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Title: The Beloved Woman
Author: Norris, Kathleen Thompson, 1880-1966
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 "The Beloved Woman" ***

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 [Transcriber's Note:
  Hyphenation standardized.
  Archaic and variable spelling was preserved as printed.
  Missing quotation marks were added to standardize usage. Otherwise,
    the editor's punctuation style was preserved.
  Text in italics is enclosed by underscores (_italics_).]



  THE
  BELOVED WOMAN


  BY KATHLEEN NORRIS


  AUTHOR OF
  _"Harriet and the Piper," etc._


  A. L. BURT COMPANY

  Publishers
  New York

  Published by arrangement with Doubleday, Page & Company
  Printed in U. S. A.


  COPYRIGHT, 1921, BY
  KATHLEEN NORRIS

  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, INCLUDING THAT OF TRANSLATION
  INTO FOREIGN LANGUAGES, INCLUDING THE SCANDINAVIAN

  COPYRIGHT 1920, 1921, BY THE PICTORIAL REVIEW COMPANY

  PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES
  AT
  THE COUNTRY LIFE PRESS, GARDEN CITY, N. Y.


  TO
  MARY O'SULLIVAN SUTRO

    For gifts beyond all counting and esteeming,
      For kindness than which Heaven's self is not kinder,
    For the old days of tears, and smiles, and dreaming,
      This in acknowledgment, and in reminder.



CHAPTER I


For forty-eight hours the snow-storm had been raging unabated over New
York. After a wild and windy Thursday night the world had awakened to a
mysterious whirl of white on Friday morning, and to a dark, strange day
of steady snowing. Now, on Saturday, dirty snow was banked and heaped
in great blocks everywhere, and still the clean, new flakes fluttered
and twirled softly down, powdering and feathering every little ledge
and sill, blanketing areas in spotless white, capping and hooding every
unsightly hydrant and rubbish-can with exquisite and lavish beauty.
Shovels had clinked on icy sidewalks all the first day, and even during
the night the sound of shouting and scraping had not ceased for a
moment, and their more and more obvious helplessness in the teeth of
the storm awakened at last in the snow-shovellers, and in the men and
women who gasped and stumbled along the choked thoroughfares, a sort of
heady exhilaration in the emergency, a tendency to be proud of the
storm, and of its effect upon their humdrum lives. They laughed and
shouted as they battled with it, and as Nature's great barrier of snow
threw down the little barriers of convention and shyness. Men held out
their hands to slipping and stumbling women, caught them by their
shoulders, panted to them that this was a storm, all right, this was
the worst yet! Girls, staggering in through the revolving glass doors
of the big department stores, must stand laughing helplessly for a few
seconds in the gush of reviving warmth, while they beat their wet
gloves together, regaining breath and self-possession, and straightened
outraged millinery.

Traffic was congested, deserted trucks and motor-cars lined the side
streets, the subways were jammed, the surface cars helpless. Here and
there long lines of the omnibuses stood blocked in snow, and the press
frantically heralded impending shortages of milk and coal, reiterating
pessimistically: "No relief in sight."

But late in Saturday morning there was a sudden lull. The snow stopped,
the wind fell, and the pure, cold air was motionless and sweet. The city
emerged exhausted from its temporary blanketing, and from the buried
benches of Bowling Green to the virgin sweep of pure white beyond Van
Cortlandt Park, began its usual January fight with the snow.

A handsome, rosy old lady, wrapped regally in furs, and with a maid
picking her way cautiously beside her, was one of the first to take
advantage of the sudden change in the weather. Mrs. Melrose had been
held captive for almost two days, first by Thursday's inclement winds,
and then by the blizzard. Her motor-car was useless, and although at
sixty she was an extremely youthful and vigorous woman, her daughters
and granddaughter had threatened to use force rather than let her risk
the danger of an expedition on foot, at least while the storm continued.

But now the wind was gone, and by the time Mrs. Melrose had been
properly shod, and coated, and hatted, there was even a dull glimmer
toward the southeast that indicated the location of the long-lost sun.
The old lady looked her approval at Fifth Avenue, with all its crudities
veiled and softened by the snowfall, and as she climbed into an omnibus
expressed herself firmly to Regina.

"You mark my words, the sun will be out before we come home!"

Regina, punching the two dimes carefully into the jolting receiver, made
only a respectful murmur for answer. She was, like many a maid, a snob
where her mistress was concerned, and she did not like to have Mrs.
Melrose ride in public omnibuses. For Regina herself it did not matter,
but Mrs. Melrose was one of the city's prominent and wealthy women, and
Regina could not remember that she had ever sunk to the use of a public
conveyance before to-day. The maid was glad when they descended at a
street in the East Sixties. They would probably be sent home, she
reflected, in Mrs. Liggett's car. For Regina noticed that private cars
were beginning to grind and slip over the snow again.

Old Mrs. Melrose was going to see her daughter Alice, who was Mrs.
Christopher Liggett, because Alice was an invalid. It had been only a
few years after Alice's most felicitous marriage, a dozen years ago,
when an accident had laid the lovely and brilliant woman upon the bed of
helplessness that she might never leave again. There was no real reason
why the spine should continue useless, the great specialists said, there
was a hope--even a probability--that as Alice grew rested and strong,
after the serious accident, she might find herself walking again. But
Alice had been a prisoner for ten years now, and the mother and sister
who idolized her feared that she would never again be the old dancing
Alice and feared that she knew it. What Christopher Liggett feared they
did not know. He insisted that Alice's illness was but temporary, and
was tireless in his energetic pursuit of treatment for his wife.
Everything must be hoped, and everything must be tried, and Alice's
mother knew that one of the real crosses of her daughter's life was
sorrowful pity for Chris's optimistic delusions.

The young Liggetts had sold the old house of Christopher's father, an
immense brownstone mansion a few squares away, and lived in a modern,
flat-faced gray-stone house that rose five stories from the beautifully
arranged basement entrance. There were stone benches at the entrance,
and a great iron grill, and two potted trees, and the small square
windows were leaded, and showed blossoming plants inside. The three long
windows above gave upon a little-used formal drawing-room, with a Gothic
fireplace of white stone at one end, and a dim jumble of rich colours
and polished surfaces between that and the big piano at the other. The
room at the back, on this floor, was an equally large and formal
dining-room, gleaming with carved mahogany and fretted plate, used only
on the rare occasions of a dinner-party.

But on the floor above the gracious mistress of the house had her
domain, and here there was enough beauty and colour to make the whole
house live. The front room, cool all summer because it faced north, and
warm all winter, because of the great open fireplace that augmented the
furnace heat, was Alice's sitting-room; comfortable, beautiful, and
exquisitely ordered. None of the usual clutter of the invalid was there.
The fireplace was of plain creamy tiling, the rugs dull-toned upon a
dark, polished floor. There were only two canvases on the dove-gray
walls, and the six or seven photographs that were arranged together on
the top of one of the low, plain, built-in bookcases, were framed alike.
There were no meaningless vases, no jars or trays or plaques or
ornaments in Alice's room. Her flowers she liked to see in shining glass
bowls; her flat-topped desk was severely bare.

But the cretonne that dressed her big comfortable chairs and her couch
was bright with roses and parrots and hollyhocks, and the same cretonne,
with plain net undercurtaining, hung at her four front windows. The room
was big enough to accommodate besides, even with an air of space and
simplicity, the little grand piano that Christopher played for her
almost every night. A great Persian tortoise-shell cat was at home here,
and sometimes Alice had her magnificent parrot besides, hanging himself
upside down on his gaily-painted stand, and veiling the beady, sharp eye
with which he watched her. The indulgent extravagance of her mother had
bound all the books that Alice loved in the same tone of stony-blue
vellum, the countless cushions with which the aching back was so
skillfully packed were of the same dull tone, and it pleased the persons
who loved her to amuse the prisoner sometimes with a ring in which her
favourite note was repeated, or a chain of old lapis-lazuli that made
Alice's appreciative blue eyes more blue.

Back of Alice's room was a den in which Christopher could conduct much
of his personal business, and beyond that was the luxurious bathroom, a
modern miracle of enamel tiling and shining glass. Across the
sun-flooded back of the house were Alice's little bedroom, nunlike in
its rigid austerity, her nurse's room adjoining, and a square sun-room,
giving glimpses of roofs and trim back-gardens, full of flowers, with a
little fountain and goldfish, a floor of dull pink tiling, and plants in
great jars of Chinese enamel. Christopher had planned this delightful
addition to Alice's domain only a few years ago, and, with that
knowledge of her secret heart that only Christopher could claim, had let
her share the pleasure of designing and arranging it. It stretched out
across the west side of the spacious backyard, almost touching the
branches of the great plane tree, and when, after the painful move to
her mother's house, and the necessary absence during the building of it,
Alice had been brought back to this new evidence of their love and
goodness, she had buried her face against Christopher's shoulder, and
told him that she didn't think people with all the world to wander in
had ever had anything lovelier than this!

One of the paintings that Alice might look at idly, in the silence of
the winter noon, was of a daisied meadow, stretching between walls of
heavy summer woodland to the roof of a half-buried farmhouse in the
valley below. The other picture was of the very mother who was coming
toward Alice now, in the jolting omnibus. But it was a younger mother,
and a younger Alice, that had been captured by the painter's genius. It
was a stout, imperious, magnificently gowned woman, of not much more
than thirty, in whose spreading silk lap a fair little girl was sitting.
This little earnest-eyed child was Alice at seven. The splendid,
dark-eyed, proud-looking boy of about fourteen, who stood beside the
mother, was Teddy, her only son, dead now for many years, and perhaps
mercifully dead. The fourth and last person pictured was the elder
daughter, Annie, who had been about nine years old then, Alice
remembered. Annie and Alice had been unusually alike, even for sisters,
but even then Annie's fair, aristocratic type of blonde prettiness had
been definite where Alice's was vague, and Annie's expression had been
just a trifle haughty and discontented where Alice's was always grave
and sweet. Annie had almost been a beauty, she was extremely and
conspicuously good-looking even now, when as Mrs. Hendrick von Behrens,
wife of a son of an old and wealthy Knickerbocker family, she was
supreme in the very holy of holies of the city's social life.

Mrs. Melrose came unannounced upon her daughter to-day, and Alice's
colourless warm cheek flushed with happiness under her mother's fresh,
cold kiss.

"Mummy--you darling! But how did you get here? Miss Slater says that the
streets are absolutely impassable!"

"I came in the 'bus, dear," Mrs. Melrose said, very much pleased with
herself. "How warm and comfy you are in here, darling. But what did I
interrupt?"

"You didn't interrupt anything," Alice said, quickly. "Chris telephoned,
and he's bringing Henrici--the Frenchman who wrote that play I loved
so--to tea. Isn't that fun? I'm so excited--and I think Chris was such a
duck to get hold of him. I was translating it, you know, and Bowditch,
who was here for dinner last night, told me he'd place it, if I finished
it. And now I can talk it over with Henrici himself--thanks to Chris!
Chris met my man at the club, and told him about me, and he said he
would be charmed. So I telephoned several persons, and I tried to get
hold of Annie----"

"Annie has a lunch--and a board meeting at the hospital at four,"
Annie's mother remembered, "and Leslie is at a girls' luncheon
somewhere. Annie had breakfast with me, and was rushing off afterward.
She's quite wonderfully faithful about those things."

"Well, but you'll stay for lunch and tea, too, Mummy?" Alice pleaded.
She was lying back in her pillows, feasting her eyes upon her mother's
face with that peculiarly tense devotion that was part of her nature.
Rarely did a day pass without their meeting, and no detail touching
Annie's life, Annie's boys or husband, was too small to interest Alice.
She was especially interested, too, in Leslie, the eighteen-year-old
daughter that her brother Theodore had left to his mother's care; in
fact, between the mother and daughters, the one granddaughter and two
little grandsons, and the two sons-in-law of the Melrose family, a deep
bond existed, a bond of pride as well as affection. It was one of their
favourite boasts that to the Melroses the unity and honour of the family
was the first consideration in the world.

But to-day Mrs. Melrose could not stay. At one o'clock she left Alice to
be put into her prettiest robe by the devoted Miss Slater, saw with
satisfaction that preparations for tea were noiselessly under way,
called Regina, odorous of tea and mutton chops, from the pantry, and
went out into the quiet cold of the winter noon.

The old Melrose house was a substantial, roomy, brownstone building in
Madison Avenue, inconspicuous perhaps among several notoriously handsome
homes, but irreproachably dignified none the less. A few blocks below it
the commercial current of East Thirty-fourth Street ebbed and flowed; a
few blocks north the great façade of the Grand Central Station shut off
the street completely. Third Avenue, behind it, swarmed and rattled
alarmingly close, and Broadway flared its impudent signs only five
minutes' walk in the other direction, but here, in a little oasis of
quiet street, two score of old families serenely held their place
against the rising tide, and among them the Melroses confidently felt
themselves valued and significant.

Mrs. Melrose mounted her steps with the householder's secret
complacency. They were scrupulously brushed of the last trace of snow,
and the heavy door at the top swung noiselessly open to admit her. She
suddenly realized that she was very tired, that her fur coat was heavy,
and her back ached. She swept straight to the dark old curving stairway,
and mounted slowly.

"Joseph," she said over her shoulder, "send luncheon upstairs, please.
And when Miss Leslie comes in, tell her I should like to see her, if it
isn't too late. Anybody coming to-night?"

"Mr. von Behrens telephoned that he and Mr. Liggett might come in for a
moment, on his way to the banquet at the Waldorf, Madam. But that was
all."

"I may have dinner upstairs, too, if Leslie is going anywhere," Mrs.
Melrose said to herself, mounting slowly. And it seemed to her fatigue
very restful to find her big room warm and orderly, her coal fire
burning behind the old-fashioned steel rods, all the homely,
comfortable treasures of her busy years awaiting her. She sank into a
chair, and Regina flew noiselessly about with slippers and a loose silk
robe. Presently a maid was serving smoking-hot bouillon, and Mrs.
Melrose felt herself relaxed and soothed; it was good to be home.

Yet there was trace of uneasiness, of something almost like
apprehension, in the look that wandered thoughtfully about the
overcrowded room. Presently she reached a plump, well-groomed hand
toward the bell. But when Regina came to stand expectantly near her,
Mrs. Melrose roused herself from a profound abstraction to assure her
that she had not rung--it must have been a mistake.

"Miss Leslie hasn't come in?"

"Not yet, Madam, Miss Melrose is at Miss Higgins's luncheon."

"Yes; but it was an early luncheon," the grandmother said,
discontentedly. "She was playing squash, or tennis, or something!
Regina----"

"Yes, Madam?"

But Mrs. Melrose was musing again.

"Regina, I am expecting a caller at four o'clock, a Mrs. Sheridan.
Please see that she is shown up at once. I want to see her here. And
please----"

A pause. Regina waited.

"That's all!" her mistress announced, suddenly.

Alone again, the old lady stirred her tea, ruminated for a few moments
with narrowed eyes fixed on space, recalled herself to her surroundings,
and finished her cup.

Her room was large, filled with chairs and tables, lamps and cushions,
silver trays and lacquer boxes, vases and jars and bowls, gift books
and current magazines. There was not an unbroken inch of surface
anywhere, the walls were closely set with pictures of all sorts. Along
the old-fashioned mantel, a scalloped, narrow shelf of marble, was a
crowding line of photographs in silver frames, and there were other
framed photographs all about the room. There were the young mothers of
the late eighties, seated to best display their bustles and their French
twists, with heavy-headed infants in their tightly cased arms, and there
were children's pictures, babes in shells, in swings, or leaning on
gates. There were three Annies: one in ringlets, plaid silk, and
tasselled boots, at eight; one magnificent in drawing-room plumes; and a
recent one, a cloudy study of the severely superb mother, with a
sleek-headed, wide-collared boy on each side of her. There was a
photograph of the son Theodore, handsome, sullen, dressed in the fashion
of the opening century, and there was more than one of Theodore's
daughter, the last of the Melroses. Leslie had been a wide-eyed, sturdy
little girl who carried a perpetually surprised, even a babyish
expression into her teens, but her last pictures showed the débutante,
the piquant and charming eighteen-year-old, whose knowingly tipped hat
and high fur collar left only a glimpse of pretty and pouting face
between.

Leslie came in upon her grandmother at about three o'clock. She was
genuinely tired, after an athletic morning at the club, a luncheon amid
a group of chattering intimates, and a walk with the young man whose
attentions to her were thrilling not only her grandmother and aunts, but
the cool-blooded little Leslie herself. Acton Liggett was Christopher's
only brother, only relative indeed, and promised already to be as great
a favourite as the irresistible Chris himself. Both were rich, both
fine-looking, straightforward, honourable men, proud of their own
integrity, their long-established family, and their old firm. Acton was
pleasantly at home in the Melrose, Liggett, and Von Behrens houses, the
very maids loved him, and his quiet singling out of Leslie for his
devotion had satisfied everyone's sense of what was fitting and
delightful. Pretty Leslie, back from a summer's idling with Aunt Annie
and the little boys, in California and Hawaii, had found Acton's
admiration waiting for her, with all the other joys of her débutante
winter.

And even the critical Aunt Annie had to admit that the little minx was
managing the whole matter with consummate skill. Leslie was not in the
least self-conscious with Acton; she turned to him with all the artless
confidence of a little sister. She asked him about her dancing partners,
and about her gowns, and she discussed with him all the various bits of
small gossip that concerned their own friends.

"Should I have said that, Acton?" she would ask, trustfully. "Shall I be
Marion's bridesmaid? Would you?--after I refused Linda Fox, you know. I
don't like to dance with Louis Davis, after what you told me; what shall
I do when he comes up to me?"

Acton was twenty-five, seven years her senior. He advised her earnestly,
over many a confidential cup of tea. And just lately, the grandmother
noticed exultantly, hardly a day passed that did not find the young
couple together.

"How did Acton happen to meet you, lovey?" she asked to-day, _apropos_
of the walk.

"Why, he telephoned Vesta Higgins's, and asked me how I was going to get
home. I said, walk. There was no use trying motor-cars, anyway, for they
were slipping and bumping terribly! He said he was in the neighbourhood,
and he came up. Granny----"

She paused, and her grandmother was conscious of a quickened heart-beat.
The thoughtful almost tremulous tone was not like giddy little Leslie.

"Granny," the girl repeated, presently, "how old was my mother when she
got married?"

"About twenty-two," the old woman said.

"And how old was Aunt Annie when she did?"

"Annie's about thirty-seven," her mother considered. "She was about
twenty-five. But why, dear?"

"Nothing," said Leslie, and fell silent.

She was still in the silk blouse and short homespun skirt that she had
worn at the athletic club luncheon, but she had thrown aside her loose
woolly coat, and the narrow furs that were no softer than her own fair
skin. Flung back into a deep chair, and relaxed after her vigorous day,
she looked peculiarly childish and charming, her grandmother thought.
She was like both her aunts, with Annie's fair, almost ashen hair and
Alice's full, pretty mouth. But she was more squarely built than either,
and a hint of a tip, at the end of her nose, gave her an expression at
once infantile and astonished. When Leslie opened her blue eyes widely,
and stared at anything, she looked like an amazed baby, and the effect
of her round eyes and tilted nose was augmented by her very fair skin,
and by just a sixteenth of an inch shortness in her upper lip. Of course
she knew all this. Her acquaintance with her own good and bad points had
begun in school days, and while through her grandmother's care her
teeth were being straightened, and her eyes and throat subjected to mild
forms of surgery, her Aunt Annie had seen to it that her masses of fair
hair had been burnished and groomed, her hands scraped and polished into
beauty, and finally that her weight was watched with scrupulous care.
Nature had perhaps intended Leslie to be plump and ruddy, but modern
fashion had decreed otherwise, and, with half the girls of her own age
and set, Leslie took saccharine in her tea, rarely touched sweets or
fried food, and had the supreme satisfaction of knowing that she was
actually too slim and too willowy for her height, and interestingly
colourless into the bargain.

Could Acton possibly have said anything definite to start this unusual
train of thought, the grandmother speculated. With Leslie so
felicitously married, she would have felt ready for her _nunc dimittis_.
She watched Leslie expectantly. But the girl was apparently dreaming,
and was staring absently at the tip of one sturdy oxford above which a
stretch of thick white woollen stocking was visible almost to her knee.

"How can they fall in love with them, dressed like Welsh peasants!" the
grandmother said to herself, in mild disapproval. And aloud she said:
"Ah, don't, lovey!"

For Leslie had taken out a small gold case, and was regarding it
thoughtfully.

"My first to-day, on my honour!" Leslie said, as she lazily lighted a
sweet-scented cigarette. It never occurred to her to pay any attention
to her grandmother's protest, for Grandmother had been regularly
protesting against everything Leslie had done since her adored and
despotic childhood. She had fainted when Leslie had dived off the dock
at Newport, and had wept when Leslie had galloped through the big iron
gates on her own roan stallion; she had called in Christopher, as
Leslie's guardian, when Leslie, at fifteen, had calmly climbed into one
of the big cars, and driven it seven miles, alone and unadvised, and
totally without instruction or experience. Leslie knew that this
half-scandalized and wholly-admiring opposition was one of her
grandmother's secret satisfactions, and she combatted it only
mechanically.

"Have one, Grandma?"

"Have one--you wild girl you! I'd like to know what a nice young man
thinks when a refined girl offers him----"

"All the nice young men are smoking themselves, like chimneys!"

"Ah, but that's a very different thing. No, my dear, no man, whether he
smokes himself or not, likes to have a sweet, womanly girl descend----"

"Darling, didn't you ever do anything that my revered great-grandmother
Murison disapproved of?" Leslie teased, dropping on her knees before her
grandmother, and resting her arms on her lap.

"Smoke----! My mother would have fainted," said Mrs. Melrose. "And don't
blow that nasty-smelling stuff in my face!"

But she could not resist the pleasure that the lovely young face, so
near her own, gave her, and she patted it with her soft, wrinkled hand.
Suddenly Leslie jumped up eagerly, listening to the sound of voices in
the hall.

"There's Aunt Annie--oh, goody! I wanted to ask her----"

But it was Regina who opened the door, showing in two callers. The first
was a splendid-looking woman of perhaps forty-five, with a rosy,
cheerful face, and wide, shrewd gray eyes shining under a somewhat
shabby mourning veil. With her was a pretty girl of eighteen, or perhaps
a little more.

Leslie glanced astonished at her grandmother. It was extremely unusual
to have callers shown in in this unceremonious fashion, even if she had
been rather unprepossessed by these particular callers. The younger
woman's clothing, indeed, if plain, was smart and simple; her severe
tailor-made had a collar of beaver fur to relieve its dark blue, and her
little hat of blue beaver felt was trimmed only by a band of the same
fur. She had attractive dark-blue eyes and a flashing smile.

But her companion's comfortable dowdiness, her black cotton gloves, her
squarely built figure, and worn shoes, all awakened a certain contempt
in the granddaughter of the house, and caused Leslie shrewdly to surmise
that these humble strangers were pensioners of her grandmother, the
older one probably an old servant.

"Kate Sheridan!" Old Mrs. Melrose had gotten to her feet, and had put
her arm about the visitor. "Well, my dear, my dear, I've not seen you
these----What is it? Don't tell me how many years it is! And which
daughter is this?"

"This is my niece, Norma," the older woman said, in a delightful rich
voice that was full of easy confidence and friendliness. "This is Mrs.
Melrose, Norma, darling, that was such a good friend to me and mine
years ago!"

"No warmer friend than you were to me, Kate," the old lady said,
quickly, still keeping an arm about the sturdy figure. "This is my
granddaughter, Theodore's little girl," Mrs. Melrose added, catching
Leslie with her free hand.

Leslie was not more of a snob than is natural to a girl of her age and
upbringing, but she could not but give Mrs. Sheridan a pretty cool
glance. Grandmother's old friends were all very well----

But Mrs. Sheridan was studying her with affectionate freedom.

"And isn't she Miss Alice's image! But she's like you all--she's like
Mr. Theodore, too, especially through the eyes!"

And she turned back to her hostess, interested, animated, and as
oblivious to Leslie's hostile look as if the girl were her own picture
on the wall.

"And you and my Norma must know each other," she said, presently,
watching the girls as they shook hands, with a world of love and
solicitude in her eyes.

"Sit down, both you two," Mrs. Melrose said. Leslie glanced at the
strapped watch at her wrist.

"Grandmother, I really----" she began.

"No, you don't really!" her grandmother smiled. "Talk to Miss Sheridan
while I talk"--she turned smiling to her old friend--"to Kate! Tell me,
how are you all, Kate? And where are you all--you were in Detroit?"

"We've been in New York more than two years now, and why I haven't been
to see you before, perhaps _you_ can tell me, for _I_ can't!" Kate
Sheridan said. "But my boy is a great big fellow now; Wolf's
twenty-four, and Rose is twenty-one, and this one," she nodded toward
Norma, who was exchanging comments on the great storm with Leslie, "this
one is nearly nineteen! And you see they're all working: Wolf's doing
wonderfully with a firm of machine manufacturers, in Newark, and Rose
has been with one real estate firm since we came. And Norma here works
in a bookstore, up the Avenue a bit, Biretta's."

"Why, I go in there nearly every week!" the old lady said.

"She told me the other night that she had been selling some books to Mr.
Christopher Liggett, and that's Miss Alice's husband, I hear," said Mrs.
Sheridan. "She's in what they call the Old Book Room," she added,
lowering her voice. "She's wonderful about books, reads them, and knows
them as if they were children--they think the world of her in there! And
I keep house for the three of them, and what with this and that--I never
have any time!"

"But you have someone to help you, Kate?" the old lady asked, with her
amused and affectionate eyes on the other's wholesome face.

"Why would I?" demanded Mrs. Sheridan, roundly. "The girls are a great
help----"

"She always assumes a terrific brogue the minute you ask her why we
don't have someone in to help her," Norma contributed, with a sort of
shy and loving audacity. "She'll tell you in a minute that faith, she
and her sister used to run barefoot over the primroses, and they
blooming beyond anything the Lord ever created, and the spring on
them----"

Leslie Melrose laughed out suddenly, in delighted appreciation, and the
tension between the two girls was over. They had not quite known how to
talk to each other; Norma naturally assuming that Leslie looked down
upon a seller of books, and anxious to show her that she was unconscious
of either envy or inferiority, and Leslie at a loss because her usual
social chatter was as foreign here as a strange tongue would be. But no
type is quicker to grasp upon amusement, and to appreciate the amuser,
than Leslie's, unable to amuse itself, and skilled in seeking for
entertainment. She was too shy to ask Norma to imitate her aunt again,
but her stiffness relaxed, and she asked Norma if it was not great "fun"
to sell things--especially at Christmas, for instance. Norma asked in
turn if Mr. Liggett was not Leslie's uncle, and said that she had sold
him hundreds of beautiful books for his wife, and had even had a note
from Leslie's Aunt Alice, thanking her for some little courtesy.

"But isn't that funny!" Leslie said, with her childish widening of the
eyes. "That you should know Chris!"

"Well, now," said Mrs. Sheridan's voice, cutting across both
conversations, "where can these girls go for about fifteen minutes? I'll
tell you my little bit of business, Mrs. Melrose, and then Norma and I
will go along. It won't take me fifteen minutes, for there's nothing to
decide to-day," the girls heard her add, comfortably, as they went into
the hall.

"Leslie!" her grandmother called after her. "If you must change,
dear--but wait a minute, is that Aunt Annie out there?"

"No, Grandma, just ourselves. What were you going to say?"

"I was going to say, lovey, that you could ask Miss Sheridan to wait in
the library; her aunt tells me she is fond of books." Mrs. Melrose did
not quite like to commit Leslie to entertaining the strange girl for
perhaps half an hour. She was pleasantly reassured by Leslie's answering
voice:

"We'll have tea in my room, Grandma. Marion and Doris may come in!"

"That's right, have a good time!" her grandmother answered. And then
settling back comfortably, she added with her kind, fussy superiority,
"Well, Kate, I've wondered where you were hiding yourself all this time!
Let's have the business. But first I want to say that I appreciate your
turning to me. If it's money--I've got it. If it's something else, Chris
Liggett is one of the cleverest men in New York, and we'll consult him."

"It's not money, thank God!" Mrs. Sheridan said, in her forthright
voice. "Lord knows where it all comes from, these days, but the children
always have plenty," she added, glad of a diversion. "They bought
themselves a car two years ago, and if it isn't a Victrola this week,
it's a thermos bottle, or a pair of white buckskin shoes! Rose told me
she paid eight dollars for her corsets. 'Eight dollars for what,' I
said, 'a dozen?' But then I've the two houses in Brooklyn, you know----"

"You still have those?"

"I have, indeed. And even the baby--we call Norma the baby--is earning
good money now."

"She has your name, Kate--Sheridan. Had your husband a brother?"

Kate Sheridan's face grew a trifle pale. She glanced at the door to see
that it was shut, and at the one to the adjoining room to make sure
that it was closed also. Then she turned to Mrs. Melrose, and it was an
anxious glance she directed at the older woman.

"Well, now, there's no hurry about this," she began, "and you may say
that it's all nonsense, and send me packing--and God knows I hope you
will! But it just began to get on my mind--and I've never been a great
one to worry! I'll begin at the beginning----"



CHAPTER II


Marion Duer and Doris Alexander duly arrived for tea with Leslie, and
Norma was introduced. They all sat in Leslie's room, and laughed as they
reached for crumpets, and marvelled at the storm. Norma found them
rather younger than their years, and shyly anxious to be gracious. On
her part she realized with some surprise that they were not really
unapproachable, and that Leslie was genuinely anxious to take her to tea
with Aunt Alice some day, and have them "talk books and things." The
barriers between such girls as this one and herself, Norma was honest
enough to admit, were largely of her own imagining. They were neither so
contemptibly helpless nor so scornfully clever as she had fancied them;
they were just laughing girls, absorbed in thoughts of gowns and
admirers and good times, like her cousin Rose and herself.

There had been perhaps one chance in one hundred that she and Leslie
Melrose might at once become friends, but by fortunate accident that
chance had favoured them. Leslie's spontaneous laugh in Mrs. Melrose's
room, her casual mention of tea, her appreciative little phrases as she
introduced to Marion and Doris the young lady who picked out books for
Aunt Alice, had all helped to crush out the vaguely hostile impulse
Norma Sheridan had toward rich little members of a society she only knew
by hearsay. Norma had found herself sitting on Leslie's big velvet
couch laughing and chatting quite naturally, and where Norma chatted
naturally the day was won. She could be all friendliness, and all
sparkle and fun, and presently Leslie was listening to her in actual
fascination.

The butler announced a motor-car, a maid came up; Doris and Marion had
to go. Leslie and Norma went into Leslie's dressing-room, and Leslie's
maid went obsequiously to and fro, and the girls talked almost
intimately as they washed their hands and brushed their hair. Neither
cared that the time was passing.

But the time was passing none the less. Five o'clock came with a pale
and uncertain sunset, and a cold twilight began to settle over the snowy
city. Leslie and Norma came back to the fire, and were standing there, a
trifle uncertainly, but still talking hard and fast, when there was an
interruption.

They looked at each other, paling. What was that?

There was utter silence in the old house. Leslie, with a frightened look
at Norma, ran to the hall door. As she opened it Mrs. Sheridan opened
the door of her grandmother's room opposite, and called, quite loudly:

"It's nothing, dear! Get hold of your grandmother's maid--somebody! She
feels a little--but she's quite all right!"

Leslie and Norma ran across the hall, and into Mrs. Melrose's room. By
this time Regina had come flying in, and two of the younger maids, and
Joseph had run upstairs. Leslie had only one glimpse of her grandmother,
leaning against Regina's arm, and drinking from a glass of water that
shook in the maid's hands. Then Mrs. Sheridan guided both herself and
Norma firmly into the hall, and reassured them cheerfully:

"The room was very hot, dear, and your grandmother said that she had
gotten tired, walking in the wind. She's quite all right--you can go in
immediately. No; she didn't faint--she just had a moment of dizziness,
and called out."

Regina came out, too evidently convinced that she had to deal with a
murderess, and coldly asked that Mrs. Sheridan would please step back
for a minute. Mrs. Sheridan immediately complied, but it was hardly more
than a minute when she joined the girls again.

"She wants to see you, dear," she said to Leslie, whose first frightened
tears had dried from bewilderment and curiosity, "and we must hurry on.
Come, Norma, we'll say good-night!"

"Good-night, Miss Melrose," Norma said.

"Good-night," Leslie answered, hesitating over the name. Her wide
babyish smile, the more appealing because of her wet lashes, made a
sudden impression upon Norma's heart. Leslie hung childishly on the
upstairs balustrade, in the dim wide upper hall, and watched them go.
"I--I almost called you Norma!" she confessed, mischievously.

"I wish you had!" Norma called up from below. She was in great spirits
as they went out into the deepening cold blue of the street, and almost
persuaded her aunt to take the omnibus up the Avenue. But Mrs. Sheridan
protested rather absent-mindedly against this extravagance. They were
close to the subway and that was quicker.

Norma could not talk in the packed and swaying train, and when they
emerged at Sixty-fifth Street they had only one slippery, cold, dark
block to walk. But when they had reached the flat, and snapped on
lights everywhere, and cast off outer garments, aproned and busy, in the
kitchen, she burst out:

"What on earth was the matter with that old lady, Aunt Kate?"

"Oh, I suppose they all eat too much, and sleep too much, and pamper
themselves as if they were babies," her aunt returned, composedly, "and
so it doesn't take much to upset 'em!"

"Oh, come now!" the girl said, stopping with arrested knife. "That
wasn't what made her let out a yell like that!"

Mrs. Sheridan, kneeling at the oven of the gas stove, laughed uneasily.

"Oh, you could hear that, could you?"

"Hear it! They heard it in Yonkers."

"Well," Mrs. Sheridan said, "she has always been high-strung, that one.
I remember years ago she'd be going into crying and raving fits. She's
got very deep affections, Mrs. Melrose, and when she gets thinking of
Theodore, and of Alice's accident, and this and that, she'll go right
off the handle. She had been crying, poor soul, and suddenly she began
this moaning and rocking. I told her I'd call someone if she didn't
stop, for she'd go from bad to worse, with me."

"But why with you, Aunt Kate? Do you know her so well?"

"Do I know them?" Mrs. Sheridan dug an opener into a can of corn with a
vigorous hand. "I know them all!"

"But how was that?" Norma persisted, now dropping her peeled potatoes
into dancing hot water.

"I've told you five thousand times, but you and Rose would likely have
one of your giggling fits on, and not a word would you remember!" her
aunt said. "I've told you that years ago, when your Uncle Tom died, and
I was left with two babies, and not much money, a friend of mine, a
milliner she was, told me that she knew a lady that wanted someone to
help manage her affairs--household affairs. Well, I'd often helped your
Uncle Tom with his books, and my mother was with me, to look out for the
children----"

"Where was I, Aunt Kate?"

"You! Wolf wasn't but three, and Rose a year old--where would you be?"

"I was minus two years," Norma said, sententiously. "I was part of the
cosmic all----"

"You be very careful how you talk about such things until you're a
married woman!" her aunt said. "Salt those potatoes, darling. Norma, can
you remember what I did with the corn that Rose liked so?"

Norma was attentive.

"You beat it up with eggs, and it came out a sort of puff," she
recalled. "I know--you put a little cornstarch in, to give it body!
Listen, Aunt Kate, how long did you stay with Mrs. Melrose?"

"Well, first I just watched her help for her, and paid the bills, and
went to market. And then I got gradually managing more and more; I'd go
to pay her interest, or deposit money, or talk to tenants; I liked it
and she liked me. And then she talked me into going to France with her,
but I cried all the way for my children, and I was glad enough to come
home again! She and Miss Annie spent some time over there, but I came
back. Miss Alice was in school, and Theodore--dear knows where he
was--into some mischief somewhere! But I'd saved money, and she'd given
me the Brooklyn houses, and I took a boarder or two, and that was the
last I ever worked for any one but my own!"

"Well, that's a nice girl, that Leslie," Norma said, "if her father
_was_ wild!"

"Her mother was a good girl," Kate said, "I knew her. But the old lady
was proud, Baby--God save any one of us from pride like that! You'd
never know it, to see her now, but she was very proud. Theodore's wife
was a good girl, but she was Miss Annie's maid, and what Mrs. Melrose
never could forgive was that when she ordered the girl out of the house,
she showed her her wedding certificate. She was Mrs. Theodore Melrose,
fast enough--though his mother never would see her or acknowledge her in
any way."

"They must think the Lord has made a special arrangement for
them--people like that!" Norma commented, turning a lovely flushed face
from the pan where she was dexterously crisping bacon. "What business is
it of hers if her son marries a working girl? That gives me a feeling
akin to pain--just because she happens to have a lot of money! What does
Miss Leslie Melrose think of that?"

"I don't know what she thinks--she loves her grandmother, I suppose.
Mrs. Melrose took her in when she was only a tiny girl, and she's been
the apple of her eye ever since. Theodore and his wife were divorced,
and when Leslie was about four or five he came back to his mother to
die--poor fellow! It was a terrible sorrow to the old lady--she'd had
her share, one way and another! My goodness, Norma," Mrs. Sheridan
interrupted herself to say, in half-reproachful appreciation, "I wish
you'd always help me like this, my dear! You can be as useful as ten
girls, when you've a mind to! And then perhaps to-morrow you'll be as
contrary----!"

"Oh, Aunt Kate, aren't you ashamed! When I ironed all your dish-towels
last night, when you were setting bread, and I made the popovers
Sunday!" Norma kissed her aunt, brushed a dab of cornstarch from the
older woman's firm cheek, and performed a sort of erratic dance about
the protestant and solid figure. "I'm a poor working girl," she said,
"and I get dragged out with my long, hard day!"

"Well, God knows that's true, too," her aunt said, with a sudden look of
compunction; "you may make a joke of it, but it's no life for a girl. My
dear," she added, seriously, holding Norma with a firm arm, and looking
into her eyes, "I hope I did no harm by what I did to-day! I did it for
the best, whatever comes of it."

"You mean stirring up the whole thing?" Norma asked, frowning a little
in curiosity and bewilderment. "Going to see her?"

"That--yes." Mrs. Sheridan rubbed her forehead with her hand, a fashion
she had when puzzled or troubled, and suddenly resumed, with a great
rattling of pans and hissing of water, her operations at the sink.
"Well, nothing may come of it--we'll see!" she added, briskly. Norma,
who was watching her expectantly, sighed disappointedly; the subject was
too evidently closed. But a second later she was happily distracted by
the slamming of the front door; Wolf and Rose Sheridan had come in
together, and dinner was immediately served.

Norma recounted, with her own spirited embellishments, her adventures of
the afternoon as the meal progressed. She had had "fun" getting to the
office in the first place, a man had helped her, and they had both
skidded into another man, and bing!--they had all gone down on the ice
together. And then at the shop nobody had come in, and the lights had
been lighted, and the clerks had all gathered together and talked. Then
Aunt Kate had come in to have lunch, and to have Norma go with her to
the gas company's office about the disputed charge, and they had decided
to make, at last, that long-planned call on the Melroses. There followed
a description of the big house and the spoiled, pretty girl, and the
impressive yet friendly old lady.

"And Aunt Kate--I'm sorry to say!--talked her into a nervous convulsion.
You did, Aunt Kate--the poor old lady gave one piercing yell----"

"You awful girl, there'll be a judgment on you for your impudence!" her
aunt said, fondly. But Rose looked solicitously at her mother, and said:

"Mother looks as if she had had a nervous convulsion, too. You look
terribly tired, Mother!"

"Well, I had a little business to discuss with Mrs. Melrose," Mrs.
Sheridan said, "and I'm no hand for business!"

"You know it!" Wolf Sheridan concurred, with his ready laugh. "Why
didn't you send me?"

"It was her business, lovey," his mother said, mildly, over her second
heartening cup of strong black tea.

The Sheridan apartment was, in exterior at least, exactly like one
hundred thousand others that line the side streets of New York. It faced
the familiar grimy street, fringed on the great arteries each side by
cigarette stands and saloons, and it was entered by the usual flight of
stained and shabby steps, its doorway showing a set of some dozen
letter-boxes, and looking down upon a basement entrance frequently
embellished with ash-cans and milk-bottles, and, just at present, with
banks of soiled and sooty snow. The Sheridans climbed three long flights
inside, to their own rooms, but as this gained them a glimpse of river,
and a sense in summer of airiness and height, to say nothing of pleasant
nearness to the roof, they rarely complained of the stairs--in fact,
rarely thought of them at all.

With the opening of their own door, however, all likeness to their
neighbours ceased. Even in a class where home ties and home comforts are
far more common than is generally suspected, Kate Sheridan was
exceptional, and her young persons fortunate among their kind. Her
training had been, she used to tell them, "old country" training, but it
was not only in fresh linen and hot, good food that their advantage lay.
It was in the great heart that held family love a divine gift, that had
stood between them and life's cold realities for some twenty courageous
years. Kate idolized her own two children and her foster-child with a
passion that is the purest and the strongest in the world. In possessing
them, she thought herself the most blessed of women. To keep a roof over
their heads, to watch them progress triumphantly through long division
and measles and skates, to see milk glasses emptied and plates scraped,
to realize that Wolf was as strong morally as he was physically, and
that all her teachers called Rose an angel, to spoil and adore the
beautiful, mischievous, and amusing "Baby"; this made a life full to the
brim, for Kate, of pride and happiness. Kate had never had a servant,
or a fur coat; for long intervals she had not had a night's unbroken
rest; and there had been times, when Wolf's fractured arm necessitated a
doctor's bill, or when coal for the little Detroit house had made a
disproportionate hole in her bank account, in which even the thrifty
Kate had known biting financial worry.

But the children never knew it. They knew only her law of service and
love. They must love each other, whatever happened. There was no
quarrelling at meals at Kate's house. Rose must of course oblige her
brother, sew on the button, or take his book to the library; Wolf must
always protect the girls, and consider them. Wolf firmly believed his
sister and cousin to be the sweetest girls in the world; Rose and Norma
regarded Wolf as perfection in human form. They rarely met without
embraces, never without brightening eyes and light hearts.

That this attitude toward each other was only the result of the healthy
bodies and honest souls that Kate had given them they would hardly have
believed. That her resolute training had literally forced them to love
and depend upon themselves in a world where brothers and sisters as
habitually teased and annoyed each other, would have struck them as
fantastic. Perhaps Kate herself hardly knew the power of her own will
upon them. Her commands in their babyhood had not been couched in the
language of modern child-analysts, nor had she given, or been able to
give, any particular reason for her law. But the instinct by which she
drew Wolf's attention to his sister's goodness, or noted Wolf's
cleverness for Rose's benefit, was better than any reason. She summed
the situation up simply for the few friends she had, with the phrase:

"They're all crazy about each other, every one of them!"

Kate's parlour would have caused Annie von Behrens actual faintness. But
it was a delightful place to Rose and Wolf and their friends. The
cushioned divan on Sunday nights customarily held a row of them, the
upright ebony piano sifted popular music impartially upon the taboret,
the patent rocker, and the Rover rug. They laughed, gossiped, munched
candy, and experimented in love-making quite as happily as did Leslie
and her own intimates. They streamed out into the streets, and sauntered
along under the lights to the moving pictures, or on hot summer nights
they perched like tiers of birds on the steps, and the world and youth
seemed sweet to them. In Kate's dining-room, finished in black wood and
red paper, they made Welsh rarebits and fudge, and in Kate's spotless
kitchen odours of toast and coffee rose at unseemly hours.

Lately, Rose and Norma had been talking of changes. Rose was employed in
an office whose severe and beautiful interior decoration had cost
thousands of dollars, and Norma's Old Book Room was a study in dull
carved woods, Oriental rugs, dull bronzes, and flawless glass. The girls
began to feel that a plain cartridge paper and net curtains might well
replace the parlour's florid green scrolling and Nottingham lace. But
they did not worry about it; it served as a topic to amuse their leisure
hours. The subject was generally routed by a shrewd allusion, from Norma
or Wolf, to the sort of parlour people would like if they got married,
married to someone who was doing very well in the shoe business, for
example.

These allusions deepened the colour in Rose's happy face; she had been
"going" for some three months with an attractive young man who exactly
met these specifications--not her first admirer, not noticeable for any
especial quality, yet Rose and Norma, and Kate, too, felt in their souls
that Rose's hour had come. Young Harry Redding was a big, broad, rather
inarticulate fellow, whose humble calling was not the more attractive to
the average young woman because he supported his mother by it. But he
suited Rose, more, he seemed wonderful to Rose, and because her dreams
had always been humble and self-sacrificing, Harry was a thousand times
more than she had dreamed. She felt herself the luckiest girl in the
world.

Kate sat at the head of her table, and Wolf at the foot. Rose, a gentle,
quiet copy of her handsome mother, was nearest the kitchen door, to
which she made constant flying trips. Norma was opposite Rose, and by
falling back heavily could tip her entire chair against the sideboard,
from which she extracted forks or salt or candy, as the case might be.
The telephone was in the dining-room, Wolf's especial responsibility,
and Mrs. Sheridan herself occasionally left the table for calls to the
front door or the dumb-waiter.

To-night, after supper, the girls flew through their share of
clearing-up. It never weighed very heavily upon them; they usually began
the process of piling and scraping dishes before they left the table,
Rose whisking the tablecloth into its drawer as Norma bumped through the
swinging door with the last dishes, and Kate halfway through the washing
even then. Chattering and busy, they hustled the hot plates onto their
shelves, rattled the hot plated ware into its basket, clanked saucepans,
and splashed water. Not fifteen minutes after the serving of the dessert
the last signs of the meal had been obliterated, and Kate was guilty of
what the girls called "making excuses" to linger in the kitchen. She was
mixing cereal, storing cold potatoes and cut bread, soaking dish-towels.
But these things did not belong to the duties of Norma and Rose, and the
younger girl could flash with a free conscience to the little room she
shared with Rose. Wolf had called out for a companion, they were going
to take a walk and see what the blizzard had done!

Norma washed her face, the velvety skin emerging with its bloom
untouched, the lips crimson, the blue eyes blazing. She pressed a great
wave of silky dark hair across her white forehead, and put the
fur-trimmed hat at a dashing angle. The lace blouse, the pearl beads,
her fur-collared coat again, and Norma was ready to dance out beside
Wolf as if fatigue and labours did not exist.

"Where's Rose?" he said, as they went downstairs.

"Oh, Wolf--Saturday night! Harry's coming, of course!" Norma slipped her
little hand, in its shabby glove, through his big arm. "She and Aunt
Kate were gossiping!"

"Suits me!" Wolf said, contentedly. He held her firmly on the slippery
lumps of packed snow. The sidewalks were almost impassable, yet hundreds
of other happy persons were stumbling and scrambling over them in the
mild winter darkness. Stars were out; and whether Norma was blinking up
at them, or staring into lighted windows of candy stores and fruit
markets, her own eyes danced and twinkled. The elevated trains thundered
above their heads, and the subway roared under their feet; great
advertising signs, with thousands of coloured lights, fanned up and down
in a haze of pink and blue; the air was full of voices, laughing and
shouting, and the screaming of coasting children.

"I have my pearls on," Norma told her companion. They stopped for some
molasses peppermints, and their pungent odour mingled for Norma in the
impression of this happy hour. "Wolf, how do they do that?" the girl
asked, watching an electric sign on which a maid mopped a dirty floor
with some prepared cleaner, leaving the floor clean after her mop. Wolf,
interested, explained, and Norma listened. They stopped at a drug store,
and studied a picture that subtly altered from Roosevelt's face to
Lincoln's, and thence to Wilson's face, and Wolf explained that, too.
Norma knew that he understood everything of that nature, but she liked
to impress him, too, and did so far more often than she realized, with
her book-lore. When Norma spoke lightly of a full calf edition de luxe
of the Sonnets from the Portuguese, she might almost have been speaking
in that language for all she conveyed to Wolf, but he watched the
animated face proudly just the same. Rose had always been good and
steady and thoughtful, but Wolf knew that Norma was clever, taking his
big-brotherly patronage with admiring awe, but daring where he
hesitated, and boldly at home where he was ill at ease. When she said
that when she got married she wanted Dedham china, and just a plain,
glass bowl for goldfish, Wolf nodded, but he would have nodded just as
placidly if she had wanted a Turkish corner and bead portières. And
to-night when she asserted that she wouldn't be Leslie Melrose for
anything in the world, Wolf asked in simple wonderment why she should
be.

"Imagine, a maid came to take those big girls home, Wolf! They can speak
French," Norma confided. Wolf did not look for coherence from her, and
took the two statements on their face value. "Now, I know I'm not
pretty," she continued, following, as was usual with her, some obscure
line of thought, "but I'm prettier than Doris Alexander, and she had her
picture in the paper!"

"Who broke it to you that you're not pretty?" Wolf asked.

"Well, I _know_ I'm not!" Norma jumped along at his side for a few
minutes, eyeing him expectantly, but Wolf's mind was honestly busy with
this assertion, and he did not speak. Wasn't she pretty? Girls had funny
standards. "You know," she resumed, "you'd hate a girl like Leslie
Melrose, Wolf!"

"Would I?"

"Oh, you'd loathe her. But I'll tell you who you _would_ like," Norma
added, in a sudden burst. "You'd love Mr. Liggett!"

"Why should I?" Wolf asked, in some surprise.

"Oh, because he's nice--he's very good-looking, and he has such a
pleasant voice, as if he knew everything, but wasn't a bit conceited!"
Norma said. "And he picks out books for his wife, and when I try to tell
him something about them, he always knows lots more. You know, in a
pleasant, careless sort of way, not a bit as if he was showing off. And
I'll tell you what he did. Miss Drake was showing him a pottery bowl
one day, and she dropped it, and she told me he sort of caught at it
with his hand, and he said to Mr. Biretta, 'I've very stupidly broken
this--just put it on my bill, will you?' Of course," Norma added,
vivaciously, "old B. G. immediately said that it was nothing at all, but
_you know_ what Miss Drake would have caught, if _she'd_ broken it!"

Perhaps Wolf did, but he was thinking at the moment that the family baby
was very cunning, with her bright eyes and indignant mouth. He stopped
her before a vaudeville house, in a flare of bright light.

"Want to go in?"

"Oh, Wolf! Would Aunt Kate care? Oh, Wolf, _let's_!"

There was absolute ecstasy in her eyes as they went through the
enchanted doorway and up the rising empty foyer toward the house. It was
nine o'clock; the performance was fairly under way. Norma rustled into a
seat beside her companion without moving her eyes from the coloured
comedian on the stage; she could remove hat and gloves and jacket
without losing an instant of him.

When the lights went up Wolf approved the dark hair and the pearls, and
bent toward her to hear the unending confidences. Norma thought she had
never seen anything better, and even Wolf admitted that it was a good
show. They finished the peppermints, and were very happy.

They had seen the big film, and so could cut the last third of the
programme, and reach home at ten o'clock. There was no comment from Aunt
Kate, who was yawning over the evening paper in the dining-room. Rose
and Harry were murmuring in the dimly lighted parlour. Wolf, who was of
the slow-thinking, intense type that discovers a new world every time it
reads a new book, was halfway through a shabby library copy of "War and
Peace," and went off to his room with the second volume under his arm.
Norma went to her room, too, but she sat dreaming before the mirror,
thinking of that Melrose house, and of Leslie's friendliness, until Rose
came in at eleven o'clock.



CHAPTER III


At almost this same moment Norma's self was the subject of a rather
unusual talk between Christopher Liggett and his wife.

Christopher had come softly into his house, at about half-past ten, to
find Alice awake, still on the big couch before her fire. Her little
bedroom beyond was softly lighted, the white bed turned down, and the
religious books she always read before going to sleep laid in place by
Miss Slater. But Alice had no light except her fire and two or three
candles in old sconces.

She welcomed Christopher with a smile, and he sat down, in his somewhat
rumpled evening dress, and smiled back at her in a rather weary fashion.
He often told her that these rooms of hers were a sanctuary, that he
tested the men and women he met daily in the world by her fine and lofty
standard. It was part of his utter generosity to her that he talked to
her as frankly as if he thought aloud, and it was Alice's pride and joy
to know that this marriage of theirs, which had so sadly and suddenly
become no marriage at all, was not as one-sided as the world might have
suspected. Her clear, dispassionate viewpoint and her dignified
companionship were not wifehood, but they were dear and valuable to him
none the less, a part of his life that he would not have spared. And he
could still admire her, too, not only for the exquisite clearness of her
intellect, her French and Italian, her knowledge of countries and
affairs, but physically--the clear, childish forehead that was as
unwrinkled as Leslie's, the fair, beautifully brushed hair, the mouth
with its chiselling of wisdom and of pain, and the transparent hand from
which she shook back transparent laces. She was always proud, always
fresh and fragrant, always free for him and for his problems, and it was
proverbial in the circle of their intimates that Chris admired Alice
with all his heart, and never felt himself anything but the privileged
guardian of a treasure.

To-night he dropped into a chair before her fire, and she watched him
for five or six restful minutes in silence.

"Stupid dinner?" she ventured.

"Rotten!" he answered, cheerfully. "I was late, but I got in to hear
Hendrick's speech. The Vice-President was there, everyone else I knew. I
cut away finally; I'm done up."

"I thought you picked up Hendrick on your way and went together," Mrs.
Liggett said, sympathetically. "I'm sorry it was dull--I suppose men
have to go to these political things!"

Chris was leaning forward, his locked hands dropped between his knees,
and his eyes on the fire.

"Hendrick and I stopped at your mother's," he said, deliberately, "and
she was so upset that I sent Hendrick on alone!"

Alice's eyes lighted apprehensively, but she spoke very quietly.

"What was it, Chris? Leslie getting saucy?"

"Oh, no, no! It was a complication of things, I imagine!" Christopher
took out his cigarette-case, looked at its moiré surface reflectively,
and selected a smoke. "She was tired--she'd been out in the
snow--Leslie had gone off with Annie to some débutante affair--I daresay
she felt blue. Alice, do you remember a woman named Kate Sheridan?"

The question was sudden, and Alice blinked.

"Yes, I do," she answered, after a moment's thought, "she was a sort of
maid or travelling companion of Mama's. We called her Mrs. Sheridan--she
was quite a superior sort of person."

"What do you remember about her, dear?"

"Well--just that. She came when I was only a child--and then when Annie
was ill in Paris she went abroad with Mama--and I remember that she came
back, and she used to come see me at school, for Mama, and once she took
me up to Grandma's, in Brookline. She was a widow, and she had a
child--or two, maybe. Why, Chris?"

Her husband did not answer, and she repeated the question.

"Well," he said, at last, flinging the end of his cigarette into the
fire, "she came to see your mother to-day."

Alice waited, a little at a loss. To her this had no particular
significance.

"She had her niece with her, young girl about eighteen," Christopher
said.

"Well--what _of_ it?" Alice demanded, with a sort of superb indifference
to anything such a woman might do.

He looked at her through his round eyeglasses, with the slight frown
that many of life's problems brought to his handsome face. Then the
glass fell, on its black ribbon, and he laughed.

"That's just what I don't _get_," he said, good-humouredly. "But I'll
tell you exactly what occurred. What's-His-Name, your mother's
butler----"

"Joseph."

"Joseph. Joseph told me that at about four o'clock this Mrs. Sheridan
came in. Your mother had told him that she was expecting the lady, and
that he was to bring her upstairs. With her came this girl--I can't
remember her name--but it was something Sheridan--Nora Sheridan, maybe.
Leslie carried the girl off for tea, and the woman stayed with your
mother.

"Well, at five--or later, this Mrs. Sheridan ran into the hall, and it
seems--she's all right now!--it seems that your mother had fainted."

"Mama!" Alice said, anxiously, with an incredulous frown.

"Yes, but don't worry. She's absolutely all right now. Leslie,"
Christopher went back to his narrative, "Leslie cried, and I suppose
there was a scene. Mrs. Sheridan and the girl went home--Leslie dressed
and went out--and your mother immediately telephoned Lee----"

"Judge Lee?"

"Yes--she said so. Lee's up in Westchester with his daughter, she
couldn't get him----"

"But, Chris, why did she want her lawyer?"

"That's just it--_why_? Well, then she telephoned here for me--I was on
my way there, as it happened, and just before eight Hendrick and I went
in. I could see she was altogether up stage, so I sent Von on and had it
out with her."

"And what was her explanation, Chris?"

Christopher laughed again.

"I'll be darned," he said, thoughtfully, "if I can make head or tail of
it! It would be funny if it wasn't that she's taking it so hard. She was
in bed, and she had been crying--wouldn't eat any dinner----"

"But, Chris," Alice said, worriedly, "what do you _make_ of it! What did
she _say_?"

"Well, she clasped my hand, and she said that she had an opportunity to
undo a great wrong--and that I must help her--and not ask any
questions--she was just acting as you and I would have her act under the
circumstances----"

"What circumstances?" Alice said, at an utter loss, as he paused.

"She didn't say," he smiled.

"Oh, come, now, Chris, she must have said more than that!"

"No, she didn't. She said that she must make it up to this girl, and she
wished to see Lee about it immediately."

"To change her will!" Alice exclaimed.

"She didn't say so. Of course, it may be some sort of blackmail."
Christopher looked whimsically at his wife. "As I remember my
father-in-law," he said, "it seems to me improbable that out of the past
could come this engaging young girl--very pretty, they said----"

"Father! Oh, nonsense!" Alice exclaimed, almost in relief at the
absurdity. "No, but it might be some business--some claim against the
firm," she suggested.

"Well, I thought of that. But there are one or two reasons why it
doesn't seem the solution. I asked your mother if it was money, and she
said no, said it positively and repeatedly. Then I asked her if she
would like this Sheridan woman shut up, and she was quite indignant.
Kate!--Kate was one of the most magnificent women God had ever made, and
so on!"

