every movement of her body, she
began to poke here and there into the contents of the suitcase.

[Illustration: He unbuckled the straps of his suitcase and turned the
cover backward on the floor]

"The 'minor results'?" she asked soberly.

"Why yes," said Stanton. "There were several things I didn't have room
to bring. There was a blanket-wrapper. And there was a--girl, and
there was a--"

Cornelia's blonde eyebrows lifted perceptibly. "A girl--whom you
didn't know at all--sent you a blanket-wrapper?" she whispered.

"Yes!" smiled Stanton. "You see no girl whom I knew--very well--seemed
to care a hang whether I froze to death or not."

"O--h," said Cornelia very, very slowly, "O--h." Her eyes had a
strange, new puzzled expression in them like the expression of a
person who was trying to look outward and think inward at the same
time.

"But you mustn't be so critical and haughty about it all," protested
Stanton, "when I'm really trying so hard to explain everything
perfectly honestly to you--so that you'll understand exactly how it
happened."

"I should like very much to be able to understand exactly how it
happened," mused Cornelia.

Gingerly she approached in succession the roll of sample wall-paper,
the maps, the time-tables, the books, the little silver porringer, the
intimate-looking scrap of unfinished fancy-work. One by one Stanton
explained them to her, visualizing by eager phrase or whimsical
gesture the particularly lonesome and susceptible conditions under
which each gift had happened to arrive.

At the great pile of letters Cornelia's hand faltered a trifle.

"How many did I write you?" she asked with real curiosity.

"Five thin ones, and a postal-card," said Stanton almost
apologetically.

Choosing the fattest looking letter that she could find, Cornelia
toyed with the envelope for a second. "Would it be all right for me to
read one?" she asked doubtfully.

"Why, yes," said Stanton. "I think you might read one."

After a few minutes she laid down the letter without any comment.

"Would it be all right for me to read another?" she questioned.

"Why, yes," cried Stanton. "Let's read them all. Let's read them
together. Only, of course, we must read them in order."

Almost tenderly he picked them up and sorted them out according to
their dates. "Of course," he explained very earnestly, "of course I
wouldn't think of showing these letters to any one ordinarily; but
after all, these particular letters represent only a mere business
proposition, and certainly this particular situation must justify one
in making extraordinary exceptions."

One by one he perused the letters hastily and handed them over to
Cornelia for her more careful inspection. No single associate detail
of time or circumstance seemed to have eluded his astonishing memory.
Letter by letter, page by page he annotated: "That was the week you
didn't write at all," or "This was the stormy, agonizing, God-forsaken
night when I didn't care whether I lived or died," or "It was just
about that time, you know, that you snubbed me for being scared about
your swimming stunt."

Breathless in the midst of her reading Cornelia looked up and faced
him squarely. "How could any girl--write all that nonsense?" she
gasped.

It wasn't so much what Stanton answered, as the expression in his eyes
that really startled Cornelia.

"Nonsense?" he quoted deliberatingly. "But I like it," he said. "It's
exactly what I like."

"But I couldn't possibly have given you anything like--that,"
stammered Cornelia.

"No, I know you couldn't," said Stanton very gently.

For an instant Cornelia turned and stared a bit resentfully into his
face. Then suddenly the very gentleness of his smile ignited a little
answering smile on her lips.

"Oh, you mean," she asked with unmistakable relief; "oh, you mean that
really after all it wasn't your letter that jilted me, but my
temperament that jilted you?"

"Exactly," said Stanton.

Cornelia's whole somber face flamed suddenly into unmistakable
radiance.

"Oh, that puts an entirely different light upon the matter," she
exclaimed. "Oh, now it doesn't hurt at all!"

Rustling to her feet, she began to smooth the scowly-looking wrinkles
out of her skirt with long even strokes of her bright-jeweled hands.

"I think I'm really beginning to understand," she said pleasantly.
"And truly, absurd as it sounds to say it, I honestly believe that I
care more for you this moment than I ever cared before, but--"
glancing with acute dismay at the cluttered suitcase on the floor,
"but I wouldn't marry you now, if we could live in the finest asylum
in the land!"

Shrugging his shoulders with mirthful appreciation Stanton proceeded
then and there to re-pack his treasures and end the interview.

Just at the edge of the threshold Cornelia's voice called him back.

"Carl," she protested, "you are looking rather sick. I hope you are
going straight home."

"No, I'm not going straight home," said Stanton bluntly. "But here's
hoping that the 'longest way round' will prove even yet the very
shortest possible route to the particular home that, as yet, doesn't
even exist. I'm going hunting, Cornelia, hunting for Molly
Make-Believe; and what's more, I'm going to find her if it takes me
all the rest of my natural life!"