"Well, I do remember Mrs. Sheridan as a lovely sort of person," Alice
contributed. "Plain, you know, but quite wonderful for--well,
_goodness_. It's funny--but then you know Mama is terribly excitable,"
she added, "she gets frightfully worked up over nothing, or almost
nothing. It's quite possible that when Kate recalled old times to her
she suddenly wished that she had done more for Kate--something like
that. She'd think nothing of sending for Judge Lee on the spot. You
remember her recalling us from our wedding-trip because she couldn't
find the pearls? All the way from Lake Louise to hear that they had been
lost!"

"I know," Christopher smiled. "She is--unique, _ma belle mère_. By
George, I'll never forget our rushing into the house like maniacs, not
knowing what had happened to Leslie or Acton, and having her fall
sobbing into your arms, with the pearls in her hands!"

"Mama's wonderful," Alice laughed. "Chris, did you eat any dinner?"

He considered.

"But I'm really not hungry, dear," he protested.

Alice, superbly incredulous, rang at once. Who was in the kitchen? Well,
she was to be asked to send up a tray at once to Mr. Liggett. "Now that
you asked me, the dinner had reached the point of ice-cream in a paper
tub, as I sat down," he remembered. "You're a little miracle of healing
to me, Alice. When I came in here I didn't know _what_ we were up
against, as a family. Your mother wished the girl pensioned----"

"Oh, Chris, not really?"

"I give you my word!" But he was enough his usual self to have taken his
seat at the piano, now, and was looking at her across it, while his
fingers fitted themselves lazily to chords and harmonics.

"I'll tell you something, if you'll promise to stop playing the instant
your supper comes up!"

"I'll promise!"

"Well, then--the new Puccini is there!" She nodded toward the
music-shelves, and he turned to the new score with an eager exclamation.
Fifteen minutes later she had to scold him to bring him to the fire
again, and to the smoking little supper. While Alice sipped ginger ale,
Christopher fell upon his meal, and they discussed the probable
presentation of the opera, and its quality.

But an hour later, when she was in bed, and Christopher was going back
to the piano for another half-hour of music, she caught his hand.

"Chris, you're not worried about this Sheridan matter?"

"Worried? No, dearest child, what is there to worry about? It isn't
blackmail, apparently it's nothing but an overdose of imagination on
your mother's part. If the girl really was promised something, or
has--for example!--old stock, or if her father was an employee who did
this or that or the other--Mrs. Sheridan's husband was employed by your
father at the time of his death, by the way--why, it's easy enough to
pay the claim, whatever it is! The girl seems to have made a nice
impression--your mother tells me she's sold me books, but that doesn't
mean much, I buy books everywhere! No, I don't think you'll ever hear of
her again. But your mother will be here in a day or two; see what you
can make of it all!"

"Oh, of course, it's nothing _wrong_!" Alice said, confidently.

And Christopher returned to his beloved piano, relieved in mind by his
wife's counsel, refreshed in body by the impromptu supper, and ready for
the music that soothed in him all the restless and unsatisfied fibres of
his soul.



CHAPTER IV


Annie, who signed herself "Anne Melrose von Behrens," was the real
dictator in the various circles of the allied families, and had a
fashion of finding herself supreme in larger circles, as well. Annie was
thirty-seven or eight, tall, thin, ash-blonde, superb in manner and
bearing. Nature had been generous to her, but she had done far more for
herself than Nature had. Her matchless skin, her figure, her hands, her
voice, were all the result of painstaking and intelligent care. Annie
had been a headstrong, undisciplined girl twenty years ago. She had come
back from a European visit, at twenty-three, with a vague if general
reputation of being "a terror." But Annie was clever, and she had real
charm. She spoke familiarly of European courts, had been presented even
in inaccessible Vienna. She spoke languages, quoted poets, had great
writers and painters for her friends, and rippled through songs that had
been indisputably dedicated, in flowing foreign hands, to the beautiful
Mademoiselle Melrose. Society bowed before Annie; she was the sensation
of her winter, and the marriage she promptly made was the most brilliant
in many winters.

Annie proceeded to bear her sober, fine, dull, and devoted Hendrick two
splendid sons, and thus riveted to herself his lasting devotion and
trust. The old name was safe, the millions would descend duly to young
Hendrick and Piet. The family had been rich, conspicuous, and respected
in the city, since its sturdy Holstein cattle had browsed along the
fields of lower Broadway, but under Annie's hands it began to shine.
Annie's handsome motor-cars bore the family arms, her china had been
made in the ancestral village, two miles from Rotterdam, and also
carried the shield. Her city home, in Fifth Avenue, was so magnificent,
so chastely restrained and sober, so sternly dignified, that it set the
cue for half the other homes of the ultra-aristocratic set. Annie's
servants had been in the Von Behrens family for years; there was nothing
in the Avenue house, or the Newport summer home, that was not as
handsome, as old, as solid, as carven, as richly dull, or as purely
shining, as human ingenuity could contrive to have it. Collectors saved
their choicest discoveries for Annie; and there was no painter in the
new world who would not have been proud to have Annie place a canvas of
his among her treasures from the old.

If family relics were worth preserving, what could be more remarkable
than Annie's Washington letter, her Jefferson tray, her Gainsboroughs of
the Murisons who had been the only Americans so honoured by the painter?
Melrose and Von Behrens honours crowded each other--here was the thin
old silver "shepherdess" cup awarded that Johanna von Behrens who had
won a prize with her sheep, while Washington was yet a boy; and here the
quaint tortoise-shell snuff-box that a great prince, homeless and
unknown, had given the American family that took him in; and the silver
buttons from Lafayette's waistcoat that the great Frenchman had
presented Colonel Horace Murison of the "Continentals."

These things were not thrust at the visitor, nor indeed were they
conspicuous among the thousand other priceless souvenirs that Annie had
gathered about her.

"Rather nice, isn't it?" Annie would say, abstractedly, when some
enthusiastic girl pored over the colonial letters or the old portraits.
"See here, Margaret," she might add, casually, "do you see the inside of
this little slipper, my dear? Read what's written there: 'In these
slippers Deborah Murison danced with Governor Winthrop, on the night of
her fifteenth birthday, July 1st, 1742.' Isn't that rather quaint?"

Annie could afford to be casual, to be abstracted. In her all the pride
of the Melrose and Murison families was gathered; hers was an arrogance
so sure of itself, a self-confidence so supreme, that the world
questioned it no more than it questioned the heat of the sun. The old
silver, the Copleys, and the colonial china, the Knickerbocker "court
chests" with their great locks of Dutch silver, and the laces that had
been shown at the Hague two hundred years before, were all confirmed,
all reinforced, as it were, by the power and prosperity of to-day. It
was no by-gone glory that made brilliant the lives of Hendrick and Anne
Melrose von Behrens. Hendrick's cousins and uncles, magnificent persons
of title, were prominent in Holland to-day, their names associated with
that of royalty, and their gracious friendship extended to the American
branch of the family whenever Hendrick chose to claim it. Old maps of
New York bore the boundary lines of the Von Behrens farm; early
histories of the city mingled the names of Melrose and Von Behrens among
those of the men who had served the public need.

Wherever there was needed that tone that only names of prominence and
wealth can bestow Annie's name was solicited. Wherever it appeared it
gave the instant stamp of dignity and integrity. She had seen this goal
dimly in the distance, when she stepped from her rather spoiled and
wilful girlhood into this splendid wifehood, but even Annie was
astonished at the rapidity with which it had come about. Mama, of
course, had known all the right people, even if she _had_ dropped all
social ties after Papa's death. And Hendrick's name was an open sesame.
But even so it was surprising, and it was gratifying.

In appearance Annie had no problem. If she was not a beauty she was near
enough to being one. She was smart enough, and blonde enough, and
splendidly dressed enough to be instantly identifiable, and that was all
she desired. Financially, Annie had no problem. Her own inheritance and
her husband's great wealth silenced all question there. The Murison
pearls and the famous diamond tiara that her father had given her mother
years ago had come to Annie, but they were eclipsed by the Von Behrens
family jewels, and these were all hers, with the laces, and the ivories,
and the brocades. Life could give nothing more to Annie, but not many
women would have made so much of what Annie had. There was, far down and
out of sight, a little streak of the adventuress in her, and she never
stopped halfway.

A young wife, Annie had dutifully considered her nursery.

"Hendrick's is the elder line, of course, although it is the colonial
one," Annie had said, superintending a princely layette. The child was a
son, his father's image, and nobody who knew Annie was in the least
surprised that fortune had fallen in with her plans. It was the
magnificent Annie who was quoted as telling Madame Modiste to give her a
fitter who would not talk; it was Annie who decided what should be done
in recognizing the principals of the Jacqmain divorce, and that old
Floyd Densmore's actress-wife should not be accepted. Annie's neat and
quiet answer to a certain social acquaintance who remarked, in Annie's
little gallery, "I have seen the original of that picture, in one of the
European galleries," was still quoted by Annie's friends. "This _is_ the
original!" Annie had said quite simply and truthfully.

Leslie admired her aunt more than any one else in the world. Grandma was
old-fashioned, and Aunt Alice insignificant, in Leslie's eyes, but
stunning, arrogant, fearless Aunt Annie was the model upon which she
would have based herself if she had known how. Annie's quick
positiveness with her servants, her cool friendliness with big men, and
clever men, her calm assurance as to which hats she liked, and which
hats she didn't, her utter belief in everything that was of Melrose or
von Behrens, and her calm contempt for everything that was not, were
masterly in Leslie's eyes.

Annie might have been a strong royalist had she been born a few
generations earlier. But in Annie's day the ideal of social service had
been laid down by fashion, and she was consequently a tremendously
independent and energetic person, with small time for languishing airs.
She headed committees and boards, knew hundreds of working girls by
name, kept a secretary and a stenographer, and mentioned topics at big
dinners that would not have shocked either old Goodwife Melrose of
Boston, or Vrouw von Behrens of Nieu Amsterdam, for neither had the
faintest idea that such things, or their names, existed.

Withal, Annie was attractive, even her little affectations were
impressive, and as she went about from luncheons to meetings, swept up
to her model nursery to revel in her model boys, tossed aside regal furs
and tore off princely rings the better to play with them, wrapped her
beautiful figure in satins and jewels to descend to formal dinners, she
was almost as much admired and envied and copied as she might fondly
have hoped to be. She managed her life on modern lines of efficiency,
planned ahead what she wished, tutored herself not to think of anything
undesirable as being even in the range of possibility, trod lightly upon
the sensitive souls of others, and asked no quarter herself, aimed high,
and enjoyed her life and its countless successes to the full.

Of course there had been setbacks. Her brother Theodore, his most
unfortunate marriage to a servant, his intemperance, the general scandal
of his mother's violent detestation of his wife, all this was most
unpleasant. But Louison, the wife, upon sufficient pressure, had brought
her child to the Melroses, and had doubtfully disappeared, and Theodore
had returned from his wanderings to live, silent and unobtrusive, in his
mother's home, for several years, and to die with his daughter beside
him, and be duly laid in the Melrose plot at Woodlawn. And
Leslie--Leslie had repaid them all, for all of it.

Alice was another disappointment, or had been one, to Annie. For Alice,
after having achieved a most unexpectedly satisfactory marriage, and
having set up her household gods in the very shadow of her sister's
brilliant example, as it were, had met with that most unfortunate
accident. For a few years Annie had been utterly exasperated whenever
she thought of it. For Christopher was really an extraordinary husband
for Alice to hold, even in normal circumstances. He was so outrageously,
frightfully, irresistibly popular with women everywhere, his wife must
needs keep a very sharp, albeit loving, eye upon him. A sickly wife--a
wife who was a burden and a reproach, that would be fatal to them all!

But Alice had showed unsuspected courage and pride in this hard trial.
She had made herself beautiful, well-informed, tactful; she had made
herself a magnet to her husband's friends, and his home the centre of a
real social group. Annie respected her for it, and helped her by
flashing into her rooms not less often than every alternate day, with
gossip, with books, with hints that showed Alice just where her course
in this or that matter must lie.

So Alice had come to be an actual asset, and now to her Aunt Annie's
tremendous satisfaction, Leslie promised to add one more feather to the
family cap by announcing her engagement to Acton Liggett. Annie smiled
to herself whenever she thought of it. When this was consummated she
would have nothing left but the selection of suitable wives for Hendrick
Junior, now aged ten, and Piet, who was four years younger.

Two or three days after the ending of the big snow-storm, and the
beginning of that domestic storm that was destined strangely to change
some of the lives nearest her, Annie went in to have luncheon with her
sister. It was a brilliant sunshiny winter day, with crossings swimming
in melting snow and roofs steaming brightly into the clear air.

Annie went straight upstairs to Alice's room, with the usual apology for
lateness. She kissed Alice lightly on the forehead, and while Freda was
coming and going with their meal, they discussed the little boys, books,
politics, and the difficulties of the city in the snow.

But when they were alone Annie asked immediately:

"What on earth is the matter with Mama, Alice?"

"You mean about----? Did she tell you?"

"No; she didn't have to. Leslie ran in yesterday afternoon, and told me
that Mama has been in bed since Saturday! I telephoned Sunday morning,
but Hendrick and I were taking the boys up to his uncle's house, in
Westchester, and--as she didn't say one word about being ill--I didn't
see her that day, nor yesterday, as it happened, for we didn't come down
until noon. When Leslie came in, there were other people there for tea,
and I didn't have a chance to speak to her alone. But I went over to
Mama this morning, and she seems all broken up!"

"What did she tell you?" Alice asked, anxiously.

"Oh, my dear, you know Mama! She wept, and patted my hand, and said that
it was sad to be the last of your own generation, and she hoped you and
I would always have each other, and that she had always loved us, and
tried to do her best for us----"

Alice laughed.

"Poor Mama! She gets so worked up!" she said.

"But what do you make of it?" demanded Annie. "She talked of this Kate
Sheridan--I remember her perfectly, she came to Paris when I was so
ill, years ago. Poor Mama cried, and said that she wished to do
something for Kate. Now you know, Alice," Annie went on reasonably,
"nobody is tying Mama's hands! If she wants to educate this young
girl--this Norma person--to please Kate, or all her children for that
matter, she doesn't have to go into hysterics, and send for Judge Lee.
She said she didn't feel at all well, and she wanted to secure to Kate
some money in her will I told her it was ridiculous--she never looked
better in her life! I wish she could get over to see you, Alice; you
always soothe her so. What on earth does Chris make of it?"

"Well, I'll tell you what we've done," Alice smiled. "Chris went to see
her Sunday, and they had a long talk. He tells me that she was just as
vague and unsatisfactory as ever, but calmer, and she finally admitted
that all she really wanted to do was to befriend this niece of Kate
Sheridan. Of course Chris and I think Mama has one of her funny notions
about it, but if the child's mother had befriended Mama, for example, a
thousand years ago, or if Mama had borrowed five dollars from Kate, and
forgotten to return it, you know that would be enough to account for all
this excitement."

"Yes, I know!" Annie admitted, with her favourite look of intolerant,
yet indulgent, scorn.

"Well, it seems the girl is in Biretta's Bookshop, and Chris has often
bought books of her. So to quiet Mama he promised that he would bring
her out here to have tea with me some day soon. Mama was delighted, and
I think she hopes that a friendship will come of it." Alice threw
herself back into the pillows, and drew a great breath as if she were
weary. "I only want to please Mama!" she finished.

"You're an angel," Annie said, absently. "I suppose I could get the
truth out of Mama in five seconds," she mused. "It looks to me rather
like blackmail!"

"No; she said not!" Alice contradicted, quickly.

"Well, it's all so silly," the elder sister said, impatiently. "And
coming just now----" she added, significantly.

"Yes. I know!" Alice agreed, with a comprehending look. And in lowered
tones they began to talk of Leslie's possible engagement.



CHAPTER V


Norma Sheridan saw the engagement announced in a morning paper two weeks
later, and carried the picture of pretty Miss Melrose home, to entertain
the dinner table. The news had been made known at a dinner given to
forty young persons, in the home of the débutante's aunt, Mrs. Hendrick
von Behrens. Miss Melrose, said the paper, was the daughter and heiress
of the late Theodore Melrose, and made her home with her grandmother.
Mr. Liggett was the brother of Christopher Liggett, whose marriage to
Miss Alice Melrose was a social event some years ago. A number of
dinners and dances were already planned in honour of the young pair.

Norma looked at the pictured face with a little stir of feelings so
confused that she could not define them, at her heart. But she passed
the paper to her aunt with no comment.

"You might send them two dozen kitchen towels, Mother," Wolf suggested,
drily, and Rose laughed joyously. Her own engagement present from her
mother had been this extremely practical one, and Rose loved to open her
lower bureau drawer, and gloat over the incredible richness of
possessing twenty-four smooth, red-striped, well-hemmed glass-towels,
all her own. Norma had brought her two thick, dull gray Dedham bowls,
with ducks waddling around them, and these were in the drawer, too,
wrapped in tissue paper. And beside these were the length of
lemon-coloured silk that Rose had had for a year, without making up, and
six of her mother's fine sheets of Irish linen, and two glass
candlesticks that Rose had won at a Five-hundred party. Altogether, Rose
felt that she was making great strides toward home-making, especially as
she and Harry must wait for months, perhaps a year. Norma had promised
her two towels a month, until there were a whole dozen, and Wolf,
prompted by the same generous little heart, told her not to give the
gas-stove a thought, for she was to have the handsomest one that money
could buy, with a stand-up oven and a water-heater, from her brother.
Rose walked upon air.

But Norma was in a mood that she herself seemed unable to understand or
to combat. She felt a constant inclination toward tears. She didn't hate
the Melroses--no, they had been most friendly and kind. But--but it was
a funny world in which one girl had everything, like Leslie, and another
girl had no brighter prospect than to drudge away in a bookstore all her
life, or to go out on Sundays with her cousin. Norma dreamed for hours
of Leslie's life, the ease and warmth and beauty of it, and when Leslie
was actually heralded as engaged the younger girl felt a pang of the
first actual jealousy she had ever known. She imagined the beautiful
drawing-room in which Acton Liggett--perhaps as fascinating a person as
his brother!--would clasp pearls about Leslie's fair little throat; she
imagined the shining dinner tables at which Leslie's modestly dropped
blonde head would be stormed with compliments and congratulations.

And suddenly molasses peppermints and dish-washing became odious to
her, and she almost disliked Rose for her pitiable ecstasies over china
bowls and glass-towels. All the pleasant excitement of her call upon
Mrs. Melrose, with Aunt Kate, died away. It had seemed the beginning of
some vaguely dreamed-of progress toward a life of beauty and
achievement, but it was two weeks ago now, and its glamour was fading.

True, Christopher Liggett had come into Biretta's bookstore, with
Leslie, and he and Norma had talked together for a few minutes, and
Leslie had extended her Aunt Alice's kind invitation for tea. But no day
had been set for the tea, Norma reflected gloomily. Now, she supposed,
the stir of Leslie's engagement would put all that out of Christopher's
head.

Wolf was not particularly sympathetic with her, she mused,
disconsolately. Wolf had been acting in an unprecedented manner of late.
Rose's engagement seemed to have completely turned his head. He laughed
at Norma, hardly heard her words when she spoke to him, and never moved
his eyes from her when they were together. Norma could not look up from
her book, or her plate, or from the study of a Broadway shop window,
without encountering that same steady, unembarrassed, half-puzzled
stare.

"What's the matter with you, Wolf?" she would ask, impatiently. But Wolf
never told her.

As a matter of fact, he did not know. He was a silent, thoughtful
fellow, old for his years in many ways, and in some still a boy. Norma
and Rose had known only the more prosperous years of Kate's life, but
Wolf remembered many a vigil with his mother, remembered her lonely
struggles to make a living for him and for the girls. He himself was the
type that inevitably prospers--industrious, good, intelligent, and
painstaking, but as a young boy in the working world he had early seen
the terrors in the lives of men about him: drink, dirt, unemployment and
disease, debt and dishonour. Wolf was not quick of thought; he had
little imagination, rather marvelling at other men's cleverness than
displaying any of his own, and he had reached perhaps his twenty-second
or twenty-third summer before he realized that these terrors did not
menace him, that whatever changes he made in his work would be
improvements, steps upward. For actual months after the move to New York
Wolf had pondered it, in quiet gratitude and pleasure. Rent and bills
could be paid, there might be theatre treats for the girls, and chicken
for Sunday supper, and yet the savings account in the Broadway bank
might grow steadily, too. Far from being a slave to his employer, Wolf
began to realize that this rather simple person was afraid of him,
afraid that young Sheridan and some of the other smart, ingenious,
practically educated men in his employ might recognize too soon their
own independence.

And when the second summer in New York came, and Wolf could negotiate
the modest financial deal that gave him and the girls a second-hand
motor-car to cruise about in on Sundays and holidays, when they could
picnic up in beautiful Connecticut, or unpack the little fringed red
napkins far down on the Long Island shore, life had begun to seem very
pleasant to him. Debt and dirt and all the squalid horrors of what he
had seen, and what he had read, had faded from his mind, and for awhile
he had felt that his cup could hold no more.

But now, just lately, there was something else, and although the full
significance of it had not yet actually dawned upon him, Wolf began to
realize that a change was near. It was the most miraculous thing that
had ever come to him, although it concerned only little Norma--only the
little cousin who had been an actual member of his family for all these
years.

He had heard his mother say a thousand times that she was pretty; he had
laughed himself a thousand times at her quick wit. But he had never
dreamed that it would make his heart come up into his throat and
suffocate him whenever he thought of her, or that her lightest and
simplest words, her most casual and unconscious glance, would burn in
his heart for hours.

During his busy days Wolf found himself musing about this undefined and
nebulous happiness that began to tremble, like a growing brightness
behind clouds, through all his days and nights. Had there ever been a
time, he wondered, when he had taken her for granted, helped her into
her blessed little coat as coolly as he had Rose? Had it been this same
Norma who scolded him about throwing his collars on the floor, and who
had sent his coat to the cleaner with a ten-dollar bill in the pocket?

Wolf remembered summer days, and little Norma chattering beside him on
the front seat, as the shabby motor-car fled through the hot, dry city
toward shade and coolness. He remembered early Christmas Mass, and Norma
and Rose kneeling between him and his mother, in the warm, fir-scented
church. He remembered breakfast afterward, in a general sense of hunger
and relaxation and well-being, and the girls exulting over their
presents. And every time that straight-shouldered, childish figure came
into his dream, that mop of cloudy dark hair and flashing laugh, the
new delicious sense of some unknown felicity touched him, and he would
glance about the busy factory self-consciously, as if his thoughts were
written on his face for all the world to read.

Wolf had never had a sweetheart. It came to him with the blinding flash
of all epoch-making discoveries that Norma was his girl--that he wanted
Norma for his own, and that there was no barrier between them. And in
the ecstasy of this new vision, which changed the whole face of his
world, he was content to wait with no special impatience for the hour in
which he should claim her. Of course Norma must like him--must love him,
as he did her, unworthy as he felt himself of her, and wonderful as this
new Norma seemed to be. Wolf, in his simple way, felt that this had been
his destiny from the beginning.

That a glimpse of life as foreign and unnatural as the Melrose life
might seriously disenchant Norma never occurred to him. Norma had always
been fanciful, it was a part of her charm. Wolf, who worked in the great
Forman shops, had felt it no particular distinction when by chance one
day he had been called from his luncheon to look at the engine of young
Stanley Forman's car. He had left his seat upon a pile of lumber, bolted
the last of his pie, and leaned over the hood of the specially designed
racer interested only in its peculiarities, and entirely indifferent to
the respectful young owner, who was aware that he knew far less about it
than this mechanic did. Sauntering back to his work in the autumn
sunlight, Wolf had followed the youthful millionaire by not even a
thought. If he had done so, it might have been a half-contemptuous
decision that a man who knew so little of engines ought not to drive a
racer.

So Norma's half-formed jealousies, desires, and dreams were a sealed
book to him. But this very unreasonableness lent her an odd exotic charm
in his eyes. She was to Wolf like a baby who wants the moon. The moon
might be an awkward and useless possession, and the baby much better
without it, still there is something winning and touching about the
little imperious mouth and the little upstretched arms.

One night, when he had reached home earlier than either of the girls,
Wolf was in the warm bright kitchen, alone with his mother. He was
seated at the end of the scrubbed and bleached little table; Kate at the
other end was neatly and dexterously packing a yellow bowl with bread
pudding.

"Do you remember, years and years ago, Mother," Wolf said, chewing a
raisin, thoughtfully, "that you told me that Norma isn't my real
cousin?"

Kate's ruddy colour paled a little, and she looked anxious. Not Perseus,
coming at last in sight of his Gorgon, had a heart more sick with fear
than hers was at that instant.

"What put that into your head, dear?"

"Well, I don't know. But it's true, isn't it?"

Kate scattered chopped nuts from the bowl of her spoon.

"Yes, it's true," she said. "There's not a drop of the same blood in
your veins, although I love her as I do you and Rose."

She was silent, and Wolf, idly turning the egg-beater in an empty dish,
smiled to himself.

"But what made you think of that, Wolf?" his mother asked.

"I don't know!" Wolf did not look at her, but his big handsome face was
suffused with happy colour. "Harry and Rose, maybe," he admitted.

Kate sat down suddenly, her eyes upon him.

"Not the Baby?" she half whispered.

Her son leaned back in his chair, and folded his big arms across his
chest. When he looked at her the smile had faded from his face, and his
eyes were a trifle narrowed, and his mouth set.

"I guess so!" he said, simply. "I guess it's always been--Norma. But I
didn't always know it. I used to think of her as just another
sister--like Rose. But I know now that she'll never seem that
again--never did, really."

He was silent, and Kate sat staring at him in silence.

"Has she any relatives, Mother?"

"Has--what?"

"Has she people--who are they?"

Kate looked at the floor.

"She has no one but me, Son."

"Of course, she's not nineteen, and I don't believe it's ever crossed
her mind," Wolf said. "I don't think Norma ever had a real affair--just
kid affairs, like Paul Harrison, and that man at the store who used to
send her flowers. But I don't believe those count."

"I don't think she ever has," Kate said, heavily getting to her feet,
and beginning to pour her custard slowly through the packed bread.
Presently she stopped, and set the saucepan down, her eyes narrowed and
fixed on space. Then Wolf saw her press the fingers of one hand upon
her mouth, a sure sign of mental perturbation.

"I know I'm not worthy to tie her little shoes for her, Mother," he
said, suddenly, and very low.

"There's no woman in the world good enough for you," his mother
answered, with a troubled laugh. And she gave the top of his head one of
her rare, brisk kisses as she passed him, on her way out of the room.

Wolf was sufficiently familiar with the domestic routine to know that
every minute was precious now, and that she was setting the table. But
his heart was heavy with a vague uneasiness; she had not encouraged him
very much. She had not accepted this suggestion as she did almost all of
the young people's ideas, with eager cooperation and sympathy. He sat
brooding at the kitchen table, her notable lack of enthusiasm chilling
him, and infusing him with her own doubts.

When she came back, she stood with her back turned to him, busied with
some manipulation of platters and jars in the ice-box.

"Wolf, dear," she said, "I want to ask you something. The child's too
young to listen to you--or any one!--now. Promise me--_promise me_, that
you'll speak to me again before you----"

"Certainly I'll promise that, Mother!" Wolf said, quickly, hurt to the
soul. She read his tone aright, and came to lay her cheek against his
hair.

"Listen to me, Son. Since the day her mother gave her to me I've hoped
it would be this way! But there's nothing to be gained by hurry.
You----"

"But you would be glad, Mother! You do think that she might have me?"
poor Wolf said, eagerly and humbly. He was amazed to see tears brimming
his mother's eyes as she nodded and turned away.

Before either spoke again a rush in the hall announced the home-coming
girls, who entered the kitchen gasping and laughing with the cold.

"Whew!" panted Norma, catching Wolf's hands in her own half-frozen ones.
"I'm dying! Oh, Wolf, feel my nose!" She pressed it against his
forehead. "Oh, there's a wind like a knife--and look at my shoe--in I
went, right through the ice! Oh, Aunt Kate, let me stay here!" and
locking both slender arms about the older woman's neck, she dropped her
dark, shining head upon her breast like a storm-blown bird. "It's four
below zero in Broadway this minute," she added, looking sidewise under
her curling lashes at Wolf.

"Who said so?" Wolf demanded.

"The man I bought that paper from said so; go back and ask him. Oh, joy,
that looks good!" said Norma, eyeing the pudding that was now being
drawn, crackling, bubbling, and crisp, from the oven. "Rose and I fell
over the new lineoleum in the hall; I thought it was a dead body!" she
went on, cheerfully. "I came _down_ on my family feature with such a
noise that I thought the woman downstairs would be rattling the
dumb-waiter ropes again long before this!" She stepped to the
dumb-waiter, and put her head into the shaft. "What is it, darling?" she
called.

"Norma, behave yourself. It would serve you good and right if she heard
you," Mrs. Sheridan said, in a panic. "Go change your shoes, and come
and eat your dinner. I believe," her aunt added, pausing near her, "that
you _did_ skin your nose in the hall."

"Oh, heavens!" Norma exclaimed, bringing her face close to the dark
window, as to a mirror. "Oh, say it will be gone by Friday! Because on
Friday I'm going to have tea with Mrs. Liggett--her husband came in
to-day and asked me. Oh, the darling! He certainly is the--well, the
most--well, I don't know!----His voice, and the quiet, _quiet_ way----"

"Oh, for pity's sake go change your shoes!" Rose interrupted. "You are
the biggest idiot! I went into the store to get her," Rose explained,
"and I've had all this once, in the subway. How Mr. Liggett picks up his
glasses, on their ribbon, to read the titles of books----"

"Oh, you shut up!" Norma called, departing. And unashamed, when dinner
was finished, and the table cleared, she produced a pack of cards and
said that she was going to play _The Idle Year_.

"... and if I get it, it'll mean that the man I marry is going to look
exactly like Chris Liggett."

She did not get it, and played it again. The third time she interrupted
Wolf's slow and patient perusal of the _Scientific American_ to announce
that she was now going to play it to see if he was in love with Mary
Redding.

"Think how nice that would be, Aunt Kate, a double wedding. And if Wolf
or Rose died and left a lot of children, the other one would always be
there to take in whoever was left--you know what I mean!"

"You're the one Wolf ought to marry, to make it complete," Rose, who was
neatly marking a cross-stitch "R" on a crash towel, retaliated neatly.

"I can't marry my cousin, Miss Smarty."

"Oh, don't let a little thing like that worry you," Wolf said, looking
across the table.

"Our children would be idiots--perhaps they would be, anyway!" Norma
reminded him, in a gale of laughter. Her aunt looked up disapprovingly
over her glasses.

"Baby, don't talk like that. That's not a nice way to talk at all. Wolf,
you lead her on. Now, we'll not have any more of that, if you please. I
see the President is making himself very unpopular, Wolf--I don't know
why they all make it so hard for the poor man! Mrs. McCrea was in the
market this morning----"

"If I win this game, Rose, by this time next year," Norma said, in an
undertone, "you'll have----"

"Norma Sheridan!"

"Yes, Aunt Kate!"

"Do you want me to speak to you again?"

"No, ma'am!"

Norma subsided for a brief space, Rose covertly watching the game.
Presently the younger girl burst forth anew.

"Listen, Wolf, I'll bet you that I can get more words out of the letters
in Christopher than you can!"

Wolf roused himself, smiled, took out his fountain pen, and reached for
a sheet of paper. He was always ready for any sort of game. Norma,
bending herself to the contest, put her pencil into her mouth, and
stared fixedly at the green-shaded drop light. Rose, according to
ancient precedent, was permitted to assist evenly and alternately.

And Kate, watching them and listening, even while she drowsed over the
Woman's Page, decided that after all they were nothing but a pack of
children.



CHAPTER VI


To Leslie Melrose had come the very happiest time of her life. She had
always had everything she wanted; it had never occurred to her to
consider a fortunate marriage engagement as anything but a matter of
course, in her case. She was nineteen, she was "mad," in her own terms,
about Acton Liggett, and the engagement was the natural result.

But the ensuing events were far more delightful than Leslie had dreamed,
even in her happy dreams. All her world turned from its affairs of
business and intrigue and amusement to centre its attention upon her
little person for the moment, and to shower her with ten times enough
flattery and praise to turn a much steadier head. Presents rained upon
Leslie, and every one of them was astonishingly handsome and valuable;
newspapers clamoured for her picture, and wherever she went she was
immediately the focus for all eyes. That old Judge Lee should send her
some of his mother's beautiful diamonds; that Christopher and Alice
should order for her great crates of specially woven linen that were
worthy of a queen; that Emanuel Massaro, the painter of the hour, should
ask her to sit for him, were all just so much sheer pleasure added to
the sum total of her happiness in loving the man of her choice and
knowing herself beloved by him.

Leslie found herself, for the first time in her life, a person of
importance with Aunt Annie, too. The social leader found time to advise
her little niece in the new contingencies that were perpetually arising,
lent Leslie her private secretary for the expeditious making of lists or
writing of notes, and bullied her own autocratic modiste into promising
at least half of the trousseau. It was Annie who decided that the
marriage must be at a certain Park Avenue church, and at a certain hour,
and that the reception at the house must be arranged in a certain
manner, and no other. Hendrick or Judge Lee would give away the bride,
Christopher would be his brother's best man, and Leslie would be given
time to greet her guests and change her gown and be driven to Alice's
house for just one kiss before she and Acton went away.

Acton had begged for an Easter wedding, but Leslie, upon her aunt's
advice, held out for June. If the war was over by that time--and
everyone said it must be, for so hideous a combat could not possibly
last more than six or eight months--then they would go to England and
the Continent, but otherwise they might drift through Canada to the
Pacific Coast, and even come back by San Francisco and the newly opened
Canal.

Meanwhile, Annie entertained her niece royally and untiringly. Formal
dinners to old family friends must come first, but when spring arrived
Leslie was promised house parties and yachting trips more after her own
heart. The girl was so excited, so bewildered and tired, even after the
first two weeks, that she remained in bed until noon every day, and had
a young maid especially detailed to take her dressmaker's fittings for
her. But even so she lost weight, her cheeks burned and her eyes
glittered feverishly, and her voice took an unnaturally high key, her
speech a certain shallow quickness. Acton's undeviating adoration she
took with a pretty, spoiled acquiescence, and with old family friends
she was charmingly dutiful and deferential, but always with the air of
sparing a few glittering drops to their age and dulness from the
overflowing cup of her youth and beauty and power. But with her
grandmother and aunts she had a new attitude of self-confidence, and to
her girl friends she was no longer the old intimate and equal, but a
being who had, for the moment at least, left them all behind. She would
show them the new silver, the new linens, the engagement-time frocks
that were in themselves a trousseau, and wish that Doris or Marion or
Virginia were engaged, too; it was such fun! And with older women, the
débutantes of six and eight and ten years ago, who had failed of all
this glory, who could only listen sweetly to the chatter of plans and
honours, and look in uncomplaining admiration at the blazing ring,
Leslie was quite merciless. The number of times that she managed to
mention her age, the fact that Madame Modiste had tried to give her
fittings after three o'clock under the impression that she was a
schoolgirl, and the "craziness" of "little me" going over all the late
Mrs. Liggett's chests of silver and china, perhaps only these
unsuccessful candidates for matrimony could estimate. Certainly Leslie
herself was quite unconscious of it, and truly believed what she heard
on all sides, that she was "adorable," and "not changed one bit," and
"just as unconscious that there was anything else in the world but
Acton, as a little girl with her first doll."

Christopher and Alice, in the first years of their married life, had
built a home at Glen Cove, and Christopher made this his wedding
present to his brother. Necessarily, even the handsomest of country
homes, if ten years old, needs an almost complete renovation, and this
renovation Acton and Leslie, guided by a famous architect, began
rapturously to plan, reserving a beautiful apartment not far from Alice
in Park Avenue for autumn furnishing and refitting.

All these activities and interests kept the lovers busy, and kept them
apart indeed, or united them only in groups of other people. But Acton
could bring his pretty sweetheart home from a dinner now and then, and
come into the old Melrose house for a precious half hour of murmuring
talk, or could sometimes persuade her to leave a tea or a matinée early
enough to walk a few blocks with him.

In this fashion they slipped away from a box party one Friday afternoon,
and found themselves walking briskly northward, into the neighbourhood
of Alice's house. Leslie had had, for several days, a rather guilty
feeling in regard to this lovely aunt. It was really hard, rising at
noon, and trying to see and please so many persons, to keep in close
touch with the patient and uncomplaining invalid, who had to depend
wholly upon the generosity of those she loved for knowledge of them. So
Leslie was glad to suggest, and Acton glad to agree, that they had
better go in and see Aunt Alice for a few minutes.

As usual, Mrs. Liggett had company, although it proved only to be the
pretty Miss Sheridan who had called upon Leslie's grandmother on the
first day of that mysterious indisposition that had kept the old lady
bedridden almost ever since.

Alice looked oddly tired, but her eyes were shining brightly, and Norma
was charmingly happy and at ease. She jumped up to shake hands with
Acton with a bright comment that he was not in the _least_ like his
brother, and recalled herself to Leslie before offering her all sorts of
good wishes. Norma, hoping that it would some day occur, had indeed
anticipated this meeting with Leslie by a little mental consideration of
what she should say, but the effect was so spontaneous and sincere that
the four were enabled to settle down comfortably to tea, in a few
moments, like old friends.

"Miss Sheridan--or Norma, rather--and I have been having a perfectly
delicious talk," said Alice. "She loves Christina Rossetti, and she knew
the 'Hound of Heaven' by heart, and she has promised to send me a new
man's work that sounds delightful--what was it? Something about General
Booth?"

"If I haven't chattered you to death!" Norma said, penitentially. And
Leslie added: "Aunt Alice, you _do_ look tired! Not that talking poetry
ever would tire you!" she hastened to add, with a smile for Norma.

"No, I'm not--or rather, I was, but I feel wonderfully!" Alice said.
"Pour the tea, Kitten. What have you two little adventurers been doing
with yourselves?"

"Mrs. Dupré's party--Yvette Guilbert," Leslie said. "She is quite too
wonderful!"

"I've always wanted to see her, and I've always known I would adore
her," Norma interpolated, dreamily.

Alice glanced at her quickly.

"Does she give another matinée, Leslie?"

"Two----" Leslie looked at Acton. "Is it two weeks from to-day?" she
questioned.

"I'll send you seats for it," Alice said, making a little note on her
ivory memoranda pages, as she nodded to Norma. The colour rushed into
Norma's face, and she bit her lip.

"But, Mrs. Liggett--honestly--I truly didn't mean--I only meant----" she
began to stammer, half laughing. Alice laid her hand upon Norma's
reassuringly.

"My dear, you know I don't think you hinted! But I want to do it. I
can't"--Alice said, smiling--"I can't do anything for little Miss
Aladdin here, and it gives me the greatest pleasure, now and then----"

"I want to tell you something about Mrs. Liggett," Acton said; "she's
got a grasping nature and a mean soul--you can see that! She's the
limit, all right!" He smiled down at her as he gave her her teacup, and
Leslie laughed outright. Acton was a person of few words, but when he
chose to talk, Leslie found his manner amusing. Christopher, coming up
to join them fifteen minutes later, said that from the noise they made
he had supposed at least fifty persons to be in his wife's room.

Did Norma, as she gave the master of the house her hand, have sudden
memory of all her recent absurd extravagances in his name--the games,
the surmises, the wild statements that had had Chris Liggett as their
inspiration? If she did, she gave no sign of it beyond the bright flush
with which she greeted her oldest acquaintance in this group.
Christopher sat down, content to be a listener and an onlooker, as he
sipped his tea, but Norma saw that his wife's look of white fatigue made
him uneasy, and immediately said that she must go.

He made no protest, but said that the car was at the door, and she must
let him send her home. Norma agreed, and Acton asked if he and Leslie
might not use it, too. The three departed in high spirits, Alice
detaining the radiant and excited Norma long enough to exact from her
the promise of another visit soon, and to send an affectionate message
to Mrs. Sheridan from "Miss Alice." Then they went down to the big car,
an exciting and delightful experience to Norma.

Leslie was left first, and Acton, pleading that he was already late for
another engagement, was dropped at his club. Then Norma had the car to
herself, and as it smoothly flew toward the humble doorway of the
Sheridans, could giggle, almost aloud, in her pleasure and exhilaration
at an afternoon that had gone without a single awkward minute, all
pleasant, harmonious, and vaguely flattering. And the wonderful Mrs.
Liggett had asked her to come soon again, and had made that delightful
suggestion about the concert. The name of Yvette Guilbert meant little
to Norma, but the thought that Alice Liggett really wanted to hold her
friendship was nothing less than intoxicating.

She looked out of the car, the streets were bare of snow now, there was
not a leaf showing in the park, and the ground was dark and unpromising.
But a cool, steady wind was blowing through the lingering twilight, men
were running after rolling hats, and at least the milliners' windows
were radiant with springtime bloom. Children were playing in Norma's
street, wrapped and muffled children, wild with joy to be out of doors
again, and a tiny frail little moon was floating in the opal sky just
above the grim line of roofs. Norma looked up at it, and the pure
blowing air touched her hot face, and her heart sang with the sheer joy
of living.



CHAPTER VII


Christopher had gone down to the door with his brother and the girls,
and had sent a glance up and down the quiet, handsome block, feeling in
the moving air what Norma felt, what all the city felt--the bold, wild
promise of spring. He turned back into the house with something like a
sigh; Acton and Leslie in their young happiness were somehow a little
haunting to-night.

The butler was starting upstairs with the papers; Christopher took them
from him, and went back to Alice's room with his eyes idly following the
headlines. The pretty apartment was somewhat disordered, and looked dull
and dark in the half light. Christopher walked to a window, and pushed
it open upon its railed balcony.

"Chris!" whispered his wife's voice, thick and dry in the gloom.

Aghast in the instant apprehension of something wrong, he sprang to her
couch, dropped to his knees, and put an arm about her.

"Alice! What is it, my darling?"

She struggled for speech, and he could see that her face was ashen.

"Chris--no, don't ring. Chris, _who is that girl_?"

Christopher touched the chain that flooded the couch with rosy light. He
bent in eager sympathy over his wife's relaxed form.

"Alice, what is it?" he asked, tenderly. "Don't worry, dear, don't try
to talk too fast! Just tell Chris what frightened you----"

Alice laughed wretchedly as she detached the fingers he had pressed
anxiously upon her forehead.

"No, I'm not feverish!" she assured him, holding tight to his hand. "But
I want you to tell me, Chris, I must know--and no matter what promise
you have given Mother--or given any one----"

"Now, now, now!" he soothed her. "I'll tell you anything, sweetheart,
only don't let yourself get so excited. Just tell me what it is, Alice,
and I'll do anything in the world for you, of course!"

"Chris," she said, swallowing with a dry throat, and sitting up with an
air of regaining self-control, "you must tell me. You know you can trust
me, you _know_----! That girl----"

"But _what_ girl--what are you talking about, dear? Do--do try to be
just a little clearer, and calmer----"

"Who"--said Alice, with a ghastly look, sweeping the hair back from her
damp forehead--"who is that Norma Sheridan?"

"Why, I told you, dear, that I don't know," her husband protested. "I
told you weeks ago, after your mother made that scene, the night of
Hendrick's speech, that I couldn't make head or tail of it!"

"Chris"--Alice was regarding him fixedly--"you _must_ know!"

"Dearest, couldn't your mother simply wish to befriend a girl whose
parents----"

Alice flung her loosened hair back, and at her gesture and her glance at
the little carafe on her table he poured her a glass of cold water.
Drinking it off, and raising herself in her cushions, she stretched her
hand to touch the chair beside her, and still without a word indicated
that he was to take it. With a face of grave concern Christopher sat
down beside her, holding her hands in both his own.

"Chris," she said, clearly and quickly, if with occasional catches of
breath, "the minute that girl came into the room I knew that--I knew
that _horror_ had come upon us all! I knew that she was one of us--one
of us Melroses, somehow----"

"Alice!" he said, pleadingly.

"But Mama," she said, with a keen look, "didn't tell you that?"

"She told me only what I told you that night, on my honour as a
gentleman! Alice, what makes you say what you do?"

"Ah, Chris," his wife cried, almost frantically, "look at her! _Look_ at
her! Why, her voice is Annie's, the same identical voice--she looks like
my father, like Theodore--she looks like us all! She and Leslie were so
much alike, as they sat there, in spite of the colouring, that I almost
screamed it at them! Surely--surely, you see it--everyone sees it!"

He stared at her, beginning to breathe a little quickly in his turn.

"By George!" she heard him whisper, as if to himself.

"Do you see it, Chris?" Alice whispered, almost fearfully.

"But--but----" He got up and walked restlessly to the window, and came
back to sit down again. "But there's a cousinship somewhere," he said,
sensibly. "There's no reason to suppose that the thing can't be
explained. I do think you're taking this thing pretty hard, my dear.
What can you possibly suppose? There might be a hundred girls----"

His voice fell. Alice was watching him expectantly.

"Mama felt it--saw it--as I do," she said. "You may be very sure that
Mama wouldn't have almost lost her mind, as she did, unless something
had given her cause!"

They looked at each other in silence, in the utter silence of the
lovely, cool-toned room.

"Alice," Chris said in a puzzled voice after awhile, "you suspect me of
keeping something from you. But on my honour you know all that your
mother told me--all that I know!"

"Oh, Chris," she said, with a sort of wail. "If I don't know more!"

Her husband's slow colour rose.

"How could you know more?" he asked, bewilderedly.

Alice was unhappily silent.

"Chris, if I tell you what I'm afraid of--what I fear," she said,
presently, after anxious thought, "will you promise me never, never to
speak of it--never even to think of it!--if it--if it proves not to be
true?"

"I don't have to tell you that, Alice," he said.

"No, of course you don't--of course you don't!" she echoed with a
nervous laugh. "I'll tell you what I think, Chris--what has been almost
driving me mad--and you can probably tell me a thousand reasons why it
can't be so! You see, I've never understood Mama's feverish distress
these last weeks. She's been to see me, she's done what had to be done
about Leslie's engagement, but she's not herself--you can see that!
Yesterday she began to cry, almost for nothing, and when I happened to
mention--or rather when I mentioned very deliberately--that Miss
Sheridan was coming here, she almost shrieked. Well, I didn't know what
to make of it, and even then I rather wondered----

"Even then," Alice began again, after a painful pause, and with her own
voice rising uncontrollably, "I suspected something. But not this! Oh,
Chris, if I'm wrong about this, I shall be on my knees for gratitude for
the rest of my life; I would die, I would die to have it just--just my
wretched imagination!--A thing like this--to us--the Melroses--who have
always been so straight--so respected!"

"Now, Alice--now, Alice!"

"Yes, I know!" she said, quickly. "I know!" And for a moment she lay
back quietly, stroking his hand. "Chris," she resumed, composedly, after
a moment, "you know the tragedy of Annie's life?"

Chris, taken by surprise, frowned.

"Why, yes, I suppose so," he admitted, unwillingly.

"Chris, did it ever occur to you that she might have had a child--by
that fiend?"

Chris looked at his wife a moment, and his eyes widened, and his mouth
twitched humorously.

"Oh, come now, Alice--come now!"

"You think it's folly!" she asked, eagerly.

"Worse!" he answered, briefly, his eyes smiling reproach.

Alice's whole tense body relaxed, and she stared at him with light
dawning in her eyes.

"Well, probably it is," she said, very simply.

"Of course it is," Chris said. "Now, you are dead tired, dear, and you
have let the thing mill about in your head until you can't see anything
normally. I confess that I don't understand your mother's mysterious
nervousness, but then I am free to say that I don't by any means always
understand your mother! You remember the pearl episode, and the time
that she had Annie and Hendrick cabling from Italy--because Hendrick
Junior had a rash! And then there was Porter--a boy nineteen years old,
and she actually had everyone guessing exactly what she felt toward
him----"

"Oh, Chris, no, she didn't! She simply felt that he was a genius, and he
hadn't a penny," Alice protested, reproachful and hurt.

"Well, she had him there at the house until his mother came after him,
and then, when he finally was sent abroad, she asked me seriously if I
thought two hundred dollars a month was enough for his musical
education!"

"Yes, I know!" Alice said, ruefully, shaking her head.

"Now this comes along," said Christopher, encouraged by the effect of
his words, "and you begin to fret your poor little soul with all sorts
of wild speculations. I wish to the Lord that your mother was a little
bit more trusting with her confidences, but when it all comes out it'll
prove to be some sister of your grandfather who married a tailor or
something, and left a line of pretty girls to work in Biretta's----"

"But, Chris, she reminded me so of Annie to-day I almost felt _sick_,"
Alice said, still frightened and dubious.

"Well, that merely shows that you're soft-hearted; it's no reflection on
Annie!" Chris said, giving her her paper, and opening his own. But
Alice did not open her paper.

A maid came in, and moved about noiselessly setting chairs and rugs in
order. Another soft light was lighted and the little square table set
before the fire. The cool fresh air drifted in at the half-open window,
and sent a delicate breath, from Alice's great bowl of freesia lilies,
through the peaceful room. The fire snapped smartly about a fresh log,
and Alice's great tortoise-shell cat came to make a majestic spring into
her lap.

"Chris--I'm so worried!" said his wife.

"As a matter of fact," said Christopher, quietly, after a while,
"did----Annie was very ill, I know, but was there--was there any reason
to suppose that there might have been--that such a situation as to-day's
might have arisen?"

Alice looked at him with apprehension dawning afresh.

"Oh, yes--that is, I believe so. I didn't know it then, of course."

"I never knew that," Christopher said, thoughtfully.

"Well, I didn't at the time, you know. It was--of course it was
sixteen--eighteen years ago," Alice said. And in a whisper she added,
"Chris, that girl is eighteen!"

Christopher pursed his lips to whistle, but made no sound, and looked
into the fire.

"You see I was only about thirteen or fourteen," Alice said. "I was
going to Miss Bennet's school, and we were all living in the Madison
Avenue house. Papa had been dead only a year, or less, for I remember
that Annie was eighteen, and wasn't going out much, because of mourning.
Theodore had been worrying Mama to death, and had left the house then,
and Mama was sending him and his wife money, I believe, but of course
lots of that was kept from me. Annie was terribly wild and excitable
then, always doing reckless things; I can remember when she and Belle
Duer dressed up as boys and had their pictures taken, and once they put
a matrimonial advertisement in the papers--of course they were just
silly--at least that was. But then she began to rave about this man
Müller----"

"The acrobat!" Christopher, who was listening intently, supplied.

"No, dearest! He was their riding master--I suppose that isn't much
better, really. But he was an extremely handsome man--really stunning.
Carry Winchester's mother forbade her taking any more lessons because
_she_ was so wild about him, and Annie told me once that that was why
Ida Burnett was popped into a boarding school. He was big, and dark, and
he had a slight foreign accent, and he was ever so much older than
Annie--forty, at least. She began to spend all her time at the riding
club; it used to make Mama wild--especially as Annie was so headstrong
and saucy about it! Poor Mama, I remember her crying and complaining!"

"And how long did this go on?" Christopher asked.

"Oh, weeks! Well, and then one hot day, just before Easter vacation it
was, I remember, I came home early from school with a headache, and when
I reached the upper hall I could hear Mama crying, and Annie shouting
out loud, and this Kate--this very same Kate Sheridan!--trying to quiet
Mama, and everything in an uproar! Finally I heard Annie sobbing--I was
frightened to death of course, and I sat down on the stairs that go up
to the nursery--and I heard Annie say something about being
eighteen--and she was eighteen the very day before; and she ran by me,
in her riding clothes, with the derby hat that girls used to wear then,
and her hair clubbed on her neck, and she ran downstairs, and I could
hear her crying, and saying to herself: 'I'll show them; I'll show
them!' And that was the last I saw of her," Alice finished sadly, "for
almost two years."

"She went out?" Christopher asked.

"Yes; she slammed the door. Mama fainted."

"Of course!"

"Oh, Chris," said his wife, half crying, "wasn't that enough to make any
one faint?--let alone Mama. Anyway, she was dreadfully ill, and they
rather shut me up about it, and told everyone that Annie had gone
abroad. We had been living very quietly, you know, and nobody cared much
what Annie did, then. And she really had gone abroad, she wrote Mama
from Montreal, and she had been married to Emil Müller in Albany. They
had taken a train there, and were married that same afternoon. They went
to London, and they were in Germany, and then--then it all broke up, you
know about that!"

"How much later was that?"

Alice considered.

"It was about Christmas time. Don't you remember that I went to your
mother, and Acton and I got measles? Mama was abroad then."

"And this Kate went with her?"

"Yes. That was--that was one of the things I was--just thinking about!
Annie wrote Mama that she was very ill, in Munich, and poor Mama just
flew. Müller had left her; indeed there was a woman and two quite big
girls that had a claim on him, and if Mama hadn't been so anxious to
shut it all up, she might have proved that he was a bigamist--but I
don't know that she was ever sure. Judge Lee put the divorce through for
Annie, and Mama took her to the Riviera and petted her, and pulled her
through. But all her hair came out, and for weeks they didn't think she
would live. She had brain fever. You see, Annie had had some money
waiting for her on her eighteenth birthday, and your own father, who was
her guardian, Chris, had given her the check--interest, it was, about
seven or eight thousand dollars. And he told her to open her own
account, and manage her own income, from then on. And we thought--Mama
and I--that in some way Müller must have heard of it. Anyway, she never
deposited the check, and when her money gave out he just left her."

"But what makes you think that her illness didn't commence--or wasn't
entirely--brain fever?"

"That she might have had a baby?" Alice asked, outright.

Christopher nodded, the point almost insufferably distasteful to him.

"Oh, I know it!" Alice said.

"You _know_ it?" the man echoed, almost in displeasure.

"Yes, she told me herself! But of course that was years later. At the
time, all I knew was that Kate Sheridan came home, and came to see me at
school, and told me that Mama and Annie were very well, but that Annie
had been frightfully sick, and that Mama wouldn't come back until Annie
was much stronger. As a matter of fact, it was nearly two
years--Theodore took me over to them a year from that following summer,
and then Annie stayed with some friends in England; she was having a
wonderful time! But years afterward, when little Hendrick was coming, in
fact, she was here one day, and she seemed to feel blue, and finally I
happened to say that if motherhood seemed so hard to a person like
herself, whose husband and whose whole family were so mad with joy over
the prospect of a baby, what on earth must it be to the poor girls who
have every reason to hate it. And she looked at me rather oddly, and
said: 'Ah, I know what _that_ is!' Of course I guessed right away what
she meant, and I said: 'Annie--not really!' And she said: 'Oh, yes, that
was what started my illness. I had been so almost crazy--so blue and
lonesome, and so sick with horror at the whole thing, that it all
happened too soon, the day after Mama and Kate got there, in fact!' And
then she burst out crying and said: 'Thank God it was that way! I
couldn't have faced _that_.' And she said that she had been too
desperately ill to realize anything, but that afterward, at Como, when
she was much better, she asked Mama about it, and Mama said she must
only be glad that it was all over, and try to think of it as a terrible
dream!"

"Well, there you are," said Chris, "she herself says that no child was
born!"

"Yes, but, Chris, mightn't it be that she didn't know?" Alice submitted,
timidly.

Her husband eyed her with a faint and thoughtful frown.

"It seems to me that that is rather a fantastic theory, dear! Where
would this child be all this time?"

"Kate" Alice said, simply.

"Kate!" he echoed, struck. And Alice saw, with a sinking heart, that he
was impressed. After a full moment of silence he said, simply: "You
think this is the child?"

"Chris," his wife cried, appealingly, "I don't say I think so! But it
occurred to me that it might be. I hope, with all my soul, that you
don't think so!"

"I'm afraid," he answered, thoughtfully, "that I do!"

Alice's eyes filled with tears, and she tightened her fingers in his
without speaking.

"The idea being," Christopher mused, "that Mrs. Sheridan brought the
baby home, and has raised her. That makes Miss Sheridan--Norma--the
child of Annie and that German blackguard!"

"I suppose so!" Alice admitted, despairingly.

"But why has it been kept quiet all this time!"

"Well, that," Alice said, "I don't understand. But this I _am_ sure of:
Annie hasn't the faintest suspicion of it! She supposes that the whole
thing ended with her terrible illness. She was only eighteen, and
younger and more childish even than Leslie is! Oh, Chris," said Alice,
her eyes watering, "isn't it horrible! To come to us, of all people!
Will everybody know?"

"Well, it all depends. It's a nasty sort of business, but I suppose
there's no help for it. How much does Hendrick know?"

"About Annie? Oh, everything that she does; I know that. Annie told him,
and Judge Lee told him about Müller and the divorce, or nullification,
or whatever it was! There was nothing left unexplained there. But if the
child lived, she didn't know that--only Mama did, and Kate. Oh, poor
Annie, it would kill her to have all that raked up now! Why Kate kept it
secret all these years----"

"I must say," Christopher exclaimed, "that----By George, I hate this
sort of thing! No help for it, I suppose. But if it gets out we shall
all be in for a sweet lot of notoriety. We shall just have to make terms
with these Sheridans, and keep our mouths shut. I didn't get the idea
that they were holding your mother up. I believe it's more that she
wants justice done; she would, you know, for the sake of the family. The
girl herself, this Norma, evidently hasn't been raised on any
expectations--probably knows nothing about it!"

"Oh, I'm sure of that!" Alice agreed, eagerly. "And if she has Melrose
blood in her, you may be sure she'll play the game. But, Chris, I can't
stand the uncertainty. Mama's coming to have luncheon with me to-morrow,
and I'm going to ask her outright. And if this Norma is really--what we
fear, what do you think we ought to do?"

"Well, it's hard to say. It's all utterly damnable," Christopher said,
distressed. "And Annie, who let us all in for it, gets off scot free! I
wish, since she let it go so long, that your mother had forgotten it
entirely. But, as it is, this child isn't, strictly speaking,
illegitimate. There was a marriage, and some sort of divorce, whether
Müller deceived Annie as to his being a bachelor or not!"

A maid stood in the doorway.

"Mrs. Melrose, Mrs. Liggett."

"Oh," Alice said, in an animated tone of pleasure, "ask her to come
upstairs!" But the eyes she turned to her husband were full of
apprehension. "Chris, here's Mama now! Shall we----? Would you dare?"