XI


Driving downtown again with every thought in his head, every plan,
every purpose, hurtling around and around in absolute chaos, his
roving eyes lit casually upon the huge sign of a detective bureau that
loomed across the street. White as a sheet with the sudden new
determination that came to him, and trembling miserably with the very
strength of the determination warring against the weakness and fatigue
of his body, he dismissed his cab and went climbing up the first
narrow, dingy stairway that seemed most liable to connect with the
brain behind the sign-board.

It was almost bed-time before he came down the stairs again, yet, "I
think her name is Meredith, and I think she's gone to Vermont, and
she has the most wonderful head of mahogany-colored hair that I ever
saw in my life," were the only definite clues that he had been able to
contribute to the cause.

In the slow, lagging week that followed, Stanton did not find himself
at all pleased with the particular steps which he had apparently been
obliged to take in order to ferret out Molly's real name and her real
city address, but the actual audacity of the situation did not
actually reach its climax until the gentle little quarry had been
literally tracked to Vermont with detectives fairly baying on her
trail like the melodramatic bloodhounds that pursue "Eliza" across the
ice.

"Red-headed party found at Woodstock," the valiant sleuth had wired
with unusual delicacy and caution.

"Denies acquaintance, Boston, everything, positively refuses
interview, temper very bad, sure it's the party," the second message
had come.

The very next northward-bound train found Stanton fretting the
interminable hours away between Boston and Woodstock. Across the
sparkling snow-smothered landscape his straining eyes went plowing on to
their unknown destination. Sometimes the engine pounded louder than his
heart. Sometimes he could not even seem to hear the grinding of the
brakes above the dreadful throb-throb of his temples. Sometimes in
horrid, shuddering chills he huddled into his great fur-coat and cursed
the porter for having a disposition like a polar bear. Sometimes almost
gasping for breath he went out and stood on the bleak rear platform of
the last car and watched the pleasant, ice-cold rails go speeding back
to Boston. All along the journey little absolutely unnecessary villages
kept bobbing up to impede the progress of the train. All along the
journey innumerable little empty railroad-stations, barren as bells
robbed of their own tongues, seemed to lie waiting--waiting for the
noisy engine-tongue to clang them into temporary noise and life.

Was his quest really almost at an end? Was it--was it? A thousand
vague apprehensions tortured through his mind.

And then, all of a sudden, in the early, brisk winter twilight,
Woodstock--happened!

Climbing out of the train Stanton stood for a second rubbing his eyes
at the final abruptness and unreality of it all. Woodstock! What was
it going to mean to him? Woodstock!

Everybody else on the platform seemed to be accepting the astonishing
geographical fact with perfect simplicity. Already along the edge of
the platform the quaint, old-fashioned yellow stage-coaches set on
runners were fast filling up with utterly serene passengers.

A jog at his elbow made him turn quickly, and he found himself gazing
into the detective's not ungenial face.

"Say," said the detective, "were you going up to the hotel first? Well
you'd better not. You'd better not lose any time. She's leaving town
in the morning." It was beyond human nature for the detective man not
to nudge Stanton once in the ribs. "Say," he grinned, "you sure had
better go easy, and not send in your name or anything." His grin
broadened suddenly in a laugh. "Say," he confided, "once in a magazine
I read something about a lady's 'piquant animosity'. That's her! And
_cute_? Oh, my!"

Five minutes later, Stanton found himself lolling back in the
quaintest, brightest, most pumpkin-colored coach of all, gliding with
almost magical smoothness through the snow-glazed streets of the
little narrow, valley-town.

"The Meredith homestead?" the driver had queried. "Oh, yes. All right;
but it's quite a journey. Don't get discouraged."

A sense of discouragement regarding long distances was just at that
moment the most remote sensation in Stanton's sensibilities. If the
railroad journey had seemed unhappily drawn out, the sleigh-ride
reversed the emotion to the point of almost telescopic calamity: a
stingy, transient vista of village lights; a brief, narrow,
hill-bordered road that looked for all the world like the aisle of a
toy-shop, flanked on either side by high-reaching shelves where
miniature house-lights twinkled cunningly; a sudden stumble of hoofs
into a less-traveled snow-path, and then, absolutely unavoidable,
absolutely unescapable, an old, white colonial house with its great
solemn elm trees stretching out their long arms protectingly all
around and about it after the blessed habit of a hundred years.

Nervously, and yet almost reverently, Stanton went crunching up the
snowy path to the door, knocked resonantly with a slim, much worn old
brass knocker, and was admitted promptly and hospitably by "Mrs.
Meredith" herself--Molly's grandmother evidently, and such a darling
little grandmother, small, like Molly; quick, like Molly; even young,
like Molly, she appeared to be. Simple, sincere, and oh, so
comfortable--like the fine old mahogany furniture and the dull-shining
pewter, and the flickering firelight, that seemed to be everywhere.

"Good old stuff!" was Stanton's immediate silent comment on everything
in sight.