"Use your own judgment!" he had time to say hastily, before his wife's
mother came in.



CHAPTER VIII


Mrs. Melrose frequently came in to join Alice for dinner, especially
when she was aware, as to-night, that Christopher had an evening
engagement. She was almost always sure of finding Annie alone, and
enjoying the leisurely confidences that were crowded out of the daytime
hours.

She had had several weeks of nervous illness now, but looked better
to-night, looked indeed her handsome and comfortable self, as she
received Chris's filial kiss on her forehead, and bent to embrace her
daughter. Freda carried away her long fur-trimmed cloak, and she pushed
her veil up to her forehead, and looked with affectionate concern from
husband to wife.

"Now, Chris, I'm spoiling things! But I thought Carry Pope told me that
you were going to her dinner before the opera!"

"I'm due there at eight," he said, reassuringly. "And by the same token,
I ought to be dressing! But Alice and I have been loafing along here
comfortably, and I'd give about seven dollars to stay at home with my
wife!"

"He always says that!" Alice said, smilingly. "But he always has a nice
time; and then the next night he plays over the whole score, and tells
me who was there, and so I have it, too!"

Chris had walked to the white mantelpiece, and was lighting a
cigarette.

"Alice had that little protégée of yours here, to-day, Aunt Marianna,"
he said, casually.

There was no mistaking the look of miserable and fearful interest that
deepened instantly in the older woman's eyes.

"Miss Sheridan?" she said.

"Mama," Alice exclaimed, suddenly, clasping a warm hand over her
mother's trembling one, and looking at her with all love and
reassurance, "you know how Chris and I love you, don't you?"

Tears came into Mrs. Melrose's eyes.

"Of course I do, lovey," she faltered.

"Mama, you know how we would stand behind you--how anxious we are to
share whatever's worrying you!" Alice went on, pleadingly. "Can't
you--I'm not busy like Annie, or young like Leslie, and Chris is your
man of business, after all! Can't you tell us about it? Two heads--three
heads," said Alice, smiling through a sudden mist of tears, "are better
than one!"

"Why," Mrs. Melrose stammered, with a rather feeble attempt at
lightness, "have I been acting like a person with something on her mind?
It's nothing, children, nothing at all. Don't bother your dear, generous
hearts about it another second!"

And she looked from one to another with a gallant smile.

Chris eyed his wife with a faint, hopeless movement of the head, and
Alice correctly interpreted it to mean that the situation was worse
instead of better.

"You remember the night you sent for me, some weeks ago, Aunt Marianna?"
he ventured. Mrs. Melrose moistened her lips, and swallowed with a dry
throat, looking at him with a sort of alert defiance.

"I confess that I was all upset that night," she admitted, bravely. "And
to tell you children the truth, Kate Sheridan coming upon me so
unexpectedly----"

"Joseph quite innocently told me that evening that you had anticipated
her coming!" Christopher said, quietly, as she paused.

"Joseph was mistaken!" Mrs. Melrose said, warmly, with red colour
beginning to burn in her soft, faded old face. "Kate had been associated
with a terrible time in my life," she went on, almost angrily. "And it
was quite natural--or at least it seems so to me!--I don't know what
other people would feel, but to _me_----But what are you two
cross-examining me for?" she interrupted herself to ask, with a sudden
rush of tears, as Chris looked unconvinced, and Alice still watched her
sorrowfully. "Little do you know, either of you, what I have been
through----"

"Mama," entreated Alice, earnestly, "will you answer me one question? I
promise you that I won't ask another. You know how anxious we are only
to help you, to make everything run smoothly. You know what the family
is--to us. Don't you _see_ we are?" Alice asked suddenly, seeing that
the desire for sympathy and advice was rapidly breaking up the ice that
had chilled her mother's heart for long weeks. "Won't you tell me just
this--it's about Annie, Mama. When she was so ill in Munich. Was--was
her little baby born there?"

"Yes!" Mrs. Melrose whispered, with fascinated eyes fixed on her
daughter's face.

Alice, ashen faced, fell back against her pillows without speaking.

"Kate Sheridan brought the child home," Christopher stated, rather than
asked, very quietly. His mother-in-law looked at him apathetically.

"Kate--yes!"

"Does Annie know it, Mama?" Alice whispered, after a silence.

"Annie? Oh, my God, no!" The mother's voice rose almost to a wail. "Oh,
Chris--Alice--if you love me, Annie must not know! So proud, so happy;
and she would never bear it! I know her--I know her! She would kill
herself before----"

"Darling, you must be quiet!" Alice said, commandingly. "No one shall
know it. What we do for this child shall be done for--well, our cousin.
Chris will help you manage everything, and no one shall ever suspect it
from me. It will all work out right, you'll see. Other people aren't
watching us, as we always think they are; it's nobody's business if a
cousin of ours suddenly appears in the family. No one would dare whisper
one word against the Melroses. Only be quiet, Mama darling, and don't
worry. Now that we know it, we will never, never allude to it again,
will we, Chris? You can trust us."

Mrs. Melrose had sunk back into her chair; her face was putty-coloured,
beads of water stood on her forehead.

"Oh, the relief--the relief!" she kept whispering, as she clung to
Alice's hand. "Alice, for the sake of the name--dear--for all our
sakes!----"

"Now, if you two girls will take my advice!" Christopher suggested,
cheerfully, "you'll stop talking about all this, and let it wait until
to-morrow. Then we'll consult, and see just what proposition we can make
to little Miss Sheridan, and what's best to be done. Alice, why don't
you go over that wedding list of Leslie's with your mother? And ring for
dinner. I'm going to dress."

"We will!" Alice agreed, sensibly. "As a family we've always faced
things courageously. We're fighters--we Melroses--and we'll stand
together!"



CHAPTER IX


This was on Friday, and it was on the following Monday that Wolf and
Rose Sheridan came home to find news awaiting them. The day before had
been surprisingly sunny and sweet, and Wolf and Harry Redding had taken
the girls to Newark, where Wolf's motor-car had been stored all winter,
and they had laughed, and joked, and chattered all the way like the
care-free young things they were. Mrs. Sheridan, urged to join them, had
pleaded business: she had promised old Mrs. Melrose to go and see her.
So she had left them at the church door, after Mass, and they had gone
their way rejoicing in sunshine and warm breezes, a part of the
streaming holiday crowds that were surging and idling along the drying
pavements.

Wolf was neither of an age nor type for piety, but to-day he had prayed
that this little Norma kneeling beside him, with the youth and fire and
audacity shining in her face even while she prayed, might turn that same
mysterious and solemn smile upon him again some day, as his wife. And
all day long, as she danced along by his side, as she eagerly debated
the question of luncheon, as she enslaved the aged coloured man in the
garage, the new thrill of which he had only recently become so
pleasantly conscious, stirred in his heart, and whatever she touched, or
said, or looked, was beautified almost beyond recognition.

He had thought, coming home Monday night, that he and she would take a
little walk, in the lingering dusk of the cool spring evening, and
perhaps see the twelfth installment of "The Stripe-Faced Terror," which
was playing in the near-by moving-picture house.

But he found her in a new mood, almost awed with an unexpected ecstasy
in which he had no part--would never have a part. She and Aunt Kate had
been to see Mrs. Melrose again.

"And, Wolf, what do you think! They want me to go live there--with the
Liggetts, to help with lists and things for Leslie's wedding. Mrs.
Melrose kissed me, Wolf, and said--didn't she, Aunt Kate?--that I must
try to feel that I belong to them; and she was so sweet--she put her arm
about me, and said that I must have some pretty clothes! And the car is
coming for me on Wednesday; isn't it like a dream? Oh, Rose, if I'm
thankful enough! And I'm to come back here for dinner once a week, and
of course you and Rose are to come there! Oh, Rose, but I wish it was us
both--I wish it was you, you're so good!"

"I wouldn't have it, Norma," Rose said, in her honest, pleasant voice.
"You know I'd feel like a fool."

"Oh, but I am so happy!" And Norma, who had gotten into Aunt Kate's lap,
as the marvellous narrative progressed, dug her face into Aunt Kate's
motherly soft shoulder, and tightened her arms about her neck, and cried
a little, for sheer joy.

But Wolf said almost nothing, and when he went to wash his hands for
supper he went slowly, and found himself staring absently at the towel,
and stopping short in the hall, still staring. He seemed himself at
dinner, and his mother, at first watching him anxiously, could resume
her meal, and later, could fall asleep, in the confident hope that it
would all come right, after all. But Wolf slipped from the house after
awhile, and walked the streets until almost dawn.

It was almost dawn, too when the old mistress of the Melrose mansion
fell asleep. She had called Regina more than once, she had tried the
effect of reading, and of hot milk, and of a cold foot-bath. But still
the crowded, over-furnished room was filled with ghosts, and still she
watched them, pleaded with them, blamed them.

"I've done all I could!" she whispered at last, into the heavy dark
before the dawn. "It isn't my fault if they think she's Annie's child!
I've never said so--it was Alice and Chris who said so. Annie and Leslie
will never know anything more, and the girl herself need never know
anything at all. Perhaps, as Kate said yesterday, it will all work out
right, this way! At least it's all we can do now!"



CHAPTER X


So it came about quite naturally that the little unknown cousin of the
Melroses was made a familiar figure in their different family groups,
and friends of the house grew accustomed to finding pretty little Norma
Sheridan lunching with Leslie, reading beside Alice's couch in the late
summer afternoons, or amusing and delighting the old head of the family
in a hundred charming ways. Norma called Mrs. Melrose "Aunt Marianna"
now, as Chris and Acton did. She did not understand the miracle, it
remained a marvel still, but it was enough that it continued to deepen
and spread with every enchanted hour.

She had longed--what girl in Biretta's Bookstore did not?--to be rich,
and to move and have her being "in society." And now she had her wish, a
hundred times fulfilled, and of course she was utterly and absolutely
happy.

That is, except for the momentary embarrassments and jealousies and
uncertainties, and for sometimes being bored, she thought that she might
consider herself happy. And there were crumpled rose-leaves everywhere!
she reminded herself sternly. She--Norma Sheridan--could spend more
money upon the single item of shoes, for example, than Miss Smith, head
of Biretta's Bookshop, could earn in a whole long year of hot months and
cold, of weary days and headachy days.

That part of it was "fun", she admitted to herself. The clothes were
fun, the boxes and boxes and boxes that came home for her, the
petticoats and stockings, the nightgowns heavy with filet lace, and the
rough boots for tramping and driving, and the silk and satin slippers
for the house. Nothing disappointing there! Norma never would forget the
ecstasies of those first shopping trips with Aunt Marianna. Did she want
them?--the beaded bag, the woolly scarf, the little saucy hat, were all
to be sent to Miss Sheridan, please. Norma lost her breath, and laughed,
and caught it again and lost it afresh. They had so quickly dropped the
little pretence that she was to make herself useful, these wonderful and
generous Melroses; they had so soon forgotten everything except that she
was Leslie's age, and to be petted and spoiled as if she had been
another Leslie!

And now, after more than half a year, she knew that they liked her; that
all of them liked her in their varying degrees. Old Mrs. Melrose and
Alice--Mrs. Christopher Liggett--were most warmly her champions,
perhaps, but Leslie was too unformed a character to be definitely
hostile, and the little earlier jealousies and misunderstandings were
blown away long ago, and even the awe-inspiring Annie had shown a real
friendliness of late. Acton Liggett and Hendrick von Behrens were always
kind and admiring, and Norma had swiftly captivated Annie's little boys.
But of them all, she still liked Chris Liggett the best, and felt
nearest Chris even when he scolded her, or hurt her feelings with his
frank advice. And she knew that Chris thoroughly liked her, in spite of
the mistakes that she was continually making, and the absurd ways in
which her ignorance and strangeness still occasionally betrayed her.

It had been a time full of mistakes, of course. Chris often told her
that she had more brains in her little finger than most of the girls of
her set had in their whole bodies, but that had not saved her. If she
was pretty, they were all pretty, too. If she wore beautiful clothes,
they wore clothes just as beautiful, and with more assurance. If her wit
was quick, and her common sense and human experience far greater than
theirs, these were just the qualities they neither needed nor trusted.
They spoke their own language, the language of youthful arrogance and
ignorance, the language of mutual compliments and small personalities,
and Norma could not speak this tongue any more than she could join them
when they broke easily into French or German or Italian. She could ride,
because she was not afraid of the mild-mannered cobs that were used at
the riding school and in the park, but she knew little of correct
posture and proper handling of reins. She could swim, as Wolf had taught
her, in the old river years ago, but she knew nothing of the terms and
affectations of properly taught swimming. When she went to see Aunt
Kate, she was almost ashamed of the splendour of her clothing and the
utter luxury of the life she led, but with Leslie and her friends she
often felt herself what perhaps they thought her, an insignificant
little poor relation of the Melroses, who had appeared from nobody knew
where, and might return unchallenged at any moment to her original
obscurity.

This phase of the new life was disappointing, and Norma realized herself
that she spent a quite disproportionate amount of time in thinking about
it. Wasn't it enough, she would ask herself impatiently, to be one of
them at all, to see one's picture in the fashionable weeklies, as a
member of the family, at the Liggett-Melrose wedding; to have clothes
and motor-cars, and a bedroom that was like a picture; to know Newport
at first-hand; to have cruised for a week in the Craigies' yacht, and
have driven to Quebec and back in the Von Behrens' car? A year ago, she
reminded herself, it would have seemed Paradise to have had even a
week's freedom from the bookshop; now, she need never step into
Biretta's again!

But it was not enough, and Norma would come impatiently to the end of
her pondering with the same fretted sense of dissatisfaction. It was not
enough to be tremulously praised by old Aunt Marianna, to be joked by
Chris, greeted by Alice, his wife, with a friendly smile. Norma wanted
to belong to this life, to be admired and sought by Leslie, rather than
endured; to have the same easy familiarity with Duers, and Alexanders,
and Rutgers that Leslie had.

As was quite natural, she and Leslie had eyed each other, from the very
beginning, somewhat as rivals. But Leslie, even then preparing for her
marriage, had so obviously held all the advantages, that her vague
resentment and curiosity concerning the family's treatment of the
unknown newcomer were brief. If Aunt Alice liked Norma to come in and
talk books and write notes, if Chris chose to be gallant, if Grandma
lavished an unusual affection upon this new protégée, well, it robbed
Leslie of nothing, after all.

But with Norma it was different. She was brought into sharp contact with
another girl, only slightly her senior, who had everything that this new
turn of fortune had given Norma herself, and a thousand times more.
Norma saw older women, the important and influential matrons of the
social world, paying court to the promised wife of Acton Liggett. Norma
knew that while Alice and Chris were always attentive to her own little
affairs, the solving of Leslie's problems they regarded as their own
sacred obligation. Norma had hours and hours of this new enchanting
leisure to fill; she could be at anybody's beck and call. But Leslie,
she saw, was only too busy. Everybody was claiming Leslie; she was
needed in forty places at once; she must fly from one obligation to
another, and be thanked for sparing just a few minutes here and there
from her crowded days.

Mrs. Melrose had immediately made Norma an allowance, an allowance so
big that when Norma first told Aunt Kate about it, it was with a sense
of shame. Norma had her check-book, and need ask nobody for spending
money. More than that her generous old patron insisted that she use all
the family charge accounts freely: "You mustn't think of paying in any
shop!" said Aunt Marianna and Aunt Alice, earnestly.

But Leslie was immensely rich in her own right. The hour in which Norma
realized this was one of real wretchedness. Chris was her innocent
informant.

It was only two or three days before the wedding, a warm day of rustling
leaves and moving shadows, in late May. The united families were still
in town, but plans for escape to the country were made for the very day
after the event. Norma had been fighting a little sense of hurt pride
because she was not to be included among Leslie's wedding attendants.
She knew that Aunt Marianna had suggested it to Leslie, some weeks
before, and that the bride had quite justifiably reminded her
grandmother that the eight maids, the special maid and matron of honour,
and the two little pages, had all been already asked to perform their
little service of affection, and that a readjustment now would be
difficult. So Norma had been excluded from the luncheons, the
discussions of frocks and bouquets, and the final exciting rehearsals in
the big Park Avenue church.

She had chanced to be thinking of all these things on the day when Chris
made a casual allusion to "needing" Leslie.

"The poor kid has got a stupid morning coming to-morrow, I'm afraid!" he
had said, adding, in answer to Norma's raised eyebrows, "Business. She
has to sign some papers, and alter her will--and I want all that done
before they go away!"

"Has Leslie a will?" Norma had asked.

"My child, what did you suppose she had? Leslie inherited practically
all of her Grandfather Melrose's estate. At least, her father, Theodore,
did, and Leslie gets it direct through him. Of course your Aunt Annie
got her slice, and my wife hers, but the bulk was left to the son. Poor
Teddy! he didn't get much out of it. But during her minority the
executors--of which I happen to be one--almost doubled it for Leslie.
And to-morrow Judge Lee and I have got to go over certain matters with
her."

He had been idling at the piano, while Alice dozed in the heat, and
Norma played with a magazine. Now he had turned back to his music, and
Norma had apparently resumed her reading. But she really had been shaken
by a storm of passionate jealousy.

Jealousy is in its nature selfish, and the old Norma of Aunt Kate's
little group had not been a selfish girl. But Norma had had a few weeks
now of a world governed by a different standard. There was no necessity
here, none of the pure beauty of sacrifice and service and
insufficiency. This was a world of superfluities, a standard of excess.
To have merely meals, clothing, comfort, and ease was not enough here.
All these must be had in superabundance, and she was the best woman and
the happiest who had gowns she could not wear, jewels lying idle, money
stored away in banks, and servants standing about uselessly for hours,
that the momentary needs of them might be instantly met.

The poison of this creed had reached Norma, in spite of herself. She was
young, and she had always been beloved in her own group for what she
honestly gave of cheer and service and friendship. It hurt her that
nobody needed what she could give now, and she hated the very memory of
Leslie's wedding.

But when that was over, Mrs. Melrose had taken her to Newport, whither
Alice was carefully moved every June. Leslie was gone now, and Norma
free from pricking reminders of her supremacy, and as old friends of
Mrs. Melrose began to include her in the summer's merrymaking, she had
some happy times. But even here the cloven hoof intruded.

Norma had always imagined this group as being full of friendly women and
admiring men, as offering her a hundred friendships where the old life
had offered one. She discovered slowly, and with pained surprise, that
although there were plenty of girls, they were not especially anxious
for intimacy with her, and that the men she met were not, somehow,
"real." They were absorbed in amusement, polo and yachting, they moved
about a great deal, and they neither had, nor desired to have, any
genuine work or interest in life. She began to see Leslie's wisdom in
making an early and suitable marriage. As a matron, Leslie was
established; she could entertain, she had dignified duties and
interests, and while Norma felt awkward and bashful in asking young men
to dine with Aunt Marianna, Acton brought his friends to his home, and
Leslie had her girl friends there, and the whole thing was infinitely
simpler and pleasanter.



CHAPTER XI


Norma had indeed chanced to make one girl friend, and one of whom Leslie
and Alice, and even Annie, heartily approved. Caroline, the
seventeen-year-old daughter of the Peter Craigies, was not a débutante
yet, but she would be the most prominent, because the richest, of them
all next winter. Caroline was a heavy-lidded, slow-witted girl, whose
chief companions in life had been servants, foreign-born governesses,
and music-masters. Norma had been seated next to her at the
international tennis tournament, and had befriended the squirming and
bashful Caroline from sheer goodness of heart. They had criticized the
players, and Caroline had laughed the almost hysteric, shaken laugh that
so worried her mother, and had blurted confidences to Norma in her
childish way.

The next day there had been an invitation for Norma to lunch with
Caroline, and Mrs. von Behrens had promptly given another luncheon for
both girls. Norma was pleased, for a few weeks, with her first social
conquest, but after that Caroline became a dead weight upon her. She
hated the flattery, the inanities, the utter dulness of the great
Craigie mansion, and she began to have a restless conviction that time
spent with Caroline was time lost.

The friendship had cost her dear, too. Norma hated, even months later to
remember just what she had paid for it.

In August a letter from Rose had reached her at Newport, announcing
Rose's approaching marriage. Harry Redding's sister Mary was engaged to
a most satisfactory young man of Italian lineage, one Joe Popini, and
Mrs. Redding would hereafter divide her time between the households of
her daughter and her son. Harry, thus free to marry, had persuaded Rose
to wait no longer; the event was to be on a Monday not quite two weeks
ahead, and Norma was please, _please_, PLEASE to come down as soon as
she could.

Norma had read this letter with a sensation of pain at her heart. She
felt so far away from them nowadays; she felt almost a certain
reluctance to dovetail this life of softness and perfume and amusement
in upon the old life. But she would go. She would go, of course!

And then she had suddenly remembered that on the Monday before Rose's
wedding, the Craigies' splendid yacht was to put to sea for a four- or
five-days' cruise, and that Caroline had asked her to go--the only other
young person besides the daughter of the house. And great persons were
going, visiting nobility from England, a young American Croesus and his
wife, a tenor from the Metropolitan. Annie had been delighted with this
invitation; even Leslie, just returned from California and Hawaii, had
expressed an almost surprised satisfaction in the Craigies'
friendliness.

If they got back Friday night, then Norma could go down to the city
early Saturday morning, and have two days with Rose and Aunt Kate. But
if the yacht did not return until Saturday--well, even then there would
be time. She and Rose could get through a tremendous lot of talking in
twenty-four hours. And the voyage certainly would not be prolonged over
Saturday, for had not Mrs. Craigie said, in Norma's hearing, that
Saturday was the very latest minute to which she could postpone the
meeting for the big charity lawn party?

So Norma and the enslaved Caroline continued to plan for their sea trip,
and Norma commissioned Chris to order Rose's wedding present at
Gorham's.

Mrs. von Behrens had been a trifle distant with the newcomer in the
family until now, but the day before the cruise began she extended just
a little of her royal graciousness toward Norma. Like Leslie, Norma
admired her Aunt Annie enormously, and hungered for her most casual
word.

"You've plenty of frocks, Kiddie?" asked Annie. "One uses them up at the
rate of about three a day!"

"Oh!"--Norma widened her innocent eyes--"I've a wardrobe trunk full of
them: white skirts and white shoes and hats!"

"Well, I didn't suppose you had them tied in a handkerchief!" Annie had
responded, with her quiet smile. "See if that fits you!"

They had been up in Mrs. von Behrens's big bedroom, where that lady was
looking at a newly arrived box of gowns. "That" was the frail,
embroidered coat of what Norma thought the prettiest linen suit she had
ever seen.

"It's charming on you, you little slender thing," Annie had said. "The
skirt will be too long; will you pin it, Keating? And see that it goes
at once to my mother's house."

Keating had pinned, admired. And Norma, turning herself before the
mirror, with her eyes shy with pleasure and gratitude, had known that
she was gaining ground.

So they had started radiantly on the cruise. But after the first few
miraculous hours of gliding along beneath the gay awnings that had all
been almost astonishingly disappointing, too. Caroline, to begin with,
was a dreadful weight upon her young guest. Caroline for breakfast,
luncheon, and dinner; Caroline retiring and rising, became almost
hateful. Caroline always wanted to do something, when Norma could have
dreamed and idled in her deck chair by the hour. It must be deck golf or
deck tennis, or they must go up and tease dignified and courteous
Captain Burns, "because he was such an old duck," or they must harass
one or two of the older people into bridge. Norma did not play bridge
well, and she hated it, and hated Caroline's way of paying for her
losses almost more than paying them herself.

Norma could not lie lazily with her book, raising her eyes to the
exquisite beauty of the slowly tipping sea, revelling in coolness and
airiness, because Caroline, fussing beside her, had never read a book
through in her life. The guest did not know, even now, that Caroline had
been a mental problem for years, that Caroline's family had consulted
great psycho-analysts about her, and had watched the girl's
self-centredness, her odd slyness, her hysteric emotions, with deep
concern. She did not know, even now, that the Cragies were anxious to
encourage this first reaching out, in Caroline, toward a member of her
own sex, and that her fancies for members of the opposite sex--for
severely indifferent teachers, for shocked and unresponsive
chauffeurs--were among the family problems, a part of the girl's
unfortunate under-development. Caroline's family was innocently
surprised to realize that her mind had not developed under the care of
maids who were absorbed in their own affairs, and foreigners who would
not have been free to attend her had they not been impecunious and
unsuccessful in more lucrative ways. They had left her to Mademoiselles
and Fräuleins quite complacently, but they did not wish her to be like
these too-sullen or too-vivacious ladies.

So they welcomed her friendship with Norma, and Caroline's passionate
desire to be with her friend was not to find any opposition on the part
of her own family. Little Miss Sheridan had an occasional kindly word
from Caroline's mother, a stout woman, middle-aged at thirty-five, and
good-natured smiles from Caroline's father, a well-groomed young man.
And socially, this meant that the Melroses' young protégée was made.

But Norma did not realize all this. She only knew that all the charm and
beauty of the yacht were wasted on her. Everyone ate too much, talked
too much, played, flirted, and dressed too much. The women seldom made
their appearance until noon; in the afternoons there was bridge until
six, and much squabbling and writing of checks on the forward deck, with
iced drinks continually being brought up from the bar. At six the women
loitered off to dress for dinner, but the men went on playing for
another half hour. The sun sank in a blaze of splendour; the wonderful
twilight fell; but the yacht might have been boxed up in an armoury for
all that her passengers saw of the sea.

After the elaborate dinner, with its ices and hot rolls, its warm wines
and chilled champagne, cards began again, and unless the ocean was so
still that they might dance, bridge continued until after midnight.

Norma's happiest times had been when she arose early, at perhaps seven,
and after dressing noiselessly in their little bathroom, crept upstairs
without waking Caroline. Sunshine would be flooding the ocean, or
perhaps the vessel would be nosing her way through a luminous fog--but
it was always beautiful. The decks, drying in the soft air, would be
ordered, inviting, deserted. Great waves of smooth water would flow
evenly past, curving themselves with lessening ripples into the great
even circle of the sea. A gentle breeze would stir the leaves of the
potted plants on the deck and flap the fringes of the awnings.

Norma, hanging on the railing, would look down upon a group of maids and
stewards laughing and talking on the open deck below. These were happy,
she would reflect, animated by a thousand honest emotions that never
crept to the luxurious cabins above. They would be waiting for
breakfast, all freshly aproned and brushed, all as pleased with the
_Seagirl_ as if they had been her owners.

On the fifth day, Friday, she had been almost sick with longing to hear
some mention of going back. Surely--surely, she reasoned, they had all
said that they must get back on Friday night! If the plan had changed,
Norma had determined to ask them to run into harbour somewhere, and put
her on shore. She was so tired of Caroline, so tired of wasting time, so
headachy from the heavy meals and lack of exercise!

Late on Friday afternoon some idle remark of her hostess had assured her
that the yacht would not make Greble light until Monday. They were
ploughing north now, to play along the Maine coast; the yachting party
was a great success, and nobody wanted to go home.

Norma, goaded out of her customary shyness, had pleaded her cousin's
marriage. Couldn't they run into Portland--or somewhere?--and let her go
down by train? But Caroline had protested most affectionately and
noisily against this, and Caroline's mother said sweetly that she
couldn't think of letting Norma do that alone--Annie von Behrens would
never forgive her! However, she would speak to Captain Burns, and see
what could be done. Anyway, Mrs. Craigie had finished, with her
comfortable laugh, Norma had only to tell her cousin that she was out
with friends on their yacht, and they had been delayed. Surely that was
excuse enough for any one?

It was with difficulty that Norma had kept the tears out of her eyes.
She had not wanted an excuse to stay away from Rose's wedding. Her heart
had burned with shame and anger and helplessness. She could hardly
believe, crying herself to sleep on Friday night, that two whole days
were still to spare before Monday, and that she was helpless to use
them. Her mind worked madly, her thoughts rushing to and fro with a
desperation worthy an actual prisoner.

On Saturday evening, after a day of such homesickness and
heavy-heartedness as she had never known before in her life, she had
realized that they were in some port, lying a short half mile from
shore.

It was about ten o'clock, warm and star-lighted; there was no moon.
Norma had slipped from the deck, where Caroline was playing bridge, and
had gone to the lowered gang-plank. Captain Burns was there, going over
what appeared to be invoices, with the head steward.

"Captain," Norma had said, her heart pounding, "can't you put me on
shore? I must be in New York to-morrow--it's very important! If I get a
coat, will you let me go in when you go?"

He had measured her with his usual polite, impersonal gaze.

"Miss Sheridan, I really could not do it, Miss! If it was a telegram, or
something of that sort----But if anything was to happen to you, Miss, it
would be--it really would be most unfortunate!"

Norma had stood still, choking. And in the starlight he had seen the
glitter of tears in her eyes.

"Couldn't you put it to Mrs. Craigie, Miss? I'm sure she'd send
someone--one of the maids----"

But Norma shook her head. It would anger Caroline, and perhaps
Caroline's mother, and Annie, too, to have her upset the cruise by her
own foolish plans. There was no hope of her hostess's consent.
What!--send a girl of eighteen down to New York for dear knows what
fanciful purpose, without a hint from parent or guardian? Mrs. Craigie
knew the modern girl far too well for that, even if it had not been
personally extremely inconvenient to herself to spare a maid. They were
rather short of maids, for two or three of them had been quite ill.

The launch had put off, with Captain Burns in the stern. Norma had stood
watching it, with her heart of lead. Oh, to be running away--flying--on
the train--in the familiar streets! They could forgive her later--or
never----

"Norma, aren't you naughty?" Caroline had interrupted her thoughts, and
had slipped a hand through her arm. "Buoso is going to sing--do come in!
My dear, you know that last hand? Well, we made it----!"

The next two days were the slowest, the hardest, the bitterest of
Norma's life. She felt that nobody had ever had to bear so aching a
heart as hers, as the most beautiful yacht in the world skimmed over the
blue ocean, and the sun shone down on her embroidered linen suit, and
her white shoes, and the pearl ring that Caroline had given her for her
birthday.

What were they doing at Aunt Kate's? What were they saying as the hours
went by? At what stage was the cake--and the gown? Was Rose really to be
married to-morrow--to-day?

In New Brunswick she had managed to send a long wire, full of the
disappointment and affection and longing she truly felt, and after that
she had been happier. But it was a very subdued little Norma who had
come quietly into Aunt Kate's kitchen three weeks later, and had
relieved her over-charged heart with a burst of tears on Aunt Kate's
shoulder.

Aunt Kate had been kind, kind as she always was to the adored
foster-child. And Norma had stayed to dinner, and made soft and penitent
eyes at Wolf until the agonized resolutions of the past lonely months
had all melted out of his heart again, and they had all gone over to
Rose's, for five minutes of kissing and crying, before the big car came
to carry Norma away.

So the worst of that wound was healed, and life could become bright and
promising to Norma once more. Autumn was an invigorating season, anyway,
full of hope and enchantment, and Caroline Craigie, by what Norma felt
to be a special providence, was visiting her grandmother in Baltimore
for an indefinite term. The truth was that there was a doctor there
whose advice was deemed valuable to Caroline, but Norma did not know
that. Norma did not know the truth, either, about Mrs. von Behrens's
sudden graciousness toward her, but it made her happy. Annie had become
friendly and hospitable toward the newcomer in the family for only one
reason. As a social dictator, she was accustomed to be courted and
followed by scores of women who desired her friendship for the prestige
it gave them. Annie was extremely autocratic in this respect, and could
snub, chill, and ignore even the most hopeful aspirants to her favour,
with the ease of long practice. It made no difference to Annie that
dazzling credentials were produced, or that past obscurity was more than
obliterated by present glory.

"One truly must be firm," Annie frequently said. "It devolves upon a few
of us, as an actual duty, to see that society is maintained in its true
spirit. Let the bars down once----!"

Norma, a negligible factor in Annie's life when she first appeared, had
quite innocently become a problem during that first summer. While not a
Melrose, she was a member of the Melrose family, making her home with
one of the daughters of the house. Annie might ignore Norma, but there
were plenty of women, and men, too, who saw in the girl a valuable
social lever. To become intimate with little Miss Sheridan meant that
one might go up to her, at teas and dinners, while she was with Mrs.
Melrose, or young Mrs. Liggett, or even Mrs. von Behrens herself, in a
casual, friendly manner that indicated, to a watching world, a
comfortable footing with the family. Norma was consequently selected
for social attention.

Annie saw this immediately, and when all the families were settled in
town again, she decided to take Norma's social training in hand, as she
had done Leslie's, and make sure that no undesirable cockle was sown
among the family fields. She would have done exactly the same if Norma
had been the least attractive of girls, but Norma fancied that her own
qualities had won Annie's reluctant friendship, and was accordingly
pleased.



CHAPTER XII


Eight months later, in the clear sunshine of a late autumn morning, a
slender young woman came down the steps of the Melrose house, after an
hour's call on the old mistress, and turned briskly toward Fifth Avenue.
In figure, in carriage, and even in the expression of her charming and
animated face, she was different from the girl who had come to that same
house to make a call with Aunt Kate, on the day after the big blizzard,
yet it was the same Norma Sheridan who nodded a refusal to the driver of
the big motor-car that was waiting, and set off by herself for her walk.

The old Norma, straight from Biretta's Bookshop, had been pretty in
plain serge and shabby fur. But this Norma--over whose soft thick belted
coat a beautiful silver-fox skin was linked, whose heavy, ribbed silk
hose disappeared into slim, flat, shining pumps that almost caressed the
slender foot, whose dark hair had the lustre that comes from intelligent
care, and whose handsome little English hat was the only one of its
special cut in the world--was a conspicuously attractive figure even in
a world of well-groomed girls, and almost deserved to be catalogued as a
beauty. From the hat to the shoes she was palpably correct, and Norma
knew, and never could quite sufficiently revel in the knowing, that the
blouse and the tailored skirt that were under the coat were correct,
too, and that under blouse and skirt were cobwebby linens and perfumed
ribbons and sheerest silks that were equally perfect in their way.
Leslie's bulldog, pulling on his strap, kept her moving rapidly, and
girl and dog exacted from almost all the passers-by that tribute of
glances to which Norma was now beginning to be accustomed.

She was walking to Mrs. von Behrens's after an unusually harmonious
luncheon with old Mrs. Melrose. This was one of Norma's happy times, and
she almost danced in the crisp November air that promised snow even now.
Leslie had asked her to come informally to tea; Annie had sent a message
that she wished to see Norma; and Alice, who, like all invalids, had
dark moods of which only her own household was aware, had been her
nicest self for a week. Then Christopher was coming home to-night, and
Norma had missed him for the three weeks he had been away, duck-shooting
in the South, and liked the thought that he was homeward bound.

She found Leslie with Annie to-day, in Annie's big front bedroom. Leslie
was in a big chair by the bed where Annie, with some chalky preparation
pasted in strips on those portions of her face that were most inclined
to wrinkle, was lying flat. Her hair, rubbed with oils and packed in
tight bands, was entirely invisible, and over her arms, protruding from
a gorgeous oriental wrap, loose chamois gloves were drawn. Annie had
been to a luncheon, and was to appear at two teas, a dinner, and the
theatre, and she was making the most of an interval at home. She looked
indescribably hideous, as she stretched a friendly hand toward Norma,
and nodded toward a chair.

"Look at the child's colour--Heavens! what it is to be young," said
Annie. "Sit down, Norma. How's Alice?"

"Lovely!" Norma said, pulling off her gloves. "She had a wire from
Chris, and he gets back to-night. I had luncheon with your mother, and I
am to go to stay with her for two or three nights, anyway. But Aunt
Alice said that she would like to have me back again next week for her
two teas."

"How old are you, Norma?" Annie asked, suddenly. Any sign of interest on
her part always thrilled the girl, who answered, flushing:

"Nineteen; twenty in January, Aunt Annie."

"I'm thinking, if you'd like it, of giving you a little tea here next
month," Annie said, lazily. "You know quite enough of the youngsters now
to have a thoroughly nice time, and afterward we'll have a dinner here,
and they can dance!"

"Oh, Aunt Annie--if I'd like it!" Norma exclaimed, rosy with pleasure.

"You would?" Annie asked, looking at a hand from which she had drawn the
glove, and smiling slightly. "It means that you don't go anywhere in the
meantime. You're not out until then, you know!"

"Oh, but I won't be going anywhere, anyway," Norma conceded,
contentedly.

"You'll have a flood of invitations fast enough after the tea," Annie
assured her, pleased at her excitement, "and until then, you can simply
say that you are not going out yet."

"Chris said he might take me to the opera on the first night; I've never
been," Norma said, timidly. "But I can explain to him!"

"Oh, that won't count!" Annie assured her, carelessly. "We'll all be
there, of course! Have you worn the corn-coloured gown yet?"

"Oh, no, Aunt Annie!"

"Well, keep it for that night. And you and Chris might----No, he'll want
to dine with Alice, and she'll want to see you in your new gown. I was
going to say that you might dine here, but you'd better not."

"I think Leslie and Acton are going to be asked to dine with us," Norma
said. "Aunt Alice said something about it!"

"Well," Annie agreed indifferently. "Ring that bell, Norma--I've got to
get up! Where are you girls going now?"

"Some of the girls are coming to my house for tea," Leslie answered,
listlessly. "I've got the car here. Come on, Norma!"

"But you're not driving, Kiddie?" her aunt asked, quickly.

Leslie, who neither looked nor felt well, raised half-resentful eyes.

"Oh, no, I'm not driving, and I'm lying in bed mornings, and I don't
play squash, or ride horseback, or go in for tennis!" she drawled, half
angrily. "I'm having a perfectly _lovely_ time! I wish Acton had a
little of it; he wouldn't be so pleased! Makes me so mad," grumbled
Leslie, as she wandered toward the door, busily buttoning her coat.
"Grandma crying with joy, and Aunt Alice goo-gooing at me, and
Acton----"

"Come, now, be a little sport, Leslie!" her aunt urged, affectionately,
with her arm about her. "It's rotten, of course, but after all, it does
mean a lot to the Liggetts----"

"Oh, now, don't _you_ begin!" Leslie protested, half-mollified, with her
parting nod. "Don't--for pity's sake!--talk about it," she added,
rudely, to Norma, as Norma began some consolatory murmur on the stairs.
But when they were before her own fire, waiting for the expected girls,
she made Norma a rather ungracious confidence.

"I don't want Aunt Alice or any one to know it, but if Acton Liggett
thinks I am going to let him make an absolute fool of me, he's
mistaken!" Leslie said, in a sort of smouldering resentment.

"What has Acton done?" Norma asked, flattered by the intimation of trust
and not inclined to be apprehensive. She had seen earlier differences
between the young married pair, and now, when Leslie was physically at a
disadvantage, she and Alice had agreed that it was not unnatural that
the young wife should grow exacting and fanciful.

"Acton is about the most selfish person I ever knew," Leslie said,
almost with a whimper. "Oh, yes, he is, Norma! You don't see it--but I
do! Chris knows it, too; I've heard Chris call him down a thousand times
for it! I am just boiling at Acton; I have been all day! He leaves
everything to me, everything; and I'm not well, now, and I can't stand
it! And I'll tell him I can't, too."

"I suppose a man doesn't understand very well," Norma ventured.

"_He_ doesn't!" Leslie said, warmly. "All Acton Liggett thinks of is his
own comfort--that's all! I do everything for him--I pay half the
expenses here, you know, more than half, really, for I always pay for my
own clothes and Milly, and lots of other things. And then he'll do some
_mean_, ugly thing that just makes me furious at him--and he'll walk out
of the house, perfectly calm and happy!"

"He's always had his own way a good deal," Norma who knew anything
except sympathy would utterly exasperate Leslie conceded, mildly.

"Yes," Leslie agreed, flushing, and stiffening her jaw rather ominously,
"and it's just about time that he learned that he isn't always going to
have it, too! It's very easy for him to have me do anything that is hard
and stupid----Do you suppose," she broke off, suddenly, "that _I'm_ so
anxious to go to the Duers' dinner? I wouldn't care if I never saw one
of them again!"

Norma gathered that a dinner invitation from the Duers had been the main
cause of the young Liggetts' difference, and framed a general question.

"That's Saturday night?"

"Friday," Leslie amended. "And what does he do? He meets Roy Duer at the
club, and says oh, no, he can't come to the dinner Friday, but _Leslie_
can! He has promised to play bridge with the Jeromes and that crowd. But
Leslie would _love_ to go! So there I am--old lady Duer called me up the
next morning, and was so sorry Acton couldn't come! But she would expect
me at eight o'clock. It's for her daughter, and she goes away again on
Tuesday. And then"--Leslie straightened herself on the couch, and fixed
Norma with bright, angry eyes;--"then Spooky Jerome telephoned here, and
said to tell Acton that if he couldn't stir up a bridge party for
Friday, he'd stir up something, and for Acton to meet him at the club!"

Norma laughed.

"And did you give Acton that message?" she inquired.

"No, indeed, I didn't--that was only this morning!" Leslie said, in
angry satisfaction. "I telephoned Mrs. Duer right away, and said that
Acton would be so glad to come Friday, and if Acton Liggett doesn't like
it, he knows what he can do! You laugh," she went on with a sort of
pathetic dignity, "but don't you think it's a rotten way for a man to
treat his wife, Norma? Don't you, honestly? There's nothing--nothing
that I don't give way in--absolutely nothing! And I don't believe most
men----Oh, hello, Doris," Leslie broke off, gaily, as there was a stir
at the door; "come in! Come in, Vera--aren't you girls angels to come in
and see the poor old sick lady!"

Norma was still lingering when Acton came home, an hour later. She heard
his buoyant voice in the hall, and began to gather her wraps and gloves
as he came to the tea table.

"Acton," Leslie said, firmly, "the bridge party is off for Friday, and
you're going to Mrs. Duer's with me, and you ought to be ashamed of
yourself!"

"Whew! I can see that I'm popular in the home circle, Norma!" Acton
said, leaning over the big davenport to kiss his wife. "How's my baby?
All right, dear, anything you say goes! I was going to cancel the game,
anyway. Look what Chris brought you, Cutey-cute! Say, Norma, has she
been getting herself tired?"

Leslie, instantly mollified, drew his cold, firm cheek against hers, and
looked sidewise toward Norma.

"Isn't he the nice, big, comfy man to come home to his mad little old
wife?" she mumbled, luxuriously.

"Yes," Acton grumbled, still half embracing her, "but you didn't talk
that way at breakfast, you little devil!"

"Am I a devil?" Leslie asked, lazily. And looking in whimsical penitence
at Norma, she added, "I _am_ a devil. But you were just as mean as you
could be," she told him, widening her eyes and shaking her head.

"I know it. I felt like a dog, walking down town," her husband admitted
promptly. "I tried to telephone but you weren't here!"

"I was at Aunt Annie's," Leslie said, softly. Her husband had slipped in
beside her on the wide davenport, and she was resting against his
shoulder, and idly kissing the little rebel lock of hair that fell
across one temple. "He's a pretty nice old husband!" she murmured,
contentedly.

"And she's a pretty nice little wife, if she did call me some mean
names!" Acton returned, kissing the top of her head without altering her
position. Norma looked at them with smiling contempt.

"You're a great pair!" she conceded, indulgently.

Leslie now was free to examine, with a flush and a laugh, the
microscopic pair of beaded Indian moccasins that Chris had brought from
Florida. Norma asked about Chris.

"Oh, he's fine," Acton answered, "looks brown and hard; he had a
gorgeous time! He said he might be round to see Grandma to-morrow
morning!"

"I'll tell her," Norma said, getting up to go. She left them still
clinging together, like a pair of little love-birds, with peace fully
restored for the time being.

Mrs. Melrose's car had been waiting for some time, and she was whirled
home through the dark and wintry streets without the loss of a second.
Lights were lighted everywhere now, and tempered radiance filled the old
hall as she entered it. It was just six o'clock, but Norma knew that she
and the old lady were to be alone to-night, and she went through the
long drawing-room to the library beyond it, thinking she might find her
still lingering over the teacups. Dinner under these circumstances was
usually at seven, and frequently Mrs. Melrose did not change her gown
for it.

There was lamplight in the library, but the old lady's chair was empty,
and the tea table had been cleared away. Norma, supposing the room
unoccupied, gave a little gasp of surprise and pleasure as Chris
suddenly got to his feet among the shadows.

She was so glad to see him, so much more glad than she would have
imagined herself, that for a few minutes she merely clung tight to the
two hands she had grasped, and stood laughing and staring at him. Chris
back again! It meant so much that was pleasant and friendly to Norma.
Chris advised her, admired her, sympathized with her; above all, she
knew that he liked her.

"Chris; it's so nice to see you!" she exclaimed.

The colour came into his face, and with it an odd expression that she
had never seen there before. Without speaking he put his arm about her,
and drew her to him, and kissed her very quietly on the mouth.

"Hello, you dear little girl!" he said, freeing her, and smiling at her,
somewhat confusedly. "You're not half so glad to see me as I am to be
back! You're looking so well, Norma," he went on, with almost his usual
manner, "and Alice tells me you are making friends everywhere. What's
the news?"

He threw himself into a large leather chair, and, hardly knowing what
she was doing, in the wild hurrying of her senses, Norma sat down
opposite him. Her one flurried impulse was not to make a scene. Chris
was always so entirely master of a situation, so utterly unemotional and
self-possessed, that if he kissed her, upon his return from a
three-weeks' absence, it must be a perfectly correct thing to do.

Yet she felt both shaken and protestant, and it was with almost
superhuman control that she began to carry on a casual conversation,
giving her own report upon Alice and Leslie, Acton and the world in
general.

When Mrs. Melrose, delighted at the little attention from her
son-in-law, came smilingly in, five minutes later, Norma escaped
upstairs. She had Leslie's old room here when she spent the night, but
it was only occasionally that Alice spared her, for her youth and high
spirits, coupled with the simplicity and enthusiasm with which she was
encountering the new world, made her a really stimulating companion for
the sick woman.

Regina came in to hook her into a simple dinner gown, but Norma did not
once address her, except by a vague smile of greeting. Her thoughts were
in a whirl. Why had he done that? Was it just brotherly--friendliness?
He was much older than she--thirty-seven or eight; perhaps he had felt
only an older man's kindly----

But her face blazed, and she flung this explanation aside angrily. He
had no business to do it! He had no right to do it! She was furious at
him!

She stood still, staring blankly ahead of her, in the centre of the
room. The memory came over her in a wave; the odd, half-hesitating,
half-confident look in his eyes as his arms enveloped her, the faint
aroma of talcum powder and soap, the touch of his smoothly shaven cheek.

It was almost an hour later that she went cautiously downstairs. He was
gone--had been gone since half-past six o'clock, Joseph reported. Norma
went in to dinner with Mrs. Melrose, and they talked cheerfully of
Chris's return, of Leslie and Annie.

By eight o'clock, reading in Mrs. Melrose's upstairs sitting-room, that
first room that she had seen in this big house, eight months ago, Norma
began to feel just a trifle flat. Chris Liggett was one of the most
popular men in society, in demand everywhere, spoiled by women
everywhere. He had quite casually, and perhaps even absent-mindedly,
kissed his wife's young protégée upon meeting her after an absence, and
she had hastily leaped to conclusions worthy of a schoolgirl! He would
be about equally amused and disgusted did he suspect them.

"He likes you, you little fool," Norma said to herself, "and you will
utterly spoil everything with your idiocy!"

"What did you say, lovey?" the old lady asked, half closing her book.

"Nothing!" Norma said, laughing. She reopened her novel, and tried to
interest herself in it. But the thought of that quarter hour in the
study came back over and over again. She came finally to the conclusion
that she was glad Chris liked her.

The room was very still. A coal fire was glowing pink and clear in the
grate, and now and then the radiators hissed softly. Norma had one big
brilliant lamp to herself, and over the old lady's chair another
glowed. Everything was rich, soft, comfortable. Regina was hovering in
the adjoining room, folding the fat satin comforters, turning down the
transparent linen sheets with their great scroll of monogram, and behind
Regina were Joseph and Emma, and all the others, and behind them the
great city and all the world, eager to see that this old woman, who had
given the world very little real service in her life, should be shielded
and warmed and kept from the faintest dream of need.

Money was a strange thing, Norma mused. What should she do, if--as her
shamed and vague phrase had it--if "something happened" to Aunt
Marianna, and she was not even mentioned in her will? Of course it was a
hateful thing to think of, and a horrible thing, sitting here opposite
Aunt Marianna in the comfortable upstairs sitting-room, but the thought
would come. Norma wished that she knew. She would not have shortened the
old lady's life by a single second, and she would have died herself
rather than betray this thought to any one, even to Wolf--even to Rose!
But it suddenly seemed to her very unjust that she could be picked out
of Biretta's bookstore to-day, by Aunt Marianna's pleasure, and perhaps
put back there to-morrow through no fault of her own. They were all
kind, they were all generous, but this was not just. She wanted the
delicious and self-respecting feeling of being a young woman with
"independent means."

Such evenings as this one, even in the wonderful Melrose house, were
undeniably dull. She and Rose had often grumbled, years ago, because
there were so many of these quiet times, in between the Saturday and
Sunday excitements. But Norma, in those days, had never supposed that
dulness was ever compatible with wealth and ease.

"Cards?" said old Mrs. Melrose, hopefully, as the girl made a sudden
move. She loved to play patience, but only when she had an audience.
Norma, who had just decided to give her French verbs a good hour's
attention, smiled amiably, and herself brought out the green table. She
sat watching the fall of kings and aces, reminding her companion of at
least every third play. But her thoughts went back to Chris, and the
faint odour of powder and soap, and the touch of his shaved cheek.



CHAPTER XIII


Norma met Chris again no later than the following afternoon. It was
twilight in Alice's room, and she and Norma were talking on into the
gloom, discussing the one or two guests who had chanced to come in for
tea, and planning the two large teas that Alice usually gave some time
late in November.

Chris came in quietly, kissed his wife, and nodded carelessly to Norma.
The girl's sudden mad heartbeats and creeping colour could subside
together unnoticed, for he apparently paid no attention to her, and
presently drifted to the piano, leaving the women free to resume their
conference.

Alice was a person of more than a surface sweetness; she loved harmony
and serenity, and there was almost no inclination to irritability or
ugliness in her nature. Her voice was always soothing and soft, and her
patience in the unravelling of other people's problems was
inexhaustible. Alice was, as all the world conceded, an angel.

But Norma had not been a member of her household for eight months
without realizing that Alice, like other household angels, did not wish
an understudy in the rôle. She did not quite enjoy the nearness of
another woman who might be all sweet and generous and peace-making, too.
That was her own sacred and peculiar right. She could gently and
persistently urge objections and find inconsistencies in any plan of
her sister or of Norma, no matter how advantageous it sounded, and she
could adhere to a plan of her own with a tenacity that, taken in
consideration with Alice's weak body and tender voice, was nothing less
than astonishing.

Norma, lessoned in a hard school, and possessing more than her share of
adaptability and common sense, had swiftly come to the conclusion that,
since it was not her part to adjust the affairs of her benefactors, she
might much more wisely constitute herself a sort of Greek chorus to
Alice's manipulations. Alice's motives were always of the highest, and
it was easy to praise them in all honesty, and if sometimes the younger
woman had mentally arrived at a conclusion long before Alice had
patiently and sweetly reached it, the little self-control was not much
to pay toward the comfort of a woman as heavily afflicted as Alice.

For Norma knew in her own heart that Alice was heavily afflicted,
although the invalid herself always took the attitude that her
helplessness brought the best part of life into her room, and shut away
from her the tediousness and ugliness of the world.

"'Aïda' two weeks from to-night!" Alice said this evening, with her
sympathetic smile.

"Oh, Aunt Alice--if you could go! Didn't you love it?"

"Love the opera? Do you hear her, Chris? But I didn't love people
talking all about me--and they will do it, you know! And that makes one
furious!"

"I see you getting furious," Norma observed, incredulously.

"You don't know me! But I was a bashful, adoring sort of little person,
on my first night----"

"Yes, you were," Chris teased her, over a lazy ripple of thirds. "She
was such a bashful little person at the Mardi Gras dance she promised
Artie Peyton her first cotillion the following season."

"Oh, Aunt Alice--you didn't!"

Alice's rather colourless face flushed happily, and she half lowered her
lids.

"Chris thinks that is a great story on me. As a matter of fact, I did do
that; I was just childish enough. But I can't think how the story got
out, for I was desperately ashamed of it."

"I told Aunt Annie and Leslie to-day that you wanted the Liggetts to
dine here that night," Norma said, suddenly. Instantly she realized that
she had made a mistake. And there was no one in the world whose light
reproof hurt her as Alice's did.

"You--you gave my invitation to Leslie?" Alice asked, quietly.

"Well--not quite that. But I told her that you had said that you meant
to ask them," Norma replied, uncomfortably.

"But, Norma, I did not ask you to mention it." Alice was even smiling,
but she seemed a little puzzled.

"I'm so sorry--if you didn't want me to!"

"It isn't that. But one feels that one----"

"What is Norma sorry about?" Chris asked, coming back to the fire.
"Norma, you're up against a terrible tribunal, here! Alice has been
known--well, even to give new hats to the people who make her angry!"

This fortunate allusion to an event now some months old entirely
restored Alice's good humour. Norma had accepted a certain almost-new
hat from Leslie just before the wedding, and Alice, burning with her
secret suspicion as to Norma's parentage, and in the first flush of her
affection for the girl, had told Norma that in her opinion Leslie should
not have offered it. It was not for Norma to take any patronage from her
cousin, Alice said to herself. But Norma's distress at having
disappointed Alice was so fresh and honest that the episode had ended
with Alice's presenting her with a stunning new hat, to wipe out the
terrible effect of her mild criticism.

"You're a virago," said Chris, seating himself near his wife. "Tell me
what you've been doing all day. Am I in for that dinner at Annie's
to-night? I wish I could stay here and gossip with you girls."

"Dearest, you'd get so stupid, tied here to me, that you wouldn't know
who was President of the United States!" Alice smiled. "Yes, I promised
you to Annie two weeks ago. To-morrow night Norma goes to Leslie, and
you and I have dinner all alone, so console yourself with that."

"_Très bien_," Christopher agreed. And as if the phrase suggested it, he
went on to test Norma's French. Norma was never self-conscious with him,
and in a few seconds he and Alice were laughing at her earnest
absurdities. When husband and wife went on into a conversation of their
own, Norma sat back idly, conscious that the atmosphere was always easy
and pleasant when Chris was at home, there were no petty tensions and no
sensitive misconstructions while Chris was talking. Sometimes with Annie
and Alice, and even with Leslie, Norma could be rapidly brought to the
state of feeling prickly all over, afraid to speak, and equally
uncomfortable in silence. But Chris always smoothed her spirit into
utter peace, and reëstablished her sense of proportion, her sense of
humour.

Neither he nor Alice noticed her when she presently went away to change
her gown for dinner, but when she came out of her room, half an hour
later, Chris was just coming up to his. Their rooms were on the same
floor--his the big front room, and hers one of the sunny small ones at
the back of the house. Norma's and that of Miss Slater, Alice's nurse,
were joined by a bathroom; Chris had his own splendid dressing-room and
bath, fitted, like his bedroom, with rugs and chests and highboys worthy
of a museum.

"Aren't you going to be late, Chris?" Norma asked, when they met at the
top of the stairs. Fresh from a bath, with her rich dark hair pushed
back in two shining wings from her smooth forehead, and her throat
rising white and soft from the frills of a black lacy gown, she was the
incarnation of youth and sweetness as she looked up at him. "Seven
o'clock!" she reminded him.

For answer he surprised her by catching her hand, and staring gravely
down at her.

"Were you angry at me, Norma?" he asked, in a quiet, businesslike voice.

"Angry?" she echoed, surprised. But her colour rose. "No, Chris. Why
should I be?"

"There is no reason why you should be, of course," he answered, simply,
almost indifferently. And immediately he went by her and into his room.



CHAPTER XIV


On the memorable night of her first grand opera Norma and Chris dined at
Mrs. von Behrens's. It was Alice who urged the arrangement, urged it
quite innocently, as she frequently did the accidental pairing of Norma
and Chris, because her mother was going for a week to Boston, the
following day, and they wanted an evening of comfortable talk together.

Norma, with Freda and Miss Slater as excited accomplices, laid out the
new corn-coloured gown at about five o'clock in the afternoon, laid
beside it the stockings and slippers that exactly matched it in colour,
and hung over the foot of her bed the embroidered little stays that were
so ridiculously small and so unnecessarily beautiful. On a separate
chair was spread the big furred wrap of gold and brown brocade, the high
carriage shoes, and the long white gloves to which the tissue paper
still was clinging. The orchids that Annie had given Norma that morning
were standing in a slender vase on the bureau, and as a final touch the
girl, regarding these preparations with a sort of enchanted delight,
unfurled to its full glory the great black ostrich-feather fan. Norma
amused Alice and Mrs. Melrose by refusing tea, and disappeared long
before there was need, to begin the great ceremony of robing.

Miss Slater manicured her hands while Freda brushed and dressed the dark
thick hair. Between Norma and the nurse there had at first been no
special liking. Both were naturally candidates for Alice's favour. But
as the months went by, and Norma began to realize that Miss Slater's
position was not only far from the ideally beautiful one it had seemed
at first, but that the homely, elderly, good-natured woman was actually
putting herself to some pains to make Norma's own life in the Liggett
house more comfortable than it might have been, she had come genuinely
to admire Alice's attendant, and now they were fast friends. It was
often in Norma's power to distract Alice's attention from the fact that
Miss Slater was a little late in returning from her walk, or she would
make it a point to order for the invalid something that Miss Slater had
forgotten. They stood firmly together in many a small domestic
emergency, and although the nurse's presence to-night was not, as Norma
thought with a little pang, like having Rose or Aunt Kate with her,
still it was much, much better than having no one at all.

She sat wrapped luxuriously in a brilliant kimono, while Freda brushed
and rolled busily, and Miss Slater polished and clipped. Then ensued a
period of intense concentration at the mirror, when the sparkling pins
were put in her hair, and the little pearl earrings screwed into her
ears, and when much rubbing and greasing and powdering went on, and even
some slight retouching of the innocent, red young mouth.