It was perfectly evident that the little old lady knew nothing
whatsoever about Stanton, but it was equally evident that she
suspected him of being neither a highwayman nor a book agent, and was
really sincerely sorry that Molly had "a headache" and would be unable
to see him.

"But I've come so far," persisted Stanton. "All the way from Boston.
Is she very ill? Has she been ill long?"

The little old lady's mind ignored the questions but clung a trifle
nervously to the word Boston.

"Boston?" her sweet voice quavered. "Boston? Why you look so
nice--surely you're not that mysterious man who has been annoying
Mollie so dreadfully these past few days. I told her no good would
ever come of her going to the city."

"Annoying Molly?" cried Stanton. "Annoying _my_ Molly? I? Why, it's
to prevent anybody in the whole wide world from ever annoying her
again about--anything, that I've come here now!" he persisted rashly.
"And don't you see--we had a little misunderstanding and--"

Into the little old lady's ivory cheek crept a small, bright,
blush-spot.

"Oh, you had a little misunderstanding," she repeated softly. "A
little quarrel? Oh, is that why Molly has been crying so much ever
since she came home?"

Very gently she reached out her tiny, blue-veined hand, and turned
Stanton's big body around so that the lamp-light smote him squarely on
his face.

"Are you a good boy?" she asked. "Are you good enough for--my--little
Molly?"

Impulsively Stanton grabbed her small hands in his big ones, and
raised them very tenderly to his lips.

[Illustration: "Are you a good boy?" she asked]

"Oh, little Molly's little grandmother," he said; "nobody on the face
of this snow-covered earth is good enough for your Molly, but won't
you give me a chance? Couldn't you please give me a chance? Now--this
minute? Is she so very ill?"

"No, she's not so very ill, that is, she's not sick in bed," mused the
old lady waveringly. "She's well enough to be sitting up in her big
chair in front of her open fire."

"Big chair--open fire?" quizzed Stanton. "Then, are there two chairs?"
he asked casually.

"Why, yes," answered the little-grandmother in surprise.

"And a mantelpiece with a clock on it?" he probed.

The little-grandmother's eyes opened wide and blue with astonishment.

"Yes," she said, "but the clock hasn't gone for forty years!"

"Oh, great!" exclaimed Stanton. "Then won't you please--please--I tell
you it's a case of life or death--won't you _please_ go right upstairs
and sit down in that extra big chair--and not say a word or anything
but just wait till I come? And of course," he said, "it wouldn't be
good for you to run upstairs, but if you could hurry just a little I
should be _so_ much obliged."

As soon as he dared, he followed cautiously up the unfamiliar stairs,
and peered inquisitively through the illuminating crack of a loosely
closed door.

The grandmother as he remembered her was dressed in some funny sort of
a dullish purple, but peeping out from the edge of one of the chairs
he caught an unmistakable flutter of blue.

Catching his breath he tapped gently on the woodwork.

Round the big winged arm of the chair a wonderful, bright aureole of
hair showed suddenly.

"Come in," faltered Molly's perplexed voice.

All muffled up in his great fur-coat he pushed the door wide open and
entered boldly.

"It's only Carl," he said. "Am I interrupting you?"

The really dreadful collapsed expression on Molly's face Stanton did
not appear to notice at all. He merely walked over to the mantelpiece,
and leaning his elbows on the little cleared space in front of the
clock, stood staring fixedly at the time-piece which had not changed
its quarter-of-three expression for forty years.

"It's almost half-past seven," he announced pointedly, "and I can stay
till just eight o'clock."

Only the little grandmother smiled.

Almost immediately: "It's twenty minutes of eight now!" he announced
severely.

"My, how time flies!" laughed the little grandmother.

When he turned around again the little grandmother had fled.

But Molly did not laugh, as he himself had laughed on that faraway,
dreamlike evening in his rooms. Instead of laughter, two great tears
welled up in her eyes and glistened slowly down her flushing cheeks.

"What if this old clock hasn't moved a minute in forty years?"
whispered Stanton passionately, "it's such a _stingy_ little time to
eight o'clock--even if the hands never get there!"

Then turning suddenly to Molly he held out his great strong arms to
her.

"Oh, Molly, Molly!" he cried out beseechingly, "I love you! And I'm
free to love you! Won't you please come to me?"

[Illustration: "It's only Carl," he said]

Sliding very cautiously out of the big, deep chair, Molly came walking
hesitatingly towards him. Like a little wraith miraculously tinted
with bronze and blue she stopped and faced him piteously for a second.

Then suddenly she made a little wild rush into his arms and burrowed
her small frightened face in his shoulder.

"Oh, Carl, Sweetheart!" she cried. "I can really love you now? Love
you, Carl--love you! And not have to be just Molly Make-Believing any
more!"


THE END.





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