"Shall I?" Norma asked, dubiously eyeing the effect of a trace of rouge.

"Don't be an idiot, Miss Sheridan!" Miss Slater said. "You've got a
lovely colour, and it's a shame to touch it!"

"Oh, but I think I look so pale!" Norma argued.

"Well, when you've had your dinner----Now, you take my advice, my dear,
and let your face alone."

"Well, all the girls do it," Norma declared, catching up the little
girdle, and not unwilling to be over-persuaded. She gave an actual
shiver of delight as Freda slipped the gown over her head.

It fell into shape about her, a miracle of cut and fit. The little
satiny underskirt was heavy with beads, the misty cloud of gauze that
floated above it was hardly heavy enough to hold its own embroideries.
Little beaded straps held it to the flawless shoulders, and Norma made
her two attendants laugh as she jerked and fussed at the gold lace and
tiny satin roses that crossed her breast.

"Leave it alone!" Miss Slater said.

"Oh, but it seems so low!"

"Well, you may be very sure it isn't--Lenz knows what he's doing when he
makes a gown.... Here, now, what are you going to do with your flowers?"

"Oh, I'm going to wrap the paper round them, and carry them until just
before I get to Aunt Annie's. Wouldn't you?"

"Wouldn't I? I like that!" said Miss Slater, settling her eyeglasses on
the bridge of her nose with a finger and thumb. Norma had a momentary
pang of sympathy; she could never have been made to understand that a
happy barnyard duck may look contentedly up from her pool at the peacock
trailing his plumes on the wall.

"Norma--for the love of Allah!" Chris shouted from downstairs.

Norma gave a panicky laugh, snatched her fan, wrap, and flowers, and
fled joyously down to be criticized and praised. On the whole, they were
pleased with her: Alice, seizing a chance for an aside to tell her not
to worry about the lowness of the gown, that it was absolutely correct
she might be very sure, and Mrs. Melrose quite tremulously delighted
with her ward. Chris did not say much until a few minutes before they
planned to start, when he slipped a thin, flat gold watch from his vest
pocket, and asked speculatively:

"Norma, has your Aunt Kate ever seen you in that rig?"

"No!" she answered, quickly. And then, with less sparkle, "No."

"Well, would you like to run in on her a moment?--she'd probably like it
tremendously!" said Chris.

"Oh, Chris--I would love it!" Norma exclaimed, soberly, over a disloyal
conviction that she would rather not. "But have we time?"

"Tons of time. Annie's dinners are a joke!"

Norma glanced at the women; Mrs. Melrose looked undecided, but Alice
said encouragingly:

"I think that would be a sweet thing to do!"

So it was decided: and Norma was bundled up immediately, and called out
excitedly laughing good-byes as Chris hurried her to the car.

"You know, it means a lot to your own people, really to see you this
way, instead of always reading about it, or hearing about it!" Chris
said, in his entirely prosaic, big-brotherly tone, as the car glided
smoothly toward the West Sixties.

"I know it!" Norma agreed. "But I don't know how you do!" she added, in
shy gratitude.

"Well, I'm nearly twice your age, for one thing," he replied,
pleasantly. And as the car stopped unhesitatingly at the familiar door
he added: "Now make this very snappy!"

She protested against his getting out, but he accompanied her all the
way upstairs, both laughing like conspirators as they passed somewhat
astonished residents of the apartment house on the way.

Aunt Kate and Wolf, and Rose and Harry, as good fortune would have it,
were all gathered under the dining-room lamp, and there was a burst of
laughter and welcome for Norma and "Mister Chris." Norma's wrap was
tossed aside, and she revolved in all her glory, waving her fan at arm's
length, pleasantly conscious of Wolf's utter stupefaction, and
conscious, too, a little less pleasantly, that Aunt Kate's maternal eye
did not agree with Aunt Annie's in the matter of _décolletage_.

Then she and Chris were on their way again, and the legitimate delights
of being young and correctly dressed and dining with the great Mrs. von
Behrens, and going to Grand Opera at the Metropolitan, might begin.
Norma had perhaps never in her life been in such wild spirits as she was
to-night. It was not happiness, exactly, not the happiness of a serene
spirit and a quiet mind, for she was too nervous and too much excited to
be really happy. But it was all wonderful.

She was the youngest person at the long dinner table, at which eighteen
guests sat in such stately and such separated great carved chairs as
almost to dine alone. Everyone was charmingly kind to the little Melrose
protégée, who was to be introduced at a formal tea next week. The men
were all older than Leslie's group and were neither afraid nor too
selfishly wrapped up in their own narrow little circle to be polite.
Norma had known grown young men, college graduates, and the sons of
prominent families, who were too entirely conventional to be addressed
without an introduction, or to turn to a strange girl's rescue if she
spilled a cup of tea. But there was none of that sort of thing here.

To be sure, Annie's men were either married, divorced, or too old to be
strictly eligible in the eyes of unsophisticated nineteen, but that did
not keep them from serving delightfully as dinner partners. Then Aunt
Annie herself was delightful to-night, and joined in the general, if
unexpressed, flattery that Norma felt in the actual atmosphere.

"Heavens--do you hear that, Ella?" said Annie, to an intimate and
contemporary, when Norma shyly asked if the dress was all as it should
be--if the--well, the neck, wasn't just a little----? "Heavens!" said
Mrs. von Behrens, roundly, "if I had your shoulders--if I were nineteen
again!--you'd see something a good deal more sensational than that!"

This was not the sort of thing one repeated to Aunt Kate. It was, like
much of Annie's conversation, so daring as to be a little shocking. But
Annie had so much manner, such a pleasant, assured voice, that somehow
Norma never found it censurable in her.

To-night, for the first time, Hendrick von Behrens paid her a little
personal attention. Norma had always liked the big, blond, silent man,
with his thinning fair hair, and his affection for his sons. It was of
his sons that he spoke to her, as he came up to her to-night.

"There are two little boys up in the nursery that don't want to go to
sleep until Cousin Norma comes up to say good-night," said Hendrick,
smiling indulgently. Norma turned willingly from Chris and two or three
other men and women; it was a privilege to be sufficiently at home in
this magnificent place to follow her host up to the nursery upstairs,
and be gingerly hugged by the little silk-pajamed boys.

Chris watched her go, the big fan and the blue eye and the delightful
low voice all busy as she and Hendrick went away, and an odd thought
came to him. That was her stepfather upon whom she was turning the
battery of those lovely eyes; those little boys who were, he knew,
jumping up and down in their little Dutch colonial beds, and calling
"Norma--Norma--Norma!" were her half-brothers.

He glanced toward Annie; her beautiful figure wrapped in a sparkling
robe that swept about her like a regal mantle, her fair hair scalloped
like waves of carved gold, her fingers and throat and hair and ears
sparkling with diamonds. Annie had on the famous Murison pearls, too,
to-night; she was twisting them in her fingers as her creditable Italian
delighted the ears of the Italian ambassador. Her own daughter to-night
sat among her guests. Chris liked to think himself above surprise, but
the strangeness of the situation was never absent a second from his
thoughts. He drifted toward his hostess; he was proud of his own
languages, and when Norma came back she came to stand wistfully beside
them, wondering if ever--ever--ever--she would be able to do that!

It was all thrilling--exhilarating--wonderful! Norma's heart thumped
delightfully as the big motor-cars turned into Broadway and took their
place in the slowly moving line. She pressed her radiant face close to
the window; snow was fluttering softly down in the darkness, and men
were pushing it from the sidewalks, and shouting in the night. There
was the usual fringe of onlookers in front of the opera house, and it
required all Norma's self-control to seem quite naturally absorbed in
getting herself safely out of the motor-car, and quite unconscious that
her pretty ankles, and her pretty head, and the great bunched wrap, were
not being generally appraised.

Women were stepping about gingerly in high heels; lights flashed on
quivering aigrettes, on the pressed, intense faces of the watchers, and
on the gently turning and falling snow, against the dark street. Norma
was caught in some man's protecting arm, to push through into the
churning crowd in the foyer; she had a glimpse of uniformed ushers and
programme boys, of furred shoulders, of bared shoulders, of silk hats,
of a sign that said: "Footmen Are Not Allowed in This Lobby."

Then somehow through, criss-crossed currents in the crowd, they reached
the mysterious door of the box, and Norma saw for the first time the
great, dimly lighted circle of the opera house, the enormous rise of
balcony above balcony, the double tiers of boxes, and the rows of seats
downstairs, separated by wide aisles, and rapidly filling now with the
men and women who were coming down to their places almost on a run.

The orchestra was already seated, and as Norma stood awed and ecstatic
in the front of the Von Behrens box, the conductor came in, and was met
with a wave of applause, which had no sooner died away than the lights
fanned softly and quickly down, there was the click of a baton on wood,
and in the instantly ensuing hush the first quivering notes of the opera
began.

"Sit down, you web-foot!" Acton Liggett whispered, laughing, and Norma
sank stiffly upon her chair, risking, as the curtain had not yet risen,
a swift, bewildered smile of apology toward the dim forms that were
rustling and settling behind her.

"Oo--oo--ooo!" was all that she could whisper when presently Chris
murmured a question in her ear. And when the lights were on again, and
the stars taking their calls, he saw that her face was wet, and her
lashes were caught together with tears.

"It _is_ wonderful music; the best of Verdi!" he said to Annie; and
Annie, agreeing, sent him off with "that baby," to have her dry her
eyes. Norma liked his not speaking to her, on her way to the great
parlour where women were circling about the long mirrors, but when she
rejoined him she was quite herself, laughing, excited, half dancing as
he took her back to the box.

She sat down again, her beautiful little head, with its innocent sweep
of smooth hair, visible from almost every part of the house, her
questions incessant as the blue eyes and the great fan swept to and fro.
Once, when she turned suddenly toward him, in the second entr'acte, she
saw a look on Chris's face that gave her an odd second of something like
fear, but the house darkened again before she could analyze the emotion,
and Norma glued her eyes to the footlights.

What she did not see was a man, not quite at ease at his own first grand
opera, not quite comfortable in his own first evening dress, lost--and
willingly lost, among the hundreds who had come in just to stand far at
the back, behind the seats, edging and elbowing each other, changing
feet, and resting against any chair-back or column that offered itself,
and sitting down, between acts, on the floor.

Wolf was not restless. He was strong enough to stand like an Indian, and
tall enough to look easily over the surrounding heads. More than that,
"Aïda" did not interest him in itself, and at some of its most brilliant
passages he was guilty of slipping away to pace the hallways in
solitude, or steal to the foyer for a brief cigarette. But when the
house was lighted again, he went back into the auditorium, and then his
eyes never left the little dark head of the girl who sat forward in one
of the lower tier of boxes, waving her big fan, and talking over her
bare shoulder to one or another of the persons beside or behind her.



CHAPTER XV


It was long afterward that Norma dated from the night of "Aïda" a new
feeling in herself toward Chris, and the recognition of a new feeling in
Chris toward her. She knew that a special sort of friendship existed
between them from that time on.

He had done nothing definite that night; he had never done or said
anything that could be held as marking the change. But Norma felt it,
and she knew that he did. And somehow, in that atmosphere of fragrant
flowers and women as fragrant, of rustling silks and rich furs, of music
and darkness, and the old passion of the story, it had come to her for
the first time that Chris was not only the Chris of Alice's room, Aunt
Marianna's son-in-law and Leslie's brother-in-law, but her own Chris,
too, a Chris who had his special meaning for her, as well as for the
rest.

She liked him, it was natural that she should especially and truly like
him. Almost all women did, for he was of the type that comes closest to
understanding them, and he had made their favour an especial study.
Chris could never be indifferent to any woman; if he did not actively
dislike her, he took pains to please her, and, never actively disliking
Norma, he had from the first constituted himself her guide and friend.

Long before he was conscious that there was a real charm to this little
chance member of their group, Norma had capitulated utterly. His
sureness, his pleasant suggestions, his positive approval or kindly
protests, had done more to make her first months among the Melroses
happy than any other one thing. Norma loved him, and was grateful to
him, even when he hurt her. In the matter of a note of acceptance, of a
little act of thanks, of a gown or hat, his decision was absolute, and
she had never known it mistaken.

Besides this, she saw him everywhere welcome, everywhere courted and
admired, and everywhere the same Chris--handsome, self-possessed,
irreproachably dressed whether for golf or opera, adequate to the claims
of wife, mother, family, or the world. She had heard Acton turn to him
for help in little difficulties; she knew that Leslie trusted him with
all her affairs, and he was as close as any man could be to an intimacy
with Hendrick von Behrens. Quietly, almost indifferently, he would
settle his round eyeglasses on their black ribbon, narrow his fine, keen
eyes and set his firm jaw, and take up their problems one by one, always
courteous, always interested, always helpful.

Then Chris had charm, as visible to all the world as to Norma. He had
the charm of race, of intelligence and education, the charm of a man who
prides himself upon his Italian and French, upon his knowledge of books
and pictures, and his capacity for holding his own in any group, on any
subject. He was quite frankly a collector, a connoisseur, a dilettante
in a hundred different directions, and he had had leisure all his life
to develop and perfect his affectations. In all this new world Norma
could not perhaps have discovered a man more rich in just what would
impress her ignorance, her newness, to the finer aspects of
civilization.

For a few weeks after "Aïda," as other operas and Annie's tea, and the
opening social life of the winter softened the first impression, Norma
tried to tell herself that she had imagined a little tendency, on
Chris's part, too--well, to impress her with his friendliness. She had
seen him flirt with other women, and indeed small love affairs of all
sorts were constantly current, not only in Annie's, but in Leslie's
group. A certain laxity was in the air, and every month had its
separation or divorce, to be flung to the gossips for dissection.

Norma was not especially flattered at first, and rather inclined to
resent the assurance with which Chris carried his well-known tendency
for philandering into his own family, as it were. But as the full days
went by, and she encountered in him, wherever they met, the same grave,
kindly attention, the same pleasant mouth and curiously baffling eyes,
in spite of herself she began to experience a certain breathless and
half-flattered and half-frightened pride in his affection.

He never kissed her again, never tried to arrange even the most casual
meeting alone with her, and never let escape even a word of more than
brotherly friendliness. But in Leslie's drawing-room at tea time, or at
some studio tea or Sunday luncheon in a country house, he always quietly
joined her, kept, if possible, within the sound of her voice, and never
had any plan that would interfere with possible plans of hers. If she
was ready to go, he would drive her, perhaps to discourse impersonally
upon the quality of the pictures, or the countryside mantled with snow,
upon the way. If she wanted a message telephoned, a telegram sent, even
a borrowed book returned, it was "no trouble at all"; Chris would of
course attend to it.

At dinner parties he was rarely placed beside her; hers was naturally
the younger set. But he found a hundred ways to remind her that he was
constantly attentive. Norma would feel her heart jump in her side as he
started toward her across a ball-room floor, handsome, perfectly poised,
betraying nothing but generous interest in her youthful good times as he
took his place beside her.

So Christmas came and went, and the last affairs of the brief season
began to be announced: the last dances, the last dinners, the
"pre-Lenten functions" as the papers had it. Norma, apologizing, in one
of her flying calls on Aunt Kate, for the long intervals between visits,
explained that she honestly did not know where the weeks flew!

"And are you happy, Baby?" her aunt asked, holding her close, and
looking anxiously into her eyes.

"Oh--happy!" the girl exclaimed, with a sort of shallow, quick laugh
that was quite new. "Of course I am. I never in my life dreamed that I
could be so happy. I've nothing left to wish for. Except, of course,
that I would like to know where I stand; I would like to have my own
position a little more definite," she added. But the last phrases were
uttered only in her own soul, and Mrs. Sheridan, after a rather
discontented scrutiny of the face she loved so well, was obliged to
change the subject.



CHAPTER XVI


In mid-Lent, when an early rush of almost summery warmth suddenly poured
over the city, Chris and Norma met on the way home from church. Norma
walked every Sunday morning to the big cathedral, but Chris went only
once or twice a year to the fashionable Avenue church a few blocks away.
This morning he had joined her as she was quietly leaving the house, and
instantly it flashed into her mind that he had deliberately planned to
do so, knowing that Miss Slater, who usually accompanied her, was away
for a week's vacation.

Their conversation was impersonal and casual, as always, as they walked
along the drying sidewalks, in the pleasant early freshness, but as
Chris left her he asked her at about what time she would be returning,
and Norma was not surprised, when she came out of the cathedral, a
little later than the great first tide of the outpouring congregation,
to see him waiting for her.

The thought of him had been keeping her heart beating fast, and her mind
in confusion, even while she tried to pray. And she had thought that she
might leave the church by one of the big side doors, and so at least run
a fair risk of missing him. But Norma half feared an act that would
define their deepening friendship as dangerous, and half longed for the
fifteen minutes of walking and chatting in the sunshine. So she came
straight to him, and with no more than a word of greeting they turned
north.

It was an exquisite morning, and the clean, bare stretches of the Avenue
were swimming in an almost summerlike mist of opal and blue. Such
persons as were visible in the streets at all were newsboys, idle
policemen, or black-clad women hurrying to or from church, and when they
reached the Park, it was almost deserted. The trees, gently moving in a
warm breeze, were delicately etched with the first green of the year;
maples and sycamores were dotted with new, golden foliage, and the grass
was deep and sweet. A few riders were ambling along the bridle-path, the
horses kicking up clods of the damp, soft earth.

Norma and Christopher walked slowly, talking. The girl was hardly
conscious of what they said, realizing suddenly, and almost with terror,
that just to be here, with Chris, was enough to flood her being with a
happiness as new and miraculous as the new and miraculous springtime
itself. There was no future and no past to this ecstasy, no Alice, no
world; it was enough, in its first bloom, that it existed.

"You've had--what is it?--a whole year of us, Norma," Chris said, "and
on the whole, it's been happy, hasn't it?"

"Fourteen months," she corrected him. "Fourteen months, at least, since
Aunt Kate and I called on Aunt Marianna. Yes, it's been like a miracle,
Chris. I never will understand it. I never will understand why a
friendless girl--unknown and having absolutely no claim--should have
been treated so wonderfully!"

"And you wouldn't want to go back?" he mused, smiling.

"No," she said, quickly. "I am afraid, when I think of ever going back!"

"I don't see why you should," Chris said. "You will inherit, through
your grandmother's will----"

He had been following a train of thought, half to himself. Norma's round
eyes, as she stopped short in the path, arrested him.

"My _grandmother_!" she exclaimed.

"Your Aunt Marianna," he amended, flushing. But their eyes did not move
as they stared at each other.

A thousand remembered trifles flashed through Norma's whirling brain; a
thousand little half-stilled suspicions leaped to new life. She had
accepted the suggested kinship in childish acquiescence, but doubt was
aflame now, once and for all. The man knew that there was no further
evading her.

"Chris, do you know anything about me?" she asked, directly.

"Yes, I think--I know everything," he answered, after a second's
hesitation.

Norma looked at him steadily. "Did you know my father and mother?" she
demanded, presently, in an odd, tense voice.

There was another pause before Chris said, slowly:

"I have met your father. But I knew--I know--your mother."

"You _know_ her?" The world was whirling about Norma. "Is Aunt Kate my
mother?" she asked, breathing hard.

"No. I don't know why you should not know. You call her Aunt Annie,"
Chris said.

Norma's hands dropped to her sides. She breathed as if she were
suffocating.

"_Aunt Annie!_" she whispered, in stupefaction.

And she turned and walked a few steps blindly, her eyes wide and vacant,
and one hand pressed to her cheek. "My God!--my God!" he heard her say.

"Annie eloped when she was a girl," Chris began presently, when she was
dazedly walking on again. "She was married, and the man deserted her.
She was ill, in Germany----But shall I talk now? Would you rather not?"

"Oh, no--no! Go on," Norma said, briefly.

"Alice was the first to guess it," Christopher pursued. "Her sister
doesn't know it, or dream it!"

"Aunt Annie doesn't! She does not know that I'm her own daughter!... But
what _does_ she think?"

"She supposes that her baby died, dear. I'm sorry to tell you, Norma,
but I couldn't lie to you! You'll understand everything, now--why your
grandmother wants to make it all up to you----"

"Does Leslie know?" Norma demanded, suddenly, from a dark moment of
brooding.

"Nobody knows! Your Aunt Kate, your grandmother, Alice, and I, are
absolutely the only people in the world! And Norma, _nobody else must
know_. For the sake of the family, for everyone's sake----"

"Oh, I see that!" she answered, quickly and impatiently. And for awhile
she walked on in silence, and apparently did not hear his one or two
efforts to recommence the conversation. "Aunt Annie!" she said once,
half aloud. And later she added, absently: "Yes, I should know!"

They had walked well up into the Park, now they turned back; the sun was
getting hot, first perambulators were making their appearance, and
Norma loosened her light furs.

"So I am a Melrose!" she mused. And then, abruptly: "Chris, what _is_ my
name?"

"Melrose," he answered, flushing.

Her eyes asked a sudden, horrified question, and she took the answer
from his look without a word. He saw the colour ebb from her face,
leaving it very white.

"You said--they--my parents--were married, Chris?" she asked, painfully.

"Annie supposed they were. But he was not free!"

Norma did not speak again. In silence they crossed the Avenue, and went
on down the shady side street. Chris, with chosen words and quietly,
told her the story of Annie's girlhood, who and what her father had
been, the bitter grief of her grandmother, the general hushing up of the
whole affair. He watched her anxiously as he talked, for there was a
drawn, set look to her face that he did not like.

"Why did Aunt Kate ever decide to bring me to my--my grandmother, after
so many years?" she asked.

"I'm sure I don't know that. Alice and I have fancied that Kate might
have kept in touch with your father all this time, and that he might be
dead now, and not likely to--make trouble."

"That is it," Norma agreed, quickly. "Because not long before she came
to see Aunt Marianna she _had_ had some sort of news--from Canada, I
think. An old friend was dead; I remember it as if it were yesterday."

"Then that fits in," Chris said, glad she could talk.

"But I can't believe it!" she cried in bewilderment. And suddenly she
burst out angrily: "Oh, Chris, is it fair? Is it fair? That one girl,
like Leslie, should have so--so much! The name, the inheritance, the
husband and position and the friends--and that another, through no fault
of hers, should be just--just--a nobody?"

She choked, and Christopher made a little protestant sound.

"Oh, yes, I am!" she insisted, bitterly. "Not recognized by my own
mother--she's _not_ my mother! No mother could----"

"Listen, dear," Chris begged, really alarmed by the storm he had raised.
"Your grandmother, for reasons of her own, never told Annie there was a
baby. It is obvious why she kept silent; it was only kindness--decency.
Annie was young, younger than you are, and poor old Aunt Marianna only
knew that her child was ill, and had been ill-treated, and most cruelly
used. You were brought up safely and happily, with good and loving
people----"

"The best in the world!" Norma said, through her teeth, fighting tears.

"The best in the world. Why, Norma, what a woman they've made you!
You--who stand alone among all the girls I know! And then," Chris
continued quickly, seeing her a little quieter, "when you are growing
up, your aunt brings you to your grandmother, who immediately turns her
whole world topsy-turvy to make you welcome! Is there anything so unfair
in that? Annie made a terrible mistake, dear----"

"And everyone but Annie pays!" Norma interrupted, bitterly.

"Norma, she is your mother!" Chris reminded her, in the tone that,
coming from him, always instantly affected her. Her eyes fell, and her
tone, when she spoke, was softer.

"Just bearing a child isn't all motherhood," she said.

"No, my dear; I know. And if Annie were ever to guess this, it isn't
like her not to face the music, at any cost. But isn't it better as it
is, Norma?"

The wonderful tone, the wonderful manner, the kindness and sympathy in
his eyes! Norma, with one foot on the lowest step, now raised her eyes
to his with a sort of childish penitence.

"Oh, yes, Chris! But"--her lips trembled--"but if Aunt Kate had only
kept me from knowing for ever!" she faltered.

"She wouldn't take that responsibility, dear, and one can't blame her. A
comfortable inheritance comes from your grandmother; it isn't the
enormous fortune Leslie inherited, of course, but it is all you would
have had, even had Annie brought you home openly as her daughter. It is
enough to make a very pretty wedding-portion for me to give away with
you, my dear, in a few years," Chris added more lightly. The suggestion
made her face flame again.

"Who would marry me?" she said, under her breath, with a scornful look,
under half-lowered lids, into space.

For answer he gave her an odd glance--one that lived in her memory for
many and many a day.

"Ah, Norma--Norma--Norma!" he said--quickly, half laughingly. Then his
expression changed, and his smile died away. "I have something to bear,"
he said, with a glance upward toward Alice's windows. "Life isn't roses,
roses, all the way for any one of us, my dear! Now, you've got a bad bit
of the road ahead. But let's be good sports, Norma. And come in now,
I'm famished; let's have breakfast. My honour is in your hands," he
added, more gravely, "perhaps I had no right to tell you all this! You
mustn't betray me!"

"Chris," she responded, warmly, "as if I could!"

He watched her eating her breakfast, and chatting with Alice, a little
later, and told himself that some of Annie's splendid courage had
certainly descended to this gallant little daughter. Norma was pale, and
now and then her eyes would meet his with a certain strained look, or
she would lose the thread of the conversation for a few seconds, but
that was all. Alice noticed nothing, and in a day or two Chris could
easily have convinced himself that the conversation in the spring
greenness of the Sunday morning had been a dream.



CHAPTER XVII


However, that hour had borne fruit, and in two separate ways had had its
distinct effect upon Norma's mind and soul. In the first place, she had
a secret now with Chris, and understanding that made her most casual
glance at him significant, and gave a double meaning to almost every
word they exchanged. It was at his suggestion that she decided to keep
the revelation from Alice, even though she knew what Alice knew, for
Alice was not very well, and Chris was sure that it would only agitate
and frighten the invalid to feel that the family's discreditable secret
was just that much nearer betrayal. So she and Chris alone shared the
agitation, strain, and bewilderment of the almost overwhelming
discovery; and Norma, in turning to him for advice and sympathy,
deepened tenfold the tie between them.

But even this result was not so far-reaching as the less-obvious effect
of the discovery upon her character. Everything that was romantic,
undisciplined, and reckless in Norma was fostered by the thought that so
thrilling and so secret a history united her closely to the Melrose
family. That she was Leslie's actual cousin, that the closest of all
human relationships bound her to the magnificent Mrs. von Behrens, were
thoughts that excited in her every dramatic and extravagant tendency to
which the amazing year had inclined _her_. With her growing ease in her
changed environment, and the growing popularity she enjoyed there, came
also a sense of predestination, the conviction that her extraordinary
history justified her in any act of daring or of unconventionality.
There was nothing to be gained by self-control or sanity, Norma might
tell herself, at least for those of the Melrose blood.

Her shyness of the season before had vanished, and she could plunge into
the summer gaiety with an assurance that amazed even herself. Her first
meeting with Annie, after the day of Chris's disclosures, was an ordeal
at which he himself chanced to be a secretly thrilled onlooker. Norma
grew white, and her lips trembled; there was a strained look in her
blue, agonized eyes. But Annie's entire unconsciousness that the
situation was at all tense, and the presence of three or four total
outsiders, helped Norma to feel that this amazing and dramatic moment
was only one more in a life newly amazing and dramatic, and she escaped
unnoticed from the trial. The second time was much less trying, and
after that Norma showed no sign that she ever thought of the matter at
all.

Mrs. von Behrens took Norma to her Maine camp in July, and when the girl
joined the Chris Liggetts in August, it was for a season of hard tennis,
golf, polo, dancing, yachting, and swimming. Norma grew lean and tanned,
and improved so rapidly in manner and appearance that Alice felt,
concerning her, certain fears that she one day confided to her mother.

It was on an early September day, dry and airless, and they were on the
side porch of the Newport cottage.

"You see how pretty she's growing, Mama," Alice said. And then, in a
lower tone, with a quick cautious glance about: "Mama, doesn't she
often remind you of Annie?"

Mrs. Melrose, who had been contentedly rocking and drowsing in the heat,
paled with sudden terror and apprehension, and looked around her with
sick and uneasy eyes.

"Alice--my darling," she stammered.

"I know, Mama--I'm not going to talk about it, truly!" Alice assured
her, quickly. "I never even _think_ of it!" she added, earnestly.

"No--no--no, that's right!" her mother agreed, hurriedly. Her soft old
face, under the thin, crimped gray hair, was full of distress.

"Mama, there is no reason why it should worry you," Alice said,
distressed, too. "Don't think of it; I'm sorry I spoke! But sometimes,
even though she is so dark, Norma is so like Annie that it makes my
blood run cold. If Annie ever suspected that she is--well, her own
daughter----"

Mrs. Melrose's face was ashen, and she looked as if touched by the heat.

"No--no, dear!" she said, with a sort of terrified brevity. "You and
Chris were wrong there. I can't talk to you about it, Alice," she broke
off, pleadingly; "you mustn't ask me, dear. You said you wouldn't," she
pleaded, trembling.

Alice was stupefied. For a full minute she lay in her pillows, staring
blankly at her mother.

"_Isn't_----!" she whispered at last, incredulous and bewildered.

"No, dear. Poor Annie----! No, no, no; Norma's mother is dead. But--but
you must believe that Mama is acting as she believes to be for the
best," she interrupted herself, in painful and hesitating tones, "and
that I can't talk about it now, Alice; I can't, indeed! Some day----"

"Mama darling," Alice cried, really alarmed by her leaden colour and
wild eyes, "please--I'll never speak of it again! Why, I know that
everything you do is for us all, darling! Please be happy about it. Come
on, we'll talk of something else. When do you leave for
town--to-morrow?"

"Poole drives us as far as Great Barrington to-morrow, Norma and me,"
the old lady began, gaining calm as she reviewed her plans. Chris needed
her for a little matter of business, and Norma was anxious to see her
Cousin Rose's new baby. The conversation drifted to Leslie's baby, the
idolized Patricia who was now some four months old.



CHAPTER XVIII


Two days later found Norma happily seated beside the big bed she and
Rose had shared less than two years ago, where Rose now lay, with the
snuffling and mouthing baby, rolled deep in flannels, beside her. Rose
had come home to her mother, for the great event, and Mrs. Sheridan was
exulting in the care of them both. Just now she was in the kitchen, and
the two girls were alone together, Norma a little awed and a little
ashamed of the emotion that Rose's pale and rapt and radiant face gave
her; Rose secretly pitying, from her height, the woman who was not yet a
mother.

"And young Mrs. Liggett was terribly disappointed that her baby was a
girl," Rose marvelled. "I didn't care one bit! Only Harry is glad it's a
boy."

"Well, Leslie was sure that hers was going to be a boy," Norma said,
"and I wish you could have heard Aunt Annie deciding that the Melroses
usually had sons----"

"She'll have a boy next," Rose suggested.

Norma glanced at her polished finger-tip, adjusted the woolly tan bag
she carried.

"She says never again!" she remarked, airily. Rose's clear forehead
clouded faintly, and Norma hastened to apologize. "Well, my dear, that's
what she _said_," she remarked, laughingly, with quick fingers on Rose's
hand.

"It's sad that Mrs. Chris Liggett didn't have just one, before her
accident. It would make such a difference in her life," Rose mused, with
her eyes fixed thoughtfully on Norma's face. There was something about
Norma to-day that she did not understand.

"Oh, it's frightfully sad," Norma agreed, easily. And because she liked
the mere sound of his name, she added: "Chris is fond of children, too!"
Then, with a sudden change of manner that even unsuspicious Rose thought
odd, she said, gaily: "Isn't Aunt Kate perfectly delicious about the
nurse? I knew she would be. Of course, she does everything, and Miss
Miller simply looks on."

"Well, almost," Rose said, with an affectionate laugh. "She didn't want
a nurse at all, but Harry and Wolf insisted. And then--night before
last--when I was so ill, it almost made me laugh in spite of feeling so
badly, to hear Mother with Miss Miller. 'You'd better get out of here,
my dear,' I heard her say, 'this is no place for a girl like you----'"

Norma's laugh rang out. But Rose noticed that her face sobered
immediately almost into sadness, and that there was a bitter line about
the lovely mouth, and a shadow of something like cynicism in her blue
eyes.

"Norma," she ventured, suddenly storming the fortress, "what is it,
darling? Something's worrying you, Nono. Can't you tell me?"

With the old nursery name Norma's gallant look of amusement and
reassurance faltered. She looked suddenly down at the hand Rose was
holding, and Rose saw the muscles of her throat contract, and that she
was pressing her lips together to keep them from trembling.

A tear fell on the locked hands. Norma kept her eyes averted, shook her
head.

"Is it a man, Nono?"

Norma looked up, dashed away the tears, and managed a rueful smile.

"Isn't it always a man?" she asked, bravely.

Rose still looked at her anxiously, waiting for further light.

"But, dearest, surely he likes you?"

The other girl was silent, rubbing her thumb slowly to and fro across
Rose's thin hand.

"I don't know," she answered, after a pause.

"But of course he does!" Rose said, confidently. "It'll all come right.
There's no reason why it shouldn't!" And with all the interest of their
old days of intimacy she asked eagerly: "Nono, is he handsome?"

"Oh, yes--tremendously."

"And the right age?"

Norma laughed, half protestant.

"Rose, aren't you a little demon for the third degree!" But she liked
it, in spite of the reluctance in her manner, and presently added: "I
don't think age matters, do you?"

"Not in the least," Rose agreed. "Norma, does Mrs. Melrose know?"

"Know what?" Norma parried.

"Know that--well, that you like him?"

Norma raised serious eyes, looked unsmilingly into Rose's smiling face.

"Nobody knows. It--it isn't going right, Rose. I can't tell you about
all of it----" She paused.

"Well, I wouldn't know the people if you did," Rose said, sensibly. And
suddenly she added, timidly, "Norma, there isn't another girl?"

"Well, yes, there is, in a way," Norma conceded, after thought.

"That he likes better?" Rose asked, quickly.

"No, I don't think he likes her better!" Norma answered.

"Well, then----?" Rose summarized, triumphantly.

But there was no answering flash from Norma, who was looking down again,
and who still wore a troubled expression, although, as Rose rejoiced to
see, it was less bitter than it had been.

"Rose," she said, gravely, "if he was already bound in honour; if he
was--promised, to her?"

Rose's eyes expressed quick sympathy.

"Norma! You mean engaged? But then how did he ever come to care for
you?" she followed it up anxiously.

"I don't know!" Norma said, with a shrug.

"But, Nono, why do you think he _does_ like you? Has he said so?"

Norma had freed her hand, and pulled on her rough little cream-coloured
gloves. Now she spread her five fingers, and looked at them with
slightly raised brows and slightly compressed lips.

"No," she said, briefly and quietly.

Rose's face was full of distress. Again she reached for Norma's fingers.

"Dearest--I'm so sorry! But--but it doesn't make you feel very badly,
does it, Norma?"

Norma did not answer.

"Ah, it does!" Rose said, pitifully. "Are you so sure you care?"

At this Norma laughed, glanced for a moment into far space, shook her
head. And for a few minutes there was utter silence in the plain little
bedroom. Then the baby began to fuss and grope, and to make little
sneezing faces in his cocoon of blankets.

"Just one more word, dear," Rose said, later, when Aunt Kate had come
flying in, and carried off the new treasure, and when Norma was standing
before the mirror adjusting her wide-brimmed summer hat. "If he cares
for you, it's much, much better to make the change now, Norma, than to
wait until it's too late! No matter how hard, or how unpleasant it
is----"

"I know," Norma agreed, quickly, painfully, stooping to kiss her. "We'll
be down next month, Rose, and then I'll see you oftener!"

"When do you go?" Rose said, clinging to her hand.

"Go back to Newport? To-morrow. Or at least we get to Great Barrington
to-morrow, and we may stay there with the Richies a few days. Aunt
Marianna hates to make the trip in one day, so we stayed there last
night. But she had to come down to sign some papers. Chris has been down
all the week and he wired for her, so she and I drove down together."

"And is the country lovely now?" Rose asked.

"Well--dry. But it is beautiful, too; so hot and leafy and thunderous."

"And where are you--at the old house?"

"No; at a hotel, up near the Park. I wish you and little Peter Pan could
get away somewhere, Rose, for we'll have another three weeks of the
heat!"

"Oh, my dear, Mother Redding and the baby and I are going to the
Berkshires for at least two whole weeks," Rose announced, happily. "And
I thought that my bad boy was coming in early August," she added, of
the baby, "or I would have gone first. Try to come oftener, Norma," she
pleaded, "for we all love you so!"

And again, Norma's manner worried her. What was there in the sisterly
little speech to bring the tears again to Norma's eyes?

"I know you do, Rosy," Norma said, very low. "I wish I could go up to
the Berkshires with you."

"Well, then, why don't you, dear?"

"Oh"--Norma flung back her head--"I don't know!" she said, with an
attempt at lightness. And two minutes later she had kissed Aunt Kate,
and greeted Wolf, in the kitchen, and Rose heard their laughter, and
then the closing of the front door.



CHAPTER XIX


Wolf walked with her to the omnibus. He had come in tired with the heat
of the long day, but Norma thought him his sweetest self, brotherly,
good, unsuspicious, and unaffected. He complimented her on her
appearance; he had a kind word for Harry Redding, for the baby; he told
Norma that he and his mother had gone to Portland by water a few weeks
before and had a great spree. Norma, tired and excited, loved him for
his very indifference to her affairs and her mood, for the simplicity
with which he showed her the book he was reading, and the amusement he
found all along the dry and dusty and dirty street. Everything was
interesting to Wolf, and he made no apologies for the general wiltedness
and disorder of the neighbourhood.

Norma looked down at him, from the top of the omnibus, and thought that
he was a friendly and likable big young man, with his rumpled bare head
shining reddish-brown in the streaming, merciless sunlight. She had no
idea that his last look at her was like some precious canvas that a
collector adds to his treasures, that to the thousands of little-girl
Normas, and bookshop Normas, and to the memorable picture of a débutante
Norma at her first opera, Wolf carried away with him to-night one more
Norma: a brown, self-possessed, prettier-than-ever Norma, in a wide
English hat and a plain linen suit, and transparent green silk stockings
that matched her green silk parasol.

She got down from the omnibus, a few blocks farther away, and walked
slowly along the shady side of the burning cross-streets, thinking,
thinking, thinking. It was the hottest hour of the afternoon; there
would be a storm to-night, but just now the air hung motionless, and the
shadows were almost as dazzling, in their baking dimness, as the
sunshine. Houses were closed and silent, show windows bare; the
omnibuses creaked by loaded with passengers, trying to get cool. There
was an odour of frying potatoes; other odours, stale and lifeless, crept
through the stale and lifeless air.

Norma was entirely familiar with this phase of city life, for, except
for Sundays at Coney Island, or picnicking on some beach or in some
meadow or wood of Connecticut, she and the Sheridans had weathered two
successive hot seasons very comfortably within two hundred yards of
Broadway. It held no particular horrors for her; she reflected that in
another hour or two the sun would quite have died away, and then every
flight of old brownstone steps would hold its chatting group, and every
street its scores of screaming and running children.

Wherever her thoughts carried her, they began and ended with
Christopher. He had never kissed her again after the night of his return
from Miami; he had hardly touched even her hand, and he had said no word
of love. But, as the summer progressed, these two had grown steadily to
live more and more for each other, for just the casual friendly looks
and words of ordinary intercourse in the presence of other persons, and
for the chance hours that Fate now and then permitted them alone.

Norma, in every other relationship grown more whimsical and more
restless, showing new phases of frivolity and shallowness to the world,
had deepened and developed, under Chris's eyes, into her own highest
possibility of womanhood. To him she was earnest, honest, only anxious
to be good and to be true. He knew the viewpoint of that wiser self that
was the real Norma; he knew how wide open those blue eyes were to what
was false and worthless in the world around her.

And Norma had seen him change, too, or perhaps more truly become
himself. Still apparently the old Chris, handsome, poised, cynical, and
only too ready to be bored, he went his usual course of golf and polo,
gave his men's dinners, kissed Alice good-bye and departed for yachting
or motoring trips. Even Alice, shut away from reality in her own world
of music and sweet airs, flowers and friendship, saw no change.

But Norma saw it. She knew that Chris was no longer ready to respond to
every pretty woman's idle challenge to a flirtation; she knew that there
was a Chris of high ideals, a Chris capable even of heroism, a Chris who
loved simplicity, who loved even service, and who was not too spoiled
and too proud to give his time as well as his money, to give himself
gladly where he saw the need.

Their hours alone together were hours of enchanting discovery. Memories
of the little boy that had been Chris, the little girl that had been
Norma, their hopes and ambitions and joys and sorrows, all were
exchanged. And to them both every word seemed of thrilling and absorbing
interest. To Norma life now was a different thing when Chris merely was
in the room, however distant from her, however apparently interested in
someone, or something, else. She knew that he was conscious of her,
thinking of her, and that presently she would have just the passing
word, or smile, or even quiet glance that would buoy her hungry soul
like a fresh and powerful current.

It was not strange to her that she should have come to feel him the most
vital and most admirable of all the persons about her, for many of the
men and women who loved Chris shared this view. Norma had not been in
the Melrose house a month before she had heard him called "wonderful",
"inimitable", "the only Chris", a hundred times. Even, she told herself
sometimes, even the women that Chris quite openly disliked would not
return coldness for coldness. And how much less could she, so much
younger, resist the generous friendship he offered to her ignorance, and
awkwardness, and strangeness?

That he saw in her own companionship something to value she had at first
been slow to believe. Sheer pride had driven her to reluctance, to
shyness, to unbelief. But that was long ago, months ago. Norma knew now
that he truly liked her, that the very freshness and unconventionality
of her viewpoint delighted him, and that he gave her a frankness, a
simpleness, and an ardour, in his confidences, that would have
astonished Alice herself.

Alice! Norma was thinking of Alice, now. Just where did Alice come in?
Alice had always been the most generous of wives. But she could not be
generous here; no human woman could. She liked Norma, in a sense she
needed Norma, but Chris was all her world.

"But, good heavens!" Norma mused, as she walked slowly along, "isn't
there to be any friendship for a man but his men friends, or any for a
woman except unmarried men? Isn't there friendship at all between the
sexes? Must it always be sneaking and subterfuge, unless it's marriage?
I don't want to marry Chris Liggett----"

She stopped short, and the blood left her heart suddenly, and rushed
back with a pounding that almost dizzied her.

"_I don't want to marry Chris Liggett_," she whispered, aloud. And then
she widened her eyes at space, and walked on blindly for a little way.
"Oh, Chris, Chris, Chris!" she said. "Oh, what shall I do?"

An agony almost physical in its violence seized her, and she began to
move more rapidly, as if to wear it out, or escape it.

"No, no, no; I can't care for him in that way," said Norma, feeling her
throat dry and her head suddenly aching. "We can't--we cannot--like each
other that way!"

The rest of the walk was a blank as far as her consciousness was
concerned. She was swept far away, on a rushing sea of memories,
memories confused and troubled by a vague apprehension of the days to
come. That was it; that was it; they loved each other. Not as
kinspeople, not as friends, not as the Chris and Norma of Alice's and
Leslie's and Annie's lives, but as man and woman, caught at last in the
old, old snare that is the strongest in life.

Bewildered and sick, she reached the cool, great colonnaded doorway of
the hotel. And here she and Christopher came face to face.

He was coming out, was indeed halfway down the stone steps. They stood
still and looked at each other.

Norma thought that he looked tired, that perhaps the hot week in
streets and offices had been hard for him. He was pale, and the smile he
gave her was strained and unnatural. They had not seen each other for
ten days, and Norma, drinking in every expression of the firm mouth, the
shrewd, kindly eyes, the finely set head, felt sudden confidence and
happiness flood her being again. It was all nonsense, this imagining of
hers, and she and Chris would always be the best friends in the world!

"Alice is perfectly splendid," Norma said, in answer to his first
questions, "and Leslie's baby is much less fat and solid looking, and
getting to be so cunning. Where is Aunt Marianna?"

"Upstairs," he answered with a slight backward inclination of his head.
"We had a most satisfactory day, and you and she can get off to Great
Barrington to-morrow without any trouble."

"She and I?" Norma said, distressed by something cold and casual in his
manner. "But aren't you coming, too? Alice depends upon your coming!"

"I can't, I'm sorry to say. I may get up on Friday night," Chris said,
with an almost weary air of politeness.

"Friday! Why, then--then I'll persuade Aunt Marianna to wait," Norma
decided, eagerly. "You must come with us, Chris; it's quite lovely up
through Connecticut!"

"I'm very sorry," the man repeated, glancing beyond her as if in a hurry
to terminate the conversation. "But I may not get up at all this week.
And I've arranged with Aunt Marianna that Poole drives you up to-morrow.
You'll find her," he added, lightly, "enthusiastic over the baby's
pictures. They're really excellent, and I think Leslie will be
delighted. And now I have to go, Norma----"

"But you're coming back to have dinner with us?" the girl interrupted,
thoroughly uneasy at the change in him.

"Not to-night. I have an engagement! Good-bye. I'll see you very soon.
The hat's charming, Norma, I think you may safely order more of them by
mail if you have to. Good-bye."

And with another odd smile, and his usually courteous bow, he was gone,
and Norma was left staring after him in a state almost of stupefaction.

What was the matter with him? The question framed itself indignantly in
Norma's mind as she automatically crossed the foyer of the hotel and
went upstairs. Mechanically, blindly, she took off the big hat, flung
aside the parasol, and went through the uniting bathroom into Mrs.
Melrose's room. What on earth had been the matter with Chris? What right
had he--how dared he--treat her so rudely?

Mrs. Melrose was in a flowered chair near a wide-opened window. She had
put on a lacy robe of thin silk, after the heat and burden of the day,
and her feet were in slippers. Beside her was a tall glass, holding an
iced drink, and before her, on a small table, Regina had ranged the
beautiful photographs of Leslie's baby that were to be the young
mother's birthday surprise next week.

"Hello, dear!" she said, in the pleasant, almost cooing voice with which
she almost always addressed the girls of the family, "isn't this just a
dreadful, dreadful day? Oh, my, so hot! Look here, Norma, just see my
little Patricia's pictures. Aren't they perfectly lovely? I'm _so_
pleased with them. I was just----Regina, will you order Miss Norma
something cool to drink, please. Tea, dear? Or lemonade, like your old
aunty?--I was just showing them to Chris. Yes. And he thought they were
just perfectly lovely; see the little fat hand, and how beautifully the
lace took! There--that one's the best. You'll see, Leslie will like that
one."

The topic, fortunately for Norma's agitation, was apparently
inexhaustible and all-absorbing. The girl could sink almost unnoticed
into an opposite chair, and while her voice dutifully uttered
sympathetic monosyllables, and her eyes went from the portraits of
little Patricia idly about the big room, noting the handsome old maple
furniture, and the costly old scrolled velvet carpet, and the aspect of
flaming roofs beyond the window in the sunset, her thoughts could turn
and twist agonizingly over this new mystery and this new pain. What had
been the matter with Chris?

Anger gave way to chill, and chill to utter heartsickness. The cause of
the change was unimportant, after all; it was the change itself that was
significant. Norma's head ached, her heart was like lead. She had been
thinking, all the way down in the car--all to-day--that she would meet
him to-night; that they would talk. Now what? Was this endless evening
to drag away on his terms, and were they to return to Newport to-morrow,
with only the memory of that cool farewell to feed Norma's starving,
starving soul?

"Chris couldn't stay and have dinner," Mrs. Melrose presently was
regretting, "but, after all, perhaps it's cooler up here than anywhere,
and I am so tired that I'm not going to change! You'll just have to
stand me as I am."

And the tired, heat-flushed, wrinkled old face, under its fringe of gray
hair, smiled confidently at Norma. The girl smiled affectionately back.

Five o'clock. Six o'clock. It was almost seven when Norma came forth
from a cold bath, and supervised the serving of the little meal. She
merely played with her own food, and the old lady was hardly more
hungry.

"Oh, no, Aunt Marianna! I think that Leslie was just terribly nervous,
after Patricia was born. But I think now, especially when they're back
in their own house, they'll be perfectly happy. No reason in the world
why they shouldn't be," Norma heard herself saying. So they had been
talking of Acton and Leslie, she thought. Leslie was spoiled, and Acton
was extravagant, and the united families had been just a little worried
about their attitudes toward each other. Mrs. Melrose was sure that
Norma was right, and rambled along the same topic for some time. Then
Norma realized that they had somehow gotten around to Theodore, Leslie's
father. This subject was always good for half hours together, she could
safely ramble a little herself. The deadly weight fell upon her spirit
again. What had been the matter with Chris?

At nine o'clock her tired old companion began preparations for bed, and
Norma, catching up some magazines, went into her own room. She could
hear Regina and Mrs. Melrose murmuring together, the running of water,
the opening and shutting of bureau drawers.

Norma went to her open window, leaned out into the warm and brilliant
night. There was a hot moon, moving between clouds that promised, at
last, a break in the binding heat. Down the Avenue below her omnibuses
wheeled and rumbled, omnibuses whose upper seats were packed with thinly
clad passengers, but otherwise there was little life and movement
abroad. A searchlight fanned the sky, fell and wavered upward again. A
hurdy-gurdy, in the side street, poured forth the notes of the
"Marseillaise."

Suddenly, and almost without volition, the girl snatched the telephone,
and murmured a number. Thought and senses seemed suspended while she
waited.

"Is this the Metropolitan Club? Is Mr. Christopher Liggett there?... If
you will, please. Thank you. Say that it is a lady," said Norma, in a
hurried and feverish voice. The operator would announce presently, of
course, that Mr. Liggett was not there. The chance that he was there was
so remote----

"Chris!" she breathed, all the tension and doubt dropping from her like
a garment at the sound of his quiet tones. "Chris--this is Norma!"

A pause. Her soul died within her.

"What is it?" Chris asked presently, in a repressed voice.

"Well--but were you playing cards?"

"No."

"You've had your dinner, Chris?"

"No. Yes, I had dinner, of course. I dined with Aunt Marianna--no, that
was lunch! I dined here."

"Chris," Norma faltered, speaking quickly as her courage ebbed, "I
didn't want to interrupt you, but you seemed so--so different, this
afternoon. And I didn't want to have you cross at me; and I
wondered--I've been wondering ever since--if I have done something that
made you angry--that was stupid and--and----"

She stopped. The forbidding silence on his part was like a wall that
crossed her path, was like a veil that blinded and choked her.

"Not at all," he said, quickly. "Where did you get that idea?...
Hello--hello--are you there, Norma?" he added, when on her part in turn
there was a blank silence.

For Norma, strangled by an uprising of tears as sudden as it was
unexpected and overwhelming, could make no audible answer. Why she
should be crying she could not clearly think, but she was bathed in
tears, and her heart was heavy with unspeakable desolation.

"Norma!" she heard him say, urgently. "What is it? Norma----?"

"Nothing!" she managed to utter, in a voice that stemmed the flood for
only a second.

"Norma," Chris said, simply, "I am coming out. Meet me downstairs in ten
minutes. I want to see you!"

Both telephones clicked, and Norma found herself sitting blankly in the
sudden silence of the room, her brain filled with a confusion of shamed
and doubting and fearful thoughts, and her heart flooded with joy.

Five minutes later she stepped from the elevator into the lobby, and
selected a big chair that faced obliquely on the entrance doors. The
little stir in the wide, brightly lighted place always interested her
and amused her; women drifting from the dining-room with their light
wraps over their arms, messengers coming and going, the far strains of
the orchestra mingling pleasantly with the nearer sounds of feet and
voices.

To-night her spirit was soaring. Nothing mattered, nothing of her
doubts, nothing of his coldness, except that Chris was even now coming
toward her! Her mind followed the progress of his motor-car, up through
the hot, deserted streets.

Suddenly it seemed to her that she could not bear the emotion of
meeting. With every man's figure that came through the wide-open doors
her heart thumped and pounded.

His voice; she would hear it again. She would see the gray eyes, and
watch the firm, quick movement of his jaw.

Other men, meeting other women, or parting from other women, came and
went. Norma liked the big, homely boy in olive drab, who kissed the
little homely mother so affectionately.

She glanced at her wrist watch, twisted about to confirm its unwelcome
news by the big clock. Quarter to ten, and no Chris. Norma settled down
again to waiting and watching.

Ten o'clock. Quarter past ten. He was not coming! No, although her sick
and weary spirit rose whenever there was the rush of a motor-car to the
curb or the footstep of a man on the steps outside, she knew now that he
was not coming. Hope deferred had exhausted her, but hope dead was far,
far worse. He was not coming.

It was almost half-past ten when a bell-boy approached. Was it Miss
Sheridan? Mr. Christopher Liggett had been called out of town, and
would try to see Mrs. Melrose in a day or two.

Norma turned upon him a white face of fatigue.

"Is Mr. Liggett on the telephone?"

"No, Miss. He just telephoned a message."

The boy retired, and Norma went slowly upstairs, and slowly made her
preparations for sleep. But the blazing summer dawn, smiting the city at
four o'clock, found her still sitting at the window, twirling a tassel
of the old-fashioned shade in her cold fingers, and staring with haggard
eyes into space.



CHAPTER XX


More than a week later Annie gave a luncheon to a dozen women, and
telephoned Norma beforehand, with a request that the girl come early
enough to help her with name cards.

"These damnable engagement luncheons," said Aunt Annie, limping about
the long table, and grumbling at everything as she went. Annie had
wrenched her ankle in alighting from her car, and was cross with nagging
pain. "Here, put Natalie next to Leslie, Norma; no, that puts the
Gunnings together. I'll give you Miss Blanchard--but you don't speak
French! Here, give me your pencil--and confound these things
anyway----Fowler," she said to the butler, "I don't like to see a thing
like that on the table--carry that away, please; and here, get somebody
to help you change this, that won't do! That's all right--only I want
this as you had it day before yesterday--and don't use those, get the
glass ones----"

And so fussing and changing and criticizing, Annie went away, and Norma
followed her up to her bedroom.

"I'm wondering when we're going to give _you_ an engagement luncheon,
Norma," said the hostess, in a whirl of rapid dressing. "Who's ahead
now?"

"Oh--nobody!" Norma answered, with a mirthless laugh. She had been
listless and pale for several days, and did not seem herself at all.

"Forrest Duer, is it?"

"Oh, good heavens--Aunt Annie! He's twenty-one!"

"Is that all--he's such a big whale!----Don't touch my hair, Phoebe,
it'll do very well!" said Annie to the maid. "Well, don't be in too much
of a hurry, Norma," she went on kindly. "Nothing like being sure!
That"--Annie glanced at the retiring maid--"that's what makes me nervous
about Leslie," she confessed. "I'm afraid we hurried the child into it
just a little bit. It was an understood thing since they were nothing
but kiddies."

"Leslie is outrageously spoiled," Norma said, not unkindly.

"Leslie? Oh, horribly. Mama always spoils everyone and poor Theodore
spoiled her, too," Annie conceded.

"She told me herself yesterday," Norma went on, with a trace of her old
animation, "that they've overdrawn again. Now, Aunt Annie, I do think
that's outrageous! Chris straightened them all out last--when was
it?--June, after the baby came, and they have an enormous
income--thousands every month, and yet they are deep in again!"

"The wretched thing is that they quarrel about that!" Annie agreed.

"Well, exactly! That was what it was about day before yesterday, and
Leslie told me she cried all night. And you know the other day she took
Patricia and came home to Aunt Marianna, and it was terrible!"

"How much do you suppose the servants know of that?" Annie asked,
frowning.

"Oh, they _must_ know!" Norma replied.

"Foolish, foolish child! You know, Norma," Annie resumed, "Leslie comes
by her temper naturally. She is half French; her mother was a
Frenchwoman--Louison Courtot."

"It's a pretty name," Norma commented. "Did you know her?"

"Know her? She was my maid when I was about seventeen, a very superior
girl. I used to practise my French with her. She was extremely pretty.
After my father died my mother and I went to Florida, and when we came
back the whole thing broke. I thought it would kill Mama! At first we
thought Theodore had simply gotten her into 'trouble,' to use the dear
old phrase. But _pas du tout_; she had 'ze _mar-ri-age_ certificate' all
safe and sound. But he was no more in love with her than I was--a boy
nineteen! Mama made her leave the house, and cut off Theodore's
allowance entirely, and for a while they were together--but it couldn't
last. Teddy got his divorce when he went with Mama to California, but he
was ill then, though we didn't know it, poor boy! He lived five years
after that."

"But he saw Leslie?"

"Oh, dear, yes!" Annie said, buffing her twinkling finger-nails, idly.
"Didn't Mama ever tell you about that?"

"No, she never mentions it."

"Well, that was awful, too--for poor Mama. About four years after the
divorce, one night when we were all at home--it was just after Mama and
I came back from Europe, and the year before Hendrick and I were
married--suddenly there was a rush in the hall, and in came Theodore's
wife--Louison Courtot! It seems Mama had been in touch with her ever
since we returned, but none of us knew that. And she had Leslie with
her, a little thing about four years old--Leslie just faintly remembers
it. She had fought Mama off, at first, about giving her baby up, but now
she was going to be married, and she had finally consented to do as Mama
wanted. Leslie came over to me, and got into my lap, and went to sleep,
I remember. Theodore was terribly ill, and I remember that Louison was
quite gentle with him--surprised us all, in fact, she was so mild. She
had been a wild thing, but always most self-respecting; a prude, in
fact. She even stooped over Theodore, and kissed him good-bye, and then
she knelt down and kissed Leslie, and went away. Mama had intended that
she should always see the child, if she wanted to, but she never came
again. She was married, I know, a few weeks later, and long afterward
Mama told me that she was dead. Ted came to adore the baby, and of
course she's been the greatest comfort to Mama, so it all turns out
right, after all. But we're a sweet family!" finished Annie, rising to
go downstairs. "And now," she added, on the stairs, "if there were to be
serious trouble between Acton and Leslie----Well, it isn't thinkable!"

Leslie herself, charming in a flowered silky dress, with a wide flowery
hat on her yellow hair, was waiting for them in the big, shaded hallway.
The little matron was extremely attractive in her new dignities, and her
babyish face looked more ridiculously youthful than ever as she talked
of "my husband," "my little girl," "my house," and "my attorney."

Leslie, like Annie and Alice, was habitually wrapped in her own affairs,
more absorbed in the question of her own minute troubles than in the
most widespread abuses of the world. When Leslie saw a coat, the
identity of the wearer interested her far less than the primary
considerations of the coat's cut and material, and the secondary
decision whether or not she herself would like such a garment.
Consequently, she glanced but apathetically at Norma; she had seen the
dotted blue swiss before, and the cornflower hat; she had seen Aunt
Annie's French organdie; there was nothing there either to envy or
admire.

"How's the baby, dear; and how's Acton?" Annie asked, perfunctorily.
Leslie sighed.

"Oh, they're both fine," she answered, indifferently. "I've been all
upset because my cook got married--just walked out. I told Acton not to
pay her, but of course he did; it's nothing to him if my whole house is
upset by the selfishness of somebody else. He and Chris are going off
this afternoon with Joe and Denny Page, for the Thousand Islands----"

"I didn't know Chris was here!" Annie said, in surprise.

"I didn't, myself. He came up with Acton, late last night. They'd
motored all the way; I was asleep when they got in. I didn't know it
until I found him at breakfast this morning----"

Norma's heart stood still. The name alone was enough to shake her to the
very soul, but the thought that he was here--in Newport--this minute,
and that she might not see him, probably indeed would not see him, made
her feel almost faint.

She had not seen him since the meeting on the hotel steps nearly two
weeks ago. It had been the longest and the saddest two weeks in Norma's
life. It was in vain that she reminded herself that her love for him
was weakness and madness, and that by no possible shift of
circumstances could it come to happy consummation. It was in vain that
she pondered Alice's claims, and all the family claims, and the general
claim of society as an institution. Deep and strong and unconquerable
above them all rose the tide of love and passion, the gnawing and
burning hunger for the sight of him, the sound of his voice, the touch
of his hand.

Life had become for her a vague and changing dream, with his name for
its only reality. Somewhere in the fog of days was Chris, and she would
not live again until she saw him. He must forgive her; he must explain
his coldness, explain the change in him, and then she would be content
just with the old friendliness, just the old nearness and the occasional
word together.

Every letter that Joseph brought her, every call to the telephone, meant
to her only the poignant possibility of a message from him. She sickened
daily with fresh despair, and fed herself daily with new hopes.

To-day she was scarcely conscious of the hilarious progress of the
luncheon; she looked at the prospective bride, in whose honour Aunt
Annie entertained, only with a pang of wonder. What was it like, the
knowledge that one was openly beloved, the miraculous right to plan an
unclouded future together? The mere thought of being free to love Chris,
of having him free to claim her, almost dizzied Norma with its vista of
utter felicity. She had to drive it resolutely from her mind. Not
that--never that! But there must at least be peace and friendship
between them.

At three o'clock the luncheon was over; it was half-past three when
Leslie and she drove to the Melrose "cottage"--as the fourteen-room,
three-story frame house was called. Norma had searched the drive with
her eyes as they approached. The gray roadster was not there. There was
no sign of Christopher's hat or coat in the hallway. Alice was alone, in
her downstairs sitting-room. Norma's heart sank like a lump of ice.

"Did you see Chris?" the invalid began, happily. "We had the nicest
lunch together--just we two. And look at the books the angel brought
me--just a feast. You saw him, Leslie, didn't you, dear? He said he
caught you and Acton at breakfast. I was perfectly amazed. Miss Slater
moved me out here about eleven o'clock, and I heard someone walking
in----! He's off now, with the Pages; he told you that, of course!"

"He looks rotten, I think," Leslie offered. "I told him he was working
too hard."

"Well, Judge Lee is sick, and he hasn't been in to the office since
June," Alice said, "and that makes it very hard for Chris. But he says
his room at the club is cool, and now he'll have two or three lovely
days with the Page boys----"

Norma, who had subsided quietly into a chair, was looking at the yellow
covers of the new French and Italian novels.

"And then does he come back here Monday, for the tennis?" she asked,
clearing her throat.

"He says not!" Alice answered, regretfully. "He's going straight on down
to the city. Then next week-end is the cruise with the Dwights; and
after that, I suppose we'll all be home!"

She went on into a conversation with Leslie, relative to the move. After
a few moments Norma went out through the opened French window onto the
wide porch. It was rather a dark, old-fashioned side porch, with an
elaborate wooden railing, and potted hydrangeas under a striped awning.
The house had neither the magnificence of Annie's gray-stone mansion or
the beauty of Leslie's colonial white and green at Glen Cove; it had
been built in the late eighties, and was inflexibly ornate.

Norma went down slowly through the garden, and walked vaguely toward the
hot glitter and roll of the blue sea. Her misery was almost unbearable.
Weeks--it would be weeks before she would see him! He had been here
to-day--here in the garden--in Alice's room, and she had not had a word
or a sign.

Children and nurses were on the beach, grouped in the warm shade. The
season was over, there were yellow leaves in the hedges, Norma's feet
rustled among the dropped glory of the old trees. The world seemed hot,
dry, lifeless before her.

"I wish I were dead!" she cried, passionately, for the first time in her
life.



CHAPTER XXI


Suddenly and smoothly they were all transported to town again, and the
vigour and sparkle of the autumn was exhilarating to Norma in spite of
herself. The Park was a glory of red and gold leaves; morning came late,
and the dew shone until ten o'clock; bright mists rose smoking into the
sunlight, and when Norma walked home from a luncheon, or from an hour of
furious squash or tennis at the club, the early winter dusk would be
closing softly in, the mists returning, and the lights of the long Mall
in the park blooming round and blue in the twilight.

She was with Mrs. Melrose this winter, an arrangement extremely welcome
to the old lady, who was lonely and liked the stir of young life in the
house. Alice had quite charmingly and naturally suggested the change,
and Norma's belongings had been moved away from the little white room
next to Miss Slater's.

One reason for it was that Alice had had two nurses all summer long, and
found the increased service a great advantage. Then Mama was all alone
and not so well as she had been; getting old, and reluctant to take even
the necessary exercise.

"And then you're too young to be shut up with stupid home-loving folk
like Chris and me," Alice had told Norma, lightly.

"Your stupidity is proverbial, Aunt Alice," Norma had laughed. She did
not care where she went any more. Chris had greeted her casually, upon
their meeting in October, and had studiously, if inconspicuously,
ignored her. But even to see him at all was so great a relief to her
over-charged heart that for weeks this was enough. She must meet him
occasionally, she heard his name every day, and she knew where he was
and what he was doing almost at every moment. She treasured every look,
every phrase of his, and she glowed and grew beautiful in the conviction
that, even though he was still mysteriously angry with her, he had that
old consciousness of her presence, too; he might hate her, but he could
not ignore her.

And then, in December, the whole matter reached a sudden crisis, and
Norma came to feel that she would have been glad to have the matter go
back to this state of doubt and indecision again.

Mrs. von Behrens was on the directorate of a working girls' club that
needed special funds every winter, and this year the money was to be
raised by an immense entertainment, at which generous professional
singers were to be alternated on a brilliant programme with society
girls and men, in tableaux and choruses. Norma, who had a charming if
not particularly strong voice, was early impressed into service, because
she was so good-natured, so dependable, and pretty and young enough to
carry off a delectable costume. The song she sang had been specially
written for the affair, and in the quaint dance that accompanied it she
was drilled by the dance authority of the hour. A chorus of eight girls
and eight men was added to complete the number, and the gaiety of the
rehearsals, and the general excitement and interest, carried the matter
along to the last and dress rehearsal with a most encouraging rush.

Annie had originally selected Chris for Norma's companion in the song,
for Chris had a pleasant, presentable voice, and Chris in costume was
always adequate to any rôle. Theatricals had been his delight, all his
life long, and among the flattering things that were commonly said of
Chris was that he had robbed the stage of a great character actor.

But Chris had begged off, to take a minor part in another _ensemble_,
and Norma had a youth named Roy Gillespie for her partner. Roy was a
big, fat, blond boy, good-natured and stupid and rather in love with
Norma, and as the girl was entirely unconscious of Annie's original
plan, she was quite satisfied with him.

The dress rehearsal was on a dark Thursday afternoon before the Saturday
of the performance. It took place in the big empty auditorium, where it
was to drag along from twelve o'clock noon, until the preparations for
the regular evening performance drove the amateurs, protesting, away.
Snow was fluttering down over the city when Annie, with Norma, and a
limousine full of properties, reached the place at noon; motor-cars were
wheeling and crowding in the side street, and it seemed to Norma
thrilling to enter so confidently at the big, dirty, sheet-iron door
lettered:

    "STAGE DOOR. NO ADMITTANCE."

As always to the outsider, the wings, the shabby dressing-rooms, the
novel feeling of sauntering across the big, dim stage, the gloom of the
great rising arch of the house, were full of charm. Voices and hammers
were sounding in the gloom; somebody was talking hard while he fitfully
played the piano; girls were giggling and fluttering about; footlights
flashed up and down, in the front rows of seats a few mothers and maids
had gathered. There was the sweet, strong smell of some spicy
disinfectant, and obscure figures, up the aisles, were constantly
sweeping and stooping.

Annie had a chair in a wing. Her small fur hat and trim suit had been
selected for comfort; her knees were crossed, and she had a sheaf of
songs, a pencil, and various note-books in her hands. She was alert,
serious, authoritative; her manner expressed an anxious certainty that
everything that could possibly go wrong was about to do so. Men
protested jovially to Annie, girls whimpered and complained, maids
delivered staggering messages into her ear. Annie frowningly yet
sympathetically sent them all away, one by one; persisted that the
rehearsal proceed. Never mind the hat, we could get along without the
hat; never mind Dixie Jadwin, someone could read her part; never mind
this, never mind that; go on, go on--we must get on!

At five o'clock she was very tired, and Norma, fully arrayed, was tired,
too. The girl had been sitting on a barrel for almost an hour, patiently
waiting for the tardy Mr. Roy Gillespie to arrive, and permit their
particular song to be rehearsed. Everything that could be done in the
way of telephoning had been done: Mr. Gillespie had left his office, he
was expected momentarily at his home, he should be given the message
immediately. Nothing to do but wait.

Suddenly Norma's heart jumped to her throat, began to hammer wildly. A
man had come quietly in between her and Annie, and she heard the voice
that echoed in her heart all day and all night. It was Chris.

He did not see her, perhaps did not recognize her in a casual glance,
and began to talk to his sister-in-law in low, quick tones. Almost
immediately Annie exclaimed in consternation, and called Norma.

"Norma! Chris tells me that poor old Mr. Gillespie died this afternoon.
_That's_ what's been the matter. What on earth are we to do now? I
declare it's _too_ much!"

Norma got off her barrel. The great lighted stage seemed to be moving
about her as she went to join them.

What Chris saw strained his tried soul to its utmost of endurance. He
had not permitted himself to look at her squarely for weeks. Now there
was a new look, a look a little sad, a little wistfully expectant, in
the lovely face. Her eyes burned deeply blue above the touch of rouge
and the crimson lips. Her dark, soft hair fell in loose ringlets on her
shoulders from under the absurd little tipped and veiled hat of the late
seventies. Her gown, a flowered muslin, moved and tilted with a gentle,
shaking majesty over hoop skirts, and was crossed on the low shoulders
by a thin silk shawl whose long fringes were tangled in her mitted
fingers. The white lace stockings began where the loose lace pantalettes
stopped, and disappeared into flat-heeled kid slippers. Norma carried a
bright nosegay in lace paper, and on her breast a thin gold locket hung
on a velvet ribbon.

She herself had been completely captivated by the costume when Madame
Modiste had first suggested it, and when the first fittings began. But
that was weeks ago, and she was accustomed to it now, and conscious in
this instant of nothing but Chris, conscious of nothing but the
possibility that he would have a word or a smile, at last, for her.

"Stay right here, both of you--don't move a step--while I telephone
Lucia Street!" said the harassed Annie, her eyes glittering with some
desperate hope. She hurried away; they were alone.

"Poor old Roy--he adored his father!" Chris said, with dry lips, and in
a rather unnatural voice. Norma, for one second, simulated mere
sympathy. Then with a rush the pride and hurt that had sustained her
ever since that weary September evening in the hotel lobby vanished, and
she came close to Chris, so that the fragrance and sweetness of her
enveloped him, and caught his coat with both her mitted hands, and
raised her face imploringly, commandingly to his.

"Chris--for God's sake--what have I done? Don't you know--don't you know
that you're killing me?"

He looked down at her, wretchedly. And suddenly Norma knew. Not that he
liked her, not that she fascinated and interested him, not that they
were friends. But that he loved her with every fibre of his being, even
as she loved him.

The revelation carried her senses away with it upon a raging sea of
emotion and ecstasy. He drew her into a dim corner of the wings, and put
his arms about her, and her whole slender body, in its tilting hoops,
strained backward under the passion and fury of his first embrace. Again
and again his lips met hers, and she heard the incoherent outpouring of
murmured words, and felt the storm that shook him as it was shaking her.
Norma, after the first kiss, grew limp, let herself rest almost without
movement in his arms, shut her eyes.

Reason came back to them slowly; the girl almost rocking upon her feet
as the vertigo and bewilderment passed, and the man sustaining her with
an arm about her shoulders, neither looking at the other. So several
seconds, perhaps a full minute, went by, while the world settled into
place about them; the dingy, unpainted wood of the wings, the near-by
stage where absorbed groups of people were still coming and going, the
distant gloom of the house.

"So now you know!" Chris said, breathlessly, panting, and looking away
from her, with his hands hanging at his sides. "Now you know! I've tried
to keep it from you! But now--now you know!"

Norma, also breathing hard, did not answer for a little space.

"I've known since that time we were in town, in September!" she said,
almost defiantly. Chris looked toward her, surprised, and their eyes
met. "I've known what was the matter with _me_," she added,
thoughtfully, even frowning a little in her anxiety to make it all
clear, "but I couldn't imagine what it was with _you_!"

But this brought him to face her, so close that she felt the same sense
of drowning, of losing her footing, again.

"Chris--please!" she whispered, in terror.

"But, Norma--say it! Say that you love me--that's all that matters now!
I've been losing my mind, I think. I've been losing my mind. Just
that--that you do care!"

"I have----" Tears came to her lifted blue eyes, and she brushed them
away without moving her gaze from him. "I think I have always loved you,
Chris--from the very first," she whispered.

Instantly she saw his expression change. It was as if, with that
revelation, a new responsibility began for him.

"Here, dear, you mustn't cry!" he said, composedly. He gave her his
handkerchief, helped her set the tipped hat and lace veil straight,
smiled reassurance and courage into her eyes. "I'll see you,
Norma--we'll talk," he said. "Oh, my God, to talk to you again! Come,
now, we'll have to be here when Annie comes back--that's right. I--I
love the little gown--terribly sweet. I haven't seen it before, you
know; my crowd has done all its rehearsing at Mrs. Hitchcock's. Here's
Annie now----"

"Christopher," said Annie, in deadly, almost angry earnest, as she came
up desperate and weary, "you'll have to sing this thing with Norma.
Burgess Street absolutely refuses. He's in the chorus, and he sings, but
he simply won't do a solo! His mother says he has a cold, and so on, and
I swear I'll throw the whole thing up; I will, indeed!--rather than have
this number ruined. There's no earthly reason why you can't do both--of
course the poor old man couldn't help dying--but if you knew----"

"My dear girl, of course I'll do it!" All the youth and buoyancy that
had been missing from his voice for weeks had come back. Christopher
laughed his old delightful laugh. "I'll have to have Roy's costume cut
down, but Smithers will do it for me. I'll do my very best----"

"Oh, Chris, God bless you," Annie said. "You'll do it better than he
ever did. Take my car and stop for his suit, and express whatever's
decent--the funeral will be Saturday morning and we'll all have to go,
but there's no help for it. And come to my house for dinner, and you and
Norma can go over it afterward; you poor girl, you're tired out, but
it's such a Godsend to have Chris fill in. And it will be the prettiest
number of all."

Tired out? The radiant girl who was tripping away to change to street
attire was hardly conscious that her feet touched the ground. The stage,
the theatre, the fur coat into which she buttoned herself, the fragrance
of the violets she wore, were all touched with beauty and enchantment.

Snow was still falling softly, when she and Annie went out to the car.
Annie was so exhausted that she could hardly move, but Norma floated
above things mortal. The dark sidewalk was powdered with what scrunched
under their shoes like dry sugar, and up against the lighted sky the
flakes were twirling and falling. The air was sweet and cold and pure
after the hot theatre. Chris put them in the motor-car. He would see his
tailor, have a bite of dinner at home, and be at Annie's at eight
o'clock for the rehearsal.

"I'll do something for you, for this, Norma!" her aunt assured the girl,
gratefully. Norma protested in a voice that was almost singing. It was
nothing at all!

She felt suddenly happy and light. It was all right; there was to be no
more agony and doubt. Alice should lose nothing, the world should know
nothing, but Chris loved her! She could take his friendship fearlessly,
there would be nothing but what was good and beautiful and true between
them. But what a changed world!

What a changed room it was into which she danced, to brush her hair for
dinner, and laugh into her mirror, where the happy girl with starry eyes
and blazing cheeks laughed back. What a changed dinner table, at which
the old lady drowsed and cooed! Norma's blood was dancing, her head was
in a whirl, she was hardly conscious that this soaring and singing soul
of hers had a body.

At eight she and Mrs. Melrose went to Mrs. von Behrens's, and Norma and
Chris went through the song again and again and again, for the benefit
of a small circle of onlookers. Hendrick, who had sworn that wild horses
would not drag him to the entertainment, sat with a small son in his
lap, and applauded tirelessly. Annie criticized and praised alternately.
Mrs. Melrose went to sleep, and Annie's new secretary, a small, lean,
dark girl of perhaps twenty-two, passionately played the music. Norma
knew exactly how this girl felt, how proud she was of her position, how
anxious to hold it, and how infinitely removed from her humble struggle
the beautiful Miss Sheridan seemed! Yet she herself had been much the
same less than two years ago!

Norma could have laughed aloud. She envied no one to-night. The mystery
and miracle of Chris's love for her was like an ermine mantle about her
shoulders, and like a diadem upon her brows. Annie was delighted with
her, and presently told her she had never before sung so well.

"I suppose practice makes perfect!" the girl answered, innocently. She
was conscious of no hypocrisy. No actress enjoying a long-coveted part
could have rejoiced in every word and gesture more than she. Just to
move, under his eyes, to laugh or to be serious, to listen dutifully to
Annie and the old lady, to flirt with Baby Piet, was ecstasy enough.

They had small opportunity for asides. But that was of no consequence.
All the future was their own. They would see each other to-morrow--or
next day; it did not matter. Norma's hungry heart had something to
remember, now--a very flood-tide of memories. She could have lived for
weeks upon this one day's memories.

Norma and Chris were placed toward the centre of the first half of the
programme on the triumphant Saturday night, and could escape from the
theatre before eleven o'clock to go home to tell Alice all about it.
Chris played the song, on his own piano, and Norma modestly and
charmingly went through it again, to the invalid's great satisfaction.
Alice, when Norma and her mother were gone, tried to strike a spark of
enthusiasm from her husband as to the girl's beauty and talent, but
Chris was pleasantly unresponsive.

"She got through it very nicely; they all did!" Chris admitted,
indifferently.

"When you think of the upbringing she had, Chris, a little nameless
nobody," Alice pursued. "When you think that until last year she had
actually never seen a finger-bowl, or spoken to a servant!"

"Exactly!" Chris said, briefly. Alice, who was facing the fire, did not
see him wince. She was far from suspecting that he had at that moment a
luncheon engagement for the next day with Norma, and that during the
weeks that followed they met by appointment almost every day, and
frequently by chance more often than that.



CHAPTER XXII


In the beginning, these were times brimful of happiness for Norma. She
would meet Chris far down town, among the big, cold, snowbound
office-buildings, and they would loiter for two hours at some
inconspicuous table in a restaurant, and come wandering out into the
cold streets still talking, absorbed and content. Or she would rise
before him from a chair in one of the foyers of the big hotels, at tea
time, and they would find an unobserved corner for the murmur that rose
and fell, rose and fell inexhaustibly. Tea and toast unobserved before
them, music drifting unheard about them, furred and fragrant women
coming and going; all this was but the vague setting for their own
thrilling drama of love and confidence. They would come out into the
darkness, Norma tucking herself beside him in the roadster, last
promises and last arrangements made, until to-morrow.

Sometimes the girl even accompanied him to Alice's room, to sit at the
invalid's knee, and chatter with a tact and responsiveness that Alice
found an improvement upon her old amusing manner. So free was Norma in
these days from any sense of guilt that she felt herself nothing but
generous toward Alice, in sparing the older woman some of the excess of
joy and companionship in which she was so rich.

But very swiftly the first complete satisfaction in the discovery of
their mutual love began to wane, or rather to be overset with the
difficulties by which Norma, and many another more brilliant and older
woman, must inevitably be worsted. Her meetings with Chris, innocent and
open as they seemed, were immediately threatened by the sordid danger of
scandal. To meet him once, twice, half-a-dozen times, even, was safe
enough. But when each day of separation became for them both only an
agony of waiting until the next day that should unite them, and when all
Norma's self-control was not enough to keep her from the telephone
summons that at least gave her the sound of his voice, then the world
began to be cognizant that something was in the air.

The very maids at Mrs. Melrose's house knew that Miss Sheridan was never
available any more, never to be traced to the club, to young Mrs.
Liggett's, or to Mrs. von Behrens's house, with a telephone message or
an urgent letter. Leslie knew that Norma hated girls' luncheons; Annie
asked Hendrick idly why he supposed the child was always taking long
walks--or saying that she took long walks--and Hendrick, later
speculating himself as to the inaccessibility of Chris, was perhaps the
first in the group to suspect the truth.

A quite accidental and innocent hint from Annie overwhelmed Norma with
shame and terror, and she and Chris, in earnest consultation, decided
that they must be more discreet. But this was slow and difficult work,
after the radiant first plunge into danger. Despite their utmost
resolution, Chris would find her out, Norma would meet him halfway, and
even under Leslie's very eyes, or in old Mrs. Melrose's actual presence,
the telephone message, or the quicker signals of eyes and smile, would
forge the bond afresh.

Even when Norma really did start off heroically upon a bracing winter
walk, determined to shake off, in solitude and exercise, the constant
hunger for his presence, torturing possibilities would swarm into her
mind, and weaken her almost while she thought them banished. She could
catch him at his club; she might have just five minutes of him did she
choose to telephone.

Perhaps she would resist the temptation, and go home nervous,
high-strung, excitable--the evening stretching endlessly before
her--without him. Aunt Annie and Hendrick coming, Leslie and Acton
coming, the prospect of the decorous family dinner would drive her
almost to madness. She would dress in a feverish dream, answer old Mrs.
Melrose absently or impatiently, speculating all the time about him.
Where was he? When would they meet again?

And then perhaps Leslie would casually remark that Chris had said he
would join them for coffee, or Joseph would summon her gravely to the
telephone. Then Norma began to live again, the effect of the lonely walk
and the heroic resolutions swept away, nothing--nothing was in the world
but the sound of that reassuring voice, or the prospect of that ring at
the bell, and that step in the hall.

So matters went on for several weeks, but they were weeks of increasing
uneasiness and pain for Norma, and she knew that Chris found them even
less endurable than she. The happy hours of confidence and happiness
grew fewer and fewer, and as their passion strengthened, and the
insuperable obstacles to its natural development impressed them more and
more forcibly, miserable and anxious times took their place. Their love
was no sooner acknowledged than both came to realize how mad and
hopeless it was, and that no reiteration of its intensity and no
argument could ever give them a gleam of hope.

If Norma had drifted cheerfully and recklessly into this situation, she
paid for it now, when petty restrictions and conventions stung her like
so many bees, and when she could turn nowhere for relief from constant
heartache and the sickening monotony of her thoughts. She could not have
Chris; she could not give him up. Hours with him were only a degree more
bearable than hours without him.

When he spoke hopefully of a possible change, of "something" making
their happiness possible, she would turn on him like a little virago.
Yet if he despaired, tears would come to Norma's eyes, and she would beg
him almost angrily to change his tone, or she would disgrace them both
by beginning to cry.

Norma grew thin and fidgety, able to concentrate her mind on
nothing, and openly indifferent to the society she had courted so
enthusiastically a year ago. It was a part of her suffering that she
grew actually to dislike Alice, always so suave and cheerful, always so
serenely sure of Chris's devotion. What right had this woman, who had
been rich and spoiled and guarded all her life, to hold him away from
the woman he loved? Chris had been chained to this couch for years,
reading, playing his piano, infinitely solicitous and sympathetic. But
was he to spend all his life thus? Was there to be no glorious
companionship, no adventure, no deep and satisfying love for Chris, ever
in this world? Norma wished no ill to Alice, but she hated a world that
could hold Alice's claim legitimate.

"Why should it be so?" she said to Chris one day, bitterly. "Why, when
all my life was going so happily, did I have to fall in love with you, I
wonder? It could so easily have been somebody else!"

"I don't know!" Chris answered, soberly, flinging away his half-finished
cigarette, and folding his arms over his chest, as he stared through a
screen of bare trees at the river. It was a March day of warm airs and
bursting buds; the roads were running water, and every bank and meadow
oozed the thawing streams, but there was no green yet. Chris had come
for the girl at three o'clock, just as she was starting out for one of
her aimless, unhappy tramps, and had carried her off for a
twenty-five-mile run to the quiet corner of the tavern's porch in
Tarrytown where they were having tea. "I suppose that's just life.
Things go so rottenly, sometimes!"

Norma's eyes watered as she pushed the untasted toast away from her,
cupped her chin in her hands, and stared at the river in her turn.

"Chris, if I could go back, I think I'd never speak to you!" she said,
wretchedly.

"You mustn't say that," he reproached her. "My darling; surely it's
brought you some happiness?"

"I suppose so," Norma conceded, lifelessly, after a silence. "But I
can't go on!" she protested, suddenly. "I can't keep this up! I suppose
I've done something very wicked, to be punished this way. But, Chris, I
loved you from the very first day I ever saw you, in Biretta's
Bookstore, I think. I can't sleep," she stammered, piteously, "and I am
so afraid all the time!"

"Afraid of what?" the man asked, very low.

She faced him, honestly.

"You know what! Of you--of me. It can't go on. You know that. And
yet----" And Norma looked far away, her beautiful weary eyes burning in
her white face. "And yet, I can't stop it!" she whispered.

"Oh, Chris, don't let's fool ourselves!" she interrupted his protest
impatiently. "Weeks ago, _weeks_ ago!--we said that we would see each
other less, that it would taper off. We tried. It's no use! If we were
in different cities--in different families, even! I tell myself that it
will grow less and less," she added presently, as the man watched her in
silence, "but oh, my God!--how long the years ahead look!"

And Norma put her head down on the table, pressed her white fingers
suddenly against her eyes with a gesture infinitely desolate and
despairing, and he knew that she was in tears. Then there was a long
silence.

"Look here, Norma," said Chris, suddenly, in a quiet, reasonable tone.
"I am thirty-eight. I've had affairs several times in my life, two or
three before I married Alice, two or three since. They've never been
very serious, never gone very deep. When we were married I was
twenty-four. I know women like to pretend that I'm an awful killer when
I get going," he interrupted himself to say boyishly, "but there was
really never anything of that sort in my life. I liked Alice, I remember
my mother talking to me a long time, and telling me how pleased everyone
would be if we came to care for each other, and--upon my honour!--I was
more surprised than anything else, to think that any one so pretty and
sweet would marry me! I don't think there's a woman in the world that I
admire more. But, Norma, I've lived her life for ten years. I want my
own now! I want my companion--my chum--my wife. I've played with women
since I was seventeen. But I never loved any woman before. Norma,
there's no life ahead for me, without you. And there's no place so
far--so lonely--so strange--but what it would be heaven for me if you
were there, looking at me as you are now, and with this little hand
where it belongs! My dear, the city is a blank--the men I meet might
just as well be wooden Indians; I can't breathe and I can't eat or
sleep. Get better? It gets worse! It can't go on!"

She was crying again. They were almost alone now. A red spring sun was
sinking, far down the river, and all the world--the opposite shores, the
running waters of the Hudson--was bathed in the exquisite glow. Norma
fumbled with her left hand for her little handkerchief, her right hand
clinging tight to Chris's hand.

"Now, Norma, I've been thinking," the man said, in a matter-of-fact
tone, after a pause. "The first consideration is, that this sort of
thing can't go on!"

"No; this can't go on!" she agreed, quickly. "Every day makes it more
dangerous, and less satisfying! I never"--her eyes watered again--"I
never have a happy second!" she said.

Chris looked at her, looked thoughtfully away.

"The great trouble with the way I feel to you, Norma," he said, quietly,
"is that it seems to blot every other earthly consideration from view. I
see nothing, I think nothing, I hear nothing--but you!"

"And is that so terrible?" Norma asked, touched, and smiling through
tears.

"No, it is so wonderful," he answered, gravely, "that it blinds me. It
blinds me to your youth, my dear, your inexperience--your faith in me!
It makes me only remember that I need you--and want you--and that I
believe I could make you the happiest woman in the world!"

The faint shadow of a frown crossed her forehead, and she slowly shook
her head.

"Not divorce!" she said, lightly, but inflexibly. They had been over
this ground before. "No, there's no use in thinking of that! Even if it
were not for Aunt Alice, and Aunt Marianna, other things make it
impossible. You see that, Chris? Yes, I know!"--she interrupted herself
quickly, as Chris protested, "I know what plenty of good people, and the
law, and society generally think. But of course it would mean that we
could not live here for awhile, anyway! No--that's not thinkable!"

"No, that's not thinkable," he agreed, slowly; "I am bound hand and
foot. It isn't only what Alice--as a wife--claims from me. But there are
Acton and Leslie; there is hardly a month that my brother doesn't
propose some plan that would utterly wreck their affairs if I didn't put
my foot down. They're both absolute children in money matters; Judge Lee
is getting old--there's no one to take my place. Your Aunt Marianna,
too; I've always managed everything for her. No; I'm tied."

His voice fell. For awhile they sat silent, in the lingering, cool
spring twilight, while the red glow faded slowly from the river, and
from the opposite banks where houses and roofs showed between the bare
trees.

"But what can we do, Norma? I've tried--I've tried a thousand times, to
see the future, without you. But I simply can't go on living on those
terms. There's nothing--nothing--nothing! I go to the piano, and before
I touch a note, the utter blank futility of it comes over me and sickens
me! It's the same in the office, and at the club; I seem to be only half
alive. If it could be even five years ahead--or ten years ahead--I would
wait. But it's never--never. No hope--nothing to live for! Life is
simply over--only one doesn't die."

The girl had never heard quite this note of despair from him before, and
her heart sank.

"You are young," he said, after a minute, and in a lighter tone, "and
perhaps--some day----"

"No, don't believe that, Chris," Norma said, quietly. And with a gesture
full of pain she leaned her elbow on the table, and pressed her hand
across her eyes. "There will never be anybody else!" she said. "How
could there be? You are the only person--like yourself!--that I have
ever known!"

The simplicity of her words, almost their childishness, made Chris's
eyes smart. He bit his lips, trying to smile.

"It's too bad, isn't it?" he said, whimsically.

Norma flung back her head, swallowing tears. She gathered gloves and
hand-bag, got to her feet. He followed her as she walked across the
darkening porch. They went down to the curving sweep of driveway where
the car waited, the big lighted eyes of other cars picking it out in the
gloom. The saturated ground gave under Norma's feet, the air was soft
and full of the odorous promise of blossom and leaf. A great star was
trembling in the opal sky, which still palpitated, toward the horizon,
with the pale pink and blue of the sunset. Dry branches clicked above
their heads, in a sudden soft puff of breeze.

Norma, as she tucked herself in beside Chris, felt emotionally
exhausted, felt a sudden desperate need for solitude and silence. The
world seemed a lonely and cruel place.

Almost without a word he drove her home, to the old Melrose house, and
came in with her to the long, dim drawing-room for a brief good-night.
He had not kissed her more than two or three times since the memorable
night of the dress rehearsal, but he kissed her to-night, and Norma felt
something solemn, something renunciatory, in the kiss.

They had but an unsatisfactory two or three minutes together; Mrs.
Melrose might descend upon them at any second, was indeed audible in the
hall when Chris said suddenly:

"You are not as brave--as your mother, Norma!"

She met his eyes with something like terror in her own; standing still,
a few feet away from him, with her breath coming and going stormily.

"No," she said in a sharp whisper. "Not _that_!"

A moment later she was flying upstairs, her blue eyes still dilated with
fright, her face pale, and her senses rocking. Unseeing, unhearing, she
reached her own room, paced it distractedly, moving between desk and
dressing-table, window and bed, like some bewildered animal. Sometimes
she put her two hands over her face, the spread fingers pressed against
her forehead. Sometimes she stood perfectly still, arms hanging at her
sides, eyes blankly staring ahead. Once she dropped on her knees beside
the bed, and buried her burning cheeks against the delicate linen and
embroideries.

Regina came in; Norma made a desperate attempt to control herself. She
saw a gown laid on the bed, heard bath water running, faced her own
haggard self in the mirror, as she began dressing. But when the maid was
gone, and Norma, somewhat pale, but quite self-possessed again, was
dressed for dinner, she lifted from its place on her book-shelf a little
picture of Chris and herself, taken the summer before, and studied it
with sorrowful eyes.

He had been teaching her to ride, and Norma was radiant and sun-browned
in her riding-trousers and skirted coat, her cloud of hair loosened, and
her smart little hat in one hand. Chris, like all well-built men, was
always at his best in sports clothes; the head of his favourite mare
looked mildly over his shoulder. Behind the group stretched the
exquisite reaches of bridle-path, the great trees heavy with summer
foliage and heat.

Norma touched her lips to the glass.

"Chris--Chris--Chris!" she said, half aloud. "I love you so--and I have
brought you, of all men, to this! To the point when you would throw it
all aside--everything your wonderful and generous life has stood
for--for me! God," said Norma, softly, putting the picture down, and
covering her face with her hands, "don't let me do anything that will
hurt him and shame him; help me! Help us both!"

A few minutes later she went down to dinner, which commenced
auspiciously, with the old lady in a gracious and expansive mood, and
her guests, old Judge Lee and his wife, and old Doctor and Mrs. Turner,
sufficiently intimate, and sufficiently reminiscent, to absolve Norma
from any conversational duty. The girl could follow her own line of
heroic and resolute thought uninterruptedly.

But with the salad came utter rout again, and Norma's colour, and heart,
and breath, began to fluctuate in a renewed agony of hope and fear. It
was only Joseph, leaning deferentially over Judge Lee's shoulder, who
said softly:

"Mr. Christopher Liggett, Judge. He has telephoned that he would like to
see you for a moment after dinner, and will be here at about nine
o'clock."

The dinner went on, for Norma, in a daze. At a quarter to nine she went
upstairs; she was standing in the dark upper hallway at the window when
Chris came, saw him leave his car, and come quickly across the sidewalk
under the bare, moving boughs of the old maples. She was trembling with
the longing just to speak to him again, just to hear his voice.

She went to her room, rang for Regina, meditating a message of
good-night that should include a headache as excuse. But before the maid
came she went quickly downstairs, and into his presence, as
instinctively as a drowning man might cling to anything that meant
air--just the essential air. They could not exchange a word alone, but
that was not important. The one necessity was to be together.

Before ten o'clock Norma went back to her room. She undressed, and put
on a loose warm robe, and seated herself before the old-fashioned
fireplace. When Regina came, she asked the girl to put out all the
lights.

Voices floated up from the front hall: the great entrance door closed,
the motors wheeled away. The guests were gone--Chris was gone. Norma
heard old Mrs. Melrose come upstairs, heard her door shut, then there
was silence.

Silence. Eleven struck from Madison Tower; midnight struck. Even the
streets were quieter now. The squares of moonlight shifted on Norma's
floor, went away. The fire died down, the big room was warm, and dim,
and very still.

Hugged in her warm wrap, curled into her big chair, the girl sat like
some tranced creature, thinking--thinking--thinking.

At first her thoughts were of terror and shame. In what fool's paradise
had she been drifting, she asked herself contemptuously, that she and
Chris, reasonable, right-thinking man and woman, could be reduced to
this fearful and wretched position, could even consider--even name--what
their sane senses must shrink from in utter horror! Norma was but
twenty-two, but she knew that there was only one end to that road.

So that way was closed, even to the brimming tide that rose up in her
when she thought of it, and flooded her whole being with the ecstatic
realization of her love for Chris, and of what surrender to him would
mean.

That way was closed. She must tell herself over and over. For her own
sake, for the sake of Aunt Kate and Aunt Marianna, for Rose even, she
must not think of that. Above all, for his sake--for Chris, the fine,
good, self-sacrificing Chris of her first friendship, she must be
strong.

And Norma, at this point in her circling and confused thoughts, would
drop her face in the crook of her bent arm, and the tears would brim
over again and again. She was not strong. She could not be strong. And
she was afraid.



CHAPTER XXIII


Regina, coming through the hallway at seven o'clock, was amazed to
encounter Miss Sheridan, evidently fresh from a bath, a black hat tipped
over her smiling eyes, and her big fur coat belted about her. Norma's
vigil had lasted until after two o'clock, but then she had had four
hours of restful sleep, for she knew that she had found the way.

She left a message with Regina for Mrs. Melrose; she was going to Mrs.
Sheridan's, and would telephone in a day or two. Smiling, she slipped
out into the quiet street, where the autumn sunlight was just beginning
to strike across the damp pavements, and smilingly she disappeared into
the great currents of men and women who were already pouring to and fro
along the main thoroughfares.

But she did not go quite as far as her aunt's, after all. For perhaps
fifteen minutes she waited on the corner of the block, walking slowly to
and fro, watching the house closely.

Then Wolf Sheridan came out, and set off at his usual brisk walk toward
the subway. Norma stepped before him, trembling and smiling.

"Nono--for the Lord's sake! Where did you come from?"

He took her suit-case from her as she caught his arm, drew him aside,
and looked up at him with her old childish air of coaxing.

"Wolf----! I've been waiting for you. Wolf, I'm in trouble!" She laughed
at his concern. "Not real trouble!" she reassured him, quickly.
"But--but----"

And suddenly tears came, and she found she could not go on.

"Is it a man?" Wolf asked, looking down at her with everything that was
brotherly and kind in his young face.

"Yes," Norma answered, not raising her eyes from the overcoat button
that she was pushing in and out of its hold. "Wolf," she added, quickly,
"I'm afraid of him, and afraid of myself! You--you told me months
ago----" She looked up, suffocating.

"I know what I told you!" Wolf said, clearing his throat.

"And--do you still feel--that way?"

"You know I do, Norma," Wolf said, more concerned for her emotion than
his own. "Do you--do you want me to send this--this fellow about his
business?"

"Oh, no!" she said, laughing nervously. "I don't want any one to know
it; nobody must dream it! I can't marry him, I shall never marry him.
But--he won't let me alone. Wolf----" She seemed to herself to be
getting no nearer her point, and now she seized her courage in both
hands, and looked up at him bravely. "Will you--take care of me?" she
faltered. "I mean--I mean as your wife?"

"Do you mean----" Wolf began. Then his expression changed, and his
colour rose. "Norma--you don't mean that!"

"Yes, but I do!" she said, exquisite and flushed and laughing, in the
sweet early sunlight.

"You mean that you will marry me?" Wolf asked, dazedly.

"To-day!" she answered, fired by his look of awe and amazement and
rapture all combined. "I want to be safe," she added, quickly. "I trust
you more than any other man I know--I've loved you like a little sister
all my life."

"Ah--Norma, you darling--you darling!" he said. "But are you sure?"

"Oh, quite sure!" Norma turned him toward Broadway, her little arm
linked wife-fashion in his. "Don't we go along together nicely?" she
asked, gaily.

"Norma--my God! If you knew how I love you--how I've longed for you! But
I can't believe it; I never will believe it! What made you do it?"

Her face sobered for a second.

"Just needing you, I suppose! Wolf"--her colour rose--"I want you to
know who it is; it's Chris."

"Who--the man who annoys you?" Wolf asked in healthy distaste.

"The man I'm afraid of," she answered, honestly.

"But--Lord!" Wolf exclaimed, simply, "he has a wife!"

"I know it!" the girl said, quickly. "But I wanted you to know. I want
you to know why I'm running away from them all." Relief rang in her
voice as his delighted eyes showed no cloud. "That's all!" she said.

"Norma, I can't--my God!--I can't tell whether I'm awake or dreaming!"
Wolf was all joy again. "We'll--wait a minute!--we'll get a taxi; I'll
telephone the factory later----" He paused suddenly. "Mother's in East
Orange with Rose. Shall we go there first?"

"No; you're to do as I say from now on, Wolf!"

"Ah, you darling!"

"And I say let's be married first, and then go and see Rose."

"Norma----" He stopped in the street, and put his two hands on her
shoulders. "I'll be a good husband to you. You'll never be sorry you
trusted me. Dearest, it's--well, it's the most wonderful thing that ever
happened in my whole life! Here's our taxi--wait a minute; what day is
this?"

"Whatever else it is," she said, half-laughing and half-crying, "I know
it is my wedding day!"



CHAPTER XXIV


To Rose and her mother, Wolf's and Norma's marriage remained one of the
beautiful surprises of life; one of the things that, as sane mortals,
they had dared neither to dream nor hope. Life had been full enough for
mother and daughter, and sweet enough, that March morning, even without
the miracle. The baby had been bathed, in a flood of dancing sunshine,
and had had his breakfast out under the budding bare network of the
grape arbour. The little house had been put into spotless order while he
slept, and Rose had pinned on her winter hat, and gone gaily to market,
with exactly one dollar and seventy-five cents in her purse. And she had
come back to find her mother standing beside the shabby baby-coach, in
the tiny backyard, looking down thoughtfully at the sleeping child, and
evidently under the impression that she was peeling the apples, in the
yellow bowl that rested on her broad hip. Rose had also studied her son
for a few awed seconds, and then, reminding her mother that it was past
twelve o'clock, had led the way toward tea-making, and the general
heating and toasting and mincing of odds and ends for luncheon. And they
had been in the kitchen, talking over the last scraps of this meal,
when----

When there had been laughter and voices at the open front doorway, and
when Mrs. Sheridan's startled "Wolf!" had been followed by Rose's
surprised "Norma!" Then they had come in, Wolf and Norma, laughing and
excited and bubbling with their great news. And in joy and tears,
confused interruptions and exclamations, explanations that got nowhere,
and a plentiful distribution of kisses, somehow it got itself told. They
had been married an hour ago--Norma was Wolf's wife!

The girl was radiant. Never in her life had these three who loved her
seen her so beautiful, so enchantingly confident and gay. Rose and her
mother had some little trouble, later on, in patching the sequence of
events together for the delighted but bewildered Harry, Rose's husband.
But there could be no doubt, even to the shrewd eyes of her Aunt Kate,
that Norma was ecstatically happy. Her mad kisses for Rose, the laughter
with which she described the expedition to bank and jeweller, the
license bureau and the church in Jersey City--for in order to have the
ceremony performed immediately it had been necessary to be married in
New Jersey--her delicious boldness toward the awed and rapturous and
almost stupefied Wolf, were all proof that she entertained not even the
usual girlish misgivings of the wedding day.

"You see, I've not been all tired out with trousseau and engagement
affairs and photographers and milliners and all that," she explained,
gaily. "I've only got what's in my bag there, but I've wired Aunt
Marianna, and told her to tell them all. And we'll be back on
Monday--wait until I ask my husband; Wolftone, dear, shall we be back on
Monday?"

She had the baby in her lap; they were all in the dining-room. Rose had
been assured that the bride and groom were not hungry; they had had
sandwiches somewhere--some time--oh, down near the City Hall in Jersey
City. But Rose had made more tea, and more toast, and she had opened her
own best plum jam, and they were all eating with the heartiness of
children. Presently Norma went to get in Aunt Kate's lap, and asked her
if she was glad, and made herself so generally engaging and endearing,
with her slender little body clasped in the big motherly arms and her
soft face resting against the older, weather-beaten face, that Wolf did
not dare to look at her.

They were going to Atlantic City; neither had ever been there, and if
this warm weather lasted it would be lovely, even in early spring. It
was almost four o'clock when the younger women went upstairs for the
freshening touches that Norma declared she needed, and then Wolf and his
mother were left alone.

He knelt down beside the big rocker in which she was ensconced with the
baby, and she put one arm about him, and kissed the big thick crest of
his brown hair.

"You're glad, aren't you, Mother?"

"Glad! I've prayed for it ever since she came to me, years ago," Mrs.
Sheridan answered. But after a moment she added, gravely: "She's pure
gold, our Norma. They've sickened her, just as I knew they would! But,
Wolf, she may swing back for a little while. She's like that; she always
has been. She was no more than a baby when she'd be as naughty as she
could be, and then so good that I was afraid I was going to lose her. Go
gently with her, Wolf; be patient with her, dear. She's going to make a
magnificent woman, some day."

"She's a magnificent woman, now," the man said, simply. "She's too good
for me, I know that. She's--you can't think how cunning she is--how
wonderful she's been, all day!"

"Go slowly," his mother said again. "She's only a baby, Wolf; she's
excited and romantic and generous because she's such a baby! Don't make
her sorry that she's given herself to you so--so trusting----"

She hesitated.

"I'll take care of her!" Wolf asserted, a little gruffly.

There was time for no more; they heard her step on the stairs, and she
came dancing back with Rose. Her cheeks were burning with excitement;
she gave her aunt and cousin quick good-bye kisses, and caught the
baby's soft little cheek to her own velvety one. She and Wolf would be
back on Sunday night, they promised; as they ran down the path the sun
slipped behind a leaden cloud, and all the world darkened suddenly. A
brisk whirl of springtime wind shook the rose bushes in Rose's little
garden, and there was a cool rushing in the air that promised rain.

But Norma was still carried along on the high tide of supreme emotion,
and to Wolf the day was radiant with unearthly sunshine, and perfumed
with all the flowers of spring. The girl had flung herself so
wholeheartedly into her rôle that it was not enough to bewilder and
please Wolf, she must make him utterly happy. Dear old Wolf--always
ready to protect her, always good and big and affectionate, and ready to
laugh at her silliest jokes, and ready to meet any of her problems
sympathetically and generously. Her beauty, her irresistible charm as
she hung on his arm and chattered of what they would do when they
started housekeeping, almost dizzied him.

She liked everything: their wheeling deep upholstered seats in the
train; the seaside hotel, with the sea rolling so near in the soft
twilight; the dinner for which they found themselves so hungry.
Afterward they climbed laughing into a big chair, and were pushed along
between the moving lines of other chairs, far up the long boardwalk. And
Norma, with her soft loose glove in Wolf's big hand, leaned back against
the curved wicker seat, and looked at the little lighted shops, and
listened to the scrape of feet and chatter of tongues and the solemn
roll and crash of the waves, and stared up childishly at the arch of
stars that looked so far and calm above this petty noise and glare. She
was very tired, every muscle in her body ached, but she was content.
Wolf was taking care of her and there would be no more lonely vigils and
agonies of indecision and pain. She thought of Christopher with a sort
of childish quiet triumph; she had solved the whole matter for them
both, superbly.

Wolf was a silent man with persons he did not know. But he never was
silent with Norma; he always had a thousand things to discuss with her.
The lights and the stir on the boardwalk inspired him to all sorts of
good-natured criticism and speculation, and they estimated just the
expense and waste that went on there day by day.

"Really to have the ocean, Wolf, it would be so much nicer to be even in
the wildest place--just rocks and coves. This is like having a lion in
your front parlour!"

"Lord, Norma--when I got up this morning, if somebody had told me that I
would be married, and down at Atlantic City to-night----!"

"I know; it's like a dream!"

"But you're not sorry, Norma; you're sure that I'm going to make you
happy?" the man asked, in sudden anxiety.

"You always _have_, Wolf!" she answered, very simply.

He never really doubted it; it was a part of Wolf's healthy normal
nature to believe what was good and loving. He was not exacting, not
envious; he had no real understanding of her giddy old desires for
wealth and social power. Wolf at twenty-five was working so hard and so
interestedly, sleeping so deeply, eating his meals with such appetite,
and enjoying his rare idle time so heartily, that he had neither time
nor inclination for vagaries. He had always been older than his years,
schooled to feel that just good meals and a sure roof above him marked
him as one of the fortunate ones of the earth, and of late his work in
the big factory had been responsible enough, absorbing enough, and more
than gratifying enough to satisfy him with his prospects. He was liked
for himself, and he knew it, and he was already known for that strange
one-sightedness, that odd little twist of mechanical vision, that sure
knowledge of himself and his medium, that is genius. The joy of finding
himself, and that the world needed him, had been strong upon Wolf during
the last few months, and that Norma had come back to him seemed only a
reason for fresh dedication to his work, an augury that life was going
to be kind to him.

She was gone when he wakened the next morning, but he knew that the sea
had an irresistible fascination for her, and followed her quite as
surely as if she had left footprints on the clear and empty sands. He
found her with her back propped against a low wooden bulkhead, her
slender ankles crossed before her, her blue eyes fixed far out at sea.

She turned, and looked up at him from under the brim of her hat, and the
man's heart turned almost sick with the depth of sudden adoration that
shook him; so young, so friendly and simple and trusting was the ready
smile, so infinitely endearing the touch of the warm fingers she slipped
into his! He sat down beside her, and they dug their heels into the
sand, and talked in low tones. The sun shone down on them kindly, and
the waves curved and broke, and came rushing and slithering to their
feet, and slid churning and foaming noisily under the pier near by.
Norma buried her husband's big hand in sand, and sifted sand through her
slender fingers; sometimes she looked with her far-away look far out
across the gently rocking ocean, and sometimes she brought her blue eyes
gravely to his. And the new seriousness in them, the grave and noble
sweetness that he read there, made Wolf suddenly feel himself no longer
a boy, no longer free, but bound for ever to this exquisite and
bewildering child who was a woman, or woman who was a child, sacredly
bound to give her the best that there was in him of love and service and
protection.

She showed him a new Norma, here on the sunshiny sands, one that he was
to know better as the days went by. She had always deferred to his
wisdom and his understanding, but she seemed to him mysteriously wise
this morning--no longer the old little sister Norma, but a new, sage,
keen-eyed woman, toward whom his whole being was flooded with humility
and awe and utter, speechless adoration.

At nine o'clock, when nurses and children began to come down to the
shore, they got to their feet, and wandered in to breakfast. And here,
to his delight, she was suddenly the old mad-cap Norma again, healthily
eager for ham and eggs and hot coffee, interested in everything, and
bewitchingly pretty in whatever position she took.

"I wish we had the old 'bus, Nono," Wolf said. He usually spoke of his
motor-car by this name. "They've been overhauling her in that Newark
place. She was to be ready--by George, she was ready yesterday!"

"We'll go over--I'll come over and meet you next Saturday," his young
wife promised, busy with rolls and marmalade, "and you'll take me to
lunch, and then we'll get the car, and go and take Rose and the baby for
a ride!"

"Norma," the man exclaimed, suddenly struck with a sense of utter
felicity, and leaning across the table to stop, for the minute, her
moving fingers with the pressure of his own, "you haven't any idea how
much I love you--I didn't know myself what it was going to mean! To have
you come over to the factory, and to have somebody say that Mrs.
Sheridan is there, and to go to lunch--Dearest, do you realize how
wonderful and how--well, how _wonderful_ it's going to be? Norma, I
can't believe it. I can't believe that this is what love means to
everybody. I can't believe that every man who marries his--his----"

"Girl," she supplied, laughing.

"Girl--but I didn't mean girl. I meant his ideal--the loveliest person
he ever knew," Wolf said, with a new quickness of tongue that she knew
was born of happiness. "I can't believe that just going to Childs'
restaurants, or taking the car out on Sunday, or any other fool thing
we do, means to any man what it's going to mean to me! I just--well, I
told you that. I just can't believe it!"

Two days later they came home for Sunday supper, and there was much
simple joy and laughter in the little city apartment. Aunt Kate of
course had fried chicken and coffee ice-cream for her four big children.
Harry Junior, awakening, was brought dewy and blinking to the table,
where his Aunt Norma kissed the tears from his warm, round little
cheeks, and gave him crumbs of sponge cake. Rose and Harry left at ten
o'clock for their country home, leaving the precious baby for his
grandmother and aunt to bring back the next day, but the other three sat
talking and planning until almost midnight, and Kate could feast her
eyes to her heart's content upon the picture of Wolf in his father's old
leather chair, with Norma perched on the wide arm, one of her own arms
about her husband's neck and their fingers locked together.

It was settled that they were to find a little house in East Orange,
near Rose, and furnish it from top to bottom, and go to housekeeping
immediately. Meanwhile, Norma must see the Melroses, and get her wedding
announcements engraved, and order some new calling cards, and do a
thousand things. She and Wolf must spend their evenings writing
notes--and presents would be arriving----!

She made infinitesimal lists, and put them into her shopping bag, or
stuck them in her mirror, but Wolf laughed at them all. And instead of
disposing of them, they developed a demoralizing habit of wandering out
into Broadway, in their old fashion, after dinner, looking into shop
windows, drifting into little theatres, talking to beggars and taxi-cab
men and policemen and strangers generally, mingling with the bubbling
young life of the city that overflowed the sidewalks, and surged in and
out of candy and drug stores, and sat talking on park benches deep into
the soft young summer nights.

Sometimes they went down to the shrill and crowded streets of the lower
east side, and philosophized youthfully over what they saw there; and,
as the nights grew heavier and warmer, they often took the car, and
skimmed out into the heavenly green open spaces of the park, or, on
Saturday afternoon, packed their supper, and carried it fifty miles away
to the woods or the shore.



CHAPTER XXV


Before she had been married ten days Norma dutifully went to call upon
old Mrs. Melrose, being fortunate enough to find Leslie there. The old
lady came toward Norma with her soft old wavering footsteps, and gave
the girl a warm kiss even with her initial rebuke:

"Well, I don't know whether I am speaking to this bad runaway or not!"
she quavered, releasing Norma from her bejewelled and lace-draped
embrace, and shaking her fluffed and scanty gray hair.

"Oh, yes, you are, Aunt Marianna," the girl said, confidently, with her
happy laugh. Leslie, coming more slowly forward, laughed and kissed her,
too.

"But why didn't you tell us, Norma, and have a regular wedding, like
mine?" she protested. "I didn't know that you and your cousin were even
engaged!"

"We've worked it out that we were engaged for exactly three hours and
ten minutes," Norma said, as they all settled down in the magnificent,
ugly, comfortable old sitting-room for tea. She could see that both
Leslie and her grandmother were far from displeased. As a matter of
fact, the old lady was secretly delighted. The girl was most suitably
and happily and satisfactorily married; justice had been done her, and
she had solved her own problem splendidly.

"But you knew he liked you," Leslie ventured, diverted and curious.

"Oh, well----" Norma's lips puckered mischievously and she looked down.

"Oh, you _were_ engaged!" Leslie said, incredulously. "He's handsome,
isn't he, Norma?"

"Yes," the wife admitted, as if casually. "He really is--at least I
think so. And I think everyone else thinks so. At least, when I compare
him to the other men--for instance----"

"Oh, Norma, I'll bet you're crazy about him," Leslie said, derisively.

Norma looked appealingly at the old lady, her eyes dancing with fun.

"Well, of _course_ she loves her husband," Mrs. Melrose protested, with
a little cushiony pat of her hand for the visitor.

"I don't see that it's 'of course'," Leslie argued, airily, with a
little bitterness in her tone. Her grandmother looked at her in quick
reproof and anxiety. "The latest," she said, drily, to Norma, "is that
my delightful husband is living at his club."

"Now, Leslie, that is very naughty," the old lady said, warmly. "You
shouldn't talk so of Acton."

"Well," Leslie countered, with elaborate innocence, turning to Norma,
"all I can say is that he walked out one night, and didn't come back
until the next! Of course," she added, with a suppressed yawn that
poorly concealed her sudden inclination to tears, "of course _I_ don't
care. Patsy and I are going up to Glen Cove next week--and he can live
at his club, for all me!"

"Money?" Norma asked. For Leslie's extravagance was usually the cause of
the young Liggetts' domestic strife.

Leslie, who had lighted a cigarette, made an affirmative grimace.

"Now, it's all been settled, and Grandma has straightened it all out,"
old Mrs. Melrose said, soothingly. "Acton was making out their income
tax," she explained, "and some money was mentioned--how was that,
dear?--Leslie had sold something--and he hadn't known of it, that was
all! Of course he was a little cross, poor boy; he had worked it all out
one way, and he had no idea that this extra--sixteen thousand, was
it?--had come in at all, and been spent----"

"Most of it for bills!" Leslie interpolated, bitterly. Norma laughed.

"Sixteen thou----! Oh, heavens, my husband's salary is sixty dollars a
week!" she confessed, gaily.

"But you have your own money," the old lady reminded her, kindly, "and a
very nice thing for a wife, too! I've talked to Judge Lee about it,
dear, and it's all arranged. You must let me do this, Norma----"

"I think you're awfully good to me, Aunt Marianna," Norma said,
thoughtfully. "I told Wolf about it, and he thinks so, too. But
honestly----"

Even with her secret knowledge of her own parentage, Norma was surprised
at the fluttered anxiety of the old lady, and Leslie was frankly
puzzled.

"No, Norma--no, Norma," Mrs. Melrose said, nervously and imploringly. "I
don't want you to discuss that at all--it's _settled_. The check is to
be deposited every month, or quarter, or whatever it was----"

"Don't be a fool, Norma, you'll need it, one way or another," Leslie
assured her. But in her own heart Leslie wondered at her grandmother's
generosity.

"Everybody needs more money. I'll bet you the King of England----"

"Oh, kings!" Norma laughed. "They're the worst of all. I don't know
about this one, but they're always appealing for special funds--all of
them. And that's one thing that makes Wolf so mad--the fact that all
they have to do, for ridiculous extravagances, is clap on a tax."

But Leslie and her grandmother were not interested in the young
engineer's economic theories. The old lady followed Norma's spirited
summary merely with an uneasy: "You mustn't let your husband get any
socialistic ideas, Norma; there's too much of that now!" and Leslie,
after a close study of Norma's glowing face, remarked suddenly:

"Norma, I'll bet you a _dollar_ you're rouged!"

Before she left, the visitor managed a casual inquiry about Aunt Alice.

Aunt Alice was fine, Leslie answered carelessly, adding immediately that
no, Aunt Alice really wasn't extremely well. Doctor Garrett didn't want
her to go away this summer, thought that move was an unnecessary waste
of energy, since Aunt Alice's house was so cool, and she felt the heat
so little. And Chris said that Alice had always really wanted to stay in
town, in her own comfortable suite. She liked her second nurse
immensely, and Miss Slater was really running the house now, the third
nurse coming only at night.

"But Aunt Alice never had a nurse at night," Norma was going to say. But
she caught the stricken and apprehensive look on the old lady's face,
and substituted generously: "Well, I remember Aunt Alice told me she had
one of these wretched times several years ago."

"Yes, indeed she did--frightened us almost to death," Mrs. Melrose
agreed, thankfully.

"And how is--how is Chris?" Norma felt proud of the natural tone in
which she could ask the question.

"Chris is fine," Leslie answered. She rarely varied the phrase in this
relation. "He's hunting in Canada. He had a wire from some man there,
and he went off about a week ago. They're going after moose, I believe;
Chris didn't expect to get back for a month. Aunt Alice was delighted,
because she hates to keep him in town all summer, but Acton told me that
he thought Chris was sick--that he and Judge Lee just made him go."

Well, her heart would flutter, she could not stop it or ignore it. Norma
found no answer ready, and though she lifted her cup to her lips, to
hide her confusion, she could not taste it. The strangeness of Chris's
sudden departure was no mystery to her; he had been shocked and stunned
by her marriage, and he had run away from the eyes that might have
pierced his discomfiture.

Still, her hands were trembling, and she felt oddly shaken and confused.
Leslie carried the conversation away to safer fields, and shortly
afterward Norma could say her good-byes. Everybody, Leslie said, walking
with her to the corner, wanted to know what the bride wanted for a
wedding-present. Norma told Wolf, over their candle-lighted supper
table, an hour or two later, that he and she would be bankrupted for
life returning them.

Yet she loved the excitement of receiving the gifts; naturally enough,
loved Rose's ecstasies over the rugs and silver and mahogany that made
the little New Jersey house a jewel among its kind. It was what Norma
had unhesitatingly pronounced an "adorable" house, a copy of the true
colonial green-and-white, quaint and prim enough to please even Leslie,
when Leslie duly came to call. It stood at the end of a tree-shaded
street, with the rising woods behind it, and Norma recklessly invested
in brick walks and a latticed green fence, hydrangeas in wooden tubs and
sunflowers and hollyhocks, until her stretch of side garden looked like
a picture by Kate Greenaway.

When it was all done, midsummer was upon them, but she and Wolf thought
that there had never been anything so complete and so charming in all
the world. The striped awnings that threw clean shadows upon the clipped
grass; the tea table under the blue-green leaves of an old apple tree;
the glass doors that opened upon orderly, white-wainscoted rooms full of
shining dark surfaces and flowered chintzes and gleaming glass bowls of
real flowers; the smallness and completeness and prettiness of
everything filled them both with utter satisfaction.

Norma played at housekeeping like a little girl in a doll's house. She
had a rosy little Finnish maid who enjoyed it all almost as much as she
did, and their adventures in hospitality were a constant amusement and
delight. On Saturdays, when Rose and Harry and Aunt Kate usually
arrived, Wolf could hardly believe that all this ideal beauty and
pleasure was his to share.

The girls would pose and photograph the baby tirelessly, laughing as he
toppled and protested, and kissing the fat legs that showed between his
pink romper and his pink socks. They would pack picnic lunches, rushing
to and fro breathlessly with thermos bottles and extra wraps for Miggs,
as Harry Junior was usually called. Once or twice they cleaned the car,
with tremendous splashing and spattering, assuming Wolf's old overalls
for the operation, and retreating with shrieks into the kitchen whenever
the sound of an approaching motor-car penetrated into their quiet road.
Mrs. Sheridan characterized them variously as "Wild Indians", "Ay-rabs",
and "poor innocents" but her heart was so filled with joy and gratitude
for the turn of events that had brought all these miracles about, that
no nonsense and no noise seemed to her really extravagant.

It was an exceptionally pleasant community into which the young
Sheridans had chanced to move, and they might have had much more
neighbourly life than they chose to take. There were about them
beginners of all sorts: writers and artists and newspaper men, whose
little cars, and little maids, and great ambitions would have formed a
strong bond of sympathy in time. But Wolf and Norma saw them only
occasionally, when a Sunday supper at the country club or a
Saturday-night dance supplied them with a pleasant stimulating sense of
being liked and welcomed, or when general greetings on the eight-o'clock
train in the morning were mingled with comments on the thunderstorm or
the epidemic of nursery chicken-pox.

When Rose and Harry were gone, on Sunday evenings, Wolf and Norma might
sit on the side steps of the side porch, looking off across the gradual
drop descent of tree-tops and shingled roofs, into a distant world
silvering under the summer moon. These were their happiest times, when
solitude and quiet spread about them, after the hospitable excitements
of the day, and they could talk and dream and plan for the years ahead.

She was an older Norma now, even though marriage had not touched her
with any real responsibility, and even though she was more full of
delicious childish absurdities than ever. The first months of their
marriage had curiously reversed their relationship, and it was Norma now
who gave, and Wolf who humbly and gratefully accepted. It was Norma who
poured comfort and beauty and companionship into his life, who smiled at
him over his morning fruit, and who waited for him under the old maple
at the turn of the road, every night. And as her wonderful and touching
generosity enveloped him, and her strange wisdom and new sweetness
impressed him more and more, Wolf marvelled and adored her more utterly.
He had always loved her as a big brother, had even experienced a
definite heartache when she grew up and went away, a lovely and
unattainable girl in the place where their old giddy dear little Norma
had been.

But now his passion for his young wife was becoming a devouring fire in
Wolf's heart; she absorbed him and possessed him like a madness. A dozen
times a day he would take from his pocket-book the thin leather case she
had given him, holding on one side a photograph of the three heads of
Rose, his mother, and the baby, and on the other an enchanting shadow of
the loosened soft hair and the serious profile that was Norma.

And as he stood looking at it, with the machinery roaring about him, and
the sunlight beating in through steel-barred windows sixty feet high, in
all the confusion of shavings and oil-soaked wood, polished sliding
shafts streaked with thick blue grease, stifling odours of creosote and
oily "wipes", Wolf's eyes would fill with tears and he would shake his
head at his own emotion, and try to laugh it away.

After awhile he took another little picture of her, this one taken under
a taut parasol in bright sunlight, and fitted it over the opposite
faces; and then when he had studied one picture he could turn to the
other, and perhaps go back to the first before his eyes were satisfied.

And if during the day some thought brought her suddenly to mind, he
would stop short in whatever he was doing, and remember her little timid
upglancing look as she hazarded, at breakfast, some question about his
work, or remember her enthusiasm, on a country tramp, for the chance
meal at some wayside restaurant, and sheer love of her would overwhelm
him, and he would find his eyes brimming again.



CHAPTER XXVI


So the summer fled, and before she fairly realized it Norma saw the
leaves colouring behind the little house like a wall of fire, and
rustled them with her feet when she tramped with Wolf's big collie into
the woods. The air grew clearer and thinner, sunset came too soon, and a
delicate beading of dew loitered on the shady side of the house until
almost noon.

One October day, when she had been six months a wife, Norma made her
first call upon Annie von Behrens. Alice she had seen several times,
when she had stopped in, late in the summer mornings, to entertain the
invalid with her first adventures in housekeeping, and chat with Miss
Slater. But Chris she had quite deliberately avoided. He had written her
from Canada a brief and charming note, which she had shown Wolf, and he
and Alice had had their share in the general family gift of silver, the
crates and bags and boxes of spoons and bowls and teapots that had
anticipated every possible table need of the Sheridans for generations
to come. But that was all; she had not seen Chris, and did not want to
see him.

"The whole thing is rather like a sickness, in my mind," she told Wolf,
"and I don't want to see him any more than you would a doctor or a nurse
that was associated with illness. I don't know what we--what I was
thinking about!"

"But you think he really--loved you--Nono?"

"Well--or he thought he did!"

"And did you like him terribly?"

"I think I thought I did, too. It was--of course it was something we
couldn't very well discuss----."

"Well, I'm sorry for him." Wolf had dismissed him easily. On her part,
Norma was conscious of no particular emotion when she thought of Chris.
The suddenness and violence with which she had broken that association
and made its resumption for ever impossible, had carried her safely into
a totally different life. Her marriage, her new husband and new home,
her new title indeed, made her seem another woman, and if she thought of
Chris at all it was to imagine what he would think of these changes, and
to fancy what he would say of them, when they met. No purely visionary
meeting can hold the element of passion, and so it was a remote and
spiritualized Chris of whom Norma came to think, far removed from the
actual man of flesh and blood.

Her call upon Annie she made with a mental reserve of cheerful
explanation and apology ready for Annie's first reproach. Norma never
could quite forget the extraordinary relationship in which she stood to
Annie; and, perhaps half consciously, was influenced by the belief that
some day the brilliant and wonderful Mrs. von Behrens would come to know
of it, too.

But Annie, who happened to be at home, and had other callers, rapidly
dashed Norma's vague and romantic anticipations by showing her only the
brisk and aloof cordiality with which she held at bay nine tenths of her
acquaintance. Annie's old butler showed Norma impassively to the little
drawing-room that was tucked in beyond the big one; two or three
strangers eyed the newcomer cautiously, and Annie merely accorded her a
perfunctory welcome. They were having tea.

"Well, how do you do? How very nice of you, Norma. Do you know Mrs.
Theodore Thayer, and Mrs. Thayer, and Miss Bishop? Katrina, this is--the
name is still Sheridan, isn't it, Norma?--this is Mrs. Sheridan, who was
with Mama and Leslie last summer. You have lots of sugar and cream,
Norma, of course--all youngsters do. And you're near the toast----" And
Annie, dismissing her, leaned back in her chair, and dropped her voice
to the undertone that Norma had evidently interrupted. "Do go on,
Leila," she said, to the older of the three women, "that's quite
delicious! I heard something of it, but I knew of course that there was
more----"

A highly flavoured little scandal was in process of construction. Norma
knew the principals slightly; the divorced woman, and the second husband
from whom she had borrowed money to loan the first. She could join in
the laughter that broke out presently, while she tried to identify her
companions. The younger Mrs. Thayer had been the Miss Katrina Davenport
of last month's brilliant wedding. Pictures of her had filled the
illustrated weeklies, and all the world knew that she and her husband
were preparing to leave for a wonderful home in Hawaii, where the family
sugar interests were based. They were to cross the continent, Norma
knew, in the Davenport private car, to be elaborately entertained in San
Francisco, and to be prominent, naturally, in the island set. Little
Miss Bishop had just announced her engagement to Lord Donnyfare, a
splendid, big, clumsy, and impecunious young Briton who had made himself
very popular with the younger group this winter. They were to be
married in January and her ladyship would shortly afterward be
transferred to London society, presented at court, and placed as
mistress over the old family acres in Devonshire.

They were both nice girls, pretty, beautifully groomed and dressed, and
far from unintelligent as they discussed their plans; how their
favourite horses and dogs would be moved, and what instructions had been
given the maids who had preceded them to their respective homes. Katrina
Thayer was just twenty, Mary Bishop a year younger; Norma knew that the
former was perhaps the richest girl in America, and the latter was also
an heiress, the society papers having already hinted that among the
wedding gifts shortly to be displayed would be an uncle's casual check
for one million dollars.

"And of course it'll be charming for Chris, Mary," Annie presently said,
"if he's really sent to Saint James's."

Norma felt her throat thicken.

"Chris--to England--as Ambassador?" she said.

"Well, there's just a possibility--no, there's more than that!" Annie
told her. "I believe he'll take it, if it is offered. Of course, he's
supremely well fitted for it. There's even"--Annie threw out to the
company at large, with that air of being specially informed in which she
delighted--"there's even very good reason to suppose that influence has
been brought to bear by----But I don't dare go into that. However, we
feel that it will be offered. And the one serious drawback is naturally
my sister. Alice--poor child! And yet, of us all, Alice is most
desperately eager for Chris to take it."

"I should think," Norma said, "that Aunt Alice could almost be
moved----?"

"Oh, she would be!" Annie agreed, with her quick, superior definiteness.
"That's the very question. Whether the north Atlantic passage, say in
May, when it oughtn't to be so hard, would be too much for her. Of
course it would tire her and shake her cruelly, no doubt of that. But
Hendrick even talks of some sort of balanced bed--on the hammock
idea--and Miss Slater would see that everything that was humanly
possible was done. I believe it could be managed. Then she would be met
by one of those big, comfortable English ambulances, at Southampton, and
taken right to her apartment, or hotel, or whatever Chris arranges."

"Not so much harder," Norma ventured, "than the trip to Newport, after
all."

"Well, she didn't go to Newport last summer," Annie said, "but she is
certainly better now than she was then, and I believe it could be done;
I really do. We're not talking a great deal about it, because nothing is
settled, but if it becomes definite, I shall certainly advise it."

Norma drank her tea, and listened, and threw in an occasional word. When
the other women rose to go, she rose, too, perhaps half-hoping that
Annie would hold her for a more intimate word. But Annie quite suavely
and indifferently included her in her general farewells, and Norma had
cordial good-byes from the two young women, and even a vague invitation
from the older Mrs. Thayer to come and see her, when Katrina was gone.

Then she was walking down the Avenue, with her head and heart in a
confused whirl of bitterness and disappointment. The three quarters of
an hour in Aunt Annie's big, dim, luxurious palace had been like a dose
of some insidious poison.

The very atmosphere of richness and service and idleness, the beauty of
wide spaces and rich tones, the massed blossoms and dimmed lights,
struck sharply upon senses attuned to Aunt Kate's quick voice, Rose's
little house with its poverty and utility, and Wolf's frank enjoyment of
his late and simple dinner. The conversation, with its pleasant
assumption of untold wealth of power and travel and regal luxuriousness,
burned its memory across Norma's mind like a corroding acid. They were
not contemptible, they were not robbers or brutes or hideous old
plutocrats who had grown wealthy upon the wrongs of the poor. No, they
were normal pleasant girls whose code it was to be generous to maids and
underlings, to speak well of their neighbours, to pay their bills and
keep their promises.

"They make me _tired_!" she tried to tell herself, walking briskly, and
filling her lungs with the sweet fresh air. It was twilight, and the
north-bound tide of traffic was halting and rushing, halting and
rushing, up the Avenue; now held motionless at a crossing, now flowing
on in mad haste, the lumbering omnibuses passing each other, little
hansoms threading the mass, and foot passengers scampering and
withdrawing, and risking all sorts of passages between. The distance was
luminous and blue, and lights pricked against it as against a scarf of
gauze.

Oh, it was sickening--it was sickening--to think that life was so grim
and hard for the thousands, and so unnecessarily, so superlatively
beautiful for the few! What had Mary Bishop and Katrina ever done, that
they should travel in private cars, fling aside furs that had cost as
much as many a man's yearly salary, chatter of the plantation near the
beach at Hawaii, or of reaching Saint James's for the January
Drawing-Room!

Norma stopped to give twenty-five cents to an old Italian organ grinder,
and worked him into her theme as she went on. Why _should_ he look so
grateful for her casual charity, he, seventy years old, Katrina and Mary
averaging less than twenty!

She reached Aunt Kate's flat in a thorough temper, angry, headachy,
almost feverish after the rich scones and the rich tea, and the even
less wholesome talk. The apartment house seemed, as indeed it was, grimy
and odorous almost to squalor, and Aunt Kate almost hateful in her
cheerfulness and energy. This was Wednesday, and on Wednesday evenings
she was always happy, for then Wolf and Norma came to dinner with her.
To-night, busily manipulating pans and pots, she told Norma that she had
rented the two extra bedrooms of the apartment to three young trained
nurses, ideal tenants in every way.

"They'll get their breakfasts here, and--if I'm away--there's no reason
why they shouldn't cook themselves a little dinner now and then," said
Aunt Kate, in her rich, motherly voice. "They were tickled to death to
get the two rooms for twenty dollars, and that makes my own rent only
seventeen more. I asked them if that was too much, and they said, no,
they'd expected to pay at least ten apiece."

Norma listened, unsympathetic and gloomy. It was all so petty and so
poor--trained nurses, and apple pie, and Aunt Kate renting rooms, and
Wolf eager to be promoted to factory manager.

She wanted to go back--back to the life in which Annie really noticed
her, gave her luncheons, included her. She wanted to count for something
with Mary and Katrina and Leslie; she wanted to talk to Chris about his
possible ambassadorship; she wanted them all to agree that Norma's wit
and charm more than made up for Norma's lack of fortune. While she
brushed her hair, in the room that would shortly accommodate two of the
three little nurses, she indulged in an unsatisfying dream in which she
went to London with Alice--and that autocratic little Lady Donnyfare.

Lady Donnyfare! She would be "your ladyship!" Nineteen years old, and
welcomed to the ancestral mansion as her little ladyship!

Norma set the dinner table for three, with jerks and slams that slightly
relieved her boiling heart. She got the napkins from the sideboard
drawer, and reached for the hand-painted china sugar bowl that was part
of a set that Aunt Kate had won at a fair. She set the blue tile that
she had given Aunt Kate on a long-ago Christmas where the brown Rebecca
teapot would stand, and cut a square slice of butter from the end of the
new pound for the blue glass dish. And all the time her heart was
bursting with grief and discontent, and she was beginning to realize for
the first time the irrevocable quality of the step she had taken, and
just how completely it had shut her off from the life for which she
thirsted.

Wolf came in, hungry, dirty, radiantly happy, with a quick kiss for his
mother and an embrace for his wife into which her slender figure and
cloudy brown head almost disappeared. Lord, he was starving; and Lord,
he was dead; and Lord, it was good to get home, said Wolf, his
satisfaction with life too great to leave room for any suspicion of his
wife's entire sympathy.

She told them, over the meal, of Mary and Katrina, in whom their
interest was of a simple and amazed quality that Norma resented, and of
Chris's prospect, which did awaken some comment from Mrs. Sheridan.
They were a clever family, she said.

But now Wolf, bursting with long suppression, suddenly took the floor
with his own great news. Voorhies, the fifty-year-old manager of the
California plant, had been drifting about the Newark factory for several
days, and Wolf had talked with him respectfully, as a man of
twenty-five, whose income is three thousand a year, may talk to a
six-thousand-dollar manager, and to-day Voorhies, and Jim Palmer, the
Newark manager, and Paul Stromberg, the vice-president, had taken Wolf
to lunch with them, apparently casually, apparently from mere
friendliness. But Voorhies had asked him if he had ever seen the West;
and Stromberg had said that he understood Sheridan's family consisted
merely of a young wife, and Palmer had chanced to drop carelessly the
fact that Mr. Voorhies was not going back to California----!

That was all. But it was enough to send Wolf back to his work with his
head spinning. California--and a managership of a mine--and six
thousand! It must be--it must be--that he had been mentioned for it,
that they had him in mind! He wasn't going even to think of it--and
Norma mustn't--but Lord, it meant being picked out of the ranks; it
meant being handed a commission on a silver platter!

Norma tried not to be cold, tried to rise to the little he asked of her,
as audience. And she had the satisfaction of knowing that he noticed
nothing amiss in her manner, and of seeing him go off to sleep, when
they had made the long trip home, with his head in a whirl of glorious
hopes. But Norma, for the first time since her marriage, cried herself
to sleep.



CHAPTER XXVII


The bitterness stayed with her, and gradually robbed her life of
everything that was happy and content. Her little household round, that
had been so absorbing and so important, became tedious and stupid. Rose,
who was expecting her second confinement, had her husband's mother with
her, and in care of the old baby, and making preparations for the new,
was busy, and had small time for the old companionship; the evenings
were too cold for motoring now, even if Wolf had not been completely
buried in engineering journals and papers of all sorts.

Norma did not call on Annie again, but a fretted and outraged sense of
Annie's coolness and aloofness, and a somewhat similar impression from
Leslie's manner, when they met in Fifth Avenue one day, was always in
her mind. They could drop her as easily as they had picked her up, these
high-and-mighty Melroses! She consoled herself, for a few days, with
spectacular fancies of Annie's consternation should Norma's real
identity be suddenly revealed to her, but even that poor solace was
taken away from her at last.

It was Aunt Kate's unconscious hand that struck the blow, on a wild
afternoon, All Hallow E'en, as it happened, when the older woman made
the long trip to see Rose, and came on to Norma with a report that
everything was going well, and Miggs more fascinating than ever.

Mrs. Sheridan found Norma at the close of the short afternoon, moping in
her unlighted house. She had been to the theatre with Wolf and a young
couple from the house next door, last night, and had fallen asleep after
an afternoon walk, and felt headachy, prickly with heat and cold, and
stupid. Yawning and chilly, she kissed her aunt, and suggested that they
move to the kitchen. It was Inga's free night and Norma was cook.

"You'll stay and surprise Wolf, he'd love it," Norma said, as the
visitor's approving eyes noted the general order and warmth, the
blue-checked towels and blue bowls, the white table and white walls. The
little harum-scarum baby of the family was proceeding to get her husband
a most satisfactory and delicious little dinner, and Aunt Kate was proud
of her.

"Did you make that cake, darling?"

"Indeed I did; she can't make cake!"

"And the ham?"

"Well"--Norma eyed the cut ham fondly--"we did that together, out of the
book! And I wish you'd taste it, Aunt Kate, it is perfectly delicious. I
give it to Wolf every other night, but I think he'd eat it three times a
day and be delighted. And last week we made bread--awfully good,
too--not hard like that bread we made last summer. Rolls, we
made--cinnamon rolls and plain. Harry and Rose were here. And
Thanksgiving I'm going to try mincemeat."

"You're a born cook," Aunt Kate said, paying one of her highest
compliments with due gravity. But Norma did not respond with her usual
buoyancy. She sighed impatiently, and her face fell into lines of
discontent and sadness that did not escape the watching eyes. Mrs.
Sheridan changed the subject to the one of a cousin of Harry Redding,
one Mrs. Barry with whose problems Norma was already dismally familiar.
Mrs. Barry's husband was sick in a hospital, and she herself had to have
an expensive operation, and the smallest of the four children had some
trouble hideously like infantile paralysis.

Norma knew that Aunt Kate would have liked to have her offer to take at
least one of the small and troublesome children for two or three days,
if not to stay with the unfortunate Kitty Barry outright. She knew that
there was almost no money, that all the household details of washing and
cooking were piling up like a mountain about the ailing woman, but her
heart was filled with sudden rebellion and impatience with the whole
miserable scheme.

"My goodness, Aunt Kate, if it isn't one thing with those people it's
another!" she said, impatiently. "I suppose you were there, and up with
that baby all night!"

"Indeed I got some fine sleep," Mrs. Sheridan answered, innocently.
"Poor things, they're very brave!"

Norma said nothing, but her expression was not sympathetic. She had been
thinking of herself as to be pitied, and this ruthless introduction of
the Barry question entirely upset the argument. If Mary Bishop and
Katrina Thayer were the standard, then Norma Sheridan's life was too
utterly obscure and insignificant to be worth living. But of course if
incompetent strugglers like the Barrys were to be brought into the
question, then Norma might begin to feel the solid ground melting from
beneath her feet.

She did not offer the cake or the ham to Aunt Kate, as contributions
toward the small Barrys' lunch next day, nor did she invite any one of
them to visit her. Her aunt, if she noted these omissions, made no
comment upon them.

"I declare you are getting to be a real woman, Norma," she said.

"I suppose everyone grows up," Norma assented, cheerlessly.

"Yes, there's a time when a child stops being a baby and you see that
it's beginning to be a little girl," Mrs. Sheridan mused; "but it's some
time later before you know _what sort_ of a little girl it is. And then
at--say fifteen or sixteen--you see the change again, the little girl
growing into a grown girl--a young lady. And for awhile you sort of lose
track of her again, until all of a sudden you say: 'Well, Norma's going
to be sociable--and like people!' or: 'Rose is going to be a gentle, shy
girl----'"

Norma knew the mildly moralizing tone, and that she was getting a
sermon.

"You never knew that I was going to be a good housekeeper!" she
asserted, inclined toward contrariety.

"I think you're going through another change now, Baby," her aunt said.
"You've become a woman too fast. You don't quite know where you are!"

This was so unexpectedly acute that Norma was inwardly surprised, and a
little impressed. She sat down at one end of the clean little kitchen
table, and rested her face in her hands, and looked resentfully at the
older woman.

"Then you _don't_ think I'm a good housekeeper," she said, looking hurt.

"I think you will be whatever you want to be, Norma, it'll all be in
your hands now," Mrs. Sheridan answered, seriously. "You're a woman,
now; you're Wolf's wife; you've reached an age when you can choose and
decide for yourself. You can be--you always could be--the best child the
Lord ever made, or you can fret and brood over what you haven't got."

The shrewd kindly eye seemed looking into Norma's very soul. The girl
dropped her hard bright stare, and looked sulky.

"I don't see what _I'm_ doing!" she muttered. "I can't help
wanting--what other people that are no better than I, have!"

"Yes, but haven't you enough, Norma? Think of women like poor Kitty
Barry----"

"Oh, Kitty Barry--Kitty Barry!" Norma burst out, angrily. "It isn't my
fault that Kitty Barry has trouble; _I_ had nothing to do with it! Look
at people like Leslie--what she wastes on one new fur coat would keep
the Barrys for a year! Eighty-two hundred dollars she paid for her
birthday coat! And that's _nothing_! Katrina Thayer----"

"Norma--Norma--Norma!" her aunt interrupted, reproachfully. "What have
you to do with girls like the Thayer girl? Why, there aren't twenty
girls in the country as rich as that. That doesn't affect _you_, if
there's something you can do for the poor and unfortunate----"

"It _does_ affect me! I can't"--Norma dropped her tone, and glanced at
her aunt. She knew that she was misbehaving--"I can't help inheriting a
love for money," she said, breathing hard. "I know perfectly well who I
am--who my mother is," she ended, with a half-defiant and half-fearful
sob in her voice.

"How do you mean that you know about your mother, Norma?" Mrs. Sheridan
demanded, sharply.

"Well"--Norma had calmed a little, and she was a trifle nervous--"Chris
told me; and Aunt Alice knows, too--that Aunt Annie is my mother," she
said.

"Chris Liggett told you that?" Mrs. Sheridan asked, with a note of
incredulity in her voice.

"Yes. Aunt Alice guessed it almost as soon as I went to live there! And
I've known it for over a year," Norma said.

"And who told Chris?"

"Well--Aunt Marianna, I suppose!"

There was silence for a moment.

"Norma," said Mrs. Sheridan, in a quiet, convincing tone that cooled the
girl's hot blood instantly, "Chris is entirely wrong; your mother is
dead. I've never lied to you, and I give you my word! I don't know where
Miss Alice got that idea, but it's like her romantic way of fancying
things! No, dear," she went on, sympathetically, as Norma sat silent,
half-stunned by painful surprise, "you have no claim on Miss Annie. Both
your father and mother are dead, Norma; I knew them both. There was a
reason," Mrs. Sheridan added, thoughtfully, "why I felt that Mrs.
Melrose might want to be kind to you--want to undo an injustice she did
years ago. But I've told myself a thousand times that I did you a cruel
wrong when I first let you go among them--you who were always so
sensible, and so cheerful, and who would always take things as they
came, and make no fuss!"

"Oh, Aunt Kate," Norma stammered, bitterly, her lip trembling, and her
voice fighting tears, "you don't have to tell me that in your opinion
I've changed for the worse--I see it in the way you look at me! You've
always thought Rose was an angel--too good to live!--and that I was
spoiled and lazy and good-for-nothing; you were glad enough to get rid
of me, and now I hope you're satisfied! They've told me one thing, and
you've told me another--and I guess the truth is that I don't belong to
anybody; and I wish I was dead, where my f-f-father and m-m-mother
are----!"

And stumbling into incoherence and tears, Norma dropped her head on her
arm, and sobbed bitterly. Mrs. Sheridan's face was full of pain, but she
did not soften.

"You belong to your husband, Norma!" she said, mildly.

Norma sat up, and wiped her eyes on a little handkerchief that she took
from the pocket of her housewifely blue apron. She did not meet her
aunt's eye, and still looked angry and hurt.

"Well--who _am_ I then? Haven't I got some right to know who my mother
and father were?" she demanded.

"That you will never hear from me," Mrs. Sheridan replied, firmly.

"But, Aunt Kate----"

"I gave my solemn promise, Norma, and I've kept my word all these years;
I'm not likely to break it now."

"But--won't I _ever_ know?"

Mrs. Sheridan shrugged her broad shoulders and frowned slightly.

"That I can't say, my dear," she said, gently. "Some day I may be
released from my bond, and then I'll be glad to tell you everything."

"Perhaps Wolf will tell me he's nothing to me, now!" the girl continued,
with childish temper.

"Wolf--and all of us--think that there's nobody like you," the older
woman said, tenderly. But Norma did not brighten. She went in a
businesslike way to the stove, and glanced at the various bowls and
saucepans in which dinner was baking and boiling, then sliced some stale
bread neatly, put the shaved crusts in a special jar, and began to toast
the slices with a charming precision.

"Change your mind and stay with us, Aunt Kate?" she said, lifelessly.

"No, dear, I'm going!" And Aunt Kate really did bundle herself into coat
and rubber overshoes and woolly scarf again. "November's coming in with
a storm," she predicted, glancing out at the darkness, where the wind
was rushing and howling drearily.

Norma did not answer. No mere rushing of clouds and whirl of dry and
colourless leaves could match the storm of disappointment that was
beginning to rage in her own heart.

Yet she felt a pang of repentance, when cheerful Aunt Kate had tramped
off in the dark, to Rose's house, which was five blocks away, and
perhaps afterward to the desolate Barrys', and wished that she had put
her arms about the big square shoulders, and her cheek against her
aunt's cheek, and said that she was sorry to be unreasonable.

Rushing to another extreme of unreason, she decided that she and Wolf
must go see Rose to-night--and perhaps the Barrys, too--and cheer and
solace them all. And Norma indulged in a little dream of herself nursing
and cooking in the Barrys' six little cluttered rooms, and earning
golden opinions from all the group. There was money, too; she had not
used all of October's allowance, and to-morrow would find another big
check at the bank.

Wolf interrupted by coming in so tired he could hardly move. He ate his
dinner, yawned amiably in the kitchen while she cleared it away, and was
so sound asleep at nine o'clock that Norma's bedside light and the
rustling of the pages of her book, three feet away from his face, had no
more effect upon him than if the three feet had been three hundred.

And then the bitter mood came back to her again; the bored, restless,
impatient feeling that her life was a stupid affair. And deep in her
heart the sense of hurt and humiliation grew and spread; the thought
that she was not of the charmed circle of the Melroses, not secretly and
romantically akin to them, she was merely the casual object of the old
lady's fantastic sense of obligation. Aunt Kate, who had never said what
was untrue--who, Norma and her children firmly believed, could not say
what was untrue--had taken away, once and for all, the veil of mystery
and romance that had wrapped Norma for three exciting years.

For Leslie, and Katrina, and Mary Bishop, perhaps, travel and the thrill
of foreign shores or European courts. But for Wolf Sheridan's wife, this
small, orderly, charming house on the edge of the New Jersey woods, and
the laundry to think of every Monday, and the two-days' ordering to
remember every Saturday, as long as the world went round!

For a few days Norma really suffered in spirit, then the natural healthy
current of her life reëstablished itself, and she philosophically
determined to make the best of the matter. If she was not Aunt Annie's
daughter and Leslie's cousin, she was at least their friend. They--even
unsuspecting of any strange relationship--had always been kind to her.
And Aunt Marianna and Aunt Alice had been definitely affectionate, to
say nothing of Chris!

So one day, when she happened to be shopping in the winter briskness of
the packed and brilliant Avenue, she telephoned Leslie at about the
luncheon hour. Leslie when last they met had said that she would
confidently expect Norma to run out and lunch with her some day--any
day.

"Who is it?" Leslie's voice asked, irritably, when at last the telephone
connection was established. "Oh, _Norma_! Oh----? What is it?"

"Just wondering how you all were, and what the family news is," Norma
said, with an uncomfortable inclination to falter.

"I don't _hear_ you!" Leslie protested, impatiently. The insignificant
inquiry did not seem to gain much by repetition, and Norma's cheeks
burned in shame when Leslie followed it by a blank little pause.
"Oh--everyone's fine. The baby wasn't well, but she's all right now."

Another slight pause, then Norma said:

"She must be adorable--I'd like to see her."

"She's not here now," Leslie answered, quickly.

"I've been shopping," Norma said. "Any chance that you could come down
town and lunch with me?"

"No, I really couldn't, to-day!" Leslie answered, lightly and promptly.

A moment later Norma said good-bye. She walked away from the telephone
booth with her face burning, and her heart beating quickly with anger
and resentment.

"Snob--snob--snob!" she said to herself, furiously, of Leslie. And of
herself she presently added honestly, "And I wasn't much better, for I
don't really like her any more than she does me!" And she stopped for
flowers, and a little box of pastry, and went out to delight her Aunt
Kate's heart with an unexpected visit.

But a sting remained, and Norma brooded over the injustice of life, as
she went about her little house in the wintry sunlight, and listened to
Wolf, and made much of Rose and the new baby girl. By Thanksgiving it
seemed to her that she had only dreamed of "Aïda" and of Newport, and
that the Norma of the wonderful frocks and the wonderful dreams had been
only a dream herself.



CHAPTER XXVIII


And then suddenly she was delighted to have a friendly little note from
Alice, asking her to come to luncheon on a certain December Friday, as
there was "a tiny bit of business" that she would like to discuss; Chris
was away, she would be alone. Norma accepted with no more than ordinary
politeness, and showed neither Wolf nor his mother any elation, but she
felt a deep satisfaction in the renewed relationship.

On the appointed Friday, at one o'clock, she mounted the familiar steps
of the Christopher Liggetts' house, and greeted the butler with a
delighted sense of returning to her own. Alice was in the front room,
before a wood fire; she greeted Norma with her old smile, and with an
outstretched hand, but Norma was shocked to see how drawn and strangely
aged the smile was, and how thin the hand!

The room had its old scent of violets, and its old ordered beauty and
richness, but Norma was vaguely conscious, for the first time, of some
new invalid quality of fussiness, of a pretty and superfluous cluttering
that had not been characteristic of Alice's belongings a year ago.
Alice, too, wore newly a certain stamp of frailty, her always pure high
forehead had a faint transparency and shine that Norma did not remember,
and the increasing accumulation of pillows and little bookcases and
handsome stands about her suggested that her horizon was closing in,
that her world was diminishing to this room, and this room alone.

The strange nurse who smilingly and noiselessly slipped away as Norma
came in, was another vaguely disquieting hint of helplessness, but Norma
knew better than to make any comment upon her impressions, and merely
asked the usual casual questions, as she sat down near the couch.

"How are you, Aunt Alice? But you look splendidly!"

"I'm so _well_," said Alice, emphatically, with a sort of solemn
thankfulness, "that I don't know myself! Whether it was saving myself
the strain of moving to Newport last summer, or what, I don't know. But
I haven't been so well for _years_!"

Norma's heart contracted with sudden pity. Alice had never employed
these gallant falsehoods before. She had always been quite obviously
happy and busy and even enviable, in her limited sphere. The girl
chatted away with her naturally enough while the luncheon table was
arranged between them and the fire, but she noticed that two nurses
shifted the invalid into an upright position before the meal, and that
Alice's face was white with exhaustion as she began to sip her bouillon.

They were alone, an hour later, playing with little boxed ices, when
Alice suddenly revealed the object of the meeting. Norma had asked for
Chris, who was, it appeared, absent on some matter of business for a few
days, and it was in connection with the introduction of his name that
Alice spoke.

"Chris--that reminds me! I wanted to speak to you about something,
Norma; I've wanted to for months, really. It's not really important,
because of course you never would mention it any more than I would, and
yet it's just as well to have this sort of thing straightened out!
Chris told me"--said Alice, looking straight at Norma, who had grown a
trifle pale, and was watching her fixedly--"Chris told me that some
months before you were married, he told you of some--some ridiculous
suspicions we had--it seems absurd now!--about Annie."

So that was it! Norma could breathe again.

"Yes--we talked about it one morning walking home from church," she
admitted.

"I don't know whether you know now," Alice said, quickly, flushing
nervously, "that there wasn't one shred of foundation for that--that
crazy suspicion of mine! But I give you my word--and my mother told
me!--that it wasn't so. I don't know how I ever came to think of it, or
why I thought Mama admitted it. But I've realized," said Alice,
nervously, "that it was a terrible injustice to Annie, and as soon as
Chris told me that you knew it--and of course he had _no business_ to
let it get any further!--I wanted to set it straight. Poor Annie; she
would be perfectly frantic if she knew how calmly I was saddling her
with a--a terrible past!" said Alice, laughing. "But I have always been
too sensitive where the people I love are concerned, and I blundered
into this--this outrageous----"

"My aunt had told me that it was not so," Norma said, coolly and
superbly interrupting the somewhat incoherent story. "If I ever really
believed it----!" she added, scornfully.

For her heart was hot with rage, and the first impulse was to vent it
upon this nearest of the supercilious Melroses. This was all Alice had
wanted then, in sending that little overture of friendship: to tell the
little nobody that she was nothing to the great family, after all, to
prevent her from ever boasting even an illicit relationship! It was for
a formal snub, a definite casting-off, that Norma had been brought all
the way from the little green-and-white house in New Jersey! Her eyes
grew very bright, and her lips very firm, as she and Alice finished the
topic, and she told herself that she would never, never enter the house
of Liggett again!

Alice, this load off her mind, and the family honour secure, became much
more friendly, and she and Norma were talking animatedly when Leslie and
Annie came unexpectedly in. They had been to a débutante luncheon, and
were going to a débutante tea, and meanwhile wanted a few minutes with
dear Alice, and the latest news of Mrs. Melrose, who was in Florida.

Aunt and niece were magnificently furred and jewelled, magnificently
unaware of the existence of little Mrs. Sheridan of East Orange. Norma
knew in a second that the social ripples had closed over her head; she
was of no further possible significance in the life of either. Leslie
was pretty, bored, ill-tempered; Annie her usual stunning and radiantly
satisfied self. The conversation speedily left Norma stranded, the
chatter of engagements, of scandals, of new names, was all strange to
her, and she sat through some ten minutes of it uncomfortably, longing
to go, and not quite knowing how to start. She said to herself that she
was done with the Melroses; never--never--never again would even their
most fervently extended favour win from her so much as a civil
acknowledgment!

There was a step in the hall, and a voice that drove the blood from
Norma's face, and made her heart begin the old frantic fluttering and
thumping. Before she could attempt to collect her thoughts, the door
opened, and Chris came in. He came straight to Alice, and kissed her,
holding her hand as he greeted Annie and Leslie. Then he came across the
hearthrug, and Norma got to her feet, and felt that his hand was as cold
as hers, and that the room was rocking about her.

"Hello, Norma!" he said, quietly. "I didn't expect to find you here!"

"You haven't seen her since she was married, Chris," Alice said, and
Chris agreed with a pleasant "That's so!"

He sat down, and Norma, incapable of any effort, at least until she
could control the emotion that was shaking her like a vertigo, sank back
into her own chair, unseeing and unhearing. The gold clock on the mantel
ticked and tocked, the other three women chatted and laughed, and Chris
contributed his share to the general conversation. But Norma's one
desperate need was for escape.

He made no protest when she said hasty farewells, but when she had gone
rapidly and almost blindly down the stairway, and was at the front door,
she found him beside her. He got into his fur-collared coat, picked up
his hat, and they descended to the sidewalk together, in the colourless,
airless, sunless light of the winter afternoon.

"Get in my car!" Chris said, indicating the roadster at the curb.

The girl without a word obeyed. His voice, the motion of his clean-cut
mouth, the searching glance of his quick, keen eyes, acted upon her like
a charm. Alice--Wolf--every thing else in the world vanished from her
thoughts, or rather had never been there. She was drinking again the
forbidden waters for which she had thirsted, perhaps without quite
knowing it, so long. The strangeness, the strain, the artifice of the
last eight months fell from her like a spell; she was herself again,
comfortable again, poised again, thrilling from head to heels with
delicious and bubbling life--ready for anything!

Now that they were alone she felt no more nervousness; he would speak to
her when he was ready, he could not leave her without speaking. Norma
settled back comfortably in the deep, low seat, and glanced sidewise at
the stern profile that showed between his high fur collar and the fur
cap he had pulled well down over his ears. The world seemed changed to
her; she had wakened from a long dream.

"No--not the old house!" she presently broke the silence to tell him. "I
go to New Jersey."

He had been driving slowly out Fifth Avenue, now he obediently turned,
and threaded his way through the cross-street traffic until they were
within perhaps a hundred feet of the entrance to the New Jersey subways.
Then he ran the car close to the curb, and stopped, and for the first
time looked fully at Norma, and she saw his old, pleasant smile.

"Well, and how goes it?" he asked. "How is Wolf? Tell me where you are
living, and all about it!"

Norma in answer gave him a report upon her own affairs, and spoke of
Aunt Kate and Rose and Rose's children. She did not realize that a tone
almost pleading, almost apologetic, crept into her eager voice while she
spoke, and told its own story. Chris watched her closely, his eyes never
leaving her face. All around them moved the confusion and congestion of
Sixth Avenue; overhead the elevated road roared and crashed, but
neither man nor woman was more than vaguely conscious of surroundings.

"And are you happy, Norma?" Chris asked.

"Oh, yes!" she answered, quickly.

"You are a very game little liar," he said, dispassionately. "No--no,
I'm not blaming you!" he added, hastily, as she would have spoken. "You
took the very best way out, and I respect and honour you for it! I was
not surprised--although the possibility had never occurred to me."

Something in his cool, almost lifeless tone, chilled her, and she did
not speak.

"When I heard of it," Chris said, "I went to Canada. I don't remember
the details exactly, but I remember one day sitting up there--in the
woods somewhere, and looking at my hunting knife, and looking at my
wrist----"

He looked at his wrist now, and her eyes followed his.

"--and if I had thought," Chris presently continued, "that a slash there
might have carried me to some region of peace--where there was no hunger
for Norma--I would not have hesitated! But one isn't sure--more's the
pity!" he finished, smiling with eyes full of pain.

Norma could not speak. The work of long months had been undone in a
short hour, and she was conscious of a world that crashed and tumbled in
utter ruin about her.

"Well, no use now," Chris said. He folded his arms on his chest, and
looked sternly away into space for a minute, and Norma felt his
self-control, his repression, as she would have felt no passionate
outburst of reproach. "But there is one thing that I've wanted for a
long time to tell you, Norma. If you hadn't been such a little girl, if
you had known what life is, you could not have done what you did!"

"I suppose not," she half-whispered, with a dry throat, as he waited for
some sign from her.

"No, you couldn't have given yourself to any one else--if you had
known," Chris went on, as if musing aloud. "And that brings me to what I
want to say. Marriage lasts a long, long time, Norma, and even you--with
all your courage!--may find that you've promised more than you can
perform! The time may come----

"Norma, I hope it won't!" he interrupted himself to say, bitterly. "I
try to hope it won't! I try to hope that you will come to love him, my
dear, and forget me! But if that time does come, what I want you to
remember is this afternoon, and sitting here with me in the car, and
Chris telling you that whenever--or wherever--or however he can serve
you, you are to remember that he is living just for that hour! There
will never be any change in me, Norma, never anything but longing and
longing just for the sight of you, just for one word from you! I love
you, my dear--I can't help it. God knows I've _tried_ to help it. I love
you as I don't believe any other woman in the world was ever loved! So
much that I want life to be good to you, even if I never see you, and I
want you to be happy, even without me!"

He had squared about to face her, and as the passionate rush of words
swept about her, Norma laid her little gloved hand gently upon his big
one, and her blue eyes, drowned in sudden tears, fixed themselves in
exquisite desolation and despair upon his face.

Once or twice she had whispered "I know--I know!" as if to herself, but
she did not interrupt him, and when he paused he saw that she was choked
with tears, and could not speak.

"The mad and wonderful sacrifice you made I can't talk about, Norma," he
said. "Only an ignorant, noble-hearted little girl like you could have
done that! But that's all over, now. You must try to make your life what
they think it is--those good people that love you! And I'll try, too!--I
do try. And you mustn't cry, my little sweetheart," Chris added, with a
tenderness so new, and so poignantly sweet, that Norma was almost faint
with the sheer joy of it, "you mustn't blame me for just saying this,
this once, because it's for the last time! We mustn't meet----" His
voice dropped. "I think we mustn't meet," he repeated, painfully and
slowly.

"No!" she agreed, quickly.

"But you are to remember that," Chris reiterated, "that I am living, and
moving about, and going to the office, and back to my home, only because
you are alive in the world, and the day may come when I can serve you!
Life has been only that to me, for a long, long time!"

For a long minute Norma sat silent, her dark lashes fallen on her cheek,
her eyes on the hand that she had grasped in her own.

"I'll remember, Chris! Thank you, Chris!" she said, simply. Then she
raised her eyes and looked straight at him, with a childish little
frown, puzzled and bewildered, on her forehead, and they exchanged a
long look of good-bye. Chris raised her hand to his lips, and Norma very
quietly slipped from her seat, and turned once to smile bravely at him
before she was lost in the swiftly moving whirlpool of the subway
entrance. She was trembling as she seated herself in the train, and
moved upon her way scarcely conscious of what she was doing.

But Chris did not move from his seat for more than an hour.

Norma went home, and quickly and deftly began her preparations for
dinner. Inga had been married a few weeks before, and so Norma had no
maid. She put her new hat into its tissue paper, and tied a fresh
checked apron over her filmy best waist, and stepped to and fro between
stove and dining table, as efficient a little housekeeper as all New
Jersey could show.

Wolf came home hungry and good-natured, and kissed her, and sat at the
end of her little kitchen table while she put the last touches to the
meal, appreciative and amusing, a new magazine for her in the pocket of
his overcoat, an invitation from his mother for dinner to-morrow night,
and a pleasant suggestion that he and she wander up Broadway again and
look in windows, after his mother's dinner.

They talked, while they dined, of the possibility of the California
move, and Wolf afterward went down to the furnace. When the fire was
banked for the night, he watched the last of the dinner clearance, and
they went across the cold dark strip of land between their house and a
neighbour's, to play three exciting rubbers of bridge.

And at eleven Wolf was asleep, and Norma reading again, or trying to
read. But her blood was racing, and her head was spinning, and before
she slept she brought out all her memories of the afternoon. Chris's
words rang in her heart again, and the glances that had accompanied
them unrolled before her eyes like some long pageant that was infinitely
wonderful and thrilling. Leslie and Annie and Alice might snub her, but
Chris--their idol, the cleverest and most charming man in all their
circle!--Chris loved her. Chris loved her. And--from those old dreamy
days in Biretta's Bookstore, had she not loved Chris?

Another morning came, another night, and life went its usual way. But
Norma was wrapped in a dream that was truly a pillar of cloud by day,
and of flame by night. She was hardly aware of the people about her,
except that her inner consciousness of happiness and of elation gave her
an even added sweetness and charm, made her readier to please them, and
more anxious for their love.

Wolf almost immediately saw the change, but she did not see the shadow
that came to be habitual in his young face, nor read aright his grave
eyes. She supposed him perhaps unusually busy, if indeed she thought of
him at all. Like her aunt, and Rose, and the rest of her world, he was
no more now than a kindly and dependable shadow, something to be quickly
put aside for the reality of her absorbing friendship for Chris.



CHAPTER XXIX


Despite their resolve not to see each other in the two weeks that
followed Alice's luncheon, Norma had seen Chris three times. He had
written her on the third day, and she had met the postman at the corner,
sure that the big square envelope would be there. They had had luncheon,
far down town, and walked up through the snowy streets together, parting
with an engagement for the fourth day ahead, a matinée and tea
engagement. The third meeting had been for luncheon again, and after
lunch they had wandered through an Avenue gallery, looking at the
pictures, and talking about themselves.

Chris had loaned her books, little slim books of dramas or essays, and
Chris had talked to her of plays and music. One night, when Wolf was in
Philadelphia, Chris took her to the opera again, duly returning her to
Aunt Kate at half-past eleven, and politely disclaiming Aunt Kate's
gratitude for his goodness to little Norma.

He never attempted to touch her, to kiss her; he never permitted himself
an affectionate term, or a hint of the passion that enveloped him; they
were friends, that was all, and surely, surely, they told themselves, a
self-respecting man and woman may be friends--may talk and walk and
lunch together, and harm no one? Norma knew that it was the one vital
element in Chris's life, as in her own, and that the hours that he did
not spend with her were filled with plans and anticipations for their
times together.

One evening, just before Christmas, when the young Sheridans were
staying through a heavy storm with their mother, Wolf came home with the
news that he must spend some weeks in Philadelphia, studying a new
method of refining iron ore. It was tacitly understood that this
transfer was but a preliminary to the long-anticipated promotion to the
California managership, but Wolf took it very quietly, with none of the
exultation that the compliment once would have caused him.

"I'll go with you to Philadelphia," Norma said, not quite naturally. She
had been made vaguely uneasy by his repressed manner, and by the fact
that her kiss of greeting had been almost put aside by him, at the door,
a few minutes earlier. Dear old Wolf; she had always loved him--she
would not have him unhappy for all the world!

In answer he looked at her unsmilingly, wearily narrowing his eyes as if
to concentrate his thoughts.

"You can't, very well, but thank you just the same, Norma," he said,
formally. "I shall be with Voorhies and Palmer and Bender all the time;
they put me up at a club, and there'll be plenty of evening work--nearly
every evening----"

"Norma'll stay here with me!" Aunt Kate said, hospitably.

"Well"--Wolf agreed, indifferently--"I can run up from Philadelphia and
be home every Saturday, Mother," he added. Norma felt vaguely alarmed by
his manner, and devoted her best efforts to amusing and interesting him
for the rest of the meal. After dinner she came in from the kitchen to
find him in a big chair in the little front parlour, and she seated
herself upon an arm of it, and put her own arm loosely about his neck.

"What are you reading, Wolf? Shall we go out and burn up Broadway?
There's a wonderful picture at The Favourite."

He tossed his paper aside, and moved from under her, so that Norma found
herself ensconced in the chair, and her husband facing her from the rug
that was before the little gas log.

"Where's Mother?"

"Gone downstairs to see how the Noon baby is."

"Norma," said Wolf, without preamble, "did you see Chris Liggett
to-day?"

Her colour flamed high, but her eyes did not waver.

"Yes. We met at Sherry's. We had lunch together."

"You didn't meet by accident?" There was desperate hope in Wolf's voice.
But Norma would not lie. With her simple negative her head drooped, and
she looked at her locked fingers in silence.

Wolf was silent, too, for a long minute. Then he cleared his throat, and
spoke quietly and sensibly.

"I've been a long time waking up, Nono," he said. "I'm sorry! Of course
I knew that there was a difference; I knew that you--felt differently.
And I guessed that it was Chris. Norma, do you--do you still like him?"

She looked up wretchedly, nodding her head.

"More"--he began, and stopped--"more than you do me?" he asked. And in
the silence he added suddenly: "Norma, I thought we were so happy!"

Then the tears came.

"Wolf, I'll never love any one more than I do you!" the girl said,
passionately. "You've always been an angel to me--always the best friend
I ever had. I know you--I know what you are to Rose, Aunt Kate, and what
the men at the factory think of you. I'm not fit to tie your shoes! I'm
wicked, and selfish, and--and everything I oughtn't to be! But I can't
help it. I've wanted you to know--all there was to know. I've met him,
and we've talked and walked together; that's all. And that's all we
want--just to be friends. I'm sorry----" Her voice trailed off on a sob.
"I'm awfully sorry!" she said.

"Yes," Wolf said, slowly, after a pause, "I'm sorry, too!"

He sat down, rumpling his hair, frowning. Norma, watching him fearfully,
noticed that he was very pale.

"I thought we were so happy," he said again, simply.

"Ah, Wolf, don't think I've been fooling all this summer!" his wife
pleaded, her eyes filling afresh. "I've loved it all--the peach
ice-cream, and the picnics, and everything. But--but people can't help
this sort of thing, can they? It does happen, and--and they just simply
have to make the best of it, don't they? If--if we go to California next
month--you know that I'll do everything I can----!"

He was not listening to her.

"Norma," he interrupted, sharply, "if Liggett's wife was out of the
way--would you want to marry him?"

"Wolf!--what's the use of asking that? You only--you only excite us
both. Aunt Alice _isn't_ out of the way, and even if she were, I am your
wife. I'm sorry. I'll never meet him again--I haven't been a bit happy
about it. I'll promise you that I will not see him again."

"I don't ask you for that promise," Wolf said. "I don't know what we can
do! I never should have let you--I shouldn't have been such a fool as
to--but somehow, I'd always dreamed that you and I would marry.
Well!"--he interrupted his musing with resolute cheerfulness--"I've got
to get over to the library to-night," he said, "for I may have to start
for Phily to-morrow afternoon. Will you tell Mother----"

Norma immediately protested that she was going with him, but he
patiently declined, kissing her in a matter-of-fact sort of way as he
pulled on the old overcoat and the new gloves, and slamming the hall
door behind him when he went.

For a minute she stood looking after him, with a great heartache almost
blinding her. Then she flashed to her room, and before Wolf had reached
the corner his wife had slipped her hand into his arm, and her little
double step was keeping pace with his long stride in the way they both
loved.

She talked to him in her usual manner, and presently he could answer
normally, and they bought peppermints to soften their literary labours.
In the big library Wolf was instantly absorbed, but for awhile Norma sat
watching the shabby, interested, intelligent men and women who came and
went, the shabby books that crossed the counters, the pretty, efficient
desk-clerks under their green droplights. The radiators clanked and
hissed softly in the intervals of silence, sometimes there was
whispering at the shelves, or one of the attendants spoke in a low tone.

Norma loved the atmosphere, so typical a phase of the great city's
life. After awhile she idly dragged toward her three books, from a
table, and idly dipped into them: "The Life of the Grimkés"; "The Life
of Elizabeth Prentiss"; "The Letters of Charles Dickens."

Nine struck; ten; eleven. Wolf had some six or seven large books about
him, and alternated his plunges into them with animated whispered
conversations with a silver-headed old man, two hours ago an utter
stranger, but always henceforth to be affectionately quoted by Wolf as a
friend.

They indulged in the extravagance of a taxi-cab for the home trip. Norma
left Wolf still reading, after winning from him a kiss and a promise not
to "worry", and went to bed and to sleep. When she wakened, after some
nine delicious hours, he was gone; gone to Philadelphia, as it proved.

Breakfasting at ten o'clock, in a flood of sweet winter sunshine, she
put a brave face on the matter. She told herself that it was better that
Wolf should know, and only the part of true kindness not to deny what,
for good or ill, was true. The memory of his grave and troubled face
distressed her, but she reminded herself that he would be back on
Saturday, and then he would have forgiven her. She would see Chris
to-day, to-morrow, and the day after, and by that time they would have
said everything that there was to say, and they would never see each
other again.

For it was a favourite hallucination of theirs that every meeting was to
be the last. Not, said Chris, that there was any harm in it, but it was
wiser not to see each other. And when Norma, glowing under his eyes,
would echo this feeling, he praised her for her courage as if they had
resisted the temptation already.

"I've thought it all over, Chris," she would say, "and I know that the
wisest way is to stop. And you must help me." And when Chris answered,
"Norma, I don't see where you get that marvellous courage of yours," it
did not occur to Norma to question in what way she was showing courage
at all. She lived upon his praise, and could not have enough of it. He
never tired of telling her that she was beautiful, good, brave, a
constant inspiration, and far above the ordinary type of woman; and
Norma believed him.

On the day before Wolf's first week-end return from Philadelphia, Chris
was very grave. When he and Norma were halfway through their luncheon,
in the quiet angle of an old-fashioned restaurant, he told her why.
Alice was failing. Specialists had told him that England was out of the
question. She might live a year, but the probability was against it.
They--he and Norma--Chris said, must consider this, now.

Norma considered it with a paling face. It--it couldn't make any
difference, she said, quickly and nervously.

And then, for the first time, he talked to her of her responsibility in
the matter, of what their love meant to them both. Wolf had his claim,
true; but what was truly the generous thing for a woman to do toward a
man she did not love? Wasn't a year or two of hurt feelings, even anger
and resentment, better than a loveless marriage that might last fifty
years?

This was a terrible problem, and Norma did not know what to think. On
the one hand was the certainty of that higher life from which she had
been exiled since her marriage: the music, the art, the letters, the
cultivated voices and fragrant rooms, the wealth and luxury, the
devotion of this remarkable and charming man, whose simple friendship
had been beyond her dreams a few years ago. On the other side was the
painful and indeed shameful desertion of Wolf, the rupture with Aunt
Kate and Rose, and the undying sense in her own soul of an unworthy
action.

But Rose was absorbed in Harry and the children, and Aunt Kate would
surely go with Wolf to California, three thousand miles away----

"I am not brave enough!" she whispered.

"You _are_ brave enough," Chris answered, quickly. "Tell him the
truth--as you did on your wedding day. Tell him you acted on a mad
impulse, and that you are sorry. A few days' discomfort, and you are
free, and one week of happiness will blot out the whole wretched memory
for ever."

"It is not wretchedness, Chris," she corrected, with a rueful smile. But
she did not contradict him, and before they parted she promised him that
she would not go to California without at least telling Wolf how she
felt about it.

Rose and Harry joined them for the Saturday night reunion. Norma thought
that Wolf seemed moody, and was unresponsive to her generous welcome,
and she was conscious of watching him somewhat apprehensively as the
evening wore on. But it was Sunday afternoon before the storm broke.

Wolf was at church when Norma wakened, and as she dressed she meditated
a trifle uneasily over this departure from their usual comfortable
Sunday morning habit. She breakfasted alone, Wolf and his mother coming
in for their belated coffee just as Norma, prettily coated and hatted
and furred, was leaving the house for the ten-o'clock Mass. They did
not meet again until luncheon, and as Wolf had explained that he must
leave at four o'clock for Philadelphia, Norma began to think that this
particular visit would end without any definite unpleasantness.

However, at about three o'clock, he invited her to walk with him to the
station, and join his mother later, at Rose's house, in New Jersey, and
Norma dared not refuse. They locked the apartment, and walked slowly
down Broadway, as they had walked so many thousand times before, in the
streaming Sunday crowds. Before they had gone a block Wolf opened
hostilities by asking abruptly:

"Where did you go to church this morning?"

Norma flushed, and laughed a little.

"I went down to the Cathedral; I'm fond of it, you know. Why?"

"Did you meet Chris Liggett?" Wolf asked.

"Yes--I did, Wolf. He goes to the church near there, now and then."

"When you telephone him to," Wolf said, grimly.

Norma began to feel frightened. She had never heard this tone from Wolf
before.

"I did telephone him, as a matter of fact--or rather he happened to
telephone me, and I said I was going there. Is there anything so
horrifying in that?" she asked.

"Just after you went out, the telephone operator asked me if the Murray
Hill number had gotten us," Wolf answered; "that's how I happen to
know."

Norma was angry, ashamed, and afraid, all at once. For twenty feet they
walked in silence. She stole more than one anxious look at her
companion; Wolf's face was set like flint. He was buttoned into the
familiar old overcoat, a tall, brown, clean-shaven, and just now
scowling young man of the accepted American type, firm of jaw, keen of
eye, and with a somewhat homely bluntness of feature preventing him from
being describable as handsome, or with at best a rough, hard, open-eyed
sort of handsomeness that was as unconscious of itself as the beauty of
a young animal.

"Wolf, don't be cross," his wife pleaded, in illogical coaxing.

"I'm not cross," he said, with an annoyed glance that humiliated and
angered her. "But I don't like this sort of thing, Norma, and I should
think you'd know why."

"What sort of thing?" Norma countered, quickly.

"The sort of thing that evidently Mr. Christopher Liggett thinks is fair
play!" Wolf said, with youthful bitterness. "Harry saw you both walking
up Fifth Avenue yesterday, and Joe Anderson happened to mention that you
and a man were lunching together on Thursday, down at the Lafayette.
There may be no harm in it----"

"There _may_ be!" Norma echoed, firing. "You know very well there
_isn't_!"

"You see him every day," Wolf said.

"I _don't_ see him every day! But if I did, it wouldn't be Harry
Redding's and Joe Anderson's business!"

"No," Wolf said, more mildly, "but it might be mine!"

Norma realized that he was softening under her distress, and she changed
her tone.

"Wolf, you know that you can trust me!" she said.

"But I don't know anything about him!" Wolf reminded her. "I know that
he's twice your age----"

"He's thirty-eight!"

"Thirty-eight, then--and I know that he's a loafer--a rich man who has
nothing else to do but run around with women----"

"I want to ask you to stop talking about something of which you are
entirely ignorant!" Norma interrupted, hotly.

"You're the one that's ignorant, Norma," Wolf said, stubbornly, not
looking at her. "You are only a little girl; you think it's great fun to
be married to one man, and flirting with another! What makes me sick is
that a man like Liggett thinks he can get away with it, and you
women----"

"If you say that again, I'll not walk with you!" Norma burst in
furiously.

"Does it ever occur to you," Wolf asked, equally roused, "that you are
my wife?"

"Yes!" Norma answered, breathlessly. "Yes--it does! And why? Because I
was afraid I was beginning to care too much for Chris Liggett--because I
knew he loved me, he had told me so!--and I went to you because I wanted
to be safe--and I told you so, too, Wolf Sheridan, the very day that we
were married! I never lied to you! I told you I loved Chris, that I
always had! And if you'd been _civil_ to me," rushed on Norma, beginning
to feel tears mastering her, "if you'd been _decent_ to me, I would have
gotten over it. I would never have seen him again anyway, after this
week, for I told him this morning that I didn't want to go on meeting
him--that it wasn't fair to you! But no, you don't trust me and you
don't believe me, and consequently--consequently, I don't care what I
do, and I'll make you sorry----"

"Don't talk so wildly, Norma," Wolf warned her, in a tone suddenly quiet
and sad. "Please don't--people will notice you!"

"I don't care if they do!" Norma said. But she glanced about deserted
Eighth Avenue uneasily none the less, and furtively dried her eyes upon
a flimsy little transparent handkerchief that somehow tore at her
husband's heart. "If you had been a little patient, Wolf----" she
pleaded, reproachfully.

"There are times when a man hasn't much use for patience, Norma," Wolf
said, still with strange gentleness. "You _did_ tell me of liking
Liggett--but I thought--I hoped, I guess----!" He paused, and then went
on with sudden fierceness: "He's married, Norma, and you're married--I
wish there was some way of letting you out of it, as far as I am
concerned! Of course you don't have to go to California with me--if that
helps. You can get your freedom, easily enough, after awhile. But as
long as he's tied, it doesn't seem to me that he has any business----"

His gentle tone disarmed her, and she took up Chris's defence eagerly.

"Wolf, don't you believe there is such a thing as love? Just that two
people find out that they belong to each other--whether it's right or
wrong, or possible or impossible--and that it may last for ever?"

"No," said Wolf, harshly, "I don't believe it! He's married--doesn't he
love his wife?"

"Well, of course he loves her! But this is the first time in all his
life that he has--cared--this way!" Norma said.

Wolf made no answer, and she felt that she had scored. They were in the
station now, and weaving their way down toward the big concourse. Norma
took her husband's arm.

"Please--please--don't make scenes, Wolf! If you will just believe me
that I wouldn't--truly I wouldn't!--hurt you and Aunt Kate for all the
world----"

"Ah, Norma," he said, quickly, "I can't take my wife on those terms!"
And turning from the ticket window he added, sensibly: "Liggett is tied,
of course. But would you like me to leave you here when I go West? Until
you are surer of yourself--one way or another? You only have to say so!"

She only had to say so. He had reached, of his own accord, the very
point to which she long had hoped to bring him. But perversely, Norma
did not quite like to have Wolf go off to Philadelphia with this
unpalatable affirmative ringing in his ears. She looked down. A moment's
courage now, and she would win everything--and more than everything!--to
which Chris had ever urged her. But she felt oddly sad and even hurt by
his willingness to give her her way.

"All right!" he said, hastily. "That's understood. I'll tell Mother I
don't want you to follow, for awhile. Good-bye, Norma! You're taking the
next tube? Wait a minute--I want a _Post_----"

Was he trying to show her how mean he could be? she thought, as with a
heartache, and a confused sense of wrong and distress, she slowly went
upon her way. Of course that parting was just bravado, of course he felt
more than that! She resented it--she thought he had been unnecessarily
unkind----

But her spirits slowly settled themselves. Wolf knew what she felt, now,
and they had really parted without bitterness. A pleasant sense of being
her own mistress crept over her, her cheeks cooled, her fluttering
heart came back to its normal beat. She began to hear herself telling
Chris how courageous she had been.

It was too bad--it was one of the sad things of life. But after all,
love was love, in spite of Wolf's scepticism, and if it soothed Wolf to
be rude, let him have that consolation! What did a little pain more or
less signify now? There was no going back. Years from now Wolf would
forgive her, recognizing that great love was its own excuse for being.
"And if this sort of thing exists only to be crushed and killed," Norma
wrote Chris a few days later, "then half the great pictures, the great
novels, the great poems and dramas, the great operas, are lies. But you
and I know that they are not lies!"

She was unhappy at home, for Aunt Kate was grave and silent, Rose
wrapped in the all-absorbing question of the tiny Catherine's meals, and
Wolf neither came nor wrote on Saturday night. But in Chris's devotion
she was feverishly and breathlessly happy, their meetings--always in
public places, and without a visible evidence of their emotion--were
hours of the most stimulating delight.



CHAPTER XXX


So matters went on for another ten days. Then suddenly, on a mid-week
afternoon, Norma, walking home from a luncheon in a wild and stormy
wind, was amazed to see the familiar, low-slung roadster waiting outside
her aunt's door when she reached the steps. Chris jumped out and came to
meet her as she looked bewilderedly toward it, a Chris curiously
different in manner from the man she had left only an hour ago.

"Norma!" he said, quickly, "I found a message when I got to the office.
I was to call up Aunt Marianna's house at once. She's ill--_very_ ill.
They want me, and they want you!"

"Me?" she echoed, blankly. "What for?"

"She's had a stroke," he said, still with that urgent and hurried air,
"and Joseph--poor old fellow, he was completely broken up--said that she
had been begging them to get hold of you!"

Norma had gotten into the familiar front seat, but now she stayed him
with a quick hand.

"Wait a minute, Chris, I'll run up and tell Aunt Kate where I am going!"
she said.

"She's gone out. There's nobody there!" he assured her, glancing up at
the apartment windows. "I knew you would be coming in, so I waited."

"Then I'll telephone!" the girl said, settling herself again. "But what
do you suppose she wants me for?" she asked, returning to the subject of
the summons. "Have they--will they--send for Aunt Annie and Leslie, do
you suppose?"

"Leslie is in Florida with the Binneys, most unfortunately. Annie was in
Baltimore yesterday, but I believe she was expected home to-day. Joseph
said he had gotten hold of Hendrick von Behrens, and I told my clerk to
get Acton, and to warn Miss Slater that Alice isn't to be frightened."

"But, Chris--do you suppose she is dying?"

"I don't know--one never does, of course, with paralysis."

"Poor Aunt Alice--it will almost kill her!"

"Yes, it will be terribly hard for her, harder than for any one," he
answered. And Norma loved him for the grave sympathy that filled his
voice, and for the poise that could make such a speech possible, under
the circumstances, without ever a side glance for her.

Then they reached the old house, ran up the steps, and were in the great
dark hallway that already seemed to be filled with the shadow of change.

Whispering, solemn-faced maids went to and fro; Joseph was red-eyed; the
heavy fur coats of two doctors were flung upon chairs. Norma slipped
from her own coat.

"How is she, Joseph?"

"I hardly know, Miss. You're to go up, please, and Regina was to tell
one of the nurses at once that you had come, Miss." He delivered his
message impassively enough, but then the human note must break through.
"I've been with her since she was married, Miss--nigh forty years," the
old man faltered, "and I'm afraid she is very bad--very bad, indeed!"

"Oh, I _hope_ not!" Norma went noiselessly upstairs, Chris close behind
her. Did she hope not? She hardly knew. But she knew that all this was
strangely thrilling--this rush through the tossing windy afternoon to
the old house, this sense of being a part of the emergency, this utter
departure from the tedious routine of life.

A serious-faced nurse took charge of them, and she and Chris followed
her noiselessly into the familiar bedroom that yet looked so altered in
its new lifeless order and emptiness. The clutter of personal
possessions was already gone, chairs had been straightened and pushed
back, and on the bed that had lately been frilled and embroidered in
white and pink, and piled with foolish little transparent baby pillows,
a fresh, flawless linen sheet was spread. Silence reigned in the wide
chamber; but two doctors were standing by the window, and looked at the
newcomers with interest, and a second nurse passed them on her way out.
Norma vaguely noted the fire, burning clear and bright, the shaded light
that showed a chart, on a cleared table, the absence of flowers and
plants that made the place seem bare. But after one general impression
her attention was riveted upon the sick woman, and with her heart
beating quickly with fright she went to stand at the foot of the great
walnut bed.

Mrs. Melrose was lying with her head tipped back in pillows; her usually
gentle, soft old face looked hard and lined, and was a dark red, and the
scanty gray hair, brushed back mercilessly from the temples, and devoid
of the usual puffs and transformations, made her look her full sixty
years. Her eyes were half-open, but she did not move them, her lips
seemed very dry, and occasionally she muttered restlessly, and a third
nurse, bending above her, leaned anxiously near, to catch what she
said, and perhaps murmur a soothing response.

This nurse looked sharply at Norma, and breathed rather than whispered:
"Mrs. Sheridan?" and when Norma answered with a nod, nodded herself in
satisfaction.

"She's been asking and asking for you," she said, in a low clear tone
that oddly broke the unnatural silence of the room. Norma, hearing a
stir behind her, looked back to see that both doctors had come over to
the bed, and were looking down at their patient with a profound concern
that their gray heads and their big spectacles oddly emphasized.

"Mrs. Sheridan?" one of them questioned. Norma dared not use her voice,
and nodded again. Immediately the doctor leaned over Mrs. Melrose, and
said in a clear and encouraging tone: "Here is Mrs. Sheridan now!"

Mrs. Melrose merely moaned heavily in answer, and Norma said softly, to
the doctor who had spoken:

"I think perhaps she was asking for my aunt--who is also Mrs. Sheridan!"

Before the doctor, gravely considering, could answer, the sick woman
startled them all by saying, almost fretfully, in a surprisingly clear
and quiet voice:

"No--no--no, I want you, Norma!"

She groped blindly about with her hand, as she spoke, and Norma kneeled
down, and covered it with both her own. Mrs. Melrose immediately began
to breathe more easily, and sank at once into the stupor from which she
had only momentarily roused.

Norma looked for instruction to the doctor, who presently decided that
there was nothing more to be gained for a time; she joined them
presently, with Chris, in the adjoining room. This was the same old room
of her first visit to the house, with the same rich old brocaded paper
and fringed rep draperies, with the same pictures, and a few new ones,
lined on the mantel.

"Where are Mrs. von Behrens and Leslie?" Doctor Murray, who had known
all the family intimately for years, asked Chris.

"Is it so serious, Doctor?" Christopher asked in turn, when he had
answered. The doctor, glancing toward the closed door, nodded gravely.

"A matter of a day or two," he said, looking at the other old doctor for
confirmation. "She was apparently perfectly normal last night, went to
bed at her usual hour," he said, "this morning she complained of her
head, when the maid went in at ten, said that she must have hurt
it--struck it against something. The maid, a sensible young woman, was
uneasy, and telephoned for me. Unfortunately, I was in Westchester this
morning, but I got here at about one o'clock and found her as she is
now. She has had a stroke--probably several slight shocks."

"Why, but she was perfectly well day before yesterday!" Norma said, in
amazement. "And only ten days ago she came back from Florida, and said
that she never felt better!"

"That is frequently the history of the disease," the second doctor said,
sagely. And, glancing at his watch, he added, "I don't think you will
need me again, Doctor Murray?"

"What are the chances of her--knowing anybody?" Chris asked.

"She may very probably have another lucid interval," Doctor Murray said.
"If Mrs. Sheridan could arrange to stay, it would be advisable. She
asked for her daughters, but she seemed even more anxious that we should
send for--_you_." He glanced at Norma, with a little old-fashioned bow.

Mrs. Sheridan could stay, of course. She would telephone home, and
advise Aunt Kate, at once. Indeed, so keen was Norma's sense almost of
enjoyment in this thrilling hour that she would have been extremely
sorry to leave the house. It was sad, it was dreadful, of course, to
think that poor old Aunt Marianna was so ill, but at the same time it
was most dramatic. She and Chris settled themselves before the fire in
the upstairs sitting-room with Doctor Murray, who entertained them with
mild reminiscences of the Civil War. The storm was upon the city now,
rain slashed at the windows and the wind howled bitterly.

There was whispering in the old house, quiet footsteps, muffled voices
at the door and telephone. At about six o'clock Chris went home, to tell
Alice, with what tenderness he might, of the impending sorrow. Regina,
who had been weeping bitterly, and would speak to no one, brought Norma
and the doctor two smoking hot cups of bouillon on a tray.

"And you mustn't get tired, Mrs. Sheridan," one of the nurses, herself
healthily odorous of a beef and apple-pie dinner, said kindly to Norma,
at about seven o'clock. "There'll be coffee and sandwiches all night.
This is a part of our lives, you know, and we get used to it, but it's
hard for those not accustomed to it."

At about nine o'clock in the evening Chris came back. Alice had received
the news bravely, he said; there had been no hysteria and she kept
admirable control of herself, and he had left her ready for sleep. But
it had hit her very hard. Miss Slater had promised him that she would
put a sleeping powder into Alice's regular ten o'clock glass of hot
milk, and let him know when she was safely off.

"She is very thankful that you are here, she was uneasy every instant
that I stayed away!" he said softly to Norma, and Norma nodded her
approval. Long before eleven o'clock they had the report that Alice was
sleeping soundly under the combined effect of the powder and Miss
Slater's repeated and earnest assurance that there was no immediate
danger as regarded her mother.

Chris and Norma and the doctor and two of the nurses went down to the
dining-room, and had sandwiches and coffee, and talked long and sadly of
the briefness and mutability of mortal life. When they went upstairs
again the doctor stretched out for some rest, on the sitting-room couch,
and Norma went to her own old room, and got into her comfortable, thick
padded wrapper and warm slippers. The night was still wet and stormy,
and had turned cold. Hail rattled on the window sills.

Then she crept into the sick-room, and joined the nurses in their
unrelenting vigil. Mrs. Melrose was still lying back, her eyes
half-open, her face darkly flushed, her lips moving in an incoherent
mutter. Now and then they caught the syllables of Norma's name, and once
she said "Kate!" so sharply that everyone in the sick chamber started.

Norma, leaning back in a great chair by the bed, mused and pondered as
the slow hours went by. The softened lights touched the nurses' crisp
aprons, the fire was out now, and only the two softly palpitating disks
from the shaded lamps dimly illumined the room.

Annie and Theodore and Alice had all been born in this very room, Norma
thought. She imagined Aunt Marianna, a handsome, stout, radiant young
woman, in the bustles and pleats of the early eighties, with the flowing
ruffles of Theodore's christening robe spreading over her lap. How
wonderful life must have seemed to her then, rich and young, and adored
by her husband, and with her first-born child receiving all the homage
due the heir of the great name and fortune! Then came Annie, and some
years later Alice, and how busy and happy their mother must have been
with plenty of money for schools and frocks, trips to the country with
her handsome, imperious children; trips to Europe when no desire need be
denied them, all the world the playground for the fortunate Melroses!

How short the perspective must look now, thought Norma, to that troubled
brain that was struggling among closing shadows, nearer and nearer every
slow clocktick to the end. How loathsome it must be to the prisoned
spirit, this handsome, stifling room, this army of maids and nurses and
doctors so decorously resigned to facing the last scene of all. Why, the
poorest child in the city to-night, healthily asleep in some unspeakable
makeshift for a bed, possessed what all the Melrose money could not buy
for this moaning, suffocating old autocrat.

"I should like to die out on a hillside, under the stars," thought
Norma, "with no one to watch me. This is--somehow--so horrible!"

And she crept toward the bed and slipped to her knees again, forcing
herself against her inclination--for somehow prayers seemed to have
nothing to do with this scene--to pray for the departing soul.

"Norma," the old lady said, suddenly, opening her eyes. She looked
quietly and intelligently at the girl.

"Yes, dear!" Norma stammered, with a frightened glance toward the
nurses.

These were instantly intent, at the bedside. But Mrs. Melrose paid no
attention to them. She patted Norma's hand.

"Late for you, dear!" she whispered. "Night!" Obediently she drank
something the nurse put to her lips, and when she spoke it was more
clearly. A moment later Doctor Murray had her pulse between his
nerveless fingers. She moved her eyes lazily to smile at him. "Tide
running out, old friend!" she said, in a deep, rich voice. The doctor
smiled, shaking his head, but Norma saw his eyes glisten behind his
glasses.

Suddenly Mrs. Melrose frowned, and began to show excitement.

"Norma!" she said, quickly. "I want Chris!"

"Right here, Aunt Marianna!" Norma answered, soothingly. And Chris was
indeed leaning over the bed almost before she finished speaking.

"I want to talk to you and Chris," the old lady said, contentedly
closing her eyes. "Everybody else out!" she whispered.

The room was immediately cleared. "It can't hurt her now!" Doctor Murray
looked rather than said to Norma as he passed her. Chris watched the
closing doors, sat beside the bed's head with one arm half-supporting
his mother-in-law's pillows.

"We're all alone, Aunt Marianna," he said. "Leslie and Annie will be
here in the morning, and Alice told me to tell you that she hoped----"

"Chris," the sick woman interrupted, gazing at him with an intense and
painful stare, "this child here--Norma! I--I must straighten it all out
now, Chris. Kate knows. Kate has all the papers--letters--Louison's
letters! Ask Kate----"

She shut her eyes. Norma and Chris looked at one another in
bewilderment. There was a long silence.

"So now you know!" Mrs. Melrose said, presently, returning to full
consciousness as naturally as she had before. "I told you, didn't I?"
she asked, faintly anxious.

"Don't bother now, Aunt Marianna," the girl begged in distress.
"To-morrow----"

"Louison," Mrs. Melrose said, "was Annie's French maid--very superior
girl!"

"I remember her--Theodore's wife," Chris said, eager to help her.

"And she was this girl's mother," Mrs. Melrose added, clasping Norma's
fingers. "You understand that, Chris?"

"Yes, darling--we understand!" Norma said, with a nod to Chris that he
was to humour her. But Chris looked only strangely troubled.

"Annie's poor baby lived--Kate brought it home from France, and we named
it Leslie," the invalid said, clearly. "I couldn't--I couldn't forget
it, Chris. I used to go see it--at Kate's. And then, when it was three,
I met Louison--poor girl, I had been cruel to her--and Theodore was far
off in California--dying, we knew. And I met Louison in Brooklyn. And I
had a sudden idea, Chris! I told her to go to Kate, and get Annie's
baby, and bring it to me as if it was her own. I told her to! I told her
to say that it was her baby--Theodore's baby. And she did, Chris, and I
paid her well for it. She brought Leslie here, and Annie never
knew--nobody ever knew! But I never knew that Louison had a baby of her
own, Chris--I never knew that! Louison hated me, and she never told me
she had a little girl. No--no--no, I never knew that!"

"Then Leslie--is--Annie's child by Müller, the riding master!" Chris
whispered, staring blindly ahead of him. "And what--what became of the
other child--Theodore's child?"

"Louison kept her until she was five," the old lady explained, eagerly,
"and then she wanted to marry again, and she had to go live in a wild
sort of place, in Canada. She didn't want to take the little girl there,
and she remembered Kate Sheridan, who had had the other baby, and who
had been so good to it--so devoted to it! And she went there, Chris, and
left her baby there."

"And that baby----" Chris began.

"Yes. That was Norma!" Mrs. Melrose said. "It is all Norma's, the whole
thing--and you must take care that she gets it, Chris. I--even my will,
dear, only gives Norma the Melrose Building and some bonds. But those
are for Leslie, now, all the rest--the whole estate goes to Theodore's
child--Norma. You must forgive me if I did it all wrong. I meant it for
the best. I never knew that you were living, dear, until Kate brought
you here three years ago. She didn't dare do it until your mother died;
she had promised she would never tell a living soul. But Louison
softened toward the end, and wrote Kate she must use her own judgment.
And Kate--Kate--knows all about it----"

The voice thickened. The old lady raised herself in bed.

"That man--behind you, Chris!" she gasped. Chris put her down again,
Norma flew for help. The muttering and the heavy breathing recommenced.
Nurses and doctors ran back, Regina came to kneel at the foot of the
bed.

Another slight stroke, they said later, when they were all about the
fire in the next room again. Norma was white, her eyes glittering, her
bitten lips scarlet in her colourless face. Chris looked stunned.

But he found time for just one aside, as the endless night wore on.
Annie had arrived, superbly horrified and stricken, and Acton was there.
Mrs. Melrose was still breathing. The sickly light of a winter morning
was tugging at the shutters.

"Norma," Chris said, "do you realize what a tremendous thing has
happened to you? Do you realize who you are? You are a rich woman now,
my dear!"

"But do you believe it?" she asked, in a low tone.

"I know it is true! It explains everything," he answered. "It will be a
cruel blow to Leslie--poor child, and Annie, too. Alice, I think, need
never know. But Norma--even though this doesn't seem the time or the
place, let me be the first to congratulate you on your new position--my
old friend Theodore's daughter, and the last of the Melroses!"

At seven o'clock in the morning Norma, exhausted with excitement and
emotion, took a hot bath, and finding things unchanged in the sick-room,
except that the lights had been extinguished, and the winter daylight
was drearily mingling with firelight, went on downstairs for coffee and
for one more conference with the blinking nurses and the tired old
doctor. She found herself too shaken to eat, but the hot drink was
wonderfully soothing and stimulating, and for the first time, as she
stood looking out into the street from the dining-room window, a sense
of power and pride began to thrill her. Old people must die, of course,
and after this sad and dark scene was over--then what? Then what? Then
she would be in Leslie's long-envied place, the heiress, the important
figure among all the changes that followed.

"If you please, Mrs. Sheridan----!" It was Joseph, haggard and white,
who had come softly behind her to interrupt her thoughts. She glanced
with quick apprehension toward the hall stairway. There had been a
change----?

"No, it was the telephone, Miss." Norma, puzzled by the old butler's
stricken air, went to the instrument. It was Miss Slater.

"Norma," Miss Slater said, agitatedly, "is Mr. Liggett--there?"

"I think he's with Aunt Annie, upstairs, but he's going home about
eight," Norma answered. "There is no change. Is Aunt Alice awake? Mr.
Liggett wanted to be there when she woke!"

"No--she's not awake," the other woman's voice said, solemnly. "She went
to sleep like a child last night, Norma. But about half an hour ago I
went in--she hadn't called me--it was just instinct, I suppose! She was
lying--hadn't changed her position even----"

"_What's that!_" Norma cried, in a whisper that was like a scream. The
grave voice and the sudden break of tears chilled her to the soul.

"We've had Doctor Merrill here," Miss Slater said. "Norma, you'll have
to tell him--God help us all! She's gone!"



CHAPTER XXXI


Mrs. Melrose never spoke again, or showed another flicker of the clear
and normal intelligence that she had shown in the night. But she still
breathed, and the long, wet day dragged slowly, in the big, mournful old
house, until late in the unnatural afternoon. People--all sorts of
people--were coming and going now, and being answered, or being turned
away; a few privileged old friends came softly up the carpeted stairs,
and cried quietly with Annie, who looked unbelievably old and ashen
under the double shock. Norma began to hear, on all sides, respectful
and sympathetic references to "the family." The family felt this, and
would like that, the family was not seeing any one, the family must be
protected and considered in every way. The privileged old friends talked
with strange men in the lower hall, and were heard saying "I suppose so"
dubiously, to questions of hats and veils and carriages and the church.

Chris was gone all day, but at four o'clock an urgent message was sent
him, and he and Acton came into Mrs. Melrose's room about half an hour
later, for the end. His face was ghastly, and he seemed almost unable to
understand what was said to him, but he was very quiet.

Norma never forgot the scene. She knelt on one side of the bed, praying
with all the concentration and fervour that she could rally under the
circumstances. But her frightened, tired eyes were impressed with every
detail of the dark old stately bedroom none the less. This was the end
of the road, for youth and beauty and power and wealth, this sunken,
unrecognizable face, this gathering of shadows among the dull, wintry
shadows of the afternoon.

Annie was kneeling, too, her fine, unringed hands clasping one of her
mother's hands. Chris sat against the back of the bed, half-supporting
the piled pillows, in a futile attempt to make more easy the fighting
breath, and Acton and Hendrick von Behrens, grave and awed, stood beside
him, their faces full of sympathy and distress. There was an outer
fringe of nurses, doctors, maids; there was even an audible whisper from
one of them that caused Annie to frown, annoyed and rebuking, over her
shoulder.

Minutes passed. Norma, pressing her cheek against the hand she held,
began a Litany, very low. Suddenly the dying woman opened her eyes.

"Yes--yes--yes!" she whispered, eagerly, and with a break in her
frightened voice Norma began more clearly, "Our Father, Who art in
Heaven----" and they all joined in, somewhat awkwardly and uncertainly.

Mrs. Melrose sank back; she had raised herself just a fraction of an
inch to speak. Now her head fell, and Norma saw the florid colour drain
from her face as wine drains from an overturned glass. A leaden pallor
settled suddenly upon her. When the prayer was finished they
waited--eyed each other--waited again. There was no other breath.

"Doctor----" Annie cried, choking. The doctor gently laid down the limp
hand he had raised; it was already cool. And behind him the maids began
to sob and wail unrebuked.

Norma went out into the hall dazed and shaken. This was her first sight
of death. It made her feel a little faint and sick. Chris came and
talked to her for a few minutes; Annie had collapsed utterly, and was
under the doctor's care; Acton broke down, too, and Norma heard Chris
attempting to quiet him. There was audible sobbing all over the house
when, an hour or two later, Alice's beautiful body in a magnificent
casket was brought to lie in the old home beside the mother she had
adored.

The fragrance of masses and masses of damp flowers began to penetrate
everywhere, and Norma made occasional pilgrimages in to Annie's bedside,
and told her what beautiful offerings were coming and coming and coming.
Joseph had reinforcements of sympathetic, black-clad young men, who kept
opening the front door, and murmuring at the muffled telephone. Annie's
secretary, a young woman about Norma's age, was detailed by Hendrick to
keep cards and messages straight--for every little courtesy must be
acknowledged on Annie's black-bordered card within a few weeks'
time--and Norma heard Joseph telephoning several of the prominent
florists that Mr. Liggett had directed that all flowers were to come to
the Melrose house. Nothing was overlooked.

When Norma went to her room, big boxes were on the bed, boxes that held
everything that was simple and beautiful in mourning: plain, charming
frocks, a smart long seal-bordered coat, veils and gloves, small and
elegant hats, even black-bordered handkerchiefs. She dressed herself
soberly, yet not without that mournful thrill that fitness and
becomingness lends to bereavement. When she went back to Annie's side
Annie was in beautiful lengths of lustreless crape, too; they settled
down to low, sad conversation, with a few of the privileged old friends.
Chris was nowhere to be seen, but at about six o'clock Acton came in to
show them a telegram from Leslie, flying homeward. Judge Lee was
hurrying to them from Washington, and for a few minutes Annie's
handsome, bewildered little boys came in with a governess, and she cried
over them, and clung to them forlornly.

After a distracted half-hour in the dining-room, when she and Acton and
Annie's secretary had soup and salad from a sort of buffet meal that was
going on there indefinitely, Norma went upstairs to find that the door
to the front upper sitting-room, closed for hours, was set ajar, and to
see a vague mass of beautiful flowers within--white and purple flowers,
and wreaths of shining dark round leaves. With a quick-beating heart she
stepped softly inside, and went to kneel at the nearer coffin, and cover
her face with her shaking hands. The thick sweetness of the wet leaves
and blossoms enveloped her. Candles were burning; there was no other
light.

Two or three other women were in the room, catching their breath up
through their nostrils with little gasps, pressing folded handkerchiefs
against their trembling mouths, letting fresh tears well from their
tear-reddened eyes. Chris was standing a few feet away from the
white-clad, flower-circled, radiant sleeper who had been Alice; his arms
were folded, his splendid dark gaze fell upon her with a sort of sombre
calm; he seemed entirely unconscious of the pitying and sorrowful
friends who were moving noiselessly to and fro.

In the candlelight there was a wavering smile on Alice's quiet face, her
broad forehead was unruffled, and her mouth mysteriously sweet. Norma's
eyes fell upon a familiar black coat, on the kneeling woman nearest her,
and with a start she recognized Aunt Kate.

They left the room together a few minutes later, and Norma led her aunt
to her own room, where they talked tenderly of the dead. The older woman
was touched by the slender little black figure, and badly shaken by the
double tragedy, and she cried quite openly. Norma had Regina send her up
some tea, and petted and fussed about her in her little daughterly way.

"I saw about Miss Alice this morning, but I had no idea the poor old
lady----!" Mrs. Sheridan commented sadly. "Well, well, it seems only
yesterday that here, in this very house--and they were all young
then----" Aunt Kate fell silent, and mused for a moment, before adding
briskly: "But now, will they want you, Norma, after the funeral, I mean?
Wolf wrote me----"

"I don't think Aunt Annie wants me now," Norma said, and with a
heightened colour she added, suddenly, "But I belong here, now, Aunt
Kate--I know who I am at last!"

Mrs. Sheridan's face did not move; but an indefinable tightness came
about her mouth, and an indefinable sharpness to her eyes. She looked at
Norma without speaking.

"Aunt Marianna told me," the girl said, simply. "You're sorry," she
added, quickly, "I can see you are!"

"No--I wouldn't say that, Baby!" But Mrs. Sheridan spoke heavily, and
ended on a sigh. There was a short silence.

Then Regina came in with a note for Norma, who read it, and turned to
her aunt.

"It's Chris--he wants very much to see you before you go away," she
said. "I wonder if you would ask Mr. Liggett to come in here, Regina?"
But five minutes later, when Chris came in, he looked so ill that she
was quick to spare him. "Chris, wouldn't to-morrow do--you look so
tired!"

"I _am_ tired," Chris said, after quietly accepting Mrs. Sheridan's
murmured condolence, with his hand holding hers, as if he liked the big,
sympathetic woman. "But I want this off my mind before I see Judge Lee!
You are right, Mrs. Sheridan," he said, with a sort of boyish gruffness,
not yet releasing her hands, "my wife was an angel. I always knew
it--but I wish I could tell her so just once more!"

"Ah, that's the very hardest thing about death," Mrs. Sheridan said,
sitting down, and quite frankly wiping from her eyes the tears that
sympathy for his sorrow had made spring again. "We'd always want one
more hour!"

"But Norma perhaps has told you----?" Chris said, in a different tone.
"Told you of the--the remarkable talk we had yesterday--with my poor
mother-in-law----"

Kate Sheridan nodded gravely.

"Yes," she answered, almost reluctantly, "Norma is Theodore Melrose's
child. I have letters--all their letters. I knew her mother, that was
Louison Courtot, well. It was a mixed-up business--but you've got the
whole truth at last. I've lost more than one night's sleep over my share
of it, Mr. Liggett, thinking who this child was, and whether I had the
right to hold my tongue.

"I was a widow when I went to Germany with Mrs. Melrose. She begged and
begged me to, for she was sick with worry about Miss Annie. Miss Annie
had been over there about eight months, and something she'd written had
made her mother feel that she was ill, or in trouble. Well, I didn't
want to leave my own children, but she coaxed me so hard that I went. We
sailed without cabling, and went straight to Leipsic, and to the
dreadful, dreary pension that Miss Annie was in--a dismal, lonely place.
She came downstairs to see her mother, and I'll never forget the scream
she gave, for she'd had no warning, poor child, and Müller had taken all
her money, and she was--well, we could see how she was. She began
laughing and crying, and her mother did, too, but Mrs. Melrose stopped
after a few minutes, and we couldn't stop Miss Annie at all. She
shrieked and sobbed and strangled until we saw she was ill, and her
mother gave me one look, and bundled her right out to the carriage, and
off to a better place, and we got a doctor and a nurse. But all that
night she was in danger of her life. I went in to her room that evening,
to put things in order, and she was lying on the bed like a dead
thing--white, sick, and with her eyes never moving off her mother's
face. I could hear her murmuring the whole story, the shame and the
bitter cruelty of it, crying sometimes--and her mother crying, too.

"'And, Mama,' she said--the innocence of her! 'Mama, did the doctor tell
you that there might have been a baby?--I didn't know it myself until a
few weeks ago! And that's why they're so frightened about me now. But,'
she said, beginning to cry again, 'I should have hated it--I've always
hated it, and I'd rather have it all over--I don't want to have to face
anything more!'

"Well, it looked then as if she couldn't possibly live through the
night, and all her mother could think of was to comfort her. She told
her that they would go away and forget it all, and Miss Annie clung to
her through the whole terrible thing. We none of us got any sleep that
night, and I think it was at about three o'clock the next morning that I
crept to the door, and the doctor--Doctor Leslie--an old English doctor
who was very kind, came to the door and gave me the poor little pitiful
baby in a blanket. I almost screamed when I took it, for the poor little
soul was alive, working her little mouth! I took her to my room, and
indeed I baptized her myself--I named her Mary for my mother, and Leslie
for the doctor, but I never thought she'd need a name--then. She was
under four pounds, and with a little claw like a monkey's paw, and so
thin we didn't dare dress her--we thought she was three months too soon,
then, and I just sat watching her, waiting for her to die, and thinking
of my own----!

"Miss Annie was given up the next day, she'd gone into a brain fever,
but my poor little soul was wailing a good healthy wail--I remember I
cried bitterly when the doctor told me not to hope for her! But she
lived--and on the fourth day Mrs. Melrose sent us away, and we went and
stayed in the country for two months after that.

"Then I had a letter from the Riviera, the first that'd come. Miss Annie
was getting well, her hair was coming out curly, and she hardly
remembered anything about what had happened at all. She wasn't nineteen
then, poor child! She had cried once, her mother wrote, and had said she
thanked God the baby had died and that was all she ever said of it.

"I brought the baby home, and for nearly three years she lived with my
own, and of course Mrs. Melrose paid me for it. And then one day Louison
Courtot came to see me--I'd known her, of course--Mr. Theodore's wife,
that had been Miss Annie's maid. She had a letter from Mrs. Melrose, and
she took Leslie away, and gave her to her grandmother--just according to
plan. Well, I didn't like it--though it gave the child her rights, but
it didn't seem honest. I had no call to interfere, and a few months
later Mrs. Melrose gave me the double house in Brooklyn, that you'll
well remember, Norma--and your own father made out the deed of gift, Mr.
Chris----!

"And then, perhaps a year later, Louison came to call on me again, and
with her was a little girl--four years old, and I looked at her, and
looked at Louison, and I said, 'My God--that's a Melrose!' She said,
yes, it was Theodore's child."

"Norma!" Chris said.

"Norma--and I remember her as if it was yesterday! With a blue velvet
coat on her, and a white collar, and the way she dragged off her little
mittens to go over and play with Rose and Wolf--and the little coaxing
air she had! So then Louison told me the story, how she had never told
Mrs. Melrose that Theodore really had a daughter, because she hated her
so! But she was going to be married again, and go to Canada, and she
wanted me to keep the baby until she could send for her. I said I would
see how it went, but I could see then that there never was in the
world----" Mrs. Sheridan interrupted herself, coughed, and glanced at
the girl. "Well, we liked Norma right then and there!" she finished, a
little tamely.

"Oh, Aunt Kate!" Norma said, smiling through tears, her hand tight upon
the older woman's, "you never will praise me!"

"So Norma," the story went on, "had her supper that night between my two
children, and for fourteen years she never knew that she wasn't our own.
And perhaps she never would have known if Louison hadn't written me that
she was in a hospital--she was to have an operation, and she was willing
at last to make peace with her husband's family. In the same letter was
her husband's note that she was gone, so I had to use my own judgment
then. And when I heard Norma talk of the rich girls she saw in the
bookstore, Mr. Chris, and knew how she loved what money could do for
her, it seemed to me that at least I must tell her grandmother the
truth. So we came here, three years ago, and if it wasn't for Miss
Alice's mistake about her, perhaps the story would have come out then!
But that's all the truth."

Chris nodded, his arms folded on his chest, his tired face very
thoughtful.

"It makes her a rich woman, Mrs. Sheridan," he said.

"I suppose so, sir. I understand Mr. Melrose--the old gentleman--left
everything to his son, Theodore."

"But not only that," Chris said. "She can claim every penny that has
ever been paid over to Leslie, all through her minority, and since she
came of age, and she also inherits the larger part of her grandmother's
estate, under the will. Probably Mrs. Melrose would have changed that,
if she had lived when all this came to light, and given that same legacy
to Leslie, but we can't act on that supposition. The court will
probably feel that a very grave injustice has been done Norma, and exact
the full arrears."

"But, Chris," Norma said, quickly, "surely some way can be found to
_give_ Leslie all that would have come to me----"

"Well, that, of course, would be pure generosity on your part!" he said,
quietly. "However, it would seem to me desirable all round," he added,
"to keep this in the family."

"Oh, I think so!" Norma agreed, eagerly.

"Annie and Hendrick must be informed, and, as Leslie's mother, Annie
will provide for her some day, of course. We'll discuss all that later.
But to-day I only wanted to clear up a few points before I see Judge
Lee. He has the will, I believe. He will be here to-morrow morning. In
the meanwhile, I think I would say nothing, Norma, just because Annie is
so upset, and if Leslie heard any garbled story, before she got
here----"

"Oh, I agree with you entirely, Chris! Anything that makes it easier all
round!" Norma could afford to be magnanimous and agreeable. She would
not have been human not to feel herself the most interesting figure in
all this dramatic situation, not to know that thoughtfulness and
generosity were the most charming parts of her new rôle. Quietly,
affectionately, she went to the door with Aunt Kate.

"I wish I could go home with you!" she said. "But I think they need me
here! And if Wolf should come up Saturday, Aunt Kate, you'll tell him
about the funeral----"

"Rose said he wasn't coming up on Saturday," his mother said. "But if he
does, of course he'll understand! Remember, Norma," she added, drawing
the girl aside a moment, in the lower hall, "remember that they've all
been very kind to you, dear! It's going to be hard for them all!"

"Yes, I know!" Norma said, hastily, the admonition not to her taste.

"And what you and Wolf will do with all that money----!" her aunt mused,
shaking her head. "Well, one thing at a time! But I know," she finished,
fondly, "my girl will show them all what a generous and a lovely nature
she has, in all the changes and shifts!"

Clever Aunt Kate! Norma smiled to herself as she went upstairs. She had
hundreds of times before this guided the girl by premature confidence
and praise; she knew how Norma loved the approbation of those about her.

Not but what Norma meant to be everything that was broad and considerate
now; she had assumed that position from the beginning. Leslie's chagrin,
Aunt Annie's consternation, should be respected and humoured. They had
sometimes shown her the arrogant, the supercilious side of the Melrose
nature, in the years gone by. Now she, the truest Melrose of them all,
would show them real greatness of soul. She would talk it all over with
Wolf, of course----

She missed Wolf. It was, as always, a curiously unsatisfying atmosphere,
this of the old Melrose house. The whispers, the hushed footsteps, the
lowered voices, Aunt Annie's plaintive heroism in her superb crapes, the
almost belligerent loyalty of the intimate friends who praised and
marvelled at her, the costly flowers--thousands of dollars' worth of
them--the extra men helping Joseph to keep everything decorous and
beautiful--somehow it all sickened Norma, and she wished that Wolf
could come and take her for a walk, and talk to her about it. He would
be interested in it all, and he would laugh at her account of the
undertakers, and he would break into elementary socialism when the cost
of the whole pompous pageant was estimated.

And what would he think of her new-found wealth? Norma tried to imagine
it, but somehow she could not think of Wolf as very much affected. He
hated society, primarily, and he would never be idle, not for the
treasures of India. He would let her spend it as she pleased, and go on
working rapturously at his valves and meters and gauges, perhaps
delighted if she bought him the costliest motor-car made, or the finest
of mechanical piano-players, but quite as willing that the pearls about
his wife's throat should cost fifty dollars as fifty thousand, and quite
as anxious that the heiress of the Melroses should "make good" with his
associate workers as if she had been still a little clerk from Biretta's
Bookshop!

But cheerfully indifferent as he was to everything that made life worth
living to such a man as Christopher Liggett, she knew that he would not
go to California without her unless there was a definite break between
them. She knew she could not persuade him to leave her here, as a normal
and pleasant solution, just until everything was settled, and until they
could see a little further ahead. No, Wolf was annoyingly conventional
where his wife was concerned: her place was with him, unless for some
secondary reason they had decided to part. And she knew that if he let
her go it would be because he felt that he never should have claimed
her--that, in the highest sense, he never had had her at all.



CHAPTER XXXII


Moving automatically through the solemn scenes of the next two days,
that, mused Norma, must be the solution. Wolf must go alone to
California. Not because she did not love him--who could help loving him
indeed?--but because she loved Chris more--or differently, at least, and
she belonged to Chris's world now, by every right of birth, wealth, and
position.

"Of course you must stay here," Chris said, positively, on the one
occasion when they spoke of her plans. "In the first place, there is the
estate to settle, we shall need you. Then there are books--pictures--all
that sort of thing to manage, the old servants to dispose of, and
probably this house to sell--but we can discuss that. Judge Lee has felt
for a long time that this is the right site for a big apartment house,
especially if we can get hold of Boyer's plot. You had better take a
suite at one of the hotels, and later we can look up the right sort of
an apartment for you."

Not a word of his personal hopes; missing them she felt oddly cheated.

"Wolf goes to California next month," she said. Christopher gave her a
sharp, quizzing look.

"But I think you had decided, weeks ago, that you were not going?"

"Yes--I've told him so!" she faltered. She felt strangely lost and
forlorn, releasing her hold on Wolf, and yet not able to claim
Christopher's support. It was contemptible--it was weak in her, she
felt, but she could not quite choke down her hunger for one reassuring
word from Chris. "I feel so--lonely, Chris," she said.

He gave a quick, uneasy glance about the breakfast-room, where they were
having a hasty three-o'clock luncheon. No one was within hearing.

"You understand my position now," he said.

"Oh, of course!" But she felt oddly chilled. Chris as the bereaved
husband and son-in-law was perfect, of course, almost too perfect. If
Wolf loved a woman----

But then the fancy of Wolf, married, and confessedly loving a woman who
was another man's wife, was absurd, anyway. Wolf did not belong to the
world where such things were common, it was utterly foreign to his
nature, with all the rest. Wolf did not go to operas and picture
galleries and polo matches; he did not know how to comport himself at
afternoon teas or summer lunches at the country club.

And Norma's life would be spent in this atmosphere now. She would get
her frocks from Madame Modiste, and her hats from the Avenue
specialists; she would be a smart and a conspicuous little figure at
Lenox and Bar Harbour and Newport; she would spend her days with
masseuses and dressmakers, and with French and Italian teachers. She
could travel, some day--but here the thought of Chris crept in, and she
was a little hurt at Chris. His exquisite poise, his sureness of being
absolutely correct, was one of his charms. But it was a little hard not
to have the depth of his present feeling for her sweep him off his feet
just occasionally. He had, indeed, shown her far more daring favour
when Alice was alive--meeting Norma down town, driving her about,
walking with her where they might reasonably fear to be seen now and
then.

It came to her painfully that, even there, Chris's respect for the
conventions of his world was not at fault. Flirtations, "crushes,"
"cases," and "suitors" were entirely acceptable in the circle that Chris
so conspicuously ornamented. To pay desperate attentions to a pretty
young married woman was quite excusable; it would have been universally
understood.

But to show the faintest trace of interest in her while his wife lay
dead, and while his house was plunged into mourning, no--Chris would not
do that. That would not be good form, it would be censured as not being
compatible with the standard of a gentleman. His conduct now must be
beyond criticism, he was the domestic dictator in this, as in every
emergency. Norma listened while he and Hendrick and Annie discussed the
funeral.

They were in the big upstairs bedroom that Annie had appropriated to
herself during these days. Annie was resting on a couch in a nest of
little pillows, her long bare hands very white against the blackness of
her gown. Hendrick did most of the talking, Chris listening
thoughtfully, accepting, rejecting, Norma a mere spectator. She decided
that Annie was playing her part with a stimulating consciousness of its
dignity, and that Chris was not much better. Honest, red-faced Hendrick
was only genuinely anxious to arrange these details without a scene.

"I take Annie up the aisle," Chris said, "you'll be a pall-bearer,
Hendrick. Mrs. Lee says that the Judge feels he is too old to serve, so
he will follow me, with Leslie. She gets here this afternoon. Then
Acton brings Norma, and that fills the family pew. Now, in the next
pew----"

It reminded Norma of something, she could not for a moment remember
what. Then it came to her. Of course!--Leslie's wedding. They had
discussed precedence and pews just that way. Music, too. Hendrick was
making a note of music--Alice's favourite dirge was to be played, and
"Come Ye Disconsolate" which had been sung at Theodore's funeral,
thirteen years ago, and at his father's, seven years before that, was to
be sung by the famous church choir.

The church was unfortunately small, so cards were to be given to the few
hundreds that it would accommodate. Hendrick suggested a larger church,
but Annie shut her eyes, leaning back, and faintly shaking her head.

"Please--Hendrick--_please_!" she articulated, wearily. "Mama loved that
church--and there's so little that we can do now--so little that she
ever wanted, dear old saint!"

It was not hypocrisy, Norma thought. Annie had been a good daughter.
Indeed she had been unusually loyal, as the daughters of Annie's set saw
their filial duties. But something in this overwhelming, becoming grief,
combined with so lively a sense of what was socially correct, jarred
unpleasantly on the younger woman. Of course, funerals had to have
management, like everything else. And it was only part of Annie's code
to believe that an awkwardness now, a social error ever so faint, an
opportunity given the world for amusement or criticism, would reflect
upon the family and upon the dead.

Norma carried on long mental conversations with Wolf, criticizing or
defending the Melroses. She imagined herself telling him of the shock it
had given her to realize that her grandmother's body was barely cold
before an autocratic and noisy French hairdresser had arrived, demanding
electric heat and hand-glasses as casually as if his customer had been
the bustling, vain old lady of a week ago. She laughed secretly whenever
she recalled the solemn undertaker who had solicited her own aid in
filling out a blank. His first melancholy question, "And thud dame of
the father----" Norma had momentarily supposed to be the beginning of a
prayer, and it had been with an almost hysterical revulsion of feeling
that she had said: "Oh, her father's name? Oh, Francis Dabney Murison."

Wolf, who would not laugh at one tenth of the things that amused Chris,
or that Annie found richly funny, would laugh at these little glimpses
of a formal funeral, Norma knew, and he would remember other odd bits of
reading that were in the same key--from Macaulay, or Henry George, or a
scrap of newspaper that had chanced to be pasted upon an engine-house
wall.

Leslie came into the house late on the afternoon of Friday, and there
was much fresh crying between her and Annie. Leslie had on new black,
too, "just what I could grab down there," she explained--and was pettish
and weary with fatigue and the nervous shock. She gave only the side of
her cheek to Acton's dutiful kiss, and answered his question about the
baby with an impatient, "Oh, heavens, she's all _right_! What could be
the matter with her? She did have a cold, but now she's all right--and
when I'm half-crazy about Grandma and poor Aunt Alice, I do _wish_ you
wouldn't take me up so quickly. I've been travelling all night, and my
head is splitting! If it was _I_ that had the cold, I don't believe
you'd be so fussy!"

"Poor little girl, it's hard for you not to have seen them once more,"
Christopher said, tenderly, failing to meet the half-amused and
half-indignant glance that Norma sent him. Leslie burst into
self-pitying tears, and held tight to his hand, as they all sat down in
Annie's room.

"I believe I feel it most for you, Uncle Chris," she sobbed.

"It changes my life--ends it as surely as it did hers," Chris said,
quietly. "Just now--well, I don't see ahead--just now. After awhile I
believe she'll come back to me--her sweetness and goodness and
bigness--for Alice was the biggest woman, and the finest, that I ever
knew; and then I'll try to live again--just as she would have had me.
And meanwhile, I try to comfort myself that I tried to show her, in
whatever clumsy way I could, that I appreciated her!"

"You not only showed her, you showed all the world, Chris," Annie said,
stretching a hand toward him. Norma felt a sudden uprising of some
emotion singularly akin to contempt.

A maid signalled her, and she stepped to the dressing-room door. A
special delivery letter had come from Wolf. The maid went away again,
but Norma stood where she was, reading it. Wolf had written:

    DEAR NORMA,

    Mother wrote me of all that you have been going through, and I
    am as sorry as I can be for all their trouble, and glad that
    they have you to help them through. Mother also told me of the
    change in your position there; I had always known vaguely that
    we didn't understand it all. I remember now your coming to us
    in Brooklyn, and your mother crying when she went away. I know
    this will make a difference to you, and be one more reason for
    your not coming West with me. You must use your own judgment,
    but the longer I think of it, the meaner it seems to me for me
    to take advantage of your coming to me, last spring, and our
    getting married. I've thought about it a great deal. Nothing
    will ever make me like, or respect, the man you say you care
    for. I don't believe you do care for him. And I would rather see
    you dead than married to him. But it isn't for me to say, of
    course. If you like him, that's enough. If you ever stop liking
    him, and will come back to me, I'll meet you anywhere, or take
    you anywhere--it won't make any difference what Mother thinks,
    or Rose thinks, or any one else. I've written and destroyed this
    letter about six times. I just want you to know that if you
    think I am standing in the way of your happiness, I won't stand
    there, even though I believe you are making an awful mistake
    about that particular man. And I want to thank you for the
    happiest eight months that any man ever had.

    Yours always,
    WOLF.

Norma stood perfectly still, after she read the letter through, with the
clutch of vague pain and shame at her heart. The stiff, stilted words
did not seem like Wolf, and the definite casting-off hurt her. Why
couldn't they be friends, at least? Granted that their marriage was a
mistake, it had never had anything but harmony in it, companionship,
mutual respect and understanding, and a happy intimacy as clean and
natural as the meeting of flowers.

She was standing, motionless and silent, when Leslie's voice came
clearly to her ears. Evidently Acton, Annie, and Leslie were alone, in
Annie's room, out of sight, but not a dozen feet away from where she
stood. Norma did not catch the exact words, but she caught her name, and
her heart stood still with the instinctive terror of the trapped. Annie
had not heard either evidently; she said "What, dear?" sympathetically.

"I asked what's Norma doing here--isn't she overdoing her relationship a
little?" Leslie said, languidly.

Norma's face burned, she could hardly breathe as she waited.

"Mama sent for her, for some reason," Annie answered, with a little
drawl.

"After all, she's a sort of cousin, isn't she?" Acton added.

"Oh, don't jump on me for _everything_ I say, Acton," Leslie said,
angrily. "My _goodness_----!"

"Chris says that Mama left her the Melrose Building--and I don't know
what besides!" Annie said. There was a moment of silence.

"I don't believe it! What for!" Leslie exclaimed, then, incredulously.
And after another silence she added, in a puzzled tone, "Do _you_
understand it, Aunt Annie?"

Evidently Annie answered with a glance or a shrug, for there was another
pause before Annie said:

"What I don't like about it, and what I do wish Mama had thought of, is
the way that people comment on a thing like that. It's not as if Norma
needed it; she has a husband to take care of her, now, and it makes us a
little ridiculous! One likes to feel that, at a time like this,
everything is to be done decently, at least--not enormous legacies to
comparative strangers----"

"I like Norma, we've all been kind to her," Leslie contributed, as
Annie's voice died listlessly away. "I've always made allowances for
her. But I confess that it was rather a surprise to find her here, one
of the family----! After all, we Melroses have always rather prided
ourselves on standing together, haven't we? If she wants to wear black
for Grandma, why, it makes no difference to _me_----"

"I suppose the will could be broken without any notoriety, Chris?" Annie
asked, in an undertone. Norma's heart turned sick. She had not supposed
that Chris was listening without protest to this conversation.

"No," she heard him say, briefly and definitely, "that's impossible!"

"It isn't the money----" Annie began. But Leslie interrupted with a
bitter little laugh.

"It may not be with you, Aunt Annie, but I assure you I wouldn't mind a
few extra thousands," she said.

"I think you get the Newport house, Leslie," Chris said, in a tone whose
dubiety only Norma could understand.

"The Newport house!" Leslie exclaimed. "Why, but don't I own _this_,
now? I thought----"

"I don't really know," Chris answered. "We'll open the will next week,
and then we'll straighten everything out."

"In the meanwhile," Annie said, lazily, "if she suggests going back to
her own family, for Heaven's sake don't stop her! I like Norma--always
have. But after all, there are times when _any_ outsider--no matter how
agreeable she is----"

"I think she'll go immediately after the funeral," Chris said,
constrainedly and uncertainly.

Norma, suddenly roused both to a realization of the utter impropriety of
her overhearing all this, and the danger of detection, slipped from the
dressing-room by the hall door, and so escaped to her own room.

She shut the door behind her, walked irresolutely to the bed, stood
there for a moment, with her hands pressed to her cheeks, walked blindly
to the window, only to pause again, paced the room mechanically for a
few minutes, and finally found herself seated on the broad,
old-fashioned sill of the dressing-room window, staring down unseeing at
the afternoon traffic in Madison Avenue.

Oh, how she hated them--cruel, selfish, self-satisfied
snobs--snobs--snobs that they were! Leslie--Leslie "making allowances
for her!" Leslie making allowances for _her_! And Annie--hoping that for
Heaven's sake nobody would prevent her from going home after the
funeral! The remembered phrases burned and stung like acid upon her
soul; she wanted to hurt Annie and Leslie as they had hurt her, she
wanted to shame them and anger them.

Yes, and she could do it, too! She could do it! They little knew that
within a few days' time utter consternation and upheaval, notoriety and
shame, and the pity of their intimates, would disrupt the surface of
their lives, that surface that they felt it so important to keep smooth!
"People will comment," Norma quoted to herself, with a bitter
smile--indeed people would comment, as they had never commented even
upon the Melroses before! Leslie would be robbed not only of her
inheritance but of her name and of her position. And Annie--even
magnificent Aunt Annie must accept, with what surface veneer of
cordiality she might affect, the only child of her only brother, the
heir to the family estate.

"I believe I'm horribly tired," Norma said to herself, looking out into
the dimming winter day, "or else I'm nervous, or something! I wish I
could go over to Rose's and help her put the children to bed----! Or I
wish Aunt Kate would telephone for me--I'm sick of this place! Or I wish
Wolf would come walking around that corner--oh, if he would--if he
would----!" Norma said, staring out with an intensity so great that it
seemed to her for the moment that Wolf indeed might come. "If only he'd
come to take me to dinner, at some little Italian place with a backyard,
and skyscrapers all about, so that we could talk!"

Regina, coming in a little later, saw that Mrs. Sheridan had been
crying, and reproached her with the affectionate familiarity of an old
servitor.

"You that were always so light-hearted, Miss, it don't seem right for
you to grieve so!" said Regina, a little tearful herself. Norma smiled,
and wiped her eyes.

"This is a nice beginning," the girl told herself, as she bathed and
dressed for the evening ordeal of calls, and messages, and solemn visits
to the chamber of death, "this is a nice beginning for a woman who knows
that the man she loves is free to marry her, and who has just fallen
heir to a great fortune!"



CHAPTER XXXIII


The evening moved through its dark and sombre hours unchanged; Joseph's
assistants opened and opened and opened the door. More flowers--more
flowers--and more. Notes, telephone messages, black-clad callers
murmuring in the dimness of the lower hall, maids coming noiselessly and
deferentially, the clergyman, the doctor, the choir-master, old Judge
Lee tremulous and tedious, all her world circled about the lifeless form
of the old mistress of the house. Certain persons went quietly upstairs,
women in rich furs, and bare-headed, uncomfortable-looking men, entered
the front room, and passed through with serious faces and slowly shaking
heads.

Chris spoke to Norma in the hall, just after she had said good-night to
some rather important callers, assuring them that Annie and Leslie were
well, and had been kissed herself as their representative. He extended
her a crushed document in which she was alarmed to recognize Wolf's
letter.

"Oh--I think I dropped that in Aunt Annie's dressing-room!" Norma said,
turning scarlet, and wondering what eyes had seen it.

"There was no envelope; a maid brought it to her, and Annie read it,"
Chris said. Norma's eyes were racing through it.

"There are no names!" she said, thankfully.

"It would have been a most unfortunate--a--a horrible thing, if there
had been," Chris commented. Something in his manner said as plainly as
words that dropping the letter had been a breach of good manners, had
been extremely careless, almost reprehensible. Norma felt herself
unreasonably antagonized.

"Oh, I don't know! It's true," she said, recklessly.

"Annie is a very important person in your plans, Norma," Chris reminded
her. "It would be most regrettable for you to lose your head now, to
give everyone an opportunity of criticizing you. I should advise you to
enlist your Aunt Annie's sympathies just as soon as you can. She is, of
all the world, the one woman who can direct you--help you equip
yourself--tell you what to get, and how to establish yourself. If Annie
chose to be unfriendly, to ignore you----"

"I don't see Annie von Behrens ignoring me--now!" Norma said, with
anger, and throwing her head back proudly. They were in a curtained
alcove on the landing of the angled stairway, completely hidden by the
great curtain and by potted palms. "When my revered aunt realizes----"

"Your money will have absolutely no effect on Annie," Chris said,
quickly.

"No, but what I _am_ will!" Norma answered, breathing hard.

"Not while we keep it to ourselves, as of course we must," Chris
answered, in displeasure. "No one but ourselves will ever know----"

"The whole world will know!" Norma said, in sudden impatience with
smoothing and hiding and pretending. Chris straightened his eyeglasses
on their ribbon, and gave her his scrutinizing, unruffled glance.

"That would be foolish, I think, Norma!" he told her, calmly. "It would
be a most unnecessary piece of vulgarity. Old families are constantly
hushing up unfortunate chapters in their history; there is no reason why
the whole thing should not be kept an absolute secret. My dear girl, you
have just had a most extraordinary piece of good fortune--but you must
be very careful how you take it! You will be--you are--a tremendously
wealthy woman--and you will be in the public eye. Upon how you conduct
yourself now your future position largely depends. Annie can--and I
believe will--gladly assist you. Acton and Leslie will go abroad, I
suppose--they can't live here. But a breath of scandal--or an
ill-advised slip on your part--would make us all ridiculous. You must
play your cards carefully. If you could stay with Annie, now----"

"I _hate_ Aunt Annie!" Norma interrupted, childishly.

"My dear girl--you're over-tired, you don't mean what you say!" Chris
said, putting his hand on her arm. Under the light touch she dropped her
eyes, and stood still. "Norma, do be advised by me in this," he urged
her earnestly. "It is one of the most important crises in your life.
Annie can put you exactly where you want to be, introduced and accepted
everywhere--a constant guest in her house, in her opera box, or Annie
can drop you--I've seen her do it!--and it would take you ten years to
make up the lost ground!"

"It didn't take Annie ten years to be a--a--social leader!" Norma
argued, resentfully.

"Annie? Ah, my dear, a woman like Annie isn't born twice in a hundred
years! She has--but you know what she has, Norma. Languages,
experiences, friends--most of all she has the grand manner--the _belle
aire_."

Norma was fighting to regain her composure over almost unbearable hurt
and chagrin.

"But, Chris," she argued, desperately, "you've always said that you had
no particular use for Annie's crowd--that you'd rather live in some
little Italian place--or travel slowly through India----"

"I said I would like to do that, and so I would!" he answered. "But
believe me, Norma, your money makes a very different sort of thing
possible now, and you would be mad--you would be _mad_!--to throw it
away. Put yourself in Annie's hands," he finished, with the first hint
of his old manner that she had seen for forty-eight hours, "and have
your car, your maids, your little establishment on the upper East Side,
and then--then"--and now his arm was about her, and he had tipped up her
face close to his own--"and then you and I will break our little
surprise to them!" he said, kindly. "Only be careful, Norma. Don't let
them say that you did anything ostentatious or conspicuous----"

She freed herself, her heart cold and desolate almost beyond bearing,
and Chris answered her as if she had spoken.

"Yes--and I must go, too! To-morrow will be a terrible day for us all.
Oh, one thing more, Norma! Annie asked me if I had any idea of who the
man was--the man Wolf speaks of there in that note--and I had to say
someone, just to quiet her. So I said that I thought it was Roy
Gillespie--you don't mind?--I knew he liked you tremendously, and I
happened to think of him! Is that all right?"

She made no audible answer, almost immediately leaving him, and going
upstairs. There was nothing to do, in her room, and she knew that she
could really be of use downstairs, among the intimate old friends who
were protecting Annie and Leslie from annoyance, but she felt in no mood
for that. She hated herself and everybody; she was half-mad with fatigue
and despondency.

Oh, what was the use of living--what was the use of living! Chris
despised her; that was quite plain. He had advised her to-night as he
would have advised an ignorant servant--an inexperienced commoner who
might make the family ridiculous--who might lose her head, and descend
to "unnecessary pieces of vulgarity!" Leslie had always "made allowances
for Norma"; Annie considered her an "outsider." Wolf was going to
California without her, and even Aunt Kate--even Aunt Kate had scolded
her, reminded her that the Melroses had always been kind to her!

Norma's tears flowed fast, there seemed to be no end to the flood. She
sopped them away with the black-bordered handkerchief, and tried walking
about, and drinking cold water, but it was of no use. Her heart seemed
broken, there was no avenue for her thoughts that did not lead to
loneliness and grief. They had all pretended to love her--but not one of
them did--not one of them did! She had never had a father, and never had
a mother, she had never had a fair chance!

Money--she thought darkly. But what was the use of money if everyone
hated her, if everyone thought she was selfish and stupid and ignorant
and superfluous! Why find a beautiful apartment, and buy beautiful
clothes, if she must flatter and cajole her way into Annie's favour to
enjoy them, and bear Chris's superior disdain for her stumbling literary
criticisms and her amateurish Italian?

And she was furious at Chris. How dared he--how dared he insult her by
coupling her name with that of Roy Gillespie, to quiet Annie and to
protect himself! She was a married woman; she had never given him any
reason to take such liberties with her dignity! Roy Gillespie, indeed!
Annie was to amuse herself by fancying Norma secretly enamoured of that
big, stupid, simple Gillespie boy, who was twenty-two years old, and
hardly out of college! And it was for him that Norma was presumably
leaving her husband!

It was insufferable. It was insufferable. She would go straight to
Annie--but no, she couldn't do that. She couldn't tell Annie, on the
night before Annie's sister was buried, that that same sister's husband
loved and was beloved by another woman.

"Still, it's true," Norma mused, darkly. "Only we seem unable to speak
the truth in this house! Well, I'm stifling here----"

She had been leaning out of the open window, the night was soft and
warm. Norma looked at her wrist watch; it was nine o'clock. A sudden mad
impulse took her: she would go over to Jersey, and see Rose. It was not
so very late, the babies kept Rose and Harry up until almost eleven. She
thirsted suddenly for Rose, for Rose's beautiful, pure little face, her
puzzled, earnest blue eyes under black eyebrows, her pleasant, unready
words that were always so true and so kind.

Rapidly Norma buttoned the new black coat, dropped the filmy veil, fled
down the back stairway, and through a bright, hot pantry, where maids
were laughing and eating gaily. She explained to their horrified silence
that she was slipping out for a breath of air, went through doorways
and gratings, and found herself in the blessed coolness and darkness of
the side street.

Ah--this was delicious! She belonged here, flying along inconspicuous
and unmolested in light and darkness, just one of the hurrying and
indifferent millions. The shop windows, the subways, the very
gum-machines and the chestnut ovens with their blowing lamps looked
friendly to Norma to-night; she loved every detail of blowing newspapers
and yawning fellow-passengers, in the hot, bright tube.

On the other side she was hurrying off the train with the plunging crowd
when her heart jumped wildly at the sight of a familiar shabby overcoat
some fifty feet ahead of her, topped by the slightly tipped slouch hat
that Wolf always wore. Friday night! her thoughts flashed joyously, and
he was coming to New Jersey to see his mother and Rose! Of all fortunate
accidents--the one person in the world she wanted to see--and must see
now!

Norma fled after the coat, dodging and slipping through every opening,
and keeping the rapidly moving slouch hat before her. She was quite out
of breath when she came abreast of the man, and saw, with a sickening
revulsion, that it was not Wolf.

What the man thought Norma never knew or cared. The surprising blankness
of the disappointment made her almost dizzy; she turned aside blindly,
and stumbled into the quiet backwater behind a stairway, where she could
recover her self-possession and endure unobserved the first pangs of
bitterness. It seemed to her that she would die if she could not see
Wolf, if she had to endure another minute of loneliness and darkness and
aimless wandering through the night.

Rose's house was only three well-lighted blocks from the station; Norma
almost ran them. Other houses, she noted, were still brightly lighted at
quarter to eleven o'clock, and Rose's might be. Aunt Kate was there, and
she and Rose might well be sitting up, with the restless smaller baby,
or to finish some bit of sewing.

It was a double house, and the windows that matched Rose's bedroom and
dining-room were lighted in the wrong half. But all Rose's side was
black and dark and silent.

Norma, for the first time in her life, needed courage for the knocking
and ringing and explaining. If they would surely be kind to her, she
might chance it, she thought. But if Aunt Kate was angry with her
vacillations in regard to Wolf, and if Rose had also taken Wolf's side,
then she knew that she, Norma, would begin to cry, and disgrace herself,
and have good-natured simple old Harry poking about and wondering what
was the matter----

No, she didn't dare risk it. So she waited in the little garden, looking
up at the windows, praying that little Harry would wake up, or that the
baby's little acid wail would drift through the open window, and then
the dim light bloom suddenly, and show a silhouette of Rose, tall and
sweet in her wrapper, with a great rope of braid falling over one
shoulder.

But moments went by, and there was no sound. Norma went to the street
lamp a hundred feet away and looked at her wrist watch. Quarter past
eleven; it was useless to wait any longer; it had been a senseless quest
from the beginning.

She went back to the city by train and boat, crying desolately in the
darkness above the ploughing of the invisible waters. She cried with
pity for herself, for it seemed to her that life was very unfair to her.

"Is it _my_ fault that I inherit all that money?" she asked the dark
night angrily. "Is it my fault that I love Chris Liggett? Isn't it
better to be honest about it than live with a man I don't love? Isn't
that the worst thing that woman can endure--a loveless marriage?

"But that's just the High School Debating Society!" she interrupted
herself, suddenly, using a phrase that she and Wolf had coined long ago
for glib argument that is untouched by actual knowledge of life.
"Loveless marriage--and wife in name only! I wonder if I am getting to
be one of the women who throw those terms about as an excuse for just
sheer selfishness and stupidity!"

And her aunt's phrases came back to her, making her wonder unhappily
just where the trouble lay, just what sort of a woman she was.

"I think you will be whatever you want to be, Norma," Mrs. Sheridan had
said, "you're a woman now--you're Wolf's wife----"

But that was just what she did not feel herself, a woman and Wolf's
wife. She was a girl--interested in shaggy sport coats and lace
stockings; she did not want to be any one's wife! She wanted to punish
Leslie and Aunt Annie, and to have plenty of money, and to have a
wonderful little apartment on the east side of the Park, and delicious
clothes; she wanted to become a well-known figure in New York society,
at Palm Beach and the summer resorts, and at the opera and the big
dining-rooms of the hotels.

"And I could do it, too!" Norma thought, walking through the cool, dark
night restlessly. "In two years--in three or four, anyway, I would be
where Aunt Annie is; or at least I would if Chris and I were married--he
could do anything! I suppose," she added, with youthful recklessness, "I
suppose there are lots of old fogies who would never understand my
getting separated from Wolf, but it isn't as if _he_ didn't understand,
for I know he does! Wolf has always known that it took just _certain
things_ to make me happy!"

Something petty, and contemptible, and unworthy, in this last argument
smote her ears unpleasantly, and she was conscious of flushing in the
dark.

"Well, people have to be happy, don't they?" she reasoned, with a rising
inflection at the end of the phrase that surprised and a trifle
disquieted her. "Don't they?" she asked herself, thoughtfully, as she
crept in at the side door of the magnificent, cumbersome old house that
was her own now. No one but an amazed-looking maid saw her, as she
regained her room, and fifteen minutes later she was circulating about
the dim and mournful upper floor again. Annie called her into her room.

"You look fearfully tired, Norma! Do get some sleep," her aunt said,
with unusual kindness. "I'm going to try to, although my head is aching
terribly, and I know I can't. To-morrow will be hard on us all. I shall
go home to-morrow night, and I'm trying to persuade Leslie to come with
me."

"No, I shan't! I'm going to stay here," Leslie said, with a sort of
weary pettishness. "My house is closed, and poor Chris is going to begin
closing Aunt Alice's house, and he doesn't want to go to a club--he'd
much rather be here, wouldn't he, Norma?"

Something in the tired way that both aunt and niece appealed to her
touched Norma, and she answered sympathetically:

"Truly, I think he would, Aunt Annie. And if little Patricia and the
nurse get here on Sunday, she won't be lonely."

"Norma, why don't you stay here, too--your husband's in Philadelphia,"
Leslie asked her. "Do! We shall have so much to do----"

"We haven't seen the will, but I believe Judge Lee is going to bring it
on Wednesday," Annie said, "and Chris said that Mama left you--well, I
don't know what! I wish you could arrange to stay the rest of the week,
at least!"

"I will!" Norma agreed. She had been feeling neglected and lonely, and
this unexpected friendliness was heartwarming.

"You've been a real comfort," Annie said, good-naturedly. "You're such a
sensible child, Norma. I hope one of these days--afterward"--and Annie
faintly indicated with her eyebrows the direction of the front room from
which the funeral procession would start to-morrow--"afterward, that
you'll let us know your husband better. And now it's long past midnight,
girls, and you ought to be in bed!"

It was mere casual civility on Annie's part, as accidental as had been
her casual unkindness a few hours before. But it lifted Norma's heart,
and she went out into the hall in a softer frame of mind than she had
known for a long time. She managed another word with Chris before going
to her room for almost nine hours of reviving and restoring sleep.

"Chris, I feel terribly about breaking this news to Aunt Annie and
Leslie while they feel so badly about Aunt Alice and Aunt Marianna!" she
said. Again Chris gave the hallway, where she had met him, a quick,
uneasy scrutiny before he answered her:

"Well, of course! But it can't be helped."

"But do you think that we could put it off until Wednesday, Chris, when
the will is to be read? Everyone will be here then, and it would seem a
good time to do it!"

"Yes," he consented, after a moment's thought, "I think that is a good
idea!" And so they left it.



CHAPTER XXXIV


Regina roused Norma just in time for the long, wearisome ceremonials of
the following day, a cold, bright gusty day, when the wet streets
flashed back sombre reflections of the motor wheels, and the newly
turned earth oozed flashing drops of water. The cortège left the old
Melrose house at ten minutes before ten o'clock, and it was four before
the tired, headachy, cramped members of the immediate family group
regathered there, to discard the crape-smothered hats, and the odorous,
sombre furs, and to talk quietly together as they sipped hot soup and
crumbled rolls. Everything had been changed, the flowers were gone,
furniture was back in place, and the upper front room had been opened
widely to the suddenly spring-like afternoon. There was not a fallen
violet petal to remind her descendants that the old mistress of forty
full years was gone for ever.

Annie's boys came to bring Mother home, after so many strange days'
absence, and Norma liked the way that Annie smiled wearily at Hendrick,
and pressed her white face hungrily against the boys' blonde, firm
little faces. Leslie, in an unwontedly tender mood, drew Acton's arm
about her, as she sat in a big chair, and told him with watering eyes
that she would be glad to see old Patsie-baby on Sunday. Norma sat
alone, the carved Tudor oak rising high above her little tired head with
its crushed soft hair, and Chris sat alone, too, at the other end of
the table, and somehow, in the soul fatigue that was worse than any
bodily fatigue, she did not want the distance between them bridged, she
did not want--she shuddered away from the word--love-making from Chris
again!

Leslie, who felt quite ill with strain and sorrow, went upstairs to bed,
the Von Behrens went away, and presently Acton disappeared, to telephone
old Doctor Murray that his wife would like a sedative--or a heart
stimulant, or some other little attention as a recognition of her broken
state.

Then Chris and Norma were alone, and with a quiet dignity that surprised
him she beckoned him to the chair next to her, and, leaning both elbows
on the cloth, fixed him with her beautiful, tired eyes.

"I want to talk to you, Chris, and this seems to be the time!" she said.
"You'll be deep in all sorts of horrible things for weeks now, poor old
Chris, and I want this said first! I've been thinking very seriously all
these days--they seem months--since Aunt Marianna died, and I've come to
the conclusion that I'm--well, I'm a fool!"

She said the last word so unexpectedly, with such obvious surprise, that
Chris's tired, colourless face broke into something like a smile. He had
seated himself next to her, and was evidently bending upon her problem
his most earnest attention.

"Some months ago," Norma said in a low voice, "I thought--I
_thought_--that I fell in love! The man was rich, and handsome, and
clever, and he knew more--of certain things!--in his little finger, than
I shall ever know in my whole life. Not exactly more French, or more of
politics, or more persons--I don't mean quite that. But I mean a
conglomerate sort of--I'm expressing myself badly, but you understand--a
conglomerate total of all these things that make him an aristocrat!
That's what he is, an aristocrat. Now, I'm not! I've found that out. I'm
different."

"Nonsense!" Chris said, lightly, but listening patiently none the less.

"I know," Norma resumed, hammering her thought out slowly, and frowning
down at the teaspoon that she was measuring between her finger-tips, "I
know that there are two women in me. One is the Melrose, who
_could_--for I know I could!--push her husband out of sight, take up the
whole business of doing things correctly, from hair-dressing and writing
notes of condolence to being"--she could manage a hint of a smile under
swiftly raised lashes--"being presented at Saint James's!" she said. "In
five years she would be an admired and correct and popular woman, and
perhaps even married to this man I speak of! The other woman is my
little plain French mother's sort--who was a servant--my Aunt Kate's
kind," and Norma suddenly felt the tears in her eyes, and winked them
away with an April smile, "who belongs to her husband, who likes to cook
and tramp about in the woods, and send Christmas boxes to Rose's babies,
and--and go to movies, and picnics! And that's the sort of woman I _am_,
Chris," Norma ended, with a sudden firmness, and even a certain relief
in her voice. "I've just discovered it! I've been spoiled all my
life--I've been loved too much, I think, but I've thought it all out--it
really came to me, as I stood beside Aunt Marianna's grave to-day, and
you don't know how happy it's made me!"

"You are talking very recklessly, Norma," Chris said, as she paused, in
his quiet, definite voice. "You are over-excited now. There is no such
difference in the two--the two classes, to call them that, as you fancy!
The richer people, the people who, as you say, do things correctly, and
are presented at Saint James's, have all the simple pleasures, too. One
likes moving pictures now and then; I'm sure we often have picnics in
the summer. But there are women in New York--hundreds of them, who would
give the last twenty years of their lives to step into exactly what you
can take for the asking now. You will have Annie and me back of
you--this isn't the time, Norma, for me to say just how entirely you
will have my championship! But surely you know----"

He was just what he had always been: self-possessed, finished,
splendidly sure in voice and manner. He was rich, he was popular, he was
a dictator in his quiet way. And she knew even if the shock of his
wife's sudden going had pushed his thought of her into the background,
that in a few months he would be hovering about her again,
conventionally freed for conventional devotion.

She saw all this, and for the first time to-day she saw other things,
too. That he was forty, and looked it. That there was just the faintest
suggestion of thinning in his smooth hair, where Wolf's magnificent mane
was the thickest. That it was just a little bloodless, this decorous
mourning that had so instantly engulfed him, who had actually told her,
another man's wife, a few weeks before, that his own wife was dying, and
so would free him for the woman he loved at last!

In short, Norma mused, watching him as he fell into moody silence, he
had not scrupled to break the spirit of his bond to Alice, he had not
hesitated to tell Norma that he loved her when only Norma, and possibly
Alice, might suffer from his disloyalty. But when the sacred letter was
touched, the sacred outside of the vessel that must be kept clean before
the world, then Chris was instantly the impeccable, the irreproachable
man of his caste again. It was all part of the superficial smallness of
that world where arbitrary form ruled, where to send a wedding
invitation printed and not engraved, or to mispronounce the name of a
visiting Italian tenor or Russian dancer, would mark the noblest woman
in the world as hopelessly "not belonging."

"One of the things you do that really you oughtn't to, Norma," he
resumed, presently, in quiet distaste, "is assume that there is some
mysterious difference between, say, the Craigies, and well--your
husband. The Craigies are enormously wealthy, of course. That means that
they have always had fine service, music, travel, the best of everything
in educational ways, friendship with the best people--and those things
_are_ an advantage, generation after generation. It's absurd to deny
that Annie's children, for example, haven't any real and tremendous
advantages over--well, some child of a perfectly respectable family that
manages nicely on ten thousand a year. But that Annie's pleasures are
not as real, or that there must necessarily be something
dangerous--something detestable--in the life of the best people, is
ridiculous!"

"That's just what I do assert," she answered, bravely. "It may not be so
for you, for you were born to it! But when you've lived, as I have, in a
different sort of life, with people to whom meals, and the rent, and
their jobs, really matter--this sort of thing doesn't seem _real_. You
feel like bursting out laughing and saying, 'Oh, get out! What's the
difference if I _don't_ make calls, and broaden my vowels, and wear just
this and that, and say just this and that!' It all seems so _tame_."

"Not at all," Chris said, really roused. "Take Betty Doane, now, the
Craigies' cousin. There's nothing conventional about her. There's a girl
who dresses like a man all summer, who ran away from school and tramped
into Hungary dressed as a gipsy, who slapped Joe Brinckerhoff's face for
him last winter, and who says that when she loves a man she's going off
with him--no matter who he is, or whether he's married or not, or
whether she is!"

"I'll tell you what she sounds like to me, Chris, a little saucy girl of
about eight trying to see how naughty she can be! Why, that," said
Norma, eagerly, "that's not _real_. That isn't like house-hunting when
you know you can't pay more than thirty dollars' rent, or surprising
your husband with a new thermos bottle that he didn't think he could
afford!"

"Ah, well, if you _like_ slums, of course!" Chris said, coldly. "But
nothing can prevent your inheriting an enormous sum of money, Norma," he
said, ending the conversation, "and in six months you'll feel very
differently!"

"There is just one chance in ten--one chance in a hundred--that I
might!" she said to herself, going upstairs, after Chris and Acton, who
presently returned to the dining-room, had begun an undertoned
conversation. And with a sudden flood of radiance and happiness at her
heart, she sat down at her desk, and wrote to Wolf.

The note said:

    WOLF DEAR:

    I have been thinking very seriously, during these serious days,
    and I am writing you more earnestly than I ever wrote any one in
    my life. I want you to forgive me all my foolishness, and let me
    come back to you. I have missed you so bitterly, and thought how
    good and how sensible you were, and how you took care of us all
    years ago, and gave Rose and me skates that Christmas that you
    didn't have your bicycle mended, and how we all sat up and cried
    the night Aunt Kate was sick, and you made us chocolate by the
    rule on the box. I have been very silly, and I thought I
    cared--and perhaps I _did_ care--for somebody else; or at least
    I cared for what he stood for, but I am over that now, and I
    feel so much older, and as if I needed you so. I shall have a
    tremendous lot of money, and we'll just have to decide what to
    do with it, but I think I know now that there won't be any
    particular pleasure in spending it. We'll always love the old
    car, and----But it just occurs to me that we _could_ send poor
    Kitty Barry to the hospital, and perhaps ship them all off
    somewhere where they'd get better. Aunt Kate would like that.
    But won't you come up, Wolf, and see me? I'll meet you anywhere,
    and we can talk, on Monday or Tuesday. Will you write me or wire
    me? I can't wait to see you!

She cried over the letter, and over the signature that she was his
loving Nono, but she mailed it with a dancing heart. The road had been
dark and troubled for awhile, but it was all clear now! The wrong had
been--the whole wretched trouble had been--in her thinking that she
could toss aside the solemn oath that she had taken on the bewildering
day of her marriage almost a year ago.

Never since old, old days of childhood, when she and Wolf and Rose had
wiped the dishes and raked the yard, and walked a mile to the
twenty-five-cent seats at the circus, had Norma been so sure of
herself, and so happy. She felt herself promoted, lifted above the old
feelings and the old ways, and dedicated to the work before her. And one
by one the shadows lifted, and the illusions blew away, and she could
see her way clear for the first time in more than three years. It was
all simple, all right, all just as she would have had it. She would
never be a petted and wealthy little Leslie, she would never be a
leader, like Mrs. von Behrens, and she would never stand before the
world as the woman chosen by the incomparable Chris. Yet she was the
last Melrose, and she knew now how she could prove herself the proudest
of them all, how she could do these kinspeople of hers a greater favour
than any they had ever dreamed of doing her. And in the richness of
renouncing Norma knew herself to be for the first time truly rich.

Chris saw the difference in her next day, felt the new dignity, the
sudden transition from girl to woman, but he had no inkling of its
cause. Leslie saw it, and Annie, but Norma gave them no clue. At
luncheon Annie, who had joined them for the meal, proposed that Leslie
and Norma and the Liggetts come to her for a quiet family dinner, but
Norma begged off; she really must see Aunt Kate, and would seize this
opportunity to go home for a night. But leaving the table Norma asked
Chris if she might talk business to him for a few minutes.

They sat in the old library, Chris sunk in a great leather chair,
smoking cigarettes, Norma opposite, her white hands clasped on the
blackness of her simple gown, and her eyes moving occasionally from
their quiet study of the fire to rest on Chris's face.

"Chris," she said, "I've thought this all out, now, and I'm not really
asking your advice, I'm telling you what I am going to do! I'm going to
California with Wolf in a week or two--that's the first thing!"

He stared at her blankly, and as the minutes of silence between them
lengthened Norma noticed his lips compress themselves into a thin,
colourless line. But she returned his look bravely, and in her eyes
there was something that told the man she was determined in her
decision.

"I don't quite follow you, Norma," he said at last with difficulty. "You
mean that all the plans and hopes we shared and discussed----" He
faltered a moment and then made another effort: "Now that whatever
obstacles there were have been removed, and you and I are free to
fulfill our destinies, am I to understand that--that you are going back
to your husband?"

"Exactly." The girl's answer was firm and determined.

The colour fled from Chris's face, and a cold light came into his eye;
his jaw stiffened.

"You must use your own judgment, Norma," he answered, with a displeased
shrug.

"I'll leave with you, or send you, my power of attorney," the girl went
on, "and you and Hendrick as executors must do whatever you think right
and just--just deposit the money in the bank!"

"I see," Chris said, noncommittally.

"And there's another thing," Norma went on, with heightened colour. "I
don't want either Leslie or Aunt Annie ever to know--what you and I
know!"

Chris looked at her, frowning slightly.

"That's impossible, of course," he said. "What are they going to think?"

"They'll think nothing," Norma said, confidently, but with anxious eyes
fixed on his face, "because they'll know nothing. There'll be no change,
nothing to make them suspect anything."

"But--great God! You don't seem to understand, Norma. Proofs of your
birth, of your rightful heritage, your identity, the fact that you are
Theodore's child, must be shown them, of course. You have inherited by
Aunt Marianna's will the bulk of her personal fortune, but besides this,
as Theodore's child, you inherit the Melrose estate, and Leslie must
turn this all over to you, and make such restitution as she is able, of
all income from it which she has received since Judge Lee and I turned
it over to her on her eighteenth birthday."

"No, that's just what she is _not_ to do! I will get exactly what is
mentioned in the will--as Norma Sheridan, bonds and the Melrose
Building, and so on," Norma broke in, eagerly. "And that's enough,
goodness knows, and a thousand times more than Wolf and I ever expected
to have. Aunt Annie and Leslie are reconciled to that. But for the rest,
I refuse to accept it. I don't want it. I've never been so unhappy in my
life as I've been in this house, for all the money and the good times
and the beautiful clothes. And if that much didn't make me happy, why
should ten times more? Isn't it far, far better--all round----"

"You are talking absurdities," said Chris. "Do you think that Hendrick
and I could consent to this? Do you suppose----"

"Hendrick doesn't know it, Chris. It is only you and I and Aunt
Kate--that's all! And if I do this, and swear you and Aunt Kate to
secrecy, who is responsible, except me?"

Chris shook his head. "Aunt Marianna wished you righted--wished you to
take your place as Theodore's daughter. It is her wish, and it is only
our duty----"

"But think a minute, Chris, think a minute," Norma said, eagerly,
leaning forward in her chair, so that her locked hands almost touched
his knees. "_Was_ it her wish? She wanted me to _know_--that's certain!
And I do know. But do you really think she wanted Leslie to be shamed
and crushed, and to take away the money Leslie has had all her life, to
shock Aunt Annie, and stir that old miserable matter up with Hendrick?
Chris, you _can't_ think that! The one thing she would have wished and
prayed would have been that somehow the matter would have been righted
without hurting any one. Chris, _think_ before you tear the whole family
up by the roots. What harm is there in this way? I have plenty of
money--and I go away. The others go on just as they always have, and in
a little way--in just a hundredth part--I pay back dear old Aunt
Marianna for all the worrying and planning she did, to make up to me for
what should have been mine, and was Leslie's. Please--_please_, help me
to do this, Chris. I can't be happy any other way. Aunt Kate will
approve--you don't know how much she will approve, and it will repay
her, too, just a little, to feel that it's all known now, and that it
has turned out this way. And she will destroy every last line and shred
of letters and papers, and the photographs she said she had, and it will
all be over--for ever and for ever!"

"You put a terrible responsibility upon me," Chris said, slowly.

"No--I take it myself!" Norma answered. He had gotten to his feet, and
was standing at the hearth, and now she rose, too, and looked eagerly up
at him. "It isn't anything like the responsibility of facing the world
with the whole horrible story!"

Chris was silent, thinking. Presently he turned upon her the old smile
that she had always found irresistible, and put his two hands on her
shoulders.

"You are a wonderful woman, Norma!" he said, slowly. "What woman in the
world, but you, would do that? Yes, I'll do it--for Leslie's sake, and
Acton's sake, and because I believe Alice would think it as wonderful in
you as I do. But think," Chris said, "think just a few days, Norma. You
and I--you and I might go a long way, my dear!"

If he had said it even at this hour yesterday, he might have shaken her,
for the voice was the voice of the old Chris, and she had been even then
puzzled and confused to see the wisest way. But now everything was
changed; he could not reach her now, even when he put his arm about her,
and said that this was one of their rare last chances to be alone
together, and asked if it must be good-bye.

She looked up at him gravely and unashamedly.

"Yes, it must be good-bye--dear Chris!" she said, with a little emotion.
"Although I hope we will see each other often, if ever Wolf and I come
back. Engineers live in Canada and Panama and India and Alaska, you
know, and we never will know we are coming until we get here! And I'm
not going to try to thank you, Chris, for what you did for an ignorant,
silly, strange little girl; you've been a big brother to me all these
last years! And something more, of course," Norma added, bravely, "and
I won't say--I can't say--that if it hadn't been for Wolf, and all the
changes this year--changes in me, too--I wouldn't have loved you all my
life. But there's no place that you could take me, as Wolf Sheridan's
divorced wife, that would seem worth while to me, when I got there--not
if it was in the peerage!"

"There's just one thing that I want to say, too, Norma," Chris said,
suddenly, when she had finished. "I'm not good enough for you; I know
it. I see myself as I am, sometimes, I suppose. I think you're going to
be happy--and God knows I hope so; perhaps it _is_ a realer life, your
husband's: and perhaps a man who works for his wife with his hands and
his head has got something on us other fellows after all! I've often
wished----But that doesn't matter now. But I want you to know I'll
always remember you as the finest woman I ever knew--just the best there
is! And if ever I've hurt you, forgive me, won't you, Norma?--and--and
let me kiss you good-bye!"

She raised her face to his confidently, and her eyes were misty when she
went upstairs, because she had seen that his were wet. But there was no
more unhappiness; indeed an overwhelming sense that everything was
right--that every life had shifted back into normal and manageable and
infinitely better lines, went with her as she walked slowly out into the
sunshine, and wandered in the general direction of Aunt Kate's. As she
left the old Melrose home, the big limousine was standing at the door,
and presently Annie and Leslie would sweep out in their flowing veils
and crapes, and whirl off to the Von Behrens mansion. But Norma Sheridan
was content to walk to the omnibus, and to take the jolting front seat,
and to look down in all brotherly love and companionship at the moving
and shifting crowds that were glorying in the warm spring weather.

To be busy--to be needed--to be loved--she said to herself. That was the
sweet of life, and it could not be taken from the policeman at the
crossing or the humblest little shop-girl who scampered under his big
arm, or bought by the bored women in limousines who, furred and flowered
and feathered, were moving from the matinée to the tea table. Caroline
Craigie, Aunt Annie, Leslie; she had seen the material advantages of
life fail them all.



CHAPTER XXXV


Aunt Kate was out when Norma reached the apartment, but she knew that
the key was always on the top of the door frame, and entered the
familiar old rooms without any trouble. But she saw in a dismayed flash
that Aunt Kate was not coming back, for that night at least. The kitchen
window had been left four inches open, to accommodate the cat, milk and
bones were laid in waiting, and a note in the bottle notified the
milkman "no milk until to-morrow." There was also a note in pencil, on
the bottom of an egg-box, for the nurses who rented two rooms, should
either one of them chance to come in and be hungry, she was to eat "the
pudding and the chicken stew, and get herself a good supper."

Norma, chuckling a little, got herself the good supper instead. It was
with a delightful sense of solitude and irresponsibility that she sat
eating it, at the only window in the flat that possessed a good view,
the kitchen window. Aunt Kate, she decided, was with Rose, who had no
telephone; Norma thought that she would wait until Aunt Kate got home
the next day, rather than chance the long trip to the Oranges again. An
alternative would have been to go to Aunt Annie's house, but somehow the
thought of the big, silent handsome place, with the men in evening wear,
Aunt Annie and Leslie in just the correct mourning décolleté, and the
conversation decorously funereal, did not appeal to her. Instead it
seemed a real adventure to dine alone, and after dinner to put on a
less conspicuous hat and coat, and slip out into the streets, and walk
about in her new-found freedom.

The night was soft and balmy, and the sidewalks filled with sauntering
groups enjoying the first delicious promise of summer as much as Norma
did. The winter had been long and cold and snowy; great masses of
thawing ice from far-away rivers were slowly drifting down the
star-lighted surface of the Hudson, and the trees were still bare. But
the air was warm, and the breezes lifted and stirred the tender darkness
above her head with a summery sweetness.

Norma loved all the world to-night; the work-tired world that was
revelling in idleness and fresh air. Romance seemed all about her, the
doorways into which children reluctantly vanished, the gossiping women
coming back from bakery or market, the candy stores flooded with light,
and crowded with young people who were having the brightest and most
thrilling moments of all their lives over banana specials and chocolate
sundaes. The usual whirlpools eddied about the subway openings and
moving-picture houses, the usual lovers locked arms, in the high rocking
darkness of the omnibus tops, and looked down in apathetic indifference
upon the disappointment of other lovers at the crossings. In the bright
windows of dairy restaurants grapefruit were piled, and big baked apples
ranged in saucers, and beyond there were hungry men leaning far over the
table while they discussed doughnuts and strong coffee, and shook open
evening papers.

She and Wolf had studied it all for years; it was sordid and crowded and
cheap, perhaps, but it was honest and happy, too, and it was real. There
was no affectation here, even the premature spring hats, and the rouge,
and the high heels were an ingenuous bid for just a little notice, just
a little admiration, just a little longer youth.

Sauntering along in the very heart of it, hearing the flirtation, the
theatrical chatter, the homely gossip about her, Norma knew that she was
at home. Leslie, perhaps, might have loathed it had she been put down in
the midst of it; to Aunt Annie it would always seem entirely beneath
even contempt. But Norma realized to-night, as she slipped into church
for a few minutes, as she dropped a coin into a beggar's tin cup, as she
entered into casual conversation with the angry mother of a defiant boy,
that this, to her, was life. It was life--to work, to plan, to marry and
bear children, to wrest her own home from unfavourable conditions, and
help her own man to win. She would live, because she would care--care
deeply how Wolf fared in his work, how her house prospered, how her
children developed. She would not be Aunt Annie's sort of woman--Chris's
sort--she would be herself, judged not by what she had, but by what she
could do--what she could give.

"And that's the kind of woman I am, after all," she said to herself,
rejoicingly. "The child of a French maid and a spoiled, rich young man!
But no, I'm not their child. I'm Aunt Kate's--just as much as Rose and
Wolf are----!" And at the thought of Wolf she smiled. "Won't Wolf
Sheridan _open his eyes_?"

When she reached Forty-first Street she turned east, and went past the
familiar door of the opera house. It was a special performance, and the
waiting line stretched from the box office down the street, and around
the corner, into the dark. They would only be able to buy standing
room, these patient happy music lovers who grew weary and cold waiting
for their treat, and even standing, they would be behind an immovable
crowd, they would catch only occasional glimpses of the stage. But Norma
told herself that she would rather be in that line, than yawningly
deciding, as she had so often seen Annie decide, that she would perhaps
rustle into the box at ten o'clock for the third act--although it was
rather a bore.

She flitted near enough to see the general stir, and to see once more
the sign "No Footmen Allowed in This Lobby," and then, smiling at the
old memories, she slipped away into the darkness, drinking in insatiably
the intimate friendliness of the big city and the spring night.



CHAPTER XXXVI


It was ten o'clock the next day, a silent gray day, when Aunt Kate let
herself into the apartment, and "let out," to use her own phrase, a
startled exclamation at finding her young daughter-in-law deeply asleep
in her bed. Norma, a vision of cloudy dark tumbled hair and beautiful
sleepy blue eyes, half-strangled the older woman in a rapturous embrace,
and explained that she had come home the night before, and eaten the
chicken stew, and perhaps overslept--at any rate would love some coffee.

Something faintly shadowed in her aunt's welcome, however, was
immediately apparent, and Norma asked, with a trace of anxiety, if
Rose's babies were well. For answer her aunt merely asked if Wolf had
telephoned.

"Wolf!" said Wolf's wife. "Is he home?"

"My dear," Mrs. Sheridan said. "He's going--he's gone!--to California!"

Norma did not move. But the colour went out of her face, and the
brightness from her eyes.

"Gone!" she whispered.

"Well--he goes to-day! At six o'clock----"

"At six o'clock!" Norma leaped from her bed, stood with clenched hands
and wild eyes, thinking, in the middle of the floor. "It's twenty-two
minutes past ten," she breathed. "Where does he leave?"

"Rose and I were to see him at the Grand Central at quarter past five,"
his mother began, catching the contagious excitement. "But, darling, I
don't know where you can get him before that!--Here, let me do that,"
she added, for Norma had dashed into the kitchen, and was measuring
coffee recklessly. A brown stream trickled to the floor.

"Oh, Lord--Lord--help me to get hold of him somewhere!" she heard Norma
breathe. "And you weren't going to let me know--but it's my fault," she
said, putting her hands over her face, and rocking to and fro in
desperate suspense. "Oh, how can I get him?--I must! Oh, Aunt
Kate--_help me_! Oh, I'm not even dressed--and that clock says half-past
ten! Aunt Kate, will you help me!"

"Norma, my darling," her aunt said, arresting the whirling little figure
with a big arm, and looking down at her with all the love and sadness of
her great heart in her face, "why do you want to see him, dear? He told
me--he had to tell his mother, poor boy, for his heart is broken--that
you were not going with him!"

"Oh, but Aunt Kate--he'll have to wait for me!" Norma said, stamping a
slippered foot, and beginning to cry with hurt and helplessness. "Oh,
won't you help me? You always help me! Don't--don't mind what I said to
Wolf; you know how silly I am! But please--_please_----"

"But, Baby--you're sure?" Mrs. Sheridan asked, feeling as if ice that
had been packed about her heart for days was breaking and stirring, and
as if the exquisite pain of it would kill her. "Don't--hurt him again,
Norma!"

"But he's going off--without me," Norma wailed, rushing to the bathroom,
and pinning her magnificent mass of soft dark hair into a stern knob for
her bath. "Aunt Kate, I've always loved Wolf, always!" she said,
passionately. "And if he really had gone away without me I think it
would have broken my heart! You _know_ how I love him! We'll catch him
somewhere, I know we will! We'll telephone--or else Harry----"

She trailed into the kitchen half-dressed, ten minutes later.

"I've telephoned for a taxi, Aunt Kate, and we'll find him somewhere,"
she said, gulping hot coffee appreciatively. "I must--I've something to
tell him. But I'll have to tell you everything in the cab. To begin
with--it's all over. I'm done with the Melroses. I appreciate all they
did for me, and I appreciate your worrying and planning about that old
secret. But I've made up my mind. Whatever you have of letters, and
papers and proofs, I want you please to do the family a last favour by
burning--every last shred. I've told Chris, I won't touch a cent of the
money, except what Aunt Marianna left me; and I never, never, never
intend to say one more word on the subject! Thousands didn't make me
happy, so why should a million? The best thing my father ever did for me
was to give my mother a chance to bring me here to you!"

She had gotten into her aunt's lap as she spoke, and was rubbing her
cheek against the older, roughened cheek, and punctuating her
conversation with little kisses. Mrs. Sheridan looked at her, and
blinked, and seemed to find nothing to say.

"Perhaps some day when it's hot--and the jelly doesn't jell--and the
children break the fence," pursued Norma, "I will be sorry! I haven't
much sense, and I may feel that I've been a fool. But then I just want
you to remind me of Leslie--and the Craigies--or better, of what a beast
I am myself in that atmosphere! So it's all over, Aunt Kate, and if
Wolf will forgive me--and he always does----"

"He's bitterly hurt this time, Nono," said her aunt, gently.

Norma looked a little anxious.

"I wrote him in Philadelphia," she said, "but he won't get that letter.
Oh, Aunt Kate--if we don't find him! But we will--if I have to walk up
to him in the station the last minute--and stop him----"

"Ah, Norma, you love him!" his mother said, in a great burst of
thankfulness. "And may God be thanked for all His goodness! That's all I
care about--that you love him, and that you two will be together again.
We'll get hold of him, dear, somehow----!"

"But, my darling," she added, coming presently to the bedroom door to
see the dashing little feathered hat go on, and the dotted veil pinned
with exquisite nicety over Norma's glowing face, and the belted brown
coat and loose brown fur rapidly assumed, "you're not wearing your
mourning!"

"Not to-day," Norma said, abstractedly. And aloud she read a list:

"Bank; Grand Central; drawing-room; new suit-case; notary for power of
attorney; Kitty Barry; telephone Chris, Leslie, Annie; telephone Regina
about trunks. Can we be back here at say--four, Aunt Kate?"

"But what's all that for?" her aunt asked, dazedly.

Norma looked at a check book; put it in her coat pocket. Then as her
aunt's question reached her preoccupied mind, she turned toward her with
a puzzled expression.

"Why, Aunt Kate--you don't seem to understand; I'm going with Wolf to
California this evening."



CHAPTER XXXVII


It was exactly nineteen minutes past five o'clock when Wolf Sheridan
walked into the Grand Central Station that afternoon. He had stopped
outside to send his wife some flowers, and just a brief line of
farewell, and he was thinking so hard of Norma that it seemed natural
that the woman who was coming toward him, in the great central
concourse, should suggest her. The woman was pretty, too, and wore the
sort of dashing little hat that Norma often wore, and there was
something so familiar about the belted brown coat and the soft brown
furs that Wolf's heart gave a great plunge, and began to
ache--ache--ache--hopelessly again.

The brown coat came nearer--and nearer. And then he saw that the wearer
was indeed his wife. She had dewy violets in her belt, and her violet
eyes were dewy, too, and her face paled suddenly as she put her hand on
his arm.

What Norma all that tired and panicky afternoon had planned to say to
Wolf on this occasion was something like this:

"Wolf, if you ever loved me, and if I ever did anything that made you
happy, and if all these years when I have been your little sister, and
your chum, and your wife, mean anything to you--don't push me away now!
I am sorrier for my foolishness, and more ashamed of it, than you can
possibly be! I think it was never anything but weakness and vanity that
made me want to flirt with Chris Liggett. I think that if he had once
stopped flattering me, and if ever our meetings had been anything but
stolen fruit, as it were, I would have seen how utterly blind I was! I'm
different now, Wolf; I know that what I felt for him was only shallow
vanity, and that what I feel for you is the deepest and realest love
that any woman ever knew! There's nothing--no minute of the day or night
when I don't need you. There's nothing that you think that isn't what I
think! I want to go West with you, and make a home there, and when you
go to China, or go to India, I want you to go because your wife has
helped you--because you have had happy years of working and
experimenting and picnicking and planning--with me!

"It's all over, Wolf, that Melrose business--that dream! I've said
good-bye to them, and they have to me, and they know I'm never coming
back! I'm a Sheridan now--really and truly--for ever."

And in the lonesome and bitter days in which his great dream had come
true, without Norma to share it, days in which he had been thinking of
her as affiliated more and more with the element he despised, identified
more and more with the man who had wrecked--or tried to wreck--her life,
Wolf had imagined this meeting, and imagined her as tentatively holding
out the olive branch of peace; and he had had time to formulate exactly
what he should answer to such an appeal.

"I'm sorry, Norma," he had imagined himself saying. "I'm terribly sorry!
But just talking doesn't undo these things, just _saying_ that you
didn't mean it, and that it's all over. No, married life can't be picked
up and put down again like a coat. You _were_ my wife, and God knows I
worshipped you--heart and soul! If some day these people get tired of
you, or you get tired of them, that'll be different! But you've cut me
too deep--you've killed a part of me, and it won't come alive again!
I've been through hell--wondering what you were doing, what you were
going to do! I never should have married you; now let's call it all
quits, and get out of it the best way we can!"

But when he saw her, the familiar, lovely face that he had loved for so
many years, when he felt the little gloved hand on his arm, and realized
that somehow, out of the utter desolation and loneliness of the big
city, she had come to him again, that she was here, mistily smiling at
him, and he could touch her and hear her voice, everything else
vanished, as if it had never been, and he put his big arm about her
hungrily, and kissed her, and they were both in tears.

"Oh, Wolf----!" Norma faltered, the dry spaces of her soul flooding with
springtime warmth and greenness, and a great happiness sweeping away all
consciousness of the place in which they stood, and the interested eyes
about them. "Oh, Wolf----!" She thought that she added, "Would you have
gone away without me!" but as a matter of fact words were not needed
now.

"Nono--you _do_ love me?" he whispered. Or perhaps he only thought he
enunciated the phrase, for although Norma answered, it was not audibly.
Neither of them ever remembered anything coherent of that first five
minutes, in which momentous questions were settled between Norma's
admiring comment upon Wolf's new coat, and in which they laughed and
cried and clung together in shameless indifference to the general
public.

But presently they were calm enough to talk, and Wolf's first
constructive remark, not even now very steady or clear, was that he must
put off his going, get hold of Voorhies somehow----

But no, Norma said, even while they were dashing toward the telegraph
office. She had already bought her ticket; she was going,
too--to-night--this very hour----!

Wolf brought her up short, ecstatic bewilderment in his face.

"But your trunks----?"

"Regina--I tell you it's all settled--Regina sends them on after me. And
I've got a new big suit-case, and my old brown one, that's plenty for
the present! They're checked here, in the parcel-room----"

"But we'll----" They had started automatically to rush toward the
parcel-room, but now he brought her up short again. "It's five-thirty
now," he muttered, turning briskly in still another direction, "let me
have your ticket, we'll have to try for a section--it's pretty late, but
there may be cancellations!"

"Oh, but see, Wolf----! I've been here since half-past four. I've got
the A drawing-room in Car 131----" She brought forth an official-looking
envelope, and flashed a flimsy bit of coloured paper. For a third time
Wolf checked his hurried rushing, and they both broke into delicious
laughter. "I've been at it all day, with Aunt Kate," Norma said,
proudly. "I've been to banks and to Judge Lee's office, and I've seen
Annie and Leslie, and I bought a new wrapper and a suit-case, and--oh,
and I saw Kitty Barry, and I got you a book for the train, and I got
myself one----"

"Oh, Norma," Wolf said, his eyes filling, "you God-blessèd little
adorable idiot, do you know how I love you? My darling--my own wife, do
you know that I want to die, to-night, I'm so happy! Do you realize what
it's going to mean to us, poking about Chicago, and sending home little
presents to Rose and the kids, and reaching San Francisco, and going up
to the big mine? Do you realize that I feel like a man out of jail--like
a kid who knows it's Saturday morning?"

"Well--I feel that way, too!" Norma smiled. "And now," she added, in a
businesslike tone, "we've got to look for Aunt Kate and Rose, and get
our bags; and Leslie said to-day that it was a good idea to wire a
Chicago hotel for a room, just for the few hours before the Overland
pulls out, because one feels so dirty and tired; do you realize that
I've never spent a night on a Pullman yet?"

"And I'll turn in the ticket for my lower," Wolf said; "we'll have
dinner on board, so that's all right----"

"Oh, Wolf, and won't that be fun?" Norma exulted. And then, joyously:
"Oh, there they are!"

And she fled across the great space to meet Rose, pretty and matronly,
at the foot of the great stairway, and Harry grinning and proud, with
his little sturdy white-caped boy in his arms, and Aunt Kate beaming
utter happiness upon them all. And then ensued that thrilling time of
incoherencies and confusions, laughter and tears, to which the big place
is, by nature, dedicated. They were parting so lightly, but they all
knew that there would be changes before they six met again. To Aunt
Kate, holding close the child whose destinies had been so strangely
entangled with her own, the moment held a poignant pleasure as well as
pain. She was launched now, their imperious, beloved youngest; she had
been taken to the mountain-tops, and shown the world at her feet, and
she had chosen bravely and wisely, chosen her part of service and
simplicity and love. Life would go on, changes indeed and growth
everywhere, but she knew that the years would bring her back a new
Norma--a developed, sweetened, self-reliant woman--and a new Wolf, his
hard childhood all swept away and forgotten in the richness and beauty
of this woman's love and companionship. And she was content.

"And, Wolf--she told you about Kitty! Every month, as long as they need
it," Rose said, crying heartily, as she clung to her brother. "Why, it's
the most wonderful thing I ever heard! Poor Louis Barry can't believe
it--he broke down completely! And Kitty was crying, and kissing the
children, and she knelt down, and put her arms about Norma's knees; and
Norma was crying, too--you never saw anything like it!"

"She never told me a word about it," Wolf said, trying to laugh, and
blinking, as he looked at her, a few feet away. One of her arms was
about his mother, her hand was in Harry's, her face close to the rosy
baby's face.

"Wolf," his sister said, earnestly, drying her eyes, "it will bring a
blessing on your own children----!"

"Ah, Rose!" he answered, quickly. "Pray that there is one, some day--one
of our own as sweet as yours are!"

"Ah, you'll have everything, you two, never fear!" she said, radiantly.
And then a gate opened, and the bustle about them thickened, and
laughing faces grew pale, and last words faltered.

Harry gave Rose the baby, and put his arm about Rose's mother, and they
watched them go, the red-cap leading with the suit-cases, Wolf carrying
another, Norma on his arm, twisting herself about, at the very last
second, to smile an April smile over her shoulder, and wave the green
jade handle of her slim little umbrella. There was just a glimpse of
Wolf's old boyish, proud, protecting smile, and then his head drooped
toward his companion, and the surging crowd shut them out of sight.

Then Rose immediately was concerned for the little baby. Wouldn't it be
wiser to go straight home, just for fear that Mrs. Noon might have
fallen asleep--and the house caught on fire----? Mrs. Sheridan blew her
nose and dried her eyes, and straightened her widow's bonnet, and
cleared her throat, and agreed that it would. And they all went away.

But there was another watcher who had shared, unseen, all this last
half-hour, and who stood immovable to the last second, until the iron
gates had actually clashed shut. It was a well-built, keen-eyed man, in
an irreproachably fitting fur-collared overcoat, who finally turned
away, fitting his eyeglasses, on their black ribbon, firmly upon the
bridge of his nose, and sighing just a little as he went back to the
sidewalk, and climbed into a waiting roadster.

Even after he took his seat at the wheel, he made no effort to start the
car, but sat slowly drawing on his heavy gloves, and staring
abstractedly at the dull, uninteresting stretch of street before him,
where a dismal spring wind was stirring chaff and papers about the
subway entrance, and surface cars were grinding and ringing on the
curve.

It looked dull and empty--dull and empty, he thought. She had been very
happy, looking up at her man, kissing her people good-bye. She was a
remarkable woman, Norma.

"A remarkable woman--Norma," he said, half-aloud. "She will make him a
wonderful wife; she will help him to go a long way. And she never would
have had patience for formal living; it wasn't in her!"

But he remembered what was in her, what eager gaiety, what hunger for
new impressions, what courage in seizing her dilemmas the instant she
saw them. He remembered the flash of her eyes, and the curve of her
proud little mouth.

"Theodore had more charm than any of them," he said, "and she is like
him. Well--perhaps I'll meet somebody like her, some day, and the story
will have a different ending!"

But he knew in his heart that there was nobody like her, and that she
had gone out of his life for ever.

       *       *       *       *       *

They had hung the belted brown coat over the big new gray one in the
drawing-room, and Norma had brushed her hair, and Wolf had shoved the
suit-cases under the seats, and they had gone straight into the
dining-car, and were at a lighted little shining table by this time.
Wolf had had no lunch; Norma was, she said, starving. They ordered their
meal just as the train drew out of the underground arcades and swept
over the city, in the twilight of the dull, sunless day.

Norma looked down, and joy and a vague heartache struggled within her.
The little city blocks, draped with their frail tangles of fire-escapes,
were as clean-cut as toys. In the streets children were screaming and
racing, at the doorways women loitered and talked. Great trucks lumbered
in and out among surging pedestrians, and women and children stood
before the green-grocers' displays of oranges and cabbages, and trickled
in and out of the markets, where cheap cuts were advertised in great
chalk signs on the windows. Red brick, yellow brick, gray cement, the
streets fled by; the dear, familiar streets that she and Wolf, and she
and Rose, had tramped and explored, in the burning dry heat of July, in
the flutter of November's first snows.

"Say good-bye to it, Wolf; it will be a long time before we see New York
again!"

Wolf looked down, grinning. Then, as they left the city, and the dusk
deepened, his eyes went toward the river, went toward the vague and
waiting West. The Palisades lay, a wide bar of soft dull gray, against
the paler dove-colour of the sky. Above them, bare trees were etched
sharply, and beneath them was the satiny surface of the full Hudson.

It was still water, and the river was smooth enough to give back a clear
reflection of the buildings and the wharves on the opposite shore, and
the floating ice from the north looked like rounded bunches of foam
arrested on the shining waters.

Suddenly the sinking sun evaded the smother of cloud, and flashed out
red and shining, for only a few brilliant minutes. It caught window
glass like flame, twinkled and smouldered in the mirror of the river,
and lighted the under edges of low clouds with a crisp touch of apricot
and pink. Wet streets shone joyously, doves rose in a circling whirl
from a near-by roof, and all the world shone and sparkled in the last
breath of the spring day. Then dusk came indeed, and the villages
across the river were strung with increasing lights, and in the tender
opal softness of the evening sky Norma saw a great star hanging.

"That's a good omen--that's our own little star!" she said softly to
herself. She looked up to see Wolf smiling at her, and the smile in her
own eyes deepened, and she stretched a warm and comradely hand to him
across the little table.


THE END





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translation, optical character recognition or other areas where access to a
large amount of text is helpful, please contact us. We encourage the use of
public domain materials for these purposes and may be able to help.

+ Keep it legal -  Whatever your use, remember that you are responsible for
ensuring that what you are doing is legal. Do not assume that just because
we believe a book is in the public domain for users in the United States,
that the work is also in the public domain for users in other countries.
Whether a book is still in copyright varies from country to country, and we
can't offer guidance on whether any specific use of any specific book is
allowed. Please do not assume that a book's appearance in Doctrine Publishing
ISYS search  means it can be used in any manner anywhere in the world.
Copyright infringement liability can be quite severe.

About ISYS® Search Software
Established in 1988, ISYS Search Software is a global supplier of enterprise
search solutions for business and government.  The company's award-winning
software suite offers a broad range of search, navigation and discovery
solutions for desktop search, intranet search, SharePoint search and embedded
search applications.  ISYS has been deployed by thousands of organizations
operating in a variety of industries, including government, legal, law
enforcement, financial services, healthcare and recruitment.



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